Aug. 3rd, 2017

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Deep in the common past of Indo-European history, both Hellenic and Germanic poetry point to a social pattern of poetry being sung (later declaimed) in the lord's hall among retainers by a bard / scop / aoidos.[1]

For Greek epic this was later displaced by differing forms of public performance, partly due to the scale of Homeric poetry; likewise, Beowulf itself, a lengthy text showing the influence of Virgil, is unlikely ever to have had the type of oral performance it describes for the inset "Fight at Finnsburg" story. It is nevertheless reasonable to see it as having been composed for oral delivery and an aristocratic audience.

At least in the English royal and aristocratic courts, there are pointers to many of the extant non-religious poems (and some of the religious - recall Caedmon) being originally composed for public recital in the hall, in a more or less formal manner (depending on scale and occasion). It does not require oral composition to have a poem like "The Seafarer" composed for performance in writing, especially in a period when even private reading was frequently aloud.

This is, of course, not unique to England. There is little evidence regarding French vernacular poetry before the Eleventh Century, but the very first troubadour was not only a courtier but a Duke (Guillaume IX of Poitiers, the grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II Plantagenet's wife). The Franks inherited Germanic traditions along with their courts, and the Normans also inherited them from their Viking ancestors.

Most early French poetry is "English", odd as that may sound. The Chanson de Roland is written in Anglo-Norman and the earliest MS is English, at Oxford University. The Roman d'Enéas is Anglo-Norman. Marie de France lived and worked in England. Benoît de Sainte-Maure wrote for Eleanor. (Chretien de Troyes, with Marie de Champagne as a patroness, is the obvious outlier.) French was the language of the Royal Court down to the time of Richard II, at which point there are clear indications, not least in the life of Chaucer, that English was supplanting it but was not yet the exclusive language of the Court. Chaucer is the poet who is able to transfer the content of French court poetry into English, and after him the transition is taken as a given.

From a social point of view there is a definite continuity between the pre-Norman courtly poetry, the Norman courts with their Anglo-Norman poetry, and the courts of Richard II and following with the Englished form of French courtly poetry pioneered by Chaucer. This is especially visible at the "join" points: Wace's Norman French is translated by Layamon into alliterative verse because, at that early period, there was still a demand - in northern or old-fashioned contexts - for the alliterative form of the pre-conquest traditions. The Gawain-poet's work has recently had a place argued for it in relation to Richard II's Court for all that the form would have been viewed as rustic: it would at the least have been in place in a northern noble Court.

This sort of model for poetry persisted into the Renaissance in at least three ways:

1) Short poems, lyrics, were (as they always had been) set to music, as well as shared privately in letters and manuscripts. You can see this inside Shakespeare's plays: look at the performance of "Sigh no more" or "It was a lover and his lass", for example. This merges into a more general, widely-spread, and long-lived tradition of musical performance at court, which persists at least into the Nineteenth Century. (As harmony develops the single voice gets edged out by instrumental ensembles, until the norm becomes chamber music rather than song.)

2) As non-religious drama develops (and as the multiplication of printed copies shoves narrative verse in the direction of a private experience), recitation at court becomes superseded by dramatic performance at court. Some of this can be tracked by the accounts of the Master of the Revels as the Tudor period continues for the Royal Court. Dramas at noble courts are represented by plays like Youth and Hick Scorner.

Eventually you get to the familiar situation of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres, where the companies were allowed to exist by virtue of their being in the retinue of a great noble (or, after James' accession, being actual members of the Royal Court for the King's Men), and there are regular performances at court. (There are at least two plays which can be argued fairly easily to be written "for" the monarch: The Merry Wives of Windsor, responding to Elizabeth's wish for more Falstaff, and Macbeth, a mini-Aeneid for James I.) The players are in an odd situation: on one hand, excluded from London proper and having their theatres in Southwark, but on the other part of the court.

Indeed, we may, for much of the Twentieth Century, have been looking at the players of Burbage's company backwards: rather than popular actors who occasionally played at court, they may have viewed themselves as courtiers who extended their income by acting for the public as well as the court. Certainly Shakespeare's view of society (witness Ulysses and Menenius Agrippa) is essentially courtly and it may be a corrective to Tillyard's Elizabethan World Picture to note that elements may have been a self-justifying aristocratic world picture rather than universally Elizabethan.

This relation lasts, essentially, until the closing of the theatres. After the Restoration, changes to the mode of theatrical presentation (proscenium arch, more elaborate set effects) worked to end the pattern of performance at court in favour of the Royal Box at London theatres.

3) The other branch is that of (professionally assisted) amateur one-time productions: the masques of the Jacobean and Caroline period (these were not only royal but occurred in regional courts, as Comus reminds us). There's an argument to be made that they are contributory ancestors to ballet and opera (similarly, a mix of spectacle, music, and elaborate staging) as patronized by George II but it may be more accurate to view it as having no descendants, having died in England as Charles lost his head in front of the banqueting hall where so many masques had been performed.

It is interesting to think of Beowulf, The Chanson de Roland, Troilus and Criseyde, and Macbeth as successors in the same, now extinct, social tradition, even if the purely literary relationships between them are minimal.

[1]Given the strong evidence for the common heritage of PIE metres in the oldest Greek Lyric and Indic verse forms, this was probably a pattern in Indo-Iranian as well, but the differing context of the oldest surviving Indic poetry obscures this.


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