Cards on the table: I’m pro EU. So, in the wake of the “Brexit” campaign, here’s a little reminder of what the medieval europeans did for us.
1. Sir Lancelot
That’s right folks; medieval literature’s most famous lover, beloved hero and saver of Galahad from near-temptation was in fact a French invention, added to native British tales of King Arthur to spice things up. Sir Lancelot was (of course!) a favourite among female readers, and was first invented (as far as we know) by Chretien de Troyes for his patroness Marie de Champagne. Poor Chretien complains that Marie is as cruel and exacting a mistress as Guinevere herself…
2. The Classics
And I don’t mean the Charles Dickens back catalogue or Jane Eyre. I’m talking about Ovid, Virgil, Statius and Homer. Without whom we’d have none of the japery of Chaucer, Gawain and the Green Knight and, subsequently Shakespeare’s plays, to enjoy as modern readers. Imagine that!
3. King Cnut
Aside from the dangerous possibility of hilarious typos, Europeans (and specifically Denmark) gave us our first Danish king, and with him many many many stories. You can zip down to Bosham church to see his daughter’s tomb, you can look at water and decide you, too, can’t turn it back with a word, and you can amuse yourself by trying to type his name really fast, but you can’t deny that – like Sandi Toksvig and Danish Bacon – the UK just wouldn’t be the same without its Danish imports.
Now, I know what you’re all thinking. (No, not that. The thing about Charlemagne). Charlemagne never came to Britain! No, he did not, but the real historical (post-Arthurian) Charlemagne had a huge impact on British Arthurian legends. Without Charlemagne, the Arthur we remember would likely have been the Welsh version – a travelling warrior-qking with a brave band of warriors. Charlemagne and his huge influence inspired later writers like Thomas Malory to make King Arthur not just a great British king, but also a conqueror of Europe. Because Charlemagne went to Rome and was crowned by the Pope, Malory makes a big deal of Arthur not only going to Rome, but also conquering it, just to make sure he was presenting the the British as +1 on the French. (Interestingly enough, Malory never mentions that Lancelot is French…)
Of course, (almost) last but not (almost) least we have ‘chivalry’ which now means holding doors open for women with shopping bags, but was once a carefully codified system of manners for the upperclasses (some of the rules include always making sure that the woman you fall in love with is married to someone else). This derives from the French cheval, meaning horse, so the next time someone is being chivalrous, ask them where they keep their horse.
The old stereotype says that the French invented romance – and they did! Or at any rate, romance fiction. The word ‘romance’ derives from the early medieval french word romanz, the word for a pre-Old French Latin-derived vernacular in the south of France. Stories written in romanz (the native language) were often characterised by journey, adventure and the eventual union of a man and a woman in love. This then becomes medieval romance fiction, in which a knight journeys forth and completes quests in order to win a lady, and thence onwards to modern romance fiction, which loses the horses and the forests and the witches and the castles but maintains that simple essence – two people finding love.
So there we are! What did the medieval europeans do for us? Quite a lot, I’d say.