Chanson de geste  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The chansons de geste, Old French for "songs of heroic deeds [or heroic lineages]", are the epic poetry that appears at the dawn of French literature. The earliest known examples date from the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, nearly a hundred years before the emergence of the lyric poetry of the trouvères (troubadours) and the earliest verse romances.



Composed in Old French, apparently intended for oral performance by jongleurs, the chansons de geste narrate legendary incidents (sometimes based on real events) in the history of France in the eighth and ninth centuries, the age of Charles Martel, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, with emphasis on their combats against the Moors and Saracens. To these historical legends fantasy is 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. Finally, in chansons of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the historical and military aspects wane, and the fantastic elements in the stories dominate.

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.<ref>The three-way classification is set late addiout by the twelfth century poet Jean Bodel in the Chanson de Saisnes: for details see Matter of France.</ref>


The origin of the chanson de geste as a form is much debated. The nineteenth century medievalist Gaston Paris, recognising that they drew on an oral epic tradition, identified this with the narrative songs called cantilenae that are occasionally mentioned in contemporary Latin sources. Such songs about important events were sometimes being sung very soon after the military events described; the Spanish Cantar de Mio Cid shows that a comparable narrative tradition existed in Spain at the same period. Gaston Paris also believed that the early singers followed the courts of kings and military leaders, as did Norse skalds (lyric poets) and some Celtic bards, but the evidence on this is less conclusive.

Another school of thought, championed by Joseph Bédier, holds that the poems were the invention of the poets who wrote them. Bédier further suggests that some of the stories were first invented by monks, who used them to advertise pilgrimage sites by connecting them not only with saints but also by legendary heroes of folklore. Magical relics frequently appear in the tales. This point of view has fewer proponents since the development of Oral theory; it is additionally problematic because monks were specifically forbidden to dabble in the literature of the jongleurs.


Early chansons de geste are composed in ten-syllable lines grouped in assonanced stanzas (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 are of variable length. An example from the Chanson de Roland illustrates the technique. The assonance in this stanza is on e:

Desuz un pin, delez un eglanter
Un faldestoed i unt, fait tout d'or mer:
La siet li reis ki dulce France tient.
Blanche ad la barbe et tut flurit le chef,
Gent ad le cors et le cuntenant fier.
S'est kil demandet, ne l'estoet enseigner.
Under a pine tree, by a rosebush,
there is a throne made entirely of gold.
There sits the king who rules sweet France;
his beard is white, with a full head of hair.
He is noble in carriage, and proud of bearing.
If anyone is looking for the King, he doesn't need to be pointed out.

Later chansons are composed in monorhyme stanzas, in which the last syllable of each line rhymes fully throughout the stanza. A second change is that each line now contains twelve syllables instead of ten. The following example 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,
N'enmaine que .ii. rois ens en sa conpaignie.
S'enporte Brohadas, fis Soudan de Persie;
En l'estor l'avoit mort a l'espee forbie
Li bons dus Godefrois a le chiere hardie
Tres devant Anthioce ens en la prairie.
So Corbaran escaped across the plains of Syria;
He took only two kings in his company.
He carried away Brohadas, son of the Sultan of Persia,
Who had been killed in the battle by the clean sword
Of the brave-spirited good duke Godfrey
Right in front of Antioch, down in the meadow.


The songs were recited (sometimes to casual audiences, sometimes possibly in a more formal setting) by 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. Since paper was extremely expensive and not all poets could read, it seems likely that even after the chansons had begun to be written down, many performances continued to depend on oral transmission. 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.

The poems themselves

Approximately one hundred chansons de geste survive, in manuscripts that 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.

About 1215 Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube, in the introductory lines to his Girard 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.

The Geste du roi

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.

The Geste de Garin de Monglane

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.

    • Chanson de Guillaume (c.1100)
    • Couronnement de Louis (1130)
    • Charroi de Nîmes (1140)
    • Prise d'Orange (1150?)
    • Aliscans (1165)
    • La Bataille Loquifer, the work of a French Sicilian poet, Jendeu de Brie (fl. 1170)
    • Le Moniage Rainouart (12th century)
    • Foulques de Candie, by Herbert le Duc of Dammartin (fl. 1170)
    • Aymeri de Narbonne and Girart de Vienne by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube (1190-1217)
    • Enfances Garin de Monglane (15th century)
    • Garin de Monglane (13th century)
    • Hernaut de Beaulande (fragment of the 14th century)
    • Renier de Gennes, which only survives in its prose form
    • Les Enfances Guillaume (13th century)
    • Les Narbonnais
    • Le Covenant Vivien
    • Bovon de Commarchis (13th century), recension of the earlier Siege de Barbastre, by Adenes le Rois
    • Guibert d'Andrenas (13th century)
    • La Prise de Cordres (13th century)
    • La Mort Aimeri de Narbonne
    • Le Moniage Guillaume (12th century)
    • Les Enfances Vivien (ed. C Wahlund and H von Feilitzen, Upsala and Paris, 1895)

The Geste de Doon de Mayence

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.

    • Girart de Roussillon (1160-1170; the hero Girart de Roussillon also figures in Girart de Vienne, in which he is identified as a son of Garin de Monglane)
    • Renaud de Montauban or Les Quatre Fils Aymon (end of the 12th century)
    • Raoul de Cambrai, apparently begun by Bertholais; existing version from end of 12th century
    • Garin le Loherain, part of a local cycle of epics of Lorraine traditional history, completed by Hervis de Metz, Girbers de Metz, Ansis fils de Girbert, and Von
    • Doön de Mayence (mid 13th century)
    • Gaufrey
    • Aye d’Avignon, probably composed between 1195 and 1205. The fictional heroine is first married to Garnier de Nanteuil, who is son of Doon de Nanteuil and grandson of Doon de Mayence. After Garnier’s death she marries the Saracen Ganor
    • Doon de Nanteuil
    • Gui de Nanteuil, evidently composed shortly before 1207 when the troubadour Raimbaut de Vaqueiras mentions the story. The fictional hero is son of the heroine of Aye d’Avignon (to which Gui de Nanteuil forms a sequel) and father of the hero of Tristan de Nanteuil
    • Tristan de Nanteuil
    • Parise la Duchesse
    • Maugis d’Aigremont
    • Vivien l’amachour de Monbranc
    • Huon de Bordeaux

The Crusade cycle

Not listed by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube, this cycle deals with the First Crusade and its immediate aftermath.

    • Chanson d'Antioche, apparently begun by Richard le Pèlerin c. 1100; earliest surviving text by Graindor de Douai c. 1180; expanded version 14th century
    • Les Chétifs, c. 1180, included by Graindor de Douai in the Chanson d'Antioche
    • Matabrune
    • Le Chevalier au Cigne
    • Les Enfances Godefroi
    • Chanson de Jérusalem
    • Mort de Godefroi de Bouillon
    • Baudouin de Sebourg (early 14th century)
    • Batard de Bouillon (early 14th century)

The poems contained a very small and unvaried assortment of character types; the repertoire of valiant hero, the brave traitor, the shifty or cowardly traitor, the Saracen giant, and so forth is one that is easily exhausted. As the genre matured, fantasy elements were introduced. Some of the characters that were devised by the poets in this manner include the fairy Oberon, who made his literary debut in the Chanson de Huon de Bordeaux; and the magic horse Bayard, who first appears in the Chanson de 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.

Legacy and adaptations

The chansons de geste created a body of mythology that lived on well after the creative force of the genre itself was spent. The Italian epics of Torquato Tasso (Rinaldo), Orlando innamorato (1495) by Matteo Boiardo, and Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto are all founded on the legends of the paladins of Charlemagne that first appeared in the chansons de geste. As such, their incidents and plot devices 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 German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach based his (incomplete) 13th century epic Willehalm, consisting of seventy-eight manuscripts, on the life of William of Orange. The chansons were also recorded in the Icelandic saga, Karlamagnús .

Indeed, until the 19th century, the tales of Roland and Charlemagne were as important as the tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, and the Italian epics on these themes were still accounted major works of literature. It is only in the later nineteenth and twentieth century that the Matter of France was finally eclipsed by the Matter of Britain.


See also

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