1902 Encyclopedia > France > Chansons de Gestes

France
(Part 27)




FRENCH LITERATURE (cont.)

Chansons de Gestes


Early French narrative poetry was divided by one of its own writers under three heads, -- poems relating to French history, poems relating to ancient history, and poems of the Arthurian cycle. To the first only is the term chansons de gestes in strictness applicable. The definition of it goes partly by form and partly by matter. A chanson de geste must be written in verses either of ten or twelve syllables, the former being the earlier. These verses have a regular caesura, which, like the end of a line, carries with it the licence of a mute e. The lines are arranged, not in couplets or in stanzas of equal length, but in laisses or tirades, consisting of any number of lines from half a dozen to some hundreds.

The lines are, in the earlier examples, assonanced, -- that is to say, the vowel sound of the last syllables is identical, but the consonants need not agree. Thus, for instance, the final words of a tirade of Amis et Amiles (I. 199-206) are erbe, nouvelle, selles, nourvelles, traversent, arrestent, querre, contége. Sometimes the tirade is completed by a shorter line, and the later chansons de geste must be concerned with some event which is, or is supposed to be, historical and French. The tendency of the trouvéres was constantly to affiliate their heroes on a particular gestes are those of Charlemagne himself, of Doon de Mayence, and of Garin de Monglane; but there are not a few chansons, notably those concerning the Lorrainers, and the remarkable series sometimes called the Chevalier au Cygne, and dealing with the crusades, which lie outside these groups. By this joint definition of form and subject the chansions de gestes are separated from the romances of antiquity, from the romances of the Round Table, which are written in octosyllabic couplets, and from the romans d’aventures or later fictitious tales, some of which, such as Brun de la Montaigne, are written in pure chansion form.

Not the least remarkable point about the chansons de gestes is their vast-extent. Their number, according to the strictest definition, exceeds 100, and the length of each chanson varies from 1000 lines, or thereabouts, to 20,000 or even 30,000. The entire mass, including, it may be supposed, the various versions and extensions of each chanson, is said to amount to between two and three million lines; and when some twenty years ago the publication of the Carlovingian cycle was projected, it was estimated, taking the earliest versions alone, at over 300,000. The successive developments of the chansons de gestes may be illustrated by the fortunes of Huon de Bordeaux, one of the most lively, varied, and romantic of the older epics, and one which is interesting from the use made of it by Shakespeare, Wieland, and Weber. In the oldest form now extant, though even this is probably not the original, Huon consists of over 10,000 lines. A subsequent version contains 4000 more; and lastly, in the 14th century, a later poet has amplified the legend to the extent of 30,000 lines. When this point had been reached, Huon began to be turned into prose, and with many of his fellows was published and republished during the 15th and subsequent centuries, and retains, in the form of a roughly printed chap-book, the favour of the country districts of France to the present day. It is not, however, in the later versions that the special characteristics of the chansons de gestes are to be looked for. Of those which we possess, one and one only, the Chanson de Roland, belongs in its present form to the 11th century. Their date of production extends, speaking roughly, from the 11th to the 14th century, their palmy days from the 11th to the 12th. After this latter period the Arthurian romances, with more complex attractions, became their rivals, and induced their authors to make great changes in their style and subject. But for a time they reigned supreme, and no better instance of their popularity can be given than the fact that manuscripts of them exist, not merely in every French dialect, but in many cases in a strange macaronic jargon of mingled French and Italian. Two classes of persons were concerned in them. There was the trouvére who composed them, and the jongleur who carried them about in manuscript or in his memory form castle to castle and sang them, intermixing frequent appeals to his auditory for silence, declarations of the novelty and the strict copyright character of the chanson, revilings of rival minstrels, and frequently requests for money in plain words. Not a few of the manuscripts which we now possess appear to have been actually used by the jongleur. But the names of the authors, the trouvéres who actually composed them, are in very few cases known, those of copyists, continuators, and mere possessors of manuscripts having been often mistaken for them.

The moral and poetical peculiarities of the older and more authentic of these chansons are strongly marked, though perhaps not quite so strongly as some of their encomiasts have contended, and as may appear to a reader of the most famous of them, the Chanson de Roland, alone. In that poem, indeed, war and religion are the sole motives employed, and its motto might be two lines from another of the finest chansons (Aliscans, 161-2):--

"Dist á Bertran: ‘N’avons mais nul losir
Tant ke vivons alons paiens ferir.’"

In Roland there is no love-making whatever, and the hero’s betrothed "la belle Aude" appears only in a casual gibe of her brother Oliver, and in the incident of her sudden death at the news of Roland’s fall. M. Léon Gautier and others have drawn the conclusion that this stern and masculine character was a feature of all the older chansons, and that imitation of the Arthurian romance is the cause of its disappearance. This seems rather a hasty inference. In Amis et Amile, admittedly a poem of old date, the parts of Bellicent and Lubias are prominent, and the former is demonstrative enough. In Aliscans the part of the Countess Guibourc is both prominent and heroic, and is seconded by that of Queen Blancheflor and her daughter Aelis. We might also mention Oriabel in Jourdans de Blaivies and others. But it may be admitted that the sex which fights and counsels plays the principal part, that love adventures are not introduced at any great length, and that the lady usually spares her knight the trouble and possible indignities of wooing. The characters of a chanson of the older style are somewhat uniform. There is the hero who is unjustly suspected of guilt or sore beset by Saracens, the heroine who falls in love with him, the traitor who accuses him or delays help, who is almost always of the lineage of Ganelon, and whose ways form a very curious study. There are friendly paladins and subordinate traitors; there is Charlemagne (who bears throughout the marks of the epic king common to Arthur and Agamemnon, but is not in the earlier chanson the incapable and venal dotard which he becomes in the later), and with Charlemagne generally the duke Naimes of Bavaria, the one figure who is invariably wise, brave, loyal, and generous. In a few chansons there is to be added to these a very interesting class of personages who, though of low birth or condition, yet rescue the high-born knights from their enemies. Such are Rainoart in Aliscans, Gautier in Gaydon, Robastre in Gaufrey, Varocher in Macaire. These subjects, uniform rather than monotonous, are handled with great uniformity if not monotony of style. There are constant repetitions, and it sometimes seems, and may sometimes to be the case, that the text is a mere cento of different and repeated versions. But the verse is generally harmonious and often stately. The recurrent assonances of the endless tirade soon impress the ear with a grateful music, and occasionally, and far more frequently than might be thought, passages of high poetry, such as the magnificent Granz doel por la mort de Rollant, appear to diversity the course of the story. The most remarkable of the chansons are Roland, Aliscans, Gerard de Roussillon, Amis et Amile, Raoul de Cambrai, Garin le Loherain and its sequel, Les quatre Fils Aymon, Les Saisnes (recounting the war of Charlemagne with Witekind), and lastly, Le Chevalier au Cygne, which is not a single poem but a series, dealing with the earlier crusades. It is remarkable that one chanson and one only, Floovant, deals with Merovingian times. But the chronology, geography, and historic facts of nearly all are, it is hardly necessary to say, mainly arbitrary.





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