by Peter Faulkner
When Morris’s developing interest in printing led him to found the Kelmscott Press, whose first publication appeared in May 1891, he put himself in a position to bring out small editions of works that he liked which were unlikely to appeal to a wide readership, as well as more popular works. In the former category we may place the two volumes of Raoul Lefevre’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy as produced in translation by William Caxton c.1475, which was published at the Press in November 1892, soon followed by Caxton’s translation of The History of Reynard the Foxe in January 1893.1 In April 1893 the Press produced The Order of Chivalry, translated from the French of Ramón Lull by Caxton, together with the medieval French L’Ordene de Chevalerie with a translation by Morris entitled The Ordination of Knighthood.2 With his interest in medieval French literature stimulated in this way, Morris went on to translate the four thirteenth-century stories that came to constitute Old French Romances in 1896.3
On 31 January 1893 Morris wrote, probably to F.S. Ellis who did much of the editorial work for the Kelmscott Press:
There is a little book of the Librarie Elzévirienne hight Contes et Nouvelles de la XIIIme Siècle: two of these are amongst the most beautiful works of the Middle Ages, and I intend translating them, and printing in a nice little book in Chaucer type.4
Morris’s first biographer, J.W.Mackail, makes the observation that this little book, published in 1856, ‘had for thirty years been one of the treasures of literature to him. Together with the "Violier des Histoires Romaines", which appeared in the same series two years later, it had been among the first sources of his knowledge of the French romance of the Middle Ages'.5 Mackail draws attention to a letter from Swinburne thanking Morris for sending him a copy of the last of the Kelmscott Press volumes of these translations, in which Swinburne recalled his and Morris’s shared pleasure in reading the French stories ‘in the days when we first foregathered at Oxford’ nearly forty years before.6 Mackail also notes that from his reading of the Nouvelles Morris had planned two of the stories for The Earthly Paradise, the completed tale ‘The Man Born to be King’ being based on ' Le Conte de L' Empereur Coustant’, and the unfinished poem ‘Amis and Amillion’, which had its origin in ‘L' Amitié d'Amis et d'Amile’.7
This story, translated by Morris as The Friendship of Amis and Amile, particularly impressed the aesthetic critic Walter Pater, who discussed it sympathetically in the first chapter of Studies in the History of the Renaissance in 1873.8 It begins with the birth of two well-born boys, who are taken to Rome by their fathers to the Pope, who baptises them and presents each of them with a fine decorated wooden cup - ‘hanap’, the Old french word, is retained in Morris’s version. The boys become lifelong friends, so that after Amis' s marriage, he goes to court with Amile. Before returning to his wife, Amis warns his friend: ‘But keep thee from touching the daughter of the King; and above all things beware of Arderi the felon’. Amile ignores this good advice, and he is betrayed to the king. Amile formally challenges his betrayer to combat, and then goes in search of his friend. Amis agrees to help him, and goes to court to take up the challenge in his place. The king says that if he - Amis/Amile - is victorious, he will give him his daughter Belsant to be his wife. Amis kills the evil Alveri, and receives Belisant as his reward; she is then handed on to Amile, who returns with her to the court.
Events now become dramatic: Amis is stricken with leprosy, and his wife Obias, instead of seeking to cure him, becomes belligerent towards him. Eventually, Amis asks his companions to take him to Amile, where he is recognised and taken into the house despite his sickness. An angel then appears to Amile, and tells him that Amis can be healed only by being treated with the blood of Amile's infant children. After much heart-searching, Amile follows the angel’s instruction, cuts off the children’s heads, and lays the bodies and heads in the beds, covering them as they were covered when sleeping. (This part this of the story is quoted at length by Pater, in his own translation, which is less archaic then Morris’s). Amile then washes Amis in the blood and prays for his recovery, which occurs at once. The two men then give their thanks to God, and go to the church, where the bells miraculously ring by them selves. God also ensures that, when Amile takes his wife to the children, expecting to weep over theirt bodies, he finds them alive and playing in their beds, though with scars around their necks.
So all is well, and Amis' s lot is made all the better by the sudden - and we may feel providential - death of his aggressive wife, borne off by devils, and he becomes a good servant of the Lord. Thus, when the king of the Lombards attacks the Church, the Pope ask for the help of the king of France, and Amis and Amile take part in the successful campaign against the Lombards. They are model knights, and both die courageously in battle. The king of France establishes two churches to commemorate the battle, one in which Amis is buried, and a second in which Amile is buried. However, in a spectacular conclusion, on the morning after the burials, the two coffins are found close to each other in one of the churches. This is acknowledged as a miracle, and the priests of the church where the two bodies lie are told to constantly guard the bodies of the friends, who cannot be separated even in death.
Pater offers a thoughtful account of the story, although his argument that it belongs to ‘a Renaissance within the limits of the middle age itself’ has been disputed.9 He brings out the significance of the physical resemblance between the two as ‘an outward token of the inward similitude of their souls’, reinforced by ways in which reference to ‘the two marvellously beautiful cups’ can be seen to ‘cross and recross very strangely in the narrative’; while their owners’ liking for the cups is said to bear witness to ‘the enjoyment of beautiful handiwork by a primitive people, their simple wonder at it’10 - an attitude we might attribute also to Morris. His translation brings out the humanistic assertion of the value of fellowship in a context in which Christian belief is central. Pater argues that in some other stories of the period, such as Aucassin and Nicolette, a ‘note of defiance’ of Christian constraints can be discerned, but he sees Amis and Amile as one in which ‘the harmony of human interests is still entire’.11 Morris’s pleasure in the story is evident. He tells it vigorously, with a preference for short words, and employing a deliberately medieval vocabulary (for which a Glossary has been provided) which takes the reader into an unfamiliar but engrossing world. Pater, who preferred the Renaissance to the Middle Ages, uses a more modern vocabulary. The clear contrasts between good and evil, and the delight in story-telling and the natural world, appealed to him, just as he reacted against the psychological complexity of contemporary novelists like Henry James, whom he termed the ‘clever but dull Mr. James’.12 Thus it is no surprise to find that Morris was at the same time writing the series of stories that have come to be called the Prose Romances, which exhibit some of the qualities of the French tales. At the Kelmscott Press he produced The Story of the Glittering Plain in May 1891 and again, with Walter Crane’s illustrations, in February 1894; The Wood beyond the World in October 1894; Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair in September 1895; The Well at the World’s End in June 1896; and, after Morris’s death, the Press issued The Water of the Wondrous Isles in July 1897 and The Sundering Flood in February 1898. In the section of her recent William Morris and the Idea of Community entitled ‘The Bibles of the People’,Anna Vaninskaya has given a convincing account of Morris’s attitude to fiction in these years, showing how his use of the romance genre enabled him to ‘demonstrate the values of association, fellowship and mutual aid as against ‘modern individualism and introspection’.13 His reading of the French tales clearly helped him in this self-imposed task.
1William S. Peterson, A Bibliography of the Kelmscott Press, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984; 1985, pp. 24-7 and 29-31.
2 ibid., pp. 36-9.
3Old French Romances. Done into English by William Morris. With an Introduction by Joseph Jacobs, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1896, 1914. Subsequentltly as Jacobs.
4Norman Kelvin, editor,The Collected Letters of William Morris, 4 vols., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984- 96; Vol. IV, 15; 31 January 1893.
5J.W.Mackail, The Life of William Morris, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1899; 1922, Vol.II, 297.
6ibid.,Vol. II, 297-8.
8Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, 1873; as The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, London: Macmillan and Co., 1893, pp.1-30; dated 1872.
9ibid., p.1. For the contrasting view, see Jacobs. p. viii.
12Commonweal, 15 December 1888; in Nicholas Salmon, editor, William Morris. Journalism, Bristol: Thoemess Press, 1996, pp. 490-1, where James is said to write from ‘the stand-point of the superior middle-class person’.
13 Anna Vaninskaya, William Morris and the Idea of Community, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010, p. 68.