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THE LEADING CHRONICLERS,
work of Ingulphus; and certainly it must not be taken as a trustworthy record of passing events, for it is full of false and improbable statements.
ORDERICUS VITALIS. — This monk, who was born in 1075, at the village of Atcham on the Severn, and spent all his life, after his eleventh year, abroad, was the writer of an ecclesiastical history, extending from the Creation to the year 1141. His account of the Norman Conquest is minute; and that part of his history narrating the events of the first four years of the Conqueror's reign (1066–1070), is much prized.
WILLIAM OF MALMESBURY.—The name of William of Malmesbury, born probably about the date of the Conquest, is remarkable among the many chroniclers of this period. His History of the English Kings, in five books, extends from the landing of the Saxons to 1120; and then three other books, called Historia Novella, are added, carrying the story down to 1142. As an historian, he excels in what is, comparatively speaking, careful writing, and a more exact balancing of facts than was common with the cowled chroniclers of the day. But his pages, too, abound in stories of miracles and prodigies, reflecting the “all-digestive” superstition of the time, from which the wisest heads were not free.
GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH.—This learned Welsh monk, who died in 1154, is noted for having preserved the fine antique legends of the Celtic race in his History of the Britons, which he professed to have translated from an old Welsh chronicle. Here we find the story of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, upon which many noble works of our literature have been composed. The charm of such a book must necessarily be fatal to its value as a history; for the writer, letting his fancy play upon the adornment of these dim legends, mixes fact with fiction in a confusion that cannot be disentangled.
Gerald Barry (Giraldus Cambrensis), Henry of Huntingdon, Roger of Hoveden, and Benedict, Abbot of Peterborough, may also be named among the crowd of chroniclers who have written on the early history of England.
A favourite kind of light reading, often conned by the refectory
NATURE OF THE NORMAN ROMANCES.
fire in the long winter nights, was an olla podrida of interesting stories, gathered from every possible source and done into Latin by unknown hands. These books, called Gesta, were made up of monkish legends, chivalric romances, ghost-stories, parables, satirical flings at the foibles of women, and such stories from the classics as the Skeleton of Pallas and the Leap of Curtius. The chief reason why they are worthy of our notice here is, that Shakspere, Scott, and other great wizards of the fancy, drawing some of these dim old stories from their dusty sleep, have touched them with the wand of genius and turned the lumps of dull lead into jewels of the finest gold.
When the chase was over, and the Norman lords caroused in their English halls around the oak board, flinging scraps of the feast to their weary hounds, that couched on the rushstrewn floor, the lays of the French trouvères were sung by wandering minstrels, who were always warmly welcomed and often richly paid. Many poets of English birth soon took up this foreign strain, and wrote lays in Norman-French. The deeds of Alexander, Charlemagne, Havelok the Dane, Guy of Warwick, Cour de Lion, and other such heroes, were celebrated in these
In the earlier stories there is more probability; but by degrees, what critics call the “machinery” of the poem, that is, the introduction of supernatural beings as actors in the drama, becomes wild and fanciful, borrowing largely from the weird superstitions of the North and the East. As we read, knights and ladies, grim giants dwelling in enchanted castles, misshapen dwarfs, fairies kindly and malevolent, dragons and earthdrakes, magicians with their potent wands, pass before us in a highlycoloured, much-distorted panorama.
The romances relating to King Arthur possess a special interest for us, since our Laureate and a brother bard have founded poems on these old tales. The strange and profane legend of the Saint Greal is mixed up throughout with the story of Arthur and his Knights. The Greal was said to be the dish from which our Saviour ate the
CHIEF WRITERS OF ROMANCE.
Last Supper. It was then taken, according to the legend, by Joseph of Arimathea, who used it to catch the blood flowing from the wounds of the Saviour. Too sacred for human gaze, it became invisible, and only revealed itself in visions to the pure knight Sir Galahad, who, having seen it, prayed for death. The names of Merlin the enchanter, the false knight Lancelot, and others, familiar to the thousands who have read the “ Idylls of the King,” constantly occur in the romances of Arthur. As has been already stated, the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, who drew his materials from ancient Welsh and Breton songs, is the chief authority that we find for the story of Arthur.
WACE.—The best known of the Norman-French poets is Master Wace, as he calls himself, who was born probably at Jersey about 1112. He was educated at Caen, and there he spent nearly all his life. His chief poems are two-Brut* d'Angleterre, and Roman de Rou. The former, a translation into eight-syllabled romance verse of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of Britain, contains nearly eighteen hundred lines; the latter, the Romance of Rollo, written partly in the same verse, narrates the history of the Dukes of Normandy from Rollo to the sixteenth year of Henry II. The central picture of this poem is the minute account of the battle of Hastings. Wace, who became Canon of Bayeux on the recommendation of Henry II., is thought to have died in England about 1184.
There are two among the Anglo-Norman romancers who are worthy to be named besides, not so much for the excellence of their verse as for their prominence in English history—Cardinal Stephen Langton, and Richard Coeur de Lion. In the British Museum there is a manuscript sermon of Langton's, in the middle of which he breaks into a pretty French song about “la bele Aliz,” the fair Alice, and then turns the story of this lady and the flowers she has been plucking in a garden, so as to bear upon the praises of the Virgin Mary.
Richard I. is said to have composed several military poems
The word Brut is said to be derived either from the name of Brutus, great-grandson of Æneas, whom tradition makes the first king of Britain, or from the old word brud (a rumour or history), from which has come our bruit.
called Serventois, in addition to a complaint addressed from his dungeon to the barons of France and England, bewailing his long captivity. Of this latter poem Horace Walpole printed, in his "Royal and Noble Authors," a Provençal form, which he took from a manuscript in the library of San Lorenzo at Florence.
As was natural from the miserable state of the Saxon nation immediately after the Conquest-her braver spirits forced, like Hereward and Robin Hood, to take to the greenwood and the marshes, while her weaker souls were cowed into tame submission and slavery—the works written in English of the second stage were very few. The Saxon Chronicle, already noticed, runs on to the year 1154, when the registers come to an abrupt stop.
Two works are named as the chief remains of the Semi-Saxon literature. One, a Translation of Wace's "Brut,” by Layamon, a priest of Ernleye (Areleye-Regis), near the Severn in Worcestershire, is placed by Hallam between the years 1155 and 1200. It rises in many passages beyond a mere translation of Wace's text, and runs to more than fourteen thousand long verses. Its language is said to be a western dialect of the Semi-Saxon. The Ormulum, so called from its writer, Ormin or Orm, is a metrical paraphrase of Scripture, which has been assigned to the second stage of the language. Dr. Craik, however, suggests that it probably belongs to the end of the thirteenth century. The language of the “Ormulum” is, beyond question, in a more advanced stage than that of Layamon's "Brut,"
MINSTREL VERSUS MONK.
FIRST ERA OF ENGLISH LITERATURE
FROM THE BIRTH OF CHAUCER ABOUT 1328 A.D. TO THE INTRO
DUCTION OF PRINTING BY CAXTON IN 1474 A.D.
THE MINSTREL AND THE MONK.
Minstrel v. Monk,
The literature of England, as indeed of all Europe, lay during the earlier and central periods of the Middle Ages in the hands of the Minstrels and the Monks. The minstrel, roaming through the land, sang ballads of love and war; the monk sat in his dim-lit cell penning tomes of unreadable theology, very useless logic, or dry but valuable history, and varying these sterner labours with the graceful task of copying and illuminating the manuscripts, which then held the place of our printed volumes. There was no love lost between the brotherhoods of the Harp and the Missal; for the minstrel wielded a weapon in his song which often hit monkery sly and terrible blows, and could, moreover, open wide the purses of rich nobles, whose coins were doled out with niggard hand to the Church. So it happened that the cloister doors were too often shut in the faces of the wearied gleemen; and grumbling Brother Ambrose, having shot the bolt, betook himself in wrath to his cell to write a Latin treatise, as ponderous as himself, against the abominations of minstrelsy and minstrels.