The medieval Poetry
The Norman invasion had important consequences for English culture. The new masters brought to England a refined civilisation and the French language, whose literature was to dominate Europe for the next three centuries.
The old Anglo-Saxon literature suddenly almost disappeared. Old English went on being spoken by the common people but at a literay level was put aside in favour of French (the French dialect the Normans spoke was called Anglo-Norman), which became the language of government and the law, and of Latin, which continued to be the language of the Church and of culture.
From about 1350 the language underwent significant changes. French and English amalgamated. Although poets continued writing as well as speking, in their own regional dialects and spelling according to their own pronunciation, there was a tendency from about 1400 onwards from the written language to conform to the East Midlands dialect of English used in London, Oxford and Cambridge, because of the importance of these places as centres of education, law, government and trade. Besides this dialect was used firstly by G. Chaucer who set a literary model followed by other writers and secondly by William Caxton, the first printer in England, who started a revolution in communications. This dialect came to be known as standard Middle English. Compared with Old English it had a wider vocabulary, enriched from French [ the number of words borrowed was enormous and concerned government and administration: empire, reign, parliament, state, the law: crime, accuse, adultery, property, fashion and social life: coat, button, upper, dinner, orange, as well as literature and architecture art, painting, poet, cathedral, romance] source through successive borrowings, but a simplier structure. Officially philologists fix the Middle English language period as beginning around 1150 and ending around 1450-1500.
France dominated every aspect of medieval cultural life and the English literature of the period shows the French influence in all aspects. The great Arthurian romances of Chrètien de Troyes and the later prose romances (the so called Vulagte Cycle) dominated English production in this genre. The greatest examples were the 14th century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in verse, inspired primarly by Chrètien, and Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in prose, which ‘summarises ’the Vulgar Cycle in English with consumate skill.
The romance has as its subject the deed of knights: it involves much fighting, romantic love, many extraordinal and often supernatural events, exotic places and fantastic journeys. The great age of the medieval romance was the 12th and the early 13th centuries. It was the expression of the highly cultivated aristocratic society of France, exemplified by the sophisticated tales of Chrètien de Troyes. The word “romance”, infact, means ‘written in a language derived from the language of the ancient Romans, i.e. Latin’ in this case the French in which romances were originally composed.
Characterist of Romance
The nobility favoured the French form of the romance that was a long narrative poem in verse telling the heroic adventures of noble knights and including intricate love stories and all sorts of wonders.
Medieval romance is, infact, a portrayal of feudal knighthood in both its exterior and psychological aspects. As far as exterior aspects are concerned, clothing, fashion, etiquette, how to love correctly and how to be a true knight are all clearly described.
Among the nobility the insitution of Chivalry, that imposed a new code of conduct, was a powerful force. The old pagan values of valour and physical strenght were replaced by more refined and elaborate ideals such as a true cortesy, honour, generosity and truth. That is why Romances of chivalry and love, imported from France, became extremely popular in this period. The knight loved from a distance the wife of his Lord or some other married noblewomen, was faithful to her and was inspired by his love to perform noble deeds in her honour.
The historical king Arthur was probably a Celtic leader who resisted the Anglo-saxon invasions in the 6th century, but the symbolic force he acquired was much more important than the historical reality. Tradiotionally he became the ruler of all Europe, a sort of British Charlemagne.
The distinctive quality of the ballads is certainly their spareness. The simplicity of language and syntax goes hand in hand with the extreme economy of expression. This stylistic choice finds its reason in the audience for which the ballads were intended: they were generally recited, or more frequently sung, by ministrels ( that is to say semi-prefessional performers ) in towns and villages or in hospitable castles. The ministrels could accompany themselves with a musical instrument, and the melodies set for the ballads were simple and haunting , occasionally accompanied by a dance. This setting obviously required an absolute simplicity in the form of the ballads: they had to be immediately understood by listeners, not readers. They use a simple vocabulary and maintain this simplicity even in the content: there are few objects and dramatic scenes in the ballads. They deal only with the culminating incident of the story,describe that event with intense compression, and avoid any comment. The imagery is simple and direct.
The old English ballads include some of the most exciting ooetry in the language. Most of them seem to have been composed at some time between 1350 and 1550. The best ballads came from northern England ans southern Scotland, so many of them are composed in a dialect.
The ballad is, in fact, a primitive art form, which probably explains the appeal it has maintained up to the present day. The subjects are usually quite grim: a tragic incident, or a murder, or death with treachery in love or in war; these mournful events are often accompanied by supernatural elements, and even natural elements ( the forest, the animals ) seem to share the tragic atmosphere.
Often actions and events are drawn from European folklore. Some ballad themes and stories pass freely from one culture to another and from language to language over many centuries. Ballads often exist in many versions. A single musical tune may accompany different ballads.
The metric form
As happens with most oral poems, the ballad metre is very regular, and there is a heavy use of formulaic expressions, often repeated throughout the various stanzas, as well as the use of the device known as “incremental repetition”, in which a line or stanza is repeated but with some addition which advances the story. Alliteration, together with refrains and repetitions, are also recurrent devices used to help memorability, to produce musicality and to emphasize relevant details.
The basic ballad stanza is generally a quatrain, rhyming a b c d.
Future development of geners
The ballad, with its simplicity of language and the directness of the emotions displayed, held a strong appeal for the Romantic poets, as well as for the 20th century ones. It is interesting to see how the term ballad came back into vogue with the Romantic poets, even if at that point it had different connotations.