1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Literature - 15th Century

(Part 39)


15th Century

The 15th century holds a peculiar and somewhat disputed position in the history of French literature. It has sometime been regarded as the final stage of the mediaeval period, sometimes as the earliest of the modern, the influence of the Renaissance in Italy already filtering through. Others again have taken the easy step of marking it as an age of transition. There is as usual truth in all these views. Feudality died with Froissart and Eustache Deschamps. The modern spirit can hardly be said to arise before Rabelais and Ronsard. Yet the 15th century, from the point of view of French literature, is much more remarkable than its historians have been wont to confess. It has not the strongly marked and compact originality of some periods, and it furnishes only one name of the highest order of literary interest; but it abounds in names of the second rank, and the very difference which exists between their styles and characters testifies to the existence of a large number of separate forces working in their different manners on different persons. Its theatre we have already treated by anticipation, and to it we shall afterwards recur. It was the palmy time of the early French stage, and all the dramatic styles which we have enumerated then came to perfection. Of no other kind of literature can the same be said. The century which witnessed the invention of printing naturally devoted itself at first more to the spreading of old literature than to the production of new. Yet as it perfected the early drama, so it produced the prose tale. Nor, as regards individual and single names, can the century of Charles d’Orléans, of Alain Chartier, of Christine de Pisan, of Coquillart, of Comines, and above all, of Villon, be said to lack illustrations.

First among the poets of the period falls to be mentioned the shadowy personality of Olivier Basselin. Modern criticism has attacked the identity of the jovial miller, who was once supposed to have written and perhaps invented the songs called vaux de vire, and to have also carried on a patriotic warfare against the English. But though Jeanm le Houx may have written the poems published under Basselin’s name two centuries later, it does not seem unlikely that an actual Olivier wrote actual vaux de vire at the beginning of the 15th century. About Christine de Pisan (1363-1420) and Alain Chartier (1386-1458) there is no such doubt. Christine was the daughter of an Italian astrologer who was patronized by Charles V. She was born in Italy but brought up in France, and she enriched the literature of her adopted country with much learning, good sense, and patriotism. She wrote history, devotional works, and poetry; and though her literary merit is not of the highest, it is very far from despicable. Alain Chartier, best known to modern readers by the story of Margaret of Scotland’s Kiss, was a writer of a somewhat similar character. In both Christine and Chartier there is a great deal of rather heavy moralizing, and a great deal of rather pedantic erudition. But it is only fair to remember that the intolerable political and social evils of the day called for a good deal of moralizing, and that it was the function of the writers of this time to fill up as well as they could the scantily filled vessels of mediaeval science and learning. A very different person is Charles d’Orléans (1391-1465), one of the greatest of grands seigneurs, for he was the father of a king of France and heir to the duchies of Orléeans and Milan. Charles, indeed, was not exactly a hero; captured at Agincourt, he endured his English captivity very patiently, and its chief effect on him was to make him write poems in English. He made little effort to secure or recover his Cisalpine heritage from the rough hands of Sforza, and he seems at no time to have exercised much political influence in France. But if he was not a Roland or a Bayard, he was an admirable poet. He is the best-known and perhaps the best writer of the graceful poems in which an artificial versification is strictly observed, and helps by its recurrent lines and modulated rhymes to give to poetry something of a musical accompaniment even without the addition of music properly so called. His ballades are certainly inferior to those of Villon, but his rondels are unequalled. For full a century and a half these forms engrossed the attention of French lyrical poets. Exercises in them were produced in enormous numbers, and of an excellence which has only recently obtained full recognition even in France. Charles d’Orléans is himself sufficient proof of what can be done in them in the way of elegance, sweetness, and grace. On the other hand, his writings and the exercises to which he was addicted lay him open to a certain charge of effeminacy, which, though it has been much exaggerated, cannot be altogether denied. But that this effeminacy was no natural or inevitable fault of the ballades and the rondeaux was fully proved by the most remarkable literary figure of the 15th century in France. To François Villon (1431-1500), as to other great single writers, no attempt can be made to do justice in this place. His remarkable life and character especially lie outside our subject. But he is universally recognized as the most important single figure of French literature before the Renaissance. His work is very strange in form, the undoubtedly genuine part of it consisting merely of two compositions, known as the great and little Testament, written in stanzas of eight lines of eight syllables each, with lyrical compositions in ballade and rondeau form interspersed. Nothing in old French literature can compare with the best of these, such as "the Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis," the Ballade pour sa Mére," "La Grosse Margot," "Les Regrets de la belle Heaulmiere," and others; while the whole composition is full of poetical traits of the most extraordinary vigour, picturesquences, and pathos. Besides these more remarkable names, a crowd of minor poets hastened to copy the compositions we have described. Towards the end of the century the poetical production of the time became very large. The artificial measures already alluded to, and others far more artificial and infinitely less beautiful, were largely practised. The typical poet of the end of the 15th century is Guillaume Crétin, who distinguished himself by writing verses with punning rhymes, verses ending with double or treble repetitions of the same sound, and many other tasteless absurdities, in which, as Pasquier remarks, "il perdit toute la grace et la liberté de la composition." Crétin, who had hundreds of imitators, was held up by Rabelais to the ridicule of his readers under the name of Raminagrobis. The other favourite direction of the poetry of the time was a vein of allegorical moralizing drawn from the Roman de la Rose through the medium of Chartier and Christine, which produced "Castles of Love," "Temples of Honour," and such like; yet some of the minor poets of the time are not to be despised. Such are Baude (1430-1490), Martial d’Auvergue (1420-1508), and others, many of whom proceeded from the poetical court which Charles d’Orléans kept up at Blois after his release,

While the serious poetry of the age took this turn, there was no back of lighter and satirical verse. Villon, indeed, were it not for the depth and pathos of his poetical sentiment, might be claimed as a poet of the lighter order, and the patriotic diatribes against the English to which we have alluded easily passed into satire. The political quarrels of the latter part of the century also provoked much satirical composition. The disputes of the Bien Public and those bwteen Louis XI and Charles of Burgundy employed many pens. The most remarkable piece of the light literature of the first is "Les nes Volants," a ballad on some of the early favourites of Louis. The battles of France and Burgundy were waged on paper between Gilles des Ormes and George Chastelain, typical representatives of the two styles of 15th century poetry already alluded to – Des Ormes being the lighter and more graceful writer, Chastelain a pompous and learned allegorist. The most remarkable representative of purely light poetry outside the theatre is Guillaume Coquillart, a lawyer of Champagne, who resided for the greater part of his life in Rheims. This city like others suffered from the pitiless tyranny of Louis XI. The beginnings of the standing army which Charles VII. had started were extremely unpopular, and the use to which his son put them by no means removed this unpopularity. Coquillart described the military man of the period in his Monologue du Gendarme Cassé. Again, when the king entertained the idea of unifying the taxes and laws of the different provinces, Coquillart, who was named commissioner for this purpose, wrote on the occasion a satire called Les Droits Nouveaux. A certain kind of satire, much less good-tempered than the earlier satire, became indeed common at this epoch. M. Lenient has well pointed out that a new satirical personification dominates this literature. It is no longer Renart with his cynical gaiety, or the curiously travestied and almost amiable Devil of the Middle Ages. Now it is Death as an incident ever present to the imagination, celebrated in the thousand repetitions of the Danae Macabre, sculptured all over the buildings of the time, even frequently performed on holidays and in public. All through the century, too, anonymous verse of the lighter kind was written, some of it of great merit. The folk songs already alluded to, published by M.G. Paris, show one side of this composition, and many of the pieces contained in M. de Montaiglon;s extensive Recueil des Anciennes Poésies Françaises exhibit others.

The 15th century was perhaps more remarkable for its achievements in prose than in poetry. It produced, indeed, no prose writer of great distinction, except perhaps Comines; but it witnessed serious, it not extremely successful, efforts at prose composition. The invention of printing finally substituted the reader for the listener, and when this substitution has been effected, the main inducement to treat unsuitable subjects in verse is gone. The study of the classics at first hand contributed to the same end. As early as 1458 the university of Paris had a Greek professor. But before this time translations is prose had been made. Nicholas Oresme, the tutor of Charles V., gave a version of certain Aristotelian works, which enriched the language with a large number of terms, then strange enough, now familiar. Raoul de Presles turned into French the De Civitate Dei of St Augustine. These writers and Charles himself composed Le Songe du Vergier, an elaborate discussion of the power of the pope. The famous chancellor, Hean Gerson (1363-1429), to whom the Imitation has among so many others been attributed, spoke constantly and wrote often in the vulgar tongue. Christine de Pisan and Alian Chartier were at least as much prose writers as poets; and the latter, while he, like Gerson, dealt much with the reform of the church, used in his Quadriloge Invective really forcible language for the purpose of spurring on the nobles of France to put an end to her sufferings and evils. These moral and didactic treatises were but continuations of others, which for convenience sake we have hitherto left unnoticed. Though verse was in the centuries prior to the 15th the favourite medium for literary composition, it was by no means the only one; and moral and educational treatises – some referred to above – already existed in pedestrian phrase. Certain household books (Livres de raison) have been preserved, some of which date as far back as the 13th century. These contain not merely accounts but family chronicles, receipts, and the like. Of the 14th century, we have a Menagier de Paris, intended for the instruction of a young wife, and a large number of miscellaneous treatises of art, science, and morality, while private letters, mostly as yet unpublished, exist in considerable numbers, and are generally of the moralizing character; books of devotion, too, are naturally frequent.

But the most important divisions of mediaeval energy in prose composition are the spoken exercises of the pulpit and the bar. The latter has been hitherto somewhat neglected, though the recent history of M. Aubertin devoted special attention to it. The beginnings, however, of French sermons have been much discussed, especially the question whether St Bernard, whose discourses we possess in ancient but doubtfully contemporary French, pronounced them in that language or in Latin. Towards the end of the 12th century, however, the sermons of Maurice de Sully (died 1196) present the first undoubted examples of homiletics in the vernacular, and they are followed by many others – so many indeed that the 13th century alone counts 261 sermon writers, besides a large body of anonymous work. These sermons were, as might indeed be expected, chiefly cast in a somewhat scholastic form – theme, exordium, development, example, and peroration following in regular order. The 14th century sermons, on the other hand, are little known, probably because no one has yet taken the trouble to investigate the manuscripts. It must, however, be remembered that this age, as the most famous of all for its scholastic illustrations, and for the early vigour of the Dominican and Franciscan order, ought to yield favourable returns. With the end of the century and the beginning of the 15th, the importance of the pulpit begins to revive. The early years of the new age have Gerson for their representative, while the end of the century sees the still more famous names of Menot (1450-1514), all remarkable for the practice of a vigorous and homely style of oratory, recoiling before no aid of what we should now-a-days style buffoonery, and manifesting a creditable indifference to the indignation of principalities and powers. Louis XI. is said to have threatened to throw Maillard into the Seine, and many instances of the boldness of these preachers and the rough vigour of their oratory have been preserved. Froissaart had been followed as a chronicler by Monstrelet, and by the historiographers of the Burgundian court, Chastelain, already mentioned, and Olivier de la Marche. The memoir and chronicle writers, who were to be of so much importance in French literature, also begin to be numerous at this period. Juvenal des Ursins (1388-1473), an anonymous bourgeois de Paris (two such indeed), and the author of the Chronique Scandaleuse, may be mentioned as presenting the character of minute observation and record which has distinguished the class ever since. But Comines (1445-1509) is no imitator of Froissart or of any one else. The last of the quartette of great French mediaeval historians, he does not yield to any of his three predecessors in originality or merit, but he is very different from them. He fully represents the mania of the time for statecraft, and his book has long ranked with that of Macchiavelli as a manual of the art. He is a painter of character rather than of scenes or events; he has very few prejudices or predilections; he gives us an early example of those Renaissance statesmen who looked at politics chiefly as a game in which means are connected with ends, without much, if any, reference to the goodness or badness of the one or the other. But he has not the absolutely non-moral character of the Italian, and he is sincerely religious in his way. His memoirs, considered merely as literature, show a style well suited to their purport, -- not, indeed, brilliant or picturesque, but clear, terse, and thoroughly well suited to the expression of the acuteness, observation, and common sense of their author.

But prose was not content with the domain of serious literature. It has already long possessed a respectable position as a vehicle of romance, and the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th centuries were pre-eminently the time when the epics of chivalry were re-edited and extended in prose. Few, however, of these extensions offer much literary interest. On the other hand, the best prose of the century, and almost the earliest which deserved the title of a satisfactory literary medium, was employed for the telling of romances in miniature. The Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles is undoubtedly the first work of literary prose in French, and the first, moreover, of a long and most remarkable series of literary works, in which French writers may challenge all comers with the certainty of victory. The short prose tale of a comic character is the one French literary product the pre-eminence and perfection of which it is impossible to dispute, and the prose tale first appears to advantage in the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles. This remarkable work has usually been attributed, like the somewhat similar but later Heptameron, to a knot of literary courtiers gathered round a royal personage, in this case the dauphin Louis afterwards Louis XI. Some evidence has recently been produced which seems to show that this tradition, which attributed some of the tales to Louis himself, is erroneous, but the question is still undecided. The subjects of all Cent Nouvelles Nouvells are by no means new. They are simply the old theme of the fabliaux treated in the old way. The novelty is in the application of prose to such a purpose, and in the crispness, the fluency, and the elegance of the prose used. The fortunate author to whom these admirable tales have of late been attributed is Antoine de la Salle (1398-1461), who, if this attribution and certain others be correct, must be allowed to be one of the most original and fertile authors of early French literature. La Salle’s one acknowledged work is the story of Petit Jehan de Saintré, a short romance exhibiting great command of character and abundance of delicate draughtsmanship. To this it is now proposed to add the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles; and the still more famous and important work of L’Avocat Patelin has been assigned by respectable authority to the same paternity. The generosity of critics towards La Salle has not even stopped here. A fourth masterpiece of the period, Les Quinze Joies du Mariage, has also been assigned to him. This last work, like the other three, is satirical in subject, and shows for the time a wonderful mastery of the language. Of the fifteen joys of marriage, or, in other words, the fifteen miseries of husbands, each has a chapter assigned to it, and each is treated with the peculiar mixture of gravity and ridicule which it requires. All who have read the book confess its infinite wit and the grace of its style. It is true that it has been reproached with cruelty and with a lack of the moral sentiment. But humanity and morality were not the strong point of the 15th century. There is, it must be admitted, about most of its productions a lack of poetry and a lack of imagination. The hideous disorders of the Hundred Years’ War had exasperated men’s mind, and had at the same time accustomed them to suffer, to witness, and in too many cases to perpetrate outrage and injustice of all kinds. The glaring disregard of anything but their own private interest which actuated almost all those of the higher orders, from the great crown vassals and princes of the blood to the leaders of free companions and the owners of petty fortresses, disgusted the people. The great schism of the West, and the scandals which accompanied it, shook their confidence, not merely in individual ecclesiastics, but in the whole theory and government of the church. The old forms of literature had lost their interest, and new ones possessing strength to last and power to develop themselves had not yet appeared. It was impossible, even if the taste for it had survived, to spin out any longer the old themes. The new learning was slowly soaking in; the discoveries of the navigators of the Iberian peninsula were opening up entirely new regions for speculation and inquiry; and, above all, the decay of scholasticism was dismissing the most active minds of the time from the old mill-horse round, and setting them free to speculate, at once with all the ardour of reaction and with the vigour, the acuteness, and the trained logical skill which scholasticism itself had given them. But all these new forces required some time to set to work, and to avail themselves of the tremendous weapon which the press had put into their hands. Even from a strictly material point of view, the horrible devastation occasioned by the English wars required a long time of reparation and recovery. The time actually accorded was not very long, and much of it might have been far better spent than under the influence of such a monarch as Louis XI. This period of brief and disturbed repose was, moreover, followed by the Italian wars, in which the French meted to another and weaker nation much the same measure as the English had meted to them. But these wars, little justifiable in themselves, completed the good effect which the equally unjustifiable violence and treachery of Louis XI. had begun. They consolidated the nation, they gave it a common hope, object, and spirit; they opened the way to deeds of daring in which it took pride, in place of the indiscriminate, brutal, and irrational savagery which had begun with the Jacquerie, and hardly ended with the quarrels of the Burgundians and Armagnacs. Not only did the lower order gain in wealth, position, intelligence, and culture, by the disasters of their superiors, but there arose a new chivalry, not indeed more moral than the old, but more polished, more learned, and more disposed to produce and enjoy literature. Under all these circumstances, literature of a varied and vigorous kind became once more possible and indeed necessary, nor did it take long to make its appearance.

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