The chanson de geste for "song of hero ic deeds", from Latin gesta "deeds, actions accomplished") is a medieval narrative, a type of epic poem that appears at the dawn of French literature. The earliest known poems of this genre date from the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, before the emergence of the lyric poetry of the trouvères (troubadours) and the earliest verse romances. They reached their highest point of acceptance in the period 1150–1250.(Old French
A hero is a concept that may be found in classical literature. It is the main or revered character in heroic epic poetry celebrated through ancient legends of a people, often striving for military conquest and living by a continually flawed personal honor code. The definition of a hero has changed throughout time. Merriam Webster dictionary defines a hero as "a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities." Examples of heroes range from mythological figures, such as Gilgamesh, Achilles and Iphigenia, to historical figures, such as Joan of Arc, Giuseppe Garibaldi or Sophie Scholl, modern heroes like Alvin York, Audie Murphy and Chuck Yeager, and fictional superheroes, including Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
An epic poem, epic, epos, or epopee is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily involving a time beyond living memory in which occurred the extraordinary doings of the extraordinary men and women who, in dealings with the gods or other superhuman forces, gave shape to the moral universe that their descendants, the poet and his audience, must understand to understand themselves as a people or nation.
French literature is, generally speaking, literature written in the French language, particularly by citizens of France; it may also refer to literature written by people living in France who speak traditional languages of France other than French. Literature written in French language, by citizens of other nations such as Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Senegal, Algeria, Morocco, etc. is referred to as Francophone literature. France itself ranks first in the list of Nobel Prizes in literature by country.
Composed in verse, these narrative poems of moderate length (averaging 4000 lines) were originally sung, or (later) recited, by minstrels or jongleurs. More than one hundred chansons de geste have survived in approximately three hundred manuscripts that date from the 12th to the 15th century.
Since the 19th century, much critical debate has centered on the origins of the chansons de geste, and particularly on explaining the length of time between the composition of the chansons and the actual historical events which they reference.The historical events the chansons allude to occur in the eighth through tenth centuries, yet the earliest chansons we have were probably composed at the end of the eleventh century: only three chansons de geste have a composition that incontestably dates from before 1150: the Chanson de Guillaume , The Song of Roland and Gormont et Isembart : the first half of the Chanson de Guillaume may date from as early as the eleventh century; Gormont et Isembart may date from as early as 1068, according to one expert; and The Song of Roland probably dates from after 1086 to c.1100.
The Chanson de Guillaume, also called Chançun de Willame, is a chanson de geste from the first half of the twelfth-century. The work is generally considered to have two distinct halves: the first tells of Guillaume of Orange, his nephew Vivien and the latter's young brother Gui and their various battles with Saracens at L'Archamp; in the second half of the poem, Guillaume is aided by Rainouard, a giant.
The Song of Roland is an epic poem based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778, during the reign of Charlemagne. It is the oldest surviving major work of French literature and exists in various manuscript versions, which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries.
Three early theories of the origin of chansons de geste believe in the continued existence of epic material (either as lyric poems, epic poems or prose narrations) in these intervening two or three centuries.Critics like Claude Charles Fauriel, François Raynouard and German Romanticists like Jacob Grimm posited the spontaneous creation of lyric poems by the people as a whole at the time of the historic battles, which were later put together to form the epics. This was the basis for the "cantilena" theory of epic origin, which was elaborated by Gaston Paris, although he maintained that single authors, rather than the multitude, were responsible for the songs.
Claude Charles Fauriel was a French historian, philologist and critic.
Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm, also known as Ludwig Karl, was a German philologist, jurist, and mythologist. He is known as the discoverer of Grimm's law of linguistics, the co-author of the monumental Deutsches Wörterbuch, the author of Deutsche Mythologie, and the editor of Grimm's Fairy Tales. He was the elder of the Brothers Grimm.
Bruno Paulin Gaston Paris was a French writer and scholar. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901, 1902 and 1903.
This theory was also supported by Robert Fawtier and by Léon Gautier (although Gautier thought the cantilenae were composed in Germanic languages).At the end of the nineteenth century, Pio Rajna, seeing similarities between the chansons de geste and old Germanic/Merovingian tales, posited a Germanic origin for the French poems. A different theory, introduced by the medievalist Paul Meyer, suggested the poems were based on old prose narrations of the original events.
Émile Théodore Léon Gautier was a French literary historian.
Marie-Paul-Hyacinthe Meyer, was a French philologist.
Another theory (largely discredited today), developed by Joseph Bédier, posited that the early chansons were recent creations, not earlier than the year 1000, developed by singers who, emulating the songs of "saints lives" sung in front of churches (and collaborating with the church clerics ), created epic stories based on the heroes whose shrines and tombs dotted the great pilgrimage routes, as a way of drawing pilgrims to these churches. Critics have also suggested that knowledge by clerics of ancient Latin epics may have played a role in their composition.
Joseph Bédier was a French writer and scholar and historian of medieval France.
A pilgrimage is journey, often into an unknown or foreign place, where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about the self, others, nature, or a higher good, through the experience. It can lead to a personal transformation, after which the pilgrim returns to their daily life.
Subsequent criticism has vacillated between "traditionalists" (chansons created as part of a popular tradition) and "individualists" (chansons created by a unique author),but more recent historical research has done much to fill in gaps in the literary record and complicate the question of origins. Critics have discovered manuscripts, texts and other traces of the legendary heroes, and further explored the continued existence of a Latin literary tradition (c.f. the scholarship of Ernst Robert Curtius) in the intervening centuries. The work of Jean Rychner on the art of the minstrels and the work of Parry and Lord on Yugoslavian oral traditional poetry, Homeric verse and oral composition have also been suggested to shed light on the oral composition of the chansons, although this view is not without its critics who maintain the importance of writing not only in the preservation of the texts, but also in their composition, especially for the more sophisticated poems.
Composed in Old French and apparently intended for oral performance by jongleurs, the chansons de geste narrate legendary incidents (sometimes based on real events) in the history of France during the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, the age of Charles Martel, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, with emphasis on their conflicts with the Moors and Saracens, and also disputes between kings and their vassals.
The traditional subject matter of the chansons de geste became known as the Matter of France. This distinguished them from romances concerned with the Matter of Britain, that is, King Arthur and his knights; and with the so-called Matter of Rome, covering the Trojan War, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the life of Julius Cæsar and some of his Imperial successors, who were given medieval makeovers as exemplars of chivalry.
A key theme of the chansons de geste, which set them off from the romances (which tended to explore the role of the "individual"), is their critique and celebration of community/collectivity (their epic heroes are portrayed as figures in the destiny of the nation and Christianity)and their representation of the complexities of feudal relations and service.
The subject matter of the chansons evolved over time, according to public taste. Alongside the great battles and scenes of historic prowess of the early chansons there began to appear other themes. Realistic elements (money, urban scenes) and elements from the new court culture (female characters, the role of love) began to appear.Other fantasy and adventure elements, derived from the romances, were gradually added: giants, magic, and monsters increasingly appear among the foes along with Muslims. There is also an increasing dose of Eastern adventure, drawing on contemporary experiences in the Crusades; in addition, one series of chansons retells the events of the First Crusade and the first years of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The conflicts of the 14th century (Hundred Years' War) brought a renewed epic spirit and nationalistic (or propagandistic ) fervor to some chansons de geste (such as La Chanson de Hugues Capet ).
The poems contain an assortment of character types; the repertoire of valiant hero, brave traitor, shifty or cowardly traitor, Saracen giant, beautiful Saracen princess, and so forth. As the genre matured, fantasy elements were introduced. Some of the characters that were devised by the poets in this genre include the fairy Oberon, who made his literary debut in Huon de Bordeaux ; and the magic horse Bayard, who first appears in Renaud de Montauban . Quite soon an element of self-parody appears; even the august Charlemagne was not above gentle mockery in the Pèlerinage de Charlemagne .
The narrative structure of the chanson de geste has been compared to the one in the Nibelungenlied and in creole legends by Henri Wittmannon the basis of common narreme structure as first developed in the work of Eugene Dorfman and Jean-Pierre Tusseau
Early chansons de geste were typically composed in ten-syllable lines grouped in assonanced (meaning that the last stressed vowel is the same in each line throughout the stanza, but the last consonant differs from line to line) stanzas (called laisses ). These stanzas are of variable length.
An example from the Chanson de Roland illustrates the technique of the ten-syllable assonanced form. The assonance in this stanza is on e:
Desuz un pin, delez un eglanter
Under a pine tree, by a rosebush,
Later chansons were composed in monorhyme stanzas, in which the last syllable of each line rhymes fully throughout the stanza. Later chansons also tended to be composed using alexandrines (twelve-syllable) lines, instead of ten-syllable lines (some early chansons, such as Girart de Vienne , were even adapted into a twelve-syllable version).
The following example of the twelve-syllable rhymed form is from the opening lines of Les Chétifs , a chanson in the Crusade cycle. The rhyme is on ie:
Or s'en fuit Corbarans tos les plains de Surie,
So Corbaran escaped across the plains of Syria;
These forms of versification were substantially different than the forms found in the Old French verse romances (romans) which were written in octosyllabic rhymed couplets.
The public of the chansons de geste—the lay (secular) public of the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries—was largely illiterate,except for (at least to the end of the 12th century) members of the great courts and (in the south) smaller noble families. Thus, the chansons were primarily an oral medium.
Opinions vary greatly on whether the early chansons were first written down and then read from manuscripts (although parchment was quite expensive) or memorized for performance, or whether portions were improvised, or whether they were entirely the product of spontaneous oral composition and later written down. Similarly, scholars differ greatly on the social condition and literacy of the poets themselves; were they cultured clerics or illiterate jongleurs working within an oral tradition? As an indication of the role played by orality in the tradition of the chanson de geste, lines and sometimes whole stanzas, especially in the earlier examples, are noticeably formulaic in nature, making it possible both for the poet to construct a poem in performance and for the audience to grasp a new theme with ease.
Scholarly opinions differ on the exact manner of recitation, but it is generally believed that the chansons de geste were originally sung (whereas the medieval romances were probably spoken)by poets, minstrels or jongleurs, who would sometimes accompany themselves, or be accompanied, on the vielle , a mediæval fiddle played with a bow. Several manuscript texts include lines in which the jongleur demands attention, threatens to stop singing, promises to continue the next day, and asks for money or gifts. By the middle of the 13th century, singing had probably given way to recitation.
It has been calculated that a reciter could sing about a thousand verses an hourand probably limited himself to 1000–1300 verses by performance, making it likely that the performance of works extended over several days. Given that many chansons from the late twelfth century on extended to over 10,000 verses or more (for example, Aspremont comprises 11,376 verses, while Quatre Fils Aymon comprises 18,489 verses), it is conceivable that few spectators heard the longest works in their entirety.
While poems like The Song of Roland were sometimes heard in public squares and were no doubt warmly received by a broad public,some critics caution that the chansons should probably not be characterized as popular literature and some chansons appear particularly tailored for an audience of aristocratic, privileged or warrior classes.
More than one hundred chansons de geste have survived in around three hundred manuscriptsthat date from the 12th to the 15th century. Several popular chansons were written down more than once in varying forms. The earliest chansons are all (more or less) anonymous; many later ones have named authors.
By the middle of the 12th century, the corpus of works was being expanded principally by "cyclisation", that is to say by the formation of "cycles" of chansons attached to a character or group of characters—with new chansons being added to the ensemble by singing of the earlier or later adventures of the hero, of their youthful exploits ("enfances"), the great deeds of their ancestors or descendants, or their retreat from the world to a convent ("moniage") – or attached to an event (like the Crusades).
About 1215 Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube, in the introductory lines to his Girart de Vienne, subdivided the Matter of France, the usual subject area of the chansons de geste, into three cycles, which revolved around three main characters (see quotation at Matter of France). There are several other less formal lists of chansons, or of the legends they incorporate. One can be found in the fabliau entitled Des Deux Bordeors Ribauz, a humorous tale of the second half of the 13th century, in which a jongleur lists the stories he knows.Another is included by the Catalan troubadour Guiraut de Cabrera in his humorous poem Ensenhamen , better known from its first words as "Cabra juglar": this is addressed to a juglar (jongleur) and purports to instruct him on the poems he ought to know but doesn't.
The listing below is arranged according to Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube's cycles, extended with two additional groupings and with a final list of chansons that fit into no cycle. There are numerous differences of opinion about the categorization of individual chansons.
The chief character is usually Charlemagne or one of his immediate successors. A pervasive theme is the King's role as champion of Christianity. This cycle contains the first of the chansons to be written down, the Chanson de Roland or "The Song of Roland".
The central character is not Garin de Monglane but his supposed great-grandson, Guillaume d'Orange. These chansons deal with knights who were typically younger sons, not heirs, who seek land and glory through combat with the Infidel (in practice, Muslim) enemy.
This cycle concerns traitors and rebels against royal authority. In each case the revolt ends with the defeat of the rebels and their eventual repentance.
This local cycle of epics of Lorraine traditional history, in the late form in which it is now known, includes details evidently drawn from Huon de Bordeaux and Ogier le Danois.
Not listed by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube, this cycle deals with the First Crusade and its immediate aftermath.
The chansons de geste reached their apogee in the period 1150–1250.By the middle of the 13th century, public taste in France had begun to abandon these epics, preferring, rather, the romances. As the genre progressed in the middle of the 13th century, only certain traits (like versification, laisse structure, formulaic forms, setting, and other clichés of the genre) remained to set the chansons apart from the romances. The 15th century saw the cycles of chansons (along with other chronicles) converted into large prose compilations (such as the compilation made by David Aubert). Yet, the themes of the epics continued to exert an influence through the 16th century.
The chansons de geste created a body of mythology that lived on well after they ceased to be produced in France.
The French chanson gave rise to the Old Spanish tradition of the cantar de gesta .
The chanson de geste was also adapted in southern (Occitan-speaking) France. One of the three surviving manuscripts of the chanson Girart de Roussillon (12th century) is in Occitan,as are two works based on the story of Charlemagne and Roland, Rollan a Saragossa and Ronsasvals (early 12th century). The chanson de geste form was also used in such Occitan texts as Canso d'Antioca (late 12th century), Daurel e Betó (first half of the 13th century), and Song of the Albigensian Crusade (c.1275) (cf Occitan literature).
In medieval Germany, the chansons de geste elicited little interest from the German courtly audience, unlike the romances which were much appreciated. While The Song of Roland was among the first French epics to be translated into German (by Konrad der Pfaffe as the Rolandslied , c.1170), and the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach based his (incomplete) 13th century epic Willehalm (consisting of seventy-eight manuscripts) on the Aliscans , a work in the cycle of William of Orange (Eschenbach's work had a great success in Germany), these remained isolated examples. Other than a few other works translated from the cycle of Charlemagne in the 13th century, the chansons de geste were not adapted into German, and it is believed that this was because the epic poems lacked what the romances specialized in portraying: scenes of idealized knighthood, love and courtly society.
In the late 13th century, certain French chansons de geste were adapted into the Old Norse Karlamagnús saga .
In Italy, there exist several 14th-century texts in verse or prose which recount the feats of Charlemagne in Spain, including a chanson de geste in Franco-Venetian, the Entrée d'Espagne (c.1320)(notable for transforming the character of Roland into a knight errant, similar to heroes from the Arthurian romances ), and a similar Italian epic La Spagna (1350–1360) in ottava rima. Through such works, the "Matter of France" became an important source of material (albeit significantly transformed) in Italian romantic epics. Morgante (c.1483) by Luigi Pulci, Orlando innamorato (1495) by Matteo Maria Boiardo, Orlando furioso (1516) by Ludovico Ariosto, and Jerusalem Delivered (1581) by Torquato Tasso are all indebted to the French narrative material (the Pulci, Boiardo and Ariosto poems are founded on the legends of the paladins of Charlemagne, and particularly, of Roland, translated as "Orlando").
The incidents and plot devices of the Italian epics later became central to works of English literature such as Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene ; Spenser attempted to adapt the form devised to tell the tale of the triumph of Christianity over Islam to tell instead of the triumph of Protestantism over Roman Catholicism.
The Welsh poet, painter, soldier and engraver David Jones's Modernist poem In Parenthesis was described by contemporary critic Herbert Read as having "the heroic ring which we associate with the old chansons de geste".
Doon de Mayence was a fictional hero of the Old French chansons de geste, who gives his name to the third cycle of the Charlemagne romances dealing with the feudal revolts.
Renaud de Montauban was a fictional hero and knight who was introduced to literature in a 12th-century Old French chanson de geste known as Les Quatre Fils Aymon. The four sons of Duke Aymon are Renaud, Richard, Alard, and Guiscard, and their cousin is the magician Maugris. Renaud possess a magical horse Bayard and the sword Froberge.
The Matter of France, also known as the Carolingian cycle, is a body of literature and legendary material associated with the history of France, in particular involving Charlemagne and his associates. The cycle springs from the Old French chansons de geste, and was later adapted into a variety of art forms, including Renaissance epics and operas. Together with the Matter of Britain, which concerned King Arthur, and the Matter of Rome, comprising material derived from and inspired by classical mythology, it was one of the great literary cycles that figured repeatedly in medieval literature.
Durendal or Durandal is the sword of Roland, legendary paladin of Charlemagne in French epic literature. It is also said to have belonged to young Charlemagne at one point, and, passing through Saracen hands, came to be owned by Roland.
Medieval French literature is, for the purpose of this article, literature written in Oïl languages during the period from the eleventh century to the end of the fifteenth century.
Maugris or Maugis was one of the heroes of the chansons de geste and romances of chivalry and the Matter of France that tell of the legendary court of King Charlemagne. Maugis was cousin to Renaud de Montauban and his brothers, son of Beuves of Aygremont and brother to Vivien de Monbranc. He was brought up by Oriande the fairy, and became a great enchanter. He won the magical horse Bayard and the sword Froberge which he later gave to Renaud.
La Geste de Garin de Monglane is the second cycle of the three great cycles of chansons de geste created in the early days of the genre. It centres on Garin de Monglane.
Fierabras or Ferumbras is a fictional Saracen knight appearing in several chansons de geste and other material relating to the Matter of France. He is the son of Balan, king of Spain, and is frequently shown in conflict with Roland and the Twelve Peers, especially Oliver, whose prowess he almost rivals. Fierabras eventually converts to Christianity and fights for Charlemagne.
Ferragut was a character—a Saracen paladin, sometimes depicted as a giant—in texts dealing with the Matter of France, including the Historia Caroli Magni, and Italian romantic epics, such as Orlando innamorato by Matteo Maria Boiardo and Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. In the tales, he was portrayed as physically invulnerable except at his navel/stomach, and was eventually killed by the paladin Roland.
Historia Caroli Magni or Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi, sometimes known as the Turpin Chronicle or the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle, is a 12th-century Latin forged chronicle of legendary material about Charlemagne's alleged conquest of Spain. It is also called Book IV – The Conquests of Charlemagne of the Codex Calixtinus. The chronicle states it was written by Charlemagne's contemporary Turpin, Archbishop of Reims, but it was found out as a medieval forgery. The work was extremely popular, and served as a major source of material on Charlemagne in chronicles, fiction and iconography throughout Medieval Europe. The miracles of the flowering lances and the death of Ferracutus appear on the windows of Chartres cathedral.
Andrea Mangiabotti, called Andrea da Barberino was an Italian writer and cantastorie ("storyteller") of the Quattrocento Renaissance. He was born in Barberino Val d'Elsa, near Florence and lived in Florence. He is principally known for his prose romance epic Il Guerrin Meschino, his I Reali di Francia, a prose compilation of the Matter of France epic material concerning Charlemagne and Roland (Orlandino) from various legends and chansons de geste, and for his Aspramonte, a reworking of the chanson de geste Aspremont, which also features the hero Ruggiero. Many of his writings probably derive from Franco-Italian works, such as the Geste Francor, that includes versions of the stories of Reali di Francia and dates to the first half of the fourteenth century. His works, which circulated at first in manuscript, were extremely successful and popular, and were a key source of material for later Italian romance writers, such as Luigi Pulci (Morgante), Matteo Maria Boiardo and Ludovico Ariosto.
Agolant or Agolante is a fictional character in Medieval and Renaissance romantic epics dealing with the Matter of France, including Orlando innamorato by Matteo Maria Boiardo and Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. He is a Saracen king from Africa.
Chanson d'Aspremont is a 12th-century Old French chanson de geste. The poem comprises 11, 376 verses, grouped into rhymed laisses. The verses are decasyllables mixed with alexandrines.
Girart de Vienne is a late twelfth-century (c.1180) Old French chanson de geste by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube. The work tells the story of the sons of Garin de Monglane and their battles with the Emperor Charlemagne, and it establishes the friendship of the epic heroes Olivier and Roland.
Aymeri de Narbonne is a legendary hero of Old French chansons de geste and the Matter of France. In the legendary material, as elaborated and expanded in various medieval texts, Aymeri is a knight in the time of Charlemagne's wars with the Saracens after the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. He is son of Hernaut and the grandson of Garin de Monglane. He conquers the city of Narbonne, marries a princess named Hermengarde or Hermenjart, and fathers seven sons, the most famous being Guillaume d'Orange, the hero of several popular chansons de geste.
Galiens li Restorés, or Galien le Restoré or Galien rhétoré, is an Old French chanson de geste which borrows heavily from chivalric romance. Its composition dates anywhere from the end of the twelfth century to the middle of the fourteenth century. Five versions of the tale are extant, dating from the fifteenth century to the sixteenth century, one in verse and the others in prose. The story—which is closely linked to the earlier chansons de gestePèlerinage de Charlemagne and The Song of Roland —tells of the adventures of Galien, son of the hero Olivier and of Jacqueline, the daughter of the (fictional) emperor Hugon of Constantinople.
Gormond et Isembart is an Old French chanson de geste from the second half of the eleventh or first half of the twelfth century. Along with The Song of Roland and the Chanson de Guillaume, it is one of the three chansons de geste whose composition incontestably dates from before 1150; it may be slightly younger than The Song of Roland and, according to one expert, may date from as early as 1068. The poem tells the story of a rebellious young French lord, Isembart, who allies himself with a Saracen king, Gormond, renounces his Christianity, and battles the French king. The poem is sometimes grouped with the Geste de Doon de Mayence or "rebellious vassal cycle" of chansons de geste.
The Four Sons of Aymon, sometimes also referred to as Renaud de Montauban is a medieval tale spun around the four sons of Duke Aymon: the knight Renaud de Montauban, his brothers Guichard, Allard and Richardet, their magical horse Bayard, their adventures and revolt against the emperor Charlemagne. The story had a European success and echoes of the story are still found today in certain folklore traditions.
Entrée d'Espagne or L'Entrée d'Espagne or Entrée en Espagne is a 14th-century (c.1320) Franco-Venetian chanson de geste. The author is thought to be from Padua. The work has survived in only one manuscript, today in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. Based on material from the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle and several other sources, the epic poem tells of Charlemagne's battles in Spain and the adventures of the paladin Roland.
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