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 à 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 poésie courtoise, moulded in form and inspired in its sentiment by the Provençal 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 mediæval poet wandered at will from country to country and from court to court. In 1137, Louis VII. married Éléonore 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 Châtelain de Couci, of Conon de Béthune, 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 trouvère was founded rather on his music than his verse. The metrical forms were various, and were gradually reduced to rule; the ballette, of Provençal origin, was a more elaborate rondet, consisting of stanzas and refrain; the estampie (stampôn, 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 Provençal literature; in the tenson or débat 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 Brulé 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 poésie 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 poésie courtoise.