1902 Encyclopedia > France > 16th Century French Prose Fiction

(Part 43)


16th Century Prose Fiction

Great as is the importance of the 16th century in the history of French poetry, its importance in the history of French prose is greater still. In poetry the Middle Ages could fairly hold their own with any of the ages that have succeeded them. The epics of chivalry whether of the cycles of Charlemagne, Arthur, or the classic heroes, not to mention the miscellaneous romans d’aventures, have indeed more than held their own. Both relatively and absolutely the Franciade of the 16th century, the Pucelle of the 17th, the Henriade of the 18th, cut a very poor figure beside Roland and Percivale, Gerard de Roussilon, and Partenopex de Blois. The romances, ballads, and pastourelles, signed and unsigned, of mediaeval France were not merely the origin, but in some respects the superiors, of the lyric poetry which succeeded them. Thibaut de Champagne, Charles d’Orléans, and Villon need not vail their crests in any society of bards. The charming forms of the rondel, the rondeau, and the ballade have won admiration from every competent poet and critic who has known them. The fabliaux give something more than promise of La Fontaine, and the two great compositions of the Roman du Renart and the Roman de la Rose, despite their faults and their alloy, will always command the admiration of all persons of taste and judgment who take the trouble to study them. But while poetry had in the Middle Ages no reason to blush for her French representatives, prose (always the younger and less forward sister) had far less to boast of. With the exception of chronicles and prose romances, no prose works of any real importance can be quoted before the end of the 15th century, and even then the chief if not the only place of importance must be assigned to the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, a work of admirable prose, but necessarily light in character, and not yet demonstrating the efficacy of the French language as a medium of expression for serious and weighty thought. Up to the time of the Renaissance and the consequent reformation, Latin had, as we have already remarked, been considered the sufficient and natural organ for this expression. In France as in other countries the disturbance in religious thought may undoubtedly claim the glory of having repaired this disgrace of the vulgar tongue, and of having fitted and taught it to express whatever thoughts the theologian, the historian, the philosopher, the politician, and the savant had occasion to utter. But the use of prose as a vehicle for lighter themes was more continuous with the literature that preceded, and serves as a natural transition from poetry and the drama to history and science. Among the prose writers, therefore, of the 16th century we shall give the first place to the novelists and romantic writers.

Among these there can be no doubt of the precedence, in every sense of the word, of François Rabelais (1495?-1553). No detailed account can here be attempted of this extraordinary person, the one French writer whom critics the least inclined to appreciate the characteristics of French literature have agreed to place among the few great writers of the world, and not far from Shakespeare and Dante. Immense ingenuity and research have been spent on the task of determining the origin and indebtedness of Gargantua and Pantagruel. It is sufficient to say that their form is roughly that of a prose roman d’aventures, that Gargantua is taken in outline from a burlesque romance of the same name, and that Panurge, who rather than Pantagruel is the hero of the second part, has some resemblance to Cingar, a personage of the macaronic poem of the Italian, Merlinus Coccaius or Folengo. But the borrowings of Rabelais are of little more importance than the borrowings of Shakespeare. With an immense erudition representing almost the whole of the knowledge of his time, with an untiring faculty of invention, with the judgment of a philosopher, and the common sense of a man of the world, with an observation that let no characteristic of the time pass unobserved, and with a tenfold portion of the special Gallic gift of good-humoured satire, Rabelais united a height of speculation and depth of insight and a vein of poetical imagination rarely found in any writer, but altogether portentous when taken in conjunction with his other characteristics. His great work has been taken for an exercise of transcendental philosophy, for a concealed theological polemic, for an allegorical history of this and that personage of his time, for a merely literary utterance, for an attempt to tickle the popular ear and taste. It is all of these, and it is none, -- all of them in parts, none of them in deliberate and exclusive intention. It may perhaps be called the exposition and commentary of all the thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and knowledge of a particular time and nation put forth in attractive literary form by a man who for once combined the practical and the literary spirit, the power of knowledge and the power of expression. The work of Rabelais is the mirror of the 16th century in France, reflecting at once its comeliness and its uncomeliness, its high aspirations, its voluptuous appetites, its political and religious dissensions, its keen criticism, its eager appetite and hasty digestion of learning, its gleams of poetry, and its ferocity of manners. In Rabelais we can divine the Pléiade and Marot, the Cymbalum Mundi and Montaigne, Amyot and the Amadis, even Calvin and Duperron; and if in this lengthy mention of the curate of Meudon we have broken through our principles of allotting only scanty notice to individual authors, his unique representative character must be pleaded in excuse.

It was inevitable that such extraordinary works as Gargantua and Pantagruel should attract special imitators in the direction of their outward form. It was also inevitable that this imitation should frequently fix upon these Rabelaisian characteristics which are lest deserving of imitation, and most likely to be depraved in the hands of imitators. It fell within the plan of the master to indulge in what has been called fatrasie, the huddling together, that is to say, of a medley of language and images which is bets known to English readers in the not always successful following of Sterne. It pleased him also to disguise his naturally terse, strong, and nervous style in a burlesque envelope of redundant language, which is partly ironical, partly the result of superfluous erudition, and partly that of a certain childish wantonness and exuberance, which is one of his raciest and pleasantest characteristics. In both these points he was somewhat corruptly followed. But fortunately the romancicalwriters of the 16th century had not Rabelais for their sole model, but were also influenced by the simple and straightforward style of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles and the Histoire des Sept Sages. The joint influence gives us some admirable work. Nicholas of Troyes, a saddler of Champagne, came too early to copy Rabelais. But Noel du fail (1520-1591), a judge at Rennes, shows the double influence in his Propos Rustiques and Contes d’Eutrapel, both of which are lively and well-written pictures of contemporary life and thought, as the country magistrate actually saw and dealt with them. In 1558, however, appeared two works of far higher literary and social interest. These are the Heptameron of the queen of Navarre, and the Contes et Joyeux Devis of Bonaventure des Periers (1500-1544). Des Periers, who was a courtier of Margurite’s, is thought to have had good deal to do with the first-named work as well as with the second. Indeed, not merely the queen’s prose works, but also the poems gracefully entitled Les Marguerites de la Marguerite, are often attributed to the literary men whom the sister of Francis I. gathered round her. However, this may be, some single influence of power enough to give unity and distinctness of savour evidently presided over the composition of the Heptameron. Composed as it is on the model of Boccaccio, its tone and character are entirely different, and few works have a more individual charm. The tales of Des Periers are shorter, simple, and more homely; there is more wit in them and less refinement. But both works breathe more powerfully perhaps than any others the peculiar mixture of cultured and poetical voluptousness with a certain religiosity and a vigorous spirit of action which characterizes the French Renaissance, and distinguishes it equally from the effeminate languor and mere bookishness of the earlier Italian movement and the more serious, sterner, and almost uncouth characteristics of the later poetical outburst in England. Later in time, but too closely connected with Rabelais in form and spirit to be here omitted, came the Moyen de Parvenir of Béroalde de Verville (1550-1612), a singular fatrasie, uniting wit, wisdom, learning, and indecency, and crammed with anecdotes which are always amusing though rarely decorous.

At the same time a fresh vogue was given to the chivalric romance by Herberay’s translation of Amadis de Gaula. French writers, relying partly on tradition and partly on a general assumption that the romance of chivalry is essentially French in origin, have supposed a French original for the Amadis in some lost roman d’aventures. It is of course impossible to say that this is not the case, but there is not one tittle of evidence to show that it is, and there seems no reason to doubt the accepted statement that Vasco de Lobeira wrote a lost Portuguese original in the 14th century, which Garciodonez de Montalvo adapted in Spanish a century later. Montalvo found many continuators, and adventures of Amadis were prolonged through generation after generation of his dedcendants. This vast work Herberay in 1540 undertook to translate or re-translate, b ut it was not without the assistance of several followers that the task was completed. Southey has charged Herberay with corrupting the simplicity of the original, a charge which does not concern us here. It is sufficient to say that the French Amadis is an excellent piece of literary work, and that Herberay deserves no mean place among the fathers of French prose. His book had an immense popularity; it was translated into many foreign languages, and for some time it served as a favourite reading book for foreigners studying French. Nor is it to be doubted that the romances of the Scudéry and Calprenéde both for good and harm by these Amadis romances than by any of the earlier tales of chivalry.

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