The romantics’ enthusiasm for the Middle Ages in general and for the earlier history of their own nations in particular linked the universal (nature) to the particular (the nation-state). Nationalism was an emotional, almost mystical force.
The romantic return to the national past, though intensified by French expansionism, had begun before 1789 as part of the repudiation of the Enlightenment. The pioneers of romanticism tended to cherish what the philosophes detested, notably the Middle Ages and the medieval preoccupation with religion.
The German writer Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) provided intellectual justification for medieval studies with his theory of cultural nationalism. Each separate nation, he argued, had its own distinct personality, its Volksgeist, or “folk spirit,” and its own pattern of growth. The surest measure of a nation’s progress was its literature—poetry in youth, prose in maturity.
Stimulated by Herder, students of medieval German literature collected popular ballads and folk tales. In 1782 the first complete text of the Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs) was published, a heroic saga of the nation’s youth that had been forgotten since the later Middle Ages. By putting a new value on the German literature of the past, Herder helped to free the German literature of his own day from its bondage to French culture.
He was no narrow nationalist, however, and he asserted that the cultivated person should also study other cultures. So Herder also helped to loose a flood of translations that poured over Germany beginning about 1800: of Shakespeare, of Don Quixote, of Spanish and Portuguese poetry, and of works in Sanskrit.
Other nations also demonstrated that the return to the past meant veneration of the Middle Ages rather than of classical antiquity. In Britain Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) collected medieval folk ballads and wrote more than thirty historical novels, of which Ivanhoe, set in the days of Richard the Lionhearted and the Crusades, is the best known. In Russia the poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) deserted the Slavonic language of the Orthodox church to write the first major Russian literary works in the vernacular: Boris Godunov (published in 1831) and Eugene Onegin (1832).
In France, the romantic reaction gathered slowly, beginning in the first years of the new century with the vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) in The Genius of Christianity (1802). In 1811 Madame Germaine de Stad (1766-1817), who was the daughter of the banker Necker, published De l2lllemagne (Concerning Germany), a plea for the French to remember that they were the descendants not only of ancient Romans but also of Teutonic Franks.
The most direct blow against classicism came early in 1830, however, at the first night of the play Hernani by Victor Hugo (1802-1885), who flouted the classical rules of dramatic verse. When one of the characters uttered a line ending in the middle of a word, traditionalists in the audience set off a riot, and the issues were fought and refought at the theater and in the press for weeks. In the next year Hugo published his great historical novel, Notre Dame de Paris, set in the France of Louis XI.