1902 Encyclopedia > France > Romans d'Aventures

(Part 30)


Romans d'Aventures

These are the three earliest development of French literature on the great scale. They led, however, to a fourth, which, though later in date than all except their latest forms, is so closely connected with them by literary and social considerations that it had best be mentioned here. This is the roman d’aventures, a title given to those almost avowedly fictitious poems which connect themselves neither with French history, with the Round Table, nor with the heroes of antiquity. These began to be written in the 13th century, and continued until the prose form of fiction became generally preferred. The later forms of the chansons de gestes and the Arthurian poems might indeed be well called romans d’aventures themselves. Hugues Capet, for instance, a chanson in form and class of subject, is certainly one of this latter kind in treatment. But for convenience sake the definition we have given is preferable. The style and subject of these romans d’aventures are naturally extremely various. Guillaume de Palerme deals with the adventures of a Sicilian prince, who is befriended by a were-wolf; Le Roman de l’Escoufle, with a heroine whose ring is carried off by a sparrow-hawk (Escoufle), like Prince Camaralzaman’s talisman; Guy of Warwick, with the well-known slayer of the dun cow; Meraugis de Portléguez is a sort of branch or offshoot of the romances of the Round Table. There is, in short, no possibility of classifying their subjects. The habit of writing in gestes, or of necessarily connecting the new work with an older one, had ceased to be binding, and the instinct of fiction writing was free; yet these romans d’aventures do not rank quite as high in literary importance as the classes which preceded them. This under-valuation arises rather from a lack of originality and distinctness of savour than from any shortcomings in treatment. Their versification, usually octosyllabic of character about them, and their incidents, commonly taken from some preceding fabliau or lai, often strike the reader with something of the sameness but nothing of the naiveté of those of the older poems. Nevertheless some of them attained to a very high popularity, such, for instance, as Partenopex de Blois. With them may be connected a large number of early romances and fictions of various dated in prose and verse, such as Aucassin et Nicolette, Le Chatelain de Coucy, Le Roman de La Violette, and others. This class possesses representatives in Provençal as well as in northern French, some of which, for instance, Flamenca and Jaufrey, are full of interest. But none of those smaller stories in verse, prose, or the two combined, can vie in charm with Aucassin et Nicolette (13th century), in exquisite literary presentment of mediaeval sentiment in its most delightful form.

In these four classes may be said to be summed up the literature of feudal chivalry in France. They were all, except perhaps the last, composed by one class of persons, the trouvérses, and performed by another, the jongleurs. The latter, indeed, sometimes presumed to compose for himself, and was denounced as a troveor botard by the indignant members o the superior caste. They were all originally intended to be performed in the palais marberin of the baron to an audience of knights and ladies, and, when reading became more common, to be read by such persons. They dealt therefore chiefly, if not exclusively, with the class to whom they were addressed. The bourgeois and the villain, personages of political nonentity at the time of their early composition, come in for the slightest possible notice. Occasionally in the few curious instances we have mentioned, persons of a class inferior to the seigneur play an important part, but this is rare. The habit of private wars and of insurrection against the sovereign supply the motives of the chanson de geste, the love of gallantry, adventure, and foreign travel those of the romances Arthurian and miscellaneous. None of these motives much affected the lower classes, who were, with the early developed temper of the middle and lower class Frenchman, already apt to think and speak cynically enough of tournaments, courts, crusades, and the other occupations of the nobility. The communal system was springing up, the towns were receiving royal encouragement as a counterpoise to the authority of the nobles. The corruptions and maladministration of the church attracted the satire rather of the citizens and peasantry who suffered by them, than of the nobles who had less to fear and even something to gain. On the other hand, the gradual spread of learning, inaccurate and ill-digested perhaps, but still learning, not only opened up new classes of subjects, but opened them to new classes of persons. The thousands of students who flocked to the schools of Paris were not all princes or nobles. Hence there arose two new classes of literature, one consisting of the embodiment of learning of one kind or other in the vulgar tongue, and ranging from the half-fabulous histories of the Jerseyman Wace, the Roman de Brut, and the Roman de Rou, to bestiaries such as that of Philippe de Thaun and popular treatises on science and morality. The other, one of the most remarkable developments of sportive literature which the world has seen, produced the second indigenous literary growth of which France can boast, namely, the fabliaux, and the almost more remarkable work which is an immense conglomerate of fabliaux, the great beast-epic of the Roman du Renart.

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