A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
EARLY MIDDLE ENGLISH POETRY

THE Norman Conquest brought England more than a change of rulers. When the jongleur Taillefer rode up towards Senlac ahead of the invading host tossing his sword in the air and singing the Chanson de Roland, he heralded the coming of a new culture, a fresh wave of Mediterranean civilisation.

After Maldon Anglo-Saxon poetry practicatly disappears for two centuries. When it reappears it is no longer Anglo-Saxon. Much had happened in these two centuries. When the millennium passed and Christ did not come again, Christendom seemed to awake from a long sleep. The Crusades, in which this awakening was first manifested on a grand scale, were in turn a main cause of its diffusion; they brought the nations of Western Europe into contact with each other and with the alien civilisation of the Saracens. All the channels of human activity were gradually flooded by a new spirit. The Church herself gained new strength and life. Great schoolmen like Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas buttressed her dogmas afresh with arguments drawn from the Aristotelian philosophy which Europe had recovered through the Arabs. A new ardour of devotion found expression in the Orders of the Friars founded by St. Francis in Italy and St. Dominic in Spain.

But our main centre of interest is Provence. It was in this favoured region, enriched with the débris of many civilisations and shielded by the strong arm of the Counts of Toulouse, that the new poetry first came to flower. It was new both in subject and in form. It was devoted from the first to the worship of woman in a sense unknown to the Greeks and Romans. A cult of Romantic Love, love par amours, sprang up as it were in a night, and aped, if it did not rival, the cults of Chivalry and the Church. The speed with which this fashion spread surprises us less when we remember that in the early Middle Ages the ruling classes of Western Christendom, brought together by the Crusades, and united by a common faith

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