1902 Encyclopedia > English Literature > Anglo-Norman Period (1066-1215): Wace, Arthurian Romance, Welsh Poetry, Layamon

English Literature
(Part 2)


Wace, Arthurian Romance, Welsh Poetry, Layamon...

The 11th century is remarkably barren in great names and memories which, captivate the imagination, it was, however, an advance upon the 10th, which Baronius has described as the central and worst period of intellectual darkness. In England, for about 150 years after the Conquest, there was no unity of intellectual life; in political life, however, the iron hand of the Conqueror compelled an external uniformity, by the exaction of homage to himself. The strength of the Norman monarchy, the absence of religious differences, and, after a time, the loss of Normandy, were causes working powerfully in aid of the conciliation and interfusion of the of the different elements of the population. But at first was as if three separate nations were emcamped confusedly on British soil – the Normans, the English, and the Welsh. The clergy, as a fourth power, of all nationalities or of none, became, - by its use of Latin as a common tongue, by preaching a common faith and teaching a common philosophy, and as representing the equality and charity which are among the essential features of Christianity, - an ever present mediating influence tending to break down the partitions between the camps. The intellectual state and progress of each nation, down to and a little beyond the end of the 12th century, must now be briefly discussed.

1. Normans – In less than two centuries after the Northmen under Rollo had settled in Normandy, they had not only exchanged their Teutonic speech for the language of France, but made, - with French as the medium of expression, - remarkable literacy progress. In this progress the Normans settled in England participated to the full. It is probable that the Turoldus, who, availing himself of earlier Frankish lays and chronicles, composed towards the end of the 11th century the noble heroic poem called the Chansom de Roland, was an abbot of Peterborough, son of the clerk of the same name who was the Conqueror’s preceptor. From the reign of Henry I., though the names of several writers are known, little of importance has come down to us. The treatise on politeness called Urbanus, attributed to Henry himself, is in all probability the composition of a later age. The works of the hapless satirist, Lue de la Barre, are not extant, and Evrard’s translation (1130) of Cato’s Disticha into French verse is not a noteworthy performance. The reign of Stephen, though confusion and civil war prevailed over a great part England, witnessed an extraordinary outburst of literacy activity. Of the historians who shed a luster on this reign we shall speak in a different connexion; but it was also memorable for its French poets. Guichard of Beaulieu, a cell of St.Albans’s (1150), produced a poem in Alexandrines of some merit, on the vices of the stage age; Geoffrey Gaimar (1140) wrote his lively Estorie des Engles (a chronicle of the Anglo-Saxon kings); and Benoit de Ste More, either in this early reign or early in that of Henry II.,, produced a vast poem on the History of the War of Troy, which seems to have been the original exemplar on which the numerous "Troy-books" of later generations were modeled. The family of Benoit was of Norman extraction, but settled in England. Under Henry II, whose ceaseless and enlightened energy stimulated production wherever it was exerted, French poetry took an ever bolder sweep. Robert wace, a native of Jersey and a clerk of caen, composed about 1155 his famous Brut d’ Angleterre, a history of the kings of Britain from Brutus to Cadwallader, founded on the Historia Britonum of Geoffrey for Monmouth. Again, when Henry had commissioned Benoit to write a metrical history of the dukes of Normandy, the quick-witted wace anticipated his slower rival, and produced in 1160 the first part of the Roman de Rou, treating of the same subject.

Thus far we have considered the Anglo-Norman poets chiefly as chroniclers; we have now to regard them as romance writers. It is true that in their hands history slides into romance, and vice versa; thus the Brut d’ angletrre may be regarded as historical in so far as it treats of the series of British kings, mythical as that seies itself may be, but as a romance in most of that portion of it which is devoted to the adventures of Arthur. We here enter upon a wide field; the stores of Arthurian, Carlovingian, and general chivalrous romance suggest themselves to the fund to the mind; a thousand interesting inquiries present themselves; but the limits traced for us prescribe a treatment little more than allusive; that is, French romance can only be described in virtue of the stimulating and suggestive effect which it had English writers. This effect was produced is a measure by great poems like the Alexadreis (1200), by the original French romances on Charlemagne and his peers, and by that on the third crusade and the powers of King Richard. But the romances relating to Arthur, doubtless on account of the extent to which they really sprang from British soil, were those which most profoundly stirred the English mind. It is not difficult to trace the steps by which the legend grew. Gildas, writing in the 6th century, knows of Arthur’s victory at Mount Badon, but does not name him. Nenius, whose date is uncertain but who should probably be assigned to the 9th century, mention the same victory as one of several which were gained by" magnanimous Arthur" over the Saxon invader. Three centuries pass, and the story comes to us again, greatly amplified, in the British History of Geoffrey of Monmouth (1126). This history, Geoffrey assures us, was founded upon a book in the Breton language, brought over from Britanny by an archedeacon of Oxford. Ritson scouted the assertion as fictitious, yet it was probably true, and the supposition of a Breton origin for his history is exactly what would best account for the great development which we find the Arthur legend to have now attained, in comparison with the age of Nennius. For Britanny was the fruitful parent of numbersless forms of imaginative fiction, - a trait noticed by Chaucer:

"These olde gentil Bretons in their daies,
Of divers aventures maden laies:"

and what character would the Breton bards be more likely to embellish than of the hero king, who, during and before the migration of their forefathers, had made such a gallant stand against the Saxon? Yet, though Geoffrey has so much to tell us of Arthur, he is silent about the Round Table. That specified feature of the legend first appears in the Brut of Wace, and was probably derived from Breton poems or traditions to which Geoffrey had not access. Layamon reproduces it, with additional details, in his version of Wace. Other branches of Arthurian romance, especially those relating to Tristan and Perceval, became about this time widely popular; it is to this period also that the Chavalier du Lion of Chretien de Troyes belongs. Suddenly there is a great change. A cycle of romance, which till now had breathed only of revenge, slaughter, race- hartreds, unlawful love, magic and witchcraft becomes transformed in a few years into a series of mystical legends, symbolizing and teaching one of the profoundest dogmas of the Catholic creed. This strange effect was produced by the infusion into the Arthur legend of the conception of the Saint Graal, the holy vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper, and containing drops of his blood, which Joseph of Arimathes, was said to have brought into Britain. This transformation seems to have been executed by Walter Map, the remarkable Welshman whose genius decisively colours the intellectual history of the last forty years of the 12th century. Map is said to have written a Latin of the Graal, which is not now extant; yet from it all the authors of the French prose romances on Arthur and the Saint Graal which appeared between 1170 to 1230 – Robert de Borron, his kinsman Helie, Luc de Gast, and Map himself – profess to have translated their compositions. The chief of these works are the Saint Graal, Merlin, the Quest of the Saint Graal, Lancelot, Tristan and Mort Artur. In all, to "achieve the Saint Graal," that is, to find or see that holy vessel which, on account of the sins of men, had long since vanished from Britain, is represented as the heights of chivalrous ambition; but among all Arthur’s knights, only Sir, Galahad, the son of Lancelot, is sufficiently pure in heart to be favoured with the sublime version. English versions, more or less literal, of these romances, among which may be named the works of Lonelich and Sir Thomas Malory, and the alliterative poem of Joseph of Arimathie, attest the great and enduring popularity of the Graal form of Arthurian legend.

2. After a long period of silence, the bardic poetry of Wales broke out, just when the independence of the nation was about to be extinguished, into passionate and varied utterance. The princess who struggled successfully against the attacks of Henry II, found gifted bards – Gwalchmai, Elidir, Gwion, &c. – to celebrate in fiercely strains their imperfect triumphs. A translation of one of Gwalchmai’s odes may be found, under the title of the Triumph of Owen, among Gray’s poems. Supposed "Prophecies of Merlin," a sample of which may be seen in the strange work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, fed the popular belief that Arthur yet lived, and would return one day to Wales as a deliverer. Both the Triads and the Mobinogion refer in part to Arthur, but from different stand – points. In the Triads such mention as there is of him represents him as a British king, doing battle with the foes, of his race, and full of a sententious wit and wisdom. In the Mabinogion the indigenous Welsh is over-powered by that of the Norman trouves; we have the Arthur, not of history or tradition, but of chivalry; the mysterious Saint Graal proves as attractive to the Celtic as to the Teutonic imagination. Three of the romances by Chretien de Troyes appears in a Welsh dress among the tales of the Mabinogion. After the loss of independenceunder Edward L., the importance and originally of Welsh literature appear to have progressively declined.

3. The English-speaking portion – that is, the great mass – of the population, down to the reign of John, has left few literacy traces of its existence. Whoever wished to move amongst the educated and cultured classes, and to associate with persons of rank, authority, or influence, found it necessary, though he might be descended from Alfred himself, to speak French in good society, and to write in French whatever he wished good society to read. From the Conquest to 1200, the industry of the most lynx – eyed antiquary has discovered – with the exception of the continuation of the Saxon Chronicle – no literacy record the continuation of the Saxon Chronicle – no literary record in English beyond a few short fragments, such as the lines preserved as a part of Canute’s ksong by Thomas of Ely, the prophecy of Here, and the hymm of St. Godris. The continuation beyond the Conquest of the Saxon Chronicle was made by the monks of Peterborough. It is not complete for the reign of Stephen, passing over several years subsilention; but it records the accession of Henry II in 1154, and then ends abruptly. The writer or writers were perhaps unable to stand up any longer against the then universal fashion of employing Latin for any serious prose work. Moreover, as the Anglo-Saxon was no longer taught in schools nor spoken in the higher circles of society, it had lst much of its original harmony and precision of structure; and "when the annalist found himself using one inflexion for another, or dropping inflexions altogether, he may well have thought it high time to exchange a tongue which seemed to be crumbling and breaking up, for one whose were fixed and grammar rational.Little did the downl – hearted monk anticipate the future glories which, after a crisis of transformation and fusion, would surround his rude ancestral tongue."

A few years after the beginning of the 13th century we have to note the appearance of an important and interesting work in English – Layanon’s Brut. But it can scarely be said to belong to English literature, unless Beowulf and Judith be similarly classified, for the language is almost as purely Teutonic as in these. In the older version of the Brut not more than fifty words of Latin or French origin have been found; and of these several were in common use in England before the Conquest. The Brut is strictly a monument of the age of transition. We need not, with some writers, call the language "semi – Saxon;" it is certainly English, and, from a particular point of view, English than we speak now; but it is not that form of English which, from first to last, has been the instrument employed to build up English literature. That form, as we shall see in the next section, was determined and conditioned by the necessity of effecting a compromise between the speech of the governors and that of the governed, so that the new standard English should remain, as to its grammatical framework, comparatively intact, while admitting to its franchise, and enrolling among its vocables, an indefinite numbers of foreign recruits.

The work of Layamon is a translation, but with very considerable additions, of Wace’s Brut d’ Angleterre. The most interesting of these additions (the sources of which have not been as yet pointed out) constitute an expansion of the legendary history of Arthur. Layamon was the parish priest of Ernly – on Severn (now Areley Regis), a remote Worcestershire village, far from the capital or any large city. At such a place Norman influence would be at a minimum; the people would go on from one generation to another, living and speaking much as their fathers did before them; and we may suppose some indications of literacy taste and poetic feeling among members of his flock, the good Layamon took this way of gratifying them. But it must be carefully observed that in the Brut, although the language is English, the poetical atmosphere, the intellectual horizon, and even the cast of diction, are Norman – French. The rich poetic vocabulary of the Anglo – Saxon poets, traceable as late as the reign of Edgar, has vanished beyond recovery. Not one of the innumerable poetic compounds relating to battle and victory which are found in Beowulf, Andreas, &c., occurs in the duller pages of the Brut. Words expressive of jurisdiction and government, of which the Anglo-Saxon, while the native race was dominant, had a great variety, are in the Brut, if used at all, borrowed to a large from French. The labours of the clergy and monks during all this period were applied with unwearying diligence and signal success to the building up of a Latin literature. In the list of chronicles occur the well-known names of Florence of Worcester, William of Malmesbury, and Henry of Huntingdon. Many histories of particular monasteries were written, and have recently to a large extent been made accessible, through the labours of editors employed under the superintendent of the Master of the Rolls. St Anselm, Archibishop of Canterbury in the reigns of William II, and Henry I., employed his great metaphysical and dialectical powers in the endeavor to establish a harmony between reason and faith. The scholastic philosophy, technically speaking, began with Peter Lombard and his Book of Sentences (1151); from the university of Paris it spread all over Europe; and in the next period it will be seen that several of the most eminent schoolmen were natives of the British Isles. The works of our countryman, John of Salisbury, who studied and resided much at Paris about the middle of the century, throw a curious light on the tenets and mutual relations of the scholastic sects.

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