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From Fabliaux or Tales, abridged from French Manuscripts of the XIIth and XIIIth Centuries by M. Le Grand, selected and translated into English Verse, by the late G. L. Way, Esq., with A Preface, Notes and Appendix, by the late G. Ellis, Esq., A New Edition, corrected in Three Volumes, Volume I, Printed for J. Rodwell, London; 1815; pp. i-xliv.
THE following Work is an attempt at a metrical translation of some Fabliaux, or French Tales, contained in the collection made my M. Le Grand, and first published in three volumes octavo in 1779; afterwards (in 1781) in five small volumes. The original compositions, of which this author has given us abridgments or extracts, being of the 12th and 13th centuries, are consequently anterior to our English historical ballads and metrical romances, of which they are probably the originals; and, being written in a language which at that period was common to France and England, may be considered as equally connected with the literary history of both countries.ii
A collection of Fabliaux was printed in 1756, from the manuscripts, in three small volumes, with a glossary to each; but even with this assistance they are so little intelligible to a modern Frenchman, that the work is said to be scarcely known, even among the learned, at Paris. From one of these (that of ‘Gombert et les deux Clercs’) Chaucer is supposed to have taken his Reve’s tale: another has had the honour of being adopted by Diderot, but in the hands of that learned academician has lost all its original archness and simplicity, and under the quaint title of ‘les Bijoux Indiscrets,’ exhibit’s a most deplorable mixture of dullness and profligacy. This collection is mentioned here because three of the following fabliaux (‘the Lay of the little Bird,’ ‘the Priest who had a Mother in spite of himself,’ and ‘the Lay of Aristotle’) are to be found in it: these may be consulted as a proof of the fidelity with which M. Le Grand has executed his abridgments.
He seems indeed to be fully aware of the importance iii of such fidelity. Works of fancy, written in remote ages, are the most authentick historical documents with respect to the manners an customs of the times in which they are composed. In compiling a chronicle of events, the monkish historians seem to have been only solicitous to record the progress or decay of religion, which they measures by the importance of the donations made to their respective monasteries, or to the church in general. It was solely by such donations that the ignorant laity could merit the honourable mention of the learned: their manners, amusements, or occupations, were considered as unworthy of notice, or were only noticed to be involved in one general proscription; and hence it has happened that whatever information we possess with respect to the dark ages has been principally gleaned by modern sagacity from the laws and other public records of the times. But, in composing works of imagination, the monk is forced to look beyond the boundaries of his cloister, and to describe what passes in the world; his facts are false, but iv the manners he paints are true. Thus when Adam Davie (a poet of the 14th century cited by Mr. Warton) represents Pilate as challenging our Lord to single combat; or when, in Pierce Plowman’s Vision (edit. 1550, fol. 98,) the person who pierced our Saviour’s side is described as a knight who came forth with a spear and jousted with Jesus, we are very sure that the author has given to all his actors the opinions and habits that were generally prevalent amongst his cotemporaries. It was in consequence of such reflections as these that M. de Paulmy first set on foot the well-known ‘Bibliotheque des Romans,’ containing extracts from all the classics in his vast library. It was intended as an amusing and instructive supplement to the graver history of each century; and, had the compilers continued true to their principles, had they been guided by the elegant and discriminating taste of the Comte de Tressau, it would doubtless have proved one of the most useful and entertaining productions of modern literature.v
What has been just premised will in a great measure explain the intentions of the present translator. The authors of the Cento Novelle Antiche, Boccace, Bandello, Chaucer, Gower, in short the writers of all Europe, have probably made use of the inventions of the elder fablers. They have borrowed their general outlines, which they have filled up with colours of their own, and have exercised their ingenuity in varying the drapery, in combining groups, and in forming them into more regular and animated pictures. Le Grand has given his authors in their native simplicity, and the present translator has adhered to his original with the most scrupulous, and perhaps with a servile fidelity. In many places he has been even literally exact. From his anxiety to attain this object he has been induced to try an experiment, of the success of which he can only judge by the suffrages of his readers. Every one has observed that certain expressions become by habit appropriate to the modes of particular periods. Spenser and Sidney, who were familiar with the spirit of chivalry, vi and who described what they saw and felt, have transfused into their language the stateliness and courtesy of the gentle knights whom they painted; and a writer who should attempt to delineate the manners of the age in which they lived, would find it difficult to give life and spirit to his description without borrowing many of their expressions, for which no substitutes can be found in modern language, because the modes and customs to which they refer have long since grown obsolete. From the writers of this age therefore the translator has borrowed not only a variety of words but, as far as he could, the general cast of their expression; and with a view to remedy any little obscurity that might arise from this practice, he has given a short glossary at the end of the work, to explain such words as many not be perfectly familiar to every reader. In short, he has endeavoured to adapt the colouring and costume of language to the manners he describes: to give an exact miniature of the works of antiquated masters; not to rival or eclipse them by the vii superiour brilliancy of his tints, or by the nicer artifice of his composition.
M. Le Grand has prefixed to his work a long and elaborate, but desultory preface, in which he discusses the relative merits of the Trouveurs and Troubadours (the northern and southern French poets), with a degree of prolixity which would appear intolerable in a translation; and employs the most violent invectives against the English nation, whom he taxes with envy and arrogance, for having presumed to bestow on their countryman King Arthur, that pre-eminence among the heroes of romance which justly belonged to Charlemagne. Of the remainder of his preface, part is allotted to a description of the variations that have taken place in French poetry; and part to an account of his materials, and of the difficulties he found in collating and digesting them. As none of these discussions were likely to interest in detail the readers of the following translations, it has been thought sufficient to preserve the principal viii facts and observations with which they were interspersed.
With a view to render his work more generally useful, M. Le Grand has added to each fabliau a variety of notes, explanatory of the private life, manners, and customs of the Europeans during the 12th and 13th centuries. These the translator has preserved; but he has taken the liberty of abridging them very considerably, and of entirely omitting such as appeared too trivial, or related exclusively to French antiquity: he has also frequently referred his readers to English instead of French examples; and has occasionally introduced additions of his own. Notes, however, are necessarily unconnected, and, had M. Le Grand been less anxious to establish the pretensions of his countrymen to priority of romantick invention, he would probably have employed some part of his preface in sketching a general outline of the picture to which the separate parts might be referred, and particularly in tracing the rise ix and progress of chivalry, that leading institution of the dark ages, and which had an influence so considerably on manners and literature. The subject indeed has been often treated at large, but such a work as this is addressed to unlearned readers, who expect, and have a right to find, a short and intelligible narrative of whatever is necessary to the explanation of the work before them. This therefore will be attempted by the translator in the remainder of this preface.
Every one knows that on the decline of the Roman power, whatever remains of literature had survived the long reign of bad taste and superstition, were destroyed by the variety of barbarous nations who broke into the several provinces; and that during the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, all the inhabitants of Europe were plunged in the darkest ignorance, from which they are supposed to have gradually emerged in consequence of their intercourse with the Arabians. That extraordinary people, whose religious zeal had prompted them to destroy x the library of Alexandria, soon repented of their work, and became as anxious for the acquisition of learning as for enlargement of dominion. About the beginning of the 8th century, at which time they had spread themselves through Egypt and along the whole northern coast of Africa, and were become masters of the richest provinces of Spain, they appear on a comparison with the western Europeans as a civilized and polished people. They were the inventors of arithmetick in its present form, of algebra, and of chemistry; were considerable proficients in medicine and astronomy, and renewed in the west the knowledge of the best Greek authors, and particularly of Aristotle. It appears certain that the Jews, who were the principal channels of our literary as well as commercial intercourse with the Arabians, had introduced many of the learned works of that people into Europe before the age of Charlemagne; but it does not seem to be perfectly ascertained whether their poetry or their fictions were known to our ancestors before the time of the Crusades. Some xi criticks ascribed to the northern Scalds that system of fairy mythology which others attribute to the Arabians; while Mr. Warton contends, that as the Goths themselves appear to have emigrated from the shores of the Caspian, we are in either case to consider fairies and dragons as of Asiatick origin. It is for the reader to determine whether this genealogy of fiction be well authenticated. A belief in supernatural agents seems to have prevailed in every age and country, and monsters of all sorts have been created by fear and exaggeration. Every child has trembled at the hideous voracity of the cannibal Ogres or Ougres, yet there is no evidence that the real Ougres, who were the Hungarian soldier in Attila’s army, were in the habit of eating children. It seems as natural that a belief in fairies should have preceded our intercourse with the Arabians, as that giants should have been imagined before the discovery of Patagonia. The snake and lizard apparently comprise the analysis of a dragon; and since Europeans are as capable as Asiaticks of being frightened by such reptiles, xii they are probably not less likely to have furnished them with griping talons and wings as an excuse for their terror.
But whatever may be the extent of the advantage derived from our amicable intercourse with the Saracens, it is certain that their enmity effected a great change in the manners of Europe, by producing a complete revolution in the art of war; an event which could not be indifferent where every government reposed on a military basis. The cavalry of the Arabians, like that of their ancestors the Parthians, was extremely formidable; and the Franks, whose armies were composed solely of infantry, found it difficult to resist the attacks of so versatile an enemy, or even to derive any permanent advantage from success. The famous victory in 732 between Tours and Poictiers which gained to Charles the surname of Martel (the hammer), and in which he totally destroyed the Saracen camp, is said to have been as undecisive as it was bloody. From that period, therefore, he began to exert his utmost endeavour in xiii forming a body of cavaliers or knights, and this favourite project was prosecuted with no less ardour by his successors. In four-and-twenty years from the above date, the French cavalry was already become very numerous, since we are told that in 756 Pepin convoked the annual assembly of the states at Compiegne, not in the month of March as was the ancient custom, but in May; because, these assemblies being held immediately before they took the field, it was necessary that they should wait till their cavalry could be provided with a sufficiency of forage. The same attention to the cavalry continued through the succeeding reigns, and the infantry of Europe fell into entire disrepute till the beginning of the 16th century.
Some writers have attributed the institution of knighthood to Charles Martel, who, as they tell us, created thirteen knights after his victory near Poictiers: others, on the authority of Cassiodorus, carry it up to the time of Theodoric. We might with equal justice ascribe it to the Romans, who, from the beginning of their republick, xiv had an equestrian order: but it is useless to look for the precise date of an institution which was matured and perfected gradually, as well by the vicissitudes of government, as by the increase of superstition.
We know that among the Germans, and probably among the other northern tribes, the first assumption of arms was attended with certain ceremonies; and it is likely that on the first formation of a body of cavalry, the candidates for a command In that favourite corps might receive their spurs, as the young Germans received their swords, with some degree of solemnity. But no particular oaths or religious obligations seem to have been imposed, nor indeed were they necessary, as military discipline and obedience were already secured by the constitution of the state. The Franks may be considered as an army quartered throughout Gaul: every soldier, in lieu of pay, had a portion of land originally allotted to him, by which tenure he had an interest in the preservation of the conquest. The sovereign, whose share was much more than sufficient for xv his own maintenance, granted out, to those in whom he particularly confided, certain benefices or fiefs, and these being resumable at pleasure, sufficiently ensured the fidelity and obedience of those on whom they were conferred. It was in this way that the French monarchs seem to have made provision for their new body of knights or horsemen, and the allotment to each knight appears to have been considerable. the Normans are known to have copied pretty exactly the old French institutions, and under our Norman kings a knight’s fee was of about £20 annual value, which is equal to a rent of £500 of our present money.
The reign of Charlemagne offers an event which is very lightly mentioned by historians, bur forms a most important epocha in the legends of romance. In the year 778 the French monarch undertook an expedition into Spain, which terminated in the capture of Saragossa. In returning through the Pyrenees the rear of his army was attacked by the Gascons, and many of his principal offices, hastening to the place to rally the xvi troops, were slain. This was the famous defeat at the valley of Roncevaux, and here fell the peerless Rolland, the pretended cousin of Charlemagne and favourite hero of Boiardo and Ariosto, of whom however history only records that he commanded a body of troops on the frontier of Bretany. Near the place Charlemagne caused a chapel to be erected, having under it a large, strong, and beautiful vault, with thirty tombs of white stone, but without any inscriptions.
The succeeding kings of France did not inherit either the undivided empire, or the talents, of Charlemagne. By degrees, possession was supposed to confer a right to property of every kind; and fiefs, and even dignities, became hereditary. In the beginning of the 10th century, under the reign of Charles the Simple, the titles of Duke, Count, and Marquis, had entirely lost their original signification; and every baron, assuming whatever title he thought proper, became the uncontrolled and independent tyrant of his domains. Their country seats grew up into citadels, at all times occupied xvii by a garrison; and as the feudal securities of fealty and allegiance were found insufficient to secure obedience, the aid of superstition became necessary, and the knight or soldier was attached by the most solemn oaths and ceremonies to the person of his sovereign or superiour lord. Hence the monarchs of those times, though extremely formidable to foreign enemies, against whom they could direct the whole force of the nation, were often unsuccessful in their disputes with their own immediate vassals, in which they were able to employ those warriours only whom they might have attracted to their standard by their talents or their liberality. Such a state of things necessarily produced and gave importance to the order of knighthood; and as anarchy continued to increase till at length it became intolerable to all, as the state possessed no power of coercion, and even superstition, omnipotent as it was in many cases, was a feeble barrier against the excesses of that military age, it became necessary to form a code of honour, to supply the want of jurisprudence and morals; and xviii the security of the crown, the execution of justice, the protection of religion and the laws, and the redress of all injuries, particularly of those offered to women or orphans, were entrusted to the valour of the knights and formed the sacred obligation which they contracted by their oath of admission into the order.
The reader who is accustomed to the regularity of civilized life cannot survey without astonishment the confusion that prevailed in those times of feudal barbarism. The universal fondness for the pleasures of the chace, and the general contempt for agriculture, had converted a considerable part of Europe into forests; and the same solitude which gave an asylum to the beasts of the field, afforded security to large bands of robbers, who were generally sure of purchasing, by a participation of their plunder, the protection and assistance of the little tyrants in their neighbourhood. At every bridge, and on every road, enormous tolls were exacted; and passengers were often plundered by the Castellains through whose territories they passed. xix Small armies, under the command of their condottieri, wandered over Europe, ready to engage in any service, and in the mean time pillaging all parties. These indeed were almost unknown in England, except during the troublesome reign of Stephen, who took into pay a troop of these land-pirates from the Ardennes, under the name of Brabanters; but our robbers were neither less numerous nor less insolent than those on the continent. Peter, king of Cyprus and Jerusalem, who visited England in 1363, was robbed on the highway. In 1316 two cardinals, with a large escort led by the Bishop of Durham and his brother Lord Beaumont, were attacked near Darlington, and the bishop and his brother were taken prisoners, and confined till they had paid their ransome. Even in the reign of the active and powerful Edward the First, the town of Boston was assaulted in 1285, during the time of the fair, and completely pillaged by a band of robbers. The wealth, power, and abilities of our first Norman kings, enabled them to form a strong government in England, when xx other countries were in a state of anarchy: but the preceding examples shew what was the state of the rest of Europe at an earlier period. Anarchy was the universal evil, and knighthood was the remedy opposed to it; we are even told by Bettinelli (Risorgimento d’Italia, part 2d, page 259, note) that knights were sometimes created by republics, and swore fealty to the state as their sovereign.
It is evident that the performance of the many and hazardous duties imposed on the candidates for knighthood required an uncommon degree of valour, strength, and dexterity. Accordingly their education was long and severe: at seven years of age the noble children were usually removed from their father’s house to the court or castle of their future patron, and placed under the care of a governor, who taught them the first articles of religion, respect and reverence to their lords and superiours, and initiated them in the ceremonies of a court. They were called pages, valets, or varlets, and their office was to carve, to wait at table, and to perform xxi other menial services which were not then considered as humiliating. At their leisure hours they learnt to dance and play on the harp; were instructed in the mysteries of woods and rivers, that is to say, in hunting, falconry, and fishing; and in wrestling, tilting with spears, and performing other military exercises on horseback. At fourteen, the page became an esquire, and began a course of severer and more laborious exercises. To vault on a horse in heavy armour, to run, to scale walls, and spring over ditches under the same incumbrance, to wrestle, to wield the battle-axe for a length of time without raising the visor or taking breath, to perform with grace all the evolutions of the manage, and to rehearse the various labours of a real battle, were necessary preliminaries to the reception of knighthood, which was usually conferred at twenty-one years of age, when education was supposed to be completed. In the mean time, beside a variety of other occupations, the esquires, whose particular charge it was to do the honours of the court, were no less assiduously engaged xxii in acquiring all these refinements of civility which formed what was in that age called courtesy, the distinctive character of noble birth. The same castle in which these candidates for knighthood received their education, was usually thronged with young persons of the other sex, and the page was encouraged at a very early period to select some lady of the court as the mistress of his heart, to whom he was taught to refer all his sentiments, words, and actions. Thus the strongest passion of the human breast was so directed as to exert all its witcheries in the cause of virtue. The service of his mistress was the glory and occupation of a knight: her image had taken root in his heart amidst the fairy scenes of childhood, and was blended with every recollection of that age of innocence; and her caresses, bestowed at once by affection and gratitude, were held out as the recompence of his well-directed valour. Mahomet was unable to find in Asiatick manners so powerful a source of enthusiasm.
To the possession of all that adorns and sweetens life, xxiii religion added the promise of pure and unceasing happiness hereafter. The holy wars broke out and produced the golden age of chivalry; and the order of knighthood, endowed with all the sanctity and religious awe that attended the priesthood, became an object of ambition to the greatest sovereigns.
At a time when chivalry excited universal admiration, and when all the efforts of that chivalry were directed against the enemies of religion, it was natural that literature should receive the same impulsion, and that history and fable should be ransacked to furnish examples of courage and piety that might excite increased emulation. Arthur and Charlemagne were the two heroes selected for this purpose. Arthur’s pretensions were, that he was a Christian, and certainly a brave, though not always successful warriour: he had withstood with great resolution the arms of the infidels, that is to say of the Saxons, and his memory was held in the highest estimation by his countrymen the Britons, who carried with them into Wales, and into the kindred xxiv country of Armorica or Bretany, the memory of his exploits, which their national vanity insensibly exaggerated, till the little Prince of the Silures (South Wales including Herefordshire) was magnified into the conqueror of England, of Gaul, and of the greater part of Europe. When a hero becomes the popular them of poetical composition, he will soon be adorned with the aggregate merits of many cotemporary warriours; and it si probably that Arthur inherited every unclaimed panegyrick that was to be found in the fragments of Welsh poetry. His genealogy was gradually carried up to an imaginary Brutus, and to the period of the Trojan war; and a sort of chronicle was composed in the Welsh or Armorican language, which, under the pompous title of the History of the Kings of Britain, was brought over from Bretany about the year 1100, by Gualter or Walter Mapes, Archdeacon of Oxford, and communicated to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who translated it into Latin, though not without many additions and alterations. From Latin it was translated into French by xxv Wistace or Eustace, in the year 1155, under the title of ‘Brut d’Angleterre;’ was continued by Robert Wace (who, after all, was also very probably the genuine Wistace, see Tyrwhitt’s Essay on Chaucer, note 47), chaplain to our Henry the Second, and canon of Bayeux in 1160; under the title of ‘Roman de Rou;’ rendered into Saxon by Layamon; and at last exhibited in English verse by Robert of Gloucester, and by Robert Manning otherwise called Robert de Brunne, about the beginning of the 14th century.
As to Charlemagne, though his real merits were sufficient to secure his immortality, it was impossible that his holy wars, against the Saracens should not become a favourite topick for fiction. Accordingly the fabulous history of these wars was written, probably towards the close of the 11th century, by a monk, who thinking it would add dignity to his work to embellish it with a cotemporary name, boldly ascribed it to Turpin, who was Archbishop of Rheims about the year 773. This is the book so frequently quoted by Ariosto.xxvi
These fabulous chronicles, however, were for a while imprisoned in languages of local only, or of professional, access. Both Turpin and Geoffrey might indeed be studied by ecclesiasticks, the sole Latin scholars of those times; and Geoffrey’s British original would contribute to the gratification of Welshmen; but neither could become extensively popular till translated into some tongue of general and familiar circulation. The Anglo-Saxon was at this time used only by a conquered and enslaved nation: the Spanish and Italian languages were not yet formed: the French alone was spoken or understood by the nobility in the greatest part of Europe, and therefore was a proper vehicle for the new mode of composition.
The French language was divided into two dialects, both of which bore the name of Romane or Romance, because each was formed on the basis of the Latin; the northern being adulterated by a mixture of Frankish and Norman words, and the southern by those of the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Alani. The river Loire xxvii was their common boundary. In the provinces to the south of that river, the affirmative yes was expressed by the word oc, in the north it was called oil (oui), and hence Dante has named the southern language langue d’oc, and the northern language d’oil. The latter, which was carried into England, Sicily, &c. by the Normans, and is the origin of the present French, may be called French Romane; and the former Provençal or Provencial Romance, because it was spoken by the subjects of Raimond Count of Provence, who were known in the European armies during the Crusades by the general name of Provençals or Provencials.
These dialects were soon distinguished by very opposite characters. A soft and enervating climate, a spirit of commerce encouraged by an easy communication with other maritime nations, the influx of wealth, and a more settled government, may have tended to polish and soften the diction of the Provencials, whose poets, under the name of Troubadours, were the masters of the Italians, and particularly of Petrarch. Their favourite xxviii compositions were Sirventes, (satirical pieces), love-songs, and tensons, which last may be considered as pleas for the courts of love. The reader knows that, in the times of chivalry, passion was sublimed into a science, and that the conduct of young lovers, instead of being abandoned to the blind guidance of instinct, was subjected to a regular code of amorous jurisprudence. Every difficult and delicate question was discussed in the courts of love with the greatest solemnity, and with all the abstractions of metaphysical refinement; and it is probably that the disputes on these subjects would have produced as many heresies in love as in religion, but that the judgment-seat in the tribunals was filled by ladies, whose decision was very properly admitted to be final and absolute. It should seem that the Provencials were so completely absorbed in these abstract speculations, as to neglect and despise the composition of fabulous histories, only four of which are attributed to the Troubadours, and even these are rather legends of devotion than of chivalry. xxix On this ground M. Le Grand contends that these boasted inventors notwithstanding their proficiency in the gai saber (gay science) have discovered very little gaiety or invention. But this is much too hasty a decision. The Troubadours were highly admired by their cotemporaries; and candour requires that we should pay much deference to their judgment. The manners they painted seem extraordinary, but they were real. The passion with which Laura inspired their imitator Petrarch appears to us to be neither love nor friendship, nor jest nor earnest: but it is surely less strange than that of the Troubadour Geoffrey Rudel for the Countess of Tripoli, whom he had never seen. ‘He became (says Mr. Warton) enamoured from imagination; embarked for Tripoly; fell sick in the voyage through the fever of expectation; and was brought on shore of Tripoly half expiring. The Countess, having received the news of the arrival of this gallant stranger, hastened to the shore, and took him by the hand; he opened his eyes, and at once overpowered xxx by his disease and her kindness, had just time to say inarticulately, that having seen her he died satisfied. The Countess made him a most splendid funeral, and erected to his memory a tomb of porphyry, inscribed with an epitaph in Arabian verse. She commanded his sonnets to be richly copied and illuminated with letters of gold; was seized with a profound melancholy, and turned nun.” Poets of this description cannot be judged by ordinary rules; and a lover who fairly and honestly dies for the charms of an imaginary mistress, must be permitted to express in his own way such sensations as common language was certainly never intended to describe. In defence of the monotony of their pastoral poetry it may be observed, that a pastoral can only subsist by the charms of harmonious numbers and picturesque diction; merits which cannot be properly estimated by those who view it through the medium of a translation. These metaphorical flowers are of all flowers the most tender, and the least capable of being transplanted without losing their native freshness xxxi and fragrance. Amorous and despairing shepherds must not be compared with the knights and fairies of Ariosto: these are robust beings calculated for every soil and climate, and so vivacious that (as Spenser has shewn us) they can still please, though stiffened and congealed by the chilling influence of allegory.
But whatever may be the merit of the Troubadours, M. Le Grand is apparently justified in contending that their language was by no means so generally diffused, nor so well calculated to give popularity and celebrity to the fabulous heroes, as the French Romane. This, which had begun to be fashionable in England before the Conquest, became, after that event, the only language used at the court of London; it was familiarly known at Naples, Sicily, and Florence, at Constantinople,and in the greater part of Greece, and was established by the Crusaders in their kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem: and, as the various conquests of the Normans, and the enthusiastick valour of that extraordinary people, had familiarized the minds of men with xxxii the most marvellous events; the French writers eagerly seized the fabulos legends of Arthur and Charlemagne, translated them into the vulgar tongue, and soon produced a variety of imitations. Hercules, Theseus, Jason, and the other fabulous heroes of Greece, are supposed to have distinguished themselves nearly in the same manner as our knights-errant, by destroying monsters and giants, and succouring the oppressed. Hector, and his brother-warriours, whose exploits were less marvellous, were however great favourites in the middle ages, because it was become fashionable among the European nations to claim their descent from Troy, after the example of Rome. Alexander the Great enjoyed among the Asiaticks the same sort of reputation as Orlando possessed in Europe. Many or all of these heroes therefore, being enlisted, as occasion might require, into the order of knighthood, and perhaps, by the help of a few anachronisms, introduced into the company of each other, were celebrated by the Trouveurs in their legends; and, together with the stories of xxxiii Renaud de Montauban, Ogier le Danois, the imaginary families of Amadis and others, Richard Cœur de Lion and the heroes of the Crusades, composed by degrees that formidable body of marvellous histories which, from the dialect in which the most ancient of them were written, were called Romances.
Though the early metrical compositions were upon the whole much shorter than the prose histories into which they were dilated during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they were still so long that only extracts from them could be conveniently be repeated at the festivals of the barons, or even retained by the minstrels, whose office it was to declaim them. In the pure ages of chivalry, it is well known that the art of reading formed no part of a knight’s accomplishments the learned and unlearned parts of mankind were completely separated, and though the former did not always possess the knowledge to which they pretended, the latter were perfectly sincere in their profession of ignorance. xxxiv And as the whole body of knights could not be constantly employed in war, nor in quest of adventures, nor in tournaments, nor even in the amusements of the chace; and as no men could be less patient under the listlessness attendant on inactivity; the Trouveurs or poets, (or, to adopt an old English expression, the makers,) together with their attendant minstrels, who were instructed in music and the art of declamation, were very necessary to the festivity of a baron’s table. In earlier times they had probably composed and taught to their heroes those warlike songs which even before the age of Charlemagne formed the delight of a military nobility. By degrees they introduced greater diversity into their compositions, and formed dits (ditties or moral songs), ballads, complaints, roundelays, and virelays, which perhaps only differed from each other by some peculiarity in their musical accompaniments. Of these tales some appear xxxv to have been founded on domestick stories or national traditions, and others were perhaps imported after the Crusades from Greece or Arabia. Some were romances in miniature, filled with fairies, dwarfs, giants, monsters, and tournaments; of which we have an example in the tale of ‘The Mule without a Bridle;’ some were tales of love and gallantry, and some of devotion. The only object of the poet was to amuse his audience, and he attained his object either by reciting the lives of saints, or the wonders of chivalry, or the scandalous adventures of the neighbourhood.
It is natural that hearers so little accustomed to the artifice of composition should not be very fastidious criticks; but in perusing the original fabliaux it is impossible to repress our astonishment at the indelicate and gross language to which our ancestors of both sexes appear to have listened without the least scruple or emotion. It is true, that opinions respecting decorum may vary considerably in different ages, without xxxvi indicating a correspondent alteration in morals. ‘In a play or mystery of the Old and New Testament acted at Chester in 1327, Adam and Eve (says Mr. Warton) were both exhibited on the stage naked, and conversing about their nakedness: this very pertinently introduces the next scene, in which they have coverings of fig-leaves. This extraordinary spectacle was beheld by a numerous assembly of both sexes with great composure: they had the authority of Scripture for such a representation, and they gave matters just as they found them in the third chapter of Genesis.’ Such spectacles, however, may indicate the simplicity rather than the libertinism of the age in which they were exhibited; and it is possible that the necessity of veiling those living statues may have been suggested by the irritable imagination of prudery, rather than by any alarms they occasioned to artless and unsuspecting innocence. The same excuse may apply to the grossness of antiquated language. The distinction between modesty xxxvii of thought, and decency which resides in the expression, is a modern refinement; a compromise between chastity and seduction, which stipulates not the exclusion, but only the disguise of licentiousness; and may perhaps be a proof of a purer taste, but it is no evidence of a very severe and rigid morality. Unfortunately, however, it is not the language only, but the whole tendency of many of the fabliaux, which is highly reprehensible; and indeed from almost all the literary productions of those simple ages it appears, that if continence was highly venerated, it was partly on account of its extreme scarcity. Queen Guenever is a well-known, but by no means a solitary instance of female frailty; and from the general conduct of the heroines of romance, we should almost be led to suspect, that passing their lives in the constant dread of violation, they would have thought themselves criminally prodigal of their resources had they employed against a lover those means of defence which might at xxxviii every moment became necessary for their resisting an unwelcome and brutal ravisher. M. Le Grand observes with great surprise, that even in le Castoiement (a work on education), and in the Chevalier de la Tour’s Instructions to his Daughters, the tale by which their precepts are exemplified are not more edifying than the most licentious productions of the Trouveurs: and this too at a time when ladies were the supreme arbiters of taste, and guardians of national manners.
It is evident, however, that this evil was one of the many mischiefs resulting from anarchy, a monster, which (like the Blatant Beast in Spenser) neither the arts of female elegance nor the arms of chivalry could soften or subdue. The laws were silent or impotent; the professors of religion were either themselves ignorant, or being immersed in the refinements of scholastick learning, and in disputes about the dogmas of Christianity, neglected to inculcate the plain and practical xxxix code of Christian morality, whose silent but certain influence could alone have meliorated the perversity of general habits. From the want of this principle of attraction to modify the impulse of the passions, and to retain the different classes of society in their proper orbits, the many examples of exalted virtue which those ages really produced, were regarded only as brilliant eccentricities of conduct: they appeared like the comets of the system, they were gazed at with surprise, but their influence was insensible.
From the account that has been given of the fabliaux, it is evident that they were perfectly unfit to be presented in their original state to modern readers. Some indeed were so faulty, that M. Le Grand was constrained to suppress them as quite incorrigible: almost all required considerable omissions; and the compression of their style, which was pretty universally lax and diffuse. He trusted, however, that without altering their character, these might still be rendered worthy of the xl publick favour; and the present translator, by restoring to them metrical form and antiquated language, has endeavoured to give them the graces of originality. The oblivion to which they have been so long condemned, was produced rather by the vicissitudes of fashion than by their own demerits; they were eclipsed by the more brilliant fictions of chivalry, and these were In the their turn forgotten when the disuse of tournaments consigned the nobility of Europe to repose and indolence. During this stagnation of amusement arose the heroick romances, the Cassandras and Clelias, which breathe tedium and torpor in every page, and which instead of restless knights constantly pursuing a mistress or fighting a rival, present to us respectful but languid lovers, lamenting the rigours of a sex who were forced to regret even the enterprising petulance of their former admirers, when they found the dangers of a siege exchanged for the listless monotony of a blockade. These were followed by translations and imitations of Arabian xli and other Asiatick fictions, by fairy tales, by philosophical romances, and lastly by novels. With these more finished productions of a polished age it is not the intention of the translator to compare his Fabliaux: he offers them as the first rude essays in a species of composition which the pedantry of criticism has vainly attempted to discredit, which has employed the pens of a Richardson and a Fielding, and in which many female writers of the present day have successfully blended the allurements of fiction with much useful instruction and pure morality.
In this new Edition of Mr. WAY’S FABLIAUX are inserted all the corrections which he had transcribed into his own printed copy.
These are neither numerous nor important; but the present Editor thinks it necessary to notice their existence, lest the detection of any variations from the original text should fix on him the suspicion of carelessness in the humble task, which his respect for his Father’s memory has alone induced him to undertake.
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