Read CHAPTER I - ORIGINS-THE MIDDLE AGES of Landmarks in French Literature, free online book, by G. Lytton Strachey, on

When the French nation gradually came into existence among the ruins of the Roman civilization in Gaul, a new language was at the same time slowly evolved. This language, in spite of the complex influences which went to the making of the nationality of France, was of a simple origin. With a very few exceptions, every word in the French vocabulary comes straight from the Latin. The influence of the pre-Roman Celts is almost imperceptible; while the number of words introduced by the Frankish conquerors amounts to no more than a few hundreds. Thus the French tongue presents a curious contrast to that of England. With us, the Saxon invaders obliterated nearly every trace of the Roman occupation; but though their language triumphed at first, it was eventually affected in the profoundest way by Latin influences; and the result has been that English literature bears in all its phases the imprint of a double origin. French literature, on the other hand, is absolutely homogeneous. How far this is an advantage or the reverse it would be difficult to say; but the important fact for the English reader to notice is that this great difference does exist between the French language and his own. The complex origin of the English tongue has enabled English writers to obtain those effects of diversity, of contrast, of imaginative strangeness, which have played such a dominating part in our literature. The genius of the French language, descended from its single Latin stock, has triumphed most in the contrary direction in simplicity, in unity, in clarity, and in restraint.

Some of these qualities are already distinctly visible in the earliest French works which have come down to us the Chansons de Geste. These poems consist of several groups or cycles of narrative verse, cast in the epic mould. It is probable that they first came into existence in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; and they continued to be produced in various forms of repetition, rearrangement, and at last degradation, throughout the Middle Ages. Originally they were not written, but recited. Their authors were the wandering minstrels, who found, in the crowds collected together at the great fairs and places of pilgrimage of those early days, an audience for long narratives of romance and adventure drawn from the Latin chronicles and the monkish traditions of a still more remote past. The earliest, the most famous, and the finest of these poems is the Chanson de Roland, which recounts the mythical incidents of a battle between Charlemagne, with ‘all his peerage’, and the hosts of the Saracens. Apart from some touches of the marvellous such as the two hundred years of Charlemagne and the intervention of angels the whole atmosphere of the work is that of eleventh-century France, with its aristocratic society, its barbaric vigour, its brutality, and its high sentiments of piety and honour. The beauty of the poem lies in the grand simplicity of its style. Without a trace of the delicacy and variety of a Homer, farther still from the consummate literary power of a Virgil or a Dante, the unknown minstrel who composed the Chanson de Roland possessed nevertheless a very real gift of art. He worked on a large scale with a bold confidence. Discarding absolutely the aids of ornament and the rhetorical elaboration of words, he has succeeded in evoking with an extraordinary, naked vividness the scenes of strife and heroism which he describes. At his best in the lines of farewell between Roland and Oliver, and the well-known account of Roland’s death he rises to a restrained and severe pathos which is truly sublime. This great work bleak, bare, gaunt, majestic stands out, to the readers of to-day, like some huge mass of ancient granite on the far horizon of the literature of France.

While the Chansons de Geste were developing in numerous cycles of varying merit, another group of narrative poems, created under different influences, came into being. These were the Romans Bretons, a series of romances in verse, inspired by the Celtic myths and traditions which still lingered in Brittany and England. The spirit of these poems was very different from that of the Chansons de Geste. The latter were the typical offspring of the French genius positive, definite, materialistic; the former were impregnated with all the dreaminess, the mystery, and the romantic spirituality of the Celt. The legends upon which they were based revolved for the most part round the history of King Arthur and his knights; they told of the strange adventures of Lancelot, of the marvellous quest of the Holy Grail, of the overwhelming and fatal loves of Tristan and Yseult. The stories gained an immense popularity in France, but they did not long retain their original character. In the crucible of the facile and successful Chretien de Troyes, who wrote towards the close of the twelfth century, they assumed a new complexion; their mystical strangeness became transmuted into the more commonplace magic of wizards and conjurers, while their elevated, immaterial conception of love was replaced by the superfine affectations of a mundane gallantry. Nothing shows more clearly at what an early date, and with what strength, the most characteristic qualities of French literature were developed, than the way in which the vague imaginations of the Celtic romances were metamorphosed by French writers into the unambiguous elegances of civilized life.

Both the Chansons de Geste and the Romans Bretons were aristocratic literature: they were concerned with the life and ideals the martial prowess, the chivalric devotion, the soaring honour of the great nobles of the age. But now another form of literature arose which depicted, in short verse narratives, the more ordinary conditions of middle-class life. These Fabliaux, as they were called, are on the whole of no great value as works of art; their poetical form is usually poor, and their substance exceedingly gross. Their chief interest lies in the fact that they reveal, no less clearly than the aristocratic Chansons, some of the most abiding qualities of the French genius. Its innate love of absolute realism and its peculiar capacity for cutting satire these characteristics appear in the Fabliaux in all their completeness. In one or two of the stories, when the writer possesses a true vein of sensibility and taste, we find a surprising vigour of perception and a remarkable psychological power. Resembling the Fabliaux in their realism and their bourgeois outlook, but far more delicate and witty, the group of poems known as the Roman de Renard takes a high place in the literature of the age. The humanity, the dramatic skill, and the command of narrative power displayed in some of these pleasant satires, where the foibles and the cunning of men and women are thinly veiled under the disguise of animal life, give a foretaste of the charming art which was to blossom forth so wonderfully four centuries later in the Fables of La Fontaine.

One other work has come down to us from this early epoch, which presents a complete contrast, both with the rough, bold spirit of the Chansons de Geste and the literal realism of the Fabliaux. This is the ‘chante-fable’ (or mingled narrative in verse and prose) of Aucassin et Nicolete. Here all is delicacy and exquisiteness the beauty, at once fragile and imperishable, of an enchanting work of art. The unknown author has created, in his light, clear verse and his still more graceful and poetical prose, a delicious atmosphere of delicate romance. It is ‘the tender eye-dawn of aurorean love’ that he shows us the happy, sweet, almost childish passion of two young creatures who move, in absolute innocence and beauty, through a wondrous world of their own. The youth Aucassin, who rides into the fight dreaming of his beloved, who sees her shining among the stars in heaven

Estoilette, je te voi,
Que la lune trait a soi;
Nicolete est avec toi,
M’amiete o blond poil.

(Little star, I see thee there,
That the moon draws close to her!
Nicolette is with thee there,
My love of the yellow hair.)

who disdains the joys of Paradise, since they exclude the joys of loving

En paradis qu’ai-je a faire? Je n’i quier entrer, maïs que j’aie Nicolete, ma très douce amie que j’aime tant.... Mais en enfer voil jou aler. Car en enfer vont li bel clerc et li bel cevalier, qui sont mort as tournois et as rices guerres, et li bien sergant, et li franc homme.... Avec ciax voil jou aler, maïs que j’aie Nicolete, ma très douce amie, avec moi. [What have I to do in Paradise? I seek not to enter there, so that I have Nicolette, my most sweet friend, whom I love so well.... But to Hell will I go. For to Hell go the fine clerks and the fine knights, who have died in tourneys and in rich wars, and the brave soldiers and the free-born men.... With these will I go, so that I have Nicolette, my most sweet friend, with me.]

Aucassin, at once brave and naif, sensuous and spiritual, is as much the type of the perfect medieval lover as Romeo, with his ardour and his vitality, is of the Renaissance one. But the poem for in spite of the prose passages, the little work is in effect simply a poem is not all sentiment and dreams. With admirable art the author has interspersed here and there contrasting episodes of realism or of absurdity; he has woven into his story a succession of vivid dialogues, and by means of an acute sense of observation he has succeeded in keeping his airy fantasy in touch with actual things. The description of Nicolette, escaping from her prison, and stepping out over the grass in her naked feet, with the daisies, as she treads on them, showing black against her whiteness, is a wonderful example of his power of combining imagination with detail, beauty with truth. Together with the Chanson de Roland though in such an infinitely different style Aucassin et Nicolete represents the most valuable elements in the French poetry of this early age.

With the thirteenth century a new development began, and one of the highest importance the development of Prose. La Conquête de Constantinople, by VILLEHARDOUIN, written at the beginning of the century, is the earliest example of those historical memoirs which were afterwards to become so abundant in French literature; and it is written, not in the poetical prose of Aucassin et Nicolete, but in the simple, plain style of straightforward narrative. The book cannot be ranked among the masterpieces; but it has the charm of sincerity and that kind of pleasant flavour which belong to innocent antiquity. The good old Villehardouin has something of the engaging naïveté, something of the romantic curiosity, of Herodotus. And in spite of the sobriety and dryness of his writing he can, at moments, bring a sense of colour and movement into his words. His description of the great fleet of the crusaders, starting from Corfu, has this fine sentence: ’Et jour fût clair et beau: et vent doux et bon. Et ils laisserent aller les voiles au vent.’ His account of the spectacle of Constantinople, when it appeared for the first time to the astonished eyes of the Christian nobles, is well known: ’Ils ne pouvaient croire que si riche ville put être au monde, quand ils virent ces hauts murs et ces riches tours dont elle était close tout autour a la ronde, et ces riches palais et ces hautes églises.... Et sachez qu’il n’y eut si hardi a qui la chair ne fremit; et ce ne fût une merveille; car jamais si grande affaire ne fût entreprise de nulles gens, depuis que monde fût cree.’ Who does not feel at such words as these, across the ages, the thrill of the old adventure!

A higher level of interest and significance is reached by JOINVILLE in his Vie de Saint Louis, written towards the close of the century. The fascination of the book lies in its human qualities. Joinville narrates, in the easy flowing tone of familiar conversation, his reminiscences of the good king in whose service he had spent the active years of his life, and whose memory he held in adoration. The deeds, the words, the noble sentiments, the saintly devotion of Louis these things he relates with a charming and ingenuous sympathy, yet with a perfect freedom and an absolute veracity. Nor is it only the character of his master that Joinville has brought into his pages; his book is as much a self-revelation as a biography. Unlike Villehardouin, whose chronicle shows hardly a trace of personal feeling, Joinville speaks of himself unceasingly, and has impressed his work indelibly with the mark of his own individuality. Much of its charm depends upon the contrast which he thus almost unconsciously reveals between himself and his master the vivacious, common-sense, eminently human nobleman, and the grave, elevated, idealizing king. In their conversations, recounted with such detail and such relish by Joinville, the whole force of this contrast becomes delightfully apparent. One seems to see in them, compressed and symbolized in the characters of these two friends, the conflicting qualities of sense and spirit, of worldliness and self-immolation, of the most shrewd and literal perspicacity and the most visionary exaltation, which make up the singular antithesis of the Middle Ages.

A contrast no less complete, though of a different nature, is to be found in the most important poetical work of the thirteenth century Le Roman de la Rose. The first part of this curious poem was composed by GUILLAUME DE LORRIS, a young scholar who wrote for that aristocratic public which, in the previous generation, had been fascinated by the courtly romances of Chretien de Troyes. Inspired partly by that writer, and partly by Ovid, it was the aim of Lorris to produce an Art of Love, brought up to date, and adapted to the tastes of his aristocratic audience, with all the elaborate paraphernalia of learned disquisition and formal gallantry which was then the mode. The poem, cast in the form of an intricate allegory, is of significance chiefly on account of its immense popularity, and for its being the fountain-head of a school of allegorical poetry which flourished for many centuries in France. Lorris died before he had finished his work, which, however, was destined to be completed in a singular manner. Forty years later, another young scholar, JEAN DE MEUNG, added to the 4000 lines which Lorris had left no fewer than 18,000 of his own. This vast addition was not only quite out of proportion but also quite out of tone with the original work. Jean de Meung abandoned entirely the refined and aristocratic atmosphere of his predecessor, and wrote with all the realism and coarseness of the middle class of that day. Lorris’s vapid allegory faded into insignificance, becoming a mere peg for a huge mass of extraordinarily varied discourse. The whole of the scholastic learning of the Middle Ages is poured in a confused stream through this remarkable and deeply interesting work. Nor is it merely as a repository of medieval erudition that Jean de Meung’s poem deserves attention; for it is easy to perceive in it an intellectual tendency far in advance of its age a spirit which, however trammelled by antiquated conventions, yet claims kinship with that of Rabelais, or even that of Voltaire. Jean de Meung was not a great artist; he wrote without distinction, and without sense of form; it is his bold and voluminous thought that gives him a high place in French literature. In virtue alike of his popularization of an encyclopedic store of knowledge and of his underlying doctrine the worship of Nature he ranks as a true forerunner of the great movement of the Renaissance.

The intellectual stirring, which seemed to be fore-shadowed by the second part of the Roman de la Rose, came to nothing. The disasters and confusion of the Hundred Years War left France with very little energy either for art or speculation; the horrors of a civil war followed; and thus the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are perhaps the emptiest in the annals of her literature. In the fourteenth century one great writer embodied the character of the time. FROISSART has filled his splendid pages with ’the pomp and circumstance of glorious war’. Though he spent many years and a large part of his fortune in the collection of materials for his history of the wars between France and England, it is not as an historian that he is now remembered; it is as a writer of magnificent prose. His Chroniques, devoid of any profundity of insight, any true grasp of the movements of the age, have rarely been paralleled in the brilliance and animation of their descriptions, the vigour of their character-drawing, the flowing picturesqueness of their style. They unroll themselves like some long tapestry, gorgeously inwoven with scenes of adventure and chivalry, with flags and spears and chargers, and the faces of high-born ladies and the mail-clad figures of knights. Admirable in all his descriptions, it is in his battle-pieces that Froissart particularly excels. Then the glow of his hurrying sentences redoubles, and the excitement and the bravery of the combat rush out from his pen in a swift and sparkling stream. One sees the serried ranks and the flashing armour, one hears the clash of weapons and the shouting of the captains: ’Montjoie! Saint Denis! Saint George! Giane!’ one feels the sway and the press and the tumult, one laments with the vanquished, one exults with the victors, and, amid the glittering panoply of ’grand seigneur, conte, baron, chevalier, et escuier’, with their high-sounding titles and their gallant prowess, one forgets the reverse side of all this glory the ravaged fields, the smoking villages, the ruined peasants the long desolation of France.

The Chronicles of Froissart are history seen through the eyes of a herald; the Memoirs of PHILIPPE DE COMMYNES are history envisaged by a politician and a diplomatist. When Commynes wrote towards the close of the fifteenth century the confusion and strife which Froissart had chronicled with such a gusto were things of the past, and France was beginning to emerge as a consolidated and centralized state. Commynes himself, one of the confidential ministers of Louis XI, had played an important part in this development; and his book is the record of the triumphant policy of his crafty and sagacious sovereign. It is a fine piece of history, written with lucidity and firmness, by a man who had spent all his life behind the scenes, and who had never been taken in. The penetration and the subtlety of Commynes make his work interesting chiefly for its psychological studies and for the light that it throws on those principles of cunning statecraft which permeated the politics and diplomacy of the age and were to receive their final exposition in the Prince of Machiavelli. In his calm, judicious, unaffected pages we can trace the first beginnings of that strange movement which was to convert the old Europe of the Middle Ages, with its universal Empire and its universal Church, into the new Europe of independent secular nations the Europe of to-day.

Commynes thus stands on the brink of the modern world; though his style is that of his own time, his matter belongs to the future: he looks forward into the Renaissance. At the opposite end of the social scale from this rich and powerful diplomatist, VILLON gave utterance in language of poignant beauty to the deepest sentiments of the age that was passing away. A ruffian, a robber, a murderer, haunting the vile places of Paris, flying from justice, condemned, imprisoned, almost executed, and vanishing at last, none knows how or where, this extraordinary genius lives now as a poet and a dreamer an artist who could clothe in unforgettable verse the intensest feelings of a soul. The bulk of his work is not large. In his Grand Testament a poem of about 1500 lines, containing a number of interspersed ballades and rondeaus in his Petit Testament, and in a small number of miscellaneous poems, he has said all that he has to say. The most self-communicative of poets, he has impressed his own personality on every line that he wrote. Into the stiff and complicated forms of the rondeau and rondel, the ballade and double ballade, with their limited rhymes and their enforced repetitions, he has succeeded in breathing not only the spirit of beauty, but the spirit of individuality. He was not a simple character; his melancholy was shot with irony and laughter; sensuality and sentimentality both mingled with his finest imaginations and his profoundest visions; and all these qualities are reflected, shifting and iridescent, in the magic web of his verse. One thought, however, perpetually haunts him; under all his music of laughter or of passion, it is easy to hear one dominating note. It is the thought of mortality. The whining, leering, brooding creature can never for a moment forget that awful Shadow. He sees it in all its aspects as a subject for mockery, for penitence, for resignation, for despair. He sees it as the melancholy, inevitable end of all that is beautiful, all that is lovely on earth.

Dictes moi , n’en quel pays
Est Flora, la belle Rommaine;
Archipiada, ne Thais

and so through the rest of the splendid catalogue with its sad, unanswerable refrain

Mais sont les neiges d’antan?

Even more persistently, the vision rises before him of the physical terrors of death the hideousness of its approaches, the loathsomeness of its corruptions; in vain he smiles, in vain he weeps; the grim imagination will not leave him. In the midst of his wildest debauches, he suddenly remembers the horrible features of decaying age; he repents; but there, close before him, he sees the fatal gibbet, and his own body swinging among the crows.

With Villon the medieval literature of France comes at once to a climax and a termination. His potent and melancholy voice vibrates with the accumulated passion and striving and pain of those far-off generations, and sinks mysteriously into silence with the birth of a new and happier world.