The Northern Way

Song and Legend From the Middle Ages


Page 1

French Literature of the Middle Ages was produced between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries, having its greatest development in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It must be divided into two sections according to the part of France where it was produced.

I. French Literature proper, or that composed in the northern half of France.

II. Provencal Literature, or that developed in Provence.

The most obvious differences between these is that the Provencal literature had little of the epic and romantic, but developed the lyric extensively, especially lyrics of love.

The following table will show the more important kinds of French Mediæval Literature. (5)

I. Narrative Literature.

1. The National Epics.

2. Romances of Antiquity.

3. Arthurian Romances.

4. Romances of Adventure.

5. Tales and Fables.

6. Chronicles.

II. Didactic Literature.

1. Allegories---The Romance of the Rose.

2. Satires.

3. Homilies, etc.

III. Lyric Literature.

The National Epics.

The French national epics (called Chansons de Gestes, songs of heroic deeds) are those narrative poems which are founded on early French history, and recount the deeds of national heroes. They are, for the most part, based on the deeds of Charlemagne and his nobles. They are peculiar to Northern France. Their date of production extends from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, their best development being in the eleventh and twelfth.

These epic poems number more than one hundred. They vary in length from one thousand to thrity thousand lines. The whole mass is said to contain between two and three million lines. Like all folk epics, they are based upon earlier ballads composed by many different poets. These ballads were never written down and are completely lost. The epic is a compilation and adaptation, presumably by a single poet, of the material of the ballads. In every case the names of the poets of the French epics are lost. They were trouvères and their poems were carried about in memory or in manuscript by the jongleurs or minstrels, and sung from castle to castle and in the market place. The best of them are: The Song of Roland; Amis et Amiles; Aliscans; Gérard de Roussillon; Raoul de Cambrai. Of these the oldest and confessedly the greatest is The Song of Roland, from which our extracts are taken.

The Song of Roland is based upon the following events (the events as narrated in the poem differ widely from those of the actual history): Charlemagne has warred seven years in Spain, when Marsile, king of Saragossa, the only city that has withstood the empeeror, sends a feigned submission. Roland, the king's nephew, offers to go to Saragossa to settle the terms of the treaty. He is rejected as too impetuous, when he suggest that Ganelon go. This bitterly annoys Ganelon, and when he meets Marsile he makes a treacherous plot by which Charlemagne is to be induced to go back to France, with Roland in command of the rear guard. The plan works, and when the advanced party of the French army is out of reach, the Saracens fall upon the rear guard in the pass of Roncevalles and completely destroy it. The death of Roland, the return and grief of the king, and his vengeance on the pagans form the central incident of the poem. Ganelon is afterwards tried for his treachery, condemned, and executed.

The Song of Roland.

Stanza 1.--- The king, our Emperor Carlemaine,

Hath been for seven full years in Spain.

From highland to sea hath he won the land;

City was none might his arm withstand;

Keep and castle alike went down----

Save Saragoss, the mountain town.

The King Marsilius holds the place,

Who loveth not God, nor seeks His grace:

He prays to Apollin, and serves Mahound;

But he saved him not from the fate he found.

King Marsile held a council and decided to offer Charlemagne a feigned submission. Karl summons his council to consider this.

Stanza 8.--- King Karl is jocund and gay of mood,

He hath Cordres city at last subdued;

Its shattered walls and turrets fell

By catapult and mangonel;

Not a heathen did there remain

But confessed himself Christian or else was slain.

The Emperor sits in an orchard wide,

Roland and Olivier by his side:

Samson the duke, and Anseis proud;

Geoffrey of Anjou, whose arm was vowed

The royal gonfalon to rear;

Gerein, and his fellow in arms, Gerier:

With them many a gallant lance,

Full fifteen thousand of gentle France.

The cavaliers sit upon carpets white

Playing at tables for their delight;

The older and sager sit at chess,

The bachelors fence with a light address.

Seated underneath a pine,

Close beside an eglantine,

Upon a throne of beaten gold,

The lord of ample France behold;

White his hair and beard were seen,

Fair of body, and proud of mien,

Who sought him needed not aks, I ween.

And him in all observance greet.


5. This classification is adapted from M. Gaston Paris' excellent sketch La Litterature Francaise au Moyen Age, 1890, and Saintsbury's "Short History of French Literature," 1889.  (back)

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page