« PreviousContinue »
on the spot.' And when this was done, a naked child ran three times round the barrel, saying, “ Cursed be the time that ye came ever here ;" and with these words the embryo of the renovated Virgil vanished.'
That series of romances in which the heroes and sages of antiquity are represented as knights-errant and sorcerers, forms the last class of tales of chivalry. I had at one time expected to have found a fifth class, relating to the Crusades; and surely no subject could have been chosen more adapted to romance than the struggle between Saladin and Richard, both unparalleled in feats of prowess,the one exhibiting the Saracen character in its highest per
1 The tradition of the Sorcerer Virgil may have arisen in connection with the Virgilius who was Bishop of Salzburg, a man of wisdom in advance of his time, who is reported to have believed in antipodes, etc., and wbo, like Albertus Magnus, came to be regarded as the possessor of magical power. See Ideler, Geschichte der Altfranzösischen NationalLiteratur, etc., p. 141, note. Dante's selection of Virgil for a guide would almost seem to have been suggested by the mediæval idea of the
It should not be forgotten that the memory of the great Latin poet has always remained green at Naples and in the neighbourhood from the time that Silius Italicus purchased and planted the ground round his tomb, and many stories of Virgil's magical performances are still rife among the common folk as they were in the time of Petrarch, who says that the people regarded the grotto of Posilippo as having been formed by the magic incantations of the poet.
“ There we saw Maro's golden tomb,
Marlowe, Faustus, act iii. sc. 1. Petrarch, however, adds that he had nowhere read that Virgil was a magician. Those who would pursue the subject of the mythical character with which the sages of antiquity were invested in the middle ages may be referred to Wyttenbach, Plut. de aud. poet., p. 21 ; Schmidt, Petr. Alphonsi. Discipl. cler., pp. 91, 105 ; Liebrecht, Einhard II., p. 266. Graesse enumerates various writings on the magician Vergil, Alig. Lit. Gesch. ii. 2, 624 n., and in Berträge zur Literatur und Sage des Mittelalters, p. 27.
The Slavonic expression Verzhiulove kolu has been explained by Jagic as meaning the Virgilian (magic) wheel or circle, Verdzilio, Verzil, being Slavonic forms of Vergilio.
I may refer the reader for whom the subject may offer interest to D. Comparetti's comprehensive Italian treatise on Virgil in the Middle Ages, of which there is a German translation. References to a large number of works relating to the subject are contained in this monograph.
fection, and the other that superhuman courage and boundless generosity which constitute the mirror of knighthood. Nothing, however, can be worse founded than the assertion of Warburton, and of Warton (ed. 1824, i. p. 112], that after the Holy Wars a new set of champions, conquests, and countries were introduced into romance; and that Solyman, Nouraddin, with the cities of Palestine and Egypt, became the favourite topics. Mr. Ritson [Anc. Metr. Rom., i. p. 52] has justly remarked, that no such change took place as is pretended; and so far from the Crusades and Holy Land becoming favourite topics, there is not, with the exception of the uninteresting romance of Godfrey of Boulogne, a single tale of chivalry founded on any of these subjects. Perhaps those celebrated expedi. tions undertaken for the recovery of the Holy Land were too recent, and too much matter of real life, to admit the decorations of fiction. Many of the metrical romances were written in England during the reign of Richard, or in France in the age of St. Louis, and were transformed into prose, as we learn from the authors themselves, at the moment when Edward I. embarked for Palestine.
Having therefore now completed the task of furnishing an analysis of the most important prose romances of chivalry that have been given to the world, I shall dismiss the subject by a few remarks on the influence and the decline of that species of composition.
The influence which chivalry for many ages exercised in the modification of manners and customs has been often pointed out, and whatever that effect may have been, it was doubtless heightened by the composition and perusal of romances.
These works arose from a system of manners, and in their turn exercised on manners a reciprocal influence. The taste of the age gradually changed from a fondness for monkish miracles to the ready admission of tales, equally eccentric, indeed, and improbable, but from any special
1 It will, bowe be remembered, notes Liebrecht, that in sequence of the Crusades the scene of several romances was laid in the Holy Land; e.g., Sir Bevis, Sir Guy, Sir Isumbras, The King of Tars, etc., and these, as appears from Chaucer's statement [Ryme of Sir Thopas, v. 13825, etc.), were accounted “romances of pris.”
religious tendency. The charms of romance roused the dormant powers of the human intellect; gave wings to fancy and warmth to imagination; and, in some degree, kindled a love of glory. They seem also to have inspired a taste for reading; for that these works were much perused, is evident, both from the number that were written, and the many editions that have successively appeared.
Another effect produced by the romances of chivalry, was the communication of beauty and interest to the writings of many illustrious poets, who improved on their machinery, and adopted those tales of wondrous achievement in which the amantes mira Camoenae chiefly rejoice. Classical fictions might, like the Grecian architecture, be more elegant than the Gothic, but the productions of the middle ages were more awakening to the fancy and more affecting to the heart. The perilous adventures of the Gothic knightstheir high honour, tender gallantry, and solemn superstitions, presented finer scenes and subjects of description, and more interesting displays of affection-in short, more beauty, variety, and pathos, than had ever yet been un. folded.
Pulci and Boiardo, the earliest romantic poets of Italy, communicated to the tales of chivalry all the embellishments which flow from the charms of versification, and the beauties of an enchanting language. From their example, the fables of romantic fiction became the favourite themes of succeeding poets. The compositions adorned by these splendid miracles were the objects of universal admiration, while the epic poems of Trissino and Alamanni, founded on the classic model, were neglected or despised.
Nor can this be wholly attributed to the difference of genius in the poets themselves; for while the other writings of Ariosto sunk into oblivion, his Orlando, according to the expression of his great rival, lives in ever-renovating youth. The genius of Tasso, which hardly rises above mediocrity in tragedy, in pastoral, or in the classical refabrication of the Jerusalem, has reared one of the finest poems in the world on the basis of romantic fiction. These were the tales,” says the biographer of our earliest English poet, “with which the youthful fancy of Chaucer was fed ; these were the visionary scenes by which his genius was awakened ;
these were the acts and personages on which his boyish thoughts were at liberty to ruminate for ever.' Many too were the obligations of Spenser to the fables of romance ; and even in a later period they nourished the genius of a poet yet more august, who repeatedly bears his testimony of admiration and gratitude to their inspiring influence.“I will tell you,” says Milton, “whither my younger feet wandered : I betook me among those lofty fables and romances which, recount in solemn cantos the deeds of knighthood."
À change introduced in the customs and mode of life among the inhabitants of Europe, as it was the principal source of the rise, so it may be also regarded as the chief cause of the decline, of romantic composition. The abolition of chivalry was the innovation which had most effect in this overthrow. However useful that institution might have been in the early stages of society, it was found that in a regular campaign the utmost disorder resulted from an impetuous militia, which knew no laws but those of its courage, which confounded temerity with valour, and was incapable of rallying in the hour of disaster. Vigour of discipline was broken by want of unity of command; for the army was headed by chiefs who had different interests and different motives of action, and who drew not from the same source their claims to obedience. The knights, too, had at all times perverted the purposes of their institution. If we believe the flattering picture given by Colombiere, the errant heroes of chivalry wandered through the world redressing injuries, exterminating the banditti with which Europe was infested, or relieving those ladies who had fallen into the power of enemies. But if we examine other writers, we shall meet with a very different account of these worthies, and shall find, according to the quaint expression of an old English author, that these errant knights were arrant knaves.
Pierre de Blois, who wrote in the twelfth century, complains that the horses of the knights were more frequently loaded with implements of gluttony and drunkenness, than with arms fit for battle. “They are burdened,” says he [Epist.
1 Godwin, Life of Chaucer, vol. i. ch. 4.
No.94],“not with weapons, but wine; not with javelins, but cheeses; not with bludgeons, but bottles; not with spears, but with spits.”—Non ferro sed vino, non lanceis sed caseis, non ensibus sed utribus, non hastibus sed verubus onerantur. In France, during the disorders which existed in the reign of Charles VI., the contending factions, with a view to strengthen their interest, multiplied the number of knights, by which means the order was degraded. A new institution was created by Charles VII., who bestowed on his Gensdarmerie the honours hitherto appropriated to knighthood, and the chivalry of France became anxious to enroll themselves amongst a body wherein they might arrive at military command, which, as simple knights, they could no longer attain. The image and amusements of chivalry now alone remained. Mankind were occasion. ally reminded of a previous state of society by the exhibition of jousts and tournaments; but even these, in a short while, became unfashionable in France, from the introduction of other amusements, and the accident which termi. nated the life of one of its monarchs (Henry II.).
The wonders of chivalry had disappeared from real life, but still lingered in the memory of man: new romantic compositions, indeed, no longer were written, but the old ones were still read with avidity, when all the powers of wit and genius were exerted—not, indeed, to ridicule the spirit of chivalry, or a state of society which had passed away, but to satirize the barbarous relaters of chimerical adventures, and those who devoted their time to their perusal.
Some writers have considered the Sir Thopas of Chaucer as a prelude to the work of Cervantes.? It may be much to the honour of the English poet that he so early discerned and ridiculed the absurdities of his contemporary romancers, but it cannot be conceived that Sir Thopas had any effect in discrediting their compositions. It appeared in a reign which almost realized the wonders of romantic fiction, and at a period when the spirit of chivalry possessed too firm hold of the mind to suffer the love of the marvel. lous to be easily eradicated. The satire, besides, was in
* See Warton, Hist. Eng. Poet., 1824, ii, 268.