1902 Encyclopedia > France > Early Prose History

(Part 37)


Early Prose History

In France, as in all other counties of whose literary developments we have any record, literature in prose is considerably later than literature in verse. We have certain glosses or vocabularies possibly dating as far back as the 8th or even the 7th century; we have the Strasburg oaths, already descri9bed, of the 9th, and a commentary on the prophet Jonas which its probably as early. In the 10th century there are some charters and muniments in the vernacular; of the 11th the laws of William the Conqueror are the most important document; while the Assises de Jerusalem of Godgrey of Bouillon date, though not in the form in which we now possess them, from the same age. The 12th century gives us certain translations of the Scriptures, and the remarkable Arthurian romances already alluded to; and thenceforward French prose, though long less favoured than verse, begins to grow in importance. History, as is natural, was the first subject which gave it a really satisfactory opportunity of developing its powers. For a time the French chronicles contended themselves with Latin prose or with French verse, after the fashion of Wace and Philippe Mouskés. But soon chronicles, first translated then original, became common; the earliest of all is said to have been that of the Pseudo-Turpin, which thus recovered in prose the language which had originally clothes it in verse, and which to gain a false appearance of authenticity it had exchanged for Latin. Then came French selections and versions from the great series of historical compositions undertaken by the monks of St Denys, the so-called Grandes Chroniques de France. But the first really remarkable author who used French prose as a vehicle of historical expression is Geoffroi de Villehardouin, marshal of Champagne, who was born towards the middle of the 12th century , and died in Greece in 1213. Under the title of Conquéte de Constantinoble Villehardouin has left us a history of the fourth crusade, which has been accepted by all competent judges as the best picture extant of feudal chivalry in its prime. The Conquéte de Constantinoble has been well called a chanson de geste in prose, and indeed the surprising nature of the feats it celebrates, the abundance of detail, and the vivid and picturesque poetry of the narration, equal the very best of the chansons. Even the repetition of the same phrases which is characteristic of epic poetry repeats itself in this epic prose; and as in the chansons so in Villehardouin, few motives appear but religious fervour and the love of fighting, though neither of these excludes a lively appetite for booty and a constant tendency of disunion and disorder. Villehardouin was continued by Henri de Valenciennes, whose work is less remarkable, and has more the appearance of a rhymed chronicle thrown into prose, a process which is known to have been actually applied in some cases. Nor in the transition from Villehardouin to Joinville (considerable in point of time, fro Joinville was not born till ten years after Villehardouin’s death) in point of literary history immediate. The rhymed chronicles of Philippe Mouskés and Guillaume Guiart belong to this interval; and in prose the most remarkable works are the Chronique de Reims, a well-written history, having the interesting characteristic of taking the lay and popular side, and the great work (977-1209) attributed to Baudouin d’Avesnes, and written both in French and Latin. Joinville, whose special subject is the Life of St Louis, is far more modern than even the half-century which separate him from Villehardouin would lead us to suppose. There is nothing of the knight-errant about him personally notwithstanding his devotion of his hero. Our lady of the Broken Lances is far from being his favourite saint. He is an admirable writer, but far less simple than Villehardouin; the good King Louis tries in vain to make him share his own rather highflown devotion. Joinville is shrewd, practical, there is even a touch of the Voltairian about him; but he, unlike his predecessor, has political ideas and antiquarian curiosity, and his descriptions are often very creditable pieces of deliberate literature.

It is very remarkable that each of the three last centuries of feudalism should have had one specially and extraordinarily gifted chronicler to describe it. What Villehardouin is to the 12th and Joinville to the 13th century, that Froissart is to the 14th. His picture is the most famous as it is the most varied of the three, but it has special drawbacks as well as special merits. French critics have indeed been scarcely fair to Froissart, because of his early partiality to our own nation in the great quarrel of the time, forgetting that there was really no reason why he as a Hainaulter should take the French side. But there is no doubt that if the duty of an historian is to take in all the political problems of his time. Froissart certainly comes short of it. Although the feudal state in which knights and churchmen were alone of estimation was at the point of death, and though new orders of society were becoming important, though the distress and confusion of a transition state were evident to all, Froissart takes no notice of them. Society is still to him all knights and ladies, tournaments, skirmishes, and feasts. He depicts these, not like Joinville, still less like Villehardouin, as a sharer in them, but with the facile and picturesque pen of a sympathizing literary onlooker. As the comparison of the Conquéte de Constantinoble with a chanson de geste is inevitable, so is that of Froissart’s Chronique with a roman d’aventures.

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