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Index by Period

The Age of Chivalry and Romance

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.


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