In the 1757, Charles Bertram published an ms ascribed to Richard of Westminster. He claimed that it was ‘a copy of an old Manuscript Fragment,’ although it was a forgery made by Bertram himself. However, while this manuscript was presented as medieval, and as providing new knowledge about Britrain, the new knowledge is actually concerned with Roman Britain. In this paper, I argue that Bertram uses the Middle Ages as a stepping stone to Roman Britain, and represents the Middle Ages as a depository of long-forgotten knowledge rather than as era of interest in itself.
The 18th-century Romanticist, Thomas Warton, saw medieval chivalric practices as being so ‘inspirational’ as to affect a change in humanity, bringing ‘savage and ignorant people’ to a state of ‘gallantry and civility’. He found that these practices were evident in early Arthurian romances, such as Malory’s Le Morte D’ Arthur, and argued that both chivalry itself and stories about it had persisted into Elizabethan times, influencing writers such as Edmund Spenser. But how could he justify this argument when, at the same time, he was investing heavily in the popular idea that the very essence of romantic writing was its occupation with the unreal world: the world of ‘unnatural events, the machinations of imaginary beings, and adventures entertaining only as they were improbable?’
The German poet, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803), abandoned Germany in 1751 to take up residence in Copenhagen, ostensibly to complete his epic religious work Der Messias. He rapidly drew around him a circle of intellectuals. Among them was the Danish cavalry officer and poet Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg (1737-1823), an enthusiast for eddic verse and all matters relating to the Old North. It was Gerstenberg who inspired Klopstock’s interest in what he interpreted as a ‘Germanic’ bardic heritage. When, during the latter half of the 1760s, James MacPherson’s sensational collection of allegedly authentic 3rd-century Celtic verse, Ossian, impacted on Northern Europe, Klopstock seized upon it with great enthusiasm, declaring that Ossian was surely a German. For the next twenty years, Klopstock’s own poetry was deeply influenced by Ossian, so much so that he identified the Danish playwright, Johannes Ewald (1743-81), as a contemporary Ossian and planned to send him off on a tour of the northern Scotland and Iceland in search of more authentic Volkspoesie.
This paper will examine Klopstock’s period of infatuation with Ossianic verse, how this directed his own art and the extent to which Klopstock’s ‘conversion’ guided literary activity in both Denmark and Germany during the closing decades of the 18th century, notably, in Germany, in the formation of Der Hainbund.