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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
Criticism and the Essay
 
II. What the Middle Ages Read
 
By Professor W. A. Neilson
 
 
THE HISTORY of English literary criticism may be said to begin with Sir Philip Sidney’s “Defense of Posey.” 1 A few treatises on rhetoric and prosody preceded it, but it was with this book that there reached England the first important influx from the main current of the Italian and French criticism of the Renaissance. In the preceding centuries men had, of course, expressed opinions about books; but these were random and personal, backed by no theory, part of no system, the casual utterances of men who merely knew what they liked.  1
 
THE EVIDENCE AS TO MEDIÆVAL TASTE IN LITERATURE

  But the taste of an age can be inferred from other sources than the formal judgments of official critics. The evidence of vogue, when it can be obtained, is more significant, for the obvious reason that a man’s spending tells us more than his words of what he values. For the centuries when books circulated in manuscript only, the facts as to popularity are hard to get at, since the numbers of those that have survived are the residuum of a thousand accidents; but the introduction of printing in the latter part of the fifteenth century affords an opportunity of an exceptional kind to learn which of the works then in existence were judged most promising and most worthy of the wider publicity which the new process made possible. It is for this reason that William Caxton, the first of English printers, is really an important figure in the history of literary opinion; for not only did he preface the books he printed with quaint and ingenuous statements of his own reasons for thinking them important, but the mere fact of his choosing them is a valuable evidence of their popularity as estimated by a shrewd man of business.
  2
 
THE PREPONDERANCE OF DIDACTIC LITERATURE

  As a matter of fact, this evidence coincides remarkably with the inferences that literary historians have drawn from other data. The fables which pass under the name of “Æsop,” 2 to begin with what is probably the most ancient of the works he issued, had been popular for many centuries, and the tangle of the relationships of the endless mediæval collections in various languages is one of the most puzzling problems left for the modern scholar to solve. Their value Caxton seems to take for granted, largely, we may presume, because the didactic purpose which he always looks for first lies upon the surface and did not need to be pointed out. Indeed, more than half of the publications of Caxton, the Prologues and Epilogues of which are printed in The Harvard Classics, are confessedly of that improving kind for which the Middle Ages had so insatiable an appetite. The “Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers” 3 and the “Distichs” 4 of Cato were collections of aphoristic wisdom, the appeal of which is apparent, not merely from the number of copies made, but also from the frequency with which we find them quoted by all kinds of mediæval writers.
  3
 
THE GOLDEN LEGEND

  The “Golden Legend” 5 was more specifically pious. It is the best-known collection of those marvelous stories of saints which happily performed the double service of cultivating faith and of providing entertainment by their constant stimulation of the sense of wonder. It is only the former of those services, however, which is explicitly recognized by Caxton. “As gold is most noble above all other metals, in like wise is this legend holden most noble above all other works,” he says, and he prays “that it profit to all them that shall read or hear it read, and may increase in them virtue, and expel vice and sin, that by the example of the holy saints amend their living here in this short life.”
  4
 
LITERATURE OF ENTERTAINMENT

  Of Chaucer’s works he prints the immortal “Canterbury Tales”; and in the “Proem” 6 to this book he expatiates in praise of Chaucer’s style and substance, both because “he comprehended his matters in short, quick, and high sentences, eschewing prolixity, casting away the chaff of superfluity, and shewing the picked grain of sentence uttered by crafty and sugared eloquence”—a characterization of the first great master of English which few of his later critics have bettered. The whole tone of this “Proem” is of a singularly noble and elevated enthusiasm, and in its evident genuineness and warmth it makes us forget that we are reading one of the earliest of English publishers’ advertisements.
  5
 
THE TROJAN LEGEND AND THE ÆNEID

  The story of Troy, as everyone is aware, was unknown to the Middle Ages in the Homeric version. Two Latin prose works purporting to be derived from Greek contemporary accounts by Dares the Phrygian and Dictys the Cretan formed the basis of the mediæval tradition. These were elaborated into a French metrical romance by Benoît de Sainte maure in the twelfth century, and from him the Sicilian Guido delle Colonne derived the material for his Latin prose history of Troy. For the later Middle Ages Guido was the main source. It is to this tradition that Boccaccio’s romance of “Filostrato” belongs, with Chaucer’s expansion and paraphrase of it in his “Troilus.” On Guido also depends that French priest Raoul le Feure, 7 whom Caxton translated in Bruges and Ghent, and “finished in Cologne, in the time of the troublous world,” when England was torn by the Wars of the Roses, and there was little peace for letters at home. Under these circumstances it is perhaps little wonder that the chief justification he offers for his labor in translation is the hope that the destruction of Troy “may be example to all men during the world how dreadful and jeopardous it is to begin a war, and what harms, losses, and death followeth.”
  6
  The Troy story he continued in his translation of a French version of the “Æneid” 8 of Virgil, “that noble poet and great clerk.” In this work he tells us he stood in great doubt between those advisers who urged him to use language which could be understood of the common people and those who wanted him to use the most curious terms he could find. He chose a middle path, “forasmuch as this present book is not for a rude uplandish man to labour therein he read it, but only for a clerk and a noble gentleman that feeleth and understandeth in feats of arms, in love and in noble chivalry.”  7
 
CAXTON ON MALORY

  Finally, we have his Prologue to the great book of “King Arthur” 9 compiled by his contemporary, Sir Thomas Malory. If the Troy story was the favorite classical tale in mediæval times, the romances connected with King Arthur were the most notable and the most widely diffused of more recent imaginative literature. Founded on a minute basis of old British history, the Arthurian legends had passed from the chronicles into romance, finding their most important artistic development in France, but spreading in translation and paraphrase into every country of western Europe. At the close of the Middle Ages, an English knight, Sir Thomas Malory, collected, chiefly from French prose versions, materials for a loosely organized compilation of all the more important adventures, and retold them in a style and spirit that make his book one of the great monuments of English prose. For this book Caxton had the warmest admiration; and, though here, if anywhere, we have a literature of entertainment, in it also Caxton finds a possibility of moral and spiritual improvement. Few of his words are better known than his worthy praise of Malory: “And I, according to my copy, have down set it in print, to the intent that noble men may see and learn the noble acts of chivalry, the gentle and virtuous deeds that some knights used in those days, by which they came to honour, and how they that were vicious were punished and oft put to shame and rebuke; humbly beseeching all noble lords and ladies and all other estates, of what estate or degree they be of, that shall see and read in this said book and work, that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance and to follow the same, wherein they shall find many joyous and pleasant histories and noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalry. For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardyhood, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil and it shall bring you to good fame and renown. And for to pass the time this book shall be pleasant to read in; but for to give faith and believe that all is true that is contained herein, ye be at your liberty. But all is written for our doctrine.”
  8
  This last sentence sums up the chief points in the professional faith of the father of English printing. Edification was assumed by him as by his age as the prime, if not the only, justification for writing and publishing. Yet, in spite of this narrow assumption, Caxton and the authors he did so much to make accessible were clearly sensitive to the element of delight as well as of instruction in literature; and enough has been said of the contents of these Prologues to show how rich they are in indications not only of what the Middle Ages read, but why they read it.  9
  As for Caxton’s own motives, if we took him literally, we should suppose that he translated and printed mainly to save himself from the sin of idleness. Yet a more generous impulse is easily read between the lines; and it is no mere self-regarding purpose that finds utterance in the words he penned as he closed wearily his long labor on the “Recuyell of the Histories of Troy”: “Thus end I this book, which I have translated after mine Author as nigh as God hath given me cunning, to whom be given the laud and praising. And for as much as in the writing of the same my pen is worn, my hand weary and not steadfast, mine eyne dimmed with overmuch looking on the white paper, and my courage not so prone and ready to labour as it hath been, and that age creepeth on me daily and feebleth all the body, and also because I have promised to divers gentlemen and to my friends to address them as hastily as I might this same book, therefore I have practised and learned at my great charge and dispense to ordain this said book in print, after the manner and form as ye may here see, and is not written with pen and ink as other books be, to the end that every man may have them at once.”  10
 
Note 1. Harvard Classics, xxvii, 5–51; and cf. Professor Bliss Perry’s lecture on “Theories of Poetry” in this series. [back]
Note 2. H. C., xxxix, 17ff. [back]
Note 3. H. C., xxxix, 9. [back]
Note 4. H. C., xxxix, 15. [back]
Note 5. H. C., xxxix, 13. [back]
Note 6. H. C., xxxix, 18. For examples of the “Canterbury Tales,” see H. C., xl, 11–51. [back]
Note 7. H. C., xxxix, 5ff. [back]
Note 8. H. C., xxxix, 24. For a modern translation, see H. C., vol. xiii. [back]
Note 9. H. C., xxxix, 20. For the story of the Holy Grail from Malory, see H. C., xxxv, 105–214, and cf. Dr. Maynadier’s lecture in the series on Prose Fiction. [back]
 

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