CHAPTER II. CHAUCER. POPULAR TALES. MORE'S “UTOPIA.”
In the history of English intellectual development between the vague ignorance of the Middle Ages and the new growth of learning in the sixteenth century, stands the great figure of Chaucer. The first English writer possessing dramatic power, he is the first also to unite with the art of story-telling, the delineation and study of human character. In his translation of the “Romaunt of the Rose” he belongs to the Middle Ages,—a period of uncontrolled imagination, of unsubstantial creations, of external appearances copied without reflection. In his “Canterbury Tales” he belongs to the present,—when Reason asserts her authority, gives the stamp of individual reality to the characters of fiction, and studies the man himself behind his outward and visible form.
The creations of romantic fiction were unreal beings distinguished by different names, by the different insignia on their shields, and by the degree in which they possessed the special qualities which formed the ideal of mediaeval times. The story of their lives was but a series of adventures, strung together without plan, the overflow of an active but ungoverned imagination. The pilgrims to the shrine of Canterbury are men and women, genuine flesh and blood, as thoroughly individual and distinct as the creations of Shakespeare and of Fielding. They dress, they talk, each one after his own manner and according to his position in life, telling a story appropriate to his disposition and suitable to his experience. The knight, with armor battered in “mortal battailles” with the Infidel, describes the adventures of Palamon and Arcite, a tale of chivalry. The lusty young squire, bearing himself well, “in hope to stonden in his lady grace,” tells an Eastern tale of love and romance. The prioress, “all conscience and tendre herte,” relates the legend of “litel flew of Lincoln,” murdered by the Jews for singing his hymn to the Virgin. The clerk of Oxford, who prefers to wealth and luxury his “twenty bookes clad in blak or reede,” contributes the story of the patient Griselda.
The “Canterbury Tales” are so familiar that an extended notice of them here would be superfluous, especially as we are dealing with narratives in prose form. But in seeking to trace the origin and progress of the English novel as it is now written, we must record the first appearance of its special characteristics in the works of Chaucer. Here are first to be seen real human beings, endowed with human virtues and subject to human frailties; here fictitious characters are first represented amid the homely scenes of daily life; here they first become living realities whose nature and dispositions every one may understand, and with whose thoughts every one may sympathize. We must notice, also, the significant fact that of the thirty-two pilgrims who jogged along together that April day, four were of a military character, eleven belonged to the clergy, and seventeen were of the common people. A century before Chaucer's time, when the feudal spirit was still all-powerful, there were but two classes of men thought worthy of consideration, the knighthood and the clergy; and in the romances of chivalry knights and priests exclusively composed the dramatis personae. But the slow progress of the masses, in whom lies the chief strength of a nation, becomes visible in Chaucer's time. In the towns the tradesmen were rising to wealth and consideration. In the country the yeomanry—the laborers and farmers—were throwing off their serfdom, and emerging from the chrysalis of obscurity in which they had long been hidden. At Cressy and Poitiers the English archers disputed with the knighthood the honors of victory. While Chaucer was planning the “Canterbury Tales,” introducing into his gallery of contemporary portraits more figures of tradesmen than of knights or priests, the Peasant Revolt took place; the common people, long trodden in the dust, rose in defence of their rights as men, and John Ball, the “mad priest of Kent,” asked questions of the yeomen about him which showed how surely the Middle Ages were becoming a part of the past. “By what right are they whom we call lords greater folk than we? * * * If we all came of the same father and mother, of Adam and Eve, how can they say or prove that they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend in their pride?” * * * “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” As in the history of Chaucer's time, so in his “Canterbury Tales” we perceive the decline of feudal and priestly tyranny which had gone hand in hand: the one keeping up a perpetual state of war and violence; the other limiting and enfeebling the human intellect, the activity of which could alone raise mankind out of barbarism.
The passion for war and for a military life which had kept Europe in a state of constant disturbance during the Middle Ages, which had brought about the Hundred Years' struggle between England and France, and which had found its worst issue in the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, had, in the sixteenth century largely spent its force. The pomp and luxury of chivalry had lessened the activity of military feelings. The expense entailed by chivalric pageantry had diminished the power of the nobles over their dependents. Many feudal barons were obliged to sell liberty and privileges to part of their bondsmen to obtain the wherewithal to maintain the remainder. The gradual growth of the towns and of trade produced a class which, having all to lose and nothing to gain by war, threw its influence against disorder. The advance in the study and practice of law diminished habits of violence by furnishing legal redress. But the most powerful agent in destroying the old warlike taste was the invention of gunpowder. In the Middle Ages the whole male population had been soldiers in spirit and in fact. But the application of gunpowder to the art of war made it necessary that men should be especially trained for the military profession. A limited number were therefore separated from the main body of the people, who occupied themselves exclusively with military affairs, while the remainder were left to pursue the hitherto neglected arts of peace. The love of war and the indifference to human suffering so long nourished by feudalism could only be thoroughly extinguished by centuries of gradual progress. The heads of queens and ministers of state falling from the block attest the strength of these feelings in Henry the Eighth's time. They were, however, fast losing ground before the new growth of learning. Their decline is illustrated by the fiction of the sixteenth century, as their full power was depicted in the early romances of chivalry.
In the sixteenth century, chivalry as an institution, and even as an influential ideal had entirely passed away. The specimens of romantic fiction which were read during the reigns of Henry the Eighth and of Elizabeth could no longer appeal to an entirely warlike and superstitious class. They were modified to meet new tastes, and in the process became superior in literary merit, but inferior in force and interest. This is especially true of the romances translated from the Spanish. Amadis of Gaul and Palmerin of England show merits of narrative sequence and elegance of expression which did not belong to the earlier romances, of which the “Morte d'Arthur” formed a compendium. But the chivalry of Amadis and Palmerin was polished, refined and exaggerated till it became entirely fanciful and lost the old fire and spirit. In the so-called tales of chivalry produced or adapted by English writers during this century there is no trace of the poetry and interest of chivalric sentiments. In “Tom-a-Lincoln,” the Red Rose Knight, the noble King Arthur is represented as an old dotard, surrounded by knights who bear no resemblance in person or in the nature of their adventures to their prototypes of romantic fiction.
The ideal character of the yeomanry succeeded to the ideal character of the knighthood; Robin Hood and his merry companions took the place in the popular mind which belonged to King Arthur and his knights of the Table Round. The yeomen of England were imbued with a spirit of courage and liberty unknown to the same class on the continent of Europe, and their love of freedom and restless activity of disposition found a reflection in the person of their hero. Supposed to have lived in the thirteenth century, his name and achievements have been sung in countless rhymes and ballads, and have remained dear to the common people down to the present day. The patron of archery, the embodiment of the qualities most loved by the people—courage, generosity, faithfulness, hardihood,—the places he frequented, the well he drank from, have always retained his name, and his bow, with one of his arrows, was preserved with veneration as late as the present century. The ideal of the yeomanry was similar to that of chivalry in the love of blows fairly given and cheerfully taken, in the love of fighting for fighting's sake. It was similar in the courtesy which was always a characteristic of Robin Hood; in the religious devotion which caused the outlaw to hear three masses every morning before setting out on his depredations; in the gallantry which restrained him from molesting any party which contained a woman. But the tales relating to Robin Hood differ from those of the Round Table in their entire freedom from affectation and from supernatural machinery. They breathe, too, an open-air spirit of liberty and enjoyment which was pleasing and comprehensible to the dullest intellect, and which made them, in the broadest sense, popular. The good-humored combativeness of the yeoman sympathized with every beating which Robin Hood received, and with every beating which he gave. In Robin's enmity to the clergy, in his injunction to his followers,
“Thyse byshopppes and thyse archebyshoppes,
Ye shall them bete and bynde,”
the people applauded resistance to the extortion of the church. In Robin's defiance of the law and its officers, they applauded resistance to the tyranny of the higher classes. Waylaying sheriffs and priests, or shooting the king's deer in Sherwood Forest, the famous outlaw and his merry men, clad all in green, were the popular heroes. On Robin Hood's day the whole population turned gaily out to celebrate his festival, never weary of singing or hearing the ballads which commemorated his exploits. Robin was a robber, but in times of disorder highway robbery has always been an honorable occupation, and the outlaws of Sherwood Forest were reputed to give to the poor what they took from the rich. Diligent enquiries have been made to ascertain whether the personage known as Robin Hood had a real existence, but without positive results. The story of his life is purely legendary, and the theories in regard to him have never advanced beyond hypothesis. It is exceedingly probable that such a man lived in the twelfth or thirteenth century, and that the exploits of other less prominent popular heroes were connected with his name and absorbed in his reputation. The noble descent which has often been ascribed to him is in all likelihood the result of the mediaeval idea, that the great virtues existed only in persons of gentle birth. This very prevalent opinion is often apparent in the romances of chivalry, where knights of exceptional valor, who had supposed themselves to be basely descended, almost invariably turn out to be the long-lost offspring of a famous and noble person. Like the tales of chivalry, the narratives of Robin Hood's adventures were sung and recited in metrical form long before they found their way into prose. The following extract forms a part of the first chapter of the story called the “Merry Exploits of Robin Hood,” which had a considerable circulation in the sixteenth century.
“Robin Hood's Delights; or, a gallant combate fought between Robin
Hood, Little John, and William Scarlock, and three of the keepers
of the King's deer, in the forest of Sherwood, in Nottinghamshire.”
“On a midsummer's day, in the morning, Robin Hood, being
accompanied with Little John and William Scarlock, did walk forth
betimes, and wished that in the way they might meet with some
adventures that might be worthy of their valour; they had not
walked long by the forrest side, but behold three of the keepers of
the king's game appeared, with their forrest-bills in their hands,
and well appointed with faucheons and bucklers to defend
themselves. Loe here (saith Robin Hood) according to our wish we
have met with our mates, and before we part from them we will try
what mettle they are made off. What, Robin Hood, said one of the
keepers; I the same, reply'd Robin. Then have at you, said the
keepers; here are three of us and three of you, we will single out
ourselves one to one; and bold Robin, I for my part am resolved to
have a bout with thee. Content, with all my heart, said Robin Hood,
and Fortune shall determine who shall have the best, the outlaws
or the keepers; with that they did lay down their coats, which
were all of Lincoln Green, and fell to it for the space of two
hours with their brown bills, in which hot exercise Robin Hood,
Little John and Scarlock had the better, and giving the rangers
leave to breathe, demanded of them how they liked them; Why! good
stout blades i'faith, saith the keeper that fought with Robin, we
commend you. * * * I see that you are stout men, said Robin Hood,
we will fight no more in this place, but come and go with me to
Nottingham, (I have silver and gold enough about me) and there we
will fight it out at the King's Head tavern with good sack and
claret; and after we are weary we will lay down our arms, and
become sworn brothers to one another, for I love those men that
will stand to it, and scorn to turn their backs for the proudest
Tarmagant of them all. With all our hearts, jolly Robin, said the
keepers to him; so putting up their swords and on their doublets,
they went to Nottingham, where for three days space they followed
the pipes of sack, and butts of claret without intermission, and
drank themselves good friends.”
The story of “George-a-Green,” the brave Pindar of Wakefield is very similar to that of Robin Hood. George was as fond as his more noted friend of giving and taking hard knocks, and it is his skilful and judicious use of the quarter-staff in fulfilling the duties of his office, which gives rise to the incidents of the story. A curious relic of chivalry appears in the passage where Robin Hood the outlaw, and George a-Green the pound-keeper, meet to decide with their quarter-staves the relative merit of their sweethearts.
Of the stories relating to the yeomanry the most important was the “Pleasant Historic of Thomas of Reading; or, The Sixe Worthie Yeomen of the West,” by Thomas Deloney, a famous ballad-maker of the 16th century. It is the narrative of the life and fortunes of a worthy clothier of Henry the First's time, telling how he rose to wealth and prosperity, and was finally murdered by an innkeeper. There is interwoven a relation of the unhappy loves of the “faire Margaret,” daughter of the exiled Earl of Shrewsbury, and of Duke Robert, the King's brother, which ends in the Duke losing his eyes, and the fair Margaret being immured in a convent. The story illustrates some curious old customs, and is written in an unaffected and easy style, which makes it still very readable. A passage describing the churching feast of the wife of one of the “Sixe worthie yeomen,” makes a natural and humorous picture of contemporary manners.
Sutton's wife of Salisbury, which had lately bin deliuered of a
sonne, against her going to church, prepared great cheare; at what
time Simon's wife of Southhampton came thither, and so did diuers
others of the clothiers' wiues, onely to make merry at this
churching feast: and whilest these dames sate at the table, Crab,
Weasell and Wren waited on the board, and as the old Prouerbe
speaketh, Many women, many words, so tell it out at that time; for
there was such prattling that it passed: some talkt of their
husbands' frowardnes, some shewed their maids' sluttishnes,
othersome deciphered the costlines of their garments, some told
many tales of their neighbours: and to be briefe there was none of
them but would have talke for a whole day.
But when Crab, Weazell and Wren saw this, they concluded betwixt
themselves, that as oft as any of the women had a good bit of meate
on their trenchers, they offering a cleane one should catch that
commodity, and so they did; but the women being busie in talke,
marked it not, till at the last one found leisure to misse her
meate * * * The women seeing their men so merry, said it was a
sign there was good ale in the house.
As the decline of disorder and of martial tastes had given men the opportunity to lead other than military lives, so the decline of the theological spirit enabled them to attain that diffusion of knowledge without which there could be no civilization. The Roman clergy, during many centuries, partly from conscientious motives, and partly to maintain their own power, had suppressed intellectual and material advancement, and had kept men in a state of gross ignorance and superstition. In England the church gradually lost her old influence by her internal rottenness: she was unable to resist the new growth of learning which sprung up in the first half of the sixteenth century; and her power for evil was destroyed by the Reformation. The superstitions, however, which she had nourished, lingered long after her power had passed away, and these have given birth to some curious specimens of fiction. The natural tendency of an ignorant and superstitious people was to ascribe superior mental ability to intercourse with Satan, and to imagine that any unusual learning must be connected with the occult sciences. These ideas are illustrated by the stories relating to Friar Bacon and to Virgil which were printed during the sixteenth century, and which embodied the legends regarding these great men which had passed current for two hundred years. The same ignorant indifference to useful learning which made Roger Bacon, the great philosopher of the thirteenth century, “unheard, forgotten, buried,” represented him after his death as a conjurer doing tricks for the amusement of a king. “The Famous Historie of Frier Bacon,” is written in a clear and simple style, very similar to that of “Thomas of Reading,” and recounts: “How Fryer Bacon made a Brazen Head to speake, by the which hee would have walled England about with Brasse”; “how Fryer Bacon by his arte took a towne, when the king had lyen before it three months, without doing to it any hurt”; with much more of the same sort. This story would be without interest, were it not for the introduction of the Friar's servant, one Miles, whose futile attempts at seconding his master's efforts, and sometimes at imitating them, occasion some very amusing scenes. Friar Bungay, the famous conjurer of Edward the Fourth's time, appears as Bacon's assistant.
Virgil was treated in the same way. The age which turned Hercules into a knight-errant, very consistently represented the poet and philosopher as a magician. All through the Middle Ages the name of Virgil had been connected with necromancy. “The authors,” says Naudeus, “who have made mention of the magic of Virgil are so many that they cannot be examined one after another, without loss of much time.” On the title page of the “Lyfe of Virgilius,” we learn that: “This boke treateth of the lyfe of Virgilius, and of his deth, and many mervayles that he dyd in hys lyfe tyme by whychcrafte and nygramancye thorowgh the helpe of the devyls of Hell.” Some of the “mervayles" being: “Howe Virgilius made a lampe that at all tymes brenned”; “howe Virgilius put out all the fyer of Rome”; “howe Virgilius made in Rome a metall serpente.” In this story of Virgil occurs a curious instance of the appearance of the same incident in very different works of fiction. The poet being enamoured of a certain Roman lady, persuaded her to lower a basket from her window, in which he should enter and be drawn up to her chamber. The lady assented, but when the basket had ascended half way, she left her lover to hang there, exposed the next morning to the ridicule of the populace, for which treachery Virgil takes terrible revenge. This story of the basket became very popular; it was introduced into a well known French fabliau; and Bulwer worked it, with slight changes, into his novel of “Pelham,” where Monsieur Margot experiences the same sad reflections concerning the deceitfulness of woman, which had long before passed through the mind of Virgil.
The devil himself, or more properly, one of the many devils who abounded in the sixteenth century, is the hero of the “Historie of Frier Rush.”
The imagination of the peasantry had peopled the woods and dells with gay and harmless spirits, fairies and imps. These were sometimes mischievous, but might always be propitiated, and excited in the rural mind curiosity and amusement rather than fear. But the clergy, who shared in the popular superstitions, and gave as ready a belief as the peasantry to the existence of these supernatural beings, were unable from the nature of their creed to admit the possibility that these spirits were harmless. To the monks all supernatural creatures were either angels or devils, and under their influence the imps and fairies whom the peasants believed to be dancing and playing pranks about them were turned into demons bent on the destruction of human souls. Friar Rush was probably at one time a good natured imp like Robin Good Fellow, but under the influence, of Christian superstition he became the typical emissary from Satan, who played tricks among men calculated to set them by the ears, and who sought by various devices, always amusing, to fit them for residence in his master's dominions.
In the history before us, which is probably only one of many which circulated concerning the mischievous friar, he obtains admission into a convent for the purpose of debauching its inmates. Having received employment as under-cook, he soon finds means to throw his master into a cauldron of boiling water, and pretending that the cook's death resulted from an accident, he obtains the chief position in the kitchen himself. He then provides the convent with such delicious food that the monks give themselves up entirely to material enjoyment, and finally reach a condition of degeneracy from which recovery is almost impossible. Rush, however, is exposed in time to prevent absolute ruin, and sets out to make up for this failure by good service elsewhere. The story is described on the title-page as “being full of pleasant mirth and delight for young people.”
The tales of the yeomanry were very popular during the sixteenth century, and were sold as penny chapbooks for many years. They form an interesting link in the history of English prose fiction, representing as they do the first appearance of a popular demand for prose stories, and the first appearance, except in Chaucer, of other than military or clerical heroes. They possess an element of reality which separates the chivalric ideal of the Middle Ages from the pastoral-chivalric ideal of Elizabeth's time, the latter typified by Sidney's “Arcadia.” The tales relating to the conjurers are quite mediaeval in character. They are of interest only so far as they serve to illustrate the effect of popular superstition upon the literature of the time.
The New Learning, growing up in the place of war and theology, meant the dawn of material prosperity, of the rule of law, and of a new intelligence diffused through the opinions and industries of men. Of this there is no better exposition than Sir Thomas More's “Utopia.” More was a devout Catholic. He wore a hair shirt next his skin; he flogged himself; he gave his life for a theological principle. But he was also a Christian in a wider sense. He appreciated the importance to men of peace and happiness, as well as of orthodoxy. He sought to promote, what the clergy sought to destroy, the benefits of intellectual and material advancement. More was a lawyer, seeing clearly into the temper of his time, and discerning the new tendencies which were forming the opinions and influencing the actions of his countrymen. It was as a lawyer, too, that he was able to do this. As a soldier, or as the inmate of that Carthusian cell his youth had longed for, he would have shared the prevailing blindness. For many centuries all intellectual activity had been occupied with theological disputes,—how barren it is needless to say; all physical activity had been occupied in destroying or in protecting life. “There were indeed,” says Buckle, “many priests and many warriors, many sermons and many battles. But, on the other hand, there was neither trade, nor commerce, nor manufactures; there was no science, no literature; the useful arts were entirely unknown; and even the highest ranks of society were unacquainted, not only with the most ordinary comforts, but with the commonest decencies of civilized life.” But the New Learning dealt with secular subjects, and aimed at material welfare. At Antwerp, says More:
“Vpon a certayne daye, when I hadde herde the diuine seruice in our
Ladies Churche, which is the fayrest, the most gorgeous and curious
churche of buyldyng in all the Citie, and also the most frequented
of people, and the seruice beynge doone, was readye to go home to
my lodgynge, I chaunced to espye this foresayde Peter talkynge with
a certayne Straunger, a man well stricken in age, with a blacke
sonneburned face, a longe bearde, and a cloke cast homly about his
shoulders, whome, by his fauoure and apparell furthwith I iudged to
bee a mariner.”
This was the fictitious personage whose travels had led him to the distant island of Utopia, and who described to Sir Thomas the nature of its government. Europe for fifteen centuries had been under the control of the clergy, and what had been the result? Where was the progress? How much had the barbarism of one century differed from that of the last? But in Utopia there was no priesthood. Men had a simple faith. They “were persuaded that it is not in a man's power to believe what he list,” and when they met in public worship it was to hold such services that all might freely join in them. Religion in Utopia was left to the individual conscience. War was considered an unmitigated evil, and never undertaken except in the extremest necessity. The people of Utopia, therefore, not being exclusively occupied, on the one hand, with discussing their religion and enforcing it on others, or, on the other hand, with violating all its teachings, were able to think of other things. How to make the best laws for the government of the commonwealth; how to deal with crime, with labor; how to promote the highest condition of general well-being, as regarded the public health, public education, the comfort and cleanliness of dwellings;—these were the questions which the Utopians considered most important, and these were solved by the exercise of human reason. These were questions, too, with which the English people found themselves confronted in the beginning of the sixteenth century, and before that century had passed away, the results even of a very imperfect solution regarding them were apparent in every department and in every class of life.
The great mind, the noble character of Sir Thomas More stand out the best production of his time. The strong religious bias of the man made it inevitable that he should remain considerably under the influence of the old theological teachings, but in the intelligent man of the world, in the large-hearted philanthropist, in the honest patriot, appear the new and beneficent tendencies which were at work. Like all men who have been in advance of their time, More was looked upon as a dreamer. A dreamer he might naturally seem, who, in the beginning of the sixteenth century, looked for peace, for religious toleration, for justice to the lower classes. But these dreams were destined to be realized long after More's headless body had crumbled to dust, by that learning which he himself so seduously cultivated, and by the decay, too, of some of those ideas for which he died a martyr's death. The growth of the universities, the establishment of grammar schools, the impetus given to all useful occupations during the reign of Henry VIII, were gradually aiding the advance of that new era in the history of England which developed so brilliantly under Elizabeth. In her reign the old warlike spirit had decayed, theology had lost its obstructive power, and human reason began to bear its legitimate fruits—prosperity and civilization.
[Footnote 26: Green's “Short History of the English People,” p. 203.]
[Footnote 27: “Tom-a-Lincoln” has been reprinted in W.J. Thorn's valuable collection of “Early English Prose Romances,” where may also be found a story similar in nature, called “Helyas, Knight of the Swanne.” I do not consider these productions worthy of more extended notice here, as they possess no interest in themselves, and serve only to illustrate the degeneracy of the fictions relating to the knighthood during the 16th century. The compilation called “The Seven Champions of Christendom", by Richard Johnson, the author of “Tom-a-Lincoln", said to contain “all the lyes of Christendom in one lye,” obtained considerable popularity and circulation during this period. Dunlop mentions (“Hist. of Fiction,” chap. xiv) the “Ornatus and Artesia", and “Parismus, Prince of Bohemia,” by Emmanuel Ford, and the “Pheander, or Maiden Knight,” by Henry Roberts, belonging in the same class of composition. An English version of the old tale of Robert the Devil belongs to this period, and may be found in W.J. Thom's collection.]
[Footnote 28: Ritson's “Robin Hood.”]
[Footnote 29: Hunter's “Robin Hood", p. 13.]
[Footnote 30: “George-a-Green,” chap. x, Thom's “Early Eng. Prose Romances.”]
[Footnote 31: “Thomas of Reading,” chap. 12.]
[Footnote 32: Thom's preface to “Vigilius,” “Early Eng. Prose Romances.”]
[Footnote 33: “Lai d'Hippocrate,” Le Grand. Thom's Prelude to “Virgilius.”]
[Footnote 34: Wright's “Essays on the Middle Ages,” Essay x.]
[Footnote 35: Buckle's “Hist. of Civilization,” vol. I, p. 147. Appleton's ed.]
[Footnote 36: “A fruteful and plesaunt worke of the beste state of a publyque weale, and of the newe yle called UTOPIA: written in Latin by SYR THOMAS MORE KNYGHT, and translated into Englysshe by RAPHE ROBYNSON Citisein and Goldsmythe of London at the procurement and earnest request of George Tadlowe Citisein and Haberdassher of the same Citie. Imprinted at London by Abraham Wele, dwelling in Paul's Churcheyarde at the Sygne of the Lambe, Anno, 1551.” Arber's reprint. ]