A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 1.

The Origins.

Relation of French to Latin.

Of all European literatures the French is, by general consent, that which possesses the most uniformly fertile, brilliant, and unbroken history. In actual age it may possibly yield to others, but the connection between the language of the oldest and the language of the newest French literature is far closer than in these other cases, and the fecundity of mediaeval writers in France far exceeds that of their rivals elsewhere. For something like three centuries England, Germany, Italy, and more doubtfully and to a smaller extent, Spain, were content for the most part to borrow the matter and the manner of their literary work from France. This brilliant literature was however long before it assumed a regularly organized form, and in order that it might do so a previous literature and a previous language had to be dissolved and precipitated anew. With a few exceptions, to be presently noticed, French literature is not to be found till after the year 1000, that is to say until a greater lapse of time had passed since Caesar's campaigns than has passed from the later date to the present day. Taking the earliest of all monuments, the Strasburg Oaths, as starting-point, we may say that French language and French literature were nine hundred years in process of formation. The result was a remarkable one in linguistic history. French is unquestionably a daughter of Latin, yet it is not such a daughter as Italian or Spanish. A knowledge of the older language would enable a reader who knew no other to spell out, more or less painfully, the meaning of most pages of the two Peninsular languages; it would hardly enable him to do more than guess at the meaning of a page of French. The long process of gestation transformed the appearance of the new tongue completely, though its grammatical forms and the bulk of its vocabulary are beyond all question Latin. The history of this process belongs to the head of language, not of literature, and must be sought elsewhere. It is sufficient to say that the first mention of a lingua romana rustica is found in the seventh century, while allusions in Latin documents show us its gradual use in pulpit and market-place, and even as a vehicle for the rude songs of the minstrel, long before any trace of written French can be found.

Influence of Latin Literature.

Meanwhile, however, Latin was doing more than merely furnishing the materials of the new language. The literary faculty of the Gauls was early noticed, and before their subjection had long been completed they were adepts at using the language of the conquerors. It does not fall within our plan to notice in detail the Latin literature of Gaul and early France, but the later varieties of that literature deserve some little attention, because of the influence which they undoubtedly exercised on the literary forms of the new language. In early French there is little trace of the influence of the Latin forms which we call classical. It was the forms of the language which has been said to have 'dived under ground with Naevius and come up again with Prudentius' that really influenced the youthful tongue. Ecclesiastical Latin, and especially the wonderful melody of the early Latin hymn-writers, had by far the greatest effect upon it. Ingenious and not wholly groundless efforts have been made to trace the principal forms of early French writing to the services and service-books of the church, the chronicle to the sacred histories, the lyric to the psalm and the hymn, the mystery to the elaborate and dramatic ritual of the church. The Chanson de Geste, indeed, displays in its matter and style many traces of Germanic origin, but the metre with its regular iambic cadence and its rigid caesura testifies to Latin influence. The service thus performed to the literature was not unlike the service performed to the language. In the one case the scaffolding, or rather the skeleton, was furnished in the shape of grammar; in the other a similar skeleton, in the shape of prosody, was supplied. Important additions were indeed made by the fresh elements introduced. Rhyme Latin had itself acquired. But of the musical refrains which are among the most charming features of early French lyric poetry we find no vestige in the older tongue.

Early Monuments.

The history of the French language, as far as concerns literature, from the seventh to the eleventh century, can be rapidly given. The earliest mention of the Romance tongue as distinguished from Latin and from German dialect refers to 659, and occurs in the life of St. Mummolinus or Momolenus, bishop of Noyon, who was chosen for that office because of his knowledge of the two languages, Teutonic and Romanic5. We may therefore assume that Mummolinus preached in the lingua Romana. To the same century is referred the song of St. Faron, bishop of Meaux6, but this only exists in Latin, and a Romance original is inferred rather than proved. In the eighth century the Romance eloquence of St. Adalbert is commended7, and to the same period are referred the glossaries of Reichenau and Cassel, lists containing in the first case Latin and Romance equivalents, in the second Teutonic and Romance8. By the beginning of the ninth century it was compulsory for bishops to preach in Romance, and to translate such Latin homilies as they read9; and to this same era has been referred a fragmentary commentary on the Book of Jonah10, included in the latest collection of 'Monuments11.' In 842 we have the Strasburg Oaths, celebrated alike in French history and French literature. The text of the MS. of Nithard which contains them is of the tenth century.

We now come to documents less shapeless. The tenth century itself gives us the song of St. Eulalie, a poem on the Passion, a life of St. Leger, and perhaps a poem on Boethius. These four documents are of the highest interest. Not merely has the language assumed a tolerably regular form, but its great division into Langue d'Oc and Langue d'Oil is already made, and grammar, prosody, and other necessities or ornaments of bookwriting, are present. The following extracts will illustrate this part of French literature. The Romance oaths and the 'St. Eulalie' are given in full, the 'Passion' and the 'St. Leger' in extract; it will be observed that the interval between the first and the others is of very considerable width. This interval probably represents a century of active change, and of this unfortunately we have no monuments to mark the progress accurately.

Les Serments de Strasbourg de 842.

Pro deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro commun salvament, d'ist di in avant, in quant deus savir et podir me dunat, si salvarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo et in aiudha et in cadhuna cosa, si cum on per dreit son fradra salvar dist, in o quid il mi altresi fazet, et ab Ludher nul plaid nunqua prindrai, qui meon vol cist meon fradre Karle in damno sit.

Si Lodhuvigs sagrament, quæ son fradre Karlo jurat, conservat, et Karlus meos sendra de sua part nun los tanit, si io returnar nun l'int pois, ne io ne nëuls, cui eo returnar int pois, in nulla aiudha contra Lodhuwig nun li iv er.

Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie.

Buona pulcella fut Eulalia,

bel auret corps, bellezour anima.

Voldrent la veintre li deo inimi,

voldrent la faire dïaule servir.

Elle non eskoltet les mals conselliers,

qu'elle deo raneiet, chi maent sus en ciel,

Ne por or ned argent ne paramenz,

por manatce regiel ne preiement.

Nïule cose non la pouret omque pleier,

la polle sempre non amast lo deo menestier.

E poro fut presentede Maximiien,

chi rex eret a cels dis sovre pagiens

El li enortet, dont lei nonque chielt.

qued elle fuiet lo nom christiien.

Ell' ent adunet lo suon element,

melz sostendreiet les empedementz,

Qu'elle perdesse sa virginitet:

poros furet morte a grand honestet.

Enz enl fou la getterent, com arde tost.

elle colpes non auret, poro nos coist.

A ezo nos voldret concreidre li rex pagiens;

ad une spede li roveret tolir lo chief.

La domnizelle celle kose non contredist,

volt lo seule lazsier, si ruovet Krist.

In figure de colomb volat a ciel.

tuit orem, que por nos deguet preier,

Qued auuisset de nos Christus mercit

post la mort et a lui nos laist venir

Par souue clementia.

La Passion Du Christ.

Christus Jhesus den s'en leved,

Gehsesmani vil' es n'anez.

toz sos fidels seder rovet,

avan orar sols en anet.

Grant fu li dois, fort marrimenz.

si condormirent tuit adés.

Jhesus cum veg los esveled,

trestoz orar ben los manded.

E dunc orar cum el anned,

si fort sudor dunques suded,

que cum lo sangs a terra curren

de sa sudor las sanctas gutas.

Als sos fidels cum repadred,

tam benlement los conforted

li fel Judas ja s'aproismed

ab gran cumpannie dels judeus.

Jhesus cum vidra los judeus,

zo lor demandet que querént.

il li respondent tuit adun

'Jhesum querem Nazarenum.'

'Eu soi aquel,' zo dis Jhesus.

tuit li felun cadegren jos.

terce ves lor o demanded,

a totas treis chedent envers.

Vie de Saint Léger.

Domine deu devemps lauder

et a sus sancz honor porter;

in su' amor cantomps dels sanz

quæ por lui augrent granz aanz;

et or es temps et si est biens

quæ nos cantumps de sant Lethgier.

Primos didrai vos dels honors

quie il auuret ab duos seniors;

apres ditrai vos dels aanz

que li suos corps susting si granz,

et Evvruïns, cil deumentiz,

qui lui a grand torment occist.

Quant infans fud, donc a ciels temps

al rei lo duistrent soi parent,

qui donc regnevet a ciel di:

cio fud Lothiers fils Baldequi.

il le amat; deu lo covit;

rovat que litteras apresist.

Dialects and Provincial Literatures.

Considering the great extent and the political divisions of the country called France, it is not surprising that the language which was so slowly formed should have shown considerable dialectic variations. The characteristics of these dialects, Norman, Picard, Walloon, Champenois, Angevin, and so forth, have been much debated by philologists. But it so happens that the different provinces displayed in point of literature considerable idiosyncrasy, which it is scarcely possible to dispute. Hardly a district of France but contributed something special to her wide and varied literature. The South, though its direct influence was not great, undoubtedly set the example of attention to lyrical form and cadence. Britanny contributed the wonderfully suggestive Arthurian legends, and the peculiar music and style of the lai. The border districts of Flanders seem to deserve the credit of originating the great beast-epic of Reynard the Fox; Picardy, Eastern Normandy, and the Isle of France were peculiarly rich in the fabliau; Champagne was the special home of the lighter lyric poetry, while almost all northern France had a share in the Chansons de Gestes, many districts, such as Lorraine and the Cambrésis, having a special geste of their own.

Beginning of Literature proper.

It is however with the eleventh century that the history of French literature properly so called begins. We have indeed few Romance manuscripts so early as this, the date of most of them not being earlier than the twelfth. But by the eleventh century not merely were laws written in French (charters and other formal documents were somewhat later), not merely were sermons constantly composed and preached in that tongue, but also works of definite literature were produced in it. The Chanson de Roland is our only instance of its epic literature, but is not likely to have stood alone: the mystery of The Ten Virgins, a medley of French and Latin, has been (but perhaps falsely) ascribed to the same date; and lyric poetry, even putting aside the obscure and doubtful Cantilènes, was certainly indulged in to a considerable extent. From this date it is therefore possible to abandon generalities, and taking the successive forms and developments of literature, to deal with them in detail.

Before however we attempt a systematic account of French literature as it has been actually handed down to us, it is necessary to deal very briefly with two questions, one of which concerns the antecedence of possible ballad literature to the existing Chansons de Gestes, the other the machinery of diffusion to which this and all the early historical developments of the written French language owed much.


It has been held by many scholars, whose opinions deserve respect, that an extensive literature of Cantilenae12, or short historical ballads, preceded the lengthy epics which we now possess, and was to a certain extent worked up in these compositions. It is hardly necessary to say that this depends in part upon a much larger question — the question, namely, of the general origins of epic poetry. There are indeed certain references13 to these Cantilenae upon which the theories alluded to have been built. But the Cantilenae themselves have, as one of the best of French literary historians, the late M. Paulin Paris, remarks of another debated product, the Provençal epic, only one defect, 'le défaut d'être perdu,' and investigation on the subject is therefore more curious than profitable. No remnant of them survives save the already-mentioned Latin prose canticle of St. Faron, in which vestiges of a French and versified original are thought to be visible, and the ballad of Saucourt, a rough song in a Teutonic dialect14. In default of direct evidence an argument has been sought to be founded on the constant transitions, repetitions, and other peculiarities of the Chansons, some of which (and especially Roland, the most famous of all) present traces of repeated handlings of the same subject, such as might be expected in work which was merely that of a diaskeuast15 of existing lays.

Trouvères and Jongleurs.

It is however probable that the explanation of this phenomenon need not be sought further than in the circumstances of the composition and publication of these poems, circumstances which also had a very considerable influence on the whole course and character of early French literature. We know nothing of the rise or origin of the two classes of Trouveurs and Jongleurs. The former (which it is needless to say is the same word as Troubadour, and Trobador, and Trovatore) is the term for the composing class, the latter for the performing one. But the separation was not sharp or absolute, and there are abundant instances of Trouvères16 who performed their own works, and of Jongleurs who aspired to the glories if not of original authorship, at any rate of alteration and revision of the legends they sang or recited. The natural consequence of this irregular form of publication was a good deal of repetition in the works published. Different versions of the legends easily enough got mixed together by the copyist, who it must be remembered was frequently a mere mechanical reproducer, and neither Trouvère nor Jongleur; nor should it be forgotten that, so long as recitation was general, repetitions of this kind were almost inevitable as a rest to the reciter's memory, and were scarcely likely to attract unfavourable remark or criticism from the audience. We may therefore conclude, without entering further into the details of a debate unsuitable to the plan of this history, that, while but scanty evidence has been shown of the existence previous to the Chansons de Gestes of a ballad literature identical in subject with those compositions, at the same time the existence of such a literature is neither impossible nor improbable. It is otherwise with the hypothesis of the existence of prose chronicles, from which the early epics (and Roland in particular) are also held to have derived their origin. But this subject will be better handled when we come to treat of the beginnings of French prose. For the present it is sufficient to say that, with the exception of the scattered fragments already commented upon, there is no department of French literature before the eleventh century and the Chansons de Gestes, which possesses historical existence proved by actual monuments, and thus demands or deserves treatment here.

5 'Fama bonorum operum, quia praevalebat non tantum in Teutonica sed in Romana lingua, Lotharii regis ad aures usque perveniente,' says his life. The chronicler Sigebert confirms the statement that he was made bishop 'quod Romanam non minus quam Teutonicam calleret linguam.' Lingua Latina and Lingua Romana are from this time distinguished.

6 The Latin form of the song is given by Helgaire, Bishop of Meaux, who wrote a life of St. Faron, his predecessor, towards the end of the ninth century. Helgaire uses the words 'juxta rusticitatem,' 'carmen rusticum;' and Lingua Rustica is usually if not universally synonymous with Lingua Romana.

7 'Si vulgari id est romana lingua loqueretur omnium aliarum putares inscium.'

8 The Reichenau Glossary is at Carlsruhe. It was published in 1863 by Holtzmann. The Cassel Glossary, which came from Fulda, was published in the last century (1729).

9 Ordered by the Councils of Tours, Rheims, and Arles (813-851).

10 In the Library at Valenciennes.

11 Les plus anciens Monuments de la Langue Française. Paris, 1875.

12 The subject of the Cantilenae is discussed at great length by M. Léon Gautier, Les Epopées Françaises, Ed. 2, vol. i. caps. 8-13. Paris, 1878.

13 These, which are for the most part very vague and not very early, will be found fully quoted and discussed in Gautier, l. c.

14 Published by Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1837).

15 This word (= arranger or putter-in-order) is familiar in Homeric discussion, and therefore seems appropriate. M. Gaston Paris speaks with apparent confidence of the pre-existing chants, and, in matter of authority, no one speaks with more than he: but it can hardly be said that there is proof of the fact.

16 The older and in this case more usual form.


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29