When Knights were Bold - E. M. Tappan

Schools and Literature

The schools of the Middle Ages were quite unlike those of to-day. They are interesting to read about, but they can hardly have been interesting to the pupils; for the poor children were treated with the utmost severity. It was the general belief that Satan was in them and that nothing but frequent whippings would drive him out. Even in their own homes, the troubles of children were many; for instance, on the twenty-eighth of every December, Holy Innocents Day, they were flogged in their beds that they might remember Herod's murder of the babies of Bethlehem. In many schools boys were flogged at regular intervals, whether they had been good or bad. In some places, even as late as the fourteenth century, a man who had been chosen schoolmaster was given a ferule, a rod, and a boy, and was required to show in public how well he could administer a flogging.

Between 500 and 1100 the clergy were the only schoolmasters. Sometimes the parish priest of a village or town carried on an elementary school. There were also cathedral schools in charge of the bishops of various dioceses; but by far the larger number were connected with monasteries. In the earlier part of the Middle Ages, from the sixth century to the middle of the eighth, the monastery schools of Ireland and of England were by far the best. Three or four centuries after the days of Saint Patrick, Ireland was known as "the island of saints and scholars," and was the most learned country in Europe. The pupils built tiny huts near the schools, and in these a rich scholar and a poor often lived together, the poor serving the rich for his food and clothes. There were no prizes, and tuition was free to all who could not afford to pay. Most of the studying and reciting was done in the open air. Latin was the book language of the time, and was used in teaching as soon as pupils could understand it; but in the Irish schools Gaelic and Greek were also studied. One who had completed the course in school and university and become an "ollave," or doctor of philosophy, was expected to be able to compose verses extempore on any subject. He must know seven hundred and fifty historical tales and be ready to recite any that were called for at feasts. The greatest repect was paid to the ollave. He sat next to the chief or king. For his support "twenty-one cows and their grass" were given him. When he went on a journey, he had the right to an escort of twenty-four tutors, advanced pupils, and servants. It was looked upon as so great an honor to entertain him and his retinue that no one below a certain rank was permitted to have this privilege. If in the teacher's old age even his "twenty-one cows and their grass" did not keep him from poverty, his former pupils were expected to care for him; and this was always done with reverence and tenderness.

In England, one of the most famous schools was at the monastery of Jarrow, where six hundred monks besides many strangers and no one knows how many boys studied. The chief teacher was Bæda, or the Venerable Bede, the first English scholar. He loved the out-of-door work that was required of the monks, the care of the garden, the sheep, and the young calves; but he loved his books and his pupils. "I don't want my boys to read a lie," he said, and he translated for them the Gospel of Saint John and made for their textbooks collections of all that was then known of science and grammar and rhetoric.

During the reign of Charlemagne, at some time between 780 and 800, the various monasteries wrote to him that within their walls prayers would be offered for him. He thanked the monks most cordially, but told them plainly that the language of their letters was rude and illiterate and bade them begin to study. He founded schools, and he kept watch of them. Once at least he examined a number of the boys' exercises. He found that the poor boys had done far better than the rich. He praised the poor boys most warmly, and then gave a severe lecture to the wealthy ones. He told them that their birth and riches would count for nothing at all with him, and that if they hoped for his favor, they must go to work.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


Charlemagne set these idle pupils a good example, for he himself was a student. He tried his best to learn to write; and under his pillow he kept tablets for practising; but his great hand was accustomed to wielding a mighty sword rather than a slender pen, and he never succeeded. He was deeply interested in astronomy, and he had a fair knowledge of Greek. Latin he is said to have spoken as readily as German. It had long been a custom to carry on a school at the Frankish court; but the palace school took on new life under the care of Charlemagne, for he himself was its most eager member. The pupils were the family of the king and the courtiers. For the older folk, the school was a sort of club which met to discuss literary and scientific questions. The members dropped their real names and took others. Charlemagne chose David, others chose Samuel, Homer, etc. One name, Witto, meaning white, was changed to the Latin form, Candidus;  Arno, meaning eagle, became in the same way Aquila. The master of the school, the learned Alcuin, had formerly been at the head of the monastery school of York. He wrote textbooks for his royal pupils. For the king's son Pepin, a boy of sixteen, he prepared a list of questions and answers. These are rather poetical than scientific. One question is, "What is frost?" and the answer is, "A persecutor of plants, a destroyer of leaves, a fetter of the earth, a fountain of water." Some of the questions are hardly more than puzzles or riddles. One is, "What is wonderful?" No one would ever guess the answer, for it is, "I lately saw a man stand and a dead man walk who never existed." The explanation follows, that the object seen was a reflection in the water. The king was so eager to bring educated men around him that when he was told of the learning of Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome, he exclaimed, "Why cannot I have twelve such men as these?" "What!" cried Alcuin, "The Lord of heaven and earth had but two such, and wouldst thou have twelve?"

In England monasteries and libraries had been destroyed by the Danes, and when Alfred came to the throne in 971, there was not one priest south of the river Thames, the most enlightened part of England, who could translate a page of Latin into English. It was many years before Alfred could win quiet for his land; but when peace had been made, he built monasteries and sent for learned men, his favorite among them being the Welsh priest Asser. Both Alfred and Charlemagne realized that people ought to be able to read their own language, even if it was not so polished as the Latin; Alfred decreed that all the free young folk of the kingdom should learn to read English, and that only those who could give more time to study should learn Latin. There were very few English books, and the busy man with a kingdom on his hands set to work to translate those that he thought best adapted to the needs of his people. One was a sort of history and geography, written by a Spaniard called Orosius. Alfred made many additions of his own; and there is no doubt that they were needed, for the book was already five hundred years old.

This book by Orosius was used as a textbook in Europe for many centuries. Other favorites were the writings of Bede and the Doctrinale  of one Alexander Dolensis. This was a textbook of grammar and was used for some three or four hundred years. The Latin Psalter was perhaps the most common textbook. As soon as boys had learned the alphabet and could read a little, they were promoted to the Psalter. They went over this so often that many of them could say it by heart, often without knowing its meaning. They learned to write with a stylus on waxed tablets; then they were allowed to use quills and ink and write on parchment. They were taught to sing the Church service. In Latin they studied the declensions and conjugations and long lists of words, and they also learned Latin conversation books by heart.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


As soon as boys had completed this elementary work, they began on the trivium, or three-fold way. This was grammar, rhetoric, and logic. In grammar they had to learn long lists of answers to questions; they copied the fables of Æsop besides many proverbs and maxims; they read Virgil and some of the Christian poets. In rhetoric they studied the works of Cicero and Quintilian.

At the end of the trivium came the quadrivium, or the four-fold way. This included music, arithmetic, geometry, and what was known of the sciences. Even the most elementary arithmetic was no easy study, for until the Arabic numerals were introduced, the Roman notation was used. In speaking, numbers were often indicated by motions. To place the left hand on the breast meant 10,000. To fold both hands, 100,000. In business, the abacus was sometimes employed, an instrument made by stringing beads on wires, the first wire indicating units, the second tens, and so on. Sometimes a board was marked off into spaces, and the numbers were expressed by pebbles. The number 2451, for instance, would be represented as ..|....|.....|. Among the studies of the quadrivium, astronomy was especially important because the time of the Church festivals was reckoned by that science. There were so few textbooks that as a general thing the teacher dictated and the pupils wrote. Then they learned by heart what they had written, and were soundly whipped if they made mistakes. Girls were taught in convents by the nuns. They learned to embroider, to care for a house, to follow the services of the Church and obey her rules, and also to read and write to some degree. All learning centred in the Church. The monks and clergy were the teachers, and the first object of their teaching was to train boys for her various offices. No boy was shut out of her schools because of poverty. Those who declared that they meant to become monks, the oblati, were taught and fed free of charge; the others, the externes, paid nothing for tuition; and if they could not afford to pay for food, it was given them by the convent.

During the tenth and eleventh centuries especially there was great interest in chivalry, in the deeds that a man could do with his own right arm, in individuality. The towns increased in number and size. The crusades gave people broader ideas of the world. In Spain, the Saracens were searching for the philosopher's stone that should turn into gold whatever it touched; and for the wonderful elixir that should give a man youth and life for as long as he chose. They were using the Arabic, or probably more correctly, the Hindu numerals; and this alone opened a new world for mathematics. By all these means the people of Europe were aroused and made eager to learn something new. The result of this desire was the founding of numerous universities in the twelfth century.

The modern way of founding a university is to raise money, obtain a charter, buy land, and put up some buildings; but the method of the twelfth century was quite different. Indeed, in those times a university grew rather than was founded. Any learned man who believed that he had something to say about a favorite subject could settle himself near some school and give lectures to as many as cared to listen to him. Other learned men followed him and lectured on other subjects. In short, at first anybody lectured and anybody listened; and the lecturer who could bring together the greatest number of students received the most money in fees. After a while, men were obliged to secure a license before being permitted to teach.

The students were not regarded as citizens of the town in which the university was situated, and therefore in order to protect themselves, those who spoke the same language united in one association, or "nation." Naturally, they tried to lodge in the same part of the city, and sometimes they even built lodgings for themselves. At five or six o'clock in the morning, the students in Paris thronged to the lecture hall, and sat down on the floor on the straw or hay with which it was strewn. They took notes on waxed tablets for several hours. Some of them then hurried home to copy their notes; others met in a meadow playground for wrestling, ball-playing, running, jumping, or swimming in the river Seine. Sometimes the different nations carried on a rough-and-tumble warfare with one other. Sometimes they fought with the townsfolk. The town could do nothing to control them, for the university had no buildings and no apparatus; and if they chose, teachers and pupils could simply put on their hats, take up their handful of books, and go elsewhere, leaving the merchants of the town to mourn over their loss of several thousand customers.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


As a general thing, each university became specially excellent in some one branch. The university at Paris, for instance, was famed for its teaching of theology; that of Salerno for its instruction in medicine, and that of Bologna in law. Students wandered from one to another, learning "in no place decent manners," said a monk indignantly. Many who were poor begged their food as they journeyed, often singing their petitions. One of these songs begins:—

I, a wandering student lad,

Born for toil and sadness,

Oftentimes am driven by

Poverty to madness.

Literature and knowledge I

Fain would still be earning,

Were it not that want of pelf

Makes me cease from learning.

He then rehearses his many needs and begs:—

Take a mind unto thee now

Like unto Saint Martin's;

Clothe the pilgrim's nakedness,

Wish him well at parting.

So may God translate your soul

Into peace eternal,

And the bliss of saints be yours

In His realm supernal.

A great deal of writing was done by these learned folk; but the larger part of it was about philosophy and theology. Much of the most interesting literary work of the Middle Ages came from the common folk, and was in the first place stories and legends recited by one person to another or songs that were chanted at feasts and merrymakings. If in any country there was a brave man who was greatly admired by the people, of course the accounts of his mighty deeds were told and retold; and there is small doubt that they grew a little more marvelous at each telling. Often they were put into verse. No one who repeated them cared in the least whether he gave them correctly or not; and each added or altered to suit his taste. By and by some one welded the ballads together into a heroic poem with a beginning and an ending.

The old Saxon, or early English, poem of Beowulf  is thought to have grown up in this way from the songs sung by the harpers before the Saxons left the Continent to come to Britain. It is the story of a brave young hero from whom the poem takes its name. He kills a horrible monster named Grendel who stalks up from the fens in the misty twilight and devours the thanes, or followers, of the aged chief Hrothgar. Grendel's mother is as terrible as he; but Beowulf dives down to the depths of the lake and kills her in her cavern. Hrothgar's men stand on the cliff, gazing at the bloodstained water. They fear that they will never again see the bold champion; but at last he comes to the surface. Then there is feasting and rejoicing, and Beowulf goes home to his people loaded with gifts from the grateful Hrothgar. He is afterwards slain in a contest with a fire-breathing dragon.

The Nibelungenlied, or song of the Nibelungs, comes from Germany in one form and from Scandinavia in another. In the German version of the story, the haughty and athletic maiden Brunhild declares that she will marry no one who cannot in three contests prove himself stronger than she. Siegfried, the hero, puts on a magic cap which makes him invisible, and then by his help her suitor Günther, king of Burgundy, wins his bride. Siegfried's reward is the hand of Günther's sister, the beautiful Kriemhild. They live happily together in the Netherlands, enjoying the "Rhine gold," or "Nibelungen Treasure," which he had seized from the sons of the king of the Nibelungs. But the two women quarreled, and Kriemhild let out the secret of the invisible cap and the victory of Günther in the contest. Then Brunhild plotted revenge. She learned that Siegfried could be slain in one way only, that is, by piercing a certain spot between his shoulders, and she induced Kriemhild's uncle, Hagen, to kill him as he knelt by a brook to drink. After years of grieving, Kriemhild married Etzel, or Attila, on condition that he would avenge the death of Siegfried. When a fitting time had come, Attila invited the Burgundians to visit his court, and there they were massacred by the Huns at the bidding of Kriemhild. She slew Hagen with her own hand; but one of Attila's knights struck her down, and she fell dead by the side of Siegfried's murderer. The treasure of the Nibelungs had been stolen from her and sunk in the river Rhine by Hagen; and, if the tale is true, there it still lies hidden.

The Cid  comes from Spain. It is a poem about a real person, one Rodrigo Diaz, who won the title of El Cid, or my lord, by overcoming five Moorish kings. The Cid was the hero of many of the feats that the folk of the twelfth century counted valorous. He killed the enemy of his father and galloped home with the bloody head of the foe hanging from his horse's collar. He drove away the invaders of Spain, and he captured cities; but his greatest exploit of all took place after his death. Without him the Spaniards could not expel the Moors; but they well knew that the terror of his name would do more than all the arms of Castile and Leon. They took the dead body of their leader, dressed it in battle array, with a sword in the cold hand, with a coat of mail, a shield, a helmet, and a lance, mounted it on Babieca, their lord's favorite war horse, set it at the head of the line, and then went forth to battle, with the dead rider at their head. The enemy fled before them; and after the victories had been won, they laid the body reverently in a tomb in Castile. When the good horse Babieca came to his end, he was buried under the trees before the door of the tomb. To this day the memory of the Cid is so dear to the Spaniards that to swear "by the faith of Rodrigo" is the strongest vow of loyalty that they can make.

The most delightful old romances of knighthood are about Charlemagne of Germany and Arthur of Britain and their knights. Twelve of Charlemagne's followers were so equal in bravery that they were known as Peers, and sometimes they were called Paladins, or dwellers in the palace. They performed most amazing exploits. They tamed wild horses, they overcame giants, they captured cities, rescued fair ladies, and conquered demons who flew over the world on winged steeds. Two of the Peers, Roland and Oliver, were once chosen to fight a duel in order to settle a disagreement between Charlemagne and one of his underlords. Their faces were hidden by their helmets, and neither knew who his adversary was. For two long hours they fought, but neither could gain the smallest advantage over the other. At length Roland struck so savage a blow that his sword stuck fast in Oliver's shield; and at the same instant Oliver struck at Roland's breastplate so fiercely that his sword broke off at the handle. They wrestled together, but neither fell. Then they tore off each other's helmet, and behold, each found that he had been fighting with his dearest friend. "I yield," said Oliver; "I am vanquished," cried Roland. It is from this that the saying arose, "A Roland for an Oliver."

The most famous story of the Paladins of Charlemagne is told in the poem called the Song of Roland, which relates how the brave knight came to his death at Roncesvalles through the treachery of an enemy. There is a tradition that when William the Conqueror came to England his minstrel Taillefer rode out in front of the line of battle singing this Song of Roland, and struck the first blow at the English for his master.

Arthur is supposed to have been a British hero who resisted the Saxons on their coming to Britain. The romances say that he and his knights sat at a famous table, round in shape that it might have neither head nor foot. They contended with the heathen invaders, they took part in jousts and wonderful tournaments, and they had wild and bold adventures in their attempts to avenge the wrongs that came within their ken. In their hall of feasting there was a special seat, or siege, for each; but one, the Siege Perilous, was vacant, for should any one who was not altogether pure in heart venture to occupy it, the earth would open and swallow him. One day an old, old man led a beautiful youth named Galahad into Arthur's hall and bade him seat himself in the Siege Perilous; and, behold, when the covering was lifted from it, there appeared written on the chair, "This is the siege of Sir Galahad, the good knight."

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


At this point, the story of Arthur and his knight mingles with another, that of the Holy Grail, or the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. According to the legend, this cup was brought by Joseph of Arimathea to Britain. As men became sinful, it vanished, for it could be seen by him only who was pure and true in heart. It came to pass that one evening while the knights sat at supper, a cracking of thunder was heard and a beam of light seven times brighter than that of the sun passed through the hall; and in the beam was the Holy Grail, but covered with white samite that none might see it. The knights took a solemn vow that they would set forth and wander through and through the world until the vision of the Holy Thing should come to them. Their courage was good, and their adventures were many, but to Galahad alone, of unstained heart, did the vision come. "Sithence was there never no man so hardy for to say that hee had seene the sancgreall," says the old story.

From Iceland comes the Heimskringla, or world's circle, so named from the first words of the manuscript. From Iceland, too, come the Edda  and the Younger Edda, and all three are full of wild tales of gods and heroes. One of the best known of the Icelandic tales is the saga, or hero story, of Frithiof. The story says that as a child Frithiof played with Ingeborg and learned to love her well; but when they were grown up and he begged her brothers for her hand, they scorned him and drove him away; for he was but a subject, while the father of Ingeborg had been a king. The brothers went to war, and the two lovers met in the temple of Baldur, the god of beauty and truth. For a man to speak with a woman in this temple was looked upon as irreverent to the gods; and in punishment Frithiof was bidden to go to the Orkney Islands and collect a tribute which had long been due. He set off on the dangerous journey in his magic vessel Ellida, which knew his voice and obeyed his word, and after storms at sea and adventures on land he brought back the gold. But much had come to pass while he had been away. His home had been burned by Helgé, Ingeborg's brother, and Ingeborg had become the wife of a king, Sigurd Ring. Frithiof flung the purse of gold in Helgé's face and fled to his ship Ellida. Over the world he wandered, sailing, fighting, winning treasure for his men and fame for himself; but all the time longing eagerly for Ingeborg. At length he felt that he must know whether she was happy, and he made his way as a stranger to the court of King Sigurd Ring. The king begged him to remain as his guest, and henceforth wherever Sigurd and Ingeborg might be, there was Frithiof, caring for them and saving them from danger.

King Sigurd was an old man, and when the time of his death drew near, he called Frithiof to his side. "I have known you from the first," he said. "I have tested you and found you ever as true as you were brave. In a little while Ingeborg shall be your own. Love her well and care for my child, who is to be king in my stead." So it was that Frithiof gained the beautiful Ingeborg for his wife. He guarded the kingdom until the child was of an age to govern it; then he went away with Ingeborg to a kingdom of his own which he had won in battle.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


The stories that have been briefly given here are only a few of the many that were the delight of the people of the days of chivalry. One other sort of writing pleased them greatly, namely, that which took for its subject the deeds of Alexander the Great, or some other worthy of classical times. It is true that any one of these heroes would have been amazed at the actions ascribed to him by the writers; but that did not matter to the people who listened to the romances and apparently found it quite as satisfactory to make Alexander the hero of a good story as any other man.

From the German comes the "beast epic," the story of wicked Reynard the fox who is always playing tricks on Bruin the bear, Tybert the cat, Isegrim the wolf, and the other animals. It is really a satire on the state of Germany in the Middle Ages; but the best way to enjoy it is to forget that it is anything but a good story and read it purely for the fun of it. By the way, it is because of this story that even to this day we call the fox Reynard.

Another fashion of writing about animals is shown in the "bestiaries," or beast books. A chapter in a bestiary described some remarkable act of a beast, such as was never seen in the Middle Ages or at any other time, and drew from it an elaborate moral. The following is taken from the Ancren Riwle, and its natural history as well as its moral was probably believed most implicitly by the recluses for whom it was written:—

The pelican is a lean bird, so peevish and so wrathful that often, in her anger, she killeth her own young ones when they molest her, and then, soon after, she is very sorry, and maketh great moan, and smiteth herself with her bill wherewith she slew her young, and draweth blood out of her breast, and with the blood she then quickeneth her slain birds. This pelican is the peevish recluse. Her birds are her good works, which she often slayeth with the bill of sharp wrath; and when she hath so done, she, as the pelican doth, quickly repents, and with her own bill pecks her breast; that is, with confession of her mouth wherewith she sinned and slew her good works, draweth the blood of sin out of her breast, that is, of the heart in which is the life of the soul, and thus shall then quicken her slain birds, which are her works.

A delightful old book called The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville  was a great favorite. It describes the way to Jerusalem and purports to have been written as a guidebook for those who wished to make the pilgrimage. When people read it, they felt, as in watching the mystery plays, that they were gaining something religiously and also having an exceedingly good time. "Sir John" sees as many marvels as Sindbad the sailor. By the Dead Sea he finds apples that are fair to look upon, but within are nothing but ashes and cinders. He gazes at people with ears that hang down to their knees, upon hens that bear wool, upon pigmies, giants, and griffins. He closes his book with the request that all its readers will pray for him as he will pray for them; and surely a man who has written so entertainingly has a right to ask the favor of those who enjoy his book.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


The crusades gave rise of course to tales and romances without number. In one some returning crusaders brought with them an image of the Virgin Mary. Suddenly it became so heavy that they could not carry it. Therefore they stopped and built a church for it on the spot. Another story, coming from Burgundy, said that a long-bearded crusader, sick and travel-worn, appeared at his old home in the garb of a pilgrim. The house was full of rejoicing, for its mistress, who had waited many weary years in the hope that her husband would return, was now about to marry a second time. She had always kept half of a gold ring that she and her husband had divided; and now he produced the other half. There was no second marriage, and the wife and her long lost husband lived together again in great happiness. But it seemed that the crusader had been taken captive by the Saracens and had only been allowed to go home on condition of returning to captivity if he could not find money for his ransom. The money could not be raised. He said a sorrowful farewell to his wife and went back to Saladin. When the generous Saracen heard the story, he bade that the honest man be set free. "But name your oldest son for me," he said, "and let your coat of arms be bells and crescents."

The writings of the Middle Ages may be divided into two classes; those written in Latin, which are generally dull and uninteresting, and those written in the languages of the different peoples, which are generally bright and entertaining. In most of the countries that had been ruled by the Romans, especially Italy, France, and Spain, the people spoke what are called the Romance languages. These were more or less like that of the Romans, but far simpler; for instance, the Latin word for mother, mater, became in French mère; and instead of saying matris  for of the mother  and matri  for to the mother, people used prepositions and said de la mère  and à la mère. It was much easier to remember a few prepositions than to learn how to decline every noun. Verbs and other parts of speech were gradually simplified in somewhat the same fashion; and by the eleventh century there were languages which were far more manageable for light poems and stories than the more dignified Latin. The use of rhyme and accent in poetry had come in. No one knows just how this came about; but it is certain that the taste of people had gradually changed, and now, instead of liking the Latin fashion of "quantity," that is, of giving to each syllable a fixed length of time, either long or short, they preferred to accent certain syllables of a line and end it with the words or syllables that rhymed. Then it was that the troubadours of southern France and, a little later, the trouveurs, or trouvères, of northern France, began to compose their songs. The troubadours used the form of Old French that was called the langue d'oc, because in southern France "yes" was "oc." In northern France "yes" was "œil," and therefore the northern tongue was called the langue d'œil.

The troubadours composed chiefly love songs and battle songs. Everybody seemed to love poetry, and any wanderer was welcome at the most lordly castle if he could only compose verses and sing them to the music of the harp. A knight would have thought it far beneath him to joust with a common man; but to sing songs together was quite a different matter, and the proudest noble would not have found it any disgrace to mingle his voice with that of a beggar. After a tournament was over and the prizes had been distributed, the lady of the castle often opened what was called a Court of Love. Here knights and even sovereigns vied with one another in singing extempore verses. Richard the Lionhearted was as proud of his skill as a troubadour as of his prowess in battle. At the close of the Court of Love, the ladies discussed at length the merits of the different singers, and gave to the most deserving prizes which were as much valued as those of the tournament.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


Some of our best accounts of tournaments, as, indeed, of battles and many other things, came from the pen of Froissart, a French clergyman who wrote at the end of the fourteenth century. A nobleman employed him to write a history of the wars of the time; and Froissart mounted his horse and ambled along from one place to another, wherever a battle had been fought or any other event of special interest had come to pass. He talked to people and gathered all the information that he could and then wrote it in his Chronicles. He does not care what caused the war or who wins, and he is just as jubilant over an English victory as a French; the one thing that he wants to do is to get hold of a good story and tell it. It is he who paints such a picture of the Black Prince humbly serving the French king, who has been taken prisoner at the battle of Poitiers; and it is he who describes so vividly the coming of the six wealthy citizens of conquered Calais to Edward III, in their shirts, barefooted, and with ropes about their necks, that by their death the anger of the king might be appeased and their fellow citizens forgiven. Just at the moment when the reader despairs of their being saved, Froissart brings in Queen Philippa with so earnest a plea for mercy that the king cannot refuse to pardon them. Indeed, whenever one discovers a particularly lively account of any event that came within the ken of Froissart, it is almost sure to have been written by his pen. It is no wonder that, as he roamed about from castle to castle, telling his tales wherever he went, he always found a welcome.

About a century later than the time when the troubadours began to flourish in southern France, the trouvères in northern France were singing in the langue d'œil, and were great favorites at the courts of the dukes of Normandy. The Normans were descendants of the fierce vikings of an earlier day who had settled in France. They had lost none of their boldness and daring, but they had adopted French customs and the French language. From these trouvères came gay little tales of love and adventure called fabliaux, many of the mystery plays that have already been mentioned, and brilliant romances of chivalry. The craze for these romances and for even the feebler imitations of them that were composed somewhat later was so intense and lasted so long that at the beginning of the seventeenth century Cervantes of Spain wrote his famous Don Quixote  as a parody on them. The good old Don is described as having read so many of these productions that his brain is touched, and with a helmet of pasteboard, an ancient suit of rusty armor, a farm horse for a steed of war, and a country laborer for a squire, he set out in search of adventures. He found them in plenty. To his disordered mind some windmills on a plain seemed to be evil giants. One can guess the result of his valiant attack upon them. A flock of sheep moving toward him he is convinced is an immense army of knights, and he charges on them most valiantly. It is no wonder that this book put an end to the composing of romances and the fashion of reading them.

In Germany, too, between the twelfth century and the fourteenth, there were many poets. Some sang of Arthur and the Holy Grail and Charlemagne and the Nibelungs; but far more tenderly and elegantly and with much better taste than the poets of the langue d'oc or those of the langue d'œil. Some of the German poets called minnesingers, or love-singers, and their poems are really dainty and graceful and far more refined in feeling and expression than the rather coarse songs of the Courts of Love. Knights, priests, wandering students, kings, and simple country folk met together in the joy of poetry and music, and sang of love and sorrow and the beauties of spring with a pureness and freshness that hold their charm even to this day.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


The names of two great authors shine out from the Middle Ages, the Italian Dante and the English Chaucer. Dante wrote about 1300 his famous Divine Comedy. In this poem he passes through the gates of hell under the guidance of Virgil. He visits one "circle" after another, each occupied by some one class of criminals, and sees the terrible punishments inflicted upon them. He then enters purgatory; and here sinners are expiating the wrongs that they have committed. Those who have been greedy suffer constantly from hunger and thirst. Those who held their heads too high in their pride are dragged down by heavy weights. Those who were lazy are now forced to run about continually. Each penance is adapted to the fault. On top of the mountain of purgatory is the maiden Beatrice whom Dante had loved even as a child and had lost by her early death. She now becomes his guide and leads him through the nine heavens, where he meets the great and good of all ages and finally is permitted a vision of God and his angels. The poem is great because its language is so rich and beautiful, because its characters are alive and its pictures so vivid that an artist could work from them, and, most of all, because it is so complete in its plan and in every detail as to show a marvelous imagination.

It is said that the good folk of Florence used to point at Dante as he went along the street and whisper half fearfully, "That's the man who has been in hell"; but I fancy that people said of Chaucer, "That's the man who sees everything and enjoys whatever he sees," for he seems to take such genuine pleasure in every common sight and in studying every person. In his Canterbury Tales, wherein a large company of all sorts of people go on pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, he is apparently as much interested in one as in another, but he treats each one in different fashion. He looks with respect upon the "verray parfit gentil knyght," and he has a kindly word for the gay young squire who is singing or whistling from morning to night. He makes us see the coy and dainty ways of the nun, and he really cannot help making a sly jest at her French, which was not that of Paris, but

After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe,—

a town in England. He is a bit indignant at the friar, who "knew the tavernes well in every town," and is better acquainted with innkeepers and barmaids than with lepers and beggars; but he has a warm sympathy with the poor clerk who would rather have books than gorgeous robes; and he speaks most reverently of the good parish priest who loved to give to the poor and who never scorned even a sinful man. In the poem these good folk tell stories, stories of chivalry, of the crafty fox who stole Chanticleer, of magic swords, of fairies and giants and enchanted steeds; and in each the author is at home and enjoying himself. He drops in so many little confidential speeches to the reader that one feels as if the poet were right at his elbow instead of being five centuries away.

These are snatches of the writings that come to mind first when one thinks of the days of knighthood. Leaving out the two great names of Dante and Chaucer, there is little that has any great excellence; but it is entertaining and rich in promise, and the promise has been nobly fulfilled.