A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 3.

Provençal Literature.

Langue d'Oc.

The Romance language, spoken in the country now called France, has two great divisions, the Langue d'Oc and the Langue d'Oil44, which stand to one another in hardly more intimate relationship than the first of them does to Spanish or Italian. In strictness, the Langue d'Oc ought not to be called French at all, inasmuch as those who spoke it applied that term exclusively to Northern speech, calling their own Limousin, or Provençal, or Auvergnat. At the time, moreover, when Provençal literature flourished, the districts which contributed to it were in very loose relationship with the kingdom of France; and when that relationship was drawn tighter, Provençal literature began to wither and die. Yet it is not possible to avoid giving some sketch of the literary developments of Southern France in any history of French literature, as well because of the connection which subsisted between the two branches, as because of the altogether mistaken views which have been not unfrequently held as to that connection. Lord Macaulay45 speaks of Provençal in the twelfth century as 'the only one of the vernacular languages of Europe which had yet been extensively employed for literary purposes;' and the ignorance of their older literature which, until a very recent period, distinguished Frenchmen has made it common for writers in France to speak of the Troubadours as their own literary ancestors. We have already seen that this supposition as applied to Epic poetry is entirely false; we shall see hereafter that, except as regards some lyrical developments, and those not the most characteristic, it is equally ill-grounded as to other kinds of composition. But the literature of the South is quite interesting enough in itself without borrowing what does not belong to it, and it exhibits not a few characteristics which were afterwards blended with those of the literature of the kingdom at large.

Range and characteristics.

The domain of the Langue d'Oc is included between two lines, the northernmost of which starts from the Atlantic coast at or about the Charente, follows the northern boundaries of the old provinces of Perigord, Limousin, Auvergne, and Dauphiné, and overlaps Savoy and a small portion of Switzerland. The southern limit is formed by the Pyrenees, the Gulf of Lyons, and the Alps, while Catalonia is overlapped to the south-west just as Savoy is taken in on the north-east. This wide district gives room for not a few dialectic varieties with which we need not here busy ourselves. The general language is distinguished from northern French by the survival to a greater degree of the vowel character of Latin. The vocabulary is less dissolved and corroded by foreign influence, and the inflections remain more distinct. The result, as in Spanish and Italian, is a language more harmonious, softer, and more cunningly cadenced than northern French, but endowed with far less vigour, variety, and freshness. The separate development of the two tongues must have begun at a very early period. A few early monuments, such as the Passion of Christ46 and the Mystery of the Ten Virgins47, contain mixed dialects. But the earliest piece of literature in pure Provençal is assigned in its original form to the tenth century, and is entirely different from northern French48. It is arranged in laisses and assonanced. The uniformity, however, of the terminations of Provençal makes the assonances more closely approach rhyme than is the case in northern poetry. Of the eleventh century the principal monuments are a few charters, a translation of part of St. John's Gospel, and several religious pieces in prose and verse. Not till the extreme end of this century does the Troubadour begin to make himself heard. The earliest of these minstrels whose songs we possess is William IX, Count of Poitiers. With him Provençal literature, properly so called, begins.

Periods of Provençal Literature.

The admirable historian of Provençal literature, Karl Bartsch, divides its products into three periods; the first reaching to the end of the eleventh century, and comprising the beginnings and experiments of the language as a literary medium; the second covering the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the most flourishing time of the Troubadour poetry, and possessing also specimens of many other forms of literary composition; the third, the period of decadence, including the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and remarkable chiefly for some religious literature, and for the contests of the Toulouse school of poets. In a complete history of Provençal literature notice would also have to be taken of the fitful and spasmodic attempts of the last four centuries to restore the dialect to the rank of a literary language, attempts which have never been made with greater energy and success than in our own time49, but which hardly call for notice here.

First Period.

The most remarkable works of the first period have been already alluded to. This period may possibly have produced original epics of the Chanson form, though, as has been pointed out, no indications of any such exist, except in the solitary instance of Girartz de Rossilho. The important poem of Auberi of Besançon on Alexander is lost, except the first hundred verses. It is thought to be the oldest vernacular poem on the subject, and is in a mixed dialect partaking of the forms both of north and south. Hymns, sometimes in mixed Latin and Provençal, sometimes entirely in the latter, are found early. A single prose monument remains in the shape of a fragmentary translation of the Gospel of St. John. But by far the most important example of this period is the Boethius. The poem, as we have it, extends to 238 decasyllabic verses arranged on the fashion of a Chanson de Geste, and dates from the eleventh century, or at latest from the beginning of the twelfth, but is thought to be a rehandling of another poem which may have been written nearly two centuries earlier. The narrative part of the work is a mere introduction, the bulk of it consisting of moral reflections taken from the De Consolatione.

Second Period.

It is only in the second period that Provençal literature becomes of real importance. The stimulus which brought it to perfection has been generally taken to be that of the crusades, aided by the great development of peaceful civilisation at home which Provence and Languedoc then saw. The spirit of chivalry rose and was diffused all over Europe at this time, and in some of its aspects it received a greater welcome in Provence than anywhere else. For the mystical, the adventurous, and other sides of the chivalrous character, we must look to the North, and especially to the Arthurian legends, and the Romans d'Aventures which they influenced. But, for what has been well called 'la passion souveraine, aveugle, idolâtre, qui éclipse tous les autres sentiments, qui dédaigne tous les devoirs, qui se moque de l'enfer et du ciel, qui absorbe et possède l'âme entière50,' we must come to the literature of the south of France. Passion is indeed not the only motive of the Troubadours, but it is their favourite motive, and their most successful. The connection of this predominant instinct with the elaborate and unmatched attention to form which characterises them is a psychological question very interesting to discuss, but hardly suitable to these pages. It is sufficient here to say that these various motives and influences produced the Troubadours and their literature. This literature was chiefly lyrical in form, but also included many other kinds, of which a short account may be given.

Girartz de Rossilho belongs in all probability to the earliest years of the period, though the only Provençal manuscript in existence dates from the end of the thirteenth century. In the third decade of the twelfth Guillem Bechada had written a poem on the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, which, however, has perished, though the northern cycle of the Chevalier au Cygne may represent it in part. Guillem of Poitiers also wrote a historical poem on the Crusades with similar ill fate. But the most famous of historical poems in Provençal has fortunately been preserved to us. This is the chronicle of the Albigensian War, written in Alexandrines by William of Tudela and an anonymous writer. We also possess a rhymed chronicle of the war of 1276-77 in Navarre, by Guillem Anelier. In connection with the Arthurian cycle there exists a Provençal Roman d'Aventures, entitled Jaufré. The testimony of Wolfram von Eschenbach would appear to be decisive as to the existence of a Provençal continuation of Chrestien's Percevale by a certain Kiot or Guyot, but nothing more is known of this. Blandin de Cornoalha is another existing romance, and so is the far more interesting Flamenca, a lively picture of manners dating from the middle of the thirteenth century. In shorter and slighter narrative poems Provençal is still less fruitful, though Raimon Vidal, Arnaut de Zurcasses, and one or two other writers have left work of this kind. A very few narrative poems of a sacred character are also found, and vestiges of drama may be traced. But, as we have said, the real importance of the period consists in its lyrical poetry, the poetry of the Troubadours. The names of 460 separate poets are given, and 251 pieces have come down to us without the names of their writers. We have here no space for dwelling on individual persons; it is sufficient to mention as the most celebrated Arnaut Daniel, Bernart de Ventadorn, Bertran de Born, Cercamon, Folquet de Marseilha, Gaucelm Faidit, Guillem of Poitiers, Guillem de Cabestanh, Guiraut de Borneilh, Guiraut Riquier, Jaufre Rudel, Marcabrun, Peire Cardenal, Peire Vidal, Peirol, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, Sordel.

Forms of Troubadour Poetry.

The chief forms in which these poets exercised their ingenuity were as follows. The simplest and oldest was called simply vers; it had few artificial rules, was written in octosyllabic lines, and arranged in stanzas. From this was developed the canso, the most usual of Provençal forms. Here the rhymes were interlaced, and the alternation of masculine and feminine by degrees observed. The length of the lines varied. Both these forms were consecrated to love verse; the Sirvente, on the other hand, is panegyrical or satirical, its meaning being literally 'Song of Service.' It consisted for the most part of short stanzas, simply rhyme, and corresponding exactly to one another. The planh or Complaint was a dirge or funeral song written generally in decasyllabics. The tenson or debate is in dialogue form, and when there are more than two disputants is called torneijamens. The narrative Romance existed in Provençal as well as the balada or three-stanza poem, usually with refrain. The retroensa is a longer refrain poem of later date, but in neither is the return of the same rhyme in each stanza necessarily observed, as in the French ballade. The alba is a leave-taking poem at morning, and the serena (if it can be called a form, for scarcely more than a single example exists) a poem of remembrance and longing at eventide. The pastorela, which had numerous sub-divisions, explains itself. The descort is a poem something like the irregular ode, which varies the structure of its stanzas. The sextine, in six stanzas of identical and complicated versification, is the stateliest of all Provençal forms. Not merely the rhymes but the words which rhyme are repeated on a regular scheme. The breu-doble (double-short) is a curious little form on three rhymes, two of which are repeated twice in three four-lined stanzas, and given once in a concluding couplet, while the third finishes each quatrain. Other forms are often mentioned and given, but they are not of much consequence.

The prose of the best period of Provençal literature is of little importance. Its most considerable remains, besides religious works and a few scientific and grammatical treatises, are a prose version of the Chanson des Albigeois, and an interesting collection of contemporary lives of the Troubadours.

Third Period.

The productiveness of the last two centuries of Provençal literature proper has been spoken of by the highest living authority as at most an aftermath. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Arnaut Vidal wrote a Roman d'Aventures entitled Guillem de la Barra. This poet, like most of the other literary names of the period, belongs to the school of Toulouse, a somewhat artificial band of writers who flourished throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, held poetical tournaments on the first Sunday in May, invented or adopted the famous phrase gai saber for their pursuits, and received, if they were successful, the equally famous Golden Violet and minor trinkets of the same sort. The brotherhood directed itself by an art of poetry in which the half-forgotten traditions of more spontaneous times were gathered up.

To this period, and to its latter part, the Waldensian writings entitled La Nobla Leyczon, to which ignorance and sectarian enthusiasm had given a much earlier date, are now assigned. There is also a considerable mass of miscellaneous literature, but nothing of great value, or having much to do with the only point which is here of importance, the distinctive character of Provençal literature, and the influence of that literature upon the development of letters in France generally. With a few words on these two points this chapter may be concluded.

Literary Relation of Provençal and French.
Defects of Provençal Literature.

It may be regarded as not proven that any initial influence was exercised over northern French literature by the literature of the South, and more than this, it may be held to be unlikely that any such influence was exerted. For in the first place all the more important developments of the latter, the Epic, the Drama, the Fabliau, are distinctly of northern birth, and either do not exist in Provençal at all, or exist for the most part as imitations of northern originals. With regard to lyric poetry the case is rather different. The earliest existing lyrics of the North are somewhat later than the earliest songs of the Troubadours, and no great lyrical variety or elegance is reached until the Troubadours' work had, by means of Thibaut de Champagne and others, had an opportunity of penetrating into northern France. On the other hand, the forms which finished lyric adopted in the North are by no means identical with those of the Troubadours. The scientific and melodious figures of the Ballade, the Rondeau, the Chant-royal, the Rondel, and the Villanelle, cannot by any ingenuity be deduced from Canso or Balada, Retroensa or Breu-Doble. The Alba and the Pastorela agree in subject with the Aubade and the Pastourelle, but have no necessary or obvious connection of form. It would, however, be almost as great a mistake to deny the influence of the spirit of Provençal literature over French, as to regard the two as standing in the position of mother and daughter. The Troubadours undoubtedly preceded their Northern brethren in scrupulous attention to poetical form, and in elaborate devices for ensuring such attention. They preceded them too in recognising that quality in poetry for which there is perhaps no other word than elegance. There can be little doubt that they sacrificed to these two divinities, elegance and the formal limitation of verse, matters almost equally if not more important. The motives of their poems are few, and the treatment of those motives monotonous. Love, war, and personal enmity, with a certain amount of more or less frigid didactics, almost complete the list. In dealing with the first and the most fruitful, they fell into the deadly error of stereotyping their manner of expression. Objection has sometimes been taken to the 'eternal hawthorn and nightingale' of Provençal poetry. The objection would hardly be fatal, if this eternity did not extend to a great many things besides hawthorn and nightingales. In the later Troubadours especially, the fault which has been urged against French dramatic literature just before the Romantic movement was conspicuously anticipated. Every mood, every situation of passion, was catalogued and analysed, and the proper method of treatment, with similes and metaphors complete, was assigned. There was no freshness and no variety, and in the absence of variety and freshness, that of vigour was necessarily implied. It may even be doubted whether the influence of this hot-house verse on the more natural literature of the North was not injurious rather than beneficial. Certain it is that the artificial poetry of the Trouvères went (in the persons of the Rondeau and Ballade-writing Rhétoriqueurs of the fifteenth century) the same way and came to the same end, that its elder sister had already trodden and reached with the competitors for the Violet, the Eglantine, and the Marigold of Toulouse.

44 Oc and oil (hoc and hoc illud), the respective terms indicating affirmation. In this chapter the information given is based on a smaller acquaintance at first hand with the subject than is the case in the chapters on French proper. Herr Karl Bartsch has been the guide chiefly followed.

45 Essay on Ranke's History of the Popes.

46 See chap. i.

47 See chap. x.

48 The poem on Boethius. See chap. i.

49 By the school of the so-called Félibres, of whom Mistral and Aubanel are the chief.

50 Moland and Héricault's Introduction to Aucassin et Nicolette. Paris, 1856.


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