Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

HISTORY OF FICTION, &e.

CHAPTER IX.

Origin of Spiritual Romance.- Legenda Aurea.-Contes Devots.-Guerino Meschino.Lycidas et Cleorithe.Romans de Camus, 80.Pilgrim's Progress.

We have now travelled over those fields of fic. tion, which have been cultivated by the writers of chivalry and the Italian novelists; but the task re. mains of surveying those other regions which the industry of succeeding times has explored, and I have yet to give some account of those different classes of romance which appeared in France and other countries of Europe, previous to the introduction of the modern novel.

It has already been remarked, that the variations of romance correspond in a considerable de. gree with the variations of manners. Something, indeed, must be allowed to the caprice of taste, and something to the accidental direction of an original genius to a particular pursuit ; but still, amid the variety, there is a certain uniformity, and when the character of an age or people is decided, it must give a tinge to the taste, and a direction to the efforts, of those who court attention or favour, and who have themselves been nourished in existing prejudices and in commonly received opinions.

Of the natural principles of the human mind, none are more obvious than a spirit of religion ; and in certain periods of society, and under certain circumstances, this sentiment has been so prevalent as to constitute a feature in the character of the age. It was to be expected, therefore, that a feeling so general and powerful should have been gratified in every mode, and that, amongst others, the easy and magical charm of fiction should have formed one of the methods by which it was fostered and indulged.

In the times which succeeded the early ages of Christianity, the gross ignorance of many of its votaries rendered them but ill qualified to relish the abstract truths of religion, or unadorned precepts of morality. The plan was accordingly adopted of adducing examples, which might interest the attention and speak strongly to the feelings. Hence, from the zeal of some, and the artifice or credulity of other instructors, mankind were taught the duties of devotion by a recital of the achievements of spiritual knight errantry.

The history of Josaphat and Barlaam, of which an account has already been given, and which was written to inspire a taste for the ascetic virtues, seems to have been the origin of Spiritual Romance. It is true, that in the first ages of the church, many fictitious gospels were composed, full of improbable fables ; but, as they contained opinions in contradiction to what was deemed the orthodox faith, they were discountenanced by the fathers of the church, and soon fell into disrepute. On the other hand, the history of Josaphat and Barlaam, which was more sound in its doctrine, passed at an early period into the west of Europe, and through the medium of the old Latin translation, which was a common manuscript, and was even printed so early as the year 1470, it became a very general favourite.

As far back as the fourth century, St Athanasius visited Rome, in order to obtain succour from the western church against the Arian heresy, which then prevailed in the east ; and during his abode in Italy, he wrote the life of St Anthony, the most renowned Cenobite of the age. From the earliest periods of the church, innumerable legends had been written or compiled by Gregory of Tours and St Gregory, selections from which have been more recently published under the title of Vies des peres de desert. All these legends present nearly the same circumstances the victims of monastic superstition invariably retire to solitude, where they make themselves as uncomfortable as they can by every species of penance and mortification ; they are alternately terrified and tempted by the demon, over whom they invariably prevail ; their solitude is interrupted by those who come to admire them, which must have been the great motive for perseverance; they all cure diseases, and wash the feet of lepers; they foresee their own decease, and, spite of their efforts and prayers, their existence is usually protracted to a preternatural duration.

One peculiarity in the history of these saints is the dominion which they exercise over the animal creation. Thus, St Helenus, who dwelt in the deserts of Egypt, arriving one Sabbath at a monastery on the banks of the Nile, was justly scandalized to find that mass was not to be performed that day. The monks excused themselves on the ground that their priest, who was on the

« ZurückWeiter »