French litterature

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Middle Ages
French romance
Chanson de Roland
Troubadours and courtly love
Arthurian romance
17th century
18th century


French romance: 12th - 13th century AD

The western half of Charlemagne's Frankish empire, approximating to modern France, introduces in the 12th century a new andinfluential strand in European literature. The Franks, as a Germanic tribe, enjoy a powerful epic tradition (from Beowulf to the Nibelungenlied) in which heroism is the stock-in-trade of fierce warriors beset by often monstrous dangers.

But in this western part of the Frankish empire - profoundly influenced by Rome, and speaking a Romance language rather than a Germanic one - there now emergesan element which borrows its name from these qualities. The arrival of romance transforms the warrior into a gentleman.

The first epic poems to reflect this change are a group of about eighty from the 12th and 13th century known as the chansons de geste ('songs of deeds'). Performed by professional minstrels in castles and manors, usually to the accompaniment of a lute, they celebrate themartial exploits of the kings of Carolingian France, and in particular of Charlemagne and his paladins.

The emphasis is now not so much on the violence of the battle. It is on the honour of the participants, on the loyalties required of them in the feudal system, and on their religious obligations in this age of crusades.

The greatest of the chansons de geste is also one of the earliest - theChanson de Roland, dating probably from about 1100. Although it is set in one of Charlemagne's campaigns, the attention is on his followers Roland and Oliver rather than the king himself.

The same is true of another heroic cycle launched in France later in the 12th century. In the stories of King Arthur (a legendary English king, but featured in literature mainly by the French), the emphasis fallsmore on the knights of the round table than on the table's owner. And now there is a new element, in the prominent part played by a woman, Queen Guinevere. The ideal of courtly love becomes part of the tradition.

Among all the innovations of French authors in the 12th century, none is more influential than courtly love. This theme - of a gentleman's devotion to his often unattainable lady - isquintessentially romantic in concept. It long outlasts any other literary tradition of the Middle Ages.

Courtly love is associated first, in the 12th century, with the famous troubadours of southern France. Following their example, it moves through the rest of Europe and enters the mainstream of literature.

Chanson de Roland: AD c.1100

A very early manuscript of the Chanson de Roland(dating from about 1130, in Oxford's Bodleian Library) reveals that the author of France's first great epic poem is probably called Turold. The setting for his story is Charlemagne's expedition of 778 against the Muslims in Spain. The entire campaign was in reality disastrous, but Turold's choice of incident declares uncompromisingly that this is to be a new kind of heroic poetry.

The poetconcentrates on a small but undignified event (the successful attack by hill people on the rear of Charlemagne's army in the pass of Roncesvalles) and transforms it into a glorious occasion. He does so by concentrating on the obstinate courage of two of Charlemagne's followers.

The rearguard is under the command of Roland, one of the paladins. Intead of a few Basques or Gascons (the historicalreality), the enemy is now a vast army of Muslims. Seeing their number, Roland's companion Oliver urges him to sound his horn to summon Charlemagne back to their defence (one theme of the poem is the contrast between Oliver's commonsense and Roland's headstrong inclination to drama and heroism). Roland refuses to summon help and fights valiantly against overwhelming odds (20,000 against 400,000 men)....