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1. THE TROUBADOURS.—When, in the tenth century, the nations of the south of Europe attempted to give consistency to the rude dialects which had been produced by the mixture of the Latin with the northern tongues, the Provencal, or Langue d'oc, was the first to come to perfection. The study of this language became the favorite recreation of the higher classes during the tenth and eleventh centuries, and poetry the elegant occupation of those whose time was not spent in the ruder pastimes of the field. Thousands of poets, who were called troubadours (from trobar, to find or invent), flourished in this new language almost contemporaneously, and spread their reputation from the extremity of Spain to that of Italy. All at once, however, this ephemeral reputation vanished. The voice of the troubadours was silent, the Provencal was abandoned and sank into a mere dialect, and after a brilliant existence of three centuries (950-1250), its productions were ranked among those of the dead languages. The high reputation of the Provencal poets, and the rapid decline of their language, are two phenomena equally striking in the history of human culture. This literature, which gave models to other nations, yet among its crowds of agreeable poems did not produce a single masterpiece destined to immortality, was entirely the offspring of the age, and not of individuals. It reveals to us the sentiments and imagination of modern nations in their infancy; it exhibits what was common to all and pervaded all, and not what genius superior to the age enabled a single individual to accomplish.

Southern France, having been the inheritance of several of the successors of Charlemagne, was elevated to the rank of an independent kingdom in 879, by Bozon, and under his sovereignty, and that of his successors for 213 years, it enjoyed a paternal government. The accession of the Count of Barcelona to the crown, in 1092, introduced into Provence the spirit both of liberty and chivalry, and a taste for elegance and the arts, with all the sciences of the Arabians. The union of these noble sentiments added brilliancy to that poetical spirit which shone out at once over Provence and all the south of Europe, like an electric flash in the midst of profound darkness, illuminating all things with the splendor of its flame.

At the same time with Provencal poetry, chivalry had its rise; it was, in a manner, the soul of the new literature, and gave to it a character different from anything in antiquity. Love, in this age, while it was not more tender and passionate than among the Greeks and Romans, was more respectful, and women were regarded with something of that religious veneration which the Germans evinced towards their prophetesses. To this was added that passionate ardor of feeling peculiar to the people of the South, the expression of which was borrowed from the Arabians. But although among individuals love preserved this pure and religious character, the license engendered by the feudal system, and the disorders of the time, produced a universal corruption of manners which found expression in the literature of the age. Neither the sirventes nor the chanzos of the troubadours, nor the fabliaux of the trouveres, nor the romances of chivalry, can be read without a blush. On every page the grossness of the language is only equaled by the shameful depravity of the characters and the immorality of the incidents. In the south of France, more particularly, an extreme laxity of manners prevailed among the nobility. Gallantry seems to have been the sole object of existence. Ladies were proud of the celebrity conferred upon their charms by the songs of the troubadours, and they themselves often professed the “Gay Science,” as poetry was called. They instituted the Courts of Love where questions of gallantry were gravely discussed and decided by their suffrages; and they gave, in short, to the whole south of France the character of a carnival. No sooner had the Gay Science been established in Provence, than it became the fashion in surrounding countries. The sovereigns of Europe adopted the Provencal language, and enlisted themselves among the poets, and there was soon neither baron nor knight who did not feel himself bound to add to his fame as a warrior the reputation of a gentle troubadour. Monarchs were now the professors of the art, and the only patrons were the ladies. Women, no longer beautiful ciphers, acquired complete liberty of action, and the homage paid to them amounted almost to worship.

At the festivals of the haughty barons, the lady of the castle, attended by youthful beauties, distributed crowns to the conquerors in the jousts and tournaments. She then, in turn, surrounded by her ladies, opened her Court of Love, and the candidates for poetical honors entered with their harps and contended for the prize in extempore verses called tensons. The Court of Love then entered upon a grave discussion of the merits of the question, and a judgment or arret d'amour was given, frequently in verse, by which the dispute was supposed to be decided. These courts often formally justified the abandonment of moral duty, and assuming the forms and exercising the power of ordinary tribunals, they defined and prescribed the duties of the sexes, and taught the arts of love and song according to the most depraved moral principles, mingled, however, with an affected display of refined sentimentality. Whatever may have been their utility in the advancement of the language and the cultivation of literary taste, these institutions extended a legal sanction to vice, and inculcated maxims of shameful profligacy.

The songs of the Provencals were divided into chanzos and sirventes; the object of the former was love, and of the latter war, politics, or satire. The name of tenson was given to those poetical contests in verse which took place in the Courts of Love, or before illustrious princes. The songs were sung from chateau to chateau, either by the troubadours themselves, or by the jongleur or instrument player by whom they were attended; they often abounded in extravagant hyperboles, trivial conceits, and grossness of expression. Ladies, whose attractions were estimated by the number and desperation of their lovers, and the songs of their troubadours, were not offended if licentiousness mingled with gallantry in the songs composed in their praise. Authors addressed prayers to the saints for aid in their amorous intrigues, and men, seemingly rational, resigned themselves to the wildest transports of passion for individuals whom, in some cases, they had never seen. Thus, religious enthusiasm, martial bravery, and licentious love, so grotesquely mingled, formed the very life of the Middle Ages, and impossible as it is to transfuse into a translation the harmony of Provencal verse, or to find in it, when stripped of this harmony, any poetical idea, these remains are valuable since they present us with a picture of the life and manners of the times.

The intercourse of the Provencals with the Moors of Spain, which, as we have seen, was greatly increased by the union of Catalonia and Provence (1092), introduced into the North an acquaintance with the arts and learning of the Arabians. It was then that rhyme, the essential characteristic of Arabian poetry, was adopted by the troubadours into the Provencal language, and thence communicated to the nations of modern Europe.

The poetry of the troubadours borrowed nothing from history, mythology, or from foreign manners, and no reference to the sciences or the learning of the schools mingled with their simple effusions of sentiment. This fact enables us to comprehend how it was possible for princes and knights, who were often unable to read, to be yet ranked among the most ingenious troubadours. Several public events, however, materially contributed to enlarge the sphere of intellect of the knights of the Langue d'oc. The first was the conquest of Toledo and Castile by Alphonso VI., in which he was seconded by the Cid Rodriguez, the hero of Spain, and by a number of French Provencal knights; the second was the preaching of the Crusades. Of all the events recorded in the history of the world, there is, perhaps, not one of a nature so highly poetical as these holy wars; not one which presents a more powerful picture of the grand effects of enthusiasm, of noble sacrifices of self-interest to faith, sentiment, and passion, which are essentially poetical. Many of the troubadours assumed the cross; others were detained in Europe by the bonds of love, and the conflict between passion and religious enthusiasm lent its influence to the poems they composed. The third event was the succession of the kings of England to the sovereignty of a large part of the countries where the Langue d'oc prevailed, which influenced the manners and opinions of the troubadours, and introduced them to the courts of the most powerful monarchs; while the encouragement given to them by the kings of the house of Plantagenet had a great influence on the formation of the English language, and furnished Chaucer, the father of English literature, with his first models for imitation.

The troubadours numbered among their ranks the most illustrious sovereigns and heroes of the age. Among others, Richard Coeur de Lion, who, as a poet and knight, united in his own person all the brilliant qualities of the time. A story is told of him, that when he was detained a prisoner in Germany, the place of his imprisonment was discovered by Blondel, his minstrel, who sang beneath the fortress a tensonwhich he and Richard had composed in common, and to which Richard responded. Bertrand de Born, who was intimately connected with Richard, and who exercised a powerful influence over the destinies of the royal family of England, has left a number of original poems; Sordello of Mantua was the first to adopt the ballad form of writing, and many of his love songs are expressed in a pure and delicate style. Both of these poets are immortalized in the Divine Comedy of Dante. The history of Geoffrey Rudel illustrates the wildness of the imagination and manners of the troubadours. He was a gentleman of Provence, and hearing the knights who had returned from the Holy Land speak with enthusiasm of the Countess of Tripoli, who had extended to them the most generous hospitality, and whose grace and beauty equaled her virtues, he fell in love with her without ever having seen her, and, leaving the Court of England, he embarked for the Holy Land, to offer to her the homage of his heart. During the voyage he was attacked by a severe illness, and lost the power of speech. On his arrival in the harbor, the countess, being informed that a celebrated poet was dying of love for her, visited him on shipboard, took him kindly by the hand, and attempted to cheer his spirits. Rudel revived sufficiently to thank the lady for her humanity and to declare his passion, when his voice was silenced by the convulsions of death. He was buried at Tripoli, and, by the orders of the countess, a tomb of porphyry was erected to his memory. It is unnecessary to mention other names among the multitude of these poets, who all hold nearly the same rank. An extreme monotony reigns throughout their works, which offer little individuality of character.

After the thirteenth century, the troubadours were heard no more, and the efforts of the counts of Provence, the magistrates of Toulouse, and the kings of Arragon to awaken, their genius by the Courts of Love and the Floral Games were vain. They themselves attributed their decline to the degradation into which the jongleurs, with whom at last they were confounded, had fallen. But their art contained within itself a more immediate principle of decay in the profound ignorance of its professors. They had no other models than the songs of the Arabians, which perverted their taste. They made no attempt at epic or dramatic poetry; they had no classical allusions, no mythology, nor even a romantic imagination, and, deprived of the riches of antiquity, they had few resources within themselves. The poetry of Provence was a beautiful flower springing up on a sterile soil, and no cultivation could avail in the absence of its natural nourishment. From the close of the twelfth century the language began to decline, and public events occurred which hastened its downfall, and reduced it to the condition of a provincial dialect.

Among the numerous sects which sprang up in Christendom during the Middle Ages, there was one which, though bearing different names at different times, more or less resembled what is now known as Protestantism; in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was called the faith of the Albigenses, as it prevailed most widely in the district of Albi. It easily came to be identified with the Provencal language, as this was the chosen vehicle of its religious services. This sect was tolerated and protected by the Court of Toulouse. It augmented its numbers; it devoted itself to commerce and the arts, and added much to the prosperity which had long distinguished the south of France. The Albigenses had lived long and peaceably side by side with the Catholics in the cities and villages; but Innocent III. sent legates to Provence, who preached, discussed, and threatened, and met a freedom of thought and resistance to authority which Rome was not willing to brook. Bitter controversy was now substituted for the amiable frivolity of thetensons, and theological disputes superseded those on points of gallantry. The long struggle between the poetry of the troubadours and the preaching of the monks came to a crisis; the severe satires which the disorderly lives of the clergy called forth became severer still, and the songs of the troubadours wounded the power and pride of Rome more deeply than ever, while they stimulated the Albigenses to a valiant resistance or a glorious death. A crusade followed, and when the dreadful strife was over, Provencal poetry had received its death-blow. The language of Provence was destined to share the fate of its poetry; it became identified in the minds of the orthodox with heresy and rebellion. When Charles of Anjou acquired the kingdom of Naples, he drew thither the Provencal nobility, and thus drained the kingdom of those who had formerly maintained its chivalrous manners. In the beginning of the fourteenth century, when the Court of Rome was removed to Avignon, the retinues of the three successive popes were Italians, and the Tuscan language entirely superseded the Provencal among the higher classes.

2. THE TROUVERES.—While the Provencal was thus relapsing into a mere dialect, the north of France was maturing a new language and literature of an entirely different character. Normandy, a province of France, was invaded in the tenth century by a new northern tribe, who, under the command of Rollo or Raoul the Dane, incorporated themselves with the ancient inhabitants. The victors adopted the language of the vanquished, stamped upon it the impress of their own genius, and gave it a fixed form. It was from Normandy that the first writers and poets in the French language sprang. While the Romance Provencal spoken in the South was sweet, and expressive of effeminate manners, the Romance-Wallon was energetic and warlike, and represented the severer manners of the Germans. Its poetry, too, was widely different from the Provencal. It was no longer the idle baron sighing for his lady-love, but the songs of a nation of hardy warriors, celebrating the prowess of their ancestors with all the exaggerations that fancy could supply. The Langue d'oui became the vehicle of literature only in the twelfth century,—a hundred years subsequent to the Romance Provencal. The poets and reciters of tales, giving the name of Troubadour a French termination, called themselves Trouveres. They originated the brilliant romances of chivalry, the fabliaux or tales of amusement, and the dramatic invention of the Mysteries. The first literary work in this tongue is the versified romance of a fabulous history of the early kings of England, beginning with Brutus, the grandson of AEneas, who, after passing many enchanted isles, at length establishes himself in England, where he finds King Arthur, the chivalric institution of the Round Table, and the enchanter Merlin, one of the most popular personages of the Middle Ages. Out of this legend arose some of the boldest creations of the human fancy. The word “romance,” now synonymous with fictitious composition, originally meant only a work in the modern dialect, as distinguished from the scholastic Latin. There is little doubt that these tales were originally believed to be strictly true. One of the first romances of chivalry was “Tristam de Leonois,” written in 1190. This was soon followed by that of the “San Graal” and “Lancelot;” and previously to 1213 Ville-Hardouin had written in the French language a “History of the Conquest of Constantinople.” The poem of “Alexander,” however, which appeared about the same time, has enjoyed the greatest reputation. It is a series of romances and marvelous histories, said to be the result of the labors of nine celebrated poets of the time. Alexander is introduced, surrounded not by the pomp of antiquity, but by the splendors of chivalry. The high renown of this poem has given the name of Alexandrine verse to the measure in which it is written.

The spirit of chivalry which burst forth in the romances of the trouveres, the heroism of honor and love, the devotion of the powerful to the weak, the supernatural fictions, so novel and so dissimilar to everything in antiquity or in later times, the force and brilliancy of imagination which they display, have been variously attributed to the Arabians and the Germans, but they were undoubtedly the invention of the Normans. Of all the people of ancient Europe, they were the most adventurous and intrepid. They established a dynasty in Russia; they cut their way through a perfidious and sanguinary nation to Constantinople; they landed on the coasts of England and France, and surprised nations who were ignorant of their existence; they conquered Sicily, and established a principality in the heart of Syria. A people so active, so enterprising, and so intrepid, found no greater delight in their leisure hours than listening to tales of adventures, dangers, and battles. The romances of chivalry are divided into three distinct classes. They relate to three different epochs in the early part of the Middle Ages, and represent three bands of fabulous heroes. In the romances of the first class, the exploits of Arthur, son of Pendragon, the last British king who defended England against the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons, are celebrated. In the second we find the Amadises, but whether they belong to French literature has been reasonably disputed. The scene is placed nearly in the same countries as in the romances of the Round Table, but there is a want of locality about them, and the name and the times are absolutely fabulous. “Amadis of Gaul,” the first of these romances, and the model of all the rest, is claimed as the work of Vasco Lobeira, a Portuguese (1290-1325); but no doubt exists with regard to the continuations and numerous imitations of this work, which are incontestably of Spanish origin, and were in their highest repute when Cervantes produced his inimitable “Don Quixote.” The third class of chivalric romances, relating to the court of Charlemagne and his Paladins, is entirely French, although their celebrity is chiefly due to the renowned Italian poet who availed himself of their fictions. The most ancient monument of the marvelous history of Charlemagne is the chronicle of Turpin, of uncertain date, and which, though fabulous, can scarcely be considered as a romance. This and other similar narratives furnished materials for the romances, which appeared at the conclusion of the Crusades, when a knowledge of the East had enriched the French imagination with all the treasures of the Arabian. The trouveres were not only the inventors of the romances of chivalry, but they originated the allegories, and the dramatic compositions of southern Europe. Although none of their works have obtained a high reputation or deserve to be ranked among the masterpieces of human intellect, they are still worthy of attention as monuments of the progress of mind.

The French possessed, above every other nation of modern times, an inventive spirit, but they were, at the same time, the originators of those tedious allegorical poems which have been imitated by all the romantic nations. The most ancient and celebrated of these is the “Romance of the Rose,” though not a romance in the present sense of the word. At the period of its composition, the French language was still called the Romance, and all its more voluminous productions Romances. The “Romance of the Rose” was the work of two authors, Guillaume de Lorris, who commenced it in the early part of the thirteenth century, and Jean de Meun (b. 1280), by whom it was continued. Although it reached the appalling length of twenty thousand verses, no book was ever more popular. It was admired as a masterpiece of wit, invention, and philosophy; the highest mysteries of theology were believed to be concealed in this poetical form, and learned commentaries were written upon its veiled meaning by preachers, who did not scruple to cite passages from it in the pulpit. But the tedious poem and its numberless imitations are nothing but rhymed prose, which it would be impossible to recognize as poetry, if the measure of the verse were taken away.

In considering the popularity of these long, didactic works, it must not be forgotten that the people of that day were almost entirely without books. A single volume was the treasure of a whole household. In unfavorable weather it was read to a circle around the fire, and when it was finished the perusal was again commenced. No comparison with other books enabled men to form a judgment upon its merits. It was reverenced like holy writ, and they accounted themselves happy in being able to comprehend it.

Another species of poetry peculiar to this period had at least the merit of being exceedingly amusing. This was the fabliaux, tales written in verse in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They are treasures of invention, simplicity, and gayety, of which other nations can furnish no instances, except by borrowing from the French. A collection of Indian tales, translated into Latin in the tenth or eleventh century, was the first storehouse of the trouveres. The Arabian tales, transmitted by the Moors to the Castilians, and by the latter to the French, were in turn versified. But above all, the anecdotes collected in the towns and castles of France, the adventures of lovers, the tricks of gallants, and the numerous subjects gathered from the manners of the age, afforded inexhaustible materials for ludicrous narratives to the writers of these tales. They were treasures common to all. We seldom know the name of the trouvere by whom these anecdotes were versified. As they were related, each one varied them according to the impression he wished to produce. At this period there were neither theatrical entertainments nor games at cards to fill up the leisure hours of society, and the trouveres or relators of the tales were welcomed at the courts, castles, and private houses with an eagerness proportioned to the store of anecdotes which they brought with them to enliven conversation. Whatever was the subject of their verse, legends, miracles, or licentious anecdotes, they were equally acceptable. These tales were the models of those of Boccaccio, La Fontaine, and others. Some of them have had great fame, and have passed from tongue to tongue, and from age to age, down to our own times. Several of them have been introduced upon the stage, and others formed the originals of Parnell's “Hermit,” of the “Zaire” of Voltaire, and of the “Renard,” which Goethe has converted into a long poem. But perhaps the most interesting and celebrated of all the fabliaux is that of “Aucassin and Nicolette,” which has furnished the subject for a well-known opera.

It was at this period, when the ancient drama was entirely forgotten, that a dramatic form was given to the great events which accompanied the establishment of the Christian religion. The first to introduce this grotesque species of composition, were the pilgrims who had returned from the Holy Land. In the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, their dramatic representations were first exhibited in the open streets; but it was only at the conclusion of the fourteenth that a company of pilgrims undertook to amuse the public by regular dramatic entertainments. They were called the Fraternity of the Passion, from the passion of our Saviour being one of their most celebrated representations. This mystery, the most ancient dramatic work of modern Europe, comprehends the whole history of our Lord, from his baptism to his death. The piece was too long for one representation, and was therefore continued from day to day. Eighty-seven characters successively appear in this mystery, among whom are the three persons of the Trinity, angels, apostles, devils, and a host of other personages, the invention of the poet's brain. To fill the comic parts, the dialogues of the devils were introduced, and their eagerness to maltreat one another always produced much laughter in the assembly. Extravagant machinery was employed to give to the representation the pomp which we find in the modern opera; and this drama, placing before the eyes of a Christian assembly all those incidents for which they felt the highest veneration, must have affected them much more powerfully than even the finest tragedies can do at the present day.

The mystery of the Passion was followed by a crowd of imitations. The whole of the Old Testament, and the lives of all the saints, were brought upon the stage. The theatre on which these mysteries were represented was always composed of an elevated scaffold divided into three parts,—heaven, hell, and the earth between them. The proceedings of the Deity and Lucifer might be discerned in their respective abodes, and angels descended and devils ascended, as their interference in mundane affairs was required. The pomp of these representations went on increasing for two centuries, and, as great value was set upon the length of the piece, some mysteries could not be represented in less than forty days.

The “Clerks of the Revels,” an incorporated society at Paris, whose duty it was to regulate the public festivities, resolved to amuse the people with dramatic representations themselves, but as the Fraternity of the Passion had obtained a royal license to represent the mysteries, they were compelled to abstain from that kind of exhibition. They therefore invented a new one, to which they gave the name of “Moralities,” and which differed little from the mysteries, except in name. They were borrowed from the Parables, or the historical parts of the Bible, or they were purely allegorical. To the Clerks of the Revels we also owe the invention of modern comedy. They mingled their moralities with farces, the sole object of which was to excite laughter, and in which all the gayety and vivacity of the French character were displayed. Some of these plays still retain their place upon the French stage. At the commencement of the fifteenth century another comic company was established, who introduced personal and even political satire upon the stage. Thus every species of dramatic representation was revived by the French. This was the result of the talent for imitation so peculiar to the French people, and of that pliancy of thought and correctness of intellect which enables them to conceive new characters. All these inventions, which led to the establishment of the Romantic drama in other countries, were known in France more than a century before the rise of the Spanish or Italian theatre, and even before the classical authors were first studied and imitated. At the end of the sixteenth century, these new pursuits acquired a more immediate influence over the literature of France, and wrought a change in its spirit and rules, without, however, altering the national character and taste which had been manifested in the earliest productions of the trouveres.

3. FRENCH LITERATURE IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY.—French had as yet been merely a popular language; it varied from province to province, and from author to author, because no masterpiece had inaugurated any one of its numerous dialects. It was disdained by the more serious writers, who continued to employ the Latin. In the fifteenth century literature assumed a somewhat wider range, and the language began to take precision and force. But with much general improvement and literary industry there was still nothing great or original, nothing to mark an epoch in the history of letters. The only poets worthy of notice were Charles, Duke of Orleans (1391-1465), and Villon, a low ruffian of Paris (1431-1500). Charles was taken prisoner at the battle of Agincourt, and carried to England, where he was detained for twenty-five years, and where he wrote a volume of poems in which he imitated the allegorical style of the Romance of the Rose. The verses of Villon were inspired by the events of his not very creditable life. Again and again he suffered imprisonment for petty larcenies, and at the age of twenty-five was condemned to be hanged. His language is not that of the court, but of the people; and his poetry marks the first sensible progress after the Romance of the Rose.

It has been well said that literature begins with poetry; but it is established by prose, which fixes the language. The earliest work in French prose is the chronicle of Ville-Hardouin (1150-1213), written in the thirteenth century. It is a personal narrative and relates with graphic particularity the conquest of Constantinople by the knights of Christendom. This ancient chronicle traces out for us some of the realities, of which the mediaeval romances were the ideal, and enables us to judge in a measure how far these romances embody substantial truth.

A great improvement in style is apparent in Joinville (1223-1317), the amiable and light-hearted ecclesiastic who wrote the Life of St. Louis, whom he had accompanied to the Holy Land, and whose pious adventures he affectionately records. Notwithstanding the anarchy which prevailed in France during the fourteenth century, some social progress was made; but while public events were hostile to poetry, they gave inspiration to the historic muse, and Froissart arose to impart vivacity of coloring to historic narrative.

Froissart (1337-1410) was an ecclesiastic of the day, but little in his life or writings bespeaks the sacred calling. Having little taste for the duties of his profession, he was employed by the Lord of Montfort to compose a chronicle of the wars of the time; but there were no books to tell him of the past, no regular communication between nations to inform him of the present; so he followed the fashion of knights errant, and set out on horseback, not to seek adventures, but, as an itinerant historian, to find materials for his chronicle. He wandered from town to town, and from castle to castle, to see the places of which he would write, and to learn events on the spot where they occurred. His first journey was to England; here he was employed by Queen Philippa of Hainault to accompany the Duke of Clarence to Milan, where he met Boccaccio and Chaucer. He afterwards passed into the service of several of the princes of Europe, to whom he acted as secretary and poet, always gleaning material for historic record. His book is an almost universal history of the different states of Europe, from 1322 to the end of the fourteenth century. He troubles himself with no explanations or theories of cause and effect, nor with the philosophy of state policy; he is simply a graphic story-teller. Sir Walter Scott called Froissart his master.

Philippe de Commines (1445-1509) was a man of his age, but in advance of it, combining the simplicity of the fifteenth century with the sagacity of a later period. An annalist, like Froissart, he was also a statesman, and a political philosopher; embracing, like Machiavelli and Montesquieu, the remoter consequences which flowed from the events he narrated and the principles he unfolded. He was an unscrupulous diplomat in the service of Louis XI., and his description of the last years of that monarch is a striking piece of history, whence poets and novelists have borrowed themes in later times. But neither the romance of Sir Walter Scott nor the song of Beranger does justice to the reality, as presented by the faithful Commines.