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- The Interdependence of Literature - 6/15 -
of Christ. In the Middle Ages a passionate love of poetry developed in the Teutonic race, and caused them to embody Christianity in verse. The South Germans, and the Saxons in England, tried to copy the old heroic poems.
In the time of Theodoric, the Goths began to influence the Roman language and literature; and it is at this period that Roman antiquity comes to an end and the Roman writers from that time are classed as belonging to the Middle Ages.
The whole history of literature during the Middle Ages was of a twofold character. The first, Christian and Latin, was found all over Europe, and made the protection and extension of knowledge, its chief object. The other was a more insular literature for each nation, and always in the language of the people. Theodoric the Goth, Charlemagne, and Alfred the Great, the chief patrons of the literature of their age, sought to carry on, side by side, and to improve, these two literatures, the Latin and the vernacular. They aimed to refine and educate man by the Latin, and to increase the national spirit by preserving their national poetry. While these old heroic poems of the different races are full of interest and charm for us, we must not forget that the Latin kept alive and preserved from extinction the whole of classical and Christian antiquity.
The Middle Ages, so inaptly called "dark," are in truth little understood. A German writer of the nineteenth century, Friedrich von Schlegel, says:
"The nations have their seasons of blossoming, as well as individuals. The age of the Crusades, of chivalry, romance and minstrelsy, was an intellectual spring among all the nations of the West. In literature the time of invention must precede the refinements of art. Legend must go before history, and poetry before criticism. Vegetation must precede spring, and spring must precede the maturity of fruit.
"The succeeding ages could have had no such burst of intellectual vigor, if the preparing process had not been going on in the Middle Ages. They sowed and we reaped."
Hence, it will be seen that what is looked on as a period of stagnation and ignorance, was in truth, the waiting time, during which the inner process of development was going on, soon to blossom into glorious fruit.
CHIVALROUS AND ROMANTIC LITERATURE OF THE MIDDLE AGES.
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.
The history of the drama may be divided into two classes, the Christian, which began with the Mystery and Morality plays; and the Greek, which was eminently classic. These two types were the foundation of all that came after them.
The first dawn of the drama was in Greece; for although the Hindus also had dramatic poetry, it did not arise until there had been a lengthened intercourse between Greece and India, so that the latter undoubtedly borrowed from the former. The learned writers of ancient times agree that both tragedy and comedy were originally choral song. It has been said that poetry and song are divided into three periods of a nation's history, that the Epic has to do with the first awakening of a people, telling of their legends, or of some great deeds in remote antiquity. This is followed by the second stage, which embraces elegiac and lyric poetry and arose in stirring and martial times, during the development of new forms of government, when each individual wanted to express his own thoughts and wishes; and the third is the drama, which can only be born in a period of civilization, and which, it has been said, implies a nation.
Hence Greek drama arose at the height of Grecian civilization and splendor. It originated in the natural love of imitation, of dancing and singing, especially at the Bacchic feasts. The custom at these feasts of taking the guise of nymphs and satyrs, and of wearing masks while they danced and sang in chorus, seems to have been the beginnings of the Greek drama.
Ancient tragedy was ideal, and had nothing to do with ordinary life; it arose from the winter feasts of Bacchus, while comedy was the outcome of the harvest feasts, and the accompanying Bacchanalian processions, which were more in the nature of a frolic than of real acting. The influence of the Middle and New Greek comedy, especially, that of Menander, on the Roman comedy of Terence is well defined. Under Ennius and Plautus the Roman comedy was fairly original; but Terence wrote for the fashionable set, like Caecilius and Scipio Africanus, and consequently imitated Greek models very carefully. The drama in Rome never attained any noteworthy height although the French tragic poets took Seneca for their model.
In the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent there was a great revival in Italy of the ancient classic drama, of which Poliziano was the most successful exponent. Both he and the later writers, however, made no attempt to found any National Italian drama--their works are entirely an imitation of the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, and the comedies of Plautus and Terence.
The Melodrama, which arose in the seventeenth century, is distinctly Italian and national, and has been extensively produced all over the civilized world. Alfieri, in the eighteenth century, is the greatest and most patriotic of the Italian tragedians, and he did as much to revive the national character in modern times as Dante did in the fourteenth century.
In France we have the dramatic representation of the Mysteries in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, introduced by the pilgrims who had returned from the Crusades. At first these performances were given in the street, but later a company was formed, called the "Confraternity of the Passion," the suffering of Christ being its chief representation. This Mystery is the most ancient dramatic work of modern Europe, and gives the whole Gospel narrative from the birth of our Saviour until His death. Being too long for a play of one act, it was continued from day to day. What would seem irreverent on a modern stage was regarded as perfectly simple and natural in the Middle Ages, and it was a potent factor in teaching the masses the truths of their faith.
Following these Mysteries of the Passion came a host of other plays taken from the Old Testament, or from the lives of the Saints. The earliest "Miracle" on record is the Play of St. Catherine, which was represented at Dunstable about 1119, written
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