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CHAPTER V. THE MIDDLE AGES: FRANCE

Chansons de Geste: Song of Roland and Lyric Poetry. Popular Epopee: Romances of Renard. Popular Short Stories: Fables. Historians. The Allegorical Poem: Romance of the Rose. Drama.

CHANSONS DE GESTE.—The literature of the Middle Ages freed itself from Latin about the tenth century. This was the moment when the great epopees which are called chansons de geste began to be heard. The most celebrated is the one entitled The Song of Roland. It is the story of the last struggle in which Roland engaged on returning from Spain at the pass of Roncevaux and of his death. The form of this poem is rather dry and a little monotonous; but there are admirable passages such as the benediction of the dying by the Bishop Turpin, the farewell of Roland to Oliver, Roland holding out his glove to his Lord God at the moment of death, etc. The chansons de geste were numerous. Some commemorated Charlemagne and his comrades, others Arthur, King of Britain, and his knights, others, as a rule less interesting, were about the heroes of antiquity, Troy, Alexander, not well known but not forgotten. The chansons de geste permeated the whole of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

JOINVILLE; VILLEHARDOUIN.—In the thirteenth century appeared an historian, Joinville, friend of St. Louis, who described the crusade in which he took part with his master. He possessed naivete, grace, naturalness, and picturesqueness. Villehardouin, who described the fourth crusade, in which he played his part, was a realist—exact, precise, luminous—in whom the strangeness and grandeur of the things he had witnessed sometimes inspired a true nobility, simple enough but singularly impressive.

THE TROUBADOURS.—Lyric poetry barely existed during these centuries except south of the Loire, in the Latin country, among the poets called troubadours; nevertheless, in the north, the noble Count Thibaut of Champagne, to cite only one, wrote songs possessing amiable inspiration and happily turned. Beside him must be instanced the highly remarkable Ruteboeuf, narrator, elegiast, lyric orator, admirably gifted, who, to be a great poet, only needed to live in a more favourable period and to have at his disposition a more flexible language, one more abundant and more widely elaborated.

THE ROMANCES OF RENARD.—In the fourteenth century, the Romances of Renard enjoyed remarkably wide popularity and multiplied in abundance. Each was like a fable by La Fontaine expanded to the proportions of an epic poem. Under the names of animals they were human types in action and concerned in multifarious adventures: the lion was the king; the bear, called Bruin, was the seigneurial lord of the soil; the fox was the artful, circumspect citizen; the cock, called Chanticleer, was the hero of warfare, and so on. Some of the Romances of Renard are insipid; others possess a satiric and parodying spirit that is extremely diverting.

THE FABLES.—Contemporaneously the Fables amused our ancestors. They were anecdotes, tales in verse for the most part dealing with adventures of citizens, analogous to the tales of La Fontaine. The majority were jeering, bantering, and satirical; some few were affecting and refined. They were certainly the most living and characteristic portion of old French literature.

THE BIBLES.—The Middle Ages, after the manner of the ancients, delighted in gathering into one volume all the knowledge current. These didactic books were called bibles. Some were celebrated: the Bibleof Guyot of Provence, the Bible of Hugo of Berzi. As a rule, whilst learned as far as the resources of the times permitted, they were also satiric, precisely as almost the whole of the literature of the Middle Ages is satiric.

THE ROMANCE OF THE ROSE.—The Romance of the Rose, which was by two authors writing with almost half a century of interval between them, was in the first portion, of which the author is William of Lorris, an art of love in the form of a romance in verse; and the second part, written by John de Meung, formed in some measure a continuation of the first, but above all was a work of erudition and instruction, in which the poet put all that he knew as well as his philosophical conceptions, often of a remarkable and highly unexpected boldness. Aptly John de Meung has been compared with Rabelais, and it is not astonishing that the popularity of this poem should have lasted more than two centuries nor that it should have charmed or irritated our ancestors according to the tendency of their minds.

FROISSART.—The representative of history in the fourteenth century was Froissart, a picturesque chronicler, very vital, always full of interest, although it is indisputable that he was lacking in historical criticism; and among the orators, polemists, and controversialists of the times must at least be cited the impassioned and virtuous Gerson, who expended his life in incessant struggles on behalf of his Christian faith.

To him, without decisive proof, has often been attributed the Imitation of Jesus Christ, which, in any case, whoever wrote it, must be emphasised as one of the purest products of the religious spirit of the Middle Ages.

CHARLES OF ORLEANS; VILLON.—The fifteenth century, otherwise somewhat sterile, introduced one distinguished poet, Charles of Orleans, graceful and pleasing; and one who at moments rose to the height of being almost a great poet: this was Francis Villon, the celebrated author of The Ballade of Dames of Ancient Times, of which the yet more famous refrain was, “Where are the snows of last year?”

MYSTERIES AND MIRACLES.—To deal with the theatre of the Middle Ages it is necessary to go further back. Without considering as drama those pious performances which the clergy organised or tolerated even in the churches from the tenth century and probably earlier, there was already a popular drama in the twelfth century outside the church whereat were performed veritable dramas drawn from holy writ or legends of saints. This developed in the thirteenth century, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth it was prolific in immense dramatic poems which needed several days for their performance. These were Mysteries, as they were termed, or Miracles, wherein comedy and tragedy were interwoven and a great deed in religious history or sometimes in national history commemorated, such as the Mystery of the Siege of Orleans, by Greban.

FARCES; FOLLIES; MORALITIES.—The comic theatre also existed. It provided farces, which were really little comedies (the most famous was the Farce of the Lawyer Patelin); follies, which are farcical but good-humoured caricatures of students and clerks; and moralities, which are small serious dramas, interspersed with comedy, having real personages mingled with allegorical ones. The drama of the Middle Ages was very living and highly original, coming from the soil and exactly adapted to the sentiments, passions, and ideas of the people for whom and, a little later, by whom it was written.