JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias


Three currents of literature flowed through the popular intelligence, and were its educators in mediaeval days. There were the narratives and legends of the saints. They were relished by old and young; they were recited from the pulpit;{1} they entered into the spiritual books that were freely circulated; they passed down into the traditions of the people. The memory of them helped to decide many a soul in some crisis of life. They bloomed into that sweet bed of violets, the Fiorelli of St. Francis of Assisi and that garden of roses, the Legenda Aurea.{2} They inspired many compositions like that most charming of idyls, the legend of the dear St Elizabeth of Hungary. How rich this field is, and how extensively it has been cultivated, we may form some conception, from the harvest of the lives and acts of the saints, which has been gathered into the great Benedictine and Bollandist storehouses. There was, and there still is, the nursery-tale. It is of very ancient origin. It is a combination of the myths of the Keltic and Germanic races, combined with the fabliaux, imported from the East by the Crusaders. It dates back to the old Aryan homelife.{3} It has flourished among the old-world peasantry, and has floated down the ages freighted with a curious cargo of ghosts and fairies, hobgoblins and nixies, cloaks of darkness and invincible armor; the tale of national prowess is told, moulded in the national genius, and referring back to the dim twilight between the mythic period, and the clear day of fact and the sentiment of virtue and honor is embodied in some heroic deed. These tales are still found to be refreshing, amusing, simple; though now we possess but the scattered remains of the rich harvest of folk-lore of former times, which were preserved says Grimm, "at the kitchen-hearth, the steps of the loft, feast-days still observed in their quietude in meadows and forests, above all, in undisturbed fancy."{4} As we now read them, they are a jumble of Christian reminiscences, and pagan fancies, once possessed of a meaning and a moral. They are the atmosphere in which children have inhaled a love for virtue, honor, and truth; and in the struggle between the good and evil genii, in the horrors inspired by the transactions of wickedness, in the aspirations aroused for the noble and true, in the pity called forth at the sight of goodness in jeopardy and distress, the young soul is learning its first lessons of virtue and manhood. They awaken fancy, help memory, call forth ingenuity, and foster the racial spirit.

But the youth outgrows his nursery-tales as he does his tops and marbles. He then requires to be fed with another order of thought and fancy. And so, we find that in former days his heart was nerved and his imagination fired with the romance of chivalry. But every current of popular thought has its source in some popular institution. Such an institution was chivalry. It was the outcome of feudalism. We find it first exemplified in the exploits of the Norman adventurers who conquered a home for themselves in France, extended their conquests to Sicily and England, crossed into Russia, offered their assistance to the weak emperor of Constantinople, protected pilgrims and travellers in the Holy Land, and everywhere performed deeds of daring almost superhuman. Here were feats calculated to fire youth. Add to this romantic spirit calling forth all the sterner and fiercer energies of man, the softening and refining element of love, and fixed attachment for woman; give direction to the whole by the influence of religion, and you have chivalry personified. God and his lady-love: such are the two ideas that occupied the knight-errant in his perilous career. He forgets one as soon as the other. Both are inseparable in his mind and in his heart "His excited imagination transports him into a world of fancy; his heart is on fire; he undertakes all, he accomplishes all; and the man who has just fought like a lion on the plains of Spain or of Palestine, melts like wax at the name of the idol of his heart; then he turns his eyes amorously towards his country, and is intoxicated with the idea that one day, sighing under the castle of his beloved, he may obtain a pledge of her affection, or a promise of love. "{5} Such a spirit requires to be fed with works showing forth heroic actions and giving models of excellence to go by. To whom, among mediaeval heroes, does the mind more naturally turn than to Charlemagne? Who is greater than he? Great in war by his conquests; great in peace by the schools and monasteries which he established; great in his unselfish relations with the Holy See; his very failings were the failings of a great nature. In song and story had his deeds been celebrated; and as time intervened between himself and after generations his name became the nucleus around which gathered many a myth. He and his paladins became demi-gods. They were considered giants in stature, even as the feats recorded of them were pictured on a gigantic scale. Such was that trumpet-blast of chivalric action, the Chanson de Roland. It is among the most ancient, the most beautiful, and the most artistically complete of all the cyclic poems that have been handed down. Somewhat later, about the beginning of the twelfth century, appeared in the Latin tongue a prose version of the deeds of Charlemagne -- the Karolus Magnus{6} -- attributed to Archbishop Turpin, a contemporary and friend of the great emperor, but compiled by a monk three centuries later.{7} The only parts belonging to the good monks are the moralizings and allegories running through it.{8} But while its avowed object is by good example to teach honor and virtue -- "for," remarks one of the French versions, "to live without honor is to die -- car vivre sans honneur est mourir" -- it was evidently written with a view of promoting devotion to St James of Compostello, of calling the attention of Europe to the presence of the Mussulman in Spain, and of inciting the German emperors to imitate Charlemagne in his deference to the Holy See, and his generosity to the Church. It was copied and imitated, and helped to mould public opinion throughout Europe.{9} The Carlovingian cycle bloomed into that brilliant masterpiece, the Orlando Furioso of Ariosto.

Another cycle of romances allied to the Carlovingian, changes the scene of action from Spain and Palestine to France, and from the fire of resentment towards the Mussulman, to antagonism between feudal lord and feudal lord, or between vassal and king. Feudalism was the stronghold of baronial independence, and the feudal lord was the chief patron of the bard. What wonder then, that the poet should laud the boldness and prowess of the feudal lord in defending himself against the unjust exactions of his king, or the encroachments of his peers. Hence we meet with such songs of rude and barbaric heroism as that which recounts. the feats of Guillaume CourtNez.{10}

Still another cycle is the Alexandrian. Among the heroes of antiquity, Alexander the Great stood out in bold-relief. Little was known of him personally and historically; but his name became the synonym of all that was noble in knight-errantry. At this epic-making period, he is transformed into a hero equal to every emergency, capable of slaying any number of thousands of paynims, relieving the oppressed, ridding innocence of her persecutors, and under the banner of the cross doing all that Christian knight should do. Alexander could not be excelled in greatness and in prowess. In the East, and especially in his own city of Alexandria, were gathered the myths that converge round his name. Simon Seth translated a Persian mythical history of him into Greek. In this, and in the letters of the pseudo-Callisthenes, and the writings of Julius Valerias and the arch-priest Leo, were stored the incidents from which were drawn the various versions that culminated in the magnificent epic of Lambert the Crooked.{11}

But the cycle that excelled all the others, and that became the great educator of the youth of Christendom in refinement and good manners, was the Arthurian cycle. It is a cycle of Keltic legends drawn from Brittany and Wales and Ireland. This Keltic element colors the poems; it lives in the delicacy of sentiment -- especially the sentiment of love and respect for woman -- which runs through the whole cycle and places it in contrast with the Carlovingian cycle, with its ruder manners and its delight in wars. In tracing the genesis of these poems, historians of literature dwell upon the contributions of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Walter Mapes, and Robert Boron, and Chrestien of Troyes; theirs were the hands that gave the finish to the most complete forms of the cycle. But these writers only labored upon the material as they found it. This material grew primarily out of the struggle between the Britons and the Saxons. It is a reminiscence of the long resistance made against English domination. In like manner, there runs through the Carlovingian cycle an undertone of the fierce contest for predominance between the Frank and the Gaul. Indeed, it is a law in the literature of nations, that when two races have struggled for survival, the weaker one will continue to exist in song and story, seeking to gild its present dimness by some reflex of its past glories, and covering its defeats by such excuses as save the honor and courage of the nation. Another element which these poets found to hand consisted of the lays that survived the lost annals of the Britons. A third was composed of the legends regarding the planting of Christianity in Britain. A fourth was the large remnant of pagan superstitions which survived all efforts of Christianity to uproot them, and which wrought into their Keltic natures love for the weird and the wonderful, and familiarity with scenes and incidents of sorceries and enchantments. A fifth consisted of the oriental traditions and parables spread throughout Christendom, by Jews, Spanish Moors, crusaders and pilgrims.

But in the preparation of this material there is a hand that may easily be recognized, and that did much towards the dissemination of these Keltic poems among the Teutonic peoples. It is the hand of the Irish bard. He travelled the continent, charming audiences with his sweet music. Marie of France, tells us of the Irish bard who sweetly sang the fable of Orpheus.{12} In the year 1078, a prince of North Wales named Gryfidd of Conan, introduced Irish bards to instruct and reform the Welsh bards.{13} Thus is there historical as well as internal evidence of the influence of the wandering bard of Erin upon mediaeval poetry. Into the poems that he sang he wove in his own bright colors, many an incident that clustered around Queen Meibhe or the heroes of his native land.

Gradually the various poems of the Arthurian cycle were grouped around a central figure. That figure was the Holy Grail. According to the legend, The Holy Grail was the cup of which our Lord made use at the Last Supper. It came into the possession of Joseph of Arimathea, who gathered into it some drops of blood from the body of Jesus when taking Him down from the Cross, and afterwards brought it to Britain. Now, from time immemorial the chalice was employed in a symbolic sense in the performance of religious rites. It was so used in the Dionysian mysteries celebrated by the Greeks.{14} The books attributed to the Areopagite make the chalice of the Redeemer the central point of all Christian mysteries, the chalice being the symbol of Providence which penetrates and preserves all things.{15} In 717, a Kymric cleric inserted in liturgical lessons the traditions of the apostolate of Joseph of Arimathea.{16} He described his vision of the book containing the account of the Holy GraiL No tongue can speak its language. It can only be read by the heart He that opens it, and is possessed of a pure heart will rejoice with a great joy of body and souL The author's mystical meaning is plain. The book is the book of love for God. Henceforth the Grail-saga becomes developed, and with its growth the other poems range themselves around it, and receive from it a bond of unity and a significancy far greater than that conveyed by the Round Table. The vision of the Grail is an object of expectation in the court of Arthur. There remains vacant the seat-perilous awaiting the favored knight for whom the vision is reserved. Then passes the vision through the great hall, transforming these men, cleaving them from attachment to sin, and finally leading them by the light of faith to brave all dangers in quest of the precious boon. The Grail symbolizes the Holy Eucharist. The quest is allegorical of the soul, overcoming its passions, raising itself above the thraldom of the senses, and arriving at that state of detachment from sin and love for God, that renders it worthy to receive the Blessed Sacrament. He who would penetrate to the abiding-place of the Holy Grail should pass through much tribulation with great fortitude; he should prepare himself by fasting and mortification; he should be humble; he should lose himself in order to find himself; he should guard his heart and his mind against every affection and every thought that would in the least sully his soul. Even so with him who would worthily approach the fountain of life and partake of the Holy Eucharist; he should conquer the powers of darkness and overcome his evil passions; he should purge himself from every stain of sin in the sacrament of penance, and then he would feel the ineffable joy that the favored custodians of the Holy Grail experienced when they sat at the mystical banquet.

These romances spread throughout Christendom, receiving local coloring in their passage from land to land. Episodes from the old series were worked up into distinct poems. Versions in prose and versions in verse, versions abridged and versions expanded to wearying length were made; but every version found willing listeners and willing readers. The makers of the new versions seldom improved upon the old poems. They made up for their insipidity of style by the introduction of scandalous and immoral incidents. In France they received their death-blow from a satire which combines the grossest immorality with the most delicate sentiment, Géant Gargantua et son fils Pantagruel. Rabelais not only burlesques the romances of chivalry, but he throws a lurid light upon all phases of the society of his day, lashing it pitilessly, exposing it mercilessly. In England romances received a check from Puritanism, the verdict of which may be summed up in the words of Roger Ascham, when speaking of the Morte d' Arthur: "The whole pleasure of which book standeth in two special points, in open manslaughter and bold bawdrie."{17}

Spenser in his Faerie Queen, attempted to reconstruct the Arthurian cycle in a Protestant sense. But he lost its Catholic and mediaeval meaning, and saw in it only an agreeable manual of etiquette and good behavior. He never achieved his design. A laudation of Queen Elizabeth; descriptions, graphic and terribly real of the suffering and persecuted Irish peasantry among whom he had lived; a defence of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots; an idealized sketch of Protestantism in the person of Una: such are the results; his magnificent fragment stands like a broken shaft marking the grave of knight-errantry. Tennyson has in our own day selected and strung together out of the Arthurian cycle some of the most precious pearls of song in the English language. In the Idylls of the King, he has partially reproduced some notes and traits of the spirit of simple faith and childlike credulity in which these romances were first conceived, though the spirit itself he could not restore; still, his exquisite art has enabled him to raise the legends up into the higher sphere of symbolism --

"New-old, and shadowing sense at war with soul -- "

and to give them a many-sided meaning, whereby we may still learn from them the lesson that perfect good is to be obtained only by bearing down before us pride and selfishness, and by conquering all-destroying sin.

In Spain these romances were translated, imitated, and adapted to the national genius. Some of them abound in delicate sentiment, a high standard of honor and a spirit of generosity.{18} For centuries they were passionately read by the Spanish people. They even became the guides of their lives. Their scenes were enacted. No royal festival was complete without its tournament and its accompanying pageant filled up with deeds of knight-errantry. "Indeed," says Ticknor, "the passion for such fictions was so great, and seemed so dangerous, that in 1553, they were prohibited from being printed, sold, or read in the American colonies; and in 1555, the Cortes earnestly asked that the same prohibition might be extended to Spain itself, and that all the extant copies of romances of chivalry might be publicly burned."{19} But in another fifty years, there was no need of an imperial decree. A greater power gave them their death-blow. In 1605, Cervantes published Don Quixote. The first and last words of the author are that he wrote the book with the intention of demolishing the whole machinery of chevalresque romances, and he flattered himself that were he to succeed his would be no small achievement.{20} He succeeded. Clemencin says that after 1605, no new works in chivalry were published, and old ones ceased to be printed;{21} and from that time to the present day "they have been constantly disappearing until they are now among the rarest of literary curiosities."{22}

Cervantes is a great literary artist The whole force of the Spanish language is embodied in his master-piece.{23} The book contains simple amusement for youth, and profound thought for old age. It is especially to be commended for the pleasant manner in which it brushed away an evil, without destroying with it either morality, religion, or the wholesome customs of society. It is innocent; it is amusing; it is serious; it is a most accurate picture of the customs and manners of Spain in the sixteenth century; it is with all people -- and deservedly so -- a standing monument of allusion and a common source of quotation. In its philosophical aspect, it represents the shock received by aspiration and daydream, when unprepared they come in contact with the prosaic realities of life. From Don Quixote the general mind has learned the lesson that in this work-a-day world romancing is for the imagination alone. Henceforth the Carlovingian and Arthurian cycles -- the feats of Alexander and Amadis as well -- cease to live, and to-day they are the literary fossils from which we are enabled to reconstruct past epochs of thought.

{1} These recitations were, in verse as well as in prose. See Ten Brink: Early English Literature, p. 140.

{2} By James of Voragine, Bishop of Genoa.

{3} Weber, Sanskrit Literature, p. 213.

{4} Märcken, vor.

{5} Balmes, European Civilization, chap. xxvii.

{6} Incipit prologus beati Turpini archiepiscopi quomodo Karolus Magnus Imperator subjugavit Yspaniam Christi legibas.

{7} Probably by a cleric of Vienne; afterwards modified by a monk of St. Denis, under Suger, who had it recorded that Charlemagne conferred on that church jurisdiction over all France.

{8} Ciampi, Turpin. Dissertazione, xxvii. The first five chapters were written by some one acquainted with Spain, and are probably of an earlier date. The remaining twenty-seven chapters betray a hand less cunning and are every way inferior. See Léon Gautier, Les Epopées Françaises, t. i., p. 194.

{9} L' Entrée en Espagne, MSS. Français, in St. Mark's Library, Venice, No. XXI. fo. I, Vo.

{10} See Fauriel, Histoire de la Poesié Provençale, t. ii. p. 267; Léon Gautier, Les Epopées Françaises, t. iv.

{11} Henri Martin, Histoire de France, t. iii. pp. 395, et seq.

{12} Le lai escoutent d' Ailis Que un Irois doucemeni note. Le lai lor sone d'Orfei. -- Lai de l' Espine.

{13} Walker, Historical Memoirs on Irish Bards: Warton, History of Poetry, Dissert i., p. xl.

{14} Goerres, La Mystique, t. i., p. 78.

{15} Dion. Areop. Ep. ix. Tito Episcopo. § iii. Patrol. Gr. t. iii. Cal. 1110.

{16} Paulin Paris, Les Romans de la Table Ronde, t. i. 155-169. 94

{17} The Scholemaster.

{18} Villemain, Littérature au Moyen Age, t. i., p. 222.

{19} History of Spanish Literature, vol. i., p. 227.

{20} Don Quixote, P. L pref. P. II., ch. lxxiv.

{21} Pref. p. xxi.

{22} Ticknor : Hist. Sp. Lit., vol. ii., p. 540.

{23} Cantù : Hist. Univ. t. xv., p. 545.

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