They are just the sort of lively, dashing letters that we find in the correspondence of a modern journal. There is the same modern tone in his political pamphlets; his profusion of jests, his fund of anecdote, the aptness of his quotations, his natural shrewdness and critical acumen, the clearness and vivacity of his style, are backed by a fearlessness and impetuosity that made him a dangerous assailant even to such a ruler as Henry the Second. The invectives in which Gerald poured out his resentment against the Angevins are the cause of half the scandal about Henry and his sons which has found its way into history. His life was wasted in an ineffectual struggle to secure the see of St. David's, but his pungent pen played its part in rousing the spirit of the nation to its struggle with the Crown.
A tone of distinct hostility to the Church developed itself almost from the first among the singers of romance. Romance had long before taken root in the court of Henry the First, where under the patronage of Queen Maud the dreams of Arthur, so long cherished by the Celts of Britanny, and which had travelled to Wales in the train of the exile Rhys ap Tewdor, took shape in the History of the Britons by Geoffry of Monmouth. Myth, legend, tradition, the classical pedantry of the day, Welsh hopes of future triumph over the Saxon, the memories of the Crusades and of the world-wide dominion of Charles the Great, were mingled together by this daring fabulist in a work whose popularity became at once immense. Alfred of Beverley transferred Geoffry's inventions into the region of sober history, while two Norman trouvères, Gaimar and Wace, translated them into French verse. So complete was the credence they ob:ained, that Arthur's tomb at Glastonbury was visited by Henry the Second, while the child of his son Geoffry and of Constance of Britanny bore the name of the Celtic hero.
Out of Geoffry's creation grew little by little the poem of the Table Round. Britanny, which had mingled with the story of Arthur the older and more mysterious legend of the Enchanter Merlin, lent that of Lancelot to the wandering minstrels of the day, who moulded it, as they wandered from hall to hall, into the familiar tale of knighthood wrested from its loyalty by the love of woman. The stories of Tristram and Gawayne, at first as independent as that of Lancelot, were drawn with it into the whirlpool of Arthurian romance; and when the Church, jealous of the popularity of the legends of chivalry, invented as a counteracting influence the poem of the Sacred Dish, the San Graal which held the blood of the Cross invisible to all eyes but those of the pure in heart, the genius of a court poet, Walter de Map, wove the rival legends together, sent Arthur and his knights wandering over sea and land in the quest of the San Graal, and crowned the work by the figure of Sir Galahad, the type of ideal knighthood, without fear and without reproach.
Walter stands before us as the representative of a sudden outburst of literary, social, and religious criticism which followed the growth of romance and the appearance of a freer historical tone in the court of the two Henries. Born on the Welsh border, a student at Paris, a favourite with the King, a royal chaplain, justiciar, and ambassador, the genius of Walter de Map was as various as it was prolific. He is as much at his ease in sweeping together the chit-chat of the time in his "Courtly Trifles "as in creating the character of Sir Galahad. But he only rose to his fullest strength when he turned from the fields of romance to that of Church reform, and embodied the ecclesiastical abuses of his day in the figure of his "Bishop Goliath." The whole spirit of Henry and his court in their struggle with Beket is reflected and illustrated in the apocalypse and confession of this imaginary prelate. Picture after picture strips the veil from the corruption of the mediaeval Church, its indolence, its thirst for gain, its secret immorality.
The whole body of the clergy, from Pope to hedge-priest, is painted as busy in the chase for gain; what escapes the bishop is snapped up by the archdeacon, what escapes the archdeacon is nosed and hunted down by the dean, while a host of minor officials prowl hungrily around these greater marauders. Out of the crowd of figures which fills the canvas of the satirist, pluralist vicars, abbots "purple as their wines," monks feeding and chattering together like parrots in the refectory, rises the Philistine Bishop, light of purpose, void of conscience, lost in sensuality, drunken, unchaste, the Goliath who sums up the enormities of all, and against whose forehead this new David slings his sharp pebble of the brook.
It is only, however, as the writings of Englishmen that Latin or French works like these can be claimed as part of English literature. The spoken tongue of the nation at large remained of course English as before; William himself had tried to learn it that he might administer justice to his subjects; and for a century after the Conquest only a few new words crept in from the language of the conquerors. Even English literature, banished as it was from the court of the stranger and exposed to the fashionable rivalry of Latin scholars, survived not only in religious works, in poetic paraphrases of gospels and psalms, but in the great monument of our prose, the English Chronicle. It was not till the miserable reign of Stephen that the Chronicle died out in the Abbey of Peterborough. But the "Sayings of Alfred," which embodied the ideal of an English king and gathered a legendary worship round the great name of the English past, show a native literature going on through the reign of Henry the Second. The appearance of a great work of English verse coincides in point of time with the loss of Normandy, and the return of John to his island realm. "There was a priest in the land whose name was Laya-mon; he was son of Leovenath: may the Lord be gracious to him! He dwelt at Earnley, a noble church on the bank of Severn (good it seemed to him!) near Radstone, where he read books.
It came in mind to him and in his chiefest thought that he would tell the noble deeds of England, what the men were named, and whence they came, who first had English land." Journeying far and wide over the land, the priest of Earnley found Baeda and Wace, the books too of S. Albin and S. Austin. "Layamon laid down these books and turned the leaves; he beheld them lovingly: may the Lord be gracious to him! Pen he took with fingers and wrote a book-skin, and the true words set together, and compressed the three books into one." Layamon's church is now Areley, near Bewdley, in Worcestershire. His poem was in fact an expansion of Wace's "Brut," with insertions from Basda. Historically it is worthless, but as a monument of our language it is beyond all price. After Norman and Angevin English remained unchanged. In more than thirty thousand lines not more than fifty Norman words are to be found. Even the old poetic tradition remains the same; the alliterative metre of the earlier verse is only slightly affected by riming terminations, the similes are the tew natural similes of Caedmon, the battles are painted with the same rough, simple joy.
It is by no mere accident that the English tongue thus wakes again into written life on the eve of the great struggle between the nation and its King. The artificial forms imposed by the Conquest were falling away from the people as from its literature, and a new England, quickened by the Celtic vivacity of de Map and the Norman daring of Gerald, stood forth to its conflict with John.