1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Literature: Origins

(Part 26)



The history of French literature in the proper sense of the term can hardly be said to extend further back than 11th century. The actual manuscripts which we possess are seldom of older date than the century subsequent to this. But there is no doubt that by the end at least of the 11th century the French language, as a completely organized medium of literary expression, was in full, varied, and constant use. For many centuries previous to this literature had been composed in France, or by natives of that country, using the term France in its full modern acceptation; but until the 9th century, if not later, the written language of France, as far as we know, was Latin; and despite the practice of not a few literary historians, it does not seem reasonable to notice to notice Latin writings in a history of French literature. Such a history properly busies itself only with the monuments of the French language form the time when the so-called Lingua Romana Rustica assumed a sufficiently independent form to deserve to be called a new language. This time it is indeed impossible exactly to determine and the period at which literary compositions, as distinguished from mere conversation, began to employ the new tongue is entirely unknown, although much ingenuity has been spent on the effort approximately to discover it. The beginnings of literary composition come most naturally from the priest and the poet. As early as the 7th century the Lingua Romana, as distinguished from Latin and from Teuronic dialects, is mentioned, and this Lingua Romana would be of necessity used for purposes of clerical admonition, especially in the country districts, though we need nor suppose that such addressed had a very literary character. On the other hand, the mention at early dates of certain cantilenoe or songs composed in the vulgar language has served for basis to a superstructure of much ingenious arguments, not merely in reference to the chronological question, but also with regard to the highly interesting problem of the origin of the chansons de gestes, the earliest and one of the greatest literary develop0ments of northern French. It is sufficient in this articles, where speculation would be out to place, to mention that only two such cantilenae have been traces, and that neither is French. One of the 9th century, the "Lay of Saucourt," is in a Teutonic dialect; the other, the "Song of St Faron," is of the 7th century, but exists only in Latin prose, the construction and style of which present traces of translation from a poetical and vernacular original. As far as facts go, the most ancient monuments of the written French language consist of a few documents of very various character, ranging in date from the 9th to the 11th century. The oldest gives us the oaths interchanged at Strasburg in 842 between Charles the Bald and Louis the German. The next probably in date and the first in literary merit is a short song celebrating the martyrdom of St Eulalia. The discussion indeed of these short and fragmentary pieces is of more philological than literary, and belongs rather to the head of French language. They are, however, evidence of the progress which, continuing for at least four centuries, built up a literary instrument out of the decomposed and reconstructed Latin of the Roman conquerors, blended with a certain limited amount of contributions from the Celtic and Iberian dialects of the original inhabitants, the Teutonic speech of the Franks, and the Oriental tongue of the Moors who pressed upwards from Spain. All these foreign elements, however, bear a very small proportion to the element of Latin; and as Latin furnished the greater part of the vocabulary and the grammar, so did it also furnish the principal models and helps to literary composition. The earliest French versification is evidently inherited from that of the Latin hymns of the church, and for a certain time Latin originals were followed in the choice of literary forms. But the original impulses of the new nation were too strong to content themselves with mere imitation, and it soon began to create afresh. By the 11th century it is tolerably certain that dramatic attempts were already being made, that lyric poetry was largely cultivated, that laws, charters, and such like documents were written in the vernacular, and that commentators and translators busied themselves with religious subjects and texts. But the most important development of the 11th century, and the one of which we are most certain, is that of which we have evidence remaining in the famous Chanson de Roland, so long hidden except in obscure allusions, and discovered in a manuscript at Oxford some forty years ago. This poem represents the first and greatest development of French literature, the chansons de gestes. The origin of these poems has been hotly debated, and it is only recently that the importance which they really possess has been accorded to them, -- a fact the less remarkable in that, until the last half century, the hundred epics of ancient France were unknown, or known only through late and disfigured prose versions. There had long been a vague idea that Provencal literature preceded the literature which is properly called French, and this idea was helped by the natural prepossessions of Fauriel and Raynouard, the earliest authorities on old French who obtained a wide hearing. The attribution of the chansons de gestes to a Provençal origin necessitates indeed suppositions of the most extravagant character. We possess in round numbers a hundred of these chansons. Three only of them are in Provençal. Two of these, Ferabras and Betomnet d’Hanstonne, are obviously adaptations of French originals. The third , Girartsde Rossilho (Gerard de Roussillon), is undoubtedly Provençal, and is a work of great merit and originality, but its dialect is strongly tinged with the characteristics of the Langue d’Oil, and its author seems to have been a native of the debatable land between the two districts. To suppose under these circumstances that the Provençal originals of the hundred others, or even such Provençal originals as served for models to the trouvéres, were completely and by a process of laborious selection destroyed in the Albigensian crusade, seems one of the most gratuitous hypotheses ever put forward, and would hardly require notice here were it not that it has found some credence in England. In is sufficient to say that not only is the chanson de geste the unquestionable property of northern France, but that it is in all probability older than the oldest troubadour whose works we possess. Nor is there much more authority for another widely entertained supposition that the early French poets merely versified with amplifications the stories of chronicles. On the contrary, chroniclers like Philippe Mouskés and Alberic des Trois Fontaines draw largely form the chansons, and the question of priority between Roland and the pseudo-Turpin, though a hard one to determine, seems to resolve itself in favour of the former.

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