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- Old French Romances - 1/18 -


Transcribed from the 1896 George Allen edition by David Price, email ccx074@coventry.ac.uk

OLD FRENCH ROMANCES DONE INTO ENGLISH BY WILLIAM MORRIS

INTRODUCTION

Many of us have first found our way into the Realm of Romance, properly so called, through the pages of a little crimson clad volume of the Bibliotheque Elzevirienne. {1} Its last pages contain the charming Cante-Fable of Aucassin et Nicolete, which Mr. Walter Pater's praises and Mr. Andrew Lang's brilliant version have made familiar to all lovers of letters. But the same volume contains four other tales, equally charming in their way, which Mr. William Morris has now made part of English literature by writing them out again for us in English, reproducing, as his alone can do of living men's, the tone, the colour, the charm of the Middle Ages. His versions have appeared in three successive issues of the Kelmscott Press, which have been eagerly snapped up by the lovers of good books. It seemed a pity that these cameos of romance should suffer the same fate as Mr. Lang's version of Aucassin et Nicolete, which has been swept off the face of the earth by the Charge of the Six Hundred, who were lucky enough to obtain copies of the only edition of that little masterpiece of translation. Mr. Morris has, therefore, consented to allow his versions of the Romances to be combined into one volume in a form not unworthy of their excellence but more accessible to those lovers of books whose purses have a habit of varying in inverse proportion to the amount of their love. He has honoured me by asking me to introduce them to that wider public to which they now make their appeal.

I.

Almost all literary roads lead back to Greece. Obscure as still remains the origin of that genre of romance to which the tales before us belong, there is little doubt that their models, if not their originals, were once extant at Constantinople. Though in no single instance has the Greek original been discovered of any of these romances, the mere name of their heroes would be in most cases sufficient to prove their Hellenic or Byzantine origin. Heracles, Athis, Porphirias, Parthenopeus, Hippomedon, Protesilaus, Cliges, Cleomades, Clarus, Berinus--names such as these can come but from one quarter of Europe, and it is as easy to guess how and when they came as whence. The first two crusades brought the flower of European chivalry to Constantinople and restored that spiritual union between Eastern and Western Christendom that had been interrupted by the great schism of the Greek and Roman Churches. The crusaders came mostly from the Lands of Romance. Permanent bonds of culture began to be formed between the extreme East and the extreme West of Europe by intermarriage, by commerce, by the admission of the nobles of Byzantium within the orders of chivalry. These ties went on increasing throughout the twelfth century till they culminated at its close with the foundation of the Latin kingdom of Constantinople. In European literature these historic events are represented by the class of romances represented in this volume, which all trace back to versions in verse of the twelfth century, though they were done into prose somewhere in Picardy during the course of the next century. Daphnis and Chloe, one might say, had revived after a sleep of 700 years, and donned the garb and spoke the tongue of Romance.

II

The very first of our tales illustrates admirably the general course of their history. It is, in effect, a folk etymology of the name of the great capital of the Eastern Empire. Constantinople, so runs the tale, received that name instead of Byzantium, because of the remarkable career of one of its former rulers, Coustans. M. Wesselovsky has published in Romania (vi. 1. seq.) the Dit de l'empereur Constant, the verse original of the story before us, and in this occur the lines -

Pour ce que si nobles estoit Et que nobles oevres faisoit L'appielloient Constant le noble Et pour cou ot Constantinnoble Li cytes de Bissence a non.

From which it would appear that we are mistaken in thinking of the capital of Turkey as the "City of Constantine," whereas it is rather Constant the Noble, and the name Coustant is further explained as "costing" too much. Constantinople, therefore, is the city that costs too much, according to the prophetic etymology of the folk.

The only historic personage with whom this Coustant can be identified is Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine the Great and the husband of St. Helena, to whom legend ascribes the discovery of the Holy Rood. But the Coustans of our story never lived or ruled on land or sea, and his predecessor, Muselinus, is altogether unknown to Byzantine annals, while their interlaced history reads more like a page of the Arabian Nights than of Gibbon.

But such a legend could scarcely have arisen elsewhere than at Constantinople. It is one of those fables that the disinherited folk have at all times invented to solace themselves for their disinherison. The sudden and fated rise of one of the folk to the heights of power occurs sufficiently often to afford material for the day dreams of ambitious youth. There is even a popular tendency to attribute a lowly origin to all favourites of fortune, as witness the legends that have grown up about the early careers of Beckett, Whittington, Wolsey, none of whom was as ill-born as popular tradition asserts. Yet such legends invariably grow up in the country of their heroes, which is the only one sufficiently interested in their career, so far as the common people are concerned. Hence the very nature of our story would cause us to locate its origin on the banks of the Bosphorus.

But once originated in this manner, there is no limit to the travels it may take. Curiously enough, the very legend before us in all its details has found a home among the English peasantry. The Rev. S. Baring-Gould collected in Yorkshire a story which he contributed to Henderson's Folklore of the Northern Counties, and entitled The Fish and the Ring. {2} In this legend a girl comes as the unwelcome sixth of the family of a very poor man who lived under the shadow of York Minster. A Knight, riding by on the day of her birth, discovers, by consultation of the Book of Fate, that she was destined to marry his son. He offers to adopt her, and throws her into the River Ouse. A fisherman saves her, and she is again discovered after many years by the Knight, who learns what Fate has still in store for his son. He sends her to his brother at Scarborough with a fatal letter, ordering him to put her to death. But on the way she is seized by a band of robbers, who read the letter and replace it by one ordering the Baron's son to be married to her immediately on her arrival.

When the Baron discovers that he has not been able to evade the decree of fate he still persists in his persecution, and taking a ring from his finger throws it into the sea, saying that the girl shall never live with his son till she can show him that ring. She wanders about and becomes a scullery-maid at a great castle, and one day when the Baron is dining at the castle, while cleaning a great fish she finds his ring, and all ends happily.

Now on the east wall of the chancel of Stepney Church there is a monument erected to Dame Rebecca Berry, wife of Thomas Elton, of Stratford, Bow, and relict of Sir John Berry, 1696. The arms on the monument are thus blazoned by heralds . . . . "Paly of six on a bend three mullets (Elton) impaling a fish, and in the dexter chief point an annulet between two bends wavy." The reference in the impalement of the blazon is obvious. A local tradition confidently identifies Dame Berry as the heroine of the Yorkshire legend, though of course it is ignorant of her connection with the etymology of Constantinople.

Now this tale, or the first half of it, is but a Yorkshire variant of one spread throughout Europe. The opening of the twenty-ninth story of the collection of the Brothers Grimm, and entitled The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, is exactly the same, and in their Notes they give references to many similar European folk-tales. The story is found in Modern Greece (Von Hahn, No. XX.), and it is, therefore, possible that the story of King Coustans is the adaptation of a Greek folk-tale for the purposes of a Folk Etymology. But the letter, "On delivery, please kill bearer," is scarcely likely to have occurred twice to the popular imagination, and one is almost brought to the conclusion that the romance before us was itself either directly or indirectly the source of all the European Folk-tales in which the letter "To kill bearer" occurs. And as we have before traced the Romance back to Constantinople, one is further tempted to trace back the Letter itself to a reminiscence of Homer's [Greek text which cannot be reproduced].

I have said above that no Greek original of any of these Romances has hitherto been discovered. But in the case of King Coustans we can at any rate get within appreciable distance of it. As recently as 1895 a learned Teuton, Dr. Ernst Kuhn, pointed out, appropriately enough in the Byzantinische Zeitschrift, the existence of an Ethiopic and of an Arabic version of the legend. He found in one of Mr. Quaritch's catalogues a description of an illuminated Ethiopic MS., once belonging to King Theodore of Magdala fame, which from the account given of several of the illustrations he was enabled to identify as the story of "The Man born to be King." His name in the Ethiopic version is Thalassion, or Ethiopic words to that effect, and the Greek provenance of the story is thereby established. Dr. Kuhn was also successful in finding an Arabic version done by a Coptic Christian. In both these versions the story is told as a miracle due to the interference of the Angel Michael; and it is a curious coincidence that in Mr. Morris' poetical version of our story in the "Earthly Paradise" he calls his hero Michael. Unless some steps are taken to prevent the misunderstanding, it is probable that some Teutonic investigator of the next century will, on the strength of this identity of names, bring Mr. Morris in guilty of a knowledge of Ethiopic.


Old French Romances - 1/18

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