Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

CHIEF WRITERS OF ROMANCE.

33

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 Cour 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 bistory), from which has come our brut.

34 SEMI-SAXON WRITERS.

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.

SEMI-SAXON WEITERS.

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.”

[graphic]

MINSTREL VERSUS MONK.

35

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.

CHAPTER I.

THE MINSTREL AND THE MONK.

Minstrel v. Monk.
Honour to the minstrel.
Other names.
Picture of a castle hall.
Classes of minstrels.
Their dress.
Decay of the craft.

Modern minstrels.
English metrical romance.
Robert of Gloucester.
Robert Mannyng.
Thomas the Rhymer.
Craik's summary.

The monk.
The Scriptorium.
The workmen.
Picture of a copyist.
Purple and gold.
Illuminations.

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.

36 THE MINSTREL Toi E CASTLE HALL.

In very early days the Bards and Scalds of northern Europe sang their own verses to the music of the harp, much as Homer used to sing by the shore of the sounding Ægean. The minstrels of later days recited sometimes their own compositions, but oftener the poems of others. And by no means ignoble was the occupation of these musical wanderers. When Alfred donned the minstrel's dress, he took a downward step, to be sure, but by no means so great a downward step as the Emperor Napoleon would take, if he laid aside the imperial purple for the robes of a first tenor in the Italian Opera. And when Alfred walked among the tents of Guthrum's camp, a servant bore his harp behind him—a thing which would have at once revealed the secret of the singer, if it had not been a very usual occurrence. Gleeman and Jogeler (our juggler; the French, jongleur; the Latin, joculator) were other names for the minstrel craft in old English days.

Nor was there any more honoured or more welcome guest than this wanderer, whose time of triumph came when the rough substantial supper had vanished before the hungry hunters and their dogs, and the cups of mead or wine began to circle round the hall. Mimicry and action accompanied the music and the song. And as the wine fumes mounted to the brain, and the wild torrent of melody drove their pulses into madder flow, the battle-day seemed to have come again. War-cries rang through the smoky hall; and in the ruddy light, which streamed from crackling logs or flaring pine-knots, flushed brows grew a darker red; and hands, veined as if with whip-cord, clutched fiercely at knife or bill-hook, and wheeled the weapon in flashing circles through the air. Love, too, was the minstrel's theme; and here the power of his song struck even deeper to those simple hearts than when he sang of war, although the eye gleamed with another light, and the stern warshout faded into gentler tones.

The minstrels in feudal times were probably divided into various classes, which were distinguished as Squire minstrels, Yeoman minstrels, &c. Those attached to noble houses wore the arms of their patron, hung round the neck by a silver chain. The distinctive badge of the profession was the wrest or tuning-key. Many

THE PICTURE OF A MINSTREL. 57

minstrels carried a tabor; but some played on a viele, supposed to have been like a guitar, in the top of which one hand turned a handle, while the other touched the keys of the instrument. The minstrel's dress, of which an idea may be gathered from the following passage, bore some resemblance to that of the monks. An old letter, written by a man who was present at the grand entertainment given at Kenilworth in 1575 to Queen Elizabeth, describes the dress of a minstrel, who took a prominent part in the pageant. He was dressed in a long gown of Kendal green, with sleeves hanging down to the middle of the leg; a red belt girt his waist; his tonsure, like a monk's, was shaven round; his head was bare; a red ribbon hung round his neck; his shoes were cleanly blacked with soot; all his ruffs (this fashion belonged to Elizabeth's own day) stuck stiffly out with the setting-sticks, which then did the work of starch; and round his neck were suspended the arms of Islington. Although this depicts the minstrel at a later stage than that of which we write, when the profession had fallen low in public esteem, it may yet serve to give us an idea of the kind of men who wandered from hall to

hall, embalming in song those picturesque old histories of early

English days, whose very roughness of flow is a new charm, and whose large admixture of highly-coloured fable, if detracting from their historic worth, yet endeared them all the more to the hearts of the simple people, whose delight it was to sing and hear them by the winter fire or beneath the summer trees. The application of the word Minstrel changed a good deal during the decay of chivalry. At first used to denote those wandering historians of whom we have spoken, “abstracts and brief chronicles of the time,” who sang of love or war in lordly halls, playing a musical accompaniment and gesturing with imitative motions, it came to apply afterwards chiefly to the musician. The song was dropped, and so were the gestures. The Poet took up the song; the Juggler and Tumbler took up the bodily movements; while the Minstrel remained a player of music only. Had Alfred Tennyson lived six hundred years ago, in order to win the laurelcrown which he worthily wears as first minstrel in the land, he

« ElőzőTovább »