|C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the Worlds Best Literature.|
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Students Course in Literature.
|Lectures on the Worlds Best Literature|
Mediæval French Literature
|By Gerhard Richard Lomer (18821970)|
WE of to-day do not easily realize what the life of France was in the Middle Ages. We find it difficult to divest ourselves of our modern point of view, the product of nineteenth-century science and of generations of political development. We find it hard to forget a Republican France of highly organized government, great in science, in art, and in national ideals. Yet we must put aside our complex ideas of to-day and go back to a time which is broad and free and simple, with none of the intricacies of modern social organization, none of the subtleties of modern thought, none of the artificialities of self-deception, none of the social sham propriety of the present century.
| The age to which we thus go back, by identifying ourselves for the moment with the memory of the race, is a naïve and a poetic one. It is also a frank and real life in which we find ourselves: men and women are keenly alive, not critics of living. When they speak, in that part of their literature which has come down to us, they speak as they lived, plainly and freely and naturally. Criticism, theorizing, philosophy, these were to come later. To be and to do were matter enough and to spare. The world, though small, was full of a number of things which the mediæval mind had not exhausted, and of which the mediæval heart had not yet surfeited. As is always the case when red blood runs in the veins, it is a life in which there is passion, in which there is a strong belief, in which there is a strong prejudice. Society, by a double line of cleavage, social and ecclesiastical, divides into three classes: the nobility, the church, the bourgeoisie. Except for the subjects of the drama, the Church, whose language was Latin, had little influence upon the literature of mediæval France. The courts of the French kings and princes, and the castle-halls of the nobles became the centres of a refined, distinguished, and polite society, with a code of its own, with its own conventions, ideals of courtesy, and an elaborately artificial system of courtly Love. Whatever sweetness and light there was in these miscalled dark ages is to be found in court and in castle, where urbanity and gallantry gradually replace the sterner and ruder virtues of an earlier and more strenuous age.|| 2|
| Attention and energy which had previously been diverted from warfare were now turned to the game and play of courtly life, and in making life a fine art the men and women of mediæval France made of it a literature as wella literature which reflects social ideals and individual passion, which embodies both the courtly system of life with the individual working-out of that system in practice. Epic and lyric, romance and fabliauthese are the forms in which the social system and the individual energy expressed their ideals and their experiences.|| 3|
| Below and behind all this courtly life and courtly literature, there were the life and the literature of the people, not less real, not less true to the essence of human nature, not less directly out of a heart that beat with abounding life. The folk-literature, like folk-song and folk-dance, is cruder than the courtly lyric, the curiously devised melody, and the stately dance, but it has a compensating energy and vitality. It is close to the earth, and, if it is occasionally earthy, it has all the ever-renewed vitality of an Antæus. We find in the simple tales, in legends, in popular poetry, in peasant song and ballad, a wealth of life, of homely knowledge, a wide understanding, a strong joy in life, that promise well for the future of French letters, and with Gustave Lanson we look forward from this period to the day when, during long centuries, the provinces, one by one, as they enter upon national unity, receive the one French language, and mingle their original genius with its central spirit: crude and dreamy Brittany, re-infusing French literature with Celtic melancholy; inflexible and reasoning Auvergne; Lyons, mystic and passionate city, despite the superficial agitation of material interests; the entire South, so varied and so rich, in one place more Roman, in another still marked by the passage of the Arabs and the Moors, preserving under all the alluvial strata with which history has successively covered its primitive layer of Iberian population; hot and vibrating Provence, all charm or all fire; Gascony, scintillating with vivacity, light and delicate; and strong and powerful Languedoc, perhaps the one country of France where forms and tones of poetry are best felt in their special beauty.|| 4|
It may be fairly said that French lyric poetry begins in the twelfth century. Previous to this date, the lingua romana, the broken-down popularized mediæval Latin, prevails and is the common origin of the vulgar speech of the Italians, the French, and the Spaniards. In France it was in the south, in Provence, that this lingua romana developed most rapidly into French and became an effective instrument for poetic art as well as for the more prosaic uses of everyday life. It was not until Provence had a well-established school of poetry that the lyric note was heard farther to the north in Picardy and in Champagne.
| Both in matter and in manner these songs are of interest. Nearly all of them are songs of love, its difficulties and its joys, its separations and its reunions, its contrasts between the passionate warmth of youth and beauty and the hopeless chill of forgetfulness and death. We do not find here the personal intensity or the celestial voice of the Elizabethan singer, but within the limits of a somewhat superficial medium of expression we do find an attractive, dancing rhythm of verse, and quaint glimpses of life in the Middle Ages, flashes of local color which glow in welcome relief against the drab or somber historical background of time, and we pause to gaze upon the fair Eglantine before her mother, sewing a shirt, or upon fair Amelot, spinning alone in her chamber. For these are songs of the womens apartmentschansons de toile, they are calledsung by the maidens to their mistress, as they wove at the loom or spun with the distaff. It is indeed an age of women, from one angle at least, a gentle tyranny of noble ladies, for whom chivalrous knights fought in joust and tourney, for whose honor gallant minds and nimble tongues argued in the courts of Love, and to whose complaisant ears they addressed their quaint, frank songs. It was an age very different from our own with our modern Puritan inheritance of false delicacy; it was a time of strong and unexpected contrasts between conventions that to us seem odd and artificial and a liberty of morals which we are wont to regard as curiously naïve.|| 6|
| One cannot place too much emphasis upon this influence of woman upon the poetry of the South, for in the North, with its less settled politics, with its grim gray castles, the favorite topic of thought and art, as of life, was battle and contest. In the South there were leisure for culture and opportunity for developing a system of courtly love of which woman was the inspiration and the ideal. Polish, gentility, the masculine graces induced by an elaborate system of heroine-worshipthese became second nature to men who had leisure enough to make love one of the fine arts of living.|| 7|
| Many indeed were the forms which this poetry developed, and the student will come across, in addition to lais, rondeaux, ballettes, and virelais, such other forms as motets, serventois, rotrouenges and pastourelles. In the thirteenth century the poets of Picardy and Champagne began to adopt the Provençal forms, and we find examples of the alba, or dawn-song, and serena or even-song to a lover, and the tençon, or disputation between two poets. Examples of these may be found in the writings of Chrétien de Troyes, Tibaut de Champagne, Gace Brulé, Conon de Béthune, and in that quaint and gracious cante-fable, Aucassin and Nicolette, from which we get as from faded rose-leaves the faint scent of bygone times and of the romance of a day that is dead.|| 8|
| All this poetry was essentially courtly and gentle. It came to its death when the social conditions to which it owed its origin changed with the years and the bourgeois poet imitated its superficial mannerisms. When the same phrase became the recognized stereotyped expression for a conventional idea, when the expected rhyme always came at the expected spot, then indeed was this poetry obliterated in the profuse and undistinguished flood of ballades and rondeaux which in the fourteenth century slipped with a fatal ease from the quills of Guillaume de Machaut (c. 12901377), Christine de Pisan (c. 1363c. 1430), Eustache Deschamps (1346?1406), Jean Froissart (c. 13371410?), and Charles dOrléans (13941465). Then in the hour of greatest need came François Villon (14311463?) to infuse new life into the dead form, and, by the inexplicable metamorphosis of genius, to turn the ballade into a true lyric, sensitive to every variety of mood, adapting itself to the personality of the poet, richer in melody, prophetic of the lutanists of a later day.|| 9|
Chansons de Geste
The great deeds of heroes have always been in every country celebrated in song and story. In the Homeric age we have the many incidents of the Trojan wars preserved in poetic form in the Iliad, and Odysseus still wanders for the modern reader through the pages of the Odyssey. India has given us the Mahābhārata and the Ramayana; Germany, the Nibelungenlied; and Spain, the Cid. In Anglo-Saxon literature we have Beowulf, and in French, the Chanson de Roland.
| To each of these stories of great deeds we have often many centuries contributing. They are written by the nation rather than by one man. The experience which they embody is social rather than personal; and it is the life of a nation which serves as background to the exploits of the hero. Behind it all we feel the presence of tribal ideals; through it all we see the hands of their gods weaving the threads of their destiny. To these high poetic tales in France the name chansons de geste came to be given, and songs of great deeds, indeed, they are. They begin about the eleventh century and extend throughout the Middle Ages. Originally they were recited, but subsequently they were written down. They had a tendency to group themselves into cycles about the personality of a great hero. In this way, quite early in the history of France, Clovis, Dagobert, Charles Martel, and Pepin le Bref, became popularized as heroes in literature of which little now remains to us.|| 11|
| While the chanson de geste was essentially of the court and for the noble class, the people had their own songs, or cantilènes as they were called. One of these, known as the Cantilène de Sainte-Eulalie is often considered to be the first notable work in the history of poetry in France. Great variations in these popular poems are to be found, and they are due to the fact that the French joglers (Lat. joculares) in their wanderings sang these songs throughout the country. Such a process of dissemination inevitably brought corruption and disintegration.|| 12|
| In the thirteenth century the trouvères divided these epic legends and stories of historical events about which they sang into three great groups. According to Girart de Viane:|
Of these three cycles, Charlemagne, Doon of Mayence, and Garin de Monglane are, then, the respective heroes, and of all of these the Chanson de Roland, belonging to the Charlemagne cycle, is the finest and the most famous.
| ||There are but three gestes in rich France;|
|That of the King of France is the most esteemed,|
|And the next, tis but right I should say so,|
|Is that of Doon with the white beard
|The third geste, in which there is much praise,|
|Is that of the proud Garin de Monglane.|| 13|
The Chanson de Roland
This poem is based upon an actual though unimportant historical event in the reign of Charlemagne: the Emperor was returning from a military expedition in Spain and had safely passed the Pyrenees with the greater part of his army, when the Basques, who lay in ambush, fell upon his rearguard, which was in command of a brave warrior named Roland. This hero perished in the mountain pass with his men on August 15, 778, and from his grave has grown this flower of French mediæval poetry. In this epic perhaps the most touching episode is the death of Roland, with its pathetic farewell to his good sword Durandal, of many doughty deeds.
| The French epics, of which the Chanson de Roland is a typical example, had an enormous influence upon the literature of Europe. They were carried to every court and castle, and they inspired the poets of remote places to emulate them. In Italy alone, the body of European history has supplied such works of literary art as Ariostos Orlando Furioso, Boiardos Orlando Innamorato, Tassos Gerusalemme Liberata, and Pulcis Morgante Maggiore.|| 15|
In addition to stories supplied by the history of France, poets found inspiration in two other great bodies or cycles of literary material. As Jean Bodel of Arras, a thirteenth-century poet, says:
| ||Ne sont que trois matères à nul homme entendant|
|De France, de Bretagne, et de Rome le grant. 1|| 16|
| The classical material may be briefly disposed of. It is less interesting because it is less adaptable to the genius of the French poet, and because it is distinctly second-hand work. Pedantry takes the place of simplicity and directness, and a display of often incorrect historical erudition replaces the naïveté and energy of the French chansons. Hector, Æneas, Alexander, Julius Cæsarthese heroic figures stalk through more thousands of dull verses than they ever walked weary miles on earth. The oldest of the Alexander stories is of interest because it gave its name to the twelve syllable iambic verse, or alexandrine, which subsequently became so prominent in the history of poetry.|| 17|
| More interesting, however, are the Celtic legends and Breton tales which go to make up the great body of Arthurian material and the cycle of the Table Round. In England this cycle had, of course, a widespread and prolific development, and traces of Arthurian influence are found spread over Europe from Scotland to Sicily; nor is the period of literary history involved less extensive than the topographical, for from the pages of the Breton monk Nennius in the eighth century to the pages of Tennysons Idylls of the King and the American poet Richard Hovey, King Arthur and the Knights of the Table Round add a richness of romantic interest to the literature of the world.|| 18|
| There are in these mediæval French stories of Arthur and his knights many traces of Celtic characteristics, and we do not fail to note that a sense of mystery pervades the tales, that the glamour of the romantic is over their heroic figures, and that the white thread of spirituality is interwoven with the red and the gold in this tapestry of mediæval life. In subject-matter, in style, and in general tone, they are far from the precision of expression, from the definiteness of intellectual concept, and from the not unusual materialistic trend that we have come to associate with much of the later French literature.|| 19|
| Geoffrey of Monmouth, Robert Wace, Chrétien de Troyes, and Robert de Boron are among the early writers of the Arthurian cycle. In their pages we meet characters familiar since childhood: Arthur, Guinevere, Launcelot, Tristram, Merlin, Enid, Perceval, Vivian, Erec, Yvain, and many other minor heroic figures of the Table Round. More charming, more adventurous, more romantic than the Greek and Roman heroes of the cycle of antiquity, these chivalrous knights and lovable, distressed maidens of mediæval story have been favorites ever since with those who know the spell of an older day, whose ears are tuned to catch the faint echo of armor and of song that come from the land of romance, whose hearts beat faster in the quest of high adventure, whose eyes weep in sympathy for the ill-starred loves of those who in an ungentle age should have been used with all gentleness.|| 20|
As the Chansons de geste satisfied the literary interests of the castle and the court, so the Fabliaux grew up to satisfy the needs of the common people, burgher and tradesman and peasant. Briefer, less elevated, and with less literary art than the courtly epic or romance, the fabliaux are anecdotes of diversified character. They satirize the common people themselves, the clergy, the nobility; they have little idealism for the most part, little respect for women; they are full of realism, often gross, occasionally beyond the modern taste. But they are entertaining and refreshing. They edify even while they sometimes scandalize. Every now and then we come upon a simple graceful tale, pure gold amid much dross.
| The fabliaux date roughly from 11501350, from the time of Richeut to that of Jean de Condé. There remain only about 150 of these popular mediæval stories preserved to us. They had, however, a wide and long influence upon the history of literature: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Molière, and La Fontaine are all indebted to the fabliaux and used them in one way or another. Even Anatole France has revived this form of writing and has put into it his keenness of insight, his unerring satire, and his independent Gallic spirit.|| 22|
Closely related to the Fabliaux are the Fables of Æsop with their complicated oriental affiliations and their brood of Ysopets, or little Æsops, of which the most notable is the collection by Marie de France. Animal stories were very popular in the Middle Ages. Collections of pseudo-scientific lore and natural history were called Bestiaries, and the tales about Renart the Fox assume the proportions of a beast epic-cycle. In most of the stories there is an underlying didactic or satiric purpose. In a sense they are allegorical; men are often meant, though animals are the actors and the speakers. Not even this popular and easy form of literature escapes the prevailing mediæval habit of thinking in allegory, of seeing an inner spiritual meaning of the kingdom of God in outward and visible forms from the animal and vegetable kingdoms on earth.
Aucassin and Nicolette
One of the most exquisite of tales that have come down to us from the Middle Ages is the chante-fable of Aucassin and Nicolette, a naïve and appealing combination of quaint prose and seven-syllable verse. No other masterpiece of the period has the persistent attractiveness, the fragile delicacy, the irresistible appeal of this olden tale of true love in days when knights were bold and obstacles were the very life of romantic attachment. The young and dreamy knight and his much tried and ever faithful Nicolette, linked by bonds so simple, sweet, and child-like that we hardly dare call it passion, move before our eyes over daisy-sprinkled grass, journey afar, meet with the perils of war and with dangers abroad and with hard hearts at home. Nowhere else does that glamour of romance which is the greatest charm of the Middle Ages so grip the heart as it does in this story of a true lover who would rather go to Hell than to Paradise unless he could have there with him Nicolette my most sweet friend whom I love so well.
Roman de la Rose
The most notable literary work that has come down to us from the thirteenth century is the Roman de la Rose. This poem is really the work of two authors, and embodies the characteristics of two different phases of civilization, or at least of two opposed philosophies of experience. It consists of 22,000 lines, of which the first four thousand are by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1200c. 1230). This first part of what is really a mediæval treatise on the art of Love describes the desire of a youth to win the affections of his beloved. The royal game is intricate with allegory and personification. The beloved is figured as a rose in the midst of a garden beset with thorny hedges. We come upon Pleasure and Idleness, upon virtues and evil qualities in the guise of men and women. We meet the god of Love himself and learn of the hardships and the rewards of his service. This part of the poem is graceful, good-natured, attractive.
| Jean (Clopinel) de Meun (c. 12401305) was a different sort of person from his predecessor in this great mediæval romance. He had none of the woman-worship and courtly grace of Guillaume de Lorris; he was a scorner of woman, sure of himself, no dreamer of love-dreams, but a restless and radical spirit; no gentle aristocrat but an eager bourgeois. The grace and delicacy of the earlier poem disappear. Jean de Meun is anxious to set forth his own views, to instruct his contemporaries, to satirize where there is need. As a result, we have an exposé of the weakness and the foibles of women, a belittling of the chivalric ideal and of the monkish life, and an outspoken realism in his account of the deeds of men and women. The sympathy of Guillaume de Lorris has given place to satire. What was originally a love poem has really become a sort of primitive comédie humaine.|| 26|
It is important, however, to realize that the Roman de la Rose gave an enormous impetus to Allegory as a literary method. In fact, symbolism seems to be more native to the mediæval mind than to that of any other period. It presents itself in three different aspects: first as an intellectual system or philosophic method for the interpretation of natural phenomenaa method constantly used in the Divine Comedy; second, as a process of thought and a figure of speech by which qualities are abstracted from life and are re-embodied in human form as personifications, such as Love, Peace, Envy; and third, as a recognized and popular literary method, in which personified virtues and vices live and move and take sides for or against the soul of man. The human soul is shut up in the fortress of the body, and a battle royal is waged between the virtues and the deadly sins for victory; or else life is regarded as a pilgrimage or a journeya figure in which we see a close relationship to the English Everyman and the ancestor of the later Pilgrims Progress. So thoroughly was this method of allegorical or symbolic thought a part of the mediæval way of looking at things that it expressed itself in the drama, in biblical exegesis, and even in literary criticism, where it went so far as to interpret the Æneid as an allegory of human experience.
In mediæval Europe, as in Greece, the drama took its rise from religious ceremonies. But instead of the worship of Hellenic Dionysos, we have the services of the Roman Catholic Church. The Mass, which was the central and most glorious service of the Church, was in the nature of a dramatic sacrifice. It had elements of dialogue, and it used antiphonal song and, at certain seasons of the year, tableaux. Out of these and such variations of the original musical service as were called tropes (of which the Quem Quæritis of Easter is the most famous) gradually grew the drama of the Middle Ages. During the services of Easter week and Christmas particularly, every effort was made to bring vividly before the people the significance of the Bible stories that belonged to the season, the events that were being held in remembrance, and the lessons that were being taught.
| On Good Friday, for instance, the crucifix was ceremonially taken down from the altar and was placed beneath it or in an improvised sepulchre in the choir. On Easter Day, with rejoicing and music, it was restored to its usual position. The events of Holy Week were similarly represented in detail: monks took the part of the Jews, of the disciples, of the Maries. At Pentecost, doves and birds were let loose in the church to represent the descent of the Holy Spirit; at Christmas a manger was set up and the Wise Men came bearing gifts.|| 29|
| In this way there gradually grew up a number of plays called jeux (e.g., the Jeu de la Résurrection,) or drames (e.g., the Drame dAdam). These in process of time grouped themselves into related series of Cycles, as they have come to be called. When the plays left the Church and eventually were presented by the laity and members of the confréries, they were usually known as mystères, since they dealt with the mysteries of Gods ways with men. But the lives of the saints also offered material that was at once dramatic and edifying. As a result, we have as early as 1120 representations of scenes from the vicissitudes of the elect. Of these miracles, as they were called, the Jeu de St. Nicholas by Bodel and the Miracle de Théophile by Rutebeuf are the earliest that have been preserved.|| 30|
| Of the dramatic societies which presented plays in the France of the Middle Ages, the Confrérie de la Passion, composed of Parisian bourgeois and artisans, was one of the most famous; others were the Basoche, the Puys, Les Enfants Sans-Souci, and even Les Fous. And among the most popular of the plays presented at this early time were the Danse Macabre, the Farce du Cuvier (Washtub), and the still-living Farce de Maître Pathelin which even to-day holds the boards. In many ways these old comedies are broad with the humor characteristic of the Middle Ages, and most of them have a generous tincture of the esprit gaulois which is to be found in the popular tales and the popular poetry of the age.|| 31|
The prose of the mediæval period in France is more interesting to the historian than to the literary critic. Out of the great mass of histories, compilations, and abbreviations of earlier records there emerge two groups of works which demand passing attention. There were, first, the chansons de geste, already referred to, which dealt freely with the great men of history for the edification of the unscholarly mind. There were also, however, certain writers of history who cannot be passed over in silence. Geoffroi de Villehardouin (c. 11501191) infuses his Conquête de Constantinople with his own personality; a diplomatist and a brave leader of men, he makes us see in a cool, clear, and simple fashion, the life of his day. Jean de Joinville (c. 12241317) had unusual opportunities for the first-hand collection of material for his Histoire de Saint Louis throughout his six years companionship with that monarch during the Crusades. This book, written when he was at the age of eighty, is crowded with reminiscences, not always in strict chronological order, but it is full of zealous devotion, of intimate pictures, and of naïve self-revelationfor the writer could not force himself to wash the feet of the poor, and would rather commit mortal sins than suffer leprosy. Yet his devotion and his charity are so great that, in Voltaires words, It is not given to man to carry virtue to a higher point.
| Jean Froissart (c. 13371410?), a protégé of Queen Philippa of Hainault, a much-traveled man, and a brilliant if uncritical writer, is perhaps the greatest figure among the historians and chroniclers of this age. Inexact and credulous though he is at times, he has the pictorial eye; he has the power of vivifying his characters and of making us see the color and bustle of the life of his day. He has the dramatists eye for action; he has the actors realization of the value of animation. His Chroniques cover the period from 1325 to the death of Richard III.|| 33|
| Finally, there is Philippe de Commines (c. 14471511), called the last chronicler of the Middle Ages, a man of unusual intellectual power, a student of life, and a psychologist who, in his Memoires, has given us the complementary picture of life to that of Froissart. The motives of action rather than the color of life interest him. An advocate of peace, of the solidarity of social life, he is impressed with the uncertainty of existence and finds strength in his belief in God. His writing is serious, warm at times with the glow of eloquence, again hard and cold with the gleam of sarcasm and irony, but in general he is controlled by a well-bred and dry intelligence.|| 34|
EVENTS OR LITERARY WORKS
|659|| Earliest mention of Lingua Romana or Romance tongue.|
|842|| Louis the Germanic takes oath of Strassburg in French.|
|c. 900|| Division of Langue dOc and Langue dOil.|
|c. 1000|| Early Chansons de Geste and Fabliaux.|
|c. 1075|| Troubadours, Trouvères, and Jongleurs.|
|11201180|| Robert Wace: Roman de Brut and Roman de Rou.|
|11251197|| Bernard de Ventadour.|
|11541189|| Benoît de Sainte-Maure.|
|c. 1175|| Chrétien de Troyes wrote romances.|
|1200|| Charter of the University of Paris.|
|c. 12111250|| Guillaume de Lorris: Roman de la Rose, part 1.|
|12241318|| Jean Sieur de Joinville.|
|c. 1250|| Marie de France.|
|c. 1277|| Jean de Meung: Roman de la Rose, part 2.|
|1346?1406|| Eustache Deschamps.|
|c. 13371410?|| Froissart.|
|1346|| Battle of Crécy.|
|1356|| Battle of Poitiers.|
|13781439|| Papal Schism.|
|13861449|| Alain Chartier.|
|1415|| Battle of Agincourt.|
|14451511|| Philippe de Commines.|| 35|
| For examples of early French Poetry the reader is referred to The Oxford Book of French Verse (ed. St. John Lucas); for historical information on this period, to the earlier chapters of either C. H. C. Wrights A History of French Literature, or A. L. Kontas History of French Literature.|| 37|
|Note 1. There are only three kinds of (epic) material for any man of understandingthat of France, that of Brittany, and that of Rome the Great. [back]|