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HISTORY OF FICTION, &c.
Origin of Spiritual Romance.—Legenda Aus
rea.-Contes Devots.-Guerino Meschino.Lycidas et Cleorithe.- Romans de Camus, 8c.-Pilgrim's Progress.
We have now travelled over those fields of fiction, which have been cultivated by the writers of chivalry and the Italian novelists; but the task remains of surveying those other regions which the industry of succeeding times has explored, and of giving some account of those different classes of ro. mance 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 degree 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 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 power of fiction should have been 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 eredulity 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 ap 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 had visited Rome, in order to obtain succour from the western church against the Arian heresy, which then prevailed in the east. During his abode in Italy, he wrote the life of St Anthony, the most renowned Cenobite of the age. This work was followed by many similar compositions, particular
ly Jerome's Life of Paul the Theban. Such productions were probably little countenanced under the more mild and rational institutions of St. Benedict, the first founder of the monastic orders; but were subsequently drawn from obscurity, to support the system of the ascetic followers of St Francis.
Besides, many forgeries by the monks of the Greek church were from time to time imported into France and Italy. To such writers the oriental fictions and mode of fabling were familiar, and hence we find that from imitation the western legends of the saints frequently resemble a romance, both in the structure and decorations of the story. Even the more early Latin lives had been carried to Constantinople, where they were translated into Greek with new embellishments of eastern imagination. These being returned to Europe, were restored to their native language, and superseded the more simple originals. Other Latin legends of still later composition, acquired their decorations from the Arabian fictions, which had at length become current in Europe.
These romantic inventions were admirably suited to serve the purposes of superstition. Many extravagant conceptions, too, were likely to arise spontaneously in the visionary minds of the authors.