The Middle Ages: literature before literacy

French Literature - A Beginner’s Guide - Carol Clark 2011

The Middle Ages: literature before literacy

The word ’literature’ comes from Latin ’litterae’, letters, and to us nowadays literature always means something written down, and usually printed and published. But in the earliest days of French fiction this was not necessarily so.

French is one of the Romance languages: the languages into which spoken Latin broke up after the end of the Roman Empire. The first documents written in something recognizable as a kind of French date from AD842 and religious compositions (saints’ lives, hymns) were being produced in this Old French by the end of the ninth century. By the eleventh century minstrels were performing an extensive repertoire of stirring stories to listeners, very few of whom would have been able to read.

In early medieval times long stories were almost always cast in verse, no doubt because verse is much easier to memorize than prose, and these stories were performed, without notes, to live audiences. We do not know how many of the performers themselves could read, but they certainly did not read aloud from a script.

The earliest types of story-poems are called chansons de geste (songs of great deeds). They purport to be true, and some do involve historical characters from much earlier periods such as Charlemagne, King of the Franks and, from the year 800, Emperor of the West. The adventures attributed to these figures are no doubt mostly invented. Each performer, though, would be retelling a story handed down by respected predecessors and might therefore believe that it was in some sense true. It is thought that these stories were sung during or after meals in lords’ halls, to largely illiterate audiences of fighting men. Some singers were retainers of the lords, others were itinerant minstrels called jongleurs. These might compose their own poems or perform others written by poets called trouvères, which they learned either from hearing them recited or from written texts. Obviously some of these poet-performers must have been literate, as those poems that survive do so in written form.

The most famous chanson de geste is the Chanson de Roland, about Charlemagne’s wars in Spain. Some version of this was performed before Duke William at the battle of Hastings by a jongleur called Taillefer. The earliest version of it that survives (in a manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library) is thought to have been composed in England, for a Norman audience, in the early twelfth century. The last line of the written poem says that it had been composed or performed, or perhaps simply copied, by someone called Turoldus, but we do not know anything else about him. Some 80 to 100 chansons de geste survive.


These lines from the Chanson de Roland follow the battle of Roncesvalles in which the French rearguard is slaughtered, and precede the final fight in which Roland dies. The two heroes had been previously contrasted when the wise Oliver begged the brave but rash Roland to sound his horn and call Charlemagne to return with the main body of the army (lines 1051 onwards). Roland refuses to do so until the battle is almost lost (line 1702). Charlemagne hears the horn at line 1757 and the army turns back, but too late. The poem is composed in assonanced laisses, which are stanzas of indeterminate length, with the last syllable of each line containing the same vowel (here /a/ and /i/).


Par grant irur chevalchet li reis Charles

Desur sa brunie li gist sa blanche barbe.

Puignent ad ait tuit li barun de France

N’i ad icel ne demeint irance

Que il ne sunt a Rollant le cataigne

Ki se combat as Sarrazins d’Espaigne;

Si est blecet, ne quit que anme i remaigne.

Deus! Quels seisante humes i ad en sa cumpaigne!

Unches meillurs n’en out reis ni cataigne.


Rollant reguardet es munz e es lariz;

De cels de France I veit tanz morz gesir!

E il les pluret cum chevaler gentill:

’Seignors barons, de vos ait Deus mercit!

Tutes vos anmes otreit il pareïs!

En seintes flurs il les facet gesir!

Meillors vassals de vos unkes ne vi.

Si lungement tuz tens m’avez servit,

A oes Carlon si granz pais cunquis!

Tere de France, mult estes dulz païs,

Oï desertet a tant rubostl exill.

Barons Franceis, pur mei vos vei murir:

Jo ne vos poi tenser ne guarentir.

Aït vos Deus, ki unke ne mentit!

Oliver, frere, vos ne dei jo faillir.

De doel murrai, se altre ne m’i occit.

Sire cumpainz, alum i referir.’

[King Charles rides furiously, his white beard flowing over his burnished breastplate. All the barons of France spur their hardest; not one but is bitterly angry that they are not with Roland, the brave captain, as he fights against the Saracens of Spain. He is wounded, the soul is barely left in his body. Lord, what men are the sixty left in his company! No king or captain ever had better.

Roland looks at the mountains and the hills. Of the men of France he sees so many lying dead! And he weeps for them, like a noble knight: ’Lord barons, God have mercy upon you! To all your souls may he grant Paradise. May he make them rest among the holy flowers! Better vassals than you I never saw. You have served me so long, winning such great lands for Charles! Land of France, you are indeed a fair country, now laid waste by such a calamity. Barons of France, I have seen you die for me: I was not able to protect you or save you. God keep you, He who never lied! Oliver, my brother, I must not fail you. I shall die of grief, if I am not otherwise killed. My noble companion, let us return to the fight!’]

Even more numerous are the slightly later romans. Roman is the modern French word for novel, but these stories are not in the least like modern novels. The word originally meant simply a composition in the vernacular — the contemporary spoken language — rather than Latin. Romans are composed in rhymed verse, usually of eight syllables, and unfold long tales of adventure in which love often plays an important part. They are thought to have been performed in settings where women had a more important role than in the predominantly male, warlike gatherings where the often bloodthirsty chansons de geste were sung. The romans fall into several families (romans d’aventure, romans d’antiquité and so on), but the best known and most influential on later literature are the romans Bretons, the ones dealing with the matière de Bretagne, the stories of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. (’Bretagne’ here covers the Celtic lands of Brittany and Cornwall. ’Bretagne la grant’ is the island kingdom: that is the origin of the expression ’Great Britain’.)

The best poems in this group were written between 1150 and 1250. The most notable writer of them was Chrétien de Troyes, who is believed to have died around 1190. But the stories survived and went on being told in many different forms for hundreds of years. These tales were a key means of transmission for the social values of chivalry and courtesy (courtoisie: originally, the behaviour befitting members of a court, as opposed to vilenie, the behaviour of villeins or serfs). Another of Chrétien’s stories, the Perceval, introduces the motif of the Grail, the quest for which will soon become the subject of many further poems. Prose versions of the tales of chivalry and of the Grail romances (for reading from a written text, we must suppose) were produced as early as the thirteenth century, but really came into their own in the late fifteenth with the invention of printing.

Medieval prose literature does exist, but apart from the works of the historians (Froissart, Commines) it is little read nowadays. Much of it is of religious origin: sermons, saints’ lives — these exist in verse too — and books of devotion. Comic writing appears first in verse form with the fabliaux (late twelfth to early fourteenth century), but by the fifteenth century realistic prose writers are found engaging in mockery of everyday relationships, in works like the Quinze joyes de mariage.

There was no organized commercial theatre at this period: all productions were amateur, however large-scale and elaborate. Plays might be religious (mystères, moralités), satirical (soties) or broadly comical (farces). They were staged by student societies or confraternities of laymen. Scripts for them survive from the fourteenth century onwards.

So in medieval literature we find a variety of conflicting value systems: piety and satire, blood-lust and courtliness. In particular, the values of amour courtois (courtly love, placing women on a pedestal) seem completely at odds with what would later be called the gaulois (Gaulish — i.e. primitive) comic spirit of the fabliaux and farces, based on cuckoldry, randy wives, hen-pecked husbands and so forth. But it seems that these different types of composition can have been enjoyed by the same people at different times, and the clash is one that will persist in French culture for many centuries to come.

Probably the best-known French medieval poet is François Villon (1431—after 1463). An educated man (he took his MA in 1452 and at one point was teaching in one of the colleges of the University of Paris), he was also a thief, brawler and eventually murderer who was more than once condemned to death but always managed to escape execution. The first thirty years of his life are quite well documented in academic and legal sources, but he vanishes from the record after 1463. His chief writings are the Petit testament and the much longer Grand testament, satirical poems cast in the form of mock wills. In them he leaves his (by then non-existent) property to named figures of the time, usually in a sardonic or comically inappropriate way. The Grand testament is interspersed with short lyrical poems, and these are his best-known writings: among them is the Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballad of the Ladies of Former Days), with its refrain ’Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ (Where are the snows of yesteryear?). The language in which Villon writes is called Middle French, and should be easier to read than Old French. But in fact the main texts of the Testaments are very difficult as they are full of allusions and personal jokes, many obscene, aimed at the legatees. Some passages are even written in fifteenth-century thieves’ slang. Modern editors have tried to tease out his meanings, but they often disagree. Villon’s poems were printed soon after his disappearance by one Antoine Verard, but they were little read then. He became better known in the sixteenth century, when the satirical poet Clement Marot re-published him. The figure of the mysterious poet-thief had an obvious appeal to the late Romantic period, and the character of Villon appears in several stage-plays and in the operetta The Vagabond King. Several of the songs in Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera are translations of Villon’s ballades.