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The Vogue of Medieval Chivalric

Romance During the English









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That the medieval taste for romances of chivalric adventure,
far from dying out with the advent of printing and the begin-
ning of the English Renaissance, persisted through the whole
of the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth, has been
recognized by numerous writers from Thomas Warton down.
Little attempt has been made, however, to study the question
systematically or in detail, though the value of such a study
for the right interpretation of the movement of the Renaissance
in England must be apparent to all. A number of years ago I
undertook an investigation of the whole subject for my doc-
torate dissertation. Some of the results of this investigation
appeared in the Publications of the Modern Language Association
for 1 91 5, in the form of a detailed monograph on the vogue of
the romance of Guy of Warwick after the introduction of
printing. The comprehensive treatment of the whole matter
which I promised at that time I have been unable as yet, owing
to the inacessibility during the War of many sources, to bring
to completion. What I offer here is therefore only a summary,
and on many points — as for example the relations of the
romances to Elizabethan literature — a very inadequate one. I
believe, however, that the critical bibliography of editions will
be of service to other workers in the general field, and that
some matters treated in the accompanying essay may not
seem altogether hackneyed. I hope before long to publish
other monographs similar to that on Guy of Warwick^ notably
one, now in preparation, on the reputation and influence in
England of Amadis de Gaule.

A word should be said as to the limits of treatment adopted
in the following pages. For various reasons I have restricted
myself to romances of a predominantly chivalric type; I have,
for example, omitted such works as the Gesta Romanorum and

A *> o «> rj :\

The Seven Wise Masters^ which, though associated with the
chivalric stories in the sixteenth century and later, yet differed
from them considerably in character. I have included the
Spanish romances of the Amadis and Palmerin type, though
they were scarcely medieval in the strict sense of the word,
partly because of their real affinity and indebtedness to the
earlier romances, and partly because of the tendency of readers
and critics in England in the years following their introduction
to bracket them with the older works. As for the period cov-
ered by the investigation, I have deemed it wise to begin with
the introduction of printing, though the Renaissance had
scarcely begun as yet, and to end with the Civil War. The
subsequent, or chapbook, period of the romances I hope to
treat in a later publication.


If an interest in chivalric romance in general persisted
through the long period from the introduction of printing to
the Civil War, the actual body of romances which fed this
interest was by no means the same at the end of the period
as at the beginning. The difference was due in part to the
dropping-out of individual romances, but chiefly to a group of
changes which took place toward 1575. Up to that time the
list of romances accessible to readers in current editions had
altered but little from the days of the first English printers;
it was made up in nearly equal parts of verse romances inherited
from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and of prose
romances translated more recently from the French. After
about 1575 the metrical romances, with one or two exceptions,
disappeared; some of the older prose romances followed them
into oblivion; and those that survived were eclipsed in the
favor of the public by a new stock of chivalric narratives,
imported, mainly through the French, from Spain. This
second phase of the chivalric vogue lasted until the eve of the
Civil War.



In order to understand the history of the medieval romances
during the first hundred years after the advent of printing,
it is necessary to glance at their reputation in England during
the period immediately preceding that event.

Their position as the favorite type of fiction with all classes
of readers was still secure. Perhaps no other class of secular
literature so abounded in the libraries of the time. A charac-


teristic collection was that of Robert Thornton (compiled
ca. 1440), which contained versions of Morte Arthure^ Octavian^
Sir IsumbraSy Sir Degrevant^ Sir Eglamour, The Awntyrs of
Arthur^ Sir Perceval^ and others of less note. These were all
verse romances. In addition to these, not a few of the elaborate
prose romances which had largely superseded the older metrical
versions in France, were known in England, especially in the
world of the court and the higher nobility. About the middle
of the century, for example, the Earl of Shrewsbury presented
to Margaret, Henry VI's queen, copies of Ponthus et Sidoine,
Les ^uatre Fib Aimon^ and Percejorest} A few translations
dating from the same period also bore witness to the favor
accorded to the type by English readers: among these were
Merlin^ Ponthus and Sidone^ and the Arthurian compilation of
Sir Thomas Malory (finished in 1469).

In the light of these facts it is apparent that when the early
printers — Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde, Pynson, etc. — printed
romances, they did little more than recognize and perpetuate
a taste that was still vital among their customers. Their
publications reflected the two sides of this taste: from their
presses came in approximately equal numbers slightly modern-
ized texts of the older metrical tales, and translations of the
more recent and fashionable French prose romances.

The efi^orts of Caxton were confined to furthering the move-
ment, already well under way, of importation and translation.
He published between about 1475 and 149 1, seven romances,
all in prose, all French in immediate origin, all but one trans-
lated by himself. The first of the series — Raoul le Fevre's
Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye — was also the first work
issued by Caxton on his own account and the first printed book
in the English language; it was translated and printed while he
was still abroad, probably at Bruges, but it was intended,
according to Caxton's prologue, for readers in England as well

^ Ward, Catalogue of Romances, I, 469-470, 622-624, 377-381.


as in Flanders. The other six romances appeared after Caxton
settled at Westminster. They were: The History of Jason
{ca. 1477), another translation from Raoul le Fevre; Le Morte
Barthur by Malory (1485) ; The Life of Charles the Great (1485),
a translation oiFierabras; Paris and Vienne (1485) and Blanch-
ardine and Eglantine (1489-1491), two comparatively recent
French romans d'aventure; and The Four Sons of Aymon
(1489-1491), like Charles the Great a representative of the
Charlemagne cycle.^ All of these romances Caxton printed m
expensive folio editions. For all but one of them he wrote
prologues or epilogues setting forth the circumstances of trans-
lation or of printing.

Why did Caxton confine himself to the diffusion of French
prose romances to the total neglect of the native metrical
versions? The reason was perhaps twofold. For one thmg,
Caxton's own taste for romances, which was a genuine passion
with him, would seem to have been formed, mainly if not entire-
ly, on the French texts that were current in Flanders. At any
rate, in the numerous enthusiastic outbursts concerning
romances which he scattered through his prefaces and epilogues
it was almost invariably French romances which he had in
mind. Thus the Recueil of Raoul le Fevre pleased him not
merely for the "novelty" of its "many strange and marvellous
histories," but also "for the fair language of French, which was
in prose so well and compendously set and written." And one
of the considerations which induced him to print Malory's
Morte Darthur was the fact that while abroad he had read
"many noble volumes" concerning Arthur in French. But
personal taste was not the only factor at work. Caxton was
extremely sensitive to the wishes of his clientele, and his
clientele, which was almost exclusively an aristocratic one
(witness his statements to this effect in the prologues of Le

2 For details concerning all of the editions of romances mentioned in
the text see below, Bibliography, I.


Morte Darthur and Blanchardine)^ demanded precisely the sort
of romances in which he himself was most interested. On
two occasions, indeed, the demand took on an explicit form:
once, shortly after his establishment in England, when he was
approached by "many noble and divers gentlemen," who were
interested in the "history of the saint greal and of . . . King
Arthur," and desired to have it printed in English; and again,
at a slightly later time, when there came other nobles, including
a member of the King's household, expressing a similar interest
in the romances relating to Charlemagne.

At Caxton's death in 1491 his business passed into the hands
of Wynkyn de Worde, who was active in Westminster and
London until 1535. Along with press and types De Worde
took over his master's interest in romances; throughout his
long career he was the chief purveyor of this type of literature
in England. Of the seven romances printed by Caxton, he
reissued four: Le Morte Darthur (1498 and 1529), The Recuyell
(1502), The Four Sons of Aymon (1504), and Paris and Vienne
(undated). In all of these editions except that of Paris and
Vienne he retained Caxton's elaborate format — a clear indica-
tion that he had in view the same general class of readers;
aside, too, from certain changes in spelling and detail of phrase-
ology, he reproduced Caxton's texts. As he was primarily a
commercial publisher, his selection of romances for reprinting
unquestionably reflected the relative success of Caxton's
enterprises. It is significant that his judgment was confirmed
by the continuous popularity of these four romances for more
than a century.

Much more important than these reissues of Caxton's
publications were the additions which De Worde himself made
to the body of printed chivalric fiction. Seven of these addi-
tions derived from the source which Caxton had exclusively
exploited — French prose romance. They were The History
oj King Ponthus (151 1), Helyas Knight of the Swan (15 12),


Oliver of Castile (15 18), William of Palerne {ca. 1520), Huon of
Bordeaux {ca. 1534), Robert the Devil (two impressions, undated)
and Valentine and Orson (undated). Who were the translators
of these romances? Three names have survived — Robert
Copland, who translated Helyas on a commission from De
Worde; Henry Watson, "an apprentice of London," who
translated Oliver of Castile and Valentine and Orson; and
Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners, who wrote the charming
version of Huon of Bordeaux. Probably the others were hack
translators like Copland and Watson rather than noblemen of
letters like Berners.

The rest of De Worde's romance publications consisted of
texts (slightly modernized) of metrical tales popular in the
later fifteenth century, a type which Caxton had entirely
neglected. Among them were Bevis of Hampton, Sir Degore,
Sir Eglamour, Guy of Warwick, Ipomydon, Richard Coeur
de Lion (1509, 1528), Robert the Devil (a metrical version
based apparently upon the English prose), The Squire of Low
Degree, and perhaps Generides, Sir Isumbras, Sir Triamour,
and Torrent of Portugal. Most of these editions were undated;
some of them can be ascribed to De Worde only on rather
uncertain typographical evidence. It is obvious that he took
less pains with them, and intended them for a less exacting
public, than his editions of the French prose tales. Yet, as he
continued to issue them throughout his career, and as many of
them continued to be reprinted for still another generation,
they must have been a thoroughly successful venture.

Among De Worde's contemporaries and rivals a number
printed romances, though none of them approached him in
volume or variety of production. In 1492 Gerard Leeu, an
Antwerp printer who worked for the English trade, brought out
reimpressions of Caxton's Jason and Paris and Vienne.
Between 1495 and 1530 Richard Pynson, De Worde's chief
competitor in the London trade, printed editions of


metrical romances, Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton,
and of one of Caxton's prose translations, Paris and Vienne.
Two undated issues of the metrical feast of Sir Gawayne, one
by John Butler, the other by Thomas Petit, and an edition by
Robert Redborne of Lord Berners' translation of the prose
Arthur of Little Britain, may have appeared during De Worde's
lifetime, but probably were somewhat later.

With his death the period of first editions for both the
metrical romances and the translations of French prose roman-
ces came to an end. The next notable publisher of romances,
William Copland (active between about 1548 and 1569),
added no new texts, but contented himself with a selection of
those issued by De Worde, part of whose business he seems to
have inherited. Thus of the metrical romances he printed
Sir Degore, Sir Eglamour, Sir Isumbras, The Squire of Low
Degree, Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwick, Sir Triamour, and
The Knight of Courtesy (no earlier edition of this romance has
survived, but in all liklihood it too had been issued by De
Worde) ; and of the prose romances. The recuile of the histories
of Troie (1553), The Four Sons of Aymon (1554), King Arthur
(1557), Valentine and Orson (two undated editions), Helyas,
The Knight of the Swan. A simple reproducer of the texts of
his predecessors, Copland played a far less important role in
the history of medieval romance than that of Caxton or Wyn-
kyn de Worde. Yet he did good service in keeping alive so
many of the older favorites for the public of the second half of
the century.

In this work of reviving the publications of the preceding
generation he was assisted by a number of his contemporaries:
by an unknown who issued Ponthus in 1548; by John King,
who printed Sir Degore and The Squire of Low Degree about
1560, and in 1 557-1 558 took out licenses for The feast of
Sir Gawayne and Sir Lamwell; by Thomas Marsh, John
Tysdale, and John Aide, each of whom secured licenses for


Bevis of Hampton between 1558 and 1569; by John Purfoot,
who secured licenses in 1 568-1 569 for Richard and Generides\
by an unknown publisher, who printed Huon of Bordeaux in
1570; by John Cawood, who issued Guy of Warwick sometime
before 1572; and by John Walley, who printed Sir Eglamour
at an unknown date during the same general period.

Such, in brief, were the dealings of the English printers
with medieval romances to about 1575. That date marked
the end of a period, for afterwards, though a number of the
prose romances already translated continued to be reproduced,
printers for one reason or another ceased to concern themselves
any longer with the metrical romances. (There was one excep-
tion — Bevis of Hampton^ Except for certain scattered readers
who continued to thumb the copies already in existence, the
day of the metrical romances, at least in their original form,
was over.

In the meantime the public was not entirely dependent upon
the publications of English printers for its knowledge of medie-
val chivalric legends. During the early part of the period
especially, a certain number of fifteenth century manuscript
texts of romances continued to circulate. Nor had these
altogether ceased to function as a medium for the diffusion of
romances even after the middle of the sixteenth century:
witness the manuscript Richard Coeur de Lion owned in 1562 by
a certain James Haword, and the Morte Arthur (the metrical
version) owned in 1570 by one Robert Farrers.^ Then too,
just as in the years before the introduction of printing, a good
many of the French prose romances penetrated into England
in the original editions. In 148 1 five French romances, of which
at least four were printed about the same time in Lyons and
Paris, were in the library of Sir Thomas Howard, afterwards
Duke of Norfolk. A copy of the prose Merlin printed at

' Ward, Catalogue of Romances, I, 949; J. D. Bruce, Le Morte Arthur,
E.E.T.S., E.S., LXXXVIII, p. vii.


Paris in 1498 by Antoine Verard found its way, sometime
before 1535, into the royal library at Richmond Castle. In
1526 an inventory of the library of the Earl of Kildare listed
French copies of Lancelot du Lake in three volumes and of
Ogier le Danois; these romances had been in print in France
since before the beginning of the century. In 1540 Thomas
Crull, a London grocer, owned among other works "two
ffrenche bokes of the life of King Arthur."* Again, general
familiarity with certain medieval legends, notably those of
Arthur and of Guy of Warwick, was promoted by the sum-
maries given in early sixteenth century chronicles. Accounts
of Arthur, based ultimately upon Geoffrey, could be read in
the histories of Fabyan (15 16), of Rastell (1529), and of
several minor historiographers. The legend of Guy's combat
with Colbrond, in a prose version taken directly from Lydgate's
poem, was recounted as sober history by Fabyan and Grafton
(1569). Finally, it would seem that local tradition counted
for something in the fame enjoyed by at least three of
the medieval heroes. There were "relics" of Arthur still
preserved at Winchester; Southampton cherished the memory
of Sir Bevis; at Warwick, Guy's sword was preserved in the
castle in the charge of a custodian appointed by royal patent,
a chapel and statue marked his hermitage at Guyscliff, and a
legend, not yet given literary form, of his combat with a
Dun Cow, was familiar to the populace.^

Manuscripts, French editions, chronicles, local tradition —
all of these helped to keep alive a knowledge of the old romantic
legends among the Englishmen of the early sixteenth century.
They were, however, merely subsidiary influences: the chief
sources of information were the editions of romances issued by
the London printers.

* J. P. Collier, Household Books oj John Duke of Norfolk, l-ji; Etudes
romanes dediees a Gaston Paris, 9; Hist. MSS Com., App. Ninth Report, 288-
289; Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, VII, 120.

* Crane, P.M.L.A., XXX, 1915, 135-136, 152.


It is extremely difficult, owing to the lack of documents, to
form a precise idea of the diffusion of these editions during
this period, but it would seem that the romance-reading public
of the first hundred years after the introduction of printing
fell into two more or less distinct groups — a relatively small
aristocratic group which admired especially the translations of
French prose romances, and a larger group, undefinable
socially but including many readers of humbler means and less
fashionable tastes, and particularly many dwellers in the
country, who still found pleasure in the metrical romances of
the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Assuredly few outside
the wealthier classes could afford to buy the sumptuous and
expensive folios in which romances like Le Morie Darthur^
The Recuyell, The Four Sons of Ay man appeared throughout
the period. The public of these romances was unquestionably
in the main an aristocratic one. The patrons, for example, for
whom Caxton prepared his editions were without exception
gentlemen or nobles. Le Morte Darthur he addressed to "alle
noble prynces, lords and ladyes, gentylmen or gentylwymmen,
that desire to rede or here redde of the noble and loyous
historye of the grete conquerour and excellent kyng, Kyng
Arthur." Charles the Great he turned into English at the special
urging of Sir William Daubeny, the treasurer of the jewels in
the King's household. The other translations had a similar
origin or were addressed in similar terms to readers of gentle
birth. And as with Caxton, so, in one instance at least, with
Wynkyn de Worde, whose edition of Helyas^ the Knight of the
Swan (15 1 2) owed its being to the interest of the Duke of
Buckingham in the exploits of one of his reputed ancestors
On the other hand, the small rudely printed quartos in which
appeared such romances as Sir Bevis, Sir Gwy, Sir Degore, Sir
Eg/amour, Richard Coeur de Lion^ were undoubtedly meant to
sell cheaply and to circulate widely among a somewhat humbler
public. Many of them were probably sold to country readers;
peddled about by travelling booksellers, they were the true


precursors of the chapbooks of the seventeenth century. One
of these itinerant booksellers, a certain John Russhe, bought
from Richard Pynson for sale in the country twenty bound
copies of Bevis of Hampton at lod apiece; they were among
the cheapest books in the lot, which included "bocas off the
falle of prynces" at 2s, the "canterbery Talys" at 5s, and
"Isoppys fabullys" at 3s. 4d. This was sometime before
1498. A score of years later, in 1520, John Dome, bookseller at
Oxford, sold Bevis, together with another small tract, for 6d,
Undo your Door, Sir Eg/amour, and Robert the Devil for 3d,
and Sir Isumbras for 2d. His sales also included two prose
romances — King Pothus (quarto) for 8d, and The Four Sons 0/
Aymon (folio) for is, Bd.''

Outside both of these groups of simple readers were the
scholars and men of letters. What was their attitude to the
romances? A few of them took the old stories seriously and
were influenced by them, if only slightly, in their work. The
translations of Caxton and Berners reflected a genuine personal
enthusiasm on the part of their authors. Stephen Hawes was
familiar with the Recuyell and with Malory; his Pastime of
Pleasure bore many traces of the attraction which the stories
of chivalry had for him. They had a certain attraction, too,
for John Skelton, though their influence on his poetry went no
deeper than occasional allusions (as in Phillip Sparrow) to
such romantic heroes as Guy of Warwick, Gawain, Lancelot,
Tristram. On the writers of drama, especially at court, the
influence of the romances was somewhat more marked. Robert
the Devil and Amys and Amyloun furnished material for dis-
guisings during Henry VIITs reign. A pageant on The Round
Table was presented before Henry and the Emperor in 1225
by the citizens of London. In 1547 a pageant on the theme

* The Library, N.S., X, 126-128; 'The Day-book of John Dome" in
Ox. Hist. Soc. Collectanea, First Series


of Valentine and Orson helped to celebrate the coronation of
Edward VI. 7

What sympathy there was for the romances among men of
letters was largely offset by the strong current of criticism
which made its appearance during this period. The impulse
to hostile criticism of the medieval romances was given by the
humanists, particularly by Erasmus and the Spaniard Juan
Luis Vives. Erasmus had for the stories of Arthur and Lancelot
the scorn of the classical-minded pedagogue; his chief com-
plaint was that these stories — "fabulae stultae et aniles" —
drew away the young student's interest from classical history
and poetry. 8 With Vives moral considerations were uppermost.
In two notable passages, both of which were known in England,
he warned his readers, in each case young women, against the
evils of romance-reading. Under no conditions, he maintained
in Be Institutione feminae christianae (1523), should women
be allowed to soil their minds with such pestiferous books as
"in Hispania Amadisus, Splandianus, Florisandus, Tirantus,
Tristranus; quarum ineptiarum nuUus est finis ... in
Gallia Lancilotus a lacu, Paris et Vienna, Ponthus & Sydonia,
Petrus Provincialis & Maguelona, Melusina, domina inexora-
bilis: in hac Belgica [he was writing at Bruges] Florius & Albus
flos, Leonella, & Cana morus, Curias & Floretta, Pyramus &
Thisbe ..." {Opera, Basle, 1555, II, p. 658). In this list
of romances to be tabooed, although he wrote with a view to

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