1902 Encyclopedia > France > Provençal Literature

(Part 38)


Provençal Literature

No account of French mediaeval literature would be complete without at least some reference to the literary products of the Langue d’Oc. Provençal literature will receive separate treatment elsewhere, and here our chief business is to contrast briefly its developments with those of the Langue d’Oil. The older belief of the antecedence and originality of the troubadours has indeed been shown of late years to be false, and all evidence goes to prove that trouvére and troubadour were in the main independent of each other; while the creations of the former, if less artistically elaborate, were more varied, more considerable, and more fertile in their developments. The chanson de geste, the Arthurian romance, the fabliau, the allegoric poems of the type of the Renart and the Rose, the prose chronicle, the mystery, the farce, belong to the north; and the first developments of the epic in particular appear to have actually preceded the composition of finished literature in the south. The earliest accents of the troubadours are only heard at the extreme end of the 11th century. By the end of the 14th, less in consequence of the Albigensian crusade than of the political changes which that crusade than of the political changes which that crusade eventually caused, they ceased. The 300 years between these terms were occupied by a literature more rich than varied. It is, however, too often forgotten that the literature of the Lnague O’Oc is by no means confined to the productions of these famous minstrels. Two centuries before William of Poitiers, the earliest singer of the class (fl. 1087-1127), was written the Provençal poem on Boetius, the oldest monument that we have. It was, moreover, long after the extinction of the troubadour class that Provençal ceased for a time, except at long intervals, to be used as a literary language. But though the identification of Provençal literature with the lyric products of the troubadours is not scientifically correct, it is at least not destitute of a certain excuse. In this poetry alone are found works of an individual savour and a lasting interest, and had it not been for this, Provençal would have run the risk of being regarded as a mere dialect, perhaps even a patois. A few romances and tales, and the metrical chronicle describing the Albigensian wars, sum up the longer compositions of the troubadours. On the other hand, their lyrical fecundity was extremely great, and their versification was most elaborate and correct, but their subjects were very limited. Love, war, and satire, almost exhaust the list. The satire, moreover, is for the most part of a purely personal character, and entirely lacks the diversified historical and social interest which distinguishes the satirical poems of the Langue d’Oil. Nor are the war songs of the troubadours extremely numerous, the chief writer of them being the famous Bertrand de Born. Certain moral or didactic poems of their authorship also exist, but the bulk of their compositions deals with the subject of love, and deals with it in a manner for which, while its sweetness and grace have been universally recognized, the most ardent champions of the literary achievements of Provence and Languedoc have not been able to claim variety, vigour, or even, in the majority of cases, passion and truth. The alba, the serena, the pastorela, are alike open to the charge of monotony which has been brought against the northern equivalent of the latter, the pastourelle. The planh or complaint is also somewhat of a monotonous and unreal character; the tenson or verse dialogue and the ensenhamen or didactic epistle are apt to be dull; and the sirventé or satirical poem, though spirited enough, is apt, as we have said, to degenerate into the mere lampoon. So much for the disadvantages of Provençal verse, disadvantages which would scarcely require notice but for the contrast they present to the corresponding advantages of northern poetry. On the other hand, in its peculiar and somewhat limited way, Provençal poetry and the spirit which it expresses surpass anything which can be paralleled with them in northern French up to the date of their disappearance. The latter, except in the 15th and 16th centuries, and in our own time, has always been deficient in impassioned amatory poetry, while, on the other hand, the anonymous alba, "En un vergier sotz folha d’albespi," which Mr Swinburne has finely paraphrased, stands at the head of almost all poetry of this class; and many of the fancies of the troubadours, such as the love of Geoffroi Rudel for the Lady of Tripoli have fixed themselves durably in the literary imagination of Europe. But the great glory of the troubadours was their strenuous and successful attention to the formal part of poetry. Assisted by the melodious if somewhat monotonous cadences and terminations of their language, they framed most intricate and elaborate systems of verse and rhyme, which undoubtedly served as a stimulus to the trouvéres their neighbours, and were very probably models for the creations in poetical form of the 14th century, such as the virelai, the rondel, the rondeau, the ballade, and the chant royal. The beauty and grace of Provençal poetry, and the melancholy fate of the nation which produced it, have naturally attracted much interest. But it must be remembered that the Albigensian crusade by no means, as in sometimes held, stamped out the troubadours. They continued for nearly a century after it to be prolific; and their extinction, though partly traceable to political causes, was in all probability equally owing to the inherent defects of their poetry, especially its lack of range. Soon afterwards Provençal ceased for 300 years to be, except fitfully and at long intervals, a literary language. In our own time a band of zealous devotees have attempted to revive it in that character, with what permanent success remains to be seen.

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