Page images



Our first English writers were men living apart from the common life of the world in the Religious Houses, and healthy as their sense of religion was, and priceless as was the value of their work, there was much of human experience upon which they could not enter, and many stirring interests in which they had little part.

The Norman Conquest brought new elements into our literature, which knit it into closer sympathy with the daily life of men and the things they most care for belonging to this world. We all have a strong interest in our own lives : we like to remember the past, and to dream dreams of beautiful things to come to us in the future; and we have a strong interest too in the lives of other people; we delight in hearing of what befalls them, in stories of their sorrows and success, of the dangers they escape, the difficulties they overcome, of their noble deeds, the strength and constancy of their love, the patience of their endurance; and we rejoice, when it all ends happily at last, out of our consciousness, that it is the true end of all things in life to “work together for good.”

Then beyond the lives of ourselves and of other individuals, we are all bound together in one great life, which is the life of our nation. We know that this great life was going on long before we were born and began to form a part of it, and that it has a past full of interest for us, because it is the story of England's childhood and growth, the story of the events that in every age have helped the nation onwards towards a free, strong, and noble life, and of the men in every generation, kings and rulers, patriots and reformers, who have taken part in the direction of the nation's course. In the years which followed the Norman Conquest, we shall find that our literature is enriched by two classes of works—romances, or the stories of individual life, and chronicles, or stories of the nation's life.

Before we speak of these books themselves we must notice a change in the language, which up to this time had remained much the same, since the first English settlements in our country. The Normans, although like the English a Teutonic race, had not like them kept their own language when they settled in France; but had gradually dropped their own tongue and taken to the French, so that when they conquered England they spoke a French dialect, which we call Norman-French. French then became for a time the language of the Court and of the upper class gathered about the king, and was also used in Parliament and in the courts of law. But the great body of the English people still spoke their own language, so that at first there were two streams, as it were, running side by side, the smaller of Norman-French and the larger of First English. By degrees these mingled; the smaller began to run into the larger, and for a while discoloured its waters, but in the end became lost in it, only adding to the depth and width of the great stream.

At the time when Norman-French and First English were both spoken as two distinct languages in this country, there was another tongue which all educated persons in the land, whether Normans or English, could understand, and that was Latin ; this, therefore, was used as the language of literature, for the greater number of readers could all read books in Latin. The chronicles or histories of England written at this time are in Latin


There were many of these chronicles written during the time of the Norman kings, and of the first Plantagenets. They were histories put together by one of the monks of a monastery from older records, and then when the history was brought down to his own time, he kept a particular account of every event as it happened. One of the chief of these chroniclers was William of Malmesbury. He was born in 1095, nearly thirty years after the battle of Hastings, and one of his parents was Norman and the other English. When quite a boy he was taken into the Religious House at Malmesbury, where Aldhelm had lived. Here, like Bede, he studied hard, and read every book he could get. As he grew older he had the charge of the library at Malmesbury, and gave all the time not engaged in religious service to literature. He wrote a History of England, beginning at the time when the English first came over to this country under Hengist and Horsa, and this he carried on, through the story of the Norman Conquest, down to the reign of Henry I. This book being written in Latin, he called “De Gestis Regum,” and it was dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the half-brother of the Empress Maud. At the request of Earl Robert, he continued to write the story of passing events as they happened, calling this book “Historia Novella,” or Modern History; and this contains the record of the troubled reign of Stephen, when Maud and Robert were contesting Stephen's right to hold possession of the crown. William of Malmesbury related all he could gather about the events of this civil war, either from Robert or from persons visiting the monastery at Malmesbury. The last thing he records is how Queen Maud made her escape from Oxford at Christmas-time, when the snow was on the ground, she and her attendants being dressed in white sheets. The news of this was brought to the monastery at Malmesbury by some one who had heard the story, and the monk William wrote it in his book, but he adds :-"This I purpose describing more fully if, by God's permission, I shall ever learn the truth of it from those who were present.” Here he lays down his pen, and he never wrote anything in his book again, so that it is supposed he must have died shortly after. Besides the History of England, William of Malmesbury wrote a History of English Bishops and Abbots, and some lives of the saints.

We now come to the romances of English literature There was a class of men in the north of France, called Trouvères, who wrote in verse spirited stories of Charlemagne, Roland, and other heroes; and they had legends too of old Keltic traditions of Brittany about famous chiefs who, in the old time, had withstood the Roman and Teutonic invasions. These stories were written in French, and were brought over into England, and read with great delight by the nobles and ladies of the Norman race; but these romances can be hardly said to belong to English literature, although the taste for them helped to call forth the same kind of writing in our own literature. Whilst William of Malmesbury was writing his “Chronicle," there was a monk living in the monastery at Monmouth, called Geoffrey. He was a Welshman, and had the strong feeling of nationality as well as the bright imagination of the Keltic

He found that all the chronicles and histories, which had been written at that time, began with the first settlements of the English in this country; but centuries before that, his race had occupied the island of Britain, and had had of course a history. No doubt there had been kings as great and good as Alfred, and ladies as fair as Elgiva; but unfortunately no one had told any stories about them. This did not, however, prevent Geoffrey of Monmouth from writing a history of Britain before the English came over to the country. He gathered together all the old Keltic traditions and legends that he could find, and in this way

he laid hold of one or two names of British kings;


but it is very disappointing in reading a story to come to a great gap, and Geoffrey would not allow his readers to be disappointed in this way. Wherever he could not find a history he made one; he had the feeling of a true artist, that his work must be complete, and so he gave an unbroken line of British kings, who each reigned so many years and months, and was in his time followed by his successor. The Kelts prided themselves on being the ancient race of this country, so Geoffrey made their first king to be the great-grandson of Æneas, Prince of Troy. He called him Brut, for Brutus is a name which had fine associations connected with it in Roman history. But however finely the history of the British kings might be made to begin, there could be but one disastrous close to it: there must come the story of the invasion of the Teutons, and the yielding of the British before the conquering race ; yet this part of his history Geoffrey contrived to make the most interesting of all, and to gain the sympathies and enthusiasm of his readers so strongly to the side of the British, that every one felt, while the Teutons conquered, it was the Kelts who deserved success. He did it in this way : during the last great struggle between the two races, there were, as we have seen, two great chiefs, whose names have been handed down in poems and traditions. One of these was Urien, the other Arthur. Of Urien much more is known than of Arthur; and had Geoffrey chosen him for his hero, and surrounded him with the fictions of his historic romance, some truth-loving Englishman might have come forward, and gravely proved that Urien did not, and could not, have done all that Geoffrey ascribed to him ; so Geoffrey chose Arthur, of whom little more was known, excepting that he was really a leader in the contest between the British and the English, and that he had a bard named Merlin. No one could say what Arthur did, or did not do; and Geoffrey, in order to prevent troublesome questions as to his

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »