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38 FALL OF THE MINSTREL CRAFT.
would have needed, in addition to his fine poetic genius, something of the pliant muscle that bears Blondin along the perilous rope, and the rapid finger with which Ernst draws the music of the spheres from tightened cat-gut. An Act of 1597, by which Elizabeth included wandering minstrels among rogues, vagabonds, and beggars, gave a mortal wound to the minstrel craft. Cromwell, too, denounced terrible penalties against fiddlers or minstrels. So low had the brotherhood of old Homer fallen! In more enlightened days the poet and the musician have found once more something like their fitting station in society; but the tumbler, representing the mere physical element of the old minstrel craft, still remains among the dregs of the middle classes— but a step or two above the point where Elizabeth and Cromwell left the poor degraded minstrels. MINSTRELsy.—The poetry of the Saxons was distinguished from their prose by a peculiar kind of alliteration. Metre or rhyme they had none. These attributes of English verse were imported from the Continent by the Normans, who copied both from the decayed Latin. Even before the age of Constantine a species of rhythmical poetry, in which the metrical quantity of syllables was almost wholly disregarded, and the accent alone attended to in pronunciation, became common, especially in the mouths of the lower classes of those that spoke Latin. In this rhythmical verse the number of syllables was irregular. That rhyme was used in Latin poetry from the end of the fourth century is a distinctly proved fact. No work, in which rhyme or metre was used, can be traced in our literature until after the Norman Conquest. A few lines in the Saxon Chronicle on the death of the Conqueror, and a short canticle, said by Matthew Paris to have been dictated by the Virgin Mary to a hermit of Durham, are perhaps the earliest specimens of rhyme in English verse. Through Layamon's poem, written in the time of Henry II., numbers of short verses are scattered which rhyme together pretty exactly. There are, besides, some eight-syllable lines in imitation of Wace's metre. But, on
BIRTH OF OUR METRICAL ROMANCE. 39
the whole, the Brut is, like old Saxon verse, without either metre or rhyme. Then comes a gap of a century, during which no maker of English rhymes appeared, at least so far as we know. Metrical romances in Latin and French were plentiful enough, and on them all the literary talent of the time was spent; for the one tongue was the speech of courtiers, and the other that of churchmen. The English, thoroughly out of fashion, was left in its fall to the serfs and boors of the land. But a day came, about the opening of the thirteenth century, when the enslaved speech began to raise its diminished head and assert its native power, and then metrical romances were written in an English form. These first faltering steps of an infant literature were nearly all translations from the French romances, some of which have been already noticed. Tyrwhitt says: “I am inclined to believe that we have no English romance prior to the age of Chaucer, which is not a translation or imitation of some earlier French romance.” The story-books, called Gesta, whose anecdotes were the delight of the cloister, and often lent a charm to the teachings of the pulpit, were the grand store-houses, from which the romancers drew the material of their tales. A monk, named Robert of Gloucester, whose known life is summed up in the single fact that he lived in the abbey of that city, wrote, after 1278, a Rhyming Chronicle in English, narrating British history to the end of Henry III.'s reign. The earlier l'art of this work, which seems to be written in west country English, and is printed in lines of fourteen syllables, is a free translation from Geoffrey of Monmouth. Warton condemns it as “totally destitute of art or imagination.” Robert Mannyng of Brunne in Lincolnshire, writing half a century later, also produced a Rhyming Chronicle, translated from the French of Wace and Langtoft. The latter of these was a canon regular of St. Austin, at Bridlington in Yorkshire. Another name well known in the list of minstrels is that of Thomas the Rhymer, who flourished during the thirteenth century in the south of Scotland. His full name is thought to have been Thomas
40 HISTORY OF ENGLISH METRICAL ROMANCE.
Learmount of Ercildoun (now Earlston near Melrose). He and an unknown poet, Kendal, are mentioned by Robert of Brunne as the authors of “Sir Tristrem,” a romance which was little known until it was published by Sir Walter Scott at the outset of his literary career. Dr. Craik thus sums up the leading facts in the history of English metrical romance:– 1. At least the first examples of it were translations from the French. 2. If any such were produced so early as before the close of the twelfth century (of which we have no evidence), they were probably designed for the entertainment of the mere commonalty, to whom alone the French language was unknown. 3. In the thirteenth century were composed the earliest of those we now possess in their original form. 4. In the fourteenth century the English took the place of the French metrical romance in all classes. This was its brightest era. 5. In the fifteenth it was supplanted by another species of poetry, among the more educated classes, and had also to contend with another rival in the prose romance; but, nevertheless, it still continued to be produced, although in less quantity and of an inferior fabric. 6. It did not altogether cease to be read and written until after the commencement of the sixteenth century. 7. From that time the taste for this earliest form of our poetical literature lay asleep, until, after the lapse of three hundred years, it was re-awakened in this century by Scott. THE MONK.—Let us now turn from the noisy brilliant scenes, in which the old minstrel was most at home, to the quiet gloom of monastic life, and see what literary work went on within those thick oaken doors, studded with heavy nails, whose hinges creaked out but a churlish welcome to the belated harpist, or often refused to creak at all. We pass through the arched gateway—rounded if the building be of the earlier Norman style, pointed if of the later Gothic—and
THE SCRIPTORIUM. 41
across the broad quadrangle, through a smaller door into the arched and pillared cloister, where draughts are not unfrequent invaders through the unglazed loop-holes, and the green damp has traced its grotesque velvet-work upon the cold stone walls. A few sombre figures glide silently through the shadowy stillness; but we linger not here. Up a narrow stair of winding stone into a higher room, arched and pillared too, but lighter, and dotted with long-robed monks, all intent upon real and useful work— doing that service to our literature for which the mediaeval monastery deserves our warmest gratitude. We have reached the Scriptorium ; and its chilly bareness certainly presents a striking contrast to the snug, carpeted, and thick-curtained libraries, in which modern clergymen pen their weekly sermons, or their occasional essays and reviews. Round the naked stone walls wooden chests are ranged, heaped with the precious manuscripts, to multiply and adorn which is the task of those cowled and dark-skirted men who toil in that work-room of the Abbey. And over the rude desks and tables of the time heads of many hues are bending—choirboys with locks of curly flax; grave-browed men, whose ring of raven hair, surrounding the shaven crown, proclaims the noon of life; and the thinly silvered scalp of weak old age—all intent upon their work. Now and then a novice, to whom a common work, or some much-used Service-book for the choir, has been intrusted, crosses to the side of that keen-eyed, wrinkled monk, who has power in his very glance, and humbly begs advice as to the form of a letter or the colouring of a design. And ever and anon the grave tone of this same instructor checks with a few calm words the buzz that sometimes rises from the boyish monks whom he guides. There are things in that Scriptorium which we miss in our writing-desks and on our study-tables. Besides the quills and coloured inks, there are reed-pens, pots of brilliant paint, phials of gold and silver size, hair pencils of various shapes and kinds: for the work of the copyist-monks is rather that of the artist than of the mere penman; and although the figures, which adorn the brilliant illuminations of those Missals and Psalters that preserve in the nineteenth century the arts of dead ages, have
42 THE COPYIST AT WORK.
much of the stiffness of all mediaeval drawing, yet, for beauty of design and richness of colouring, many productions of the quiet Scriptorium remain unsurpassed by modern pencils. Let us draw near to this cowled transcriber—evidently a monk of note from his solitary state—who sits apart on his straightbacked wooden chair, and note the progress of his work. He is copying the Gospels upon vellum, and has just put the finishing touches to a painting, glowing with scarlet and gold and blue lace-work, fantastically formed of intermingled flowers and birds, which has occupied the hot noontide hours of a full week. The brilliant tracery forms the initial letter of a chapter. This done, he takes the pen, and rapidly, with practised hand, traces in black ink the thick perpendicular strokes of that old English text-hand, which has given their name to our black-letter manuscrip.s. While the right hand guides the pen, the left holds a knife, whose point, pressed upon the quickly blackening vellum, is ever ready to shape a clumsy line or erase a wrong word. There are no capitals except the brilliant and fanciful initials; nor any points except a slight dash, occasionally used to divide the sentences. When the book is finished, which may be the work of years if the decorations are minute and profuse, the title will probably be painted in red ink (hence the word Rubric); and the name of the copyist, with date and place of completion, will also shine in brilliant scarlet or other coloured ink at the foot of the last page. The headings of the various chapters are also written for the most part in red ink. Perhaps the richest specimens of the ancient manuscript are those copies of the Gospels on purple vellum, written in silver letters with the sacred names in gold, which were favourite productions of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. These, however, were not originally of English growth, but were the offspring of Greek luxury. It was upon the initial letters and the marginal ornaments, with which the pages of these mediaeval manuscripts were adorned, that the taste and labour of the illuminators were chiefly bestowed. Angelic and human figures, birds, beasts, and fishes, flowers, shells,