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No history of the Middle Ages would be complete without some account of the literature which, while reflecting more or less faithfully the social life, customs, and modes of thought of the period, kindled the imagination of the men of the day, and provided a far from negligible stimulus to their action. The Middle Ages were, in very truth, the ages of Romance, and the tales which enthralled the listeners of the eleventh and twelfth centuries are still potent with charm for the more sophisticated readers of today.

A familiar and oft-quoted passage in the twelfth-century Chanson des Saisnes by Jean Bodel sums up in a couple of lines the subject-matter of the vast body of medieval romance :

“Ne sont que trois matières à nul home entendant,

De France, de Bretagne, et de Rome le grant,”

That is, for the Romance-speaking peoples of Europe, whom alone the writer had in mind, the only three subjects worthy of serious attention were the romantic legends which clustered round the figures of Charlemagne, Arthur, and Alexander the Great. Of these three the two first are by far the most important; few outside the circle of professional scholars are today interested in the fictitious adventures of Alexander—fact is here far more interesting than fiction—but no amateur of literature can afford to ignore such texts as the Chanson de Roland, Aliscans, Syr Gawayne and the Grene Knyghte, or the Perceval and Tristan poems.

From the purely literary point of view the Arthurian romances, as a whole, can perhaps claim superiority over the Charlemagne poems. These offer us no such monuments of conscious literary skill as the works of Chretien de Troyes, the prose of the Lancelot, the Tristan of Gottfried of Strasbourg, or the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, but regarded as a collection of human documents the epic of Charlemagne and his peers stands alone. We have nothing in literature more poignant than the Chanson de Roland, nothing more purely human than the great Geste of Guillaume d’Orange.

So far as actual dates are concerned, the historical Arthur preceded Charlemagne by some three centuries, but as a theme for romantic literature the great Frank Emperor has the priority, and in discussing the cycles we may well follow the example of Jean Bodel and begin with the Matière de France.

The Charlemagne Cycle.

The corpus of the Charlemagne cycle consists of some seventy or eighty Chansons de Geste, as these poems are generally called, of which only a comparatively small number deal with the personal adventures of that monarch, or with events taking place in his reign. It will be quite understood that, in the narrow limits at our disposal, it is impossible to deal adequately with such a vast body of romance. We can but outline the main themes and indicate the chefs-d'oeuvre upon them

The writers of the thirteenth century, probably influenced by the passage from Jean Bodol quoted above, classified the poems of the cycle under three headings, the Geste du Roi, the Geste de Doon de la barbe floric, and the Geste de Garin de Monglane; but this description M. Bédier dismisses as artificial, save in the case of the last group, which covers the romances dealing with the feats of les Narbonnais and the most famous member of that family, Guillaume d’Orange, a group which really does constitute a distinct cycle.

Of the romances dealing with Charlemagne himself—his Enfances, the woes of his mother (Berthe aux grands pieds), his persecuted childhood (Mainet), his adventures with the chivalric robber of the Ardennes (Basin), his supposed journey to the East (Pelerinage de Charlemagne), and his conquest of Brittany (Chanson d'Aiquin), are all quite fictitious. Mainet is based upon adventures of Charles Martel, but the tale of Berthe is pure folklore, the theme of the substituted bride; and Charlemagne was never in Brittany, and never made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The one poem which may be included in the Geste du Roi, and which really rests upon a historical, foundation, is the Chanson de Roland, which, with the possible exception of the Chanson de Willame (only discovered in 1903), is the oldest text of the cycle. It is an historical fact, recorded by the chronicler Einhard in his Vita Karoli, that, on 15 August 778, on the return march from an expedition against the Moors of Spain, the rear­guard of Charlemagne’s army was surprised in a defile of the Pyrenees by the Basques and, according to the chronicler, slain to the last man, among the dead being “Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus.” In this brief notice we have the germ of the Chanson de Roland, as told by one Turold, ici fait la geste que Turoldus declinet.

In the poem the story has been amplified into a classic theme of heroism betrayed and fidelity to death. Roland is the nephew of Charlemagne, here represented under the traditional aspect of the white-bearded Emperor “a la barbe florie,” who has reached the truly patriarchal age of two hundred years. He has warred for seven years in Spain, conquering all the cities save Saragossa, the seat of the Moorish king, Marsile. The Moor, fearing the power of Charlemagne, sends an embassy to solicit peace, promising to follow it himself, with a thousand of his nobles, to receive baptism. The question arises, who of the Emperor’s nobles shall act as envoy to settle the terms, a dangerous errand, as no one feels assured of the good faith of the Moors. Roland proposes Ganelon his “parrastre,” and the suggestion is unanimously approved, but Ganelon, who suspects Roland of designs upon his life, bitterly resents the choice, and while obeying the commands of his sovereign, vows to be avenged. But Ganelon is no coward, as this scene of protest might lead us to think; on his arrival at the Moorish court he behaves with all the arrogance which might be expected from an emissary of the great Emperor, and the reader is somewhat surprised that he escapes with his life. But he has arranged with the Moors an ambuscade into which the flower of the Christian army shall fall. Ganelon returns to camp, his mission safely accomplished, and Charlemagne prepares for the homeward march. Who shall command the rear-guard, and be responsible for the safety of the army during its passage through the defiles of the Pyrenees? Who, says Ganelon, but Roland, the bravest of all Charlemagne’s knights? Roland suspects treachery, but accepts the post. Charlemagne would leave with him half the army, to assure his safety, but Roland proudly refuses: he will have but 20,000 men, but these include the twelve peers, the glory of Charlemagne’s court, and Turpin, the valiant Archbishop of Rheims. The main army sets out on its march, and the doomed 20,000 remain on guard. The hills are high, the valleys shadowed, grey are the rocks, fear­some the defiles. The main army has hardly passed out of sight when the trumpets of the Moors are heard in the distance. Oliver, mounted on a rock, sees the innumerable army of their foes, and warns Roland that they are betrayed; the Paynims number at least 100,000, it is impossible for the French to withstand them. Charlemagne is still within hearing; let Roland sound his horn, and their comrades will come to their aid. Roland proudly refuses; were he to do so he would lose his glory in “douce France”; their foes are doomed to death. Oliver insists, always to meet with the same answer: the French can hold their own, their foes “tuit sunt a mort livret.” “Rollanz est pruz, e Oliviers est sages”; before the headlong rashness of his friend the latter finally holds his peace, their foes are near, Charlemagne is now too far, Roland has not deigned to sound his horn, and their comrades must not be blamed for their fate?

The battle is joined, and at first the Christians hold their own, but their foes are too numerous, and though they fall by hundreds and thousands (Archbishop Turpin deals more than a thousand blows) they still press on. The French hold out during four attacks, but the fifth is fatal; of all the 20,000 but sixty are left alive. Roland’s heart misgives him for the result; he appeals to Oliver, what shall he do? How let the Emperor know of their plight? Shall he sound his horn? Now the roles are dramatically reversed—Oliver retorts on Roland with the arguments the latter had previously employed. He will not hear of a call for help, it will be great shame and reproach to all their folk.

Roland would not sound his horn when Oliver bade him, now it is too late. Roland asks why is Oliver wroth with him? Oliver replies that reasoned courage is not madness, measure is better than rashness, he has slain many by his folly.

There is nothing left for them now but to die.

The Archbishop intervenes in their dispute: ’tis true that to sound the horn now will not save them, but at least it will bring Charlemagne back to avenge them, and to give their bodies Christian burial, that they be not left to be devoured by wild boars, wolves, or dogs. “’Tis a good word,” says Roland, and putting his horn to his lips he blows till the blood streams from his mouth and the veins of his temples are ruptured with the strain. The echoes of the horn reach the ears of the Emperor, but Ganelon treats the summons lightly: they know Roland’s pride, he will sound his horn all day for a hare

There is no battle. But the horn sounds again, and Naimos, the wise Duke of Bavaria, intervenes: there is a battle raging, Roland is in danger, he has been betrayed, and by whom but the man who proposed him as leader of the rear-guard, and who would now prevent Charlemagne from going to his aid? In a flash the Emperor sees the truth; he orders the arrest of Ganelon, and begins the return march in haste. From afar the Moors hear the sound of the French trumpets; Tis Charlemagne who comes, and they turn in flight. But it is too late: when the Emperor arrives on the scene each step of the way is marked by dead and dying Christians, not a peer remains alive; Turpin lies where he fell, going to the aid of the dying Roland, and Roland himself, under a pine tree, his face turned towards his foes, has ceased to breathe.

The rest of the poem is taken up with the account of the pursuit and defeat of the Moors, daylight being miraculously prolonged for the purpose; the conversion of the Moorish sovereign; and the trial and death of Ganelon.

This is a brief analysis of what is not only the most important text of early French literature, but also one of the best constructed, most human and poignant romances which the genius of the Middle Ages has bequeathed to us.

I have referred above to the cycle of Guillaume d' Orange, the twenty-four romances composing which form the Geste of Garin de Monglane, the ancestor of the noble family of the Narbonnais. Garin de Monglane and his sons have a feud with Charlemagne; in the poem of Girard de Vienne, the Emperor, hunting the wild boar, becomes separated from his men, and is made prisoner by Girard, his brothers, and nephews. After considerable debate they make peace with their suzerain; Aymeri, still a youth, is the last to yield. When he does so, it is in words which sound the key-note of all the Chansons de Geste-.

Tant com vodroiz je serai vostre amis

Et qant vodroiz par le cors St Denis

Je reserai de vostre amor reschis.

He will deal with Charlemagne as Charlemagne deals with him. This attitude of fierce independence, combined with an essential loyalty, is characteristic of all the heroes of the cycle.

Aymeri owes his title de Narbonne to the fact that, when Charlemagne offers the lordship of this city to that one of his nobles who will undertake to conquer it from the Saracens, he is the only one who dare accept the gift (Aymeri de Narbonne). We meet him again in old age, the proud father of seven gallant sons (Les Narbonnais) who, with the exception of the youngest, have already attained the age of knighthood. At the great feast of Easter, Aymeri, gathering his sons around him, bids them not wait for his death for their heritage, they shall have no foot of his land, that he reserves for the youngest; he won Narbonne for himself, they must follow in his footsteps, and in lordly fashion he allots to each what he deems a fitting heritage. The three eldest are to go to the tourt of the Emperor, where Hernaut shall be chief councillor, Bernard seneschal, and Guillaume standard-bearer, all of which comes to pass.

It is with the fortunes of the third son, Guillaume, that the remainder of the cycle is concerned. We find him in Le Couronnement de Louis acting as guardian and protector of the young king, rescuing him from the plots formed against him, establishing him firmly on the throne, and marrying him to his sister Aaliz. But Louis is ungrateful; when he distributes lands and honours to his subservient courtiers Guillaume is passed over; in towering indignation the hero upbraids the ungrateful king, recalling, in order, all the services he has rendered, ending each recital with the slightly varying refrain:

De cest service ne te membra il gaires

Cant sans moi as departis tes marches.

In vain Louis offers him gifts which Guillaume proudly refuses; he will do as his father did before him, and conquer for himself a heritage (Le Charroi de Nimes). He turns south to the lands occupied by the Saracens, conquers Nimes and Orange (La Prise d'Orange) wins and weds the Saracen queen, Orable, who is baptised and receives the name of Guibourc, and as Guillaume d’Orange “le marquis au court nez” (most probably, as M. Gaston Paris suggested and as recent discoveries have confirmed, “au courb nez”) becomes famous as the most determined opponent of the Saracens.

Now a new hero comes upon the scene. As Charlemagne had a valiant nephew, Roland, so Guillaume has a no less valiant nephew, Vivien, a true son of his race. On the day he is dubbed knight he takes an oath never to flee a lance’s length before the Saracens (Le Covenant Vivien), and his fidelity to his vow causes his death. In the famous poem of Aliscans the Saracen king, Desrame, with a powerful fleet, lands at Aliscans and ravages the surrounding country. Vivien, with his cousins, attacks him in wholly inadequate force, and, faithful to his vow, prefers death to retreat. He contrives to send a message to his uncle at Orange, and Guillaume, hastening to the field of battle with such men as he can collect, is in time to receive the lad’s dying confession, and messages of love to Guibourc, who has been as a mother to him. Guillaume, priest for the nonce, communicates the boy with the pain benit, and sees him die in his arms:

Dex, recoif s’arme par ton digne commant

Qu’eu ton serviche est mors en Aliscans.

But Guillaume himself is in the greatest danger: all his companions are slain, and he only succeeds in escaping disguised in the armour of a dead Saracen. He reaches the gates of Orange, to be denied entry by his wife, who refuses to believe that her husband would have returned without the nephews to whom he was so warmly attached. Convinced at last of his identity, Guibourc shows herself a worthy help-mate; she bids Guillaume seek the court of his brother-in-law King Louis, and demand the aid the latter is pledged to render every seven years; she and her maidens, dressed in armour, will keep the enemy at bay, the while from her private treasure she is assembling a fresh army. Guillaume follows her advice, forces aid from the reluctant Louis, and discovers a champion in a gigantic’ young Saracen, Rainoart, who has been acting as scullion in the royal kitchen, but is, in fact, brother to Guibourc. Thanks to his valour the Saracens are defeated; Guillaume retires to a hermitage, whence he issues once more to combat the enemies of Christianity (Le Moniage Guillaume), and where he dies in the odour of sanctity.

In 1903, a hitherto unknown Anglo-Norman poem, Le Chanzun de Willame, was privately printed by the anonymous possessor of the manuscript. The text dates from the thirteenth century, but is based upon an earlier French original, which in the opinion of scholars cannot have been written later than the commencement of the twelfth, and probably is as early as the eleventh century—i.e. it is contemporary with the Chanson de Roland. The author obviously knew the Guillaume cycle as we have it; he was familiar with earlier forms of the Vivien poems, and their denouement in Aliscans. It is certainly curious that the earliest manuscript of the Chanson de Roland and the only extant version of the Chanzun de Willame should both be preserved in England.

Another interesting group of the Charlemagne poems deals with the conflicts of the Emperor and his successors with their rebellious vassals. To this group belong the romances of Ogier le Danois, Girard de Roussillon, and Renaud de Montauban, the last, known also as Les Quatre Fils Aymon, retains its popularity as a folk-romance to this day.

The above is a very brief summary of an extensive and important body of literature; we may now ask what is the dominant character of the cycle, what was the public to whom it was addressed, and how far may it be held to repose upon genuine historical tradition?

The character of the Chansons de Geste is strongly marked; they are all bellicose to a degree. When the heroes, be they who they may, are not fighting against the enemies of Christianity they are at odds with the suzerain lord. The Chansons de Geste are chansons of Feudalism, and reflect with truth the generally prevailing social conditions. From this point of view they may be rightly deemed historical. Again, certain of the characters who appear in them had their actual historical counterparts. Charles Martel, Charlemagne, and Louis really lived, though the deeds ascribed to each severally are frequently borrowed from the events occurring in the reigns of their predecessors or successors. There was a Roland who died at Roncesvalles, though the agents of his death were the native Basques, and not the Moorish invaders. Ogier (Autcharus) was in actual fact a rebellious vassal of Charlemagne; Guillaume, Count of Toulouse, really warred against the Saracens in Spain and the south of France, wedded a wife named Guibourc, and died a hermit in the valley of Gellone, where his memory is still reverenced as St Guillaume du Desert. M. Bedier has given a list of fifty-five characters of the cycle who have a genuine claim to represent historical prototypes.

It was long held as an article of faith that, taken as a whole, the Charlemagne cycle was a genuine record of contemporary events, enshrined originally in short chants, “cantilenes,” which in process of time, becoming linked together, grew into the Chansons we possess. The facts that not a single cantilene has survived to our day, and that we possess no text of a Chanson de Geste of earlier date than the end of the eleventh century, were insufficient to impair the popularity of this theory. It has now, however, been boldly attacked by M. Joseph Bedier in his epoch-making work. The theory of this distinguished scholar, as summed up by him in the concluding pages of his book, is briefly: “Les Chansons de Geste sont nées au XI siecle seulement.” We possess them in what is practically their original form. The historical clement preserved in them is to be traced to various monkish chronicles and local legends, exploited by the monks and minstrels on the great pilgrimage routes through Europe. The three main goals of pilgrimage in the eleventh century were the shrine of St James (Santiago) at Compostela, Rome, and Jerusalem, and there were minor centres of popular devotion, such as St Guillaume du Desert and Ste. Marie Madeleine de Vezelai. It is along these routes of pilgrimage that the Chansons de Geste are localised: e.g. the author of Ogier le Danois was perfectly familiar with the great roads leading to Rome. The authors of the Chanson de Roland and the poems recording Charlemagne's victories in Spain were equally familiar with the route to Compostela—they had seen the reputed tombs of Roland and Oliver at Blaye, the relics of Roland and Charlemagne preserved at Roncesvalles, and beyond that route they knew nothing of Spanish geography. The Chronicle of Turpin is nothing more than a chapter in the Livre de St Jacques, otherwise known, from the copy preserved at Compostela, as the Codex Callixtinus, a composition designed for the use of pilgrims. Here Charlemagne appeal's as a veritable knight of St James.

A similar origin is traceable for all the Chansons de Geste: they are connected either with the great pilgrimage routes and the various stages upon one or other of them, or with sanctuaries where the faithful flocked to adore the relics of some local saint, or with centres of popular assembly, the great fairs hold annually in the parvis of some famous church, as at Cambrai or St Denis. The confraternities of minstrels attached to such churches (e.g. at Fescamps) collaborated with the clergy in exploiting the local legends—the Chansons de Geste are the combined work of clerks and minstrels. As M. Bedier puts it tersely, “If there had been no tomb of Roland at St Romain de Blaye, no hermitage at Gellone, no shrine of Ste. Marie Madeleine at Vezelay, there would have been no Chanson de Roland, no cycle of Guillaume d'Orange, no Girard de Roussillon.” The Chansons de Geste are essentially popular romances, composed not in the interests of one class, the nobles and warriors of court and camp, but for a genuine and mixed public, men who took their part in crusade and pilgrimage, and chaffered at the annual church fair. Regarded from this point of view they become exceedingly interesting; they are human documents, throwing a light upon the general life of the period; their themes, zeal for the Christian Faith, loyalty to the sovereign lord, resistance to the arbitrary will of a feudal seigneur, were themes understood of the people, they formed part of their every-day life, and we need be no longer surprised at the extent and volume of the Charlemagne romances, or at the fact that they were popular outside the country of their birth, and were rendered into English, Italian, and Scandinavian translations. The stories made appeal not merely to a French but to a European public, living under like social conditions, actuated by like religious aims. To these people it was a far cry to the central authority; there might indeed be an imperial court, with an Emperor who, to those who came in touch with him, was a more or less impressive and awe-inspiring figure, but that central power operated within a restricted radius; the actual authority was the feudal lord—duke, count, or baron—of the district immediately concerned.

The distinguishing feature of the feudal system was the linking up of all grades of society by a chain of reciprocal and clearly understood duties and responsibilities. The nobles owed service to the sovereign from whom they held their fiefs, the sovereign owed protection to his vassals. All down the social scale the principle held good—protection from above, service from below. That the protecting powers were not infrequently guilty of injustice and oppression, that the vassals were independent, frequently rebellious, is undeniable. The feudal system certainly interfered with individual liberty and development, and thus its eventual disappearance was inevitable; at the same time the principle upon which it was based, its recognition of a common interest and reciprocal duties, undoubtedly made for solidarity. At its worst, feudalism produced glaring abuses; at its best, it offered a basis for human society which modern ingenuity has so far not improved upon. A knowledge of the real functioning of the system is essential if we would understand the spirit of the Chansons de Geste, whether the central theme be the rela­tion of the hero to the imperial power, as in the Guillaume d'Orange romances, or feuds between nobles of practically equal rank, as in Renaud de Montauban. The romances are in a very real sense historical documents, preserving foi' us a vivid and vital record of a period essentially alien to modern conceptions.

Incidentally we may point out that the theory of the origin of the Chansons de Geste advocated by M. Bedier agrees in a most interesting manner with modern in terpretations of the underlying cause of the conflicts between the Italian towns. The routes of international communication were factors of vital importance in the social, comnrercial, literary, and artistic life of the Middle Ages.

II. The Arthurian Cycle.

When we turn from the Matters de France to that of Bretagne we find ourselves at once in a different atmosphere; we have passed from a world of reality to one of pure romance. Exaggerated as the description of the feats of the heroes of the Chansons de Geste may be, they are yet, au fond, the normal actions of men of that period. They are warriors of flesh and blood, their consorts true women, faithful wives, and devoted mothers (e.g. Guibourc, and the mother of the Narbonnais). But in the Arthurian cycle we find ourselves in a world of illusion and faerie—the knights war with forces of another world; they are confronted with giants and demons; smitten by darts from invisible hands; they ride on a mystic quest whose goal is life perdurable; their councillors are sorcerers; the ladies they woo are of fairy race.

The charm of the Arthurian story is undeniable, imperishable, but as a rule it lacks the human interest which marks the tales of the Charlemagne cycle.

The two are practically contemporary; although we have no text of Arthurian romance earlier than the twelfth century, we know that tales of Arthur and his knights must have been current at a much earlier date, for Signor Pio Rajna has found in Italian documents of the early twelfth century the attestations of witnesses bearing the names of Arthur and Gawain, and such witnesses, to be of an age to testify, could not have been born later than 1080. A carving over the north doorway, of Modena cathedral, also dating from the early twelfth century, represents a group of Arthurian characters riding to the assault of a tower, on which stands a female figure. The adventure in which they are engaged cannot be identified with any of the extant texts. Thus the Arthurian legend was not only formed in the eleventh century, but had already travelled far from its native land. When the Chanson de Roland was being composed for the edification of the pilgrims to St James of Compostela and the crusaders against the Moors of Spain, Italy was listening to, and recording by the gift of baptismal names, tales of Arthur and his knights. Yet, as we shall see in our final summary, the influence of the two cycles one upon another was extremely slight.

The historical element in the Arthurian cycle is but meagre; scholars now generally agree to accept as genuine the statement in the Historia Britonum of Nennius that a chieftain named Arthur played a dominant role in the wars waged between Britons and the Saxon invaders during the fifth century; he was, apparently, the British generalissimo. The fact that Nennius goes on to relate his hunting of the mythic boar Twrch Trwyth, shows that even in his day fiction was busy with the name of Arthur. The suggestion, made by the late Sir John Rhys, that Arthur held a post analogous to that which under the late Roman occupation was known by the title of Comes Britanmae, assigned to a general who was commissioned to defend the island wherever attacked, would explain in a satisfactory manner the existence of widely scattered Arthurian localities. If we accept the thesis of a chief who, during the latter half of the fifth century, waged a successful war against the Saxons, was betrayed by his wife and a near relative, son or nephew, and fell in battle, we probably have all that can safely be claimed as historical basis for the Arthurian story. To seek, as in the Charlemagne cycle, for an historical counterpart to the figures of Arthurian romance, would be labour thrown away; Arthur may indeed have had a valiant nephew who was the prototype of our Sir Gawain, even as it is possible that a tradition of actual fact underlies the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult (who, however, do not really belong to Arthurian tradition); farther than that it is doubtful if any scholar would now be prepared to go.

Arthurian romantic literature, as distinguished from tradition, may be held to have begun with the Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, probably the most successful piece of fiction ever produced. The work was composed about 1135, and is professedly based upon a volume of British traditions which Geoffrey received from Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. Whether such a book ever existed, or if it did what was its language, Latin or Welsh, it is now impossible to determine. Whatever the source upon which he drew, Geoffrey represents Arthur, not as a mere British chieftain, but as a Welt-Kaiser, whose conquests, extending over practically the known world from Scandinavia to Rome, rivalled the Empire of Charlemagne. Indeed, on the basis of romantic tradition there was no room for the simultaneous existence of two such monarchs, a recognition of which, on the part of poets of the day, may account for the fact that these two practically contemporary cycles ignore each other.

Two chroniclers, writing before Geoffrey—William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon—refer to Arthur as a popular hero, and the words in which the former characterises the British enthusiasm for their national hero, “hodie delirant,” show clearly that popular imagination was already busy with historical fact. Geoffrey’s work appeared at the psychological moment, and gave form and impetus to the already existing tendency.

The immediate effect of the Historia, is most marked in the pserido-historic texts : the Brut of the Anglo-Norman Wace, and its translation into early English by Layamon; but both writers know more of Arthur than we find in Geoffrey, for both know the Round Table, of which there is no mention in the Historia. Layamon, in particular, gives a most vivid account of its foundation which obviously reposes upon a very early tradition. He also gives a fine and detailed account of Arthur’s reception of the news of Mordred’s treachery, and the subsequent tragedy, and, further, a unique and picturesque version of the birth of the enchanter’ Merlin.

Apart from the pseudo-historic chronicles and the Merlin texts, the Arthurian romances, however, owe little or nothing to Geoffrey, and their number and variety offer eloquent testimony to the contemporary existence of an extensive Arthurian tradition. The existing manuscripts belong exclusively to the latter part of the twelfth and the early thirteenth century, but the writers were obviously dealing with the later stages of a fully-developed legend; in many cases they were handling a situation of which more than one version was known to them ; while the existence of an Arthurian tradition in Italy, already referred to, justifies us in the assumption that the end of the eleventh and the early twelfth century had already witnessed what M. Bédier has happily described as “uno premiere floraison des poemes Arthuriens.”

The earlier’ Arthurian romances were composed in verse; it was not till the appearance of the prose version of Robert de Borron’s cycle, at the close of the twelfth century, that an impetus was given to the construction of the elaborate prose romances, which in the final cyclic versions acquired a portentous volume. Of these earlier poems Arthur was not, as a rule, the actual hero, he was the king at whose court the recorded adventures took place; but, as a matter of fact, he is more or less of a lay figure, he lacks the distinct personality of the old Emperor Charlemagne “a la barbe florie.” In the romances most directly connected with him he is found closely associated with Merlin, and this latter, enchanter, guardian, and councillor of the young king, is really the dominant figure. The heroes of Arthurian story are the knights of Arthur’s court, and their adventures have been related by a group of writers of no mean literary skill. This is especially noticeable in the Lais of Marie de France, an Anglo-Norman poetess of the latter half of the twelfth century. Based, as the authoress distinctly states, on Breton originals, these graceful tales, mostly imbued with a strong fairy element, are connected sometimes with the court of Arthur, more generally with that of some unnamed monarch. It is obvious that the writer is working over, in the interest of the popular Arthurian story, tales which were in no way connected with that tradition. But whoever be the king at whose court the action takes place, whether Arthur or another, he is little more than a lay figure.

There is another point in which the two cycles differ. We know the names of the men who composed the principal romances ; we have passed from the stage of the anonymous minstrel to that of the court poet; and though there are still minstrels to delight a public with their rhymes, that public is more sophisticated than that of the fairs and common routes, and the minstrel is generally careful to give to his version the authoritative sanction of some well-known name.

The most famous poet of the period was Chretien de Troyes; the exact date of his literary activity, his precise social status, whether he were a herald, as M. Gaston Paris believed, or a lawyer, as M. Maurice Willmotte has suggested, we do not know, but it is certain that he was a poet of considerable ingenuity and literary skill, and the group of poems we possess from his hand—Erec ; Yvain, or Le Chevalier an Lion ; Cliges; Le Chevalier de la Charrette, and Perceval, or Le Conte del Graalrank as classics of medieval literature.

It would be out of place here to enter into details of the controversy which has raged over the question of the originality of Chretien. Was he, as the late Professor Wendelin Foerster maintained, the first to compose an Arthurian romance, and the source whence all subsequent writers derived their inspiration ? Or did he stand, as Dr. Brugger believes, at the end, and not at the beginning, of a period of romantic evolution? It must be admitted that Chretien himself does not claim to be an inveutor, but rather a re-teller of tales, as in the case of the Perceval, which he declares to be the best story told at a royal court; but whatever the view held of his independence, the excellence of his style is undisputed, and from a literary point of view his works well deserved the success they achieved. The poems of Erec and Yvain were translated into German by Hartmann von Aue, a writer who in literary skill is little, if at all, inferior to Chretien. There is an excellent English rendering of the Yvain, “Ywain and Gawain” by an anonymous writer; and the Welsh Mabinogion in Geraint ap Erbin, The Lady of the Fountain, and Peredur, give parallel versions to Erec, Yvain, and Perceval; the precise relation existing between the Welsh and French texts is still a matter of debate.

The same may be said of the German Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a work of outstanding merit alike in conception and construction, in many ways the most interesting text of the cycle. A considerable section of the poem agrees closely with the Perceval of Chretien; at the same time, in the description of the hero’s youth, the German poem retains details of obviously primitive origin which are lacking in the French text. It also gives a lengthy account of the adventures of his father, to which Chretien has no parallel, and wjiich at the same time betrays a curious familiarity with the history of the House of Anjou. Wolfram himself distinctly states that he is following the version of one Kiot (? Guiot) the Provencal, and criticises Chretien as having told the story incorrectly. So far no manuscript of Kiot’s poem has been discovered, but it is a significant fact that Wolfram connects the Perceval Grail story with that of the Swan Knight, and that both Gerbert, one of the continuators of Chretien, and the anonymous author of Sone de Nansai, are also familiar with this development, though neither of them can have known the Parzival. There must certainly have existed a French text from which this feature was derived.

The Perceval of Chretien, left unfinished at his death, was continued by three writers, Wauchier de Denain, Gerbert (most probably Gerbert de Montreuil, author of Le Roman de la Violette), and Manessier; the two latter wrote after the full cyclic development of the Arthurian tradition, but the first, who lived at the commencement of the thirteenth century, utilised sources earlier than Chretien, and his text is of paramount importance for the criticism of the cycle. Among his sources was a “minstrel” manuscript, the excerpts from which throw a most interesting light upon the conditions under which these tales were told. Thus, in relating Gawain’s adventure with the knight who is slain in his company by an invisible hand, we find a break in the tale—

Lors s’en va Mesire Gauvaius,

Cil remest mort entre ses mains.

A ces parolles doit chascuns

Dire patrenostre aus defuns,

Puis nous ferez le vin donner.

The impression here given is that of a minstrel reciting his romance in a baronial hall, where the “seigneurs” he addresses are seated round the board, and the wine circulates freely; this is not the public of the Chansons de Geste.

This manuscript contained a group of tales dealing with the adventures of Gawain, his son, and brother, a group the existence of which is testified to by extant English poems relating parallel adventures, and which obviously belonged to a stage of Arthurian tradition anterior to that of Chretien’s poems, a stage in which the primacy of Gawain as Arthurian romantic hero was unchallenged. This group, to which may be given the tentative title of The Geste of Sir Gawain, is of great importance for critical purposes.

Besides the writings of Chretien de Troyes we have the poems of Raoul de Houdenc, La Vengeance de Raguidel, and Méraugis de Portleaguez, and the interesting texts relative to the adventures of Gawain’s son, Le Bel Inconnu, and the English Sir Libeaus Desconus, the source of which no doubt ultimately goes back to the Geste above referred to. The same origin is probably to be postulated for the curious English poem The IWeddynge of Syr Gawayne, the central theme of which is admittedly of folklore origin; and also for the very fine Syr Gawayne and the Grene Knyghte, a fourteenth-century poem of unknown authorship, which the late M. Gaston Paris characterised as the gem of medieval English literature. Unfortunately the difficulties of the dialect in which it is composed will always be a bar to its enjoyment by the general reader, but the author possessed an exceptional constructive faculty, a power of imaginative description, and a love of nature, which combine to give the poem an enduring charm. Though of late date, as compared with the bulk of the Arthurian romances, it is generally held to be the rendering of a lost poem, probably Anglo-Norman, and its theme, a head-cutting challenge, is one which occurs frequently in Arthurian romance, and was certainly early connected with Gawain.

At the end of the twelfth century the period of Arthurian poetical activity was succeeded by that of prose. Robert de Borron composed a group of romances which, though originally intended to be written in verse, were ultimately cast in a prose form, and became both the basis and the model upon which the later cyclic versions were constructed.

Here we find ourselves faced with an element which, originally foreign to Arthurian legend and only appearing previously in isolated verse texts, subsequently dominated the whole body of prose romance. Borron’s romances, Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval, are essentially Grail romances, and in the final development of the tradition the Grail, its origin, its mystery, and the Quest in which first the chief heroes of Arthur’s court and finally all the Knights of the Round Table are engaged, becomes the dominating theme. For many years controversy has raged round the subject—what was the Grail? Was it originally a Christian relic? Was it merely a folklore talisman? Both views have found stalwart champions. Opinion today is now pretty well agreed that there is truth in both contentions, that we are here dealing with a combination of the two elements, that the Grail story represents a confused reminiscence of a Nature cult which, in its essence an inquiry into the sources of life by a process of initiation, had early taken on a pseudo­Christian colouring, and, surviving the ban of ecclesiastical censure, was secretly practised in strongholds of the British Isles. In Borron’s hands this cult became definitely stamped with the reverence paid to relics of the Passion, reverence to which the crusades had given a strong­impetus; the Grail has become the Dish, eventually the Cup, of the Last Supper. As the receptacle for the Blood, which flowed from the Wounds o f the Crucified Saviour it became a Saint-Sang relic, while the associated Lance became identified with the Lance of Longinus. But both retained their pre-Christian features: the Lance still bled into the Cup, the Grail was still a Feeding Vessel, coming and going without visible agency, and assuring to those who sat at its board the choicest food they could desire.

Interwoven with this theme of the Grail are the pseudo-historic events of Arthur’s career: his mysterious birth, his connexion with the enchanter Merlin, his wars with the Romans, and his death. To the fact that Borron has not held the balance equal between his themes but, having started with the idea of writing a Grail cycle, has allowed himself to be carried away by the charm of the Arthurian story, is probably to be ascribed certain incoherences in construction which led scholars for a time to deny the Borron authorship of the final sections. Regarded from the point of view of the Grail history there are certainly discrepancies, regarded as an Arthurian romance the unity of conception between the Merlin (which is undoubtedly by Borron) and the Perceval is undeniable. That the final section (the Mort Artus) is founded upon a verse chronicle, midway between the versions of Wace and Layamon, is beyond dispute.

Another romance, the date of which has been, and still is, a matter of controversy, the Perlesvaus, most probably followed closely on Borron’s work; the author bases his conception of the Grail upon Borron; he knew and utilised the Perceval, and was familiar with the group of Gawain stories to which I have referred above. On the other hand, he does not know the final romances of the cycle, which, on their side, shew signs of influence by the Perlesvaus.

While the Grail theme was thus gradually transforming the Arthurian story, another development, of equal importance for the final form of the literature, was taking place, namely, the evolution of the Lancelot element. As an Arthurian hero Lancelot is of late introduction; he has no place in the pseudo-historic texts, and his appearance in the poems is fitful and spasmodic. Thus in the Erec, Yvain, and Cliges of Chretien, he is a name and no more, and he is not even mentioned in the Perceval. But in Le Chevalier de la Charrette, which was written before the Perceval, the whole interest of the poem is centred on his amours with Guenevere.

In the early years of the thirteenth century the great prose Lancelot made its appearance. Most probably Lancelot was at first very loosely connected with the Grail, and the romance of Perlesvaus, where he shares the quest with Perceval and Gawain but does not behold the Grail, was probably the first stage in the process of adopting him into this cycle. The final step was the construction of the Queste and the invention of Galahad, through whom Lancelot, though as Guenevcre’s lover he could not aspire himself to the supreme honour of Grail-winner, achieved the quest vicariously in the person of his son.

In the final evolution of the cycle the Joseph of Borron underwent expansion and modification, with the view of fitting it to be an introduction alike to the Lancelot and the Queste. Under the title of Le Grand Saint Graal, or Estoire du Saint Graal, it became a lengthy record of miraculous conversions, leading up to the final evangelisation of Britain by J oseph of Arimathea, his son Jesephe, and his descendants. The Merlin also underwent expansion, partly pseudo-historic, by the introduction of lengthy wars with the Saxon invaders and with minor British kings; partly romantic, by the incorporation of tales the exact source of which is not yet determined. The entire prose cycle consisting of Grand Saint Graal, Merlin, Lancelot, Queste, and Mort Artus, is of appalling volume. Fortunately, however, the English reader has at hand, in the Morte of Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory, a skilful abridgement of the main branches of the cycle (the Grand Saint Graal is not represented), which, knit together by the underlying chivalric conception of the writer and composed in nervous and vivid prose, will always remain a classic of English literature.

A considerable section of Malory’s work is drawn from a romance which, although in its latest form connected alike with the Arthurian and the Grail legend, had originally nothing to do with either, the story of Tristan and Iseult. This, one of the world’s great stories, is best represented by the translations of a poem composed by an Anglo-Norman named Thomas, who wrote at the end of the twelfth century. Only fragments of the original work remain, but we have a fine translation into German by Gottfried of Strassbourg, a Scandinavian, prose rendering, and a fourteenth-century English poem, Sir Tristrem; from these we are enabled to reconstruct the story. Thomas cites as his authority one Breri, to whom he attributes a comprehensive knowledge of British tradition, and who is probably to be identified with the Bleheris “né et engenuis” in Wales, to whom we owe the Gawain stories utilised by Waucliier de Denain, and the Bledhericus, referred to by Giraldus Cambrensis as “famosus ille tabulator.” There also exists a fragment of another Anglo-Norman Tristan poem, by one Berol, which corresponds with a German version by Eilhart von Oberge; these texts appear to represent a form of the story rougher and more primitive than that, followed by Thomas. We also have isolated “Tristan” Lais, notably that of La Folie Tristan, which bear witness to the widespread popularity of the story. There can be no doubt that the tale of the tragic loves of Tristan and Iseult exercised a powerful influence upon the development of the story of Lancelot and Guenevere, nor can there be any dispute as to which is the finer tale. Arthur’s queen and her lover, with their conventional sighs and swoonings, love trances, and transports of joy, despair, or jealousy, though they gain some life from Malory’s vigorous prose, are but lay figures compared with Tristan’s Iseut ma drue, Iseut ma mie, En vus ma mort, en vus ma vie,” and Iseult breathing out her life in the last impassioned embrace of her dead lover. The Tristan story is perhaps the world’s finest love tale; the story of Lancelot and Guenevere is an interesting document of medieval amatory conventions.

In its final form the Tristan has been converted into a lengthy prose romance, in which the original incidents of the story have been obscured and distorted by the introduction of foreign elements. The character of Mark has undergone a radical change: the generous, trusting monarch has become a cowardly, treacherous prince, the final murderer of his nephew; in fact all the Cornish knights are held up to ridicule as cowards. Tristan is closely connected with Arthur’s court; he is the chosen friend of Lancelot, whose rival he is both in knightly valour and amour courtois. Finally we have a lengthy and diffuse version of the Quests., in which some scholars have seen the original form of that romance. If the original Lancelot-Guenevere story owes its inspiration to the earlier Tristan legend, it is equally true that the final form of this latter has been influenced by the prose Lancelot. The one really original feature in the compilation is the conception of the philosophically-minded coward, Dagonet, who is always prepared with a good reason for his own unknightly conduct, and with a humorously satirical comment on his friends’ extravagances. It was this version which was before Malory; consequently his text cannot be consulted for the genuine Tristan story.

The above is a rapid resume of the principal texts composing the Arthurian cycle; how does this body of literature compare, as a whole, with the cycle previously discussed? The two are, as we saw, practically contemporaneous, and are written in the same language, but there is a wide difference between them. So far as form is concerned, the Charlemagne romances are composed in laisses, or sections of varying length, each marked throughout by a single vowel-assonance, not by rhyme. The Arthurian poems are without exception in octosyllabic lines of which each two rhyme, a form faithfully followed by the German translators. The independent Lais adopt the same form. The English Arthurian poems, on the other hand, show a much more elaborate versification; they are mainly alliterative, and are composed in strophes or stanzas. A very interesting specimen is what is known as the Harleian Morte Arthurs, which was largely drawn upon by Malory for the concluding section of his work, but the English texts are all comparatively late in date. A very curious and unique manuscript of the Bibliotheque National, which recounts the earlier years of Arthur’s reign, and seems to be an amplification of the Merlin based upon a medley of Arthurian tales current at the time, gives extracts from what appears to have been an Arthurian poem composed in the form of a Chanson de Geste, but there appears to be no other instance of an Arthurian poem in laisses. The romances as a whole betray a literary consciousness foreign to the Charlemagne poems; the authors name themselves, they are at pains to attribute their sources a tort ou a raison (very frequently tort) to some well-known writer. They work under distinguished patronage, that of the King of England, the Count or Countess of Flanders, the Countess of Champagne. Their public is the public of courts, royal or seigneurial; some of the writers show a marked contempt for the folk, “les vilains”; we feel that both those who wrote and those who listened to the poems belonged to a more sophisticated milieu than that in which the Chansons of Charlemagne and his peers flourished.

Internally the influence of the two cycles, though rare, seems to have been reciprocal. It is more direct in the Chansons de Geste, where in La Bataille de Loquifer Rainoart is carried off to Avalon, and combats the monster Chapalu in the presence of Arthur; and in Huon de Bordeaux, where the hero inherits a kingdom from the fairy king Oberon, to the detriment of Arthur, the rightful heir. Here the evidence is clear and direct. In the Arthurian romances, on the other hand, the influence is slight; in the manuscript referred to above, we do indeed find the Saxon invaders of Britain riding on elephants, and described in terms which betray the influence of wars against the Saracens, but there is only one of the Arthurian romances the author of which seems to have been directly under the influence of the Chansons de Geste. This is the Perlesvaus, where the hero throughout comports himself in a manner befitting the heroes of Les Narbonnais; he might well be the son of Aymeri rather than of Alain. His one preoccupation is the establishment of the New Law; and he inflicts summary and sanguinary chastisement upon those who hesitate to accept its precepts. We have heathen queens who, like Orable-Guibourc, receive baptism and become exemplary Christians; stalwart knights who become hermits, but are ready to wage war upon the robber bands who infest the surrounding forests, even as Guillaume and Ogier, though monks, still remained valiant warriors. Lancelot, believing himself about to die, communicates himself with three blades of grass, a feature of frequent occurrence in the Chansons de Geste. The writer of this romance, whoever he may have been, was certainly imbued with the spirit of militant Christianity rather than that of Celtic Faerie.

Apart from these instances, the two great cycles seem to have run their course side by side, without appreciably affecting one another; a somewhat curious phenomenon, the secret of which may possibly lie in the theory advanced by M. Bédier, which would seem to suggest that while one cycle was composed for the edification of a mixed and fluctuating public, the other made appeal to a special class of less shifting milieu and more generally cultivated tastes. Thus we are conscious of a marked divergence in ethos; if the Chansons de Geste are inspired by the general spirit of the time, and are instinct with the breath of the feudal system, the Arthurian romances reflect no less faithfully the exclusive and aristocratic spirit of the knightly orders. As remarked above, it is interesting to note the contempt with which a poet like Chretien de Troyes refers to the “vilain.” The feudal system is in force here as in the Charlemagne cycle, the lord still owes protection to his vassals, but such folk, being outride the charmed circle of knighthood, are of a lower ordA. The introduction of what we may term the “freemasonry” of chivalry lessened the gulf between the sovereign and his nobles, but it wideneg that between the knight and the ignoble.

It casts a vivid light on the mentality of the time when we find a poet like Wolfram von Eschenbach, who belonged to the class of small land-owners dependent upon the favour of a princely patron, and who makes frequent allusions to the poverty resulting from the absence of such patronage, exalting his claims as a member of a knightly family—“Zum Schildesamt bin ich geboren”—and his feats of arms, above any fame he may win as a poet:

Swelh’iu mich minuet umbe sane

So dunket mich ir witze kranc.

If he desires the love of a woman, he will win it with shield and spear. He announces proudly that he is ignorant of all book-lore, and knows no letters. It would be difficult to find another passage in medieval literature which shows us so clearly and emphatically what was the attitude of the knight to all outside the charmed circle of the order of chivalry. Of Wolfram’s feats as a warrior no record whatever remains today, but we may well endorse the verdict passed upon him by the author of the Wartburg-Krieg:

Herr Wolferam von Eschenbach

Leien munt nie baz gesprach.

Wolfram’s compatriots knew better than himself wherein his true fame lay.  

In the same way the Arthurian romances reflect a special attitude of mind on the part of the knight’s lady. If his outlook was strictly limited by the rules of his order, the lady to whom he paid court was, on her side, the slave of conventions regulating her conduct towards her suitor. Any student desirous of understanding the curious ethos of the period, the amour courtois with its strange developments in the Courts of Love, should study the romances dealing with the story of Lancelot and Guenevere, referred to above, the Chevalier de la Charrette, and the prose Lancelot. History ascribes much of this curious social development to the influence of Eleanor, wife of Henry II, and her daughter, Marie, Countess of Champagne. It was from this latter that Chretien received the ‘‘sens et matière” for his Lancelot poem.

Thus, while both cycles are of extreme interest as records of existing social conditions, the Chanson de Geste reflect more faithfully the common life of the period; the Arthurian romances were mostly written to be read, and are practically the literature of a caste, to whose standards of life and rules of conduct they perforce adhere.


It is dubtfull whether the third group mentioned by Bodel, Matière de Rome, has any claim to be ranked as a legendary cycle, the romances of which it is composed having no inherent connexion with each other, nor indeed with Rome. What we must understand by this term are romances based upon classical themes, largely derived from Greek texts of the decadent period, which had been translated into Latin.

Of these the most important is the Roman d'Alexandre. The ultimate source of this, and of all the versions of the history of Alexander, is the Greek work known as the pseudo-Callisthenes which was translated into Latin in the fourth century by Julius Valerius; an abridgement of this translation, made in the ninth century, is the basis for most of the medieval compositions. At the same time medieval writers were familiar with certain apocryphal tales of Alexander’s adventures, such as his journey to Paradise, entirely unrepresented in the original Greek.

The earliest French poem was composed by Alberic de Besançon, probably in the first half of the twelfth century; of it only a fragment survives, but this is sufficient to shew that it was a work of considerable literary merit. This was followed by a poem in decasyllabics, the author of which is unknown, and by a long and extremely popular Roman d'Alexandre, by two collaborators, Lambert le Tort and Alexandre de Paris. In this version the genuine adventures of the hero are “farced” with fantastic tales derived from other sources, such as that of the three miraculous fountains, of which one restores the aged to youth, another the dead to life, while a draught from the third bestows immortality.

At a date previous to the Conquest the tale of Alexander’s journey to Paradise had been rendered into Anglo-Saxon prose, and an attempt to provide a more reliable version of the hero’s actual deeds was made by a monk of St Albans about the middle of the twelfth century. The French Roman d'Alexandre was rendered into English by an ecclesiastic, Eustace of Kent, in the thirteenth century, and this version formed the basis for an excellent English poem, King Alisaunder, composed towards the end of the same century, possibly by the author of Arthur and Merlin.

The story of Alexander was extremely popular in England, as is shown by the words of the Monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims:

“The storie of Alisaundre is so comune

That every wight that hath discrecioum

Hath herd somwhat or al of his fortune. ”

It was even more so in Scotland, where a lengthy poem, The Bulk of the most Noble and Vallyand Conqueror Alexander the Great, was composed in the fifteenth century, possibly by Barbour, the chronicler of the Bruce; and most of the leading Scottish writers of the period refer to him. It may be questioned whether the survival of names of classical origin, such as Alexander, Hector, and Aeneas, found far more frequently north than south of the Tweed, may not testify to the stronger hold which the romances of this group took upon the imagination of the Scottish people. There was of course no reason why Alexander, as an historic character, should be more popular than Charlemagne or Arthur; it was probably the glamour of an unknown civilisation, the awakening of the spirit of wonder, making its appeal to imaginations which, through the Crusades, had been brought more or less closely into touch with Byzantine and Oriental ideas. Certain of the Grail romances witness to this fascination, which, in the words of the late Professor Ker, led the peoples to forget their own inheritance of tragic fables for the sake of vanities, wonders, and splendours. The popularity of classical themes among a public to whom a knowledge of the classics was a sealed book was probably due to the same cause.

Thus we have another and, from the point of view of comparative literature, even more interesting group, represented by three poems, the Roman de Troie, Roman d'Aeneas, and Roman de Thebes. Of these the first-named (possibly not the first in date of composition), by Benoit de Sainte Maure, is the most important. In all three texts, the life of the period and the deeds of the heroes are described as conforming to the courtesies and conventions of the twelfth century, and the work of Benoit, dedicated to Queen Eleanor, wife of Henry II, is generally regarded as having given the initial impetus to the; composition of the roman courtois, of which we have seen the full development in Arthurian romance. The Roman d'Aeneas, translated by Heinrich von Veldeck, played the same role in Germany, and paved the way for the poems of Hartmann von Auc, Gottfried von Strassburg, and Wolfram von Eschenbach. Benoit was really a poet of no inconsiderable talent, but it is rather for their position in the evolution of romantic literature than for their intrinsic merit that this group of poems is worthy of study.

A distinctive feature to be noted in these two groups is that while the Alexander poems are cast in the mould of the Chansons de Geste, with their mere assonance prolonged throughout each laisse, Benoit de Sainte Maure and the unknown authors of Aeneas and Thebes composed their romances in the eight-syllabled rhyming couplet familiar to us through the works of Chretien de Troyes and other Arthurian writers.

Under the heading of the Matière de Rome should also be classed the direct translations and adaptations of Ovid, whose Metamorphoses and Ars Amatoria were very popular in the Middle Ages. Chretien de Troyes, in the list of his works prefixed to Cliges, tells us that he has translated l'Art d'Aimer, also the stories of Pelops (which is but summarily treated by Ovid), and Philomela; of these versions only the last-named survives. The twelfth century also saw versions of Narcissus, and Piramus ami Thisbe, by writers of less literary importance than Chretien.

Taken in its ensemble, the Matière de Rome is, as was said above, of far less importance and interest as literature than that of France or Bretagne. As artificial and learned as Palladian architecture, as fantastic w Baroque, its hollow marvels can compare neither with the heady tumult of the Chansons de Geste nor with the vivid shore and forest of Arthurian romance, the offspring of native life and of spontaneous dreams.


IV. The GeRmanic Cycle.

Of considerably more intrinsic interest, and not without importance for the study of Romance literature, is the great Northern cycle, the central theme of which, the tragedy of Siegfried and Brunnhilde, has become familiar to the present generation through the medium of Wagner’s music-drama, the Ring der Nibelungen. Of this fine story three distinct versions exist: the Volsunga-Saga, an Icelandic prose compilation, dating from the twelfth century, based upon earlier poems, fragments of which have been preserved in the Eddas; the Thidrek-Saga, a thirteenth­century German version, which derives its title from the fact that the central hero of this lengthy and diffuse compilation is Dietrich, orThidrek, von Bern, the historic Theodoric of Verona; lastly, we have the German poem, Das Nibelungenlied, which, originally composed towards the end of the twelfth century and subsequently remodelled by more than one hand, presents us with the story in its latest and most conventionalised form.

The exact relation in which these throe versions stand to one another is still a subject of debate; briefly stated, the historic kernel of the whole story is the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom by the Huns in a.D. 437, and the death of Attila, on the night of his marriage with Ildico, in a.d. 453. Closely bound up with this, forming the first part of the story, and providing the motif for its tragic development, is the account of the life and death of Siegfried, or Sigurd, undoubtedly a semi-mythical figure, in whom many scholars have seen the euhemerised form of the Northern sun-god, Baldr. Whether Siegfried be a Germanic hero, associated ab origine with the Rhenish kings whose sister he has wedded, in oblivion of his pledge to Brunnhilde (originally as mythical a figure as himself), or whether we have here the union of two originally independent themes, is a question which may never be finally settled, but the characteristics of the three versions are distinct. The Volsunga-Saga gives us the story in a mythical form: we are in a primitive world, where the sons of God behold the daughters of men; the gods take upon themselves a human form; they mingle in human affairs; they beget children, and direct, by more or less immediate intervention, the lives of those in whom they are interested, dealing reward and punishment with lavish hand. Through the mists of antiquity the characters loom gigantic: the race of Volsung, Siegmund, Signy, Sinfjotli—the offspring of brother and sister, the fruit of the latter’s deep-laid and relentless plan of vengeance—are among the most imposing figures in literature. The death of Signy has a terrific grandeur before which the fate of her modern counterpart, Sieglinde, pales into insignificance. Brynhild, whether in her own person, or confused with the Valkyr, Sigdrifa, is no mere woman; nor is the character of Gudrun marred by the treachery and vindictiveness of the German Kriemhild. At the same time the occurrence of so obviously Frankish a name as Hjalprek (Chilperic), the confusion in the relations between Sigurd and Brynhild, in the latter of whom two personalities have been incompletely fused, and the existence of distinct variants in the account of Sigurd’s birth and death, forbid us to regard this fine version as the decisively original form of the story.

The Thidrek-Saga, on the other hand, though loosely constructed, full of banal repetitions, and crowded to confusion with characters in no way connected with one another, yet in its version of Siegfried’s birth, early youth, and death appears to have preserved an earlier tradition, traces of which are to be detected in the Northern version. But Brynhild retains of her original character only a superhuman strength, and after Siegfried’s death disappears from the scene, while Grimhild’s (Gudrun’s) vengeance on her brothers is repulsive in its savagery, and we feel that her death at the hand of Dietrich is richly deserved.

The Nibelungenlied differs from both the other versions in giving no account of Siegfried’s early years; he is represented as the son of King Siegmund (of Xanten on the Rhine) and Sieglinde his wife, and first appears on the scene as suitor for the hand of Kriemhild, daughter of the Burgundian king Dankrat, who reigned at Worms. Brunnhild is here, as in the Thidrek-Saga, only distinguished by her extraordinary strength, which she employs to the discomfiture of her would-be lovers. The story in its main lines follows the version of the Thidrek-Saga. Brunnhild disappearing from the scene after Siegfried’s death, and the fate of Gunther and his brothers being brought about by Kriemhild’s treachery in revenge for her husband’s murder. The notable feature in this, the latest version of the story, is the insistance of the motif of Treue, reciprocal faith and loyalty. Hagen, who elsewhere is Gunther’s (Gunnar’s) brother, is here his vassal, and kills Siegfried purely from loyalty to his liege lady, Brunnhild. It is from loyalty to Gunther that he goes to Etzel’s (Attila’s) court, knowing that he is going to his death, while Gunther on his part is equally loyal, and refuses to purchase his own safety by delivering Hagen to Kriemhild’s vengeance. The characters of Dietrich and the Markgrave Rudiger arc developed on the same lines; the legend has here become a vehicle for the exposition of certain medieval ethical conventions, and as such the Nibelungenlied has an interest other than its presentment of the actual story.

The Northern cycle in its various branches has not escaped the influence of a tendency which, already noticeable in the Chansons de Geste, becomes strongly marked in the final stages of Arthurian romance, that of exalting the importance of a given hero by the recital of the deeds of his ancestors or of his descendants, a tendency which led to the glorification of the family rather than of the individual. Both the Sigurd and the Thidrek Sagas have thus undergone expansion. In the case of Sigurd the tendency has been downward, in the ascription to him of two daughters, the offspring of his relations respectively with Brynhild and Grimhild (Gudrun). The daughter of the first, Aslaug, after a chequered youth being brought up by peasants who had murdered her foster-father for the sake of his gold, becomes the wife of Ragnar Lodbrog and the mother of a race of kings; her story will be found in the Ragnar-Lodbrog-Saga. Swanhild, daughter of Gudrun, has a more tragic fate. Wedded to King Ermenrich (a very important figure in the Thidrek and its dependent Sagas), she is the victim of a false accusation by the treacherous counsellor Bike, or Sibich, who persuades the king that she has betrayed him with his son. Both are put to death, Swanhild being trodden underfoot by horses, after her head has been enveloped in a sack, the piercing glance of her eyes, inherited from her father the Dragon-Slayer, so terrifying the horses that they turn away from her, even as Sigurd’s would-be assassin dare not approach till his eyes are closed in sleep.

The story of Dietrich von Bern has been expanded in the other direction; he has been credited with a notable ancestor, Wolf-Dietrich, son of Hug-Dietrich, king of Constantinople. Victim, like Swanhild, of a false accusation brought against her by a treacherous courtier, the wife of Hug-Dietrich is, at her husband’s death, exiled with her son, who, on account of his extraordinary strength and fierceness as much as from the doubts as to his parentage, has from his childhood been brought up by the faithful Berchtold of Meran. The story of Wolf-Dietrich, consisting of a series of wildly improbable adventures, is found in two distinct versions; both finally represent the hero as wedding the widow of King Ortnit of Garda, who has been slain by a dragon, and inheriting his kingdom. This story was probably invented to account for the presence of Dietrich (Theodoric the Goth) at Bern (Verona).

The story of Ortnit, given in full in the Heldenbuch, is interesting: his father is Alberich, the fairy dwarf-king, who is the original of our Oberon. In the Ortnit story Alberich appears in a far more picturesque and amiable guise than he does in the later version of the Siegfried story from which Wagner drew his inspiration.

A point that can hardly fail to strike the student of this cycle is the fact that we have here no central authority, as in the Chansons de Geste or the Arthurian romances. There is no Emperor like Charlemagne, no king like Arthur. The heroes of the Northern cycle, Volsung, Gunther, Etzel, Dietrich, Ermenrich, are one and all “kings” and, so far as we can judge from the texts, are considered as of equal rank, the difference between them being simply the greater or lesser number of warriors they can respectively bring into the field. Such a text as the Thidreh- Saga, loose in construction, ranging practically over the whole field of European polity, is particularly illustrative of this; the number of kings and theinsrelation to one another are confusing to a degree. We realise that we are dealing with memories of a period of tribal wanderings, of indeterminate boundaries, of mutual aggression, attack, and defence. There is no idea of a settled civilisation, of a central authority whose decrees carry weight outside a strictly limited area. The heroes are warriors, bound by ties of fidelity to their chief; the note of Irene, as remarked above, is dominant. There is no idea of an abstract code of conduct imposed from without, such as is inherent in the Orders of Knighthood.

In this connexion it is interesting to note that the author of a recent study on Malory detects in the character of Gawain (certainly the oldest of Arthurian heroes) the traces of this primitive conception. Gawain is imbued with the idea of Sippe (Kinship), his loyalty is to the family, to the king his uncle, and to his brothers. His feud with Lancelot, which dominates the closing scenes of the cyclic versions, is a blood-feud, arising from the slaying of his brothers by Lancelot in his final rescue of Guenevere. The suggestion is an interesting one, and from the point of view of a comparative study of the cycles, deserving of attention.

Nor, in this Northern cycle, do we find a separate convention for women; they are, like the men, actuated by motives of blood-loyalty, like them inspired by a passion for revenge. Signy avenging the destruction of her family, Brynhild demanding vengeance for Sigurd’s unwitting betrayal, Grunhild luring her brothers to their death in revenge for the murder of Sigurd, are figures of another world from that of Guibourc, the mother of the Narbonnais, or Guenevere. So far as the actual transcription of texts at our disposal is concerned there may be little difference of time, but the gulf between the social conditions represented is wide indeed.

The influence of this cycle upon Romance literature has been much, less than its essential beauty and importance would seem to merit. There exists no medieval English or French translation of either version. The story must have been known, for we find Briinnhild referred to in Huon of Bordeaux, but the borrowings from Northern tradition are of a general rather than an individual character, and have affected the Arthurian rather than the Charlemagne cycle. Features which scholars are generally agreed in referring to Northern influence are: the shape-shifting, which by deceiving Ygerne brings about the birth of Arthur, parallel to the deception of Brynhild; the sword in the block of stone, by the withdrawal of which Arthur proves his claim to the kingdom, similar to the sword of Branstock, which can only be withdrawn by the chosen hero, Siegmund; the resemblance of Morgain and her sisters of the Isle of Avalon, as described by Giraldus Cambrensis, to the Valkyrie; and the revival of slain warriors by a hag provided with a magic ointment, an incident found alike in Gerbert’s continuation of the Perceval and in the Northern poem Kudrun. In each of these eases it will be noted that the parallel is with the Scandinavian, not with the German, version. Again, in the Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf, which, forming no part of the directly cyclic group of Northern romance, can scarcely be said to fall within the limits of this study, we have an account of the combat between the hero and a sea-monster and her son. A similar adventure is attributed to Gawain in the romance of Dili Krone.

The resemblance between the stories of Perceval and Siegfried is due to the fact that both are variants of the same original theme, known by scholars as The Aryan Expulsion and Return Formula, rather than to borrowing on either side.

The one character of Northern tradition who appears really to have impressed the imagination of romance writers plays no role in the Siegfried story, though his feats are recounted at length in the early part of the Thidrek-Saga (where his son Witig is one of the comrades of Dietrich von Bern)—Weyland the Smith. That the fame of this mythical personage, and his miraculous skill as a forger of weapons, had reached France at a date anterior to the existing versions of his story, is proved by the fact that according to the Chronicle of Ademar de Chabannes the sword of William I, Count of Angouleme, had been forged by Weyland. William reigned from 916-962, Ademar died in 1034, thus if the story be in the original text of the Chronicle, as M. Ferdinand Lot maintains, the tradition must date from the first half of the eleventh century at latest.

In the romance of Fierabras a similar origin is ascribed to Charlemagne’s famous sword, Joyeuse.

It seems not impossible that the mysterious smith of the Grail story, who forged three swords, and whose fate is bound up with that of the third (he must die after reforging it), may be an imitation of Weyland. His name, Trebuchet (from trebucier, to stumble, or fall), may well contain a reference to Wey land’s lameness. But there can be no question as to the fact that the story of this famous smith was familiar to the romance writers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

English literature also knew Weyland’s father, the giant Wade, and no reader of Sir Walter Scott needs to be reminded how, under the name of Weyland Smith, the tradition of the famous forger of weapons lingered on in the north of England.

In the absence of a literary version of the Northern sagas, the evidence points to an oral tradition; the chants and stories of the dreaded Viking invaders must have impressed themselves upon the memory of the French and English victims of their raids. That Arthurian romance has been coloured by this tradition is also beyond doubt, but it is noteworthy that such borrowing as can be proved is all on the side of the Romance writers, the Siegfried story showing no trace of contamination with Chanson de Geste or Arthurian poem. It is also interesting to note that such historical elements as may exist in the Northern Saga, the tragedy of the Burgundian kings, the character of Dietrich von Bern, find no reflection in English or French romance. It seems as if here the folk, with their appetite for the marvellous, had been the transmitters; a more educated public, a professional litterateur, would surely have seized upon the finer elements of the story, the loves of Sigurd and Brynhild, and their tragic fate, a theme worthy to rank beside the legend of Tristan and Iseult. Instead of this we have reminiscences of the impossible feats of the weird and malicious craftsman, Weyland. The whole question of the form in which the Northern epic was communicated to both France and England is one of extreme interest.

For the student of literature it is difficult to say which of the three great cycles stands highest; each has its individual attraction. From the purely literary point of view the cycles of Charlemagne and Arthur may be held to be the most important, but in sheer dramatic force they lack the grip of the fragmentary Eddie Lays, or the rough prose of the Volsunga-Saga. The student of medieval literature may well elect to specialise in one field, but he cannot afford to neglect either.