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age. Besides, as its subject is drawn from the close of the reign of Pepin-le-Bref, it has the advantage of commencing that series of historic paintings, of which the eighth and ninth centuries are the frame.
And now I will venture a few reflections upon the structure of all these great works which I would willingly call our French Epics, had it not been decided, since the days of Ronsard, Chapelain, and Voltaire, that the French have no genius for epic poetry, and had not the word Epic, which always recalls the lliad of Homer, been of late so much abused. But in thus submitting my opinions to your judgment, I feel myself bound to advance nothing either incorrect or imaginary. Besides, I am well aware that at length we have become quite weary of those long and admirable theories, to which nothing is wanting but proof. All mine will be found in the works concerning which I now write to you, and which I intend to publish in succession, if leisure and the favor of the public permit.
Independently of sacred subjects, the early French poets or Trouvères of the Middle Ages possessed three distinct sources of inspiration ; the traditions of classic antiquity, of the Britons, and of the French. All the chief composition in the vulgar tongue, down to the thirteenth century, may be traced back to one of these three sources.
To the first belong the numerous poems of Alexander the Great, Philip of Macedon, Æneas, the valiant Hector, Jason, and The
But this class of traditions has lost all its value, through our study of the elements of ancient history. In proportion as we have been farther removed from antiquity, we have become better acquainted with it. The writers of the Middle Ages were all more or less the dupes of the simplicity of their own times ; they could never comprehend the distinction between the fictions of the poets of the historic ages and the narratives of prose-writers. And hence, blending the most marvellous tales with the more authentic events of history, they have made of the records of antiquity a confused picture, totally destitute of every kind of perspective. We can derive no possible advantage, then, from their undiscriminating imi
tations; and their simple credulity, exercised alike towards Ovid and Cornelius Nepos, soon becomes insupportable.
The traditions of the Britons, however, are full of lively interest. The romances of the Round Table, which have sprung from these traditions, refer us back to a glorious epoch in the history of Albion ; an epoch, of which, by some strange fatality, no distinct account has been transmitted to us. All that we can be said to know is, that in the fifth century, whilst Clovis was laying the foundation of the French empire, the Britons, more successful than the Gauls, repulsed the hordes of Picts, Angles, and Saxons who menaced them on all sides. Arthur was then their king. A century later, having fallen a prey to those fierce barbarians, the Britons cherished the memory of a hero, whose name represented all that a noble-minded people esteems most dear on earth, — religion and liberty. Songs of departed glory are the privilege of a conquered people, and prophctic hopes are a consolation seldom wanting to the oppressed. Thus sprang up and multiplied those marvellous tales, which recorded the glory of Arthur, and in which the recollection of former victories was joined to the promise of victories yet to come. Not far from the twelfth century, a priest collected various traditions, and wrought them up into those religious forms in which his zeal prompted him to embody them. This collection, originally written in Latin, was afterwards translated into the vulgar tongue in prose during the reign of Henry the Second, father of Richard Cæur de Lion. Erelong it reappeared in a poetic dress in all the modern languages of Europe. Even at the present day the old prose translation would be a work full of pleasant reading.
Still we cannot hope to trace the footsteps of history in these romances of the Round Table; for the primitive story is lost amid the multitude of episodes and embellishments. Excepting the name of the hero, whose deeds they celebrate, there is nothing - I do not say Celtic, for that would be too indefinite - nothing Armoric about them. The heroic valor of King Arthur is displayed throughout ; — but it is directed against giants, wild beasts, or the adversaries of persecuted beauty, and not against
the oppressors of his country. His steed is barbed with iron, and we recognize the gallant warrior's shield by its golden crowns in a field of blue; – but his good sword Excalibur seems rather the handiwork of a skilful Norman artisan, than of an ancient blacksmith of Armorica. Let us not, then, seek in these old romances the history of ages anterior to the Roman, Saxon, or even Norman conquest ;--it would be a loss of time and labor. But if we desire only piquant adventures of love and gallantry, fierce sabre-blows, and terrible encounters of Pagans and Christians, we shall find enough to repay the study of this ancient lore ;- particularly if we take care to peruse the oldest prose translations.
We now come to the old romances, which have their source in our national traditions. These are the true standard of our ancient poetry ; for surely you would not pretend that it could claim a very elevated rank in the history of the human mind. if it could boast no other masterpieces than such epics as the “ Alexandreide" or "Perceval;" such dramas as the
Mystère de Saint Christophe," or even the curious and simple pastoral of - Robin et Marion,” for whose publication we are indebted to you; and, in fine, such satires as our coarse and vulgar “Fabliaux," which (as one of our most profound and erudite scholars has remarked) are generally full of such insipid marvels. Not having sufficiently compared the general productions of the Middle Ages, we have hitherto been in the habit of passing judgment upon them, if I may use the phrase, in the lump, and with a sweeping expression of unlimited praise
Those who have been disheartened by the “Romance of the Rose," l or the “ Tales of Barbazan,” ? can discover nothing in our an
cient literature but a confused mass of coarse and tedious fictions. To others, whom a more superficial study of the classics has rendered more indulgent in their opinions, these same productions appear in a far different light, possessing a grace, a charm, a simplicity, that no language can describe ; — nay, the very sight of a manuscript blotted with ink of the fourteenth century is enough to excite their enthusiasm. Midway between these two contending parties, and on the field which you have trodden before them, all judicious critics will hereafter pitch their tents. True, it is painful thus to annoy the doughty champions of the ancient Muse of France; but the love of the Middle Ages bears an enchanter's wand, and leads its votaries blindfold; and I fear, that if, like them, we should proclaim the merit of so many productions, composed by ignorant mountebanks to amuse the populace, we should give occasion for the belief, that we are incapable of appreciating the full value of those great poems, which were destined to charm the most brilliant assemblies, and grace the most magnificent festivals.
The same remark is true of the Middle Ages, as of our own, and of every age.
If the state of society is shadowed forth in its literature, then this literature must necessarily represent two distinct and strongly marked characters; — one, of the castle and the court; another, of the middle classes and the populace ; — the former, elegant, harmonious, and delicate; the latter, rude, grotesque, and vulgar. Each of these classes has its own peculiar merits; but our manuscripts, by presenting them to us united, sometimes in the same volume, and always upon the same shelves of our libraries, have led us insensibly into the habit of confounding
1« Ce est li Rommanz de la Roze
Ou l'art d'amors est tote enclose." The “ Romance of the Rose” is an allegorical poem of no inconsiderable fame. It was commenced about the middle of the thirteenth century by Guillaume de Lorris, and completed nearly a half century later by Jean de Meun. The bitter sarcasms against the corruption and hypocrisy of the priesthood contained in this Romaunt drew upon it and its authors the anathemas of the clergy. A certain Gerson, then Chancellor of Paris, writes thus of Meun and his book : “ There is one Johannes Meldinensis, who wrote a book called “The Romaunt of the Rose';
which book, if I only had, and that there were no more in the world, if I might have five hundred pound for the same, I would rather burn it than take the money." About the middle of the fourteenth century the “Romance of the Rose" was translated into English by Chaucer, under the title of “The Romaunt of the Rose ; or the Art of Love ; wherein is showed the helpes and furtherances, an also the lets and impediments that lovers have in their suits." - TR.
2 Fabliaux et Contes des Poètes François des XI., XII., XIII., XIV. et XV. Siècles, tirés des Meilleurs Auteurs; publiés par Barbazan. 4 vols. 8vo. - Tr.
the manners of the court with those of the city. Hence great prejudices have arisen against the purity of some of our most estimable writers, and against the refinement of society in those ages in which they were admired. Hence, too, all the difficulties which later historians have encountered, when, before classifying their authorities, they have sought to examine anew the manners and customs of an age.
But the desire of proving, that even in the twelfth century there was a refined and polished class in society, would lead me too far from my original design, and I will therefore resist the temptation. I would only ask those whom the love of a native land they do know has too strongly prejudiced against that other and earlier native land they do not know, to cast their eyes for a moment upon some noble monument of Gothic architecture; for example, upon the cathedral of Rheims. When they have contemplated this “Pantheon of our glory,” as a writer of our own day has appropriately called it, let them ask themselves whether those ages which conceived the design and completed the construction of that noble edifice, ignorant as they were of Homer, Cicero, and Quinctilian, must not have possessed a native literature worthy, in some degree, of such a stupendous style of architecture? What! Villehardouin, Joinville, Philip Augustus, and Saint Louis ignorant of all other poetry but the burlesque proverbs of Marcon, the superstitious reveries of Goutier de Coinsy, and the indecent profanities of such writers as Rutebeuf and Jean de Condé! Were it true it would not be probable, and, in such a case, we must say that Gothic architecture is an effect without a cause, - prolem sine matre creatam.
But it is not true. We possessed in former times great epic poems, which, for four centuries, constituted the principal study of our fathers. And during that period all Europe, — Germany, England, Spain, and Italy, — having nothing of the kind to boast of, either in their historic recollections or in their historic records, disputed with each other the secondary glory of translating and imitating them.
Even amid the darkness of the ninth and tenth centuries, the French still preserved the recollection of an epoch of great national glory.
Under Charlemagne, they had spread their conquests from the Oder to the Ebro, from the Baltic to the Sicilian sea. Mussulmans and Pagans, Saxons, Lombards, Bavarians, and Batavians, — all had submitted to the yoke of France, all had trembled at the power of Charles the Great. Emperor of the West, King of France and Germany, restorer of the arts and sciences, wise law-giver, great converter of infidels, — how many titles to the recollection and gratitude of posterity! Add to this, that long before his day the Franks were in the habit of treasuring up in their memory the exploits of their ancestors; that Charlemagne himself, during his reign, caused all the heroic ballads, which celebrated the glory of the nation, to be collected together; and, in fine, that the weakness of his successors, the misfortunes of the times, and the invasions of the Normans must have increased the national respect and veneration for the illustrious dead, — and you will be forced to confess that, if no poetic monuments of the ninth century remained, we ought rather to conjecture that they had been lost, than that they had never existed.
As to the contemporaneous history of those times, it offers us, if I may so speak, only the outline of this imposing colossus. Read the Annals of the Abbey of Fulde and those of Metz, Paul the Deacon, the continuator of Frédégaire, and even Eginhart himself, and you will there find registered, in the rapid style of an itinerary, the multiplied conquests of the French. The Bavarians, the Lombards, the Gascons revolt; - Charles goes forth to subdue the Bavarians, the Lombards, and the Gascons. Witikind rebels ten times, and ten times Charles passes the Rhine and routs the insurgent army; and there the history ends. Nevertheless, the Emperor had his generals, his companions in glory, his rivals in genius; but in all history we find not a whisper of their services, hardly are their names mentioned. It has been left to the popular ballads, barren as they are of all historic authority, to transmit to posterity the proofs of their ancient
But although these ancient “Chansons de Geste,” or historic ballads, fill up the chasms of true history, and clothe with flesh the meagre
skeleton of old contemporaneous chroniclers, yet you must not therefore conclude that I am prepared to maintain the truth of their narratives. Far from it. Truth does not reign supreme on earth; and these romances, after all, are only the expression of public opinion, separated by an interval of many generations from that whose memory they transmit to us. But to supply the want of historians, each great epoch in national history inspires the song of bards; and when the learned and the wise neglect to prepare the history of events which they themselves have witnessed, the people prepare their national songs; their sonorous voice, prompted by childish credulity and a free and unlimited admiration, echoes alone through succeeding ages, and kindles the imagination, the feelings, the enthusiasm of the children, by proclaiming the glory of the fathers. Thus Homer sang two centuries after the Trojan war; and thus arose, two or three centuries after the death of Charlemagne, all those great poems called the “Romances of the Twelve Peers.”
And now let us suppose for a moment, that, after the lapse of two centuries, the mirror of history should reflect nothing of the reign of Napoleon, but the majestic figure of the conqueror himself, and a chronological list of his victories and defeats. Then the exploits of his marshals and the deeds of his high dignitaries would excite the suspicion and the scepticism of the historian ; but then, too, would songs and popular ballads proclaim loudly, not the final treason of Murat, but his chivalrous gallantry; they would repeat the pretended death of Cambronne, and the odious crimes with which the people so blindly charge M. de Raguse. Nor would a Roland and a Ganelon suffice; around the new Charlemagne would be grouped another warlike Almoner, another prudent Duke Naimes. Such, were history silent, would be outlines of the poetic tale; and our children would easily supply the coloring
To return to the Romances of the Twelve Peers. They recommend themselves equaily to the admiration of the poet, and to the attention of the antiquary. Whilst the former will be astonished at the unity of the plots,
the connection of the episodes, the interest of the stories, and the originality of the descriptions they contain, the latter will find new light thrown by them upon the ancient topography of France, upon the date of many venerable structures, and upon the history of an infinite number of cities, fiefs, châteaux, and seigniories. When these singular productions shall appear in the broad daylight of the press, then shall we see France enveloped in a bright poetic glory, new and unexpected. And, on the other hand, what an ample field will then be laid open for new doubts concerning our ancient jurisprudence, our ancient political constitution, and the nature of the feudal system, so complicated in modern theory, but so natural in its origin and so simple in its form! In the writings of our old romances, the feudal system is embodied ; it moves, acts, speaks, battles ; now with the monarch at its head, it is present at the tilts and tournaments, and now it discusses the affairs of state; now it suffers penalties, and now cries aloud for vengeance. assert, then, without fear of contradiction, that, in order to become thoroughly acquainted with the history of the Middle Ages, — I do not mean the bare history of facts, but of the manners and customs which render those facts probable, – we must study it in the pages of old romance; and this is the reason why the history of France is yet unwritten.
Hitherto the fate of these great works has been a singular one. I have already remarked, that for the space of four hundred years, that is from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, they constituted almost the only literature of our ancestors. Immediately afterward foreign nations took possession of them; first the Germans, and next the Italians; and it would seem, that, in thus relinquishing them to our neighbors, we have had some scruples as to the propriety of retaining even so much as the memory of them. Thus by slow degrees they have quite disappeared from our literature. The renown, however, of the enchanting fictions of Pulci and Ariosto gave birth to a few lifeless and paltry imitations ; only one point was forgotten, and that was to have recourse to the old Gallic originals. But, alas! what
was ancient France, her history, her manners, and her literature, to a class of writers who only dreamed of reviving once more the ages of Rome and Athens, and who, in their strange hallucination, hoped to persuade the people to suppress all rhyme in their songs, and to supply its place by dactyls and anapests.
This exclusive love of classic antiquity acquired new force during the whole of the seventeenth century: so that no one thought of contradicting Boileau, when he so carelessly called Villon
“ The first who, in those rude, unpolished times, Cleared the dark mystery of our ancient rhymes.”
In the eighteenth century a kind of conservative instinct seemed to bring our men of letters back to the productions of the Middle Ages; but by their anxiety to remove all philological difficulties from the old romances, they have retarded the time when these poems shall be as universally read among us as the “ Romanceros ” are in Spain, and Dante and Boccaccio in Italy. The imitations of Tressan and Caylus had their day; but as these productions were tricked out to suit the fashion of the
age, they disappeared with the fashion which gave them birth.
But the moment seems at length to have arrived when these ancient poems shall be raised from the dead. A desire to know more of the earliest monuments of modern literature is at length manifesting itself among us; and before the expiration of ten years it is probable that the most important of these works will have emerged, so to speak, into the perpetual light of the press.
One word concerning the metre of these poems. They were written to be sung; and this is one point of resemblance observable between the old Greek rhapsodies and the heroic ballads of France. Doubtless the music of these poems was solemn and monotonous, like that of our
devotional chants, or those village songs, whose final notes mark the recommencement of the tune. The ancient ballad of “ Count Orri” is a piece of this kind ; and so also is the burlesque description of the death of Malbrouk, if you suppress the refrain. This kind of music strikes the ear agreeably, though its cadence is monotonous ; in proof of which I appeal to all our recollections of childhood. In these old romances, as in the
to which I have just alluded, the verse is monorhythmic, and the metre either pentameter or Alexandrine. As these poems were written to be sung,
it is evident that the pause or rest would naturally come after the fourth syllable in pentameter lines, and after the sixth in Alexandrines.2 Nor is this all. This necessary rest in the middle of the line gave the poet an opportunity of introducing at the close of the hemistich an unaccented syllable, as at the end of the feminine rhymes of the present day.
After an attentive examination of our ancient literature, it is impossible to doubt for a moment, that the old monorhythmic romances were set to music, and accompanied by a viol, harp, or guitar; and yet this seems hitherto to have escaped observation. In the olden time no one was estemed a good minstrel, whose memory was not stored with a great number of historic ballads, like those of “Roncesvalles," “Garin de Loherain,” and “Gerars de Roussillon. It is not to be supposed that any one of these poems was ever recited entire; but as the greater part of them contained various descriptions of battles, hunting adventures, and marriages, scenes of the court, the council, and the castle, — the audience chose those stanzas and episodes which best suited their taste. And this is the reason why each stanza contains in itself a distinct and complete narrative, and also why the closing lines of each stanza are in substance repeated at the commencement of that which immediately succeeds.
1 Though this song is certainly well enough known, yet it may be necessary to quote a few lines in proof of my assertion. It will be seen that the measure is Alexandrine, and the verse monorhythmic. “Madame à sa tour monte, si haut qu'el peut monter, Elle aperçoit son page
- de noir tout habillé. • Beau page, mon beau page, — quel nouvelle a ortés ?'
· La nouvell’que j'aporte, - vos beaux yeux vont pleurer; Monsieur Malbrough est mort, est mort et enterré,''
etc. 2 To this rest, which was absolutely essential to the musical accompaniment, we can trace back the use of the hemistich, which is still preserved by the French, though all other modern nations have abandoned it.