Page images
PDF
EPUB

description, which we have already remarked as an attribute of the prose romance.

The most curious part, however, of this curious subject, respects the change in manners which appears to have taken place about the middle of the 14th century, when what we now call the Spirit of Chivalry seems to have shone forth with the most brilliant lustre. In the older romances, we look in vain for the delicacy which, according to Burke, robbed vice of half its evil, by depriving it of all its grossness. The tales of the older metrical romancers, founded frequently on fact, and always narrated in a coarse and downright style, excite feelings sometimes ludicrous, and often disgusting; and in fact can only be excelled by the unparalleled fabliauz published by Barbazan, which although professedly written to be recited to noble knights and dames, exhibit a nakedness, not only in the description, but in the turn of the story, which would now banish them even from a bagnio, unless of the very lowest order. The ladies in metrical romances, not only make the first advances on all occasions, but with a degree of vivacity, copied it would seem from the worthy spouse of Potiphar. For example, a certain knight called Sir Amis, having declined the proffered favours of the Lady Belisaunt, pleading his allegiance to his liege lord, receives from her the following sentimental rebuke :

“That merry maiden of great renown Answered, “Sir Knight, thou has no crown—

1 Art not shaved like a monk.

For God that bought thee dear,
Whether art thou priest or parson,
Other art thou monk, other canon,

That preachest me thus here?
“‘Thou never shouldst have been a knight,
To go amongst maidens bright;

Thou shouldst have been a frere:
He that learned thee thus to preach,
The devil of hell I him biteche,

My brother though he were.

Amis & Ameliom.

As the damsels were urgent in their demands, the knights of these more early ages were often brutally obstinate in their refusal; and instead of the gentle denial which the love-sick Briolania received from the courteous Amadis, they were too apt to exclaim like Bevis of Hamton, when invited to a rendezvous by the fair Josiana, a Saracen princess— “Forth the knights go can; To Bevis' chamber they came anon, And prayed as he was gentleman, Come speak with Josian.

Bevis stoutly in this stound
Haf up his head from the ground
And said, “If ye ne were messagers,
I should ye slay, ye lossengers;
I ne will rise one foot fro’ grounde
For to speak with an heathen hounde;
She is a hound, also be ye,
Out of my chamber swith ye flee.'"

All this coarseness, in word and deed, was effectually banished from the romances of chivalry which were composed subsequent to 1850. Sentiment had begun to enter into these fictions, not

casually, or from the peculiar delicacy of an individual author, but as a necessary qualification of the heroes and heroines whose loves occupied their ponderous folios. Of this refinement we find many instances in Amadis. Balays of Corsante being repulsed by a damsel, explains his sentiments upon such points. “My good lady,” Balays answered, “think no more of what I said: it becomes knights to serve damsels, and to woo their love, and becomes them to deny, as you have done; and albeit, at the first, we think it much to obtain of them what we desire, yet when wisely and discreetly they resist our inordinate appetites, keeping that without which they are worthy of no praise, they be even of ourselves more reverenced and commended.” Notwithstanding this favourable alteration in their tone, the reader is not to understand that the morality of these writings was in fact very materially amended; for at no period was the age of chivalry distinguished for female virtue. Those who have supposed the contrary, have never opened a romance written before the tomes of Calprenede, and Scudery, and judge of Queen Guenever, Iscult, and Oriana, by what they find there recorded of Mandane and Cassandra. But the genuine prose romances of chivalry, although less gross in language and circumstance, contain as little matter for edification as the tales of the minstrels, to which they succeeded. Lancelot du Lac is the adulterous lover of Guenever, the wife of his friend and sovereign; and Tristram de Lionel the incestuous seducer of his uncle's spouse, as well in the prose folios of Rusticien de Puise,

and the Knight of the Castle of Gast, as in the rhimes of Chretien de Troyes and Thomas of Erceldoune. Nor did the tales of a more modern date turn upon circumstances more correct: witness the history of the Petit Iehan de Saintré, and many others. Of Amadis, in particular, Mr Southey has observed, that “all the first-born children are illegitimate,” because “the hero must be every way irresistible.” The same observation applies to most romances of chivalry; so that one would be tempted to suppose that the damsels of those days, doomed frequently to wander through lonely woods infested by robbers, giants, and caitiffs of every description, were so far from trusting, like the lady in Comus, to the magic power of true virginity, that they hastened to confer upon some faithful knight a treasure so very precarious, while it was yet their own to bestow. But the modern man of gallantry will be surprised to hear, that this by no means diminished either the zeal or duty of the lover, who had thus attained the summit of his

hopes. On the contrary, unless in the case of here and there a Don Galaor, who is always painted

as a subaltern character, a preua chevalier was

bound, not only to maintain the honour of the lady

thus deposited in his custody, but to observe

towards her the fidelity and respect of religious

observance." Every one knows how long Sir

Lancelot had enjoyed the favours of Queen Guenever; and yet that scrupulous knight went distracted, and remained so till he was healed by the Sang-real, merely because by enchantment he was brought to the bed of the lovely Dame Elaine. As for Amadis, the bare suspicion which Oriana conceived of his infidelity, occasioned his doing penance on the Poor Rock in a manner unequalled, unless by the desolate knight who averred himself to have retired to a cavern, where he “used for his bed mosse, for his candle mosse, for his covering mosse, and, unless now and then a few coals, mosse for his meat; a dry food, God wot, and a fresh ; but so moistened with wet tears, and so salte, that it was hard to conjecture whether it was better to feed or fast.” In short, the love of the knights-errant was like their laws of honour, altogether beyond the common strain of feeling, as well as incapable of being measured by the standard of religion and morality. Their rules of honour have in some degree survived the fate of their order; and we have yet fatal instances of bloodshed for “a word of reproach,” a “bratchet hound,” or such other causes of duel as figure in the tales of the Table Round. But the love which was not only fostered, but imposed as a solemn duty by the laws of chivalry, is now only to be traced in such a romance as is before us. It subsisted, as we have seen, independent of maidenly chastity and conjugal fidelity; and its source perhaps may be traced to a remote

* The Cicesbei of Italy derive their order from the days of chivalry. The reader is referred to the Mémoires de Grammont for an account of the duties expected from them.

* Progresses of Queen Elizabeth, vol. ii. p. 136.

« PreviousContinue »