Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 14. Percy’s Reliques

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

X. The Literary Influence of the Middle Ages

§ 14. Percy’s Reliques

Percy’s Reliques were much more closely related to the Middle Ages than Ossian was; they revealed the proper medieval treasures of romance and ballad poetry. They are much nearer than the “runic” poems to what is commonly reckoned medieval. Percy’s ballads are also connected with various other tastes—with the liking for Scottish and Irish music which had led to the publication of Scottish songs in D’Urfey’s collection, in Old English Ballads, 1723–1727, in Thomson’s Orpheus Caledonius and Ramsay’s Tea Table Miscellany. But, though there was nothing peculiarly medieval in Fy, let us all to the Bridal or in Cowden Knowes, the taste for such country songs often went with the taste for “Gothic” romances.

The famous folio MS. which Percy secured from Humphrey Pitt of Shifnal had been compiled with no exclusive regard for any one kind. The book when Percy found it was being treated as waste paper and used for fire-lighting. When it was saved from total destruction, it was still treated with small respect; Percy, instead of copying, tore out the ballad of King Estmere as copy for the printers, without saving the original pages. But most of the book is preserved; it has been fully edited by Furnivall and Hales, with assistance from Child and Chappell; what Percy took or left is easily discerned. Ritson, the avenger, followed Percy as he followed Warton, and, in the introduction to his Engleish Romanceës, displayed some of Percy’s methods, and proved how far his versions were from the original. But Percy was avowedly an improver and restorer. His processes are not those of scrupulous philology, but neither are they such as Macpherson favoured. His three volumes contain what they profess in the title-page:

  • Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and other Pieces of our earlier Poets (chiefly of the Lyric kind). Together with some few of later date.
  • And there is much greater variety than the title-page offers; to take extreme cases, the Reliques include the song against Richard of Almaigne and the song on the false traitor Thomas Cromwell, the ballads of Edom o’ Gordon and Sir Patrick Spens, “Gentle river” from the Spanish, Old Tom of Bedlam and Lilliburlero, The Fairies Farewell by Corbet and Admiral Hosier’s Ghost by Glover. There are essays on ancient English minstrels, on the metrical romances, on the origin of the English stage, and the metre of Pierce Plowman’s Vision, covering much of the ground taken later by Warton, and certainly giving a strong impulse to the study of old English poetry. Percy makes a strong and not exaggerated claim for the art of the old poets and, by an analysis of Libius Disconius, proves “their skill in distributing and conducting their fable.” His opinion about early English poetry is worth quoting:

  • It has happened unluckily, that the antiquaries who have revived the works of our ancient writers have been for the most part men void of taste and genius, and therefore have always fastidiously rejected the old poetical Romances, because founded on fictitious or popular subjects, while they have been careful to grub up every petty fragment of the most dull and insipid rhymist, whose merit it was to deform morality, or obscure true history. Should the public encourage the revival of some of those ancient Epic Songs of Chivalry, they would frequently see rich ore of an Ariosto or a Tasso, tho’ buried it may be among the rubbish and dross of barbarous times.
  • The public did not discourage this revival, and what Percy wanted was carried out by Ritson, Ellis, Scott and their successors. Perhaps the best thing in Percy’s criticism is his distinction between the two classes of ballad; the one incorrect, with a romantic wildness, is in contrast to the later, tamer southern class, which is thus accurately described:
  • The other sort are written in exacter measure, have a low or subordinate correctness, sometimes bordering on the insipid, yet often well adapted to the pathetic.
  • As an example, Percy refers to Gernutus:
  • In Venice town not long agoe
  • A cruel Jew did dwell,
  • Which lived all on usurie
  • As Italian writers tell.
  • The difference here noted by Percy is the principal thing in this branch of learning, and it could hardly be explained in better words.