The Arthurian romances, less independent in origin, exhibit a wider range of view, a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more extensive command of the sources of poetical and romantic interest. The classical epics superadd the only ingredient necessary to an accomplished literature—that is to say, the knowledge of what has been done by other peoples and other literatures already, and the readiness to take advantage of the materials thus supplied.
They led, however, to a fourth, which, though later in date than all except their latest forms and far more loosely associated as a group, is so closely connected with them by literary and social considerations that it had best be mentioned here. These began to be written in the 13th century, and continued until the prose form of fiction became generally preferred. Hugues Capet , for instance, a chanson in form and class of subject, is certainly one of this latter kind in treatment; and there is a larger class of semi-Arthurian romance, which so to speak branches off from the main trunk.
But for convenience sake the definition we have given is preferable. There is, in short, no possibility of classifying their subjects. This under-valuation arises rather from a lack of originality and distinctness of savour than from any shortcomings in treatment. Nevertheless some of them attained to a very high popularity, such, for instance, as the Partenopex de Blois of Denis Pyramus, which has a motive drawn from the story of Cupid and Psyche and the charming Floire et Blanchefleur , giving the woes of a Christian prince and a Saracen slave-girl.
With them may be connected a certain number of early romances and fictions of various dates in prose, none of which can vie in charm with Aucassin et Nicolette 13th century , an exquisite literary presentment of medieval sentiment in its most delightful form. In these classes maybe said to be summed up the literature of feudal chivalry in France.
The latter, General characteristics of early narrative. They were all originally intended to be performed in the palais marberin of the baron to an audience of knights and ladies, and, when reading became more common, to be read by such persons. They dealt therefore chiefly, if not exclusively, with the class to whom they were addressed.
The bourgeois and the villain, personages of political nonentity at the time of their early composition, come in for far slighter notice, although occasionally in the few curious instances we have mentioned, and others, persons of a class inferior to the seigneur play an important part. The habit of private wars and of insurrection against the sovereign supply the motives of the chanson de geste, the love of gallantry, adventure and foreign travel those of the romances Arthurian and miscellaneous.
None of these motives much affected the lower classes, who were, with the early developed temper of the middle- and lower-class Frenchman, already apt to think and speak cynically enough of tournaments, courts, crusades and the other occupations of the nobility. The communal system was springing up, the towns were receiving royal encouragement as a counterpoise to the authority of the nobles.
The corruptions and maladministration of the church attracted the satire rather of the citizens and peasantry who suffered by them, than of the Spread of literary taste. On the other hand, the gradual spread of learning, inaccurate and ill-digested perhaps, but still learning, not only opened up new classes of subjects, but opened them to new classes of persons.
The thousands of students who flocked to the schools of Paris were not all princes or nobles. Hence there arose two new classes of literature, the first consisting of the embodiment of learning of one kind or other in the vulgar tongue. The other, one of the most remarkable developments of sportive literature which the world has seen, produced the second indigenous literary growth of which France can boast, namely, the fabliaux, and the almost more remarkable work which is an immense conglomerate of fabliaux, the great beast-epic of the Roman de Renart.
The epic and the drama, even when they are independently produced, are similar in their main characteristics all the world over. But there is nothing in previous literature which exactly corresponds to the fabliau. It comes nearest to the Aesopic fable and its eastern origins or parallels.
But differs from these in being less allegorical, less obviously moral though a moral of some sort is usually if not always enforced , and in having a much more direct personal interest. It is in many degrees further removed from the parable, and many degrees nearer to the novel. The story is the first thing, the moral the second, and the latter is never suffered to interfere with the former.
These observations apply only to the fabliaux, properly so called, but the term has been used with considerable looseness.
Marie de France—the poetess to be mentioned again for her more strictly poetical work—is the most literary of not a few writers who composed what were often, after the mysterious original poet, named Ysopets. There is no limit to the variety of these lively verse-tales, which are invariably written in eight-syllabled couplets. Now the subject is the misadventure of two Englishmen, whose ignorance of the French language makes them confuse donkey and lamb; now it is the fortunes of an exceedingly foolish knight, who has an amiable and ingenious mother-in-law; now the deserved sufferings of an avaricious or ill-behaved priest; now the bringing of an ungrateful son to a better mind by the wisdom of babes and sucklings.
Not a few of the Canterbury Tales are taken directly from fabliaux; indeed, Chaucer, with the possible exception of Prior, is our nearest approach to a fabliau-writer.
At the other end of Europe the prose novels of Boccaccio and other Italian tale-tellers are largely based upon fabliaux. But their influence in their own country was the greatest. They were the first expression of the spirit which has since animated the most national and popular developments of French literature. They indeed do more than merely prophesy the spirit of these great performances—they directly lead to them.
The prose-tale and the farce are the direct outcomes of the fabliau, and the prose-tale and the farce once given, the novel and the comedy inevitably follow. The special period of fabliau composition appears to have been the 12th and 13th centuries. It signifies on the one side the growth of a lighter and more sportive spirit than had yet prevailed, on another the rise in importance of Social importance of fabliaux.
There is, however, in the fabliau proper not so very much of direct satire, this being indeed excluded by the definition given above, and by the thoroughly artistic spirit in which that definition is observed. The fabliaux are so numerous and so various that it is difficult to select any as specially representative.
This lightheartedness in other subjects sometimes bubbled over into the fatrasie , an almost pure nonsense-piece, parent of the later amphigouri. Roman de Renart. Le Roman de Renart , or History of Reynard the Fox , is a poem, or rather series of poems, which, from the end of the 12th to the middle of the 14th century, served the citizen poets of northern France, not merely as an outlet for literary expression, but also as a vehicle of satirical comment,—now on the general vices and weaknesses of humanity, now on the usual corruptions in church and state, now on the various historical events which occupied public attention from time to time.
The enormous popularity of the subject is shown by the long vogue which it had, and by the empire which it exercised over generations of writers who differed from each other widely in style and temper. Yet these and a long and unknown series of intermediate bards the fox-king pressed into his service, and it is scarcely too much to say that, during the two centuries of his reign, there was hardly a thought in the popular mind which, as it rose to the surface, did not find expression in an addition to the huge cycle of Renart.
We shall not deal with the controversies which have been raised as to the origin of the poem and its central idea. The latter may have been a travestie of real persons and actual events, or it may and much more probably have been an expression of thoughts and experiences which recur in every generation. France, the Netherlands and Germany have contended for the honour of producing Renart; French, Flemish, German and Latin for the honour of first describing him. It is sufficient to say that the spirit of the work seems to be more that of the borderland between France and Flanders than of any other district, and that, wherever the idea may have originally arisen, it was incomparably more fruitful in France than in any other country.
The French poems which we possess on the subject amount in all to nearly , lines, independently of mere variations, but including the different versions of Renart le Contre-fait. This vast total is divided into four different poems. Chabaille, 37 branches and about 32, lines. It must not, however, be supposed that this total forms a continuous poem like the Aeneid or Paradise Lost. Part was pretty certainly written by Pierre de Saint-Cloud, but he was not the author of the whole.
On the contrary, the separate branches are the work of different authors, hardly any of whom are known, and, but for their community of subject and to some extent of treatment, might be regarded as separate poems. The history of Renart, his victories over Isengrim, the wolf, Bruin, the bear, and his other unfortunate rivals, his family affection, his outwittings of King Noble the Lion and all the rest, are too well known to need fresh description here.
It is perhaps in the subsequent poems, though they are far less known and much less amusing, that the hold which the idea of Renart had obtained on the mind of northern France, and the ingenious uses to which it was put, are best shown. The first of these is Le Couronnement Renart , a poem of between and lines, attributed, on no grounds whatever, to the poetess Marie de France, and describing how the hero by his ingenuity got himself crowned king. This poem already shows signs of direct moral application and generalizing.
Here the personification, of which, in noticing the Roman de la rose , we shall soon have to give extended mention, becomes evident. Lastly, as the Roman de la rose of William of Lorris is paralleled by Renart le Nouvel , so its continuation by Jean de Meung is paralleled by the great miscellany of Renart le Contre-fait , which, even in its existing versions, extends to fully 50, lines. Here we have, besides floods of miscellaneous erudition and discourse, political argument of the most direct and important kind. The wrongs of the lower orders are bitterly urged.
They are almost openly incited to revolt; and it is scarcely too much to say, as M.
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Lenient has said, that the closely following Jacquerie is but a practical carrying out of the doctrines of the anonymous satirists of Renart le Contre-fait , one of whom if indeed there was more than one appears to have been a clerk of Troyes. Early Lyric Poetry. The song literature of medieval France is extremely abundant and beautiful. From the 12th to the 15th century it received constant accessions, some signed, some anonymous, some purely popular in their character, some the work of more learned writers, others again produced by members of the aristocracy.
Although much of this lyric poetry is anonymous, the more popular part of it almost entirely so, yet M.
Paulin Paris was able to enumerate some hundreds of French chansonniers between the 11th and the 13th century. With these, some of which date from the 12th century, may be contrasted, at the other end of the medieval period, the more varied and popular collection dating in their present form from the 15th century, and published in by M. Gaston Paris. In both alike, making allowance for the difference of their age and the state of the language, may be noticed a charming lyrical faculty and great skill in the elaboration of light and suitable metres.
Especially remarkable is the abundance of refrains of an admirably melodious kind. It is said that more than of these exist. Among the lyric writers of these four centuries whose names are known may be mentioned Audefroi le Bastard Audefroit le Bastard. Thibaut de Champagne.