Samuel Rowlands: Reading (and dreaming) the Medieval in Early Modern England
Samuel Rowlands was a prolific and controversial author, and his subjects extremely diverse, ranging from the cony-catching debates of the 1590s, to the anti-feminist pamphlet, ‘Tis merrie when gossips meete (1602), to chivalric romance in his popular retelling of The Famous Historie of Guy Earle of Warwick (1609).
Rowlands’ Guy of Warwick was immensely popular amongst an early modern reading public, enjoying a print run spanning almost one hundred years. But Rowlands’ main interests lay in the humours, the causes and effects of melancholy, and its manifestation in various forms of ‘knavish’ behaviour. Rowlands’ boldest statements against this fashionable vice appear in a 1615 dream vision, The Melancholie Knight.
The Melancholie Knight follows a conventional visionary structure in which the poet falls asleep and meets a mysterious figure, whom we soon recognize to be the ‘knight’ of the poem’s title. The man is attired in the latest fashions shown in the frontispiece above: a ‘french doublet without gowne or cloake, / His hose the largest euer came to towne’ ‘his hat pull’d downe’ (A2r). The ‘knight’ occupies the standard position of the melancholy lover found in such poems as Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and Lydgate’s Complaynt of a Lovers Lyfe. But his melancholy stems not from the absence of the female beloved, but the absence of fame, a product of his reading rather too much in the way of chivalric romance:
I haue red ouer (while youths glasse did run)
Sir Lancelot of the Lake, the Knight of th’Sun,
Sir Triamour, Sir Beuis, and sir Guy,
Fowre sonnes of Amon, hors’d so gallantly,
And all the old worlds worthy men at armes,
That did reuenge faire Ladies wrongs and harmes,
The Monster slayers, and the Gyant killers,
With all the rest of Mars his braue well-willers,
Which to rehearse I neuer shall be able,
The Worthis Arthur had at his round Table;
And how in Chronicles those dead ones liue,
By breath that Fame doth from the Trumpet giue. (B1v-B2r)
Such quixotism leads only to disappointment, and the knight concedes that he will never receive anything near the recognition awarded to his fictional antecedents, neither ‘In Golding lane, nor yet in Siluer streete’ (B2r). Unlike Lancelot, Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick, he shuns the prospect of battle (unless he ‘cannot chuse’: C4r), preferring to sit around all day, dreaming of ‘Castles, Towers, and Townes’ (B2v) and smoking his ‘stinking’ pipe (A2r).
The irony is fairly apparent: James I’s decision to award an unprecedented number of knighthoods on the day of his coronation in 1603 led to fears that the order was losing its exclusive function. James’ rule was also a time of peace, though fiercely contested by many. The poem was later reprinted in 1654 by ‘C.R’ under the new title of The Melancholy Cavalier or Fancy’s Master-Piece. Though Rowlands’ name appears to slip from view, the social and political threat posed by quixotic behaviour and the fashion for melancholy seems to have lived on in the reign of Charles I and the Interregnum. The poem is not so much nostalgic of a medieval past, as comically subversive in its portrayal of a noble ideal which, under the Stuart kings, appears to have gone horribly wrong.