The Northern Way

Song and Legend From the Middle Ages


The Middle Ages extend from the fifth to the fifteenth century, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the establishment of the great modern states. The general outline of the history of the Middle Ages can be seen in the following excellent table. (1)

1. The decline of the Roman Empire and the successful accomplishment of two invasions.

2. The transient brillancy of the Arabian civilization.

3. The attempted organization of a new empire by Charlemagne, and its dissolution.

4. The rise and prevalence of feudalism.

5. The successive crusades.

6. The contest between the pope and the emperor for the soverignty of the world.

The history of these ten centuries falls naturally into three great divisions:

1. Fifth to tenth century, the destruction of the past and transition to new forms.

2. Eleventh to thirteenth century, feudal society with its customs, its institutions, its arts, and its literarture.

3. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a second time of transition.

The period, then, of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries was one of intense political life, of advanced national self-consciousness, of rich, highly-organized society. It was moreover a period of common ideas, movements, and tendencies over all Europe. Several factors enter into this result:

1. The church was completely organized, forming a common life and teaching everywhere. She had learned to employ the savage vigor and conquering instincts of the northern barbarians as defenses and aggressive missions of her spirit and ideas. The monasteries were homes of learning, and from them issued the didactic literature and the early drama.

2. This resulted in that romantic institution or ideal of chivalry, whose ten commandments explain so much of mediæval life and art. (2)

[1] Thou shalt believe all the church teaches, and shalt observe all its directions.

[2] Thou shalt defend the church.

[3] Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.

[4] Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.

[5] Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.

[6] Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.

[7] Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the law of God.

[8] Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.

[9] Thou shalt be generous and give largesse to every one.

[10] Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

3. This combination of the Christian and the warrior found its public activity most completely in the Crusades. They gave a common motive and ideal to all the knights of Europe. They brought them together for thinking and for fighting. They spread national traditions and literatures. They made the whole face of Europe and the borders of the Mediterranean known to the ambitious, venturesome, daring, and heroic of every European country. The exploits of chivalric knights were told from camp to camp and taken back home to be told again in the castles.

4. Another institution of feudalism that helped to make this common subject and spirit of mediæval literature was the minstrel, who was attached to every well-appointed castle. This picturesque poet---gleeman, trouvère or troubadour---sang heroic stories and romances of love in the halls of castles and in the market places of towns. He borrowed from and copied others and helped to make the common method and traditions of mediæal song.

5. Other elements in this result were the extensions of commerce and the growth of traveling as a pleasure.

6. Finally, the itinerant students and teachers of mediæval universtities assisted in the making of this common fund of ideas and material for literature.

7. Behind and within all the separate national literatures lay the common Christian-Latin literature of the early Middle Ages, undoubtedly the cause of the rather startling perfection of form shown by much of the work of the period we are studying. (3)

The result of all these unifying tendencies is to give a strong family likeness to the productions of the various European countries of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. The subject matter often varies, but the motive and form of writing are much alike. This likeness can be seen by a short survey of the more important kinds of literature of the period.


In every country in which the national epic grew up it had the same origin and line of development. First there was the historical hero. His deeds were related by the traveling gleeman or minstrel---in brief chapters or ballads. Gradually mythical and supernatural elements came in; the number of achievements and the number of ballads grew very large; in this oral state they continued for many years, sometimes for centuries.

Finally, they were collected, edited, and written down---generally by a single editor. In all cases the names of the poets of the ballads are lost; in most cases the names of their redactors are but conjectural. The Song of Roland, and the Poem of the Cid are typical, simple, national epics. The Niebelungen Lied is complicated by the fact that the legends of so many heroes are fused into one poem, by the fact that it had more than one editor, and by the survival of mythological elements which mingle confusedly with Christian features. The national epic is the expression of the active side of chivalry. Italy has no national epic, both because she was too learned to develop a folk-poetry, and because the ideas of chivalry were never very active in her history.


The numberless romances that sprang up in the literary period of the Middle Ages may be thrown into three groups:

1. Those belonging to the legend of Arthur and the Round Table. They had their starting point in the history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which was partly invented, but had some basis in a tradition common to the Bretons and the Welsh. The romances based upon this legend sprang up apparently simultaneously in England and France. Through minstrel romances, founded upon the Breton popular tradition, the Arthur legend probably first found its way into European literature. With it was early fused the stories of the Holy Grail and of Parzival. In the twelfth century these stories were widely popular in literary form in France and Germany, and later they passed into Italy, Spain, and Scandinavia. Their influence upon the life and thought of Mediæval Europe is very important. They did much to modify the entire institution of chivalry. (4)

2. The Romances of Antiquity, of which there are three varieties:

[1] Those which were believed to be direct reproductions, such as the Romances of Thebes, of Æneas of Troy, whose authors acknowledged a debt to Vergil, Statius, and other classic writers.

[2] Those based upon ancient history not previously versified, such as the Romance of Alexander.

[3] Those which reproduced the names and nothing else from antiquity.

These romances, too were a common European possession. The most important and influential of them are the Romance of Troy, and the Romances of Alexander. They appear in different forms in the literature of every mediæval nation in Europe.

3. There was in each national literature a vast number of unaffiliated romances. A romance of this group usually contained a love story, a tale of adventure, or a religious experience in the form of a story. They are not clearly distinct from the class of popular tales. On the whole, the romance is more serious and dignified than the tale. Examples of this kind of romance are Hartmann von Aue's Henry the Leper and the French Flore et Blanchefleur.


Perhaps no other part of its literature shows more striking proof of the common life and interests of Mediæval Europe than does the lyric poetry of the period. In Northern France, in Provence, in all parts of Germany, in Italy, and a little later in Spain, we see a most remarkable outburst of song. The subjects were the same in all the countries. Love---the love of feudal chivalry---patriotism, and religion were the themes that employed the mediæval lyrist in whatever country he sang. In all these lyrics much was made of form, the verse being always skillfully constructed, sometimes very complicated. The lyric poetry of Italy was more learned and more finished in style than that of the other countries.

In Northern France the poet was called a trouvère, in Provence a troubadour, in Germany a minnesinger. The traveling minstrel was in France a jongleur (Provencal jogleur). The distinction between trouvère or troubadour and jongleur is not always to be sharply drawn. Sometimes in France and Provence the same poet composed his verses and sang them----was both trouvère or troubadour and jongleur; while in Germany the minnesingers were generally both poets and minstrels.


No distinct line can be drawn between Tales and Fables; between Romances and Tales; nor between Fables and Allegories. These varieties of writings merge into one another.

The number of tales in circulation in Mediæval Europe was exceedingly large. These tales came from many different sources: from Oriental lands, introduced by the Moors, or brought back by the crusaders; from ancient classical literature; from traditions of the church and the lives of the saints; from the old mythologies; from common life and experience. Among many mediæval collections of them, the most famous are the Decameron of Boccaccio, and the Geste Romanorum, a collection made and used by the priests in instructing their people.


Under didactic literature we would include a large mass of writings not strictly to be called pure literature---sermons, homilies, chronicles, bestiaries, and chronologies. Nearly all these were written in verse, as prose did not begin to be used for literature until very late in the Middle Ages.

The mediæval mind, under the influence of the scholastic theology, grew very fond of allegory. The list of allegories is exhaustless, and some of the allegories well-nigh interminable. It is not easy to say whether the Romance of Reynard the Fox is a series of fables or an allegory. The fact that a satire on human affairs runs through it occasionally, warrants us in calling it an allegory. Some phase of the Reynard legend formed the medium of expression of the thought of every mediæval nation in Europe. Perhaps the most popular and influential allegory of the Middle Ages was The Romance of the Rose, written in France but translated or imitated in every other country. Dante's Divine Comedy is an allegory of a very elevated kind.


The origin and line of development of the drama in all the countries of Mediæval Europe is this: Dramatic representations in connection with the liturgy of the church were first used in the service; then they were extended to church festivals and ceremonies. By degrees portions of Bible history were thrown into dramatic form; then the lives of the saints furnished material. A distinction grew up between Mystery Plays---those found on Bible history---and Miracle Plays---those founded on the lives of the saints. These plays were performed both in the churches and in the open air. They were written usually by the clergy. Gradually there grew up a play in which the places of religious characters were taken by abstract virtues and vices personified, and plays called Moralities were produced. They were played chiefly by tradesmen's guilds. Alongside the sacred drama are to be found occasional secular dramatic attempts, farces, carnival plays, and profane mysteries. But their number and significance are small. The mediæval drama is historically interesting, but in itself does not contain much interest. It is impossible to give an idea of it by selection.


1. Duruy's "History of the Middle Ages," page XIV.  (back)

2. "Chivalry," by Léon Gautier, 1891, p. 26.  (back)

3. See Ebert "Allgemeine Geschichte der Literatur des Mittelalters." Vol. I., p. 11.  (back)

4. Léon Gautier's "Chivalry," chap. IV., Section V.  (back)

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