The Epic Center
As Structural Determinant
in Medieval Narrative Poetry
CRITICISM OF medieval narrative poetry has tended to emphasize the differences between the works which we so conveniently classify as national epics, chansons degeste, and romances. It is not difficult to point to distinguishing features--the difference in the role of women, the great importance of national pride in the first two and the lack of it in the third, the total involvement of person and country in the national epics, the concentration on leisure time in the romance. Such distinctions are convenient and make categorization and the writing of literary history easier. Yet any student of literary history knows that the categories are by no means clear-cut. The later chansons degeste are very close to becoming romances, the Niebelungenlied certainly gives the impression that its author was trying to convert his material into Romance form, and Wolfram von Eschenbach used French chansons de geste as sources for his romance Willehalm. The differences were apparent to contemporaries. Writers of romance did not, so far as we know, write national epics, and most critics would agree that the romance is the more sophisticated form. Yet these types did flourish during the same period, and it seems highly improbable that the early stages of the romance, wherever they were effected, could have escaped the influences of the other two types, which were already well established. It may therefore be worthwhile to explore the possibility of finding connecting links rather than points of difference between the various types of medieval poetic narrative.
Erich Auerbach's famous essay reminds us that one of the principal