A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 1.

Villon, Comines, and the Later Fifteenth Century.

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Characteristics of Fifteenth-century Literature.

To determine at what period exactly mediaeval literature ceases in France and modern literature begins, is not one of the easiest problems of literary history. It has sometimes been solved by the obvious expedient of making out of the fifteenth century a period of transition, sometimes by continuing the classification of 'mediaeval' until the time when Marot and Rabelais gave unmistakeable evidence of the presence and working of the modern spirit. Perhaps, however, there may, after all, have been something in the instinct which, in words clumsily enough chosen, made Boileau date modern French poetry from Villon153, and there can hardly be any doubt that, as far as spirit if not form goes, modern French prose dates from Comines. These two contemporary authors, moreover, have in them the characteristic which perhaps more than any other distinguishes modern from mediaeval literature, the predominance of the personal element. In their works, especially if Villon be taken with the immediately preceding and partially contemporary Charles d'Orléans, a difference of the most striking kind is noticeable at once. It is not that the prince who served the god Nonchaloir so piously is deficient in personal characteristics or personal attractiveness, but that his personality is still, so to speak, generic rather than individual. He is still the Trouvère of the nobler class, dallying with half-imaginary woes in the forms consecrated by tradition to the record of them. Not so the vagabond whose words after four centuries appeal directly to the spirit of the modern reader. That reader is cut off from Charles d'Orléans' world by a gulf across which he can only project himself by a great effort of study or of sympathetic determination. The barriers which separate him from Villon are slight enough, consisting mostly of trifling changes in language and manners which a little exertion easily overcomes.

The latter portion of the fifteenth century, or, to speak more correctly, its last two-thirds, have frequently been described as a 'dead season' in French literature. The description is not wholly just. Even if, according to the plan just explained, we throw Charles d'Orléans and Antoine de la Salle, two names of great importance, back into the mediaeval period, and if we allow most of the chroniclers who preceded Comines to accompany them, there are still left, before the reign of Francis the First witnessed the definite blooming of the Renaissance in France, the two names of consummate importance which stand at the head of this chapter, a few minor writers of interest such as Coquillart, Baude, Martial d'Auvergne, an interesting group of literary or at least oratorical ecclesiastics, and a much larger and, from a literary point of view, more important group of elaborate versifiers, the so-called grands rhétoriqueurs who preceded the Pléiade in endeavouring to Latinise the French tongue, and whose stiff verse produced by a natural rebound the easy grace of Clément Marot. Each of these persons and groups will demand some notice, and the mention of them will bring us to the Renaissance of which the subjects of this chapter were the forerunners.


François Villon154, or Corbueil, or Corbier, or de Montcorbier, or des Loges, was certainly born at Paris in the year 1431. Of the date of his death nothing certain is known, some authorities extending his life towards the close of the century in order to adjust Rabelais' anecdotes of him155, others supposing him to have died before the publication of the first edition of his works in 1489. That Villon was not his patronymic, whichsoever of his numerous aliases may really deserve that distinction, is certain. He was a citizen of Paris and a member of the university, having the status of clerc. But his youth was occupied in other matters than study. In 1455 he killed, apparently in self-defence, a priest named Philip Sermaise, fled from Paris, was condemned to banishment in default of appearance, and six months afterwards received letters of pardon. In 1456 a faithless mistress, Catherine de Vausselles, drew him into a second affray, in which he had the worst, and again he fled from Paris. During his absence a burglary committed in the capital put the police on the track of a gang of young good-for-nothings among whom Villon's name figured, and he was arrested, tried, tortured, and condemned to death. On appeal, however, the sentence was commuted to banishment. Four years after he was in prison at Meung, consigned thither by the Bishop of Orleans, but the king, Louis the Eleventh, set him free. Thenceforward nothing certain is known of him. He had at one time relations with Charles d'Orléans. Such are the bare facts of his singular life, to which the peculiar character of his work has directed perhaps disproportionate attention. This work consists of a poem in forty stanzas of eight octosyllabic lines (each rhymed a, b, a, b, b, c, b, c) called the Petit Testament156; of a poem in 173 similar stanzas called the Grand Testament, in which about a score of minor pieces, chiefly ballades or rondeaux, are inserted; of a Codicil composed mainly of ballades; of a few separate pieces, and of some ballades in argot, collectively called Le Jargon. Besides these there are doubtful pieces, including a curious work called Les Repues Franches, which describes in octaves like those of the Testaments the swindling tricks of Villon and his companions, an excellent Dialogue between two characters, the Seigneurs de Mallepaye and Baillevent, and a still better Monologue entitled Le Franc Archier de Bagnolet. The Little Testament was written after the affair with Catherine de Vausselles, the Great Testament after his liberation from the Bishop's Prison at Meung. Many of the minor poems contain allusions which enable us to fix them to various events in the poet's life. The first edition of his works was, as has been said, published in 1489. In 1533 he had the honour of having Marot for editor, and up to the date of the Bibliophile Jacob's edition of 1854 (since when there have been several editions), the number had reached thirty-two.

The characteristics of Villon may be looked at either technically or from the point of view of the matter of his work. He had an extraordinary mastery of the most artificial forms of poetry which have ever been employed. The rondel, which Charles d'Orléans wrote with so much grace, he did not use, but his rondeaux are generally exquisite. The ballade, however, was his special province. No writer has ever got the full virtue out of the recurrent rhymes and refrains, which are the special characteristics of the form, as Villon has. No one has infused into a mere string of names, such as his famous Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis and others, such exquisitely poetical effects by dint of an epithet here and there and of a touching burden. But the matter of his verse is in many ways perfectly on a level with its manner. No one excels him in startling directness of phrase, in simple but infinite pathos of expression. Of the former, the sudden cry of the Belle Heaulmière after the recital of her former triumphs —

Que m'en reste-t-il? honte et péché;

and the despairing conclusion of the lover of La Grosse Margot —

Je suis paillard, paillardise me suit —

are examples in point; of the latter the line in the rondeau to Death —

Deux étions et n'avions qu'un cœur.

No one has bolder strokes of the picturesque, as for instance —

De Constantinoble

L'empérier aux poings dorés;

and no one can render the sombre horror of a scene better than Villon has rendered it in the famous epitaph of the gibbeted corpses —

La pluie nous a debués et lavés,

Et le soleil desséchés et noircis,

Pies, corbeaulx nous out les yeux cavés

Et arrachés la barbe et les sourcils.

These are some of Villon's strongest points. Yet in his comparatively limited work — limited in point of bulk and peculiar in style and subject — he has contrived to show perhaps more general poetical power than any other writer who has left so small a total of verse. The note of his song is always true and always sweet; and despite the intensely allusive character of most of it, and the necessary loss of the key to many of the allusions, it has in consequence continued popular through all changes of language and manners. Of very few French poets can it be said as of Villon that their charm is immediate and universal, and the reason of this is that his work is full of touches of nature which are universally perceived, as well as distinguished by consummate art of expression. In the great literature which we are discussing, the latter characteristic is almost universally present, the former not so constantly.


The literary excellence of Comines157 is of a very different kind from that of Villon, but he represents the changed attitude of the modern spirit towards practical affairs almost as strongly as Villon does the change in its relations to art and sentiment. Philippe de Comines was born, not at the château of the same name which was then in the possession of his uncle, but at Renescure, not very far from Hazebrouck. His family name was Vandenclyte, and his ancestors (Flemings, as their name implies) had been citizens of Ghent before they acquired seignorial position and rank. The education of Comines was neglected (he never possessed any knowledge of Latin), and his heritage was heavily encumbered. He was born before 1447, and entered the service of Philip of Burgundy and of his son Charles of Charolais, the future Charles le Téméraire. Comines was present at Montlhéry and at the siege of Liège, while he played a considerable part in the celebrated affair of Péronne, when Louis XI. was in such danger. Before 1471 he had been charged with several important negotiations by Charles, now duke, in France, England, and Spain. But, either personally disobliged by Charles, or, as seems most likely from the Memoirs, presaging with the keen, unscrupulous intelligence of the time the downfall of the headlong prince, he quitted Burgundy and its master in 1472 and entered the service of Louis, from whom he had already accepted a pension. He was richly rewarded, married an heiress in Poitou, and at one time enjoyed the forfeited fief of Talmont, a domain of the first importance, which he afterwards had to restore to its rightful owners, the La Tremouilles. The accession of Charles VIII. was not favourable to him, and, having taken part against the Lady of Beaujeu, he was imprisoned and deprived of Talmont. But with his usual sagacity, he had in the Duke of Orleans, afterwards Louis XII., chosen the representative of the side destined to win in the long run. The Italian wars gave scope to his powers. He was sent to Venice, was present at the battle of Fornovo, and met Machiavelli at Florence. In the reign of Louis XII. he received new places and pensions, and he died in 1511 aged at least sixty-four.

Comines is not a master of style, though at times the weight of his thought and the simplicity of his expression combine to produce an effect not unhappy. He has odd peculiarities of diction, especially inversions of phrase and sudden apostrophes which enliven an otherwise rather awkward manner of writing. Thus, in describing the bad education of the young nobles of his time, he says, 'de nulles lettres ils n'ont connaissance. Un seul sage homme on ne leur met à l'entour.' And in his account of the operations before the battle of Morat he says, 'Il (the Duke of Burgundy) séjourna à Losanne en Savoie où vous monseigneur de Vienne le servîtes d'un bon conseil en une grande maladie qu'il eut de douleur et de tristesse.' On the whole, however, no one would think of reading Comines for the merit, or even the quaintness of his style, nor can he be commended as a vivid, even if an inelegant describer. The gallant shows which excited the imaginations of his predecessors, the mediaeval chroniclers from Villehardouin to Froissart, find in him a clumsy annalist and a not too careful observer. His interest is concentrated exclusively on the turns of fortune, the successes of statecraft, and the lessons of conduct to be noticed in or extracted from the business in hand. With this purpose he is perpetually digressing. The affairs of one country remind him of something that has happened in another, and he stops to give an account of this. To a certain extent the mediaeval influence is still strong on Comines, though it shows itself in connection with evidences of the modern spirit. He is religious to a degree which might be called ostentatious if it were not pretty evidently sincere; and this religiosity is shown side by side with the exhibition of a typically unscrupulous and non-moral, if not positively immoral, statecraft. Again, his reflexions, though usually lacking neither in acuteness nor in depth, are often appended to a commonplace on the mutability of fortune, the error of anger, the necessity of adapting means to ends, and so forth. Everywhere in Comines is evident, however, the anti-feudal and therefore anti-mediaeval conception of a centralised government instead of a loose assemblage of powerful vassals. The favourite mediaeval ideal, of which Saint Simon was perhaps the last sincere champion, finds no defence in Comines; and it seems only just to allow him, in his desertion of the Duke of Burgundy, some credit for drawing from the anarchy of the Bien Public, and from his observations of Germany, England, and Spain, the conclusion that France must be united, and that union was only possible for her under a king unhampered by largely appanaged and only nominally dependent princes. It should be said that the Mémoires of Comines are not a continuous history. The first six books deal with the reign of Louis XI. from 1465 to 1483. But the seventh is busied with Charles the Eighth's Italian wars only, the author having passed over the period of his own disgrace. Besides the Memoirs we possess a collection of Lettres et Négotiations.158


There are three persons who, while of very much less importance than those just introduced to the reader, deserve a mention in passing as characteristic and at the same time meritorious writers, during the second and third quarters of the fifteenth century, the extreme verge of which the life of all three appears to have touched. These are Guillaume Coquillart, Henri Baude, and Martial d'Auvergne. All three were poets, all three have been somewhat over-praised by the scholars who in days more or less recent have drawn them from their obscurity, but all three made creditable head against what was mistaken and absurd in the literary fashions of the time. In the writings of all of them moreover there is to be found something, if not much, which is positively good, and which deserves the attention, hardly perhaps of the general reader, but of students of literature. Coquillart159 was a native, and for great part of his life an inhabitant, of Rheims. The extreme dates given for his birth and death are 1421 and 1510, but there is in reality, as is usual in the case of all men of letters before the sixteenth century, very little solid authority for his biography. It may be mentioned that Marot declares him to have cut short his life by gaming. A life can hardly be said to be cut short at ninety, nor is that an age at which gaming is a frequent ruling passion. All that can be said is that he was certainly, as we should now say, in the civil service of the province of Champagne during the reign of Louis XI., that like many other men of the time he united ecclesiastical with legal functions, being not only a town-councillor but a canon, and that he has left satirical works of some merit and importance. These last alone concern us much. His chief production is a poem entitled Les Droits Nouveaux, in octosyllabic verses, not arranged in stanzas of definite length, but, on the other hand, interlacing the rhymes, and not in couplets after the older fashion. The plan of this poem is by no means easy to describe. It is partly a social satire, partly a professional lampoon on the current methods of learning and teaching law, partly a political diatribe on the alterations introduced into provincial and national life and polity under Louis XI. Not very different in character and exactly similar in form, except that it is arranged as the age would have said par personnages, that is to say semi-dramatically, is the Plaidoyer de la Simple et de la Rusée. The Blason des Armes et des Dames takes up a mediaeval theme in a mediaeval style. The procureurs (advocates) of arms and of ladies endeavour to show each that his client — war or love — deserves the chief attention of a prince. Here, as elsewhere with Coquillart, though of course more covertly, satire dominates. But the best of the pieces attributed to Coquillart are his monologues. There are three of these, the Monologue Coquillart, the Monologue du Puys, and the Monologue du Gendarme Cassé. This last is a ferocious satire on its subject, coarse in language, like most of the author's poems, but full of rude vigour. The professional soldier as distinguished from the feudal militia or the train-bands of the towns was odious to the later middle ages.


Henri Baude160 is a still less substantial figure. He seems to have been an élu (member of a provincial board) for the province of Limousin, but to have lived mostly at Paris. He was born at Moulins towards the beginning of the second quarter of the century, and formed part of the poetical circle of Charles d'Orléans in his old age. He had troubles with lawless seigneurs and with the police of Paris; he finally succeeded in obtaining the protection of the Duke of Bourbon, and he did not die till the end of the century. Only a selection from his poems has yet been published. The chief thing remarkable about them (they are mostly occasional and of no great length) is the plainness, the directness, and, in not a few cases, the elegance of the diction, which differs remarkably from the cumbrous phrases and obscure allusive conceits of the time. Many of them are personal appeals for protection and assistance, others are satirical. Baude had a peculiar mastery of the rondeau form. His rondeau to the king, expressing a sentiment often uttered by lackpenny bards in the days of patrons, is a good example of his style, though it is hardly as simple and devoid of obscurity as usual.

Martial d'Auvergne.

Martial d'Auvergne161, or Martial de Paris (for by an odd chance both of these local surnames are given him, probably from the fact that, like Baude, he was a native of the centre of France and spent his life in the capital), like Coquillart and Baude, was something of a lawyer by profession, and has left work in prose as well as in verse. He certainly died in 1508, and, as he is spoken of as senio confectus, he cannot have been born much later than 1420, especially as his poem, the Vigilles de Charles VII., was written on the death of that prince in 1461. This poem is of considerable extent, and is divided into nine 'Psalms' and nine 'Lessons.' The staple metre is the quatrain, but detached pieces in other measures occur. A complete history of the subject is given, and in some of the digressions there are charming passages, notably one (given by M. de Montaiglon) on the country life. Another very beautiful poem, commonly attributed to Martial, is entitled L'Amant rendu Cordelier au service de l'Amour, a piece of amorous allegory at once characteristic of the later middle ages, and free from the faults usually found in such work. A prose work of a somewhat similar kind, entitled Arrêts d'Amour, is known to be Martial's. In no writer is there to be found more of the better part of Marot, as in the light skipping verses:—

Mieux vault la liesse,

L'accueil et l'addresse,

L'amour et simplesse,

De bergers pasteurs,

Qu'avoir à largesse

Or, argent, richesse,

Ne la gentillesse

De ces grants seigneurs.

Car ils ont douleurs

Et des maulx greigneurs,

Mais pour nos labeurs

Nous avons sans cesse

Les beaulx prés et fleurs,

Fruitages, odeurs

Et joye à nos cœurs

Sans mal qui nous blesse.

There is something of the old pastourelles in this, and of a note of simplicity which French poetry had long lost.

The Rhétoriqueurs.

Such verse as this of Martial d'Auvergne was, indeed, the exception at the time. The staple poetry of the age was that of the grands rhétoriqueurs, as it has become usual to call them, apparently from a phrase of Coquillart's. Georges Chastellain162 was the great master of this school. But to him personally some injustice has been done. His pupils and successors, however, for the most part deserve the ill repute in which they are held. This school of poetry had three principal characteristics. It affected the most artificial forms of the artificial poetry which the fourteenth century had seen established, the most complicated modulations of rhyme, such as the repetition, twice or even thrice at the end of a line, of the same sound in a different sense, and all the other puerilities of this particular Ars Poetica. Secondly, it pursued to the very utmost the tradition of allegorising, of which the Roman de la Rose had established the popularity. Thirdly, it followed the example set by Chartier and his contemporaries of loading the language as much as possible with Latinisms, and in a less degree, because Greek was then but indirectly known, Graecisms. These three things taken together produced some of the most intolerable poetry ever written. The school had, indeed, much vitality in it, and overlapped the beginnings of the Renaissance in such a manner that it will be necessary to take note of it again in the next chapter. Some, however, of its greatest lights belonged to the present period. Such were Robertet, a heavy versifier and the author of letters not easily to be excelled in pedantic coxcombry, who enjoyed much patronage, royal and other; Molinet, a direct disciple of Chastellain, and, like him, of the Burgundian party; and Meschinot (died 1509), a Breton, who has left us an allegorical work on the 'Spectacles of Princes,' and poems which can be read in thirty different ways, any word being as good to begin with as any other. Such also was the father of a better poet than himself, Octavien de Saint Gelais (1466-1502), who died young and worn out by debauchery. Jean Marot, the father of Clément, was a not inconsiderable master of the ballade, and has left poems which do not show to great disadvantage by the side of those of his accomplished son. But the leader of the whole was Guillaume Crétin (birth and death dates uncertain), whom his contemporaries extolled in the most extravagant fashion, and whom a single satirical stroke of Rabelais has made a laughing-stock for some three hundred and fifty years. The rondeau ascribed to Raminagrobis, the 'vieux poète français' of Pantagruel163, is Crétin's, and the name and character have stuck. Crétin was not worse than his fellows; but when even such a man as Marot could call him a poète souverain, Rabelais no doubt felt it time to protest in his own way. Marot himself, it is to be observed, confines himself chiefly to citing Crétin's vers équivoqués, which of their kind, and if we could do otherwise than pronounce that kind hopelessly bad, are without doubt ingenious. His poems are chiefly occasional verse, letters, débats, etc., besides ballades and rondeaux of all kinds.

Chansons du XVème Siècle.

One charming book which has been preserved to us gives a pleasant contrast to the formal poetry of the time. The Chansons du XVème Siècle, which M. Gaston Paris has published for the Old French Text Society164, exhibit informal and popular poetry in its most agreeable aspect. They are one hundred and forty-three in number, some of them no doubt much older than the fifteenth century, but certainly none of them younger. There are pastourelles, war-songs, love-songs in great number, a few patriotic ditties, and a few which may be called pure folksongs, with the story half lost and only a musical tangle of words remaining. Nothing can be more natural and simple than most of these pieces.


Few of the miscellaneous branches of literature at this time deserve notice. But there was a group of preachers who have received attention, which is said by students of the whole subject of the mediaeval pulpit in France to be disproportionate, but which they owe perhaps not least to the citations of them in a celebrated and amusing book of the next age, the Apologie pour Hérodote of Henri Estienne. These are Menot (1440-1518) and Maillard the Franciscans, and Raulin (1443-1514), a doctor of the Sorbonne. These preachers, living at a time which was not one of popular sovereignty, did not meddle with politics as preachers had done in France before and were to do again. But they carried into the pulpit the habit of satirical denunciation in social as well as in purely religious matters, and gave free vent to their zeal. No illustrations of the singular licence which the middle ages permitted on such occasions are more curious than these sermons. Not merely did the preachers attack their audience for their faults in the most outspoken manner, but they interspersed their discourses (as indeed was the invariable custom throughout the whole middle ages) with stories of all kinds. In Raulin, the gravest of the three, occurs the famous history of the church bells, which reappears in Rabelais, à propos of the marriage of Panurge.


Villon sut le premier, dans ces siècles grossiers,

Débrouiller l'art confus de nos vieux romanciers.


Art Poét. Ch. 1.

154 Ed. P. L. Jacob. Paris, 1854. Villon's life has been the subject of numerous elaborate investigations, the latest and best of which is that of A. Longnon. Paris, 1877. Dr. Bijvanck, a Dutch scholar, has dealt since with the MSS.

155 One of these anecdotes makes him patronised by Edward the Fifth of England. But the very terms of it are unsuitable to that king.

156 The reader may be reminded that the Testament was a recognised mediaeval style. It was satirical and allegorical, the legacies which it gave being mostly indicative of the legatee's weaknesses or personal peculiarities.

157 Ed. Chantelauze. Paris, 1881. Also usefully in Michaud et Poujoulat.

158 Ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove. 2 vols. Brussels, 1867-8.

159 Ed. Héricault. 2 vols. Paris, 1857.

160 Edited in part by J. Quicherat. Paris, 1856.

161 Martial d'Auvergne had the exceptional good luck to be reprinted in the 18th century (Vigilles 1724, Arrêts 1731), but he has not recently found an editor, though an edition of the Amant rendu Cordelier has been for some time due from the Société des Anciens Textes. The notice by M. de Montaiglon (the promised editor of the edition just mentioned) in Crepet's Poètes Français, i. 427, has been chiefly used here for facts.

162 Ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, as previously cited. For the remainder of the poets reviewed in this paragraph, few of whom have found modern editors, see Crepet, Poètes Français, vol. i.

163 iii. 21.

164 Paris, 1876.


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