Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Metrical Romances, 1200–1500 > Sources and Subjects
  The “matter of France,” “of Britain,” and “of Rome” Forms of Verse  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIII. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500.

§ 7. Sources and Subjects.


The classification under the three “matters” of France, Britain and Rome is not exhaustive; there are many romances which fall outside these limits. Some of them are due to French invention; for the twelfth century romantic school was not content always to follow merely traditional fables; they drew largely on older stories, fairy tales and relics of mythology; but, sometimes, they tried to be original and at least succeeded in making fresh combinations, like a modern novelist with his professional machinery. Perhaps the English poet of Sir Gawayne may have worked in this way, not founding his poem upon any one particular romance, but taking incidents from older stories and arranging them to suit his purpose. In French, the Ipomedon of Hue de Rotelande is an excellent specimen of what may be called the secondary order of romance, as cultivated by the best practitioners. The author’s method is not hard to understand. He is competing with the recognised and successful artists; with Chrètien de Troyes. He does not trouble himself to find a Breton lay, but (like an Elizabethan dramatist with no Spanish or Italian novel at hand) sets himself to spin his own yarn. He has all the proper sentiments, and his rhetoric and rimes are easy work for him. For theme, he takes the proud young lady and the devoted lover; the true love beginning “in her absence,” as the Irish story-teller expressed it, before he has ever seen the princess; telling of his faithful service in disguise, his apparent slackness in chivalry, his real prowess when he “bears the gree” in three days of tournament, with three several suits of armour, the white, the red and the black. The incidents are not exactly new; but it is a good novel of its kind, and successful, as the English versions prove, for longer than one season. Hue de Rotelande takes some trouble about his details. He does not (like Chrètien in his Cligés) attach his invention to the court of Arthur. He leaves Britain for new ground, and puts his scene in Apulia and Calabria—which might as well have been Illyria or Bohemia. And he does not imitate the names of the Round Table; his names are Greek, his hero is Hippomedon. In the same way Boccaccio, or his lost French original, took Greek names for his story of Palamon, and let it grow out of the wars of Thebes. So also Parthenopex de Blois, who was translated into English (Partonope), is Parthenopaeus. William of Palerne, without his classical prestige of name, is another example of the invented love-story, made by rearranging the favourite commonplaces. Another sentimental romance, Amadas and Ydoine, was well known in England, as is proved by many allusions, though no English version is extant; the poem was first composed, like Ipomedon, in Anglo French. 5    16
  Further, there were many sources besides Britain and Rome for authors in want of a plot. The far east began very early to tell upon western imaginations, not only through the marvels of Alexander in India, but in many and various separate stories. One of the best of these, and one of the first, as it happens, in the list of English romances is Flores and Blancheflour. It was ages before The Arabian Nights were known, but this is just such a story as may be found there, with likenesses also to the common form of the Greek romances, the adventures of the two young lovers cruelly separated. By a curious process it was turned, in the Filocolo of Boccaccio, to a shape like that of Greek romance, though without any direct knowledge of Greek authors. The Seven Sages of Rome may count among the romances; it is an oriental group of stories in a setting, like The Arabian Nights—a pattern followed in the Decameron, in Confessio Amantis and in The Canterbury Tales.   17
  Barlaam and Josaphat is the story of the Buddha, and Robert of Sicily, the “proud king,” has been traced back to a similar origin. Ypotis (rather oddly placed along with Horn and the others in Sir Thopas) is Epictetus; the story is hardly a romance, it is more like a legend. But the difference between romance and legend is not always very deep; and one is reminded that Greek and eastern romantic plots and ideas had come into England long before, in the Old English Saints’ Lives.   18
  There is another group, represented, indeed, in French, but not in the same way as the others. It contains The Gest of King Horn and The Lay of Havelok the Dane; both of these appear in French, but it is improbable that any French version was the origin of the English. These are northern stories; in the case of Havelok there is fair historical proof that the foundation of the whole story lies in the adventures of Anlaf Cuaran, who fought at Brunanburh; “Havelok,” like “Aulay,” being a Celtic corruption of the Scandinavian Anlaf or Olaf.   19
  In Horn it is not so easy to find a definite historical beginning; it has been suggested that the original Horn was Horm, a Danish viking of the ninth century who fought for the Irish king Cearbhall, as Horn helped King Thurston in Ireland against the Payns, i.e. the heathen invaders with their giant champion. Also it is believed that Thurston, in the romance, may be derived from the Norwegian leader Thorstein the Red, who married a granddaughter of Cearbhall. But, whatever the obscure truth may be, the general fact is not doubtful that Horn’s wanderings and adventures are placed in scenery and conditions resembling those of the ninth and tenth centuries in the relations between Britain and Ireland. Like Havelok, the story probably comes from the Scandinavian settlers in England; like Havelok, it passed to the French, but the French versions are not the sources of the English. There must have been other such native stories; there is still an Anglo-Norman poem of Waldef extant, i.e. Waltheof, and the story of Hereward the Wake is known, like that of Waltheof also, from a Latin prose tale. The short tale of Athelston may be mentioned here, and also the amazing long romance of RichardCœur de Lion, which is not greatly troubled with the cares of the historian.   20
  The varieties of style in the English romances are very great, under an apparent monotony and poverty of type. Between Sir Beves of Hamtoun and Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight there is as wide an interval as between (let us say)“Monk” Lewis and Scott, or G. P. R. James and Thackeray. There are many different motives in the French books from which most of the English tales are borrowed, and there are many different ways of borrowing.   21

Note 5. Gaston Paris in An English Miscellany, Oxford, 1906, p. 386. [ back ]

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  The “matter of France,” “of Britain,” and “of Rome” Forms of Verse  
 
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