The Age of Romance



EVERY age is an age of romance, for men cannot live by bread alone, and imagination is the staff of life. Perhaps the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Europe were slightly more romantic than most periods. Besides inheriting all the mystic creatures of Europe’s faery lore, they accepted the Christian epic in all the beauty and terror of its vision, they made an art and religion of love and war, they saw the Crusades, they imported a thousand tales and wonders from the East. In any case they wrote the longest romances known to history.

The growth of wealth and leisure and laic literacy, the rise of towns and the middle class, the development of universities, the exaltation of woman in religion and chivalry—all furthered the literary flowering. As schools multiplied, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Livy, Sallust, Lucan, Seneca, Statius, Juvenal, Quintilian, Suetonius, Apuleius, Sidonius, even the ribald Martial and Petronius, brightened with their art and exotic world many a pedagogic or monastic retreat, perhaps, here and there, some palace bower. From Jerome to Alcuin to Héloïse and Hildebert Christian souls stole minutes from their Hours to chant the Aeneid’s music silently. The University of Orléans particularly cherished the classics of pagan Rome, and a horrified puritan complained that it was the old gods, not Christ or Mary, that were worshiped there. The twelfth century was almost “the Age of Ovid”; he dethroned then the Virgil whom Alcuin had made the poet laureate of Charlemagne’s court, and monks and ladies and “wandering scholars” alike read with delight the Metamorphoses, the Heroides, and the Art of Love. We can forgive many a benedictine carouse to the monks who preserved these damned souls so lovingly, and taught them so devotedly to the reluctant, then grateful, young.

From such classic studies a medieval Latin arose whose diversity and interest are among the most pleasant surprises of literary exploration. St. Bernard, who thought so poorly of intellectual accomplishments, wrote letters of loving tenderness, vituperative eloquence, and masterly Latin. The sermons of Peter Damian, Bernard, Abélard, and Berthold of Regensburg kept Latin a language of living power.

The monastic chroniclers wrote terrible Latin, but they made no claim to offer esthetic thrills. They recorded first of all the growth and history of their own abbeys—the elections, buildings, and deaths of abbots, the miracles and quarrels of the monks; they added notes on the eclipses, comets, droughts, floods, famines, plagues, and portents of their time; and some of them expanded to include national, even international, events. Few scrutinized their sources critically, or inquired into causes; most of them were carelessly inaccurate, and added a cipher or two to bring dead statistics to life; all dealt in miracles, and showed an amiable credulity. So the French chroniclers assumed that France had been settled by noble Trojans, and that Charlemagne had conquered Spain and captured Jerusalem. The Gesta Francorum (c. 1100) attempted a relatively honest account of the First Crusade, but the Gesta Romanorum (c. 1280) provided frankly fictional history for Chaucer, Shakespeare, and a thousand romancers. Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100–54) made his Historia Britonum a kind of national mythology, in which poets found the legends of King Lear and Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Tristram, Perceval, and the Holy Grail. Still living literature, however, are the gossipy and guileless chronicles of Jocelyn of Bury St. Edmunds (c. 1200) and Fra Salimbene of Parma (c. 1280).

About 1208 Saxo Lange, posthumously named Saxo Grammaticus, dedicated to Archbishop Absalon of Lund his Gesta Danorum or Deeds of the Danes, a bit bombastic, incredibly credulous,1 but a vivid narrative nevertheless, with more continuity than in most contemporary chronicles of the West. In Book III we learn of Amleth, Prince of Jutland, whose uncle killed the king and married the queen. Amleth, says Saxo, “chose to feign dullness and an utter lack of wits. This cunning course ensured his safety.” The courtiers of the fratricide king tested Amleth by putting a pretty woman in his way; he accepted her embraces, but won her love and fidelity. They tried him with cunning questions, but “he mingled craft and candor in such wise that there was nothing to betoken the truth.” From such bones Shakespeare made a man.

Five Latin historians in these centuries rose from chronicles to history, even when keeping the chronicle form. William of Malmesbury (c. 1090–1143) arranged the matter of his Gesta pontificum and Gesta regum Anglorum to give a connected and lively story, trustworthy and fair, of British prelates and kings. Ordericus Vitalis (c. 1075–1143), born in Shrewsbury, was sent as an oblate at the age of ten to the monastery of St. Evroul in Normandy; there he lived the remainder of his sixty-eight years, never seeing his parents again. Eighteen of these years he spent on the five volumes of his Historia ecclesiastica, only stopping, we are told, on the coldest winter days, when his fingers were too numb to write. It is remarkable that a mind so limited in space should have spoken so well of varied affairs, secular as well as ecclesiastical, with asides on the history of letters and manners and every-day life. Bishop Otto of Freising (c. 1114–58), in De duabus civitatibus (On the Two Cities), narrated the history of religion and the secular world from Adam to 1146, and began a proud biography of his nephew Frederick Barbarossa, but died while his hero was in mid-career. William of Tyre (c. 1130–90), a Frenchman born in Palestine, became chancellor to Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, and then Archbishop of Tyre; learned French, Latin, Greek, Arabic, and some Hebrew; and wrote in good Latin our most reliable source for the history of the earlier Crusades—Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum (History of Events Overseas). He sought natural explanations for all events; and his fairness in depicting the characters of Nur-ud-din and Saladin had much to do with the favorable opinion that Christian Europe formed of those infidel gentlemen. Matthew Paris (c. 1200–1259) was a monk of St. Albans. As historiographer to his abbey, and later to King Henry III, he composed his lively Chronica maiora, covering the major events of European history between 1235 and 1259. He wrote with clarity, accuracy, and unexpected partialities; he condemned the “avarice that has alienated the people from the pope,” and favored Frederick II against the papacy. He crowded his pages with miracles, and told the story of the Wandering Jew (anno 1228), but he frankly recorded the skepticism with which Londoners viewed the transference of some drops of Christ’s blood to Westminster Abbey (1247). He drew for his book several maps of England, the best of the period, and may himself have made the drawings that illustrate his work. We admire his industry and learning; but his sketch of Mohammed (anno 1236) is an astonishing revelation of how ignorant an educated Christian could be of Islamic history.

The greatest historians of this age were two Frenchmen writing in their own language, and sharing with the troubadours and trouvères the honor of making French a literary tongue. Geoffroy de Villehardouin (c. 1150- c. 1218) was a noble and a warrior, of little formal education; but precisely because he knew not the tricks of rhetoric taught in the schools, he dictated his Conquête de Constantinople (1207) in a French whose simple directness and matter-of-fact precision made his book a classic of historiography. Not that he was impartial; he played too intimate a role in the Fourth Crusade to see that picturesque treachery with an objective eye; but he was there, and saw and felt events with an immediacy that gave his book a living quality half immune to time. Almost a century later Jean Sire de Joinville, Seneschal of Champagne, after serving Louis IX on crusade and in France, wrote, when he was eighty-five, his Histoire de St. Louis (1309). We are grateful to him for describing, with artless sincerity, the human beings of history, and for lingering on illuminating customs and anecdotes; through him we feel the tang of the time as not even in Villehardouin. We are with him when he leaves his castle after pawning nearly all his possessions to go on crusade; he did not dare look back, he says, lest his heart should melt at sight of the wife and children whom he might never see again. He had not the subtle and crafty mind of Villehardouin, but he had common sense, and saw the clay in his saint. When Louis wished him to go a second time on crusade he refused, foreseeing the hopelessness of the enterprise. And when the pious King asked him, “Which would you choose—to be a leper or to have committed a mortal sin?”

I, who never lied to him, answered that I would rather have committed thirty mortal sins than be a leper. When the monks had departed he called me to him alone, and made me sit at his feet, and said: “How came you to say that?” … And I told him that I said it again. And he replied: “You spoke hastily and foolishly. For you should know that there is no leprosy so hideous as being in mortal sin.” … He asked me if I washed the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday. “Sire,” said I, “it would make me sick! The feet of these villeins will I not wash.” “In truth,” said the King, “that was ill said, for you should never disdain what God did for our teaching. So I pray you, for the love of God first, and then for love of me, that you accustom yourself to wash the feet of the poor.”2

Not all Lives of the Saints were as honest as this. The sense of history, and the intellectual conscience, were so poorly developed in medieval minds that the writers of these edifying narratives seem to have felt that much good and little harm could come if their readers accepted the accounts as true. Probably in most cases the authors received the spreading tales from others, and believed what they wrote. If we take the Lives of the Saints simply as stories we shall find them full of interest and charm. Consider how St. Christopher got his name. He was a giant of Canaan, eighteen feet tall. He entered the service of a king because he had heard that this was the most powerful man in the world. One day the king crossed himself at mention of the Devil; Christopher concluded that the Devil was more powerful than the king, and thereupon he entered the Devil’s service. But at sight of a cross on the roadside the Devil took flight; and Christopher, reasoning that Jesus must be stronger than Satan, dedicated himself to Christ. He found it hard to observe the Christian fasts, there was so much of him to feed, and his great tongue tripped over the simplest prayers. A saintly hermit placed him on the bank of a ford whose swift waters annually drowned many who tried to cross it; Christopher took the wayfarers on his back and carried them dry and safe to the other shore. One day he bore a child across the stream; he asked why it was so heavy, and the child replied that it carried the weight of the world; safely across, the child thanked him, said, “I am Jesus Christ,” and disappeared; and Christopher’s staff, which he had stuck in the sand, suddenly blossomed with flowers.3 And who was Britain’s St. George? Near Silenum, in Libya, a dragon annually received as food a living youth or maiden, chosen by lot, as the price of not poisoning the village with his breath. Once the lot fell to the virgin daughter of the king. When the fated day arrived she walked to the pond where the dragon stayed. There St. George saw her, and asked why she wept. “Young man,” she said, “I believe that you have a great and noble heart, but hasten to leave me.” He refused, and induced her to answer his question. “Fear nothing,” he told her, “for I will help you in the name of Jesus Christ.” At that moment the monster emerged from the water. George made the sign of the cross, recommended himself to Christ, charged, and plunged his lance into the beast. Then he bade the maiden throw her girdle around the neck of the wounded dragon; she did, and the beast, yielding like any gallant to so potent a charm, followed her docilely forever afterward. These and other pretty tales were gathered, about 1290, into a famous book by Iacopo de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa; for each day in the year he told the story of its appointed saint; and he called his book Legenda sanctorum—Readings about the Saints. Iacopo’s collection became a favorite with medieval readers, who called it Legenda aurea, the Golden Legend. The Church counseled a certain suspension of belief in regard to some of these stories,4 but the people loved and accepted them all, and perhaps were not more deceived about life than the simple folk who absorb the popular fiction of our day.

The glory of medieval Latin was its verse. Much of it was poetry in form only, for all varieties of didactic material—history, legend, mathematics, logic, theology, medicine—were given rhythm and rhyme as mnemonic aids. And there were epics of small moment and great length, like Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis (1176), which seem to us now as dull as Paradise Lost. There were also poetical disputations—between body and soul, death and man, mercy and truth, rustic and cleric, man and woman, wine and water, wine and beer, rose and violet, the poor student and the well-fed priest, even between Helen and Ganymede as to the rival merits of heterosexual and homosexual love.5 Nothing human was alien to medieval poetry.

The classic reliance on vowel quantity as the measure of meter was abandoned from the fifth century onward, and medieval Latin verse, rising out of popular feeling rather than from learned art, achieved a new poetry based on accent, rhythm, and rhyme. Such forms had existed among the Romans before Greek meters came to them, and had clandestinely survived a thousand years of the classic style. Classic forms—hexameter, elegiac, Sapphic-remained throughout the Middle Ages, but the Latin world had tired of them; they seemed unattuned to the moods of piety, tenderness, delicacy, and prayer that Christianity had spread. Simpler rhythms came, short lines of iambic feet that could convey almost any emotion from the beating of the heart to the tread of soldiers marching on to war.

Whence rhyme came to Western Christendom no one knows and many guess. It had been used in a few pagan poems, as by Ennius, Cicero, Apuleius; occasionally in Hebrew and Syriac poetry; sporadically in Latin poetry of the fifth century; abundantly in Arabic verse as early as the sixth century. Possibly the Moslem passion for rhymes affected the Christians who touched Islam; the surfeit of rhymes, medial and terminal, in medieval Latin verse recalls a like excess in Arabic poetry. In any case the new forms begot an entire new corpus of Latin poetry, utterly unlike the classic types, astonishing in abundance, and of unsuspected excellence. Here, for example, is Peter Damian (1007–72), the ascetic reformer, likening the call of Christ to the call of a lover to a maid:

Quis est hic qui pulsat ad ostium?

noctis rumperis somnium?

Me vocat: “O virginum pulcherimma,

soror, coniux, gemma splendidissima.

Cito, surgens aperi, dulcissima.

Ego sum summi regis filius,

primus et novissimus;

qui de caelis in has veni tenebras,

liberare captivorum animas:

passus mortem et multas iniurias.”

Mox ego dereliqui lectulum,

cucurri ad pessulum:

ut dilecto tota domus pateat,

et mens mea plenissime videat

quern videre maxime desiderat.

At ille iam inde transierat;

ostium reliquerat.

Quid ergo, miserrima, quid facerem?

Lacrymando sum secuta iuvenem

manus cuius plasmaverunt hominem….

Who is this that knocks at my door?

Would you shatter my night’s dream?

He calls me: “O loveliest of maidens,

Sister, mate, gem most resplendent!

Quick! rise! open, most sweet!

I am the son of the highest king,

His first and youngest son,

Who from heaven has come to this


To free the souls of captives;

Death have I suffered, and many injuries.”

Quickly I left my couch,

Ran to the threshold,

That to the beloved all the house might

lie open,

And my soul might in fullest see

Him whom it most longs to see.

But he so soon had passed by,

Had left my door.

What then, miserable me, should I do?

Weeping I followed after the youth

Whose hands formed man.

To Peter Damian poetry was an incident; to Hildebert of Lavardin (1055?-1133), Archbishop of Tours, it was a passion that fought his faith for his soul. Probably from the Bérenger of Tours who had studied under Fulbert at Chartres he imbibed a love for the Latin classics. After many tribulations he journeyed to Rome, not sure which he sought more—papal benediction or a sight of the scenes endeared to him by his reading. He was touched by the grandeur and decay of the old capital, and expressed his feelings in classic elegiac form:

Par tibi, Roma, nihil, cum sis prope tota ruina;

quam magni fueris integra fracta doces.

Longa tuos fastus aetas destruxit, et arces

Caesaris et superum templa palude iacent.

Ille labor, labor ille ruit quern dirus Araxes

et stantem tremuit et cecidisse dolet….

Non tamen annorum series, non flamma, nec ensis

ad plenum potuit hoc abolere decus.*

Here for a moment a medieval poet used the Latin language as nobly as Virgil himself. But once a Christian, always a Christian. Hildebert found more comfort in Jesus and Mary than in Jupiter and Minerva; and in a later poem he impeccably dismissed the ancient shrines:

Gratior haec iactura mihi successibus illis;

maior sum pauper divite, stante iacens.

Plus aquilis vexilla crucis, plus Caesare Petrus,

plus cinctis ducibus vulgus inerme dedit.

Stans domui terras, infernum diruta pulso;

corpora stans, animas fracta iacensque rego.

Tunc miserae plebi, modo principibus tenebrarum

impero; tunc urbes, nunc mea regna polus.

Not since Fortunatus had any Latin penned such poetry.

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