Abbildungen der Seite

childhood, were initiated in the use of arms; and were taught to look forward for their fame and consideration in society, and for the still more inspiring remuneration of the smiles of the fair, to military achievement and heroić adventure. War, therefore, became the object of their most eager and enthusiastic aspirations; and though they seldom wanted opportunities for the display of their courage, the occasional intervals of peace seem to have given birth to tilts and tournaments, justs and defiances, which furnished at once the schools of chivalry, and a vent for their ever-active heroism. All differences were decided by an appeal to the sword, whether it consisted of treason, or rape, or murder. The restless spirit of this system, too, stimulated its profes

sors to go in quest of adventures for the mere · pleasure of achieving them; and diligently to

seek for acts of oppression and wrong, not so much in the first instance, that they may relieve the oppressed, and redress the wrong, as for the delight they felt in martial activity."

The first Romances were merely the record of the adventures and achievements of these military heros ; and consisted simply of songs sung by the minstrels at festivals and convivial meetings, accompanied by the music of the harp. The particular machinery of giants, fairies, dragons, and enchantments of all sorts, is supposed to have been furnished by the Scalds, or Scandinavian bards; to which were added the other wonderful materials invented in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The first symptom of the existence of Romantic stories, occurs at the battle of Hastings, A.D. 1066, Taillefer, a soldier in the army of William the Conqueror, and who first broke the ranks of the English, is recorded to have sung on that occasion the song of Roland, one of the heros of Charlemagne. From the circumstance of this song being sung with a view to awaken martial enthusiasm, it is natural to infer, that not only this, but others of a like description must have become popular in Normany for some time prior to the Norman invasion. From the various songs existing on the subject of Roland, Oliver, and the other heros of the imaginary war of Charlemagne, against the Saracens in Spain, was com, piled, about the year 1100, a large prose narrative in Latin, and supposed to have been the production of Turpin, archbishop of Rheims, It was given to the world as a real history of

the exploits of that monarch, and of the twelve peers of France, his cotemporaries. This work, together with that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, before mentioned, are considered as the main sources of Romantic fiction.

Chivalry originated in the eleventh century, The first regular Romance of which we have any account, appeared in the succeeding one. It was entitled Le Brut d'Angleterre, and was written by Robert Wace, a native of Jersey, who was about thirty years younger than Geoffrey of Monmouth, from whose fabulous history he obviously derived his materials.

But Arthur and Charlemagne are not the only themes of these fictious narratives. The writers of Romance in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, had likewise recourse to the Trojan war; the history of Alexander the Great; and the Crusades; all of which subjects were treated in the vulgar, or Romance tongue. And it is a peculiar feature of these compositions, that whatsoever the subject, or the period whence the characters are drawn, they are uniformly invested with the costume of the age of chivalry.

The first Romances were all written in verse; and like the separate songs from which they were

originally compiled, were accustomed to be sung by the minstrels, and subsequently to be also recited by the discurs, at public entertainments. But as manners and customs altered by the lapse of ages, the profession of minstrelsy decayed; the metrical Romances became less in request at public festivities, and were imperceptibly superseded by Romances in prose. There are consequently, (as Mr. Ellis observes,) two different æras, as well as characters, to be distinguished in Romances ; that of their composition in verse, during the reigns of the successors of William the Conqueror: the second, the time when these Romances were reduced to prose, and accommodated to the opinions existing at the time of their refabrication. The first prose Romances in our language were, the History of Troy; the Life of Charlemagne; the Histories of Jason, Paris, and Vyenne; the Death of King Arthur; and other prose compositions of Chi. valry. All these were translated and printed by Caxton, from the French.

In considering the influence of Romance upon the progress of general improvement, it should be recollected, that prior to its existence, the Latin language was the only vehicle of literary compositions throughout Europe. · Romances had the effect of establishing, in

some sort, a common language; and of exciting other nations besides the French, to improve by translation their native tongues. But their most important effect was, that the literary compositions of the day, no longer confined to the few who were professionally learned, became intelligible to the ladies and to the people; and a love of reading, and a taste for poetry in particular, was generally diffused. The compositions of the Romantic versifiers became the most favourite amusement with princes and feudal lords, whose courts, by degrees, displayed a more refined taste in pleasure and magnificence; and these arts of entertainment, thus rendered universally fashionable, gradually laid the foundation for polite literature.

Again-the Romances contain various pleasing images of ancient customs, manners, and institutions, often delineated in a very striking and peculiar manner. They are, besides, the genuine repositaries of those tales of chivalry which awakened the imagination, and formed the taste of our early poetical writers. Considered in these points of view, they lose their frivo

« ZurückWeiter »