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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

§ 4. Dryden’s, Pope’s and Addison’s estimates of Medieval Poetic masterpieces

Medievalism was one of the minor eccentric fashions of the time, noted by Dryden in his reference to his “old Saxon friends,” and by Pope with his “mister wight”; but those shadows of “The Upheaving of Ælfred” were not strong enough, for good or ill, either to make a romantic revival or to provoke a modern curse on paladins and troubadours. Rymer, indeed, who knew more than any one else about old French and Provençal poetry, was the loudest champion of the unities and classical authority. Medieval studies, including the history of poetry, could be carried on without any particular bearing on modern productive art, with no glimmering of a medievalist romantic school and no threatening of insult or danger to the most precise and scrupulous modern taste. It would seem that the long “battle of the books,” the debate of ancients and moderns in France and England, had greatly mitigated, if not altogether quenched, the old jealousy of the Middle Ages which is exemplified in Ben Jonson’s tirade:

  • No Knights o’ the Sun, nor Amadis de Gauls,
  • Primaleons, Pantagruels, public nothings,
  • Abortives of the fabulous dark cloister.
  • This is the old scholarly contempt for the Middle Ages; it is coming to be out of date in Jonson’s time. The books of chivalry recovered some of their favour, as they ceased to be dangerous distractions; those who laughed at The Knight of the Burning Pestle were not ashamed to read The Seven Champions of Christendom. There is a pleasant apology for the old romances by Chapelain in France, an author more determined than Ben Jonson in his obedience to literary rules. And it may be supposed that, later, when the extreme modern party had gone so far as to abuse Homer for his irregularities and barbarous want of taste, there would be less inclination among sensible men to find fault with medieval roughness; cavilling at superfluities in romance might be all very well, but it was too like the scandalous treatment of Homer by Perrault and his party; those, on the other hand, who stood up for Homer might be the less ready to censure Amadis of Gaul. There may be something of this motive in Addison’s praise of Chevy Chace; at any rate, he has sense to find the classical excellences where the pedantic moderns would not look for anything of the sort.

    Modern literature and the minds of modern readers are so affected by different strains of medieval influence through various “romantic” schools, through history, travel and the study of languages, that it is difficult to understand the temper of the students who broke into medieval antiquities in the seventeenth century and discovered much poetry by the way, though their chief business was with chronicles and state papers. It is safe to believe that everything which appeals to any reader as peculiarly medieval in the works of Tennyson or Rossetti was not apparent to Hickes or Hearne or Rymer, any more than it was to Leibniz (a great medieval antiquary), or, later, to Muratori, who makes poetry one of his many interests in the course of work resembling Rymer’s, though marked by better taste and intelligence. The Middle Ages were studied, sometimes, with a view to modern applications; but these were generally political or religious, not literary. And, in literary studies, it is long before anything like Ivanhoe or anything like The Defence of Guenevere is discernible. Before the spell of the grail was heard again, and before the vision of Dante was at all regarded, much had to be learned and many experiments to be made. The first attraction from the Middle Ages, coming as a discovery due to antiquarian research and not by way of tradition, was that of old northern heroic poetry, commonly called Icelandic—“Islandic,” as Percy spells it. Gray, when he composed The Descent of Odin and The Fatal Sisters, drew from sources which had been made known in England in the seventeenth century. These, in their effect on English readers, formed the first example of the literary influence of the Middle Ages, consciously recognised as such, and taken up with antiquarian literary interest.