Historical Significance of the Middle English Romance

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      The Romances form a considerable part of Middle English poetry and they still retain their interest for the modern readers for their artistic merit. Their themes have been an inexhaustible source of the romantic poetry of the nineteenth century and much of Victorian poetry, e.g. those of Tennyson, Rossetti and Swinburne, etc.

romance in medieval literature
Romance in Medieval Literature

      These romances are classified according to their subjects under the following heads :

  1.  The Matter of Britain i.e., those dealing with King Arthur and his round table. Sir Iristrem, Arthur and Merlin, Ywain and Gawain are some of the notable romances of this group. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the finest example of Middle English Romance.  
  2.  The Matter of Rome, i.e., those dealing with classical themes, such as the exploits of King Alexander the Great, and the Siege of Troy;  
  3.  The Matter of France those dealing with Charlemagne legends. English romances on the subject are but poor adaptations and abridgement of the French romances in mediaeval literature; 
  4. The Matter of England those dealing with English history and its heroes. This is the most numerous of the group and the most beautiful and artistic among them are Havelock the Dane, King Horn Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hampton and Richard Coeur de Lion, Of these four cycle of romances those of Britain and England are the most interesting for the students of English literature.

      One of the most attractive features of these romances is the picture of the contemporary life and manners in the town and the country that they give. The subjects are strictly national but fact and fiction have been strangely mingled in these poems. The element of the marvellous and the supernatural figures prominently in them. King Arthur himself, who is a historical figure and a military leader of the Britons who fought against the Saxons, is transformed by the imagination of the romances into a legendary and romantic figure, the incarnate spirit of chivalry. He is depicted as a King and hero who is guarded by supernatural powers. His apotheosis (i.e. transformation into a God) is complete. He and his knights performed many wonderful and superhuman deeds. His birth and death are both marvellous. The genre of romance in mediaeval literature love of the mysterious and marvellous, the belief in magic and witchcraft, ghosts and fairies, etc., find its highest expressions in the Arthurian romances.

      The mystic side of the mediaeval life, with its Roman Catholic faith and rituals and festivals, its amorous and martial side are minutely and vividly reflected in the English and British romances. Of the life of the court and common people we get vivid glimpses in these romantic poems. As Ten Brink has finely summed up the matter: "The spirit of Chivalric poetry breaks forth most strongly when the writer leads us to the battlefield, when he presents to us the picturesque advance of the troops, the glittering weapon, the neighing of the war horses, the roaring onset, the tumult, slaughter, the cry of fighters and the lamentations of the wounded; or when he describes Brilliant festivals, gorgeous garments and beautiful women." Music, dance, stinking, revelry, etc., were everyday matters of life. Joy in life and in nature, the intoxication of hunting and tournament are manifest in all the romances. Thus in place of the melancholy of the old English poetry which makes life a gloomy and sorry business, all efforts vain, all glories and triumphs futile, and even nature is gloomy and hostile, these romances speak of the wild joy of living and of the beauty of nature. The mediaeval ideal of friendship which does not shirk the greatest sacrifices of life and even of conscience for the friend, of honour for womanhood, of hospitalities, of succour for the distressed, loyalty to the chief and even treachery and meanness all these have received their attention in these chronicles of life that the romances are.

      Havelock the Dane begins with a description- "There was once a King who made good laws, - he hated traitors and robbers. In his days men could carry gold in safety and boldly buy and sell. Then was England in peace, for the King made his foes hide themselves. He befriended the fatherless and punished those who wrought shame." This is on the whole a realistic picture of the time, stripped of the romantic and idyllic elements. A glimpse of the life of the common people is also afforded in the same romance by the description of the life of Grim, a fisherman, who is ordered by the treacherous uncle of Havelock, to throw the boy into the sea. The life that Grim lived after settling in England is vividly described. Grim was a good fisherman, who caught sturgeon, turbot, etc. He and his sons carried the fish in the baskets round the streets. He sold lampreys at Lincoln and brought home sinnels, meal, meat and hemp to supply their needs. Thus the family lived. When Havelock grew to manhood, it was time for him to work and earn what he eats. He went to Lincolnshire to seek work, wearing a coat made out of an old sail by the fisherman. He went baretooted to the town, obtained job under the Earl's cook, drew waters and cut wood. Havelock is always blithe and laughing and a universal favourite. As we read this we seem to be reading a novel of Thomas Hardy.

      The element of the marvellous is touched upon when we learn that the wife of the fisherman saw a bright light shining around when she was asleep and told the husband that there was a mark of kingship in his shoulder. Thus in reading these romances we are transported into the mediaeval world and seem to live in the time in imagination and breathe its atmosphere of mystery.

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