CHAPTER I. THE ROMANCE OF CHIVALRY.
In the midst of an age of gloom and anarchy, when Feudalism was slowly building up a new social organization on the ruins of the Roman Empire, arose that spirit of chivalry, which, in its connection with the Christian religion, forms so sharp a division between the sentiments of ancient and modern times. Following closely on the growth of chivalry as an institution, there came into being a remarkable species of fiction, which reflected with great faithfulness the character of the age, and having formed for three centuries the principal literary entertainment of the knighthood of Europe, left on the new civilization, and the new literature which had outgrown and discarded it, lasting traces of its natural beauty. Into the general fund of chivalric romance were absorbed the learning and legend of every land. From the gloomy forests and bleak mountains of the North came dark and terrible fancies, malignant enchanters, and death-dealing spirits, supposed to haunt the earth and sea; from Arabia and the East came gorgeous pictures of palaces built of gold and precious stones, magic rings which transport the bearer from place to place, love-inspiring draughts, dragons and fairies; from ancient Greece and Rome came memories of the heroes and mysteries of mythology, like old coins worn and disfigured by passing, through ages, from hand to hand, but still bearing a faint outline of their original character. All this mass of fiction was floating idly in the imaginations of men, or worked as an embellishment into the rude numbers of the minstrels, when the mediaeval romancers gathered it up, and interweaving it with the traditions of Arthur and Charlemagne, produced those strange compositions which are so entirely the product and repository of the habits, superstitions, and sympathies of the Middle Ages that they serve to
“Hold the mirror up to Nature,
To show Vice its own image, Virtue its own likeness,
And the very age and body of the times,
His form and pressure.”
The men who wrote, and the men who read these romances, the first springs of our modern fiction, were influenced by two dominant ideas: “One religious, which had fashioned the gigantic cathedrals, and swept the masses from their native soil to hurl them upon the Holy Land; the other secular, which had built feudal fortresses, and set the man of courage erect and armed within his own domain.” These two ideas were outwardly expressed in the Roman Church and the Feudal System.
During the anarchy of the Middle Ages, every man was compelled to look upon war as his natural occupation, if he hoped to preserve life or property. His land was held as a condition of military service. As long as there was no effective administration of justice, redress for the aggrieved lay in the sword alone. A military career had no rival in the eyes of the ambitious and the noble. There was no learning, no art, to share with skill in arms, the honors to which a youth aspired. Religion and love, the most powerful inspirations of his moral life, made force of arms the merit most worthy of their rewards. The growth of the people in the mechanical arts took the direction of improving the instruments of warfare; the increase of refinement and humanity tended less to diminish war than to make it more civilized, showy, and glorious. The armies of the Romans seem prosaic when we turn to the brilliant array of chivalry, to the ranks of steel-clad knights couching the lance to win fame, the smile of woman, or the reward of religious devotion;—men to whom war seemed a grand tournament, in which each combatant, from the king to the poorest knight, was to seek distinction by his strength and valor. It was through the senses, and especially through the eye, that the feudal imagination was moved. Every heart was kindled at the sight of shining armor, horses with brilliant trappings, gorgeous dress, and martial show. The magnificent Norman cathedrals struck the mind with devotional awe; the donjons and towers of the great baronial castles were suggestive of power and glory. To the impressibility of the senses was added the romantic spirit of adventure, which kept the knighthood of Europe in a constant ferment, and for lack of war, burst forth in tournaments, in private feuds, or in the extravagances of knight-errantry. The feudal system, growing up to meet the necessities of conquerors living on conquered territory, and founded on the principle of military service as a condition of land tenure, made of Europe a vast army. The military profession was exalted to an importance which crushed all effort of a more useful or progressive nature; the military class, including all who possessed land, and did not labor upon it, became an aristocracy despising peaceful occupations, whose most powerful prejudice was pride of birth, whose ruling passion was love of war. Under the influence of this military spirit, intellectual was subordinated to active life; a condition of ignorance and danger was sustained; an overwhelming reverence for the supernatural was produced, and there resulted that predominance of the imagination over the reason of man which forms the distinctive feature of Romantic Fiction.
While the feudal system formed the framework of society, and, as much by inspiration as by law, governed the outward actions of men, the human mind was in complete, and almost universally willing, subjection to theological influence. The state of war, or of readiness for war, which was the inevitable accompaniment of feudal tenure, did much to sustain the state of profound ignorance and consequent superstition in which the people of mediaeval times were plunged, both by preventing the pursuit of peaceful occupations and the growth of knowledge, and by increasing the element of danger in life, which always inclines the human mind to a belief in the supernatural. The same results were brought about by the character and aims of the Roman Church. The unswerving purpose of that church was to govern, temporally as well as spiritually. She sought to supply to men from her own store all the knowledge which was necessary for their welfare, and that knowledge was limited to dogmas and beliefs which would strengthen the power of the priesthood. A strict and absolute acceptance of the truths of Christianity as she defined them, and a humble obedience to the clergy were made the sole and necessary conditions of salvation. A questioning of those truths or a violation of that obedience was a crime before which murder and license faded into insignificance. The spirit of doubt and of inquiry which alone leads to knowledge, and through knowledge to civilization, was repressed by excommunication or in blood. As long as men continued in a state of helpless ignorance and willing credulity, the church was a fitting, even a beneficent, mistress and guide. For centuries she was the sole teacher and the sole external source of moral elevation. For centuries she alone pointed out the distinction between right and wrong, the beauty of virtue, and the ugliness of sin. Whatever there was in life to raise men above their earthly struggles, their evil passions, and the despair of a hard and dangerous existence, was supplied by her. The consolations of religion, the ennobling acquaintance with the character of Christ, and the hope of salvation through Him were incalculable blessings. Her aid in suppressing disorder and in establishing a respect for law and government is not to be overlooked. She presented in her own organization an example of authority, of system, and of obedience, which, despite many failings and abuses, was of great value to the world. But there is in human nature an irrepressible tendency toward growth and progress, and when this tendency began to show itself in the Middle Ages, it found in the theological spirit, then personated by the Roman Church, its most bitter and most powerful enemy. The church, which had hitherto been a teacher and guide, became the champion of barbarism and the genius of retrogression. Instead of adapting herself to the growing wants of mankind, instead of preserving her influence and power by inward progress proportionate to that which she saw advancing without, she sought, stationary herself, to keep the world stationary, and to stamp out in blood the progressive spirit of man. Hence it is that the blessings of our modern life have been achieved in spite of the Roman Church, which should have promoted them, and the history of modern civilization and modern knowledge is in so large a part the history of emancipation from the tyranny of the theological spirit,—that is, the clerical opposition to mental and material advancement, both of which are as necessary to moral advancement as they are to the happiness of men. This spirit has been the same in every country and in every age, when the spiritual has exceeded the secular power, and its lamentable effects may be traced as well in the gloomy Protestant theocracy of Scotland as in the Catholic Inquisition of Spain. During the period, however, when the romances of chivalry were principally written and enjoyed, the convulsions arising from attempts to burst the bonds by which the minds of men were restrained, had not yet been sensibly felt. The church was still the controlling intellectual influence. A dark cloud of ignorance and superstition hung over Europe, to be dispelled at last by the new growth of learning, and the consequences following upon it. The best intelligence of the time was confined to the clergy, who used it skilfully to maintain their authority. By every device they sought to usurp to themselves the sole power of ministering to popular wants. Nothing which could strike the mind through the senses was neglected. They offset tournaments by religious shows and pageantry, rivalled the attractions of the harp by sacred music, and to wean their flocks from the half dramatic entertainments of the minstrels, they invented the Miracle Play and the Mystery. The church forced herself on the attention of every man without doors or within, by the friars black or gray who met him at every turn, by the imposing monasteries which formed a central figure in every landscape, and by the festivals and processions of priests which made the common occasions for the assemblage of the people. The constant recurrence of holy days and fasts called the mind to the consideration of spiritual things, and the rough superstition of the time was deeply excited when the approach of death in a household brought the priestly train with lighted tapers, and the awe-inspiring ceremonies with which the lingering soul was sent on its way.
The military nature of feudalism explains the predominance of warlike incidents in romantic fiction, and the character of the Roman Church gives us an insight into the causes which, in addition to the ignorance of the time, induced men to refer all remarkable events to supernatural influence, and prepared their minds for the unquestioning belief in the fictions which are so important a characteristic of the romances of chivalry. The low standard of morality also, which is reflected in the same pages, is due quite as much to the predominance of the dogmatic over the moral element of Christianity, as to the unrefined and rude conditions of life.
There is much that is picturesque and brilliant in the times, but much more that is terrible. The nobles and knights, who lived sword in hand behind their battlements and massive walls, were the rulers of the country. Their ungoverned passions and their love of fighting for its own sake or for that of revenge, were perpetual dangers to internal peace. There was no power sufficient to keep them in check. The lawlessness and anarchy caused by the ceaseless quarrels between baron and baron, found but a feeble remedy in the laws of King or Church. Of the darkness of the earlier Middle Ages Von Sybel gives a graphic picture: “Monarchies sank into impotence; petty lawless tyrants trampled all social order under foot, and all attempts after scientific instruction and artistic pleasures were as effectually crushed by this state of general insecurity as the external well-being and material life of the people. This was a dark and stormy period for Europe, merciless, arbitrary, and violent. It was a sign of the prevailing feeling of misery and hopelessness that, when the first thousand years of our era were drawing to their close, the people in every country in Europe looked with certainty for the destruction of the world. Some squandered their wealth in riotous living, others bestowed it, for the good of their souls, on churches and convents; weeping multitudes lay day and night about the altars; some looked forward with dread, but most with secret hope, toward the burning of the earth and the falling in of heaven.” Gradually some order and security succeeded this chaos. The church exerted all her strength in subduing violence, and the character of her remedies are illustrative of the evils they were intended to abate. The truce of God set apart the days between Thursday and Monday of each week as a time of peace, when private quarrels should be suspended. The peace of the king forbade the avenging of an alleged injury until forty days after its commission. The Council of Clermont ordered that every noble youth on attaining the age of twelve years should take an oath to defend the oppressed, the widows, and the orphans. Much superfluous energy was exhausted in the crusades. In England the growth of the universities and the study and development of law aided the establishment of social order, while the spread of commerce and the improvements in husbandry brought with wealth some refinement and luxury. The baronage wrested from the crown those liberties which finally became the common property of all. Trade pushed the inhabitants of the towns into prominence as an important class whose influence was thrown entirely into the scale of peace and quiet, on which its prosperity depended. No element of change was more essential, and none was greater in its civilizing effects than the development of the chivalric spirit into an institution of which the laws and customs were observed from England to Sicily. Its influence worked directly upon the disturbing classes of society. Only time and the slow march of civilization could calm the restlessness and the martial spirit of the powerful, but chivalry introduced into warfare knightly honor and generosity, and into social life a courtesy and gallantry which formed a strong ally to religion in bringing out the better sentiments of humanity. At a time when force was greater than law, when the weak and defenceless were at the mercy of the powerful, when women were never safe from the attacks of the brutal, a body of men who were sworn to redress wrongs, to succor the oppressed, and to protect women and children, could not fail to be highly beneficial and to win the reverence of mankind. To be a good knight was to be the salt of the earth. The church gave easy absolution to the champion of the weak,—the soldier of God. Women smiled upon the cavalier whose profession was her service, and whose deeds, as well as the glitter of his arms and the fascination of his martial appearance, flattered her pride and gratified her imagination.
Yet, in considering the period of chivalry, we must not yield too much to the attraction of its brilliant show, its high flown sentiments, and knightly valor. Beneath religion there ever lurked a bigoted superstition; beneath valor, cruelty; beneath love, mere brutal passion. The sympathies of the order were much confined to the higher classes, and there was little feeling for the sufferings of the common people. The reign of Edward the Third embraces the most brilliant days of chivalry. About that period is spread a mist of manly gallantry and feminine charms which conceals the darkness beneath. The Black Prince, after winning his spurs at Cressy, carried fire and sword among the peaceful and defenceless inhabitants of Garonne, gratifying a greed of gain by blood and rapine. The gallant deeds of Sir Walter de Manny, of Sir John Chandos, the fame of Edward himself, only make darker by contrast the desolation and suffering by which their glory was purchased. The poetic illusion inspired by Froissart's chronicles of knightly deeds and manners is rudely torn when we read Petrarch's description of France after the battle of Poitiers; “I could not believe that this was the same France which I had seen so rich and flourishing. Nothing presented itself to my eyes but a fearful solitude, land uncultivated, houses in ruins. Even the neighborhood of Paris showed everywhere the marks of desolation and conflagration. The streets are deserted, the roads overgrown with weeds, the whole is a vast solitude.”
It is among the Northern conquerors that we must look for the origin of the spirit of chivalry, which consisted first and chiefly in manly valor exerted to obtain the favor of woman. Of this there is no trace in any ancient civilization. Among the barbarous tribes of the North, physical strength and military prowess were the qualities most essential in a man, and woman naturally looked upon them as the merit she most loved, especially as they were needed for her own protection. But this condition is natural to all barbarous and warlike peoples, and cannot by itself account for that sentiment which we call chivalric. To the valor of the Goths were joined an extraordinary reverence and respect for their women, due, as these feelings always must be, to feminine chastity. The virtue for which the Northern women were distinguished elevated them to a position to which the females of other uncivilized nations never approached. It gave them a large influence in both public and private affairs, and made them something to be won, not bought. To obtain his wife the Northern warrior must have deserved her, he must have given proofs that he was worthy of the woman who had preserved her chastity inviolate, and for whom love must be mingled with respect. It is curious to observe how exactly these sentiments, which existed at so early a period among the Gothic nations, were continued into feudal times. Take, as one instance, the exclamation of Regner Lodbrog, the famous Scandinavian chieftain, who about the year 860 rescued a princess from a fortress in which she was unjustly confined, and received her hand as his reward: “I made to struggle in the twilight that yellow haired chief, who passed his mornings among the young maidens and loved to converse with widows. He who aspires to the love of young virgins ought always to be foremost in the din of arms!” Compare to this a scene at Calais about the middle of the fourteenth century. Edward III had just accomplished an adventure of chivalry. Serving under the banner of Sir Walter de Manny as a common knight, he had overcome in single combat the redoubted Sir Eustace de Ribeaumont, who had brought the king twice on his knees during the course of the battle. Edward that evening entertained all his French prisoners as well as his own knights at supper, and at the conclusion of the feast he adjudged the prize of valor for that day's fighting to Sir Eustace de Ribeaumont, and removing a chaplet of pearls from his own head, he placed it on that of the French knight, with the significant words: “Sir Eustace, I present you with this chaplet as being the best combatant this day, either within or without doors; and I beg of you to wear it this year for love of me. I know that you are lively and amorous, and love the company of ladies and damsels; therefore say wherever you go that I gave it to you.” But the chivalry of the Goths was only the seed of the plant which flourished so luxuriantly under better conditions in later times. The feudal system fostered the growth of the sentiment into the institution, as a palliative to anarchy and as an ornament to life, while the Church, always eager to absorb enthusiasm and power into her own ranks, adopted the institution as the Holy Order, and adding religious devotion to the inspiration of love, directed the energies of chivalry into the work of civilization, and made the knight the champion of the weak, in addition to his character as a valiant soldier.
It is difficult in considering a period so remote and so peculiar as that of chivalry, to fix the limit between the actual and the imaginary, between the character of the ideals which men placed before themselves, and the extent to which these ideals were realized. That the writings of the romancers were exaggerations of actual manners rather than inventions, is shown by the descriptions of the habits and inmates of mediaeval castles, which form so interesting a portion of Froissart's chronicles, and give such striking and life like illustrations of the society which at once inspired and enjoyed the romances of chivalry. The castle of the Earl of Foix and the Earl himself would have seemed quite natural in the pages of a romance: “Ther was none more rejoysed in dedes of armes than the erle dyde: ther was sene in his hall, chambre, and court, knightes and squyers of honour going up and downe, and talking of armes and amours; all honour ther was found, all maner of tidyngs of every realme and countre ther might be herde, for out of every countree ther was resort, for the valyantness of this erle.” Of “armes and amours” the knights and ladies loved to talk, and arms and amours formed the burden of the ponderous tomes which the Earl of Foix caused to be read before him. The adventures of knights-errant, and their obligation to render aid and comfort to “all distressed ladies and damsels,” have a charming illustration in the championship of the cause of Isabel, Queen of Edward the Second of England, by Sir John of Hainault, and the words used by the latter in undertaking the enterprise were the echo of the chivalric feeling of the time. As soon as the arrival of Queen Isabel in Hainault was known, “this Sir John, being at that time very young and panting for glory, like a knight-errant mounted his horse, and, accompanied by a few persons, set out from Valenciennes for Ambreticourt, where he arrived in the evening and paid the Queen every respect and honour.” Notwithstanding the remonstrances and objections which were raised against his undertaking so perilous an adventure as the invasion of England, “the gallant knight would not change his purpose, saying, 'that he could die but once; that the time was in the will of God; and that all true knights were bound to aid, to the utmost of their power, all ladies and damsels driven from their kingdoms comfortless and forlorn.'“ To suppose that the romances formed an accurate reflection of actual life would show an entire ignorance of their nature; but there can be no doubt that these fictions were the natural outcome of existing thought and manners; that they were sufficiently life-like to interest; and that they increased and intensified the habits and ideas in which they had their origin.
The combination of qualities and motives which we are accustomed to express in the general term of chivalry was the mediaeval ideal of virtue, and as such was in practice inevitably subject to imperfection and inconsistency. The Roman virtus was simply courage. Chivalry meant courage and skill in arms, united to gentle birth, to courtesy, to gallantry, and to a faithful observance of the laws of combat; the whole inspired by military glory, religious enthusiasm, or devotion to women. We should admire the greatness and nobility of this ideal, standing out as it does against a background of lawlessness and ignorance, rather than complain that in practice its valor often degenerated into ferocity, its Christianity into narrow bigotry, its worship of women into license and brutality. Chivalry, supplying a standard of excellence adapted by its nature to excite the admiration of men, did much to refine and civilize the rude age in which it arose; and this result is not belittled by the fact that that standard was pitched above the possibility of human attainment. Chivalry was the spontaneous expression of what was best in the time, and gave sentiment and charm to lives otherwise hard and barren. Its very exaggerations and grotesqueness illustrate the eagerness with which it was received, and the greatness of the want which it supplied. This was an ideal, too, separate and distinct from any that had been known before, possessing enduring characteristics of greatness and beauty which have never ceased to command sympathy and admiration. Though changed in outward form, and appearing under different manifestations, the chivalry of the Middle Ages is essentially the chivalry of to-day, but it now exerts a moral and intellectual, instead of a physical force.
The new dignity which woman assumed in connection with the growth of chivalry was owing considerably to a cause separate from the Northern sentiment concerning them, and as the position of women is an important part of the social condition we are now examining, a glance at this other cause will not be without value or interest. It is indeed remarkable that in the Middle Ages woman should for the first time have attained her true rank, and that the highest conception of the female character which the world had yet known should have been developed in so rude and ferocious a time. The estimation in which women were held among Eastern nations was little lower than their position among the Jews. Where polygamy exists, and where purchase-money is paid to the father of the bride, women never attain to high appreciation or respect. Beauty rather than virtue was the ideal of Greece. The women of that country, living in continual seclusion, deprived alike of opportunities for attaining culture or exerting influence, became narrowed in thought and intelligence, and passed their lives in obscurity under the control of their husbands or sons. Roman history gives us examples of female excellence and distinction, and represents women during some periods in a better position than had previously been known. But the female sex was never accorded among the Romans the general respect for its peculiar virtues, and the consideration for its weakness which forms one of the brightest pages of modern civilization. With the spread of Christianity, there was for centuries no improvement. The low standard by which the Jews had judged the sex exerted a strong and an evil influence. The spirit of asceticism, rapidly gaining ground in the Roman Church, pointed out absolute chastity in both sexes as the only praiseworthy condition of life, made marriage only an excusable sin, and recognized in that relationship, merely its use for the propagation of the species. Views so absurd and unnatural could not fail in producing the most evil results. Woman came to be regarded by the church as the origin of all sin, the favorite medium of the temptations of the Devil, the sanctity and happiness of marriage were interfered with, and the priesthood, debarred from that condition, showed themselves not insensible to the charms they so fiercely denounced, and presented to their flocks demoralizing examples of profligacy. The Northern invaders brought with them their own ideas concerning women, rough and crude, but containing the germ of much good. Being met by Christianity, they embraced it in large numbers, unreflectingly, at the command of their leaders. But in embracing it they changed it to suit themselves. Their minds were unfit for the reception of the dogmas of the church, or for the realization and worship of an invisible being. They seized on the ideas of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints, and worshipped in a great degree their old gods under the new names. But of the new objects of worship, Mary most struck their imaginations and won their affection. The meek and forgiving Christ was unsuited to their fierce and warlike dispositions. But Mary, the beautiful, the tender, the merciful mother of God became the object of an enthusiastic adoration, and with the worship of Mary the position of the whole sex was elevated. The brutish and unnatural teachings of the Fathers were overridden by the new and noble ideas which were springing up. Doctrines such as that of the Immaculate Conception rapidly won ground, and Catholic Mariolatry, taking root in the fertile soil of Northern chivalry, worked benefits which have lasted down to our own time, and conferred great blessings upon it.
The purely military character of feudalism impressed itself on the habits of the time, and moulded domestic life, amusements and education in strict accordance with it. The castles of the great lords and knights were “academies of honour” for the children of their dependents and less wealthy neighbors; the court yards became the scene of martial exercises, and the presence of noble women within the walls afforded an opportunity for the cultivation of gentle manners, and for the growth of that feeling of reverence for the fair sex which was to form so important an element in the boys' later life. The “gentle damoiseau,” confided at the age of seven or eight to the care of a knight whose reputation for prowess and courtesy ensured a good example, learned modesty and obedience in the performance of menial services, then considered honorable; in the court-yard of the castle he was instructed in horsemanship, and in the use of the lance, the bow, and the sword. In the dangers and hardships of the chase the principal occupation in time of peace,—he was inured to fatigue, hunger, and pain; he learned to sound the horn at the different stages of the hunt, to dress the game when killed, and to carve it on the table. He waited upon the ladies in their apartments as upon superior beings, whose service, even the most menial, was an honor. While yet a damoiseau, and before he had attained the rank of squire, the youth was expected to choose one girl who should receive his special admiration and service, in whose name his future knightly deeds should be performed, who should be his inspiration in battle, the reward of his valor, and the object of his gallantry. In the loves of Amadis and Oriana, so famous in romance, we have a simple and charming description of the first budding of the chivalric sentiment. “Oriana was about ten years old, the fairest creature that ever was seen; wherefore she was called the one 'without a peer.' * * * The Child of the Sea (Amadis) was now twelve years old, but in stature and size he seemed fifteen, and he served the queen; but now that Oriana was there, the queen gave her the Child of the Sea, that he should serve her, and Oriana said that 'it pleased her'; and that word which she said the child kept in his heart, so that he never lost it from his memory, and in all his life he was never weary of serving her, and his heart was surrendered to her; and this love lasted as long as they lasted, for as well as he loved her did she also love him. But the Child of the Sea, who knew nothing of her love, thought himself presumptuous to have placed his thoughts on her, and dared not speak to her; and she, who loved him in her heart, was careful not to speak more with him than with another; but their eyes delighted to reveal to the heart what was the thing on earth that they loved best. And now the time came that he thought he could take arms if he were knighted; and this he greatly desired, thinking that he would do such things that, if he lived, his mistress should esteem him.”
Life in a Norman castle was at best hard and comfortless. In summer it was enlivened by hunting and hawking, by tournaments and pageantry. The gardens which usually surrounded a castle formed a resource for the female portion of the inhabitants, who are often represented in the illuminations of the time as occupied in tending the flowers or in making garlands. But in winter there were few comforts to lessen the suffering, and few resources to vary the monotony of life. The passages in the romances which hail the return of spring, are full of thankfulness and delight. Chess, dice, and cards, as well as many frolicsome games, served, with the aid of the minstrels, to afford amusement. The women had their occupations of spinning, sewing, and embroidery, while some of the accomplishments they cultivated may be inferred from the following passage in the folio of old Sir Joshua Barnes: “And now the ladies themselves, with many noble virgins, were meditating the various measures their skilful feet were to make, the pleasant aires their sweet voices should warble, and those soft divisions their tender fingers should strike on the yielding strings.” Life was lacking in physical comforts, and still more in refinement. The dining-hall became at night the sleeping place of a promiscuous crowd of retainers. There was a very imperfect separation of the sexes at any time. Men and women ate with their fingers, and threw the refuse of their meal on the table, or amidst the straw on the floor, to be devoured by the cats and dogs which swarmed about. Read the directions for ladies' table manners given by Robert de Blois: “If you eat with another (i.e., in the same plate), turn the nicest bits to him, and do not go picking out the finest and largest for yourself, which is not courteous. Moreover, no one should eat greedily a choice bit which is too large or too hot, for fear of choking or burning herself. * * * Each time you drink wipe your mouth well, that no grease may go into the wine, which is very unpleasant to the person who drinks after you. But when you wipe your mouth for drinking, do not wipe your eyes or nose with the table-cloth, and avoid spilling from your mouth or greasing your hands too much.” The same authority on manners and etiquette warns ladies against scolding and disputing, against swearing and getting drunk, and against some other objectionable actions which betray a great lack of feminine modesty. The “Moral Instructions” of the Chevalier de la Tour Landry present a picture of coarseness and immorality among both men and women, which shows how incompatible was the barrack-like existence of feudal times with the practice of any sort of self-restraint or purity of life.
Of such a character, then, was the audience which the mediaeval romancers had to please. A class essentially military, ferocious, and accustomed to shedding blood, yet preserving in their violence a certain observance of laws of honor and courtesy; setting before themselves more often an ideal of glory and nobility, than an object of plunder or conquest; cultivating a consideration and gallantry toward women, remarkable in view of the necessarily rough and unrefined circumstances of their life; highly imaginative and adventurous; rejoicing in brilliancy of dress and show; filling the monotony of peace by tournaments, martial games, and the entertainments of the minstrels.
[Footnote 1: Taine: History of Eng. Lit., Van Laun's trans. chap. 3, pt. ii.]
[Footnote 2: “Hist. of Crusades,” p. 11; Sir E. Strachey, Introd. to “Morte d'Arthur.”]
[Footnote 3: Mill's “Chivalry.”]
[Footnote 4: Quoted in Green's “Short History of the English People.” p. 224.]
[Footnote 5: Warton's “Hist. of English Poetry,” Dissert. i.]
[Footnote 6: Quoted by Warton, “Hist. of Poetry,” Dis. i.]
[Footnote 7: Froissart's “Chronicles,” v. ii, p. 248, Johnes' Trans.]
[Footnote 8: Lecky's “History of Morals,” chap. 5, vol. 2.]
[Footnote 9: Scott's “Essay on Chivalry.”]
[Footnote 10: “Amadis of Gaul,” Southey's ed. vol. 1, p. 40. This romance belongs to a late period of romantic fiction, but the passage cited is a good illustration of mediaeval sentiment.]
[Footnote 11: Sir J. Barnes' “History of Edward III.”]
[Footnote 12: Wright's “Manners and Sentiments in the Middle Ages,” p. 276.]
The romances of chivalry sprang to life a logical production of the times. Their authors seized on the character of a king and a warrior—their highest conception of greatness, in the persons of Charlemagne and Arthur. Regardless of anachronism, they represented their heroes as the centre of a chivalric court, accoutred in the arms, and practising the customs of later centuries; they created in fact a new Arthur and a new Charlemagne, adapted to the new times. They brought to light the almost forgotten characters of antiquity. They represented Jason and Alexander invested with chivalric attributes and affected by mediaeval superstitions. Hercules, according to them, performed his labors, not because of the wrath of Juno or the command of Jove, but, like a true knight-errant, to gain the favor of a Boeotian princess. Virgil the poet was transformed into Virgil the enchanter. The chief heroes were surrounded with restless knights, whose romantic adventures afforded unlimited range to the imagination, and delighted the chivalric mind. The romancers mingled with their endless tales of “arms and amours,” the superstitions and myths which occupied the minds of men to the exclusion of all real knowledge and inquiry. The gloomy and terrible fictions which had adorned the songs of Northern scalds, the bright and fanciful imagery contained in the tales of Arabia and the East which the crusaders brought back with them into Europe, the superstitions of Christianity itself, were given only a greater influence in the lives of fictitious heroes than they were supposed to have in those of living men. Perfectly suited to the times, and in fact born of them, the romances took at once a powerful hold on the popular imagination. The characters of Arthur, of Launcelot and of Tristram became the objects of an ardent admiration, and the standards of excellence to which many strove to attain. The most exaggerated ideas of chivalry contained in the romances were adopted in actual life. Knights and ladies took upon themselves adventures and cultivated manners, which vied in extravagance with those of imaginary beings. The personality of King Arthur was so intensely realized, that for centuries it was believed that he would one day return from beyond the grave to resume his glorious rule. On his tomb were supposed to be inscribed the words:
Hic jacet Arthurus rex, quondam rexque futurus.
Henry II visited his legendary grave at Glastonbury, and named his grandson Arthur. Edward I held a Round Table at Kenilworth. Remarkable features of nature—rocks, caves, and mounds were associated in the popular mind with the achievements of Arthur, and many are connected with them by name at the present day.
But the romances relating to Arthur were far more than the reflection of passing thoughts and customs destined to perish with the generations who read them. They embodied the ideals of the English race six centuries ago, and although appearing in a different form, those ideals are still our own. The examples presented in romantic fiction of manly courage, of self-sacrificing devotion, of simplicity of character, and of chivalric consideration for the weakness of the female sex, may excite our admiration and sympathy, as well as that of a fierce and untutored knighthood. These tales were the product of the English mind in its boyhood, and it is to the youth of our day that they are best adapted and most attractive; but the rationalism of the nineteenth century may find in their spirit of simple faith, of unquestioning belief and trust, much that is beautiful in human life which modern thought and science have swept away. It is on account of the enduring character of the ideals, of which the Arthurian legends were the spontaneous expression, that these works, although contained in a rude form, without artistic plan or literary merit to give them permanence, have never wholly passed from the acquaintance of men. The rude force and beauty of mediaeval fiction has been deeply felt by many of the greatest minds which have contributed to modern literature. To the perusal of the story of Launcelot and Guenever Dante ascribes the coming of Paolo and Francesca al doloroso passo. While the other works of Ariosto have fallen into obscurity, his “Orlando Furioso” has achieved a lasting fame. One of the greatest poems in the German language, the “Oberon” of Wieland, is almost a reproduction of a chivalric romance. The reader of Milton is often reminded of
Begirt with British and Armoric knights.
Spenser transferred romantic fiction into the region of allegory, and gave to English literature the immortal “Faery Queen.” In our own day the “Idyls” of Tennyson have made the legends of Arthur a part of our common thought, and the Knights of the Round Table familiar in almost every household. The romances of chivalry fall naturally into three general classes: those relating to Charlemagne and his peers; those relating to classical and mythological heroes; and, finally, the tales connected with King Arthur. The strong similarity which exists in the character and incidents of these three classes makes an acquaintance with one of them sufficient for the purpose of this work. The “Morte d'Arthur” and the romances of which it forms a compendium will therefore be chiefly considered, as being the most interesting in their bearing on English fiction.
In the early part of the twelfth century, Walter Mapes, Archdeacon of Oxford, while travelling in France, became possessed of a book written in the British or Armoric language, which treated of the history of kings of Britain, and was undoubtedly even at that time of considerable antiquity. Little is known concerning this curious work. It related the fabulous martial deeds of British kings, of whose existence there is no previous record, their victories over giants and dragons, and the various supernatural influences to which they were subject. Hence comes the story of King Lear and of Jack the Giant-Killer, and here are first met the characters of King Arthur and the enchanter Merlin. This book having been translated into Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk, at once attained a great popularity and reputation; and for several centuries was universally accepted as true history. A number of metrical romances soon appeared to gratify the taste which Geoffrey's chronicle had excited, and in the first half of the thirteenth century the same stories began to be written in prose. From this time until the middle of the fifteenth century most of what we now call romantic fiction was produced, although many imitations and translations appeared in England for more than a century afterward. The exact dates of the different romances and the names of their authors cannot be positively established, as the early copies were undated, and the names prefixed to them are believed to be fictitious. During this period were given to the world, among many others, the romances of Merlin the Enchanter, of Launcelot du Lac, of Meliadus, of his son Tristram, of Gyron le Courtoys, of Perceval le Gallois, and, finally, that of the Saint Greal, in which the whole body of knights-errant are represented, probably by some monkish writer, in the search for the Holy Cup which had held the blood of Christ. At last Sir Thomas Malory, a London knight, well read in chivalric literature, combined these tales in the volume he called the “Morte d'Arthur,” an excellent specimen of a chivalric romance, which was printed by Caxton in 1485, and has since appeared in many editions down to the present day.
The influence of the supernatural appears in the very beginning of the “Morte d'Arthur,” and throughout we trace its controlling effect upon the incidents of the story. It is by the help of Merlin's magic that King Uther Pendragon slays the Duke of Cornwall, and assuming the likeness of his rival, obtains possession of his wife Igraine, “a faire ladye, and a passing wyse,” from which union Arthur is born. On the death of Uther, when the chief nobles and knights are summoned to London by the Archbishop of Canterbury to choose a new king, it is Merlin's art which discovers to them a sword imbedded in a great rock in the churchyard of St. Paul's bearing the inscription: “Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England”; and it is by the same supernatural aid that the stripling Arthur, whose birth is unknown, fulfils the task which all had essayed in vain. By the friendly influence of Merlin, Arthur receives his famous sword Excalibur from the hands of the Lady of the Lake, with the scabbard whose wearer can lose no blood; he defeats with great slaughter the hosts of the eleven kings who dispute his throne; and obtains in marriage the celebrated Guenever, who brings him in dowry the Table Round. But Merlin, who could do so much for others, had the power only to foresee, and not to avert, his own impending fate. Enamoured of a fickle damsel, who soon tires of his love, the great enchanter discloses his secrets to her, and with a sad farewell and final advice to Arthur, he suffers himself to be imprisoned forever in the rock which his own magic had wrought, by the spell which he had intrusted to his treacherous mistress. The friendly arts of Merlin are succeeded by the machinations of the malicious fairy Morgana, and the watchful care of the the Lady of the Lake. To excite the childlike wonder of his readers, the romancer turns knights to stone, or makes them invisible; he introduces enchanted castles, vessels that steer themselves, and the miraculous properties of the Saint Greal, Arthur and Tristram fight with dragons and giants. The loves of Tristram and Isoud arise from the drinking of an amorous potion. The chastity of knight and damsel is determined by the magic horn, whose liquor the innocent drink, but the guilty spill; and by the enchanted garland, which blooms on the brow of the chaste, but withers on that of the faithless. Inventions such as these were regarded as facts, or at least as possible occurrences, by the readers of romantic fiction. Men believed what they were told, and to doubt, to inquire were intellectual efforts which they knew not how to make, and which all the influences of their life opposed their making. There were no fictions in the romances more improbable than the accounts of foreign parts brought back by travellers. Sir John of Mandeville was not doubted when he wrote that he had met with a race of men who had only one eye, and that in the middle of the forehead, or a people with only one foot and that one large enough to be used as a parasol. The knight who had mastered the art of reading looked upon such stories as curious facts. His religion was a religion of miracles, and, ignorant of natural laws, he was accustomed to refer any unusual occurrence to the influence of supernatural beings, a habit of thought which presented an ever-ready solution to mysteries and problems otherwise inexplicable.
The entire credence accorded to the supernatural features of the romance gave to it a power and an interest which has now, of course, disappeared; but the influence of the supernatural upon the work is so strong, that even the modern reader, wandering with Launcelot and Tristram in a world of wonders, meets a giant without surprise, and feels at home in an enchanted castle.
When Arthur is finally established on his throne, the knights of the Round Table begin their wonderful career of adventure and gallantry. With them the reader roams over a vague and unreal land called Britain or Cornwall, in full armor, the ever ready lance in rest. At almost every turn a knight is met who offers combat, and each detail of the conflict—the rush of the horses, the breaking of lances, the final hand-to-hand with swords—is described with a minuteness which only the military enthusiasm of the Middle Ages could thoroughly appreciate. Sometimes our hero meets a damsel who tells a tale of wrong, and leads the knight to champion her cause; again, he encounters some old companion in arms, breaks a lance upon him by way of friendly salutation, and wanders with him in search of adventures, inquiring of a chance peasant or dwarf, of a wrong to be avenged, or a danger to be incurred. The reader attends tournaments, of which every blow and every fall are chronicled. He becomes familiar with the respective merits and prowess of a hundred different champions. He learns the laws of judicial combat, and the intricate rules of the chivalric code. With imagination aroused and sympathies excited he enters a life of alternate combat and love, almost real in the consistency of its improbability. Three gallant knights, Sir Gawaine, Sir Marhaus, and Sir Uwaine set out together in search of adventures.
At the last they cam in to a grete forest that was named the
countreye and foreste of Arroy and the countrey of straunge
auentures. In this countrey, said syr Marhaus cam neuer knyghte syn
it was crystened, but he fonde straunge auentures, and soo they
rode, and cam in to a depe valey ful of stones, and ther by they
sawe a fayr streme of water, aboue ther by was the hede of the
streme, a fayr fontayne, &thre damoysels syttynge therby. And
thenne they rode to them, and eyther salewed other, and the eldest
had a garland of gold aboute her hede, and she was thre score
wynter of age, or more, and her here was whyte under the
garland. The second damoysel was of thirty wynter of age, with a
serkelet of gold aboute her hede. The thyrd damoysel was but xv
year of age, and a garland of floures aboute her hede. When these
knyghtes had soo beholde them, they asked hem the cause why they
sat at that fontayne; we be here, sayd the damoysels for thys
cause, yf we may see ony erraunt knyghtes to teche hem unto
straunge auentures, and ye be thre knyghtes that seken auentures,
and we be thre damoysels, and therfore eche one of yow must chose
one of us. And whan ye haue done soo, we wylle lede yow vnto thre
hyhe wayes, and there eche of yow shall chese a wey and his
damoysel wyth hym. And this day twelue monethe ye must mete here
ageyn and god sende yow your lyues, and ther to ye must plyzte your
trouthe. This is wel said, sayd Syr Marhaus. * * * Thenne euery
damoysel took her knyght by the raynes of his brydel, and broughte
him to the thre wayes, and there was their othe made to mete at the
fontayne that day twelue moneth and they were lyvynge, and soo they
kyst and departed, and eueryche knyghte sette his lady behynde
Sir Alysandre le Orphelin holds a piece of ground against all comers. A damsel called La Belle Alice proclaims at Arthur's court that whoever overthrows him, shall have herself and all her lands. Many knights undertake the adventure, but all are defeated by Sir Alysandre.
And whanne La Beale Alys sawe hym juste soo wel, she thought hym a
passynge goodly knyght on horsbak. And thenne she lepte out of her
pauelione, and toke Syr Alisandre by the brydel, and thus she sayd;
Fayre knyght, I require the of thy knyghthode, shewe me thy vysage.
I dar wel, sayd Sir Alysander shewe my vysage. And then he put of
his helme, and she sawe his vysage, she said; O swete Jhesu! the I
must loue and neuer other. Thenne shewe me your vysage, said he.
Thenne she unwympeled her vysage. And whanne he saw her, he sayde,
here haue I fond my loue and my lady. Truly fayre lady, said he, I
promise yow to be your knyghte, and none other that bereth the lyf.
Now, gentil knyghte, said she, telle me your name. My name is, said
he, Alysander le Orphelyn. Now damoysel, telle me your name, said
he. My name is, said she, Alys la Beale Pilggrym. And whan we be
more at oure hertes ease both ye and I shalle telle other of what
blood we be come. Soo there was grete loue betwyxe them. And as
they thus talked, ther came a knyghte that hyght Harsouse le
Berbuse, and axed parte of sir Alysanders speres. Thenne Sir
Alysander encountred with hym, and at the fyrst Sir Alysander smote
hym ouer his hors croupe.
Sir Tristram is thus welcomed at Arthur's court:
Thenne Kynge Arthur took Sir Tristram by the hand, and wente to the
table round. Thenne came Quene Guenever and many ladyes with her,
and alle the ladyes sayden at one voyce, welcome Sir Tristram,
welcome, said the damoysels, welcome said knightes, welcome said
Arthur, for one of the best knyghts and the gentylst of the world,
and the man of moost worship, for all manner of hunting thou berest
the pryce, and of all mesures of blowynge thou art the begynninge,
and of alle the termes of huntynge and haukinge ye are the
begynner, of all Instrumentes of musyke ye are the best, therefor
gentyl knyght, said Arthur, ye are welcome to this courte.
The description of the combat between King Arthur and Accolon is perhaps the most interesting of the kind which the “Morte d'Arthur" contains. Accolon of Gaul had by the aid of Morgan le Fay obtained possession of Arthur's enchanted sword and scabbard.
And thenne they dressyd hem on bothe partyes of the felde, &lete
their horses renne so fast that eyther smote other in the myddes of
the shelde, with their speres hede, that bothe hors and man wente
to the erthe. And thenne they sterte up bothe, and pulled oute
their swerdys, * * * And so they went egrely to the battaille, and
gaf many grete strokes, but alweyes Arthurs swerd bote not like
Accolon's swerd. But for the most party euery stroke that Accolon
gaf he wounded sore Arthur, that it was merucylle he stode. And
alweyes his blood fylle from him fast. When Arthur behelde the
ground so sore bebledde he was desmayed, and thenne he demed
treason that his swerd was chaunged, for his swerd boote not
styl as it was wont to do, therefore he dredde hym sore to be
dede, for euer hym seemed that the swerd in Accolons hand was
Excalibur, for at euery stroke that Accolon stroke he drewe blood
on Arthur. Now knyghte, said Accolon unto Arthur, kepe the wel from
me, but Arthur ansuered not ageyne, and gat hym suche a buffet on
the helme that he made hym to stoupe nygh fallynge doune to the
earthe. Thenne Sir Accolon with drewe hym a lytel, and cam on with
Excalibur on hyghe, and smote Syr Arthur suche a buffet that he
felle nyhe to the erthe. Thenne were they wroth bothe, and gaf eche
other many sore strokes, but alweyes Syr Arthur lost so muche blood
that it was merucille he stode on his feet, but he was so ful of
knighthode, that knyghtly he endured the payne. And Syr Accolon
lost not a dele of blood, therefore he waxed passynge lyghte, and
Syr Arthur was passynge feble, and wende veryly to have dyed, but
for al that he made countenaunce as though he myghte endure, and
helde Accolon as shorte as he myght. But Accolon was bolde by cause
of Excalibur that he waxed passynge hardy. * * * And therewith he
cam fyersly upon Arthur, and syre Arthur was wrothe for the blood
that he had lost, and smote Accolon on hyhe upon the helme soo
myztely that he made hym nyhe to falle to the erthe. And therewith
Arthurs swerd brast at the crosse and felle in the grasse amonge
the blood, and the pommel and the sure handels he helde in his
handes. When syr Arthur sawe that, he was in grete fere to dye, but
alweyes he helde vp his shelde and lost no ground nor bated no
chere. Thenne syre Accolon beganne with wordes of treason, and sayd
knyghte thow arte overcome, and mayste not endure, and also thow
arte wepenles, and thow hast loste moche of thy blood, and I am ful
lothe to slee the, therfor yelde the to me as recreaunt. Nay, saide
syre Arthur I maye not so, for I haue promysed to doo the bataille
to the vttermost by the feythe of my body whyle me lasteth the lyf,
and therfor I had leuer to dye with honour than to lyve with shame.
And yf it were possyble for me to dye an C tymes, I had leuer to
dye so ofte, than yelde me to the, for though I lacke wepen, I
shalle lacke no worship. And yf thou slee me wepenles that shalle
be thy shame. Wel, sayd Accolon, as for the shame I wyl not spare.
Now kepe the from me, for thow arte but a dede ma. And therwith
Accolon gaf hym suche a stroke that he felle nyghe to the erthe,
and wolde haue had Arthur to haue cryed hym mercy. But syre Arthur
pressed unto Accolon with his sheld and gaf hym with the pomel in
his hand suche a buffet that he wente thre strydes abak. * * * And
at the next stroke Syr Accolon stroke hym suche a stroke that by
the damoysels enchauntement the swerd Excalibur felle oute of
Accolons hande to the erthe. And therwith alle syre Arthur lyghtely
lepte to hit, and gate hit in his hand, and forwith al he knewe
that it was his suerd Excalibur, &sayd thow hast ben from me al to
long, &moche dommage hast thow done me. * * * And therwith syr
Arthur russhed on hym with hys myghte, and pulled hym to the erthe,
and thenne russhed of his helme, and gaf hym suche a buffet on the
hede that the blood cam oute at his eres, his nose &his mouthe.
Now wyll I slee the said Arthur. Slee me ye may wel, said Accolon,
and it please yow, for ye ar the best knyghte that euer I fonde,
and I see wel that god is with yow.
The knights of the Round Table had much more difficulty in dealing with one another than in overcoming the most redoubtable giants. Sir Launcelot arrived at a giant's castle, and “he looked aboute, and sawe moche peple in dores and wyndowes that sayd fayre knyghte thow art unhappy. Anone with al cam there vpon hym two grete gyaunts wel armed al sauf the hedes, with two horryble clubbes in theyr handes. Syre Launcelot put his sheld afore hym and put the stroke aweye of the one gyaunt, and with his swerd he clafe his hede a sondre. Whan his felaw sawe that, he ran awey as he were wood, for fere of the horryble strokes, &laucelot after hym with al his myzt &smote hym on the sholder, and clafe hym to the nauel. Thenne Syre Launcelot went in to the halle, and there came afore hym thre score ladyes and damoysels, and all kneled unto hym, and thanked God and hym of their delyveraunce.” The horrors of battle as recounted by the romancers lose much of their painfulness by the enjoyment which the combatants take in them, and by the facility with which the most terrible wounds are healed. The mediaeval passion for conflict and violence could hardly be more strikingly illustrated than by the words of the mother of Tristram, who had just given birth to her son in the midst of a forest, and being far from human aid, sees that her end is near. “Now lete me see my lytel child for whome I haue had alle this sorowe. And whan she sawe hym she said thus, A my lytel sone, thou hast murthered thy moder, and therfore I suppose, thou that art a murtherer soo yong, thou arte ful lykely to be a manly man in thyn age.”
From the recital of combats we turn to tales of love. The most interesting of these relate to Launcelot and Guenever, and to Tristram and Isould. They differ in many respects, and yet share the noteworthy feature that both the women are already married, and their lovers are connected by ties of relationship or of great intimacy with the husbands whom they wrong. Arthur, however, is made to preserve, throughout the story of his deception, the same dignity and the same respect which he had always possessed, and in the loyalty of his character never admits a doubt of his wife's virtue; while King Mark, the husband of Isould, loses the sympathy of the reader by his treachery and cowardice, and is always conscious of Isould's infidelity. Guenever and Launcelot feel the deeper and the nobler passion, as theirs is inspired solely by each other's merit, while that of Isould and Tristram is inflamed by an amorous potion. The immorality of these love stories was not in the Middle Ages the same immorality which it would be considered at present. The conditions of life were all opposed to self restraint. The standard of morals was set by the church, and according to her interpretation of Christianity, continence was so subsidiary to orthodoxy, that what would now be considered a crime, was in the Middle Ages an irregularity which need not weigh on the conscience. Evidence of this is amply supplied by the social history of the time, and the fact is fully illustrated by the romances. The authors of these compositions, from their tendency to idealization, held up to their readers a higher view of virtue in every respect than was practised in actual life, and in their writings, conjugal infidelity is of constant occurrence. The fictitious personages who indulge in licence are but dimly conscious of wrong-doing, and almost the only evidence of a realization of their fault is in the Quest of the Saint Greal, when Launcelot and other noble knights acknowledge that the attainment of the sacred prize is not for them as being “sinful men,” and the quest is achieved by the spotless Sir Galahad, who, impersonating the purifying influence of Christianity, forms the most striking character conceived by the fertile imagination of the Middle Ages. The virtue of constancy was far more admired than that of chastity, and it is said of Guenever, whose sin had brought such calamity upon the Round Table, that “as she was a true lover, so she had a good end.”
Launcelot and Tristram vie with one another in the deeds of chivalry which they accomplish in honor of their ladies, and the intimacy which exists between the two knights and their mistresses adds much to the interest of the story. A fine touch in the loves of Tristram and Isould is the introduction of Sir Palomides, a valiant knight, almost the equal of Tristram in prowess, who loves Isould as passionately as his successful rival, but finds no favor to reward a long career of devotion. The passions of jealousy and hatred on the one hand, and knightly courtesy and honor on the other, which alternately sway the two warriors, and struggle for the mastery in their relations with each other, form a touching picture, and show that the romancers could occasionally rise above the description of conflicts to a study of the heart and character of men.
That our lovers felt a deep and absorbing passion, there can be no doubt. Sir Dynas, the Seneschal, tells the Queen la Belle Isould that Sir Tristram is near: “Thenne for very pure joye la Beale Isould swouned, &whan she myghte speke, she said, gentyl knyghte Seneschall help that I myghte speke with him, outher my herte will braste.” They meet, and then “to telle the joyes that were between la Beale Isoud and sire Tristram, there is no tongue can telle it, nor herte thinke it, nor pen wryte it.” When Tristram thought Isoud unfaithful, he “made grete sorowe in so much that he fell downe of his hors in a swoune, and in suche sorowe he was in thre dayes and thre nyghtes.” When he left her, Isoud was found “seke in here bedde, makynge the grettest dole that ever ony erthly woman made.” “Sire Alysander beheld his lady Alys on horsbak as he stood in her pauelione. And thenne was he soo enamoured upon her that he wyst not whether he were on horsbak or on foote.” Sir Gareth falls in love at first sight: “and euer the more syr Gareth behelde that lady, the more he loued her, and soo he burned in loue that he was past himself in his reason, and forth toward nyghte they wente unto supper, and sire Gareth myghte not ete for his loue was soo hot that he wyst not wher he was.”
The Roman war introduced into the “Morte d'Arthur” is a curious illustration of the vagueness of the historical groundwork of the romances of chivalry. The memory of Roman power was still too great to permit a warrior to achieve greatness without having matched his strength against that of Rome, and thus we have the singular spectacle of King Arthur with his adventurous knights, clad in mail, passing easily through “Almayne” into Italy, conquering giants by the way, and reducing the Emperor Lucius to dependence.
The story of the Saint Greal originally formed a distinct romance, but it was the dull production of some ascetic monk, who thought that the knights of the Round Table were too much occupied with secular pursuits, and who found no greater encomium to pass upon Sir Galahad, than to call him a “maid.” But the idea of the Christian knighthood setting out to seek the Holy Cup was “marvellous and adventurous,” and so well suited to please the mediaeval mind that we find this quest introduced into several of the romances of chivalry, and it appears, though in an incomplete form, in the “Morte d'Arthur.” The adventures met with by the knighthood are much the same as when they were pursuing a less lofty object. Sir Galahad occupies the intervals between his serious occupations with rolling his father Sir Launcelot and other noble knights into the dust in the usual unsaintly fashion. The supernatural element is stronger perhaps in the story of the Saint Greal than in any other romance, and the monkish inspiration of the work is everywhere manifest. When Sir Galahad rescues the inmates of the Castle of Maidens by overthrowing their oppressors, the romancer points out that the Castle of Maidens “betokeneth the good souls that were in prison before the incarnation of Jesu Christ.” It is here also that we learn that “Sir Launcelot is come but of the eighth degree from our Lord Jesu Christ, and Sir Galahad is of the ninth degree from our Lord Jesu Christ; therefore I dare say that they may be the greatest gentlemen of the world.”
When we have read of the “byrth, lyf and actes of Kyng Arthur, of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table, theyr mervayllous enquests and aduentures, th' achyeuyng of the sangreal,” we come to the “dolorous deth and departyng out of this world of them.” It is indeed a “pytous hystory.” Long drawn out as the romance is, serious tax though it sometimes be on the reader's patience, the author succeeds in making us so familiar with all his heroes, in inspiring us with so deep and active a sympathy with them, that it is with a real sadness that we read of the dissensions brought about by the loves of Launcelot and Guenever, the deserted Round Table, the separation of life-long companions, and the fraternal war between Sir Launcelot, Sir Gawaine, and King Arthur. Their love for each other was so strong that it is not wholly quenched even in the sanguinary struggles which follow, and it bursts forth in full vigor when death comes upon them in the midst of their fury. Sir Gawaine is the first to go, using his last strength to write to Sir Launcelot begging his forgiveness: “I byseche the, Sir Launcelot, to retorne ageyne vnto this realme, and see my tombe, & praye some prayer more or lesse for my soule.”
Whan syr Arthur wyst that syre Gawayne was layd so lowe he went
vnto hym, and there the kyng made sorowe oute of mesure, and took
sire Gawayne in his armes, and thryes he there swouned. And
thenne whan he awaked, he sayd, allas Sir Gawayne my sisters sone,
here now thou lyggest, the man in the world that I loued moost,
and now is my joye gone, for now my neuewe syre Gawayne I will
discouer me vnto your persone, in syr Launcelot &you I had moost
my joye and myn affyaunce, &now haue I lost my joye of you bothe,
wherefor all myn erthely joye is gone from me.
We turn from the death of Sir Gawaine only to witness the mortal blow dealt to King Arthur; to see his famous sword Excalibur, which he had borne so nobly and so long, returned to the Lady of the Lake; and the almost lifeless body of the great king carried away over the water by the fairy queens, disappearing at last beneath the horizon. Guenever would seen to have deserved a harder fate than simply to retire to a nunnery of which she is made the abbess. Sir Launcelot dies a holy man and a monk, saying masses for the souls of his old companions in arms. With his death the old glory of the Round Table passes away forever.
And whan syr Ector herd suche noyse &lyghte in the quyre of joyous
Garde, he alyghted and put his hors from hym, and came in to the
quyre, &there he sawe men synge the seruyse full lamentably. And
alle they knewe syre Ector, but he knewe not them. Thenne went syr
Bors to syr Ector, &tolde him how there laye hys broder syr
Launcelot dede, and then syr Ector threwe his shelde, hys swerde helme from hym. And whan he behelde syr Launcelot's vysage, he
felle donne in a sowne. And when he awakyd it were harde for any
tonge to telle the doleful complayntes that he made for his broder.
A, syr Launcelot, he sayd, thou were head of all Crysten knyztes,
and now I dare saye, sayd syr Ector, thou syr Launcelot, ther thou
lyest, that thou were neuer matched of none erthely knyghtes
handes. And thou were the curtoyste knyghte that ever bare shelde.
And thou were the truest frend to thy louer that euer bestradde
hors, &thou were the truest louer of a synfull man that euer loued
woman. And thou were the kyndest man that euer stroke wyth swerde.
And thou were the goodelyest persone that euer came among prees of
knyghtes. And thou were the mekest man &the gentylest that euer
ete in halle amonge ladyes. And thou were the sternest knyghte to
thy mortall foo that euer put spere in the reyst. Thenne there was
wepyng &dolour oute of mesure.
The literary form of the “Morte d'Arthur” admits of description rather than of criticism. A noble and forcible simplicity of expression pervades the old Norman French in which the romances of chivalry were first written, which is well reflected in the English of Sir Thomas Malory. Of plot there is none. The same vagueness pervades the course of the narrative, which is characteristic of the historical groundwork, the geography, and the time of action. Most of the incidents depend on chance. Life in the Middle Ages was a very serious affair, and in the romances there was almost no attempt at wit or humor. In the “Morte d'Arthur,” perhaps the only passage which might have raised a laugh among the early readers of the romance, is that in which King Arthur's fool Dagonet is clad in Sir Mordred's armor, and in that disguise is made to chase before him the coward King Mark. The authors of the romances of chivalry never attempted delineation of character. Their heroes are good knights or bad knights, and in either case possess only the particular qualities which would place them in one of these categories. The female characters are still more slightly drawn, and show no distinct attributes except beauty and a capacity to love.
In laying down the “Morte d'Arthur,” and bidding farewell to the Middle Ages with their heroes of chivalry, we come to the end of a most picturesque period of English history,—a period marked by lights and shadows, rather than by distinct forms. There was ferocity, and there was courtesy; there was brilliant show and rude coarseness; there were scenes of blood and scenes of noble chivalry. In the next chapter we shall notice the tendencies which were at work to replace this state of society by a better. But to the Middle Ages will always be traced much that is distinctive of English character, and in the history of fiction we may fairly allow to the knights of romance the legendary charm and fascination which hang about their bright helmets in the long vista of departed years.
[Footnote 13: Hair.]
[Footnote 14: “Morte d'Arthur.” Southey's reprint from Caxton's ed., 1485, chaps. xix and xx. book 4.]
[Footnote 15: “Morte d'Arthur,” book 10, chap. xxxix.]
[Footnote 16: Southey's “Morte d'Arthur,” vol. 2, p. 11.]
[Footnote 17: “Morte d'Arthur,” book 4, chap. ix.]
[Footnote 18: Hit, cut.]
[Footnote 19: Cut not steel.]
[Footnote 20: “Morte d'Arthur,” book 6, ch. x.]
[Footnote 21: “Morte d'Arthur,” book 8, ch. i.]
[Footnote 22: Thrice.]
[Footnote 23: Liest.]
[Footnote 24: “Morte d'Arthur,” book 22, chap. ii.]
[Footnote 25: “Morte d'Arthur,” book 22, chap. xiii.]