|Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916.|
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
|By Thomas Warton (17281790)|
From the History of English Poetry
HERE, however, chivalry existed in its rudiments. Under the feudal establishments, which were soon afterwards erected in Europe, it received new vigour, and was invested with the formalities of a regular institution. The nature and circumstances of that peculiar model of government were highly favourable to this strange spirit of fantastic heroism; which, however unmeaning and ridiculous it may seem, had the most serious and salutary consequences in assisting the general growth of refinement and the progression of civilisation, in forming the manners of Europe, in inculcating the principles of honour, and in teaching modes of decorum. The genius of the feudal policy was perfectly martial. A numerous nobility, formed into separate principalities, affecting independence, and mutually jealous of their privileges and honours, necessarily lived in a state of hostility. This situation rendered personal strength and courage the most requisite and essential accomplishments. And hence, even in time of peace, they had no conception of any diversions or public ceremonies but such as were of the military kind. Yet, as the courts of these petty princes were thronged with ladies of the most eminent distinction and quality, the ruling passion for war was tempered with courtesy. The prize of contending champions was adjudged by the ladies; who did not think it inconsistent to be present or to preside at the bloody spectacles of the times; and who, themselves, seem to have contracted an unnatural and unbecoming ferocity, while they softened the manners of those valorous knights who fought for their approbation. The high notions of a noble descent, which arose from the condition of the feudal constitution, and the ambition of forming an alliance with powerful and opulent families, cherished this romantic system. It was hard to obtain the fair feudatory who was the object of universal adoration. Not only the splendour of birth, but the magnificent castle surrounded with embattled walls, guarded with massy towers, and crowned with lofty pinnacles, served to inflame the imagination, and to create an attachment to some illustrious heiress, whose point of honour it was to be chaste and inaccessible. And the difficulty of success on these occasions seems in great measure to have given rise to that sentimental love of romance, which acquiesced in a distant respectful admiration, and did not aspire to possession. The want of an uniform administration of justice, the general disorder, and state of universal anarchy, which naturally sprung from the principles of feudal policy, presented perpetual opportunities of checking the oppressions of arbitrary lords, of delivering captives injuriously detained in the baronial castles, of punishing robbers, of succouring the distressed, and of avenging the impotent and the unarmed, who were every moment exposed to the most licentious insults and injuries. The violence and injustice of the times gave birth to valour and humanity. These acts conferred a lustre and an importance on the character of men professing arms, who made force the substitute of law. In the meantime, the crusades, so pregnant with enterprise, heightened the habits of this warlike fanaticism; and when these foreign expeditions were ended, in which the hermits and pilgrims of Palestine had been defended, nothing remained to employ the activity of adventurers but the protection of innocence at home. Chivalry by degrees was consecrated by religion, whose authority tinctured every passion, and was engrafted into every institution of the superstitious ages; and at length composed that singular picture of manners, in which the love of a god and of the ladies were reconciled, the saint and the hero were blended, and charity and revenge, zeal and gallantry, devotion and valour, were united.