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From Early English Romances: Done Into Modern English by Edith Rickert: Romances of Love, Chatto and Windus: London, Duffield & Co.: London, 1908; pp. xi-lii.





THE great age of romance in Europe coincides with the era of cathedral-building, the inception of both being in the eleventh century, their decadence in the fifteenth. To coincidence in time, due to no mere chance, must be added likeness of spirit — the same type of mind taking visible shape in words and stone. In each form of art we find limitless aims, aspiration untroubled by consideration of fulfilment, gigantic ground-plans, unbridled dreams, an ordered symbolism, a wealth of subtle, curious, monstrous, exquisite detail that ranged through the human experience and imagination in its substance — saints and devils, beasts physical and metaphysical, and all other things to be found in or over or under he earth. Each in its own way is a microcosm of that splendid, barbaric, restless, dreaming, subtle-minded, coarse-bodied, all but incomprehensible Middle Age between the Old World and the New.

Of this life, the modern verse romance, even at its best, as in the Eve of St. Agnes or the Defence of Guinevere, xii does not represent a tithe. Whereas the medieval production reflected the more truly, because so unconsciously, a multifarious life often grotesque, the modern is essentially eclectic, and sets aside deliberately all but the beautiful phases of that life. And where the old romance, like the cathedral, was primarily utilitarian, i.e., was created for the intimate use, be it inspiration or amusement, of a great mass of people, the modern romance is decorative, and in so far as it is a deliberate imitation, appeals but indirectly as the reflection of a reflection of life, not touching deeply the present needs of humanity.


In so far as it was made to be recited or sung, it was written chiefly in verse until printing was established, when it became, on the one hand, converted into prose for people who could buy and understand books, and on the other hand degenerated into the second-rate ballad for the illiterate. It was in the beginning intended for the upper classes — as the fabliau, conte, and dit for more mixed audiences — and was constructed with an eye to the character and taste of those for whom it was written. Therefore it is usually free from vulgarity, and tends toward a courtly tone. It is long, as designed to furnish continuous entertainment, and often divided into sections suitable for a day’s recitation, sometimes xiii with a brief résumé at the beginning, for the better understanding and remembrance of the story. Doubtless in a desire to make his tale last some while, the minstrel was led to spin out and expand indefinitely, to introduce subplots and counterplots, to vary its monotony with episodes relevant and irrelevant, to farce his matter with superfluous detail; certainly he developed the ingenuity of the juggler with many balls, in keeping the various parts of his narrative bravely aloft, and presumably a centre of interest in castle-communities. For the rest, unity, proportion, probability, logic, restraint, suggestion, were terms unknown in his vocabulary. He was content to swim in the current of his own events, attributing all sequence to happy chance, or, being devout, to the finger of God, and sure, we must suppose, of pleasing his audience by appealing to that quality of mind in which the age moved and breathed — that is to say, romance.


It is needless here to recapitulate the warfare of scholars over the meaning of this term. Originally it was applied (1) to the French language, (2) to all matter derived through this tongue. But inasmuch as French, by virtue of its geographical and philological position, was the almost universal medium for transmitting tales from widely-separated parts of Europe and Asia, the xiv enormous diversity of matter has led to some difference of opinion as to the essential element common to them all — if indeed such a thing can be found. But, at first glance, what is the likeness between the love-tragedy of Tristram and Yseult, the religious symbolism of the Perceval, Alexander’s adventures among outlandish people and incredible monsters, the fairy-story of Méleusine, the fantasy of William and the Werwolf, the allegory of the Rose, and the heroic friendship of Amis and Amiloun?

However widely these, and many others that might be named, differ in theme, plot, construction, and detail, they all agree in being as far as possible removed from the facts of daily experience. Each in its own way is exploring and exploiting some new field, be it in the world spiritual as in the visions of Tundale and Owain Miles; in the world supernatural as in the tales of swan-maidens, giants, dwarves, elves, monsters; in the world emotional as in Erec et Enide, Eger and Grime, and other romances dealing with love and friendship; even in the world intellectual, as in the allegories. Only the world of Nature itself, for the msot part, escaped handling by these medieval poets, being reserved for the great Romantic movement of the eighteenth century; but even so, the Celts at this early time were awake and sensitive to many of its aspects, the English were not blind to the beauty of homely scenes, while even the Normans in the Chanson de Roland felt the splendour xv and the terror of Roncevaux, as appears in the haunting refrain:

“Halt sunt li pui e tenebrus e grant,
Li val parfunt e les ewes curanz.”

Briefly, the essential implication seems to me to be that of the soul leaving its customary habitations and wandering in strange places,1 and essaying to bring into literature the fruits of its adventures.


But, it will be objected, according to this definition, is not the Beowulf a romance, and the Odyssey, and the Nibelungenlied? And here we come upon the difficulty of drawing the boundary line between the romance and its predecessor, the epic. Undoubtedly there are clear cases of each type, as Apollonius of Tyre and the Iliad, Huon de Bordeaux and the Chanson de Roland. But how does the Odyssey differ from — say the Pèlerinage de Charlemagne? To my mind, the difference lies not in the verity of the substance related, but in the attitude of traditional faith preserved in the epic, replaced in the romance by indifference to the fact and absorption in the wonder. An epic is not perhaps much more credible than a romance, but it grows out of an age in which traditional faith is still sacred. The romance is xvi born of an age not incredulous, but so wildly credulous that it accepts any hearsay as credible and therefore true; or, to state the point another way, the romance does not limit itself to faith in the matters of national inheritance, but scours the world for more wonders to be believed in, assumes them as true, and proceeds to dwell upon the marvel of their existence. Later on comes the sifting process to the true from the false, the beginning of realism.

To sum up, then, the epic, romantic, and realistic attitudes of mind mark three stages of development, when the subject for literature is (1) matter familiar by experience or accepted through tradition; (2) matter but slightly familiar to experience, or tradition modified by imagination; (3) matter sifted out as true from the accumulations of experience and tradition. Including now the earliest of all forms of literature, the lyric as the cry of a man’s own passion, and the ballad as voicing one man’s account of others’ passion, we find that the progress of literature is from realism to realism, with the epic and the romance as successive idealistic phases in the accumulation of race-experience and race-literature.

Further, as the process is continuous, so the types are blended; the ballad becomes transmuted into the epic (as the lyric into the drama), the epic into the romance, the romance into the novel; and, while undoubtedly many unmistakable examples of each class could be xvii grouped together, there are few ballads and epics without some admixture of romance, while some romances are scarcely distinguishable from ballads, and others have a strong epic tinge. The Odyssey is an epic because even its most romantic episodes of the Sirens, Circe, and Polyphemus were all matter of faith to the Greeks for whom it was written; so also is the Beowulf, in which, such is the strength of traditional credence, the Christian redactor himself explains Grendel as descended from Cain. Even Paradise Lost is a true epic because it handles a traditional theme in which the poet and his audience ad still complete and literal faith. On the one hand, there are strong epic elements in some of the Arthurian romances, especially the alliterative Morte Arthure; while,on the other, many of the French chansons de geste,2 more especially of Charlemagne and of Guillaume d’Orange, have an epic foundation, always tending to shoot up into the turrets and pinnacles of romance.


While the romantic attitude of mind has characterised Celtic literature from its earliest known beginnings, more especially in regard to the natural and xviii supernatural worlds and the emotional side of human experience; while Oriental literature seems always to have concerned itself with the forces of religion and of magic, together with the poetical aspects of nature; and while the romantic point of view is traceable in a fainter degree in the literature of the Greeks, Latins, and Teutons, — one of the most singular facts of history is the abruptness with which we find the accumulation of these qualities appearing in French literature in the twelfth century, then spreading with wonderful rapidity to Germany, Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. There is a strong line of demarcation between the Chanson de Roland (1066-1096) and Perceval le Gallois (circa 1175); and by no means is it conceivable that the earlier type should have developed naturally into the later without the introduction of extraneous elements. The progress is as follows: first, we find the epics, then suddenly the romances proper; then both continue to exist, side by side; and at last, the chansons de geste are slowly blended with romantic elements until they lose their original character and are scarcely to be distinguished from romances pure and simple.

The date of the introduction of romance into French literature can be set within a very few years. It coincides almost exactly with the reign of Henry II. in England. There is little of importance that can be placed earlier; and at the time of his death, thirty-five years later, the xix first freshness and strength of the impulse had been exhausted. Moreover, it would seem that it is the Anglo-Normans, even more than the French of France, to whom we owe chiefly the introduction of this new quality; hence, we must look into the history of this people for the causes of their sudden inspiration. The following facts seem to have a distinct bearing on the case: — (1) King Henry himself, with his inheritance and that of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, added about half of France to his English domain; (2) in 1157, and at intervals throughout his reign, he was conquering the Welsh; (3) in 1158, and again in 1166 and later, he was subduing Brittany; (4) between 1169 and 1185 the Normans were establishing themselves in Ireland; (5) in 1187 the Third Crusade was being preached, the Second having taken place in 1147, seven years before Henry came to the throne. Here is sufficient explanation of the “lays” of Welsh and Breton origin, afterwards worked up into romances, through which the Celtic note seems to have been introduced into Anglo-Norman; while, on the other hand, the part played by France in the Second Crusade and by England in the Third suggests one way in which Oriental tales must have been acquired. As to the matter of Greece and Rome, no immediate occasion for its popularity at this time appears; but the fact remains that two great names of writers concerned with antiquity, Benoît de Sainte-More and Denis Pyramus, are connected with the court xx of England, while Eustache de Kent, who wrote one of the Alexander romances, was also English. The most natural explanation for this florescence of antique stories, in France as well as in England, seems to be that under the fresh creative impulse stimulated by the new matter borrowed from the Celts and the Orientals, there was also a turning to the classic materials familiar throughout the Middle Ages, and an endeavour to work them up in accord with the new ideas.

But this new force in literature is only one phase of an enormous activity of body and spirit which otherwise manifested itself, especially in France and in Norman England, in many wars political and religious, in the building of castles and churches, and in those outlets for superfluous energy devised at this time, the theory of chivalry and the practice of jousting. This awakening may perhaps be attributed to two causes: (1) throughout Europe it succeeded a long period of petty dissension, reaction, and mental torpor that followed the crumbling of Charlemagne’s kingdom; (2) in England especially, it was the natural result of the great mixture of races (compare the conditions in America to-day). Within two hundred years, we have Northman, Frank, and Gaul blended in Normandy; Norman, Saxon (Angle, Jute, Dane), and Welsh (probably some Irish and some Scotch) blended in England, and mixed again with the purer French of France. This is, I think, the deep cause of this sudden spiritual wealth; while to the xxi political and social circumstances of the times we may attribute the special forms of its manifestations in art and religion.


At the beginning of the twelfth century, the poet, Jean Bodel of Arras, summed up the literature of his day as “matter of France, of Britain, and of Rome the great.” This classification indicates only the main lines of subjects in the period of enormous production between 1200 and 1500. Gautier mentions well over a hundred chansons de geste alone, ranging from about four thosuand lines upwards, quite commonly reaching twenty thousand, and in the Conte du Graal drawn out to more than sixty-three thousand. Ogier le Danois exists in eight versions, Huon de Bordeaux has four successive sequels; while the story that we know through Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale is related more than twenty times, often at great length, in all the chief languages of Europe, without counting various translations, and more than forty folk-lore versions preserved in modern form. These facts indicate somewhat the wealth of material saved; and Gaston Paris says that incomparably more has been lost.

The same critic essayed to comprise all this vast accumulation under the heads: (1) chansons de geste, dealing with the national matter; and (2) romans, xxii dealing with (a) antiquity, (b) Greek and Byzantine tales, (c) Celtic traditions, (d) stories of adventure not to be included under any of the preceding heads; but at the same time he admits that no such classification can be exact, in that we find romances sometimes belonging to more than one division.

The chansons de geste are again divided into three groups or cycles: (1) la geste du roi, or the national wars of the king, of which Charlemagne is the central figure; (2) la geste de Doon de Mayence, or the wars of vassals against the king or against one another, wherein the centre of interest is gradually shifted from Charlemagne to the heads of various great families; (3) la geste de Garin de Monglane, or the wars of the South of France against the Saracens, of which Guillaume d’Orange is the chief figure.

The cycle royal, of which the La Chanson de Roland, Le Roi Louis, and Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, all date back at least to the end of the eleventh century, consists of about twenty great poems, chiefly epic in character, but in a few cases with a strong element of romance, based more or less on historic foundations that go back to the days of the Carlovingians. The cycle féodal contains about as many vast compilations, but it is believed to be more imaginary than historical, although some of its personages are known to have lived in the tenth century; while the cycle méridional, again containing about twenty poems, celebrates the deeds, largely fictitious, for seven xxiii or eight generations, of the line of an historic prince Guillaume d’Orange, Comte de Toulouse, who died in 812, only two years before Charlemagne. In addition to these three groups, which comprise about sixty poems altogether, there are nearly as many again, imitations, or variants, or extensions of the earlier works, which must be grouped with them because they belong nowhere else, until at the end of the thirteenth century, we find in the Charlemagne by Girard d’Amiens, proof unmistakable that the impulse of the old heroic national literature had worn itself out.

Of the romans proper, those dealing with the “matter of Britain” are by far the most interesting and original. Early in the twelfth century a popular form of treating these subjects was the lai, derived in spirit if not in form from the productions of Celtic minstrels. The lai is always short (usually under a thousand lines), generally episodic, and is clearly intended to be sung to musical accompaniment.

The relation of the lai to the longer roman is somewhat complicated and obscure. Sometimes one was the source of the other, as in the case of La Fraisne, which was amplified into Galeran de Bretagne, and Elicuc, into Ille et Galeron; but again, the lai and roman seem to be independent growths from the same legendary root, as in the case of the numerous versions of the Tristan story. While the original lai was almost certainly derived from Celtic sources (whether Welsh, Irish, or xxiv all three), as soon as the form became fashionable, it was used for classical and pseudo-classical stories, matter taken from any source whatever; but its popularity scarcely outlasted the century in which it was born. Indeed it is doubtful whether it was practised to any great extent after the death of the famous woman-poet, Marie De France, who wrote half the lais which have come down to us.3

Among French romances, the lais are distinguished for their lightness of touch, their delicate descriptions, curt wit, neat turns of phrase, and whimsical fancies. Their art had the grace and charm of miniature-painting.

While some of the lais introduce King Arthur and his court, the great mass of Arthurian matter was very early embodied in a series or romances dealing with various knights of the Round Table, and in the thirteenth century combined with legends of the Holy Grail. Stories concerning the Round Table must have been current at least as early as the first third of the twelfth century; but the most popular romances of this group were composed by Chrètien de Troyes (fl. 1160-75) at the court of Marie de Champagne, step-daughter to Henry II. of England. He wrote of Tristan and Lancelot, Iwain and Gawin,4 Perceval and Erec (Tennyson’s xxv Geraint), besides in his Cligès making an effort to graft Oriental matter upon the Arthurian cycle. Early in the thirteenth century his work was continued by Gerbert de Montreuil and Mennessier, who amalgamated with his story the Grail legend. The latter was also treated at length by Robert de Borron, and an unknown writer who turned his work into prose about 1230. Hence, within a century of the time when the historian Geoffrey de Monmouth first drew upon the storehouse of Arthurian tradition for the literary world of his day, this Arthurian material had been exploited in scores of elaborate romances, some of which are lively in plot, vivid in description, and sparkling in style, while others are thin, tedious, and prolix.

Contemporary with the work of Chrètien de Troyes are the earliest romances of antiquity, such as the great Roman de Troie, by Benoît de Sainte-More, who was attached to the brilliant court of Henry II. Legendary matter about Alexander the Great was worked up from post-classical material, into at least five important versions, several of great length, by the end of the thirteenth century. There were likewise tales of Thebes, of Æneas, of Julius Cæsar, and of various Roman emperors, historical or imaginary.


Another group of romances is directly traceable to the intercourse between East and West, initiated by pilgramages and fostered by the Crusades. Sometimes the subject-matter turns upon the Crusades themselves, notably in the Chanson de Antioche, in its original form composed by le pèlerin Richard, who took part in the events related. Sometimes it consists of Byzantine or Oriental tales, borrowed, and in a measure transformed under Western influence, as Dolopathos, , Barlaam and Josaphat, and others.

Aside from these various groups, there remain not a few romances which cannot be so classified. Several are Anglo-Scandinavian, as the French versions of Horn, Havelok, and Guy of Warwick, and still others are of doubtful origin, yet may not be included among the above-mentioned groups.

Notwithstanding important lines of cleavage between the splendid barbaric drone of the old national epics, the light fantastic trip of the lais, and the varied music of the romances proper, with their dreams of all things “in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth,” there are certain fundamental qualities which set medieval French (including Anglo-Norman) literature apart from its contemporaries. It is the most original in transforming its sources, the most brutally aristocratic and feudal, and shows the strongest sense of form — this last quality which even as early as the Chanson de Roland tends to artificiality.



From France and Norman England in the twelfth century, romances passed in the thirteenth into Germany and Iceland on the one hand, and Italy on the other, arriving in Spain and English England in the fourteenth; and after that time, strikingly after the common use of the printing press, becoming by degrees diffused and confused throughout Europe. A few words on the way in which they were handled may help to explain the fundamental differences between the French and English romances. In a state of things wherein every book was written individually instead of being produced in considerable numbers, each copyist of a text would not only insert his own errors, but would probably be beset by temptation to add his own improvements; and further, where the recognition of an author was very often a matter of chance, there would be few if any protests against the alterations of a text. Moreover, when literature was published abroad chiefly by oral means, recitation or chant, the taste of the listeners would become an important factor in the handling of a text. An audience of fighting-men would demand bloodshed, one trained in logic would prefix subtle analysis, a fashionable gathering would wish to keep up with the ideas and metres of the day. A complacent minstrel would first alter his characters to suit the nationality of his hearers; he might add touches of local colour, scenes with which he and they were familiar; he might omit or extend according xxviii to the life-experience or fancy of his patrons; he might change the end of the story, or supply a sequel; he might introduce veiled allusions to the history of some great personage, who would thereby be flattered. He might twist and pull out, and compress and chop and patch his text, and so treat it in half-a-dozen ways that it could not be always readily related to its original. Some of these processes were deliberate, as alterations of names and scenes, the addition or suppression of episodes, change of metre, &c.; others were certainly unconscious, as the introduction of northern scenery into a southern story, medieval armour on classical heroes, middle-class manners at a king’s table. And so each redaction of a tale shows a spirit and form differing more or less widely from every other.


In England, Anglo-Norman romances flourished until the time of Chaucer; English romances began to be popular about half a century before he was born, and continued to prosper for about half a century after his death. Therefore while the French romances were nearly three hundred years in passing through their development, the English, owing to circumstances forced upon them by the Conquest and the slow amalgamation of races, had scarcely more than half that time before the art of printing began to turn them into prose.

Again, while the French chansons de geste, to a certain extent, became blended with the romances of adventure, in xxix England old heroic literature was gradually but surely killed. It suffered first at the hands of Saxon monks, who rejected the most that was characteristically pagan, and then edited to their own purpose what remained. Afterwards, it fell necessarily into the hands of the middle and lower classes, among whom the English language was preserved; and, in that the clerks as well as the nobles were chiefly Norman, the old English literature was not much understood or copied by them, was handed down chiefly by oral tradition, and in time, for the most part, disappeared. Hence, with some striking exceptions, the English romances either go back directly to a French or Latin original, or bear plain marks of having derived inspiration, if not actually detailed subject-matter, from the French.

The exceptions are, however, peculiarly interesting. Among them are: King Horn and Havelock the Dane, based upon Anglo-Danish traditions, probably independent of the French poems on the same themes; Guy of Warwick, which seems to attach itself to a lost saga of King Athelstan, whereof an offshoot may possibly be represented by the romance of Athelston,5 other branches having been preserved among the Latin chronicles;6 Bevis of Hampton, which may be German, but seems to contain at least a far-away reflection of the Beowulf story; Gamelyn, John the Reeve, xxx The Story of Gray-Steel,7 which show no marks of a French original, and are throughout essentially representative of the life of England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The English romances are about seventy in number, and are usually much shorter than their French prototypes. Although the relationship between them and their sources cannot be always determined conclusively, at least seventy per cent. may be regarded as translations, more or less free; a few are extensions or combinations of materials, as appears in the case of Chestre’s Launfal by a comparison with two English versions, Landavall and Sir Lambewell, and with the Fench original; and again, a few (notably Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight) seem to be what might be called improvisations on a French theme, and therefore rank as original work.

The oldest romance which is unmistably translated, Floris and Blancheflour, dates from the second half of the thirteenth century; and soon after 1300 the practice of turning from the French became common, as is shown by the existence still of more than a score of romances written before 1350. The author of King Alisaunder (about 1300) illustrates the growing sense of the nation: —

“French ken these gentlemen,
But all Englishmen English ken.”

In the second half of the fourteenth century, when this xxxi language had become established in court- and law-usage, sprang up the great mass of the popular romances which stirred Chaucer’s fun-loving spirit to take them off in his Sir Thopas. And the fashion continued until well on in the fifteenth century.

Curiously enough, the flourishing of romance in English coincides roughly with the Hundred Years’ War, as is indicated by the Auchinleck Manuscript at the beginning, and the Thornton and half-a-dozen others at the end. The significance of this agreement lies in the fact that this very period marks the rise of the middle-class townsman in politics and trade, hence in wealth and social position. The rich citizen, as he progressed, demanded the arts; and so the drama for his convenience gradually moved away from the church and the churchyard into the streets; song and story descended from the castle-hall into the market-place; and, in that their patrons had little incentive and probably less desire to learn French, both became English.

These romances therefore, with some important exceptions, are as different as possible from their French and Anglo-Norman predecessors, and bear essentially the stamp of the audiences for whom they were intended. They are shorter, because instead of whiling away winter tedium in a lonely castle, they are designed to catch the brief attention of a mobile and restless throng.8 They xxxii are ignorant of the splendour and ceremony of castle-life, but have as little sympathy with the barbarities of feudalism, on the one hand, as with the fine-spun analyses of sentiment on the other, which characterized earlier French literature. They are straightforward, robust in tone, fond of a fight, occasionally rough, occasionally rough, with a sly touch of humour now and again, usually rather crude in expression, sound in morals, impatient of long imaginative descriptions, but given to slight suggestions of open-air life — indeed, they show very much the characteristics of the middle-class Englishman of to-day, who seems not to differ greatly from his fourteenth-century brother.

Romances of this description were largely the work of professional minstrels, who picked up their stories where they could, often borrowing freely from one to another, altering them as they thought best, according to the taste of their audience, and modifying them unconsciously in the light of their own origin and experiences, and so introducing local colour, character, and dialect.

In form, these romances of the professional minstrel are written either in short rhyming couplets, or in the popular twelve-line stanza of the day (rarely in stanzas of six, eight, and four lines).

Their style is marked by a sort of common currency of conventional expressions. Some of them contain as much as ten per cent. of phrases or even lines common to various others; while a single conventionalism sometimes finds its way into fifteen or twenty romances, perhaps more. And xxxiii again, each romance tends to develop in grooves, whereby the repetition of a thought or episode results in almost identical language, recurring occasionally three or four times.

The explanation of these facts seems to lie in the professional and commercial basis of this literature. Each minstrel was supplied with a stock of tales, probably derived and retained orally, and largely independent of written versions; and when his memory failed, he could fill out gaps with stock phrases from his répertoire. The process is illustrated admirably In the two versions of the Northern Octavian, which display a multitude of slight changes, with subject-matter essentially the same. The result of this process is that all the poems of this class tend to draw together in a common degeneration from their original material.

This kind of tale-telling seems to have flourished especially in the Midland counties, and East rather than West. The examples included in these volumes are among the best that have survived.

For individual work, we must look to the minority of perhaps thirty per cent. These romances are not more or less homogeneous like the preceding, but break up into a number of small groups, characterised by difference of form, of authorship, and of locality, which as yet it is impossible to define with much certainty.

First, it is quite clear that the North Country, Scotland, Cumberland, Lancashire, and Yorkshire — the west more xxxiv than the east — had its schools of poets; and it is not impossible that one day we may be able to identify some of them and place them more definitely, and give each in a measure his due. But at present it is safe to say only that this district seems to have had its own fashion, as different as possible from the larger group. There are about twenty poems characterised by a strong, sometimes excessive, use of the Old English device of alliteration. Sometimes this is used alone, but again it is combined with a fantastic and intricate rhyme-scheme, effective and yet curiously artificial, almost pedantic. These poems are usually grim and martial in tone, showing appreciation of the wilder aspects of nature, and a strong power of imagining and painting brilliant scenes; they are usually unconventional and unexpected in narrative, often forceful, with flashes of insight rare in the larger group. Here belongs the best of all English romances, Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight; and those most curious poems, The Adventures of Arthur at Tarn Wadling and The Avowing or Arthur; the humorous fantasy of Rauf Coilzear (Ralph the Collier); the ponderous Destruction of Troy; three alliterative versions of Alexander, and various others.

Aside from the two groups mentioned above, we seem to find only the sporadic work of individuals; of that patient good man somewhere in the south of England who rendered into the same short rhyming couplet King Alisaunder, Arthour and Merlin, and Richard Cœur de Lion; of Harry Lovelich, Skinner, who turned the great xxxv Grail book into English; and of the equally much-endurig translators who gave to English Ipomedon (twice), Generides (twice), Partenay, Partenope of Blois, Clariodus, and other lengthy poems too copious for modern days, and hence doomed to a small circle of readers, unless they be first submitted to an extensive process of lopping and compression.

It is interesting to note how in these individual works, as in those much passed about by minstrels, the English element crops out in the handling of materials. Common sense, love of a good fight, of sport, and the open air, together with scorn of sentiment and hair-splitting, are almost universally characteristic.

The only language, aside from French, upon which the English romancers seem to have drawn is Latin. So the Destruction of Troy must have been written by a scholar, for it is taken from the Latin of Guido delle Colonne and not from the French of Benoît de Sainte-More. Likewise, several of the Alexander poems, and a few works of less importance, are derived from Latin sources. But on the whole, the Latin materials are inconsiderable in comparison with the French.

Of the subjects chosen for treatment by the English romancers, the Arthurian legend holds easily the first place; and herein the figure of Gawain, especially in the North, is more important than that of the king himself. He is the hero of no less than seven romances, and plays a large part in most of the five in which Arthur is ostensibly xxxvi the chief figure. Of the other knights of the Round Table, Percival, Lancelot, Iwain, Agravaine, Tristan, and Gawain’s son, Lybeaus Disconus (The Fair Unknown), is each the hero of a separate poem.

The Arthurian matter was presumably derived from Celtic sources, how far directly, how far through the French, it is impossible to say; and there are a few other stories which seem to point to a Celtic origin, as Mélusine, and Lai le Freine, while Sir Orfeo and Partenope de Blois are examples of the rehandling of classic myths in the light of Celtic fairy-tales.

Only eight Charlemagne romances have susvived, including a fragment of the Roland. Doubtless, the period of the Hundred Years’ War was scarcely a time for popularising, in English, French heroic literature. Of the eight, four have to do with Roland, chiefly as the opponent of the Saracens; and indeed, all but one (Rauf Coilzear), concern the wars of the Franks against the Mohammedans — a matter which might have been supposed to interest Englishmen as Christians.

The ancient world is represented by the Alexander and Troy poems mentioned above, all based upon pseudo-classical material; and also by tales which have nothing to do with antiquity beyond attaching themselves to figures of that time, as the Emperor Augustus (Octavian), Titus, Vespasian, Diocletian, and so on. Ipmedon borrows the names of the ancient Thebans for a story purely medieval, while Partenope renames and retells the story of Cupid xxxvii and Psyche. Altogether, apart from the Alexander legend, which illustrated and was illustrated by travellers’ tales from the East, and so became more Oriental than classical, the influence of antiquity upon the English romances appears very little save in a few isolated poems.

Such Oriental tales as were imported into England, The Seven Sages (two versions), Barlaam and Josaphat, and perhaps one or two others, came invariably through the French; and, aside from the first named, seem not to have been excessively popular. But the infiltration of Oriental ideas is seen throughout the romance literature as a whole, although perhaps less in English than in French.

In regard to the subject-matter of the poems of English origin, the heroes seem to be ultimately Scandinavian, as in the case of Horn, Havelok, and perhaps of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton. Gamelyn is strongly local, but has also a Scandinavian tinge. A fragment of a cycle once attached to the name of Offa is preserved scarcely traceable in Emaré; while Athelstan, once an heroic figure connected with Anlaf (the prototype of Havelok), survives in Guy of Warwick and Gray-Steel, and in the short romance of Athelston.

In actual value, the English romances vary enormously. Nearly all of those that arose in the North must be rated as having a distinct poetic merit, originality of treatment, and usually a good deal of interest somewhat blurred by crabbed dialect and eccentric style. Those due to the professional minstrels, on the other hand, are easy to read, xxxviii and so commonplace in plot and style, that it is necessary to search for accidental graces of thought and expression. Again, some are interesting from the standpoint of saga-material; others, with small pretence to style, are good stories; and a few have the strong interest which attaches itself to the revelation of personal experience (here, strikingly, Sir Degrevant, Gamelyn, and Grey-Steel, and always Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight).


In 1805, when the English romances were known chiefly from Ritson’s three volumes, Percy’s Reliques, and Warton’s description, Henry Ellis published an analysis, with occasional quotation, of a number to which he had access. His book was published again by Halliwell, and has been for a century a useful work of reference in regard to the character and contents of these poems. During the past century, practically all the romances have been edited; but a number of them are not easily accessible, being in old or rare editions. The present collection will, it is hoped, continue the work of Ellis in making this type of literature more widely known. Instead, however, of following Ellis's grouping of the stories according to the source of the subject-matter, I have chosen and arranged them with a view to showing their different ways of treating similar themes. Thus Volume I. contains love-stories; Volume II., tales of friendship; while, if at any time it seems desirable to continue the series, Volume III. and IV. would xxxix probably include stories of adventure, and “moral tales,” which are often more entertaining than those which have no ethical or didactic purpose.

In translating, I have endeavoured to keep as near as possible to the spirit of the original. Whenever the word of the text is still intelligible, I have retained it, and have tried especially to avoid introducing expressions which did not come into English until after the date of the poem. On the other hand, I have often sacrificed archaisms to sense, but rarely or never picturesqueness of style to smoothness of rendering. It is my hope that, even in the translations, something of the peculiar flavour of each of the originals may have been preserved.

My thanks are due to Miss L. J. Naylor for assistance in this part of the work.


The eight romances here included subordinate all interest in war, adventure, or friendship to a portrayal of love; and in that, widely as they differ in some respects, they show a curious uniformity in their conception of this passion, we may suppose them to be fairly typical of the English attitude of mind between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The theme, then, with which they deal is of love unchanged by time and circumstance; that endures all tests, all suffering, all humiliation; that does all things and suffers all things for the sake of the beloved. The problem xl never arises from the mutability of human nature, but always from a conflict of changeless devotion with hostile environment. Floris seeks the world over for his sweetheart, and they vie with each other in self-sacrifice. The Lady of Faguell cannoT survive her knight. The Princess of Hungary loves her squire in secret seven years and mourns him seven more. The Earl of Toulouse risks his life fighting for his ideal woman whom he scarcely knows. Launfal is punished a year long for betraying his lady’s confidence, and loves her after she has brought him almost to the gallows. Degrevant risks his life daily for many months to see Melidore, and she defies the world for his sake. Orfeo mourns his wife in the wilderness for ten years, and finally braves Fairyland itself to win her back. Freine makes herself a servant to her lover’s bride, seeking his happiness above all earthly things.

In quality this much-enduring love varies widely. If in the girl Freine we find the very ideal of self-sacrificing devotion, in the Lady of Faguell and her lover appears a morbid sentimentality which probably amuses us as much as it touched our medieval ancestors. The love of Floris and Blancheflour is faithful enough, but, except in the supreme moment of their testing, on no very high plane. On the other hand, the love of the Earl of Toulouse, though splendidly imaginative, is not sentimental; Degrevant is too good a fighting-man to be other than healthy-minded; while even the forlorn Squire makes a good show of arms when put to it. If Launfal is frankly xli luxurious in his love, he at least has the excuse of having to do with a fairy; and over against him we find Orfeo with his touching devotion to his long-lost wife. If in Freine love is an anxious and humble submission, in Melidore it is a flame that burns away her fierce pride. If we include the baser side of the passion as it appears in the two knights that sought Beaulybon, in the treacherous steward Maradose, and in the double-dealing Guinevere, we may safely say that while with these English poets love for the most part lacks the heroic quality of the sagas, the brutal vitality of the chansons de geste, and the subtle over-refinement of the later French romances, it is still shown with a good deal of power, and with a fair range of circumstance, as an honest passion of the soul, making on the whole for nobility, but with a distinct leaning towards a sentimental view of life.

Floris and Blancheflour, the oldest romance in this volume, is supposed to have been derived through the French from Oriental sources; but no specific tale has yet been identified. The Oriental element is of two sorts: (1) the minstrel shows some slight acquaintance with the Mohammedan law and with the life of the Saracens in Spain, which, however, might have been derived from French romances dealing with similar themes; (2) he attempts an elaborate description of the wonders of Babylon. A study of this material, however, shows it to be so confused, that at one time the poet seems to be speaking of ancient Babylon, and at another of Cairo xlii (Babylon in Egypt, more familiar, perhaps, than the former). And again, much of it is suggested elsewhere, here and there in the Alexander romances, and especially in the so-called Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Although this book is later in date than the romance, it is compiled out of earlier texts, of which one at least shows elements in common with Floris and Blancheflour; and this fact suggests that an investigation of Mandeville’s sources might give further results. In Mandeville, we read of Prester John’s palace with pommels of gold above the chief tower and two carbuncles that give light in darkness; and again of the mock Paradise of Gatholonabes, also called Senex de Monte9 (the Old Man of the Mountain), with its wonderful garden full of strange trees and herbs of virtue, with all manner of beasts and birds, and wells set with precious stones. In this he kept always companies of fair damsels and youths under fifteen years of age.

Friar Odoric (before 1330) also has similar descriptions of the land of the great Can (Khan) and of this same Senex de Monte. He tells of a wonderful cistern with pipes and conduits that run through the palace, and of the gold drinking-vessels that hang on the pillars (see p. 24 of this volume). Instead of the Tree of Love, Odoric mentions the Well of Youth, which is replenished from Paradise. And finally, the Old Man has fifty virgins to xliii give him his food as the Sultan in the romance has forty-four to take turns in washing his hands and combing his hair. Various other points of contact might be noted, especially perhaps the stress laid upon the good inns of the country.

On the whole, while an Oriental tale may have existed in regard to this Earthly Paradise, I incline to think that Floris and Blancheflour represents only a French story of young lovers similar to Aucassin and Nicolette, that arose probably in the south of France and was early blended with travellers’ tales from the Orient.

The charms of the tale lies, I think, in the native solemnity with which the delightfully absurd situations are treated. The dialogue is at times surprisingly quick and natural; and the quaint repetitions of similar phrasing for like situations, together with the gay colouring and the childlike simplicity of the treatment, make the romance singularly fresh and pleasing.

Sir Orfeo has been shown by Prof. Kittredge (Amer. Journ. of Phil. vii.) to be a working over of the Greek myth of Orpheus in the light of the Celtic fairy-story, the Wooing of Etain, which accounts for most of the variations from the ancient form of the tale. The point is the more interesting as this latter was known in Old English, and continued to survive among the learned throughout the Middle Ages. But the present version, with its happy ending, is distinctly of the people, and borrows little except the main theme and the names from the classical myth. xliv Its interest depends partly upon the vivid realisation of Fairyland, partly upon the sympathetic rendering of the love between Orfeo and his wife, and partly upon little realistic touches of wild nature and scraps of daily life.

The Lay of the Ash is translated from Le Fraisne by Marie de France, which seems to be the oldest version known of superstition in regard to twins, combined with a love-story resembling that of Patient Griselda, made famous by Petrarch and Chaucer. It is generally believed that Marie used a Celtic source, but I am not aware that the probable character of this has been worked out in detail.

The poem is not as completely a love-story as the others contained in this volume, because the trouble and repentance of the guilty mother play an important part; but, on the whole, the girl’s sacrifice for love is the chief thing, and the little tale, mutilated as the English copy is, is far too touching and pretty to be omitted. There is a distinct attempt at character-drawing in the case of the mother and her faithful attendant, and the fussy old convent porter, not to speak of Freine herself. Moreover, the narrative is full of charming pictures: the flight of the girt across the moonlit heath, the convent at dawn, the porter’s daughter nursing the baby back to life, and so on. To my thinking, the tale is a wonderful little bit of realism.

Launfal Miles may count as an original work, in that its author, Thomas Chestre, combined in it material from two French lais, Graelent as well as Lanval, the latter in xlv the form of a shorter English rendering, of which several versions are still extant; and not content with that, he added the quaint little incident of the mayor’s daughter of Caerleon, who, it seems, had a mind to Launfal, and also, with more than questionable taste, he introduced the combat with Sir Valentine of Lombardy, which serves no purpose beyond that of showing how effective was the aid of Tryamour.

It must be admitted that most of the charm of Chestre’s poem is due to his originals, upon which he by no means improved. The simple fact is, he had a good story to tell, wherein the element of suspense is so well managed that not until almost the last stanza do we know the hero’s fate. It is upon the working out, then, of the plot (which Chestre weakened) and not upon character-drawing, or upon vividness of detail, that the interest depends.

The Earl of Toulouse, although probably translated from a lost French lai, seems to have been Germanic rather than Celtic in is origin. Dr. Lüdtke proved in his edition that it probably had an historic basis in a group of events connected with the Empress Judith and Count Bernhard of Toulouse; but the facts had become sufficiently modified by legend before they reached the present poem.

To me its chief interest lies in its presentation of the love of the earl and the empress, which in its imaginative quality and self-restraint is almost unique in medieval literature. The hero is content to dream of her at a distance until her good name and her life are threatened, and xlvi then, convinced of her innocence, he puts himself into the greatest jeopardy for her sake; while she, essentially true to her husband, faithfully shrives her of her only fault, that of once giving him a ring in pity of his love for her. Although the character-drawing is the chief thing, there are a few memorable pictures, such as the vigorous battle scene, with its allusion to the grief of the wives at home, and again, the earl’s visit in disguise to the chapel, with the beautiful empress slowly revolving before him in order that he may see her well.

Sir Degrevant, for which no original is known, is to me one of the most interesting of the Middle English romances, too long neglected, perhaps, because of the crabbed dialect in which it is written.

While the names suggest that the minstrel had some French source in mind, certain features of the poem are so peculiar that we are forced to believe that it was taken not entirely from another romance of lai, in which certain conventional lines of conduct and episodes are always traceable, but in part, at least, from real experience. Now internal evidence and the date of the MSS. place the text at the end of the fourteenth century beginning of the fifteenth. The story is of a feud arising through jealousy between two great landowners in the North Country. This feud is initiated by the hunting and harrying of the knight’s lands by the earl, and continues with a fierce battle in which the knight is victorious. Follows a raid upon the earl’s lands by the knight in the xlvii way of retaliation; a love affair between the knight and the earl’s daughter, who, at first scornful, is won by his prowess in a tournament; his visits to her in secret; his tremendous feats of arms upon the occasion of an ambush, after he has been spied and betrayed; and the final settling of the feud by his marriage with the earl’s daughter.

The most singular feature of this romance is the connection of a hunting raid with a battle. Now historically these two events happened in the North Country, in conjunction, at the battle of Otterburn in 1388, between Percy and Douglas. Of the two ballads on this theme, the older, the Battle of Otterburn, makes Douglas the aggressor, while the Hunting of the Cheviot represents Percy as harrying the lands of Douglas. Now Sir Degrevant tells of an earl with a castle by the sea, and of a knight who came “out of the west.” If any identification with these two is possible, Degrevant must represent Douglas, whose lands were in Galloway (S. W. Scotland), and the earl with Percy, who belonged to Northumberland. In this case the romance would agree in its main course with the Hunting of the Cheviot, although in the immediate following up of the battle with a raid upon the earl by Degrevant is possibly a recognition of the other side of the story. Again, Froissart’s account of Otterburn lays stress on the brave deeds of Douglas with his two-handed axe, when he is hard pressed by his enemies, while Degrevant also does terrible work with a sharp steel axe, and, upon a second occasion, with a two-handed sword. xlviii These are a few of the coincidences that suggest some reflection of the battle of Otterburn in the romance (Halliwell first pointed out briefly “some slight resemblance,” but did not develop the point), derived possibly not from any ballad, but from actual experience. However, the matter needs to be followed up. I am convince that while the love-story may depend more or less directly upon some French source at present unknown, the battle scenes are close to the life of the writer.

Another curious coincidence appears through the expression Mappa Mundi, wherein, says the text, we may find Degrevant’s name as one of the Round Table. Clearly the author does not mean a “map of the world,” but some chart containing a list of Arthur’s knights. Now in Winchester Castle there hangs to-day a great circular structure which has been known for five hundred years at least as “King Arthur’s Round Table.” On its margin are painted the names of twenty-four knights. The fact that Degrevant’s name is not there is possibly explained by the statement of a visitor in 1522, when the table was repainted, to the effect that some of the names had been greatly corroded and were badly restored. If the form Degrevant is found elsewhere, and it is not a mere blunder of the romancer’s, it might easily have been altered into Degore or Dagonet, which are there to-day.

There is further evidence in favour of Degrevant. The Round Table at Winchester is mentioned by the verse of the chronicler, John Harding (1378-circa 1460), whose assertions xlix “and there it hangeth yet,” suggests that he had either seen it or heard of it directly. In his index, moreover, in the name Degrevant, in the list of King Arthur’s Knights. This is the more interesting as the correct form of Agravayne is not uncommon. The explanation of this double coincidence is by no means that John Hardyng was the author of the romance. Both style and form shut out this conclusion. And yet, singularly enough, the parallel can be pressed further. If the battle scenes seem to reflect the fight at Otterburn or a contest of that time very similar, as I believe can be proved, it is curious to note that John Hardyng was a North Countryman in the service of Earl Percy, and, although only ten years old at the time of Otterburn, must have had first-hand accounts of it; he actually took part in Homildon a few years later. Even more, Hardyng was a gentleman, a traveller, and a practical man of affairs, as well as a soldier; while the author of the romance was almost certainly a gentleman, a traveller, and a man of action, as far as may be judged from internal evidence. But at this very point come in the fundamental differences: Hardyng was learned in documents; the author of the romance, a minstrel, so little pedantic that he did not know the meaning of Mappa Mundi; and again, if the two chief characters can be identified as I have suggested, Sir Degrevant must have been written by an adherent of Douglas, not of Percy. Speaking with all due caution at this stage of the investigation, I believe that the author of the romance l was not a professional minstrel, but a man of good position turned poet, perhaps not unlike his own hero, whose name he, as well as Hardyng, had perhaps seen on the Round Table at Winchester.

The poem is marked by a vivid imagination and a fierce vigour of narrative and description rare at any time, and especially in Middle English. A good deal of its force and brutal aptness of phrase has been lost in the translation.

The Knight of Courtesy and Fair Lady of Faguell is derived from a well-known French story, which was worked up into the long romance Le Chastellain de Couci in the thirteenth century. From the vagueness of the English author as to the details of the plot, and his confusion and lack of names, we may perhaps infer that he was not translating directly, but only retelling a story familiar to him in outline. The episode of the fight with a dragon he seems to have borrowed in order to fill in (it might have been taken from any one of several English romances), and he alters the scene and time of the tragedy from the Third Crusade to the siege of Rhodes in 1443.

The prototype of the knight was one Raoul de Couci, a poet, some of whose lyrics have been preserved. He accompanied his uncle to the Holy Land in 1190, where the latter was killed at the siege of Acre the following year. The uncle’s tragic death was transferred to the poet, and connected with his well-known love for the lady of Faïel.

For similar tales of the eating of the heart, see Child’s li Ballads, v., 29. Perhaps the best known is the legend of the Troubadour, Guillaume de Cabestaing.

The present poem is poor in everything but sentimentality; but I have included it largely because it does represent that aspect of medieval psychology, being a singular combination of morbid hyper-analysis with sheer brutality. That point of view once granted, it is not uninteresting.

The Squire of Low Degree is, as far as we know, an original English production, though written by somebody with an extensive knowledge of French; but its sources have not been thoroughly investigated. In its main theme, the long-continued devotion of the princess to the supposed body of her lover, it is akin to the legend retold by Keats in Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, with the important differences, however, that it is the headless body, not the head, that she cherishes, and that in reality of her enemy, not her lover.

While it is difficult to become excited over a story full of manifest absurdities, wherein the characters are but mouthpieces for exaggerated sentiments, the romance is most interesting for its quaint and vivid pictures of fifteenth-century life, and its curious list of objects, such as trees and plants, birds, wines, &c., which entered into that life. The little sketches of scenes such as the hunting party, the vesper service, the excursion in a barge, the outdoor supper in the garden, and the going to bed are vivid enough to enliven a far duller tale.

[End of Introduction, I know it was a sudden finish, I agree.]


1 Prof. Saintsbury, in his definition of romance, includes an “immense and restless spirit of curiosity.”

2 The word geste is used in three distinct senses in medieval French: (1) deeds, heroic exploits; (2) the family or line performing these deeds; (3) the history of the exploits of this line.

3 Two of these are represented by Launfal Miles and the Lay of the Ash in this volume; and two anonymous lais, by Sir Orfeo and The Earl of Toulouse.

4 I use the spelling of the Middle English romance. This I hope to include in a later volume. It is the only one of Chrétien’s works of which a direct translation is preserved, although the Conte du Graal is the source of various episodes worked up more or less finely.

5 Included in Vol. II. of this series.

6 Undoubtedly English poems on Offa, Wade, and various other early Teutonic heroes, known in England, have been lost.

7 Included in Vol. II. It bears also marks of great antiquity, thoroughly Teutonic.

8 About half of them could be recited well within an hour and a half; a good many, in much less time.

9 He appears in interesting fashion in Mr. Maurice Hewlett's Richard Yea-and-Nay.



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