This text was taken from Godwin's Life of Chaucer by William Godwin, London: T. Davison, White-Friars; 1804.
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School-boy amusements of Chaucer: Romance. — Growth and intimate connection of the feudal system, of chivalry and romance.
Such were the authors some of whom were read by Chaucer in the regular series of his school-education: there were others who it can scarcely be questioned furnished some of the favourite recreations of his boyish years. These were the writers of romance. Several of their most popular productions are thus enumerated by him in his Rime of Sire Thopas.
Men speken of romaunces of pris,
Of Hornchild and of Ipotis,
Of Bevis and sire Guy,
Of sire Libeux and Pleindamour,
But sire Thopas he bereth the flour
Of real chevalrie.
Cant. Tales, ver. 13830.
Romance was the offspring of chivalry; as chivalry again was the offspring of the feudal system. Each of these sprang up in succession, from the chaos introduced by the barbarian tribes who overwhelmed the Western Empire. The feudal system, in strictness of speech, may be considered as commencing in the ninth century, and began to decline about the middle of the twelfth. Chivalry is referred by the ablest writers on the subject to the eleventh century. The first romances we possess were the production of the century immediately following. These three causes principally contributed to generate the character and manners which distinguished the age of Chaucer.
The feudal system was particularly military, and was invented, or at least carried to perfection, from views of defence. Its first model was derived from the distribution made by the king or his great lords, of their demesnes or immediate property, to their courters or attendants. When the northern barbarians first settled in the provinces of the Roman empire, the whole of the tracts they subdued, with a certain reserve in favour of the preceding inhabitants, was divided according to a given proportion among the individuals who subdued it. The wants of the original invaders were few; the portions into which the territory was divided were numerous and of small extent; and every possessor of one of these portions had a voice in the decision of national affairs. The lands therefore which each man held, were on the principle of allodium, or free tenure; burthened only with certain engagements for the public service, and the occasions when this service was to be performed, subject to the decision of a national assembly. The king, or commander in chief, had a landed estate assigned him, large enough for the maintenance of his dignity and authority without demanding contributions of his subjects.
The gradual change which was operated in a few centuries of the allodial into feudal tenure, was the result of a certain degree of luxury and refinement. In proportion as the conquerors of the Roman empire relaxed from the simplicity of their manners, a greater extent of wealth was demanded, to enable the chief magistrate to support his dignity. The nobles, or more eminent subjects, imitated the example of their chief, and aspired to possess a larger tract of country than had in the first distribution been allotted them. The king for his own convenience found it advisable to distribute the lands he possessed among his courtiers, who were permitted to enjoy the produce, on certain conditions which were prescribed to them for the benefit of their lord. The grants thus made had originally nothing in view but the advantage of the chief; the property continued vested in him; the actual holders of the lands were his stewards or servants, indued with such immunities as were best calculated to render their service or super intendance effectual. The grants therefore were at first during pleasure; then, as agriculture and civilization advanced, annual; then for ten years, or for life; and at length, with certain limitations, to the heirs of the original holder. The idea of property in the chief however was never lost sight of; a feudal tenure being always conferred as the pledge of future service, while the allodial was given as a reward for the past. In every stage of the fief the tenant was not only strictly held to military service and aid in proportion to the extent of his possessions; but, as the stability of the tenure advanced, it was incumbered with homage, wardship, marriage relief and pecuniary aids: that is, the tenant was obliged to present himself with certain marks of humiliation before his lord; each successive holder was to pay a certain fine to his superior for the grace of being admitted to succession; if he were a minor, he and his estates were taken into the direction of the lord, to be used, within certain limits, as her should think proper; the lord had the power of disposing of him in marriage; and he was bound to the three great pecuniary aids, the contributing a certain sum to ransom his lord when a captive, to portion his eldest daughter in marriage, and to defray the expences of the solemn festival which was held when his eldest son was made a knight.
The advantage powered by the allodial landholder over the feudal tenant at first sight appears to be so great, that we can scarcely avoid the imagining to ourselves that it was eagerly maintained and passionately cherished. Yet in the course of a century or two from the era of Charlemagne almost the whole allodial property of the chief countries of Europe was gradually converted into feudal tenure. This was entirely owing to the turbulent and disordered state of society then prevailing. The barbarism of these times it is difficult for us without a violent stretch of fancy to conceive. There was no public law; or the voice of public law was unheard and ineffectual. There was no magistracy; or the magistrate possessed no power to bring the offender before him, and to inforce his decisions. The conquerors of the Roman empire learned certain lessons of luxury and artificial wants from the people they subdued; property became unequally distributed; and every petty chieftain regarded himself as the equal of his prince. The power of the sovereign was considerable in a period of national war; but in times of public peace was reduced to almost nothing. The evil in this respect was small, while the estates of individuals were scanty, and each man could easily be brought under the control of the national assembly. But, as property became vested in few hands, the mischief swelled to the most enormous height. Private war, that is, a violent attempt on the part of any one who thought himself injured to redress or avenge his own injury, was nearly universal; and it will be scarcely necessary to give our imaginations much scope, to represent to ourselves the horrible mischiefs which must arise from such a mode of proceeding. Their quarrels, and schemes of mutual aggression and resentment, descended from father to son; all the relations of the parties were obliged, on pain of infamy, to take part in the feud. Some of the first remedies which were thought of to check this growing evil need only be mentioned, to convince us how terrible was its nature, and how obstinate its symptoms. Two of these were denominated the Truce of God, and the Peace of the King. By the former, all acts of private hostility were forbidden from Thursday night in each week to the morning of the Monday following; and by the latter, hostilities of this sort were not allowed to commence till forty days after the omission of the imputed crime they were instituted to avenge.
The feudal system was far from extinguishing all the evils to which it was intended to apply. But it was a remedy suited to the genius of the times in which it arose; and it drew much closer than they had before been drawn, the bonds of civil society. It was first tried, as has already been stated, on a smaller scale, and applied only to the immediate property of the sovereign. When it became extended over spacious monarchies, like France and Germany, the whole soil of those monarchies was treated, by a splendid fiction, which strikes our imagination by its boldness and grandeur, as the sole and direct property of the first magistrate. The king found his benefit in a scheme so flattering to his state, and so advantageous to his prerogative: and the subject found his benefit in a scheme which drew the different members of the community so near to each other, and erected the whole body of proprietors into a mighty army, capable of being called forth, when any powerful emergency demanded it, at the shortest notice. Such is the main outline of the feudal system, which, though long since destroyed in its most essential elements, is the legitimate source of an hundred institutions and an hundred abuses which still prevail in European society. In the days of Chaucer this system was indeed already a ruin, but the main lineaments of the edifice remained and it was impossible for an individual of those times to open his eyes without their presenting themselves to his view. The feudal system was the direct parent of the ideas of chivalry.
In the times we have described, which preceded the feudal institution, began the practice which afterward gained the appellation of knight-errantry. In remote ages and countries of the world we find a great similarity between the ideas and customs of nations in a similar stage of the social progress. Hercules and Theseus were the knight-errants of antiquity. They destroyed wild beasts with which the unpeopled regions were infested, and exterminated robbers. These, by the imagination of an ignorant and superstitious age, were converted into giants and dragons.
But the feudal system gave permanence and body to a character which otherwise would speedily have perished. This system was entirely military. Recourse to the corporeal energies of the human frame for the decision of differences was sufficiently common in the era which preceded the feudal system; but that scheme of policy gave order, and a compact and disciplined motion, to the exertion of those energies. Each landed proprietor was a soldier, and was bound by the tenor of his obligation to follow his lord on horseback, when he went to war. A soldier therefore, in the ideas of these times, was the first of human characters. To this profession every honourable father carefully educated his son. They had no learning, no politeness and no arts, to enter into competition with this education. Every young man of birth therefore was excited from his earliest infancy to contemplate arms with burning enthusiasm. As soon as he was of an age to handle them, several hours of every day were spent in studying the graceful and masterly use of them. The fair sex, in all ages sufficiently prone to the admiration of a soldier, had now no other object of attachment and honour. The effect of this situation was reciprocal and sympathetic. The lady loved and adored the military adventurer that he might gain the favour of his mistress. The young champion, when accomplished in the practice of his art, panted for a theatre on which to display it; and a theatre for military achievements, in those days was never sought in vain. When a scene of real war did not readily present itself, the mockery as substituted in its room; tilts, tournaments, justs, defiances. In those days the administration of civil justice was inexpressibly imperfect; and, before the feudal system was introduced, ordeals and miracles had been substituted by the superstitious, in place of the investigation of evidence, and the impartiality of a dispassionate hearing. When chivalry became universal, the appeal to the sword superseded all other expedient, and the person accused of treason, rape or murder, threw down his gauntlet, and challenged his libeller to prove the truth of his charge by dint of mortal combat.
Romance was the record of the adventures of persons educated in these arts and these habits of thinking, in which the individual who rehearsed them allowed himself to animate his narrative, by the introduction of a thousand supernatural and impossible ornaments: impossible to us, but which the bigotry and ignorance of those ages listened to with reverence, and admitted with all the passiveness of the most doting credulity.
Romance was a species of composition originally contrived to be sung at festivals and convivial meetings, and to be accompanied with the accord of musical instruments. The simple manners of our ancestors in a remote age afforded so slender source of recreation and novelty, as to render the performances of harpers and minstrels objects of high estimation. Amusements of this sort may be traced as far back as the records of any nation can lead us. Achilles played upon the lyre, and Alcinous had his musician, who sang heroic tales to the sound of his harp. In the earliest accounts of Britain this species of entertainment appears to have been a branch of religion; and the Bards, no less than the Druids, formed a part of the hierarchy of the original inhabitants of this island. With the poets of the Northern nations, the conquerors of the mistress of the world, we have still better opportunities for a familiar acquaintance, as several of their productions have come down to us. The Scalds, that is, the Runic or Scandinavian poets, are probably to be considered as the legitimate parents of the romance of the middle ages: in their writings we are presented with giants, fairies, dragons, enchantments, and the other great materials of the wonderful scenes invented in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
But it is perhaps after the recital of extraordinary adventures were in a great degree detached from the religious ceremonies and the mythology of the state, that the bardic or minstrel art becomes most interesting to a modern imagination. As long as the alliance of the priest and the poet maintained its entire intimacy, there is a solemnity in the performances of the latter, which subdues and appals us. All is sacred, mysterious and obscure; and the whole comes to our minds forcibly blended with the craft of political imposition, and the gloomy fears of enthusiastic ignorance. But no sooner had Christianity proclaimed a divorce between theology and poetry, than the reciter of heroic adventures felt himself independent and at large. His imagination was no longer curbed; his temper became frolic and sportful; and he mingled his recitals at will with the wildnesses of an untrammeled fancy, and the occasional ebullitions of a satiric vein. The rhapsodies of the minstrel were in this stage universally introduced into the houses of the wealthy and the great; they made a part of every splendid festival or genial entertainment; and if we could revisit the halls of our ancestors, such as they were during this period, instead of regarding them, as we are too apt to do, as the abodes of untaught savages, we should rather be prompted to consider them as the seas of refinement and the haunts of the muses. The minstrel profession still subsisted in its highest prosperity in the time of Chaucer.
In the succession of poets from the destruction of the Roman empire in the West, it is easy to trace a gradual advance in the merits of each race over the race which went before; of the Danes over the Saxons, and of the Normans over the Danes. This does not seem to have been originally owing to any superiority in one of these barbarian hordes over another, all of whom emigrated from the same division of Europe, but to the circumstances which marked their early history. The Saxons left their native retreats in a more infant and unformed period of social life. Like a young man who has the misfortune to enter too soon into possession of his patrimonial estate, the fortune of their childhood introduced them to a scene of ease and comparative indulgence. They acquired the advantages of agriculture, and many of the arts of life, not by their own exertions. They quitted the element which had nursed them, and destroyed their ships: from the period of their settlement to the days of Alfred, England was completely without a navy. They gave themselves up to luxury and the caprices of sloth. The religion which Augustine and the monks of the seventh century gave them in the room of their native mythology, had no favourable effect upon their intellect or their courage.
The Danes were a race of men more favoured by the fortune than the Saxons. They passed through a long probation of hardy expedients and stern necessity. In their native woods they brooded over the gloomy and gigantic conceptions which elevate the savage mind; they formed their spirits in unison with the rugged and sublime scenery which every way surrounded them; and they worshipped the deities to which their own free and heroic imaginations had first given birth. There is no need of much argument to convince us that the poets of such a nation were greatly superior to those who (as Bede relates of the Saxons) were chiefly engaged in celebrating in monkish verse the history of the book of Genesis, the incarnation of our Saviour, the giving of the Holy Ghost and preaching of the apostles. Accordingly the Saxons, though the Runic poetry was almost extinguished among them, were not insensible to its charms, when incidentally restored to them by the inroads of the Danes. "It would be endless," says a celebrated antiquary, "to name all the poets of the north who flourished in the courts of the kings of England, or to relate the distinguished honours and magnificent presents which were heaped upon them.
The Normans are a race of men who command our admiration and respect in a much higher degree than either the Saxons or the Danes. They were a band of soldiers who never fled before an enemy. In their first irruptions from the north they established themselves in a fair and fertile province of France, almost immediately under the eye of the successors of Charlemagne. Thence they spread their warlike bands through Italy, Sicily and England. Every where they were feared; they were looked up to as a superior race of men; their friendship was courted, and their enmity deprecated. Nor did they excel only in arms; in policy, in the arts of life, in the cultivation of all that is refined and beautiful, and in generosity of sentiment, they appear to have given the tone to Europe. They were besides the most successful suitors to the muses, and we shall see reason to consider them as eminently the father of modern poetry. —To return to the invention, the genealogy of which is thus to be traced.
It is one characteristic of the old romance, a characteristic which might well be expected from the relative ignorance of the times in which this species of composition arose, that, whatever heroes were chosen for the subject of its narratives, whether they had existed only two or three ages before, or were taken from the remotest periods of Greece and Rome, its authors bestowed upon them all without scruple the peculiar manners which discriminated the age of chivalry.
The first subjects of the compositions particularly distinguished by this title, appear to have been Charlemagne emperor of the West, and Arthur king of Britain. Taillefer, a soldier in the army of William the Conqueror, who first broke the ranks of the Anglo- Saxons at the battle of Hastings, A.D. 1066, is recorded on that occasion to have sung the song of Roland, one of the heroes of the romance of Charlemagne: and the manner in which this circumstance is mentioned, is such as to induce us to believe that the name of Roland was, before this exploit of Taillefer, familiar to the voice of fame.
It was about the year 1100, the era of the accession of our Henry I, that a grand prose narrative was compiled in Latin, from the songs already existing on the subject of Roland, Oliver, and the other heroes of the imaginary war of Charlemagne against the Saracens in Spain. This work purported to be the production of Turpin, archbishop of Rheims in the time of that monarch, and was intended to be received as a history of his real exploits. It enumerates of this celebrated conqueror, whose accomplishments and exploits are largely insisted upon; and, among a variety of fictitious adventures ascribed to its hero, conducts him on a pilgrimage to the holy sepulchre at Jerusalem.
During the reign of the same English sovereign, but a little later, Geoffrey if Monmouth, a Benedictine monk, translated into Latin from a British or Armorican original, found in a convent of Britanny, and brought over into England by Walter Mapes, archdeacon of Oxford and himself a poet, a prose Chronile of the Kings of Britain. This book exhibits a succession of the English sovereigns from the Trojan Brutus, their imaginary progenitor, and records exploits of the British Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, no less romantic and extraordinary than those of Charlemagne and his chivalrous associates. The twelve peers of France are also represented by Geoffrey as assisting at the coronation of the British warrior.—These two productions are regarded, with a considerable degree of propriety, as the two main sources of the romances of chivalry.
Proceeding forward then from them as the fountain-head of romance, which, as has been seen, they cannot be considered but under certain modifications, we may without much improbability regard Robert Wace, a native of the island of Jersey, and about thirty years younger than Geoffrey of Monmouth, as the father of the species of writing strictly so called, which may be defined a composition in verse containing the relation of heroic achievements and preternatural adventures. His first performance seems to have been a poem of several thousand lines in French octosyllabic verse, entitled Le Brut d' Angleterre, the materials of which are drawn from the fabulous History of Geoffrey of Monmouth. This poem was finished in the year 1155, and presented by its author to Eleanor, the consort of our Henry II. Another celebrated work of the same author is the Roman de Rou, or poetical history of Rollo first duke of Normandy. He also wrote a continued series of romances on the successors of Rollo, which were at that time extremely popular, particularly those which treated of the adventure of Richard sans peur and Robert le diable. Wace had a rival in the favour of Henry II, named Benoit de St. More, who wrote a French poem about twenty thousand verses on the Trojan war, the materials of which were taken from the pretended Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis, and was employed by that prince on the topics which Wace had also treated, the poetical history of the dukes of Normandy. The favourite themes of the romance-writers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, were the Trojan war; the history of Alexander the Great; the adventures of Arthur and Charlemagne and the respective champions of these princes; and the crusade: and at the same time that these subjects were treated in the vulgar tongue by such writers as have just been named, they were made the topics of a species of Latin epics, by Joseph of Exeter, Guillaume le Breton, and Gualtier de Chatillon, writers already mentioned, who composed in a period immediately subsequent to Wace and Benoit.
The nature and plan of the greater part of the romances of this period are sufficiently known, and indeed have been consecrated and preserved to all future ages in the beautiful fictions of Ariosto and Tasso. A lady shut up in durance and distress was commonly to be relieved by the prowess of some redoubted knight. Her champion had not only to encounter every natural and human opposer; his antagonists were giants of the most incredible size and strength, hippogryphs and dragons, animals whose breath was fire and whose scales were iron: he was beleaguered with every species of inchantment and magical delusion; rocks were to be scaled, walls to be penetrated, and lakes to be swum; and at the same time these rocks, walls and lakes, were the mere production of necromancy, brought forth on the pressure of the instant by the art of some mighty wizard. Adventures of this sort were interwoven with the miraculous feats of Christian warriors contending with their impious Saracen adversaries, who were also magicians. These were the tales with which the youthful fancy of Chaucer was fed; this was the visionary scenery by which his genius was awakened; these were the acts and personages on which his boyish thoughts were at liberty to ruminate for ever.