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Hence it was probably not composed while many remembered the days of Henry the Fourth, when the story is supposed to have occurred.” *
The distinguished critic whose words have just been quoted, is unhesitatingly of opinion that the Scottish ballads are much superior to the English : and it is also allowed, universally, that those which were produced in the border counties of both king doms have much greater poetic merit, both through their spirited energy, and through the imaginative use they make of local superstitions, than such as had their birth in the more southerly provinces.
Of the latter, indeed, the only very interesting examples are those which celebrate the deeds of Robin Hood, and which, though the incidents are placed in the midland counties, are in many points curiously like the border-minstrelsy. The gentle and generous robber of Sherwood Forest is a personage probably as unreal as the hunting of the Percy in the wilds of Cheviot Fell
. There is very little substance in the theory which would make him to have been a Saxon, manfully resisting the Norman oppressors. Yet the idea which this hypothesis involves, is not uninstructive. Both in old histories, and in a curious Latin biography lately discovered, we are made acquainted with the adventures of a real hero, Hereward of Brunne in Licolnshire. This popular chief, leading a band of Saxons into the marshes of Ely, thence made for years destructive forays on the possessions of the Normans, and at length forced William the Conqueror to a treaty; perishing, however, afterwards by treachery or in a domestic broil
. We know, too, that similar rebellions were not infrequent for more generations than one. Many exploits of the leaders were doubtless preserved traditionally by the conquered race, and were at hand to be woven into any stories that might be founded on the deeds of other champions. But, further, even when the national hatred for the Normans had died away, hatred of the nobility was kept up by the tyrannical forest laws. It is as a champion of the commonalty against these, that Robin Hood is distinctively presented to us : and the sense of wrong which they had awakened in the breasts of the peasantry could not be embodied more forcibly, than in the affectionate flattery with which the minstrels beautify his character.
5. During this unhappy age, the spirit of metaphysical speculation, and the zeal for classical learning, had alike died away. We might suppose erudition to have been really extinct, were it not that a few Latin histories have been bequeathed to us by ecclesiastics of the time, and a celebrated law-treatise by Sir John Fortescue. Ineffectual attempts at encouraging literature åre recorded as having been made by a few men of rank. Shakspeare has poetized the tragical fate which destroyed two of these : "the good Duke Humphrey" of Gloucester, and the accomplished Earl of Rivers, a writer as well as a patron of literary
* Hallam: Introduction to the Literature of Europe.
History having previously begun to be written in English, the return to Latin as its organ was a symptom, not less decided than the spirit shown in Lydgate's poetry, of retrogression towards conventual and scholastic habits. A re-adoption, yet more awkward, of antiquated modes of communication, was practised in the first half of the century by John Hardyng, who, writing a Chronicle of England in the English tongue, couched it wholly in verse. This man, too, was no ecclesiastic, but a soldier, and an active and dexterous political agent. Despatched, by Henry the Fifth, on a secret mission into Scotland, he brought back documents establishing beyond controversy, if they were genuine, the dependence of the Scottish crown on that of England. The fault of his most decisive articles of proof was this, that they proved a great deal too much : we have our choice of believing, either that he forged, or that he was the tool of others who did so.
In the vernacular prose, we have hardly any thing higher than Fabyan's gossiping “ Concordance of Histories."
But, both in prose and in verse, some accessions were made to our language, through translation from the French, by a writer whose claim to honour rests on surer grounds than his own literary compositions.
A mighty revolution took place. William Cax
ton, a merchant of London, residing abroad on business, became acquainted with the recently invented art of printing, and embraced it as a profession. He introduced it into England, probably in 1474, and practised it for nearly twenty years with extraordinary ardour and intelligence. The works which he printed were in all about sixty-four, some of them bulky, and none very small; an amount of activity which we should much undervalue, if we did not recollect the great mechanical difficulties which, then and long afterwards, impeded the process. All the publications that were certainly his, except two or three, are in English, many of them translations; almost all of them are of a popular cast, and indicate, as it has correctly been remarked, a low state of taste and information in the public for which they were designed
b. ab. 1412.
But Caxton's enterprise and patience unquestionably hastened the time when this mighty discovery became available to our nation : and his name deserves to stand, with honour, at the close of the survey we have made of English Literature during the middle ages. Literary works, thenceforth, were not only to be incalculably more abundant, but to undergo, by degrees, in almost all departments, a total change of character : a change brought about indeed by several concurrent causes, but by none more active than the discarding of the manuscript and the substitution of the printed book.
THE FOURTEENTH AND FIFTEENTH CENTURIES IN SCOTLAND.
6. While we studied the progress of literature in England from the Norman Conquest to the close of the thirteenth century, we were not tempted to turn aside by any important monuments of intellect in the northern quarter of the island. Scotland, divided, at the beginning of the period, among hostile and dissimilar races, was but gradually settling down into a compact kingdom, and offered few encouragements for the cultivation of the arts of peace. From the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it is true, there might be collected the names of a very few scholastic theologians, whose works have survived, and who were of Scottish birth : but, with hardly an exception, these men, such as Richard, prior of Saint Victor in Paris, spent their lives on the continent. This was also the case with Michael Scot, a native of Fifeshire, whose fame, as a scientific man or a wizard, was chiefly gained in Germany and Italy, at the court of the emperor Frederick the Second. The extant writings of Scot are universally admitted to give him no claim to remembrance, comparable in any degree with that which belongs to his contemporary
Bacon. Thomas Lermont, again, the Rhymer of Ercildoune or Earlstoun, has left us no data whatever for estimating the grounds of his traditional celebrity ; for his prophecies are clumsy forgeries; and the allegation that he wrote the romance of Sir Tristrem is founded on mistake.
7. The fourteenth century has bequeathed to us several noted names and works.
Its only valuable monument in the Latin tongue is the “Scotichronicon” of John of Fordun, probably a canon of Aberdeen, which may fairly stand comparison with the more judicious and trustworthy of the earlier English histories. Closing with the death of David the First, it was brought down to that of James the First by Walter Bower, abbot of Inchcolm.
b. ab. 1350.
b. ab. 1316.
A livelier interest belongs to two Metrical works in the living tongue, both of which belong to that
age. The later of these in date was the “ Original Cronykil” of
Andrew Wyntoun, prior of Saint Serf's in Lochleven, d.aft. 1420.) which is a history, in nine books, partly of Scotland, partly of the world at large. Far from being without worth as a record of facts, it is totally destitute of poetical merit.Not so is it with a work which immediately preceded it,
“ The Bruce” of John Barbour, archdeacon of Aber
deen, a narrative poem, containing more than thirteen thousand rhymed octosyllabic lines. It relates the adventures of the heroic King Robert, with a spirit and clearness in narrative, a dramatic vigour in the depicting of character, and an occasional breadth of reflective sentiment, which entitle this, our oldest genuine monument of the Teutonic language of Scotland, to be ranked as being really an excellent poem. If we were to compare it with the contemporary poetry of England, its place would be very high, Chaucer being set aside as unapproachable. Barbour must be pronounced much superior to Gower, and still more so to the anonymous writers of the very best of the metrical romances.
With the romances, indeed, not with the metrical chronicles, the Bruce should perhaps be classed, in respect of the freedom with which it interweaves invented details into its web of historical facts. Yet the romantic license is used with much discretion. The outline of the events is faithful to the truth: the hero, though he is certainly a knight-errant rather than a leader of hosts, does not often exert the fabulous prowess which he displays on one occasion, when, single-handed, he defends a pass against three hundred wild men of Galloway; and the only introduction of supernatural agency is in the account of the siege of Berwick, where the poet briefly describes, as a miracle, the impunity with which the women and children carried up arrows and stones to the Scottish defenders of the ramparts. Indeed the work is wonderfully little tinged with those superstitions, which we have seen emerging so often in the poetry of the middle ages. The poet does, it is true, attribute the king's early calamities, not to his slaughter of Comyn, but to his having committed sacrilege by slaying his enemy at the altar; but his hints as to the popular sciences of astrology and necromancy indicate, at once, a characteristic cautiousness which might perhaps be regarded as national, and an enlightenment of opinion for which we should hardly have looked. The prevalent calmness of tone and sobriety of judgment give, by contrast, additional force to the animated passages describing warfare and peril. Several of these are both boldly conceived, and executed with very great spirit. Such are the desperate combat in which Bruce lost the brooch of Lorn; and the adventure in which he baffles the blood-hound of the men of the isles, with the attempted assassination which is its sequel. Nor is the fierce love of warfare unrelieved by gentler touches, which occur both in the portraiture of characters, in the events chosen for record, and in the sentiments expressed by the poet. Sir Walter Scott; whose“ Lord of the Isles” owes much to " The Bruce," and might profitablyibe compared with it, has not forgotten one of the finest of those passages; in which we are told how the king, pursued by a superior force, ordered his hand to turn and face the enemy, rather than abandon to them a poor woman who had been seized with illness. There are likewise not a few pleasing fragments of landscape-painting: and one of these is made unusually picturesque by having, as its main feature, the mysterious signal-fires that were seen blazing on the Scottish shore, and tempted Bruce to a dangerous landing.
In respect of language we do not, in Wyntoun and Barbour, reach the point of a distinct separation between England and Scotland. If unessential peculiarities of spelling are disregarded, Barbour's work may be said to be composed in Northern English. Its style differs chiefly from that of Chaucer and his contemporaries, in being much more purely Saxon than theirs; the writer showing, indeed, no symptoms of that familiarity with French poetry, which caused so extensive an importation of foreign words into the literary diction of the south. It is not, however, to be forgotten, that the archdeacon seems to have had English inclinations: he travelled to Oxford for study after he had become a beneficed priest.
8. In passing to the fifteenth century, we do not discover any traces of a dialect distinctively Scottish in the earliest poem it presents. It is the King's Quair, (or Book,) in which the accomplished King James the First celebrated the lady whom he married. But the royal poet was educated in England, and probably wrote there; and his pleasing poem exhibits, in its allegories and personifications, and in its whole cast of thought, the influence exerted by his study of those English writers of the preceding age, whom he himself respectfully acknowledges as his masters.
The development of the language of Scotland into a distinct dialect, must, even then, have fairly begun. It went on rapidly afterwards ; and it was attended by a great partiality to Chaucer and his contemporaries and followers, with a fondness still greater for their French models. In no long time there arose also a