A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 8.

Romans D'aventures.

Distinguishing features of Romans d'Aventures.

The remarkable fecundity of early French literature in narrative poetry on the great scale was not limited to the Chanson de Geste, the Arthurian Romance, and the classical story wrought into the likeness of one or the other of these. Towards the end of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century a new class of narrative poems arose, derived from each and all of these kinds, but marked by important differences. The new form immediately reacted on the forms which had given it birth, and produced new Chansons de Gestes, new Arthurian Romances, and new classical stories fashioned after its own image. This is what is called the Roman d'Aventures, of which the first and main feature is open and almost avowed fictitiousness, and the second the more or less complete abandonment of any attempt at cyclic arrangement or subordination to a central theme.

Looser application of the term.
Classes of Romans d'Aventures.

Until quite recently it was not unusual to apply the term Roman d'Aventures with less strictness, and to make it include the Romances of the Round Table. There can, however, be no doubt that it is far better to adopt Jean Bodel's three classes as distinguishing into separate groups the epic poetry of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and to restrict the title Romans d'Aventures to the later narrative developments of the thirteenth and fourteenth. For the second distinguishing mark which we have just indicated is striking and of more or less universal application. In these later poems the ambition of the writer to class his work under and with some precedent work is almost entirely absent. He allows himself complete freedom, though he may sometimes, in order to give his characters greater interest, connect them nominally with some famous personage or event of the earlier cycles. This tendency to shake off the shackles of cyclicism is early apparent. There are episodes even in the Chansons de Gestes which have little or no reference to Charlemagne or his peers: the Arthurian Romances in prose and verse contain long digressions, holding but very loosely to the Table Round, such as the adventures of Tristram and Percivale, and still more the singular episode of Grimaud in the Saint Graal. As for the third class, the Trouvères almost from the beginning assumed the greatest licence in their handling of the classical legends. These accordingly were less affected than any others by the change. It is possible to divide the Romans d'Aventures themselves under the three headings. It is further possible to indicate a large class of Chansons de Gestes over which the influence of the Roman d'Aventures has passed. But the Chanson having a special formal peculiarity — the assonanced or rhymed tirade — survived the new influence better than the other two, and keeps its name, and to some extent its character, while the Romances of Arthur and antiquity are simply lost in the general body of tales of adventure. These tales are for the most part written in octosyllabic couplets on the model of Chrestien, but a very few, such as Brun de la Montaigne, imitate the exterior characteristics of the Chanson.

It is further to be noticed that while the earlier poems are mostly anonymous, the Romans d'Aventures are generally, though not always, signed, and bear characteristics of particular authorship. In some cases, notably in those of Adenès le Roi and Raoul de Houdenc, we have a body of work signed or otherwise identified, which enables us to attribute a definite literary character and position to its authors. This, as we have noted, is impossible in the case of the national epics, and not too easy in that of the Arthurian Romances. Until quite recently however the Roman d'Aventures has had less of the attention of editors than its forerunners, and the works which compose the class are still to some extent unpublished.

Adenès le Roi.

Adenès or Adans le Roi perhaps derived his surname from the function of king of the minstrels, if he performed it, at the court of Henry III, duke of Brabant. He was, most likely, born in the second quarter of the thirteenth century, and the last probable allusion to him which we have occurs in the year 1297. The events of his life are only known from his own poems, and consist chiefly of travels in company with different princesses and princes of Flanders and Brabant. His literary work is however of great importance. It consists partly of refashionings of three Chansons de Gestes, Les enfances Ogier, Berte aus grans Piés, and Bueves de Commarchis91. In these three poems Adenès works up the old epics into the form fashionable in his time, and as we possess the older versions of the first and last, the comparison of the two forms affords a literary study of the highest interest. His last, longest, and most important work is the Roman d'Aventures of Cléomadès92, a poem extending to 20,000 verses, and not less valuable for its intrinsic merit than as a type of its class. Its popularity in the middle ages was immense. Froissart gives it the place occupied in the Inferno by Lancelot in his description of his declaration of love to his mistress, and allusions to it under its second title of Le Cheval de Fust93 are frequent. The most prominent feature in the story is the introduction of a wooden horse, like that known to everybody in the Arabian Nights, which, started and guided by means of pegs, transports its rider whithersoever he will. Its great length allows of a very long series of adventures, all of which are told in spirited and flowing verse, though with considerable prolixity and a certain abuse of stock descriptions. These two faults characterise all the Romans d'Aventures and the Chansons which were remodelled in their style. The merits of Cléomadès are not so universally found, but its extreme length is not common. Few other Romans d'Aventures exceed 10,000 lines. An extract from this poem will well illustrate the manner of this important class of composition:—

Cleomadés vit un chastel

encoste un plain, tres fort et bel,

ou il ot mainte bele tour.

bos et rivieres vit entour,

vignes et praieries grans.

mult fu li chastiaus bien sëans.

la façon dou castel deïsse,

mais je dout mult que ne meïsse

trop longement au deviser:

pour ce m'en voel briément passer.

Du chastel vous dirai le non:

miols sëant ne vit aine nus hom,

lors l'apieloit on Chastel-noble.

n'ot tel dusque en Constantinoble,

ne de la dusque en Osterice

n'ot plus bel, plus fort ne plus rice.

carmans a cel point i estoit

que Cleomadés vint la droit.

forment li sambloit li chastiaus

de toutes pars riches et biaus.

Cleomadés lors s'avisa

que viers le chastel se trera.

bien pensoit qu'en tel liu manoient

gent qui de grant afaire estoient.

che fu si qu'apriés l'ajournee

mult faisoit bele matinee,

car mais estoit nouviaus entrés:

c'est uns tans ki mult est amés

et de toutes gens conjoïs;

pour çou a non mais li jolis.

une tres grant tour haute et forte

avoit asés priés de la porte,

ki estoit couverte de plon,

plate deseure, car adon

les faisoit on ensi couvrir

pour engins et pour assallir.

Cleomadés a avisee

la tour ki estoit haute et lee;

lors pense qu'il s'arestera

sor cele tour tant qu'il savra,

se il puet, la certainité

quel païs c'est la verité.

lors a son cheval adrechié

viers la tour de marbre entaillié.

les chevilletes si tourna

que droit sour la tour aresta.

si coiement s'est avalés

que sour aighe coie vait nés.

Raoul de Houdenc.

Raoul de Houdenc is an earlier poet than Adenès, and represents the Roman d'Aventures in its infancy, when it still found it necessary to attach itself to the great cycle of the Round Table. His works, besides some shorter poems94, consist of the Roman des Eles (Ailes), a semi-allegorical composition, describing the wings and feathers of chivalry, that is to say, the great chivalrous virtues, among which Raoul, like a herald as he was, gives Largesse the first place; of Méraugis de Portlesguez, an important composition, possessing some marked peculiarities of style; and possibly also of the Vengeance de Raguidel, in which the author works out one of the innumerable unfinished episodes of the great epic of Percevale. Thus Raoul de Houdenc occupies no mean place in French literature, inasmuch as he indicates the starting-point of two great branches, the Roman d'Aventures and the allegorical poem, and this at a very early date. This date is not known exactly; but it was certainly before 1228, when the Trouvère Huon de Méry alludes to him, and classes him with Chrestien as a master of French verse. He has in truth some very noteworthy peculiarities. The chief of these, which must soon strike any reader of Méraugis, is his tendency to enjambement or overlapping of couplets. It is a curious feature in the history of French verse that the isolation of the couplet has constantly recurred in its history, and that as constantly reformers have striven to break up the monotony so produced by this process of enjambement. Perhaps Raoul is the earliest who thus, as an indignant critic put it at the first representation of Hernani, 'broke up verses, and threw them out of window.' Besides this metrical characteristic, the thing most noteworthy in his poems (as might indeed have been expected from his composition of the Roman des Eles) is a tendency to allegorising, and to scholastic disquisitions on points of amatory casuistry. The whole plot of Méraugis indeed turns on the enquiry whether physical or metaphysical love is the sincerest, and on the quarrel which a difference on this point brings on between the hero and Gorvein Cadrus his friend and his rival in the love of the fair Lidoine.

Chief Romans d'Aventures.

Many other Romans d'Aventures deserve mention, both for their intrinsic merits and for the immense popularity they once enjoyed. Foremost among these must be mentioned Partenopex de Blois95 and Flore et Blanchefleur96. The former (formerly ascribed to Denis Pyramus and now denied to him, but said to date from the twelfth century) is a kind of modernised Cupid and Psyche, except that Cupid's place is taken by the fairy Melior, and Psyche's by the knight Parthenopeus or Parthenopex. This poem has great elegance and freshness of style, and though the author is inclined to moralise (as a near forerunner of the Roman de la Rose was bound to do), his moralisings are gracefully and naively put. Flore et Blanchefleur is perhaps even superior. Its theme is the love of a young Christian prince for a Saracen girl-slave, who has been brought up with him. She is sold into a fresh captivity to remove her from him, but he follows her and rescues her unharmed from the harem of the Emir of Babylon. The delicacy of the handling is very remarkable in this poem, and it has some links of connection with Aucassin et Nicolette. Le Roman de Dolopathos97 has a literary history of great interest which we need not touch upon here. Its versification has more vigour than that of almost any other Roman d'Aventures. Blancandin et l'Orguilleuse d'Amour98 is more promising at the beginning than in the sequel. A young knight, hearing of the pride and coyness of a lady, accosts and kisses her as she rides past with a great following of knights. Her coldness is of course changed to love at first sight, and the audacious suitor afterwards delivers her from her enemies; but the working out of the story is rather dully managed. Brun de la Montaigne99, as has been already mentioned, is written in Chanson form, and deals with the famous Forest of Broceliande in Britanny. Guillaume de Palerne100 is a still more interesting work. It introduces the favourite mediaeval idea of lycanthropy, the hero being throughout helped and protected by a friendly were-wolf, who is before the end of the poem freed from the enchantment to which he is subjected. This Romance was early translated into English. Of the same class is the Roman de l'Escouffle, where a hawk carries away the heroine's ring, as in a well-known story of the Arabian Nights. Amadas et Idoine101 is one of the numerous histories of the success of a squire of low degree, but is distinguished from most of them by the originality of its conception and the vigour of its style. The scenes where the hero is recovered of his madness by his beloved, and where, keeping guard over her tomb, he fights with ghostly enemies, after a time of trial of his fidelity, and rescues her from death, are unusually brilliant. Le Bel Inconnu102, which (from a curious misunderstanding of its older form Li Biaus Desconnus) occurs in English form as Lybius Diasconus, tells the story of a son of Gawain and the fairy with the white hands, and thus is one of the numerous secondary Romances of the Round Table. So also is the long and interesting Roman du Chevalier as Deux Espées103; this extends to more than 12,000 lines, and, though the adventures recorded are of the ordinary Round Table pattern, there is noticeable in it a better faculty of maintaining the interest and a completer mastery over episodes than usual. A still longer poem (also belonging to what may be called the outer Arthurian cycle) is Durmart le Gallois104, which contains almost 16,000 verses. The loves of the hero and Fenise, the Queen of Ireland, are somewhat lengthily handled; but there are passages of merit, especially one most striking episode in which the hero, riding through a forest by night, comes to a tree covered from top to bottom with burning torches, while a shining naked child is enthroned on the summit. These touches of mystical religion are rarer in the later Romans d'Aventures than in the Arthurian Romances proper, but with them one of the most remarkable elements of romance disappears. Philippe de Rémy, Seigneur de Beaumanoir (who has other claims to literary distinction) is held to be author of two Romans d'Aventures105, La Manekine (the story of the King of Hungary's daughter, who cut off her hand to save herself from her father's incestuous passion) and Blonde d'Oxford, where a young French squire carries off an English heiress. Joufrois de Poitiers106, which has not come down to us complete, is chiefly remarkable for the liveliness of style with which adventures, in themselves tolerably hackneyed, are handled. Other Romans d'Aventures, which are either as yet in manuscript or of less importance, are Ille et Galeron and Eracle, both by Gautier d'Arras, Cristal et Larie, La Dame à la Licorne, Guy de Warwike, Gérard de Nevers or La Violette107, Guillaume de Dole, Elédus et Séréna, Florimont.

General Character.

Like most kinds of mediaeval poetry, these Romans d'Aventures have a very considerable likeness the one to the other. It may indeed be said that they possess a 'common form' of certain incidents and situations, which reappear with slight changes and omissions in all or most of them. Their besetting sins are diffuseness and the recurrence of stock descriptions and images. On the other hand, they have their peculiar merits. The harmony of their versification is often very considerable; their language is supple, picturesque, and varied, and the moral atmosphere which they breathe is one of agreeable refinement and civilisation. In them perhaps is seen most clearly the fanciful and graceful side of the state of things which we call chivalry. Its mystical and transcendental sides are less vividly and touchingly exhibited than in the older Arthurian Romances; and its higher passions are also less dealt with. The Romans d'Aventures supply once more, according to the Aristotelian definition, an Odyssey to the Arthurian Iliad; they are complex and deal with manners. Nor ought it to be omitted that, though they constantly handle questions of gallantry, and though their uniform theme is love, the language employed on these subjects is almost invariably delicate, and such as would not fail to satisfy even modern standards of propriety. The courtesy which was held to be so great a knightly virtue, if it was not sufficient to ensure a high standard of morality in conduct, at any rate secured such a standard in matter of expression. In this respect the Court literature of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries stands in very remarkable contrast to that which was tolerated, if not preferred, from the time of Louis the Eleventh until the reign of his successor fourteenth of the name.

Last Chansons. Baudouin de Sebourc.

Reference has already been made to the influence which these poems had on the Chansons de Gestes. Few of the later developments of these are worth much attention, but what may be called the last original Chanson deserves some notice. Baudouin de Sebourc108 and its sequel the Bastard of Bouillon109 worthily close this great division of literature, and, setting as they do a finish to the sub-cycle of the Chevalier au Cygne, hardly lose except in simplicity by comparison with its magnificent opening in the Chanson d'Antioche. They contain together some 33,000 verses, and the scene changes freely. It is sometimes in Syria, where the Crusaders fight against the infidel, sometimes in France and Flanders, where Baudouin has adventures of all kinds, comic and chivalrous, sometimes on the sea, where among other things the favourite mediaeval legend of St. Brandan's Isle is brought in. Not a little of its earlier part shows the sarcastic spirit common at the date of its composition, the beginning of the fourteenth century. The length of the two poems is enormous, as has been said; but, putting two or three masterpieces aside, no poem of mediaeval times has a more varied and livelier interest than Baudouin de Sebourc, and few breathe the genuine Chanson spirit of pugnacious piety better than Le Bastart de Bouillon.

91 Ed. Schéler. Brussels, v. d.

92 Ed. van Hasselt. Brussels, 1866.

93 The wooden horse.

94 The Songe d'Enfer and the Voie de Paradis, published by Jubinal, as the Roman des Eles has been by Schéler, Méraugis by Michelant, and the Vengeance de Raguidel by Hippeau.

95 Ed. Crapelet. Paris, 1834.

96 Ed. Du Méril. Paris, 1856.

97 Ed. Brunet et Montaiglon. Paris, 1856.

98 Ed. Michelant. Paris, 1867.

99 Ed. Meyer. Paris, 1875.

100 Ed. Michelant. Paris, 1876.

101 Ed. Hippeau. Paris, 1863.

102 Ed. Hippeau. Paris, 1860.

103 Ed. Förster. Halle, 1877.

104 Ed. Stengel. Tübingen, 1873.

105 Both edited in extract by Bordier. Paris, 1869. Complete edition begun by Suchier. Paris, 1884.

106 Ed. Hofmann and Muncker. Halle, 1880.

107 Ed. Michel.

108 Ed. Boca. 2 vols. Valenciennes, 1841.

109 Ed. Schéler. Brussels, 1877.

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