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Their souls to minstrel rapture. --They shall come
Trallodau, beiau bywyd—ni welais,
Translation of the above Epitaph on a Child.
DESCRIBED IN THE OLD FRENCH ROMANCES, AND IN THE CHRONICLE OF
(Taken in Shorthand from the French of Professor Villemain.)
The romantic literature of the middle ages would scarcely merit our serious attention for a moment, were it not, that it presents us with, to the full, as much truth as fable. Under the extravagant tales, under the singular and fantastic, and sometimes absurd fictions, which fill so many of the verified romances of the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, there lies concealed, or we should rather say, there is displayed a very animated and expressive representation of contemporary life and manners.
It has been said, indeed, that chivalry, as depicted in these old romaunts, is itself but one entire fiction. The fictitious character of the allusions made to chivalry, in modern times, has induced a doubt, whether in reality it ever had any actual existence in former ages; but notwithstanding these doubts, it must be admitted that chivalry was a real event in history, a grand and glorious institution of the middle ages. Its image is portrayed in the most lively manner in these ancient romances, full as they are of giants and enchanters. All that we read in them, the manners, the details, the costumes, the habits, and usages of life, and even the adventures themselves, so far as they are natural and human, place before our eyes an exact and faithful picture of the times. In this respect, the romances of chivalry may be called so many ancient histories not less authentic and veracious than our old chronicles.
Although the word “poet," in its original sense, signifies a maker, and trouvare or troubadour are synonymous to a finder or an inventor, it must nevertheless be remembered, that never yet did poet more than invent the beau ideal of the real events, and popular credences of his time. Imagination is only a livelier memory; sometimes it only repeats a copy; we admire it most when it reproduces an original.
What then was chivalry? it was the life of the middle ages
in action, the guard of honour of the feudal system, without which it could not have existed, for it was this long and gorgeous train of warrior knights which maintained
and supported it by the aid of those magnanimous passions, that high point of honour, and that elevated enthusiasm which gave to chivalry all its animation and embellishment.
This has induced a very learned French scholar, M. de Sainte-Palaye, in his "History of Chivalry, considered as a Religious and Military Institution,” to confine his researches exclusively to these romances only. In this, perhaps, he was right, for the writers of these old chivalric tales have in fact mingled, with the most extravagant fictions, a faithful imitation and a very correct description of all that they found inscribed in the real ritual of the knights.
Let us endeavour to ascertain, from their testimony, what may have been the life of a knight or chevalier.
When a childe had the good fortune to be born the son of a gentleman, and happened to be a lively and sprightly boy, he was taken, at seven or eight years of age, out of the hands of his female attendants. He had now scarcely any thing else to do than to run about and amuse himself in leaping and wrestling. Soon afterwards he became a damoisel, varlet, or page, titles nearly similar, which were either confounded together, or distinguished from each other according to the circumstances of the times. It was at this period he was almost always sent from his paternal mansion, and placed in the castle of some baron, or powerful lord in the neighbourhood. He there served the master, or sometimes the mistress, of the castle, followed her palfrey, executed her commissions, and carried her letters, when it happened she could write, which, by the bye, was not always the case. But he, at the same time, also served his apprenticeship to warlike exercises, and the sports of the field. He made himself master of the art of falconry, learned to handle the lance and the sword, hardened and habituated himself to fatigue, by the most violent and dangerous exercises, and more particularly studied the history of chivalric achievements and the art of strategy. The great hall of the baronial castle was the school, where knights and squires met together, and where the young pages were educated and formed by hearing these, their chivalric elders, discourse together, as Froissart informs us, “on love and deeds of arms.”
In these studies, more amusing certainly than the Greek and Latin of our modern schools, the childe attained the age of fifteen or sixteen. He was then made an esquire. There were several orders or degrees of esquires. The
esquire of honour or of the body, was he who mounted on horseback, and rode immediately behind the knight or lady of the castle. Then there were the esquire cai ver, “l'Ecuyer Tranchant;" the esquire pantler, “l'Ecuyer Pannetier;" and the esquire cupbearer, “l'Ecuyer Echanson,"—all of them so many different forms of domesticity. But we must not forget that, by a custom derived from the forests of Germany, or rather, perhaps, borrowed from the usages of the Lower Empire, certain domestic offices in the houses of great men were not only not considered ignoble, but they actually ennobled the holders of them, and became in themselves so many titles and grades of honour.
The young man to be made an esquire was presented at the altar, and there commenced the intervention of those religious ceremonies which were often renewed in the sequel; for chivalry was a combination of those two things which formed the principal occupation of the middle ages, war and religion.
The young esquire still continued to improve himself by conversation and exercise much more than by any regular course of study. In process of time he became an archer, or man-at-arms. It was now that he was made to apply himself still more assiduously to his military education in all its vigour, and to perform prodigies of strength and skill, superior to all the gymnastic exercises of the ancients. The man-at-arms, under the immense weight of his heavy iron armour, was taught to dart forward and to clear the broadest ditches by a leap.
When, in the midst of all these exercises, the young gentleman attained the age of twenty-one years, the period was now arrived for creating him a knight. We must bear in mind that, in the ideas of those times, this ceremony, a strange mixture of barbarous liberty and austere devotion, was always considered as a religious initiation,
After watching his arms in the church for several successive nights, the candidate for the honours of knighthood was at last led to the high altar by his father and mother, or by his spiritual sponsors, bearing lighted wax tapers in their hands. There the priest, after having celebrated the mass, took the sword and belt from the altar, and girded the new-made knight with his arms. This was preceded by a number of symbolical ceremonies, such as the bath, the putting on white linen garments, the auricular confession, (which, however, was sometimes repeated aloud,) the ad
ministration of the holy sacrament, and the solemn oath of knighthood, which expressed all the sacrifices and all the duties of the order. 'In fine, a charger was led to the church-door, and there the young knight, palpitating with joy and enthusiasm, vaulted, completely armed, into the saddle, and made his proud steed caper, and prance, and caracole about, whilst all the company hailed him as a good Christian, and an accomplished knight.
Certainly there is no difference between these ceremonious forms, as we have now described them, and the history of Tristan de Leonois, or Sire Ganvaia, or Syr Guy, or Syr Owain, except in the marvellous parts of those romances. They each of them performed the same probationary rites, were armed in the same manner, and equally had their heads filled with the mingled ideas of love, war, and religion.
Can any doubt, then, be entertained of the prodigious influence of chivalry over the spirit and manners of the feudal times? We find that chivalry sometimes constituted the whole force and power of kings; whilst at others, it formed the proud independence of the barons. chivalry that maintained the whole of that grand Gothic edifice of feodality, the base of which was supported by the people.
The knights, even on the field of battle, persevered, with inconceivable persistency, in observing all the rules and prejudices of their noviciate. Thus, in a memorable battle, where a number of poor peasants in revolt presented themselves, armed with clubs and pickaxes, against an entire squadron of brilliant knights in complete armour, the latter suffered themselves to be dragged from their horses, and put to a cruel death, rather than draw their swords and defend themselves against villains without armour.
It is this chivalric scruple which Cervantes has treated with such exquisite raillery, and which so much irritated Sancho, when, beaten by the muleteers, he found himself abandoned by his master, who would not derogate from the honour of a true knight, by defending his squire against such ignoble assailants. This caricature of the chivalric point of honour is strictly true to the very life. The butchery of the knights of Hainault, as related by Froissart, attests the fact.
But, in order to abridge our historical details on this subject, we shall cite a tale of the 12th century. In this nar