The earliest form which finished literature took in France was that of epic or narrative poetry. Towards the middle of the eleventh century certainly, and probably some half-century earlier, poems of regular construction and considerable length began to be written. These are the Chansons de Gestes, so called from their dealing with the Gestes17, or heroic families of legendary or historical France. It is remarkable that this class of composition, notwithstanding its age, its merits, and the abundant examples of it which have been preserved, was one of the latest to receive recognition in modern times. The matter of many of the Chansons, under their later form of verse or prose romances of chivalry, was indeed more or less known in the eighteenth century. But an appreciation of their real age, value, and interest has been the reward of the literary investigations of our own time. It was not till 1837 that the oldest and the most remarkable of them was first edited from the manuscript found in the Bodleian Library18. Since that time investigation has been constant and fruitful, and there are now more than one hundred of these interesting poems known.
The origin and sources of the Chansons de Gestes have been made a matter of much controversy. We have already seen how, from the testimony of historians and the existence of a few fragments, it appears that rude lays or ballads in the different vernacular tongues of the country were composed and sung if not written down at very early dates. According to one theory, we are to look for the origin of the long and regular epics of the eleventh and subsequent centuries in these rude compositions, first produced independently, then strung together, and lastly subjected to some process of editing and union. It has been sought to find proof of this in the frequent repetitions which take place in the Chansons, and which sometimes amount to the telling of the same incident over and over again in slightly varying words. Others have seen in this peculiarity only a result of improvisation in the first place, and unskilful or at least uncritical copying in the second. This, however, is a question rather interesting than important. What is certain is that no literary source of the Chansons is now actually in existence, and that we have no authentic information as to any such originals. At a certain period — approximately given above — the fashion of narrative poems on the great scale seems to have arisen in France. It spread rapidly, and was eagerly copied by other nations.
The definition of a Chanson de Geste is as follows. It is a narrative poem, dealing with a subject connected with French history, written in verses of ten or twelve syllables, which verses are arranged in stanzas of arbitrary length, each stanza possessing a distinguishing assonance or rhyme in the last syllable of each line. The assonance, which is characteristic of the earlier Chansons, is an imperfect rhyme, in which identity of vowel sound is all that is necessary. Thus traitor, felon, compaingnons, manons, noz, the first, fourth, and fifth of which have no character of rhyme whatever in modern poetry, are sufficient terminations for an assonanced poem, because the last vowel sound, o, is identical. There is moreover in this versification a regular caesura, sometimes after the fourth, sometimes after the sixth syllable; and in a few of the older examples the stanzas, or as they are sometimes called laisses, terminate in a shorter line than usual, which is not assonanced. This metrical system, it will be observed, is of a fairly elaborate character, a character which has been used as an argument by those who insist on the existence of a body of ballad literature anterior to the Chansons. We shall see in the following chapters how this double definition of a Chanson de Geste, by matter and by form, serves to exclude from the title other important and interesting classes of compositions slightly later in date.
The period of composition of these poems extended, speaking roughly, over three centuries. In the eleventh they began, but the beginnings are represented only by Roland, the Voyage de Charlemagne, and perhaps Le Roi Louis. Most and nearly all the best date from the twelfth. The thirteenth century also produces them in great numbers, but by this time a sensible change has come over their manner, and after the beginning of the fourteenth only a few pieces deserving the title are written. They then undergo transformation rather than neglect, and we shall meet them at a later period in other forms. Before dealing with other general characteristics of the early epics of France it will be well to give some notion of them by actual selection and narrative. For this purpose we shall take two Chansons typical of two out of the three stages through which they passed. Roland will serve as a sample of the earliest, Amis et Amiles of the second. Of the third, as less characteristic in itself and less marked by uniform features, it will be sufficient to give some account when we come to the compositions which chiefly influenced it, namely the romances of Arthur and of antiquity.
The Chanson de Roland, the most ancient and characteristic of these poems, though extremely popular in the middle ages19, passed with them into obscurity. The earliest allusion to the Oxford MS., which alone represents its earliest form, was made by Tyrwhitt a century ago. Conybeare forty years later dealt with it in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1817, and by degrees the reviving interest of France in her older literature attracted French scholars to this most important monument of the oldest French. It was first published as a whole by M. F. Michel in 1837, and since that time it has been the subject of a very great amount of study. Its length is 4001 decasyllabic lines, and it concludes with an obscure assertion of authorship, publication or transcription by a certain Turoldus20. The date of the Oxford MS. is probably the middle of the twelfth century, but its text is attributed by the best authorities to the end of the eleventh. There are other MSS., but they are all either mutilated or of much later date. The argument of the poem is as follows:—
Charlemagne has warred seven years in Spain, but king Marsile of Saragossa still resists the Christian conqueror. Unable however to meet Charlemagne in the field, he sends an embassy with presents and a feigned submission, requesting that prince to return to France, whither he will follow him and do homage. Roland opposes the reception of these offers, Ganelon speaks in their favour, and so does Duke Naimes. Then the question is who shall go to Saragossa to settle the terms. Roland offers to go himself, but being rejected as too impetuous, suggests Ganelon — a suggestion which bitterly annoys that knight and by irritating him against Roland sows the seeds of his future treachery. Ganelon goes to Marsile, and at first bears himself truthfully and gallantly. The heathen king however undermines his faith, and a treacherous assault on the French rearguard when Charlemagne shall be too far off to succour it is resolved on and planned. Then the traitor returns to Charles with hostages and mighty gifts. The return to France begins; Roland is stationed to his great wrath in the fatal place, the rest of the army marches through the Pyrenees, and meanwhile Marsile gathers an enormous host to fall upon the isolated rearguard. There is a long catalogue of the felon and miscreant knights and princes that follow the Spanish king. The pagan host, travelling by cross paths of the mountains, soon reaches and surrounds Roland and the peers. Oliver entreats Roland to sound his horn that Charles may hear it and come to the rescue, but the eager and inflexible hero refuses. Archbishop Turpin blesses the doomed host, and bids them as the price of his absolution strike hard. The battle begins and all its incidents are told. The French kill thousands, but thousands more succeed. Peer after peer falls, and when at last Roland blows the horn it is too late. Charlemagne hears it and turns back in an agony of sorrow and haste. But long before he reaches Roncevaux Roland has died last of his host, and alone, for all the Pagans have fallen or fled before him.
The arrival of Charlemagne, his grief, and his vengeance on the Pagans, should perhaps conclude the poem. There is however a sort of afterpiece, in which the traitor Ganelon is tried, his fate being decided by a single combat between his kinsman Pinabel and a champion named Thierry, and is ruthlessly put to death with all his clansmen who have stood surety for him. Episodes properly so called the poem has none, though the character of Oliver is finely brought out as contrasted with Roland's somewhat unreasoning valour, and there is one touching incident when the poet tells how the Lady Aude, Oliver's sister and Roland's betrothed, falls dead without a word when the king tells her of the fatal fight at Roncevaux. The following passage will give an idea of the style of this famous poem. It may be noticed that the curious refrain Aoi has puzzled all commentators, though in calling it a refrain we have given the most probable explanation:—
Rollanz s'en turnet, par le camp vait tut suls
cercet les vals e si cercet les munz;
iloec truvat Ivorie et Ivun,
truvat Gerin, Gerer sun cumpaignun,
iloec truvat Engeler le Gascun
e si truvat Berenger e Orun,
iloec truvat Anseïs e Sansun,
truvat Gérard le veill de Russillun:
par un e un les ad pris le barun,
al arcevesque en est venuz atut,
sis mist en reng dedevant ses genuilz.
li arcevesque ne poet muër n'en plurt;
lievet sa main, fait sa beneïçun;
aprés ad dit 'mare fustes, seignurs!
tutes voz anmes ait deus li glorïus!
en pareïs les mete en seintes flurs!
la meie mort me rent si anguissus,
ja ne verrai le riche emperëur.'
Rollanz s'en turnet, le camp vait recercer;
desoz un pin e folut e ramer
sun cumpaignun ad truved Oliver,
cuntre sun piz estreit l'ad enbracet.
si cum il poet al arcevesque en vent,
sur un escut l'ad as altres culchet;
e l'arcevesque l'ad asols e seignet.
idonc agreget le doel e la pitet.
ço dit Rollanz 'bels cumpainz Oliver,
vos fustes filz al bon cunte Reiner,
ki tint la marche de Genes desur mer;
pur hanste freindre e pur escuz pecier
e pur osberc e rompre e desmailler,
[pur orgoillos veintre e esmaier]
e pur prozdomes tenir e conseiller
e pur glutuns e veintre e esmaier
en nule terre n'ot meillor chevaler.'
Li quens Rollanz, quant il veit morz ses pers
e Oliver, qu'il tant poeit amer,
tendrur en out, cumencet a plurer,
en sun visage fut mult desculurez.
si grant doel out que mais ne pout ester,
voeillet o nun, a terre chet pasmet.
dist l'arcevesques 'tant mare fustes, ber.'
Li arcevesques quant vit pasmer Rollant,
dunc out tel doel, unkes mais n'out si grant;
tendit sa main, si ad pris l'olifan.
en Rencesvals ad une ewe curant;
aler i volt, si'n durrat a Rollant.
tant s'esforçat qu'il se mist en estant,
sun petit pas s'en turnet cancelant,
il est si fieble qu'il ne poet en avant,
nen ad vertut, trop ad perdut del sanc.
einz que om alast un sul arpent de camp,
fait li le coer, si est chaeit avant:
la sue mort li vait mult angoissant.
Li quenz Rollanz revient de pasmeisuns,
sur piez se drecet, mais il ad grant dulur;
guardet aval e si guardet amunt:
sur l'erbe verte, ultre ses cumpaignuns,
la veit gesir le nobilie barun,
ço est l'arcevesque que deus mist en sun num;
cleimet sa culpe, si reguardet amunt,
cuntre le ciel amsdous ses mains ad juinz,
si prïet deu que pareïs li duinst.
morz est Turpin le guerreier Charlun.
par granz batailles e par mult bels sermons
cuntre paiens fut tuz tens campïuns.
deus li otreit seinte beneïçun! Aoi.
Quant Rollanz vit l'arcevesque qu'est morz,
senz Oliver une mais n'out si grant dol,
e dist un mot que destrenche le cor:
'Carles de France chevalce cum il pot;
en Rencesvals damage i ad des noz;
li reis Marsilie ad sa gent perdut tot,
cuntre un des noz ad ben quarante morz.'
Li quenz Rollanz veit l'arcevesque a terre,
defors sun cors veit gesir la buëlle,
desuz le frunt li buillit la cervelle.
desur sun piz, entre les dous furcelles,
cruisiedes ad ses blanches mains, les belles.
forment le pleint a la lei de sa terre.
'e, gentilz hom, chevaler de bon aire,
hoi te cumant al glorïus celeste:
ja mais n'ert hume plus volenters le serve.
des les apostles ne fut honc tel prophete
pur lei tenir e pur humes atraire.
ja la vostre anme nen ait doel ne sufraite!
de pareïs li seit la porte uverte!'
As Roland is by far the most interesting of those Chansons which describe the wars with the Saracens, so Amis et Amiles21 may be taken as representing those where the interest is mainly domestic. Amis et Amiles is the earliest vernacular form of a story which attained extraordinary popularity in the middle ages, being found in every language and in most literary forms, prose and verse, narrative and dramatic. This popularity may partly be assigned to the religious and marvellous elements which it contains, but is due also to the intrinsic merits of the story. The Chanson contains 3500 lines, dates probably from the twelfth century, and is written, like Roland, in decasyllabic verse, but, unlike Roland, has a shorter line of six syllables and not assonanced at the end of each stanza. Its story is as follows:—
Amis and Amiles were two noble knights, born and baptized on the same day, who had the Pope for sponsor, and whose comradeship was specially sanctioned by a divine message, and by the miraculous likeness which existed between them. They were however brought up, the one in Berri, the other in Auvergne, and did not meet till both had received knighthood. As soon as they had joined company, they resolved to offer their services to Charles, and did him great service against rebels. Here the action proper begins. The friends arouse the jealousy of Hardré, a felon knight, of Ganelon's lineage and likeness. Hardré engages Gombaud of Lorraine, an enemy of the Emperor, to attack the two friends; but the treason does not succeed, and the traitor, to escape unpleasant enquiries, recommends Charles to bestow his own niece Lubias on Amiles. The latter declares that Amis deserves her better, and to Amis she is married, bearing however no good-will to Amiles for his resignation of her and for his firm hold on her husband's affection. Meanwhile, the daughter of Charles, Bellicent, conceives a violent passion for Amiles, and the traitor Hardré unfortunately becomes aware of the matter. He at once accuses Amiles of treason, and the knight is too conscious of the dubiousness of his cause to be very willing to accept the wager of battle. From this difficulty he is saved by Amis, who comes to Paris from his distant seignory of Blaivies (Blaye), and fights the battle in the name and armour of his friend, while the latter goes to Blaye and plays the part of his preserver. Both ventures are made easier by the extraordinary resemblance of the pair. Amis is successful; he slays Hardré, and then has no little difficulty in saving himself from a forced marriage with Bellicent. This embroglio is smoothed out, and Amiles and Bellicent are happily united. The generous Amis however has not been able to avoid forswearing himself while playing the part of Amiles; and this sin is punished, according to a divine warning, by an attack of leprosy. His wife Lubias seizes the opportunity, procures a separation from him, and almost starves him, or would do so but for two faithful servants and his little son. At last a means of cure is revealed to him. If Amiles and Bellicent will allow their two sons to be slain the blood will recover Amis of his leprosy. The stricken knight journeys painfully to his friend and tells him the hard condition. Amiles does not hesitate, and the following passage tells his deed:—
Li cuens Amiles un petit s'atarja,
vers les anfans pas por pas en ala,
dormans les treuve, moult par les resgarda,
s'espee lieve, ocirre les voldra;
mais de ferir un petit se tarja.
li ainznés freres de l'effroi s'esveilla
que li cuens mainne qui en la chambre entra,
l'anfes se torne, son pere ravisa,
s'espee voit, moult grant paor en a,
son pere apelle, si l'en arraisonna:
'biax sire peres, por deu qui tout forma,
que volez faire? nel me celez vos ja.
ainz mais nus peres tel chose ne pensa.'
'biaux sire fiuls, ocirre vos voil ja
et le tien frere qui delez toi esta;
car mes compains Amis qui moult m'ama,
dou sanc de vos li siens cors garistra,
que gietez est dou siecle.'
'Biax tres douz peres,' dist l'anfes erramment,
'quant vos compains avra garissement,
se de nos sans a sor soi lavement,
nos sommes vostre de vostre engenrement,
faire en poëz del tout a vo talent.
or nos copez les chiés isnellement;
car dex de glorie nos avra en present,
en paradis en irommes chantant
et proierommes Jhesu cui tout apent
que dou pechié vos face tensement,
vos et Ami, vostre compaingnon gent;
mais nostre mere, la bele Belissant,
nos saluëz por deu omnipotent.'
li cuens l'oït, moult grans pitiés l'en prent
que touz pasmez a la terre s'estent.
quant se redresce, si reprinst hardement.
or orroiz ja merveilles, bonne gent,
que tex n'oïstes en tout vostre vivant.
li cuens Amiles vint vers le lit esrant,
hauce l'espee, li fiuls le col estent.
or est merveilles se li cuers ne li ment.
la teste cope li peres son anfant,
le sanc reciut et cler bacin d'argent:
a poi ne chiet a terre.
No sooner has the blood touched Amis than he is cured, and the knights solemnly visit the church where Bellicent and the people are assembled. The story is told and the mother, in despair, rushes to the chamber where her dead children are lying. But she finds them living and in full health, for a miracle has been wrought to reward the faithfulness of the friends now that suffering has purged them of their sin.
This story, touching in itself, is most touchingly told in the Chanson. No poem of the kind is more vivid in description, or fuller of details of the manners of the time, than Amis et Amiles. Bellicent and Lubias, the former passionate and impulsive but loving and faithful, the latter treacherous, revengeful, and cold-hearted, give perhaps the earliest finished portraits of feminine character to be found in French literature. Amis and Amiles themselves are presented to us under so many more aspects than Roland and Oliver that they dwell better in the memory. The undercurrent of savagery which distinguished mediæval times, and the rapid changes of fortune which were possible therein, are also well brought out. Not even the immolation of Ganelon's hostages is so striking as the calm ferocity with which Charlemagne dooms his wife and son as well as his daughter to pay with their lives the penalty of Bellicent's fault; while the sudden lapse of Amis from his position of feudal lordship at Blaye to that of a miserable outcast, smitten and marked out for public scorn and ill-treatment by the visitation of God, is unusually dramatic. Amis et Amiles bears to Roland something not at all unlike the relation of the Odyssey to the Iliad. Its continuation, Jourdains de Blaivies, adds the element of foreign travel and adventure; but that element is perhaps more characteristically represented, and the representation has certainly been more generally popular, in Huon de Bordeaux.
Of the remaining Chansons, the following are the most remarkable. Aliscans (twelfth century) deals with the contest between William of Orange, the great Christian hero of the south of France, and the Saracens. This poem forms, according to custom, the centre of a whole group of Chansons dealing with the earlier and later adventures of the hero, his ancestors, and descendants. Such are Le Couronnement Loys, La Prise d'Orange, Le Charroi de Nimes, Le Moniage Guillaume. The series formed by these and others22 is among the most interesting of these groups. Le Chevalier au Cygne is a title applied directly to a somewhat late version of an old folk-tale, and more generally to a series of poems connected with the House of Bouillon and the Crusades. The members of this bear the separate headings Antioche23, Les Chétifs, Les Enfances Godefroy, etc. Antioche, the first of these, which describes the exploits of the Christian host, first in attacking and then in defending that city, is one of the finest of the Chansons, and is probably in its original form not much later than the events it describes, being written by an eye-witness. The variety of its personages, the vivid picture of the alternations of fortune, the vigour of the verse, are all remarkable. This group is terminated by Baudouin de Sebourc24, a very late but very important Chanson, which falls in with the poetry of the fourteenth century, and the Bastart de Bouillon25. La Chevalerie Ogier de Danemarche26 is the oldest form in which the adventures of one of the most popular and romantic of Charlemagne's heroes are related. Fierabras had also a very wide popularity, and contains some of the liveliest pictures of manners to be found in these poems, in its description of the rough horse-play of the knights and the unfilial behaviour of the converted Saracen princess. This poem is also of much interest philologically27. Garin le Loherain28 is the centre of a remarkable group dealing not directly with Charlemagne, but with the provincial disputes and feuds of the nobility of Lorraine. Raoul de Cambrai29 is another of the Chansons which deal with 'minor houses,' as they are called, in contradistinction to the main Carlovingian cycle. Gérard de Roussillon30 ranks as a poem with the best of all the Chansons. Hugues Capet31, though very late, is attractive by reason of the glimpses it gives us of a new spirit supplanting that of chivalry proper. In it the heroic distinctly gives place to the burlesque. Macaire32, besides being written in a singular dialect, in which French is mingled with Italian, supplies the original of the well-known dog of Montargis. Huon de Bordeaux33, already mentioned, was not only more than usually popular at the time of its appearance, but has supplied Shakespeare with some of the dramatis personae of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Wieland and Weber with the plot of a well-known poem and opera. Jourdains de Blaivies, the sequel to Amis et Amiles, contains, besides much other interesting matter, the incident which forms the centre of the plot of Pericles. Les Quatre Fils Aymon or Renaut de Montauban34 is the foundation of one of the most popular French chap-books. Les Saisnes35 deals with Charlemagne's wars with Witekind. Berte aus grans Piés36 is a very graceful story of womanly innocence. Doon de Mayence37, though not early, includes a charming love-episode. Gérard de Viane38 contains the famous battle of Roland and Oliver. The Voyage de Charlemagne à Constantinople39 is semi-burlesque in tone and one of the earliest in which that tone is perceptible.
In these numerous poems there is recognisable in the first place a distinct family likeness which is common to the earliest and latest, and in the second, the natural difference of manners which the lapse of three hundred years might be expected to occasion. There is a sameness which almost amounts to monotony in the plot of most Chansons de Gestes: the hero is almost always either falsely accused of some crime, or else treacherously exposed to the attacks of Saracens, or of his own countrymen. The agents of this treachery are commonly of the blood of the arch-traitor Ganelon, and are almost invariably discomfited by the good knight or his friends and avengers. The part40 which Charlemagne plays in these poems is not usually dignified: he is represented as easily gulled, capricious, and almost ferocious in temper, ungrateful, and ready to accept bribes and gifts. His good angel is always Duke Naimes of Bavaria, the Nestor of the Carlovingian epic. In the earliest Chansons the part played by women is not so conspicuous as in the later, but in all except Roland it has considerable prominence. Sometimes the heroine is the wife, daughter, or niece of Charlemagne, sometimes a Saracen princess. But in either case she is apt to respond without much delay to the hero's advances, which, indeed, she sometimes anticipates. The conduct of knights to their ladies is also far from being what we now consider chivalrous. Blows are very common, and seem to be taken by the weaker sex as matters of course. The prevailing legal forms are simple and rather sanguinary. The judgment of God, as shown by ordeal of battle, settles all disputes; but battle is not permitted unless several nobles of weight and substance come forward as sponsors for each champion; and sponsors as well as principal risk their lives in case of the principal's defeat, unless they can tempt the king's cupidity. These common features are necessarily in the case of so large a number of poems mixed with much individual difference, nor are the Chansons by any means monotonous reading. Their versification is pleasing to the ear, and their language, considering its age, is of surprising strength, expressiveness, and even wealth. Though they lack the variety, the pathos, the romantic chivalry, and the mystical attractions of the Arthurian romances, there is little doubt that they paint, far more accurately than their successors, an actually existing state of society, that which prevailed in the palmy time of the feudal system, when war and religion were deemed the sole subjects worthy to occupy seriously men of station and birth. In giving utterance to this warlike and religious sentiment, few periods and classes of literature have been more strikingly successful. Nowhere is the mere fury of battle better rendered than in Roland and Fierabras. Nowhere is the valiant indignation of the beaten warrior, and, at the same time, his humble submission to providence, better given than in Aliscans. Nowhere do we find the mediæval spirit of feudal enmity and private war more strikingly depicted than in the cycle of the Lorrainers, and in Raoul de Cambrai. Nowhere is the devout sentiment and belief of the same time more fully drawn than in Amis et Amiles.
The method of composition and publication of these poems was peculiar. Ordinarily, though not always, they were composed by the Trouvère, and performed by the Jongleur. Sometimes the Trouvère condescended to performance, and sometimes the Jongleur aspired to composition, but not usually. The poet was commonly a man of priestly or knightly rank, the performer (who might be of either sex) was probably of no particular station. The Jongleur, or Jongleresse, wandered from castle to castle, reciting the poems, and interpolating in them recommendations of the quality of the wares, requests to the audience to be silent, and often appeals to their generosity. Some of the manuscripts which we now possess were originally used by Jongleurs, and it was only in this way that the early Chanson de Geste was intended to be read. The process of hawking about naturally interfered with the preservation of the poems in their original purity, and even with the preservation of the author's name. In very few cases41 is the latter known to us.
The question whether the Chansons de Gestes were originally written in northern or southern French has often been hotly debated. The facts are these. Only three Chansons exist in Provençal. Two of these42 are admitted translations or imitations of Northern originals. The third, Girartz de Rossilho, is undoubtedly original, but is written in the northernmost dialect of the Southern tongue. The inference appears to be clear that the Chanson de Geste is properly a product of northern France. The opposite conclusion necessitates the supposition that either in the Albigensian war, or by some inexplicable concatenation of accidents, a body of original Provençal Chansons has been totally destroyed, with all allusions to, and traditions of, these poems. Such a hypothesis is evidently unreasonable, and would probably never have been started had not some of the earliest students of Old French been committed by local feeling to the championship of the language of the Troubadours. On the other hand, almost all the dialects of Northern French are represented, Norman and Picard being perhaps the commonest43.
The language of these poems, as the extracts given will partly show, is neither poor in vocabulary, nor lacking in harmony of sound. It is indeed, more sonorous and stately than classical French language was from the seventeenth century to the days of Victor Hugo, and abounds in picturesque terms which have since dropped out of use. The massive castles of the baronage, with their ranges of marble steps leading up to the hall, where feasting is held by day and where the knights sleep at night, are often described. Dress is mentioned with peculiar lavishness. Pelisses of ermine, ornaments of gold and silver, silken underclothing, seem to give the poets special pleasure in recording them. In no language are what have been called 'perpetual' epithets more usual, though the abundance of the recurring phrases prevents monotony. The 'clear countenances' of the ladies, the 'steely brands' of the knights, their 'marble palaces,' the 'flowing beard' of Charlemagne, the 'guileful tongue' of the traitors, are constant features of the verbal landscape. From so great a mass of poetry it would be vain in any space here available to attempt to arrange specimen 'jewels five words long.' But those who actually read the Chansons will be surprised at the abundance of fresh striking and poetic phrase.
Before quitting the subject of the Chansons de Gestes, it may be well to give briefly their subsequent literary history. They were at first frequently re-edited, the tendency always being to increase their length, so that in some cases the latest versions extant run to thirty or forty thousand lines. As soon as this limit was reached, they began to be turned into prose, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries being the special period of this change. The art of printing came in time to assist the spread of these prose versions, and for some centuries they were almost the only form in which the Chansons de Gestes, under the general title of romances of chivalry, were known. The verse originals remained for the most part in manuscript, but the prose romances gained an enduring circulation among the peasantry in France. From the seventeenth century their vogue was mainly restricted to this class. But in the middle of the eighteenth the Comte de Tressan was induced to attempt their revival for the Bibliothèque des Romans. His versions were executed entirely in the spirit of the day, and did not render any of the characteristic features of the old Epics. But they drew attention to them, and by the end of the century, University Professors began to lecture on old French poetry. The exertions of M. Paulin Paris, of M. Francisque Michel, and of some German scholars first brought about the re-editing of the Chansons in their original form about half a century ago; and since that time they have received steady attention, and a large number have been published — a number to which additions are yearly being made. Rather more than half the known total are now in print.
17 Gesta or Geste has three senses: (a) the deeds of a hero; (b) the chronicle of those deeds; and (c) the family which that chronicle illustrates. The three chief gestes are those of the King, of Doon de Mayence, and of Garin de Montglane. Each of these is composed of many poems. Contrasted with these are the 'petites gestes,' which include only a few Chansons.
18 La Chanson de Roland, ed. Fr. Michel, Paris, 1837. The MS. is in the Bodleian Library (Digby 23). Another, of much later date in point of writing but representing the same text, exists at Venice. Of later versions there are six manuscripts extant. The Chanson de Roland has since its editio princeps been repeatedly re-edited, translated, and commented. The most exact edition is that of Prof. Stengel, Heilbronn, 1878, who has given the Bodleian Manuscript both in print and in photographic facsimile. The best for general use is that of Léon Gautier (seventh edition), 1877.
19 Wace (Roman de Rou, iii. 8038 Andresen) speaks of the Norman Taillefer as singing at Hastings 'De Karlemaigne et de Rollant.' It has been sought, but perhaps fancifully, to identify this song with the existing chanson.
20 'Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet.' The sense of the word declinet is quite uncertain, and the attempts made to identify Turoldus are futile.
21 Amis et Amiles, ed. Hoffmann. Erlangen, 1852.
22 This series is given, sometimes in whole, sometimes in extracts, by Dr. Jonckbloet, Guillaume d'Orange. The Hague, 1854.
23 Ed. P. Paris. Paris, 1848.
24 Ed. Boca. Valenciennes, 1841.
25 Ed. Schéler. Brussels, 1877.
26 Ed. Barrois. Paris, 1842.
27 There exists a Provençal version of it, evidently translated from the French. The most convenient edition is that of Kroeber and Servois, Paris, 1860. There is an English fourteenth-century version published by Mr. Herrtage for the Early English Text Society, 1879.
28 Published partially by MM. P. Paris and E. du Méril and by Herr Stengel.
29 Ed. Le Glay. Paris, 1840.
30 Ed. Michel. Paris, 1856.
31 Ed. La Grange. Paris, 1864.
32 Ed. Guessard. Paris, 1866.
33 Ed. Guessard et Grandmaison. Paris, 1860.
34 Ed. Michelant. Stuttgart, 1862.
35 Ed. Michel. Paris, 1839.
36 Ed. Schéler. Brussels, 1874.
37 Ed. Pey. Paris, 1859.
38 Ed. Tarbé. Rheims, 1850.
39 Ed. Michel. London, 1836.
40 It is very commonly said that this feature is confined to the later Chansons. This is scarcely the fact, unless by 'later' we are to understand all except Roland. In Roland itself the presentment is by no means wholly complimentary.
41 The Turoldus of Roland has been already noticed. Of certain or tolerably certain authors, Graindor de Douai (revisions of the early crusading Chansons of 'Richard the Pilgrim,' Antioche, &c.), Jean de Flagy (Garin), Bodel (Les Saisnes), and Adenès le Roi, a fertile author or adapter of the thirteenth century, are the most noted.
42 Ferabras and Betonnet d'Hanstone. M. Paul Meyer has recently edited this latter poem under the title of Daurel et Beton (Paris, 1880). To these should be added a fragment, Aigar et Maurin, which seems to rank with Girartz.
43 There has been some reaction of late years against the scepticism which questioned the 'Provençal Epic.' I cannot however say, though I admit a certain disqualification for judgment (see note at beginning of next chapter), that I see any valid reason for this reaction.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00