"A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. How can one
not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the
right to dream."
Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), French scientist,
philosopher, literary theorist.
one of the world's most brilliant, has been for centuries an
impressive facet of French civilization, an object of national pride,
and a principal focus for feelings of national identity. Because the
French are a literate people, passionately interested in questions of
language and in the exploration of ideas, the influence of French
intellectuals on the course of French history during the last three
centuries has been great, and remains so today. A high proportion of
European literary trends have originated in France. The continuing
prestige of literature in France is evidenced today by the
innumerable private societies devoted to individual authors and by
the large number of literary prizes awarded each year. A knowledge of
French literature, in short, is the key to an understanding of the
THE MIDDLE AGES
began when writers started using the dialects that had evolved from
the Latin spoken in the parts of the Roman Empire that would become
France. Eventually, the dialect in popular use around
Paris gained supremacy over the others and by the 10th century was
vying with Latin for prestige. The 11th century witnessed the
emergence of a literature in the French language in the form of
numerous epic poems, called CHANSONS DE GESTE. These poems told of
the heroic deeds of the knights fighting with or against Charlemagne.
Of the more than 80 chansons remaining, the masterpiece is the
CHANSON DE ROLAND (12th century), which narrates the death of
Charlemagne's nephew, Roland, in a rearguard action against the
Saracens at Roncesvallés in the Pyrénées.
Exhibiting great skill in the differentiation of characters, this
poem contributed to the awakening of a French national consciousness.
The chansons were
followed in the second half of the 12th century by the "romans
courtois", or tales of courtly love, which were written in verse in
the Romance tongue and were intended to be read aloud before
aristocratic audiences. Celebrating the heroism of knights fighting
in honor of their ladies, many of these poems are set at King
Arthur's court and are steeped in the Celtic mythology of Brittany,
Cornwall, and Wales. Of particular importance was the Tristan and
Iseult cycle, which, in its powerful, semimystical evocation of a
love as strong as death, inspired poets in every part of Europe.
Eventually, it served as the basis for Richard Wagner's great opera
Tristan und Isolde (1865). The greatest poet in this tradition was
Chrétien de Troyes, author of Erec, Lancelot, and
Perceval. The lais were very short romans courtois, a genre to which
Marie de France contributed many delightful examples. The
single most significant medieval poem was the ROMAN DE LA ROSE, whose
first 4,000 lines were written about 1230 by Guillaume de
Lorris in the courtly tradition; about 40 years later, Jean de
Meung added 18,000 lines in a realistic, satirical vein. The
allegorical quest of the Rose (the Lady) was to remain influential
until the 17th century.
circles a very different type of literature flourished. The FABLIAUX
were short narratives in verse, simple, earthy, and bantering in
tone, sparing no one, least of all women or clergy. FABLES,
allegorical stories in which animals were used to satirize human
characteristics or to point to a moral, were equally popular, the
most celebrated of this type being REYNARD THE FOX.
The greatest French
poet of the late medieval period was François
Villon -- thief, murderer, and prison inmate -- whose alternately
bitter, amusing, and deeply moving Testament (1461; Eng. trans.,
1924) sounds a strangely modern note. In it are many examples of the
BALLADE and the Rondeau, forms in which Villon demonstrated his
The Middle Ages also
saw the development of history as a prose genre. Geoffroi de
Villehardouin, in his Conquest of Constantinople (c.1207; Eng.
trans., 1829), gave an eyewitness account of the sacking of the
Byzantine capital in 1204 by western crusaders en route to the Holy
Land. Jean Sire de JOINVILLE acted as memorialist of Louis IX's
disastrous crusade (1248-52) in Egypt, completing his entertaining
Histoire de Saint Louis in 1309 (Eng. trans., 1807). Jean
Froissart's Chronicles (Eng. trans., 1523-25) vividly evoke
the barbarities of the Hundred Years' War as it was fought between
1325 and 1400. The Memoirs (1489-90, 1497-98; Eng. trans., 1596) of
Philippe de Commynes, dealing with the reigns of Louis XI and Charles
VIII, reveal a truer historian, one more concerned with the hidden
causes of events than with mere chronicling.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996
Physician, Astrologer, Prophet