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Under the general title of the Épopée courtoise—the Epopee of Courtesy—may be grouped those romances which are either works of pure imagination or of uncertain origin, or which lead us back to Byzantine or to Celtic sources. They include some of the most beautiful and original poems of the Middle Ages. Appearing first about the opening of the twelfth century, later in date than the early chansons de geste, and contemporary with the courtly lyric poetry of love, they exhibit the chivalric spirit in a refined and graceful aspect; their marvels are not gross wonders, but often surprises of beauty; they are bright in colour, and varied in the play of life; the passions which they interpret, and especially the passion of love, are felt with an exquisite delicacy and a knowledge of the workings of the heart. They move lightly in their rhymed or assonanced verse; even when they passed into the form of prose they retained something of their charm. Breton harpers wandering through France and England made Celtic themes known through their lais; the fame of King Arthur was spread abroad by these singers and by the History of Geoffrey of Monmouth. French poets welcomed the new matter of romance, infused into it their own chivalric spirit, made it a receptacle for their ideals of gallantry, courtesy, honour, grace, and added their own beautiful inventions. With the story of King Arthur was connected that of the sacred vessel—the graal—in which Joseph of Arimathea at the cross had received the Saviour's blood. And thus the rude Breton lais were elevated not only to a chivalric but to a religious purpose.

The romances of Tristan may certainly be named as of Celtic origin. About 1150 an Anglo-Norman poet, BÉROUL, brought together the scattered narrative of his adventures in a romance, of which a large fragment remains. The secret loves of Tristan and Iseut, their woodland wanderings, their dangers and escapes, are related with fine imaginative sympathy; but in this version of the tale the fatal love-philtre operates only for a period of three years; Iseut, with Tristan's consent, returns to her husband, King Marc; and then a second passion is born in their hearts, a passion which is the offspring not of magic but of natural attraction, and at a critical moment of peril the fragment closes. About twenty years later (1170) the tale was again sung by an Anglo-Norman named THOMAS. Here—again in a fragment—we read of Tristan's marriage, a marriage only in name, to the white-handed Iseut of Brittany, his fidelity of heart to his one first love, his mortal wound and deep desire to see the Queen of Cornwall, the device of the white or black sails to announce the result of his entreaty that she should come, his deception, and the death of his true love upon her lover's corpse. Early in the thirteenth century was composed a long prose romance, often rehandled and expanded, upon the same subject, in which Iseut and Tristan meet at the last moment and die in a close embrace.

Le Chèvrefeuille (The Honeysuckle), one of several lais by a twelfth-century poetess, MARIE, living in England, but a native of France, tells gracefully of an assignation of Tristan and Iseut, their meeting in the forest, and their sorrowful farewell. Marie de France wrote with an exquisite sense of the generosities and delicacy of the heart, and with a skill in narrative construction which was rare among the poets of her time. In Les Deux Amants, the manly pride of passion, which in a trial of strength declines the adventitious aid of a reviving potion, is rewarded by the union in death of the lover and his beloved. In Yonec and in Lanval tales of love and chivalry are made beautiful by lore of fairyland, in which the element of wonder is subdued to beauty. But the most admirable poem by Marie de France is unquestionably her Eliduc. The Breton knight Eliduc is passionately loved by Guilliadon, the only daughter of the old King of Exeter, on whose behalf he had waged battle. Her tokens of affection, girdle and ring, are received by Eliduc in silence; for, though her passion is returned, he has left in Brittany, unknown to Guilliadon, a faithful wife. Very beautiful is the self-transcending love of the wife, who restores her rival from seeming death, and herself retires into a convent. The lovers are wedded, and live in charity to the poor, but with a trouble at the heart for the wrong that they have done. In the end they part; Eliduc embraces the religious life, and the two loving women are united as sisters in the same abbey.

Wace, in his romance of the Brut (1155), which renders into verse the Historia of Geoffrey of Monmouth, makes the earliest mention of the Round Table. Whether the Arthurian legends be of Celtic or of French origin—and the former seems probable—the French romances of King Arthur owe but the crude material to Celtic sources; they may be said to begin with CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES, whose lost poem on Tristan was composed about 1160. Between that date and 1175 he wrote his Erec et Enide (a tale known to us through Tennyson's idyll of Geraint and Enid, derived from the Welsh Mabinogion), Cligès, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Le Chevalier au Lion, and Perceval. In Cligès the maidenhood of his beloved Fénice, wedded in form to the Emperor of Constantinople, is guarded by a magic potion; like Romeo's Juliet, she sleeps in apparent death, but, happier than Juliet, she recovers from her trance to fly with her lover to the court of Arthur. The Chevalier de la Charrette, at first unknown by name, is discovered to be Lancelot, who, losing his horse, has condescended, in order that he may obtain sight of Queen Guenièvre, and in passionate disregard of the conventions of knighthood, to seat himself in a cart which a dwarf is leading. After gallant adventures on the Queen's behalf, her indignant resentment of his unknightly conduct, estrangement, and rumours of death, he is at length restored to her favour.6 While Perceval was still unfinished, Chrétien de Troyes died. It was continued by other poets, and through this romance the quest of the holy graal became a portion of the Arthurian cycle. A Perceval by ROBERT DE BORON, who wrote in the early part of the thirteenth century, has been lost; but a prose redaction of the romance exists, which closes with the death of King Arthur. The great Lancelot in prose—a vast compilation—(about 1220) reduces the various adventures of its hero and of other knights of the King to their definitive form; and here the achievement of the graal is assigned, not to Perceval, but to the saintly knight Sir Galaad; Arthur is slain in combat with the revolter Mordret; and Lancelot and the Queen enter into the life of religion. Passion and piety are alike celebrated; the rude Celtic legends have been sanctified. The earlier history of the sacred vase was traced by Robert de Boron in his Joseph d'Arimathie (or the Saint-Graal), soon to be rehandled and developed in prose; and he it was who, in his Merlin—also presently converted into prose—on suggestions derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth, brought the great enchanter into Arthurian romance. By the middle of the thirteenth century the cycle had received its full development. Towards the middle of the fourteenth century, in Perceforest, an attempt was made to connect the legend of Alexander the Great with that of King Arthur.

6 Chrétien de Troyes is the first poet to tell of the love of Lancelot for the Queen.

Beside the so-called Breton romances, the Épopée courtoise may be taken to include many poems of Greek, of Byzantine, or of uncertain origin, such as the Roman de la Violette, the tale of a wronged wife, having much in common with that novel of Boccaccio with which Shakespeare's Cymbeline is connected, the Floire et Blanchefleur; the Parténopeus de Blois, a kind of "Cupid and Psyche" story, with the parts of the lovers transposed, and others. In the early years of the thirteenth century the prose romance rivalled in popularity the romance in verse. The exquisite chante-fable of Aucassin et Nicolette, of the twelfth century, is partly in prose, partly in assonanced laisses of seven-syllable verse. It is a story of the victory of love: the heir of Count Garin of Beaucaire is enamoured of a beautiful maiden of unknown birth, purchased from the Saracens, who proves to be daughter of the King of Carthage, and in the end the lovers are united. In one remarkable passage unusual sympathy is shown with the hard lot of the peasant, whose trials and sufferings are contrasted with the lighter troubles of the aristocratic class.

In general the poems of the Épopée courtoise exhibit much of the brilliant external aspect of the life of chivalry as idealised by the imagination; dramatic situations are ingeniously devised; the emotions of the chief actors are expounded and analysed, sometimes with real delicacy; but in the conception of character, in the recurring incidents, in the types of passion, in the creation of marvel and surprise, a large conventional element is present. Love is independent of marriage, or rather the relation of wedlock excludes love in the accepted sense of the word; the passion is almost necessarily illegitimate, and it comes as if it were an irresistible fate; the first advance is often made by the woman; but, though at war with the duty of wedlock, love is conceived as an ennobling influence, prompting the knight to all deeds of courage and self-sacrifice. Through the later translation of the Spanish Amadis des Gaules, something of the spirit of the mediæval romances was carried into the chivalric and pastoral romances of the seventeenth century.