A History of French Literature - Short Histories of the Literatures of the World: II.
by Edward Dowden
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Short Histories of the Literatures of the World: II. Edited by Edmund Gosse





First Edition, 1897 New Impressions, 1899, 1904, 1907, 1911, 1914

Copyright, London 1897, by William Heinemann


French prose and French poetry had interested me during so many years that when Mr. Gosse invited me to write this book I knew that I was qualified in one particular—the love of my subject. Qualified in knowledge I was not, and could not be. No one can pretend to know the whole of a vast literature. He may have opened many books and turned many pages; he cannot have penetrated to the soul of all books from the Song of Roland to Toute la Lyre. Without reaching its spirit, to read a book is little more than to amuse the eye with printed type.

An adequate history of a great literature can be written only by collaboration. Professor Petit de Julleville, in the excellent Histoire de la Langue et de la Litterature Francaise, at present in process of publication, has his well-instructed specialist for each chapter. In this small volume I too, while constantly exercising my own judgment, have had my collaborators—the ablest and most learned students of French literature—who have written each a part of my book, while somehow it seems that I have written the whole. My collaborators are on my shelves. Without them I could not have accomplished my task; here I give them credit for their assistance. Some have written general histories of French literature; some have written histories of periods—the Middle Ages, the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth centuries; some have studied special literary fields or forms—the novel, the drama, tragedy, comedy, lyrical poetry, history, philosophy; many have written monographs on great authors; many have written short critical studies of books or groups of books. I have accepted from each a gift. But my assistants needed to be controlled; they brought me twenty thousand pages, and that was too much. Some were accurate in statement of fact, but lacked ideas; some had ideas, but disregarded accuracy of statement; some unjustly depreciated the seventeenth century, some the eighteenth. For my purposes their work had to be rewritten; and so it happens that this book is mine as well as theirs.

The sketch of mediaeval literature follows the arrangement of matter in the two large volumes of M. Petit de Julleville and his fellow-labourers, to whom and to the writings of M. Gaston Paris I am on almost every page indebted. Many matters in dispute have here to be briefly stated in one way; there is no space for discussion. Provencal literature does not appear in this volume. It is omitted from the History of M. Petit de Julleville and from that of M. Lanson. In truth, except as an influence, it forms no part of literature in the French language.

The reader who desires guidance in bibliography will find it at the close of each chapter of the History edited by M. Petit de Julleville, less fully in the notes to M. Lanson's History, and an excellent table of critical and biographical studies is appended to each volume of M. Lintilhac's Histoire de la Litterature Francaise. M. Lintilhac, however, omits many important English and German titles—among others, if I am not mistaken, those of Birsch-Hirschfeld's Geschichte der Franzosichen Litteratur: die Zeit der Renaissance, of Lotheissen's important Geschichte der Franzosichen Litteratur im XVII. Jahrhundert, and of Professor Flint's learned Philosophy of History (1893).

M. Lanson's work has been of great service in guiding me in the arrangement of my subjects, and in giving me courage to omit many names of the second or third rank which might be expected to appear in a history of French literature. In a volume like the present, selection is important, and I have erred more by inclusion than by exclusion. The limitation of space has made me desire to say no word that does not tend to bring out something essential or characteristic.

M. Lanson has ventured to trace French literature to the present moment. I have thought it wiser to close my survey with the decline of the romantic movement. With the rise of naturalism a new period opens. The literature of recent years is rather a subject for current criticism than for historical study.

I cannot say how often I have been indebted to the writings of M. Brunetiere, M. Faguet, M. Larroumet, M. Paul Stapfer, and other living critics: to each of the volumes of Les Grands Ecrivains Francais, and to many of the volumes of the Classiques Populaires. M. Lintilhac's edition of Merlet's Etudes Litteraires has also often served me. But to name my aids to study would be to fill some pages.

While not unmindful of historical and social influences, I desire especially to fix my reader's attention on great individuals, their ideas, their feelings, and their art. The general history of ideas should, in the first instance, be discerned by the student of literature through his observation of individual minds.

That errors must occur where so many statements are made, I am aware from past experience; but I have taken no slight pains to attain accuracy. It must not be hastily assumed that dates here recorded are incorrect because they sometimes differ from those given in other books. For my errors I must myself bear the responsibility; but by the editorial care of Mr. Gosse, in reading the proof-sheets of this book, the number of such errors has been reduced.


DUBLIN, June 1897.






IV. LATEST MEDIAEVAL POETS—THE DRAMA . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58


I. RENAISSANCE AND REFORMATION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81

II. FROM THE PLEIADE TO MONTAIGNE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96


I. LITERARY FREEDOM AND LITERARY ORDER . . . . . . . . . . . 131

II. THE FRENCH ACADEMY—PHILOSOPHY (DESCARTES)—RELIGION (PASCAL) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147


IV. SOCIETY AND PUBLIC LIFE IN LETTERS . . . . . . . . . . . . 173

V. BOILEAU AND LA FONTAINE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 183

VI. COMEDY AND TRAGEDY—MOLIERE—RACINE . . . . . . . . . . . 196

VII. BOSSUET AND THE PREACHERS—FENELON . . . . . . . . . . . . 219






IV. ROUSSEAU—BEAUMARCHAIS—BERNARDIN DE SAINT-PIERRE—ANDRE CHENIER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 311

BOOK THE FIFTH—1789-1850

I. THE REVOLUTION AND THE EMPIRE—MADAME DE STAEL— CHATEAUBRIAND . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 335

II. THE CONFLICT OF IDEAS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 354

III. POETRY OF THE ROMANTIC SCHOOL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 363

IV. THE NOVEL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 396

V. HISTORY—LITERARY CRITICISM . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 411

BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 429

INDEX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 437



The literature of the Middle Ages is an expression of the spirit of feudalism and of the genius of the Church. From the union of feudalism and Christianity arose the chivalric ideals, the new courtesy, the homage to woman. Abstract ideas, ethical, theological, and those of amorous metaphysics, were rendered through allegory into art. Against these high conceptions, and the overstrained sentiment connected with them, the positive intellect and the mocking temper of France reacted; a literature of satire arose. By degrees the bourgeois spirit encroached upon and overpowered the chivalric ideals. At length the mediaeval conceptions were exhausted. Literature dwindled as its sources were impoverished; ingenuities and technical formalities replaced imagination. The minds of men were prepared to accept the new influences of the Renaissance and the Reformation.


The oldest monument of the French language is found in the Strasburg Oaths (842); the oldest French poem possessing literary merit is the Vie de Saint Alexis, of which a redaction belonging to the middle of the eleventh century survives. The passion of piety and the passion of combat, the religious and the warrior motives, found early expression in literature; from the first arose the Lives of Saints and other devout writings, from the second arose the chansons de geste. They grew side by side, and had a like manner of development. If one takes precedence of the other, it is only because by the chances of time Saint Alexis remains to us, and the forerunners of the Chanson de Roland are lost. With each species of poetry cantilenes—short lyrico-epic poems—preceded the narrative form. Both the profane and what may be called the religious chanson de geste were sung or recited by the same jongleurs—men of a class superior to the vulgar purveyors of amusement. Gradually the poems of both kinds expanded in length, and finally prose narrative took the place of verse.

The Lives of Saints are in the main founded on Latin originals; the names of their authors are commonly unknown. Saint Alexis, a tale of Syriac origin, possibly the work of Tedbalt, a canon of Vernon, consists of 125 stanzas, each of five lines which are bound together by a single assonant rhyme. It tells of the chastity and poverty of the saint, who flies from his virgin bride, lives among beggars, returns unrecognised to his father's house, endures the insults of the servants, and, dying at Rome, receives high posthumous honours; finally, he is rejoined by his wife—the poet here adding to the legend—in the presence of God, among the company of the angels. Some of the sacred poems are derived from the Bible, rhymed versions of which were part of the jongleur's equipment; some from the apocryphal gospels, or legends of Judas, of Pilate, of the Cross, or, again, from the life of the Blessed Virgin. The literary value of these is inferior to that of the versified Lives of the Saints. About the tenth century the marvels of Eastern hagiography became known in France, and gave a powerful stimulus to the devout imagination. A certain rivalry existed between the claims of profane and religious literature, and a popular audience for narrative poems designed for edification was secured by their recital in churches. Wholly fabulous some of these are—as the legend of St. Margaret—but they were not on this account the less welcome or the less esteemed. In certain instances the tale is dramatically placed in the mouth of a narrator, and thus the way was in a measure prepared for the future mystery-plays.

More than fifty of these Lives of Saints are known, composed generally in octosyllabic verse, and varying in length from some hundreds of lines to ten thousand. In the group which treats of the national saints of France, an element of history obscured by errors, extravagances, and anachronisms may be found. The purely legendary matter occupies a larger space in those derived from the East, in which the religious ideal is that of the hermit life. The celebrated Barlaam et Joasaph, in which Joasaph, son of a king of India, escaping from his father's restraints, fulfils his allotted life as a Christian ascetic, is traceable to a Buddhist source. The narratives of Celtic origin—such as those of the Purgatory of St. Patrick and the voyages of St. Brendan—are coloured by a tender mysticism, and sometimes charm us with a strangeness of adventure, in which a feeling for external nature, at least in its aspects of wonder, appears. The Celtic saints are not hermits of the desert, but travellers or pilgrims. Among the lives of contemporary saints, by far the most remarkable is that of our English Becket by Garnier de Pont-Sainte-Maxence. Garnier had himself known the archbishop; he obtained the testimony of witnesses in England; he visited the places associated with the events of Becket's life; his work has high value as an historical document; it possesses a personal accent, rare in such writings; a genuine dramatic vigour; and great skill and harmonious power in its stanzas of five rhyming lines.

A body of short poems, inspired by religious feeling, and often telling of miracles obtained by the intercession of the Virgin or the saints, is known as Contes pieux. Many of these were the work of Gautier de Coinci (1177-1236), a Benedictine monk; he translates from Latin sources, but with freedom, adding matter of his own, and in the course of his pious narratives gives an image, far from flattering, of the life and manners of his own time. It is he who tells of the robber who, being accustomed to commend himself in his adventures to our Lady, was supported on the gibbet for three days by her white hands, and received his pardon; and of the illiterate monk who suffered shame because he knew no more than his Ave Maria, but who, when dead, was proved a holy man by the five roses that came from his mouth in honour of the five letters of Maria's name; and of the nun who quitted her convent to lead a life of disorder, yet still addressed a daily prayer to the Virgin, and who, returning after long years, found that the Blessed Mary had filled her place, and that her absence was unknown. The collection known as Vies des Peres exhibits the same naivete of pious feeling and imagination. Man is weak and sinful; but by supernatural aid the humble are exalted, sinners are redeemed, and the suffering innocent are avenged. Even Theophile, the priest who sold his soul to the devil, on repentance receives back from the Queen of Heaven the very document by which he had put his salvation in pawn. The sinner (Chevalier au barillet) who endeavours for a year to fill the hermit's little cask at running streams, and endeavours in vain, finds it brimming the moment one tear of true penitence falls into the vessel. Most exquisite in its feeling is the tale of the Tombeur de Notre-Dame—a poor acrobat—a jongleur turned monk—who knows not even the Pater noster or the Credo, and can only offer before our Lady's altar his tumbler's feats; he is observed, and as he sinks worn-out and faint before the shrine, the Virgin is seen to descend, with her angelic attendants, and to wipe away the sweat from her poor servant's forehead. If there be no other piety in such a tale as this, there is at least the piety of human pity.


Great events and persons, a religious and national spirit, and a genius for heroic narrative being given, epic literature arises, as it were, inevitably. Short poems, partly narrative, partly lyrical, celebrate victories or defeats, the achievements of conquerors or defenders, and are sung to relieve or to sustain the passion of the time. The French epopee had its origin in the national songs of the Germanic invaders of Gaul, adopted from their conquerors by the Gallo-Romans. With the baptism of Clovis at Reims, and the acceptance of Christianity by the Franks (496), a national consciousness began to exist—a national and religious ideal arose. Epic heroes—Clovis, Clotaire, Dagobert, Charles Martel—became centres for the popular imagination; an echo of the Dagobert songs is found in Floovent, a poem of the twelfth century; eight Latin lines, given in the Vie de Saint Faron by Helgaire, Bishop of Meaux, preserve, in their ninth-century rendering, a fragment of the songs which celebrated Clotaire II. Doubtless more and more in these lost cantilenes the German element yielded to the French, and finally the two streams of literature—French and German—separated; gradually, also, the lyrical element yielded to the epic, and the chanson de geste was developed from these songs.

In Charlemagne, champion of Christendom against Islam, a great epic figure appeared; on his person converged the epic interest; he may be said to have absorbed into himself, for the imagination of the singers and the people, the persons of his predecessors, and even, at a later time, of his successors; their deeds became his deeds, their fame was merged in his; he stood forth as the representative of France. We may perhaps regard the ninth century as the period of the transformation of the cantilenes into the chansons de geste; in the fragment of Latin prose of the tenth century—reduced to prose from hexameters, but not completely reduced—discovered at La Haye (and named after the place of its discovery), is found an epic episode of Carlovingian war, probably derived from a chanson de geste of the preceding century. In each chanson the gesta,[1] the deeds or achievements of a heroic person, are glorified, and large as may be the element of invention in these poems, a certain historical basis or historical germ may be found, with few exceptions, in each. Roland was an actual person, and a battle was fought at Roncevaux in 778. William of Orange actually encountered the Saracens at Villedaigne in 793. Renaud de Montauban lived and fought, not indeed against Charlemagne, but against Charles Martel. Ogier, Girard de Roussillon, Raoul de Cambrai, were not mere creatures of the fancy. Even when the narrative records no historical series of events, it may express their general significance, and condense into itself something of the spirit of an epoch. In the course of time, however, fantasy made a conquest of the historical domain; a way for the triumph of fantasy had been opened by the incorporation of legend into the narrative, with all its wild exaggerations, its reckless departures from truth, its conventional types of character, its endlessly-repeated incidents of romance—the child nourished by wild beasts, the combat of unrecognised father and son, the hero vulnerable only in one point, the vindication of the calumniated wife or maiden; and by the over-labour of fantasy, removed far from nature and reality, the epic material was at length exhausted.

[Footnote 1: Gestes meant (1) deeds, (2) their history, (3) the heroic family.]

The oldest surviving chanson de geste is the SONG OF ROLAND, and it is also the best. The disaster of Roncevaux, probably first sung in cantilenes, gave rise to other chansons, two of which, of earlier date than the surviving poem, can in a measure be reconstructed from the Chronicle of Turpin and from a Latin Carmen de proditione Guenonis. These, however, do not detract from the originality of the noble work in our possession, some of the most striking episodes of which are not elsewhere found. The oldest manuscript is at Oxford, and the last line has been supposed to give the author's name—Touroude (Latinised "Turoldus")—but this may have been the name of the jongleur who sang, or the transcriber who copied. The date of the poem lies between that of the battle of Hastings, 1066, where the minstrel Taillefer sang in other words the deeds of Roland, and the year 1099. The poet was probably a Norman, and he may have been one of the Norman William's followers in the invasion of England.

More than any other poem, the Chanson de Roland deserves to be named the Iliad of the Middle Ages. On August 15, 778, the rearguard of Charlemagne's army, returning from a successful expedition to the north of Spain, was surprised and destroyed by Basque mountaineers in the valley of Roncevaux. Among those who fell was Hrodland (Roland), Count of the march of Brittany. For Basques, the singers substituted a host of Saracens, who, after promise of peace, treacherously attack the Franks, with the complicity of Roland's enemy, the traitor Ganelon. By Roland's side is placed his companion-in-arms, Olivier, brave but prudent, brother of Roland's betrothed, la belle Aude, who learns her lover's death, and drops dead at the feet of Charlemagne. In fact but thirty-six years of age, Charlemagne is here a majestic old man, a la barbe fleurie, still full of heroic vigour. Around him are his great lords—Duke Naime, the Nestor of this Iliad; Archbishop Turpin, the warrior prelate; Oger the Dane; the traitor Ganelon. And overhead is God, who will send his angels to bear heavenwards the soul of the gallant Roland. The idea of the poem is at once national and religious—the struggle between France, as champion of Christendom, and the enemies of France and of God. Its spirit is that of the feudal aristocracy of the eleventh century. The characters are in some degree representative of general types, but that of Roland is clearly individualised; the excess of soldierly pride which will not permit him, until too late, to sound his horn and recall Charlemagne to his aid, is a glorious fault. When all his comrades have fallen, he still continues the strife; and when he dies, it is with his face to the retreating foe. His fall is not unavenged on the Saracens and on the traitor. The poem is written in decasyllabic verse—in all 4000 lines—divided into sections or laisses of varying length, the lines of each laisse being held together by a single assonance.[2] And such is the form in which the best chansons de geste are written. The decasyllabic line, derived originally from popular Latin verse, rhythmical rather than metrical, such as the Roman legionaries sang, is the favourite verse of the older chansons. The alexandrine,[3] first seen in the Pelerinage de Jerusalem of the early years of the twelfth century, in general indicates later and inferior work. The laisse, bound in one by its identical assonance, might contain five lines or five hundred. In chansons of late date the full rhyme often replaces assonance; but inducing, as it did in unskilled hands, artificial and feeble expansions of the sense, rhyme was a cause which co-operated with other causes in the decline of this form of narrative poetry.

[Footnote 2: Assonance, i.e. vowel-rhyme, without an agreement of consonants.]

[Footnote 3: Verse of twelve syllables, with cesura after the sixth accented syllable. In the decasyllabic line the cesura generally followed the fourth, but sometimes the sixth, tonic syllable.]

Naturally the chansons which celebrated the achievements of one epic personage or one heroic family fell into a group, and the idea of cycles of songs having arisen, the later poets forced many independent subjects to enter into the so-called cycle of the king (Charlemagne), or that of William of Orange, or that of Doon of Mayence. The second of these had, indeed, a genuine cyclic character: it told of the resistance of the south of France to the Mussulmans. The last cycle to develop was that of the Crusades. Certain poems or groups of poems may be distinguished as gestes of the provinces, including the Geste des Lorrains, that of the North (Raoul de Cambrai), that of Burgundy, and others.[4] Among these may be placed the beautiful tale of Amis et Amiles, a glorification of friendship between man and man, which endures all trials and self-sacrifices. Other poems, again, are unconnected with any of these cycles; and, indeed, the cyclic division is more a convenience of classification than a fact in the spontaneous development of this form of art. The entire period of the evolution of epic song extends from the tenth or eleventh to the fifteenth century, or, we might say, from the Chanson de Roland to the Chronique de Bertrand Duguesclin. The eleventh century produced the most admirable work; in the twelfth century the chansons are more numerous, but nothing was written of equal merit with the Song of Roland; after the death of Louis VII. (1180) the old epic material was rehandled and beaten thin—the decadence was already in progress.

[Footnote 4: The epopee composed in Provencal, sung but not transcribed, is wholly lost. The development of lyric poetry in the South probably checked the development of the epic.]

The style in which the chansons de geste are written is something traditional, something common to the people and to the time, rather than characteristic of the individual authors. They show little of the art of arranging or composing the matter so as to produce an unity of effect: the narrative straggles or condenses itself as if by accident; skill in transitions is unknown. The study of character is rude and elementary: a man is either heroic or dastard, loyal or a traitor; wholly noble, or absolutely base. Yet certain types of manhood and womanhood are presented with power and beauty. The feeling for external nature, save in some traditional formulae, hardly appears. The passion for the marvellous is everywhere present: St. Maurice, St. George, and a shining company, mounted on white steeds, will of a sudden bear down the hordes of the infidel; an angel stands glorious behind the throne of Charlemagne; or in narrative of Celtic origin angels may be mingled with fays. God, the great suzerain, to whom even kings owe homage, rules over all; Jesus and Mary are watchful of the soldiers of the cross; Paradise receives the souls of the faithful. As for earth, there is no land so gay or so dear as la douce France. The Emperor is above all the servant and protector of the Church. As the influence of the great feudal lords increased, they are magnified often at the expense of the monarchy; yet even when in high rebellion, they secretly feel the duty of loyalty. The recurring poetic epithet and phrase of formula found in the chansons de geste often indicate rather than veil a defect of imagination. Episodes and adventures are endlessly repeated from poem to poem with varying circumstances—the siege, the assault, the capture, the duel of Christian hero and Saracen giant, the Paynim princess amorous of a fair French prisoner, the marriage, the massacre, and a score of other favourite incidents.

The popularity of the French epopee extended beyond France. Every country of Europe translated or imitated the chansons de geste. Germany made the fortunate choice of Roland and Aliscans. In England two of the worst examples, Fierabras and Otinel, were special favourites. In Norway the chansons were applied to the purpose of religious propaganda. Italy made the tales of Roland, Ogier, Renaud, her own. Meanwhile the national epopee declined in France; a breath of scepticism touched and withered the leafage and blossom of imagination; it even became possible to parody—as in Audigier—the heroic manner. The employment of rhyme in place of assonance, and of the alexandrine in place of the decasyllabic line, encouraged what may be called poetical padding. The influence of the Breton romances diverted the chansons de geste into ways of fantasy; "We shall never know," writes M. Leon Gautier, "the harm which the Round Table has done us." Finally, verse became a weariness, and was replaced by prose. The decline had progressed to a fall.


Later to develop than the national epopee was that which formed the cycle of antiquity. Their romantic matter made the works of the Greco-Roman decadence even more attractive than the writings of the great classical authors to poets who would enter into rivalry with the singers of the chansons de geste. These poems, which mediaevalise ancient literature—poems often of portentous length—have been classified in three groups—epic romances, historical or pseudo-historical romances, and mythological tales, including the imitations of Ovid. The earliest in date of the first group (about 1150-1155) is the ROMANCE OF THEBES, the work of an unknown author, founded upon a compendium of the Thebaid of Statius, preceded by the story of OEdipus. It opened the way for the vast ROMANCE OF TROY, written some ten years later, by Benoit de Sainte-More. The chief sources of Benoit were versions, probably more or less augmented, of the famous records of the Trojan war, ascribed to the Phrygian Dares, an imaginary defender of the city, and the Cretan Dictys, one of the besiegers. Episodes were added, in which, on a slender suggestion, Benoit set his own inventive faculty to work, and among these by far the most interesting and admirable is the story of Troilus and Briseida, known better to us by her later name of Cressida. Through Boccaccio's Il Filostrato this tale reached our English Chaucer, and through Chaucer it gave rise to the strange, half-heroic, half-satirical play of Shakespeare.

Again, ten years later, an unknown poet was adapting Virgil to the taste of his contemporaries in his Eneas, where the courtship of the Trojan hero and Lavinia is related in the chivalric manner. All these poems are composed in the swift octosyllabic verse; the Troy extends to thirty thousand lines. While the names of the personages are classical, the spirit and life of the romances are wholly mediaeval: Troilus, and Hector, and AEneas are conceived as if knights of the Middle Ages; their wars and loves are those of gallant chevaliers. The Romance of Julius Caesar (in alexandrine verse), the work of a certain Jacot de Forest, writing in the second half of the thirteenth century, versifies, with some additions from the Commentaries of Caesar, an earlier prose translation by Jehan de Thuin (about 1240) of Lucan's Pharsalia—the oldest translation in prose of any secular work of antiquity. Caesar's passion for Cleopatra in the Romance is the love prescribed to good knights by the amorous code of the writer's day, and Cleopatra herself has borrowed something of the charm of Tristram's Iseult.

If Julius Caesar may be styled historical, the ROMAN D'ALEXANDRE, a poem of twenty thousand lines (to the form of which this romance gave its name—"alexandrine" verse), the work of Lambert le Tort and Alexandre de Bernay, can only be described as legendary. All—or nearly all—that was written during the Middle Ages in French on the subject of Alexander may be traced back to Latin versions of a Greek compilation, perhaps of the first century, ascribed to Callisthenes, the companion of Alexander on his Asiatic expedition.[5] It is uncertain how much the Alexandre may owe to a Provencal poem on the same subject, written in the early years of the twelfth century, probably by Alberic de Briancon, of which only a short fragment, but that of high merit, has been preserved. From his birth, and his education by Aristotle and the enchanter Nectanebus, to the division, as death approaches, of his empire between his twelve peers, the story of Alexander is a series of marvellous adventures; the imaginary wonders of the East, monstrous wild beasts, water-women, flower-maidens, Amazons, rain of fire, magic mountains, magic fountains, trees of the sun and of the moon, are introduced with a liberal hand. The hero is specially distinguished by the virtue of liberality; a jongleur who charms him by lays sung to the flute, is rewarded with the lordship of Tarsus, a worthy example for the twelfth-century patrons of the poet. The romance had a resounding fame.

[Footnote 5: Not quite all, for certain borrowings were made from the correspondence of Alexander with Dindimus, King of the Brahmans, and from the Alexandri Magni iter ad Paradisum.]

Of classical poets, Ovid ranked next to Virgil in the esteem of the Middle Ages. The mythology of paganism was sanctified by the assumption that it was an allegory of Christian mysteries, and thus the stories might first be enjoyed by the imagination, and then be expounded in their spiritual meaning. The Metamorphoses supplied Chretien de Troyes with the subject of his Philomena; other writers gracefully dealt with the tales of Piramus and of Narcissus. But the most important work founded upon Ovid was a versified translation of the Metamorphoses (before 1305) by a Franciscan monk, Chretien Legouais de Sainte-Maure, with appended interpretations, scientific, historical, moral, or religious, of the mythological fables. Ovid's Art of Love, of which more than one rendering was made, aided in the formation or development of the mediaeval theory of love and the amorous casuistry founded upon that theory.


Under the general title of the Epopee courtoise—the Epopee of Courtesy—may be grouped those romances which are either works of pure imagination or of uncertain origin, or which lead us back to Byzantine or to Celtic sources. They include some of the most beautiful and original poems of the Middle Ages. Appearing first about the opening of the twelfth century, later in date than the early chansons de geste, and contemporary with the courtly lyric poetry of love, they exhibit the chivalric spirit in a refined and graceful aspect; their marvels are not gross wonders, but often surprises of beauty; they are bright in colour, and varied in the play of life; the passions which they interpret, and especially the passion of love, are felt with an exquisite delicacy and a knowledge of the workings of the heart. They move lightly in their rhymed or assonanced verse; even when they passed into the form of prose they retained something of their charm. Breton harpers wandering through France and England made Celtic themes known through their lais; the fame of King Arthur was spread abroad by these singers and by the History of Geoffrey of Monmouth. French poets welcomed the new matter of romance, infused into it their own chivalric spirit, made it a receptacle for their ideals of gallantry, courtesy, honour, grace, and added their own beautiful inventions. With the story of King Arthur was connected that of the sacred vessel—the graal—in which Joseph of Arimathea at the cross had received the Saviour's blood. And thus the rude Breton lais were elevated not only to a chivalric but to a religious purpose.

The romances of Tristan may certainly be named as of Celtic origin. About 1150 an Anglo-Norman poet, BEROUL, brought together the scattered narrative of his adventures in a romance, of which a large fragment remains. The secret loves of Tristan and Iseut, their woodland wanderings, their dangers and escapes, are related with fine imaginative sympathy; but in this version of the tale the fatal love-philtre operates only for a period of three years; Iseut, with Tristan's consent, returns to her husband, King Marc; and then a second passion is born in their hearts, a passion which is the offspring not of magic but of natural attraction, and at a critical moment of peril the fragment closes. About twenty years later (1170) the tale was again sung by an Anglo-Norman named THOMAS. Here—again in a fragment—we read of Tristan's marriage, a marriage only in name, to the white-handed Iseut of Brittany, his fidelity of heart to his one first love, his mortal wound and deep desire to see the Queen of Cornwall, the device of the white or black sails to announce the result of his entreaty that she should come, his deception, and the death of his true love upon her lover's corpse. Early in the thirteenth century was composed a long prose romance, often rehandled and expanded, upon the same subject, in which Iseut and Tristan meet at the last moment and die in a close embrace.

Le Chevrefeuille (The Honeysuckle), one of several lais by a twelfth-century poetess, MARIE, living in England, but a native of France, tells gracefully of an assignation of Tristan and Iseut, their meeting in the forest, and their sorrowful farewell. Marie de France wrote with an exquisite sense of the generosities and delicacy of the heart, and with a skill in narrative construction which was rare among the poets of her time. In Les Deux Amants, the manly pride of passion, which in a trial of strength declines the adventitious aid of a reviving potion, is rewarded by the union in death of the lover and his beloved. In Yonec and in Lanval tales of love and chivalry are made beautiful by lore of fairyland, in which the element of wonder is subdued to beauty. But the most admirable poem by Marie de France is unquestionably her Eliduc. The Breton knight Eliduc is passionately loved by Guilliadon, the only daughter of the old King of Exeter, on whose behalf he had waged battle. Her tokens of affection, girdle and ring, are received by Eliduc in silence; for, though her passion is returned, he has left in Brittany, unknown to Guilliadon, a faithful wife. Very beautiful is the self-transcending love of the wife, who restores her rival from seeming death, and herself retires into a convent. The lovers are wedded, and live in charity to the poor, but with a trouble at the heart for the wrong that they have done. In the end they part; Eliduc embraces the religious life, and the two loving women are united as sisters in the same abbey.

Wace, in his romance of the Brut (1155), which renders into verse the Historia of Geoffrey of Monmouth, makes the earliest mention of the Round Table. Whether the Arthurian legends be of Celtic or of French origin—and the former seems probable—the French romances of King Arthur owe but the crude material to Celtic sources; they may be said to begin with CHRETIEN DE TROYES, whose lost poem on Tristan was composed about 1160. Between that date and 1175 he wrote his Erec et Enide (a tale known to us through Tennyson's idyll of Geraint and Enid, derived from the Welsh Mabinogion), Cliges, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Le Chevalier au Lion, and Perceval. In Cliges the maidenhood of his beloved Fenice, wedded in form to the Emperor of Constantinople, is guarded by a magic potion; like Romeo's Juliet, she sleeps in apparent death, but, happier than Juliet, she recovers from her trance to fly with her lover to the court of Arthur. The Chevalier de la Charrette, at first unknown by name, is discovered to be Lancelot, who, losing his horse, has condescended, in order that he may obtain sight of Queen Guenievre, and in passionate disregard of the conventions of knighthood, to seat himself in a cart which a dwarf is leading. After gallant adventures on the Queen's behalf, her indignant resentment of his unknightly conduct, estrangement, and rumours of death, he is at length restored to her favour.[6] While Perceval was still unfinished, Chretien de Troyes died. It was continued by other poets, and through this romance the quest of the holy graal became a portion of the Arthurian cycle. A Perceval by ROBERT DE BORON, who wrote in the early part of the thirteenth century, has been lost; but a prose redaction of the romance exists, which closes with the death of King Arthur. The great Lancelot in prose—a vast compilation—(about 1220) reduces the various adventures of its hero and of other knights of the King to their definitive form; and here the achievement of the graal is assigned, not to Perceval, but to the saintly knight Sir Galaad; Arthur is slain in combat with the revolter Mordret; and Lancelot and the Queen enter into the life of religion. Passion and piety are alike celebrated; the rude Celtic legends have been sanctified. The earlier history of the sacred vase was traced by Robert de Boron in his Joseph d'Arimathie (or the Saint-Graal), soon to be rehandled and developed in prose; and he it was who, in his Merlin—also presently converted into prose—on suggestions derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth, brought the great enchanter into Arthurian romance. By the middle of the thirteenth century the cycle had received its full development. Towards the middle of the fourteenth century, in Perceforest, an attempt was made to connect the legend of Alexander the Great with that of King Arthur.

[Footnote 6: Chretien de Troyes is the first poet to tell of the love of Lancelot for the Queen.]

Beside the so-called Breton romances, the Epopee courtoise may be taken to include many poems of Greek, of Byzantine, or of uncertain origin, such as the Roman de la Violette, the tale of a wronged wife, having much in common with that novel of Boccaccio with which Shakespeare's Cymbeline is connected, the Floire et Blanchefleur; the Partenopeus de Blois, a kind of "Cupid and Psyche" story, with the parts of the lovers transposed, and others. In the early years of the thirteenth century the prose romance rivalled in popularity the romance in verse. The exquisite chante-fable of Aucassin et Nicolette, of the twelfth century, is partly in prose, partly in assonanced laisses of seven-syllable verse. It is a story of the victory of love: the heir of Count Garin of Beaucaire is enamoured of a beautiful maiden of unknown birth, purchased from the Saracens, who proves to be daughter of the King of Carthage, and in the end the lovers are united. In one remarkable passage unusual sympathy is shown with the hard lot of the peasant, whose trials and sufferings are contrasted with the lighter troubles of the aristocratic class.

In general the poems of the Epopee courtoise exhibit much of the brilliant external aspect of the life of chivalry as idealised by the imagination; dramatic situations are ingeniously devised; the emotions of the chief actors are expounded and analysed, sometimes with real delicacy; but in the conception of character, in the recurring incidents, in the types of passion, in the creation of marvel and surprise, a large conventional element is present. Love is independent of marriage, or rather the relation of wedlock excludes love in the accepted sense of the word; the passion is almost necessarily illegitimate, and it comes as if it were an irresistible fate; the first advance is often made by the woman; but, though at war with the duty of wedlock, love is conceived as an ennobling influence, prompting the knight to all deeds of courage and self-sacrifice. Through the later translation of the Spanish Amadis des Gaules, something of the spirit of the mediaeval romances was carried into the chivalric and pastoral romances of the seventeenth century.



Long before the date of any lyrical poems that have come down to us, song and dance were a part of the life of the people of the North as well as of the South of France; religious festivals were celebrated with a gaiety which had its mundane side; love and malicious sport demanded an expression as well as pious joy. But in tracing the forms of lyrical verse anterior to the middle of the twelfth century, when the troubadour influence from the South began to be felt, we must be guided partly by conjecture, derived from the later poetry, in which—and especially in the refrains—earlier fragments have been preserved.

The common characteristic which distinguishes the earlier lyrics is the presence in them of an objective element: they do not merely render an emotion; they contain something of a story, or they suggest a situation. In this literature of sentiment, the singer or imagined singer is commonly a woman. The chanson d'histoire is also known as chanson de toile, for the songs were such as suited "the spinsters and the knitters in the sun." Their inspiring motive was a girl's joy or grief in love; they lightly outline or suggest the facts of a miniature drama of passion, and are aided by the repeated lyrical cry of a refrain. As yet, love was an affair for the woman; it was she alone who made a confession of the heart. None of these poems are later than the close of the twelfth century. If the author be represented as actor or witness, the poem is rather a chanson a personnages than a chanson d'histoire; most frequently it is a wife who is supposed to utter to husband, or lover, or to the poet, her complaint of the grievous servitude of marriage. The aube is, again, a woman's song, uttered as a parting cry when the lark at daybreak, or the watcher from his tower, warns her lover to depart. In the pastourelle—a form much cultivated—a knight and a shepherdess meet; love proposals are made, and find a response favourable or the reverse; witnesses or companions may be present, and take a part in the action. The rondet is a dancing-song, in which the refrain corresponds with one of the movements of the dance; a solo-singer is answered by the response of a chorus; in the progress of time the rondet assumed the precise form of the modern triolet; the theme was still love, at first treated seriously if not tragically, but at a later time in a spirit of gaiety. It is conjectured that all these lyrical forms had their origin in the festivities of May, when the return of spring was celebrated by dances in which women alone took part, a survival from the pagan rites of Venus.

The poesie courtoise, moulded in form and inspired in its sentiment by the Provencal lyrics, lies within the compass of about one hundred and thirty years, from 1150 to 1280. The Crusade of 1147 served, doubtless, as a point of meeting for men of the North and of the South; but, apart from this, we may bear in mind the fact that the mediaeval poet wandered at will from country to country and from court to court. In 1137, Louis VII. married Eleonore of Aquitaine, who was an ardent admirer of the poetry of courtesy. Her daughters inherited her taste, and themselves became patronesses of literature at the courts of their husbands, Henri de Champagne and Thibaut de Blois. From these courts, and that of Paris, this poetry of culture spread, and the earlier singers were persons of royal or noble rank and birth. The chief period of its cultivation was probably from 1200 to 1240. During the half-century before its sudden cessation, while continuing to be a fashion in courts and high society, it reached the wealthy bourgeoisie of the North. At Arras, where Jacques Bretel and Adam de la Halle, the hunchback, were eminent in song, it had its latest moments of splendour.

It is essentially a poetry of the intellect and of the imagination, dealing with an elaborated theory of love; the simple and spontaneous cry of passion is rarely heard. According to the amorous doctrine, love exists only between a married woman and the aspirant to her heart, and the art of love is regulated by a stringent code. Nothing can be claimed by the lover as a right; the grace of his lady, who is placed far above him, must be sought as a favour; for that favour he must qualify himself by all knightly virtues, and chief among these, as the position requires, are the virtues of discretion and patience. Hence the poet's ingenuities of adoration; hence often the monotony of artificial passion; hence, also, subtleties and curiosities of expression, and sought-out delicacies of style. In the earlier chansons some outbreak of instinctive feeling may be occasionally present; but, as the amorous metaphysics developed, what came to be admired was the skill shown in manipulating a conventional sentiment; the lady became an abstraction of exalted beauty, the lover an interpreter of the theory of love; the most personal of passions lost the character of individuality. Occasionally, as in the poems of the Chatelain de Couci, of Conon de Bethune, of Thibaut de Champagne, and of Adam de la Halle, something personal to the writer may be discerned; but in general the poetry is that of a doctrine and of a school.

In some instances the reputation of the lyrical trouvere was founded rather on his music than his verse. The metrical forms were various, and were gradually reduced to rule; the ballette, of Provencal origin, was a more elaborate rondet, consisting of stanzas and refrain; the estampie (stampon, to beat the ground with the foot) was a dancing-song; the lyric lai, virtually identical with the descort, consisted of stanzas which varied in structure; the motet, a name originally applied to pieces of church music, was freer in versification, and occasionally dealt with popular themes. Among forms which cannot be included under the general title of chansons, are those in dialogue derived from the Provencal literature; in the tenson or debat the two interlocutors put forth their opinions on what theme they may please; in the jeu parti one of the imagined disputants proposes two contrary solutions of some poetical or amorous question, and defends whichever solution his associate refuses to accept; the earliest jeu parti, attributed to Gace Brule and Count Geoffroi of Brittany, belongs to the second half of the twelfth century. The serventois were historical poems, and among them songs of the crusades, or moral, or religious, or satirical pieces, directed against woman and the worship of woman. To these various species we should add the songs in honour of the saints, the sorrows of the Virgin uttered at the foot of the cross, and other devout lyrics which lie outside the poesie courtoise. With the close of the thirteenth century this fashion of artificial love-lyric ceased: a change passed over the modes of thought and feeling in aristocratic society, and other forms took the place of those found in the poesie courtoise.


The desire of ecclesiastical writers in the Middle Ages to give prominence to that part of classical literature which seemed best suited to the purpose of edification caused the fables of Phaedrus and Avianus to be regarded with special honour. Various renderings from the thirteenth century onwards were made under the title of Isopets,[1] a name appropriated to collections of fables whether derived from AEsop or from other sources. The twelfth-century fables in verse of Marie de France, founded on an English collection, include apologues derived not only from classical authors but from the tales of popular tradition. A great collection made about 1450 by Steinhoewel, a physician of Ulm, was translated into French, and became the chief source of later collections, thus appearing in the remote ancestry of the work of La Fontaine. The aesthetic value of the mediaeval fables, including those of Marie de France, is small; the didactic intention was strong, the literary art was feeble.

[Footnote 1: The earlier "Romulus" was the name of the supposed author of the fables of Phaedrus, while that of Phaedrus was still unknown.]

It is far otherwise with the famous beast-epic, the ROMAN DE RENARD. The cycle consists of many parts or "branches" connected by a common theme; originating and obscurely developed in the North, in Picardy, in Normandy, and the Isle of France, it suddenly appeared in literature in the middle of the twelfth century, and continued to receive additions and variations during nearly two hundred years. The spirit of the Renard poems is essentially bourgeois; the heroes of the chansons de geste achieve their wondrous deeds by strength and valour; Renard the fox is powerful by skill and cunning; the greater beasts—his chief enemy the wolf, and others—are no match for his ingenuity and endless resources; but he is powerless against smaller creatures, the cock, the crow, the sparrow. The names of the personages are either significant names, such as Noble, the lion, and Chanticleer, the cock, or proper names, such as Isengrin, the wolf, Bruno, the bear, Tibert, the cat, Bernard, the ass; and as certain of these proper names are found in the eastern district, it has been conjectured that a poet of Lotharingia in the tenth century first told in Latin the wars of fox and wolf, and that through translations the epic matter, derived originally from popular tradition, reached the trouveres of the North. While in a certain degree typical figures, the beasts are at the same time individual; Renard is not the representative merely of a species; he is Renard, an individual, with a personality of his own; Isengrin is not merely a wolf, he is the particular wolf Isengrin; each is an epic individual, heroic and undying. Classical fable remotely exerted an influence on certain branches of the Romance; but the vital substance of the epic is derived from the stores of popular tradition in which material from all quarters—the North of Europe and the Eastern world—had been gradually fused. In the artistic treatment of such material the chief difficulty lies in preserving a just measure between the beast-character and the imported element of humanity. Little by little the anthropomorphic features were developed at the expense of verisimilitude; the beast forms became a mere masquerade; the romances were converted into a satire, and the satire lost rather than gained by the inefficient disguise.

The earliest branches of the cycle have reached us only in a fragmentary way, but they can be in part reconstructed from the Latin Isengrinus of Nivard of Ghent (about 1150), and from the German Reinhart Fuchs, a rendering from the French by an Alsatian, Henri le Glichezare (about 1180). The wars of Renard and Isengrin are here sung, and the failure of Renard's trickeries against the lesser creatures; the spirit of these early branches is one of frank gaiety, untroubled by a didactic or satirical intention. In the branches of the second period the parody of human society is apparent; some of the episodes are fatiguing in their details; some are intolerably gross, but the poem known as the Branch of the Judgment is masterly—an ironical comedy, in which, without sacrifice of the primitive character of the beast-epic, the spirit of mediaeval life is transported into the animal world. Isengrin, the accuser of Renard before King Noble and his court, is for a moment worsted; the fox is vindicated, when suddenly enters a funeral cortege—Chanticleer and his four wives bear upon a litter the dead body of one of their family, the victim of Renard's wiles. The prayers for the dead are recited, the burial is celebrated with due honour, and Renard is summoned to justice; lie heaped upon lie will not save him; at last he humbles himself with pious repentance, and promising to seek God's pardon over-sea, is permitted in his pilgrim's habit to quit the court. It is this Judgment of Renard which formed the basis of the Reineke Fuchs, known to us through the modernisation of Goethe.

From the date of the Branch of the Judgment the Renard Romances declined. The Judgment was imitated by inferior hands, and the beasts were more and more nearly transformed to men; the spirit of gaiety was replaced by seriousness or gloom; Renard ceased to be a light-footed and ingenious rogue; he became a type of human fraud and cruelty; whatever in society was false and base and merciless became a form of "renardie," and by "renardie" the whole world seemed to be ruled. Such is the temper expressed in Le Couronnement Renard, written in Flanders soon after 1250, a satire directed chiefly against the mendicant orders, in which the fox, turned friar for a season, ascends the throne. Renard le Nouveau, the work of a poet of Lille, Jacquemart Gelee, nearly half a century later, represents again the triumph of the spirit of evil; although far inferior in execution to the Judgment, it had remarkable success, to which the allegory, wearying to a modern reader, no doubt contributed at a time when allegory was a delight. The last of the Renard romances, Renard le Contrefait, was composed at Troyes before 1328, by an ecclesiastic who had renounced his profession and turned to trade. In his leisure hours he spun, in discipleship to Jean de Meun, his interminable poem, which is less a romance than an encyclopaedia of all the knowledge and all the opinions of the author. This latest Renard has a value akin to that of the second part of Le Roman de la Rose; it is a presentation of the ideas and manners of the time by one who freely criticised and mocked the powers that be, both secular and sacred, and who was in sympathy with a certain movement or tendency towards social, political, and intellectual reform.


The name fabliaux is applied to short versified tales, comic in character, and intended rather for recitation than for song. Out of a far larger number about one hundred and fifty have survived. The earliest—Richeut—is of the year 1159. From the middle of the twelfth century, together with the heroic or sentimental poetry of feudalism, we find this bourgeois poetry of realistic observation; and even in the chansons de geste, in occasional comic episodes, something may be seen which is in close kinship with the fabliaux. Many brief humorous stories, having much in common under their various disguises, exist as part of the tradition of many lands and peoples. The theory which traces the French fabliaux to Indian originals is unproved, and indeed is unnecessary. The East, doubtless, contributed its quota to the common stock, but so did other quarters of the globe; such tales are ubiquitous and are undying, only the particular form which they assume being determined by local conditions.

The fabliaux, as we can study them, belong especially to the north and north-east of France, and they continued to be put forth by their rhymers until about 1340, the close of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century being the period of their greatest popularity. Simple and obvious jests sufficed to raise a laugh among folk disposed to good humour; by degrees something of art and skill was attained. The misfortunes of husbands supplied an inexhaustible store of merriment; if woman and the love of woman were idealised in the romances, the fabliaux took their revenge, and exhibited her as the pretty traitress of a shameless comedy. If religion was honoured in the age of faith, the bourgeois spirit found matter of mirth in the adventures of dissolute priests and self-indulgent monks. Not a few of the fabliaux are cynically gross—ribald but not voluptuous. To literary distinction they made small pretence. It sufficed if the tale ran easily in the current speech, thrown into rhyming octosyllables; but brevity, frankness, natural movement are no slight or common merits in mediaeval poetry, and something of the social life of the time is mirrored in these humorous narratives.

To regard them as a satire of class against class, inspired by indignation, is to misconceive their true character; they are rather miniature comedies or caricatures, in which every class in turn provides material for mirth. It may, however, be said that with the writers of the fabliaux to hold woman in scorn is almost an article of faith. Among these writers a few persons of secular rank or dignified churchmen occasionally appeared; but what we may call the professional rhymers and reciters were the humbler jongleurs addressing a bourgeois audience—degraded clerics, unfrocked monks, wandering students, who led a bohemian life of gaiety alternating with misery. In the early part of the fourteenth century these errant jongleurs ceased to be esteemed; the great lord attached a minstrel to his household, and poetry grew more dignified, more elaborate in its forms, more edifying in its intention, and in its dignity grew too often dull. Still for a time fabliaux were written; but the age of the jongleurs was over. Virelais, rondeaux, ballades, chants royaux were the newer fashion; and the old versified tale of mirth and ribaldry was by the middle of the century a thing of the past.


The most extraordinary production in verse of the thirteenth century is undoubtedly Le Roman de la Rose. It is indeed no single achievement, but two very remarkable poems, written at two different periods, by two authors whose characters and gifts were not only alien, but opposed—two poems which reflect two different conditions of society. Of its twenty-two thousand octosyllabic lines, upwards of four thousand are the work of GUILLAUME DE LORRIS; the remainder is the work of a later writer, JEAN DE MEUN.

Lorris is a little town situated between Orleans and Montargis. Here, about the year 1200, the earlier poet was born. He was a scholar, at least as far as knowledge of Latin extends, and learned above all in the lore of love. He died young, probably before 1230, and during the five years that preceded his death the first part of Le Roman de la Rose was composed. Its subject is an allegorised tale of love, his own or imagined, transferred to the realm of dreams. The writer would fain win the heart of his beloved, and at the same time he would instruct all amorous spirits in the art of love. He is twenty years of age, in the May-morn of youth. He has beheld his beautiful lady, and been charmed by her fairness, her grace, her courtesy; she has received him with gentleness, but when he declares his love she grows alarmed. He gains at last the kiss which tells of her affection; but her parents intervening, throw obstacles between the lovers. Such, divested of ornament, allegory, and personification, is the theme of the poem.

To pluck the rose in the garden of delight is to win the maiden; her fears, her virgin modesty and pride, her kindness, her pity, are the company of friends or foes by whom the rose is surrounded; and to harmonise the real and the ideal, all the incidents are placed in the setting of a dream. Wandering one spring morning by the river-banks, the dreamer finds himself outside the walls of a fair orchard, owned by Deduit (Pleasure), of which the portress is Oiseuse (Idleness); on the walls are painted figures of Hatred, Envy, Sadness, Old Age, Poverty, and other evil powers; but unterrified by these, he enters, and finds a company of dancers on the turf, among whom is Beauty, led by the god of Love. Surrounded by a thorny hedge is the rosebud on which all his desire now centres. He is wounded by the arrows of Love, does homage to the god, and learns his commandments and the evils and the gains of love. Invited by Bel-Accueil, the son of Courtoisie, to approach the rose, he is driven back by Danger and his companions, the guardians of the blossom. Raison descends from a tower and discourses against the service of Love; Ami offers his consolations; at length the lover is again admitted to the flowery precinct, finds his rosebud half unclosed, and obtains the joy of a kiss. But Jealousy raises an unscalable wall around the rose; the serviceable Bel-Accueil is imprisoned, and with a long lament of the lover, the poem (line 4068) closes.

Did Guillaume de Lorris ever complete his poem, or did he die while it was still but half composed? We may conjecture that it wanted little to reach some denouement—perhaps the fulfilment of the lover's hopes; and it is not impossible that a lost fragment actually brought the love-tale to its issue. But even if the story remained without an end, we possess in Guillaume's poem a complete mediaeval Art of Love; and if the amorous metaphysics are sometimes cold, conventional, or laboured, we have gracious allegories, pieces of brilliant description, vivid personifications, and something of ingenious analysis of human passion. Nevertheless the work of this Middle-Age disciple of Ovid and of Chretien de Troyes owes more than half its celebrity to the continuation, conceived in an entirely opposite spirit, by his successor, Jean de Meun.

The contrast is striking: Guillaume de Lorris was a refined and graceful exponent of the conventional doctrine of love, a seemly celebrant in the cult of woman, an ingenious decorator of accepted ideas; Jean de Meun was a passionate and positive spirit, an ardent speculator in social, political, and scientific questions, one who cared nothing for amorous subtleties, and held woman in scorn. Guillaume addressed an aristocratic audience, imbued with the sentiments of chivalry; Jean was a bourgeois, eager to instruct, to arouse, to inflame his fellows in a multitude of matters which concerned the welfare of their lives. He was little concerned for the lover and his rose, but was deeply interested in the condition of society, the corruptions of religion, the advance of knowledge. He turned from ideals which seemed spurious to reason and to nature; he had read widely in Latin literature, and found much that suited his mood and mind in Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae and in the De Planctu Naturae of the "universal doctor" of the twelfth century, Alain de Lille, from each of which he conveyed freely into his poem. Of his life we know little; Jean Clopinel was born at Meun on the Loire about the year 1240; he died before the close of 1305; his continuation of Guillaume's Roman was made about 1270. His later poems, a Testament, in which he warned and exhorted his contemporaries of every class, the Codicille, which incited to almsgiving, and his numerous translations, prove the unabated energy of his mind in his elder years.

The rose is plucked by the lover in the end; but lover and rose are almost forgotten in Jean's zeal in setting forth his views of life, and in forming an encyclopaedia of the knowledge of his time. Reason discourses on the dangers of passion, commends friendship or universal philanthropy as wiser than love, warns against the instability of fortune and the deceits of riches, and sets charity high above justice; if love be commendable, it is as the device of nature for the continuation of the species. The way to win woman and to keep her loyalty is now the unhappy way of squandered largess; formerly it was not so in the golden age of equality, before private property was known, when all men held in common the goods of the earth, and robber kings were evils of the future. The god of Love and his barons, with the hypocrite monk Faux-Semblant—a bitter satirist of the mendicant orders—besiege the tower in which Bel-Accueil is imprisoned, and by force and fraud an entrance is effected. The old beldame, who watches over the captive, is corrupted by promises and gifts, and frankly exposes her own iniquities and those of her sex. War is waged against the guardians of the rose, Venus, sworn enemy of chastity, aiding the assailants. Nature, devoted to the continuance of the race, mourns over the violation of her laws by man, unburdens herself of all her scientific lore in a confession to her chaplain Genius, and sends him forth to encourage the lover's party with a bold discourse against the crime of virginity. The triumph of the lover closes the poem.

The graceful design of the earlier poet is disregarded; the love-story becomes a mere frame for setting forth the views of Jean de Meun, his criticism of the chivalric ideal, his satire upon the monkish vices, his revolutionary notions respecting property and government, his advanced opinions in science, his frank realism as to the relations of man and woman. He possesses all the learning of his time, and an accomplished judgment in the literature which he had studied. He is a powerful satirist, and passages of narrative and description show that he had a poet's feeling for beauty; he handles the language with the strength and skill of a master. On the other hand, he lacks all sense of proportion, and cannot shape an imaginative plan; his prolixity wearies the reader, and it cannot be denied that as a moral reformer he sometimes topples into immorality. The success of the poem was extraordinary, and extended far beyond France. It was attacked and defended, and up to the time of Ronsard its influence on the progress of literature—encouraging, as it did, to excess the art of allegory and personification—if less than has commonly been alleged, was unquestionably important.



The didactic literature, moral and scientific, of the Middle Ages is abundant, and possesses much curious interest, but it is seldom original in substance, and seldom valuable from the point of view of literary style. In great part it is translated or derived from Latin sources. The writers were often clerks or laymen who had turned from the vanities of youth—fabliau or romance—and now aimed at edification or instruction. Science in the hands of the clergy must needs be spiritualised and moralised; there were sermons to be found in stones, pious allegories in beast and bird; mystic meanings in the alphabet, in grammar, in the chase, in the tourney, in the game of chess. Ovid and Virgil were sanctified to religious uses. The earliest versified Bestiary, which is also a Volucrary, a Herbary, and a Lapidary, that of Philippe de Thaon (before 1135), is versified from the Latin Physiologus, itself a translation from the work of an Alexandrian Greek of the second century. In its symbolic zoology the lion and the pelican are emblems of Christ; the unicorn is God; the crocodile is the devil; the stones "turrobolen," which blaze when they approach each other, are representative of man and woman. A Bestiaire d'Amour was written by Richard de Fournival, in which the emblems serve for the interpretation of human love. A Lapidary, with a medical—not a moral—purpose, by Marbode, Bishop of Rennes, was translated more than once into French, and had, indeed, an European fame.

Bestiaries and Lapidaries form parts of the vast encyclopaedias, numerous in the thirteenth century, which were known by such names as Image du Monde, Mappe-monde, Miroir du Monde. Of these encyclopaedias, the only one which has a literary interest is the Tresor (1265), by Dante's master, Brunetto Latini, who wrote in French in preference to his native Italian. In it science escapes not wholly from fantasy and myth, but at least from the allegorising spirit; his ethics and rhetoric are derived from Latin originals; his politics are his own. The Somme des Vices et des Vertus, compiled in 1279 by Friar Lorens, is a well-composed tresor of religion and morals. Part of its contents has become familiar to us through the Canterbury discourse of Chaucer's parson. The moral experience of a man of the world is summed up in the prose treatise on "The Four Ages of Man," by Philippe de Novare, chancellor of Cyprus. With this edifying work may be grouped the so-called Chastiements, counsels on education and conduct, designed for readers in general or for some special class—women, children, persons of knightly or of humble rank; studies of the virtues of chivalry, the rules of courtesy and of manners.[1] Other writings, the Etats du Monde, present a view of the various classes of society from a standpoint ethical, religious, or satirical, with warnings and exhortations, which commonly conclude with a vision of the last judgment and the pains of hell. With such a scene of terror closes the interesting Poeme Moral of Etienne de Fougeres, in which the life of St. Moses, the converted robber, serves as an example to monks, and that of the converted Thais to ladies who are proud of their beauty. Its temper of moderation contrasts with the bitter satire in the Bible by Guiot de Provins, and with many shorter satirical pieces directed against clerical vices or the infirmities of woman. The Besant de Dieu, by Guillaume le Clerc, a Norman poet (1227), preaches in verse, with eloquence and imaginative power, the love of God and contempt of the world from the texts of two Scripture parables—that of the Talents and that of the Bridegroom; Guillaume anticipates the approaching end of the world, foreshown by wars, pestilence, and famine, condemns in the spirit of Christian charity the persecution of the Albigenses, and mourns over the shame that has befallen the Holy Sepulchre.

[Footnote 1: Two works of the fourteenth century, interesting in the history of manners and ideas, may here be mentioned—the Livre du Chevalier de la Tour-Landry (1372), composed for the instruction of the writer's daughters, and the Menagier de Paris, a treatise on domestic economy, written by a Parisian bourgeois for the use of his young wife.]

Among the preacher poets of the thirteenth century the most interesting personally is the minstrel RUTEBEUF, who towards the close of his gay though ragged life turned to serious thoughts, and expressed his penitent feelings with penetrating power. Rutebeuf, indeed—the Villon of his age—deployed his vivid and ardent powers in many directions, as a writer of song and satire, of allegory, of fabliaux, of drama. On each and all he impressed his own personality; the lyric note, imaginative fire, colour, melody, these were gifts that compensated the poet's poverty, his conjugal miseries, his lost eye, his faithless friends, his swarming adversaries. The personification of vices and virtues, occasional in the Besant and other poems, becomes a system in the Songe d'Enfer, a pilgrim's progress to hell, and the Voie de Paradis, a pilgrim's progress to heaven, by Raoul de Houdan (after 1200). The Pelerinage de la Vie Humaine—another "way to Paradise"; the Pelerinage de l'Ame—a vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven; and the Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ—a narrative of the Saviour's life, by Guillaume de Digulleville (fourteenth century), have been imagined by some to have been among the sources of Bunyan's allegories. Human life may be represented in one aspect as a pilgrimage; in another it is a knightly encounter; there is a great strife between the powers of good and evil; in Le Tornoiement Antecrist, by Huon de Meri, Jesus and the Knights of the Cross, among whom, besides St. Michael, St. Gabriel, Confession, Chastity, and Alms, are Arthur, Launcelot, and Gawain, contend against Antichrist and the infernal barons—Jupiter, Neptune, Beelzebub, and a crowd of allegorical personages. But the battles and debats of a chivalric age were not only religious; there are battles of wine and water, battles of fast and feasting, battles of the seven arts. A disputation between the body and the soul, a favourite subject for separate treatment by mediaeval poets, is found also in one of the many sermons in verse; the Debat des Trois Morts et des Trois Vifs recalls the subject of the memorable painting in the Campo Santo at Pisa.


The Latin sermons of the Middle Ages were countless; but it is not until Gerson and the close of the fourteenth century that we find a series of discourses by a known preacher written and pronounced in French. It is maintained that these Latin sermons, though prepared in the language of the Church, were delivered, when addressed to lay audiences, in the vernacular, and that those composite sermons in the macaronic style, that is, partly in French, partly in Latin, which appear in the thirteenth century and are frequent in the fifteenth, were the work of reporters or redactors among the auditory. On the other hand, it is argued that both Latin and French sermons were pronounced as each might seem suitable, before the laity, and that the macaronic style was actually practised in the pulpit. Perhaps we may accept the opinion that the short and simple homilies designed for the people, little esteemed as compositions, were rarely thought worthy of preservation in a Latin form; those discourses which remain to us, if occasionally used before an unlearned audience, seem to have been specially intended for clerkly hearers. The sermons of St. Bernard, which have been preserved in Latin and in a French translation of the thirteenth century, were certainly not his eloquent popular improvisations; they are doctrinal, with crude or curious allegorisings of Holy Scripture. Those of Maurice de Sully, Archbishop of Paris, probably also translated from the Latin, are simpler in manner and more practical in their teaching; but in these characteristics they stand apart from the other sermons of the twelfth century.

It was not until the mendicant orders, Franciscans and Dominicans, began their labours that preaching, as preserved to us, was truly laicised and popularised. During the thirteenth century the work of the pulpit came to be conceived as an art which could be taught; collections of anecdotes and illustrations—exempla—for the enlivening of sermons, manuals for the use of preachers were formed; rules and precepts were set forth; themes for popular discourse were proposed and enlarged upon, until at length original thought and invention ceased; the preacher's art was turned into an easy trade. The effort to be popular often resulted in pulpit buffoonery. When GERSON preached at court or to the people towards the close of the fourteenth century, gravely exhorting high and low to practical duties, with tender or passionate appeals to religious feeling, his sermons were noble exceptions to the common practice. And the descent from Gerson to even his more eminent successors is swift and steep. The orators of the pulpit varied their discourse from burlesque mirth or bitter invective to gross terrors, in which death and judgment, Satan and hell-fire were largely displayed. The sermons of Michel Menot and Olivier Maillard, sometimes eloquent in their censure of sin, sometimes trivial or grotesque, sometimes pedantic in their exhibition of learning, have at least an historical value in presenting an image of social life in the fifteenth century.

A word must be said of the humanism which preceded the Renaissance. Scholars and students there were in France two hundred years before the days of Erasmus and of Bude; but they were not scholars inspired by genius, and they contented themselves with the task of translators, undertaken chiefly with a didactic purpose. If they failed to comprehend the spirit of antiquity, none the less they did something towards quickening the mind of their own time and rendering the French language less inadequate to the intellectual needs of a later age. All that was then known of Livy's history was rendered into French in 1356 by the friend of Petrarch, Pierre Bercuire. On the suggestion of Charles V., Nicole Oresme translated from the Latin the Ethics, Politics, and Economics of Aristotle. It was to please the king that the aged Raoul de Presles prepared his version of St. Augustine's De Civitate Dei, and Denis Foulechat, with very scanty scholarship, set himself to render the Polycraticus of John of Salisbury. The dukes of Bourbon, of Berry, of Burgundy, were also patrons of letters and encouraged their translators. We cannot say how far this movement of scholarship might have progressed, if external conditions had favoured its development. In Jean de Montreuil, secretary of Charles VI., the devoted student of Cicero, Virgil, and Terence, we have an example of the true humanist before the Renaissance. But the seeming dawn was a deceptive aurora; the early humanism of France was clouded and lost in the tempests of the Hundred Years' War.


While the mediaeval historians, compilers, and abbreviators from records of the past laboured under all the disadvantages of an age deficient in the critical spirit, and produced works of little value either for their substance or their literary style, the chroniclers, who told the story of their own times, Villehardouin, Joinville, Froissart, Commines, and others, have bequeathed to us, in living pictures or sagacious studies of events and their causes, some of the chief treasures of the past. History at first, as composed for readers who knew no Latin, was comprised in those chansons de geste which happened to deal with matter that was not wholly—or almost wholly—the creation of fancy. Narrative poems treating of contemporary events came into existence with the Crusades, but of these the earliest have not survived, and we possess only rehandlings of their matter in the style of romance. What happened in France might be supposed to be known to persons of intelligence; what happened in the East was new and strange. But England, like the East, was foreign soil, and the Anglo-Norman trouveres of the eleventh and twelfth centuries busied themselves with copious narratives in rhyme, such as Gaimar's Estorie des Engles (1151), Wace's Brut (1155) and his Roman de Rou, which, if of small literary importance, remain as monuments in the history of the language. The murder of Becket called forth the admirable life of the saint by Garnier de Pont-Sainte-Maxence, founded upon original investigations; Henry II.'s conquest of Ireland was related by an anonymous writer; his victories over the Scotch (1173-1174) were strikingly described by Jordan Fantosme. But by far the most remarkable piece of versified history of this period, remarkable alike for its historical interest and its literary merit, is the Vie de Guillaume le Marechal—William, Earl of Pembroke, guardian of Henry III.—a poem of nearly twenty thousand octosyllabic lines by an unknown writer, discovered by M. Paul Meyer in the library of Sir Thomas Phillipps. "The masterpiece of Anglo-Norman historiography," writes M. Langlois, "is assuredly this anonymous poem, so long forgotten, and henceforth classic."

Prose, however, in due time proved itself to be the fitting medium for historical narrative, and verse was given over to the extravagances of fantasy. Compilations from the Latin, translations from the pseudo-Turpin, from Geoffrey of Monmouth, from Sallust, Suetonius, and Caesar were succeeded by original record and testimony. GEOFFROY DE VILLEHARDOUIN, born between 1150 and 1164, Marshal of Champagne in 1191, was appointed eight years later to negotiate with the Venetians for the transport of the Crusaders to the East. He was probably a chief agent in the intrigue which diverted the fourth Crusade from its original destination—the Holy Land—to the assault upon Constantinople. In the events which followed he had a prominent part; before the close of 1213 Villehardouin was dead. During his last years he dictated the unfinished Memoirs known as the Conquete de Constantinople, which relate the story of his life from 1198 to 1207. Villehardouin is the first chronicler who impresses his own personality on what he wrote: a brave leader, skilful in resource, he was by no means an enthusiast possessed by the more extravagant ideas of chivalry; much more was he a politician and diplomatist, with material interests well in view; not, indeed, devoid of a certain imaginative wonder at the marvels of the East; not without his moments of ardour and excitement; deeply impressed with the feeling of feudal loyalty, the sense of the bond between the suzerain and his vassal; deeply conscious of the need of discipline in great adventures; keeping in general a cool head, which could calculate the sum of profit and loss.

It is probable that Villehardouin knew too much of affairs, and was too experienced a man of the world to be quite frank as a historian: we can hardly believe, as he would have us, that the diversion of the crusading host from its professed objects was unpremeditated; we can perceive that he composes his narrative so as to form an apology; his recital has been justly described as, in part at least, "un memoire justificatif." Nevertheless, there are passages, such as that which describes the first view of Constantinople, where Villehardouin's feelings seize upon his imagination, and, as it were, overpower him. In general he writes with a grave simplicity, sometimes with baldness, disdaining ornament, little sensible to colour or grace of style; but by virtue of his clear intelligence and his real grasp of facts his chronicle acquires a certain literary dignity, and when his words become vivid we know that it is because he had seen with inquisitive eyes and felt with genuine ardour. Happily for students of history, while Villehardouin presents the views of an aristocrat and a diplomatist, the incidents of the same extraordinary adventure can be seen, as they struck a simple soldier, in the record of Robert de Clari, which may serve as a complement and a counterpoise to the chronicle of his more illustrious contemporary. The unfinished Histoire de l'Empereur Henri, which carries on the narrative of events for some years subsequent to those related by Villehardouin, the work of Henri de Valenciennes, is a prose redaction of what had originally formed a chanson de geste.

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