Page images

ilence having elapsed, he makes his defence and exposes the calumny of his accuser. Several of the stories told are repeated in other collections of the sort, as well as in the later poetry of England and the continent.

A celebrity yet greater was attained, and wider influence exerted on literature, by another series of fictions, not united by any one story, and known by a title for which, various as its matter is, hardly any part of it furnishes a reason. It is called the “Gesta Romanorum,” or “Deeds of the Romans.” Manufactured into different shapes in different countries, and not having the same contents in any two of them, it is everywhere a medley of the most dissimilar elements. There are fables in the manner of Æsop, and distorted fragments of Grecian learning, from Argus and Mercury to Alexander of Macedon and his tutor Aristotle. In the Roman history we begin with memorials of the Æneid, being told how Pallas the son of Evander was a giant, his skeleton, when disinterred, exceeding in length the height of the walls of Rome; the leap of Curtius into the gulf which yawned in the forum is said to have been performed by Marcus Aurelius; and the poet Virgil assumes the character, which he still retains by tradition in Italy, of a mighty but benevolent enchanter. The outlines of some thrilling tales of terror are furnished by the record of local superstitions, celebrating visitations of supernatural beings and the adventures of treasure-seekers who descend into caverns magically protected. And it is worth while to note that, in one of the most elaborate of these fictions, the original hero was the learned Gerbert, believed to have introduced algebra into Christendom; who, although he became the last pope of the tenth century, paid the old penalty of eminent knowledge by being regarded as a magician. One or two of the tales are monkish legends : some are short chivalrous romances: some are moral and religious apologues or parables. Others, pretty numerous, are familiar pictures of society, almost always satirical in cast, and levelling their wit most frequently at the female sex. In pieces of this last kind, the “ Gesta” very often have a close resemblance, in character as well as incident, to those French poems

which shall immediately know by the name of Fabliaux.

It is alike uncertain when, where, and by whom the “Gesta” were first compiled. Probably they arose in Germany; but so many of the stories are taken from older sources, that, even if the collection did not find its way to England till the fourteenth century, there can have been few of them that were not already known.

9. The uses to which those Latin tales were applied in the


middle ages were very various, and several of them not a little amusing. Some of the collectors may have had no further aim, than that of relieving the weariness of a monk's inactive life; and copies were multiplied in the convents, for the benefit of those brothers who were disinclined to weightier studies. It has been believed, also, that, in those readings aloud during meals, which were practised in most of the monastic communities, the light stories often took their turn with books of a more solid kind.

But the collections of fiction were used yet more publicly. They became the manuals of preachers, who had recourse to them for examples and illustrations suitable to the taste of rude and ignorant, hearers. Several books of the sort were avowedly designed for being useful in this way: and one of these at least was written in England, bearing a title which may be translated, “The Text-book of Preachers.” It was compiled in the latter part of the fourteenth century, by John Bromyard, a Dominican friar, himself noted as a pulpit orator, and as a strenuous opponent of Wycliffe.

The "Gesta" themselves, in all their shapes, are carefully adapted for this and other didactic purposes. For there is annexed to every tale a religious application or moral. These practical inferences are often absurdly inapplicable to the narrative, and could not well have been otherwise : often, also, they are dexterously devised for recommending superstitious practices or erroneous doctrines : and the freedom of dealing with sacred things and names makes many of them unfit to be recorded. An idea of the turn they usually take may be gathered from one little narrative, which probably was invented for the sake of the moral. A dying emperor puts into the hands of his son a golden apple, which, travelling through distant lands, he is to present to the greatest fool he can find. After many wanderings, the prince reaches a country whose government is regulated by a strange law: the king is appointed for one year only, at the end of which he is banished, and must die poor and miserable. The traveller asks whether any one has been found to fill the last vacancy: and, learning that the throne is occupied, he offers his apple to the king, as the most foolish man he has ever encountered. The leading doctrine to be inferred is very obvious. The unwise king is the sinful man, who lives for the fleeting enjoyments of this world, content to purchase them by lasting misery in the next. Laymen sometimes outdid the clergy themselves, in the ingenuity with which they moralised the favourite inventions. There is a picturesque story of a nobleman, who, falling into a deep pit, in which are a lion, an ape and a serpent, is rescued by a wood-cut

ter. Instead of rewarding his benefactor, he causes him to be cruelly beaten. The historian Matthew of Paris tells us, that this fable was frequently in the mouth of Richard Cour-de-Lion; and that he applied it as representing the ingratitude to heaven shown by those princes of Christendom, who refused to assist in wresting the Holy Sepulchre from the infidels.

10. The re-appearances of those monastic fantasies in English poetry have been so frequent and so interesting, that we are tempted to anticipate a little for the purpose of making ourselves acquainted with some of them.

Both in the Latin, and in French translations, they became current in England, as elsewhere, before the close of the thirteenth century. Stories either identical with some of them, or very like, appear early among the Chivalrous Romances ; a class of works whose history, both in their original French, and in the English translations and imitations, we shall immediately begin to study. Indeed it is not always certain whether the minstrels have borrowed from the monks, or the monks from the minstrels. Two of the most famous of the romances which still survive in our own language, are in substance the same with stories of the “ Gesta." The one is “Guy of Warwick,” which, in its simplest shape, is truly a devout legend, breathing a darkly ascetic spirit

. The hero deserts his wife and child to do battle in the Holy Land: returning home, he thinks proper, instead of rejoining his family, to hide himself in a hermitage near his castle; and only on his deathbed does he allow himself to be recognised. The other romance is Robert of Sicily, which shrouds a fine moral under a fantastic disguise. The prince being puffed up with pride, an angel is sent to assume his figure and take his place; while he, changed so as not to be known, is insulted and neglected, and becomes thankful to be received as the jester of the court. After long penance has taught him humility, he is restored to dignity and happiness.

When we reach the poetry which adorned England in the latter half of the fourteenth century, we shall have to examine the works of its two chief masters so closely, that their obligations to the Latin books of amusement could not at present be specified without causing a risk of repetition. But we ought here to learn that Chaucer, the greatest of our old poets, owes to the “ Gesta” two at least, if not more, of his tales; and that Gower, a man of much weaker invention, borrows from them with yet greater freedom.

The latter of these names, however, introduces us, with seeming abruptness, to the most celebrated name in our literature. The longest piece in the “Gesta” is the romance of “ Apollonius,” a


very popular fiction throughout the middle ages, and preserved even in an Anglo-Saxon version. It was the foundation of Gower's most elaborate poem: and this again furnished the plot of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” The drama so called is usually printed among the works of Shakspeare, and not without good reason ; since it is, in all likelihood, either wholly a production of his early manhood, or one of those plays which, in that stage of his life, he concocted by altering and augmenting older dramas. Further, our immortal poet's “Merchant of Venice” is doubly indebted, if not to the Latin “Gesta,” yet certainly to the English translation, or to some of the compilations which borrowed from its stores. For in it appeared, perhaps for the first time, the story which was the original of the caskets exhibited for choice by Portia to her lovers; and there we find, also, the incident of the bond in which the forfeit was a pound of flesh, and the device by which the

penalty was evaded.

The spectre-legend, too, which has been noticed as re-modelled in Marmion, is in the “Gesta;” though it was taken from the older source by the Scottish poet. Not a few jests, likewise, which in their modern shape have received the credit of being new, really flow from this venerable source. It is enough to cite, as an instance, a story occurring in some of our school-books, that of “The Three Black Crows." Parnell's pleasing poem “The Hermit” has the same origin. Nor is it unworthy of remembrance, that one of the Æsop-fables of the old books suggested, directly or indirectly, the phrase of Belling the Cat," used by the Earl of Angus in the rebellion against James the Third of Scotland. The mice hold a council, to deliberate how they may protect themselves from the cunning of the cat. They adopt unanimously a resolution proposed by one of the sages of the race; that a bell shall be hung round the neck of their enemy, to warn them of his approach by its ringing. The scheme proves useless by reason of one trifling difficulty: no mouse is brave enough to un dertake putting it in execution.




A. D. 1066-A. D. 1307.



NORMAN-FRENCH. 1. The Two Languages of France-Poetry of the Normans-The

Fabliaus and Chivalrous Romances. ---2. Anglo-Norman Romances from English History-The Legend of Havelox - Growth of Fictitious Embellishments-Translations into English.-3. Anglo-Norman Romances of the Round Table-Outline of their Story.-4 Authors and Translators of Anglo-Norman Romances-Chiefly Englishmen-Borron-Gast-Mapes.—SAXON-ENGLISH. 5 Decay of the Anglo-Saxon Tongue-The Saxon Chronicle.—6 Extant Relics of Semi-Saxon English VerseHistorical Works partly from the French-Approach to the English Tongne - The Brut of Layamon-Robert of Gloucester-Robert Mannyng.-7. Other Metrical Relics of Semi-Saxon and Early English Verse--The Ormulum-The Owl and the Nightingale—Michael of Kildare—The Ancient English Drama.


1. We must now learn something as to that vigorous and imaginative school of Poetry, which arose in the Norman-French tongue, and was the model of all the earliest poetical efforts in

[ocr errors][merged small]

Before the close of the Dark Ages, there were formed in France, out of the decayed Latin, with some Teutonic additions from the Franks, two leading dialects. They were spoken in different quarters ; and each of them became, early in the Middle Ages, the vehicle of a characteristic literature.

In Southern France was used the Provençal, or tongue of Provence, named also the Langue d'Oc, or tongue of Oc, from the word in it corresponding to our “yes.” It was liker to the Italian and Spanish than to the modern French. Its poete called themselves Troubadours, that is, Inventors ; just as our old English and Scottish poets were named Makers. Its poetry was chiefly lyrical, and became the favourite model of the earlier poets of Italy, affecting our own literature to some extent, but not very early or very materially.

The dialect of Northern France was known as the Langue d'Oil or d'Oui. But we speak of it oftenest as Norman-French; because it was in Normandy that its cultivation was completed,

« PreviousContinue »