From the time of the first Crusade, A.D. 1093, to the end of the
twelfth century, was the golden age of chivalry in Europe. Hence
the poetry of this period partook of the spirit that was abroad
in the world. Of this chivalrous poetry of the Middle Ages there
are three classifications: The first, taken from old legends,
shows a style of verse peopled with the Gothic, Frankish and
Burgundian heroes who flourished in the time of the great
Northern emigrations; and for these there is usually some
historical foundation, while they are also closely knit to the
traditions of the old heathenish mythology of the Gothic Nations.
The second subject of chivalrous verse was Charlemagne, the
Saracens and Roncesvalle. These were chiefly composed by the
Normans, who, after the Crusades, gave a new direction to
literature. Marked changes were introduced by them, not only into
France, but throughout Europe. They were filled with the spirit
of adventure and enthusiasm, and in their onward march conquered
England and Sicily, and took the lead in the next Crusade.
Essentially a poetic people, the wonderful was the object of all
their admiration and desire. Hence they sang old war songs,
especially of the battle of Roncesvalles in which Roland dies
when the Franks are conquered by the Spaniards and Turks.
In the tale of a fabulous Crusade, invented in the ninth century,
and which was embodied in poetry by the Normans, the true history
of the Empire became so bewilderingly mixed up with magicians,
genii, sultans, Oriental fables, and comical characters, who met
with astonishing adventures, that it was difficult to distinguish
the true from the false. There was nothing of the romantic and
wonderful in the history of the East, which did not find its way
into the poetry that treated of Charlemagne and Roland, until it
lost all traces of the real wars and achievements of Charlemagne.
The third subject of chivalric verse was Arthur of the Round
Table; but this, at the time, was also invested with Oriental
wonders and attachments. Other chivalric poetry of this epoch had
to do with Godfrey of Bouillon, the Crusades, and old French
tales and fabliaux which were brought into Europe by the oral
narratives of the Crusaders.
The Northern mythology always abounded with mountain spirits,
mermaids, giants, dwarfs, dragons, elves and mandrakes. These
reappear in the songs of the Crusades, and are elements of the
old Northern and Persian superstitions. All that the East
contributed to the song of the chivalric period was a Southern
magic, and a brilliance of Oriental fancy with which some of the
poems were clothed.
A Persian poem that became very popular in Europe in the Middle
Ages was Ferdusi's Book of Heroes. It has had a marked influence
on the Arabian "Thousand and One Nights." In this poem of
Ferdusi's we note the contest between light and darkness (an idea
nowhere found in Greek poetry). It seemed to touch the poetical
thought of the age of chivalry; for we find it reproduced in
their songs, mingled with Scriptural and love scenes.
Next to Chivalric poetry, the age of the Crusaders was
essentially a period of love songs. They attained their greatest
perfection in Provence, whence they spread over the whole of
France, and from there into Germany in the twelfth century.
Love poetry in Italy failed to attain any degree of perfection
until the time of Petrarch in the fourteenth century; and its
real era in Spain was not until a century later. Love poetry
developed in different ways in Europe, and, as we have seen, at
different times. Except among the Italians it was not so much
borrowed from one nation to another as had been the case with
other branches of literature.
It is different with Chivalric poetry, which was considered the
common property of all. The form of poetical composition also
varied in each country, and the only thing common to all the
nations was rhyme. Almost all the love poems seem to have been
written to be sung, and this was carried to such lengths that in
the reign of Lewis the Pious of Germany, an edict had to be sent
to the nuns of the German Cloisters by their Bishops, forbidding
them to sing their love songs, or Mynelieder.