Lecture 3. Medieval courtly literature. Romance.

1. The historical context. Changes in society. Chivalric ideal.

2. Courtly literature. Poetry. Romance. The main groups of romances and their sources. The Arthurian cycle.

- Breton lays. Marie de France

- Sir Gawain and the Green knight

- Sir Thomas Malory. Morte d’Arthur.

1. The Norman conquest of England in 1066 provides a very convenient landmark for a historian, because it divides England’s political, social, cultural history almost too neatly. The conquest imposed a French-speaking ruling caste on England with the result that Anglo-French developed as a literary language of the highest social classes, and Anglo-Saxon was for a period relegated to lower classes.

For over two centuries the literature produced under aristocratic patronage was French both in language and in tone, while literature in English was either rough and popular (most of it oral, and so lost), or simply didactic, written by the lower clergy with the object of instructing the common people in biblical story and duties required by their religion.

But in fact the twelfth century was a turning point in the social and cultural history of the whole continent of West Europe. The heroic age was gone, and new Europe had established itself as a Christian civilization and a feudal socity. The Norman conquest of England had only stimulated and accelerated the process of social division, and made it worse by introducing language barriers.

Like France, English society adopted the feudal system and there was strict distinction between classes. Medieval ideology recognized the existence of three classes: those who fight; those who preach (the clergy), and those who work (peasants). In fact the compositional structure of society was, of course, more complex, but clearly the majority of people were serfs who worked the land that belonged to a powerful aristocratic class. Monarchs sought support of nobles and gathered the nobility around them displaying the wealth and power of their courts.



The ruling caste was getting more aristocratic, and developed a new taste for luxury. Royal courts all over Europe developed into displays of grandeur and sophisticated tastes, where poets ( integral members of the court) might write of the virtues of the sovereign and celebrate the beauties and loves of the noble courtly ladies. There appeared a new code of conduct that emphasized the sharp distinction between them and the lower classes, whose life changed in a far lesser degree.

The new idea, which like cement held together the whole structure of the feudal society, was that of chivalry.

A knight was simply a mounted warrior, but the attitude to war changed dramatically. Now he had to disguise his aggressiveness by Christian love and ideals: he could only fight for some fair course – for justice, honour, his lady, or his Christian Church. The typical chivalric virtues were valour, honour, piety, and generosity.

The chivalric ideal was the power that shaped the literature of the period, especially that of the ruling caste.

The leading poetic form that replaced the heroic epic was the romance of chivalry, so that the whole age is sometimes referred to as The Age of Romance.

Much Romance poetry was composed in French (Anglo-Norman) for Anglo-Norman patrons, and much of this Francophone literary activity was centered at the court of Henry II (himself a French-speaker). An important influence was his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (mid- to late 12th century), who spread the culture of troubadours of Provence to Britain. She exercised her patronage in favor of the new kind of poetry, which linked the elevated view of sexual love with stories of legendary king Arthur and his knights. Literature was gradually becoming more interested in the problems of personality, the person’s psychology, intimate life.

The new concern with love recognized a parallel between the feudal service of a knight to his liege lord and the service of a lover to an adored and honored lady. Whether or not this cultivated literary pattern was based on courtly reality is much disputed. But the fact is that the twelfth century began to place a new emphasis on the dignity of women in what remained a male-dominated society.


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