A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 12.

Miscellaneous Prose.

General use of Prose.

It was natural, and indeed necessary, that, when the use of prose as an allowable vehicle for literary composition was once understood and established, it should gradually but rapidly supersede the more troublesome and far less appropriate form of verse. Accordingly we find that, from the beginning of the thirteenth century, the amount of prose literature is constantly on the increase. It happens, however, or, to speak more precisely, it follows that this miscellaneous prose literature is of much less importance and of much less interest than the contemporary and kindred literature in verse. For in the nature of things much of it was occupied with what may be called the journey-work of literature — the stuff which, unless there be some special attraction in its form, grows obsolete, or retains a merely antiquarian interest in the course of time. There was, moreover, still among the chief patrons of literature a preference for verse which diverted the brightest spirits to the practice of that form. Yet again, the best prose composition of the middle ages, with the exception of a few works of fiction, is to be found in its chronicles, and these have already been noticed. A review, therefore, much less minute in scale than that which in the first ten chapters of this book has been given to the mediaeval poetry of France, will suffice for its mediaeval prose, and such a review will appropriately close the survey of the literature of the middle ages.

Prose Sermons. St. Bernard.
Maurice de Sully.
Later Preachers. Gerson.

It has already been pointed out in the first chapter that documentary evidence exists to prove the custom of preaching in French (or at least in lingua romana) at a very early date. It is not, however, till many centuries after the date of Mummolinus, that there is any trace of regularly written vernacular discourses. When these appear in the twelfth century the Provençal dialects appear to have the start of French proper. Whether the forty-four prose sermons of St. Bernard which exist were written by him in French, or were written in Latin and translated, is a disputed point. The most reasonable opinion seems to be that they were translated, but it is uncertain whether at the beginning of the thirteenth or the middle of the twelfth century. However this may be, the question of written French sermons in the twelfth century does not depend on that of St. Bernard's authorship. Maurice de Sully, who presided over the See of Paris from 1160 to 1195, has left a considerable number of sermons which exist in manuscripts of very different dialects. Perhaps it may not be illegitimate to conclude from this, that at the time such written sermons were not very common, and that preachers of different districts were glad to borrow them for their own use. These also are thought to have been first written in Latin and then translated. But whether Maurice de Sully was a pioneer or not, he was very quickly followed by others. In the following century the number of preachers whose vernacular work has been preserved is very large; the increase being, beyond all doubt, partially due to the foundation of the two great preaching orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic. The existing literature of this class, dating from the thirteenth, the fourteenth, and the early fifteenth centuries, is enormous, but the remarks made at the beginning of this chapter apply to it fully. Its interest is almost wholly antiquarian, and not in any sense literary. Distinguished names indeed occur in the catalogue of preachers, but, until we come to the extreme verge of the mediaeval period proper, hardly one of what may be called the first importance. The struggle between the Burgundian and Orleanist, or Armagnac parties, and the ecclesiastical squabbles of the Great Schism, produced some figures of greater interest. Such are Jean Petit, a furious partisan, who went so far as to excuse the murder of the Duke of Orleans, and Jean Charlier, or Gerson, one of the most respectable and considerable names of the later mediaeval literature. Gerson was born in 1363, at a village of the same name in Lorraine. He early entered the Collège de Navarre, and distinguished himself under Peter d'Ailly, the most famous of the later nominalists. He became Chancellor of the University, received a living in Flanders, and for many years preached in the most constantly attended churches of Paris. He represented the University at the Council of Constance, and, becoming obnoxious to the Burgundian party, sought refuge with one of his brothers at Lyons, where he is said to have taught little children. He died in 1429. Gerson, it should perhaps be added, is one of the numerous candidates (but one of the least likely) for the honour of having written the Imitation. He concerns us here only as the author of numerous French sermons. His work in this kind is very characteristic of the time. Less mixed with burlesque than that of his immediate successors, it is equally full of miscellaneous, and, as it now seems, somewhat inappropriate erudition, and far fuller of the fatal allegorising and personification of abstract qualities which were in every branch of literature the curse of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Yet there are passages of real eloquence in Gerson, though perhaps the chief literary point about him is the evidence he gives of the insufficiency of the language in its then condition for serious prose work.

Moral and Devotional Treatises.
Political and Polemical Works.

This is indeed the lesson of most of the writing which we have to notice in this chapter. Next to sermons may most naturally be placed devotional and moral works, for, as may easily be imagined, theology and philosophy, properly so called, did not condescend to the vulgar tongue until after the close of the period. Only treatises for the practical use of the unlearned and ignorant adopted the vernacular. Of such there are manuals of devotion and sketches of sacred history which date from the thirteenth century, besides numerous later treatises, among the authors of which Gerson is again conspicuous. The most popular, perhaps, and in a way the most interesting of all such moral and devotional treatises, is the book of the Chevalier de la Tour Landry142, written in the third quarter of the fourteenth century. This book, destined for the instruction of the author's three daughters, is composed of Bible stories, moral tales from ordinary literature and from the writer's experience, precepts and rules of conduct, and so forth; in short, a Whole Duty of Girls. Most however of the works of this sort which were current were, as may be supposed, not original, but translated, and these translations played a very important part in the history of the language. The earliest of all are translations of the Bible, especially of the Psalms and the book of Kings, the former of which may perhaps date from the end of the eleventh century. Translations of the fathers, and of the Lives of the Saints, followed in such numbers that, in 1199, Pope Innocent III. blamed their indiscriminate use. The translation of profane literature hardly begins much before the thirteenth century. In this it becomes frequent; and in the following many classical writers and more mediaeval authors in Latin underwent the process. But it was not till the close of the fourteenth century that the most important translations were made, and that translation began to exercise its natural influence on a comparatively unsophisticated language, by providing terms of art, by generally enriching the vocabulary, and by the elaboration of the peculiarities of syntax and style necessary for rendering the sentences of languages so highly organised as Latin and Greek. Under John of Valois and his three successors considerable encouragement was given by the kings of France to this sort of work, and three translators, Pierre Bersuire, Nicholas Oresme, and Raoul de Presles, have left special reputations. The eldest of these, Pierre Bersuire or Bercheure, a friend of Petrarch, was born in 1290, and towards the end of his life, about 1352, translated part of Livy. Nicholas Oresme, the date of whose birth is unknown, but who entered the Collège de Navarre in 1348, and is likely to have been at that time thirteen or fourteen years old, and who became Dean of Rouen and Bishop of Lisieux, translated, in 1370 and the following years, the Ethics, Politics, and Economics of Aristotle (from the Latin, not the Greek). He died in 1382. Oresme was a good writer, and particularly dexterous in adopting neologisms necessary for his purpose. Raoul de Presles executed translations of the Bible and of St. Augustine's De Civitate Dei. All these writers furnished an enlarged vocabulary to their successors, the most remarkable of whom were the already mentioned Christine de Pisan and Alain Chartier. The latter is especially noteworthy as a prose writer, and the comments already made on his style and influence as a poet apply here also. His Quadriloge Invectif and Curial, both satirical or, at least, polemical works, are his chief productions in this kind. Raoul de Presles also composed a polemical work, dealing chiefly with the burning question of the papal and royal powers, under the title of Songe du Verger.

Codes and Legal Treatises.

It might seem unlikely at first sight that so highly technical a subject as law should furnish a considerable contingent to early vernacular literature; but there are some works of this kind both of ancient date and of no small importance. England and Normandy furnish an important contingent, the 'Laws of William the Conqueror' and the Coutumiere Normandie being the most remarkable: but the most interesting document of this kind is perhaps the famous Assises de Jérusalem, arranged by Godfrey of Bouillon and his crusaders as the code of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099, and known also as the Lettres du Sépulcre, from the place of their custody. The original text was lost or destroyed at the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187; but a new Assise, compiled from the oral tradition of the jurists who had seen and used the old, was written by Philippe de Navarre in 1240, or thereabouts, for the use of the surviving Latin principalities of the East. This was shortly afterwards enlarged and developed by Jean d'Ibelin, a Syrian baron, who took part in the crusade of St. Louis. These codes concerned themselves only with one part of the original Lettres du Sépulcre, the laws affecting the privileged classes; but the other part, the Assises des Bourgeois, survives in Le Livre de la Cour des Bourgeois, which has been thought to be older than the loss of the original. These various works contain the most complete account of feudal jurisprudence in its palmy days that is known, for the still earlier Anglo-Norman laws represent a more mixed state of things. It was especially in Cyprus that the Jerusalem codes were observed. The chief remaining works of the same kind which deserve mention are the Établissements de St. Louis and the Livre de Justice et de Plet, which both date from the time of Louis himself; the Conseil, a treatise on law by Pierre de Fontaines, who died in 1289, and the Coutumes du Beauvoisis of Philippe de Beaumanoir, who wrote in 1283. The legal literature of the fourteenth century is abundant, but possesses considerably less interest.

Miscellanies and Didactic Works.

Last of all, before coming to prose fiction, a vast if not very interesting class of miscellaneous prose work must be mentioned. The word class has been used, but perhaps improperly, for classification is almost impossible. Books of accounts and domestic economy of all sorts (generally called livres de raison) were very common; treatises of all kinds of more general character on household management abounded. We have a Ménagier de Paris, a Viandier de Paris, both of the fourteenth century. But much earlier the orderly and symmetrical spirit which has always distinguished the French makes itself apparent in literature. The Livre des Métiers de Paris of Étienne Boileau, dating from the thirteenth century, gives a complete idea of the organisation of guilds and trades at that time. An innumerable multitude of treatises on the minor morals, on love, on manners, exists in manuscript, and in rare instances in print. The Trésors, or compendious encyclopædias, which have already been noticed in verse, began in the thirteenth century to be composed in prose, the most remarkable being that of Brunetto Latini, the master of Dante, who avowedly used French as his vehicle of composition, because it was the most commonly read of European languages. This book was written apparently about or before 1270. Nor did the separate arts lack illustration in prose. Medicine and alchemy, astronomy and poetry, war and chess, had their treatises, while Bestiaries and Lapidaries are almost as numerous in prose as in verse. Finally, there is the important category of books of travel. There are a certain number of voyages to the Holy Land143; some miscellaneous travels mostly, though not universally, translated from the Latin; and last, but not least, the great book of Marco Polo, which seems to have been written originally in French, the author, when in captivity at Genoa, having dictated it to Rusticien of Pisa, who also figures as a compiler of late versions of the Arthurian legend, and who thus had some skill in French composition.


The prose fiction of the period has been kept to the last, because it expresses a different order of literary endeavour from those divisions which have hitherto been treated. The language of the middle ages was ill-suited for work other than narrative; for narrative work it was supremely well adapted. Yet the prose fiction which we have is not on the whole equal in merit to the poetry, though in one or two instances it is of great value. The medium of communication was not generally known or used until the period of decadence had been reached, and the peculiar defects of mediaeval literature, prolixity and verbiage, show themselves more conspicuously and more annoyingly in prose than in verse. We have, however, some remarkable work of the later periods, and in the latest of all we have one writer, Antoine de la Salle, who deserves to rank with the great chroniclers as a fashioner of French prose.

The French prose fiction of the middle ages resolves itself into several classes: the early Arthurian Romances already noticed; the scattered tales of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which are chiefly to be studied in two excellent volumes of the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne144; the versions of such collections of legends, chiefly oriental in origin, as the History of the Seven Wise Men and the Gesta Romanorum; the longer classical romances in prose; the late prose remaniements of the great verse epics and romances of the twelfth century; and the more or less original work of the fifteenth century, when prose was becoming an independent and coequal literary exponent. The first class requires no further mention; of the third, the editions of the Roman des Sept Sages, by M. Gaston Paris145, and of the Violier des Histoires Romaines, by M. Gustave Brunet146, may be referred to as sufficient instances; of the fourth a very interesting specimen has been made accessible by the publication of the prose Roman de Jules César of Jean de Tuim147, a free version from Lucan made apparently in the course of the thirteenth century, and afterwards imitated by the author of the verse romance; the fifth, though very numerous, are not of much value, though the great romance of Perceforest and a few others may be excepted from this general condemnation. The second and the last deserve a longer mention.

The tales of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as published by MM. Moland and Héricault, are eight in number. Those of the second volume are on the whole inferior in interest to those of the first. They consist of Asseneth, a graceful legend of the marriage of Joseph with the daughter of the Egyptian high-priest; Troilus, interesting chiefly as a prose version of Benoist de Ste. More's legend of Troilus and Cressida, through the channel of Guido Colonna and Boccaccio; and a very curious English story, that of the rebel Fulk Fitzwarine. The thirteenth-century tales consist of L'Empereur Constant, the story with which Mr. Morris has made English readers familiar under the title of the 'Man born to be King;' of a prose version of the ubiquitous legend of Amis et Amiles; of Le roi Flore et la belle Jehanne, a kind of version of Griselda, though the particular trial and exhibition of fidelity is quite different; of the Comtesse de Ponthieu, the least interesting of all; and lastly, of the finest prose tale of the French middle ages, Aucassin et Nicolette. In this exquisite story Aucassin, the son of the count of Beaucaire, falls in love with Nicolette, a captive damsel. It is very short, and is written in mingled verse and prose. The theme is for the most part nothing but the desperate love of Aucassin, which is careless of religion, which makes him indifferent to the joy of battle and to everything, except 'Nicolette ma très-douce mie,' and which is, of course, at last rewarded. But the extreme beauty of the separate scenes makes it a masterpiece.

Antoine de la Salle.

Antoine de la Salle is one of the most fortunate of authors. The tendency of modern criticism is generally to endeavour to prove that some famous author has been wrongly credited with some of the work which has made his fame. Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Rabelais, have all had to pay this penalty. In the case of Antoine de la Salle, on the contrary, critics have vied with each other in heaping unacknowledged masterpieces on his head. His only acknowledged work is the charming romance of Petit Jean de Saintré148. The first thing added to this has been the admirable satire of the Quinze Joyes du Mariage149, the next the famous collection of the Cent Nouvelles150, and the last the still more famous farce of Pathelin151. There are for once few or no external reasons why these various attributions should not be admitted, while there are many internal ones why they should. Antoine de la Salle was born in 1398, and spent his life in the employment of different kings and princes; — Louis III of Anjou, King of Naples, his son the good King René, the count of Saint Pol, and Philip the Good of Burgundy, who was his natural sovereign. Nothing is known of him after 1461. Of the three prose works which have been attributed to him — there are others of a didactic character in manuscript — the Quinze Joyes du Mariage is extremely brief, but it contains the quintessence of all the satire on that honourable estate which the middle ages had elaborated. Every chapter — there is one for each 'joy' with a prologue and conclusion — ends with a variation on this phrase descriptive of the unhappy Benedict, 'est sy est enclose dans la nasse, et à l'aventure ne s'en repent point et s'il n'y estait il se y mettroit bientot; la usera sa vue en languissant, et finira misérablement ses jours.' The satire is much quieter and of a more humorous and less boisterous character than was usual at the time. The Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles are to all intents and purposes prose fabliaux. They have the full licence of that class of composition, its sparkling fun, its truth to the conditions of ordinary human life. Many of them are taken from the work of the Italian novelists, but all are handled in a thoroughly original manner. In style they are perhaps the best of all the late mediaeval prose works, being clear, precise, and definite without the least appearance of baldness or dryness. Petit Jehan de Saintré is, together with the Chronique de Messire Jacques de Lalaing152 of Georges Chastellain (a delightful biography, which is not a work of fiction), the hand-book of the last age of chivalry. Jehan de Saintré, who was a real person of the preceding century, but from whom the novelist borrows little or nothing but his name, falls in love with a lady who is known by the fantastic title of 'la dame des belles cousines.' He wins general favour by his courtesy, true love, and prowess; but during his absence in quest of adventures, his faithless mistress betrays him for a rich abbot. The latter part of this book exhibits something of the satiric intention, which was never long absent from the author's mind; the former contains a picture, artificial perhaps, but singularly graceful, of the elaborate religion, as it may almost be called, of chivalry. Strikingly evident in the book is the surest of all signs of a dying stage of society, the most delicate observation and sympathetic description joined to sarcastic and ironical criticism.

As examples of this prose literature we may take a fragment of one of the sermons attributed to St. Bernard (twelfth century), an extract from Aucassin et Nicolette (thirteenth century), and one from the Curial of Alain Chartier (early fifteenth century):—

St. Bernard.

Granz est ceste mers, chier frere, et molt large, c'est ceste presente vie ke molt est amere et molt plaine de granz ondes, ou trois manieres de gent puyent solement trespesseir, ensi k'il delivreit en soient, et chascuns en sa maniere. Troi homme sunt: Noë, Danïel et Job. Li primiers de cez trois trespesset a neif, li seconz par pont et li tierz par weit. Cist troi homme signifïent trois ordenes ki sunt en sainte eglise. Noë conduist l'arche par mei lo peril del duluve, en cui je reconois aparmenmes la forme de ceos qui sainte eglise ont a governeir. Danïel, qui apeleiz est bers de desiers, ki abstinens fut et chastes, il est li ordenes des penanz et des continanz ki entendent solement a deu. Et Job, ki droituriers despensiers fut de la sustance de cest munde, signifïet lo fëaule peule qui est en marïaige, a cuy il loist bien avoir en possessïon les choses terrienes. Del primier et del secont nos covient or parler, ear ci sunt or de present nostre frere, et ki abbeit sunt si cum nos, ki sunt del nombre des prelaiz; et si sunt assi ci li moine ki sunt de l'ordene des penanz dont nos mismes, qui abbeit sommes, ne nos doyens mies osteir, si nos par aventure, qui jai nen avignet, nen avons dons oblïeit nostre professïon por la grace de nostre office. Lo tierz ordene, c'est de ceos ki en marïaige sunt, trescorrai ju or briément, si cum ceos qui tant nen apartienent mies a nos cum li altre. c'est cil ordenes ki a vveit trespesset ceste grant meir; et cist ordenes est molt peneuous et perillous, et ki vait par molt longe voie, si cum cil ki nule sente ne quierent ne nule adrece. En ceu appert bien ke molt est perillouse lor voie, ke nos tant de gent i vëons perir, dont nos dolor avons, et ke nos si poc i vëons de ceos ki ensi trespessent cum mestiers seroit; ear molt est griés chose d'eschuïr l'abysme des vices et les fossés des criminals pechiez entre les ondes de cest seule, nomeyement or en cest tens ke li malices est si enforciez.

Aucassin Et Nicolette.

Aucasins fu mis en prison si com vos avés, oï et entendu, et Nicolete fu d'autre part en le canbre. Ce fu el tans d'esté, el mois de mai, que li jor sont caut, lonc et cler, et les nuis coies et series. Nicolete jut une nuit en son lit, si vit la lune luire cler par une fenestre, et si oï le lorseilnol canter en garding, se li sovint d'Aucasin son ami qu'ele tant amoit. ele se comença a porpenser del conte Garin de Biaucaire qui de mort le haoit; si se pensa qu'ele ne remanroit plus ilec, que s'ele estoit acusee et li quens Garins le savoit, il le feroit de male mort morir. ele senti que li vielle dormoit qui aveuc li estoit. ele se leva, si vesti un blïaut de drap de soie que ele avoit molt bon; si prist dras de lit et touailes, si noua l'un a l'autre, si fist une corde si longe conme ele pot, si le noua au piler de le fenestre, si s'avala contreval le gardin, et prist se vesture a l'une main devant et a l'autre deriere; si s'escorça por le rousee qu'ele vit grande sor l'erbe, si s'en ala aval le gardin. Ele avoit les caviaus blons et menus recercelés, et les ex vairs et rïans, et le face traitice et le nés haut et bien assis, et les levretes vermelletes plus que n'est cerisse ne rose el tans d'esté, et les dens blans et menus, et avoit les mameletes dures qui li souslevoient sa vestëure ausi com ce fuissent II nois gauges, et estoit graille parmi les flans, qu'en vos dex mains le pëusciés enclorre; et les flors des margerites qu'ele ronpoit as ortex de ses piés, qui li gissoient sor le menuisse du pié par deseure, estoient droites noires avers ses piés et ses ganbes, tant par estoit blance la mescinete. Ele vint au postic; si le deffrema, si s'en isci par mi les rues de Biaucaire par devers l'onbre, ear la lune luisoit molt clere, et erra tant qu'ele vint a le tor u ses amis estoit. Li tors estoit faëlé de lius en lius, et ele se quatist delés l'un des pilers. si s'estraint en son mantel, si mist sen cief par mi une crevëure de la tor qui vielle estoit et anciienne, si oï Aucasin qui la dedens pleuroit et faisoit mot grant dol et regretoit se douce amie que tant amoit. et quant ele l'ot assés escouté, si comença a dire.

Alain Chartier.

La court, affin que tu l'entendes, est ung couvent de gens qui soubz faintise du bien commun sont assemblez pour eulx interrompre; ear il n'y a gueres de gens qui ne vendent, achaptent ou eschangent aucunes foiz leurs rentes ou leurs propres vestemens; ear entre nous de la court nous sommes marchans affectez qui achaptons les autres gens et autresfoiz pour leur argent nous leur vendons nostre humanité precïeuse. Nous leur vendons et achaptons autruy par flaterie ou par corrupcïons; mais nous sçavons tres bien vendre nous mesmes a ceulx qui ont de nous a faire. Combien donc y peus tu acquerir qui es certain sans doubte et sans peril? veulx tu aller a la court vendre ou perdre ce bien de vertu, que tu as acquis hors d'icelle court? Certes, frere, tu demandes ce que tu deusses reffuser, tu te fies en ce dont tu te deusses deffier et fiches ton esperance en ce que te tire a peril. Et se tu y viens, la court te servira de tant de mensonges controverses d'une part, et de l'autre de bailler tant de tours et de charges que tu auras dedans toy mesmes bataille continuëlle et soussiz angoisseux et pour certain homme qui pourra bonnement dire que ceste vie fust bieneuree qui par tant de tempestes est achatee et en tant de contrarïetez esprouvee.

142 Ed. Montaiglon. Paris, 1854.

143 A good example of these is the Saint Voyage de Jérusalem of the Seigneur d'Anglure (1385), edited by MM. Bonnardot and Longnon. Paris, 1878.

144 Nouvelles du 13e et du 14e siècle. Ed. Moland et Héricault. 2 vols. Paris, 1856.

145 Paris, 1876.

146 Paris, 1858.

147 Ed. Settegast. Halle, 1881.

148 Ed. Guichard. Paris, 1843.

149 Ed. Jannet. Paris, 1853; 2nd ed. 1857.

150 Ed. Wright. Paris, 1858.

151 Ed. Fournier, Théâtre Français avant la Renaissance. Paris, n. d.

152 Ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, viii. 1-259.


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