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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The cradle of writing
The eastern heritage
The western heritage
Greek drama
Greek history
Greek philosophy
Augustus and patronage
4th - 8th century
8th - 11th century
12th - 13th century
     French romance
     Chanson de Roland
     El Cid in life and literature
     Troubadours and courtly love
     Arthurian romance
     German courtly poets
     Thomas Aquinas
     Sa'di and Hafiz

The Italian awakening
The path to Chaucer
17th century
18th century
Late 18th century
18th - 19th century
To be completed

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French romance: 12th - 13th century

The western half of Charlemagne's Frankish empire, approximating to modern France, introduces in the 12th century a new and influential strand in European literature. The Franks, as a Germanic tribe, enjoy a powerful epic tradition (from Beowulf to the Nibelungenlied) in which heroism is the stock-in-trade of fierce warriors beset by often monstrous dangers.

But in this western part of the Frankish empire - profoundly influenced by Rome, and speaking a Romance language rather than a Germanic one - there now emerges an element which borrows its name from these qualities. The arrival of romance transforms the warrior into a gentleman.


The first epic poems to reflect this change are a group of about eighty from the 12th and 13th century known as the chansons de geste ('songs of deeds'). Performed by professional minstrels in castles and manors, usually to the accompaniment of a lute, they celebrate the martial exploits of the kings of Carolingian France, and in particular of Charlemagne and his paladins.

The emphasis is now not so much on the violence of the battle. It is on the honour of the participants, on the loyalties required of them in the feudal system, and on their religious obligations in this age of crusades.


The greatest of the chansons de geste is also one of the earliest - the Chanson de Roland, dating probably from about 1100. Although it is set in one of Charlemagne's campaigns, the attention is on his followers Roland and Oliver rather than the king himself.

The same is true of another heroic cycle launched in France later in the 12th century. In the stories of King Arthur (a legendary English king, but featured in literature mainly by the French), the emphasis falls more on the knights of the round table than on the table's owner. And now there is a new element, in the prominent part played by a woman, Queen Guinevere. The ideal of courtly love becomes part of the tradition.


Among all the innovations of French authors in the 12th century, none is more influential than courtly love. This theme - of a gentleman's devotion to his often unattainable lady - is quintessentially romantic in concept. It long outlasts any other literary tradition of the Middle Ages.

Courtly love is associated first, in the 12th century, with the famous troubadours of southern France. Following their example, it moves through the rest of Europe and enters the mainstream of literature.


Chanson de Roland: c.1100

A very early manuscript of the Chanson de Roland (dating from about 1130, in Oxford's Bodleian Library) reveals that the author of France's first great epic poem is probably called Turold. The setting for his story is Charlemagne's expedition of 778 against the Muslims in Spain. The entire campaign was in reality disastrous, but Turold's choice of incident declares uncompromisingly that this is to be a new kind of heroic poetry.

The poet concentrates on a small but undignified event (the successful attack by hill people on the rear of Charlemagne's army in the pass of Roncesvalles) and transforms it into a glorious occasion. He does so by concentrating on the obstinate courage of two of Charlemagne's followers.


The rearguard is under the command of Roland, one of the paladins. Intead of a few Basques or Gascons (the historical reality), the enemy is now a vast army of Muslims. Seeing their number, Roland's companion Oliver urges him to sound his horn to summon Charlemagne back to their defence (one theme of the poem is the contrast between Oliver's commonsense and Roland's headstrong inclination to drama and heroism). Roland refuses to summon help and fights valiantly against overwhelming odds (20,000 against 400,000 men).

When only 60 Franks are left, Roland decides to sound his horn after all. Oliver this time argues against doing so (there is now no point), but Roland expands his lungs for one last flamboyant gesture.


Roland blows his oliphant (a horn of elephant tusk) with such force that he bursts a vein in his head. The mournful sound carries 30 leagues (some 90 miles) to the ear of Charlemagne, who turns south in response. By the time he reaches Roncesvalles, all the Franks are dead. But God delays sunset on that day, to give the Frankish king time to inflict a heavy defeat on the fleeing Muslims.

Roland, magnificent in failure, begins a long career as a new kind of hero. As Orlando, he is particularly popular with the Italians - becoming Innamorato ('enamoured') in Boiardo's epic of 1487, and Furioso ('frantic') in Ariosto's sequel of 1516.


El Cid in life and literature: 11th - 12th century

The great medieval hero of Spanish epic and romance is known even in his own day as El Cid, from an Arabic phrase meaning 'the lord'. His real name is Rodrigo Diaz, and his fame derives from his brilliant successes in the confused warfare of medieval Spain. Christian and Muslim kingdoms at this period compete with each other in ever-shifting alliances - not always along sectarian lines. Rodrigo fights with equal enthusiasm for rulers of either religion.

The main event in his story is the capture of Valencia from the Muslims. He does this on his own account - giving him even more glamour, as a man independent of royal patronage.


Rodrigo is a Castilian, and for most of his fighting life the king of Castile is Alfonso VI. The threat from the new Almoravid dynasty of Muslims causes Alfonso to enlist Rodrigo's help in 1087. Rodrigo drives a hard bargain, securing written agreement that any land he wins from the Muslims will belong to him and to his heirs.

Rodrigo then sets out to conquer Valencia, but soon quarrels with Alfonso. Undeterred he succeeds by 1094 in taking Valencia for himself. He rules it, virtually as king, until his death in 1099.


The historical significance of El Cid's conquest of Valencia is slight, for within three years of his death his widow is driven out by the Muslims. But the sheer effrontery of his personal achievement is enough to inspire the poets.

The first great epic treatment of the theme is the 12th-century Poema de mio Cid. Contemporary with the French chansons de geste, it is like them in presenting its hero as an idealized warrior. From this semi-historical source (written within perhaps half a century of the death of Rodrigo), popular Spanish tradition later evolves ever more fanciful tales about the brave hero.


The troubadours and courtly love: 12th - 13th century

The love poetry of the troubadours is linked with a very specific region - southern France and the adjacent regions of Spain and Italy. Unlike the earlier tradition of minstrels or jongleurs (a French word related to 'juggling', which suggests the level of entertainment involved), the troubadours tend to be aristocrats. Indeed the earliest troubadour whose poems survive is William IX, duke of Aquitaine in the early 12th century.

The central region of the troubadours is Provence and the language of their poetry Provençal - the southern version of French.


The feeling expressed in the poems of the troubadours is the refined passion known as courtly love. It is a sentiment exactly suited to the feudal world in which the troubadours and their audience live.

The devotion of the courtly lover to his mistress is in one sense a reflection of the unswerving loyalty owed by the vassal to his lord in the idealized concept of feudalism. In practical terms, this distant fidelity suits the social context of a nobleman's castle.


The lady of a feudal castle is likely to be a woman of high birth whose marriage has been arranged for reasons of practical and dynastic advantage. Love is not a factor here. But an affectation of illicit love makes an intoxicating diversion within the confined community of her lord's followers.

Two powerful reasons urge that such love remain an affectation. The lady and her retinue are greatly outnumbered by the men in this society; and they are mostly of a higher social class. No doubt base reality sometimes upsets the pretence. But the ideal of courtly love is that the lover serves his lady with utter devotion from afar.


Love poetry is a natural part of this game. Probably many a squire tries his hand at it. Some 400 troubadours (not all of them high-born) become sufficiently famous for their poems to be gathered in manuscripts and for details of their lives to be known.

The interconnecting marriages of feudal society soon spread the new fashion. Eleanor of Aquitaine (granddaughter of William IX, the troubadour duke of Aquitaine) is herself a great patron of troubadours, and her successive marriages to the kings of France and England bring new audiences. In the courts of Germany and Austria, by the second half of the 12th century, the Minnesinger are fulfilling the same role as the troubadours.


By the end of the 13th century the tradition of the troubadours has declined. Feudalism is losing its freshness, and the south of France has suffered greatly in the wars against the Albigensians. But these first poets of courtly love are long outlived by their romantic concept - of a passion, akin to worship of the distant loved one, which in its intensity of experience brings its own reward.

This is the feeling of Dante for Beatrice, of Petrarch for Laura. At a different level, in medieval churches and cathedrals, it is the affection of millions of ordinary Christians for the Virgin Mary - who can almost be called the sweetheart of the Middle Ages.


Arthurian romance: 12th - 15th century

The theme of Arthur, a legendary Celtic king of Britain, proves well suited to the demands of medieval romantic literature. The Carolingian kings have provided the basis for the chansons de geste. But they are historical figures, so a tenuous link with reality is desirable (though rarely attained). And with their emphasis on the heroic camaraderie of the paladins, there is little scope in the stories for female characters.

By contrast the world of King Arthur and his knights offers an already existing collection of exotic tales, which can be adapted and extended to suit the romantic interests of a new generation.


If there is a historical basis for King Arthur, it is as a leader of the Celts against the encroaching Anglo-Saxons in the 5th or 6th century (the same period as the dramatic events which inspire many of the incidents in Germanic legend). Stories about Arthur evolve from the late 8th century, mainly in the Celtic stronghold of Wales. In about 1135 they are gathered together in Historia Regum Britanniae ('History of the Kings of Britain') by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a cleric with an unbounded appetite for improbable detail.

It is this material which is transformed in France, a few decades later, into literature.


Of several French authors dealing with the theme, the most influential is Chrétien de Troyes who writes five Arthurian romances between about 1160 and 1190. Chrétien's light and elegant touch sets the tone for a developing tradition of courtly romance. Even more significant, he is the first to adapt courtly love (developed by the troubadours in their lyrics) to the more sustained pleasures of narrative and adventure.

He does so, above all, in his account of the passion of one of Arthur's knights, Lancelot, for the king's wife, Guinevere. The tale of their adultery (Lancelot is a courtly lover who succeeds in his quest) becomes one of the most popular love stories of the Middle Ages.


Chrétien de Troyes introduces another more spiritual adventure which later becomes an important theme in Arthurian legend - the quest for the Holy Grail, in which the activity of Arthur's knights is given a mystical and Christian dimension. In Chrétien's text the Grail is unexplained; in later authors it becomes the vessel used by Jesus for the wine at the Last Supper. Its great merit is that it ennobles the magic adventures undergone by the knights in their quest for it.

Subsequent French romances develop these two main themes - the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the quest for the Grail.


The Arthurian legends, transplanted from Wales to France in the 12th century, return amplified to Britain 300 years later.

In 1469 an English knight, Thomas Malory, is in gaol. With time heavy on his hands he begins to compile, from French texts, the first English account of King Arthur and his knights. He completes the task some time in 1470. All that is known of Malory comes from the last words of his book, where he gives his name and prays for deliverance from prison. In 1485 Caxton prints the manuscript, calling it Morte Darthur. It rapidly becomes one of the most popular books in Britain, teaching the British all that they know about their legendary king.


The Nibelungenlied: 12th century

The shared memories of the Nordic people, first written down in Iceland literature, have been recited and sung wherever Germanic tribes have settled - including the central lands of Germany itself. In the southeast of this region, in modern Austria, the legends about the fall of Burgundy to the Huns achieve their fullest and most influential expression in a version of the late 12th century.

This is the great German epic poem known as the Nibelungenlied ('Song of the Nibelungs').


The first half of the Nibelungenlied is essentially the story written down two centuries earlier in Iceland's Elder Edda, involving Siegfried and Brunhild as tragic hero and heroine. Additional elements, recorded also in the Icelandic Völsunga Saga, involve the dragon Fafnir, guardian of a golden treasure and a magic ring, and the eventual sinking of the treasure in the Rhine (see Nibelungenlied - the story).

The Nibelungenlied, rich in detail and incident, has been profoundly influential - and has been given added fame in Wagner's Ring. Although later than courtly epics such as the Chanson de Roland, the poem retains the darkness and violence of its Germanic tribal origins.


German courtly poets: 12th-13th century

The poetry recited or sung in German courts of the later Middle Ages closely follows the examples set by France. The influence of Chrétien de Troyes makes themes from Arthurian legend particularly popular. Tristant und Isolde, written by Eilhart von Oberge in about 1170, is an early example.

The best known of the German courtly epics is Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal (dating from about 1205). It tells the story of the gauche knight, Sir Percival, whose innocence enables him to succeed in the quest for the holy Grail. Again, as with the Nibelungenlied, it is Wagner's interest in Wolfram von Eschenbach which has given the Percival legend its modern fame.


The other important aspect of French courtly literature, the lyric poetry of the troubadours, has its direct German equivalent in the Minnesinger (those who sing of Minne, an old word for 'love'). Again Wolfram von Eschenbach is a leading practitioner, though Walter von der Vogelweide is considered a greater artist in this lyric form - which is used by the Minnesinger to deal with a range of subjects not restricted to love.

Tannhäuser, a historical Minnesinger, becomes the central character of a legend which also attracts Wagner. In Tannhäuser he competes against Walter and Wolfram in a singing contest which prefigures the traditions of the Meistersinger.


Thomas Aquinas: 13th century

Of the many distinguished friars at the forefront of scholastic thought during the 13th century, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas is the most influential. He writes when Christian philosophy is profoundly challenged by the great edifice of Aristotelian thought. Aristotle appears to provide answers to important questions without the need for Christian sources.

Much of scholasticism in its most creative period is concerned with reconciling the insights of Aristotle with the revealed truths of Christianity. There is also a perceived need to weed out impurities introduced to the Aristotelian canon in its passage through Muslim hands, particularly those of Averroës.


Aquinas achieves a reconciliation between his Aristotelian and Christian sources which his contemporaries find so convincing that Aristotle acquires something of a stranglehold on late medieval thought.

In two major works Aquinas sets out the framework of the new orthodoxy. His Summa contra gentiles is intended to explain the Christian faith to Muslims. The Summa theologica is a textbook for Christian students in the universities.


In the Summa theologica Aquinas uses a teaching method known as sic et non ('yes and no') which is central to scholasticism. The lecturer (scholasticus) begins a session with a lectio in which he explains the question for discussion. The rest of the lesson is the disputatio in which arguments on either side, for and against, are expressed - leading if possible to a conclusion, as in the logical form of the syllogism.

Scholasticism retains its appeal until the 16th century, when several themes undermine it - a revival of interest in Plato, a new approach to science which rejects Aristotle's ancient conclusions, and the natural tendency of the Reformation to distrust any philosophy endorsed by Rome.


Sa'di and Hafiz: 13th - 14th century

These two authors, probably more than any others, delight the readers of Persian poetry. Sa'di, living in his old age in Shiraz after a troubled and turbulent life, publishes two collections whose titles hint at pleasures within - Bustan ('Orchard',1257) and Gulistan ('Rose Garden',1258).

The Bustan is a collection of moral tales in verse; the Gulistan is an anthology, mainly in prose, ranging from stories to short aphorisms. A recurrent theme compares the freedom of dervishes (devotees of Sufism) with the restrictions suffered by more conventional members of society.


Sufism is the guiding light in the life of Persia's greatest lyric poet, Hafiz. He perfects a form of short poem, called ghazal, which takes a theme and dwells upon it for between six and fifteen couplets. On the surface such a poem appears to be hedonistic, in praise of love, wine or the beauties of nature. And much of the attraction of Hafiz derives from his enticing glimpses of life in the streets and cafés of Shiraz, where the poet lives his entire life until his death in about 1390.

But a Sufi finds mystical truth in everyday experience. The poems aim to reveal - for the perceptive reader - deeper realities beneath the surface.


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