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THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES (1400-1500)
Robin Hood, the English ballad singer's joy."-Wordsworth.
“Malory, who reaches one hand to Chaucer and one to Spenser, escaped the stamp of a particular epoch and bequeathed a prose epic to literature.”-Alice D. Greenwood.
“ William Caxton, our first printer."-E. Gordon Duff.
THE century that follows the death of Chaucer is justly considered the most barren in English literature. This is due largely to the fact that it was a period of civil war. The conflicts of the houses of York and Lancaster to secure the throne, which are commonly known as the War of the Roses, kept the land in a state bordering on anarchy. Henry IV (1399–1413) had a struggle to establish his authority; Henry V (1413–1422) gave promise of being a wise, strong, and good king, but unfortunately died young; the first half of the reign of his scn, Henry VI (1422–1460), was marked by disaster abroad and the latter half by rebellion at home; though Edward IV (1460–1483) did indeed prove a reasonably strong monarch, his son Edward V was murdered, 1483; and Richard III (1483-1485) waded through slaughter to the throne. It was not until the accession of Henry VII (1485-1509), the first of the Tudor kings, that there was much chance for literature to flourish.
Chaucer's genius, as was natural, produced a horde of imitators both in England and in Scotland. The first of these in time was John Gower (1320_1408), whom Chaucer half mockingly called the “moral Gower," an epithet which has ever since clung to him. Being uncertain whether French, Latin, or English would eventually prove the literary language of England, in order to make his fame secure he composed the “Speculum Meditantis” in French, the “Vox Clamantis” in Latin, and the “ Confessio Amantis” in English. These are all intolerably dull. James Russell Lowell says he did not know how to rhyme and Coleridge calls him almost worthless. Thomas Occleve (1370–1454), author of the “Governail of Princes,”
of George Are per Feat pol
Pilgrimas the chara
Canterbro all in te Chauce
has two titles to our regard: first, he made the only portrait of Chaucer that we have; second, he wrote these lines:
“O master dear and father reverent,
O universal father in science !” John Lydgate (1373–1460) was a voluminous monk of Bury, who wrote the “Story of Thebes," the “Destruction of Troy," etc. He was enormously popular in his own century," because," says George Saintsbury," he united all its own worst faults.”
In Scotland the imitators of Chaucer were more numerous and more poetical than those in England. Among them were King James I (1394–1437), who wrote the “King's Quhair (Quire)”; Robert Henryson (c. 1425-c. 1500), “Scholemaster of Dunfermeling," and author of " Moral Fabillis of Esope,”
of Esope," "Orpheus and Eurydice,” and “ The Testament of Cresseid”; William Dunbar (c. 1460– c. 1520), a half vagabond friar of noble birth, who produced over a hundred short poems; and Gavin Douglas (c. 1475–1522), Bishop of Dunkeld, who has the distinction of being our first translator of Virgil. The best of these poets was Dunbar, whom Sir Walter Scott thought superior to Burns. The following description of a giant may serve as a sample of his style:
Eleven mile wide met (measure) was his mouth,
His teeth was ten ell square.
Above his wyfis hair." Along with these learned and courtly imitators of Chaucer there flourished in Scotland many popular writers, whose names are now lost but whose poems survive. One interest of these lies in the fact that they are direct poetic ancestors of Burns, redolent of field and kennel. The metre of “ Peblis to the Play” and “ Cristis Kirk on the Grene ” is identical with that of Burns's “Holy Fair and
Holy Willie's Prayer"; and the “Wowing of Jok and Jynny begins exactly like his “Duncan Gray."
"Robeyn's Jok come to wow our Jynny,
On our first even when we were fou." Some of them, however, especially those filled with “ browneis and
bogilis,” have an interest of their own. Such is the story of Gyre Carling,” in which a witch escapes her lover by turning herself into a sow and going " gruntling to the Greik Sie," where she marries Mahomet and becomes queen of the Jews, whereat the cocks of Cramond cease to crow and the hens of Haddington will not lay. Such, too, is the yarn of King Berdok, who for seven years wooed the cuckoo of Maryland, and yet "she was but yeiris thre.” This
fermelite Eurydic (c.14
anslator alter Sa
S are 107 7 the fact field a
Kirk as air" 23
Paper-Making in the Fifteenth Century
Company, from English Literature, An Illustrated Record"
Go walk upon some river fair,
Go feel the herbë’s pleasant smell.” 6
The best English poetry of the period was also popular in character. It consists of songs and ballads. These are not interchangeable terms, though both songs and ballads were designed to be sung. А song is a lyric; that is, it expresses some mood or feeling; in other words, it is subjective. A ballad, on the other hand, is epic; it tells a story: it is objective.
Most of the songs of the period are simple, but some of them perfectly express a state of feeling, which is the precise function of a song. For example:
“Trolly, lolly, loly, lo,
Syng troly, loly lo.
Sing trolly, loly, lo, lo, ly, lo.”
Maiden in the moon lay
The red rose and the lily flower."
A ballad is a narrative poem without any known author, meant for singing, and handed down by oral tradition. Conditions favorable to the making of such poetry ceased to exist after the fifteenth century. Bishop Percy in 1765 printed a collection of ballads under the title of “ Reliques of Ancient England Poetry,” which restored them to their rightful place in our literature; and F. J. Child between 1892 and 1898 published in Boston in five volumes a collection of“ English and Scottish Popular Ballads,” which practically exhausts the subject. This work contains 305 ballads and 1300 versions, as many of them have come down to us in several forms. These poems deal with border warfare, as is seen in “ Chevy Chace ” and the “ Battle of Otterburn;" with the sea, like the grand old ballad of “Sir Patrick Spens; ” with life under the greenwood tree, especially as exemplified in the life and deeds of Robin Hood; with tragedy, comedy, and
love. At their best they tell a good story and are fresh with the open air, with wind, and with sunshine. Take them all in all, they are among the most attractive of English poems. Several writers in the last two centuries have imitated them with success, especially Longfellow in his “ Skeleton in Armor ” and Coleridge in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Still, the old ballads have a flavor which no modern writer has been able entirely to reproduce.
English prose, on the other hand, was hardly written between 1400 and 1500, though parliamentary and legal business began to be transacted in the vernacular instead of in Latin or French. Three generations of the Pastons, a well-to-do Norfolk family, however, preserved their letters and business documents, and these afford a good picture of the times. They show a state of anarchy which must have made life quite as exciting as that depicted in Parkman's histories or Cooper's novels. Children had a hard time. Dame Agnes Paston, for example, after one of her sons had been graduated from college and had begun the study of law in London, writes to his tutor praying him, if the boy fails to get his lessons, to "trewely belassch hym tyl he will amend, and so did the last mayster and the best that evir he had, att Caumbrege.” Daughters were regarded as expensive encumbrances. Dame Agnes taunted hers constantly, forbade her to speak to anyone, and beat her sometimes twice a day. The only sign of parental affection in the letters is in the anxiety of one John about his "lytell Jak”; he writes, “Modyr I beseche yow that ye wolbe good mastras to my lytell man and to se that he go to scole.” Books were supplied by professional scribes, and were so expensive that students rented rather than bought them. A cheap Bible cost two marks, nearly seven dollars, the equivalent of $70.00 to-day, and a handsome folio about twice as much.
Better times, however, were at hand. About 1450 the first printing press was set up at Mainz in Germany. The art was carried in 1465 to Italy, in 1470 to France, in 1471 to Holland, in 1473 to Belgium and Austria, in 1474 to Spain, and finally in 1476 by William Caxton to England. He had previously owned a press at Bruges, whence in 1475 he had issued the "Recuyell of the Histories of Troy," the first book printed in the English language, and the Game