CHAPTER V. THE NORMAN CONQUEST AND ITS EARLIEST LITERATURE.
Norman Rule. Its Oppression. Its Benefits. William of Malmesbury.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. Other Latin Chronicles. Anglo-Norman Poets.
Richard Wace. Other Poets.
With the conquest of England, and as one of the strongest elements of its permanency, the feudal system was brought into England; the territory was surveyed and apportioned to be held by military tenure; to guard against popular insurrections, the curfew rigorously housed the Saxons at night; a new legislature, called a parliament, or talking-ground, took the place of the witenagemot, or assembly of the wise: it was a conquest not only in name but in truth; everything was changed by the conqueror's right, and the Saxons were entirely subjected.
ITS OPPRESSION.—In short, the Norman conquest, from the day of the battle of Hastings, brought the Saxon people under a galling yoke. The Norman was everywhere an oppressor. Besides his right as a conqueror, he felt a contempt for the rudeness of the Saxon. He was far more able to govern and to teach. He founded rich abbeys; schools like those of Oxford and Cambridge he expanded into universities like that of Paris. He filled all offices of profit and trust, and created many which the Saxons had not. In place of the Saxon English, which, however vigorous, was greatly wanting in what may be called the vocabulary of progress, the Norman French, drawing constantly upon the Latin, enriched by the enactments of Charlemagne and the tributes of Italy, even in its infancy a language of social comity in Western Europe, was spoken at court, introduced into the courts of law, taught in the schools, and threatened to submerge and drown out the vernacular. All inducements to composition in English were wanting; delicious songs of Norman Trouveres chanted in the Langue d'oil, and stirring tales of Troubadours in the Langue d'oc, carried the taste captive away from the Saxon, as a regal banquet lures from the plain fare of the cottage board, more wholesome but less attractive.
ITS BENEFITS.—Had this progress continued, had this grasp of power remained without hinderance or relaxation, the result would have been the destruction or amalgamation of the vigorous English, so as to form a romance language similar to the French, and only different in the amount of Northern and local words. But the Norman power, without losing its title, was to find a limit to its encroachments. This limit was fixed, first, by the innate hardihood and firmness of the Saxon character, which, though cast down and oppressed, retained its elasticity; which cherished its language in spite of Norman threats and sneers, and which never lost heart while waiting for better times; secondly, by the insular position of Great Britain, fortified by the winds and waves, which enabled her to assimilate and mould anew whatever came into her borders, to the discomfiture of further continental encroachments; constituting her, in the words of Shakspeare,
”... that pale, that white-faced shore,
Whose foot spurns back the ocean's roaring tides,
And coops from other lands her islanders;”
and, thirdly, to the Crusades, which, attracting the nobles to adventures in Palestine, lifted the heel of Norman oppression off the Saxon neck, and gave that opportunity, which alone was needed, to make England in reality, if not in name—in thews, sinews, and mental strength, if not in regal state and aristocratic privilege—Saxon-England in all its future history. Other elements are still found, but the Saxon greatly predominates.
The historian of that day might well bemoan the fate of the realm, as in the Saxon Chronicle already quoted. To the philosopher of to-day, this Norman conquest and its results were of incalculable value to England, by bringing her into relations with the continent, by enduing her with a weight and influence in the affairs of Europe which she could never otherwise have attained, and by giving a new birth to a noble literature which has had no superior in any period of the world's history.
As our subject does not require, and our space will not warrant the consideration of the rise and progress of French literature, before its introduction with the Normans into England, we shall begin with the first fruits after its transplantation into British soil. But before doing so, it becomes necessary to mention certain Latin chronicles which furnished food for these Anglo-Norman poets and legendists.
WILLIAM OF MALMESBURY.—William of Malmesbury, the first Latin historian of distinction, who is contemporary with the Norman conquest, wrote a work called the “Heroic Deeds of the English Kings,” (Gesta Regum Anglorum,) which extends from the arrival of the Saxons to the year 1120; another, “The New History,” (Historia Novella,) brings the history down to 1142. Notwithstanding the credulity of the age, and his own earnest recital of numerous miracles, these works are in the main truthful, and of real value to the historical student. In the contest between Matilda and Stephen for the succession of the English crown, William of Malmesbury is a strong partisan of the former, and his work thus stands side by side, for those who would have all the arguments, with the Gesta Stephani, by an unknown contemporary, which is written in the interest of Stephen.
GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH.—More famous than the monk of Malmesbury, but by no means so truthful, stands Geoffrey of Monmouth, Archdeacon of Monmouth and Bishop of St. Asaph's, a writer to whom the rhyming chronicles and Anglo-Norman poets have owed so much. Walter, a Deacon of Oxford, it is said, had procured from Brittany a Welsh chronicle containing a history of the Britons from the time of one Brutus, a great-grandson of AEneas, down to the seventh century of our era. From this, partly in translation and partly in original creation, Geoffrey wrote his “History of the Britons.” Catering to the popular prejudice, he revived, and in part created, the deeds of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table—fabulous heroes who have figured in the best English poetry from that day to the present, their best presentation having been made in the Idyls of the King, (Arthur,) by Tennyson.
The popular philosophy of Geoffrey's work is found in the fact, that while in Bede and in the Saxon Chronicle the Britons had not been portrayed in such a manner as to flatter the national vanity, which seeks for remote antecedents of greatness; under the guise of the Chronicle of Brittany, Geoffrey undertook to do this. Polydore Virgil distinctly condemns him for relating “many fictitious things of King Arthur and the ancient Britons, invented by himself, and pretended to be translated by him into Latin, which he palms on the world with the sacred name of true history;” and this view is substantiated by the fact that the earlier writers speak of Arthur as a prince and a warrior, of no colossal fame—“well known, but not idolized.... That he was a courageous warrior is unquestionable; but that he was the miraculous Mars of the British history, from whom kings and nations shrunk in panic, is completely disproved by the temperate encomiums of his contemporary bards.”
It is of great historical importance to observe the firm hold taken by this fabulous character upon the English people, as evinced by the fact that he has been a popular hero of the English epic ever since. Spenser adopted him as the presiding genius of his “Fairy Queen,” and Milton projected a great epic on his times, before he decided to write the Paradise Lost.
OTHER PRINCIPAL LATIN CHRONICLERS OF THE EARLY NORMAN PERIOD.
Ingulphus, Abbot of Croyland, 1075-1109: History of Croyland. Authenticity disputed.
William of Poictiers, 1070: Deeds of William the Conqueror, (Gesta Gullielmi Ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum.)
Ordericus Vitalis, born about 1075: general ecclesiastical history.
William of Jumieges: History of the Dukes of Normandy.
Florence of Worcester, died 1118: (Chronicon ex Chronicis,) Chronicle from the Chronicles, from the Creation to 1118, (with two valuable additions to 1141, and to 1295.)
Matthew of Westminster, end of thirteenth century (probably a fictitious name): Flowers of the Histories, (Flores Historiarum.)
Eadmer, died about 1124: history of his own time, (Historia Novorum, sive sui seculi.)
Giraldus Cambrensis, born 1146, known as Girald Barry: numerous histories, including Topographia Hiberniae, and the Norman conquest of Ireland; also several theological works.
Henry of Huntingdon, first half of the twelfth century: History of England.
Alured of Rievaux, 1109-66: The Battle of the Standard.
Roger de Hoveden, end of twelfth century: Annales, from the end of Bede's history to 1202.
Matthew Paris, monk of St. Alban's, died 1259: Historia Major, from the Norman conquest to 1259, continued by William Rishanger to 1322.
Ralph Higden, fourteenth century: Polychronicon, or Chronicle of Many Things; translated in the fifteenth century, by John de Trevisa; printed by Caxton in 1482, and by Wynken de Worde in 1485.
THE ANGLO-NORMAN POETS AND CHRONICLERS.—Norman literature had already made itself a name before William conquered England. Short jingling tales in verse, in ballad style, were popular under the name of fabliaux, and fuller epics, tender, fanciful, and spirited, called Romans, or Romaunts, were sung to the lute, in courts and camps. Of these latter, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, and Roland were the principal heroes.
Strange as it may seem, this langue d'oil, in which they were composed, made more rapid progress in its poetical literature, in the period immediately after the conquest, in England than at home: it flourished by the transplantation. Its advent was with an act of heroism. Taillefer, the standard-bearer of William at Seulac, marched in advance of the army, struck the first blow, and met his death while chanting the song of Roland:
Of Charlemagne and Roland,
Of Oliver and his vassals,
Who died at Roncesvalles.
De Karlemaine e de Reliant,
Et d'Olivier et des vassals,
Ki moururent en Renchevals.
Each stanza ended with the war-shout Aoi! and was responded to by the cry of the Normans, Diex aide, God to aid. And this battle-song was the bold manifesto of Norman poetry invading England. It found an echo wherever William triumphed on English soil, and played an important part in the formation of the English language and English literature. New scenes and new victories created new inspiration in the poets; monarchs like Henry I., called from his scholarship Beauclerc, practised and cherished the poetic art, and thus it happened that the Norman poets in England produced works of sweeter minstrelsy and greater historical value than the fabliaux, Romans, and Chansons de gestes of their brethren on the continent. The conquest itself became a grand theme for their muse.
RICHARD WACE.—First among the Anglo-Norman poets stands Richard Wace, called Maistre Wace, reading clerk, (clerc lisant,) born in the island of Jersey, about 1112, died in 1184. His works are especially to be noted for the direct and indirect history they contain. His first work, which appeared about 1138, is entitled Le Brut d'Angleterre —The English Brutus—and is in part a paraphrase of the Latin history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who had presented Brutus of Troy as the first in the line of British kings. Wace has preserved the fiction of Geoffrey, and has catered to that characteristic of the English people which, not content with homespun myths, sought for genealogies from the remote classic times. Wace's Brut is chiefly in octo-syllabic verse, and extends to fifteen thousand lines.
But Wace was a courtier, as well as a poet. Not content with pleasing the fancy of the English people with a fabulous royal lineage, he proceeded to gratify the pride of their Norman masters by writing, in 1171, his “Roman de Rou, et des Ducs de Normandie,” an epic poem on Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy—Rollo, called the Marcher, because he was so mighty of stature that no horse could bear his weight. This Rollo compromised with Charles the Simple of France by marrying his daughter, and accepting that tract of Neustria to which he gave the name of Normandy. He was the ancestor, at six removes, of William the Conqueror, and his mighty deeds were a pleasant and popular subject for the poet of that day, when a great-grandson of William, Henry II., was upon the throne of England. The Roman de Rou contains also the history of Rollo's successors: it is in two parts; the first extending to the beginning of the reign of the third duke, Richard the Fearless, and the second, containing the story of the conquest, comes down to the time of Henry II. himself. The second part he wrote rapidly, for fear that he would be forestalled by the king's poet Benoit. The first part was written in Alexandrines, but for the second he adopted the easier measure of the octo-syllabic verse, of which this part contains seventeen thousand lines. In this poem are discerned the craving of the popular mind, the power of the subject chosen, and the reflection of language and manners, which are displayed on every page.
So popular, indeed, was the subject of the Brut, indigenous as it was considered to British soil, that Wace's poem, already taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth, as Geoffrey had taken it, or pretended to take it from the older chronicle, was soon again, as we shall see, to be versionized into English.
OTHER NORMAN WRITERS OF THE TWELFTH CENTURY.
Philip de Than, about 1130, one of the Trouveres: Li livre de creatures is a poetical study of chronology, and his Bestiarie is a sort of natural history of animals and minerals.
Benoit: Chroniques des Ducs de Normandie, 1160, written in thirty thousand octo-syllabic verses, only worthy of a passing notice, because of the appointment of the poet by the king, (Henry II.,) in order to forestall the second part of Wace's Roman de Rou.
Geoffrey, died 1146: A miracle play of St. Catherine.
Geoffrey Gaimar, about 1150: Estorie des Engles, (History of the English.)
Luc de la Barre, blinded for his bold satires by the king (Henry I.).
Mestre Thomas, latter part of twelfth century: Roman du Roi Horn. Probably the original of the “Geste of Kyng Horn.”
Richard I., (Coeur de Lion,) died 1199, King of England: Sirventes and songs. His antiphonal song with the minstrel Blondel is said to have given information of the place of his imprisonment, and procured his release; but this is probably only a romantic fiction.