NARRATIVE RELIGIOUS POETRY—THE NATIONAL EPIC—THE EPIC OF ANTIQUITY—ROMANCES OF LOVE AND COURTESY
The literature of the Middle Ages is an expression of the spirit of feudalism and of the genius of the Church. From the union of feudalism and Christianity arose the chivalric ideals, the new courtesy, the homage to woman. Abstract ideas, ethical, theological, and those of amorous metaphysics, were rendered through allegory into art. Against these high conceptions, and the overstrained sentiment connected with them, the positive intellect and the mocking temper of France reacted; a literature of satire arose. By degrees the bourgeois spirit encroached upon and overpowered the chivalric ideals. At length the mediæval conceptions were exhausted. Literature dwindled as its sources were impoverished; ingenuities and technical formalities replaced imagination. The minds of men were prepared to accept the new influences of the Renaissance and the Reformation.
NARRATIVE RELIGIOUS POETRY
The oldest monument of the French language is found in the Strasburg Oaths (842); the oldest French poem possessing literary merit is the Vie de Saint Alexis, of which a redaction belonging to the middle of the eleventh century survives. The passion of piety and the passion of combat, the religious and the warrior motives, found early expression in literature; from the first arose the Lives of Saints and other devout writings, from the second arose the chansons de geste. They grew side by side, and had a like manner of development. If one takes precedence of the other, it is only because by the chances of time Saint Alexis remains to us, and the forerunners of the Chanson de Roland are lost. With each species of poetry cantilènes—short lyrico-epic poems—preceded the narrative form. Both the profane and what may be called the religious chanson de geste were sung or recited by the same jongleurs—men of a class superior to the vulgar purveyors of amusement. Gradually the poems of both kinds expanded in length, and finally prose narrative took the place of verse.
The Lives of Saints are in the main founded on Latin originals; the names of their authors are commonly unknown. Saint Alexis, a tale of Syriac origin, possibly the work of Tedbalt, a canon of Vernon, consists of 125 stanzas, each of five lines which are bound together by a single assonant rhyme. It tells of the chastity and poverty of the saint, who flies from his virgin bride, lives among beggars, returns unrecognised to his father’s house, endures the insults of the servants, and, dying at Rome, receives high posthumous honours; finally, he is rejoined by his wife—the poet here adding to the legend—in the presence of God, among the company of the angels. Some of the sacred poems are derived from the Bible, rhymed versions of which were part of the jongleur’s equipment; some from the apocryphal gospels, or legends of Judas, of Pilate, of the Cross, or, again, from the life of the Blessed Virgin. The literary value of these is inferior to that of the versified Lives of the Saints. About the tenth century the marvels of Eastern hagiography became known in France, and gave a powerful stimulus to the devout imagination. A certain rivalry existed between the claims of profane and religious literature, and a popular audience for narrative poems designed for edification was secured by their recital in churches. Wholly fabulous some of these are—as the legend of St. Margaret—but they were not on this account the less welcome or the less esteemed. In certain instances the tale is dramatically placed in the mouth of a narrator, and thus the way was in a measure prepared for the future mystery-plays.
More than fifty of these Lives of Saints are known, composed generally in octosyllabic verse, and varying in length from some hundreds of lines to ten thousand. In the group which treats of the national saints of France, an element of history obscured by errors, extravagances, and anachronisms may be found. The purely legendary matter occupies a larger space in those derived from the East, in which the religious ideal is that of the hermit life. The celebrated Barlaam et Joasaph, in which Joasaph, son of a king of India, escaping from his father’s restraints, fulfils his allotted life as a Christian ascetic, is traceable to a Buddhist source. The narratives of Celtic origin—such as those of the Purgatory of St. Patrick and the voyages of St. Brendan—are coloured by a tender mysticism, and sometimes charm us with a strangeness of adventure, in which a feeling for external nature, at least in its aspects of wonder, appears. The Celtic saints are not hermits of the desert, but travellers or pilgrims. Among the lives of contemporary saints, by far the most remarkable is that of our English Becket by Garnier de Pont-Sainte-Maxence. Garnier had himself known the archbishop; he obtained the testimony of witnesses in England; he visited the places associated with the events of Becket’s life; his work has high value as an historical document; it possesses a personal accent, rare in such writings; a genuine dramatic vigour; and great skill and harmonious power in its stanzas of five rhyming lines.
A body of short poems, inspired by religious feeling, and often telling of miracles obtained by the intercession of the Virgin or the saints, is known as Contes pieux. Many of these were the work of Gautier de Coinci (1177-1236), a Benedictine monk; he translates from Latin sources, but with freedom, adding matter of his own, and in the course of his pious narratives gives an image, far from flattering, of the life and manners of his own time. It is he who tells of the robber who, being accustomed to commend himself in his adventures to our Lady, was supported on the gibbet for three days by her white hands, and received his pardon; and of the illiterate monk who suffered shame because he knew no more than his Ave Maria, but who, when dead, was proved a holy man by the five roses that came from his mouth in honour of the five letters of Maria’s name; and of the nun who quitted her convent to lead a life of disorder, yet still addressed a daily prayer to the Virgin, and who, returning after long years, found that the Blessed Mary had filled her place, and that her absence was unknown. The collection known as Vies des Pères exhibits the same naïveté of pious feeling and imagination. Man is weak and sinful; but by supernatural aid the humble are exalted, sinners are redeemed, and the suffering innocent are avenged. Even Théophile, the priest who sold his soul to the devil, on repentance receives back from the Queen of Heaven the very document by which he had put his salvation in pawn. The sinner (Chevalier au barillet) who endeavours for a year to fill the hermit’s little cask at running streams, and endeavours in vain, finds it brimming the moment one tear of true penitence falls into the vessel. Most exquisite in its feeling is the tale of the Tombeur de Notre-Dame—a poor acrobat—a jongleur turned monk—who knows not even the Pater noster or the Credo, and can only offer before our Lady’s altar his tumbler’s feats; he is observed, and as he sinks worn-out and faint before the shrine, the Virgin is seen to descend, with her angelic attendants, and to wipe away the sweat from her poor servant’s forehead. If there be no other piety in such a tale as this, there is at least the piety of human pity.
THE NATIONAL EPIC
Great events and persons, a religious and national spirit, and a genius for heroic narrative being given, epic literature arises, as it were, inevitably. Short poems, partly narrative, partly lyrical, celebrate victories or defeats, the achievements of conquerors or defenders, and are sung to relieve or to sustain the passion of the time. The French epopee had its origin in the national songs of the Germanic invaders of Gaul, adopted from their conquerors by the Gallo-Romans. With the baptism of Clovis at Reims, and the acceptance of Christianity by the Franks (496), a national consciousness began to exist—a national and religious ideal arose. Epic heroes—Clovis, Clotaire, Dagobert, Charles Martel—became centres for the popular imagination; an echo of the Dagobert songs is found in Floovent, a poem of the twelfth century; eight Latin lines, given in the Vie de Saint Faron by Helgaire, Bishop of Meaux, preserve, in their ninth-century rendering, a fragment of the songs which celebrated Clotaire II. Doubtless more and more in these lost cantilènes the German element yielded to the French, and finally the two streams of literature—French and German—separated; gradually, also, the lyrical element yielded to the epic, and the chanson de geste was developed from these songs.
In Charlemagne, champion of Christendom against Islam, a great epic figure appeared; on his person converged the epic interest; he may be said to have absorbed into himself, for the imagination of the singers and the people, the persons of his predecessors, and even, at a later time, of his successors; their deeds became his deeds, their fame was merged in his; he stood forth as the representative of France. We may perhaps regard the ninth century as the period of the transformation of the cantilènes into the chansons de geste; in the fragment of Latin prose of the tenth century—reduced to prose from hexameters, but not completely reduced—discovered at La Haye (and named after the place of its discovery), is found an epic episode of Carlovingian war, probably derived from a chanson de geste of the preceding century. In each chanson the gesta,1 the deeds or achievements of a heroic person, are glorified, and large as may be the element of invention in these poems, a certain historical basis or historical germ may be found, with few exceptions, in each. Roland was an actual person, and a battle was fought at Roncevaux in 778. William of Orange actually encountered the Saracens at Villedaigne in 793. Renaud de Montauban lived and fought, not indeed against Charlemagne, but against Charles Martel. Ogier, Girard de Roussillon, Raoul de Cambrai, were not mere creatures of the fancy. Even when the narrative records no historical series of events, it may express their general significance, and condense into itself something of the spirit of an epoch. In the course of time, however, fantasy made a conquest of the historical domain; a way for the triumph of fantasy had been opened by the incorporation of legend into the narrative, with all its wild exaggerations, its reckless departures from truth, its conventional types of character, its endlessly-repeated incidents of romance—the child nourished by wild beasts, the combat of unrecognised father and son, the hero vulnerable only in one point, the vindication of the calumniated wife or maiden; and by the over-labour of fantasy, removed far from nature and reality, the epic material was at length exhausted.
1 Gestes meant (1) deeds, (2) their history, (3) the heroic family.
The oldest surviving chanson de geste is the SONG OF ROLAND, and it is also the best. The disaster of Roncevaux, probably first sung in cantilènes, gave rise to other chansons, two of which, of earlier date than the surviving poem, can in a measure be reconstructed from the Chronicle of Turpin and from a Latin Carmen de proditione Guenonis. These, however, do not detract from the originality of the noble work in our possession, some of the most striking episodes of which are not elsewhere found. The oldest manuscript is at Oxford, and the last line has been supposed to give the author’s name—Touroude (Latinised “Turoldus”)—but this may have been the name of the jongleur who sang, or the transcriber who copied. The date of the poem lies between that of the battle of Hastings, 1066, where the minstrel Taillefer sang in other words the deeds of Roland, and the year 1099. The poet was probably a Norman, and he may have been one of the Norman William’s followers in the invasion of England.
More than any other poem, the Chanson de Roland deserves to be named the Iliad of the Middle Ages. On August 15, 778, the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army, returning from a successful expedition to the north of Spain, was surprised and destroyed by Basque mountaineers in the valley of Roncevaux. Among those who fell was Hrodland (Roland), Count of the march of Brittany. For Basques, the singers substituted a host of Saracens, who, after promise of peace, treacherously attack the Franks, with the complicity of Roland’s enemy, the traitor Ganelon. By Roland’s side is placed his companion-in-arms, Olivier, brave but prudent, brother of Roland’s betrothed, la belle Aude, who learns her lover’s death, and drops dead at the feet of Charlemagne. In fact but thirty-six years of age, Charlemagne is here a majestic old man, à la barbe fleurie, still full of heroic vigour. Around him are his great lords—Duke Naime, the Nestor of this Iliad; Archbishop Turpin, the warrior prelate; Oger the Dane; the traitor Ganelon. And overhead is God, who will send his angels to bear heavenwards the soul of the gallant Roland. The idea of the poem is at once national and religious—the struggle between France, as champion of Christendom, and the enemies of France and of God. Its spirit is that of the feudal aristocracy of the eleventh century. The characters are in some degree representative of general types, but that of Roland is clearly individualised; the excess of soldierly pride which will not permit him, until too late, to sound his horn and recall Charlemagne to his aid, is a glorious fault. When all his comrades have fallen, he still continues the strife; and when he dies, it is with his face to the retreating foe. His fall is not unavenged on the Saracens and on the traitor. The poem is written in decasyllabic verse—in all 4000 lines—divided into sections or laisses of varying length, the lines of each laisse being held together by a single assonance.2 And such is the form in which the best chansons de geste are written. The decasyllabic line, derived originally from popular Latin verse, rhythmical rather than metrical, such as the Roman legionaries sang, is the favourite verse of the older chansons. The alexandrine,3 first seen in the Pèlerinage de Jérusalem of the early years of the twelfth century, in general indicates later and inferior work. The laisse, bound in one by its identical assonance, might contain five lines or five hundred. In chansons of late date the full rhyme often replaces assonance; but inducing, as it did in unskilled hands, artificial and feeble expansions of the sense, rhyme was a cause which co-operated with other causes in the decline of this form of narrative poetry.
2 Assonance, i.e. vowel-rhyme, without an agreement of consonants.
3 Verse of twelve syllables, with cesura after the sixth accented syllable. In the decasyllabic line the cesura generally followed the fourth, but sometimes the sixth, tonic syllable.
Naturally the chansons which celebrated the achievements of one epic personage or one heroic family fell into a group, and the idea of cycles of songs having arisen, the later poets forced many independent subjects to enter into the so-called cycle of the king (Charlemagne), or that of William of Orange, or that of Doon of Mayence. The second of these had, indeed, a genuine cyclic character: it told of the resistance of the south of France to the Mussulmans. The last cycle to develop was that of the Crusades. Certain poems or groups of poems may be distinguished as gestes of the provinces, including the Geste des Lorrains, that of the North (Raoul de Cambrai), that of Burgundy, and others.4 Among these may be placed the beautiful tale of Amis et Amiles, a glorification of friendship between man and man, which endures all trials and self-sacrifices. Other poems, again, are unconnected with any of these cycles; and, indeed, the cyclic division is more a convenience of classification than a fact in the spontaneous development of this form of art. The entire period of the evolution of epic song extends from the tenth or eleventh to the fifteenth century, or, we might say, from the Chanson de Roland to the Chronique de Bertrand Duguesclin. The eleventh century produced the most admirable work; in the twelfth century the chansons are more numerous, but nothing was written of equal merit with the Song of Roland; after the death of Louis VII. (1180) the old epic material was rehandled and beaten thin—the decadence was already in progress.
4 The epopee composed in Provençal, sung but not transcribed, is wholly lost. The development of lyric poetry in the South probably checked the development of the epic.
The style in which the chansons de geste are written is something traditional, something common to the people and to the time, rather than characteristic of the individual authors. They show little of the art of arranging or composing the matter so as to produce an unity of effect: the narrative straggles or condenses itself as if by accident; skill in transitions is unknown. The study of character is rude and elementary: a man is either heroic or dastard, loyal or a traitor; wholly noble, or absolutely base. Yet certain types of manhood and womanhood are presented with power and beauty. The feeling for external nature, save in some traditional formulæ, hardly appears. The passion for the marvellous is everywhere present: St. Maurice, St. George, and a shining company, mounted on white steeds, will of a sudden bear down the hordes of the infidel; an angel stands glorious behind the throne of Charlemagne; or in narrative of Celtic origin angels may be mingled with fays. God, the great suzerain, to whom even kings owe homage, rules over all; Jesus and Mary are watchful of the soldiers of the cross; Paradise receives the souls of the faithful. As for earth, there is no land so gay or so dear as la douce France. The Emperor is above all the servant and protector of the Church. As the influence of the great feudal lords increased, they are magnified often at the expense of the monarchy; yet even when in high rebellion, they secretly feel the duty of loyalty. The recurring poetic epithet and phrase of formula found in the chansons de geste often indicate rather than veil a defect of imagination. Episodes and adventures are endlessly repeated from poem to poem with varying circumstances—the siege, the assault, the capture, the duel of Christian hero and Saracen giant, the Paynim princess amorous of a fair French prisoner, the marriage, the massacre, and a score of other favourite incidents.
The popularity of the French epopee extended beyond France. Every country of Europe translated or imitated the chansons de geste. Germany made the fortunate choice of Roland and Aliscans. In England two of the worst examples, Fierabras and Otinel, were special favourites. In Norway the chansons were applied to the purpose of religious propaganda. Italy made the tales of Roland, Ogier, Renaud, her own. Meanwhile the national epopee declined in France; a breath of scepticism touched and withered the leafage and blossom of imagination; it even became possible to parody—as in Audigier—the heroic manner. The employment of rhyme in place of assonance, and of the alexandrine in place of the decasyllabic line, encouraged what may be called poetical padding. The influence of the Breton romances diverted the chansons de geste into ways of fantasy; “We shall never know,” writes M. Léon Gautier, “the harm which the Round Table has done us.” Finally, verse became a weariness, and was replaced by prose. The decline had progressed to a fall.
THE EPIC OF ANTIQUITY
Later to develop than the national epopee was that which formed the cycle of antiquity. Their romantic matter made the works of the Greco-Roman decadence even more attractive than the writings of the great classical authors to poets who would enter into rivalry with the singers of the chansons de geste. These poems, which mediævalise ancient literature—poems often of portentous length—have been classified in three groups—epic romances, historical or pseudo-historical romances, and mythological tales, including the imitations of Ovid. The earliest in date of the first group (about 1150-1155) is the ROMANCE OF THEBES, the work of an unknown author, founded upon a compendium of the Thebaid of Statius, preceded by the story of OEdipus. It opened the way for the vast ROMANCE OF TROY, written some ten years later, by Benoit de Sainte-More. The chief sources of Benoit were versions, probably more or less augmented, of the famous records of the Trojan war, ascribed to the Phrygian Dares, an imaginary defender of the city, and the Cretan Dictys, one of the besiegers. Episodes were added, in which, on a slender suggestion, Benoit set his own inventive faculty to work, and among these by far the most interesting and admirable is the story of Troilus and Briseida, known better to us by her later name of Cressida. Through Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato this tale reached our English Chaucer, and through Chaucer it gave rise to the strange, half-heroic, half-satirical play of Shakespeare.
Again, ten years later, an unknown poet was adapting Virgil to the taste of his contemporaries in his Eneas, where the courtship of the Trojan hero and Lavinia is related in the chivalric manner. All these poems are composed in the swift octosyllabic verse; the Troy extends to thirty thousand lines. While the names of the personages are classical, the spirit and life of the romances are wholly mediæval: Troilus, and Hector, and Æneas are conceived as if knights of the Middle Ages; their wars and loves are those of gallant chevaliers. The Romance of Julius Cæsar (in alexandrine verse), the work of a certain Jacot de Forest, writing in the second half of the thirteenth century, versifies, with some additions from the Commentaries of Cæsar, an earlier prose translation by Jehan de Thuin (about 1240) of Lucan’s Pharsalia—the oldest translation in prose of any secular work of antiquity. Cæsar’s passion for Cleopatra in the Romance is the love prescribed to good knights by the amorous code of the writer’s day, and Cleopatra herself has borrowed something of the charm of Tristram’s Iseult.
If Julius Cæsar may be styled historical, the ROMAN D’ALEXANDRE, a poem of twenty thousand lines (to the form of which this romance gave its name—”alexandrine” verse), the work of Lambert le Tort and Alexandre de Bernay, can only be described as legendary. All—or nearly all—that was written during the Middle Ages in French on the subject of Alexander may be traced back to Latin versions of a Greek compilation, perhaps of the first century, ascribed to Callisthenes, the companion of Alexander on his Asiatic expedition.5 It is uncertain how much the Alexandre may owe to a Provençal poem on the same subject, written in the early years of the twelfth century, probably by Albéric de Briançon, of which only a short fragment, but that of high merit, has been preserved. From his birth, and his education by Aristotle and the enchanter Nectanebus, to the division, as death approaches, of his empire between his twelve peers, the story of Alexander is a series of marvellous adventures; the imaginary wonders of the East, monstrous wild beasts, water-women, flower-maidens, Amazons, rain of fire, magic mountains, magic fountains, trees of the sun and of the moon, are introduced with a liberal hand. The hero is specially distinguished by the virtue of liberality; a jongleur who charms him by lays sung to the flute, is rewarded with the lordship of Tarsus, a worthy example for the twelfth-century patrons of the poet. The romance had a resounding fame.
5 Not quite all, for certain borrowings were made from the correspondence of Alexander with Dindimus, King of the Brahmans, and from the Alexandri Magni iter ad Paradisum.
Of classical poets, Ovid ranked next to Virgil in the esteem of the Middle Ages. The mythology of paganism was sanctified by the assumption that it was an allegory of Christian mysteries, and thus the stories might first be enjoyed by the imagination, and then be expounded in their spiritual meaning. The Metamorphoses supplied Chrétien de Troyes with the subject of his Philomena; other writers gracefully dealt with the tales of Piramus and of Narcissus. But the most important work founded upon Ovid was a versified translation of the Metamorphoses (before 1305) by a Franciscan monk, Chrétien Legouais de Sainte-Maure, with appended interpretations, scientific, historical, moral, or religious, of the mythological fables. Ovid’s Art of Love, of which more than one rendering was made, aided in the formation or development of the mediæval theory of love and the amorous casuistry founded upon that theory.
ROMANCES OF LOVE AND COURTESY
Under the general title of the Épopée courtoise—the Epopee of Courtesy—may be grouped those romances which are either works of pure imagination or of uncertain origin, or which lead us back to Byzantine or to Celtic sources. They include some of the most beautiful and original poems of the Middle Ages. Appearing first about the opening of the twelfth century, later in date than the early chansons de geste, and contemporary with the courtly lyric poetry of love, they exhibit the chivalric spirit in a refined and graceful aspect; their marvels are not gross wonders, but often surprises of beauty; they are bright in colour, and varied in the play of life; the passions which they interpret, and especially the passion of love, are felt with an exquisite delicacy and a knowledge of the workings of the heart. They move lightly in their rhymed or assonanced verse; even when they passed into the form of prose they retained something of their charm. Breton harpers wandering through France and England made Celtic themes known through their lais; the fame of King Arthur was spread abroad by these singers and by the History of Geoffrey of Monmouth. French poets welcomed the new matter of romance, infused into it their own chivalric spirit, made it a receptacle for their ideals of gallantry, courtesy, honour, grace, and added their own beautiful inventions. With the story of King Arthur was connected that of the sacred vessel—the graal—in which Joseph of Arimathea at the cross had received the Saviour’s blood. And thus the rude Breton lais were elevated not only to a chivalric but to a religious purpose.
The romances of Tristan may certainly be named as of Celtic origin. About 1150 an Anglo-Norman poet, BÉROUL, brought together the scattered narrative of his adventures in a romance, of which a large fragment remains. The secret loves of Tristan and Iseut, their woodland wanderings, their dangers and escapes, are related with fine imaginative sympathy; but in this version of the tale the fatal love-philtre operates only for a period of three years; Iseut, with Tristan’s consent, returns to her husband, King Marc; and then a second passion is born in their hearts, a passion which is the offspring not of magic but of natural attraction, and at a critical moment of peril the fragment closes. About twenty years later (1170) the tale was again sung by an Anglo-Norman named THOMAS. Here—again in a fragment—we read of Tristan’s marriage, a marriage only in name, to the white-handed Iseut of Brittany, his fidelity of heart to his one first love, his mortal wound and deep desire to see the Queen of Cornwall, the device of the white or black sails to announce the result of his entreaty that she should come, his deception, and the death of his true love upon her lover’s corpse. Early in the thirteenth century was composed a long prose romance, often rehandled and expanded, upon the same subject, in which Iseut and Tristan meet at the last moment and die in a close embrace.
Le Chèvrefeuille (The Honeysuckle), one of several lais by a twelfth-century poetess, MARIE, living in England, but a native of France, tells gracefully of an assignation of Tristan and Iseut, their meeting in the forest, and their sorrowful farewell. Marie de France wrote with an exquisite sense of the generosities and delicacy of the heart, and with a skill in narrative construction which was rare among the poets of her time. In Les Deux Amants, the manly pride of passion, which in a trial of strength declines the adventitious aid of a reviving potion, is rewarded by the union in death of the lover and his beloved. In Yonec and in Lanval tales of love and chivalry are made beautiful by lore of fairyland, in which the element of wonder is subdued to beauty. But the most admirable poem by Marie de France is unquestionably her Eliduc. The Breton knight Eliduc is passionately loved by Guilliadon, the only daughter of the old King of Exeter, on whose behalf he had waged battle. Her tokens of affection, girdle and ring, are received by Eliduc in silence; for, though her passion is returned, he has left in Brittany, unknown to Guilliadon, a faithful wife. Very beautiful is the self-transcending love of the wife, who restores her rival from seeming death, and herself retires into a convent. The lovers are wedded, and live in charity to the poor, but with a trouble at the heart for the wrong that they have done. In the end they part; Eliduc embraces the religious life, and the two loving women are united as sisters in the same abbey.
Wace, in his romance of the Brut (1155), which renders into verse the Historia of Geoffrey of Monmouth, makes the earliest mention of the Round Table. Whether the Arthurian legends be of Celtic or of French origin—and the former seems probable—the French romances of King Arthur owe but the crude material to Celtic sources; they may be said to begin with CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES, whose lost poem on Tristan was composed about 1160. Between that date and 1175 he wrote his Erec et Enide (a tale known to us through Tennyson’s idyll of Geraint and Enid, derived from the Welsh Mabinogion), Cligès, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Le Chevalier au Lion, and Perceval. In Cligès the maidenhood of his beloved Fénice, wedded in form to the Emperor of Constantinople, is guarded by a magic potion; like Romeo’s Juliet, she sleeps in apparent death, but, happier than Juliet, she recovers from her trance to fly with her lover to the court of Arthur. The Chevalier de la Charrette, at first unknown by name, is discovered to be Lancelot, who, losing his horse, has condescended, in order that he may obtain sight of Queen Guenièvre, and in passionate disregard of the conventions of knighthood, to seat himself in a cart which a dwarf is leading. After gallant adventures on the Queen’s behalf, her indignant resentment of his unknightly conduct, estrangement, and rumours of death, he is at length restored to her favour.6 While Perceval was still unfinished, Chrétien de Troyes died. It was continued by other poets, and through this romance the quest of the holy graal became a portion of the Arthurian cycle. A Perceval by ROBERT DE BORON, who wrote in the early part of the thirteenth century, has been lost; but a prose redaction of the romance exists, which closes with the death of King Arthur. The great Lancelot in prose—a vast compilation—(about 1220) reduces the various adventures of its hero and of other knights of the King to their definitive form; and here the achievement of the graal is assigned, not to Perceval, but to the saintly knight Sir Galaad; Arthur is slain in combat with the revolter Mordret; and Lancelot and the Queen enter into the life of religion. Passion and piety are alike celebrated; the rude Celtic legends have been sanctified. The earlier history of the sacred vase was traced by Robert de Boron in his Joseph d’Arimathie (or the Saint-Graal), soon to be rehandled and developed in prose; and he it was who, in his Merlin—also presently converted into prose—on suggestions derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth, brought the great enchanter into Arthurian romance. By the middle of the thirteenth century the cycle had received its full development. Towards the middle of the fourteenth century, in Perceforest, an attempt was made to connect the legend of Alexander the Great with that of King Arthur.
6 Chrétien de Troyes is the first poet to tell of the love of Lancelot for the Queen.
Beside the so-called Breton romances, the Épopée courtoise may be taken to include many poems of Greek, of Byzantine, or of uncertain origin, such as the Roman de la Violette, the tale of a wronged wife, having much in common with that novel of Boccaccio with which Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is connected, the Floire et Blanchefleur; the Parténopeus de Blois, a kind of “Cupid and Psyche” story, with the parts of the lovers transposed, and others. In the early years of the thirteenth century the prose romance rivalled in popularity the romance in verse. The exquisite chante-fable of Aucassin et Nicolette, of the twelfth century, is partly in prose, partly in assonanced laisses of seven-syllable verse. It is a story of the victory of love: the heir of Count Garin of Beaucaire is enamoured of a beautiful maiden of unknown birth, purchased from the Saracens, who proves to be daughter of the King of Carthage, and in the end the lovers are united. In one remarkable passage unusual sympathy is shown with the hard lot of the peasant, whose trials and sufferings are contrasted with the lighter troubles of the aristocratic class.
In general the poems of the Épopée courtoise exhibit much of the brilliant external aspect of the life of chivalry as idealised by the imagination; dramatic situations are ingeniously devised; the emotions of the chief actors are expounded and analysed, sometimes with real delicacy; but in the conception of character, in the recurring incidents, in the types of passion, in the creation of marvel and surprise, a large conventional element is present. Love is independent of marriage, or rather the relation of wedlock excludes love in the accepted sense of the word; the passion is almost necessarily illegitimate, and it comes as if it were an irresistible fate; the first advance is often made by the woman; but, though at war with the duty of wedlock, love is conceived as an ennobling influence, prompting the knight to all deeds of courage and self-sacrifice. Through the later translation of the Spanish Amadis des Gaules, something of the spirit of the mediæval romances was carried into the chivalric and pastoral romances of the seventeenth century.
Categories: English Literature