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From Greek to Latin via Arabic: 8th - 13th century

Although Greece is geographically close to Italy, and Greek literature is highly prized in ancient Rome, western Europe loses touch with its Greek intellectual roots during the centuries after the collapse of the Roman empire. The new barbarian clients of papal Rome, whether Franks or Anglo-Saxons, have no interest in Greek. And Byzantine Constantinople has no incentive to enlighten them.

It is the Arab interest in Greek philosophy and science that eventually transmits the tradition to western Europe, along the unbroken belt of Muslim civilization stretching from Greek Antioch in the northeast Mediterranean to Latin Toledo in the west.

The chain of communication stretches from the school of translators set up in Baghdad in the 8th century (Greek into Arabic) to a school of translators established in Toledo in the 13th century (Arabic into Latin).

In the early medieval years Toledo has been a multi-cultural Muslim city, where Christians and Jews prosper under Arab rulers. From the 11th century it maintains, for a while, the same excellent tradition as a Christian city. From this interface between the Arab and Christian worlds, the Latin translations of Greek philosophy (in particular Aristotle) enter the bloodstream of medieval Christianity - in the scholasticism associated above all with Thomas Aquinas.

Northern epic and saga: 8th - 13th century

The Germanic peoples of northern Europe are rivalled only by the ancient Greeks in their genius at transforming the shared myths and memories of the tribe into epic literature.

Unlike Homer's Greek epic, no name is attached to the great Germanic poems. But the circumstances in each case are similar. In Mycenaean Greece and in the Europe of the Dark Ages great events take place under the leadership of a warrior caste which is largely illiterate. The stories of the battlefield deserve constant retelling. The lord's followers need to be entertained after supper in the dark nights of winter. The stage is set for the bard.

The bard is partly a narrator and partly a singer. His tales, for ease of memory, tend to be set in loosely metrical lines linked by alliteration (the bunching together of words beginning with the same letter, which also has a stimulating effect on the audience). He will usually accompany himself on a stringed instrument, such as harp or lute.

Bards are professionals, though no doubt amateurs also enjoy displaying their skills on occasion. The main employment of Nordic bards is probably among warriors, but in the developing prosperity of the Christian Middle Ages they find many other occasions to perform - at trade fairs and church festivals, or at the stopping places on the pilgrim routes.

As with the Homeric poems, the Germanic and Norse epics combine mythology with folk memory of real events; and, like their predecessors, they are sung and recited in many different forms and places before eventually being written down. The literary versions, whether in Anglo-Saxon, German or Icelandic, date mainly from the 11th and 12th century.

The mythological basis underlying them all goes back to Ymir and Odin and the creation story. On the historical side, the poems and sagas reflect the experiences of the Germanic tribes in the Völkerwanderung - the upheavals of the 4th to 6th century AD.

Thus the story of Beowulf reflects historical events in Scandinavia in the 6th century. The Icelandic Völsunga Saga and the German Nibelungenlied tell of the destruction of the royal house of Burgundy by the Huns in the 5th century. Similarly the character Dietrich von Bern, who plays a small role in the Nibelungenlied and who features as an ideal German leader in many other poems, is based on Theodoric the Great.

The treatment of Dietrich is heroic, in an idealizing medieval tradition which includes the French chansons de geste about Charlemagne and his paladins. The earlier Germanic epics, more brutal, full of monsters and monstrous events, are closer to their dark and mysterious sources.

Beowulf: 8th - 10th century

The poem of Beowulf, amounting to 3218 lines, is the first and the greatest surviving work of early Germanic literature. The story tells of fantastic fights against fierce dragons, but it is set in an authentic historical context of Scandinavia in the 6th century(see Beowulf - the story). The language is Old English - the dialect of the Angles and Saxons, who invade England from northern Germany and Scandinavia during the 5th and 6th century AD.

Mingled with the original pagan material of the epic is a thread of Christian commentary and imagery. This blend, matching the experience of the Anglo-Saxons in England, gives likely clues to the poem's date.

The poem is known from just one manuscript, dating from the 10th century and now in the British Library, but it is thought to have been probably written down for the first time in the 8th century - after the usual process of change and accretion in an oral tradition.

By that time the Anglo-Saxon kings of England are Christian. A great archaeological discovery of the 20th century - the Sutton Hoo ship burial - vividly reflects a period when pagan and Christian elements coexist, as in Beowulf. The ship's contents belong to a king of the mid-7th century. It is to lords of his kind, and their successors, that Beowulf in its surviving form is likely to have been recited.

The Eddas and Sagas of Iceland: 9th - 13th century

Iceland provides the fullest surviving record of Germanic mythology, legend and history. The earliest examples are found in a manuscript written in the 13th century, known as the Elder Edda (or sometimes Poetic Edda), which is preserved in the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

The opening poem in the Elder Edda (entitled Völuspá) recounts Norse mythology, from the creation story onwards. Though composed in Iceland, probably in the 10th century, the material is based on earlier sources deriving from Norway and possibly from Norse settlements in Britain.

The second half of the Elder Edda goes back even further, in an oral tradition reaching to the 5th and 6th century. Much of the material derives from the historical struggle in the 5th century between the invading Huns and the royal house of Burgundy. The emphasis is on a blighted quadrangle of love between Siguror (a valiant hero), Brynhildr (a warrior woman living in a castle surrounded by flames, to whom Siguror is betrothed) and a Burgundian brother and sister, of the royal family, who deceive our hero and heroine.

This favourite Norse story is retold in the Nibelungenlied, which makes Siegfried and Brunhild (their German names) the most famous ill-starred lovers in Germanic legend.

The Younger Edda (also known as the Prose Edda) is written much later, in the early 13th century, by a single author - the Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson. Composed as an aid to the appreciation of Icelandic poetry, its account of metric systems and of the mythology behind Norse legend has been of great subsequent value.

Snorri is also the author of the Heimskringla, an account of the kings of Norway from mythological beginnings down to the time of his own childhood. As such, it is just one of the many dramatic medieval accounts of Norse legend and history which are Iceland's great contribution to literature (giving the word saga, old Norse for 'story', to many other languages).

The Japanese classics: 10th - 11th century

The Heian period, with the Japanese capital at Kyoto, is distinguished by literature as elegant and subtle as the style of the court itself. As in China, poetry is here considered an essential element of civilized life. The competitive writing of verses is a social pastime. A good poet can expect preferment at court. Messages from a lover to his mistress are welcome in poetic form, preferably attached to an arrangement of flowers.

In905 the emperor commissions an anthology of poems, in the tradition of the Manyoshu of earlier times. The new collection, the Kokinshu, consists almost entirely of short tanka. It is more artificial than its predecessor - and more restricting in its subsequent influence.

The greatest glory of this classical period is works in prose, many of them by women. One important strand is the journals of court life. The earliest to survive, written in 974-7 by a noblewoman, is Kagero nikki (translated into English with the title 'The Gossamer Years'). But by far the best known is the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

Sei Shonagon serves as a lady-in-waiting to the empress during the 990s. Her delightful text is more like a commonplace book than a journal. It consists of unlinked passages recording her impressions and thoughts. Many are vivid tone poems, conveying the visual impact of a scene with a Brightness and clarity which seems to prefigure the Japanese colour print.

The most distinguished writer of the Heian period, and indeed in the whole of Japanese literature, is another lady of the court. Known only by her pseudonym, Murasaki Shikubi, she is widowed in 1001 and is in the retinue of the empress from 1005. Her name would live in literature if she had written nothing other than the diary which she keeps of court life in the years from 1007 to 1010. But she also writes the extremely ambitious Genji monogatori ('The Tale of Genji').

This chronicle of court life, focussing with rich characterisation and psychological subtlety on the various women loved by Prince Genji, has a good claim to be considered the world's first novel.

Classics of Persian literature: 11th - 14th century

The classical age of Persian literature, though launched in the 10th century by the patronage of a Persian dynasty (the Samanids), occurs during four centuries in which Persia is dominated by Turks and Mongols.

The period can be said to begin with the completion in 1010 of Firdausi's Shah-nama. The later years of the poet's life are made miserable by the failure of the new Turkish ruler to appreciate this great Persian chronicle. During the next four centuries Firdausi is followed by three other poets who have made Persian literature known in a much wider context - Omar Khayyam, Sa'di and Hafiz.

Firdausi and Omar Khayyam: 11th - 12th century

There could hardly be a greater contrast between the two earliest Persian poets to have made a name for themselves in a wider context.

Firdausi's epic chronicle of Persian history, the Shah-nama ('Book of Kings'), extends to nearly 60,000 verses. Omar Khayyam's poems are all short (four lines each), though it may be that he is the author of as many as 1000 of these quatrains.

The Shah-nama, revered as Iran's national epic, is an adaptation of a history of Persia written for the Sassanian rulers in the early 7th century AD. It therefore relates to a time before the arrival of Islam and the language is almost pure Persian, with very few imported Arabic words. In retaining this purity (even after three centuries of Islam), Firdausi gives his sonorous account of past events a powerful patriotic charge.

The Shah-nama is recited by professional bards, as in any early tradition of epic poetry. Lavishly illustrated manuscripts of the work later form an important strand in the development of Persian painting.

For Omar Khayyam, writing later in the 11th century, poetry is a sideline to his work as a mathematician and astronomer. Each of his four-line verses (rubaiyat in Persian) is a separate poem, giving the impression of an impromptu response to a particular moment - somewhat in the contemporary tradition of Chinese poetry.

The notion of presenting a selection, with the implication of a unifying theme, belongs to Edward FitzGerald whose translation of 101 quatrains is published in 1859 as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The poetic mood of world-weary hedonism strikes a chord in late 19th-century Europe and brings Omar his belated fame.

Chinese arts: in the Song dynasty

In the heyday of classical Chinese culture, a civilized gentleman - meaning a Confucian official - should be adept in three different artistic fields. When he settles down before a fresh sheet of paper and dips his brush in the ink (ground from a block of pigment by a servant), no one can be certain whether he is about to pen an impromptu poem, paint a quick impression of a romantic landscape or fashion some traditional phrase in exquisite Chinese characters.

The three skills, all expressed in the beauty of brush strokes, are closely linked. A 'soundless poem' is a conventional Chinese term for a picture. And a typical poem by the Song master Ou-yang Hsiu Sounds like a painting.

Poetry and painting in Song China (960-1279) are largely social activities, both in the creation and in the appreciation of the work. On a convivial occasion, with wine flowing, Confucians will compete with each other in writing or painting. In more sober vein, among connoisseurs, a collector will bring the scrolls from their boxes and will unroll them to be admired and discussed.

China's past is also now a theme for conoisseurs, in a fashion pioneered by Ou-yang Hsiu (and echoed centuries later in Italy during the Renaissance). Ou-yang Hsiu clambers 'on precarious cliffs and inaccessible gorges, in wild forests and abandoned tombs' to make rubbings which he publishes, in about 1000 portfolios, as his Collection of Ancient Inscriptions'.

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