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Chansons De Geste: The Epic Chronicles

Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

CHANSONS DE GESTE, the name given to the epic chronicles which take so prominent a place in the literature of France from the 11th to the 15th century. Gaston Paris defined a chanson de geste as a song the subject of which is a series of historical facts or gesta. These facts form the centre around which are grouped sets of poems, called cycles, and hence the two terms have in modern criticism become synonymous for the epic family to which the hero of the particular group or cycle belongs. The earliest chansons de geste were founded on the fusion of the Teutonic spirit, under a Roman form, into the new Christian and French civilization. It seems probable that as early as the 9th century epic poems began to be chanted by the itinerant minstrels who are known as jongleurs. It is conjectured that in a base Latin fragment of the 10th century we possess a translation of a poem on the siege of Girona. Gaston Paris dates from this lost epic the open expression of what he calls “the epic fermentation” of France. But the earliest existing chanson de geste is also by far the noblest and most famous, the Chanson de Roland; the conjectural date of the composition of this poem has been placed between the years 1066 and 1095. That the author, as has been supposed, was one of the conquerors of England, it is perhaps rash to assert, but undoubtedly the poem was composed before the First Crusade, and the writer lived at or near the sanctuary of Mont Saint-Michel. TheChanson de Roland stands at the head of modern French literature, and its solidity and grandeur give a dignity to the whole class of poetry of which it is the earliest and by far the noblest example. But it is in the crowd of looser and later poems, less fully characterized, less steeped in the individuality of their authors, that we can best study the form of the typical chanson de geste. These epics sprang from the soil of France; they were national and historical; their anonymous writers composed them spontaneously, to a common model, with little regard to the artificial niceties of style. The earlier examples, which succeed the Roland, are unlike that great work in having no plan, no system of composition. They are improvisations which wander on at their own pace, whither accident may carry them. This mass of medieval literature is monotonous, primitive and superficial. As Léon Gautier has said, in the rudimentary psychology of the chansons de geste, man is either entirely good or entirely bad. There are no fine shades, no observation of character. The language in which these poems are composed is extremely simple, without elaboration, without ornament. Everything is sacrificed to the telling of a story by a narrator of little skill, who helps himself along by means of a picturesque, but almost childish fancy, and a primitive sentiment of rhythm. Two great merits, however, all the best of these poems possess, force and lucidity; and they celebrate, what they did much to create, that unselfish elevation of temper which we call the spirit of chivalry.

Perhaps the most important cycle of chansons de geste was that which was collected around the name of Charlemagne, and was known as theGeste du roi. A group of this cycle dealt with the history of the mother of the emperor, and with Charlemagne himself down to the coming of Roland. To this group belong Bertha Greatfoot and Aspremont, both of the 12th century, and a variety of chansons dealing with the childhood of Charlemagne and of Ogier the Dane. A second group deals with the struggle 846of Charlemagne with his rebellious vassals. This is what has been defined as the Feudal Epic; it includes Girars de Viane and Ogier the Dane, both of the 13th century, or the end of the 12th. A third group follows Charlemagne and his peers to the East. It is in the principal of these poems, The Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, that Alexandrine verse first makes its appearance in French literature. This must belong to the beginning of the 12th century. A fourth group, antecedent to the Spanish war, is of the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th; it includes AiquinFierabras and Otinel. The fifth class discusses the war in Spain, and it is to this that Roland belongs; there are different minor epics dealing with the events of Roncevaux, and independent chansons of Gui de BourgogneGaidon and Anseïs de Carthage. The Geste du Roi comprises a sixth and last group, proceeding with events up to the death of Charlemagne; this contains Huon de Bordeaux and a vast number of poems of minor originality and importance.

Another cycle is that of Duke William Shortnose, La Geste de Guillaume. This includes the very early and interesting Departure of the Aimeri ChildrenAliscans and Rainoart. It is thought that this cycle, which used to be called the Geste de Garin de Monglane, is less artificial than the others; it deals with the heroes of the South who remained faithful in their vassalage to the throne. The poems belonging to this cycle are extremely numerous, and some of them are among the earliest which survive. These chansons find their direct opposites in those which form the great cycle ofLa Geste de Doon de Mayence, sometimes called “la faulse geste,” because it deals with the feats of the traitors, of the rebellious family of Ganelon. This is the geste of the Northmen, always hostile to the Carlovingian dynasty. It comprises some of the most famous of the chansons, in particularParise la duchesse and The Four Sons of Aymon. Several of its sections are the production of a known poet, Raimbert of Paris. From this triple division of the main body of the chansons de geste into La Geste du RoiLa Geste de Guillaume and La Geste de Doon, are excluded certain poems of minor importance,—some provincial, such as Amis and Amiles and Garin, some dealing with the Crusades, such as Antioche, and some which are not connected with any existing cycle, such as Ciperis de Vignevaux; most of this last category, however, are works of the decadence.

The analysis which is here sketched is founded on the latest theories of Léon Gautier, who has given the labour of a lifetime to the investigation of this subject. The wealth of material is baffling to the ordinary student; of the medieval chansons de geste many hundreds of thousands of lines have been preserved. The habit of composing became in the 14th century, as has been said, no longer an art but a monomania. Needless to add that a very large proportion of the surviving poems have never yet been published. All the best of the early chansons de geste are written in ten-syllable verse, divided into stanzas or laisses of different length, united by a single assonance. Rhyme came in with the 13th century, and had the effect in languid bards of weakening the narrative; the sing-song of it led at last to the abandonment of verse in favour of plain historical prose. The general character of the chansons de geste, especially of those of the 12th century, is hard, coarse, inflexible, like the march of rough men stiffened by coats of mail. There is no art and little grace, but a magnificent display of force. These poems enshrine the self-sufficiency of a young and powerful people; they are full of Gallic pride, they breathe the spirit of an indomitable warlike energy. All their figures belong to the same social order of things, and all illustrate the same fighting aristocracy. The moving principle is that of chivalry, and what is presented is, invariably, the spectacle of the processional life of a medieval soldier. The age described is a disturbed one; the feudal anarchy of Europe is united, for a moment, in defending western civilization against the inroads of Asia, against “the yellow peril.” But it is a time of transition in Europe also, and Charlemagne, the immortal but enfeebled emperor, whose beard is whiter than lilies, represents an old order of things against which the rude barons of the North are perpetually in successful revolt. The loud cry of the dying Ronald, as E. Quinet said, rings through the whole poetical literature of medieval France; it is the voice of the individuality of the great vassal, who, in the decay of the empire, stands alone with himself and with his sword.