Medieval Poetry | Middle English Poetry

The Norman Conquest brought England more than a change of rulers. When the jongleur Taillefer rode up towards Senlac ahead of the invading host tossing his sword in the air and singing the Chanson de Roland, he heralded the coming of a new culture, a fresh wave of Mediterranean civilisation.

After Malden Anglo-Saxon poetry practically disappears for two centuries. When it reappears it is no longer Anglo-Saxon. Much had happened in these two centuries. When the millennium passed and Christ did not come again, Christendom seemed to awake from a long sleep. The Crusades, in which this awakening was first manifested on a grand scale, were in turn a main cause of its diffusion; they brought the nations of Western Europe into contact with each other and with the alien civilisation of the Saracens. All the channels of human activity were gradually flooded by a new spirit. The Church herself gained new strength and life. Great schoolmen like Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas buttressed her dogmas afresh with arguments drawn from the Aristotelian philosophy which Europe had recovered through the Arabs. A new ardors of devotion found expression in the Orders of the Friars founded by St. Francis in Italy and St. Dominic in Spain.

But our main centre of interest is Provence. It was in this favoured region, enriched with the debris of many civilisations and shielded by the strong arm of the Counts of Toulouse, that the new poetry first came to flower. It was new both in subject and in form. It was devoted from the first to the worship of women in a sense unknown to the Greeks and Romans. A cult of Romantic Love, love paramours, sprang up as it were in a night, and aped, if it did not rival, the cults of Chivalry and the Church. The speed with which this fashion spread surprises us less when we remember that in the early Middle Ages the ruling classes of Western Christendom, brought together by the Crusades, and united by a common faith and a common code of Chivalry, came nearer to forming one great society than they had ever done before or have ever done since. For all its extravagances and possibilities of sin, the code of Romantic Love did much to civilise these rough Frankish barons: manners and deportment, music, dancing, drawing and the writing of verse became regular parts of the knightly education. Kings competed for the laurel of the troubadour and queens bestowed it.

In the form of their verse the troubadours owed much to the Latin hymns of the Church, in which accent and rhyme had displaced the quantitative prosody of classical Latin verse. This system was applied to the vernacular and worked up into a variety of metres and stanzas which have been ever since the stock-in-trade of European poets. If England held her own with the Continent in some things, in vernacular verse she lagged behind. The conquered Saxons may have kept up their old songs, but for more than a century after the Conquest there was no written verse in England, any by the time it came to be written the language had changed considerably. That it had shed many of its inflections was perhaps no great loss; but its vocabulary too had been sadly impoverished, especially in culture words, and had to be replenished from French. Then it had to learn a new tune, to change its native prosody of stress and alliteration for the syllabic rhymed system of France. At first it halts between the two systems; with no sure grasp on either. Layamon’s Brut is alliterated throughout, but the alliteration is very seldom full and is helped out with rhyme or assonance. In the Bestiary of somewhat later date the mixture is different; some sections are alliterated, others rhymed. On the other hand the Ormulum clings fast to a rigid syllabic metre without either rhyme or alliteration: happily Orm found no imitators. The early rhymed Orison of Our Lady (1210) shows how hard the English poet found it to hold the iambic beat and to tell rhyme from mere assonance. The French system won first in the East and South-a decisive victory, for the capital and the universities were there. By 1250 Nicholas of Guildford was writing very fair rhymed couplets in his disputation of The Owl and the Nightingale. By 1300 or thereabout English lyric was beginning to run smoothly enough in the fetters of rhyme. In the second quarter of the fourteenth century Laurence Minot struck his northern lyre in celebration of Edward III’s victories over the Scots and the French; his songs, though often savage in tone, are far from rude in form; he has a good command of couplet, rime coulee, and octet in rhyme aptly embellished with alliteration. For while adopting the French system English verse retained some features of the Anglo-Saxon-its love of alliteration and a freedom of substitution greater than French verse allowed. The period of experiment was well-nigh over. How far the old system lived elsewhere than in the East and South it is hard to say; there is scarcely any evidence of it anywhere between 1210 and 1340; but after that it enjoyed a remarkable revival in the West of England and in Scotland. The authors of Piers Ploughman and William of Palermo were both Shropshire men; farther north, probably in Lancashire, we find Gawain and the Green Knight, Cleanness, Patience, and The Pearl ; while in Scotland alliterative verse survived till the end of the fifteenth century. So much for the formal side of Middle English poetry.

The well-head of the Arthurian story, which absorbed so many diverse stories, was the work of a Welshman writing as an historian. Geoffrey of Monmouth, anxious to link Wales with the Norman conquerors of their old enemy the Saxon. Just as Virgil had sought to glorify Rome by linking it with Troy through Aeneas, so Geoffrey sought to exalt Britain by deriving its monarchs from a grandson of Aeneas, Brutus by name. Geoffrey eked out his scanty monkish sources from Welsh legends and his own imagination. It was from Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae that there came what till Milton’s time figured as a part of British history, and included many names still familiar as Cymbeline, Locrine and Sobrina, Lear and his daughters. Here Arthur figures not only as the conqueror of the Saxons, but as a rival to Charlemagne in the range of his empire, and we get the story of his Queen Gunamara, of Mordred and the last great battle in the West.

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The recognised theme of romance was the “matter of Rome”, which included the whole body of classical history, legend and myth, so far as known to the times. The medieval romancer was not strong in history or in historical perspective. He read antiquity in the light of medieval ideas and customs and romantic sentiment. Trojan warrior’s are knights fighting for their ladies’ gloves and for personal honour. The two great medieval stories of antiquity were those of Troy and of Thebes. For the tale of Troy they relied not on Homer, whose work they did not know, and whom they thought of as a partisan, but on two forged histories attributed to a Dictys Cretensis who told the story from the Greek side, and a Dares Phrygius on that of the Trojans.

These were the main themes or cycles of French romance, but there were independent romans d’aventure of knights not attached to any of the cycles, such as William of Palerne, a pleasant homely story about a werewolf, in alliterative verse. Some of these French romans were English stories; the three oldest extant English romances, the only ones which can with probability be dated before the fourteenth century, are taken from French originals: Sir Tristram, which Sir Walter Scott edited from the Auchinleck MS. In the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh, Havelok the Dane, and King Horn. The same is true of the romances on the themes described above, and there are in English examples of all of these.

Romance and Allegory originated with the knightly and clerical classes, though their passage into English confessed their popularity with all readers. But the bourgeois had their characteristic poetry too. For the fashionable Allegory they had the Fable, in which human vices and follies were satirised under the likeness of beasts, and which in Reynard the Fox stretched to such a length that it might be called a Beast Epic. For the Romance they had the Fabliau, a merry tale of low or middle-class life full of gross humour and often of bawdry. Nor in this wealth of narrative literature should one overlook the Saints’ Legends told in English from the Latin originals as read in Church Services. They are full of the marvellous, but not wanting in interest and amusement. In the legend of St. Brandan, Celtic traditions of wonderful lands over-sea are blended with pious story of miracle, as when the Mass is celebrated on the back of a whale which refrains from diving till the service is over, and Judas is found on an iceberg enjoying his day out earned by some individual act of charity.

If we turn from romance and allegory to lyric the same fact is evident, viz. that when the English language, much changed, began to reassert itself as a medium for poetry, it took over from the French. Of Anglo-Saxon lyrics we know nothing. Of Middle English lyrics we knew till lately few oldci than the fourteenth century. But Mr. Carleton Brown in his English lyrics of the thirteenth century has given the text of some ninety in addition to the three allowed by Sir Edmund Chambers. He points out that, unlike those of the following century, the thirteenth-century lyrics are not seldom found in the MSS. With musical notation. They were “composed to be sung”, whereas the later century is rather “the age of the literary lyric”.

The favourite themes are love, the return of Spring, wine, and piety, those delightful offshoots of Catholic belief which Protestantism shore away so ruthlessly, and above all the Virgin.



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