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Title: A Short History of French Literature

Author: George Saintsbury

Release date: July 3, 2010 [eBook #33062]
Most recently updated: January 6, 2021

Language: English

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[Pg v]


An attempt to present to students a succinct history of the course of French literature compiled from an examination of that literature itself, and not merely from previous accounts of it is, I believe, a new one in English. There will be observed in the parts of this Short History a considerable difference of method; and as such a difference is not usual in works of the kind, it may be well to state the reasons which have induced me to adopt it. Early French literature is to a great extent anonymous. Moreover, even where it is not, the authors were usually more influenced by certain prevalent styles or forms than by anything else. Into these forms they threw without considerations of congruity whatever they had to say. Nothing, for instance, can be less suitable for historical or scientific disquisition than the octosyllabic metre of a satiric poem. But Jean de Meung and one at least of the authors of Renart le Contrefait[1] do not think of composing prose diatribes. At one moment and place the form of the Chanson de Geste is all-absorbing, at another the form of the Roman d'Aventures, at another the form of the Fabliau. In Book I. I shall therefore proceed by these forms, giving an account of each separately.

After Villon the case changes. Instead of classes of chroniclers, trouvères, jongleurs, we get individual authors of eminence and individuality striking out their own way and saying their own say[Pg vi] in the manner not that is fashionable but that seems best to them. During this time, therefore, and especially during that brilliant age of French literature, the sixteenth century, I shall proceed by authors, taking the most remarkable individually, and grouping their followers around them.

From the time of Malherbe the system of schools begins, divided according to subjects. The poet, the dramatist, the historian, have their predecessors, and either intentionally copy them or intentionally innovate upon them. Malherbe and Delille, Corneille and Lemercier, Sarrasin and Rulhière, whatever the difference of merit, stand to one another in a definite relation, and the later writers represent more or less the accepted traditions each of his school. In this part, therefore, I shall proceed by subjects, taking historians, poets, dramatists, etc., together. One difference will be noticed between the third and fourth Books, dealing respectively with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It has seemed unnecessary to allot a special chapter to theological and ecclesiastical writing in the latter, or to scientific writing in the former.

Almost all writers who have attempted literary histories in a small compass have recognised the difficulty, or rather impossibility, of treating contemporary or recent work on the same scale as older authors. In treating, therefore, of literature subsequent to the appearance of the Romantic movement, I shall content myself with giving a rapid sketch of the principal literary developments and their exponents.

There are doubtless objections to this quadripartite arrangement; but it appears to me better suited for the purpose of laying the foundations of an acquaintance with French literature than a more uniform plan.

The space at my disposal does not admit of combining full information as to the literature with elaborate literary comment upon its characteristics, and there can be no doubt that in such a book as this, destined for purposes of education chiefly, the latter must be sacrificed to the former. As an instance of the sacrifice[Pg vii] I may refer to Bk. I. Ch. II. There are some forty or fifty Chansons de Gestes in print, all of which save two or three I have read, and almost every one of which presents points on which it would be most interesting to me to comment. But to do this in the limits would be impossible. Nor is it easy to enter upon disputed literary questions, however tempting they may be. On such points as the relations of Northern to Provençal poetry, the origin of the Chansons and the Arthurian romances, the successive versions of Froissart, the authenticity of the last book of Rabelais, it is only possible here to indicate the most probable conclusions. Generally speaking, the scale of treatment will be found to be adjusted to the system of division already stated. In the middle ages, where the importance of the general form surpasses that of the individual practitioners, comparatively small space is given to these individuals, and little attempt is made to follow up the scanty and often conjectural particulars of their lives. In the later books I have endeavoured (departing in this respect from the system of my two former sketches of the subject, the article on 'French Literature' in the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Primer which has preceded this work in the Clarendon Press Series) to deal more fully with the greater names whose work is most instructive, and as to whom most curiosity is likely to be felt.

If, as seems very likely, these explanations should not content some of my critics, I can only say that the passages which they may miss here would have been far easier and far pleasanter for me to write than the passages which they will here find. This volume attempts to be, not a series of causeries on the literary history of France, but a Short History of French Literature. Two things only I have uniformly aimed at, accuracy as absolute as I could secure, and completeness as thorough as space would allow. In the pursuit of the former object I have thought it well to take no fact or opinion at second-hand where the originals were accessible to me. Manuscript sources I do not pretend to have consulted;[Pg viii] but any judgment which is passed in this book may be taken as founded on personal acquaintance with the book or author unless the contrary be stated. Some familiarity with the subject has convinced me that nowhere are opinions of doubtful accuracy more frequently adopted and handed on without enquiry than in the history of literature.

Those who read this book for purposes of study will, it is hoped, be already acquainted with the Primer, which is, in effect, an introduction to it, and which contains what may be called a bird's-eye view of the subject. But, lest the wood should be lost sight of for the trees, notes or interchapters have been inserted between the several books, indicating the general lines of development followed by the great literature which I have attempted to survey. To these I have for the most part confined generalisations as distinct from facts.

I have, I believe, given in the notes a sufficient list of authorities which those who desire to follow up the subject may consult. I have not been indiscriminately lavish in indicating editions of authors, though I believe that full information will be found as to those necessary for a scholarly working knowledge of French literature. I had originally hoped to illustrate the whole book with extracts; but I discovered that such a course would either swell it to an undesirable bulk, or else would provide passages too short and too few to be of much use. I have therefore confined the extracts to the mediaeval period, which can be illustrated by selections of moderate length, and in which such illustration, from the general resemblance between the individuals of each class, and the comparative rarity of the original texts, is specially desirable. To avoid the serious drawback of the difference of principle on which old French reprints have been constructed, as many of these extracts as possible have been printed from Herr Karl Bartsch's admirable Chrestomathie. But in cases where extracts were either not to be found there, or were not, in my judgment, sufficiently characteristic, I have departed from this plan. The illustration, by extracts, of the[Pg ix] later literature, which requires more space, has been reserved for a separate volume.

I had also intended to subjoin some tabular views of the chief literary forms, authors, and books of the successive centuries. But when I formed this intention I was not aware that such tables already existed in a book very likely to be in the hands of those who use this work, M. Gustave Masson's French Dictionary. Although the plan I had formed was not quite identical with his, and though the execution might have differed in detail, it seemed both unnecessary and to a certain extent ungracious to trespass on the same field. With regard to dates the Index will, it is believed, be found to contain the date of the birth and death, or, if these be not obtainable, the floruit of every deceased author of any importance who is mentioned in the book. It has not seemed necessary invariably to duplicate this information in the text. I have also availed myself of this Index (for the compilation of which I owe many thanks to Miss S. A. Ingham) to insert a very few particulars, which seemed to find a better place there than in the body of the volume, as being not strictly literary.

In conclusion, I think it well to say that the composition of this book has, owing to the constant pressure of unavoidable occupations, been spread over a considerable period, and has sometimes been interrupted for many weeks or even months. This being the case, I fear that there may be some omissions, perhaps some inconsistencies, not improbably some downright errors. I do not ask indulgence for these, because that no author who voluntarily publishes a book has a right to ask, nor, perhaps, have critics a right to give it. But if any critic will point out to me any errors of fact, I can promise repentance, as speedy amendment as may be, and what is more, gratitude.

[Pg x]

Preface to the Second Edition.—In the second edition the text has been very carefully revised. All corrections of fact indicated by critics and private correspondents, both English and French (among whom I owe especial thanks to M. A. Beljame), have, after verification, been made. A considerable number of additional dates of the publication of important books have been inserted in the text, and the Index has undergone a strict examination, resulting in the correction of some faults which were due not to the original compiler but to myself. On the suggestion of several competent authorities a Conclusion, following the lines of the Interchapters, is now added. If less deference is shown to some strictures which have been passed on the plan of the work and the author's literary views, it is due merely to the conviction that a writer must write his own book in his own way if it is to be of any good to anybody. But in a few places modifications of phrases which seemed to have been misconceived or to be capable of misconception have been made. I have only to add sincere thanks to my critics for the very general and, I fear, scarcely deserved approval with which this Short History of a long subject has been received, and to my readers for the promptness with which a second edition of it has been demanded.


Preface to the Third Edition.—In making, once more, an examination of this book for the purposes of a third edition I have again done my best to correct such mistakes as must (I think I may say inevitably) occur in a very large number of compressed statements about matter often in itself of great minuteness and complexity. I have found some such mistakes, and I make no doubt that I have left some.

In the process of examination I have had the assistance of two detailed reviews of parts of the book by two French critics, each[Pg xi] of very high repute in his way. The first of these, by M. Gaston Paris, in Romania (XII, 602 sqq.), devoted to the mediæval section only, actually appeared before my second edition: but accident prevented my availing myself of it fully, though some important corrections suggested by it were made on a slip inserted in most of the copies of that issue. The assistance thus given by M. Paris (whose forbearance in using his great learning as a specialist I have most cordially to acknowledge) has been supplemented by the appearance, quite recently, of an admirable condensed sketch of his own[2], which, compact as it is, is a very storehouse of information on the subject. If in this book I have not invariably accepted M. Paris' views or embodied his corrections, it is merely because in points of opinion and inference as opposed to ascertained fact, the use of independent judgment seems to me always advisable.

The other criticism (in this case of the later part of my book), by M. Edmond Scherer, would not seem to have been written in the same spirit. M. Scherer holds very different views from mine on literature in general and French literature in particular; he seems (which is perhaps natural) not to be able to forgive me the difference, and to imagine (which if not unnatural is perhaps a little unreasonable, a little uncharitable, and even, considering an express statement in my preface, a little impolite) that I cannot have read the works on which we differ. I am however grateful to him for showing that a decidedly hostile examination, conducted with great minuteness and carefully confined to those parts of the subject with which the critic is best acquainted, resulted in nothing but the discovery of about half a dozen or a dozen misprints and slips of fact[3]. One only of these (the very unpardonable blunder[Pg xii] of letting Madame de Staël's Considérations appear as an early work, which I do not know how I came either to commit or to overlook) is of real importance. Such slips I have corrected with due gratitude. But I have not altered passages where M. Scherer mistakes facts or mistakes me. I need hardly say that I have made no alterations in criticism, and that the passage referring to M. Scherer himself (with the exception of a superfluous accent) stands precisely as it did.

Some additions have been made to the latter part of the book, but not very many: for the attempt to 'write up' such a history to date every few years can only lead to confusion and disproportion. I have had, during the decade which has passed since the book was first planned, rather unusual opportunities of acquainting myself with all new French books of any importance, but a history is not a periodical, and I have thought it best to give rather grudging than free admittance to new-comers. On the other hand, I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to obliterate chronological references which the effluxion of time has rendered, or may render, misleading. The notes to which it seemed most important to attract attention, as modifying or enlarging some statement in the text, are specially headed 'Notes to Third Edition': but they represent only a small part of the labour which has been expended on the text. I have also again overhauled[Pg xiii] and very considerably enlarged the index; while the amplification of the 'Contents' by subjoining to each chapter-heading a list of the side-headings of the paragraphs it contains, will, I think, be found an advantage. And so I commend the book once more to readers and to students[4].


[1] Note to Third Edition.—M. Gaston Paris expresses some surprise at my saying 'one of the authors,' and attributes both versions to the Troyes clerk (see pp. 52, 53). I can only say that so long as Renart le Contrefait is unpublished, if not longer, such a question is difficult to decide: and that the accepted monograph on the subject (that of Wolf) left on my mind the impression of plural authorship as probable.

[2] La Littérature Française du Moyen Age (Paris, 1888).

[3] A preface is but an ill place for controversy. As however M. Scherer, thanks chiefly to the late Mr. Matthew Arnold, enjoys some repute in England, I may give an example of his censure. He accuses me roundly of giving in my thirty dates of Corneille's plays 'une dizaine de fausses,' and he quotes (as I do) M. Marty-Laveaux. As since the beginning, years ago, of my Cornelian studies, I have constantly used that excellent edition, though, now as always, reserving my own judgment on points of opinion, I verified M. Scherer's appeal with some alarm at first, and more amusement afterwards. The eminent critic of the Temps had apparently contented himself with turning to the half-titles of the plays and noting the dates given, which in ten instances do differ from mine. Had his patience been equal to consulting the learned editor's Notices, he would have found in every case but one the reasons which prevailed and prevail with me given by M. Marty-Laveaux himself. The one exception I admit. I was guilty of the iniquity of confusing the date of the publication of Othon with the date of its production, and printing 1665 instead of 1664. So dangerous is it to digest and weigh an editor's arguments, instead of simply copying his dates. Had I done the latter, I had 'scaped M. Scherer's tooth.

[4] The remarks on M. Scherer in this preface (and I need hardly say still more those which occur in the body of the book with reference to a few others of his criticisms) were written long before his fatal illness, and had been sent finally to press some time before the announcement of his death. I had at first thought of endeavouring to suppress those which could be recalled. But it seemed to me on reflection that the best compliment to the memory of a man who was himself nothing if not uncompromising, and towards whom, whether alive or dead, I am not conscious of having entertained any ill-feeling, would be to print them exactly as they stood, with the brief addition that I have not known a critic more acute within his range, or more honest according to what he saw, than M. Edmond Scherer. (March 20, 1889.)

[Pg xv]



Preface v


Mediaeval Literature.

Chap. I. The Origins 1

Relation of French to Latin. Influence of Latin Literature. Early
Monuments. Dialects and Provincial Literatures. Beginning of Literature
proper. Cantilenae. Trouvères and Jongleurs.

II. Chansons de Gestes 10

Origin of Chansons de Gestes. Definition. Period of
Composition. Chanson de Roland. Amis et Amiles.
Other principal Chansons. Social and Literary Characteristics.
Authorship. Style and Language. Later History.

III. Provençal Literature 26

Langue d'Oc. Range and characteristics. Periods of
Provençal Literature. First Period. Second Period.
Forms of Troubadour Poetry. Third Period. Literary
Relation of Provençal and French. Defects of Provençal

IV. Romances of Arthur and of Antiquity 34

The Tale of Arthur. Its Origin. Order of French Arthurian
Cycle. Chrestien de Troyes. Spirit and Literary
value of Arthurian Romances. Romances of Antiquity.
Chanson d'Alixandre. Roman de Troie. Other Romances
on Classical subjects.

V. Fabliaux. The Roman du Renart 47

Foreign Elements in Early French Literature. The Esprit
Gaulois makes its appearance. Definition of Fabliaux.
Subjects and character of Fabliaux. Sources of Fabliaux.
The Roman du Renart. The Ancien Renart. Le Couronnement
Renart. Renart le Nouvel. Renart le Contrefait.
[Pg xvi]Fauvel.

VI. Early Lyrics 62

Early and Later Lyrics. Origins of Lyric. Romances
and Pastourelles. Thirteenth Century. Changes in Lyric.
Traces of Lyric in the Thirteenth Century. Quesnes de
Bethune. Thibaut de Champagne. Minor Singers. Adam
de la Halle. Rutebœuf. Lais. Marie de France.

VII. Serious and Allegorical Poetry 75

Verse Chronicles. Miscellaneous Satirical Verse. Didactic
verse. Philippe de Thaun. Moral and Theological verse.
Allegorical verse. The Roman de la Rose. Popularity
of the Roman de la Rose. Imitations.

VIII. Romans D'Aventures 91

Distinguishing features of Romans d'Aventures. Looser
application of the term. Classes of Romans d'Aventures.
Adenès le Roi. Raoul de Houdenc. Chief Romans
d'Aventures. General Character. Last Chansons. Baudouin
de Sebourc.

IX. Later Songs and Poems 100

The Artificial Forms of Northern France. General Character.
Varieties. Jehannot de Lescurel. Guillaume de
Machault. Eustache Deschamps. Froissart. Christine
de Pisan. Alain Chartier.

X. The Drama 110

Origins of the Drama. Earliest Vernacular Dramatic
Forms. Mysteries and Miracles. Miracles de la Vierge.
Heterogeneous Character of Mysteries. Argument of a
Miracle Play. Profane Drama. Adam de la Halle.
Monologues. Farces. Moralities. Soties. Profane
Mysteries. Societies of Actors.

XI. Prose Chronicles 127

Beginning of Prose Chronicles. Grandes Chroniques de
France. Villehardouin. Minor Chroniclers between Villehardouin
and Joinville. Joinville. Froissart. Fifteenth-Century

XII. Miscellaneous Prose 140

General use of Prose. Prose Sermons. St. Bernard.
Maurice de Sully. Later Preachers. Gerson. Moral and
Devotional Treatises. Translators. Political and Polemical
Works. Codes and Legal Treatises. Miscellanies
and Didactic Works. Fiction. Antoine de la Salle.

[Pg xvii]Interchapter I. Summary of Mediaeval Literature 151


The Renaissance.

Chap. I. Villon, Comines, and the later Fifteenth Century 155

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Characteristics
of Fifteenth-century Literature. Villon. Comines. Coquillart.
Baude. Martial d'Auvergne. The Rhétoriqueurs.
Chansons du xvème Siècle. Preachers.

II. Marot and his Contemporaries 168

Hybrid School of Poetry. Jean le Maire. Jehan du
Pontalais. Roger de Collérye. Minor Predecessors of Marot.
Clément Marot. The School of Marot. Mellin de Saint-Gelais.
Miscellaneous Verse. Anciennes Poésies Françaises.

III. Rabelais and his Followers 183

Fiction at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century. Rabelais.
Bonaventure des Périers. The Heptameron. Noel du
Fail. G. Bouchet. Cholières. Apologie pour Hérodote.
Moyen de Parvenir.

IV. The Pléiade 196

Character and Effects of the Pléiade Movement. Ronsard.
The Défense et Illustration de la Langue Française. Du
Bellay. Belleau. Baïf. Daurat, Jodelle, Pontus de
Tyard. Magny. Tahureau. Minor Ronsardists. Du
Bartas. D'Aubigné. Desportes. Bertaut.

V. The Theatre from Gringore to Garnier 216

Gringore. The last Age of the Mediaeval Theatre. Beginnings
of the Classical Drama. Jodelle. Minor Pléiade
Dramatists. Garnier. Defects of the Pléiade Tragedy.
Pléiade Comedy. Larivey.

VI. Calvin and Amyot 228

Prose Writers of the Renaissance. Calvin. Minor Reformers
and Controversialists. Preachers of the League.
Amyot. Minor Translators. Dolet. Fauchet. Pasquier.
Henri Estienne. Herberay. Palissy. Paré. Olivier de Serres.

VII. Montaigne and Brantôme 241

Disenchantment of the late Renaissance. Montaigne.
Charron. Du Vair. Bodin and other Political Writers.
Brantôme. Montluc. La Noue. Agrippa d'Aubigné.
Marguerite de Valois. Vieilleville. Palma-Cayet. Pierre
de l'Estoile. D'Ossat. Sully. Jeannin. Minor Memoir-writers.
General Historians.

VIII. The Satyre Ménippée. Regnier 259

Satyre Ménippée. Regnier.

[Pg xviii]Interchapter II. Summary of Renaissance Literature 270


The Seventeenth Century.

Chap. I. Poets 274

Malherbe. The School of Malherbe. Vers de Société.
Voiture. Epic School. Chapelain. Bacchanalian School.
Saint Amant. La Fontaine. Boileau. Minor Poets of the
Seventeenth Century.

II. Dramatists 290

Montchrestien. Hardy. Minor predecessors of Corneille.
Rotrou. Corneille. Racine. Minor Tragedians. Development
of Comedy. Molière. Contemporaries of
Molière. The School of Molière. Regnard. Characteristics
of Molièresque Comedy.

III. Novelists 319

D'Urfé. The Heroic Romances. Scarron. Cyrano de
Bergerac. Furetière. Madame de la Fayette. Fairy
Tales. Perrault.

IV. Historians, Memoir-writers, Letter-writers 332

General Historians. Mézeray. Historical Essayists.
St. Réal. Memoir-writers. Rohan. Bassompierre.
Madame de Motteville. Cardinal de Retz. Mademoiselle.
La Rochefoucauld. Saint Simon. Madame de Sévigné.
Tallemant des Réaux. Historical Antiquaries. Du Cange.

V. Essayists, Minor Moralists, Critics 354

Balzac. Pascal. La Rochefoucauld. La Bruyère.

VI. Philosophers 368

Descartes. Port Royal. Bayle. Malebranche.

VII. Theologians and Preachers 379

St. François de Sales. Bossuet. Fénelon. Massillon.
Bourdaloue. Minor Preachers.

Interchapter III. Summary of Seventeenth-century Literature 391


The Eighteenth Century.

Chap. I. Poets 395

Literary Degeneracy of the Eighteenth Century, especially
manifest in Poetry. J. B. Rousseau. Voltaire. Descriptive
Poets. Delille. Lebrun. Parny. Chénier. Minor
[Pg xix]Poets. Light Verse. Piron. Désaugiers.

Chap. II. Dramatists 406

Divisions of Drama. La Motte. Crébillon the Elder.
Voltaire and his followers. Lesage. Comédie Larmoyante.
La Chaussée. Diderot. Marivaux. Beaumarchais. Characteristics
of Eighteenth-century Drama.

III. Novelists 416

Lesage. Marivaux. Prévost. Voltaire. Diderot. Rousseau.
Crébillon the Younger. Bernardin de St. Pierre. Restif
de la Bretonne. Chateaubriand. Madame de Staël.
Xavier de Maistre. Benjamin Constant.

IV. Historians, Memoir-writers, Letter-writers 436

Characteristics and Divisions of Eighteenth-century History.
Rollin. Dubos. Boulainvilliers. Voltaire. Mably.
Rulhière. Memoirs. Mme. de Staal-Delaunay. Duclos.
Bésenval. Madame d'Epinay. Minor Memoirs. Memoirs
of the Revolutionary Period. Abundance of Letter-writers.
Mademoiselle Aïssé. Madame du Deffand. Mademoiselle
de Lespinasse. Voltaire. Diderot. Galiani.

V. Essayists, Minor Moralists, Critics 452

Occasional Writing in the Eighteenth-century. Periodicals.
Fontenelle. La Motte. Vauvenargues. D'Aguesseau.
Duclos. Marmontel. La Harpe. Thomas. Orthodox
Apologists. Fréron. Philosophe Criticism. D'Alembert.
Diderot. Les Feuilles de Grimm. Diderot's Salons. His
General Criticism. Newspapers of the Revolution. The
Influence of Journalism. Chamfort. Rivarol. Joubert.
Courier. Sénancour.

VI. Philosophers 473

The philosophe movement. Montesquieu. Lettres Persanes.
Grandeur et Décadence des Romains. Esprit des
Lois. Voltaire. The Encyclopædia. Diderot. D'Alembert.
Rousseau. Political Economists. Vauban, Quesnay,
etc. Turgot. Condorcet. Volney. La Mettrie. Helvétius.
Système de la Nature. Condillac. Joseph de
Maistre. Bonald.

VII. Scientific Writers 499

Buffon. Lesser Scientific Writers. Voyages and Travels.
Linguistic and Literary Study.

[Pg xx]Interchapter IV. Summary of Eighteenth-century Literature 504


The Nineteenth Century 510

The Romantic Movement. Writers of the later Transition.
Béranger. Lamartine. Lamennais. Victor Cousin. Beyle.
Nodier. Delavigne. Soumet. The Romantic Propaganda
in Periodicals. Victor Hugo. Sainte-Beuve. His Method.
Dangers of the Method. Dumas the Elder. Honoré de
Balzac. George Sand. Mérimée. Théophile Gautier.
Alfred de Musset. Influence of the Romantic Leaders.
Minor Poets of 1830. Alfred de Vigny. Auguste Barbier.
Gérard de Nerval. Curiosités Romantiques. Pétrus Borel.
Louis Bertrand. Second Group of Romantic Poets.
Théodore de Banville. Leconte de Lisle. Charles Baudelaire.
Minor Poets of the Second Romantic Group.
Dupont. The Parnasse. Minor and later Dramatists.
Scribe. Ponsard. Emile Augier. Eugène Labiche. Dumas
the Younger. Victorien Sardou. Classes of Nineteenth-century
Fiction. Minor and later Novelists. Jules Janin.
Charles de Bernard. Jules Sandeau. Octave Feuillet.
Murger. Edmond About. Feydeau. Gustave Droz.
Flaubert. The Naturalists. Emile Zola. Journalists
and Critics. Paul de St. Victor. Hippolyte Taine.
Academic Critics. Linguistic and Literary Study of
French. Philosophical Writers. Comte. Theological
Writers. Montalembert. Ozanam. Lacordaire. Ernest
Renan. Historians. Thierry. Thiers. Guizot. Mignet.
Michelet. Quinet. Tocqueville. Minor Historians.

Conclusion 579

Index 591

[Pg 1]





Relation of French to Latin.

Of all European literatures the French is, by general consent, that which possesses the most uniformly fertile, brilliant, and unbroken history. In actual age it may possibly yield to others, but the connection between the language of the oldest and the language of the newest French literature is far closer than in these other cases, and the fecundity of mediaeval writers in France far exceeds that of their rivals elsewhere. For something like three centuries England, Germany, Italy, and more doubtfully and to a smaller extent, Spain, were content for the most part to borrow the matter and the manner of their literary work from France. This brilliant literature was however long before it assumed a regularly organized form, and in order that it might do so a previous literature and a previous language had to be dissolved and precipitated anew. With a few exceptions, to be presently noticed, French literature is not to be found till after the year 1000, that is to say until a greater lapse of time had passed since Caesar's campaigns than has passed from the later date to the present day. Taking the earliest of all monuments, the Strasburg Oaths, as starting-point, we may say that French language and French literature were nine hundred years in process of formation. The result was a remarkable one in linguistic history. French is unquestionably a daughter of Latin, yet it is not such a daughter as Italian or Spanish. A knowledge of the older language would enable a reader who knew no other[Pg 2] to spell out, more or less painfully, the meaning of most pages of the two Peninsular languages; it would hardly enable him to do more than guess at the meaning of a page of French. The long process of gestation transformed the appearance of the new tongue completely, though its grammatical forms and the bulk of its vocabulary are beyond all question Latin. The history of this process belongs to the head of language, not of literature, and must be sought elsewhere. It is sufficient to say that the first mention of a lingua romana rustica is found in the seventh century, while allusions in Latin documents show us its gradual use in pulpit and market-place, and even as a vehicle for the rude songs of the minstrel, long before any trace of written French can be found.

Influence of Latin Literature.

Meanwhile, however, Latin was doing more than merely furnishing the materials of the new language. The literary faculty of the Gauls was early noticed, and before their subjection had long been completed they were adepts at using the language of the conquerors. It does not fall within our plan to notice in detail the Latin literature of Gaul and early France, but the later varieties of that literature deserve some little attention, because of the influence which they undoubtedly exercised on the literary forms of the new language. In early French there is little trace of the influence of the Latin forms which we call classical. It was the forms of the language which has been said to have 'dived under ground with Naevius and come up again with Prudentius' that really influenced the youthful tongue. Ecclesiastical Latin, and especially the wonderful melody of the early Latin hymn-writers, had by far the greatest effect upon it. Ingenious and not wholly groundless efforts have been made to trace the principal forms of early French writing to the services and service-books of the church, the chronicle to the sacred histories, the lyric to the psalm and the hymn, the mystery to the elaborate and dramatic ritual of the church. The Chanson de Geste, indeed, displays in its matter and style many traces of Germanic origin, but the metre with its regular iambic cadence and its rigid caesura testifies to Latin influence. The service thus performed to the literature was not unlike the service[Pg 3] performed to the language. In the one case the scaffolding, or rather the skeleton, was furnished in the shape of grammar; in the other a similar skeleton, in the shape of prosody, was supplied. Important additions were indeed made by the fresh elements introduced. Rhyme Latin had itself acquired. But of the musical refrains which are among the most charming features of early French lyric poetry we find no vestige in the older tongue.

Early Monuments.

The history of the French language, as far as concerns literature, from the seventh to the eleventh century, can be rapidly given. The earliest mention of the Romance tongue as distinguished from Latin and from German dialect refers to 659, and occurs in the life of St. Mummolinus or Momolenus, bishop of Noyon, who was chosen for that office because of his knowledge of the two languages, Teutonic and Romanic[5]. We may therefore assume that Mummolinus preached in the lingua Romana. To the same century is referred the song of St. Faron, bishop of Meaux[6], but this only exists in Latin, and a Romance original is inferred rather than proved. In the eighth century the Romance eloquence of St. Adalbert is commended[7], and to the same period are referred the glossaries of Reichenau and Cassel, lists containing in the first case Latin and Romance equivalents, in the second Teutonic and Romance[8]. By the beginning of the ninth century it was compulsory for bishops to preach in Romance, and to translate such Latin homilies as they read[9]; and to this same era has been referred a fragmentary commentary on the Book of[Pg 4] Jonah[10], included in the latest collection of 'Monuments[11].' In 842 we have the Strasburg Oaths, celebrated alike in French history and French literature. The text of the MS. of Nithard which contains them is of the tenth century.

We now come to documents less shapeless. The tenth century itself gives us the song of St. Eulalie, a poem on the Passion, a life of St. Leger, and perhaps a poem on Boethius. These four documents are of the highest interest. Not merely has the language assumed a tolerably regular form, but its great division into Langue d'Oc and Langue d'Oil is already made, and grammar, prosody, and other necessities or ornaments of bookwriting, are present. The following extracts will illustrate this part of French literature. The Romance oaths and the 'St. Eulalie' are given in full, the 'Passion' and the 'St. Leger' in extract; it will be observed that the interval between the first and the others is of very considerable width. This interval probably represents a century of active change, and of this unfortunately we have no monuments to mark the progress accurately.

Les Serments de Strasbourg de 842.

Pro deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro commun salvament, d'ist di in avant, in quant deus savir et podir me dunat, si salvarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo et in aiudha et in cadhuna cosa, si cum on per dreit son fradra salvar dist, in o quid il mi altresi fazet, et ab Ludher nul plaid nunqua prindrai, qui meon vol cist meon fradre Karle in damno sit.

Si Lodhuvigs sagrament, quæ son fradre Karlo jurat, conservat, et Karlus meos sendra de sua part nun los tanit, si io returnar nun l'int pois, ne io ne nëuls, cui eo returnar int pois, in nulla aiudha contra Lodhuwig nun li iv er.

Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie.

Buona pulcella fut Eulalia,
bel auret corps, bellezour anima.
Voldrent la veintre li deo inimi,
voldrent la faire dïaule servir.
Elle non eskoltet les mals conselliers,
qu'elle deo raneiet, chi maent sus en ciel,
Ne por or ned argent ne paramenz,
por manatce regiel ne preiement.
[Pg 5] Nïule cose non la pouret omque pleier,
la polle sempre non amast lo deo menestier.
E poro fut presentede Maximiien,
chi rex eret a cels dis sovre pagiens
El li enortet, dont lei nonque chielt.
qued elle fuiet lo nom christiien.
Ell' ent adunet lo suon element,
melz sostendreiet les empedementz,
Qu'elle perdesse sa virginitet:
poros furet morte a grand honestet.
Enz enl fou la getterent, com arde tost.
elle colpes non auret, poro nos coist.
A ezo nos voldret concreidre li rex pagiens;
ad une spede li roveret tolir lo chief.
La domnizelle celle kose non contredist,
volt lo seule lazsier, si ruovet Krist.
In figure de colomb volat a ciel.
tuit orem, que por nos deguet preier,
Qued auuisset de nos Christus mercit
post la mort et a lui nos laist venir
Par souue clementia.

La Passion Du Christ.

Christus Jhesus den s'en leved,
Gehsesmani vil' es n'anez.
toz sos fidels seder rovet,
avan orar sols en anet.
Grant fu li dois, fort marrimenz.
si condormirent tuit adés.
Jhesus cum veg los esveled,
trestoz orar ben los manded.
E dunc orar cum el anned,
si fort sudor dunques suded,
que cum lo sangs a terra curren
de sa sudor las sanctas gutas.
Als sos fidels cum repadred,
tam benlement los conforted
li fel Judas ja s'aproismed
ab gran cumpannie dels judeus.
Jhesus cum vidra los judeus,
zo lor demandet que querént.
il li respondent tuit adun
'Jhesum querem Nazarenum.'
'Eu soi aquel,' zo dis Jhesus.
tuit li felun cadegren jos.
terce ves lor o demanded,
a totas treis chedent envers.
[Pg 6]

Vie de Saint Léger.

Domine deu devemps lauder
et a sus sancz honor porter;
in su' amor cantomps dels sanz
quæ por lui augrent granz aanz;
et or es temps et si est biens
quæ nos cantumps de sant Lethgier.
Primos didrai vos dels honors
quie il auuret ab duos seniors;
apres ditrai vos dels aanz
que li suos corps susting si granz,
et Evvruïns, cil deumentiz,
qui lui a grand torment occist.
Quant infans fud, donc a ciels temps
al rei lo duistrent soi parent,
qui donc regnevet a ciel di:
cio fud Lothiers fils Baldequi.
il le amat; deu lo covit;
rovat que litteras apresist.
Dialects and Provincial Literatures.

Considering the great extent and the political divisions of the country called France, it is not surprising that the language which was so slowly formed should have shown considerable dialectic variations. The characteristics of these dialects, Norman, Picard, Walloon, Champenois, Angevin, and so forth, have been much debated by philologists. But it so happens that the different provinces displayed in point of literature considerable idiosyncrasy, which it is scarcely possible to dispute. Hardly a district of France but contributed something special to her wide and varied literature. The South, though its direct influence was not great, undoubtedly set the example of attention to lyrical form and cadence. Britanny contributed the wonderfully suggestive Arthurian legends, and the peculiar music and style of the lai. The border districts of Flanders seem to deserve the credit of originating the great beast-epic of Reynard the Fox; Picardy, Eastern Normandy, and the Isle of France were peculiarly rich in the fabliau; Champagne was the special home of the lighter lyric poetry, while almost all northern France had a share in the Chansons de Gestes, many districts, such as Lorraine and the Cambrésis, having a special geste of their own.

Beginning of Literature proper.

It is however with the eleventh century that the history of[Pg 7] French literature properly so called begins. We have indeed few Romance manuscripts so early as this, the date of most of them not being earlier than the twelfth. But by the eleventh century not merely were laws written in French (charters and other formal documents were somewhat later), not merely were sermons constantly composed and preached in that tongue, but also works of definite literature were produced in it. The Chanson de Roland is our only instance of its epic literature, but is not likely to have stood alone: the mystery of The Ten Virgins, a medley of French and Latin, has been (but perhaps falsely) ascribed to the same date; and lyric poetry, even putting aside the obscure and doubtful Cantilènes, was certainly indulged in to a considerable extent. From this date it is therefore possible to abandon generalities, and taking the successive forms and developments of literature, to deal with them in detail.

Before however we attempt a systematic account of French literature as it has been actually handed down to us, it is necessary to deal very briefly with two questions, one of which concerns the antecedence of possible ballad literature to the existing Chansons de Gestes, the other the machinery of diffusion to which this and all the early historical developments of the written French language owed much.


It has been held by many scholars, whose opinions deserve respect, that an extensive literature of Cantilenae[12], or short historical ballads, preceded the lengthy epics which we now possess, and was to a certain extent worked up in these compositions. It is hardly necessary to say that this depends in part upon a much larger question—the question, namely, of the general origins of epic poetry. There are indeed certain references[13] to these Cantilenae upon which the theories alluded to have been built. But the Cantilenae themselves have, as one of the best of French literary historians, the late M. Paulin Paris, remarks of another debated product, the Provençal epic, only one defect, 'le[Pg 8] défaut d'être perdu,' and investigation on the subject is therefore more curious than profitable. No remnant of them survives save the already-mentioned Latin prose canticle of St. Faron, in which vestiges of a French and versified original are thought to be visible, and the ballad of Saucourt, a rough song in a Teutonic dialect[14]. In default of direct evidence an argument has been sought to be founded on the constant transitions, repetitions, and other peculiarities of the Chansons, some of which (and especially Roland, the most famous of all) present traces of repeated handlings of the same subject, such as might be expected in work which was merely that of a diaskeuast[15] of existing lays.

Trouvères and Jongleurs.

It is however probable that the explanation of this phenomenon need not be sought further than in the circumstances of the composition and publication of these poems, circumstances which also had a very considerable influence on the whole course and character of early French literature. We know nothing of the rise or origin of the two classes of Trouveurs and Jongleurs. The former (which it is needless to say is the same word as Troubadour, and Trobador, and Trovatore) is the term for the composing class, the latter for the performing one. But the separation was not sharp or absolute, and there are abundant instances of Trouvères[16] who performed their own works, and of Jongleurs who aspired to the glories if not of original authorship, at any rate of alteration and revision of the legends they sang or recited. The natural consequence of this irregular form of publication was a good deal of repetition in the works published. Different versions of the legends easily enough got mixed together by the copyist, who it must be remembered was frequently a mere mechanical reproducer, and neither Trouvère nor Jongleur; nor should it be forgotten that, so long as recitation was general, repetitions of this kind were almost inevitable as a rest[Pg 9] to the reciter's memory, and were scarcely likely to attract unfavourable remark or criticism from the audience. We may therefore conclude, without entering further into the details of a debate unsuitable to the plan of this history, that, while but scanty evidence has been shown of the existence previous to the Chansons de Gestes of a ballad literature identical in subject with those compositions, at the same time the existence of such a literature is neither impossible nor improbable. It is otherwise with the hypothesis of the existence of prose chronicles, from which the early epics (and Roland in particular) are also held to have derived their origin. But this subject will be better handled when we come to treat of the beginnings of French prose. For the present it is sufficient to say that, with the exception of the scattered fragments already commented upon, there is no department of French literature before the eleventh century and the Chansons de Gestes, which possesses historical existence proved by actual monuments, and thus demands or deserves treatment here.


[5] 'Fama bonorum operum, quia praevalebat non tantum in Teutonica sed in Romana lingua, Lotharii regis ad aures usque perveniente,' says his life. The chronicler Sigebert confirms the statement that he was made bishop 'quod Romanam non minus quam Teutonicam calleret linguam.' Lingua Latina and Lingua Romana are from this time distinguished.

[6] The Latin form of the song is given by Helgaire, Bishop of Meaux, who wrote a life of St. Faron, his predecessor, towards the end of the ninth century. Helgaire uses the words 'juxta rusticitatem,' 'carmen rusticum;' and Lingua Rustica is usually if not universally synonymous with Lingua Romana.

[7] 'Si vulgari id est romana lingua loqueretur omnium aliarum putares inscium.'

[8] The Reichenau Glossary is at Carlsruhe. It was published in 1863 by Holtzmann. The Cassel Glossary, which came from Fulda, was published in the last century (1729).

[9] Ordered by the Councils of Tours, Rheims, and Arles (813-851).

[10] In the Library at Valenciennes.

[11] Les plus anciens Monuments de la Langue Française. Paris, 1875.

[12] The subject of the Cantilenae is discussed at great length by M. Léon Gautier, Les Epopées Françaises, Ed. 2, vol. i. caps. 8-13. Paris, 1878.

[13] These, which are for the most part very vague and not very early, will be found fully quoted and discussed in Gautier, l. c.

[14] Published by Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1837).

[15] This word (= arranger or putter-in-order) is familiar in Homeric discussion, and therefore seems appropriate. M. Gaston Paris speaks with apparent confidence of the pre-existing chants, and, in matter of authority, no one speaks with more than he: but it can hardly be said that there is proof of the fact.

[16] The older and in this case more usual form.

[Pg 10]



The earliest form which finished literature took in France was that of epic or narrative poetry. Towards the middle of the eleventh century certainly, and probably some half-century earlier, poems of regular construction and considerable length began to be written. These are the Chansons de Gestes, so called from their dealing with the Gestes[17], or heroic families of legendary or historical France. It is remarkable that this class of composition, notwithstanding its age, its merits, and the abundant examples of it which have been preserved, was one of the latest to receive recognition in modern times. The matter of many of the Chansons, under their later form of verse or prose romances of chivalry, was indeed more or less known in the eighteenth century. But an appreciation of their real age, value, and interest has been the reward of the literary investigations of our own time. It was not till 1837 that the oldest and the most remarkable of them was first edited from the manuscript found in the Bodleian Library[18]. Since that time investigation has been constant and fruitful, and[Pg 11] there are now more than one hundred of these interesting poems known.

Origin of Chansons de Gestes.

The origin and sources of the Chansons de Gestes have been made a matter of much controversy. We have already seen how, from the testimony of historians and the existence of a few fragments, it appears that rude lays or ballads in the different vernacular tongues of the country were composed and sung if not written down at very early dates. According to one theory, we are to look for the origin of the long and regular epics of the eleventh and subsequent centuries in these rude compositions, first produced independently, then strung together, and lastly subjected to some process of editing and union. It has been sought to find proof of this in the frequent repetitions which take place in the Chansons, and which sometimes amount to the telling of the same incident over and over again in slightly varying words. Others have seen in this peculiarity only a result of improvisation in the first place, and unskilful or at least uncritical copying in the second. This, however, is a question rather interesting than important. What is certain is that no literary source of the Chansons is now actually in existence, and that we have no authentic information as to any such originals. At a certain period—approximately given above—the fashion of narrative poems on the great scale seems to have arisen in France. It spread rapidly, and was eagerly copied by other nations.


The definition of a Chanson de Geste is as follows. It is a narrative poem, dealing with a subject connected with French history, written in verses of ten or twelve syllables, which verses are arranged in stanzas of arbitrary length, each stanza possessing a distinguishing assonance or rhyme in the last syllable of each line. The assonance, which is characteristic of the earlier Chansons, is an imperfect rhyme, in which identity of vowel sound is all that is necessary. Thus traitor, felon, compaingnons, manons, noz, the first, fourth, and fifth of which have no character of rhyme whatever in modern poetry, are sufficient terminations for an assonanced poem, because the last vowel sound, o, is identical. There is moreover in this versification a regular caesura, sometimes after the fourth, sometimes after the sixth[Pg 12] syllable; and in a few of the older examples the stanzas, or as they are sometimes called laisses, terminate in a shorter line than usual, which is not assonanced. This metrical system, it will be observed, is of a fairly elaborate character, a character which has been used as an argument by those who insist on the existence of a body of ballad literature anterior to the Chansons. We shall see in the following chapters how this double definition of a Chanson de Geste, by matter and by form, serves to exclude from the title other important and interesting classes of compositions slightly later in date.

Period of Composition.

The period of composition of these poems extended, speaking roughly, over three centuries. In the eleventh they began, but the beginnings are represented only by Roland, the Voyage de Charlemagne, and perhaps Le Roi Louis. Most and nearly all the best date from the twelfth. The thirteenth century also produces them in great numbers, but by this time a sensible change has come over their manner, and after the beginning of the fourteenth only a few pieces deserving the title are written. They then undergo transformation rather than neglect, and we shall meet them at a later period in other forms. Before dealing with other general characteristics of the early epics of France it will be well to give some notion of them by actual selection and narrative. For this purpose we shall take two Chansons typical of two out of the three stages through which they passed. Roland will serve as a sample of the earliest, Amis et Amiles of the second. Of the third, as less characteristic in itself and less marked by uniform features, it will be sufficient to give some account when we come to the compositions which chiefly influenced it, namely the romances of Arthur and of antiquity.

Chanson de Roland.

The Chanson de Roland, the most ancient and characteristic of these poems, though extremely popular in the middle ages[19], passed with them into obscurity. The earliest allusion to the Oxford MS., which alone represents its earliest form,[Pg 13] was made by Tyrwhitt a century ago. Conybeare forty years later dealt with it in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1817, and by degrees the reviving interest of France in her older literature attracted French scholars to this most important monument of the oldest French. It was first published as a whole by M. F. Michel in 1837, and since that time it has been the subject of a very great amount of study. Its length is 4001 decasyllabic lines, and it concludes with an obscure assertion of authorship, publication or transcription by a certain Turoldus[20]. The date of the Oxford MS. is probably the middle of the twelfth century, but its text is attributed by the best authorities to the end of the eleventh. There are other MSS., but they are all either mutilated or of much later date. The argument of the poem is as follows:—

Charlemagne has warred seven years in Spain, but king Marsile of Saragossa still resists the Christian conqueror. Unable however to meet Charlemagne in the field, he sends an embassy with presents and a feigned submission, requesting that prince to return to France, whither he will follow him and do homage. Roland opposes the reception of these offers, Ganelon speaks in their favour, and so does Duke Naimes. Then the question is who shall go to Saragossa to settle the terms. Roland offers to go himself, but being rejected as too impetuous, suggests Ganelon—a suggestion which bitterly annoys that knight and by irritating him against Roland sows the seeds of his future treachery. Ganelon goes to Marsile, and at first bears himself truthfully and gallantly. The heathen king however undermines his faith, and a treacherous assault on the French rearguard when Charlemagne shall be too far off to succour it is resolved on and planned. Then the traitor returns to Charles with hostages and mighty gifts. The return to France begins; Roland is stationed to his great wrath in the fatal place, the rest of the army marches through the Pyrenees, and meanwhile Marsile gathers an enormous host to fall upon the isolated rearguard. There is a long catalogue of the felon and miscreant knights and princes that follow the Spanish king. The[Pg 14] pagan host, travelling by cross paths of the mountains, soon reaches and surrounds Roland and the peers. Oliver entreats Roland to sound his horn that Charles may hear it and come to the rescue, but the eager and inflexible hero refuses. Archbishop Turpin blesses the doomed host, and bids them as the price of his absolution strike hard. The battle begins and all its incidents are told. The French kill thousands, but thousands more succeed. Peer after peer falls, and when at last Roland blows the horn it is too late. Charlemagne hears it and turns back in an agony of sorrow and haste. But long before he reaches Roncevaux Roland has died last of his host, and alone, for all the Pagans have fallen or fled before him.

The arrival of Charlemagne, his grief, and his vengeance on the Pagans, should perhaps conclude the poem. There is however a sort of afterpiece, in which the traitor Ganelon is tried, his fate being decided by a single combat between his kinsman Pinabel and a champion named Thierry, and is ruthlessly put to death with all his clansmen who have stood surety for him. Episodes properly so called the poem has none, though the character of Oliver is finely brought out as contrasted with Roland's somewhat unreasoning valour, and there is one touching incident when the poet tells how the Lady Aude, Oliver's sister and Roland's betrothed, falls dead without a word when the king tells her of the fatal fight at Roncevaux. The following passage will give an idea of the style of this famous poem. It may be noticed that the curious refrain Aoi has puzzled all commentators, though in calling it a refrain we have given the most probable explanation:—

Rollanz s'en turnet, par le camp vait tut suls
cercet les vals e si cercet les munz;
iloec truvat Ivorie et Ivun,
truvat Gerin, Gerer sun cumpaignun,
iloec truvat Engeler le Gascun
e si truvat Berenger e Orun,
iloec truvat Anseïs e Sansun,
truvat Gérard le veill de Russillun:
par un e un les ad pris le barun,
al arcevesque en est venuz atut,
sis mist en reng dedevant ses genuilz.
[Pg 15] li arcevesque ne poet muër n'en plurt;
lievet sa main, fait sa beneïçun;
aprés ad dit 'mare fustes, seignurs!
tutes voz anmes ait deus li glorïus!
en pareïs les mete en seintes flurs!
la meie mort me rent si anguissus,
ja ne verrai le riche emperëur.'
Rollanz s'en turnet, le camp vait recercer;
desoz un pin e folut e ramer
sun cumpaignun ad truved Oliver,
cuntre sun piz estreit l'ad enbracet.
si cum il poet al arcevesque en vent,
sur un escut l'ad as altres culchet;
e l'arcevesque l'ad asols e seignet.
idonc agreget le doel e la pitet.
ço dit Rollanz 'bels cumpainz Oliver,
vos fustes filz al bon cunte Reiner,
ki tint la marche de Genes desur mer;
pur hanste freindre e pur escuz pecier
e pur osberc e rompre e desmailler,
[pur orgoillos veintre e esmaier]
e pur prozdomes tenir e conseiller
e pur glutuns e veintre e esmaier
en nule terre n'ot meillor chevaler.'
Li quens Rollanz, quant il veit morz ses pers
e Oliver, qu'il tant poeit amer,
tendrur en out, cumencet a plurer,
en sun visage fut mult desculurez.
si grant doel out que mais ne pout ester,
voeillet o nun, a terre chet pasmet.
dist l'arcevesques 'tant mare fustes, ber.'
Li arcevesques quant vit pasmer Rollant,
dunc out tel doel, unkes mais n'out si grant;
tendit sa main, si ad pris l'olifan.
en Rencesvals ad une ewe curant;
aler i volt, si'n durrat a Rollant.
tant s'esforçat qu'il se mist en estant,
sun petit pas s'en turnet cancelant,
il est si fieble qu'il ne poet en avant,
nen ad vertut, trop ad perdut del sanc.
einz que om alast un sul arpent de camp,
fait li le coer, si est chaeit avant:
la sue mort li vait mult angoissant.
Li quenz Rollanz revient de pasmeisuns,
sur piez se drecet, mais il ad grant dulur;
guardet aval e si guardet amunt:
sur l'erbe verte, ultre ses cumpaignuns,
la veit gesir le nobilie barun,
ço est l'arcevesque que deus mist en sun num;
[Pg 16] cleimet sa culpe, si reguardet amunt,
cuntre le ciel amsdous ses mains ad juinz,
si prïet deu que pareïs li duinst.
morz est Turpin le guerreier Charlun.
par granz batailles e par mult bels sermons
cuntre paiens fut tuz tens campïuns.
deus li otreit seinte beneïçun! Aoi.
Quant Rollanz vit l'arcevesque qu'est morz,
senz Oliver une mais n'out si grant dol,
e dist un mot que destrenche le cor:
'Carles de France chevalce cum il pot;
en Rencesvals damage i ad des noz;
li reis Marsilie ad sa gent perdut tot,
cuntre un des noz ad ben quarante morz.'
Li quenz Rollanz veit l'arcevesque a terre,
defors sun cors veit gesir la buëlle,
desuz le frunt li buillit la cervelle.
desur sun piz, entre les dous furcelles,
cruisiedes ad ses blanches mains, les belles.
forment le pleint a la lei de sa terre.
'e, gentilz hom, chevaler de bon aire,
hoi te cumant al glorïus celeste:
ja mais n'ert hume plus volenters le serve.
des les apostles ne fut honc tel prophete
pur lei tenir e pur humes atraire.
ja la vostre anme nen ait doel ne sufraite!
de pareïs li seit la porte uverte!'
Amis et Amiles.

As Roland is by far the most interesting of those Chansons which describe the wars with the Saracens, so Amis et Amiles[21] may be taken as representing those where the interest is mainly domestic. Amis et Amiles is the earliest vernacular form of a story which attained extraordinary popularity in the middle ages, being found in every language and in most literary forms, prose and verse, narrative and dramatic. This popularity may partly be assigned to the religious and marvellous elements which it contains, but is due also to the intrinsic merits of the story. The Chanson contains 3500 lines, dates probably from the twelfth century, and is written, like Roland, in decasyllabic verse, but, unlike Roland, has a shorter line of six syllables and not assonanced at the end of each stanza. Its story is as follows:—

Amis and Amiles were two noble knights, born and baptized on[Pg 17] the same day, who had the Pope for sponsor, and whose comradeship was specially sanctioned by a divine message, and by the miraculous likeness which existed between them. They were however brought up, the one in Berri, the other in Auvergne, and did not meet till both had received knighthood. As soon as they had joined company, they resolved to offer their services to Charles, and did him great service against rebels. Here the action proper begins. The friends arouse the jealousy of Hardré, a felon knight, of Ganelon's lineage and likeness. Hardré engages Gombaud of Lorraine, an enemy of the Emperor, to attack the two friends; but the treason does not succeed, and the traitor, to escape unpleasant enquiries, recommends Charles to bestow his own niece Lubias on Amiles. The latter declares that Amis deserves her better, and to Amis she is married, bearing however no good-will to Amiles for his resignation of her and for his firm hold on her husband's affection. Meanwhile, the daughter of Charles, Bellicent, conceives a violent passion for Amiles, and the traitor Hardré unfortunately becomes aware of the matter. He at once accuses Amiles of treason, and the knight is too conscious of the dubiousness of his cause to be very willing to accept the wager of battle. From this difficulty he is saved by Amis, who comes to Paris from his distant seignory of Blaivies (Blaye), and fights the battle in the name and armour of his friend, while the latter goes to Blaye and plays the part of his preserver. Both ventures are made easier by the extraordinary resemblance of the pair. Amis is successful; he slays Hardré, and then has no little difficulty in saving himself from a forced marriage with Bellicent. This embroglio is smoothed out, and Amiles and Bellicent are happily united. The generous Amis however has not been able to avoid forswearing himself while playing the part of Amiles; and this sin is punished, according to a divine warning, by an attack of leprosy. His wife Lubias seizes the opportunity, procures a separation from him, and almost starves him, or would do so but for two faithful servants and his little son. At last a means of cure is revealed to him. If Amiles and Bellicent will allow their two sons to be slain the blood will recover Amis of his leprosy. The stricken knight journeys painfully to his friend and tells him the[Pg 18] hard condition. Amiles does not hesitate, and the following passage tells his deed:—

Li cuens Amiles un petit s'atarja,
vers les anfans pas por pas en ala,
dormans les treuve, moult par les resgarda,
s'espee lieve, ocirre les voldra;
mais de ferir un petit se tarja.
li ainznés freres de l'effroi s'esveilla
que li cuens mainne qui en la chambre entra,
l'anfes se torne, son pere ravisa,
s'espee voit, moult grant paor en a,
son pere apelle, si l'en arraisonna:
'biax sire peres, por deu qui tout forma,
que volez faire? nel me celez vos ja.
ainz mais nus peres tel chose ne pensa.'
'biaux sire fiuls, ocirre vos voil ja
et le tien frere qui delez toi esta;
car mes compains Amis qui moult m'ama,
dou sanc de vos li siens cors garistra,
que gietez est dou siecle.'
'Biax tres douz peres,' dist l'anfes erramment,
'quant vos compains avra garissement,
se de nos sans a sor soi lavement,
nos sommes vostre de vostre engenrement,
faire en poëz del tout a vo talent.
or nos copez les chiés isnellement;
car dex de glorie nos avra en present,
en paradis en irommes chantant
et proierommes Jhesu cui tout apent
que dou pechié vos face tensement,
vos et Ami, vostre compaingnon gent;
mais nostre mere, la bele Belissant,
nos saluëz por deu omnipotent.'
li cuens l'oït, moult grans pitiés l'en prent
que touz pasmez a la terre s'estent.
quant se redresce, si reprinst hardement.
or orroiz ja merveilles, bonne gent,
que tex n'oïstes en tout vostre vivant.
li cuens Amiles vint vers le lit esrant,
hauce l'espee, li fiuls le col estent.
or est merveilles se li cuers ne li ment.
la teste cope li peres son anfant,
le sanc reciut et cler bacin d'argent:
a poi ne chiet a terre.

No sooner has the blood touched Amis than he is cured, and the knights solemnly visit the church where Bellicent and the[Pg 19] people are assembled. The story is told and the mother, in despair, rushes to the chamber where her dead children are lying. But she finds them living and in full health, for a miracle has been wrought to reward the faithfulness of the friends now that suffering has purged them of their sin.

This story, touching in itself, is most touchingly told in the Chanson. No poem of the kind is more vivid in description, or fuller of details of the manners of the time, than Amis et Amiles. Bellicent and Lubias, the former passionate and impulsive but loving and faithful, the latter treacherous, revengeful, and cold-hearted, give perhaps the earliest finished portraits of feminine character to be found in French literature. Amis and Amiles themselves are presented to us under so many more aspects than Roland and Oliver that they dwell better in the memory. The undercurrent of savagery which distinguished mediæval times, and the rapid changes of fortune which were possible therein, are also well brought out. Not even the immolation of Ganelon's hostages is so striking as the calm ferocity with which Charlemagne dooms his wife and son as well as his daughter to pay with their lives the penalty of Bellicent's fault; while the sudden lapse of Amis from his position of feudal lordship at Blaye to that of a miserable outcast, smitten and marked out for public scorn and ill-treatment by the visitation of God, is unusually dramatic. Amis et Amiles bears to Roland something not at all unlike the relation of the Odyssey to the Iliad. Its continuation, Jourdains de Blaivies, adds the element of foreign travel and adventure; but that element is perhaps more characteristically represented, and the representation has certainly been more generally popular, in Huon de Bordeaux.

Other principal Chansons.

Of the remaining Chansons, the following are the most remarkable. Aliscans (twelfth century) deals with the contest between William of Orange, the great Christian hero of the south of France, and the Saracens. This poem forms, according to custom, the centre of a whole group of Chansons dealing with the earlier and later adventures of the hero, his ancestors, and descendants. Such are Le Couronnement Loys, La Prise d'Orange, Le Charroi de Nimes, Le Moniage Guillaume.[Pg 20] The series formed by these and others[22] is among the most interesting of these groups. Le Chevalier au Cygne is a title applied directly to a somewhat late version of an old folk-tale, and more generally to a series of poems connected with the House of Bouillon and the Crusades. The members of this bear the separate headings Antioche[23], Les Chétifs, Les Enfances Godefroy, etc. Antioche, the first of these, which describes the exploits of the Christian host, first in attacking and then in defending that city, is one of the finest of the Chansons, and is probably in its original form not much later than the events it describes, being written by an eye-witness. The variety of its personages, the vivid picture of the alternations of fortune, the vigour of the verse, are all remarkable. This group is terminated by Baudouin de Sebourc[24], a very late but very important Chanson, which falls in with the poetry of the fourteenth century, and the Bastart de Bouillon[25]. La Chevalerie Ogier de Danemarche[26] is the oldest form in which the adventures of one of the most popular and romantic of Charlemagne's heroes are related. Fierabras had also a very wide popularity, and contains some of the liveliest pictures of manners to be found in these poems, in its description of the rough horse-play of the knights and the unfilial behaviour of the converted Saracen princess. This poem is also of much interest philologically[27]. Garin le Loherain[28] is the centre of a remarkable group dealing not directly with Charlemagne, but with the provincial disputes and feuds of the nobility of Lorraine. Raoul de Cambrai[29] is another of the Chansons which deal with 'minor houses,' as they are called, in contradistinction to the main Carlovingian cycle. Gérard de Roussillon[30] ranks as a poem with[Pg 21] the best of all the Chansons. Hugues Capet[31], though very late, is attractive by reason of the glimpses it gives us of a new spirit supplanting that of chivalry proper. In it the heroic distinctly gives place to the burlesque. Macaire[32], besides being written in a singular dialect, in which French is mingled with Italian, supplies the original of the well-known dog of Montargis. Huon de Bordeaux[33], already mentioned, was not only more than usually popular at the time of its appearance, but has supplied Shakespeare with some of the dramatis personae of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Wieland and Weber with the plot of a well-known poem and opera. Jourdains de Blaivies, the sequel to Amis et Amiles, contains, besides much other interesting matter, the incident which forms the centre of the plot of Pericles. Les Quatre Fils Aymon or Renaut de Montauban[34] is the foundation of one of the most popular French chap-books. Les Saisnes[35] deals with Charlemagne's wars with Witekind. Berte aus grans Piés[36] is a very graceful story of womanly innocence. Doon de Mayence[37], though not early, includes a charming love-episode. Gérard de Viane[38] contains the famous battle of Roland and Oliver. The Voyage de Charlemagne à Constantinople[39] is semi-burlesque in tone and one of the earliest in which that tone is perceptible.

Social and Literary Characteristics.

In these numerous poems there is recognisable in the first place a distinct family likeness which is common to the earliest and latest, and in the second, the natural difference of manners which the lapse of three hundred years might be expected to occasion. There is a sameness which almost amounts to monotony in the plot of most Chansons de Gestes: the hero is almost always either falsely accused of some crime, or else treacherously exposed to the attacks of Saracens, or of his own countrymen. The agents of this treachery are commonly of the blood of the arch-traitor Ganelon, and are almost invariably discomfited by the good knight or his[Pg 22] friends and avengers. The part[40] which Charlemagne plays in these poems is not usually dignified: he is represented as easily gulled, capricious, and almost ferocious in temper, ungrateful, and ready to accept bribes and gifts. His good angel is always Duke Naimes of Bavaria, the Nestor of the Carlovingian epic. In the earliest Chansons the part played by women is not so conspicuous as in the later, but in all except Roland it has considerable prominence. Sometimes the heroine is the wife, daughter, or niece of Charlemagne, sometimes a Saracen princess. But in either case she is apt to respond without much delay to the hero's advances, which, indeed, she sometimes anticipates. The conduct of knights to their ladies is also far from being what we now consider chivalrous. Blows are very common, and seem to be taken by the weaker sex as matters of course. The prevailing legal forms are simple and rather sanguinary. The judgment of God, as shown by ordeal of battle, settles all disputes; but battle is not permitted unless several nobles of weight and substance come forward as sponsors for each champion; and sponsors as well as principal risk their lives in case of the principal's defeat, unless they can tempt the king's cupidity. These common features are necessarily in the case of so large a number of poems mixed with much individual difference, nor are the Chansons by any means monotonous reading. Their versification is pleasing to the ear, and their language, considering its age, is of surprising strength, expressiveness, and even wealth. Though they lack the variety, the pathos, the romantic chivalry, and the mystical attractions of the Arthurian romances, there is little doubt that they paint, far more accurately than their successors, an actually existing state of society, that which prevailed in the palmy time of the feudal system, when war and religion were deemed the sole subjects worthy to occupy seriously men of station and birth. In giving utterance to this warlike and religious sentiment, few periods and classes of literature have been more strikingly successful. Nowhere[Pg 23] is the mere fury of battle better rendered than in Roland and Fierabras. Nowhere is the valiant indignation of the beaten warrior, and, at the same time, his humble submission to providence, better given than in Aliscans. Nowhere do we find the mediæval spirit of feudal enmity and private war more strikingly depicted than in the cycle of the Lorrainers, and in Raoul de Cambrai. Nowhere is the devout sentiment and belief of the same time more fully drawn than in Amis et Amiles.


The method of composition and publication of these poems was peculiar. Ordinarily, though not always, they were composed by the Trouvère, and performed by the Jongleur. Sometimes the Trouvère condescended to performance, and sometimes the Jongleur aspired to composition, but not usually. The poet was commonly a man of priestly or knightly rank, the performer (who might be of either sex) was probably of no particular station. The Jongleur, or Jongleresse, wandered from castle to castle, reciting the poems, and interpolating in them recommendations of the quality of the wares, requests to the audience to be silent, and often appeals to their generosity. Some of the manuscripts which we now possess were originally used by Jongleurs, and it was only in this way that the early Chanson de Geste was intended to be read. The process of hawking about naturally interfered with the preservation of the poems in their original purity, and even with the preservation of the author's name. In very few cases[41] is the latter known to us.

The question whether the Chansons de Gestes were originally written in northern or southern French has often been hotly debated. The facts are these. Only three Chansons exist in Provençal. Two of these[42] are admitted translations or imitations of Northern originals. The third, Girartz de Rossilho, is undoubtedly original,[Pg 24] but is written in the northernmost dialect of the Southern tongue. The inference appears to be clear that the Chanson de Geste is properly a product of northern France. The opposite conclusion necessitates the supposition that either in the Albigensian war, or by some inexplicable concatenation of accidents, a body of original Provençal Chansons has been totally destroyed, with all allusions to, and traditions of, these poems. Such a hypothesis is evidently unreasonable, and would probably never have been started had not some of the earliest students of Old French been committed by local feeling to the championship of the language of the Troubadours. On the other hand, almost all the dialects of Northern French are represented, Norman and Picard being perhaps the commonest[43].

Style and Language.

The language of these poems, as the extracts given will partly show, is neither poor in vocabulary, nor lacking in harmony of sound. It is indeed, more sonorous and stately than classical French language was from the seventeenth century to the days of Victor Hugo, and abounds in picturesque terms which have since dropped out of use. The massive castles of the baronage, with their ranges of marble steps leading up to the hall, where feasting is held by day and where the knights sleep at night, are often described. Dress is mentioned with peculiar lavishness. Pelisses of ermine, ornaments of gold and silver, silken underclothing, seem to give the poets special pleasure in recording them. In no language are what have been called 'perpetual' epithets more usual, though the abundance of the recurring phrases prevents monotony. The 'clear countenances' of the ladies, the 'steely brands' of the knights, their 'marble palaces,' the 'flowing beard' of Charlemagne, the 'guileful tongue' of the traitors, are constant features of the verbal landscape. From so great a mass of poetry it would be vain in any space here available to attempt to arrange specimen 'jewels five words long.' But those who actually read the Chansons will be surprised at the abundance of fresh striking and poetic phrase.[Pg 25]

Later History.

Before quitting the subject of the Chansons de Gestes, it may be well to give briefly their subsequent literary history. They were at first frequently re-edited, the tendency always being to increase their length, so that in some cases the latest versions extant run to thirty or forty thousand lines. As soon as this limit was reached, they began to be turned into prose, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries being the special period of this change. The art of printing came in time to assist the spread of these prose versions, and for some centuries they were almost the only form in which the Chansons de Gestes, under the general title of romances of chivalry, were known. The verse originals remained for the most part in manuscript, but the prose romances gained an enduring circulation among the peasantry in France. From the seventeenth century their vogue was mainly restricted to this class. But in the middle of the eighteenth the Comte de Tressan was induced to attempt their revival for the Bibliothèque des Romans. His versions were executed entirely in the spirit of the day, and did not render any of the characteristic features of the old Epics. But they drew attention to them, and by the end of the century, University Professors began to lecture on old French poetry. The exertions of M. Paulin Paris, of M. Francisque Michel, and of some German scholars first brought about the re-editing of the Chansons in their original form about half a century ago; and since that time they have received steady attention, and a large number have been published—a number to which additions are yearly being made. Rather more than half the known total are now in print.


[17] Gesta or Geste has three senses: (a) the deeds of a hero; (b) the chronicle of those deeds; and (c) the family which that chronicle illustrates. The three chief gestes are those of the King, of Doon de Mayence, and of Garin de Montglane. Each of these is composed of many poems. Contrasted with these are the 'petites gestes,' which include only a few Chansons.

[18] La Chanson de Roland, ed. Fr. Michel, Paris, 1837. The MS. is in the Bodleian Library (Digby 23). Another, of much later date in point of writing but representing the same text, exists at Venice. Of later versions there are six manuscripts extant. The Chanson de Roland has since its editio princeps been repeatedly re-edited, translated, and commented. The most exact edition is that of Prof. Stengel, Heilbronn, 1878, who has given the Bodleian Manuscript both in print and in photographic facsimile. The best for general use is that of Léon Gautier (seventh edition), 1877.

[19] Wace (Roman de Rou, iii. 8038 Andresen) speaks of the Norman Taillefer as singing at Hastings 'De Karlemaigne et de Rollant.' It has been sought, but perhaps fancifully, to identify this song with the existing chanson.

[20] 'Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet.' The sense of the word declinet is quite uncertain, and the attempts made to identify Turoldus are futile.

[21] Amis et Amiles, ed. Hoffmann. Erlangen, 1852.

[22] This series is given, sometimes in whole, sometimes in extracts, by Dr. Jonckbloet, Guillaume d'Orange. The Hague, 1854.

[23] Ed. P. Paris. Paris, 1848.

[24] Ed. Boca. Valenciennes, 1841.

[25] Ed. Schéler. Brussels, 1877.

[26] Ed. Barrois. Paris, 1842.

[27] There exists a Provençal version of it, evidently translated from the French. The most convenient edition is that of Kroeber and Servois, Paris, 1860. There is an English fourteenth-century version published by Mr. Herrtage for the Early English Text Society, 1879.

[28] Published partially by MM. P. Paris and E. du Méril and by Herr Stengel.

[29] Ed. Le Glay. Paris, 1840.

[30] Ed. Michel. Paris, 1856.

[31] Ed. La Grange. Paris, 1864.

[32] Ed. Guessard. Paris, 1866.

[33] Ed. Guessard et Grandmaison. Paris, 1860.

[34] Ed. Michelant. Stuttgart, 1862.

[35] Ed. Michel. Paris, 1839.

[36] Ed. Schéler. Brussels, 1874.

[37] Ed. Pey. Paris, 1859.

[38] Ed. Tarbé. Rheims, 1850.

[39] Ed. Michel. London, 1836.

[40] It is very commonly said that this feature is confined to the later Chansons. This is scarcely the fact, unless by 'later' we are to understand all except Roland. In Roland itself the presentment is by no means wholly complimentary.

[41] The Turoldus of Roland has been already noticed. Of certain or tolerably certain authors, Graindor de Douai (revisions of the early crusading Chansons of 'Richard the Pilgrim,' Antioche, &c.), Jean de Flagy (Garin), Bodel (Les Saisnes), and Adenès le Roi, a fertile author or adapter of the thirteenth century, are the most noted.

[42] Ferabras and Betonnet d'Hanstone. M. Paul Meyer has recently edited this latter poem under the title of Daurel et Beton (Paris, 1880). To these should be added a fragment, Aigar et Maurin, which seems to rank with Girartz.

[43] There has been some reaction of late years against the scepticism which questioned the 'Provençal Epic.' I cannot however say, though I admit a certain disqualification for judgment (see note at beginning of next chapter), that I see any valid reason for this reaction.

[Pg 26]



Langue d'Oc.

The Romance language, spoken in the country now called France, has two great divisions, the Langue d'Oc and the Langue d'Oil[44], which stand to one another in hardly more intimate relationship than the first of them does to Spanish or Italian. In strictness, the Langue d'Oc ought not to be called French at all, inasmuch as those who spoke it applied that term exclusively to Northern speech, calling their own Limousin, or Provençal, or Auvergnat. At the time, moreover, when Provençal literature flourished, the districts which contributed to it were in very loose relationship with the kingdom of France; and when that relationship was drawn tighter, Provençal literature began to wither and die. Yet it is not possible to avoid giving some sketch of the literary developments of Southern France in any history of French literature, as well because of the connection which subsisted between the two branches, as because of the altogether mistaken views which have been not unfrequently held as to that connection. Lord Macaulay[45] speaks of Provençal in the twelfth century as 'the only one of the vernacular languages of Europe which had yet been extensively employed for literary purposes;' and the ignorance of their older literature which, until a very recent period, distinguished Frenchmen has made it common for writers in France to speak of the Troubadours as their own[Pg 27] literary ancestors. We have already seen that this supposition as applied to Epic poetry is entirely false; we shall see hereafter that, except as regards some lyrical developments, and those not the most characteristic, it is equally ill-grounded as to other kinds of composition. But the literature of the South is quite interesting enough in itself without borrowing what does not belong to it, and it exhibits not a few characteristics which were afterwards blended with those of the literature of the kingdom at large.

Range and characteristics.

The domain of the Langue d'Oc is included between two lines, the northernmost of which starts from the Atlantic coast at or about the Charente, follows the northern boundaries of the old provinces of Perigord, Limousin, Auvergne, and Dauphiné, and overlaps Savoy and a small portion of Switzerland. The southern limit is formed by the Pyrenees, the Gulf of Lyons, and the Alps, while Catalonia is overlapped to the south-west just as Savoy is taken in on the north-east. This wide district gives room for not a few dialectic varieties with which we need not here busy ourselves. The general language is distinguished from northern French by the survival to a greater degree of the vowel character of Latin. The vocabulary is less dissolved and corroded by foreign influence, and the inflections remain more distinct. The result, as in Spanish and Italian, is a language more harmonious, softer, and more cunningly cadenced than northern French, but endowed with far less vigour, variety, and freshness. The separate development of the two tongues must have begun at a very early period. A few early monuments, such as the Passion of Christ[46] and the Mystery of the Ten Virgins[47], contain mixed dialects. But the earliest piece of literature in pure Provençal is assigned in its original form to the tenth century, and is entirely different from northern French[48]. It is arranged in laisses and assonanced. The uniformity, however, of the terminations of Provençal makes the assonances more closely approach rhyme than is the case in northern poetry. Of the eleventh century the principal monuments are a few charters, a translation of part of St. John's Gospel, and several religious pieces in prose and verse. Not till[Pg 28] the extreme end of this century does the Troubadour begin to make himself heard. The earliest of these minstrels whose songs we possess is William IX, Count of Poitiers. With him Provençal literature, properly so called, begins.

Periods of Provençal Literature.

The admirable historian of Provençal literature, Karl Bartsch, divides its products into three periods; the first reaching to the end of the eleventh century, and comprising the beginnings and experiments of the language as a literary medium; the second covering the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the most flourishing time of the Troubadour poetry, and possessing also specimens of many other forms of literary composition; the third, the period of decadence, including the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and remarkable chiefly for some religious literature, and for the contests of the Toulouse school of poets. In a complete history of Provençal literature notice would also have to be taken of the fitful and spasmodic attempts of the last four centuries to restore the dialect to the rank of a literary language, attempts which have never been made with greater energy and success than in our own time[49], but which hardly call for notice here.

First Period.

The most remarkable works of the first period have been already alluded to. This period may possibly have produced original epics of the Chanson form, though, as has been pointed out, no indications of any such exist, except in the solitary instance of Girartz de Rossilho. The important poem of Auberi of Besançon on Alexander is lost, except the first hundred verses. It is thought to be the oldest vernacular poem on the subject, and is in a mixed dialect partaking of the forms both of north and south. Hymns, sometimes in mixed Latin and Provençal, sometimes entirely in the latter, are found early. A single prose monument remains in the shape of a fragmentary translation of the Gospel of St. John. But by far the most important example of this period is the Boethius. The poem, as we have it, extends to 238 decasyllabic verses arranged on the fashion of a Chanson de Geste, and dates from the eleventh century, or at[Pg 29] latest from the beginning of the twelfth, but is thought to be a rehandling of another poem which may have been written nearly two centuries earlier. The narrative part of the work is a mere introduction, the bulk of it consisting of moral reflections taken from the De Consolatione.

Second Period.

It is only in the second period that Provençal literature becomes of real importance. The stimulus which brought it to perfection has been generally taken to be that of the crusades, aided by the great development of peaceful civilisation at home which Provence and Languedoc then saw. The spirit of chivalry rose and was diffused all over Europe at this time, and in some of its aspects it received a greater welcome in Provence than anywhere else. For the mystical, the adventurous, and other sides of the chivalrous character, we must look to the North, and especially to the Arthurian legends, and the Romans d'Aventures which they influenced. But, for what has been well called 'la passion souveraine, aveugle, idolâtre, qui éclipse tous les autres sentiments, qui dédaigne tous les devoirs, qui se moque de l'enfer et du ciel, qui absorbe et possède l'âme entière[50],' we must come to the literature of the south of France. Passion is indeed not the only motive of the Troubadours, but it is their favourite motive, and their most successful. The connection of this predominant instinct with the elaborate and unmatched attention to form which characterises them is a psychological question very interesting to discuss, but hardly suitable to these pages. It is sufficient here to say that these various motives and influences produced the Troubadours and their literature. This literature was chiefly lyrical in form, but also included many other kinds, of which a short account may be given.

Girartz de Rossilho belongs in all probability to the earliest years of the period, though the only Provençal manuscript in existence dates from the end of the thirteenth century. In the third decade of the twelfth Guillem Bechada had written a poem on the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, which, however, has perished, though the northern cycle of the Chevalier au Cygne[Pg 30] may represent it in part. Guillem of Poitiers also wrote a historical poem on the Crusades with similar ill fate. But the most famous of historical poems in Provençal has fortunately been preserved to us. This is the chronicle of the Albigensian War, written in Alexandrines by William of Tudela and an anonymous writer. We also possess a rhymed chronicle of the war of 1276-77 in Navarre, by Guillem Anelier. In connection with the Arthurian cycle there exists a Provençal Roman d'Aventures, entitled Jaufré. The testimony of Wolfram von Eschenbach would appear to be decisive as to the existence of a Provençal continuation of Chrestien's Percevale by a certain Kiot or Guyot, but nothing more is known of this. Blandin de Cornoalha is another existing romance, and so is the far more interesting Flamenca, a lively picture of manners dating from the middle of the thirteenth century. In shorter and slighter narrative poems Provençal is still less fruitful, though Raimon Vidal, Arnaut de Zurcasses, and one or two other writers have left work of this kind. A very few narrative poems of a sacred character are also found, and vestiges of drama may be traced. But, as we have said, the real importance of the period consists in its lyrical poetry, the poetry of the Troubadours. The names of 460 separate poets are given, and 251 pieces have come down to us without the names of their writers. We have here no space for dwelling on individual persons; it is sufficient to mention as the most celebrated Arnaut Daniel, Bernart de Ventadorn, Bertran de Born, Cercamon, Folquet de Marseilha, Gaucelm Faidit, Guillem of Poitiers, Guillem de Cabestanh, Guiraut de Borneilh, Guiraut Riquier, Jaufre Rudel, Marcabrun, Peire Cardenal, Peire Vidal, Peirol, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, Sordel.

Forms of Troubadour Poetry.

The chief forms in which these poets exercised their ingenuity were as follows. The simplest and oldest was called simply vers; it had few artificial rules, was written in octosyllabic lines, and arranged in stanzas. From this was developed the canso, the most usual of Provençal forms. Here the rhymes were interlaced, and the alternation of masculine and feminine by degrees observed. The length of the lines varied. Both these forms were consecrated to love verse; the Sirvente, on the other hand, is panegyrical or satirical, its meaning being[Pg 31] literally 'Song of Service.' It consisted for the most part of short stanzas, simply rhyme, and corresponding exactly to one another. The planh or Complaint was a dirge or funeral song written generally in decasyllabics. The tenson or debate is in dialogue form, and when there are more than two disputants is called torneijamens. The narrative Romance existed in Provençal as well as the balada or three-stanza poem, usually with refrain. The retroensa is a longer refrain poem of later date, but in neither is the return of the same rhyme in each stanza necessarily observed, as in the French ballade. The alba is a leave-taking poem at morning, and the serena (if it can be called a form, for scarcely more than a single example exists) a poem of remembrance and longing at eventide. The pastorela, which had numerous sub-divisions, explains itself. The descort is a poem something like the irregular ode, which varies the structure of its stanzas. The sextine, in six stanzas of identical and complicated versification, is the stateliest of all Provençal forms. Not merely the rhymes but the words which rhyme are repeated on a regular scheme. The breu-doble (double-short) is a curious little form on three rhymes, two of which are repeated twice in three four-lined stanzas, and given once in a concluding couplet, while the third finishes each quatrain. Other forms are often mentioned and given, but they are not of much consequence.

The prose of the best period of Provençal literature is of little importance. Its most considerable remains, besides religious works and a few scientific and grammatical treatises, are a prose version of the Chanson des Albigeois, and an interesting collection of contemporary lives of the Troubadours.

Third Period.

The productiveness of the last two centuries of Provençal literature proper has been spoken of by the highest living authority as at most an aftermath. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Arnaut Vidal wrote a Roman d'Aventures entitled Guillem de la Barra. This poet, like most of the other literary names of the period, belongs to the school of Toulouse, a somewhat artificial band of writers who flourished throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, held poetical tournaments on the first Sunday in May, invented or adopted the famous phrase gai[Pg 32] saber for their pursuits, and received, if they were successful, the equally famous Golden Violet and minor trinkets of the same sort. The brotherhood directed itself by an art of poetry in which the half-forgotten traditions of more spontaneous times were gathered up.

To this period, and to its latter part, the Waldensian writings entitled La Nobla Leyczon, to which ignorance and sectarian enthusiasm had given a much earlier date, are now assigned. There is also a considerable mass of miscellaneous literature, but nothing of great value, or having much to do with the only point which is here of importance, the distinctive character of Provençal literature, and the influence of that literature upon the development of letters in France generally. With a few words on these two points this chapter may be concluded.

Literary Relation of Provençal and French.
Defects of Provençal Literature.

It may be regarded as not proven that any initial influence was exercised over northern French literature by the literature of the South, and more than this, it may be held to be unlikely that any such influence was exerted. For in the first place all the more important developments of the latter, the Epic, the Drama, the Fabliau, are distinctly of northern birth, and either do not exist in Provençal at all, or exist for the most part as imitations of northern originals. With regard to lyric poetry the case is rather different. The earliest existing lyrics of the North are somewhat later than the earliest songs of the Troubadours, and no great lyrical variety or elegance is reached until the Troubadours' work had, by means of Thibaut de Champagne and others, had an opportunity of penetrating into northern France. On the other hand, the forms which finished lyric adopted in the North are by no means identical with those of the Troubadours. The scientific and melodious figures of the Ballade, the Rondeau, the Chant-royal, the Rondel, and the Villanelle, cannot by any ingenuity be deduced from Canso or Balada, Retroensa or Breu-Doble. The Alba and the Pastorela agree in subject with the Aubade and the Pastourelle, but have no necessary or obvious connection of form. It would, however, be almost as great a mistake to deny the influence of the spirit of Provençal literature over French, as to regard the two as standing[Pg 33] in the position of mother and daughter. The Troubadours undoubtedly preceded their Northern brethren in scrupulous attention to poetical form, and in elaborate devices for ensuring such attention. They preceded them too in recognising that quality in poetry for which there is perhaps no other word than elegance. There can be little doubt that they sacrificed to these two divinities, elegance and the formal limitation of verse, matters almost equally if not more important. The motives of their poems are few, and the treatment of those motives monotonous. Love, war, and personal enmity, with a certain amount of more or less frigid didactics, almost complete the list. In dealing with the first and the most fruitful, they fell into the deadly error of stereotyping their manner of expression. Objection has sometimes been taken to the 'eternal hawthorn and nightingale' of Provençal poetry. The objection would hardly be fatal, if this eternity did not extend to a great many things besides hawthorn and nightingales. In the later Troubadours especially, the fault which has been urged against French dramatic literature just before the Romantic movement was conspicuously anticipated. Every mood, every situation of passion, was catalogued and analysed, and the proper method of treatment, with similes and metaphors complete, was assigned. There was no freshness and no variety, and in the absence of variety and freshness, that of vigour was necessarily implied. It may even be doubted whether the influence of this hot-house verse on the more natural literature of the North was not injurious rather than beneficial. Certain it is that the artificial poetry of the Trouvères went (in the persons of the Rondeau and Ballade-writing Rhétoriqueurs of the fifteenth century) the same way and came to the same end, that its elder sister had already trodden and reached with the competitors for the Violet, the Eglantine, and the Marigold of Toulouse.


[44] Oc and oil (hoc and hoc illud), the respective terms indicating affirmation. In this chapter the information given is based on a smaller acquaintance at first hand with the subject than is the case in the chapters on French proper. Herr Karl Bartsch has been the guide chiefly followed.

[45] Essay on Ranke's History of the Popes.

[46] See chap. i.

[47] See chap. x.

[48] The poem on Boethius. See chap. i.

[49] By the school of the so-called Félibres, of whom Mistral and Aubanel are the chief.

[50] Moland and Héricault's Introduction to Aucassin et Nicolette. Paris, 1856.

[Pg 34]



The Tale of Arthur. Its Origins.

The passion for narrative poetry, which at first contented itself with stories drawn from the history or tradition of France, took before very long a wider range. The origin of the Legend of King Arthur, of the Round Table, of the Holy Graal, and of all the adventures and traditions connected with these centres, is one of the most intricate questions in the history of mediaeval literature. It would be beyond the scope of this book to attempt to deal with it at length. It is sufficient for our purpose, in the first place, to point out that the question of the actual existence and acts of Arthur has very little to do with the question of the origin of the Arthurian cycle. The history of mediaeval literature, as distinguished from the history of the Middle Ages, need not concern itself with any conflict between the invaders and the older inhabitants of England. The question which is of historical literary interest is, whether the traditions which Geoffrey of Monmouth, Walter Map, Chrestien de Troyes, and their followers, wrought into a fabric of such astounding extent and complexity, are due to Breton originals, or whether their authority is nothing but the ingenuity of Geoffrey working upon the meagre data of Nennius[51]. As far as this question concerns French literature, the chief champions of these rival opinions were till lately M. de la Villemarqué and M. Paulin Paris. In no instance was the former able[Pg 35] to produce Breton or Celtic originals of early date. On the other hand, M. Paris showed that Nennius is sufficient to account for Geoffrey, and that Geoffrey is sufficient to account for the purely Arthurian part of subsequent romances and chronicles. The religious element of the cycle has a different origin, and may possibly not be Celtic at all. Lastly, we must take into account a large body of Breton and Welsh poetry from which, especially in the parts of the legend which deal with Tristram, with King Mark, &c., amplifications have been devised. It must, however, still be admitted that the extraordinary rapidity with which so vast a growth of literature was produced, apparently from the slenderest stock, is one of the most surprising things in literary history. Before the middle of the twelfth century little or nothing is heard of Arthur. Before that century closed at least a dozen poems and romances in prose, many of them of great length, had elaborated the whole legend as it was thenceforward received, and as we have it condensed and Englished in Malory's well-known book two centuries and a half later.

Order of French Arthurian Cycle.

The probable genesis of the Arthurian legend, in so far as it concerns French literature, appears to be as follows. First in order of composition, and also in order of thought, comes the Legend of Joseph of Arimathea, sometimes called the 'Little St. Graal.' This we have both in verse and prose, and one or both of these versions is the work of Robert de Borron, a knight and trouvère possessed of lands in the Gâtinais[52]. There is nothing in this work which is directly connected with Arthur. By some it has been attributed to a Latin, but not now producible, 'Book of the Graal,' by others to Byzantine originals. Anyhow it fell into the hands of the well-known Walter Map[53], and his exhaustless energy and invention at once seized upon it. He produced the 'Great St. Graal,' a very much extended version of the early history of the sacred vase, still keeping clear of definite connection with Arthur, though tending in that direction. From this, in its turn, sprang the original form[Pg 36] of Percevale, which represents a quest for the vessel by a knight who has not originally anything to do with the Round Table. The link of connection between the two stories is to be found in the Merlin, attributed also to Robert de Borron, wherein the Welsh legends begin to have more definite influence. This, in its turn, leads to Artus, which gives the early history of the great king. Then comes the most famous, most extensive, and finest of all the romances, that of Lancelot du Lac, which is pretty certainly in part, and perhaps in great part, the work of Map; as is also the mystical and melancholy but highly poetical Quest of the Saint Graal, a quest of which Galahad and Lancelot, not, as in the earlier legends, Percival, are the heroes. To this succeeds the Mort Artus, which forms the conclusion of the whole, properly speaking. This, however, does not entirely complete the cycle. Later than Borron, Map, and their unknown fellow-workers (if such they had), arose one or more trouvères, who worked up the ancient Celtic legends and lays of Tristram into the Romance of Tristan, connecting this, more or less clumsily, with the main legend of the Round Table. Other legends were worked up into the omnium gatherum of Giron le Courtois, and with this the cycle proper ceases. The later poems are attributed to two persons, called Luce de Gast and Hélie de Borron. But not the slightest testimony can be adduced to show that any such persons ever had existence[54].

[Pg 37]

These prose romances form for the most part the original literature of the Arthurian story. But the vogue of this story was very largely increased by a trouvère who used not prose but octosyllabic verse for his medium.

Chrestien de Troyes.

As is the case with most of these early writers, little or nothing is known of Chrestien de Troyes but his name. He lived in the last half of the twelfth century, he was attached to the courts of Flanders, Hainault, and Champagne, and he wrote most of his works for the lords of these fiefs. Besides his Arthurian work he translated Ovid, and wrote some short poems. Chrestien de Troyes deserves a higher place in literature than has sometimes been given to him. His versification is so exceedingly easy and fluent as to appear almost pedestrian at times; and his Chevalier à la Charrette, by which he is perhaps most generally known, contrasts unfavourably in its prolixity with the nervous and picturesque prose to which it corresponds. But Percevale and the Chevalier au Lyon are very charming poems, deeply imbued with the peculiar characteristics of the cycle—religious mysticism, passionate gallantry, and refined courtesy of manners. Chrestien de Troyes undoubtedly contributed not a little to the popularity of the Arthurian legends. Although, by a singular chance, which has not yet been fully explained, the originals appear to have been for the most part in[Pg 38] prose, the times were by no means ripe for the general enjoyment of work in such a form. The reciter was still the general if not the only publisher, and recitation almost of necessity implied poetical form. Chrestien did not throw the whole of the work of his contemporaries into verse, but he did so throw a considerable portion of it. His Arthurian works consist of Le Chevalier à la Charrette, a very close rendering of an episode of Map's Lancelot; Le Chevalier au Lyon, resting probably upon some previous work not now in existence; Erec et Énide, the legend which every English reader knows in Mr. Tennyson's Enid, and which seems to be purely Welsh; Cligès, which may be called the first Roman d'Aventures; and lastly, Percevale, a work of vast extent, continued by successive versifiers to the extent of some fifty thousand lines, and probably representing in part a work of Robert de Borron, which has only recently been printed by M. Hucher. Percevale is, perhaps, the best example of Chrestien's fashion of composition. The work of Borron is very short, amounting in all to some ninety pages in the reprint. The Percevale le Gallois of Chrestien and his continuators, on the other hand, contains, as has been said, more than forty-five thousand verses. This amplification is produced partly by the importation of incidents and episodes from other works, but still more by indulging in constant diffuseness and what we must perhaps call commonplaces.

Spirit and Literary value of Arthurian Romances.

From a literary point of view the prose romances rank far higher, especially those in which Map is known or suspected to have had a hand. The peculiarity of what may be called their atmosphere is marked. An elaborate and romantic system of mystical religious sentiment, finding vent in imaginative and allegorical narrative, a remarkable refinement of manners, and a combination of delight in battle with devotion to ladies, distinguish them. This is, in short, the romantic spirit, or, as it is sometimes called, the spirit of chivalry; and it cannot be too positively asserted that the Arthurian romances communicate it to literature for the first time, and that nothing like it is found in the classics. In the work of Map and his contemporaries it is clearly perceivable. The most important[Pg 39] element in this—courtesy—is, as we have already noticed, almost entirely absent from the Chansons de Gestes, and where it is present at all it is between persons who are connected by some natural or artificial relation of comradeship or kin. Nor are there many traces of it in such fragments and indications as we possess of the Celtic originals, which may have helped in the production of the Arthurian romances. No Carlovingian knight would have felt the horror of Sir Bors when the Lady of Hungerford exercises her undoubted right by flinging the body of her captive enemy on the camp of his uncle. Even the chiefs who are presented in the Chanson d'Antioche as joking over the cannibal banquet of the Roi des Tafurs, and permitting the dead bodies of Saracens to be torn from the cemeteries and flung into the beleaguered city, would have very much applauded the deed. Gallantry, again, is as much absent from the Chansons as clemency and courtesy. The scene in Lancelot, where Galahault first introduces the Queen and Lancelot to one another, contrasts in the strongest manner with the downright courtship by which the Bellicents and Nicolettes of the Carlovingian cycle are won. No doubt Map represents to a great extent the sentiments of the polished court of England. But he deserves the credit of having been the first, or almost the first, to express such manners and sentiments, perhaps also of having being among the first to conceive them.

These originals are not all equally represented in Malory's English compilation. Of Robert de Borron's work little survives except by allusion. Lancelot du Lac itself, the most popular of all the romances, is very disproportionately drawn upon. Of the youth of Lancelot, of the winning of Dolorous Gard, of the war with the Saxons, and of the very curious episode of the false Guinevere, there is nothing; while the most charming story of Lancelot's relations with Galahault of Sorelois disappears, except in a few passing allusions to the 'haughty prince.' On the other hand, the Quest of the Saint Graal, the Mort Artus, some episodes of Lancelot (such as the Chevalier à la Charrette), and many parts of Tristan and Giron le Courtois, are given almost in full.

It seems also probable that considerable portions of the original form of the Arthurian legends are as yet unknown, and have[Pg 40] altogether perished. The very interesting discovery in the Brussels Library, of a prose Percevale not impossibly older than Chrestien, and quite different from that of Borron, is an indication of this fact. So also is the discovery by Dr. Jonckbloet in the Flemish Lancelot, which he has edited, of passages not to be found in the existing and recognised French originals. The truth would appear to be that the fascination of the subject, the unusual genius of those who first treated it, and the tendency of the middle ages to favour imitation, produced in a very short space of time (the last quarter or half of the twelfth century) an immense amount of original handling of Geoffrey's theme. To this original period succeeded one of greater length, in which the legends were developed not merely by French followers and imitators of Chrestien, but by his great German adapters, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried of Strasburg, Hartmann von der Aue, and by other imitators at home and abroad. Lastly, as we shall see in a future chapter, come Romans d'Aventures, connecting themselves by links more or less immediate with the Round Table cycle, but independent and often quite separate in their main incidents and catastrophes.

The great number, length, and diversity of the Arthurian romances make it impossible in the space at our command to abstract all of them, and useless to select any one, inasmuch as no single poem is (as in the case of the Chansons) typical of the group. The style, however, of the prose and verse divisions may be seen in the following extracts from the Chevalier à la Charrette of Map, and the verse of Chrestien:—

Atant sont venu li chevalier jusqu'au pont: lors commencent à plorer top durement tuit ensamble. Et Lanceloz lor demande porquoi il plorent et font tel duel? Et il dient que c'est por l'amor de lui, que trop est perillox li ponz. Atant esgarde Lanceloz l'ève de çà et de là: si voit que ele est noire et coranz. Si avint que sa véue torna devers la cité, si vit la tor où la raïne estoit as fenestres. Lanceloz demande quel vile c'est là?—'Sire, font-il, c'est le leus où la raïne est.' Si li noment la cité. Et il lor dit: 'Or n'aiez garde de moi, que ge dont mains le pont que ge onques mès ne fis, nè il n'est pas si périlleux d'assez comme ge cuidoie. Mès moult a de là outre bele tor, et s'il m'i voloient hébergier il m'i auroient encor ennuit à hoste.' Lors descent et les conforte toz moult durement, et lor dit que il soient ausinc tout asséur comme il est. Il li lacent les pans de son hauberc ensenble et li cousent à gros fil de fer qu'il avoient aporté, et ses manches méesmes li cousent dedenz ses mains, et les piez desoz; et à bone poiz chaude li ont péez les manicles et tant d'espès[Pg 41] comme il ot entre les cuisses. Et ce fu por miauz tenir contre le trenchant de l'espée.

Quant il orent Lancelot atorné et bien et bel si lor prie que il s'en aillent. Et il s'en vont, et le font naigier outre l'ève, et il enmainent son cheval. Et il vient à la planche droit: puis esgarde vers la tor où la raïne estoit en prison, si li encline. Après fet le signe de la verroie croiz enmi son vis, et met son escu derriers son dos, qu'il ne li nuise. Lors se met desor la planche en chevauchons, si se traïne par desus si armez comme il estoit, car il ne li faut ne hauberc ne espée ne chauces ne heaume ne escu. Et cil de la tor qui le véoient en sont tuit esbahï, ne il n'i a nul ne nule qui saiche veroiement qui il est; mès qu'il voient qu'il traïne pardesus l'espée trenchant à la force des braz et à l'enpaignement des genouz; si ne remaint pas por les filz de fer que des piez et des mains et des genous ne saille li sanz. Mès por cel péril de l'espée qui trenche et por l'ève noire et bruiant et parfonde ne remaint que plus ne resgart vers la tor que vers l'ève, ne plaie ne angoisse qu'il ait ne prise naient; car se il à cele tor pooit venir il garroit tot maintenant de ses max. Tant s'est hertiez et traïnez qu'il est venuz jusqu'à terre.

This becomes in the poem a passage more than 100 lines long, of which the beginning and end may be given:—

Le droit chemin vont cheminant,
Tant que li jors vet déclinant,
Et vienent au pon de l'espée
Après none, vers la vesprée.
Au pié del' pont, qui molt est max,
Sont descendu de lor chevax,
Et voient l'ève félenesse
Noire et bruiant, roide et espesse,
Tant leide et tant espoantable
Com se fust li fluns au déable;
Et tant périlleuse et parfonde
Qu'il n'est riens nule an tot le monde
S'ele i chéoit, ne fust alée
Ausi com an la mer betée.
Et li ponz qui est an travers
Estoit de toz autres divers,
Qu'ainz tex ne fu ne jamès n'iert.
Einz ne fu, qui voir m'an requiert,
Si max pont ne si male planche:
D'une espée forbie et blanche
Estoit li ponz sor l'ève froide.
Mès l'espée estoit forz et roide,
Et avoit deus lances de lonc.
De chasque part ot uns grant tronc
Où l'espée estoit cloffichiée.
Jà nus ne dot que il i chiée.
Porce que ele brist ne ploit.
Si ne sanble-il pas qui la voit
[Pg 42] Qu'ele puisse grant fès porter.
Ce feisoit molt desconforter
Les deus chevaliers qui estoient
Avoec le tierz, que il cuidoient
Que dui lyon ou dui liepart
Au chief del' pont de l'autre part
Fussent lié à un perron.
L'ève et li ponz et li lyon
Les metent an itel fréor
Que il tranblent tuit de péor.
  *  *  *  *  *  *
Cil ne li sèvent plus que dire,
Mès de pitié plore et sopire
Li uns et li autres molt fort.
Et cil de trespasser le gort
Au mialz que il set s'aparoille,
Et fet molt estrange mervoille,
Que ses piez désire et ses mains.
N'iert mie toz antiers nè sains
Quant de l'autre part iert venuz.
Bien s'iert sor l'espée tenuz,
Qui plus estoit tranchanz que fauz,
As mains nues et si deschauz
Que il ne s'est lessiez an pié
Souler nè chauce n'avanpié.
De ce guères ne s'esmaioit
S'ès mains et ès piez se plaioit;
Mialz se voloit-il mahaignier
Que chéoir el pont et baignier
An l'ève dont jamès n'issist.
A la grant dolor con li sist
S'an passe outre et à grant destrece:
Mains et genolz et piez se blece.
Mès tot le rasoage et sainne
Amors qui le conduist et mainne:
Si li estoit à sofrir dolz.
A mains, à piez et à genolz
Fet tant que de l'autre part vient.
Romances of Antiquity. Chanson d'Alixandre.

About the same time as the flourishing of the Arthurian cycle there began to be written the third great division of Jean Bodel, 'la matière de Rome la grant[55].' The most important beyond all question of the poems which go to make up this cycle (as it is sometimes[Pg 43] called, though in reality its members are quite independent one of the other) is the Romance of Alixandre. Of the earliest French poem on this subject only a few fragments exist. This is supposed to have been a work of the eleventh or very early twelfth century, composed in octosyllabic verses, and in the mixed dialect common at the time in the south-east, by Alberic or Auberi of Besançon or Briançon. The Chanson d'Alixandre is, however, in all probability a much more important work than Alberic's. It is in form a regular Chanson de Geste, written in twelve-syllabled verse, of such strength and grace that the term Alexandrine has cleaved ever since to the metre. Its length, as we have it[56], is 22,606 verses, and it is assigned to two authors, Lambert the Short[57] and Alexander of Bernay, though doubt has been expressed whether any of the present poem is due to Lambert; if we have any of his work, it is not later than the ninth decade of the twelfth century. Lambert, Alexander, and perhaps others, are thought to have known not Alberic, but a later ten-syllabled version into Northern French by Simon of Poitiers. The remoter sources are various. Foremost among them may undoubtedly be placed the Pseudo-Callisthenes, an unknown Alexandrian writer translated into Latin about the fourth century by Julius Valerius, who fathered upon the philosopher a collection of stories partly gathered from Plutarch, Quintus Curtius, and a hundred other authorities, partly elaborated according to the fashion of Greek romancers. Some oriental traditions of Alexander were also in the possession of western Europe. Out of all these, and with a considerable admixture of the floating fables of the time, Lambert and Alexander wove their work. There is, of course, not the slightest attempt at antiquity of colour. Alexander has twelve peers, he learns the favourite studies of the middle ages, he is dubbed knight, and so forth. Many interesting legends, such as that of the Fountain of Perpetual Youth, make their first appearance in the poem, and it is altogether one of extraordinary merit. A specimen laisse may be given:—

[Pg 44]

En icele forest, dont vos m'oëz conter,
nesune male choze ne puet laianz entrer.
li home ne les bestes n'i ozent converser,
onques en nesun tans ne vit hon yverner
ne trop froit ne trop chaut ne neger ne geler.
ce conte l'escripture que hom n'i doit entrer,
se il nen at talent de conquerre ou d'amer.
les deuesses d'amors i doivent habiter,
car c'est lor paradix ou el doivent entrer,
li rois de Macedoine en a oï parler,
qui cercha les merveilles dou mont et de la mer,
et ce fist il meïsmes enz ou fons avaler
en un vessel de voirre, ce ne puet n'on fausser,
qu'il fist faire il meïsmes fort et rëont et cler
et enclorre de fer qu'il ne pëust quasser,
s'il l'estëust a roche ou aillors ahurter,
et si que il poet bien par mi outre esgarder,
por vëoir les poissons tornoier et joster
et faire lor agaiz et sovent cembeler.
et quant il vint a terre, nou mist a oublïer:
la prist la sapïence dou mont a conquester
et faire ses agaiz et sa gent ordener
et conduire les oz et sagement mener,
car ce fust toz li mieudres qui ainz pëust monter
en cheval por conquerre ne de lance joster,
li gentiz et li larges et ii prex por doner.
la forest des puceles ot oï deviser,
cil qui tot volt conquerre i ot talent d'aler:
souz ciel n'a home en terre qui l'en pëust torner.

While the figure of Alexander served as centre to one group of fictions, most of which were composed in Chanson form, the octosyllabic metre, which had made the Arthurian romances its own, was used for the versification of another numerous class, most of which dealt with the tale of Troy divine.

Roman de Troie.

Here also the poems were neither entirely fictitious, nor on the other hand based upon the best authorities. Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis, with some epitomes of Homer, were the chief sources of information. The principal poem of this class is the Roman de Troie of Benoist de Sainte More (c. 1160). This work[58], which extends to more than thirty thousand verses, has the redundancy and the long-windedness which characterise many, if not most, early French poems written in its[Pg 45] metre. But it has one merit which ought to conciliate English readers to Benoist. It contains the undoubted original of Shakespeare's Cressida. The fortunes of Cressid (or Briseida, as the French trouvère names her) have been carefully traced out by MM. Moland, Héricault[59], and Joly, and form a very curious chapter of literary history. Nor is this episode the only one of merit in Benoist. His verse is always fluent and facile, and not seldom picturesque, as the following extract (Andromache's remonstrance with Hector) will show:—

Quant elle voit qe nëant iert,
o ses dous poinz granz cous se fiert,
fier duel demaine e fier martire,
ses cheveus trait e ront e tire.
bien resemble feme desvee:
tote enragiee, eschevelee,
e trestote fors de son sen
court pour son fil Asternaten.
des eux plore molt tendrement,
entre ses braz l'encharge e prent.
vint el palés atot arieres,
o il chauçoit ses genoillieres.
as piez li met e si li dit
'sire, por cest enfant petit
qe tu engendras de ta char
te pri nel tiegnes a eschar
ce qe je t'ai dit e nuncié.
aies de cest enfant pitié:
jamés des euz ne te verra.
s'ui assembles a ceux de la,
hui est ta mort, hui est ta fins.
de toi remandra orfenins.
cruëlz de cuer, lous enragiez,
par qoi ne vos en prent pitiez?
par qoi volez si tost morir?
par qoi volez si tost guerpir
et moi e li e vostre pere
e voz serors e vostre mere?
par qoi nos laisseroiz perir?
coment porrons sens vos gerir?
lasse, com male destinee!'
a icest not chaï pasmee
a cas desus le paviment.
celle l'en lieve isnelement
qi estrange duel en demeine:
c'est sa seroge, dame Heleine.
Other Romances on Classical subjects.

The poems of the Cycle of Antiquity have hitherto been less diligently studied and reprinted than those of the other two. Few of them, with the exception of Alixandre and Troie, are to be read even in fragments, save in manuscript. Le Roman d'Enéas, which is attributed to Benoist, is much shorter than the Roman de Troie, and, with some omissions, follows Virgil pretty closely. Like many other French poems, it was adapted in German by a Minnesinger, Heinrich von Veldeke. Le Roman de Thèbes, of which there is some chance of an edition, stands to Statius in the same relation[Pg 46] as Enéas to Virgil. And Le Roman de Jules César paraphrases, though not directly, Lucan. To these must be added Athis et Prophilias (Porphyrias), or the Siege of Athens, a work which has been assigned to many authors, and the origin of which is not clear, though it enjoyed great popularity in the middle ages. The Protesilaus of Hugues de Rotelande is the only other poem of this series worth the mentioning.

Neither of these two classes of poems possesses the value of the Chansons as documents for social history. The picture of manners in them is much more artificial. But the Arthurian romances disclose partially and at intervals a state of society decidedly more advanced than that of the Chansons. The bourgeois, the country gentleman who is not of full baronial rank, and other novel personages appear.

Note to Third Edition.—Since the second edition was published M. Gaston Paris has sketched in Romania and summarised in his Manuel, but has not developed in book form, a view of the Arthurian romances different from his father's and from that given in the text. In this view the importance of 'Celtic' originals is much increased, and that of Geoffrey diminished, Walter Map disappears almost entirely to make room for divers unknown French trouvères, the order of composition is altered, and on the whole a lower estimate is formed of the literary value of the cycle. The 'Celtic' view has also been maintained in a book of much learning and value, Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail (London, 1888), by Mr. Alfred Nutt. I have not attempted to incorporate or to combat these views in the text for two reasons, partly because they will most probably be superseded by others, and partly because the evidence does not seem to me sufficient to establish any of them certainly. But having given some years to comparative literary criticism in different languages and periods, I think I may be entitled to give a somewhat decided opinion against the 'Celtic' theory, and in favour of that which assigns the special characteristics of the Arthurian cycle and all but a very small part of its structure of incident to the literary imagination of the trouvères, French and English, of the twelfth century. And I may add that as a whole it seems to me quite the greatest literary creation of the Middle Ages, except the Divina Commedia, though of course it has the necessary inferiority of a collection by a great number of different hands to a work of individual genius.


[51] Nennius, a Breton monk of the ninth century, has left a brief Latin Chronicle in which is the earliest authentic account of the Legend of Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth, circa 1140, produced a Historia Britonum, avowedly based on a book brought from Britanny by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. No trace of this book, unless it be Nennius, can be found. See note at end of chapter.

[52] Department of Seine-et-Marne, near Fontainebleau.

[53] Map as a person belongs rather to English than to French history. He lived in the last three quarters of the twelfth century.

[54] These various Romances are not by any means equally open to study in satisfactory critical editions. To take them chronologically, M. Hucher has published Robert de Borron's Little Saint Graal in prose, his Percevale, and the Great Saint Graal, with full and valuable if not incontestable notes, 3 vols.; Le Mans, 1875-1878. The verse form of the Little Saint Graal was published by M. F. Michel in 1841. An edition of Artus was promised by M. Paulin Paris, but interrupted or prevented by his death. The great works of Map, Lancelot and the Quest, as well as the Mort Artus, have never been critically edited in full; and the sixteenth-century editions being rare and exceedingly costly, as well as uncritical, they are not easily accessible, except in M. Paris' Abstract and Commentary, Les Romans de la Table Ronde, 5 vols., 1869-1877. Tristan was published partially forty years ago by M. F. Michel. Merlin was edited in 1886 by M. G. Paris and M. Ulrich. A complete edition of Chrestien de Troyes has been undertaken by Dr. Wendelin Förster and has preceded to its second volume (Yvain). This under its second title of Le Chevalier au Lyon has also been edited by Dr. Holland (third edition 1886). Besides this there is the great Romance of Percevale (continued by others, especially a certain Manessier), of which M. Potvin has given an excellent edition, 6 vols., Mons, 1867-1872, including in it a previously unknown prose version of the Romance of very early date; Le Chevalier à la Charrette, continued by Godefroy de Lagny, and edited, with the original prose from Lancelot du Lac, by Dr. Jonckbloet (The Hague, 1850); and Erec et Énide, by M. Haupt (Berlin, 1860). This piecemeal condition of the texts, and the practical inaccessibility of many of them, make independent judgment in the matter very difficult. What is wanted first of all is a book on the plan of M. Léon Gautier's Epopées Françaises, giving a complete account of all the existing texts—for the entire editing of these latter must necessarily take a very long time. The statements made above represent the opinions which appear most probable to the writer, not merely from the comparison of authorities on the subject, but from the actual study of the texts as far as they are open to him. (See note at end of Chapter.)

[55] This expression occurs in the Chanson des Saisnes, i. 6. 7: 'Ne sont que iij matières a nul home atandant, De France et de Bretaigne et de Rome la grant.'

[56] Ed. Michelant. Stuttgart, 1846.

[57] Li Cors, otherwise li tors 'the crooked.' Since this book was first written M. Paul Meyer has treated the whole subject of the paragraph in an admirable monograph, Alexandre le Grand dans la Littérature Française du Moyen Age, 2 vols. Paris, 1886.

[58] Ed. Joly. Rouen, 1870.

[59] Moland and Héricault's Nouvelles du XIVème Siècle. Paris, 1857. Joly, Op. cit. See also P. Stapfer, Shakespeare et l'Antiquité. 2 vols. Paris, 1880.

[Pg 47]



Foreign Elements in Early French Literature.

Singular as the statement may appear, no one of the branches of literature hitherto discussed represents what may be called a specially French spirit. Despite the astonishing popularity and extent of the Chansons de Gestes, they are, as is admitted by the most patriotic French students, Teutonic in origin probably, and certainly in genius. The Arthurian legends have at least a tinge both of Celtic and Oriental character; while the greater number of them were probably written by Englishmen, and their distinguishing spirit is pretty clearly Anglo-Norman rather than French. On the other hand, Provençal poetry represents a temperament and a disposition which find their full development rather in Spanish and Italian literature and character than in the literature and character of France. All these divisions, moreover, have this of artificial about them, that they are obviously class literature—the literature of courtly and knightly society, not that of the nation at large. Provençal literature gives but scanty social information; from the earlier Chansons at least it would be hard to tell that there were any classes but those of nobles, priests, and fighting men; and though, as has been said, a more complicated state of society appears in the Arthurian legends, what may be called their atmosphere is even more artificial.

The Esprit Gaulois makes its appearance.

It is far otherwise with the division of literature which we are now about to handle. The Fabliaux[60], or short verse tales of old[Pg 48] France, take in the whole of its society from king to peasant with all the intervening classes, and represent for the most part the view taken of those classes by each other. Perhaps the bourgeois standpoint is most prominent in them, but it is by no means the only one. Their tone too is of the kind which has ever since been specially associated with the French genius. What is called by French authors the esprit gaulois—a spirit of mischievous and free-spoken jocularity—does not make its appearance at once, or in all kinds of work. In most of the early departments of French literature there is a remarkable deficiency of the comic element, or rather that element is very much kept under. The comedy of the Chansons consists almost entirely in the roughest horse-play; while the knightly notion of gabz or jests is exemplified in the Voyage de Charlemagne à Constantinople, where it seems to be limited to extravagant, and not always decent, boasts and gasconnades. More comic, but still farcical in its comedy, is the curious running fire of exaggerated expressions of poltroonery which the Red Lion keeps up in Antioche, while the names and virtues of the Christian leaders are being catalogued to Corbaran. In the Arthurian Romances also the comic element is scantily represented, and still takes the same form of exaggeration and horse-play. At the same time it is proper to say that both these classes of compositions are distinguished, at least in their earlier examples, by a very strict and remarkable decency of language.

In the Fabliaux the state of things is quite different. The attitude is always a mocking one, not often going the length of serious satire or moral indignation, but contenting itself with the peculiar ludicrous presentation of life and humanity of which the French have ever since been the masters. In the Fabliaux begins that long course of scoffing at the weaknesses of the feminine sex[Pg 49] which has never been interrupted since. In the Fabliaux is to be found for the first time satirical delineation of the frailties of churchmen instead of adoring celebration of the mysteries of the Church. All classes come in by turns for ridicule—knights, burghers, peasants. Unfortunately this freedom in choice of subject is accompanied by a still greater freedom in the choice of language. The coarseness of expression in many of the Fabliaux equals, if it does not exceed, that to be found in any other branch of Western literature.

Definition of Fabliaux.

The interest of the Fabliaux as a literary study is increased by the precision with which they can be defined, and the well-marked period of their composition. According to the excellent definition of its latest editor, the Fabliau[61] is 'le récit, le plus souvent comique, d'une aventure réelle ou possible, qui se passe dans les données moyennes de la vie humaine,' the recital, for the most part comic, of a real or possible event occurring in the ordinary conditions of human life. M. de Montaiglon, to be rigidly accurate, should have added that it must be in verse, and, with very rare, if any, exceptions, in octosyllabic couplets. Of such Fabliaux, properly so called, we possess perhaps two hundred. They are of the most various length, sometimes not extending to more than a score or so of lines, sometimes containing several hundreds. They are, like most contemporary literature, chiefly anonymous, or attributed to persons of whom nothing is known, though some famous names, especially that of the Trouvère Rutebœuf, appear among their authors. Their period of composition seems to have extended from the latter half of the twelfth century to the latter half of the fourteenth, no manuscript that we have of them being earlier than the beginning of the thirteenth century, and none later than the beginning of the fifteenth. If, however, their popularity in their original form ceased at the latter period, their course was by no means run. They had passed early from France into Italy (as indeed all the oldest French literature did), and the stock-in-trade of all the Italian Novellieri[Pg 50] from Boccaccio downwards was supplied by them. In England they found an illustrious copyist in Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales are perfect Fabliaux, informed by greater art and more poetical spirit than were possessed by their original authors. In France itself the Fabliaux simply became farces or prose tales, as the wandering reciter of verse gave way to the actor and the bookseller. They appear again (sometimes after a roundabout journey through Italian versions) in the pages of the French tale-tellers of the Renaissance, and finally, as far as collected appearance is concerned, receive their last but not their least brilliant transformation in the Contes of La Fontaine. In these the cycle is curiously concluded by a return to the form of the original.

Subjects and character of Fabliaux.

Until MM. de Montaiglon and Raynaud undertook their edition, which has been slowly completed, the study of the Fabliaux was complicated by the somewhat chaotic conditions of the earlier collections. Barbazan and his followers printed as Fabliaux almost everything that they found in verse which was tolerably short. Thus, not merely the mediaeval poems called dits and débats, descriptions of objects either in monologue or dialogue, which come sometimes very close to the Fabliau proper, but moral discourses, short romances, legends like the Lai d'Aristote, and such-like things, were included. This interferes with a comprehension of the remarkably characteristic and clearly marked peculiarities of the Fabliau indicated in the definition given above. As according to this the Fabliau is a short comic verse tale of ordinary life, it will be evident that the attempts which have been made to classify Fabliaux according to their subjects were not very happy. It is of course possible to take such headings as Priests, Women, Villeins, Knights, etc., and arrange the existing Fabliaux under them. But it is not obvious what is gained thereby. A better notion of the genre may perhaps be obtained from a short view of the subjects of some of the principal of those Fabliaux whose subjects are capable of description. Les deux Bordeors Ribaux is a dispute between two Jongleurs who boast their skill. It is remarkable for a very curious list of Chansons de Gestes which the clumsy reciter quotes[Pg 51] all wrong, and for a great number of the sly hits at chivalry and the chivalrous romances which are characteristic of all this literature. Thus one Jongleur, going through the list of his knightly patrons, tells of Monseignor Augier Poupée—

'Qui à un seul coup de s'espee
Coupe bien à un chat l'oreille;'

and of Monseignor Rogier Ertaut, whose soundness in wind and limb is not due to enchanted armour or skill in fight, but is accounted for thus—

'Quar onques ne ot cop feru' (for that never has he struck a blow).

Le Vair Palefroi contains the story of a lover who carries off his beloved on a palfrey grey from an aged wooer. La Housse Partie, a great favourite, which appears in more than one form, tells the tale of an unnatural son who turns his father out of doors, but is brought to a better mind by his own child, who innocently gives him warning that he in turn will copy his example. Sire Hain et Dame Anieuse is one of the innumerable stories of rough correction of scolding wives. Brunain la Vache au Prestre recounts a trick played on a covetous priest. In Le Dit des Perdrix, a greedy wife eats a brace of partridges which her husband has destined for his own dinner, and escapes his wrath by one of the endless stratagems which these tales delight in assigning to womankind. Le sot Chevalier, though extremely indecorous, deserves notice for the Chaucerian breadth of its farce, at which it is impossible to help laughing. The two Englishmen and the Lamb is perhaps the earliest example of English-French, and turns upon the mistake which results in an ass's foal being bought instead of the required animal. Le Mantel Mautaillié is the famous Arthurian story known in English as 'The Boy and the Mantle.' Le Vilain Mire is the original of Molière's Médecin malgré lui. Le Vilain qui conquist Paradis par Plaist is characteristic of the curious irreverence which accompanied mediaeval devotion. A villein comes to heaven's gate, is refused admission, and successively silences St. Peter, St. Thomas, and St. Paul, by very pointed references to their earthly weaknesses. As a last specimen may be mentioned[Pg 52] the curiously simple word-play of Estula. This is the name of a little dog which, being pronounced, certain thieves take for 'Es tu là?'

Sources of Fabliaux.

Such are a very few, selected as well as may be for their typical character, of these stories. It is not unimportant to consider briefly the question of their origin. Many of them belong no doubt to that strange common fund of fiction which all nations of the earth indiscriminately possess. A considerable number seem to be of purely original and indigenous growth: but an actual literary source is not wanting in many cases. The classics supplied some part of them, the Scriptures and the lives of the saints another part; while not a little was due to the importation of Eastern collections of stories resulting from the Crusades. The chief of these collections were the fables of Bidpai or Pilpai, in the form known as the romance of 'Calila and Dimna,' and the story of Sendabar (in its Greek form Syntipas). This was immensely popular in France under the verse form of Dolopathos, and the prose form of Les sept Sages de Rome. The remarkable collection of stories called the Gesta Romanorum is apparently of later date than most of the Fabliaux; but the tales of which it was composed no doubt floated for some time in the mouths of Jongleurs before the unknown and probably English author put them together in Latin.

The Roman du Renart.

Closely connected with the Fabliaux is one of the most singular works of mediaeval imagination, the Roman du Renart[62]. This is no place to examine the origin or antiquity of the custom of making animals the mouthpieces of moral and satirical utterance on human affairs. It is sufficient that the practice is an ancient one, and that the middle ages were[Pg 53] early acquainted with Aesop and his followers, as well as with Oriental examples of the same sort. The original author, whoever he was, of the epic (for it is no less) of 'Reynard the Fox,' had therefore examples of a certain sort before his eyes. But these examples contented themselves for the most part with work of small dimension, and had not attempted connected or continuous story. A fierce battle has been fought as to the nationality of Reynard. The facts are these. The oldest form of the story now extant is in Latin. It is succeeded at no very great interval by German, Flemish, and French versions. Of these the German as it stands is apparently the oldest, the Latin version being probably of the second half of the twelfth century, and the German a little later. But (and this is a capital point) the names of the more important beasts are in all the versions French. From this and some minute local indications, it seems likely that the original language of the epic is French, but French of the Walloon or Picard dialect, and that it was written somewhere in the district between the Seine and the Rhine. This, however, is a matter of the very smallest literary importance. What is of great literary importance is the fact that it is in France that the story receives its principal development, and that it makes its home. The Latin, Flemish, and German Reynards, though they all cover nearly the same ground, do not together amount to more than five-and-twenty thousand lines. The French in its successive developments amounts to more than ninety thousand in the texts already published or abstracted; and this does not include the variants in the Vienna manuscript of Renart le Contrefait, or the different developments of the Ancien Renart, recently published by M. Ernest Martin.

The Ancien Renart.

The order and history of the building up of this vast composition are as follows. The oldest known 'branches,' as the separate portions of the story are called, date from the beginning of the thirteenth century. These are due to a named author, Pierre de Saint Cloud. But it is impossible to say that they were actually the first written in French: indeed it is extremely improbable that they were so. However this may be, during the thirteenth century a very large number of poets wrote[Pg 54] pieces independent of each other in composition, but possessing the same general design, and putting the same personages into play. In what has hitherto been the standard edition of Renart, Méon published thirty-two such poems, amounting in the aggregate to more than thirty thousand verses. Chabaille added five more in his supplement, and M. Ernest Martin has found yet another in an Italianised version. This last editor thinks that eleven branches, which he has printed together, constitute an 'ancient collection' within the Ancien Renart, and have a certain connection and interdependence. However this may be, the general plan is extremely loose, or rather non-existent. Everybody knows the outline of the story of Reynard; how he is among the animals (Noble the lion, who is king, Chanticleer the cock, Firapel the leopard, Grimbart the badger, Isengrin the wolf, and the rest) the special representative of cunning and valour tempered by discretion, while his enemy Isengrin is in the same way the type of stupid headlong force, and many of the others have moral character less strongly marked but tolerably well sustained. How this general idea is illustrated the titles of the branches show better than the most elaborate description. 'How Reynard ate the carrier's fish;' 'how Reynard made Isengrin fish for eels;' 'how Reynard cut the tail of Tybert the cat;' 'how Reynard made Isengrin go down the well;' 'of Isengrin and the mare;' 'how Reynard and Tybert sang vespers and matins;' 'the pilgrimage of Reynard,' and so forth. Written by different persons, and at different times, these branches are of course by no means uniform in literary value. But the uniformity of spirit in most, if not in all of them, is extremely remarkable. What is most noticeable in this spirit is the perpetual undertone of satirical comment on human life and its affairs which distinguishes it. The moral is never obtrusively put forward, and it is especially noteworthy that in this Ancien Renart, as contrasted with the later development of the poem, there is no mere allegorising, and no attempt to make the animals men in disguise. They are quite natural and distinct foxes, wolves, cats, and so forth, acting after their kind, with the exception of their possession of reason and language.[Pg 55]

Le Couronnement Renart.

The next stage of the composition shows an alteration and a degradation. Renart le Couronné, or Le Couronnement Renart[63], is a poem of some 3400 lines, which was once attributed to Marie de France, for no other reason than that the manuscript which contains it subjoins her Ysopet or fables. It is, however, certainly not hers, and is in all probability a little later than her time. The main subject of it is the cunning of the fox, who first reconciles the great preaching orders Franciscans and Dominicans; then himself becomes a monk, and inculcates on them the art of Renardie; then repairs to court as a confessor to the lion king Noble who is ill, and contrives to be appointed his successor, after which he holds tournaments, journeys to Palestine, and so forth. It is characteristic of the decline of taste that in the list of his army a whole bestiary (or list of the real and fictitious beasts of mediaeval zoology) is thrust in; and the very introduction of the abstract term Renardie, or foxiness, is an evil sign of the abstracting and allegorising which was about to spoil poetry for a time, and to make much of the literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries tedious and heavy. The poem is of little value or interest. The only chronological indication as to its composition is the eulogy of William of Flanders, killed ('jadis,' says the author) in 1251.

Renart le Nouvel.

The next poem of the cycle is of much greater length, and of at least proportionately greater value, though it has not the freshness and verve of the earlier branches. Renart le Nouvel was written in 1288 by Jacquemart Giélée, a Fleming. This poem is in many ways interesting, though not much can be said for its general conception, and though it suffers terribly from the allegorising already alluded to. In its first book (it consists of more than 8000 lines, divided into two books and many branches) Renart, in consequence of one of his usual quarrels with Isengrin, gets into trouble with the king, and is besieged in Maupertuis. But the sense of verisimilitude is now so far lost, that Maupertuis, instead of being a fox's earth, is an actual feudal castle; and more than this, the animals which attack and defend it[Pg 56] are armed in panoply, ride horses, and fight like knights of the period. Besides this the old familiar and homely personages are mixed up with a very strange set of abstractions in the shape of the seven deadly sins. All this is curiously blended with reminiscences and rehandlings of the older and simpler adventures. Another remarkable feature about Renart le Nouvel is that it is full of songs, chiefly love songs, which are given with the music. Its descriptions, though prolix, and injured by allegorical phrases, are sometimes vigorous.

Renart le Contrefait.

The cycle was finally completed in the second quarter of the fourteenth century by the singular work or works called Renart le Contrefait. This has, unfortunately, never been printed in full, nor in any but the most meagre extracts and abstracts. Its length is enormous; though, in the absence of opportunity for examining it, it is not easy to tell how much is common to the three manuscripts which contain it. Two of these are in Paris and one in Vienna, the latter being apparently identical with one which Ménage saw and read in the seventeenth century. One of the Parisian manuscripts contains about 32,000 verses, the other about 19,000; and the Vienna version seems to consist of from 20,000 to 25,000 lines of verse, and about half that number of prose. The author (who, in so far as he was a single person, appears to have been a clerk of Troyes, in Champagne) wrote it, as he says, to avoid idleness, and seems to have regarded it as a vast commonplace book, in which to insert the result not merely of his satirical reflection, but of his miscellaneous reading. A noteworthy point about this poem is that in one place the writer expressly disowns any concealment of his satirical intention. His book, he says, has nothing to do with the kind of fox that kills pullets, has a big brush, and wears a red skin, but with the fox that has two hands and, what is more, two faces under one hood[64]. Notwithstanding this, however, there are[Pg 57] many passages where the old 'common form' of the epic is observed, and where the old personages make their appearance. Indeed their former adventures are sometimes served up again with slight alterations. Besides this there is a certain number of amusing stories and fabliaux, the most frequently quoted of which is the tale of an ugly but wise knight who married a silly but beautiful girl in hopes of having children uniting the advantages of both parents, whereas the actual offspring of the union were as ugly as the father and as silly as the mother. Combined with these things are numerous allusions to the grievances of the peasants and burghers of the time against the upper classes, with some striking legends illustrative thereof, such as the story of a noble dame, who, hearing that a vassal's wife had been buried in a large shroud of good stuff, had the body taken up and seized the shroud to make horsecloths of. This original matter, however, is drowned in a deluge not merely of moralising but of didactic verse of all kinds. The history of Alexander is told in one version by Reynard to the lion king in 7000 verses, and is preluded and followed by an account of the history of the world on a scarcely smaller scale. This proceeding, at least in the Vienna version, seems to be burdensome even to Noble himself, who, at the reign of Augustus, suggests that Reynard should exchange verse for prose, and 'compress.' The warning cannot be said to be unnecessary: but works as long as Renart le Contrefait, and, as far as it is possible to judge, not more interesting, have been printed of late years; and it is very much to be wished that the publication of it might be undertaken by some competent scholar.


Renart is not the only bestial personage who was made at this time a vehicle of satire. In the days of Philippe le Bel a certain François de Rues composed a poem entitled Fauvel, from the name of the hero, a kind of Centaur, who represents vice of all kinds. The direct object of the poem was to attack the pope and the clergy.[Pg 58]

Some extracts from the Fabliau of the Partridges and from Renart may appropriately now be given:—

Por ce que fabliaus dire sueil,
en lieu de fable dire vueil
une aventure qui est vraie,
d'un vilain qui delés sa haie
prist deus pertris par aventure.
en l'atorner mist moult sa cure;
sa fame les fist au feu metre.
ele s'en sot bien entremetre:
le feu a fait, la haste atorne.
et li vilains tantost s'en torne,
por le prestre s'en va corant.
mais au revenir targa tant
que cuites furent les pertris.
la dame a le haste jus mis,
s'en pinça une pelëure,
quar molt ama la lechëure,
quant diex li dona a avoir.
ne bëoit pas a grant avoir,
mais a tos ses bons acomplir.
l'une pertris cort envaïr:
andeus les eles en menjue.
puis est alee en mi la rue
savoir se ses sires venoit.
quant ele venir ne le voit,
tantost arriere s'en retorne,
et le remanant tel atorne
mal du morsel qui remainsist.
adonc s'apenssa et si dist
que l'autre encore mengera.
moult tres bien set qu'ele dira,
s'on li demande que devindrent:
ele dira que li chat vindrent,
quant ele les ot arrier traites;
tost li orent des mains retraites,
et chascuns la seue en porta.
  *  *  *  *  *  *
Tant dura cele demoree
que la dame fu saoulee,
et li vilains ne targa mie:
a l'ostel vint, en haut s'escrie
'diva, sont cuites les pertris?'
'sire,' dist ele. 'ainçois va pis,
quar mengies les a li chas.'
li vilains saut isnel le pas,
[Pg 59] seure li cort comme enragiés.
ja li ëust les iex sachiés,
quant el crie 'c'est gas, c'est gas.
fuiiés,' fet ele, 'Sathanas!
couvertes sont por tenir chaudes.'

(He accepts the excuse; bids her lay the table, and goes to sharpen his knife. The priest arrives. She tells him that her husband is plotting outrage against him, and as a proof shows him sharpening his knife. The priest flies, and she tells her husband that he has run off with the partridges. The husband pursues, but in vain, and the Fabliau thus concludes:—)

A l'ostel li vilains retorne,
et lors sa feme en araisone:
'diva,' fait il, 'et quar me dis
coment tu perdis les pertris?'
cele li dist 'se diex m'aït,
tantost que li prestres me vit,
si me prïa, se tant l'amasse,
que je les pertris li moustrasse,
quar moult volentiers les verroit
et je le menai la tout droit
ou je les avoie couvertes.
il ot tantost les mains ouvertes,
si les prist et si s'en fuï.
mes je gueres ne le sivi,
ains le vous fis moult tost savoir.'
cil respont 'bien pués dire voir
or le laissons a itant estre.'
ainsi fu engingniés le prestre
et Gombaus qui les pertris prist.
par example cis fabliaus dist:
fame est faite por decevoir.
mençonge fait devenir voir
et voir fait devenir mençonge.
cil n'i vout metre plus d'alonge
qui fist cest fablel et ces dis.
ci faut li fabliaus des pertris.

(Reynard and Isengrin go a-fishing.)

Ce fu un poi devant Noël
que l'en metoit bacons en sel,
li ciex fu clers et estelez,
et li vivier fu si gelez,
ou Ysengrin devoit peschier,
qu'on pooit par desus treschier,
[Pg 60] fors tant c'un pertuis i avoit,
qui des vilains faiz i estoit,
ou il menoient lor atoivre
chascune nuit juër et boivre:
un seel i estoit laissiez.
la vint Renarz toz eslaissiez
et son compere apela.
'sire,' fait il, 'traiiez vos ça:
ci est la plenté des poissons
et li engins ou nos peschons
les anguiles et les barbiaus
et autres poissons bons et biaus.'
dist Ysengrins 'sire Renart,
or le prenez de l'une part,
sel me laciez bien a la qeue.'
Renarz le prent et si li neue
entor la qeue au miex qu'il puet.
'frere,' fait il, 'or vos estuet
moult sagement a maintenir
por les poissons avant venir.'
lors s'est en un buisson fichiez:
si mist son groing entre ses piez
tant que il voie que il face.
et Ysengrins est seur la glace
et li sëaus en la fontaine
plains de glaçons a bone estraine.
l'aive conmence a englacier
et li sëaus a enlacier
qui a la qeue fu noëz:
de glaçons fu bien serondez.
la qeue est en l'aive gelee
et en la glace seelee.

This chapter would be incomplete without a reference to the Ysopet of Marie de France[65], which may be said to be a link of juncture between the Fabliau and the Roman du Renart. Ysopet (diminutive of Aesop) became a common term in the middle ages for a collection of fables. There is one known as the Ysopet of Lyons, which was published not long ago[66]; but that of Marie is by far the most important. It consists of 103 pieces, written in octosyllabic couplets, with moralities, and a conclusion which informs us that the author wrote it 'for the love of Count William' (supposed to be Long-Sword), translating it from an English version[Pg 61] of a Latin translation of the Greek. Marie's graceful style and her easy versification are very noticeable here, while her morals are often well deduced and sharply put. The famous 'Wolf and Lamb' will serve as a specimen.

Ce dist dou leu e dou aignel,
qui beveient a un rossel:
li lox a lo sorse beveit
e li aigniaus aval esteit.
irieement parla li lus
ki mult esteit cuntralïus;
par mautalent palla a lui:
'tu m'as,' dist il, 'fet grant anui.'
li aignez li ad respundu
'sire, eh quei?' 'dunc ne veis tu?
tu m'as ci ceste aigue tourblee:
n'en puis beivre ma saolee.
autresi m'en irai, ce crei,
cum jeo ving, tut murant de sei.'
li aignelez adunc respunt
'sire, ja bevez vus amunt:
de vus me vient kankes j'ai beu.'
'qoi,' fist li lox, 'maldis me tu?'
l'aigneus respunt 'n'en ai voleir.'
lous li dit 'jeo sai de veir:
ce meïsme me fist tes pere
a ceste surce u od lui ere,
or ad sis meis, si cum jeo crei.'
'qu'en retraiez,' feit il, 'sor mei?
n'ere pas nez, si cum jeo cuit.'
'e cei pur ce,' li lus a dit:
'ja me fais tu ore cuntraire
e chose ke tu ne deiz faire.'
dunc prist li lox l'engnel petit,
as denz l'estrangle, si l'ocit.
Ci funt li riche robëur,
li vesconte e li jugëur,
de ceus k'il unt en lur justise.
fausse aqoison par cuveitise
truevent assez pur eus cunfundre.
suvent les funt as plaiz semundre,
la char lur tolent e la pel,
si cum li lox fist a l'aingnel.


[60] The first collection of Fabliaux was published by Barbazan in 1756. This was re-edited by Méon in 1808, and reinforced by the same author with a fresh collection in 1823. Meanwhile Le Grand d'Aussy had (1774-1781) given extracts, abstracts, and translations into modern French of many of them. Jubinal, Robert, and others enriched the collection further, and in vol. xxiii. of the Histoire Littéraire M. V. Le Clerc published an excellent study of the subject. A complete collection of Fabliaux has, however, only recently been attempted, by M. M. A. de Montaiglon and G. Raynaud (6 vols., Paris, 1872-1888).

[61] Fabliau is, of course, the Latin fabula. The genealogy of the word is fabula, fabella, fabel, fable, fablel, fableau, fabliau. All these last five forms exist.

[62] It should be noticed that this title, though consecrated by usage, is a misnomer. It should be Roman de Renart, for this latter is a proper name. The class name is goupil (vulpes). The standard edition is that of Méon (4 vols., Paris, 1826) with the supplement of Chabaille, 1835. This includes not merely the Ancien Renart, but the Couronnement and Renart le Nouvel. Renart le Contrefait has never been printed. Rothe (Paris, 1845) and Wolf (Vienna, 1861) have given the best accounts of it. Recently M. Ernest Martin has given a new critical edition of the Ancien Renart (3 vols., Strasburg and Paris, 1882-1887).

[63] The necessary expression of the genitive by de is later than this. Mediaeval French retained the inflection of nouns, though in a dilapidated condition. Properly speaking Renars is the nominative, Renart the general inflected case.

[64] This is a free translation of the last line of the original, which is as follows:—

Pour renard qui gelines tue,
Qui a la rousse peau vestue,
Qui a grand queue et quatre piés,
N'est pas ce livre communiés;
Mais pour cellui qui a deux mains
Dont il sont en ce siècle mains,
Qui ont sous la chappe Faulx Semblant.
Wolf, Op. cit. p. 5.

The final allusion is to a personage of the Roman de la Rose.

[65] Ed. Roquefort, vol. ii. See next chapter.

[66] By Dr. W. Förster. Heilbronn, 1882.

[Pg 62]



Early and Later Lyrics.

The lyric poetry of the middle ages in France divides itself naturally into two periods, distinguished by very strongly marked characteristics. The end of the thirteenth century is the dividing point in this as in many other branches of literature. After that we get the extremely interesting, if artificial, forms of the Rondeau and Ballade, with their many varieties and congeners. With these we shall not busy ourselves in the present chapter. But the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are provided with a lyric growth, less perfect indeed in form than that which occupied French singers from Machault to Marot, but more spontaneous, fuller of individuality, variety, and vigour, and scarcely less abundant in amount.

Origins of Lyric.
Romances and Pastourelles.

Before the twelfth century we find no traces of genuine lyrical work in France. The ubiquitous Cantilenae indeed again make their appearance in the speculations of literary historians, but here as elsewhere they have no demonstrable historical existence. Except a few sacred songs, sometimes, as in the case of Saint Eulalie, in early Romance language, sometimes in what the French call langue farcie, that is to say, a mixture of French and Latin, nothing regularly lyrical is found up to the end of the eleventh century. But soon afterwards lyric work becomes exceedingly abundant. This is what forms the contents of Herr Karl Bartsch's delightful volume of Romanzen und Pastourellen[67]. These are the two earliest forms of French lyric poetry. They are recognised by the[Pg 63] Troubadour Raimon Vidal as the special property of the Northern tongue, and no reasonable pretence has been put forward to show that they are other than indigenous. The tendency of both is towards iambic rhythm, but it is not exclusively manifested as in later verse. It is one of the most interesting things in French literary history to see how early the estrangement of the language from the anapaestic and dactylic measures natural to Teutonic speech began to declare itself[68]. These early poems bubble over with natural gaiety, their refrains, musical though semi-articulate as they are, are sweet and manifold in cadence, but the main body of the versification is either iambic or trochaic (it was long before the latter measure became infrequent), and the freedom of the ballad-metres of England and Germany is seldom present. The Romance differs in form and still more in subject from the Pastourelle, and both differ very remarkably from the form and manner of Provençal poetry. It has been observed by nearly all students, that the love-poems of the latter language are almost always at once personal and abstract in subject. The Romance and the Pastourelle, on the contrary, are almost always dramatic. They tell a story, and often (though not always in the case of the Pastourelle) they tell it of some one other than the singer. The most common form of the Romance is that of a poem varying from twenty lines long to ten times that length and divided into stanzas. These stanzas consist of a certain number (not usually less than three or more than eight) of lines of equal length capped with a refrain in a different metre. By far the best, though by no means the earliest, of them are those of Audefroy le Bastard, who, according to the late M. Paulin Paris, may be fixed at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Audefroy's poems are very much alike in plan, telling for the most part how the course of some impeded true love at last ran smooth. They rank with the very best mediaeval poetry in colour, in lively painting of manners and feelings, and in grace of versification. Unfortunately they are one and all rather too long for quotation here. The anonymous Romance of 'Bele Erembors' will represent the class well enough. The rhyme still bears traces of assonance, which is thought to have prevailed till Audefroy's time:—

[Pg 64]

Quant vient en mai, que l'on dit as lons jors,
Que Frans en France repairent de roi cort,
Reynauz repaire devant el premier front
Si s'en passa lez lo mes Arembor,
Ainz n'en designa le chief drecier a mont.
E Raynaut amis!
Bele Erembors a la fenestre au jor
Sor ses genolz tient paile de color;
Voit Frans de France qui repairent de cort,
E voit Raynaut devant el premier front:
En haut parole, si a dit sa raison.
E Raynaut amis!
'Amis Raynaut, j'ai ja veu cel jor
Se passisoiz selon mon pere tor,
Dolanz fussiez se ne parlasse a vos.'
'Ja mesfaistes, fille d'Empereor,
Autrui amastes, si obliastes nos.'
E Raynaut amis!
'Sire Raynaut, je m'en escondirai:
A cent puceles sor sainz vos jurerai,
A trente dames que avuec moi menrai,
C'onques nul hom fors vostre cors n'amai.
Prennez l'emmende et je vos baiserai.'
E Raynaut amis!
Li cuens Raynauz en monta lo degre,
Gros par espaules, greles par lo baudre;
Blonde ot lo poil, menu, recercele:
En nule terre n'ot so biau bacheler.
Voit l'Erembors, so comence a plorer.
E Raynaut amis!
Li cuens Raynauz est montez en la tor,
Si s'est assis en un lit point a flors,
Dejoste lui se siet bele Erembors.
  *  *  *  *  *  *
Lors recomencent lor premieres amors.
E Raynaut amis!

The Pastourelle is still more uniform in subject. It invariably represents the knight or the poet riding past and seeing a fair shepherdess by his road-side. He alights and woos her with or without success. In this class of poem the stanzas are usually longer, and consist of shorter lines than is the case with the Romances, while the refrains are more usually meaningless though[Pg 65] generally very musical. It is, however, well to add that the very great diversity of metrical arrangement in this class makes it impossible to give a general description of it. There are Pastourelles consisting merely of four-lined stanzas with no refrain at all. The following is a good specimen of the class:—

De Saint Quentin a Cambrai
Chevalchoie l'autre jour;
Les un boisson esgardai,
Touse i vi de bel atour.
La colour
Ot freche com rose en mai.
De cuer gai
Chantant la trovai
Ceste chansonnete
'En non deu, j'ai bel ami,
Cointe et joli,
Tant soie je brunete.'
Vers la pastoure tornai
Quant la vi en son destour;
Hautement la saluai
Et di 'deus vos doinst bon jour
Et honour.
Celle ke ci trove ai,
Sens delai
Ses amis serai.'
Dont dist la doucete
'En non deu, j'ai bel ami,
Cointe et joli,
Tant soie je brunete.'
Deles li seoir alai
Et li priai de s'amour,
Celle dist 'Je n'amerai
Vos ne autrui par nul tour,
Sens pastour,
Robin, ke fiencie l'ai.
Joie en ai,
Si en chanterai
Ceste chansonnete:
En non deu, j'ai bel ami,
Cointe et joli,
Tant soie je brunete.'

So various, notwithstanding the simplicity and apparent monotony of their subjects, are these charming poems, that it is difficult to give, by mere citation of any one or even of several, an idea of their beauty. In no part of the literature of the middle ages are its lighter characteristics more pleasantly shown. The childish freedom from care and afterthought, the half unconscious delight in the beauty of flowers and the song of birds, the innocent animal enjoyment of fine weather and the open country, are nowhere so well represented. Chaucer may give English readers some idea of all this, but even Chaucer is sophisticated in comparison with the numerous, and for the most part nameless, singers who preceded him by almost two centuries in France. As a purely formal and literary characteristic, the use of the burden or refrain is perhaps their most noteworthy peculiarity. Herr Bartsch has collected five hundred of these refrains, all different. There is nothing like this to be found in any other literature; and, as readers[Pg 66] of Béranger know, the fashion was preserved in France long after it had been given up elsewhere.

Thirteenth Century.
Changes in Lyric.

After the twelfth century the early lyrical literature of France undergoes some changes. In the first place it ceases to be anonymous, and individual singers—some of them, like Thibaut of Champagne, of very great merit and individuality—make their appearance. In the second place it becomes more varied but at the same time more artificial in form, and exhibits evident marks of the communication between troubadour and trouvère, and of the imitation by the latter of the stricter forms of Provençal poetry. The Romance and the Pastourelle are still cultivated, but by their side grow up French versions, often adapted with considerable independence, of the forms of the South[69]. Such, for instance, is the chanson d'amour, a form less artfully regulated indeed than the corresponding canzon or sestine of the troubadours, but still of some intricacy. It consists of five or six stanzas, each of which has two interlaced rhymes, and concludes with an Envoi, which, however, is often omitted. Chansonnettes on a reduced scale are also found. In these pieces the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, which was ultimately to become the chief distinguishing feature of French prosody, is observable, though it is by no means universal. To the Provençal tenson corresponds the jeu parti or verse dialogue, which is sometimes arranged in the form of a Chanson. The salut d'amour is a kind of epistle, sometimes of very great length and usually in octosyllabic verse, the decasyllable being more commonly used in the Chanson. Of this the complainte is only a variety. Again, the Provençal sirvente is represented by the northern serventois, a poem in Chanson form, but occupied instead of love with war, satire, religion, and miscellaneous matters. It has even been doubted whether the serventois is not the forerunner of the sirvente instead of the reverse being the case. Other forms are motets, rotruenges, aubades. Poems called rondeaux and ballades also make their appearance, but they are loose in construction and undecided in[Pg 67] form. The thirteenth century is, moreover, the palmy time of the Pastourelle. Most of those which we possess belong to this period, and exhibit to the full the already indicated characteristics of that graceful form. But the lyric forms of the thirteenth century are to some extent rather imitated than indigenous, and it is no doubt to the fact of this imitation that the common ascription of general poetical priority to the Langue d'Oc, unfounded as it has been sufficiently shown to be, is due in the main. The most courageous defenders of the North have wished to maintain its claims wholly intact even in this instance, but probability, if not evidence, is against them.

Traces of Lyric in the Thirteenth Century.
Quesnes de Bethune.
Thibaut de Champagne.

It has been said that the number of song writers from the end of the twelfth century to the end of the thirteenth is extremely large. M. Paulin Paris, whose elaborate chapter in the Histoire Littéraire is still the great authority on the subject, has enumerated nearly two hundred, to whose work have to be added hundreds of anonymous pieces. It would seem indeed that during a considerable period the practice of song writing was almost as incumbent on the French gentleman of the thirteenth century as that of sonnetteering on the English gentleman of the sixteenth. There are, however, not a few names which deserve separate notice. The first of these in point of time, and not the last in point of literary importance, is that of Quesnes de Bethune, the ancestor of Sully, and himself a famous warrior, statesman, and poet. His epitaph by a poet not usually remarkable for eloquence[70] is a very striking one. It gives us approximately the date of his death, 1224; and the word vieux is supposed to show that Quesnes must have been born at least as early as the middle of the twelfth century. He took part in two crusades, that of Philip Augustus and that which Villehardouin has chronicled. His poems[71] are of all classes, historical, satirical, and amorous, some of last being addressed to Marie, Countess of Champagne; and[Pg 68] his Chansons are, in the technical sense, some of the earliest we possess. Contemporary with Quesnes apparently was the personage who is known under the title of Châtelain de Coucy, and whose love for the Lady of Fayel resulted in an interchange of very tender and beautiful verse; the poem known as the lady's own is one of the very best of its kind. Long afterwards lover and lady became the hero and heroine of a romance, which has led some persons to throw doubt upon their historical existence, and the Lady of Fayel has even been deprived of her poem by a well-known kind of criticism. Of more importance is Thibaut de Champagne, King of Navarre, who is indeed the most important single figure of early French lyrical poetry. He was born in 1201, and died in 1253. His high position as a feudal prince in both north and south, the minority of St. Louis, and the intimate relations which existed between the King's mother, Blanche of Castille, and Thibaut, made him the mark for a good deal of satirical invective. There is a tradition that he was Blanche's lover, the only objection to which is that the Queen was thirty years his senior. Thibaut's poems have been more than once reprinted, the last edition being that of M. Tarbé[72]; this contains eighty-one pieces, not a few of which, however, are probably the work of others. The majority of them are Chansons d'Amour, of the kind just defined. There are, however, a good many Jeux-Partis, and a certain number of nondescript poems on miscellaneous subjects. There is more reason for the common opinion which attributes to Thibaut the marriage of the poetical qualities of northern and southern France, than the mere fact of his having been both Count of Champagne and King of Navarre. His poems have in reality something of the freshness and the individuality of the Trouvères, mixed with a great deal of the formal grace and elegance of the Troubadours. The following may serve as an example:—

Contre le tens qui desbrise
Yvers, et revient este,
Et la mauvis se desguise,
Qui de lonc tens n'a chante
Ferai chanson. Car a gre
Me vient que j'aie en pense
Amor, qui en moi s'est mise.
Bien m'a droit son dart gete.
[Pg 69]
Douce dame, de franchise,
N'ai je point en vos trove:
S'ele ne s'i est puis mise
Que je ne vos esgarde,
Trop avez vers moi fierte.
Mais ce fait vostre biaute,
Ou il n'i a pas de devise,
Tant en i a grand plante.
En moi n'a point d'astenance
Que je puisse aillors penser,
Pors que la, ou conoissance
Ne merci ne puis trover.
Bien fui fait por li amer;
Car ne m'en puis saoler.
Et quant plus aurai cheance,
Plus la me convendra douter.
D'une riens sui en doutance,
Que je ne puis plus celer,
Qu'en li n'ait un po d'enfance.
Ce me fait deconforter,
Que s'a moi a bon penser
Ne l'ose ele desmontrer.
Si feist qu'a sa semblance
Le poisse deviner.
Des que je li fis priere
Et la pris a esgarder,
Me fist amors la lumiere
Des iels par le cuer passer.
Cil conduit me fait grever:
Dont je ne me soi garder:
Ne ne puet torner arriere
Mon cuer; miex voudrait crever.
Dame, a vos m'estuet clamer,
Et que merci vos requiere.
Diex m'i laist pitie trover!
Minor Singers.
Adam de la Halle.

Besides Thibaut there are not a few other song writers of the thirteenth century, who rise out of the crowd named by M. Paulin Paris. Some of these, as might be expected, are famous for their achievements in other departments of literature. Such are Adam de la Halle, Jean Bodel, Guyot de Provins. There are, however, two, Gace Brulé and Colin Muset, who survive solely but worthily as song writers. Gace Brulé was a knight of Champagne, Colin Muset a professed minstrel. The former chiefly composed sentimental work; the latter, with the proverbial or professional gaiety of his class, drew nearer to the satirical tone of the Fabliau writers. His best-known and most usually quoted work describes the different welcome which he receives from his family on his return from professional tours, according to the success or ill-success with which he has met. Two other poets, Adam de la Halle and Rutebœuf, are far more prominent in literary history. Adam de la Halle[73] bore the surname 'Le Bossu d'Arras,' from his native town, though the term hunchback seems to have had no literal application to him.[Pg 70] His exact date is not known, but it must probably have been from the fourth to the ninth decade of the thirteenth century. His dramatic works, which are of signal importance, will be noticed elsewhere. But besides these he has left some seventy or eighty lyrical pieces of one kind or another. Adam's life was not uneventful; he was at first a monk, but left his convent and married. Then he proved as faithless to his temporal as he had been to his spiritual vows. He lampooned his wife, his family, his townsmen, and, shaking the dust of Arras from his feet, retired first to Douai and then to the court of Robert of Artois, whom he accompanied to Italy. He died in that country about 1288. The style of Adam de la Halle varies from the coarsest satire to the most graceful tenderness. Of the latter the following song is a good specimen:—

Comment porroie
Trouver voie
D'aler a chelui
Cui amiete je sui?
Chainturelle, va-i
En lieu de mi;
Car tu fus sieue aussi,
Si m'en conquerra miex.
Mais comment serai sans ti?
Chainturelle, mar vous vi;
Au deschaindre m'ochies;
De mes grietes a vous me confortoie,
Quant je vous sentoie,
Ai mi!
A le saveur de mon ami.
Ne pour quant d'autres en ai,
A cleus d'argent et de soie,
Pour men user.
Mais lasse! comment porroie
Sans cheli durer
Qui me tient en joie?
Canchonnete, chelui proie
Qui le m'envoya,
Puis que jou ne puis aler la.
Qu'il en viengne a moi,
Chi droit,
A jour failli,
[Pg 71] Pour faire tous ses boins,
Et il m'orra,
Quant il ert joins,
Canter a haute vois:
Par chi va la mignotise,
Par chi ou je vois.

Rutebœuf (whose name appears to be a nickname only) has been more fortunate than most of the poets of early France in leaving a considerable and varied work behind him, and in having it well and collectively edited[74]. Little or nothing, however, is known about him, except from allusions in his own verse. He was probably born about 1230; he was certainly married in 1260; there is no allusion in his poems to any event later than 1285. By birth he may have been either a Burgundian or a Parisian. His work which, as has been said, is not inconsiderable in volume, falls into three well-marked divisions in point of subject. The first consists of personal and of comic poems; the second of poems sometimes satirical, sometimes panegyrical, on public personages and events; the third, which is apparently with reason assigned to the latest period of his life, of devotional poems. In the first division La Pauvreté Rutebœuf, Le Mariage Rutebœuf, etc., are complaints of his woeful condition; complaints, however, in which there is nearly as much satire as appeal. Others, such as Renart le Bestourné, Le Dit des Cordeliers, Frère Denise, Le Dit de l'Erberie, are poems of the Fabliau kind. In all these there are many lively strokes of satire, and not a little of the reckless gaiety, chequered here and there with deeper feeling, which has always been a characteristic of a certain number of French poets. Rutebœuf's sarcasm is especially directed towards the monastic orders. The second class of poems, which is numerous, displays a more elevated strain of thought. Many of these poems are complaintes or elaborate elegies (often composed on commission) for distinguished persons, such as Geoffroy de Sargines and Guillaume de Saint Amour. Others, such as the Complainte d'Outremer, the Complainte de Constantinople, the Dit de la Voie de Tunes, the Débat du Croisé et du Décroisé, are comments[Pg 72] on the politics and history of the time, for the most part strongly in favour of the crusading spirit, and reproaching the nobility of France with their degeneracy. 'Mort sont Ogier et Charlemagne' is an often-quoted exclamation of Rutebœuf in this sense. The third class includes La Mort Rutebœuf, otherwise La Repentance Rutebœuf, La Voie de Paradis, various poems to the Virgin, the lives of St. Mary of Egypt and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and the miracle play of Théophile. Rutebœuf's favourite metres are either the continuous octosyllabic couplet, or else a stanza composed of an octosyllabic couplet and a line of four syllables, the termination of the latter being caught up by the succeeding couplet. In this the Mariage is written, of which a specimen may be given:—

En l'an de l'incarnacïon,
VIII jors aprés la nascïon
Jhesu qui soufri passïon,
en l'an soissante,
qu'arbres n'a foille, oisel ne chante,
fis je toute la rien dolante
que de cuer m'aime:
nis li musarz musart me claime.
or puis filer, qu'il me faut traime;
mult ai a faire.
deus ne fist cuer tant de pute aire,
tant li aie fait de contraire
ne de martire,
s'il en mon martire se mire,
qui ne doie de bon cuer dire
'je te claim cuite.'
envoier un home en Egypte,
ceste dolor est plus petite
que n'est la moie;
je n'en puis mais se je m'esmoie.
l'en dit que fous qui ne foloie
pert sa saison:
sui je marïez sanz raison?
or n'ai ne borde ne maison.
encor plus fort:
por plus doner de reconfort
a ceus qui me heent de mort,
tel fame ai prise
que nus fors moi n'aime ne prise,
et s'estoit povre et entreprise,
[Pg 73] quant je la pris.
a ci marïage de pris,
c'or sui povres et entrepris
ausi comme ele,
et si n'est pas gente ne bele.
cinquante anz a en s'escuële,
s'est maigre et seche:
n'ai pas paor qu'ele me treche.
despuis que fu nez en la greche
deus de Marie,
ne fu mais tele espouserie.
je sui toz plains d'envoiserie:
bien pert a l'uevre.

Though he has less of the 'lyrical cry' than some others, Rutebœuf is perhaps the most vigorous poet of his time.

Lais. Marie de France.

There is one division of early poetry which may also be noticed under this head, though it is sometimes dealt with as a kind of miniature epic. This is the lai, a term which is used in old French poetry with two different significations. The Trouvères of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries made of it a regular lyrical form. But the most famous of its examples, those which now pass under the name of Marie de France, are narrative poems in octosyllabic verse and varying in length considerably. It is agreed that the term and the thing are of Breton origin; and the opinion which seems most probable is that the word originally had reference rather to the style of music with which the harper accompanied his verse, than to the measure, arrangement, or subject of the latter. As to Marie herself[75], nothing is known about her with certainty. She lived in England in the reign of Henry III, and often gives English equivalents for her French words. The lais which we possess, written by her and attributed to her, are fourteen in number. They bear the titles of Gugemer, Equitan, Le Fresne, Le Bisclaveret, Lanval, Les Deux Amants, Ywenec, Le Laustic, Milun, Le Chaitivel, Le Chèvrefeuille, Eliduc, Graalent and L'Espine. Mr. O'Shaughnessy has paraphrased several of these in[Pg 74] English[76]; they are all narrative in character. Their distinguishing features are fluent and melodious versification, pure and graceful language—among the purest and most graceful, though decidedly Norman in character, of the time—true poetical feeling, and a lively faculty of invention and description. After Marie there was a tendency to approximate the lai to the Provençal descort, and at last, as we have said, it acquired rules and a form quite alien from those of its earlier examples. There is a general though not a universal inclination to melancholy of subject in the early lays, a few of which are anonymous.

Note to Third Edition.—M. Gaston Paris has expressed some surprise at my remarks on metre (p. 63). This from so accomplished a scholar is a curious instance of the difficulty which Frenchmen seem to feel in appreciating quantity. To an English eye and ear which have been trained to classical prosody the trochaic rhythm of, for instance, the Pastourelle quoted on p. 65, is unmistakable, and there are anapaestic metres to be found here and there in early poems of the same kind. Indeed, all French poetry is easily scanned quantitatively, though the usual authorities protest against such scansion. Voltaire, it is said, took Turgot's hexameters for prose, and the significance of this is the same whether the mistake, as is probable, was mischievous or whether it was genuine.


[67] Leipsic, 1870.

[68] See note at end of chapter.

[69] This miscellaneous lyric for the most part awaits collection and publication. M. G. Raynaud has given a valuable Bibliographie des Chansonniers Français des XIIIe et XIVe siècles. 2 vols., Paris, 1884. Also a collection of motets. Paris, 1881.

[70] Philippe Mouskès. This is it:

La terre fut pis en cest an
Quar li vieux Quesnes estoit mors.

[71] The best edition is in Schéler's Trouvères Belges. Brussels, 1876.

[72] Rheims, 1851.

[73] The most convenient place to look for Adam's history and work is Le Théâtre Français au Moyen Age. Par Monmerqué et Michel. Paris, 1874. There are also separate editions of him by Coussemaker, and more recently by A. Rambeau. Marburg, 1886.

[74] By A. Jubinal. 2nd edition. 3 vols. Paris, 1874.

[75] Ed. Roquefort. 2 vols. Paris, 1820. The first volume contains the lays; the later the fables, which have been noticed in the last chapter. Later edition, Warnke. Halle, 1885. Marie also wrote a poem on the Purgatory of St. Patrick. Three other lays, Tidorel, Gringamor, and Tiolet have been attributed to her, and are printed in Romania, vol. viii.

[76] Lays of France, London, 1872.

[Pg 75]



In consequence of the slowness with which prose was used for any regular literary purpose in France, verse continued to do duty for it until a comparatively late period in almost all departments of literature. By the very earliest years of the twelfth century, and probably much earlier (though we have no certain evidence of this latter fact), documents of all kinds began to be written in verse of various forms. Among the earliest serious verse that was written rank, as we might expect, verse chronicles. It was not till 1200 at soonest that long translations from the Latin in French prose were made, but such translations, and original works as well, were written in French verse long before.

Verse Chronicles.

The rhymed Chronicles were numerous, but, with rare exceptions, they cannot be said to be of any very great literary importance. Whether they were imitated directly from the Chansons de Gestes, or vice versa, is a question which, as it happens, can be settled without difficulty. For they are almost all in octosyllabic couplets, a metre certainly later than the assonanced decasyllabics of the earliest Chansons. The latter form and the somewhat later dodecasyllable or Alexandrine are rarely used for Verse Chronicles, the most remarkable exception being the spirited Combat des Trente[77], which is however very late, and the Chronique de du Guesclin of the same date. There are earlier examples of history in Alexandrines (some are found in the twelfth century, such as the account of Henry the Second's Scotch Wars by Jordan Fantome, Chancellor of the diocese of Winchester), but they are not numerous or important. It is not[Pg 76] unworthy of notice that the majority of the early Verse Chronicles are English or Anglo-Norman. The first of importance is that of Geoffrey Gaymar, whose Chronicle of English history was written about 1146. Gaymar was followed by a much better known writer, the Jerseyman Wace[78], who not only, as has been mentioned, versified Geoffrey of Monmouth into the Brut[79], but produced the important Roman de Rou[80], giving the history of the Dukes of Normandy and of the Conquest of England. The date of the Brut is 1155, of the Rou 1160. This latter is the better of the two, though Wace was not a great poet. It consists chiefly of octosyllabics, with a curious insertion of Alexandrines in rhymed not assonanced laisses. Wace was followed by Benoist de Sainte-More, who extended his Chronicle of the Dukes of Normandy to more than forty thousand verses. The 'Life of St. Thomas' (Becket), by Garnier de Pont St. Maxence, also deserves notice, as does an anonymous poem on the English wars in Ireland. But the most interesting of this group is probably the history[81] of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who died in 1219 and who during his life played a great part in England. It abounds in passages of historical interest and literary value. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the practice of writing history in verse gradually died out, yet some of the most important examples date from this time. Such are the Chronicles of Philippe Mouskès[82], a Fleming, in more than thirty thousand verses, extending from the Siege of Troy to the year 1243. Mouskès is of some importance in literary history, because of the great extent to which he has drawn on the Chansons de Gestes for his information. In 1304 Guillaume Guiart, a native of Orleans, wrote in twelve thousand verses a Chronicle of the thirteenth century, including a few years earlier and later. There are a large number of other Verse Chronicles, but few of them are of much importance historically, and fewer still of any literary interest.

[Pg 77]

History, however, was by no means the only serious subject which took this incongruous form in the middle ages. The amount of miscellaneous verse written during the period between the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the fifteenth century is indeed enormous. Only a very small portion of it has ever been printed, and the mere summary description of the manuscripts which contain it is as yet far from complete. If it be said generally that, during the greater part of these three hundred years, the first impulse of any one who wished to write, no matter on what subject, was to write in verse, and that the popular notion of the want of literary tastes in the middle ages is utterly mistaken, some idea may be formed of the vast extent of literature, poetical in form, which was then produced. Much no doubt of this literature is not in the least worthy of detailed notice; much, whether worthy or not, must from mere considerations of space and proportion remain unnoticed here. What is possible, is to indicate briefly the chief forms, authors, and subjects, which fall under the heading of this chapter, and to give a somewhat detailed account of the great serious poem of mediæval France, the Roman de la Rose. Peculiarities of metre and so forth will be indicated where it is necessary, but it may be said generally that the great mass of this literature is in octosyllabic couplets.

Miscellaneous Satirical Verse.

It has already been observed in discussing the Fabliaux that the first enquirers into old French literature were led to include a very miscellaneous assortment of poems under that head; and it may now be added that this miscellaneous assortment with much else constitutes the farrago of the present chapter. The two great poems of the Roman du Renart and the Roman de la Rose stand as representatives of the more or less serious poetry of the time, and everything else may be said to be included between them. Beginning nearest to the Roman du Renart and its kindred Fabliaux, we find a vast number of half-satirical styles of poetry, many, if not most of them, known (according to what has been noted in[Pg 78] the preface as characteristic of mediaeval literature) by distinctive form-names. Of these dits and débats have already been noticed, but it is not easy to give a notion of the number of the existing examples, or of the extraordinary diversity of subjects to which both, and especially the dits, extend. Perhaps some estimate may be formed from the fact that the dits of three Flemish poets alone, Baudouin de Condé, Jean de Condé, and Watriquet de Couvin, fill four stout octavo volumes[83]. The subjects of these and of the large number of dits composed by other writers and anonymous are almost innumerable. The earliest are for the most part simple enumerations of the names of streets, of street cries, of guilds, of coins, and such-like things. By degrees they become more definitely didactic, and at last allegorical moralising masters them as it does almost every other kind of poetry in the fourteenth century. The débat, sometimes called dispute, or bataille, is an easily understood variety of the dit. Rutebœuf's principal débat has been named; another in a less serious spirit is that between Charlot et le Barbier. There is a Bataille des Vins, a Bataille de Caréme et de Charnage, a Débat de l'Hiver et l'Été, etc., etc. Another name much used for half-satirical, half-didactic verse was that of Bible, of which the most famous (probably because it was the first known) is that of Guyot de Provins,—a violent onslaught on the powers that were in Church and State by a discontented monk. An extract from it will illustrate this division of the subject as well as anything else:—

Des fisicïens me merveil:
de lor huevre et de lor conseil
rai ge certes mont grant merveille,
nule vie ne s'apareille
a la lor, trop par est diverse
et sor totes autres perverse.
bien les nomme li communs nons;
mais je ne cuit qu'i ne soit hons
qui ne les doie mont douter.
il ne voudroient ja trover
nul home sanz aucun mehaing.
maint oingnement font e maint baing
ou il n'a ne senz ne raison,
cil eschape d'orde prison
[Pg 79] qui de lor mains puet eschaper.
qui bien set mentir et guiler
et faire noble contenance,
tout ont trové fors la crëance
que les genz ont lor fait a bien.
tiex mil se font fisicïen
qui n'en sevent voir nes que gié.
li plus maistre sont mont changié
de grant ennui, n'il n'est mestiers
dont il soit tant de mençongiers.
il ocïent mont de la gent:
ja n'ont ne ami ne parent
que il volsissent trover sain;
de ce resont il trop vilain.
mont a d'ordure en ces lïens.
qui en main a fisicïens,
se met par els. il m'ont ëu
entre lor mains: onques ne fu,
ce cuit, nule plus orde vie.
je n'aim mie lor compaignie,
si m'aït dex, qant je sui sains:
honiz est qui chiet en lor mains.
par foi, qant je malades fui,
moi covint soffrir lor ennui.

Testaments of the satirical kind, chiefly noteworthy for the brilliant use which Villon made of the tradition of composing them, resveries and fatrasies (nonsense poems with a more or less satirical drift), parodies of the offices of the Church, of its sermons, of the miracle plays, are the chief remaining divisions of the poetry which, under a light and scoffing envelope, conceals a serious purpose.

Didactic verse. Philippe de Thaun.

Such things have at all times been composed in verse, and the reason is sufficiently obvious. In the first place, the intention of the writers is to a certain extent masked, and in the second, the reader's attention is attracted. But the middle ages by no means confined the use of verse to such cases. Downright instruction was, as often as not, the object of the verse writer in those days. The earliest, and as such the most curious of didactic poems, are those of Philippe de Thaun, an Englishman of Norman extraction, who wrote in the first quarter of the twelfth century. His two works are a Comput, or Chronological Treatise,[Pg 80] dedicated to an uncle of his, who was chaplain to Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, and a Bestiary, or Zoological Catalogue, dedicated to Adela of Louvain, the wife of Henry the First. Written before the vogue of the versified Arthurian Romances had consecrated the octosyllable, these poems are in couplets of six syllables. Their great age, and to a certain extent their literary merit, deserve an extract:—

Monosceros est beste,
un corn ad en la teste,
pur çeo ad si a nun.
de buc ele ad façun.
par pucele eat prise,
or oëz en quel guise,
quant hom le volt cacer
et prendre et enginner,
si vent horn al orest
u sis repaires est;
la met une pucele
hors de sein sa mamele,
e par odurement
monosceros la sent;
dune vent a la pucele,
si baiset sa mamele,
en sun devant se dort,
issi vent a sa mort;
li hom survent atant,
ki l'ocit en dormant,
u trestut vif le prent,
si fait puis sun talent.
grant chose signefie,
ne larei nel vus die.
Monosceros griu est,
en franceis un-corn est:
beste de tel baillie
Jhesu Crist signefie;
un deu est e serat
e fud e parmaindrat;
en la virgine se mist,
e pur hom charn i prist,
e pur virginited,
pur mustrer casteed,
a virgine se parut
e virgine le conceut.
virgine est e serat
e tuz jurz parmaindrat.
ores oëz brefment
le signefïement.
Ceste beste en verté
nus signefie dé;
la virgine signefie,
sacez, sancte Marie;
par sa mamele entent
sancte eglise ensement;
e puis par le baiser
çeo deit signefïer,
que hom quant il se dort
en semblance est de mort:
dés cum home dormi,
ki en cruiz mort sufri,
ert sa destructïun
nostre redemptïun,
e sun traveillement
nostre reposement.
si deceut dés dïable
par semblant cuvenable;
anme e cors sunt un,
issi fud dés et hum,
e içeo signefie
beste de tel baillie.

Bestiaries and Computs (the French title of the Chronologies) were for some time the favourites with didactic verse writers, but before long the whole encyclopædia, as it was then understood, was turned into verse. Astrology, hunting, geography, law, medicine, history, the art of war, all had their treatises; and latterly Trésors, or complete popular educators, as they would be called[Pg 81] nowadays, were composed, the best-known of which is that of Walter of Metz in 1245.

Moral and Theological verse.

All, or almost all, these works, written as they were in an age sincerely pious, if somewhat grotesque in its piety, and theoretically moral, if somewhat loose in its practice, contained not only abundant moralising, but also more or less theology of the mystical kind. It would therefore have been strange if ethics and theology themselves had wanted special exponents in verse. Before the middle of the twelfth century Samson of Nanteuil (again an Englishman by residence) had versified the Proverbs of Solomon, and in the latter half of the same century vernacular lives of the saints begin to be numerous. Perhaps the most popular of these was the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, of which the fullest poetical form has been left us by an English trouvère of the thirteenth century named Chardry, by whom we have also a verse rendering of the 'Seven Sleepers,' and some other poems[84]. Somewhat earlier, Hermann of Valenciennes was a fertile author of this sort of work, composing a great Bible de Sapience or versification of the Old Testament, and a large number of lives of saints. Of books of Eastern origin, one of the most important was the Castoiement d'un Père à son Fils, which comes from the Panchatantra, though not directly. The translated work had great vogue, and set the example of other Castoiements or warnings. The monk Helinand at the end of the twelfth century composed a poem on 'Death,' and a vast number of similar poems might be mentioned. The commonest perhaps of all is a dialogue Des trois Morts et des trois Vifs, which exists in an astonishing number of variants. Gradually the tone of all this work becomes more and more allegorical. Dreams, Mirrors, Castles, such as the 'Castle of Seven Flowers,' a poem on the virtues, make their appearance.

Allegorical verse.
The Roman de la Rose.

The question of the origin of this habit of allegorising and personification is one which has been often incidentally discussed by literary historians, but which has never been exhaustively treated. It is certain that, at a very early period in the middle ages, it makes its appearance, though it is not in full[Pg 82] flourishing until the thirteenth century. It seems to have been a reflection in light literature of the same attitude of mind which led to the development of the scholastic philosophy, and, as in the case of that philosophy, Byzantine and Eastern influences may have been at work. Certain it is that in some of the later Greek romances[85], something very like the imagery of the Roman de la Rose is discoverable. Perhaps, however, we need not look further than to the natural result of leisure, mental activity, and literary skill, working upon a very small stock of positive knowledge, and restrained by circumstances within a very narrow range of employment. However this may be, the allegorising habit manifests itself recognisably enough in French literature towards the close of the twelfth century. In the Méraugis de Portlesguez of Raoul de Houdenc, the passion for arguing out abstract questions of lovelore is exemplified, and in the Roman des Eles of the same author the knightly virtues are definitely personified, or at least allegorised. At the same time some at all events of the Troubadours, especially Peire Wilhem, carried the practice yet further. Merci, Pudeur, Loyauté, are introduced by that poet as persons whom he met as he rode on his travels. In Thibaut de Champagne a still further advance was made. The representative poem of this allegorical literature, and moreover one of the most remarkable compositions furnished by the mediaeval period in France, is the Roman de la Rose[86]. It is doubtful whether any other poem of such a length has ever attained a popularity so wide and so enduring. The Roman de la Rose extends to more than twenty thousand lines, and is written in a very peculiar style; yet it maintained its vogue, not merely in France but throughout Europe, for nearly three hundred years from the date of its commencement, and for more than two hundred from that of its conclusion. The history of the composition of the poem is singular. It was begun by William of Lorris, of whom little or nothing is known, but whose work must, so far as it is easy to make out, have been done before 1240, and is sometimes fixed at 1237. This portion extends to 4670 lines, and ends quite abruptly. About forty years later,[Pg 83] Jean de Meung, or Clopinel, afterwards one of Philippe le Bel's paid men of letters, continued it without preface, taking up William of Lorris' cue, and extended it to 22,817 verses, preserving the metre and some of the personages, but entirely altering the spirit of the treatment. The importance of the poem requires that such brief analysis as space will allow shall be given here. Its general import is sufficiently indicated by the heading,—

Ci est le Rommant de la Rose
Où l'art d'amors est tote enclose;

though the rage for allegory induced its readers to moralise even its allegorical character, and to indulge in various far-fetched explanations of it. In the twentieth year of his age, the author says, he fell asleep and dreamed a dream. He had left the city on a fair May morning, and walked abroad till he came to a garden fenced in with a high wall. On the wall were portrayed figures, Hatred, Félonnie, Villonie, Covetousness, Avarice, Envy, Sadness, Old Age, Papelardie (Hypocrisy), Poverty—all of which are described at length. He strives to enter in, and at last finds a barred wicket at which he is admitted by Dame Oiseuse (Leisure), who tells him that Déduit (Delight) and his company are within. He finds the company dancing and singing, Dame Liesse (Enjoyment) being the chief songstress, while Courtesy greets him and invites him to take part in the festival. The god of love himself is then described, with many of his suite—Beauty, Riches, etc. A further description of the garden leads to the fountain of Narcissus, whose story is told at length. By this the author, who is thenceforth called the lover, sees and covets a rosebud. But thorns and thistles bar his way to it, and the god of love pierces him with his arrows. He does homage to the god, who accepts his service, and addresses a long discourse to him on his future duties and conduct. The prospect somewhat alarms him, when a new personage, Bel Acueil (Gracious Reception), comes up and tenders his services to the lover, the god having disappeared. Almost immediately, however, Dangier[87] makes his appearance, and drives both the lover and Bel[Pg 84] Acueil out of the garden. As the former is bewailing his fate, Reason appears and remonstrates with him. He persists in his desire, and parleys with Dangier, both directly and by ambassadors, so that in the end he is brought back by Bel Acueil into the garden and allowed to see but not to touch the rose. Venus comes to his aid, and he is further allowed to kiss it. At this, however, Shame, Jealousy, and other evil agents reproach Dangier. Bel Acueil is immured in a tower, and the lover is once more driven forth.

Here the portion due to William of Lorris ends. Its main characteristics have been indicated by this sketch, except that the extreme beauty and grace of the lavish descriptions which enclose and adorn the somewhat commonplace allegory perforce escape analysis. It is in these descriptions, and in a certain tenderness and elegance of general thought and expression, that the charm of the poem lies, and this is very considerable. The deficiency of action, however, and the continual allegorising threaten to make it monotonous had it been much longer continued in the same strain.

It is unlikely that it was this consideration which determined Jean de Meung to adopt a different style. In his time literature was already agitated by violent social, political, and religious debates, and the treasures of classical learning were becoming more and more commonly known. But prose had not yet become a common literary vehicle, save for history, oratory, and romance, nor had the duty of treating one thing at a time yet impressed itself strongly upon authors. Jean de Meung was satirically disposed, was accomplished in all the learning of his day, and had strong political opinions. He determined accordingly to make the poem of Lorris, which was in all probability already popular, the vehicle of his thoughts.

In doing this he takes up the story as his predecessor had left it, at the point where the lover, deprived of the support of Bel Acueil, and with the suspicions of Dangier thoroughly aroused against him,[Pg 85] lies despairing without the walls of the delightful garden. Reason is once more introduced, and protests as before, but in a different tone and much more lengthily. She preaches the disadvantages of love in a speech nearly four hundred lines long, followed by another double the length, and then by a dialogue in which the lover takes his share. The difference of manner is felt at once. The allegory is kept up after a fashion, but instead of the graceful fantasies of William of Lorris, the staple matter is either sharp and satirical views of actual life, or else examples drawn indifferently from sacred and profane history. One speech of Reason's, a thousand lines in length, consists of a collection of instances of this kind showing the mobility of fortune. At length she leaves the lover as she found him, 'melancolieux et dolant,' but unconvinced. Amis (the friend), who has appeared for a moment previously, now reappears, and comforts him, also at great length, dwelling chiefly on the ways of women, concerning which much scandal is talked. The scene with Reason had occupied nearly two thousand lines; that with Amis extends to double that length, so that Jean de Meung had already excelled his predecessor in this respect. Profiting by the counsel he has received, the lover addresses himself to Riches, who guards the way, but fruitlessly. The god of love, however, takes pity on him (slightly ridiculing him for having listened to Reason), and summons all his folk to attack the tower and free Bel Acueil. Among these Faux Semblant presents himself, and, after some parley, is received. This new personification of hypocrisy gives occasion to some of the author's most satirical touches as he describes his principles and practice. After this, Faux Semblant and his companion, Contrainte Astenance (forced or feigned abstinence), set to work in favour of the lover, and soon win their way into the tower. There they find an old woman who acts as Bel Acueil's keeper. She takes a message from them to Bel Acueil, and then engages in a singular conversation with her prisoner, wherein the somewhat loose morality of the discourses of Amis is still further enforced by historical examples, and by paraphrases of not a few passages from Ovid. She afterward admits the lover, who thus, at nearly the sixteen-thousandth line from the beginning, recovers through the help of False Seeming[Pg 86] the 'gracious reception' which is to lead him to the rose. The castle, however, is not taken, and Dangier, with the rest of his allegorical company, makes a stout resistance to 'Les Barons de L'Ost'—the lords of Love's army. The god sends to invoke the aid of his mother, and this introduces a new personage. Nature herself, and her confidant, Genius, are brought on the scene, and nearly five thousand verses serve to convey all manner of thoughts and scraps of learning, mostly devoted to the support, as before, of questionably moral doctrines. In these five thousand lines almost all the current ideas of the middle ages on philosophy and natural science are more or less explicitly contained. Finally, Venus arrives and, with her burning brand, drives out Dangier and his crew, though even at this crisis of the action the writer cannot refrain from telling the story of Pygmalion and the Image at length. The way being clear, the lover proceeds unmolested to gather the longed-for rose.

Popularity of the Roman de la Rose.

It is impossible to exaggerate, and not easy to describe, the popularity which this poem enjoyed. Its attacks on womanhood and on morality generally provoked indeed not a few replies, of which the most important came long afterwards from Christine de Pisan and from Gerson. But the general taste was entirely in favour of it. Allegorical already, it was allegorised in fresh senses, even a religious meaning being given to it. The numerous manuscripts which remain of it attest its popularity before the days of printing. It was frequently printed by the earliest typographers of France, and even in the sixteenth century it received a fresh lease of life at the hands of Marot, who re-edited it. Abroad it was praised by Petrarch and translated by Chaucer[88]; and it is on the whole not too much to say that for fully two centuries it was the favourite book in the vernacular literature of Europe. Nor was it unworthy of this popularity. As has been pointed out, the grace of the part due to William of Lorris is remarkable, and the satirical vigour of the part due to Jean de Meung perhaps more remarkable still. The allegorising and the length which repel readers of to-day did not disgust[Pg 87] generations whose favourite literary style was the allegorical, and who had abundance of leisure; but the real secret of its vogue, as of all such vogues, is that it faithfully held up the mirror to the later middle ages. In no single book can that period of history be so conveniently studied. Its inherited religion and its nascent free-thought; its thirst for knowledge and its lack of criticism; its sharp social divisions and its indistinct aspirations after liberty and equality; its traditional morality and asceticism, and its half-pagan, half-childish relish for the pleasures of sense; its romance and its coarseness, all its weakness and all its strength, here appear.


The imitations of the Roman de la Rose were in proportion to its popularity. Much of this imitation took place in other kinds of poetry, which will be noticed hereafter. Two poems, however, which are almost contemporary with its earliest form, and which have only recently been published, deserve mention. One, which is an obvious imitation of Guillaume de Lorris, but an imitation of considerable merit, is the Roman de la Poire[89], where the lover is besieged by Love in a tower. The other, of a different class, and free from trace of direct imitation, is the short poem called De Venus la Déesse d'Amors[90], written in some three hundred four-lined stanzas, each with one rhyme only. Some passages of this latter are very beautiful.

Three extracts, two from the first part of the Roman de la Rose, and one from the second, will show its style:—

En iceli tens déliteus,
Que tote riens d'amer s'esfroie,
Sonjai une nuit que j'estoie,
Ce m'iert avis en mon dormant,
Qu'il estoit matin durement;
De mon lit tantost me levai,
Chauçai-moi et mes mains lavai.
Lors trais une aguille d'argent
D'un aguiller mignot et gent,
Si pris l'aguille à enfiler.
Hors de vile oi talent d'aler,
Por oïr des oisiaus les sons
Qui chantoient par ces boissons
[Pg 88] En icele saison novele;
Cousant mes manches à videle,
M'en alai tot seus esbatant,
Et les oiselés escoutant,
Qui de chanter moult s'engoissoient
Par ces vergiers qui florissoient,
Jolis, gais et pleins de léesce.
Vers une rivière m'adresce
Que j'oï près d'ilecques bruire.
Car ne me soi aillors déduire
Plus bel que sus cele rivière.
D'un tertre qui près d'iluec ière
Descendoit l'iaue grant et roide,
Clere, bruiant et aussi froide
Comme puiz, ou comme fontaine,
Et estoit poi mendre de Saine,
Mès qu'ele iere plus espandue.
Onques mès n'avoie véue
Tele iaue qui si bien coroit:
Moult m'abelissoit et séoit
A regarder le leu plaisant.
De l'iaue clere et reluisant
Mon vis rafreschi et lavé.
Si vi tot covert et pavé
Le fons de l'iaue de gravele;
La praérie grant et bele
Très au pié de l'iaue batoit.
Clere et serie et bele estoit
La matinée et atemprée:
Lors m'en alai parmi la prée
Contreval l'iaue esbanoiant,
Tot le rivage costoiant.
  *  *  *  *  *  *
Une ymage ot emprès escrite,
Qui sembloit bien estre ypocrite,
Papelardie ert apelée.
C'est cele qui en recelée,
Quant nus ne s'en puet prendre garde,
De nul mal faire ne se tarde.
El fait dehors le marmiteus,
Si a le vis simple et piteus,
Et semble sainte créature;
Mais sous ciel n'a male aventure
Qu'ele ne pense en son corage.
Moult la ressembloit bien l'ymage
Qui faite fu à sa semblance,
Qu'el fu de simple contenance;
Et si fu chaucie et vestue
Tout ainsinc cum fame rendue.
[Pg 89] En sa main un sautier tenoit,
Et sachiés que moult se penoit
De faire à Dieu prières faintes,
Et d'appeler et sains et saintes.
El ne fu gaie ne jolive,
Ains fu par semblant ententive
Du tout à bonnes ovres faire;
Et si avoit vestu la haire.
Et sachiés que n'iere pas grasse.
De jeuner sembloit estre lasse,
S'avoit la color pale et morte.
A li et as siens ert la porte
Dévéée de Paradis;
Car icel gent si font lor vis
Amegrir, ce dit l'Évangile,
Por avoir loz parmi la vile,
Et por un poi de gloire vaine,
Qui lor toldra Dieu et son raine.
  *  *  *  *  *  *
Comment le traistre Faulx-Semblant
Si va les cueurs des gens emblant,
Pour ses vestemens noirs et gris,
Et pour son viz pasle amaisgris.
'Trop sai bien mes habiz changier,
Prendre l'un, et l'autre estrangier.
Or sui chevaliers, or sui moines,
Or sui prélas, or sui chanoines,
Or sui clers, autre ore sui prestres,
Or sui desciples, or sui mestres,
Or chastelains, or forestiers:
Briément, ge sui de tous mestiers.
Or resui princes, or sui pages,
Or sai parler trestous langages;
Autre ore sui viex et chenus,
Or resui jones devenus.
Or sui Robers, or sui Robins,
Or cordeliers, or jacobins.
Si pren por sivre ma compaigne
Qui me solace et acompaigne,
(C'est dame Astenance-Contrainte),
Autre desguiséure mainte,
Si cum il li vient à plesir
Por acomplir le sien désir.
Autre ore vest robe de fame;
Or sui damoisele, or sui dame,
Autre ore sui religieuse,
Or sui rendue, or sui prieuse,
Or sui nonain, or sui abesse,
Or sui novice, or sui professe;
[Pg 90] Et vois par toutes régions
Cerchant toutes religions. Mès de religion, sans faille,
G'en pren le grain et laiz la paille;
Por gens avulger i abit,
Ge n'en quier, sans plus, que l'abit.
Que vous diroie? en itel guise
Cum il me plaist ge me desguise;
Moult sunt en moi mué li vers,
Moult sunt li faiz aux diz divers.
Si fais chéoir dedans mes piéges
Le monde par mes priviléges;
Ge puis confesser et assoldre,
(Ce ne me puet nus prélas toldre,)
Toutes gens où que ge les truisse;
Ne sai prélat nul qui ce puisse,
Fors l'apostole solement
Qui fist cest establissement
Tout en la faveur de nostre ordre.'


[77] This is an account of the battle of thirty Englishmen and thirty Bretons in the Edwardian wars.

[78] There is, it appears, no authority for the Christian name of Robert which used to be given to Wace.

[79] Wace's Brut is not the only one. The title seems to have become a common name.

[80] The old edition of the Roman de Rou, by Pluquet, has been entirely superseded by that of Dr. Hugo Andresen. 2 vols. Heilbronn, 1877-1879.

[81] Discovered recently in the Middlehill collection, and known chiefly by an article in Romania (Jan. 1882), giving an abstract and specimens.

[82] Ed. Reiffenberg. Brussels, 1835-1845.

[83] Ed. Schéler. Brussels, 1866-1868.

[84] Well edited by Koch. Heilbronn, 1879.

[85] See especially Hysminias and Hysmine.

[86] Ed. F. Michel. 2 vols. Paris, 1864.

[87] Dangier is not exactly 'danger.' To be 'en dangier de quelqu'un' is to be 'in somebody's power.' Dangier is supposed to stand for the guardian of the beloved, father, brother, husband, etc. This at least has been the usual interpretation, and seems to me to be much the more probable. M. Gaston Paris, however, and others, see in Dangier the natural coyness and resistance of the beloved object, not any external influence.

[88] Chaucer's authorship of the existing translation has been denied. It is, however, certain that he did translate the poem.

[89] Ed. Stehlich. Halle, 1881.

[90] Ed. Förster. Berne, 1880.

[Pg 91]



Distinguishing features of Romans d'Aventures.

The remarkable fecundity of early French literature in narrative poetry on the great scale was not limited to the Chanson de Geste, the Arthurian Romance, and the classical story wrought into the likeness of one or the other of these. Towards the end of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century a new class of narrative poems arose, derived from each and all of these kinds, but marked by important differences. The new form immediately reacted on the forms which had given it birth, and produced new Chansons de Gestes, new Arthurian Romances, and new classical stories fashioned after its own image. This is what is called the Roman d'Aventures, of which the first and main feature is open and almost avowed fictitiousness, and the second the more or less complete abandonment of any attempt at cyclic arrangement or subordination to a central theme.

Looser application of the term.
Classes of Romans d'Aventures.

Until quite recently it was not unusual to apply the term Roman d'Aventures with less strictness, and to make it include the Romances of the Round Table. There can, however, be no doubt that it is far better to adopt Jean Bodel's three classes as distinguishing into separate groups the epic poetry of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and to restrict the title Romans d'Aventures to the later narrative developments of the thirteenth and fourteenth. For the second distinguishing mark which we have just indicated is striking and of more or less universal application. In these later poems the ambition of the writer to class his work under and with some precedent work is almost entirely[Pg 92] absent. He allows himself complete freedom, though he may sometimes, in order to give his characters greater interest, connect them nominally with some famous personage or event of the earlier cycles. This tendency to shake off the shackles of cyclicism is early apparent. There are episodes even in the Chansons de Gestes which have little or no reference to Charlemagne or his peers: the Arthurian Romances in prose and verse contain long digressions, holding but very loosely to the Table Round, such as the adventures of Tristram and Percivale, and still more the singular episode of Grimaud in the Saint Graal. As for the third class, the Trouvères almost from the beginning assumed the greatest licence in their handling of the classical legends. These accordingly were less affected than any others by the change. It is possible to divide the Romans d'Aventures themselves under the three headings. It is further possible to indicate a large class of Chansons de Gestes over which the influence of the Roman d'Aventures has passed. But the Chanson having a special formal peculiarity—the assonanced or rhymed tirade—survived the new influence better than the other two, and keeps its name, and to some extent its character, while the Romances of Arthur and antiquity are simply lost in the general body of tales of adventure. These tales are for the most part written in octosyllabic couplets on the model of Chrestien, but a very few, such as Brun de la Montaigne, imitate the exterior characteristics of the Chanson.

It is further to be noticed that while the earlier poems are mostly anonymous, the Romans d'Aventures are generally, though not always, signed, and bear characteristics of particular authorship. In some cases, notably in those of Adenès le Roi and Raoul de Houdenc, we have a body of work signed or otherwise identified, which enables us to attribute a definite literary character and position to its authors. This, as we have noted, is impossible in the case of the national epics, and not too easy in that of the Arthurian Romances. Until quite recently however the Roman d'Aventures has had less of the attention of editors than its forerunners, and the works which compose the class are still to some extent unpublished.[Pg 93]

Adenès le Roi.

Adenès or Adans le Roi perhaps derived his surname from the function of king of the minstrels, if he performed it, at the court of Henry III, duke of Brabant. He was, most likely, born in the second quarter of the thirteenth century, and the last probable allusion to him which we have occurs in the year 1297. The events of his life are only known from his own poems, and consist chiefly of travels in company with different princesses and princes of Flanders and Brabant. His literary work is however of great importance. It consists partly of refashionings of three Chansons de Gestes, Les enfances Ogier, Berte aus grans Piés, and Bueves de Commarchis[91]. In these three poems Adenès works up the old epics into the form fashionable in his time, and as we possess the older versions of the first and last, the comparison of the two forms affords a literary study of the highest interest. His last, longest, and most important work is the Roman d'Aventures of Cléomadès[92], a poem extending to 20,000 verses, and not less valuable for its intrinsic merit than as a type of its class. Its popularity in the middle ages was immense. Froissart gives it the place occupied in the Inferno by Lancelot in his description of his declaration of love to his mistress, and allusions to it under its second title of Le Cheval de Fust[93] are frequent. The most prominent feature in the story is the introduction of a wooden horse, like that known to everybody in the Arabian Nights, which, started and guided by means of pegs, transports its rider whithersoever he will. Its great length allows of a very long series of adventures, all of which are told in spirited and flowing verse, though with considerable prolixity and a certain abuse of stock descriptions. These two faults characterise all the Romans d'Aventures and the Chansons which were remodelled in their style. The merits of Cléomadès are not so universally found, but its extreme length is not common. Few other Romans d'Aventures exceed 10,000 lines. An extract from this poem will well illustrate the manner of this important class of composition:—

[Pg 94]

Cleomadés vit un chastel
encoste un plain, tres fort et bel,
ou il ot mainte bele tour.
bos et rivieres vit entour,
vignes et praieries grans.
mult fu li chastiaus bien sëans.
la façon dou castel deïsse,
mais je dout mult que ne meïsse
trop longement au deviser:
pour ce m'en voel briément passer.
Du chastel vous dirai le non:
miols sëant ne vit aine nus hom,
lors l'apieloit on Chastel-noble.
n'ot tel dusque en Constantinoble,
ne de la dusque en Osterice
n'ot plus bel, plus fort ne plus rice.
carmans a cel point i estoit
que Cleomadés vint la droit.
forment li sambloit li chastiaus
de toutes pars riches et biaus.
Cleomadés lors s'avisa
que viers le chastel se trera.
bien pensoit qu'en tel liu manoient
gent qui de grant afaire estoient.
che fu si qu'apriés l'ajournee
mult faisoit bele matinee,
car mais estoit nouviaus entrés:
c'est uns tans ki mult est amés
et de toutes gens conjoïs;
pour çou a non mais li jolis.
une tres grant tour haute et forte
avoit asés priés de la porte,
ki estoit couverte de plon,
plate deseure, car adon
les faisoit on ensi couvrir
pour engins et pour assallir.
Cleomadés a avisee
la tour ki estoit haute et lee;
lors pense qu'il s'arestera
sor cele tour tant qu'il savra,
se il puet, la certainité
quel païs c'est la verité.
lors a son cheval adrechié
viers la tour de marbre entaillié.
les chevilletes si tourna
que droit sour la tour aresta.
si coiement s'est avalés
que sour aighe coie vait nés.
[Pg 95]
Raoul de Houdenc.

Raoul de Houdenc is an earlier poet than Adenès, and represents the Roman d'Aventures in its infancy, when it still found it necessary to attach itself to the great cycle of the Round Table. His works, besides some shorter poems[94], consist of the Roman des Eles (Ailes), a semi-allegorical composition, describing the wings and feathers of chivalry, that is to say, the great chivalrous virtues, among which Raoul, like a herald as he was, gives Largesse the first place; of Méraugis de Portlesguez, an important composition, possessing some marked peculiarities of style; and possibly also of the Vengeance de Raguidel, in which the author works out one of the innumerable unfinished episodes of the great epic of Percevale. Thus Raoul de Houdenc occupies no mean place in French literature, inasmuch as he indicates the starting-point of two great branches, the Roman d'Aventures and the allegorical poem, and this at a very early date. This date is not known exactly; but it was certainly before 1228, when the Trouvère Huon de Méry alludes to him, and classes him with Chrestien as a master of French verse. He has in truth some very noteworthy peculiarities. The chief of these, which must soon strike any reader of Méraugis, is his tendency to enjambement or overlapping of couplets. It is a curious feature in the history of French verse that the isolation of the couplet has constantly recurred in its history, and that as constantly reformers have striven to break up the monotony so produced by this process of enjambement. Perhaps Raoul is the earliest who thus, as an indignant critic put it at the first representation of Hernani, 'broke up verses, and threw them out of window.' Besides this metrical characteristic, the thing most noteworthy in his poems (as might indeed have been expected from his composition of the Roman des Eles) is a tendency to allegorising, and to scholastic disquisitions on points of amatory casuistry. The whole plot of Méraugis indeed turns on the enquiry whether physical or metaphysical love is the sincerest, and on the quarrel which a difference on this[Pg 96] point brings on between the hero and Gorvein Cadrus his friend and his rival in the love of the fair Lidoine.

Chief Romans d'Aventures.

Many other Romans d'Aventures deserve mention, both for their intrinsic merits and for the immense popularity they once enjoyed. Foremost among these must be mentioned Partenopex de Blois[95] and Flore et Blanchefleur[96]. The former (formerly ascribed to Denis Pyramus and now denied to him, but said to date from the twelfth century) is a kind of modernised Cupid and Psyche, except that Cupid's place is taken by the fairy Melior, and Psyche's by the knight Parthenopeus or Parthenopex. This poem has great elegance and freshness of style, and though the author is inclined to moralise (as a near forerunner of the Roman de la Rose was bound to do), his moralisings are gracefully and naively put. Flore et Blanchefleur is perhaps even superior. Its theme is the love of a young Christian prince for a Saracen girl-slave, who has been brought up with him. She is sold into a fresh captivity to remove her from him, but he follows her and rescues her unharmed from the harem of the Emir of Babylon. The delicacy of the handling is very remarkable in this poem, and it has some links of connection with Aucassin et Nicolette. Le Roman de Dolopathos[97] has a literary history of great interest which we need not touch upon here. Its versification has more vigour than that of almost any other Roman d'Aventures. Blancandin et l'Orguilleuse d'Amour[98] is more promising at the beginning than in the sequel. A young knight, hearing of the pride and coyness of a lady, accosts and kisses her as she rides past with a great following of knights. Her coldness is of course changed to love at first sight, and the audacious suitor afterwards delivers her from her enemies; but the working out of the story is rather dully managed. Brun de la Montaigne[99], as has been already mentioned, is written in Chanson form, and deals with the famous Forest of Broceliande in Britanny. Guillaume de Palerne[100] is a still more interesting work. It introduces the favourite mediaeval idea of lycanthropy, the hero being throughout[Pg 97] helped and protected by a friendly were-wolf, who is before the end of the poem freed from the enchantment to which he is subjected. This Romance was early translated into English. Of the same class is the Roman de l'Escouffle, where a hawk carries away the heroine's ring, as in a well-known story of the Arabian Nights. Amadas et Idoine[101] is one of the numerous histories of the success of a squire of low degree, but is distinguished from most of them by the originality of its conception and the vigour of its style. The scenes where the hero is recovered of his madness by his beloved, and where, keeping guard over her tomb, he fights with ghostly enemies, after a time of trial of his fidelity, and rescues her from death, are unusually brilliant. Le Bel Inconnu[102], which (from a curious misunderstanding of its older form Li Biaus Desconnus) occurs in English form as Lybius Diasconus, tells the story of a son of Gawain and the fairy with the white hands, and thus is one of the numerous secondary Romances of the Round Table. So also is the long and interesting Roman du Chevalier as Deux Espées[103]; this extends to more than 12,000 lines, and, though the adventures recorded are of the ordinary Round Table pattern, there is noticeable in it a better faculty of maintaining the interest and a completer mastery over episodes than usual. A still longer poem (also belonging to what may be called the outer Arthurian cycle) is Durmart le Gallois[104], which contains almost 16,000 verses. The loves of the hero and Fenise, the Queen of Ireland, are somewhat lengthily handled; but there are passages of merit, especially one most striking episode in which the hero, riding through a forest by night, comes to a tree covered from top to bottom with burning torches, while a shining naked child is enthroned on the summit. These touches of mystical religion are rarer in the later Romans d'Aventures than in the Arthurian Romances proper, but with them one of the most remarkable elements of romance disappears. Philippe de Rémy, Seigneur de Beaumanoir (who has other claims to literary distinction) is held to be author of two Romans d'Aventures[105], La[Pg 98] Manekine (the story of the King of Hungary's daughter, who cut off her hand to save herself from her father's incestuous passion) and Blonde d'Oxford, where a young French squire carries off an English heiress. Joufrois de Poitiers[106], which has not come down to us complete, is chiefly remarkable for the liveliness of style with which adventures, in themselves tolerably hackneyed, are handled. Other Romans d'Aventures, which are either as yet in manuscript or of less importance, are Ille et Galeron and Eracle, both by Gautier d'Arras, Cristal et Larie, La Dame à la Licorne, Guy de Warwike, Gérard de Nevers or La Violette[107], Guillaume de Dole, Elédus et Séréna, Florimont.

General Character.

Like most kinds of mediaeval poetry, these Romans d'Aventures have a very considerable likeness the one to the other. It may indeed be said that they possess a 'common form' of certain incidents and situations, which reappear with slight changes and omissions in all or most of them. Their besetting sins are diffuseness and the recurrence of stock descriptions and images. On the other hand, they have their peculiar merits. The harmony of their versification is often very considerable; their language is supple, picturesque, and varied, and the moral atmosphere which they breathe is one of agreeable refinement and civilisation. In them perhaps is seen most clearly the fanciful and graceful side of the state of things which we call chivalry. Its mystical and transcendental sides are less vividly and touchingly exhibited than in the older Arthurian Romances; and its higher passions are also less dealt with. The Romans d'Aventures supply once more, according to the Aristotelian definition, an Odyssey to the Arthurian Iliad; they are complex and deal with manners. Nor ought it to be omitted that, though they constantly handle questions of gallantry, and though their uniform theme is love, the language employed on these subjects is almost invariably delicate, and such as would not fail to satisfy even modern standards of propriety. The courtesy which was held to be so great a knightly virtue, if it was not sufficient to ensure a high standard of morality in conduct, at any rate secured such a standard in[Pg 99] matter of expression. In this respect the Court literature of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries stands in very remarkable contrast to that which was tolerated, if not preferred, from the time of Louis the Eleventh until the reign of his successor fourteenth of the name.

Last Chansons. Baudouin de Sebourc.

Reference has already been made to the influence which these poems had on the Chansons de Gestes. Few of the later developments of these are worth much attention, but what may be called the last original Chanson deserves some notice. Baudouin de Sebourc[108] and its sequel the Bastard of Bouillon[109] worthily close this great division of literature, and, setting as they do a finish to the sub-cycle of the Chevalier au Cygne, hardly lose except in simplicity by comparison with its magnificent opening in the Chanson d'Antioche. They contain together some 33,000 verses, and the scene changes freely. It is sometimes in Syria, where the Crusaders fight against the infidel, sometimes in France and Flanders, where Baudouin has adventures of all kinds, comic and chivalrous, sometimes on the sea, where among other things the favourite mediaeval legend of St. Brandan's Isle is brought in. Not a little of its earlier part shows the sarcastic spirit common at the date of its composition, the beginning of the fourteenth century. The length of the two poems is enormous, as has been said; but, putting two or three masterpieces aside, no poem of mediaeval times has a more varied and livelier interest than Baudouin de Sebourc, and few breathe the genuine Chanson spirit of pugnacious piety better than Le Bastart de Bouillon.


[91] Ed. Schéler. Brussels, v. d.

[92] Ed. van Hasselt. Brussels, 1866.

[93] The wooden horse.

[94] The Songe d'Enfer and the Voie de Paradis, published by Jubinal, as the Roman des Eles has been by Schéler, Méraugis by Michelant, and the Vengeance de Raguidel by Hippeau.

[95] Ed. Crapelet. Paris, 1834.

[96] Ed. Du Méril. Paris, 1856.

[97] Ed. Brunet et Montaiglon. Paris, 1856.

[98] Ed. Michelant. Paris, 1867.

[99] Ed. Meyer. Paris, 1875.

[100] Ed. Michelant. Paris, 1876.

[101] Ed. Hippeau. Paris, 1863.

[102] Ed. Hippeau. Paris, 1860.

[103] Ed. Förster. Halle, 1877.

[104] Ed. Stengel. Tübingen, 1873.

[105] Both edited in extract by Bordier. Paris, 1869. Complete edition begun by Suchier. Paris, 1884.

[106] Ed. Hofmann and Muncker. Halle, 1880.

[107] Ed. Michel.

[108] Ed. Boca. 2 vols. Valenciennes, 1841.

[109] Ed. Schéler. Brussels, 1877.

[Pg 100]



The Artificial Forms of Northern France.

Not the least important division of early French literature, in point of bulk and peculiarity, though not always the most important in point of literary excellence, consists of the later lyrical and miscellaneous poems of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. By the end of the thirteenth century the chief original developments had lost their first vigour, while, on the other hand, the influence of the regular forms of Provençal poetry had had time to make itself fully felt. There arose in consequence, in northern France, a number of artificial forms, the origin and date of which is somewhat obscure, but which rapidly attained great popularity, and which continued for fully two centuries almost to monopolise the attention of poets who did not devote themselves to narrative. These forms, the Ballade, the Rondeau, the Virelai, etc., have already been alluded to as making their appearance among the later growths of early lyrical poetry. They must now be treated in the abundant development which they received at the hands of a series of poets from Lescurel to Charles d'Orléans.

General Character. Varieties.

The principle underlying all these forms is the same, that is to say, the substitution for the half-articulate refrain of the early Romances, of a refrain forming part of the sense, and repeated with strict regularity at the end or in the middle of stanzas rigidly corresponding in length and constitution. In at least two cases, the lai and the pastourelle, the names of earlier and less rigidly exact forms were borrowed for the newer schemes; but the more famous and prevailing models[110], the Ballade, with its modification the Chant[Pg 101] Royal, and the Rondel, with its modifications the Rondeau and the Triolet, are new. It has been customary to see in the adoption of these forms a sign of decadence; but this can hardly be sustained in face of the fact that, in Charles d'Orléans and Villon respectively, the Rondel and the Ballade were the occasion of poetry far surpassing in vigour and in grace all preceding work of the kind, and also in presence of the service which the sonnet—a form almost if not quite as artificial—has notoriously done to poetry. It may be admitted, however, that the practitioners of the Ballade and the Rondeau soon fell into puerile and inartistic over-refinements. The forms of Ballade known as Équivoquée, Fratrisée, Couronnée, etc., culminating in the preposterous Emperière, are monuments of tasteless ingenuity which cannot be surpassed in their kind, and they have accordingly perished. But both in France and in England the Ballade itself and a few other forms have retained popularity at intervals, and have at the present day broken out into fresh and vigorous life.

Jehannot de Lescurel.
Guillaume de Machault.
Eustache Deschamps

The chief authors of these pieces during the period we are discussing were Jehannot de Lescurel, Guillaume de Machault, Eustache Deschamps, Jean Froissart, Christine de Pisan, Alain Chartier, and Charles d'Orléans. Besides these there were many others, though[Pg 102] the epoch of the Hundred Years' War was not altogether fertile in lighter poetry or poetry of any kind. Jehannot de Lescurel[111] is one of those poets of whom absolutely nothing is known. His very name has only survived in the general syllabus of contents of the manuscript which contains his works, and which is in this part incomplete. The thirty-three poems—sixteen Ballades, fifteen Rondeaus[112], and two nondescript pieces—which exist are of singular grace, lightness, and elegance. They cannot be later and are probably earlier than the middle of the fourteenth century, and thus they are anterior to most of the work of the school. Guillaume de Machault was a person sufficiently before the world, and his work is very voluminous. As usual with all these poets, it contains many details of its author's life, and enables us to a certain extent to construct that life out of these indications. Machault was probably born about 1284, and may not have died till 1377. A native of Champagne and of noble birth, he early entered, like most of the lesser nobility of the period, the service of great feudal lords. He was chamberlain to Philip the Fair, and at his death became the secretary of John of Luxembourg, the well-known king of Bohemia. After the death of this prince at Cressy, he returned to the service of the court of France and served John and Charles V., finally, as it appears, becoming in some way connected with Pierre de Lusignan, king of Cyprus. His works were very numerous, amounting in all to some 80,000 lines, of which until recently nothing but a few extracts was in print. In the last few years, however, La Prise d'Alexandrie[113], a rhymed chronicle of the exploits of Lusignan, and the Voir Dit[114],[Pg 103] a curious love poem in the style of the age, have been printed. Besides these his works include numerous ballades, etc., and several long poems in the style of those of Froissart, shortly to be described. On the other hand, the works of Eustache Deschamps, which are even more voluminous than those of Machault, his friend and master, are almost wholly composed of short pieces, with one notable exception, the Miroir de Mariage, a poem of 13,000 lines[115]. Deschamps has left no less than 1175 ballades, and as the ballade usually contains twenty-four lines at least, and frequently thirty-four, this of itself gives a formidable total. Rondeaus, virelais, etc., also proceeded in great numbers from his pen; and he wrote an important 'Art of Poetry,' a treatise rendered at once necessary and popular by the fashion of artificial rhyming. The life of Deschamps was less varied than that of Machault, whose inferior he was in point of birth, but he held some important offices in his native province, Champagne. Both Deschamps and Machault exhibit strongly the characteristics of the time. Their ballades are for the most part either moral or occasional in subject, and rarely display signs of much attention to elegance of phraseology or to weight and value of thought. In the enormous volume of their works, amounting in all to nearly 200,000 lines, and as yet mostly unpublished, there is to be found much that is of interest indirectly, but less of intrinsic poetical worth. The artificial forms in which they for the most part write specially invite elegance of expression, point, and definiteness of thought, qualities in which both, but especially Deschamps, are too often deficient. When, for instance, we find the poet in his anxiety to discourage swearing, filling, in imitation of two bad poets of his time, one, if not two ballades[116] with a list of the chief oaths in use, it is difficult not to lament the lack of critical spirit displayed.


Froissart, though inferior to Lescurel, and though far less remarkable as a poet than as a prose writer, can fairly hold his own[Pg 104] with Deschamps and Machault, while he has the advantage of being easily accessible[117]. The later part of his life having been given up to history, he is not quite so voluminous in verse as his two predecessors. Yet, if the attribution to him of the Cour d' Amour and the Trésor Amoureux be correct, he has left some 40,000 or 50,000 lines. The bulk of his work consists of long poems in the allegorical courtship of the time, interspersed with shorter lyrical pieces in the prevailing forms. One of these poems, the Buisson de Jonece, is interesting because of its autobiographical details; and some shorter pieces approaching more nearly to the Fabliau style, Le Dit du Florin, Le Débat du Cheval et du Lévrier, etc., are sprightly and agreeable enough. For the most part, however, Froissart's poems, like almost all the poems of the period, suffer from the disproportion of their length to their matter. If the romances of the time, which are certainly not destitute of incident, be tedious from the superabundance of prolix description, much more tedious are these recitals of hyperbolical passion tricked out with all the already stale allegorical imagery of the Roman de la Rose and with inappropriate erudition of the fashion which Jean de Meung had confirmed, if he did not set it.

Christine de Pisan.

Christine de Pisan, who was born in 1363, was a pupil of Deschamps, as Deschamps had been a pupil of Machault. She was an industrious writer, a learned person, and a good patriot, but not by any means a great poetess. So at least it would appear, though here again judgment has to be formed on fragments, a complete edition of Christine never having been published, and even her separate poems being unprinted for the most part, or printed only in extract. Besides a collection of Ballades, Rondeaux, and so forth, she wrote several Dits (the Dit de la Pastoure, the Dit de Poissy, the Dittié de Jeanne d'Arc, and some Dits Moraux), besides a Mutation de Fortune, a Livre des Cent Histoires de Troie, etc., etc.

Alain Chartier.

Alain Chartier, who was born in or about 1390, and who died in 1458, is best known by the famous story of Margaret of Scotland,[Pg 105] queen of France, herself an industrious poetess, stooping to kiss his poetical lips as he lay asleep. He also awaits a modern editor. Like Froissart, he devoted himself to allegorical and controversial love poems, and like Christine to moral verse. In the former he attained to considerable skill, and a ballade, which will presently be given, will show his command of dignified expression. On the whole he may be said to be the most complete example of the scholarliness which tended more and more to characterise French poetry at this time, and which too often degenerated into pedantry. Chartier is the first considerable writer of original work who Latinises much; and his practice in this respect was eagerly followed by the rhétoriqueur school both in prose and verse. He himself observed due measure in it; but in the hands of his successors it degraded French to an almost Macaronic jargon.

In all the earlier work of this school not a little grace and elegance is discoverable, and this quality manifests itself most strongly in the poet who may be regarded as closing the strictly mediaeval series, Charles d'Orléans[118]. The life of this poet has been frequently told. As far as we are concerned it falls into three divisions. In the first, when after his father's death he held the position of a great feudal prince almost independent of royal control, it is not recorded that he produced any literary work. His long captivity in England was more fruitful, and during it he wrote both in French and in English. But the last five-and-twenty years of his life, when he lived quietly and kept court at Blois (bringing about him the literary men of the time from Bouciqualt to Villon, and engaging with them in poetical tournaments), were the most productive. His undoubted work is not large, but the pieces which compose it are among the best of their kind. He is fond, in the allegorical language of the time, of alluding to his having 'put his house in the government of Nonchaloir,' and chosen that personage for his master and protector. There is thus little fervency[Pg 106] of passion about him, but rather a graceful and somewhat indolent dallying with the subjects he treats. Few early French poets are better known than Charles d'Orléans, and few deserve their popularity better. His Rondeaux on the approach of spring, on the coming of summer and such-like subjects, deserve the very highest praise for delicate fancy and formal skill.

Of poets of less importance, or whose names have not been preserved, the amount of this formal poetry which remains to us is considerable. The best-known collection of such work is the Livre des Cent Ballades[119], believed, on tolerably satisfactory evidence, to have been composed by the famous knight-errant Bouciqualt and his companions on their way to the fatal battle of Nicopolis. Before, however, the fifteenth century was far advanced, poetry of this formal kind fell into the hands of professional authors in the strictest sense, Grands Rhétoriqueurs as they were called, who, as a later critic said of almost the last of them, 'lost all the grace and elegance of the composition' in their elaborate rules and the pedantic language which they employed. The complete decadence of poetry in which this resulted will be treated partly in the summary following the present book, partly in the first chapter of the book which succeeds it.

Meanwhile this frail but graceful poetry may be illustrated by an irregular Ballade from Lescurel, a Chanson Balladée from Machault, a Virelai from Deschamps, a Ballade from Chartier, and a Rondel from Charles d'Orléans.

Jehannot de Lescurel.

Amour, voules-vous acorder
Que je muire pour bien amer?
Vo vouloir m'esteut agreer;
Mourir ne puis plus doucement;
Amours, faciez voustre talent.
Trop de mauvais portent endurer
Pour celi que j'aim sanz fausser
N'est pas par li, au voir parler,
Ains est par mauparliere gent.
Amours, faciez voustre talent.
[Pg 107]
Dous amis, plus ne puis durer
Quant ne puis ne n'os regarder
Vostre doue vis, riant et cler.
Mort, alegez mon grief torment;
Ou, briefment,
Amours, faciez voustre talent.

Guillaume de Machault.

Onques si bonne journee
Ne fu adjournee,
Com quant je me departi
De ma dame desiree
A qui j'ay donnee
M'amour, & le cuer de mi.
Car la manne descendi
Et douceur aussi,
Par quoi m'ame saoulee
Fu dou fruit de Dous ottri,
Que Pite cueilli
En sa face coulouree.
La fu bien l'onnour gardee
De la renommee
De son cointe corps joli;
Qu'onques villeine pensee
Ne fu engendree
Ne nee entre moy & li.
Onques si bonne journee, &c.
Souffisance m'enrichi
Et Plaisance si,
Qu'onques creature nee
N'ot le cuer si assevi,
N'a mains de sousci,
Ne joie si affinee.
Car la deesse honnouree
Qui fait l'assemblee
D'amours, d'amie & d'ami,
Coppa le chief de s'espee
Qui est bien tempree,
A Dangier, mon anemi.
Onques si bonne journee, &c.
Ma dame l'enseveli
Et Amours, par fi
Que sa mort fust tost plouree.
N'onques Honneur ne souffri
(Dont je l'en merci)
Que messe li fu chantee.
Sa charongne trainee
Fu sans demouree
En un lieu dont on dit: fi!
S'en fu ma joie doublee,
Quant Honneur l'entree
Ot dou tresor de merci.
Onques si bonne journee, &c.

Eustache Deschamps.

Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?
Il me semble, a mon avis,
Que j'ay beau front et doulz viz,
Et la bouche vermeilette;
Dictes moy se je sui belle.
J'ay vers yeulx, petit sourcis,
Le chief blont, le nez traitis,
Ront menton, blanche gorgette;
Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle, etc.
J'ay dur sain et hault assis,
Lons bras, gresles doys aussis,
Et, par le faulx, sui greslette;
Dictes moy se je sui belle.
[Pg 108]
J'ay piez rondes et petiz,
Bien chaussans, et biaux habis,
Je sui gaye et foliette;
Dictes moy se je sui belle.
J'ay mantiaux fourrez de gris,
J'ay chapiaux, j'ay biaux proffis,
Et d'argent mainte espinglette;
Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?
J'ay draps de soye, et tabis,
J'ay draps d'or, et blanc et bis,
J'ay mainte bonne chosette;
Dictes moy se je sui belle.
Que quinze ans n'ay, je vous dis;
Moult est mes tresors jolys,
S'en garderay la clavette;
Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?
Bien devra estre hardis
Cilz, qui sera mes amis,
Qui ora tel damoiselle;
Dictes moy se je sui belle?
Et par dieu, je li plevis,
Que tres loyal, se je vis,
Li seray, si ne chancelle;
Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?
Se courtois est et gentilz,
Vaillains, apers, bien apris,
Il gaignera sa querelle;
Dictes moy se je sui belle.
C'est uns mondains paradiz
Que d'avoir dame toudiz,
Ainsi fresche, ainsi nouvelle;
Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?
Entre vous, acouardiz,
Pensez a ce que je diz;
Cy fine ma chansonnelle;
Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?

Alain Chartier.

O folz des folz, et les folz mortelz hommes,
Qui vous fiez tant es biens de fortune
En celle terre, es pays ou nous sommes,
Y avez-vous de chose propre aucune?
Vous n'y avez chose vostre nes-une,
Fors les beaulx dons de grace et de nature.
[Pg 109] Se Fortune donc, par cas d'adventur
Vous toult les biens que vostres vous tenez,
Tort ne vous fait, aincois vous fait droicture,
Car vous n'aviez riens quant vous fustes nez.
Ne laissez plus le dormir a grans sommes
En vostre lict, par nuict obscure et brune,
Pour acquester richesses a grans sommes.
Ne convoitez chose dessoubz la lune,
Ne de Paris jusques a Pampelune,
Fors ce qui fault, sans plus, a creature
Pour recouvrer sa simple nourriture.
Souffise vous d'estre bien renommez,
Et d'emporter bon loz en sepulture:
Car vous n'aviez riens quant vous fustes nez.
Les joyeulx fruictz des arbres, et les pommes,
Au temps que fut toute chose commune,
Le beau miel, les glandes et les gommes
Souffisoient bien a chascun et chascune:
Et pour ce fut sans noise et sans rancune.
Soyez contens des chaulx et des froidures,
Et me prenez Fortune doulce et seure.
Pour vos pertes, griefve dueil n'en menez,
Fors a raison, a point, et a mesure,
Car vous n'aviez riens quant vous fustes nez.
Se Fortune vous fait aucune injure,
C'est de son droit, ja ne l'en reprenez,
Et perdissiez jusques a la vesture:
Car vous n'aviez riens quant vous fustes nez.

Charles D'orléans.

Le temps a laissie son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluye,
Et s'est vestu de brouderie,
De soleil luyant, cler et beau.
Il n'y a beste, ne oyseau,
Qu'en son jargon ne chante ou crie:
Le temps a laissie son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluye.
Riviere, fontaine et ruisseau
Portent, en livree jolie,
Gouttes d'argent d'orfavrerie,
Chascun s'abille de nouveau:
Le temps a laissie son manteau.


[110] The following is an account of these forms, in their more important developments. The ballade consists of three stanzas, and an envoy, or final half-stanza, which is sometimes omitted. The number of the lines in each stanza is optional, but it should not usually be more than eleven or less than eight. The peculiarity of the poem is that the last line of every stanza is identical, and that the rhymes are the same throughout and repeated in the same order. The examples printed at the end of this chapter from Lescurel and Chartier will illustrate this sufficiently. There is no need to enter into the absurdity of ballades équivoquées, emperières, etc., further than to say that their main principle is the repetition of the same rhyming word, in a different sense, it may be twice or thrice at the end of the line, it may be at the end and in the middle, it may be at the end of one line and the beginning of the next. The chant royal is a kind of major ballade having five of the longest (eleven-lined) stanzas and an envoy of five lines. The rondel is a poem of thirteen lines (sometimes made into fourteen by an extra repetition), consisting of two quatrains and a five-lined stanza, the first two lines of the first quatrain being repeated as the last two of the second, and the first line of all being added once more at the end. The rondeau, a poem of thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen lines, is arranged in stanzas of five, four, and four, five, or six lines, the last line of the second and third stanzas consisting of the first words of the first line of the poem. The triolet is a sort of rondel of eight lines only, repeating the first line at the fourth, and the first and second at the seventh and eighth. Lastly, the villanelle alternates one of two refrain lines at the end of each three-lined stanza. These are the principal forms, though there are many others.

[111] Ed. Montaiglon. Paris, 1855.

[112] The Rondeau is not in Lescurel systematised into any regular form.

[113] Ed. L. de Mas Latrie. Société de l'Orient Latin, Geneva, 1877. This is a poem not much shorter than the Voir Dit, but continuously octosyllabic and very spirited. The final account of the murder of Pierre (which he provoked by the most brutal oppression of his vassals) is full of power.

[114] Ed. P. Paris. Société des Bibliophiles, Paris, 1875. This is a very interesting poem consisting of more than 9000 lines, mostly octosyllabic couplets, with ballades, etc. interspersed, one of which is given at the end of this chapter. It is addressed either to Agnes of Navarre, or, as M. P. Paris thought, to Péronelle d'Armentières, and was written in 1362, when the author was probably very old.

[115] Deschamps is said to have been also named Morel. A complete edition of his works has been undertaken for the Old French Text Society by the Marquis de Queux de Saint Hilaire.

[116] Ballades, 147, 149. Ed. Queux de St. Hilaire.

[117] Ed. Schéler. 3 vols. Brussels, 1870-1872.

[118] Ed. Héricault. 2 vols. Paris, 1874. Charles d'Orléans was the son of the Duke of Orleans, who was murdered by the Burgundians, and of Valentina of Milan. He was born in 1391, taken prisoner at Agincourt, ransomed in 1449, and he died in 1465. His son was Louis XII.

[119] Ed. Queux de St. Hilaire. Paris, 1868.

[Pg 110]



Origins of Drama.

The origins of the drama in France, like most other points affecting mediaeval literature, have been made the subject of a good deal of dispute. It has been attempted, on the one hand, to father the mysteries and miracle-plays of the twelfth and later centuries on the classical drama, traditions of which are supposed to have been preserved in the monasteries and other homes of learning. On the other hand, a more probable and historical source has been found in the ceremonies and liturgies of the Church, which in themselves possess a considerable dramatic element, and which, as we shall see, were early adapted to still more definitely dramatic purposes. Disputes of this kind, if not exactly otiose, are not suited to these pages; and it is sufficient to say that while Plautus and Terence at least retained a considerable hold on mediaeval students, the natural tendencies to dramatic representation which exist in almost every people, assisted by the stimulus of ecclesiastical traditions, ceremonies, and festivals, are probably sufficient to account for the beginnings of dramatic literature in France.

Earliest Vernacular Dramatic Forms.
Mysteries and Miracles.
Miracles de la Vierge.

It so happens too that such historical evidence as we have entirely bears out this supposition. The earliest compositions of a dramatic kind that we possess in French, are arguments and scraps interpolated in Latin liturgies of a dramatic character. Earlier still these works had been wholly in Latin. The production called 'The Prophets of Christ' is held to date from the eleventh century, and consists of a series of utterances of the prophets and patriarchs,[Pg 111] who are called upon in turn to bear testimony in reference to the Messiah, according to a common patristic habit. By degrees other portions of Old Testament history were thrown into the dramatic or at least dialogic form. In the drama or dramatic liturgy of Daniel, fragments of French make their appearance, and the Mystery of Adam is entirely in the vulgar tongue. Both these belong to the twelfth century, and the latter appears to have been not merely a part of the church services, but to have been independently performed outside the church walls. It is accompanied by full directions in Latin for the decoration and arrangement of stage and scenes. Another important instance, already mentioned, of somewhat dubious age, but certainly very early, is the Mystery of The Ten Virgins. This is not wholly in French, but contains some speeches in a Romance dialect. These three dramas, Daniel, Adam, and The Ten Virgins, are the most ancient specimens of their kind, which, from the thirteenth century onward, becomes very numerous and important. By degrees a distinction was established between mystery and miracle-plays, the former being for the most part taken from the sacred Scriptures, the latter from legends and lives of the Saints and of the Virgin. Early and interesting specimens of the miracle are to be found in the Théophile of Rutebœuf and in the Saint Nicholas of Jean Bodel d'Arras, both belonging to the same (thirteenth) century[120]. But the most remarkable examples of the miracle-play are to be found in a manuscript which contains forty miracles of the Virgin, dating from the fourteenth century. Selections from these have been published at different times, and the whole is now in course of publication by the Old French Text Society[121]. As the miracles were mostly concerned with isolated legends, they did not lend themselves to great prolixity, and it is rare to find them exceed 2000 lines. Their versification is at first somewhat licentious, but by degrees they settled down into more or less regular employment of the octosyllabic couplet.[Pg 112] Both in them and in the mysteries the curious mixture of pathos and solemnity on the one side, with farcical ribaldry on the other, which is characteristic of mediaeval times, early becomes apparent. The mysteries, however, as they became more and more a favourite employment of the time, increased and grew in length. The narrative of the Scriptures being more or less continuous, it was natural that the small dramas on separate subjects should by degrees be attracted to one another and be merged in larger wholes. It was another marked characteristic of mediaeval times that all literary work should be constantly subject to remaniement, the facile scribes of each day writing up the work of their predecessors to the taste and demands of their own audience. In the case of the mysteries, as in that of the Chansons de Gestes, each remaniement resulted in a lengthening of the original. It became an understood thing that a mystery lasted several days in the representation; and in many provincial towns regular theatres were constructed for the performances, which remained ready for use between the various festival times. In the form which these representations finally assumed in the fifteenth century, they not only required elaborate scenery and properties, but also in many cases a very large troop of performers. It is from this century that most of the mysteries we possess date, and they are all characterised by enormous length. The two most famous of these are the Passion[122] of Arnould Gréban, and the Viel Testament[123], due to no certain author. The Passion, as originally written in the middle of the fifteenth century, consisted of some 25,000 lines, and thirty or forty years later it was nearly doubled in length by the alterations of Jean Michel. The Mystère du Viel Testament, of which no manuscript is now known, but which was printed in the last year of the fifteenth century, is now being reprinted, and extends to nearly 50,000 verses. Additions even to this are spoken of; and Michel's Passion, supplemented by a Résurrection, extended to nearly 70,000 lines, which vast total is believed to have been frequently acted as a whole. In such a case the space of weeks rather than days, which is said to have been sometimes[Pg 113] occupied in the performance of a mystery, cannot be thought excessive.

Heterogeneous Character of Mysteries.

The enormous length of the larger mysteries makes analysis of any one of them impossible; but as an instance of the curious comedy which is intermixed with their most serious portions, and which shocked critics even up to our own time, we may take the scene of the Tower of Babel in the Mystère du Viel Testament[124]. Here the author is not content with describing Nimrod's act in general terms, or by the aid of the convenient messenger; he brings the actual masons and carpenters on the stage. Gaste-Bois (Spoilwood), Casse-Tuileau (Breaktile), and their mates talk before us for nearly 200 lines, while Nimrod and others come in from time to time and hasten on the work. The workmen are quite outspoken on the matter. They do not altogether like the job; and one of them says,

On ne peut en fin que faillir.
Besongnons; mais qu'on nous paie bien.

A little further on and they are actually at work. One calls for a hod of mortar, another for his hammer. The labourers supply their wants, or make jokes to the effect that they would rather bring them something to drink. So it goes on, till suddenly the confusion of tongues falls upon them, and they issue their orders in what is probably pure jargon, though fragments of something like Italian can be made out. In the very middle of this scene occurs a really fine and reverently written dialogue between Justice and Mercy pleading respectively to the Divinity for vengeance and pardon. Instances such as this abound in the mysteries, which are sometimes avowedly interrupted in order that the audience may be diverted by a farcical interlude.

Argument of a Miracle Play.

Of the miracles, that of St. Guillaume du Désert will serve as a fair example. It is but 1500 lines in length, yet the list of dramatis personae extends to nearly thirty, and there are at least as many distinct scenes. William, count of Poitiers and duke of Aquitaine, has rendered himself in many ways obnoxious to the Holy See. He has recognised[Pg 114] an anti-pope, has driven a bishop from his diocese for refusing to do likewise, and has offended against morality. An embassy, including St. Bernard, is therefore sent from Rome to warn and correct him. William is not proof against their eloquence, and soon becomes deeply penitent. He quits his palaces, and retires to the society of hermits in the wilderness. These enjoin penances upon him. He is to have a heavy hauberk immovably riveted on his bare flesh, and with sackcloth for an overcoat to visit Rome and beg the Pope's forgiveness. He does this, and the Pope sends him to the patriarch of Jerusalem, William taking the additional penance as a proof of the heinousness of his sin. After this he retires by himself into a solitary place. Here, however, a knight of his country seeks him out, represents the anarchy into which it has fallen in his absence, and implores him to return. But this is not William's notion of duty. He refuses, and to be free from such importunities in future, retires to the island of Rhodes, and there lives in solitude. Irritated at the idea of his escaping them, Satan and Beelzebub attack him and beat him severely; but he recovers by the Virgin's intervention, and serves as a model to young devotees who seek his cell, and like him become hermits. At last a chorus of saints descends to see his godly end, which takes place in the presence of the neophytes. The events, of which this is a very brief abstract, are all clearly indicated in the short space of 1500 verses, many of which are only of four syllables[125]. There is of course no attempt at drawing any figure, except that of the saint, at full length, and this is characteristic of the class. But as dramatised legends, for they are little more, these miracles possess no slight merit.

The general literary peculiarities of the miracle and mystery plays do not differ greatly from those of other compositions in verse of the same time which have been already described. Their great fault is prolixity. In the collection of the Miracles de la Vierge, the comparative brevity of the pieces renders them easier to read than the long compositions of the fifteenth century, and the poetical beauty of some of the legends which they tell is sufficient to furnish them with interest. Even in these, however,[Pg 115] the absence of point and of dignity in the expression frequently mars the effect; and this is still more the case with the longer mysteries. Of these latter, however, the work of the brothers Gréban—for there were two, Arnould and Simon, concerned—contains passages superior to the general run, and in others lines and even scenes of merit occur.

Profane Drama.
Adam de la Halle.

Although the existence of the drama as an actual fact was for a long time due to the performance and popularity of the mysteries and miracles, specimens of dramatic work with purely profane subjects are to be found at a comparatively early date. Adam de la Halle, so far as our present information goes, has the credit of inventing two separate styles of such composition[126]. In Li Jus de la Feuillie he has left us the earliest comedy in the vulgar tongue known; in the pastoral drama of Robin et Marion the earliest specimen of comic opera. Independently of the improbability that the drama, once in full practice, should be arbitrarily confined to a single class of subject, there were many germs of dramatic composition in mediaeval literature which wanted but a little encouragement to develop themselves. The verse dialogues and débats, which both troubadours and trouvères had favoured, were in themselves incompletely dramatic. The pastourelles, an extremely favourite and fashionable class of composition, must have suggested to others besides the Hunchback of Arras the idea of dramatising them; and the early and strongly-marked partiality of the middle ages for pageants and shows of all kinds could hardly fail to induce those who planned them to intersperse dialogue.

The plot of Robin et Marion is simple and in a way regular. The ordinary incidents of a pastourelle, the meeting of a fair shepherdess and a passing knight, the wooing (in this case an unsuccessful one) and the riding away, are all there. The piece is completed by a kind of rustic picnic, in which the neighbouring shepherds and shepherdesses join and disport themselves. Marion is a very graceful and amiable figure; Robin a sheepish coward, who is not in the least worthy of her. In Adam's other and[Pg 116] earlier drama he is by no means so partial to the feminine sex, and his work, though equally fresh and vigorous, is more complex and less artistically finished. It is in part autobiographic, and introduces Adam confessing to friends with sufficient effrontery his intention of going to Paris and deserting his wife. This part contains a very pretty though curiously unsuitable description of the wooing, which has such an unlucky termination. Suddenly, however, the author introduces his father, an old citizen, who is quite ready to encourage his son in his evil ways provided it costs him nothing, and the piece loses all regularity of plot. Divers citizens of Arras, male and female, are introduced with a more or less satiric intention, and the last episode brings in the personages of Morgue la Fée and of the mesnie (attendants) of a certain shadowy King Hellequin. There is a doctor, too, whose revelations of his patients' affairs are sufficiently comic, not to say farcical. Destitute as it is of method, and approaching more nearly to the Fabliau than to any other division of mediaeval literature in the coarseness of its language, the piece has great interest, not merely because of its date and its apparent originality, but because of numerous passages of distinct literary merit. The picture of the neglected wife in her girlhood is inferior to nothing of the kind even in the thirteenth century, that fertile epoch of early French poetry. The father, too, Maître Henri, the earliest of his kind on the modern stage, has traits which the great comic masters would not disown.

The classes of later secular drama may be thus divided,—the monologue, the farce, the morality, the sotie, the profane mystery. The first four of these constitute one of the most interesting divisions of early French literature; and it is to be hoped that before long easy access will be afforded to the whole of it. The last is only interesting from the point of view of literary history.


The monologue is the simplest form of dramatic composition and needs but little notice, though it seems to have met with some favour from playgoers of the time. By dint also of adroit changes of costume and assistance from scenery, etc., the monologue was sometimes made more complicated than appears at first sight possible, as for instance, in the[Pg 117] Monologue du Bien et du Mal des Dames, where the speaker plays successively the parts of two advocates and of a judge. The monologue, however, more often consisted in a dramatisation of the earlier dit, in which some person or thing is made to declare its own attributes. Of very similar character is the so-called sermon joyeux, which, however, preserves more or less the form of an address from the pulpit, of course travestied and applied to ludicrous subjects.


The farce, on the other hand, is one of the most important of all dramatic kinds in reference to French literature. It is a genuine product of the soil, and proved the ancestor of all the best comedy of France, on which foreign models had very little influence. Until the discovery and acquisition by the British Museum of a unique collection of farces the number of these compositions known to exist was not large, and such as had been printed were difficult of access. It is still not easy to get together a complete collection, but the reimpression of the British Museum pieces in the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne[127] with M. Ed. Fournier's Théâtre avant la Renaissance[128] contains ample materials for judgment. In all, we possess about a hundred farces, most of which are probably the composition of the fifteenth century, though it is possible that some of them may date from the end of the fourteenth. The most famous of all early French farces, that of Pathelin, belongs, it is believed, to the middle or earlier part of the fifteenth, and speaking generally, this century is the most productive of theatrical work, at least of such as remains to us. The subjects of these farces are of the widest possible diversity. In their general character they at once recall the Fabliaux, and no one who reads many of them can doubt that the one genre is the immediate successor of the other. The farce, like the Fabliau, deals with an actual or possible incident of ordinary life to which a comic complexion is given by the treatment. The length of these compositions is very variable, but the average is perhaps about five hundred lines. Their versification is always octosyllabic and regular. But a curious peculiarity is[Pg 118] found in most of them as well as in a few contemporary dramas of the serious kind. From time to time the speeches of the characters are dovetailed into one another so as to make up the Triolet (or rondeau of eight lines with triple repetition of the first and double repetition of the second), a form which in the fifteenth, seventeenth, and nineteenth centuries has been a favourite with French poets of the lighter kind. The number of personages is never large; it sometimes falls as low as two (in which case the farce might in strictness be called, as it sometimes is, a débat or dialogue), and rarely, if ever, rises above four or five. From what has already been said it will be seen that it is not easy to give any general summary of the subjects of this curious composition. Conjugal differences of one kind and another make up a very large part of them, but by no means the whole, and there are few aspects of contemporary bourgeois life which do not come in for treatment. As an example we may take the Farce du Pasté de la Tarte[129]. The characters are two thieves, a pastry-cook, and his wife. The farce opens with a lamentable Triolet, in which the two thieves bewail their unhappy state. Immediately afterwards, the pastry-cook, in front of whose shop the scene is laid, calls to his wife and tells her that an eel-pie is to be kept for him, and that he will send for it later, as he intends to dine abroad. The two thieves overhear the conversation, and the token which is to be given by the messenger, and after trying in vain to beg a dinner, determine to filch one. Thief the second goes to the pastry-cook's wife, gives the appointed token, and easily obtains the pie, upon which both feast. Unluckily, however, this does not satisfy them, and the successful thief, remembering a fine tart which he has seen in the shop, decides that the possession of it would much improve their dinner. He persuades his companion to try and secure it. Meanwhile, however, the enraged pastry-cook has come home hungry and demands his eel-pie. His wife in vain assures him that she has sent it by the messenger who brought his token. Her husband disbelieves her; words run high, and are followed by blows. At this juncture the first thief appears and demands the tart, whereupon the irate pastry-cook turns his[Pg 119] rage upon him. The stick makes him confess the device, and smarting under the blows, he is easily induced to make his companion a sharer in his own sorrows. This is effected by an obvious stratagem. The pastry-cook thus avenges himself of both his enemies, who however, with some philosophy, console themselves with the fact that, after all, they have had an excellent dinner without paying for it.

This piece serves as a fair example of the more miscellaneous farces, in almost all of which the stick plays a prominent part, a part which it may be observed retained its prominence at least till the time of Molière. Of the farces dealing with conjugal matters, one of the most decent, and perhaps the most amusing of all, is the Farce du Cuvier, which has nothing to do with the story under the same title which may be found (possibly taken from Apuleius) in Boccaccio, and in the Fabliaux. In the farce a hen-pecked husband is obliged by his wife to accept a long list of duties which he is to perform. Soon afterwards she by accident falls into the washing-tub, and to all her cries for help he replies 'cela n'est point à mon rollet' (schedule). Not a few also are directed against the clergy, and these as a rule are the most licentious of all. It is, however, rare to find any one which is not more or less amusing; and students of Molière in particular will find analogies and resemblances of the most striking kind to many of his motives. It is, indeed, pretty certain that these pieces did not go out of fashion until Molière's own time. The titles of some of the early and now lost pieces which his company for so many years played in the provinces are immediately suggestive of the old farces to any one who knows the latter. The farce was moreover a very far-reaching kind of composition. As a rule the satire which it contains is directed against classes, such as women, the clergy, pedants, and so forth, who had nothing directly to do with politics, and it is thus, more or less directly, the ancestor of the comedy of manners. It is never, properly speaking, political, even indirect allusions to politics being excluded from it. It relies wholly upon domestic and personal interests. Not a few farces, such as that of which we have given a sketch, turn upon the same subject as the Repues Franches attributed to Villon, and deal with[Pg 120] the ingenious methods adopted by persons who hang loose upon society for securing their daily bread. Others attack the fertile subject of domestic service, and furnish not a few parallels to Swift's Directions. Every now and then however we come across a farce, or at least a piece bearing the title, in which a more allegorical style of treatment is attempted. Such is the farce of Folle Bobance, in which the tendency of various classes to loose and light living is satirised amusingly enough. A gentleman, a merchant, a farmer, are all caught by the seductive offers of Folle Bobance, and are not long before they repent it. Such again is the Farce des Théologastres, in which the students of the Paris theological colleges are ridiculed, the Farce de la Pippée, and many others.


In strictness, however, those pieces where allegorical personages make their appearance are not farces but moralities. These compositions were exceedingly popular in the later middle ages, and their popularity was a natural sequence of the rage for allegorising which had made itself evident in very early times, and had in the Roman de la Rose dominated almost all other literary tastes. The taste for personification and abstraction has always lent itself easily enough to satire, and in the fifteenth century pieces under the designation of moralities became very common. We do not possess nearly as many specimens of the morality as of the farce, but, on the other hand, the morality is often, though not always, a much longer composition than the farce. The subjects of moralities include not merely private vices and follies, but almost all actual and possible defects of Church and State, and occasionally the term is applied to pieces, the characters of which are not abstractions, but which tell a story with a more or less moral turn. Sometimes these pieces ran to a very great length, and one is quoted, L'Homme Juste et l'Homme Mondain, which contains 36,000 lines, and must, like the longer mysteries, have occupied days or even weeks in acting. A morality however, on the average, consisted of about 2000 lines, and its personages were proportionally more numerous than those of the farce. Thus the Moralité des Enfans de Maintenant contains thirteen characters who are indifferently abstract and concrete;[Pg 121] Maintenant, Mignotte, Bon Advis, Instruction, Finet, Malduit, Discipline, Jabien, Luxure, Bonté, Désespoir, Perdition, and the Fool. This list almost sufficiently explains the plot, which simply recounts the persistence of one child in evil and his bad end, with the repentance of the other. The moralities have the widest diversity of subject, but most of them are tolerably clearly explained by their titles. La Condamnation de Banquet is a rather spirited satire on gluttony and open housekeeping. Marchebeau attacks the disbanded soldiery of the middle of the fifteenth century. Charité points out the evils which have come into the world for lack of charity. La Moralité d'une Femme qui avait voulu trahir la Cité de Romme is built on the lines of a miracle-play. Science et Asnerye is a very lively satire representing the superior chances which the followers of Asnerye—ignorance—have of obtaining benefices and posts of honour and profit as compared with those of learning. Mundus, caro, daemonia, again tells its own tale. Les Blasphémateurs, which is very well spoken of, but has not been reprinted, rests on the popular legend upon which Don Juan is also based. In short, unless a complete catalogue were given, there is no means of fully describing the numerous works of this class.


The Sotie is a class of much more idiosyncrasy. Although we have very few Soties (not at present more than a dozen accessible to the student), although the contents of this class are as a rule duller even than those of the moralities, and infinitely inferior in attraction to those of the farces, yet the Sotie has the merit of possessing a much more distinct and peculiar form. It is essentially political comedy, and it has the peculiarity of being played by stock personages, like an Italian comedy of the early kind. The Sotie, at least in its purely political form, was, as might be expected, not very long lived. Its most celebrated author was Gringore, and his Sotie, which forms part of Le Jeu du Prince des Sots et Mère Sotte, is still the typical example of the kind. Besides these two characters (who represent, roughly speaking, the temporal and spiritual powers), we have in this piece, Sotte Commune, the common people; Sotte Fiance, false confidence; Sotte Occasion, who explains herself; and a good many other allegorical personages, such as the Seigneur de Gayeté, etc. These[Pg 122] pieces, however, are for the most part so entirely occasional that their chief literary interest lies in their curious stock personages. It should, however, be observed that of the few Soties which we possess by no means all correspond to this description, some of them being indistinguishable from moralities. A curious detail is that the various pieces we have been mentioning were sometimes, in representation, combined after the fashion of a regular tetralogy. First came a monologue or cry containing a kind of proclamation. This was followed by the Sotie itself; then followed the morality, and lastly a farce. The work of Gringore, just noticed, forms part of such a tetralogy.

Profane Mysteries.

The profane mysteries may be briefly despatched. They were the natural result of the vogue of the mysteries proper, with which they vie in prolixity. Some of them were based on history or romance, such as, for instance, the Mystery of Troy. Others corresponded pretty nearly to the history plays of our own dramatists at a later period. Such is the Mystery of the Siege of Orleans which versifies and dramatises, at a date very shortly subsequent to the actual events, the account of them already made public in different chronicles.

Societies of Actors.

Of considerable interest and importance in connection with these early forms of drama is the subject of the persons and societies by whom they were represented, a subject upon which it is necessary to say a few words. At first, as we have seen, the actors were members or dependents of the clergy. As the mysteries increased in bulk and demanded larger companies, their representation fell more and more into the hands of the laity, even women in not a few cases acting parts, though this was rather the exception than the rule. It became not unusual for the guilds, which play such an important part in the social history of the middle ages, to undertake the task, and at last regular societies of actors were formed. The most famous of these, the Confrérie de la Passion (whose first object was to play the mystery, or rather cycle of mysteries, known by that name), was licensed in 1402, and in the course of the fifteenth century a very large number of rival bodies were more or less formally constituted. The clerks of the Bazoche, or Palace of Justice, had[Pg 123] long been dramatically inclined, but it was not till this time that they were recognised as, so to speak, the patentees of a peculiar form of drama which in their case was the morality. The Enfants sans Souci, young men of good families in the city, devoted themselves rather to the Sotie, and the stock personages of that curious form correspond to the official titles of the officers of their guild. Besides these, many other similar but less durable and regularly constituted societies arose, whose heads took fantastic titles, such as Empereur de Galilée, Roi de l'Epinette, Prince de l'Etrille, and so forth. No one of these, however, attained the importance of the Confraternity of the Passion. This was chiefly composed of tradesmen and citizens of Paris, and for a hundred and fifty years it continued to play for the most part mysteries, sacred and profane alike, but the latter, according to its name and profession, less commonly. In 1548 a curious example of the change of times and manners took place, owing in all probability to the influence, direct or indirect, of the Reformation. The Confraternity had its charter renewed, but it was expressly forbidden to play the sacred dramas which it had been originally constituted to perform. Thenceforward secular plays only were lawful in Paris, but the older dramas continued for a long time to be performed in the provinces, and in Britanny have been acted within the last half century. The Confraternity became regular actors of ordinary farces, and as time went on were known under the title of the Comedians of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, a name which brings us at once into the presence of Molière. In these last sentences we have a little outstripped the mediaeval period proper, but in dramatic matters there is no gap between the ancient and modern theatre until we arrive at the Pléiade.

It is not very easy to illustrate the manner of the ancient French drama by citations within ordinary compass; but the following passages, the first from the Mystery of the Passion, the second from the original form of Pathelin, may serve the purpose:—

Ici deschargent Jesus de la croix.
Simon. or avant donc, puis que ainsi va.
je ferai vostre voulenté;
mais il me poise en verité
[Pg 124] de la honte que vous me faictes.
o Jesus, de tous les prophettes
le plus sainct et le plus begnin,
vous venés a piteuse fin,
veue vostre vie vertüeuse
quant vostre croix dure et honteuse
pour vostre mort fault que je porte.
se c'est a tort, je m'en rapporte
a ceulx qui vous ont forjugé.
Ici charge la croix a Simon.
Nembroth. Messeigneurs, il est bien chargé;
cheminons, depeschons la voie.
Salmanazar. j'ai grant désir que je le voie
fiché en ce hault tabernacle,
a sçavoir s'il fera miracle,
quant il sera cloué dessus.
Jéroboam. seigneurs, hastés moi ce Jesus
et ces deux larrons aux coustés.
s'ilz ne vuellent, si les battez
si bien qu'il n'y ait que redire.
Claquedent. a cela ne tiendra pas, sire.
nos en ferons nostre povoir.
Ici porte Simon une partie de la croix et
Jesus l'autre et le battent les sergens.
Dieu le pere. Pitié doit tout cueur esmouvoir
en lamenter piteusement
le martyre et le gref tourment
que Jesus, mon chier filz, endure.
il porte détresse tant dure,
que, puis que le monde dura,
homme si dure n'endura,
laquelle ne peult plus durer
sans la mort honteuse endurer,
et n'aura son sainct corps duree
tant qu'il ait la mort enduree,
il appert, car plus va durant,
et plus est tourment endurant,
sans quelque confort qui l'alege.
si convient que la mort abrege
et de l'exécuter s'apreste,
pour satiffaire a la requeste
de dame Justice severe,
qui pour requeste ne prïere
ne veult rien de ses drois quitter.
Michel, allés donc conforter
en ceste amere passïon
mon filz, plain de dilectïon,
qui veult dure mort en gré predre
et va sa doulce chair estrandre[Pg 125]
ou puissant arbre de la croix.
Sainct Michel. pere du ciel et roi des rois,
humblement a chere assimplie
sera parfaicte et acomplie
vostre voulenté juste et bonne.
Ici descendent les anges de paradis.
  *  *  *  *  *  *
Path. ce bergier ne peut nullement
respondre aux fais que l'on propose,
s'il n'a du conseil; et il n'ose
ou il ne scet en demander.
s'il vous plaisoit moy commander
que je fusse a luy, je y seroye.
Juge. avecques luy? je cuideroye
que ce fust trestoute froidure:
c'est peu d'acquest. Path. mais je vous jure
qu'aussi n'en veuil rien avoir:
pour dieu soit. or je voys sçavoir
au pauvret qu'il voudra me dire,
et s'il me sçaura point instruire
pour respondre aux fais de partie.
il auroit dure departie
de ce, qui ne le secourroit.
vien ça, mon amy. qui pourroit
trouver? entens. Berg. bee. Path. quel bee, dea!
par le sainct sang que dieu crëa,
es tu fol? dy moy ton affaire.
Berg. bee. Path. quel bee! oys tu tes brebis braire?
c'est pour ton prouffit; entens y.
Berg. bee. Path. et dy ouÿ ou nenny,
c'est bien faict. dy tousjours, feras?
Berg. bee. Path. plus haut, ou tu t'en trouveras
en grans depens, ou je m'en doubte.
Berg. bee. Path. or est plus fol cil qui boute
tel fol naturel en procés.
ha, sire, renvoyez l'en a ses
brebis; il est fol de nature.
Drapp. est il fol? sainct sauveur d'Esture!
il est plus saige que vous n'estes.
Path. envoyez le garder ses bestes,
sans jour que jamais ne retourne.
que maudit soit il qui adjourne
tels folz que ne fault adjourner.
Drapp. et l'en fera l'en retourner
avant que je puisse estre ouÿ?
Path. m'aist dieu, puis qu'il est foul, ouÿ.
pour quoy ne fera? Drapp. he dea, sire,
au moins laissez moy avant dire
et faire mes conclusïons.[Pg 126]
ce ne sont pas abusïons
que je vous dy ne mocqueries.
Juge. ce sont toutes tribouilleries
que de plaider a folz ne a folles.
escoutez, a moins de parolles
la court n'en sera plus tenue.
Drapp. s'en iront ilz sans retenue
de plus revenir? Juge. et quoy doncques?
Path. revenir? vous ne veistes oncques
plus fol ne en faict ne en response:
et cil ne vault pas mieulx une once.
tous deux sont folz et sans cervelle:
par saincte Marie la belle,
eux deux n'en ont pas un quarat[130].


[120] These, as well as The Ten Virgins and many other pieces soon to be mentioned, are to be found in Monmerqué and Michel, Théâtre François au Moyen Age, Paris, 1874, last ed.; Adam, ed. Luzarches, 1854.

[121] Vols. 1-6. Paris, 1876-1881.

[122] Ed. G. Paris and G. Raynaud. Paris, 1878.

[123] Ed. J. de Rothschild. Vols. i-iii. Paris, 1878-1881.

[124] Mystère du Viel Testament, i. 259-272.

[125] Miracles de la Vierge, ii. 1-54.

[126] See Monmerqué and Michel, op. cit.

[127] Ancien Théâtre Français, vols. 1-3. Paris, 1854.

[128] Paris, n. d.

[129] Ancien Théâtre Français, ii. 64-79.

[130] A history of the mediaeval theatre has been undertaken by M. Petit de Julleville, of which two volumes, containing an excellent account of the Mysteries, have appeared (Paris, 1880). Information on other points is rather scattered, but it will be found well summarised in Aubertin, Histoire de la Langue et de la Littérature Française au Moyen Age (Paris, 1876-8), i. 372-570. A complete collection of farces, soties, etc. is hoped for from the Old French Text Society.

[Pg 127]



Beginning of Prose Chronicles.
Grandes Chroniques de France.

In all countries the use of prose for literature is chronologically later than the use of poetry, and France is no exception to the rule. The Chansons de Gestes were in their way historical poems, and they were, as we have seen, soon followed by directly historical poems in considerable numbers. It was not, however, till the prose Arthurian romances of Map and his followers had made prose popular as a vehicle for long narratives, that regular history began to be written in the vulgar tongue. The vogue of these prose romances dates from the latter portion of the twelfth century; the prose chronicle follows it closely, and dates from the beginning of the thirteenth. It was not at first original. The practice of chronicle writing in Latin had been frequent during the earlier centuries, and at last the monks of three monasteries, St. Benoit sur Loire, St. Germain des Prés, and St. Denis, began to keep a regular register of the events of their own time, connecting this with earlier chronicles of the past. The most famous and dignified of the three, St. Denis, became specially the home of history. The earliest French prose chronicles do not, however, come from this place. They are two in number; both date from the earliest years of the thirteenth century, and both are translations. One is a version of a Latin compilation of Merovingian history; the other of the famous chronicle of Turpin[131]. These two are composed in a southern[Pg 128] dialect bordering on the Provençal, and the first was either written by or ascribed to a certain Nicholas of Senlis. The example was followed, but it was not till 1274 that a complete vernacular version of the history of France was executed by a monk of St. Denis—Primat—in French prose. This version, slightly modified, became the original of a compilation very famous in French literature and history, the Grandes Chroniques de France, which was regularly continued by members of the same community until the reign of Charles V, from official sources and under royal authority. The work, under the same title but written by laics, extends further to the reign of Louis XI. The necessity of translation ceased as soon as the example of writing in the vernacular had been set, though Latin chronicles continued to be produced as well as French.


Long, however, before history on the great scale had been thus attempted, and very soon after the first attempt of Nicholas of Senlis had shown that the vulgar tongue was capable of such use, original prose memoirs and chronicles of contemporary events had been produced, and, as happens more than once in French literature, the first, or one of the first, was also the best. The Conquête de Constantinoble[132] of Geoffroy de Villehardouin was written in all probability during the first decade of the thirteenth century. Its author was born at Villehardouin, near Troyes, about 1160, and died, it would seem, in his Greek fief of Messinople in 1213. His book contains a history of the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in no action against the infidels, but in the establishment for the time of a Latin empire and in the partition of Greece among French barons. Villehardouin's memoirs are by universal consent among the most attractive works of the[Pg 129] middle ages. Although no actually original manuscript exists, we possess a copy which to all appearance faithfully represents the original. To readers, who before approaching Villehardouin have well acquainted themselves with the characteristics of the Chansons de Gestes, the resemblance of the Conquête de Constantinoble to these latter is exceedingly striking. The form, putting the difference between prose and verse aside, is very similar, and the merits of vigorous and brightly coloured language, of simplicity and vividness of presentation, are identical. At the same time either his own genius or the form which he has adopted has saved Villehardouin from the crying defect of most mediaeval work, prolixity and monotony. He has much to say as well as a striking manner of saying it, and the interest of his work as a story yields in nothing to its picturesqueness as a piece of literary composition. His indirect as well as direct literary value is moreover very great, because he enables us to see that the picture of manners and thought given by the Chansons de Gestes is in the main strictly true to the actual habits of the time—the time, that is to say, of their composition, not of their nominal subjects. Villehardouin is the chief literary exponent of the first stage of chivalry, the stage in which adventure was an actual fact open to every one, and when Eastern Europe and Western Asia offered to the wandering knight opportunities quite as tempting as those which the romances asserted to have been open to the champions of Charlemagne and Arthur. But, as a faithful historian, he, while putting the poetical and attractive side of feudalism in the best light, does not in the least conceal its defects, especially the perpetual jarring and rivalry inevitable in armies where hundreds of petty kings sought each his own advantage.

Minor Chroniclers between Villehardouin and Joinville.

The Fourth Crusade was fertile in chroniclers. Villehardouin's work was supplemented by the chronicle of Henri de Valenciennes, which is written in a somewhat similar style, but with still more resemblance to the manner and diction of the Chansons, so much so that it has been even supposed, though probably without foundation, to be a rhymed Chanson thrown into a prose form. This process is known to have been[Pg 130] actually applied in some cases. Another historian of the expedition whose work has been preserved was Robert de Clari. Baldwin Count of Flanders, who also accompanied it, was not indeed the author but the instigator of a translation of Latin chronicles which, like the Grandes Chroniques de France, was continued by original work and attained, under the title of Chronique de Baudouin d'Avesnes, very considerable dimensions.

The thirteenth century also supplies a not inconsiderable number of works dealing with the general history of France. Guillaume de Nangis wrote in the latter part of the century several historical treatises, first in Latin and then in French. An important work, entitled La Chronique de Rains (Rheims), dates from the middle of the period, and, though less picturesque in subject and manner than Villehardouin, has considerable merits of style. Normandy, Flanders, and, the Crusades generally, each have groups of prose chronicles dealing with them, the most remarkable of the latter being a very early French translation of the work of William of Tyre, with additions[133]. Of the Flanders group, the already mentioned chronicle called of Baudouin d'Avesnes is the chief. It is worth mentioning again because in its case we see the way in which French was gaining ground. It exists both in Latin and in the vernacular. In other cases the Latin would be the original; but in this case it appears, though it is not positively certain, that the book was written in French, and translated for the benefit of those who might happen not to understand that language.


As Villehardouin is the representative writer of the twelfth century, so is Joinville[134] of the thirteenth, as far as history is concerned. Jean de Joinville, Sénéchal of Champagne, was born in 1224 at the castle of Joinville on the Marne, which afterwards became the property of the Orleans family, and was destroyed during the Revolution. He died in 1319. He accompanied Saint Louis on his unfortunate crusade in 1248, but[Pg 131] not in his final and fatal expedition to Tunis. Most of the few later events of his life known to us were connected with the canonisation of the king; but he is known to have taken part in active service when past his ninetieth year. His historical work, a biography of St. Louis, deals chiefly with the crusade, and is one of the most circumstantial records we have of mediaeval life and thought. It is of much greater bulk than Villehardouin's Conquête, and is composed upon a different principle, the author being somewhat addicted to gossip and apt to digress from the main course of his narrative. It has, however, to be remembered that Joinville's first object was not, like Villehardouin's, to give an account of a single and definite enterprise, but to display the character of his hero, to which end a certain amount of desultoriness was necessary and desirable. His style has less vigour than that of his countryman and predecessor, but it has more grace. It is evident that Joinville occasionally set himself with deliberate purpose to describe things in a literary fashion, and his interspersed reflections on manners and political subjects considerably increase the material value of his work. It is unfortunate that nothing like a contemporary manuscript has come down to us, the earliest in existence being one of the late fourteenth century, when considerable changes had passed over the language. With the aid of some contemporary documents on matters of business which Joinville seems to have dictated, M. de Wailly has effected an exceedingly ingenious conjectural restoration of the text of the book, but the interest of this is in strictness diminished by the fact that it is undoubtedly conjectural. The period of composition of Joinville's book was somewhat late in his life, apparently in the first years of the fourteenth century, and about 1310 he presented it to Louis le Hutin, though it does not appear what became of the manuscript.

The period between Joinville and Froissart is peculiarly barren in chronicles. Besides the serial publications already noticed, the Chroniques de France and the Chroniques de Flandre, there are perhaps only two which are worth mentioning. The first is a Chronique des Quatre Premiers Valois, written with exactness and careful attention to authentic sources of information. The other is the Chronique of Jean Lebel, canon of Liège. This is not only a[Pg 132] work of considerable merit in itself, but still more remarkable because it was the model, and something more, of Froissart. That historian began by almost paraphrasing the work of Lebel; and though by degrees he worked the early parts of his book into more and more original forms according to the information which he picked up, these parts remained to the last indebted to the author from whom they had been originally compiled.


Froissart was born in 1337 and did not die till after 1409, the precise date of his death being unknown. There are few problems of literary criticism which are more difficult than that of arranging a definitive edition of his famous Chroniques[135]. In most cases the task of the critic is to decide which of several manuscripts, all long posterior to the author's death, deserves most confidence, or how to supply and correct the faults of a single document. In Froissart's case there is, on the contrary, an embarrassing number of seemingly authentic texts. During the whole of his long life, Froissart seems to have been constantly occupied in altering, improving, and rectifying his work, and copies of it in all its states are plentiful. The early printed editions represent merely a single one of these; Buchon's is somewhat more complete. But it is only within the last few years that the labours of M. Kervyn de Lettenhove and M. Siméon Luce have made it possible (and not yet entirely possible) to see the work in all its conditions. M. Kervyn de Lettenhove's edition is complete and excellent as far as it goes. That of M. Luce is still far from finished. The editor, however, has succeeded in presenting three distinct versions of the first book. This is the most interesting in substance, the least in manner and style. It deals with a period most of which lay outside of Froissart's own knowledge, and in treating which he was at first content to paraphrase Jean Lebel, though afterwards he made this part of the book much more his own. It never, however,[Pg 133] attained to the gossiping picturesqueness of the later books (there are four in all), in which the historian relies entirely on his own collections. Although Cressy, Poitiers, and Najara may be of more importance than the fruitless chevauchée of Buckingham through France, the gossip of the Count de Foix' court, and the kite-and-crow battles of the Duke de Berri and his officers with Aymerigot Marcel and Geoffrey Tête-Noire, they are much less characteristic of Froissart. The literary instinct of Scott enabled him (in a speech of Claverhouse[136]) exactly to appreciate our author. Some of his admirers have striven to make out that traces of political wisdom are to be found in the later books. If it be so, they are very deeply hidden. A sentence which must have been written when Froissart was more than fifty years old puts his point of view very clearly. Geoffrey Tête-Noire, the Breton brigand, 'held a knight's life, or a squire's, of no more account than a villain's,' and this is said as if it summed up the demerits of the free companion. Beyond knights and ladies, tourneys and festivals, Froissart sees nothing at all. But his admirable power of description enables him to put what he did see as well as any writer has ever put it. Vast as his work is, the narrative and picturesque charm never fails; and in a thousand different lights the same subject, the singular afterglow of chivalry, which the influence of certain English and French princes kept up in the fourteenth century, is presented with a mastery rare in any but the best literature. He is so completely indifferent to anything but this, that he does not take the slightest trouble to hide the misery and the misgovernment which the practical carrying out of his idea caused. Never, perhaps, was there a better instance of a man of one idea, and certainly there never was any man by whom his one idea was more attractively represented. To this day it is difficult even with the clearest knowledge of the facts to rise from a perusal of Froissart without an impression that the earlier period of the Hundred Years' War was a sort of golden age in which all the virtues flourished, except for occasional ugly outbreaks of the evil principle in the Jacquerie, the Wat Tyler insurrection, and so forth. As a historian Froissart is, as we[Pg 134] should expect, not critical, and he carries the French habit of disfiguring proper names and ignoring geographical and other trifles to a most bewildering extent. But there is little doubt that he was diligent in collecting and careful in recording his facts, and his extreme minuteness often supplies gaps in less prolix chroniclers.

Fifteenth-Century Chroniclers.

The last century of the period which is included in this chapter is extremely fertile in historians. These range themselves naturally in two classes; those who undertake more or less of a general history of the country during their time, and those who devote themselves to special persons as biographers, or to the recital of the events which more particularly concern a single city or district. The first class, moreover, is more conveniently subdivided according to the side which the chroniclers took on the great political duel of their period, the struggle between Burgundy and France.

The Burgundian side was particularly rich in annalists. The study and practice of historical writing had, as a consequence of the Chronicle of Baudouin, and the success of Lebel and Froissart, taken deep root in the cities of Flanders which were subject to the Duke of Burgundy, while the magnificence and opulence of the ducal court and establishments naturally attracted men of letters. Froissart's immediate successor, Enguerrand de Monstrelet, belongs to this party. Monstrelet[137], who wrote a chronicle covering the years 1400-1444, is not remarkable for elegance or picturesqueness of style, but takes particular pains to copy exactly official reports of speeches, treaties, letters, etc. Another important chronicle of the same side is that of George Chastellain[138], a busy man of letters, who was historiographer to the Duke of Burgundy, and wrote a history of the years 1419-1470. Chastellain was a man of learning and talent, but was somewhat imbued with the heavy and pedantic style which both in poetry and prose was becoming fashionable. The memoirs of Olivier de la Marche extend from 1435 to 1489, and are also somewhat heavy, but less pedantic than those of Chastellain. Dealing with the same period,[Pg 135] and also written in the Burgundian interest, are the memoirs of Jacques du Clerq, 1448-1467, and of Lefèvre de Saint Rémy, 1407-1436; as also the Chronicle of Jehan de Wavrin, beginning at the earliest times and coming down to 1472. Wavrin's subject is nominally England, but the later part of his work of necessity concerns France also.

The writers on the royalist side are of less importance and less numerous, though individually perhaps of equal value. The chief of them are Mathieu de Coucy, who continued the work of Monstrelet in a different political spirit from 1444 to 1461; Pierre de Fenin, who wrote a history of part of the reign of Charles VI; and Jean Juvenal des Ursins[139], a statesman and ecclesiastic, who has dealt more at length with the whole of the same reign. Of these Juvenal des Ursins takes the first rank, and is one of the best authorities for his period; but from a literary point of view he cannot be very highly spoken of, though there is a certain simplicity about his manner which is superior to the elaborate pedantry of not a few of his contemporaries and immediate successors.

The second class has the longest list of names, and perhaps the most interesting constituents. First may be mentioned Le Livre des Faits et bonnes Mœurs du sage roi Charles V. This is an elaborate panegyric by the poetess Christine de Pisan, full of learning, good sense, and sound morality, but somewhat injured by the classical phrases, the foreign idioms, and the miscellaneous erudition, which characterise the school to which Christine belonged. Far more interesting is the Livre des Faits du Maréchal de Bouciqualt[140], a book which is a not unworthy companion and commentary to Froissart, exhibiting the kind of errant chivalry which characterised the fourteenth century, and in part the fifteenth, and which so greatly assisted the English in their conflicts with the French. Joan of Arc was made, as might have been expected, the subject of numerous chronicles and memoirs which have come down to us under the names of Cousinot, Cochon, and Berry. The Constable of Richemont, who had the credit of overthrowing[Pg 136] the last remnant of English domination at the battle of Formigny, found a biographer in Guillaume Gruel.

Lastly have to be mentioned three curious works of great value and interest bearing on this time. These are the journals of a citizen of Paris[141] (or two such), which extend from 1409 to 1422, and from 1424 to 1440, and the so-called Chronique scandaleuse of Jean de Troyes covering the reign of Louis XI. These, with the already-mentioned chronicle of Juvenal des Ursins, are filled with the minutest information on all kinds of points. The prices of articles of merchandise, the ravages of wolves, etc., are recorded, so that in them almost as much light is thrown on the social life of the period as by a file of modern newspapers. The chronicle of Jean Chartier, brother of Alain, that of Molinet in continuance of Chastellain, and the short memoirs of Villeneuve, complete the list of works of this class that deserve mention.

Examples of the three great French historians of the middle ages follow:—


La velle de la saint Martin vindrent devant Gadres en Esclavonie, si virent la cité fermee de halz murs et de haltes torz, et pour noiant demandissiés plus bele ne plus fort ne plus riche. et quant li pelerin la virent, il se merveillerent mult et distrent li uns a l'autre 'coment porroit estre prise tel vile par force, se diex meïsmes nel fait?' Les premieres nés vindrent devant la vile et aëncrerent et atendirent les autres et al matin fist mult bel jor et mult cler, et vinrent les galies totes et li huissier et les autres nés qui estoient arrieres, et pristrent le port par force et rompirent la chaaine qui mult ere forz et bien atornee, et descendirent a terre, si que li porz fu entr'aus et la vile. lor veïssiez maint chevalier et maint serjant issir des nés et maint bon destrier traire des huissiers et maint riche tref et maint pavellon.

Einsine se loja l'oz et fu Gadres assegie le jor de la saint Martin. a cele foiz ne furent mie venu tuit li baron, ear encor n'ere mie venuz li marchis de Montferrat qui ere remés arriere por afaire que il avoit. Estiennes del Perche fu remés malades en Venise et Mahis de Monmorenci, et quant il furent gari, si s'en vint Mahis de Monmorenci aprés l'ost a Gadrez; mes Estienes del Perche ne le fist mie si bien, quar il guerpi l'ost et s'en ala en Puille sejorner. avec lui s'en ala Rotrox de Monfort et Ives de la Ille et maint autre, qui mult en furent blasmé, et passerent au passage de marz en Surie.

L'endemain de la saint Martin issirent de cels de Gadres et vindrent parler le duc de Venise qui ere en son paveillon, et li distrent que il li rendroient la[Pg 137] cité et totes les lor choses sals lor cors en sa merci. et li dus dist qu'il n'en prendroit mie cestui plet ne autre, se par le conseil non as contes et as barons, et qu'il en iroit a els parler.

Endementiers que il ala parler as contes et as barons, icele partie dont vos avez oï arrieres, qui voloient l'ost depecier, parlerent as messages et lor distrent 'por quoi volez vos rendre vostre cité? li pelerin ne vos assaldront mie ne d'aus n'avez vos garde, se vos vos poëz defendre des Venisïens, dont estes vos quites.' et ensi pristrent un d'aus meïsmes qui avoit non Robert de Bove, qui ala as murs de la vile et lor dist ce meïsmes. Ensi entrerent li message en la vile et fu li plais remés. Li dus de Venise com il vint as contes et as barons, si lor dist 'seignor, ensi voelent cil de la dedanz rendre la cité sals lor cors a ma merci, ne je ne prendroie cestui plait ne autre se per voz conseill non' et li baron li respondirent 'sire, nos vos loons que vos le preigniez et si le vos prïon.' et il dist que il le feroit. Et il s'en tornerent tuit ensemble al paveillon le duc por le plait prendre, et troverent que li message s'en furent alé par le conseil a cels qui voloient l'ost depecier. E dont se dreça uns abes de Vals de l'ordre de Cistials, et lor dist 'seignor, je vos deffent de par l'apostoile de Rome que vos ne assailliez ceste cité, quar ele est de crestïens et vos iestes pelerin.' Et quant ce oï li dus, si en fu mult iriez et destroiz et dist as contes et as barons 'seignor, je avoie de ceste vile plait a ma volonté, et vostre gent le m'ont tolu et vos m'aviez convent que vos le m'aideriez a conquerre, et je vos semoing que vos le façoiz.'

Maintenant li conte et li baron parlerent ensemble et cil qui a la lor partie se tenoient, et distrent 'mult ont fait grant oltrage cil qui ont cest plait desfet, et il ne fu onques jorz que il ne meïssent paine a cest ost depecier. or somes nos honi, se nos ne l'aidons a prendre.' Et il vienent al duc et li dïent 'sire, nos le vos aiderons a prendre por mal de cels qui destorné l'ont.' Ensi fu li consels pris; et al matin alerent logier devant les portes de la vile, et si drecierent lor perrieres et lor mangonials et lor autres engins dont il avoient assez; et devers la mer drecierent les eschieles sor les nés. lor commencierent a la vile a geter les pieres as murz et as lors. Ensi dura cil asals bien por v jors et lor si mistrent lors trenchëors a une tour, et cil commencierent a trenchier le mur. et quant cil dedenz virent ce, si quistrent plait tot atretel com il l'avoient refusé par le conseil a cels qui l'ost voloient depecier.


Au mois d'aoust entrames en nos neis a la Roche de Marseille: a celle journée que nous entrames en nos neis, fist l'on ouvrir la porte de la nef, et mist l'on touz nos chevaus ens, que nous deviens mener outre mer; et puis reclost l'on la porte et l'enboucha l'on bien, aussi comme l'on naye un tonnel. pour ce que, quant le neis est en la grant mer, toute la porte est en l'yaue. Quant li cheval furent ens, nostre maistres notonniers escrïa a ses notonniers qui estoient ou bec de la nef et lour dist 'est aree vostre besoingne?' et il respondirent 'oïl, sire, vieingnent avant clerc et li provere.' Maintenant que il furent venu, il lour escrïa 'chantez de par dieu'; et il s'escrïerent tuit a une voiz 'veni creator spiritus.' et il escrïa a ses notonniers 'faites voile de par dieu'; et il si firent. et en brief tens li venz se feri ou voile et nous ot tolu la vëue de la terre, que nous ne veïsmes que ciel et yaue: et chascun jour nous esloigna li venz des païs ou nous avions estei neiz. et ces choses vous moustre[Pg 138] je que cil est bien fol hardis, qui se ose mettre en tel peril atout autrui chatel ou en pechié mortel; ear l'on se dort le soir la ou on ne set se l'on se trouvera ou font de la mer au matin.

En la mer nous avint une fiere merveille, que nous trouvames une montaigne toute ronde qui estoit devant Barbarie. nous la trouvames entour l'eure de vespres et najames tout le soir, et cuidames bien avoir fait plus de cinquante lieues, et lendemain nous nous trouvames devant icelle meïsmes montaigne; et ainsi nous avint par dous foiz ou par trois. Quant li marinnier virent ce, il furent tuit esbahi et nous distrent que nos neis estoient en grant peril; ear nous estiens devant la terre aus Sarrazins de Barbarie. Lors nous dist uns preudom prestres que on appeloit doyen de Malrut, ear il n'ot onques persecucïon en paroisse. ne par defaut d'yaue ne de trop pluie ne d'autre persecucïon, que aussi tost comme il avoit fait trois processïons par trois samedis, que diex et sa mere ne le delivrassent. Samedis estoit: nous feïsmes la premiere processïon entour les dous maz de la nef; je meïsmes m'i fiz porter par les braz, pour ce que je estoie grief malades. Onques puis nous ne veïsmes la montaigne, et venimes en Cypre le tiers samedi.


Je fuis adont infourmé par le seigneur d'Estonnevort, et me dist que il vey, et aussi firent plusieurs, quant l'oriflambe fut desploiee et la bruïne se chey, ung blanc coulon voller et faire plusieurs volz par dessus la baniere du roy; et quant il eut assez volé, et que on se deubt combatre et assambler aux ennemis, il se print a sëoir sur l'une des bannieres du roy; dont on tint ce a grant signiffïance de bien. Or approchierent les Flamens et commenchierent a jetter et a traire de bombardes et de canons et de gros quarreaulx empenez d'arain; ainsi se commença la bataille. Et en ot le roy de France et ses gens le premier encontre, qui leur fut moult dur; ear ces Flamens, qui descendoient orgueilleusement et de grant voulenté, venoient roit et dur, et boutoient en venant de l'espaule et de la poitrine ainsi comme senglers tous foursenez, et estoient si fort entrelachiés tous ensemble qu'on ne les povoit ouvrir ne desrompre. La fuirent du costé des François par le trait des canons, des bombardes et des arbalestres premierement mort: le seigneur de Waurin, baneret, Morelet de Halwin et Jacques d'Ere. Et adont fut la bataille du roy reculee; mais l'avantgarde et l'arrieregarde a deux lez passerent oultre et enclouïrent ces Flamens, et les misrent a l'estroit. Je vous diray comment sur ces deux eles gens d'armes les commencierent a pousser de leurs roides lances a longs fers et durs de Bourdeaulx, qui leur passoient ces cottes de maille tout oultre et les perchoient en char; dont ceulx qui estoient attains et navrez de ces fers se restraindoient pour eschiever les horïons; ear jamais ou amender le peuïssent ne se boutoient avant pour eulx faire destruire. La les misrent ces gens d'armes a tel destroit qu'ilz ne se sçavoient ne povoient aidier ne ravoir leurs bras ne leurs planchons pour ferir ne eulz deffendre. La perdoient les plusieurs force et alaine, et la tresbuchoient l'un sur l'autre, et se estindoient et moroient sans coup ferir. La fut Phelippe d'Artevelle encloz et pousé de glaive et abatu, et gens de Gand qui l'amoient et gardoient grant plenté atterrez entour luy. Quant le page dudit Phelippe vey la mesadventure venir sur les leurs, il estoit bien monté sur bon coursier, si se party et laissa son maistre, ear il ne le povoit aidier; et retourna vers Courtray pour revenir a Gand.[Pg 139]

(A)insi fut faitte et assamblee celle bataille; et lors que des deux costez les Flamens furent astrains et encloz, ilz ne passerent plus avant, ear ilz ne se povoient aidier. Adont se remist la bataille du roy en vigeur, qui avoit de commencement ung petit branslé. La entendoient gens d'armes a abatre Flamens en grant nombre, et avoient les plusieurs haches acerees, dont ilz rompoient ces bachinets et eschervelloient testes; et les aucuns plommees, dont ilz donnoient si grans horrïons, qu'ilz les abatoient a terre. A paines estoient Flamens chëuz, quant pillars venoient qui entre les gens d'armes se boutoient et portoient grandes coutilles, dont ilz les partüoient; ne nulle pitié n'en avoient non plus que se ce fuissent chiens. La estoit le clicquetis sur ces bacinets si grant et si hault, d'espees, de haches, et de plommees, que l'en n'y ouoit goutte pour la noise. Et ouÿ dire que, se tous les heaumiers de Paris et de Brouxelles estoient ensemble, leur mestier faisant, ilz n'euïssent pas fait si grant noise comme faisoient les combatans et les ferans sur ces testes et sur ces bachinets. La ne s'espargnoient point chevalliers ne escuïers ainchois mettoient la main a l'euvre par grant voulenté, et plus les ungs que les autres; si en y ot aucuns qui s'avancerent et bouterent en la presse trop avant; ear ilz y furent encloz et estains, et par especïal messire Loÿs de Cousant, ung chevallier de Berry, et messire Fleton de Revel, filz au seigneur de Revel; mais encoires en y eut des autres, dont ce fut dommage: mais si grosse bataille, dont celle la fut, ou tant avoit de pueple, ne se povoit parfurnir et au mieulx venir pour les victorïens, que elle ne couste grandement. Car jeunes chevalliers et escuïers qui desirent les armes se avancent voulentiers pour leur honneur et pour acquerre loënge; et la presse estoit la si grande et le dangier si perilleux pour ceulx qui estoient enclos ou abatus, que se on n'avoit trop bonne ayde, on ne se povoit relever. Par ce party y eut des Françoiz mors et estains aucuns; mais plenté ne fut ce mie; ear quant il venoit a point, ilz aidoient l'un l'autre. La eut ung molt grant nombre de Flamens occis, dont les tas des mors estoient haulx et longs ou la bataille avoit esté; on ne vey jamais si peu de sang yssir a tant de mors.

Quant les Flamens qui estoient derriere veirent que ceulx devant fondoient et chëoient l'un sus l'autre et que ilz estoient tous desconfis, ilz s'esbahirent et jetterent leurs plançons par terre et leurs armures et se misrent a la fuitte vers Courtray et ailleurs. Ilz n'avoient cure que pour eulx mettre a sauveté. Et Franchois et Bretons aprés, quy les chassoient en fossez et en buissons, en aunois et an marés et bruieres, cy dix, cy vingt, cy trente, et la les recombatoient de rechief, et la les occïoient, se ilz n'estoient les plus fors. Si en y eut ung moult grant nombre de mors en la chace entre le lieu de la bataille et Courtray, ou ilz se retraioient a saulf garant. Ceste bataille advint sur le Mont d'Or entre Courtray et Rosebeque en l'an de grace nostre seigneur, mil iijc. iiijxx. et II., le jeudi devant le samedi de l'advent, le xxvije. jour de novembre, et estoit pour lors le roy Charles de France ou xiiije. an de son ëage.


[131] The chronicle of the pseudo-Turpin is of little real importance in the history of French literature, because it is admitted to have been written in Latin. The busy idleness of critics has however prompted them to discuss at great length the question whether the Chanson de Roland may not possibly have been composed from this chronicle. The facts are these. Tilpin or Turpin was actually archbishop of Rheims from 753-794, but nobody pretends that the chronicle going under his name is authentic. All that is certain is that it is not later than 1165, and that it is probably not earlier than the middle, or at most the beginning, of the eleventh century, while the part of it which is more particularly in question is of the end of that century. Roland is almost certainly of the middle at latest. Curiosity on this point may be gratified by consulting M. Gaston Paris, De pseudo-Turpino, Paris, 1865, or M. Léon Gautier, Epopées Françaises, Paris, 1878. But, from the literary point of view, it is sufficient to say that, while Turpin is of the very smallest literary merit, Roland is among the capital works of the middle ages.

[132] Ed. N. de Wailly. Paris, 1874.

[133] Ed. P. Paris. 2 vols., 1879-80. It is characteristic of the middle ages that this work usually bore the title of Roman d'Eracle, for no other reason than that the name of Héraclius occurs in the first sentence.

[134] Ed. N. de Wailly. Paris, 1874. Besides the Histoire de St. Louis, Joinville has left an interesting Credo, a brief religious manual written much earlier in his life.

[135] Ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove. 20 vols., Brussels. Ed. S. Luce, Paris, in course of publication. The edition of Buchon, 3 vols., Paris, 1855, is still the best for general use. Froissart's poems give many biographical details which are interesting, but unimportant. He wandered all his life from court to court, patronised and pensioned by kings, queens, and princes. He was successively curé of Lestines and canon of Chimay. In early life he was much in England, being specially patronised by Edward III. and Philippa.

[136] Old Mortality, chap. 35.

[137] Ed. Buchon. Paris, 1858.

[138] Chastellain has been fortunate, like most Flemish writers, in being excellently and completely edited (by M. Kervyn de Lettenhove. 8 vols., Brussels).

[139] Ed. Michaud et Poujoulat.

[140] Ed. Michaud et Poujoulat.

[141] Ed. Michaud et Poujoulat, in whose collection most of the many authors here mentioned will be also found.

[Pg 140]



General use of Prose.

It was natural, and indeed necessary, that, when the use of prose as an allowable vehicle for literary composition was once understood and established, it should gradually but rapidly supersede the more troublesome and far less appropriate form of verse. Accordingly we find that, from the beginning of the thirteenth century, the amount of prose literature is constantly on the increase. It happens, however, or, to speak more precisely, it follows that this miscellaneous prose literature is of much less importance and of much less interest than the contemporary and kindred literature in verse. For in the nature of things much of it was occupied with what may be called the journey-work of literature,—the stuff which, unless there be some special attraction in its form, grows obsolete, or retains a merely antiquarian interest in the course of time. There was, moreover, still among the chief patrons of literature a preference for verse which diverted the brightest spirits to the practice of that form. Yet again, the best prose composition of the middle ages, with the exception of a few works of fiction, is to be found in its chronicles, and these have already been noticed. A review, therefore, much less minute in scale than that which in the first ten chapters of this book has been given to the mediaeval poetry of France, will suffice for its mediaeval prose, and such a review will appropriately close the survey of the literature of the middle ages.

Prose Sermons. St. Bernard.
Maurice de Sully.
Later Preachers. Gerson.

It has already been pointed out in the first chapter that documentary evidence exists to prove the custom of preaching in French (or at least in lingua romana) at a very early date. It is not, however, till many centuries after the date of Mummolinus,[Pg 141] that there is any trace of regularly written vernacular discourses. When these appear in the twelfth century the Provençal dialects appear to have the start of French proper. Whether the forty-four prose sermons of St. Bernard which exist were written by him in French, or were written in Latin and translated, is a disputed point. The most reasonable opinion seems to be that they were translated, but it is uncertain whether at the beginning of the thirteenth or the middle of the twelfth century. However this may be, the question of written French sermons in the twelfth century does not depend on that of St. Bernard's authorship. Maurice de Sully, who presided over the See of Paris from 1160 to 1195, has left a considerable number of sermons which exist in manuscripts of very different dialects. Perhaps it may not be illegitimate to conclude from this, that at the time such written sermons were not very common, and that preachers of different districts were glad to borrow them for their own use. These also are thought to have been first written in Latin and then translated. But whether Maurice de Sully was a pioneer or not, he was very quickly followed by others. In the following century the number of preachers whose vernacular work has been preserved is very large; the increase being, beyond all doubt, partially due to the foundation of the two great preaching orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic. The existing literature of this class, dating from the thirteenth, the fourteenth, and the early fifteenth centuries, is enormous, but the remarks made at the beginning of this chapter apply to it fully. Its interest is almost wholly antiquarian, and not in any sense literary. Distinguished names indeed occur in the catalogue of preachers, but, until we come to the extreme verge of the mediaeval period proper, hardly one of what may be called the first importance. The struggle between the Burgundian and Orleanist, or Armagnac parties, and the ecclesiastical squabbles of the Great Schism, produced some figures of greater interest. Such are Jean Petit, a furious partisan, who went so far as to excuse the murder of the Duke of Orleans, and Jean Charlier, or Gerson, one of the most respectable[Pg 142] and considerable names of the later mediaeval literature. Gerson was born in 1363, at a village of the same name in Lorraine. He early entered the Collège de Navarre, and distinguished himself under Peter d'Ailly, the most famous of the later nominalists. He became Chancellor of the University, received a living in Flanders, and for many years preached in the most constantly attended churches of Paris. He represented the University at the Council of Constance, and, becoming obnoxious to the Burgundian party, sought refuge with one of his brothers at Lyons, where he is said to have taught little children. He died in 1429. Gerson, it should perhaps be added, is one of the numerous candidates (but one of the least likely) for the honour of having written the Imitation. He concerns us here only as the author of numerous French sermons. His work in this kind is very characteristic of the time. Less mixed with burlesque than that of his immediate successors, it is equally full of miscellaneous, and, as it now seems, somewhat inappropriate erudition, and far fuller of the fatal allegorising and personification of abstract qualities which were in every branch of literature the curse of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Yet there are passages of real eloquence in Gerson, though perhaps the chief literary point about him is the evidence he gives of the insufficiency of the language in its then condition for serious prose work.

Moral and Devotional Treatises.
Political and Polemical Works.

This is indeed the lesson of most of the writing which we have to notice in this chapter. Next to sermons may most naturally be placed devotional and moral works, for, as may easily be imagined, theology and philosophy, properly so called, did not condescend to the vulgar tongue until after the close of the period. Only treatises for the practical use of the unlearned and ignorant adopted the vernacular. Of such there are manuals of devotion and sketches of sacred history which date from the thirteenth century, besides numerous later treatises, among the authors of which Gerson is again conspicuous. The most popular, perhaps, and in a way the most interesting of all such moral and devotional treatises, is the book of the Chevalier de la Tour Landry[142], written in the third quarter of the fourteenth[Pg 143] century. This book, destined for the instruction of the author's three daughters, is composed of Bible stories, moral tales from ordinary literature and from the writer's experience, precepts and rules of conduct, and so forth; in short, a Whole Duty of Girls. Most however of the works of this sort which were current were, as may be supposed, not original, but translated, and these translations played a very important part in the history of the language. The earliest of all are translations of the Bible, especially of the Psalms and the book of Kings, the former of which may perhaps date from the end of the eleventh century. Translations of the fathers, and of the Lives of the Saints, followed in such numbers that, in 1199, Pope Innocent III. blamed their indiscriminate use. The translation of profane literature hardly begins much before the thirteenth century. In this it becomes frequent; and in the following many classical writers and more mediaeval authors in Latin underwent the process. But it was not till the close of the fourteenth century that the most important translations were made, and that translation began to exercise its natural influence on a comparatively unsophisticated language, by providing terms of art, by generally enriching the vocabulary, and by the elaboration of the peculiarities of syntax and style necessary for rendering the sentences of languages so highly organised as Latin and Greek. Under John of Valois and his three successors considerable encouragement was given by the kings of France to this sort of work, and three translators, Pierre Bersuire, Nicholas Oresme, and Raoul de Presles, have left special reputations. The eldest of these, Pierre Bersuire or Bercheure, a friend of Petrarch, was born in 1290, and towards the end of his life, about 1352, translated part of Livy. Nicholas Oresme, the date of whose birth is unknown, but who entered the Collège de Navarre in 1348, and is likely to have been at that time thirteen or fourteen years old, and who became Dean of Rouen and Bishop of Lisieux, translated, in 1370 and the following years, the Ethics, Politics, and Economics of Aristotle (from the Latin, not the Greek). He died in 1382. Oresme was a good writer, and particularly dexterous in adopting neologisms necessary for his purpose. Raoul de Presles executed[Pg 144] translations of the Bible and of St. Augustine's De Civitate Dei. All these writers furnished an enlarged vocabulary to their successors, the most remarkable of whom were the already mentioned Christine de Pisan and Alain Chartier. The latter is especially noteworthy as a prose writer, and the comments already made on his style and influence as a poet apply here also. His Quadriloge Invectif and Curial, both satirical or, at least, polemical works, are his chief productions in this kind. Raoul de Presles also composed a polemical work, dealing chiefly with the burning question of the papal and royal powers, under the title of Songe du Verger.

Codes and Legal Treatises.

It might seem unlikely at first sight that so highly technical a subject as law should furnish a considerable contingent to early vernacular literature; but there are some works of this kind both of ancient date and of no small importance. England and Normandy furnish an important contingent, the 'Laws of William the Conqueror' and the Coutumiere Normandie being the most remarkable: but the most interesting document of this kind is perhaps the famous Assises de Jérusalem, arranged by Godfrey of Bouillon and his crusaders as the code of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099, and known also as the Lettres du Sépulcre, from the place of their custody. The original text was lost or destroyed at the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187; but a new Assise, compiled from the oral tradition of the jurists who had seen and used the old, was written by Philippe de Navarre in 1240, or thereabouts, for the use of the surviving Latin principalities of the East. This was shortly afterwards enlarged and developed by Jean d'Ibelin, a Syrian baron, who took part in the crusade of St. Louis. These codes concerned themselves only with one part of the original Lettres du Sépulcre, the laws affecting the privileged classes; but the other part, the Assises des Bourgeois, survives in Le Livre de la Cour des Bourgeois, which has been thought to be older than the loss of the original. These various works contain the most complete account of feudal jurisprudence in its palmy days that is known, for the still earlier Anglo-Norman laws represent a more mixed state of things. It was especially in Cyprus that the Jerusalem[Pg 145] codes were observed. The chief remaining works of the same kind which deserve mention are the Établissements de St. Louis and the Livre de Justice et de Plet, which both date from the time of Louis himself; the Conseil, a treatise on law by Pierre de Fontaines, who died in 1289, and the Coutumes du Beauvoisis of Philippe de Beaumanoir, who wrote in 1283. The legal literature of the fourteenth century is abundant, but possesses considerably less interest.

Miscellanies and Didactic Works.

Last of all, before coming to prose fiction, a vast if not very interesting class of miscellaneous prose work must be mentioned. The word class has been used, but perhaps improperly, for classification is almost impossible. Books of accounts and domestic economy of all sorts (generally called livres de raison) were very common; treatises of all kinds of more general character on household management abounded. We have a Ménagier de Paris, a Viandier de Paris, both of the fourteenth century. But much earlier the orderly and symmetrical spirit which has always distinguished the French makes itself apparent in literature. The Livre des Métiers de Paris of Étienne Boileau, dating from the thirteenth century, gives a complete idea of the organisation of guilds and trades at that time. An innumerable multitude of treatises on the minor morals, on love, on manners, exists in manuscript, and in rare instances in print. The Trésors, or compendious encyclopædias, which have already been noticed in verse, began in the thirteenth century to be composed in prose, the most remarkable being that of Brunetto Latini, the master of Dante, who avowedly used French as his vehicle of composition, because it was the most commonly read of European languages. This book was written apparently about or before 1270. Nor did the separate arts lack illustration in prose. Medicine and alchemy, astronomy and poetry, war and chess, had their treatises, while Bestiaries and Lapidaries are almost as numerous in prose as in verse. Finally, there is the important category of books of travel. There are a certain number of voyages to the Holy Land[143]; some miscellaneous travels mostly, though not universally, translated from the Latin; and last, but not least, the great book of[Pg 146] Marco Polo, which seems to have been written originally in French, the author, when in captivity at Genoa, having dictated it to Rusticien of Pisa, who also figures as a compiler of late versions of the Arthurian legend, and who thus had some skill in French composition.


The prose fiction of the period has been kept to the last, because it expresses a different order of literary endeavour from those divisions which have hitherto been treated. The language of the middle ages was ill-suited for work other than narrative; for narrative work it was supremely well adapted. Yet the prose fiction which we have is not on the whole equal in merit to the poetry, though in one or two instances it is of great value. The medium of communication was not generally known or used until the period of decadence had been reached, and the peculiar defects of mediaeval literature, prolixity and verbiage, show themselves more conspicuously and more annoyingly in prose than in verse. We have, however, some remarkable work of the later periods, and in the latest of all we have one writer, Antoine de la Salle, who deserves to rank with the great chroniclers as a fashioner of French prose.

The French prose fiction of the middle ages resolves itself into several classes: the early Arthurian Romances already noticed; the scattered tales of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which are chiefly to be studied in two excellent volumes of the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne[144]; the versions of such collections of legends, chiefly oriental in origin, as the History of the Seven Wise Men and the Gesta Romanorum; the longer classical romances in prose; the late prose remaniements of the great verse epics and romances of the twelfth century; and the more or less original work of the fifteenth century, when prose was becoming an independent and coequal literary exponent. The first class requires no further mention; of the third, the editions of the Roman des Sept Sages, by M. Gaston Paris[145], and of the Violier des Histoires Romaines, by M. Gustave Brunet[146], may be referred to as sufficient instances; of the fourth a very interesting specimen has been made accessible by the publication of the prose Roman de Jules César[Pg 147] of Jean de Tuim[147], a free version from Lucan made apparently in the course of the thirteenth century, and afterwards imitated by the author of the verse romance; the fifth, though very numerous, are not of much value, though the great romance of Perceforest and a few others may be excepted from this general condemnation. The second and the last deserve a longer mention.

The tales of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as published by MM. Moland and Héricault, are eight in number. Those of the second volume are on the whole inferior in interest to those of the first. They consist of Asseneth, a graceful legend of the marriage of Joseph with the daughter of the Egyptian high-priest; Troilus, interesting chiefly as a prose version of Benoist de Ste. More's legend of Troilus and Cressida, through the channel of Guido Colonna and Boccaccio; and a very curious English story, that of the rebel Fulk Fitzwarine. The thirteenth-century tales consist of L'Empereur Constant, the story with which Mr. Morris has made English readers familiar under the title of the 'Man born to be King;' of a prose version of the ubiquitous legend of Amis et Amiles; of Le roi Flore et la belle Jehanne, a kind of version of Griselda, though the particular trial and exhibition of fidelity is quite different; of the Comtesse de Ponthieu, the least interesting of all; and lastly, of the finest prose tale of the French middle ages, Aucassin et Nicolette. In this exquisite story Aucassin, the son of the count of Beaucaire, falls in love with Nicolette, a captive damsel. It is very short, and is written in mingled verse and prose. The theme is for the most part nothing but the desperate love of Aucassin, which is careless of religion, which makes him indifferent to the joy of battle and to everything, except 'Nicolette ma très-douce mie,' and which is, of course, at last rewarded. But the extreme beauty of the separate scenes makes it a masterpiece.

Antoine de la Salle.

Antoine de la Salle is one of the most fortunate of authors. The tendency of modern criticism is generally to endeavour to prove that some famous author has been wrongly credited with some of the work which has made his fame. Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Rabelais, have all had to pay this penalty. In the case of Antoine de la[Pg 148] Salle, on the contrary, critics have vied with each other in heaping unacknowledged masterpieces on his head. His only acknowledged work is the charming romance of Petit Jean de Saintré[148]. The first thing added to this has been the admirable satire of the Quinze Joyes du Mariage[149], the next the famous collection of the Cent Nouvelles[150], and the last the still more famous farce of Pathelin[151]. There are for once few or no external reasons why these various attributions should not be admitted, while there are many internal ones why they should. Antoine de la Salle was born in 1398, and spent his life in the employment of different kings and princes;—Louis III of Anjou, King of Naples, his son the good King René, the count of Saint Pol, and Philip the Good of Burgundy, who was his natural sovereign. Nothing is known of him after 1461. Of the three prose works which have been attributed to him—there are others of a didactic character in manuscript—the Quinze Joyes du Mariage is extremely brief, but it contains the quintessence of all the satire on that honourable estate which the middle ages had elaborated. Every chapter—there is one for each 'joy' with a prologue and conclusion—ends with a variation on this phrase descriptive of the unhappy Benedict, 'est sy est enclose dans la nasse, et à l'aventure ne s'en repent point et s'il n'y estait il se y mettroit bientot; la usera sa vue en languissant, et finira misérablement ses jours.' The satire is much quieter and of a more humorous and less boisterous character than was usual at the time. The Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles are to all intents and purposes prose fabliaux. They have the full licence of that class of composition, its sparkling fun, its truth to the conditions of ordinary human life. Many of them are taken from the work of the Italian novelists, but all are handled in a thoroughly original manner. In style they are perhaps the best of all the late mediaeval prose works, being clear, precise, and definite without the least appearance of baldness or dryness. Petit Jehan de Saintré is, together with the Chronique de Messire Jacques de Lalaing[152] of Georges Chastellain (a delightful biography, which is not a work of fiction), the hand-book[Pg 149] of the last age of chivalry. Jehan de Saintré, who was a real person of the preceding century, but from whom the novelist borrows little or nothing but his name, falls in love with a lady who is known by the fantastic title of 'la dame des belles cousines.' He wins general favour by his courtesy, true love, and prowess; but during his absence in quest of adventures, his faithless mistress betrays him for a rich abbot. The latter part of this book exhibits something of the satiric intention, which was never long absent from the author's mind; the former contains a picture, artificial perhaps, but singularly graceful, of the elaborate religion, as it may almost be called, of chivalry. Strikingly evident in the book is the surest of all signs of a dying stage of society, the most delicate observation and sympathetic description joined to sarcastic and ironical criticism.

As examples of this prose literature we may take a fragment of one of the sermons attributed to St. Bernard (twelfth century), an extract from Aucassin et Nicolette (thirteenth century), and one from the Curial of Alain Chartier (early fifteenth century):—

St. Bernard.

Granz est ceste mers, chier frere, et molt large, c'est ceste presente vie ke molt est amere et molt plaine de granz ondes, ou trois manieres de gent puyent solement trespesseir, ensi k'il delivreit en soient, et chascuns en sa maniere. Troi homme sunt: Noë, Danïel et Job. Li primiers de cez trois trespesset a neif, li seconz par pont et li tierz par weit. Cist troi homme signifïent trois ordenes ki sunt en sainte eglise. Noë conduist l'arche par mei lo peril del duluve, en cui je reconois aparmenmes la forme de ceos qui sainte eglise ont a governeir. Danïel, qui apeleiz est bers de desiers, ki abstinens fut et chastes, il est li ordenes des penanz et des continanz ki entendent solement a deu. Et Job, ki droituriers despensiers fut de la sustance de cest munde, signifïet lo fëaule peule qui est en marïaige, a cuy il loist bien avoir en possessïon les choses terrienes. Del primier et del secont nos covient or parler, ear ci sunt or de present nostre frere, et ki abbeit sunt si cum nos, ki sunt del nombre des prelaiz; et si sunt assi ci li moine ki sunt de l'ordene des penanz dont nos mismes, qui abbeit sommes, ne nos doyens mies osteir, si nos par aventure, qui jai nen avignet, nen avons dons oblïeit nostre professïon por la grace de nostre office. Lo tierz ordene, c'est de ceos ki en marïaige sunt, trescorrai ju or briément, si cum ceos qui tant nen apartienent mies a nos cum li altre. c'est cil ordenes ki a vveit trespesset ceste grant meir; et cist ordenes est molt peneuous et perillous, et ki vait par molt longe voie, si cum cil ki nule sente ne quierent ne nule adrece. En ceu appert bien ke molt est perillouse lor voie, ke nos tant de gent i vëons perir, dont nos dolor avons, et ke nos si poc i vëons de ceos ki ensi trespessent cum mestiers seroit; ear molt est griés chose d'eschuïr l'abysme des vices et les[Pg 150] fossés des criminals pechiez entre les ondes de cest seule, nomeyement or en cest tens ke li malices est si enforciez.


Aucasins fu mis en prison si com vos avés, oï et entendu, et Nicolete fu d'autre part en le canbre. Ce fu el tans d'esté, el mois de mai, que li jor sont caut, lonc et cler, et les nuis coies et series. Nicolete jut une nuit en son lit, si vit la lune luire cler par une fenestre, et si oï le lorseilnol canter en garding, se li sovint d'Aucasin son ami qu'ele tant amoit. ele se comença a porpenser del conte Garin de Biaucaire qui de mort le haoit; si se pensa qu'ele ne remanroit plus ilec, que s'ele estoit acusee et li quens Garins le savoit, il le feroit de male mort morir. ele senti que li vielle dormoit qui aveuc li estoit. ele se leva, si vesti un blïaut de drap de soie que ele avoit molt bon; si prist dras de lit et touailes, si noua l'un a l'autre, si fist une corde si longe conme ele pot, si le noua au piler de le fenestre, si s'avala contreval le gardin, et prist se vesture a l'une main devant et a l'autre deriere; si s'escorça por le rousee qu'ele vit grande sor l'erbe, si s'en ala aval le gardin. Ele avoit les caviaus blons et menus recercelés, et les ex vairs et rïans, et le face traitice et le nés haut et bien assis, et les levretes vermelletes plus que n'est cerisse ne rose el tans d'esté, et les dens blans et menus, et avoit les mameletes dures qui li souslevoient sa vestëure ausi com ce fuissent II nois gauges, et estoit graille parmi les flans, qu'en vos dex mains le pëusciés enclorre; et les flors des margerites qu'ele ronpoit as ortex de ses piés, qui li gissoient sor le menuisse du pié par deseure, estoient droites noires avers ses piés et ses ganbes, tant par estoit blance la mescinete. Ele vint au postic; si le deffrema, si s'en isci par mi les rues de Biaucaire par devers l'onbre, ear la lune luisoit molt clere, et erra tant qu'ele vint a le tor u ses amis estoit. Li tors estoit faëlé de lius en lius, et ele se quatist delés l'un des pilers. si s'estraint en son mantel, si mist sen cief par mi une crevëure de la tor qui vielle estoit et anciienne, si oï Aucasin qui la dedens pleuroit et faisoit mot grant dol et regretoit se douce amie que tant amoit. et quant ele l'ot assés escouté, si comença a dire.

Alain Chartier.

La court, affin que tu l'entendes, est ung couvent de gens qui soubz faintise du bien commun sont assemblez pour eulx interrompre; ear il n'y a gueres de gens qui ne vendent, achaptent ou eschangent aucunes foiz leurs rentes ou leurs propres vestemens; ear entre nous de la court nous sommes marchans affectez qui achaptons les autres gens et autresfoiz pour leur argent nous leur vendons nostre humanité precïeuse. Nous leur vendons et achaptons autruy par flaterie ou par corrupcïons; mais nous sçavons tres bien vendre nous mesmes a ceulx qui ont de nous a faire. Combien donc y peus tu acquerir qui es certain sans doubte et sans peril? veulx tu aller a la court vendre ou perdre ce bien de vertu, que tu as acquis hors d'icelle court? Certes, frere, tu demandes ce que tu deusses reffuser, tu te fies en ce dont tu te deusses deffier et fiches ton esperance en ce que te tire a peril. Et se tu y viens, la court te servira de tant de mensonges controverses d'une part, et de l'autre de bailler tant de tours et de charges que tu auras dedans toy mesmes bataille continuëlle et soussiz angoisseux et pour certain homme qui pourra bonnement dire que ceste vie fust bieneuree qui par tant de tempestes est achatee et en tant de contrarïetez esprouvee.


[142] Ed. Montaiglon. Paris, 1854.

[143] A good example of these is the Saint Voyage de Jérusalem of the Seigneur d'Anglure (1385), edited by MM. Bonnardot and Longnon. Paris, 1878.

[144] Nouvelles du 13e et du 14e siècle. Ed. Moland et Héricault. 2 vols. Paris, 1856.

[145] Paris, 1876.

[146] Paris, 1858.

[147] Ed. Settegast. Halle, 1881.

[148] Ed. Guichard. Paris, 1843.

[149] Ed. Jannet. Paris, 1853; 2nd ed. 1857.

[150] Ed. Wright. Paris, 1858.

[151] Ed. Fournier, Théâtre Français avant la Renaissance. Paris, n. d.

[152] Ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, viii. 1-259.

[Pg 151]



In the foregoing book a view has been given of the principal developments of mediaeval literature in France. The survey has extended, taking the extremest chronological limits, over some eight centuries. But, until the end of the eleventh, the monuments of ancient French literature are few and scattered, and the actual manuscripts which we possess date in hardly any case further back than the twelfth. In reality the history of mediaeval literature in France is the history of the productions of the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries with a long but straggling introduction, ranging from the eighth or even the seventh. Its palmy time is unquestionably in the twelfth and the thirteenth. During these two hundred years almost every kind of literature is attempted. Vast numbers of epic poems are written; one great story, that of Arthur, exercises the imagination as hardly any other story has exercised it either in ancient or in modern times; the drama is begun in all its varieties of tragedy, comedy, and opera; lyric poetry finds abundant and exquisite expression; history begins to be written, not indeed from the philosophic point of view, but with vivid and picturesque presentment of fact; elaborate codes are drawn; vernacular homilies, not mere rude colloquial discourses, are composed; the learning of the age, such as it is, finds popular treatment; and in particular a satiric literature, more abundant and more racy if less polished than any that classical antiquity has left us, is committed to writing. It is often wondered at and bewailed that this vigorous growth was succeeded by a period of comparative stagnation in which little advance was made, and in[Pg 152] which not a little decided falling off is noticeable. Except the formal lyric poetry of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and the multiplied dramatic energy of the latter, nothing novel or vigorous appears for some hundred and forty years, until the extreme verge of the period, when the substitution of the prose tale, as exemplified in the work attributed to Antoine de la Salle, for the verse Fabliau, opens a prospect which four centuries of progress have not closed. The early perfection of Italian, a language later to start than French, has been regretfully compared with this, and the blame has been thrown on the imperfection of mediaeval arrangements for educating the people. The complaint is mistaken, and almost foolish. It is not necessary to look much further than Italian itself to see the Nemesis of a too early development. French, like English, which had a yet tardier literary growth, has pursued its course unhasting, unresting, to the present hour. Italian since the close of the sixteenth century has contributed not a single masterpiece to European literature, and not much that can be called good second-rate. It is not impossible that the political troubles of France—the Hundred Years' War especially—checked the intellectual development of the country, but if so, the check was in the long run altogether salutary. The middle ages were allowed to work themselves out—to produce their own natural fruit before the full influx of classical literature. What is more, a breathing time was allowed after the exhaustion of the first set of influences, before the second was felt. Hence the French renaissance was a far more vigorous growth than the renaissance of Italy, which displays at once the signs of precocity and of premature decay. But we are more immediately concerned at the present moment with the literary results of the middle ages themselves. It is only of late years that it has been possible fully to estimate these, and it is now established beyond the possibility of doubt that to France almost every great literary style as distinguished from great individual works is at this period due. The testimony of Brunetto Latini as to French being the common literary tongue of Europe in the thirteenth century has been quoted, and those who have read the foregoing chapters attentively will be able to recall innumerable instances of the literary supremacy of France. It[Pg 153] must of course be remembered that she enjoyed for a long time the advantage of enlisting in her service the best wits of Southern England, of the wide district dominated by the Provençal dialects, and of no small part of Germany and of Northern Italy. But these countries took far more than they gave: the Chansons de Gestes were absorbed by Italy, the Arthurian Romances by Germany; the Fabliaux crossed the Alps to assume a prose dress in the Southern tongue; the mysteries and miracles made their way to every corner of Europe to be copied and developed. To the origination of the most successful of all artificial forms of poetry—the sonnet—France has indeed no claim, but this is almost a solitary instance. The three universally popular books (to use the word loosely) of profane literature in the middle ages, the epic of Arthur, the satire of Reynard the Fox, the allegorical romance of the Rose, are of French origin. In importance as in bulk no literature of these four centuries could dare to vie with French.

This astonishing vigour of imaginative writing was however accompanied by a corresponding backwardness in the application of the vernacular to the use of the exacter and more serious departments of letters. Before Comines, the French chronicle was little more than gossip, though it was often the gossip of genius. No philosophical, theological, ethical, or political work deserving account was written in French prose before the beginning of the sixteenth century. The very language remained utterly unfitted for any such use. Its vocabulary, though enormously rich in mere volume, was destitute of terms of the subtlety and precision necessary for serious prose; its syntax was hardly equal to anything but a certain loose and flowing narration, which, when turned into the channel of argument, became either bald or prolix. The universal use of Latin for graver purposes had stunted and disabled it. At the same time great changes passed over the language itself. In the fourteenth century it lost with its inflections not a little of its picturesqueness, and had as yet hit upon no means of supplying the want. The loose orthography of the middle ages had culminated in a fantastic redundance of consonants which was reproduced in the earliest printed books. This, as readers of Rabelais are aware, was an admirable assistance to grotesque[Pg 154] effect, but it was fatal to elegance or dignity except in the omnipotent hands of a master like Rabelais himself. In the fifteenth century, moreover, the stereotyped forms of poetry were losing their freshness and grace while retaining their stately precision. The faculty of sustained verse narrative had fled the country, only to return at very long intervals and in very few cases. The natural and almost childish outspokenness of early times had brought about in all departments of comic literature a revolting coarseness of speech. The farce and the prose tale almost outdo the more naïf fabliau in this. Nothing like a critical spirit had yet manifested itself in matters literary, unless the universal following of a few accepted models may be called criticism. The very motives of the mediaeval literature, its unquestioning faith, its sense of a narrow circle of knowledge surrounded by a vast unknown, its acceptance of classes and orders in church and state (tempered as this acceptance had been by the sharpest satire on particulars but by hardly any argument on general points), were losing their force. Everything was ready for a renaissance, and the next book will show how the Renaissance came and what it did.

[Pg 155]





The Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Characteristics of Fifteenth-century Literature.

To determine at what period exactly mediaeval literature ceases in France and modern literature begins, is not one of the easiest problems of literary history. It has sometimes been solved by the obvious expedient of making out of the fifteenth century a period of transition, sometimes by continuing the classification of 'mediaeval' until the time when Marot and Rabelais gave unmistakeable evidence of the presence and working of the modern spirit. Perhaps, however, there may, after all, have been something in the instinct which, in words clumsily enough chosen, made Boileau date modern French poetry from Villon[153], and there can hardly be any doubt that, as far as spirit if not form goes, modern French prose dates from Comines. These two contemporary authors, moreover, have in them the characteristic which perhaps more than any other distinguishes modern from mediaeval literature, the predominance of the personal element. In their works, especially if Villon be taken with the immediately preceding and partially contemporary Charles d'Orléans, a difference of the most striking kind is noticeable at once. It is not that the prince who served the god Nonchaloir so piously is deficient in personal characteristics or personal attractiveness, but[Pg 156] that his personality is still, so to speak, generic rather than individual. He is still the Trouvère of the nobler class, dallying with half-imaginary woes in the forms consecrated by tradition to the record of them. Not so the vagabond whose words after four centuries appeal directly to the spirit of the modern reader. That reader is cut off from Charles d'Orléans' world by a gulf across which he can only project himself by a great effort of study or of sympathetic determination. The barriers which separate him from Villon are slight enough, consisting mostly of trifling changes in language and manners which a little exertion easily overcomes.

The latter portion of the fifteenth century, or, to speak more correctly, its last two-thirds, have frequently been described as a 'dead season' in French literature. The description is not wholly just. Even if, according to the plan just explained, we throw Charles d'Orléans and Antoine de la Salle, two names of great importance, back into the mediaeval period, and if we allow most of the chroniclers who preceded Comines to accompany them, there are still left, before the reign of Francis the First witnessed the definite blooming of the Renaissance in France, the two names of consummate importance which stand at the head of this chapter, a few minor writers of interest such as Coquillart, Baude, Martial d'Auvergne, an interesting group of literary or at least oratorical ecclesiastics, and a much larger and, from a literary point of view, more important group of elaborate versifiers, the so-called grands rhétoriqueurs who preceded the Pléiade in endeavouring to Latinise the French tongue, and whose stiff verse produced by a natural rebound the easy grace of Clément Marot. Each of these persons and groups will demand some notice, and the mention of them will bring us to the Renaissance of which the subjects of this chapter were the forerunners.


François Villon[154], or Corbueil, or Corbier, or de Montcorbier, or des Loges, was certainly born at Paris in the year 1431. Of the date of his death nothing certain is known, some authorities extending his life towards the close of the[Pg 157] century in order to adjust Rabelais' anecdotes of him[155], others supposing him to have died before the publication of the first edition of his works in 1489. That Villon was not his patronymic, whichsoever of his numerous aliases may really deserve that distinction, is certain. He was a citizen of Paris and a member of the university, having the status of clerc. But his youth was occupied in other matters than study. In 1455 he killed, apparently in self-defence, a priest named Philip Sermaise, fled from Paris, was condemned to banishment in default of appearance, and six months afterwards received letters of pardon. In 1456 a faithless mistress, Catherine de Vausselles, drew him into a second affray, in which he had the worst, and again he fled from Paris. During his absence a burglary committed in the capital put the police on the track of a gang of young good-for-nothings among whom Villon's name figured, and he was arrested, tried, tortured, and condemned to death. On appeal, however, the sentence was commuted to banishment. Four years after he was in prison at Meung, consigned thither by the Bishop of Orleans, but the king, Louis the Eleventh, set him free. Thenceforward nothing certain is known of him. He had at one time relations with Charles d'Orléans. Such are the bare facts of his singular life, to which the peculiar character of his work has directed perhaps disproportionate attention. This work consists of a poem in forty stanzas of eight octosyllabic lines (each rhymed a, b, a, b, b, c, b, c) called the Petit Testament[156]; of a poem in 173 similar stanzas called the Grand Testament, in which about a score of minor pieces, chiefly ballades or rondeaux, are inserted; of a Codicil composed mainly of ballades; of a few separate pieces, and of some ballades in argot, collectively called Le Jargon. Besides these there are doubtful pieces, including a curious work called Les Repues Franches, which describes in octaves like those of the Testaments the swindling tricks of Villon and his companions, an excellent[Pg 158] Dialogue between two characters, the Seigneurs de Mallepaye and Baillevent, and a still better Monologue entitled Le Franc Archier de Bagnolet. The Little Testament was written after the affair with Catherine de Vausselles, the Great Testament after his liberation from the Bishop's Prison at Meung. Many of the minor poems contain allusions which enable us to fix them to various events in the poet's life. The first edition of his works was, as has been said, published in 1489. In 1533 he had the honour of having Marot for editor, and up to the date of the Bibliophile Jacob's edition of 1854 (since when there have been several editions), the number had reached thirty-two.

The characteristics of Villon may be looked at either technically or from the point of view of the matter of his work. He had an extraordinary mastery of the most artificial forms of poetry which have ever been employed. The rondel, which Charles d'Orléans wrote with so much grace, he did not use, but his rondeaux are generally exquisite. The ballade, however, was his special province. No writer has ever got the full virtue out of the recurrent rhymes and refrains, which are the special characteristics of the form, as Villon has. No one has infused into a mere string of names, such as his famous Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis and others, such exquisitely poetical effects by dint of an epithet here and there and of a touching burden. But the matter of his verse is in many ways perfectly on a level with its manner. No one excels him in startling directness of phrase, in simple but infinite pathos of expression. Of the former, the sudden cry of the Belle Heaulmière after the recital of her former triumphs—

Que m'en reste-t-il? honte et péché;

and the despairing conclusion of the lover of La Grosse Margot—

Je suis paillard, paillardise me suit—

are examples in point; of the latter the line in the rondeau to Death—

Deux étions et n'avions qu'un cœur.

No one has bolder strokes of the picturesque, as for instance—

De Constantinoble
L'empérier aux poings dorés;
[Pg 159]

and no one can render the sombre horror of a scene better than Villon has rendered it in the famous epitaph of the gibbeted corpses—

La pluie nous a debués et lavés,
Et le soleil desséchés et noircis,
Pies, corbeaulx nous out les yeux cavés
Et arrachés la barbe et les sourcils.

These are some of Villon's strongest points. Yet in his comparatively limited work—limited in point of bulk and peculiar in style and subject—he has contrived to show perhaps more general poetical power than any other writer who has left so small a total of verse. The note of his song is always true and always sweet; and despite the intensely allusive character of most of it, and the necessary loss of the key to many of the allusions, it has in consequence continued popular through all changes of language and manners. Of very few French poets can it be said as of Villon that their charm is immediate and universal, and the reason of this is that his work is full of touches of nature which are universally perceived, as well as distinguished by consummate art of expression. In the great literature which we are discussing, the latter characteristic is almost universally present, the former not so constantly.


The literary excellence of Comines[157] is of a very different kind from that of Villon, but he represents the changed attitude of the modern spirit towards practical affairs almost as strongly as Villon does the change in its relations to art and sentiment. Philippe de Comines was born, not at the château of the same name which was then in the possession of his uncle, but at Renescure, not very far from Hazebrouck. His family name was Vandenclyte, and his ancestors (Flemings, as their name implies) had been citizens of Ghent before they acquired seignorial position and rank. The education of Comines was neglected (he never possessed any knowledge of Latin), and his heritage was heavily encumbered. He was born before 1447, and entered the service of Philip of Burgundy and of his son Charles of Charolais, the future Charles le Téméraire. Comines was present at Montlhéry and at the siege of Liège, while he played a considerable part in[Pg 160] the celebrated affair of Péronne, when Louis XI. was in such danger. Before 1471 he had been charged with several important negotiations by Charles, now duke, in France, England, and Spain. But, either personally disobliged by Charles, or, as seems most likely from the Memoirs, presaging with the keen, unscrupulous intelligence of the time the downfall of the headlong prince, he quitted Burgundy and its master in 1472 and entered the service of Louis, from whom he had already accepted a pension. He was richly rewarded, married an heiress in Poitou, and at one time enjoyed the forfeited fief of Talmont, a domain of the first importance, which he afterwards had to restore to its rightful owners, the La Tremouilles. The accession of Charles VIII. was not favourable to him, and, having taken part against the Lady of Beaujeu, he was imprisoned and deprived of Talmont. But with his usual sagacity, he had in the Duke of Orleans, afterwards Louis XII., chosen the representative of the side destined to win in the long run. The Italian wars gave scope to his powers. He was sent to Venice, was present at the battle of Fornovo, and met Machiavelli at Florence. In the reign of Louis XII. he received new places and pensions, and he died in 1511 aged at least sixty-four.

Comines is not a master of style, though at times the weight of his thought and the simplicity of his expression combine to produce an effect not unhappy. He has odd peculiarities of diction, especially inversions of phrase and sudden apostrophes which enliven an otherwise rather awkward manner of writing. Thus, in describing the bad education of the young nobles of his time, he says, 'de nulles lettres ils n'ont connaissance. Un seul sage homme on ne leur met à l'entour.' And in his account of the operations before the battle of Morat he says, 'Il (the Duke of Burgundy) séjourna à Losanne en Savoie où vous monseigneur de Vienne le servîtes d'un bon conseil en une grande maladie qu'il eut de douleur et de tristesse.' On the whole, however, no one would think of reading Comines for the merit, or even the quaintness of his style, nor can he be commended as a vivid, even if an inelegant describer. The gallant shows which excited the imaginations of his predecessors, the mediaeval chroniclers from Villehardouin to Froissart, find in him a clumsy annalist and a not too careful[Pg 161] observer. His interest is concentrated exclusively on the turns of fortune, the successes of statecraft, and the lessons of conduct to be noticed in or extracted from the business in hand. With this purpose he is perpetually digressing. The affairs of one country remind him of something that has happened in another, and he stops to give an account of this. To a certain extent the mediaeval influence is still strong on Comines, though it shows itself in connection with evidences of the modern spirit. He is religious to a degree which might be called ostentatious if it were not pretty evidently sincere; and this religiosity is shown side by side with the exhibition of a typically unscrupulous and non-moral, if not positively immoral, statecraft. Again, his reflexions, though usually lacking neither in acuteness nor in depth, are often appended to a commonplace on the mutability of fortune, the error of anger, the necessity of adapting means to ends, and so forth. Everywhere in Comines is evident, however, the anti-feudal and therefore anti-mediaeval conception of a centralised government instead of a loose assemblage of powerful vassals. The favourite mediaeval ideal, of which Saint Simon was perhaps the last sincere champion, finds no defence in Comines; and it seems only just to allow him, in his desertion of the Duke of Burgundy, some credit for drawing from the anarchy of the Bien Public, and from his observations of Germany, England, and Spain, the conclusion that France must be united, and that union was only possible for her under a king unhampered by largely appanaged and only nominally dependent princes. It should be said that the Mémoires of Comines are not a continuous history. The first six books deal with the reign of Louis XI. from 1465 to 1483. But the seventh is busied with Charles the Eighth's Italian wars only, the author having passed over the period of his own disgrace. Besides the Memoirs we possess a collection of Lettres et Négotiations.[158]


There are three persons who, while of very much less importance than those just introduced to the reader, deserve a mention in passing as characteristic and at the same time meritorious writers, during the second and third quarters of the fifteenth century, the extreme verge of which the life of all three appears to[Pg 162] have touched. These are Guillaume Coquillart, Henri Baude, and Martial d'Auvergne. All three were poets, all three have been somewhat over-praised by the scholars who in days more or less recent have drawn them from their obscurity, but all three made creditable head against what was mistaken and absurd in the literary fashions of the time. In the writings of all of them moreover there is to be found something, if not much, which is positively good, and which deserves the attention, hardly perhaps of the general reader, but of students of literature. Coquillart[159] was a native, and for great part of his life an inhabitant, of Rheims. The extreme dates given for his birth and death are 1421 and 1510, but there is in reality, as is usual in the case of all men of letters before the sixteenth century, very little solid authority for his biography. It may be mentioned that Marot declares him to have cut short his life by gaming. A life can hardly be said to be cut short at ninety, nor is that an age at which gaming is a frequent ruling passion. All that can be said is that he was certainly, as we should now say, in the civil service of the province of Champagne during the reign of Louis XI., that like many other men of the time he united ecclesiastical with legal functions, being not only a town-councillor but a canon, and that he has left satirical works of some merit and importance. These last alone concern us much. His chief production is a poem entitled Les Droits Nouveaux, in octosyllabic verses, not arranged in stanzas of definite length, but, on the other hand, interlacing the rhymes, and not in couplets after the older fashion. The plan of this poem is by no means easy to describe. It is partly a social satire, partly a professional lampoon on the current methods of learning and teaching law, partly a political diatribe on the alterations introduced into provincial and national life and polity under Louis XI. Not very different in character and exactly similar in form, except that it is arranged as the age would have said par personnages, that is to say semi-dramatically, is the Plaidoyer de la Simple et de la Rusée. The Blason des Armes et des Dames takes up a mediaeval theme in a mediaeval style. The procureurs (advocates) of arms and of ladies endeavour to show each that his[Pg 163] client—war or love—deserves the chief attention of a prince. Here, as elsewhere with Coquillart, though of course more covertly, satire dominates. But the best of the pieces attributed to Coquillart are his monologues. There are three of these, the Monologue Coquillart, the Monologue du Puys, and the Monologue du Gendarme Cassé. This last is a ferocious satire on its subject, coarse in language, like most of the author's poems, but full of rude vigour. The professional soldier as distinguished from the feudal militia or the train-bands of the towns was odious to the later middle ages.


Henri Baude[160] is a still less substantial figure. He seems to have been an élu (member of a provincial board) for the province of Limousin, but to have lived mostly at Paris. He was born at Moulins towards the beginning of the second quarter of the century, and formed part of the poetical circle of Charles d'Orléans in his old age. He had troubles with lawless seigneurs and with the police of Paris; he finally succeeded in obtaining the protection of the Duke of Bourbon, and he did not die till the end of the century. Only a selection from his poems has yet been published. The chief thing remarkable about them (they are mostly occasional and of no great length) is the plainness, the directness, and, in not a few cases, the elegance of the diction, which differs remarkably from the cumbrous phrases and obscure allusive conceits of the time. Many of them are personal appeals for protection and assistance, others are satirical. Baude had a peculiar mastery of the rondeau form. His rondeau to the king, expressing a sentiment often uttered by lackpenny bards in the days of patrons, is a good example of his style, though it is hardly as simple and devoid of obscurity as usual.

Martial d'Auvergne.

Martial d'Auvergne[161], or Martial de Paris (for by an odd chance both of these local surnames are given him, probably from the fact that, like Baude, he was a native[Pg 164] of the centre of France and spent his life in the capital), like Coquillart and Baude, was something of a lawyer by profession, and has left work in prose as well as in verse. He certainly died in 1508, and, as he is spoken of as senio confectus, he cannot have been born much later than 1420, especially as his poem, the Vigilles de Charles VII., was written on the death of that prince in 1461. This poem is of considerable extent, and is divided into nine 'Psalms' and nine 'Lessons.' The staple metre is the quatrain, but detached pieces in other measures occur. A complete history of the subject is given, and in some of the digressions there are charming passages, notably one (given by M. de Montaiglon) on the country life. Another very beautiful poem, commonly attributed to Martial, is entitled L'Amant rendu Cordelier au service de l'Amour, a piece of amorous allegory at once characteristic of the later middle ages, and free from the faults usually found in such work. A prose work of a somewhat similar kind, entitled Arrêts d'Amour, is known to be Martial's. In no writer is there to be found more of the better part of Marot, as in the light skipping verses:—

Mieux vault la liesse,
L'accueil et l'addresse,
L'amour et simplesse,
De bergers pasteurs,
Qu'avoir à largesse
Or, argent, richesse,
Ne la gentillesse
De ces grants seigneurs.
Car ils ont douleurs
Et des maulx greigneurs,
Mais pour nos labeurs
Nous avons sans cesse
Les beaulx prés et fleurs,
Fruitages, odeurs
Et joye à nos cœurs
Sans mal qui nous blesse.

There is something of the old pastourelles in this, and of a note of simplicity which French poetry had long lost.

The Rhétoriqueurs.

Such verse as this of Martial d'Auvergne was, indeed, the exception at the time. The staple poetry of the age was that of the grands rhétoriqueurs, as it has become usual to call them, apparently from a phrase of Coquillart's. Georges Chastellain[162] was the great master of this school. But to him personally some injustice has been done.[Pg 165] His pupils and successors, however, for the most part deserve the ill repute in which they are held. This school of poetry had three principal characteristics. It affected the most artificial forms of the artificial poetry which the fourteenth century had seen established, the most complicated modulations of rhyme, such as the repetition, twice or even thrice at the end of a line, of the same sound in a different sense, and all the other puerilities of this particular Ars Poetica. Secondly, it pursued to the very utmost the tradition of allegorising, of which the Roman de la Rose had established the popularity. Thirdly, it followed the example set by Chartier and his contemporaries of loading the language as much as possible with Latinisms, and in a less degree, because Greek was then but indirectly known, Graecisms. These three things taken together produced some of the most intolerable poetry ever written. The school had, indeed, much vitality in it, and overlapped the beginnings of the Renaissance in such a manner that it will be necessary to take note of it again in the next chapter. Some, however, of its greatest lights belonged to the present period. Such were Robertet, a heavy versifier and the author of letters not easily to be excelled in pedantic coxcombry, who enjoyed much patronage, royal and other; Molinet, a direct disciple of Chastellain, and, like him, of the Burgundian party; and Meschinot (died 1509), a Breton, who has left us an allegorical work on the 'Spectacles of Princes,' and poems which can be read in thirty different ways, any word being as good to begin with as any other. Such also was the father of a better poet than himself, Octavien de Saint Gelais (1466-1502), who died young and worn out by debauchery. Jean Marot, the father of Clément, was a not inconsiderable master of the ballade, and has left poems which do not show to great disadvantage by the side of those of his accomplished son. But the leader of the whole was Guillaume Crétin (birth and death dates uncertain), whom his contemporaries extolled in the most extravagant fashion, and whom a single satirical stroke of Rabelais has made a laughing-stock for some three hundred and fifty years. The rondeau ascribed to Raminagrobis, the 'vieux poète français' of Pantagruel[163], is Crétin's, and[Pg 166] the name and character have stuck. Crétin was not worse than his fellows; but when even such a man as Marot could call him a poète souverain, Rabelais no doubt felt it time to protest in his own way. Marot himself, it is to be observed, confines himself chiefly to citing Crétin's vers équivoqués, which of their kind, and if we could do otherwise than pronounce that kind hopelessly bad, are without doubt ingenious. His poems are chiefly occasional verse, letters, débats, etc., besides ballades and rondeaux of all kinds.

Chansons du XVème Siècle.

One charming book which has been preserved to us gives a pleasant contrast to the formal poetry of the time. The Chansons du XVème Siècle, which M. Gaston Paris has published for the Old French Text Society[164], exhibit informal and popular poetry in its most agreeable aspect. They are one hundred and forty-three in number, some of them no doubt much older than the fifteenth century, but certainly none of them younger. There are pastourelles, war-songs, love-songs in great number, a few patriotic ditties, and a few which may be called pure folksongs, with the story half lost and only a musical tangle of words remaining. Nothing can be more natural and simple than most of these pieces.


Few of the miscellaneous branches of literature at this time deserve notice. But there was a group of preachers who have received attention, which is said by students of the whole subject of the mediaeval pulpit in France to be disproportionate, but which they owe perhaps not least to the citations of them in a celebrated and amusing book of the next age, the Apologie pour Hérodote of Henri Estienne. These are Menot (1440-1518) and Maillard the Franciscans, and Raulin (1443-1514), a doctor of the Sorbonne. These preachers, living at a time which was not one of popular sovereignty, did not meddle with politics as preachers had done in France before and were to do again. But they carried into the pulpit the habit of satirical denunciation in social as well as in purely religious matters, and gave free vent to their zeal. No[Pg 167] illustrations of the singular licence which the middle ages permitted on such occasions are more curious than these sermons. Not merely did the preachers attack their audience for their faults in the most outspoken manner, but they interspersed their discourses (as indeed was the invariable custom throughout the whole middle ages) with stories of all kinds. In Raulin, the gravest of the three, occurs the famous history of the church bells, which reappears in Rabelais, à propos of the marriage of Panurge.



Villon sut le premier, dans ces siècles grossiers,
Débrouiller l'art confus de nos vieux romanciers.
Art Poét. Ch. 1.

[154] Ed. P. L. Jacob. Paris, 1854. Villon's life has been the subject of numerous elaborate investigations, the latest and best of which is that of A. Longnon. Paris, 1877. Dr. Bijvanck, a Dutch scholar, has dealt since with the MSS.

[155] One of these anecdotes makes him patronised by Edward the Fifth of England. But the very terms of it are unsuitable to that king.

[156] The reader may be reminded that the Testament was a recognised mediaeval style. It was satirical and allegorical, the legacies which it gave being mostly indicative of the legatee's weaknesses or personal peculiarities.

[157] Ed. Chantelauze. Paris, 1881. Also usefully in Michaud et Poujoulat.

[158] Ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove. 2 vols. Brussels, 1867-8.

[159] Ed. Héricault. 2 vols. Paris, 1857.

[160] Edited in part by J. Quicherat. Paris, 1856.

[161] Martial d'Auvergne had the exceptional good luck to be reprinted in the 18th century (Vigilles 1724, Arrêts 1731), but he has not recently found an editor, though an edition of the Amant rendu Cordelier has been for some time due from the Société des Anciens Textes. The notice by M. de Montaiglon (the promised editor of the edition just mentioned) in Crepet's Poètes Français, i. 427, has been chiefly used here for facts.

[162] Ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, as previously cited. For the remainder of the poets reviewed in this paragraph, few of whom have found modern editors, see Crepet, Poètes Français, vol. i.

[163] iii. 21.

[164] Paris, 1876.

[Pg 168]



Hybrid School of Poetry.

The beginnings of the Renaissance in France manifest, as we should expect, a mixture of the characteristics of the later middle ages and of the new learning. In those times the influence of reforms of any kind filtered slowly through the dense crust of custom which covered the national life of each people, and there is nothing surprising in the fact that while Italy felt the full influence of the influx of classical culture in the fifteenth century, that influence should be only partially manifest in France during the first quarter of the sixteenth, while it was not until the century was more than half over that it showed itself in England. The complete manifestation of the combined tendencies of mediaeval and neo-pagan thought was only displayed in Shakespeare, but by that time, as is the wont of all such things, it had already manifested itself partially, though in each part more fully and characteristically, elsewhere. It is in the literature of France that we find the most complete exposition of these partial developments. Marot, Ronsard, Rabelais, Calvin, Garnier, Montaigne, will not altogether make up a Shakespeare, yet of the various ingredients which go to make up the greatest of literary productions each of them had shown, before Shakespeare began to write, some complete and remarkable embodiment. It is this fact which gives the French literature of the sixteenth century its especial interest. Italy had almost ceased to be animated by the genius of the middle ages before her literature became in any way perfect in form, and the survival of the classical spirit was so strong there that mediaeval influence was never very potent in the moulding of the national letters. England had lost the[Pg 169] mediaeval differentia, owing to religious and political causes, before the Renaissance made its way to her shores. But in France the two currents met, though the earlier had lost most of its force, and, according to the time-honoured parallel, flowed on long together before they coalesced. In the following chapters we shall trace the history of this process, and here we shall trace the first stage of it in reference to French poetry. In the period of which Marot is the representative name, the earlier force was still dominant in externals; in that of which Ronsard is the exponent, the Greek and Latin element shows itself as, for the moment, all-powerful.

Jean le Maire.
Jehan du Pontalais.

Between the rhétoriqueurs proper, the Chastellains and the Crétins and the Molinets on the one hand, and Marot and his contemporaries and disciples on the other, a school of poets, considerable at least in numbers, intervened. The chief of these was Jean le Maire des Belges[165]. He was the nephew of Molinet, and his birth at Belges or Bavia in Hainault, as well as his literary ancestry and predilections, inclined him to the Burgundian, or, as it was now, the Austrian side. But the strong national feeling which was now beginning to distinguish French-speaking men threw him on the side of the King of Paris, and he was chiefly occupied in his serious literary work on tasks which were wholly French. His Illustrations des Gaules is his principal prose work, and in this he displays a remarkable faculty of writing prose at once picturesque and correct. The titles of his other works (Temple d'Honneur et de Vertu, etc.) still recall the fifteenth century, and the Latinising tradition of Chartier appears strong in him. But at the same time he Latinises with a due regard to the genius of the language, and his work, pedantic and conceited as it frequently is, stands in singular contrast to the work of some of his models. Something not dissimilar, though in this case the rhétoriqueur influence is less apparent, may be said of Pierre Gringore, whose true title to a place in a history of French[Pg 170] literature is, however, derived from his dramatic work, and who will accordingly be mentioned later. Nor had the tradition of Villon, overlaid though it was by the abundance and popularity of formal and allegorising poetry, died out in France. At least two remarkable figures, Jehan du Pontalais and Roger de Collérye, represent it in the first quarter of the century. The former indeed[166] owes his place here rather to a theory than to certain information; for if M. d'Héricault's notion that Jehan du Pontalais is the author of a work entitled Contreditz du Songecreux be without foundation, Jehan falls back into the number of half mythical Bohemians, bilkers of tavern bills and successful out-witters of the officers of justice, who possess a shadowy personality in the literary history of France. Les Contreditz du Songecreux ranks among the most remarkable examples of the liberty which was accorded to the press under the reign of Louis XII., a king who inherited some affection for literature from his father, Charles d'Orléans, and a keen perception of the importance of literary co-operation in political work from his ancestor, Philippe le Bel, and his cousin Louis XI. In precision and strikingness of expression Jehan recalls Villon; in the boldness of his satire on the great and the bitterness of his attacks on the character of women he recalls Antoine de la Salle and Coquillart. A trait illustrating the former power may be found in the line descriptive of the hen-pecked man's condition—

Tous ses cinq sens lui fault retraire.

while his attacks on the nobility are almost up to the level of Burns—

Noblesse enrichie Richesse ennoblie Tiennent leurs estatz,
Qui n'a noble vie Je vous certifie Noble n'est pas.
Roger de Collérye.
Minor Predecessors of Marot.

Roger de Collérye[167] was a Burgundian, living at the famous and vinous town of Auxerre, and he has celebrated his loves, his distress, his amiable tendency to conviviality, in many rondeaux and other poems, sometimes attaining a very[Pg 171] high level of excellence. 'Je suis Bon-temps, vous le voyez' is the second line of one of his irregular ballades, and the nickname expresses his general attitude well enough. Mediaeval legacies of allegory, however, supply him with more unpleasant personages, Faute d'Argent and Plate-Bourse, for his song, and his mistress, Gilleberte de Beaurepaire, appears to have been anything but continuously kind. Collérye has less perhaps of the rhétoriqueur flavour than any poet of this time before Marot, and his verse is very frequently remarkable for directness and grace of diction. But like most verse of the kind it frequently drops into a conventionality less wearisome but not much less definite than that of the mere allegorisers. Jehan Bouchet[168], a lawyer of Poitiers (not to be confounded with Guillaume Bouchet, author of the Sérées), imitated the rhétoriqueurs for the most part in form, and surpassed them in length, excelling indeed in this respect even the long-winded and long-lived poets of the close of the fourteenth century. Bouchet is said to have composed a hundred thousand verses, and even M. d'Héricault avers that he read two-thirds of the number without discovering more than six quotable lines. Such works of Bouchet as we have examined fully confirm the statement. Still, he was an authority in his way, and had something of a reputation. His fanciful nom de plume 'Le Traverseur des Voies Périlleuses' is the most picturesque thing he produced, and is not uncharacteristic of the later middle age tradition. Rabelais himself, who was a fair critic of poetry when his friends were not concerned, but who was no poet, and was even strikingly deficient in some of the characteristics of the poet, admired and emulated Bouchet in heavy verse; and a numerously attended school, hardly any of the pupils being worth individual mention, gathered round the lawyer. Charles de Bordigné is only remarkable for having, in his Légende de Pierre Faifeu, united the rhétoriqueur style with a kind of Villonesque or rather pseudo-Villonesque subject. The title of the chief poems of Symphorien Champier, Le Nef des Dames Amoureuses, sufficiently indicates his style. But Champier, though by no means a good poet, was a useful and studious man of letters, and did much[Pg 172] to form the literary cénacle which gathered at Lyons in the second quarter of the century, and which, both in original composition, in translations of the classics, and in scholarly publication of work both ancient and modern, rendered invaluable service to literature. Gratien du Pont[169] continued the now very stale mediaeval calumnies on women in his Controverses des Sexes Masculin et Féminin. Eloy d'Amerval, a Picard priest, also fell into mediaeval lines in his Livre de la Déablerie, in which the personages of Lucifer and Satan are made the mouthpieces of much social satire. Jean Parmentier, a sailor and a poet, combined his two professions in Les Merveilles de Dieu, a poem including some powerful verse. A vigorous ballade, with the refrain Car France est Cymetièreaux Anglois, has preserved the name of Pierre Vachot. But the remaining poets of this time could only find a place in a very extended literary history. Most of them, in the words of one of their number, took continual lessons ès œuvres Crétiniques et Bouchetiques, and some of them succeeded at last in imitating the dulness of Bouchet and the preposterous mannerisms of Crétin. Perhaps no equal period in all early French history produced more and at the same time worse verse than the reign of Louis XII. Fortunately, however, a true poet, if one of some limitations, took up the tradition, and showed what it could do. Marot has sometimes been regarded as the father of modern French poetry, which, unless modern French poetry is limited to La Fontaine and the poets of the eighteenth century, is absolutely false. He is sometimes regarded as the last of mediaeval poets, which, though truer, is false likewise. What he really was can be shown without much difficulty.

Clément Marot.

Clément Marot[170] was a man of more mixed race than was usual at this period, when the provincial distinctions were still as a rule maintained with some sharpness. His father, Jean Marot, a poet of merit, was a Norman, but he emigrated[Pg 173] to Quercy, and Marot's mother was a native of Cahors, a town which, from its Papal connections, as well as its situation on the borders of Gascony, was specially southern. Clément was born probably at the beginning of 1497, and his father educated him with some pains in things poetical. This, as times went, necessitated an admiration of Crétin and such like persons, and the practice of rondeaux, and of other poetry strict in form and allegorical in matter. As it happened, the discipline was a very sound one for Marot, whose natural bent was far too vigorous and too lithe to be stiffened or stunted by it, while it unquestionably supplied wholesome limitations which preserved him from mere slovenly facility. It is evident, too, that he had a sincere and genuine love of things mediaeval, as his devotion to the Roman de la Rose and to Villon's poems, both of which he edited, sufficiently shows. He 'came into France,' an expression of his own, which shows the fragmentary condition of the kingdom even at this late period, when he was about ten years old. His father held an appointment as 'Escripvain' to Anne of Brittany, and accompanied her husband to Genoa in 1507. The University of Paris, and a short sojourn among the students of law, completed Clément's education, and he then became a page to a nobleman, thus obtaining a position at court or, at least, the chance of one. It is not known when his earliest attempt at following the Crétinic lessons was composed; but in 1514, being then but a stripling, he presented his Jugement de Minos to François de Valois, soon to be king. A translation of the first Eclogue of Virgil had even preceded this. Both poems are well written and versified, but decidedly in the rhétoriqueur style. In 1519, having already received or assumed the title of 'Facteur' (poet) to Queen Claude, he became one of the special adherents of Marguerite d'Angoulême, the famous sister of Francis, from whom, a few years later, we find him in receipt of a pension. He also occupied some post in the household of her husband, the King of Navarre. In 1524 he went to Italy with Francis, was wounded and taken prisoner at Pavia, but returned to France the next year. Marguerite's immediate followers were distinguished, some by their adherence to the principles of the Reformation, others by free thought of a still[Pg 174] more unorthodox description, and Marot soon after his return was accused of heresy and lodged in the Châtelet. He was, however, soon transferred to a place of mitigated restraint, and finally set at liberty. About this time his father died. In 1528 he obtained a post and a pension in the King's own household. He was again in difficulties, but again got out of them, and in 1530 he married. But the next year he was once more in danger on the old charge of heresy, and was again rescued from the chats fourrés by Marguerite. He had already edited the Roman de la Rose, but no regular edition of his own work had appeared. In 1533 came out not merely his edition of Villon, but a collection of his own youthful work under the pretty title Adolescence Clémentine. In 1535 the Parliament of Paris for a fourth time molested Marot. Marguerite's influence was now insufficient to protect him, and the poet fled first to Béarn and then to Ferrara. Here, under the protection of Renée de France, he lived and wrote for some time, but the persecution again grew hot. He retired to Venice, but in 1539 obtained permission to return to France. Francis gave him a house in the Faubourg Saint Germain, and here apparently he wrote his famous Psalms, which had an immense popularity; these the Sorbonne condemned, and Marot once more fled, this time to Geneva. He found this place an uncomfortable sojourn, and crossed the Alps into Piedmont, where, not long afterwards, he died in 1544.

Marot's work is sufficiently diverse in form, but the classification of it adopted in the convenient edition of Jannet is perhaps the best, though it neglects chronology. There are some dozen pieces of more or less considerable length, among which may specially be mentioned Le Temple de Cupido, an early work of rhétoriqueur character for the most part, in dizains of ten and eight syllables alternately, a Dialogue of two Lovers, an Eclogue to the King; L'Enfer, a vigorous and picturesque description of his imprisonment in the Châtelet, and some poems bearing a strong Huguenot impression. Then come sixty-five epistles written in couplets for the most part decasyllabic. These include the celebrated Coq-à-l'Âne, a sort of nonsense-verse, with a satirical tendency, which derives from the mediaeval fatrasie, and was very popular[Pg 175] and much imitated. Another mediaeval restoration of Marot's, also very popular and also much imitated, was the blason, a description, in octosyllables. Twenty-six elegies likewise adopt the couplet, and show, as do the epistles, remarkable power over that form. Fifteen ballades, twenty-two songs in various metres, eighty-two rondeaux, and forty-two songs for music, contain much of Marot's most beautiful work. His easy graceful style escaped the chief danger of these artificial forms, the danger of stiffness and monotony; while he was able to get out of them as much pathos and melody as any other French poet, except Charles d'Orléans and Villon. Numerous étrennes recall the Xenia of Martial, and funeral poems of various lengths and styles follow. Then we have nearly three hundred epigrams, many of them excellent in point and elegance, a certain number of translations, the Psalms, fifty in number, certain prayers, and two versified renderings of Erasmus' Colloquies.

It will be seen from this enumeration that the majority of Marot's work is what is now called occasional. No single work of his of a greater length than a few hundred lines exists; and, after his first attempts in the allegorical kind, almost all his works were either addressed to particular persons, or based upon some event in his life. Marot was immensely popular in his lifetime; and though after his death a formidable rival arose in Ronsard, the elder poet's fame was sustained by eager disciples. With the discredit of the Pléiade, in consequence of Malherbe's criticisms, Marot's popularity returned in full measure, and for two centuries he was the one French poet before the classical period who was actually read and admired with genuine admiration by others besides professed students of antiquity. Since the great revival of the taste for older literature, which preceded and accompanied the Romantic movement, Marot has scarcely held this pride of place. The Pléiade on the one hand, the purely mediaeval writers on the other, have pushed him from his stool. But sane criticism, which declines to depreciate one thing because it appreciates another, will always have hearty admiration for his urbanity, his genuine wit, his graceful turn of words; and his flashes of pathos and poetry.[Pg 176]

It is, as has been said, one of the commonplaces of the subject to speak of Marot as the father of modern French poetry; the phrase is, like all such phrases, inaccurate, but, like most such phrases, it contains a certain amount of truth. To the characteristics of the lighter French poetry, from La Fontaine to Béranger, which has always been more popular both at home and abroad than the more ambitious and serious efforts of French poets, Marot does in some sort stand in a parental relation. He retained the sprightliness and sly fun of the Fabliau-writers, while he softened their crudity of expression, he exchanged clumsiness and horse-play for the play of wit, and he emphasised fully in the language the two characteristics which have never failed to distinguish it since, elegance and urbanity. His style is somewhat pedestrian, though on occasion he can write with exquisite tenderness, and with the most delicate suggestiveness of expression. But as a rule he does not go deep; ease and grace, not passion or lofty flights, are his strong points. Representing, as he did, the reaction from the stiff forms and clumsily classical language of the rhétoriqueurs, it was not likely that he should exhibit the tendency of his own age to classical culture and imitation very strongly. He and his school were thus regarded by their immediate successors of the Pléiade as rustic and uncouth singers, for the most part very unjustly. But still Marot's work was of less general and far-reaching importance than that of Ronsard. He brought out the best aspect of the older French literature, and cleared away some disfiguring encumbrances from it, but he imported nothing new. It would hardly be unjust to say that, given the difference of a century in point of ordinary progress, Charles d'Orléans is Marot's equal in elegance and grace, and his superior in sentiment, while Marot is not comparable to Villon in passion or in humour. His limitation, and at the same time his great merit, was that he was a typical Frenchman. A famous epigram, applied to another person two centuries later, might be applied with very little difficulty or alteration to Marot. He had more than anybody else of his time the literary characteristics which the ordinary literary Frenchman has. We constantly meet in the history of literature this contrast between the men who are simply shining examples of the ordinary[Pg 177] type, and men who cross and blend that type with new characters and excellences. Unquestionably the latter are the greater, but the former cannot on any equitable scheme miss their reward. It must be added that the positive merit of much of Marot's work is great, though, as a rule, his longer pieces are very inferior to his shorter. Many of the epigrams are admirable; the Psalms, which have been unjustly depreciated of late years by French critics, have a sober and solemn music, which is almost peculiar to the French devotional poetry of that age; the satirical ballade of Frère Lubin is among the very best things of its kind; while as much may be said of the rondeaux 'Dedans Paris' in the lighter style, and 'En la Baisant' in the graver. Perhaps the famous line—

Un doux nenny avec un doux sourire,

supposed to have been addressed to the Queen of Navarre, expresses Marot's poetical powers as well as anything else, showing as it does grace of language, tender and elegant sentiment, and suppleness, ease, and fluency of style.

The School of Marot.

Marot formed a very considerable school, some of whom directly imitated his mannerisms, and composed blasons[171] and Coq-à-l'Âne in emulation of their master and of each other, while others contented themselves with displaying the same general characteristics, and setting the same poetical ideals before them. Among the idlest, but busiest literary quarrels of the century, a century fertile in such things, was that between Marot and a certain insignificant person named François Sagon, a belated rhétoriqueur, who found some other rhymers of the same kind to support him. One of Marot's best things, an answer of which his servant, Fripelipes, is supposed to be the spokesman, came of the quarrel; but of the other contributions, not merely of the principals, but of their followers, the Marotiques and Sagontiques, nothing survives in general memory, or deserves to survive. Of Marot's disciples, one, Mellin de Saint Gelais, deserves separate mention, the others may be despatched in passing. Victor Brodeau,[Pg 178] who, like his master, held places in the courts both of Marguerite and her brother, wrote not merely a devotional work, Les Louanges de Jésus Christ notre Seigneur, which fairly illustrates the devotional side of the Navarrese literary coterie, but also epigrams and rondeaux of no small merit. Étienne Dolet, better known both as a scholar and translator, and as the publisher of Marot and (surreptitiously) of Rabelais, composed towards the end of his life poems in French, the principal of which was taken in title and idea from Marot's Enfer, and which, though very unequal, have passages of some poetical power. Marguerite herself has left a considerable collection of poems of the most diverse kind and merit, the title of which, Marguerites de la Marguerite des Princesses[172], is perhaps not the worst thing about them. Farces, mysteries, religious poems, such as Le Triomphe de l'Agneau, and Le Miroir de l'Âme Pécheresse, with purely secular pieces on divers subjects, make up these curious volumes. Not a few of the poems display the same nobility of tone and stately sonorousness of verse, which has been and will be noticed as a characteristic of the serious poetry of the age, and which reached its climax in Du Bartas, D'Aubigné, and the choruses of Garnier and Montchrestien. Bonaventure des Périers, an admirable prose writer, was a poet, though not a very strong one. François Habert, 'Le Banni de Liesse,' must not be confounded with Philippe Habert, author of a remarkable Temple de la Mort in the next century. Gilles Corrozet, author of fables in verse, who, like many other literary men of the time, was a printer and publisher as well, Jacques Gohorry, a pleasant song writer, Gilles d'Aubigny, Jacques Pelletier, Étienne Forcadel, deserve at least to be named. Of more importance were Hugues Salel, Charles Fontaine, Antoine Héroet, Maurice Scève. All these were members of the Lyonnese literary coterie, and in connection with this Louise Labé also comes in. Salel, famous as the first French translator of the Iliad, or rather of Books I-XII thereof, distinguished himself as a writer of blasons in imitation of Marot, as well as by composing many small poems of the occasional kind. Charles Fontaine exhibited the fancy of the time for conceits in the entitling of books by denominating his poems Ruisseaux de la Fontaine,[Pg 179] and was one of the chief champions on Marot's side in the quarrel with Sagon, while he afterwards defended the style Marotique against Du Bellay's announcement of the programme of the Pléiade. But perhaps he would hardly deserve much remembrance, save for a charming little poem to his new-born son, which M. Asselineau has made accessible to everybody in Crepet's Poètes Français[173]. He also figures in a literary tournament very characteristic of the age. La Borderie, another disciple of Marot, had written a poem entitled L'Amye de Cour, which defended libertinism, or at least worldly-mindedness in love, in reply to the Parfaite Amye of Antoine Héroet, which exhibits very well a certain aspect of the half-amorous, half-mystical sentiment of the day. Fontaine rejoined in a Contr'Amye de Cour. Maurice Scève is also a typical personage. He was, it may be said, the head of the Lyonnese school, and was esteemed all over France. He was excepted by the irreverent champions of the Pléiade from the general ridicule which they poured on their predecessors, and was surrounded by a special body of feminine devotees and followers, including his kinswomen Claudine and Sibylle Scève, Jeanne Gaillarde, and above all Louise Labé. Scève's poetical work is strongly tinged with classical affectation and Platonic mysticism; and his chief poem, De l'Objet de la plus haute Vertu, consists of some four hundred and fifty dizains written in what in England and later has been, not very happily, called a metaphysical style. Last of all comes the just-mentioned Louise Labé, 'La belle Cordière,' one of the chief ornaments of Lyons, and the most important French poetess of the sixteenth century. Louise was younger, and wrote later than most of the authors just mentioned, and in some respects she belongs to the school of Ronsard, like her supposed lover, Olivier de Magny. But the Lyons school was essentially Marotique, and much of the style of the elder master is observable in the writings of Louise[174]. She has left a prose Dialogue d'Amour et de Folie, three elegies, and a certain number of sonnets. Her poems are perhaps the most genuinely passionate of the time and country, and many of the sonnets are extremely beautiful. The language is on the whole simple and elegant, without the over-classicism of the Pléiade, or[Pg 180] the obscurity of her master Scève. Strangely enough the poems of this young Lyonnese lady have in many places a singular approach to the ring of Shakespeare's sonnets and minor works, and that not merely by virtue of the general resemblance common to all the love poetry of the age, but in some very definite traits. Her surname of 'La belle Cordière' came from her marriage with a rich merchant, Ennemond Perrin by name, who was by trade a ropemaker. Her poems have had their full share of the advantages of reprints, which have of late years fallen to the lot of sixteenth-century authors in France.

Mellin de St. Gelais.

Mellin de Saint Gelais[175], the last to be mentioned but the most important of the school of Marot, has been very variously judged. The mere fact that he was probably the introducer of the sonnet into France (the counter claim of Pontus de Tyard seems to be unfounded) would suffice to give him a considerable position in the history of letters. But Mellin's claims by no means rest upon this achievement. He was a man of higher position than most of the other poets of the time, being the reputed son of Octavien de Saint Gelais, and himself enjoying a good deal of royal favour. In his old age, as the representative of the school of Marot, he had to bear the brunt of the Pléiade onslaught, and knew how to defend himself, so that a truce was made. He was born in 1487, and died in 1558. His name is also spelt Merlin, and even Melusin, the Saint Gelais boasting descent from the Lusignans, and thus from the famous fairy heroine Mélusine. In his youth he spent a good deal of time in Italy, at the Universities of Bologna and Padua. On returning to France, he was at once received into favour at court, and having taken orders, obtained various benefices and appointments which assured his fortune. It is remarkable that though he violently opposed Ronsard's rising favour at court, both the Prince of Poets and Du Bellay completely forgave him, and pay him very considerable compliments, the latter praising his 'vers emmiellés,' the former speaking, even after his death, of his proficiency in the combined arts of music and poetry. Saint Gelais was a good musician, and an affecting story[Pg 181] is told of his swan-song, for which, as for other anecdotes, there is no space here. His work, though not inconsiderable in volume, is, even more than that of Marot and other poets of the time and school, composed for the most part of very short pieces, epigrams, rondeaux, dizains, huitains, etc. These pieces display more merit than most recent critics have been disposed to allow to them. The style is fluent and graceful, free from puns and other faults of taste common at the time. The epigrams are frequently pointed, and well expressed, and the complimentary verse is often skilful and well turned. Mellin de Saint Gelais is certainly not a poet of the highest order, but as a court singer and a skilful master of language he deserves a place among his earlier contemporaries only second to that of Marot.

Miscellaneous Verse. Anciennes Poésies Françaises.

Something of the same sort may be said of all the writers in verse of the first half of the century. Their importance is chiefly relative. Few of their works are conceived or executed on a scale sufficient to entitle them to the rank of great poets, and, saving always Marot, the excellence even of the trifling compositions to which they confined themselves is very unequal and intermittent. But all are evidences of a general diffusion of the literary spirit among the people of France, and most of them in their way, and according to their powers, helped in perfecting the character of French as a literary instrument. The advance which the language experienced in this respect is perhaps nowhere better shown than in the miscellaneous and popular poetry of the time, a vast collection of which has been made accessible by the reprinting of rare or unique printed originals in the thirteen volumes of MM. de Montaiglon and de Rothschild's Anciennes Poésies Françaises, published in the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne[176]. This flying literature, as it is well called in French, lacks in most cases the freshness and spontaneity of mediaeval folk-song. But it has in exchange gained in point of subject a wide extension of range, and in point of form a considerable advance in elegance of language, absence of[Pg 182] commonplace, and perfection of literary form and style. The stiffness which characterises much mediaeval and almost all fifteenth-century work has disappeared in great measure. The writers speak directly and to the point, and find no difficulty in so using their mother tongue as to express their intentions. The tools in short are more effective and more completely under the control of the worker. A certain triviality is indeed noticeable, and the tendency of the middle ages to perpetuate favourite forms and models is by no means got rid of. But much that was useless has been discarded, and of what is left a defter and more distinctly literary use is made. Had French remained as Marot left it, it would indeed have been unequal to the expression of the noblest thoughts, the gravest subjects, to the treatment and exposition of intricate and complicated problems of life and mind. But in his hands it attained perhaps the perfection of usefulness as an exponent of the pure esprit gaulois, to use a phrase which has been tediously abused by French writers, but which is expressive of a real fact in French history and French literature. It had been suppled and pointed: it remained for it to be weighted, strengthened, and enriched. This was not the appointed task of Marot and his contemporaries, but of the men who came after them. But what they themselves had to do they did, and did it well. To this day the lighter verse of France is more an echo of Clément Marot than of any other man who lived before the seventeenth century, and, with the exception of his greater follower, La Fontaine, of any man who came after him at any time[177].


[165] De Belges, though the less usual, is the more accurate form. We are at length promised a complete edition of him in the admirable series of the Belgian Academy, one of the best in appearance and editing, and by far the cheapest of all such series. He was born in 1475, held posts in the household of the Governors of the Netherlands, was historiographer to Louis XII., and died either in 1524 or in 1548.

[166] See Poètes Français, i. 532. It is perhaps well to say that M. C. d'Héricault, though a very agreeable as well as a very learned writer, is particularly open to the charge that his geese are swans.

[167] Ed. C. d'Héricault. Paris, 1855.

[168] See Poètes Français, vol. i. ad fin., for the poets mentioned in this paragraph and others of their kind.

[169] He was in his old age conspicuous among the enemies of Étienne Dolet. See Étienne Dolet, by R. C. Christie. London, 1880.

[170] Ed Jannet et C. d'Héricault. 4 vols. Paris, 2nd ed. 1873. M. d'Héricault has prefixed a much larger study of Marot than is to be found here to his edition of the 'beauties' of the poet, published by Messrs. Garnier. The late M. Guiffrey published two volumes of a costly and splendid edition, which his death interrupted.

[171] The blason (description) was a child of the mediaeval dit. Marot's examples, Le beau Tétin and Le laid Tétin, were copied ad infinitum. The first is panegyric, the second abuse.

[172] Ed. Frank. 4 vols. Paris, 1873-4.

[173] i. 651.

[174] Ed. Tross. Paris, 1871.

[175] Ed. Blanchemain, 3 vols. Paris, 1873.

[176] This great collection, which awaits its completion of glossary, etc., was published between 1855 and 1878, and is invaluable to any one desiring to appreciate the general characteristics of the poetical literature of the time.

[177] Much help has been received in the writing of this chapter, and indeed of this book, from the excellent work of MM. Hatzfeld and Darmesteter, Le Seizième Siècle en France (Paris, 1878), one of the best histories extant in a small compass of a brief but important period of literature. We may hope for a still more elaborate study of the same subject in English from Mr. Arthur Tilley, of King's College, Cambridge. An introductory volume to this study appeared in 1885.

[Pg 183]



Fiction at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century prose fiction in France was represented by a considerable mass of literature divided sharply into two separate classes of very different nature and value. On the one hand the prose versions of the Chansons de Gestes and the romances, Arthurian and adventurous, which had succeeded the last and most extensive verse rehandlings of these works in the fourteenth century, made up a considerable body of work, rarely possessing much literary merit, and characterised by all the faults of monotony, repetition, and absence of truthful character-drawing which distinguish late mediaeval work. On the other hand, there was a smaller body of short prose tales[178] sometimes serious in character and of not inconsiderable antiquity, more frequently comic and satirical, and corresponding in prose to the Fabliaux in verse. It has been pointed out that in the hands, real or supposed, of Antoine de la Salle this latter kind of work had attained a high standard of perfection. But it was as yet extremely limited in style, scope, and subject. Valour, courtesy, and love made up the list of subjects of the serious work, and the stock materials for satire, women, marriage, priests, etc., that of the comic. Although we have some lively presentment of the actual manners of the time in Antoine de la Salle, it is accidental only, and of its thoughts on any but the stock subjects we have nothing. There was thus room[Pg 184] for a vast improvement, or rather for a complete revolution, in this particular class of work, and this revolution was at a comparatively early period of the new century effected by the greatest man and the greatest book of the French Renaissance.


François Rabelais[179] was born at Chinon about 1495 (the alternative date of 1483 which used to be given is improbable if not impossible), and at an early age was destined to the cloister. He not only became a full monk, but also took priest's orders. Before he was thirty he acquired the reputation of a good classical scholar, and this seems to have brought him into trouble with his brethren the Cordeliers or Franciscans, who were at this time among the least cultivated of the monastic orders. With the consent of the Pope he migrated to a Benedictine convent, and became canon at Maillezais. This migration, however, did not satisfy him, and before long he quitted his new convent without permission and took to the life of a wandering scholar. The tolerance of the first period of the Renaissance however still existed in France, and he suffered no inconvenience from this breach of rule. After studying medicine and natural science under the protection of Geoffrey d'Estissac, Bishop of Maillezais, he went to Montpellier to continue these studies, and in the early years of the fourth decade of the century practised regularly at Lyons. He was attached to the suite of Cardinal du Bellay in two embassies to Rome, returned to Montpellier, took his doctor's degree, and again practised in several cities of the South. Towards 1539 Du Bellay again established him in a convent, probably as a safeguard against the persecution which was then threatening. But the conventual life as then practised was too repugnant to Rabelais to be long endured, and he once more set out on his travels, this time in Savoy and Italy, the personal protection of the king guaranteeing him from danger. He then returned to France, taking however the precaution to soften some expressions in his books. At the death of Francis he retired first to Metz, and then to Rome, still with Du Bellay. The Cardinal de Chatillon, soon after gave him the living of Meudon, which he[Pg 185] held with another in Maine for a year or two, resigning them both in 1551, and dying in 1553. Such at least are the most probable and best ascertained dates and events in a life which has been overlaid with a good deal of fiction, and many of the facts of which are decidedly obscure. Rabelais did not very early become an author, and his first works were of a purely erudite kind. During his stay at Lyons he seems to have done a good deal of work for the printers, as editor and reader, especially in reference to medical works, such as Galen and Hippocrates. He edited too, and perhaps in part re-wrote, a prose romance, Les Grandes et Inestimables Chroniques du Grant et Énorme Géant Gargantua. This work, the author of which is unknown, and no earlier copies of which exist, gave him no doubt at least the idea of his own famous book. The next year (1532) followed the first instalment of this—Pantagruel Roi des Dipsodes Restitué en Son naturel avec ses Faicts et Proueses Espouvantables. Three years afterwards came Gargantua proper, the first book of the entire work as we now have it. Eleven years however passed before the work was continued, the second book of Pantagruel not being published till 1546, and the third six years later, just before the author's death, in 1552. The fourth or last book did not appear as a whole until 1564, though the first sixteen chapters had been given to the world two years before. This fourth book, the fifth of the entire work, has, from the length of time which elapsed before its publication and from certain variations which exist in the MS. and the first printed editions, been suspected of spuriousness. Such a question cannot be debated here at length. But there is no external testimony of sufficient value to discredit Rabelais' authorship, while the internal testimony in its favour is overwhelming[180]. It may be said, without hesitation, that not a single writer capable of having written it, save Rabelais himself, is known to literary history at the time. It has been supposed, with a good deal of probability, that the book was left in the[Pg 186] rough. The considerable periods which, as has been mentioned, intervened between the publications of the other books seem to show that the author indulged a good deal in revision; and, as the third book was only published just before his death, he could have had little time for this in the case of the fourth. This would account for a certain appearance of greater boldness and directness in the satire as well as for occasional various readings. In genius both of thought and expression this book is perhaps superior to any other; and, if it were decided that Rabelais did not write it, much of what are now considered the Rabelaisian characteristics must be transferred to an entirely unknown writer who has left not the smallest vestige of himself or his genius. It is not possible to give here a detailed abstract of Gargantua and Pantagruel: indeed, from the studied desultoriness of the work, any such abstract must of necessity be nearly as long as the book itself[181]. It is sufficient to say that both Gargantua and his son Pantagruel are the heroes of adventures, designedly exaggerated and burlesqued from those common in the romances of chivalry. The chief events of the earlier romance are, first, the war between Grandgousier, Gargantua's father, the pattern of easy-going royalty, and Picrochole, king of Lerne, the ideal of an arbitrary despot intent only on conquest; and, secondly, the founding of the Abbey of Thelema, a fanciful institution, in which Rabelais propounds as first principles everything that is most opposed to the forced abstinence, the real self-indulgence, the idleness and the ignorance of the debased monastic communities he knew so well and hated so much. Pantagruel is Gargantua's son, and, like him, a giant, but the extravagances derived from his gianthood are not kept up in the second part as they are in the first. A very important personage in Pantagruel is Panurge, a singular companion, whom Pantagruel picks up at Paris, and who is perhaps the greatest single creation of Rabelais. Some ideas may have been taken for him from the Cingar of Merlinus Coccaius, or Folengo, a Macaronic Italian poet[182], but on the[Pg 187] whole he is original, and is hardly comparable to any one else in literature except Falstaff. The main idea of Panurge is the absence of morality in the wide Aristotelian sense with the presence of almost all other good qualities. After a time, in which Pantagruel and his companions (among whom, as in the former romance, Friar John is the embodiment of hearty and healthy animalism, as Panurge is of a somewhat diseased intellectual refinement) are engaged in wars of the old romance kind, a whim of Panurge determines the conclusion of the story. He desires to get married; and an entire book is occupied by the various devices to which he resorts in order to determine whether it is wise or not for him to do so. At last it is decided that a voyage must be made to the oracle of the Dive Bouteille. The last two books are occupied with this voyage, in which many strange countries are visited, and at last, the oracle being reached, the word Trinq is vouchsafed, not only, it would seem, to solve Panurge's doubts, but also as a general answer to the riddle of the painful earth.

Besides his great work, Rabelais was the author of a few extant letters, and probably of a good many that are not extant, of a little burlesque almanack called the Pantagrueline Prognostication, which is full of his peculiar humour, of a short work entitled Sciomachie, describing a festival at Rome, and of a few poems of no great merit. In Gargantua and Pantagruel, however, his whole literary interest and character are concentrated. Few books have been the subject of greater controversy as to their meaning and general intention. The author, as if on purpose to baffle investigation, mixes up real persons mentioned by their real names, real persons mentioned in transparent allegory, and entirely fictitious characters, in the most inextricable way. Occasionally, as in his chapters on education, he is perfectly serious, and allows no touch of humour or satire to escape him. Elsewhere he indulges in the wildest buffoonery. Two of the most notable characteristics of Rabelais are, first, his extraordinary predilection for heaping up piles of synonymous words, and huge lists of things; secondly, his habit of indulging in the coarsest allusions and descriptions. Both of these were to some extent mere exaggerations of his mediaeval models, but both show the peculiar[Pg 188] characteristics of their author. The book as a whole has received the most various explanations as well as the most various appreciations. It has been regarded as in the main a political and personal satire, in every incident and character of which some reference must be sought to actual personages and events of the time; as an elaborate pamphlet against the Roman Catholic Church; as a defence of mere epicurean materialism, and even an attack on Christianity itself; as a huge piece of mischief intended to delude readers into the belief that something serious is meant, when in reality nothing of the kind is intended. Even more fantastic explanations than these have been attempted; such, for instance, as the idea that the voyage of Pantagruel is an allegorical account of the processes employed in the manufacture of wine. The true explanation, as far as there is any, of the book seems, however, to be not very difficult to make out, provided that the interpreter does not endeavour to force a meaning where there very probably is none. The form of it was pretty well prescribed by the old romances of adventure, and must be taken as given to Rabelais, not as invented by him for a special purpose; a war, a quest, these are the subjects of every story in verse and prose for five centuries, and Rabelais followed the stream. But when he had thus got his main theme settled, he gave the widest licence of comment, allusion, digression, and adaptation to his own fancy and his own intellect. Both of these were typical, and, except for a certain deficiency in the poetical element, fully typical of the time. Rabelais was a very learned man, a man of the world, a man of pleasure, a man of obvious interest in political and ecclesiastical problems. He was animated by that lively appetite for enjoyment, business, study, all the occupations of life, which characterised the Renaissance in its earlier stages, in all countries and especially in France. Nor had science of any kind yet been divided and subdivided so that each man could only aspire to handle certain portions of it. Accordingly, Rabelais is prodigal of learning in season and out of season. But independently of all this, he had an immense humour, and this pervades the whole book, turning the preposterous adventures into satirical allegories or half allegories, irradiating the somewhat[Pg 189] miscellaneous erudition with lambent light, and making the whole alive and fresh to this day. The extreme coarseness of language, which makes Rabelais difficult to read now-a-days, seems to have arisen from a variety of causes. The essence of his book was exaggeration, and he exaggerated in this as in other matters. His keen appetite for the ludicrous, and a kind of shamelessness which may have been partly due to individual peculiarity, but had not a little also to do with his education and studies, inclined him to make free with a department of thought where ludicrous ideas are, as it has been said, to be had for the picking up by those whom shame does not trouble at the expense of those whom it does. But besides all this, there was in Rabelais a knowledge of human nature, and a faculty of expressing that knowledge in literary form, in which he is inferior to Shakespeare alone. Caricatured as his types purposely are, they are all easily reducible to natural dimensions and properties; while occasionally, though all too rarely, the author drops his mask and speaks gravely, seriously, and then always wisely. These latter passages are, it may be added, unsurpassed in mere prose style for many long years after the author's death.

Altogether, independently of the intrinsic interest of Rabelais' work, we go to him as we can go to only some score or half score of the greatest writers of the world, for a complete reflection of the sentiment and character of his time. As with all great writers, what he shows is in great part characteristic of humanity at all times and in all places, but, as also with all great writers except Shakespeare, more of it is local and temporary merely. This local and temporary element gives him his great historical importance. Rabelais is the literary exponent of the earlier Renaissance, with its appetite for the good things of the world as yet unblunted. Yet even in him there is a foretaste of satiety, and the Oracle of the Bottle has something, for all its joyousness, of the conclusion of the Preacher.

The popularity of Rabelais was immense, and of itself sufficed to protect him against the enmity which his hardly veiled attacks on monachism, and on other fungoid growths of the Church, could not have failed to attract. In such a case imitation was certain, and, long before the genuine series of the Pantagrueline Chronicles[Pg 190] was completed, spurious supplements and continuations appeared, all of them without exception worthless. A more legitimate imitation coloured the work of many of the fiction writers of the remaining part of the century, though the tradition of short story writing, on the model of the Fabliaux and of the Italian tales borrowed from them, continued and was only indirectly affected by Rabelais. In this latter class one mediocre writer and two of the greatest talent—of talent amounting almost to genius—have to be noticed. In 1535, Nicholas of Troyes, a saddler by trade, produced a book entitled Grand Parangon de Nouvelles Nouvelles, in which he followed rather, as his title indicates, the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles than any other model. His sources seem to have been the Decameron and the Gesta Romanorum principally, though some of his tales are original. Very different books are the Contes of Marguerite de Navarre, usually termed the 'Heptameron,' and the Contes et Joyeux Devis of her servant Bonaventure des Périers. Neither of these books was published till a considerable period after the death, not merely of Rabelais, but of their authors.

Bonaventure des Périers.

There are few persons of the time of whom less is known than of Bonaventure des Périers[183], and, by no means in consequence merely of this mystery, there are few more interesting. He must have been born somewhere about the beginning of the sixteenth century, and his friend Dolet calls him Aeduum poetam, which would seem to fix his birth somewhere in the neighbourhood at least of Autun. He was undoubtedly one of the literary courtiers of Marguerite d'Angoulême. Finally, it seems that in the persecution which, during the later years of Francis I.'s reign, came upon the Protestants and freethinkers, and which the influence of Marguerite was powerless to prevent, he committed suicide to escape the clutches of the law. Henri Estienne, however, attributes the act to insanity or delirium. However this may be, there is no doubt that Des Périers was a remarkable example of a humanist. He was certainly a good scholar, and he was also a decided freethinker. He has left poems of some merit, but not great perhaps, some translations and minor prose pieces, but certainly two works of the highest interest, the Cymbalum Mundi[Pg 191] (1537) and the Nouvelles Récréations et Joyeux Devis (1558). The Cymbalum Mundi betrays the influence of Lucian, which was also very strong on Rabelais. It is a work in dialogue, satirising the superstitions of antiquity with a hardly dubious reference to the religious beliefs of Des Périers' own day. The Nouvelles Récréations et Joyeux Devis are compact of less perilous stuff, while they exhibit equal and perhaps greater literary skill. They consist of a hundred and twenty-nine short tales, similar in general character to those of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles and other collections. Although, however, a great licence of subject is still allowed, the language is far less coarse than in the work of Antoine de la Salle, while the literary merits of the style are very much greater. Des Périers was beyond all doubt a great master of half-serious and half-joyous French prose. Nor is his matter much less remarkable than his style. Like Rabelais, but with the difference that his was a more poetical temperament than that of his greater contemporary, he has sudden accesses of seriousness, almost of sentiment. At these times the spirit of the French Renaissance, in its more cultivated and refined representatives, comes out in him very strongly. This spirit may be defined as a kind of cultivated sensuality, ardently enamoured of the beautiful in the world of sense, while fully devoted to intellectual truth, and at the same time always conscious of the nothingness of things, the instant pressure of death, the treacherousness of mortal delights. The rare sentences in which Des Périers gives vent to the expression of this mental attitude are for the most part admirably written, while as a teller of tales, either comic or romantic, he has few equals and fewer superiors.

The Heptameron.

The same spirit which has just been described found even fuller expression, with greater advantages of scale and setting, in the Heptameron[184] of Marguerite of Navarre. The exact authorship of this celebrated book is something of a literary puzzle. Marguerite was a prolific author, if all the works which were published under her name be unhesitatingly ascribed[185] to her. Besides the poems printed under the pretty[Pg 192] title of Les Marguerites de la Marguerite, she produced many other works, as well as the Heptameron which was not given to the world until after her death (1558). The House of Valois was by no means destitute of literary talent. But that which seems most likely to be the Queen's genuine work hardly corresponds with the remarkable power shown in the Heptameron. On the other hand, Marguerite for years maintained a literary court, in which all the most celebrated men of the time, notably Marot and Bonaventure des Périers, held places. If it were allowable to decide literary questions simply by considerations of probability, there could be little hesitation in assigning the entire Heptameron to Des Périers himself, and then its unfinished condition would be intelligible enough. The general opinion of critics, however, is that it was probably the result of the joint work of the Queen, of Des Périers, and of a good many other men, and probably some women, of letters. The idea and plan of the work are avowedly borrowed from Boccaccio, but the thing is worked out with so much originality that it becomes nothing so little as an imitation. A company of ladies and gentlemen returning from Cauterets are detained by bad weather in an out-of-the-way corner of the Pyrenees, and beguile the time by telling stories. The interludes, however, in which the tale-tellers are brought on the stage in person, are more circumstantial than those of the Decameron, and the individual characters are much more fully worked out. Indeed, the mere setting of the book, independently of its seventy-two stories (for the eighth day is begun), makes a very interesting tale, exhibiting not merely those characteristics of the time and its society which have been noticed in connection with the Contes et Joyeux Devis, but, in addition, a certain religiosity in which that time and society were also by no means deficient, though it existed side by side with freethinking of a daring kind and with unbridled licentiousness. The[Pg 193] head of the party, Dame Oisille, is the chief representative of this religious spirit, though all the party are more or less penetrated by it. The subjects of the tales do not differ much from those of Boccaccio, though they are, as a rule, occupied with a higher class of society, and of necessity display a more polished condition of manners. They are much longer than the anecdotes of the Contes et Joyeux Devis, and generally, though not always, deal with something like a connected story instead of with mere isolated traits or apophthegms. The best of them are animated by the same spirit of refined voluptuousness which animates so much of the writing and art of the time, and which may indeed be said to be its chief feature. But this spirit has seldom been presented in a light so attractive as that which it bears in the Heptameron.

Noel du Fail.
G. Bouchet.

The influence of Rabelais on the one hand, of the Heptameron on the other, is observable in almost all the work of the same kind which the second half of the sixteenth century produced. The fantastic buffoonery and the indiscriminate prodigality of learning, which were to the outward eye the distinguishing characteristics of Pantagruel, found however more imitators than the poetical sentiment of the Heptameron. The earliest of the successors of Rabelais was Noel du Fail, a gentleman and magistrate of Britanny, who, five years before the master's death, produced two little books, Propos Rustiques[186] and Baliverneries, which depict rural life and its incidents with a good deal of vividness and colour. The imitation of Rabelais is very perceptible, and sometimes a little irritating, but the work on the whole has merit, and abounds in curious local traits. The Propos Rustiques, too, are interesting because they underwent a singular travesty in the next century, and appeared under a new and misleading title. Much later, near forty years afterwards in fact, Du Fail produced the Contes d'Eutrapel[187], which are rather critical and satirical dialogues than tales. There is a good deal of dry humour in them. The provinciality to be noticed in Du Fail was still a feature of French literature; and in this particular[Pg 194] department it long continued to be prominent, perhaps owing to the example of Rabelais, who, wide as is his range, frequently takes pleasure in mixing up petty local matters with his other materials. Thus, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Guillaume Bouchet (to be carefully distinguished from Jean Bouchet, the poet of the early sixteenth century) wrote a large collection of Serées[188] (Soirées), containing gossip on a great variety of subjects, mingled with details of Angevin manners; and Tabourot des Accords composed his Escraignes Dijonnaises. A singular book, or rather two singular books[189], Les Matinées and Les Après-Dinées, were produced by a person, the Seigneur de Cholières, of whom little else is known. Cholières is a bad writer, and a commonplace if not stupid thinker; but he tells some quaint stories, and his book shows us the deep hold which the example of Rabelais had given to the practice of discussing grave subjects in a light tone.

Apologie pour Hérodote.
Moyen de Parvenir.

There remain two books of sufficient importance to be treated separately. The first of these is the Apologie pour Hérodote[190] (1566) of the scholar Henri Estienne. In the guise of a serious defence of Herodotus from the charges of untrustworthiness and invention frequently brought against him Estienne indulges in an elaborate indictment against his own and recent times, especially against the Roman Catholic clergy. Much of his book is taken from Rabelais, or from the Heptameron; much from the preachers of the fifteenth century. Its literary merit has been a good deal exaggerated, and its extreme desultoriness and absence of coherence make it tedious to read for any length of time, but it is in a way amusing enough. Much later (1610) the last—it may almost be said the first—echo of the genuine spirit of Rabelais was sounded in the Moyen de Parvenir[191] of Béroalde de Verville. This eccentric work is perhaps the most perfect example of a fatrasie in existence. In the guise of guests at a banquet the author brings in many[Pg 195] celebrated persons of the day and of antiquity, and makes them talk from pillar to post in the strangest possible fashion. The licence of language and anecdote which Rabelais had permitted himself is equalled and exceeded; but many of the tales are told with consummate art, and, in the midst of the ribaldry and buffoonery, remarks of no small shrewdness are constantly dropped as if by accident. There seems to have been at the time something not unlike a serious idea that the book was made up from unpublished papers of Rabelais himself. All external considerations make this in the highest degree unlikely, and the resemblances are obviously those of imitation rather than of identical authorship. But undoubtedly nothing else of the kind comes so near to the excellences of Gargantua and Pantagruel.


[178] Among these may be mentioned the charming story of Jehan de Paris (ed. Montaiglon, Paris, 1874), which M. de Montaiglon has clearly proved to be of the end of the fifteenth century. It is a cross between a Roman d'aventures and a nursery tale, telling how the King of France as 'John of Paris' outwitted the King of England in the suit for the hand of the Infanta of Spain.

[179] Ed. Jannet and Moland. 7 vols. (2nd ed.) Paris, 1873. Also ed. Marty-Laveaux, vols. 1-4. Paris, 1870-81.

[180] The question has been again discussed since the text was written by M. Paul Lacroix (Paris, 1881), whose facts and arguments fully bear out the view taken here. The other side is taken, though not very decidedly, in the fourth volume of M. Marty-Laveaux' edition. The two contain a tolerably complete survey of the question.

[181] The best general commentary on Rabelais is that of M. J. Fleury. 2 vols. St. Petersburg, 1876-7.

[182] For an excellent account of Folengo, see Symonds' Renaissance in Italy, vol. v. chap. 14.

[183] Ed. Lacour. 2 vols. Paris, 1866.

[184] Ed. Leroux de Lincy. 3 vols. Paris, 1855.

[185] She was born in 1492, and was thus two years older than her brother Francis I. She married first the Duke d'Alençon, then Henri d'Albert King of Navarre. Her private character has been most unjustly attacked. She died in 1549. Marguerite is spoken of by four surnames; de Valois from her family; d'Angoulême from her father's title; d'Alençon from her first husband's; and de Navarre from that of her second. In literature, to distinguish her from her great-niece, the first wife of Henri IV., Marguerite d'Angoulême is the term most commonly used.

[186] Ed. La Borderie. Paris, 1878. The bibliography of this book is very curious.

[187] Ed. Hippeau. 2 vols. Paris, 1875.

[188] Ed. Roybet. Paris. In course of publication.

[189] Ed. Tricotel. 2 vols. Paris, 1879.

[190] Ed. Ristelhuber. 2 vols. Paris, 1879.

[191] Ed. Jacob. Paris, 1868. It is possibly not Béroalde's.

[Pg 196]



Character and Effects of the Pléiade Movement.

Almost exactly at the middle of the sixteenth century a movement took place in French literature which has no parallel in literary history, except the similar movement which took place, also in France, three centuries later. The movement and its chief promoters are indifferently known in literature by the name of the Pléiade, a term applied by the classical affectation of the time to the group of seven men[192], Ronsard, Du Bellay, Belleau, Baïf, Daurat, Jodelle, and Pontus de Tyard, who were most active in promoting it, and who banded themselves together in a strict league or coterie for the attainment of their purposes. These purposes were the reduction of the French language and French literary forms to a state more comparable, as they thought, to that of the two great classical tongues. They had no intention (though such an intention has been falsely attributed to them both at the time and since) of defacing or destroying their mother-tongue. On the contrary, they were animated by the sincerest and, for the most part, the most intelligent love for it. But the intense admiration of the severe beauties of classical literature, which was the dominant literary note of the Renaissance, translated itself in their active minds into a determination to make, if it were possible, French itself more able to emulate the triumphs of Greek and of Latin. This desire, even if it had borne no fruit,[Pg 197] would have honourably distinguished the French Renaissance from the Italian and German forms of the movement. In Italy the humanists, for the most part, contented themselves with practice in the Latin tongue, and in Germany they did so almost wholly. But no sooner had the literature of antiquity taken root in France than it was made to bear novas frondes et non sua poma of vernacular literature. There were some absurdities committed by the Pléiade no doubt, as there always are in enthusiastic crusades of any kind: but it must never be forgotten that they had a solid basis of philological truth to go upon. French, after all, despite a strong Teutonic admixture, was a Latin tongue, and recurrence to Latin, and to the still more majestic and fertile language which had had so much to do in shaping the literary Latin dialect, was natural and germane to its character. In point of fact, the Pléiade made modern French—made it, we may say, twice over; for not only did its original work revolutionise the language in a manner so durable that the reaction of the next century could not wholly undo it, but it was mainly study of the Pléiade that armed the great masters of the Romantic movement, the men of 1830, in their revolt against the cramping rules and impoverished vocabulary of the eighteenth century. The effect of the change indeed was far too universal for it to be possible for any Malherbe or any Boileau to overthrow it. The whole literature of the nation, at a time when it was wonderfully abundant and vigorous, 'Ronsardised' for nearly fifty years, and such practice at such a time never fails to leave its mark. The actual details of the movement cannot better be given than by going through the list of its chief participators.

The Défense et Illustration de la Langue Française.

Pierre de Ronsard[193], Prince of Poets[194], was born at La Poissonnière, in the Vendômois, or, as it was then more often called, the Gâtinais, on the banks of the river Loir, in 1524. He died in his own country in the year 1585, acknowledged, not merely in France but out of it, as the leader of living poets. His early life, however, was rather that of a man of action than of a poet, and one of the most studious of poets.[Pg 198] His father was an old courtier and servant of Francis I., whose companion in captivity he had been, and Ronsard entered upon court life when he was a boy of ten years old. He visited Scotland and England in the suite of French ambassadors, and remained for some considerable time in Great Britain. He was also attached to embassies in Flanders, Holland, and Germany. But before he was of age he fell ill, and though he recovered, it was at the cost of permanent deafness, which incapacitated him for the public service. He threw himself on literature for a consolation, and under the direction of Daurat, a scholar of renown, studied for years at the Collège Coqueret. Here Du Bellay, Belleau, Baïf, were his fellow-students, and the four with their master, with Étienne Jodelle, and with Pontus de Tyard, afterwards bishop of Chalon, formed, as has been said, the Pléiade according to the most orthodox computation. The idea conceived and carried out in these studious years (by Ronsard himself and Du Bellay beyond all doubt in the first place) was the reformation of French language and French literature by study and imitation of the ancients. In 1549 the manifesto of the society issued, in the shape of Du Bellay's Défense et Illustration de la Langue Française, and in 1550 the first practical illustration of the method was given by Ronsard's Odes. The principles of the Défense et Illustration may be thus summarised. The author holds that the current forms of literature, dizains, rondeaus, etc., are altogether too facile and easy, that the language used is too pedestrian, the treatment wanting in gravity and art. He would have Odes of the Horatian kind take the place of Chansons, the sonnet, non moins docte que plaisante invention Italienne, of dizains and huitains, regular tragedy and comedy of moralities and farces, regular satires of Fatrasies and Coq-à-l'âne. He takes particular pains to demonstrate the contrary proposition to Wordsworth's, and to prove that merely natural and ordinary language is not sufficient for him who in poesy wishes to produce work deserving of immortality. He ridicules the mediaeval affectations and conceits of some of the writers of his time, who gave themselves such names as 'Le Banni de Liesse,' 'Le Traverseur des Voies Périlleuses,' etc. He speaks, indeed, not too respectfully[Pg 199] of mediaeval literature generally, and uses language which probably suggested Gabriel Harvey's depreciatory remarks about the Fairy Queen forty years later. In much of this there is exaggeration, and in much more of it mistake. By turning their backs on the middle ages—though indeed they were not able to do it thoroughly—the Pléiade lost almost as much in subject and spirit as they gained in language and formal excellence. The laudation of the sonnet, while the ballade and chant royal, things of similar nature and of hardly less capacity, are denounced as épiceries, savours of a rather Philistine preference for mere novelty and foreign fashions. But, as has been already pointed out, Du Bellay was right in the main, and it must especially be insisted on that his aim was to strengthen and reform, not to alter or misguide, the French language. The peroration of the book in a highly rhetorical style speaks of the writer and his readers as having 'échappé du milieu des Grecs et par les escadrons Romains pour entrer jusqu'au sein de la tant désirée France.' That is to say, the innovators are to carry off what spoils they can from Greece and Rome, but it is to be for the enrichment and benefit of the French tongue. Frenchmen are to write French, not Latin and Greek; but they are to write it not merely in a conversational way, content as Du Bellay says somewhere else, 'n'avoir dit rien qui vaille aux neuf premiers vers, pourvu qu'au dixième il y ait le petit mot pour rire.' They are to accustom themselves to long and weary studies, 'ear ce sont les ailes dont les escripts des hommes volent au ciel,' to imitate good authors, not merely in Greek and Latin, but in Italian, Spanish, or any other tongue where they may be found. Such was the manifesto of the Pléiade; and no one who has studied French literature and French character, who knows the special tendency of the nation to drop from time to time into a sterile self-admiration, and an easy confidence that it is the all-sufficient wonder of the world, can doubt its wisdom. Certainly, whatever may be thought of it in the abstract, it was justified of its children. The first of these was, as has been said, Ronsard's Odes, published in 1550. These he followed up, in 1552, by Les Amours de Cassandre, in 1553 by a volume of Hymnes, as well as by Le Bocage Royal, Les Amours de Marie, sonnets, etc., all of which[Pg 200] were, in 1560, republished in a collected edition of four volumes. From the first Ronsard had been a very popular poet at court, where, according to a well-known anecdote, Marguerite de Savoie, the second of the Valois Marguerites, snatched his first volume from Mellin de Saint Gelais, who was reading it in a designed tone of burlesque, and reading it herself to her brother Henry II. and the court, obtained a verdict at once for the young poet. The accession of Charles IX. brought Ronsard still more into favour, and during the next ten years he produced many courtly poems of the occasional kind, besides others to suit his own pleasure. In 1572 the first part of his most ambitious, but perhaps least successful, work appeared. This was the Franciade, a dull epic. At the death of Charles, Ronsard retired to his native province, where he had an abbacy, Croix-Val. Here all his poetical powers returned, and in his last Amours, Sonnets to Hélène, and other pieces, some of his very best work is to be found. The year before his death he produced an edition of his works much altered, but by no means invariably improved.

There are few poets to whose personal merits there is more unanimity of trustworthy testimony than there is to those of Ronsard. From the time of his betaking himself to literary work, he seems to have been wholly given to study, and to the contemplation of natural beauty. Although jealous of his own great reputation, and liable to be nettled when it was imperilled, as it was by Du Bartas, he was as a rule singularly placable in literary quarrels. The story of his quarrelling with Rabelais is late, unsupported, and to all appearance fabulous; while, on the other hand, the passages which have been supposed to reflect on the Pléiade in the writings of Rabelais can, for chronological reasons, by no possibility refer to Ronsard or his friends. Lastly, the poet appears to have had no thought of writing for gain, and though, like all his contemporaries, he did not scruple to solicit favours from the king, he was in no way importunate or servile. But while his personal character, as well as the extraordinary esteem in which he was held by all his contemporaries, has never been seriously contested, critical estimates of his literary work have strangely varied. To his own age he was the 'Prince of Poets.'[Pg 201] His successor, Malherbe, behaved to him as certain popes are reported to have behaved to their predecessors, excommunicating him in the literary sense. Boileau, with his usual ignorance of French literature before his own day, described his work in lines which French schoolboys long learnt by heart, and which are as false in fact as they are imbecile in criticism. Fénelon was almost the only sincere partisan he had for two centuries. But when the Romantic movement began Ronsard was for a while almost restored to the position he held in his lifetime, and his works became a kind of Bible to the disciples of Sainte-Beuve and the followers of Hugo. The strong mediaeval revival which accompanied the movement was however unfavourable to Ronsard, and he has again sunk, though not very low, in the general estimation of French critics. The history is curious, and as a literary phenomenon instructive. But it is not difficult for an impartial judge to place Ronsard in his true position. His main defects are two: he was too much a poet of malice prepense, and yet he wrote on the whole too fluently. The mass of his work is great, and it is not always, nor perhaps very often, animated by those unmistakable and universal poetical touches which in the long run will alone suffice to induce posterity to keep a writer on its shelf of great poets. Yet these touches are by no means wanting in Ronsard. Many of his sonnets, especially the famous and universally admired 'Quand vous serez bien vieille,' not a few of his odes, especially the equally famous 'Mignonne, allons voir si la rose,' rank among those poems of which it can only be said that they could not be better, and detached passages innumerable deserve hardly lower praise. But it is when Ronsard is viewed from the standpoint of a thoroughly instructed historical criticism that his real greatness appears. It is when we look at the poets that came before him and at those who came after him that we see the immense benefit he conferred upon his successors, and upon the language which those successors illustrated. The result of his classical studies was little less than the introduction of an entirely new rhythm into French poetry: let it be observed that a new rhythm, and not merely new metre, is what is spoken of. Since the disuse of the half-inarticulate but sweet rhythmical varieties of the mediaeval pastourelles and romances[Pg 202] a great monotony had come upon French poetry. The fault of the artificial forms of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries, the épiceries of Du Bellay's scornful allusion, was that they induced their writers to concentrate their attention on the arrangement of the rhymes and stanzas, to the neglect of the individual line, the rhythm of which was but too frequently lame, stiff, and prosaic in the extreme. With Marot and Saint Gelais the introduction of less formal patterns, dizains, huitains, etc., had had the additional drawback of making the individual verse even more prosaic and pedestrian, though it may be somewhat less stiff. Now the line is, after all, the unit of poetry, and all reform must start with it. It is the great glory of Ronsard that his reform did so start. From his time French poetry reads quite differently. Perhaps this was due to his study of the Horatian quantity-metres, where every syllable has to give its quota to the effect of the line as well as every line its quota to the effect of the stanza. But whether it was this or something else, the effect is indisputable. To this must be added a liberal, though in Ronsard's own case not excessive, importation of new words from Greek and Latin, a bold and striking mode of expression, the retention of many picturesque old words which the senseless folly of the seventeenth-century reformers banished, and, above all, a great indulgence in diminutives, which give a most charming effect to the lighter verse of Ronsard and his friends, and which also were cut off by the indiscriminate and 'desperate hook' of Malherbe and Boileau. So great were the formal changes and improvements thus introduced, that French poetry takes a new colour from the age of Ronsard, a colour which in its moments of health it has ever since displayed.

Du Bellay.

Next to Ronsard, and perhaps above him, if uniform excellence rather than bulk and range of work is considered, ranks Joachim du Bellay[195]. He was a connection, though it does not seem quite clear what connection, of the Cardinal du Bellay to whom Rabelais was so long attached, and whose house included other illustrious members. Probably he was a cousin of the cardinal and of his two brothers the memoir writers. His youth was rendered troublesome by illness and law difficulties, but[Pg 203] at last he was able with Ronsard, whose junior he was by a little, to give himself up to study under Daurat. His prose manifesto has already been dealt with, and almost immediately afterwards he in some sort anticipated Ronsard's poetical carrying out of his principles by a volume of Sonnets to Olive, the anagram of a certain Mademoiselle de Viole. The sonnet, however, was not such an absolute novelty as the ode, having been introduced already by Mellin de Saint Gelais. Shortly afterwards he went to Italy with the Cardinal du Bellay, a proceeding which did not bring him good luck. The intriguing diplomacy of the papal court displeased him, and he soon lost his cousin's favour. A volume of sonnets entitled Regrets, full of vigour and poetry, dates from this time. But Du Bellay, deprived of the protection of the most powerful member of his family, again fell into difficulties, and finally died in 1560 at the age of thirty-five. His Roman sojourn has given birth to perhaps the finest of his works, Les Antiquités de Rome, Englished by Spenser under the slightly altered title of 'The Ruins of Rome.' Du Bellay's works are not extensive, and indeed they could hardly be so, considering the shortness of his life and the interruptions of business and study which even that short life underwent. But he is undoubtedly the member of the group whose work keeps at the highest level. Nor is his excellence limited to one or two tones. For grace and simplicity his Vanneur, his Épitaphe d'un Chat, and several others of his Jeux Rustiques challenge comparison. He had a strong vein of satire, which he showed in denouncing fawning poetasters as well as the corrupt and intriguing hangers on of the Papal court. His sonnets to Olive have the finest flavour of the peculiarly cultivated and graceful voluptuousness which has been noted as one of the distinguishing marks of the French Renaissance. His Antiquités de Rome exhibit even more strongly another of those distinguishing marks, the melancholy sense of death, destruction, and nothingness; indeed, as the Heptameron is the typical prose work of this period, so Du Bellay's poems may be taken as its typical poetry. He has been called the Apollo of the Pléiade, but he should with justice be called its Mercury as well, for, as he was perhaps its best poet, so he was certainly its best prose writer. It is unlucky that he[Pg 204] was less favoured by fate and fortune than any other of the greater writers of the century.


The position of best poet of the Pléiade—Ronsard, the greatest, having mingled a good deal of alloy with his gold—has been sometimes disputed for Rémy Belleau[196]. It is certain that his 'Avril' holds with Du Bellay's 'Vanneur' and Ronsard's already-mentioned 'Quand vous serez bien vieille,' the rank of the best known and best liked poems of the school. Belleau, whose life was extremely uneventful, was born at Nogent-le-Rotrou in 1528, and was attached during nearly the whole of his life to the household of Rémy de Lorraine, Marquis d'Elbeuf, and his son Charles, Duc d'Elbeuf, whose education he superintended and in whose house he spent his days. He died in 1577 and received an elaborate funeral, being carried to the grave by his brother stars, Ronsard and Baïf, and by two of the younger disciples of the Pléiade, Desportes and Jamyn. Belleau was the chief purely descriptive poet and the chief poetical translator of the Pléiade. He began by a collection of poems entitled Petites Inventions (short descriptive pieces), and by a translation of Anacreon. In 1565 a more ambitious work, the Bergerie, made its appearance. This is a mixture of prose and poetry, describing country life and its attractions. It is in this that the famous 'Avril' occurs, and there are other detached pieces not much inferior. In 1566 another rather curiously conceived work made its appearance, the Amours et Nouveaux Échanges de Pierres Précieuses. As a whole this is perhaps his best book. Besides these, Belleau also translated or paraphrased the Phenomena of Aratus, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. He deserves to rank with not a few poets who have often attained a fair secondary position in the art, and whose special faculty disposes them to patient and ingenious description in more or less poetical verse. The stately and at the same time flexible rhythm, the brilliant and varied vocabulary which the Pléiade used, lent themselves not ill to this task, and Belleau's talent, learning, and industry enabled him to give an unusually equable charm to his work. But he is altogether too occasional, too void of the higher poetical sentiment, and too[Pg 205] limited in range, to be ranked with Ronsard or with Du Bellay. His peculiar quality of patient labour stood him in good stead in composing a Macaronic poem on the Huguenots, which is by no means without value.


Jean Antoine de Baïf[197] was a man of more varied talent than Belleau, and his history and personality are more interesting. He was the natural son of Lazare de Baïf, French ambassador at Venice, and of a noble lady of that city. Marriage was impossible, for Lazare de Baïf, who was himself a man of letters, was in orders; but he did his best for his son, and in 1547, when he was still very young, left him a considerable fortune. Baïf was, except Jodelle, the youngest member of the Pléiade, but he early distinguished himself by his expertness in the classical languages. He began in French, like the majority of his school, with a collection of sonnets and other pieces, entitled Les Amours de Méline, and he followed them up with the Amours de Francine. Francine is said to have had over her predecessor the advantage or disadvantage of existing. Baïf then turned to the new theatre, which his comrade Jodelle had introduced, and translated or adapted several plays of Plautus, Terence, and Sophocles, but these will be noticed elsewhere. He returned to poetry proper in Les Passe-Temps, a poetical miscellany of merit. Lastly, in 1581, appeared a curious work, entitled Les Mimes, composed of octosyllabic dizains, half-moral, half-satirical in tone and subject. Baïf, who was thought by some of his contemporaries to write even better in Latin than in French, was a chief defender of the often-mooted though preposterous plan of adjusting modern languages to the exact metres of the ancients. This idea, which somewhat later seduced no less a man than Spenser for a time, and with him many of the brightest wits in England, is perhaps almost more hopeless in French than in our own tongue, owing to the omnipotence of accent and the habit of slurring almost all the syllables of a word except one. But it was frequently entertained at different times through the century, and is said by Agrippa d'Aubigné to have been started as early as 1530 by a certain[Pg 206] Mousset, of whom there is no other trace. Baïf, who was also a spelling reformer, wrote a good deal of verse in the metres he advocated, but with no greater success than the other adventurous persons who have attempted the same tour de force. He is also said to have conceived the idea of an Academy, and to have in many other ways shown himself an active and ardent reformer of letters. It is for this alertness of spirit and general proficiency in literary craftsmanship that Baïf is memorable, rather than for supreme or even remarkable poetical power. His epitaphs are among his best work, probably owing to his careful study of the hardly-to-be-surpassed examples of this kind of composition which the classical languages afford. He was a diligent panegyrist of country life and country ways, but no single work of his in this class comes up to the masterpieces of Ronsard, Du Bellay, and Belleau. Range, variety, and inventiveness of spirit are Baïf's chief merits.

Daurat, Jodelle, Pontus de Tyard.

The three remaining members of the group may be disposed of more rapidly. Daurat, the eldest, and in a sense the master of all, was, as far as regards French composition, the dark star of the Pléiade, for he wrote nothing of importance in the vernacular. Jodelle was a voluminous writer, but his dramatic importance so far exceeds his merely poetical value that he will be best treated of when we come to discuss the Theatre of the Renaissance. A somewhat curious instance of his poetical energy is to be found in his unfinished, indeed hardly begun, Contre-Amours. All the rest had started with a volume of verse in praise of some real or imaginary mistress, so Jodelle determined to write one against an unkind lady. The seventh member of the Pléiade, Pontus de Tyard, was the eldest save Daurat, the longest-lived and the highest in station, while he was also in a way the most original, having published his first book before the appearance of the Défense et Illustration. He was born at Bissy, near Macon, and, having been appointed Bishop of Chalon, died in 1603, last of the group. Poetry was only part of his literary occupations, and literary work itself by no means absorbed him. But his Erreurs Amoureuses, addressed to a certain Pasithée, and other works, give him fair rank in the school. He has been erroneously credited with the introduction of the sonnet into[Pg 207] France, an honour which is probably due, as has been more than once observed, to Saint Gelais. But if he did not introduce the form, he at least contributed one of its most striking examples in his beautiful Sonnet to 'Sleep,' a favourite subject of the age both in France and England.

The Pléiade proper by no means monopolised all the poetical talent of the period. Indeed, there can be no surer testimony to the real strength of the movement than the universal adherence which was given to its methods by those who were in no sense bound to it by personal connection. A second Pléiade might be made up of members who had almost as much poetical talent as the actual titular stars. Magny, Tahureau, Du Bartas, D'Aubigné, Desportes, Bertaut, had each of them talent not far inferior to that of Du Bellay and of Ronsard, and equal to that of the five minor members. Garnier was immensely Jodelle's superior in his own line. Jamyn, Durant, Passerat, the two La Tailles, Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, even La Boëtie, who had, as far as can be made out, far more vocation in poetry than in prose, are names at least equal to those of Pontus de Tyard or Baïf. But they did not form part of the energetic coterie who started and pushed the movement, and so they have lacked the reputation which the combined and successful effort of the Seven has given them. Yet Du Bartas is the one French poet of the sixteenth century who wrote a poem on the great scale with success, and D'Aubigné ranks with Regnier and Victor Hugo in the strength and vigour of his verse.


Olivier de Magny[198] was a kind of petted child of the Pléiade. His Amours are prefaced by commendatory verses, among which compositions of four out of the seven—Ronsard, Baïf, Belleau and Jodelle—figure, and he was as strenuous in carrying out the recommendations of Du Bellay's Illustration as any of the seven themselves. His Amours just mentioned, his Odes, his Gayetés even, testify to the obedient admiration which young verse-writers often show for the leading poets of their day. But there is no servile imitation in Magny. His life was short, and the dates of its beginning and ending are not exactly known, though[Pg 208] he died in 1560. He was a lover of Louise Labé, and was worthy of her, poetically speaking. He was born, like Marot, at Cahors; he went to Rome, like many other literary men of his time, on a diplomatic errand; and his works were all published between 1553 and his death. The Odes are the best of them; the Gayetés are light and lively enough; and in both his volumes of sonnets, but especially in the Soupirs, excellent examples of the form are to be found. Magny had a strong feeling for the formal art of poetry, and it was thus natural that he should eagerly embrace the gospel of Ronsard. But besides this, he had a true poetical imagination, and a real command of poetical language. A sonnet in dialogue, which greatly attracted the admiration of Colletet, the historian of French poetry in the next age, is perhaps not much more than a tour de force. But many of his other pieces show real feeling, and have a certain youthfulness about them which suits well with the sentiments they express, and the ardour of literary as well as amatory devotion which the poet endeavours to convey.


Still younger and probably still more short-lived, but superior as a poet, was Jacques Tahureau[199]. He was born at Le Mans of a noble family, and died at the age of twenty-eight. But his life, if short, was a happy one, and, like most of his contemporaries, he published a volume of amatory sonnets under the title, gracefully affected even for that age of graceful affectation, of Mignardises Amoureuses de l'Admirée. Unlike many of the heroines of the Pléiade and their satellites, who are either known or shrewdly suspected to have been imaginary, the Admirée of Tahureau was a real person. What is more, he married her, and they lived together for three years before his early death. Before the Mignardises, he had published a Premier Recueil, and after them he produced a third volume of odes, sonnets, etc. All three display the same peculiarities, and these peculiarities are sufficiently remarkable. Tahureau was named by the flattery and the classical fancies of his contemporaries the French Catullus, and the parallel is not so rash as might be thought. It is true that it came originally from Du Bellay in one of his satirical veins. But a later poetical critic, Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, is more precise in his description,[Pg 209] and oddly enough uses the very term which was afterwards applied in England to Shakespeare's youthful sonnets. Tahureau, he says:—

Nous affrianda tous au sucre de cet art.

The author of the Mignardises is indeed somewhat 'sugared' in his style of writing; but there are genuine passion and genuine poetical feeling as well in his verse. Of the minor poets of the time he is probably the best.

Minor Ronsardists.

Before noticing the four remaining poets who have been mentioned as occupying the highest places next to the Pléiade itself, a brief review of the minor poets until the end of the century may be given. Étienne de la Boëtie wrote poems which, though they have some of the stiffness and a little of the hollowness of his Contre-un, possess a certain grandeur of sentiment and a knack of diction other than commonplace, which explain Montaigne's admiration. Claude Buttet is chiefly remarkable for having made a curious attempt to combine the classicism of the new school with the romanticism of the old. He wrote Sapphics in rhyme, an idea sufficiently ingenious, but hardly successful. Yet it is fair to remember that some of the varieties of Leonine verse lacked neither force nor elegance. The truth is, that these classic metres are so alien to all modern tongues, that, rhymed or unrhymed, they are doomed to failure. Jean de la Péruse was, like Magny and Tahureau, a poet who died before he had reached his term. At twenty-five few men have left lasting works. Yet La Péruse not only produced a tragedy of some merit, but minor poems promising more. Jean Doublet was a much older man, and is chiefly noticeable as an example of the writers who, beginning with Marot, or even with Crétin, and the Rhétoriqueurs for models, bowed to the overmastering influence of the Pléiade. Docility of this kind, however, rarely promises much poetical worth, and Doublet was not a great poet; but his poems, which have had better fortune in the way of reprints than those of greater men, show power of versification.

Amadis Jamyn was a somewhat more distinguished poet than those who have just been mentioned. Born in 1540, he came to Paris, when the triumph and supremacy of Ronsard was completely[Pg 210] assured, and was taken under the protection of the Prince of Poets. He was also honoured, as we have seen, by being allowed to stand by the side of Ronsard, of Baïf, of Desportes, at the funeral of Rémy Belleau. He translated the last twelve books of the Iliad to complete Salel, and began a translation of the Odyssey; besides which he wrote a poem on the Chase, another on Generosity, and, like everybody else at the time, abundance of miscellaneous pieces. He was a good scholar, and there was more ease in his verse than is usually to be found in his contemporaries (save the greatest of them), who too often allowed their classical studies to stiffen and starch their verse. Another admirable poet, though of no great compass, was the dramatist Grévin. His Villanesques, a modified form of the favourite Villanelle, which had survived the other épiceries condemned by Du Bellay, are singularly graceful and tender, epithets which are also applicable to his Baisers. The brothers La Taille also, like Grévin, are chiefly known as dramatists. Jean de la Taille, though but a boy of ten years old when the style Marotique was swept out of fashion, had sufficient independence to compose blasons (and very pretty ones) of the daisy and the rose. Others of his poems have mediaeval forms or settings, but he imitated Ronsard in his Mort de Paris, and Du Bellay in his Courtisan Retiré. The works of Jacques de la Taille, who died young, were chiefly epigrams. Guy du Faur de Pibrac wrote moral quatrains, which had a great vogue, and which in a way deserved it. Nicolas Rapin was, with the exception of Passerat, the chief of the poets of the Ménippée, a remarkable group, who will be noticed further when we come to that singular production. But Passerat himself deserves more notice than simply as a political satirist and a famous Latin scholar. Of all the poets of the sixteenth century before Regnier and after Marot, Passerat was the one who possessed most comic talent. His works are full of little touches which exhibit this, while at the same time he was a master of the graceful love of poetry which imitation of the ancients had made fashionable. His Villanelle 'J'ai perdu ma Tourterelle' is probably the most elegant specimen of a poetical trifle that the age produced, and has of late years attracted great admiration. Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, a lawyer, the author of an[Pg 211] Art of Poetry, and of the first satires, so called, in French, had a good deal of poetical power, which he expended chiefly on pastoral subjects; but unfortunately his command of language and style was by no means always equal to his command of fresh and agreeable imagery and sentiment.

Du Bartas.

Guillaume de Saluste du Bartas[200], the 'Protestant Ronsard,' was born in 1544 at Montfort, near Auch, served Henry of Navarre in war and diplomacy, was wounded at Ivry, and died of his wounds in 1590. His first work was Judith; then followed La Première Semaine, and next Uranie, Le Triomphe de la Foi, and the Seconde Semaine. He also wrote numerous smaller poems, including one on the battle of Ivry. The 'First Week of Creation' is his greatest and most famous work. It went through thirty editions in a few years; was translated into English by Sylvester, gave not a little inspiration to Milton, and was warmly admired by Goethe. Ronsard at first eagerly welcomed Du Bartas; but his jealousy being aroused by the pretensions of the Calvinist party to set up their poet as a rival to himself, he resented this in an indignant and vigorous address to Daurat, which contains some very just criticisms on Du Bartas. Nevertheless the merits of the latter are extremely great, and his personage and work very interesting. It has been said of him that he represents, in the first place, the extreme development of the Ronsardising innovation; in the second place, the highest literary culture attained by the French Calvinists. Inferior to D'Aubigné in knowledge of the world, in the choice of subjects perennially interesting, and in terse vigour of expression, Du Bartas was the superior of the great Protestant satirist in picturesqueness, in imagination, and in facility of descriptive power. The stately and gorgeous abundance of the vocabulary with which the Hellenising and Latinising innovations of the Pléiade enriched the French language supplied him with colours and material to work with, and his own genius did the rest. His attempt to naturalise Greek compounds, such as 'Aime-Lyre,' 'Donne-Âme,' and the rest,[Pg 212] has done him more harm than anything else; but his combination of classical learning, with the varied colour and vivid imagination of the middle age and the Renaissance, often results in extraordinarily striking expressions. L'Eschine azurée, for instance, is a singularly picturesque, if also somewhat barbaric, reminiscence of ευρεα νωτα θαλασσης: the enforcement of the idea of hora novissima tempora pessima in the four following lines is admirable:—

Nos exécrables mœurs, dedans Gomorrhe apprises,
Les troublées saisons, les civiles fureurs,
Les menaces du ciel, sont les avant-coureurs
De Christ, qui vient tenir ses dernières assises.

In such a passage again as the following, the power and simplicity of the diction can escape no reader; the piling up of the strokes is worthy of Victor Hugo:—

Les étoiles cherront. Le désordre, la nuict,
La frayeur, le trespas, la tempeste, le bruit,
Entreront en quartier.

All that was wanting to make Du Bartas a poet of the first rank was some faculty of self-criticism; of natural verve and imagination as well as of erudition he had no lack, but in critical faculty he seems to have been totally deficient. His beauties, rare in kind and not small in amount, are alloyed with vast quantities of dull absurdity.


Agrippa d'Aubigné[201] was a few years Du Bartas' junior, and long outlived him. He was an important prose-writer as well as poet, and his long life was as full of interesting events as of literary occupations. At six years old he read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; a year or two later his father made him swear, in presence of the gibbeted corpses of the unsuccessful conspirators of Amboise, to revenge their death. Shortly afterwards he narrowly escaped the stake. For a time he dwelt with Henry of Navarre at the court of Charles IX., and there thoroughly imbued himself with the Ronsardising tradition. But he soon escaped with his master, and for years was a Calvinist irreconcileable, always for war to the knife, and as rude and bold in the[Pg 213] council chamber as in the field. The death of his master was unfortunate for D'Aubigné; but, though he at first opposed the regency of Marie de Medicis, he made terms for himself. The publication, however, of his 'History' brought enemies on him, and he fled to Geneva, finishing his days there. His prose works are too numerous to mention separately: the chief besides his histories are the Confession de Sancy and the Aventures du Baron de Fæneste, both satirical in character and full of vigour. He began as a poet by poems in the lighter Pléiade style, but his masterpiece is the strange work called Les Tragiques. This consists of seven books, amounting to not much less than ten thousand lines, and entitled Misères, Princes, La Chambre Dorée, Les Feux, Les Fers, Vengeance, Jugement. The poem is half historical and half satirical, dealing with the religious wars, the persecution of the Huguenots, the abuses of the administration, and of contemporary manners, etc. Nothing equal to the best verses of this singular book had yet been seen in France, and not much equal to them has been produced since. The tone of sombre and impressive declamation had been to some extent anticipated by Du Bartas, but chiefly for purposes of description. D'Aubigné turned it to its natural use in invective, and the effect is often extraordinarily fine. Very copious citation would be necessary to show its excellence: but before Victor Hugo there is nothing in French equal to D'Aubigné at his best in point of clangour of sound and impetuosity of rhythm. It is noteworthy that Du Bartas' Semaine, with the Tragiques and the tragedies of Garnier, finally established the Alexandrine as the indispensable metre for serious and impassioned poetry in France. Hitherto the decasyllable and the dodecasyllable had been used indiscriminately, and Ronsard's Franciade is written in the former. But after the three poets just mentioned, the Alexandrine became invariable; the decasyllable being left for light and occasional work, as a sort of medium in usage as in bulk between the Alexandrine and the octosyllable. The truth is that, until the improvements of language and style which the Pléiade had introduced, the Alexandrine couplet had not had either suppleness or dignity enough for the work. It was lumbering and disjointed. As soon, however, as the classical turn,[Pg 214] inseparable from a specially classical metre, had been given to the language, it at once took its place and has ever since kept it, though in the century succeeding it was deprived of much of its force by arbitrary rules. The lines of Boileau condemning Ronsard[202] have inseparably connected Desportes and Bertaut, and have given them a position in literary history which is as intrinsically inaccurate as it is unduly high. Neither approaches Du Bartas or D'Aubigné in poetical excellence or in adroit carrying out of Ronsardism. But neither was in the least made retenu by Ronsard's failure, and it did not enter the head of themselves or any of their contemporaries, till their last days, that Ronsard had failed. Philippe Desportes[203] was a very unclerical cleric, a successful courtier and diplomatist, a great favourite with the ladies of the court. He was also a poet of little vigour, but of great sweetness, much elegance of style and form, and extraordinary neatness, if not originality, of expression. With Jamyn he was the most prominent of Ronsard's own particular disciples. His poetical works are sharply divided, like those of Herrick and Donne and some other poets, on the one hand, into poems of a very mundane character, collections of sonnets after the Pléiade fashion to real or imaginary heroines, celebrations of the ladies and the mignons of the court of Henri III., imitations of Italian verse, and the like; on the other, into devotional poems, which include some translations of the Psalms of not a little merit. Personally Desportes appears to have been a self-seeker and a sycophant; not without good nature, but covetous, intriguing, corrupt, given to base compliances. He was Du Bellay's poëte courtisan in the worst sense of the[Pg 215] phrase[204]. But working at leisure and with care, and undistracted by any literary or sentimental enthusiasm, he found means to give to his work a polish and correctness which many of his contemporaries of greater talent did not, or could not, give. In this fact the explanation of Boileau's commendation—for it is no doubt meant, relatively speaking, for commendation—is probably to be found.


Jean Bertaut was, to use a metaphor frequently employed in literary history, the 'moon' of Desportes. Like him, he is a poet rather elegant than vigorous, rather correct than spirited. Like him, he wrote light verse and devotional poems, and, as in the case of Desportes, the religious poems are—rather contrary to the reader's expectation—the best of the two. His work, however, was even more limited in amount than that of his contemporary.


[192] The list is sometimes given rather differently; instead of Jodelle and Pontus de Tyard, Scévole de St. Marthe and Muretus are substituted. But the enumeration in the text is the accepted one.

[193] Ed. Blanchemain. 8 vols. Paris, 1857-67.

[194] The term usually applied to him by contemporaries.

[195] Ed. Marty-Laveaux. 2 vols. Paris, 1866-7.

[196] Ed. Gouverneur. 3 vols. Paris, 1866.

[197] Not recently re-edited in full. In selection by Becq de Fouquières. Paris, 1874.

[198] Recently edited in 5 vols. by Courbet. Paris, v. d.

[199] Ed. Blanchemain. 2 vols. Geneva, 1869.

[200] Du Bartas, always unjustly treated in France, probably from a curious tradition of mingled sectarian and literary jealousy, has not been reprinted of late years. The edition used is that of 1610-1611. Paris, 2 vols, folio.

[201] Ed. Réaume and de Caussade. Vols. 1-4. Paris, 1873-7. There is another volume to follow.

[202] Here are these celebrated lines:—

Ronsard, qui le suivit, par une autre méthode
Réglant tout, brouilla tout, fit un art à sa mode,
Et toutefois longtemps eut un heureux destin.
Mais sa muse en Français parlant Grec et Latin
Vit dans l'âge suivant, par un retour grotesque,
Tomber de ses grands mots le faste pédantesque.
Ce poète orgueilleux, trébuché de si haut,
Rendit puis retenus Desportes et Bertaut.
Art Poét., Chant i.

[203] Ed. Michiels. Paris, 1858.

[204] He was not a courtier for nothing. He held numerous abbacies, and Charles IX. is said to have given him 800 gold pieces, Henri III. 10,000 crowns of silver, in each case for a poetical offering of very small bulk.

[Pg 216]




It so happened that the mediaeval theatre closed, as far as its exclusive possession of the stage is concerned, with one of the most remarkable of all its writers. Pierre Gringore[205], who towards the close of his career preferred the spelling Gringoire, was a Norman by birth. His poetical and dramatic capacity has been considerably exaggerated by the learned but crotchety scholar who was at first charged with the joint editorship of his works in the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne. But, when the hyperboles of M. Charles d'Héricault are reduced to their simplest terms, Gringore remains a remarkable figure. It is to him that we owe the only complete and really noteworthy tetralogy, composed of cry, sotie, morality, and farce, which exists to show the final result of the mediaeval play—the Jeu du Prince des Sots. To him is also due the most remarkable of the sixteenth-century mysteries, that of Saint Louis; and his miscellaneous poems, as yet not fully collected, show us a man of letters possessed of no small faculty for miscellaneous work. Gringore first emerges as a pamphleteer in verse, on the side of the policy of Louis XII. He held the important position of mère sotte in the company of persons who charged themselves with playing the sotie, and Louis perceived the advantages which he might gain by enlisting such a writer on his side. Gringore's early works are allegorical poems of the kind which the increasing admiration of the Roman de la Rose, joined to the practice of the Rhétoriqueurs, had made fashionable in France; but they are directly political in[Pg 217] tone, and an undercurrent of dramatic intention is always manifest in them. Les folles Entreprises is a very remarkable work. It might be described as a series of monologues of the kind usual and already described, but continuous, and having the independent parts bound to each other by speeches of the author in propria persona. The titles of the separate sections—L'Entreprise des folz Orgueilleux, Réflexions de l'Auteur sur la Guerre d'Italie, le Blason de Pratique, Balade et Supplication à la Vierge Marie (et se peult Interpréter sur la Royne de France), etc.—explain the plan of this curious book as well as any laboured analysis could do. The author takes what he considers to be the chief grievances in Church and State, and dilates upon them in the manner, half moralising, half allegoric, which was popular. An argument of Les folles Entreprises would, however, require considerable space. It enters into the most recondite theological questions, and of its general tone the heading of the last chapter tells as good a story as anything else can do: 'Comme le très-chrestien roy et Justice relevent Foy qui estait abattu par Richesse et Papelardise.' Other works of the same semi-dramatic, semi-poetical kind are even more directly political in substance: Les Entreprises de Venise; La Chasse du Cerf des Cerfs (Pope Julius), etc. Sometimes, as in La Coqueluche, the author becomes a simple chronicler describing incidents of his time. Indeed it would hardly be an exaggeration to describe Gringore's work as the result of a kind of groping after journalism condemned by the circumstances of the time to the most awkward and inappropriate form. In his definitely dramatic work the same practical tendency reappears. The tetralogy is of a directly politico-social kind. The cry, a summons in ironical terms to sots of all kinds to come and hear their lesson; the sotie, an audacious satire on the state of things; the morality, in which the very names of the personages—Peuple François, Peuple Italique, Divine Pungnicion, etc.—speak for themselves, all show this tendency; and even the bonne bouche at the end, the farce (which is altogether too Rabelaisian in subject for description here), seems to illustrate the motto—a very practical one—'Il faut cultiver son jardin.' Less directly the same purpose can be traced in the Mystère de Monseigneur Saint Loys. This is a[Pg 218] picture of the ideal patriot king doing judgment and justice, and serving God by his voyages over sea, and his punishments of blasphemers and loose livers at home.

The last Age of the Mediaeval Theatre.

The first two quarters, and especially the first quarter, of the century contributed plentifully to the list of mysteries, moralities, and farces. The dates of the latter are not easy to ascertain, and it is probable that most of them are older than the present period. The taste for very lengthy mysteries and moralities, however, had by no means died out, and some of the mysteries, notably those of Antoine Chevallet, are of considerable merit. To the sixteenth century too belongs what is probably the longest of all moralities, that on The Just and Unjust Man, which contains 36,000 lines, besides the Mundus, Caro, et Daemonia, and the Condamnation de Banquet already described.

This school was continued, though under some difficulties, until a late period of the century. It had two things in its favour; it was extremely popular, and it lent itself, far more than the stately rival soon to be discussed, to the political and social uses which had long been associated with the stage in the mind of audiences. In Beza's tragedy of Abraham Sacrifiant, a kind of union takes place between the two styles. But even the triumph of the Pléiade did not at once abolish the mysteries which were still legal in the provinces, which had a strong hold on the fancy of the populace, and which some men of letters who were themselves much indebted to the new movement, notably Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, upheld with pen as well as with tongue. Thomas Le Coq, a beneficed clerk of Falaise, wrote a really remarkable play, Cain, of the purest mystery kind, in 1580; and the troubles of the League brought forth a large number of pieces which approached much nearer to the mediaeval drama, and especially to the mediaeval drama in the form which Gringore had given it, than to the model of Jodelle.

Beginnings of the Classical Drama.

It was, however, this model which had the seeds of life in it, and which was destined to serve as the pattern for the French drama of the future. In the manifesto of the Pléiade Du Bellay gave especial prominence to the drama among the literary kinds,[Pg 219] in which French had need of strengthening from classical sources. The classical tragedy in the classical language, and even in translation, was already no stranger to French audiences, and the principle of constructing modern vernacular plays on the same model had become familiar to the upper and learned classes by the practice of the Italians, with which they had become acquainted, partly through the numerous visits, friendly and hostile, paid by Frenchmen to Italy in the early years of the sixteenth century, partly through the reproduction of these Italian plays at the courts of Francis I. and Henri II. This reproduction of foreign work was not confined to the court, for in 1548 the town of Lyons greeted Catherine de Medicis with an Italian play acted by an Italian company. As for translations of classical drama, Lazare de Baïf translated the Electra as early as 1537, and Buchanan, Muretus, and others composed Latin plays for their pupils to act. In all these plays, Latin, Italian, and French-translation, the influence of the tragedian Seneca was paramount, and this influence made an enduring mark on the future drama of France. Greek, though it was ardently studied, was, from the purely literary point of view, little comprehended by the French humanists, and of the three tragedians Euripides was the only one who made much impression upon them. Seneca, as the only extant Latin tragedian, had a monopoly of the classical language which they understood best and revered most heartily. His model was also peculiarly imitable. The paucity of action, the strict observation of certain easily observable rules, the regular and harmonious but easily comprehensible system of his choruses, the declamatory style and strong ethical temper of his sentiments, all appealed to the French Renaissance. Within a year or two from the time when Du Bellay had sounded the note of innovation, Jodelle answered the summons with a tragedy and a comedy at the same time.


Étienne Jodelle[206], Seigneur de Lymodin, was one of the youngest of Ronsard's fellows. He was born at Paris in 1532, and was thus barely twenty years old when, in 1552, he founded at once modern French tragedy with his Cléopâtre,[Pg 220] and modern French comedy with his Eugène. The representation was a great success, and obtained for the author from the King, Henri II., besides many compliments, the sum of five hundred crowns. The success of the plays also brought about an incident famous in French literary history of the anecdotic kind. The seven determined to celebrate the occasion by a country excursion, and on the way to Arcueil they unluckily met a flock of goats. Deeply imbued as they all were with classical fancies, it was almost inevitable that the idea of a Dionysiac festival should strike them, and a goat was caught, crowned with flowers and solemnly paraded, Ronsard himself officiating as the god. This harmless freak was represented by the zealots of the time as an impious pagan orgie, in which the goat had been actually sacrificed to a false god, and the reputation of the brotherhood sank almost equally with Catholics and Protestants. Six years after, Jodelle produced his second tragedy, Didon, also with great success. But he was not a fortunate person. The miscarriage of a pageant of which he had the direction alienated the favour of the court from him, and he was too proud or too careless to solicit its grace. He was a loose and reckless liver, and receives from Pierre de l'Estoile a character which very probably is unduly harsh. However this may be, he died at the age of forty, indigent and ruined in constitution. His literary activity was great, but only a small part of his work survives, and his three plays are the only important portion of this.

The comedy has some impression of classical study, though very much less than the two tragedies. It is, unlike the indigenous farce, divided regularly into acts and scenes; it is much longer than the native comedy, and some of the characters show, though faintly and at a distance, some traces of a reading of Terence. But it retains the octosyllabic metre, and its general scheme, despite a somewhat greater involution of plot and multiplicity of characters, is that of a farce. Eugène, the hero, a rich and luxurious churchman, is in love with Alix, whom, to save appearances, he has married to a wittol of the name of Guillaume. Alix, however, has several other lovers, among whom is Florimond a soldier, the rejected suitor of Hélène, Eugène's sister. These personages are completed by Maître Jean, the abbé's chaplain and[Pg 221] general factotum, a creditor of Guillaume's, some servants of the soldier Florimond, etc. The plot is very simple, consisting of hardly anything but the return of Florimond from the wars, and his wrath at discovering Alix's relations not merely with Guillaume but with Eugène. He is finally made happy with Hélène. Alix takes the wise resolution to be less prodigal of her affections, and the play ends. Some detached passages, especially the opening scene, in which the lazy, dissolute life of wealthy churchmen is very pointedly satirised, are amusing enough, and the characters of the chaplain and the husband are not far from la vraie comédie. The tragedies are indirectly of more importance, but intrinsically much duller reading. Instead, however, of cleaving, as Eugène does, closely to the lines of the existing drama, the innovation in them is of the boldest kind. The octosyllabic verse, hitherto sacred to drama, is exchanged in Cléopâtre for a mixture of the decasyllabic and the Alexandrine, some scenes being written in the one, others in the other. Nor is the tentative character of the work only thus indicated; for the rhymes follow different systems in the different scenes. In Didon, however, Jodelle settled down to the unbroken Alexandrine with alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, which has remained the standard vehicle of French tragedy ever since. His general scheme follows that of Seneca closely, and his choruses are written in stanzas of short verses regularly arranged. The matter of both plays is taken with tolerable exactness, in the one case from Plutarch, in the other from Virgil; but a somewhat full analytic description of the first French tragedy must be given. Didon is something of an advance in versification, as has been pointed out, but in other respects it is perhaps inferior to Cléopâtre.

The piece begins with a prologue to the king, and then the first act opens with a long soliloquy from the ghost of Antony. Long speeches, it should be said, are the bane of this early French tragedy, and for nearly a century the evil increased instead of diminishing. Cleopatra, Charmium, and Eras then appear, for the play follows Plutarch strictly enough. The queen expresses her despair, and announces her intention to die. The first act is concluded by a long chorus of Alexandrian women, who bewail the[Pg 222] shortness of life in six-syllable quatrains. The second act, like the first (unless the monologue of the ghost is counted in this latter), consists of only a single scene and a chorus. The scene is between Octavian, Agrippa, and Proculeius, who argue about the probable fate of Cleopatra. The conqueror is disposed to mercy and to regret for Antony's death, but his officers are less amiably minded. They agree, however, that Cleopatra will have to be watched for fear of suicide. The chorus now is nominally divided into strophes and antistrophes, but these are really only uniform stanzas of six six-syllable lines each, with the rhymes arranged a, b, a, b, c, c, and there is no epode. The third act contains the interview of Octavian with Cleopatra, the surrender of the treasures, and the treachery of Seleucus. The chorus takes part in this scene both by a short song and a longer one in couplets, but arranged in eight-line stanzas, which is preceded by a dialogue with Seleucus. The act thus consists of two scenes. In the fourth act Cleopatra repeats and regularly matures her resolve of death. It contains two choric pieces of some beauty. The first is an undivided song in sixes and fours; the second has a regular arrangement of strophe, antistrophe, and epode three times repeated, consisting of five-syllable lines, of which the strophe and antistrophe contain eleven each and the epode eight, arranged—strophe and antistrophe a, b, a, b, c, c, d, d, e, e, d, epode a, b, a, b, c, c, d, d. The fifth act is very short, containing a recital by Proculeius of the Queen's death, and a choric lament in quatrains. It will thus be seen that the action in the piece is very small, except in the brawl with Seleucus; that the chorus has the full importance which it possessed in the classical tragedy; and that, owing to the few changes of scene and the other restrictions imposed upon himself by the poet, the dramatic capabilities of the plan are not a little limited. The same state of things continued to be the case during the whole duration of the school whose master Jodelle was. Style and versification were sometimes better, sometimes worse than his; but, with comparatively few exceptions, the general conception was the same, long monologues, few characters, an almost total defect of action, which is conducted by the aid of messengers, etc.[Pg 223]

Minor Pléiade Dramatists.

The fervent spirit of imitation which characterised the satellites of the Pléiade has already been noticed more than once. But in no department was it more marked than in that of drama. Jean de la Péruse, who, like many of the Pléiade poets, died very young, produced a Medea imitated from Seneca, and Charles Toustain an Agamemnon, also taken from the same author. Jacques de la Taille at a very early age wrote a Darius and an Alexander, besides a Didon, which is lost. These pieces have some merit, and it is noteworthy that the metre varies, as in Jodelle's model. A slight eccentricity of realism, however, has been Jacques de la Taille's chief passport to a place in the history of French literature. The death of Darius occurs in the middle of the word recommandation,

Mes enfants et ma femme aie en recommanda ...
Il ne put achever, ear la mort l'en garda.

It is perhaps not insignificant that the verse is completed if the word is not.

Of this immediate group of Jodelle's followers, however, the most remarkable before Garnier was Jacques Grévin, who was noteworthy both as a dramatist and as a poet. Grévin was a Protestant and a practitioner of medicine, in which capacity he accompanied Marguerite de France, Duchess of Savoy, to Turin, and died there, at the age of thirty. Before he was twenty he wrote a tragedy, La Mort de César, which has considerable merit, and two comedies, Les Esbahis and La Trésorière, which are perhaps better still. Jean de la Taille, the brother of Jacques, but a better poet and a better dramatist, wrote Saul Furieux and Les Gabaonites, two of the numerous sacred tragedies which have always found favour in France, and the tradition of which it has been sought to revive even in our own day. The theatre, like the pulpit, was used as an engine by the Leaguers, but nothing of much value resulted from this.


Although many of the practitioners of this classical tragedy, notably Jodelle, Grévin, and Jean de la Taille, produced work of interest and merit, it contributed only one name which can properly be called great to literary history. This was that of[Pg 224] Robert Garnier[207], who brought the form to the highest perfection of which it was capable in its earliest state. Garnier was born at La Ferté Bernard in 1545, and died, apparently in his native province of Maine, in 1601. He was a lawyer of some distinction, being a member of the Paris bar, then Lieutenant Criminel at Le Mans, and finally Councillor of State. He was an immediate disciple and favourite of Ronsard, who has spoken of him in those terms of magnificent eulogy of which he was liberal, but which here, if somewhat exaggerated, are by no means altogether misplaced. His dramatic works, extending to eight plays, were all composed in his earlier manhood, between 1568 and 1580. There is, however, a wide difference between the first six plays and the last two. The former, Porcie, Cornélie, Marc-Antoine, Hippolyte, La Troade, and Antigone, are all, as their titles show clearly, tragedies of antiquity closely modelled on Seneca and Euripides, especially Seneca. The Cornélie, it may be observed, was translated into English by Kyd. They do not differ much in arrangement from each other, or from Jodelle's Cléopâtre. In his two last plays, however, produced in 1580, much greater power and originality appear. These were Les Juives, a Biblical tragedy on the fate of Zedekiah and Jerusalem, and Bradamante, a romantic tragi-comedy on a subject taken from Ariosto. The latter was apparently the first of its kind, dramatists having hitherto confined themselves to classical, contemporary, and Biblical subjects. There is, moreover, a curious incident connected with it. It contains no choruses, and in the preface of the published edition the manager is requested to have the want supplied in case of its being acted. Here too appears the confidant, a dubious present to the French theatre, but one of no small importance. The play is a remarkable one. The mixture of comic with tragic models gives the author much more liberty, of which he duly avails himself; the scenes are more numerous, the action more lively and complicated, the interest in every way greater. Yet it would seem, from the remark made above, that there was some doubt in the mind of the author whether it would ever be acted. Nor does it seem to have had much, if any, effect on the general character of stage plays.[Pg 225] These continued to follow the Jodelle model until Hardy brought in the influence of Spain. Of that model Les Juives is assuredly the masterpiece. The choruses are of great beauty, admirably diversified in metre and rhythm, and occasionally all but equalling the best lyrics of the Pléiade. There is interest in the story, which deals with the vengeance of Nebuchadnezzar on the Jewish king, and its chief drawback is its unrelieved gloom. The first act too, which consists of a monologue by the Prophet (unnamed) relieved only by the chorus, is justly open to that charge of monotony and absence of action, which is the great drawback of this class of drama. Subsequently, however, a real interest is created in the question whether the conqueror will or will not give up his sanguinary purposes in consequence of the remonstrances of his general, Nebuzaradan, and the entreaties of Zedekiah's mother and his own Queen. The stiffness of the dialogue, which is remarkable in most of the tragedies of the period, is here a good deal softened. The speeches are still sometimes too long—Garnier was indeed a great offender in this way, and in his Hippolyte has inflicted an unbroken monologue of nearly two hundred lines on the hapless spectators. But very frequently the dialogue is fairly kept up, and sufficiently varied by the avoidance of the practice of concluding the speeches uniformly at the end of lines.

Defects of the Pléiade Tragedy.

On the whole, however, despite the literary excellence of at least some of the work composing it, it is impossible to give high rank as drama to the model of Jodelle. Although the unities were not by any means followed with the strictness which prevailed afterwards, the caution of Horace about awkward transactions on the stage was rigidly observed, and, with the usual illegitimate inference, carried out so as almost to exclude all action whatever. The personages were generally few, the acts divided into but a scene or two at most, the set tirades mercilessly long, and the whole thing, as it would appear to a modern spectator, dull and spiritless.

Pléiade Comedy.

The dramatists of the Pléiade school, though they chiefly cultivated tragedy, did not by any means neglect comedy, their leader, Jodelle, having, as has been shown, set them the example in both[Pg 226] kinds. Their comedy was, however, for some time a somewhat indeterminate kind of composition, and did not for the most part show much sign of the extraordinary excellence which French comedy was to attain in the next century. They seem to have hesitated between three models, the indigenous farce, the Italian comedy, which was a graft on the Latin, and the Latin comedy of Plautus and Terence itself. Yet Eugène, as has been said, is a great deal better as a play than either Didon or Cléopâtre. Its manner was closely imitated in the already-mentioned comedies of Grévin. The Reconnue of Belleau is a work of merit. Baïf turned the Miles Gloriosus into French under the title of Taillebras, which was acted with the curious accompaniment of choruses composed by, among others, Desportes, Belleau, and Ronsard himself. All these pieces kept the octosyllabic verse which the farce had consecrated. Afterwards it became fashionable to write comedies in prose. Jean de la Taille thus gave Les Corrivaux, Odet de Turnèbe Les Mécontents, François d'Amboise Les Napolitaines. But the chief comic author of the century, a better playwright than Garnier himself, was Pierre Larivey, who also wrote in prose[208]. He was born at Troyes about 1540, and died probably in the second decade of the seventeenth century. His father was an Italian, of the famous printer family of the Giunti, and on settling in France he had dubbed himself L'Arrivé, which soon took the less recognisable form under which the dramatist is known. Pierre Larivey held a canonry at Troyes, and translated many Italian books of the most diverse kinds into French. Among these were numerous comedies, and the genius of the translator for his task in this case produced what are in effect as original compositions as most plays which call themselves original. Larivey took the utmost liberties with his models, adding, dropping, altering, exactly as he pleased, and writing his adaptations in a style excellent for the purpose. He produced twelve plays, of which nine are extant, Le Laquais, La Veuve, Les Esprits, Le Morfondu, Les Jaloux, Les Escoliers, published in 1579, and Constance, Le Fidèle, Les Tromperies, published in 1611. Each of these has an Italian original. But, as the originals themselves are frequently[Pg 227] derived from classical sources, Larivey very often seems to be imitating these latter. A nearly complete idea of the character of his best piece, Les Esprits, may be obtained by those who know the Aulularia and Andria, and, on the other hand, the École des Maris and L'Avare, for he stands about midway between the classical comedies of Latin and French. Molière found a good deal of his property in Larivey, and so did other French comic authors.


[205] Ed. Héricault, Montaiglon, and Rothschild. 2 vols. Paris. 1858-1877.

[206] Ancien Théâtre Français, vol. iv.

[207] A good modern edition has appeared by Förster. Heilbronn, 1882.

[208] Ancien Théâtre Français, vol. vi. vii.

[Pg 228]



Prose Writers of the Renaissance.

It has been pointed out that Rabelais, in his capacity of representative author of the French Renaissance, exhibits all the characteristics of that Renaissance—its interest, half-enthusiastic and half-sceptical, in religious and philosophical questions, its devotion to ancient literature and learning, and the ardent zest with which it attacked at once the business and the pleasures of the world. The four most remarkable of the remaining prose authors of the century illustrate these characteristics as vividly but less universally. Montaigne indeed is almost as complete a representative of the entire character for the last half of the century as Rabelais is of the first. But even in him one note, the note of sceptical philosophy, is more dominant than any to be found in Rabelais. In the same way Calvin was the first, if not the most distinguished, of theologians who wrote modern French prose; Amyot the representative of erudition; and Brantôme of that attention to mundane business and pleasure which produced so many admirable memoir-writers. Round each of the four, but especially round Amyot and Brantôme, numerous figures, sometimes of hardly less magnitude, have to be grouped. Chronological reasons, and the convenience of subdividing the subject, make it, however, advisable to take Calvin and Amyot first, leaving the authors of the Essais and the Dames Galantes with their train for another chapter.[Pg 229]


Jean Calvin[209] was born in 1509, at Noyon, in Picardy, where his father held the post of procurator-fiscal to the bishop. He took orders very early, and obtained some preferment. Before long, by a transition very usual in that age, he exchanged divinity for law; but his interest was still in the former study, and he eagerly embraced the Reformed doctrines. Like other French reformers, he was at first rewarded by the favour of Francis and his sister Marguerite, but the tide soon turned, and he left France in 1534 for Basle. It is said that it was not till then that he learnt Hebrew. At Basle his Institution was published. After a year or two he went to Italy, where he was received by the Duchess of Ferrara, Renée of France, the steadiest of all the royal patrons of the French reformers. At last he established himself at Geneva, where, as is well known, he succeeded in setting up a kind of theocratic tyranny, which was for centuries the model and pattern of his faithful followers the Scotch Presbyterians. He was once banished, but recalled, and exercised his sway for about a quarter of a century. Into the too famous and much argued matters of his relations with Servetus, his intrigues with the French inquisitors to establish a kind of Zollverein of persecution and the like, there is no need to enter here. He died in 1564. Calvin's greatest work in literature, as in theology, is the Institution of the Christian Religion, which, as has been said, was published at Basle in 1536. It was written in Latin, but four years later was republished in French, the author himself being the translator. The minor works of Calvin, both in Latin and French, are very numerous, but from the point of view of literary history they may be neglected, except certain satirical pamphlets wherein the writer displayed a considerable command of vigorous, if occasionally clumsy, satire and invective. The scurrility with which the debates of the Reformation were carried on on both sides is but too well known. Calvin was not so guilty in this respect as Luther, but he must bear a considerable portion of the blame. What is really valuable in Calvin's satiric style may be found more worthily represented in the[Pg 230] less abstract passages of the Institution, notably the Address to the King.

The Institution itself is beyond all question the first serious work of great literary merit, not historical, in the history of French prose. It is strongly Latinised in form and construction, as might indeed be expected considering the circumstances of its production. But the point in which it differs from preceding works in which the classical influence is prominent, is that the author no longer attempts to give his classical colour by means of wholesale importations of terms. The vocabulary, though rich and varied, is still in the main genuine French, and the Latinism is more observable in occasional constructions and in the architecture of the clauses than in the mere selection of words. This clause-architecture was a matter of the last importance, for it was exactly in this respect that French, like most of the vernacular tongues, was deficient. The entirely artless and mainly conversational array of the sentence which, out of verse, had hitherto been common, served for narrative well enough, but not at all for argument or discussion. Calvin threw his French clauses into the mould in which his Latin had been cast, and without unduly stiffening them produced a regularity of form which was entirely novel. Even when his sentences are of considerable length, there is clearness and simplicity in them, which in some languages, English for instance, was not generally reached in prose till much later. It is remarkable, too, that the besetting sin of serious French prose, its tendency to the declamatory, is well kept under by Calvin. Next to the graceful stateliness of his phrase, its extreme sobriety, not rejecting legitimate ornament, but seldom or never trespassing into the rhetorical, has to be observed. Considering that the whole of it was written before the author was seven-and-twenty, it is perhaps the most remarkable work of its particular kind to be anywhere found—the merits being those of full maturity and elaborate preparation rather than of youthful exuberance. The book consists of four parts; the first on God, the second on the Atonement, or rather on the Mediatorial Office of Christ, the third on the results of that Office, the fourth on Church Government. Its end, it need hardly be said, is double—the establishment in the most rigorous form of[Pg 231] the doctrine of predestination and original sin, and the destruction of the sacramental and sacerdotal doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Minor Reformers and Controversialists.

Despite the fervid interest taken in religious disputation and the masterly example which Calvin had set both to friends and foes, theology proper did not contribute very much of value to literature during the period. Beza wrote chiefly in Latin, his Histoire des Églises Réformées being the chief exception. Pierre Viret, a Swiss by birth, who passed the last twenty years of his life at various towns in the south of France as a preacher and theological teacher, wrote a considerable number of treatises, both serious and satirical. The titles of some of the latter, L'Alchimie du Purgatoire, La Cosmographie Infernale, etc., are characteristic of the time. But Viret's literary merit was not remarkable. This kind of theological pasquinading was in great favour throughout the period, and authors of very various merit, such as Marnix de Sainte Aldegonde, Doré, Claude de Saintes, Arthus Désiré, and others, contributed plentifully to it. But the interest of their work is for the most part historical and antiquarian only. The title of 'Protestant Rabelais' has been absurdly given to Marnix. It is only so far deserved that the scurril language and gross images which with the master were but accessories, were with the pupil the main point. In the latter part of the century, after the quieting of the troubles of the League, two more serious disputants arose, each of considerable literary eminence. These were on the Protestant side, Philippe de Mornay, better known as Duplessis-Mornay, who distinguished himself equally as a soldier, a diplomatist, and a man of letters, and the still more famous Cardinal Du Perron, a converted Calvinist, who was supposed to be the most expert controversialist of a time which was nothing if not controversial. The chief theological work of Duplessis-Mornay was his Traité de la Vérité de la Religion Chrétienne. The chief written theological work of Du Perron was a Traité du Sacrement de l'Euchariste, in reply to a work on the same subject by Mornay.

Preachers of the League.

Between the controversies of the earlier part of the century and those of the latter, preaching, if not dogmatic theology, held an[Pg 232] important place because of its political bearing. The pulpit style of the sixteenth century was for the most part an aggravation of that (already described) of the fifteenth, the acrimony of sectarian and factious partisanship leading the preachers to indulge in every kind of verbal excess. During the League the partisans of that organisation, especially in Paris, were perpetually excited against Henri III. and his successor by the most atrocious pulpit diatribes, the chief artists in which were Boucher, Rose, Launay, Feuardent, and Génébrard. The literary value of these furious outpourings however is very small. After their cessation a reaction set in, and for some time before the splendid period of pulpit eloquence, which lasted from St. Francis de Sales to Massillon, the general style of French homiletics was dull and laboured.


Jacques Amyot[210] was born at Melun in 1513, and belonged to the lowest class. He was educated as a servitor at the famous Collège de Navarre, and took his degree in arts at the age of nineteen. He then held various tutorships and attracted the notice of Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, the constant patroness of men of letters, who gave him a Readership at Bourges. After some years of University teaching in the classics, he began his series of translations with the Theagenes and Chariclea in 1546. This was three years in advance of Du Bellay's manifesto, and though not a few translations had already appeared, none had even approached Amyot's in elegance. As usual at the time his literary reputation was rewarded by Church preferment and employment in the diplomatic service. He was also made tutor to Charles IX. and Henri of Anjou. His elder pupil, when he came to the throne, made him, first, Grand Almoner of France, and then Bishop of Auxerre, while Henri III. added the honour of a commandership in the order of the Holy Ghost. For a time, in the midst of the troubles of the League, Amyot was driven from his palace, but he returned and died, at the full age of fourscore, in 1594.

Besides the work of Heliodorus, Amyot translated Diodorus[Pg 233] Siculus (1554), Daphnis and Chloe, Plutarch's Lives (1559), and Plutarch's Morals (1574). It may seem at first sight that his selection of authors to translate was somewhat peculiar. It was however, either by accident or design, singularly well suited to the age which he addressed. The positive merit of Heliodorus, and still more of Longus, is certainly greater than is usually admitted nowadays. But for that time they were peculiarly suited (and especially Longus) by their combination of romantic and adventurous description with graceful pictures of nature and amatory interludes. Plutarch, on the other hand, expressed, more than any other author, the practical and moralising spirit which accompanied this taste for romance. Montaigne confessed that he could not do without Plutarch, and it may be doubted whether any other single author of antiquity, after the Ciceronian mania was over, exercised such an influence as Plutarch, through Amyot, North, and Shakespeare (a direct succession of channels), upon France and England.

The merit of the translator had not a little to do with the success of the books. Here is the testimony of the greatest in a literary sense of Amyot's readers. 'I give,' says Montaigne, 'and I think I am right in doing so, the palm to Jacques Amyot over all French writers, not only for the simplicity and purity of his vocabulary, in which he surpasses all others, nor for his industry in so long a task, nor for the depth of his learning which has enabled him to expound so happily a writer so thorny and crabbed. I am above all grateful to him for having selected and chosen a book so worthy and so suitable as a present to his country. We dunces were lost had not this book plucked us out of the mire. Thanks to it, we dare to speak and to write. By it ladies are in a position to give lessons to schoolmasters. It is our very breviary.' This praise, which is not exaggerated in itself, and still less when taken as an expression of the feeling of the time, refers of course to the 'Plutarch,' and in estimating it it is necessary to take account of Montaigne's especial affection for the author translated. But if we take in the lighter work, and especially the Daphnis and Chloe, Amyot will stand higher, not lower. His merit is not so much that he has known how to adjust himself and his style to two very different authors, but that[Pg 234] in rendering both those authors he has written French of a most original model and of the greatest excellence. The common fault of translation, the insensible adoption of a foreign idiom—especially difficult to avoid at a time when no classical standards or models of the tongue used by the translator exist—is here almost entirely overcome. The style of Amyot, who had little before him, if Calvin and Rabelais be excepted, but the clumsy examples of the rhétoriqueur school, is, as Montaigne justly says, perfectly simple and pure; and so little is it tinged either with archaism or with classicism that the seventeenth century itself, unjust as it was for the most part towards its predecessors, acknowledged its merit.

Minor Translators.

Although Amyot was by far the most considerable of the French translators of the sixteenth century, he was not by any means the first. Claude de Seyssel translated many Greek authors, Pierre Saliat produced a version of Herodotus, Lefèvre d'Étaples was the author of the first complete French translation of the Bible, and a cluster of learned writers, some of them remarkable for other work, such as Bonaventure des Périers, devoted themselves to Plato. Among these latter there is one who was in many ways a typical representative of the time. Étienne Dolet[211] was born at Orleans in 1509, lived a stormy life diversified by many quarrels, literary and theological, did much service to literature both in Latin and French, and, falling out with the powers that were, was burnt (having first been, as a matter of grace and in consequence of a previous recantation, hanged) in the Place Maubert, at Paris, on his birthday, August 3, 1554. Dolet had written many Latin speeches and tractates in the Ciceronian style—that of a curious section of humanists who entertained an exclusive and exaggerated devotion to Cicero. Then, becoming himself a master-printer, he wrote several small treatises on French grammar, some poems, a short history of Francis the First, and finally, a translation of the Platonic or Pseudo-Platonic Axiochus, which was the proximate cause of his death. He was one of the earliest of the French humanist students to devote himself to the[Pg 235] vernacular, and, though his short and troubled life did not enable him to perfect his French style, he is very interesting as a specimen. His friendship with Marot and Rabelais had in each case an unhappy end. In the latter this was due to a pirated edition of Pantagruel and Gargantua, which reproduced expressions that Rabelais, in the rising storm of persecution, had been anxious to modify. As a Latin scholar Dolet was accurate and sound. His translations suffer somewhat from the want of a sufficiently definite and flexible French style, but the striving after such a style is apparent in them.

Dolet and the other persons just mentioned had translated for the most part prose into prose. Sanxon, Hugues Salel, Lazare de Baïf, Sibilet, and others, translated verse into verse; but the theory of French versification had not as yet been sufficiently studied to make the attempt really profitable. After the innovations of the Pléiade many of Ronsard's followers bent themselves to the same task with a better equipment and with more success. Almost all the poets mentioned elsewhere executed translations of more or less merit.


From a literary point of view, however, the exercises of the century, in what may be called applied scholarship, were, leaving out of sight for the moment Amyot's work, and also that, presently to be mentioned, of Herberay, of greater merit than its pure translations. All the mediaeval legends, assigning classical or semi-classical origins to the populations of France, were resumed and amplified by Jean Lemaire de Belges, in the first years of the century, in his Illustrations des Gaules. Lemaire belongs, as has been said elsewhere, for the most part to the earlier school of the Rhétoriqueurs, but his literary power was considerable. The style of research, mingling as it did antiquarian and historical elements with a strong infusion of what was purely literary, was illustrated during the period by three persons who deserve special mention. Claude Fauchet is a name of great importance in French literary history. So long as mediaeval literature actually flourished we should expect to find, and we do find, no attention paid to its history and development. Fauchet was the first person, so far as is known, who devoted himself to something like[Pg 236] a critical examination of its results; and as many of the materials which he had at his disposal have perished, his work, with all its drawbacks, is still very valuable. His Antiquités Gauloises et Françoises are purely historical, but display a sound spirit of criticism. His Recueil de l'Origine de la Langue et Poésie Françoise, Ryme et Romans, plus les Noms et Sommaires des Œuvres de CXXVII Poètes François vivans avant l'an MCCC, is a work for its period (1581) almost unique. Philologically, of course, Fauchet is far from infallible, as, for instance, in his theory, obviously indefensible, that French is a cross between the tongues of the Gauls and the Romans. But his 'Noms et Sommaires' are actually taken from the study of manuscripts; and, as the works of the Trouvères had, with few exceptions, long dropped out of sight, except in late fifteenth-century prose versions, the attempt to make them known was as salutary as it was bold.


Fauchet unfortunately was not a good writer. This cannot be said of his principal rival, or rather successor, Étienne Pasquier. Pasquier was born at Paris in 1529, and early devoted himself to legal studies, which he pursued all through his life. His most famous performance as an advocate was his speech for the University of Paris against the Jesuits in 1565. He afterwards took a vigorous part in the Royalist polemic against the League. He did not die till 1615. His works, as yet unpublished in a complete form, are in modern times accessible chiefly in the selection of M. Léon Feugère[212]. They are voluminous, but by far the most important (with the exception perhaps of the valuable Letters) is the Recherches de la France. This is a somewhat desultory but very interesting collection of remarks on politics, history, social changes, and last, not least, literature. To us the most attractive part of Pasquier's literary history is the account he gives of the great poetical and literary movement of his own day, the revolution of the Pléiade, or, as he describes it picturesquely, 'De la Grande Flotte de Poètes que produisit le Règne du Roi Henry Deuxième.' But his notes on the previous history of literature in France, though necessarily based on somewhat imperfect[Pg 237] knowledge, are full of interest, and not destitute of instruction, such, for instance, as his chapters on the farce of Pathelin, on Provençal poetry, on the formal measures of the fourteenth century, etc. Pasquier's style is very delightful. Despite his erudition, and even what may be called his Ronsardising, he does not aim at the new severity and classicism. But his manner is exceedingly picturesque, perfectly clear, and distinguished by a sort of gossiping ingenuousness without any lack of dignity, the secret of which the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in France and England seem to have possessed and carried off with them.

Henri Estienne.

The third of three not dissimilar names is that of Henri Estienne. His remarkable Apologie pour Hérodote, like not a few other works of the same kind, would be less remarkable if it were stripped of borrowed plumes; but his three treatises on French linguistics, the Traité de la Conformité du Français avec le Grec, the Précellence de la Langue Française, and the Nouveaux Dialogues de Langage Français Italianisé, would give him a considerable place in the history of French literature if he had written no Apologie and published no Thesaurus. All three works are more or less directed against the Italianising mania of the day.


Here, perhaps, better than elsewhere, may be mentioned the name of one of the best, if not the best, purely narrative writer of French prose during the century, Herberay des Essarts. It is to Herberay that the famous romance of Amadis of Gaul owes most of its fame. According to the most probable story, the Amadis was originally translated by the Spaniard Montalvo from a lost Portuguese original of the fourteenth century. There is absolutely no trace of a French original, the existence of which has been assumed by French critics. In form the Amadis is a long prose Roman d'Aventures, distinguished only from its French companions and predecessors by a somewhat higher strain of romantic sentiment, and by a greater abundance of giants, dwarfs, witches, and other condiments, which, even in its most luxuriant day, the simpler and more academic French taste had known how to do without, or at most, to apply moderately. It had been continued in the Spanish by more than one author, and was a very voluminous work when, in 1540, Herberay undertook[Pg 238] to give a French version of it. He, in his turn, had continuators, but none who equalled his popularity or power. Readers of the Spanish complain that Herberay has not been a faithful translator, and, in particular, that he has been guilty of no few anachronisms. He probably troubled himself very little about exact fidelity or strict local and temporal colour. But he ranks, in order of time, second only to Calvin in the production of a clear, elegant, and scholarly French prose style. The book became immensely popular. It is said that it was the usual reading book for foreign students of French for a considerable period, and it was highly thought of by the best critics (such as Pasquier) of its own and the next generation. It had moreover a great influence on what came after it. To no single book can be so clearly traced the heroic romances of the early seventeenth century.


It may seem somewhat premature to speak of scientific writers in the sixteenth century. Yet there are three who usually and deservedly hold a place in French literary history, and who cannot be conveniently classed under any other head. There are few better known names of the time than Bernard Palissy. His famous enamels are no doubt partly the cause of this, but other artists as great or greater are not nearly so living to us as this maker of pottery. He was born in or about 1510, at a village, Chapelle Broin, near Agen, and he died in the Bastile, in 1589, a prisoner for his Protestantism. Catherine de Medicis had saved him from the massacre of St. Bartholomew. His long life was occupied mainly in art and scientific researches, partly also in lecturing on natural history and physics, and in writing accounts of his investigations, which are not very voluminous, but which possess an extraordinary vividness of style and description. His treatise on pottery, the Art de la Terre, contains the passage which has become classical, describing his desperate efforts to discover the secret of the Italian enamellers. He also wrote a Recepte véritable par laquelle tous les hommes de la France pourront apprendre à multiplier et à augmenter leurs Trésors, and, some ten years before his death, a Discours admirable de la Nature des Eaux et Fontaines. His literary work is an almost unique mixture of research with genuine literary fancy.[Pg 239]


Ambroise Paré, also a famous name, was born about the same time as Palissy, and died the year after him. A freethinker in his way, he escaped all temptation to embrace the dangerous heresy which was so fatal, or, at least, so inconvenient, to many other men of science and letters, and for the last forty years of his life he was court-surgeon. His literary work is not inconsiderable in amount, consisting, as might be expected, chiefly of professional treatises. The most interesting of his books, however, from a general point of view, and, as it happens, also by far the best written, is his Apologie et Voyages, a kind of autobiography which contains a large collection of anecdotes and details, not unimportant for the history of the time, as well as of much personal interest. The style of this book is often vivid and picturesque, as well as clear and precise.

Olivier de Serres.

It was fitting that agriculture, which is the staple industry of France, should contribute to her literature at this period—the most genuine and exuberant period of its history, if not that which produced the most minutely finished work. The Théâtre de l'Agriculture et du Ménage des Champs of Olivier de Serres was published in the last year of the century. The author was a native of the town of Villeneuve du Berg, in the present department of Ardèche. He was a Protestant and a great favourite of Henri IV., to whom he was useful in developing Sully's plans of internal economy. The Théâtre de l'Agriculture was long the classic book on the subject, and the author has been honoured, in quite recent times, by statues and other demonstrations. Like most books of the kind, it is much overlaid with erudition, but this only adds to its picturesqueness; and, as the author's precepts were founded on a life's experience of his subject, it certainly cannot be reproached with a want of practical knowledge and aim.

Not a few other authors would require notice, if space permitted, in this class of scientific and erudite authors, particularly in the class of linguistics and literature. Such is Geoffroy Tory, a printer, grammarian, and prose-writer of merit in the early part of the century, who anticipated Rabelais in his protest against the indiscriminate Latinisation of the later Rhétoriqueurs. Not a few[Pg 240] other writers, such as Pelletier and Fontaine, busied themselves during the period with grammar and prosody; while towards the close of it, the first French bibliographers of eminence, La Croix du Maine, and Du Verdier, made their appearance. But the works of all these, as rather ancillary to literature than actually literary, must here be passed over.


[209] Cauvin or Chauvin is the more correct form, but the Latinised Calvinus made Calvin more usual. Calvin's works are voluminous. The Institution was published in convenient shape at Paris in 1859.

[210] Most of Amyot is accessible only in the old editions. A beautiful edition of the Daphnis and Chloe has been published by L. Glady. London, 1878.

[211] Dolet's works are not easily to be found except in public libraries. The standard book on him is that of Mr. R. C. Christie (London, 1880), one of the best monographs on French literary history to be found in any language.

[212] 2 vols. Paris, 1849.

[Pg 241]



Disenchantment of the late Renaissance.

A period of enthusiasm passes naturally and almost necessarily into one of scepticism, and it is in no way surprising that the prominent literary figure of the second half of the sixteenth century in France should have taken for his motto rather 'Que sais-je?' than, like Rabelais, 'Sursum Corda.' The early hopes of the Renaissance had been curiously disappointed. The Reformation had resulted not merely in cruel and destructive civil war, but in the formation, in too many cases, of a Protestantism not less imperious and far more illiberal than the Catholicism against which it protested. The economic and social effects of the discovery of the New World had been equally discouraging, and even the recovery of classical learning had produced a race of pedants almost as trifling as the last doting defenders of scholasticism. The evils of the civil state of France, moreover, drove nearly all the best men into the sect of Politiques, or Trimmers, who avowedly regarded high questions of truth and faith as subordinate to a politic opportunism. The age had not lost its power of enjoyment of affairs and of pleasure, but its appetite for higher things was somewhat blunted. In this state of matters a few persons, of whom Montaigne was incomparably the most important, philosophised sceptically about life, and a great many, of whom Brantôme is the most typical, took pleasure in describing the ways and acts of an aristocracy which combined extraordinary luxury and corruption with great love of wit, singular intellectual ability, and a keen interest in war and business.


Michel Eyquem, Sieur de Montaigne[213], was born, 'between[Pg 242] eleven and twelve o'clock of the day' (the detail is characteristic), on the 28th of February, 1533, at the château from which he derived his name, and which he has made illustrious. Montaigne is situated in the old province of Perigord, or, according to modern nomenclature, in the department of Dordogne and the arrondissement of Bergerac. It is at no great distance from Bordeaux. The family was long believed from a phrase of Montaigne's own to have been of English extraction, introduced during the long tenure of Aquitaine by our sovereigns. But recent and industrious researches have shown that it may with greater probability have been of local origin and yeoman status. Pierre Eyquem, the father, had filled many important municipal offices at Bordeaux. Michel was his third son among nine children, but by the death of his elder brothers he inherited the family estate. He was educated early, and after the manner of a time when education was a subject on which almost all men of independent thought rode hobbies. Latin he learnt by conversation at a very early age, Greek as a kind of amusement. At the mature age of six he was placed at the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux, not the least famous of the famous schools of the time, for there it was that Buchanan, Muretus, and Guérente, by the Latin plays which they wrote for their scholars to act, introduced the Senecan drama into France and showed the way to the French tragedy of the Pléiade. Seven years of study completed Montaigne's school education at the age of thirteen, when nowadays boys quit their preparatory cradles. He was set to work at law, but little positive is known of him for many years. In 1554, being then twenty-one, he was made counsellor in the Bordeaux Parlement, and in 1566 he married Françoise de la Chassaigne, daughter of one of his colleagues. Except casual references in the Essays, which are seldom precise, all we know of him during these years is his friendship with Étienne de la Boëtie. He almost certainly served one or more campaigns; but the most positive thing that can be said of his middle life is that, according to an existing inscription of his own, he finally retired, in 1571, on his thirty-eighth birthday, to the château which had become his by his father's death[Pg 243] two years previously. He had already translated the Theologia Naturalis of Raymond de Sebonde. In the year of his retirement he edited the works of La Boëtie. But he now began a much more important task. The first two books of the Essais appeared in 1580; and immediately afterwards Montaigne, who suffered from severe internal disorders, undertook a long journey into Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, which occupied nearly a year and a-half. While sojourning at the baths of Lucca, he received the news of his appointment as mayor of Bordeaux, and hastened home. In 1588 he published the third Book of the Essays, and had troubles with the Leaguers in Paris. Four years afterwards, on the 13th September, 1592, he died of quinsy. Although Montaigne's municipal and legal appointments at Bordeaux are all that we know him to have enjoyed, he is styled 'gentleman in ordinary to the king,' and letters extant from and to Charles IX., Henri III., and Henri IV., show him to have enjoyed a considerable social as well as literary position. He was a knight of the Order of St. Michael. By his wife he had several children, but all died young, except one daughter, who survived him and left offspring. His adopted daughter, however, Mademoiselle de Gournay, a celebrated character of the next age, and the first editor of his complete works after his death, is better known.

A complete abstract of Montaigne's work cannot be here attempted, and indeed no such thing is possible, because the work itself is absolutely destitute of general plan and exhibits no unity but a unity of spirit and treatment. Whether Montaigne himself invented the famous title Essays or not, is a matter of the very smallest importance. It is certain that he was the first to give the word its modern meaning, though he dealt with his subjects in a spirit of audacious desultoriness, which many of his successors have endeavoured to imitate, but which few have imitated successfully. His nominal subject is, as a rule, merely a starting-point, or at the most a text. He allows himself to be diverted from it by any game which crosses his path, and diverges as readily from his new direction. Abundant citation from the classics is one of his chief characteristics; but the two main points which differentiate him are, first, the audacious egotism and frankness with which he discourses[Pg 244] of his private affairs and exhibits himself in undress; secondly, the flavour of subtle scepticism which he diffuses over his whole work. Both these are susceptible of a good deal of misconstruction, and both no doubt have been a good deal misconstrued. His egotism, like most egotism, is a compound of frankness and affectation, and its sincerity is not, as an attraction, equal to the easy garrulity for which it affords an occasion of display. His scepticism, however, is altogether sui generis. It is not exuberant, like that of Rabelais, nor sneering, like that of Voltaire, nor despairing, like that of Pascal, nor merely inquisitive and scholarly, like that of Bayle. There is no reason for disbelieving Montaigne's sincere and conscious orthodoxy in the ecclesiastical sense. But his own temperament, assisted no doubt by the political and ecclesiastical circumstances already described, by indifferent bodily health, and by the period, if not exactly of excess, at any rate of free living, in his younger days, to which he so constantly alludes, had produced in him a general feeling that the pros and cons of different opinions and actions balance each other more evenly than is generally thought. He looks on life with a kind of ironical enjoyment, and the three books of his Essays might be described as a vast gallery of pictures illustrating the results of his contemplations.

There are some considerable differences between the earlier and later Essays, one of the most obvious of which concerns the point of length. Thus the first book consists of fifty-seven essays, occupying rather more than 500 pages[214], or an average of less than ten pages each. The second (exclusive of the long 'Apologie de Raymond Sebonde,' which occupies 300 pages by itself) contains thirty-six essays, of nearly 500 pages in all, or about twelve pages each. These books were published together, and may be presumed to have been written more or less at the same time. But the third and last book, though it contains full 550 pages, has only thirteen essays, which thus average more than forty pages each, though their length is very unequal. Montaigne had, no doubt, found that his pillar-to-post method of discourse was sufficiently attractive to make fresh starting-points and definite titles unnecessary; thus[Pg 245] in the third book, his subjects (at least his professed subjects) are sometimes much wider, and sometimes much more whimsical, than in the two first. Oedipus himself could hardly divine the actual subject of the essay 'Sur des Vers de Virgile,' or guess that a paper 'Sur les Coches' would in reality busy itself with the question what virtues are most proper to a sovereign. On the other hand, such large titles as 'De la Vanité de l'Expérience,' etc. give room for almost any and every excursion. All these are in the last book; the shorter essays of the two first for the most part deal more definitely with their nominal subjects, which are most frequently moral brocards: such as 'Le Profit de l'Un est Dommage de l'Autre,' 'Par Divers Moyens on arrive à Pareille Fin,' etc.

In a literary history, however, of the scale and plan of this present, the question of Montaigne's subjects and sentiments, interesting as it is, must not be allowed to obscure the question of the expression which he gave to these sentiments. His book is of the greatest importance in the history of French style, of an importance indeed which has been by no means invariably recognised by French literary historians themselves. It must be remembered that he at once attained, and never lost, an immense popularity. Thus the comparative oblivion which, owing to the reforms of the early seventeenth century and the brilliant period of production which followed them, overtook most of the men of the Renaissance, did not touch Montaigne. He, with Rabelais, remained a well of undefiled French, which all the artificial filtering of Malherbe and Boileau could not deprive of its refreshing and fertilising power. Writing, too, at a period subsequent, instead of anterior to the innovations of the Pléiade, Montaigne was able to incorporate, and thus to save, not a few of the neologisms which, valuable as they were, the purists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries neglected. Many words which his immediate contemporaries, and still more his successors, condemned, have made good their footing in the language, owing beyond all doubt to his influence. His style, too, was valuable for something else besides its vocabulary. It entered so seldom into the plan of Rabelais to write in any other than a burlesque tone, that he was rarely able to display his own incomparable faculty of writing ordinary French, pure, vigorous,[Pg 246] graceful, and flexible at once. The tale-tellers and memoir-writers of the time matured an excellent narrative style, but one less suited for other forms of writing. The theologians often obeyed the Latinising influence too implicitly. But Montaigne, with his wide variety of subject, required and wrought out for himself a corresponding variety of style. His very discursiveness and the constant flow of new thoughts that welled up in him helped him to avoid the great curse of all the vulgar tongues in the Renaissance—the long jointed sentence; the easy colloquial manner at which he aimed reflected itself in a style less familiar indeed than avowed burlesque, but at the same time more familiar than any writer had before used in treating of similar subjects. Yet no one was more capable than Montaigne, on the rare occasions when he judged it proper, of showing his mastery of sustained and lofty eloquence. The often-quoted passage in which he rebukes the vanity of man (who, without letters patent or privilege, assumes to himself the honour of being the only created being cognisant of the secret of the universe) yields to nothing that had been written or was to be written for many years, fertile as the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were in both its characteristics, solemnity and dignity of expression. That a book which was thus rich in vocabulary, richer still in idiosyncrasy of expression, gracefully familiar in general style, and admirably eloquent in occasional passages, should at once become popular, and should remain so, could not be without a happy effect on the general standard of literary taste and the general acquaintance with the capabilities of the French language. That Montaigne himself was a sound critical judge and not merely a lucky practitioner of style, may be judged from his singling out Amyot as the great master of it among his own immediate predecessors. In so far, indeed, as prose style goes, master and scholar must undoubtedly take rank at the head of all the writers of the century when bulk and variety of examples are taken into account.


Although, as has been already noted, Montaigne has many sides, his most striking peculiarity may be said to be the mixture of philosophical speculation, especially on ethical and political topics, with attention to the historical side of human life both in the past and in the present. He was, however, by no means the only[Pg 247] teacher of ethics and political philosophy in his century. His own mantle was taken up, or attempted to be taken up, by Pierre Charron[215]. Born at Paris in 1541, he was thoroughly educated; studied law, in which he proceeded to a doctor's degree, and was called to the Paris bar, but then suddenly entered the Church, and became renowned as a preacher. He even thought of embracing the monastic life—a waste of ability which the ecclesiastical authorities, conscious of their need of eloquent advocates, did not permit. Charron belonged rather to the moderate or politique party than to the fanatics of Catholicism, and he directly attacked the League in his Discours Chrétiens, published in 1589. Five years later appeared a regular theological treatise entitled Les Trois Vérités, affirming, first, the unity of God, and consequently of orthodox religion; secondly, the sole authority of Christianity among religions; thirdly, the sole authority of Catholicism among Christian churches and sects. He held various preferments, and was a member of the special synod held to admit Henri IV. to the Roman communion. The only work by which he is generally remembered, the treatise De la Sagesse, was published in 1601. Charron died two years later, after preparing a second and somewhat altered edition of the book. Charron was a personal friend of Montaigne, was undoubtedly his disciple, and borrowed largely, and in many cases verbally, from the Essais. His book, however, is far inferior both in style and matter to his master's, and Pope's praise of 'more wise Charron' can be due only to the fact that it is much more definitely sceptical. In curious contrast to its author's dogmatically theological treatise, De la Sagesse goes to prove that all religions are more or less of human origin, and that they are all indebted one to the other. The casuistry of the Renaissance on these points was, however, peculiar; and it has been supposed, with great show of reason, that Charron regarded orthodoxy as a valuable and necessary condition for the common run of men, while the elect would prefer a refined Agnosticism.

Du Vair.

These sceptical opinions were by no means the invention of Montaigne; they were part of the new learning grafted by the study[Pg 248] of the classics on the thought of the middle ages, and had been long anticipated, not merely in Italy but in France itself. The poet and tale-teller, Bonaventure des Périers, had, as has been said, almost directly satirised Christianity in the Cymbalum Mundi, which created so great a scandal. On the other hand, Guillaume du Vair, a lawyer and speaker of eminence, sought, by combining Stoicism and Christianity, to oppose this sceptical tendency. Du Vair was a writer of great merit, who exactly reversed the course of Charron, beginning with theology and ending with law, though he died in double harness, as keeper of the Seals and bishop of Lisieux. His moral works[216] were numerous: Sainte Philosophie, De la Philosophie des Stoiques, De la Constance et Consolation des Calamités Publiques. He translated, not merely Epictetus, which may be regarded as part of his ethical work, but numerous speeches of the Greek and Latin orators. He was himself a great speaker, and his best work is his Discours sur la Loi Salique, which contributed powerfully to the overthrow of the project for recognising the Infanta as Queen of France. He also wrote a regular treatise on French oratory. The style of Du Vair is modelled with some closeness on his classical patterns, but without any trace of pedantry.

Bodin and other Political Writers.

A greater name than Du Vair's in purely philosophical politics is that of Jean Bodin[217], the author of the only work of great excellence on the science of politics before the eighteenth century. Bodin was born at Angers in 1530, became a lawyer, was king's procureur at Laon, and died there in 1596. His great work, entitled after Plato La République, appeared in 1578. It was first published in French, but afterwards enlarged and reissued by the author in Latin. Bodin follows both Plato and Aristotle to some extent, but especially Aristotle, in his approach and treatment of his subject. But, unlike his masters, Bodin declares for absolute monarchy, of course wisely and temperately administered. The general literary sentiment was perhaps the other way. The affection of Montaigne, and a certain fertility of rhetorical commonplace which has always[Pg 249] seduced Frenchmen in political matters, have given undue reputation to the Contre-un or Discours de la Servitude volontaire of Étienne de la Boëtie[218]. In reality it is but a schoolboy theme, recalling the silly chatter about Harmodius and Brutus which was popular at the time of the Revolution. Many other political works were published in the course of the religious wars, but having been for the most part written in Latin, or translated by others than their authors, they do not concern us. The excellent Michel de l'Hospital, however, published many speeches, letters, and pamphlets on the side of conciliation, for the most part better intended than written; and the famous Protestants La Noue and Duplessis-Mornay were frequent writers on political subjects.


The complement and counterpart of this moralising on human business and pleasure is necessarily to be found in chronicles of that business and that pleasure as actually pursued. In these the sixteenth century is extraordinarily rich. Correspondence had hardly yet attained the importance in French literature which it afterwards acquired, but professed history and, still more, personal memoirs were largely written. The name of Brantôme[219] has been chosen as the central and representative name of this section of writers, because he is on the whole the most original and certainly the most famous of them. His work, moreover, has more than one point of resemblance to that of the great contemporary author with whom he is linked at the head of this chapter. Brantôme neither wrote actual history nor directly personal memoirs. His work rather consists of desultory biographical essays, forming a curious pendant to the desultory moral essays of Montaigne. But around him rank many writers, some historians pure and simple, some memoir-writers pure and simple, of whom not a few approach him in literary genius, and surpass him in correctness and finish of style, while almost all exceed him in whatever advantage may be derived[Pg 250] from uniformity of plan, and from regard to the decencies of literature.

Pierre de Bourdeilles (who derived the name by which he is, and indeed was during his lifetime, generally known from an abbacy given to him by Henri II. when he was still a boy) was born about 1540, in the province of Perigord, but the exact date and place of his birth have not been ascertained. He was the third son of François, Comte de Bourdeilles, and his mother, Anne de Vivonne de la Chataigneraie, was the sister of the famous duellist whose encounter with Jarnac his nephew has described in a well-known passage. In the court of Marguerite d'Angoulême, the literary nursery of so great a part of the talent of France at this time, he passed his early youth, went to school at Paris and at Poitiers, and was made Abbé de Brantôme at the age of sixteen. He was thus sufficiently provided for, and he never took any orders, but was a courtier and a soldier throughout the whole of his active life. Indeed almost the first use he made of his benefice was to equip himself and a respectable suite for a journey into Italy, where he served under the Maréchal de Brissac. He accompanied Mary Stuart to Scotland, served in the Spanish army in Africa, volunteered for the relief of Malta from the Turks, and again for the expedition destined to assist Hungary against Soliman, and in other ways led the life of a knight-errant. The religious wars in his own country gave him plenty of employment; but in the reigns of Charles IX. and Henri III. he was more particularly attached to the suite of the queen dowager and her daughter Marguerite. He was, however, somewhat disappointed in his hopes of recompense; and after hesitating for a time between the Royalists, the Leaguers, and the Spaniards, he left the court, retired into private life, and began to write his memoirs, partly in consequence of a severe accident. He seems to have begun to write about 1594, and he lived for twenty years longer, dying on the 15th of July, 1614.

The form of Brantôme's works is, as has been said, peculiar. They are usually divided into two parts, dealing respectively with men and women. The first part in its turn consists of many sub-divisions, the chief of which is made up of the Vies des Grands Capitaines Étrangers et Français, while others consist of separate[Pg 251] disquisitions or essays, Des Rodomontades Espagnoles, 'On some Duels and Challenges in France' and elsewhere, 'On certain Retreats, and how they are sometimes better than Battles,' etc. Of the part which is devoted to women the chief portion is the celebrated Dames Galantes, which is preceded by a series of Vies des Dames Illustres, matching the Grands Capitaines. The Dames Galantes is subdivided into eight discourses, with titles which smack of Montaigne, as thus, 'Qu'il n'est bien séant de parler mal des honnestes dames bien qu'elles fassent l'amour,' 'Sçavoir qui est plus belle chose en amour,' etc. These discourses are, however, in reality little but a congeries of anecdotes, often scandalous enough. Besides these, his principal works, Brantôme left divers Opuscula, some of which are definitely literary, dealing chiefly with Lucan. None of his works were published in his lifetime, nor did any appear in print until 1659. Meanwhile manuscript copies had, as usual, been multiplied, with the result, also usual, that the text was much falsified and mutilated.

The great merit of Brantôme lies in the extraordinary vividness of his powers of literary presentment. His style is careless, though it is probable that the carelessness is not unstudied. But his irregular, brightly coloured, and easily flowing manner represents, as hardly any age has ever been represented, the characteristics of the great society of his time. It is needless to say that the morals of that time were utterly corrupt, but Brantôme accepts them with a placid complacency which is almost innocent. No writer, perhaps, has ever put things more disgraceful on paper; but no writer has ever written of such things in such a perfectly natural manner. Brantôme was in his way a hero-worshipper, though his heroes and heroines were sometimes oddly coupled. Bayard and Marguerite de Valois represent his ideals, and a good knight or a beautiful lady de par le monde can do no wrong. This unquestioning acceptance of, and belief in, the moral standards of his own society, give a genuineness and a freshness to his work which are very rare in literature. Few writers, again, have had the knack of hitting off character, superficially it is true, yet with sufficient distinction, which Brantôme has. There is something individual about all the innumerable characters who move across his stage,[Pg 252] and something thoroughly human about all, even the anonymous men and women, who appear for a moment as the actors in some too frequently discreditable scene. With all this there is a considerable vein of moralising in Brantôme which serves to throw up the relief of his actual narratives. He has sometimes been compared to Pepys, but, except in point of garrulity and of readiness to set down on paper anything that came into their heads, there is little likeness between the two. Brantôme was emphatically an écrivain (unscholarly and Italianised as his phrase sometimes appears, if judged by the standards of a severer age), and some of the best passages from his works are among the most striking examples of French prose.


Next to Brantôme, and in some respects above him, though of a somewhat less remarkable idiosyncrasy, come Montluc, La Noue, and D'Aubigné, with Marguerite de Valois not far behind. Blaise de Lasseran-Massencôme, Seigneur de Montluc[220], was a typical cadet de Gascogne, though he was not, strictly speaking, a cadet, being the eldest son of a fortuneless house. He became page to Antoine of Lorraine, and made his first campaign under the orders of Bayard, fighting through the whole of the Italian war, and being knighted on the field at Cérisoles. In the next reign he was promoted to high command, and held Sienna against the Imperialists with distinguished gallantry and skill. When the civil war broke out he was made Governor of Guyenne, where he maintained order with the strong hand, 'heading and hanging' Catholics and Protestants alike, if they showed signs of disloyalty. Ruthless as he was, he was one of the few great officers who refused to participate in the massacre of St. Bartholomew. He was made a marshal in 1574, and died three years later. Montluc's Memoirs are purely military, and the most famous description of them is that of Henri IV., who called them the soldier's Bible. His style is concise, free from the slightest attempt at elaborate ornament, but admirably picturesque and clear. His account of his exploit at Sienna is one of the capital chapters of French military history. But almost any[Pg 253] page of Montluc possesses eminently the characteristics which great generals from Cæsar downwards have almost uniformly displayed, when they possess any literary talent at all. The words and sentences are marshalled and managed like an army; everything goes straight to the point; there is no confusion, and the whole complicated scene is as clear as a geometrical diagram.

La Noue.

The Memoirs of La Noue are usually spoken of separately, though in reality they form a part of his Discours Politiques et Militaires. François de la Noue, called Bras-de-Fer (a surname which he deserved not metaphorically, but literally, having had to replace one of his arms shot off during a siege), was a Breton, and of a good family. He was born in 1531, fought through the religious wars, escaped St. Bartholomew by being Alva's prisoner in Flanders, took an active part against the League, and died at the siege of Lamballe, Aug. 4, 1591. His defence of La Rochelle was one of the chief of his many feats of arms. The 'Discourses' were published during his life. They are of a more reflective character than those of Montluc, and display much greater mental cultivation. The style is not quite so vivid, the sentences are longer and more charged with thought. La Noue, in short, is a philosophical soldier and a politician. His style is perhaps less archaic than that of any of his contemporaries, and is distinguished by a remarkable strength, sobriety, and precision. He was very highly thought of by both political parties, and was not unfrequently employed in schemes of mediation. It is a pleasant story, and not irrelevant in a history of literature, that a scheme for his assassination during one of his visits to Paris was discovered by Brantôme, who warned his future craftsfellow of it.

Agrippa d'Aubigné.

Agrippa d'Aubigné belongs to this section of the subject by his Vie à ses Enfants, often called his memoirs, by his Histoire Universelle, and by a great number of letters. The same qualities which distinguish D'Aubigné in verse are recognisable in his prose, his passionate and insubordinate temper, the keenness of his satire, the somewhat turbid grandeur of his style and images, the vigour and picturesqueness of occasional traits. The Histoire Universelle and the Vie à ses Enfants were[Pg 254] both works written in old age, but there is hardly any sign of failing power in them. The Vie in particular contains many passages, such as the vision of his mother and the passionate charge which his father laid upon him at the sight of the victims of the Amboise conspiracy, which rank very high among the prose of the century. The Histoire Universelle, like the book which Raleigh wrote almost at the same time, and under not dissimilar circumstances, is necessarily in great part a compilation, but has many passages worthy of its author at his best.

Marguerite de Valois.

The Memoirs of Marguerite de Valois contain what is perhaps the best-known and oftenest quoted passage of any memoirs of the time, that in which the Princess describes the night of St. Bartholomew. There are not many such stirring passages in them, but throughout Marguerite gives evidence of the remarkable talent which distinguished the Valois. Her evident object is to justify herself, and this makes the book somewhat artificial. It is dedicated to Brantôme, but shows in its manner rather the influence of Ronsard and the Pléiade by the classical correctness of the style, the absence of archaisms, and the precision and form of the sentences. According to the principles of the school, the vocabulary is simple and vernacular enough, for the Pléiade regarded ornate classicisms of language as proper to poetry.

In a rank not much below those mentioned must be placed the so-called Mémoires de Vieilleville, the Chronologies of Palma-Cayet, the Registres-Journaux of Pierre de l'Estoile, the Letters of Duplessis-Mornay, Cardinal d'Ossat, and Henri IV. himself, and the Négotiations of the President Jeannin.


The Maréchal de Vieilleville was one of the foremost French generals of the sixteenth century, and, considering the violent and unscrupulous ways of the time, he had a good reputation for moderation, probity, and patriotism, as well as for courage and ability. His Memoirs are not his own work, but that of his secretary and lifelong companion, Vincent Carloix. They have some of the defects of a deliberate panegyric; but Carloix is a vigorous and able writer, who, without completely emancipating himself from the tyranny of the long involved[Pg 255] sentence, contrives to write clearly, and often with much picturesque effect.


Pierre Victor Palma-Cayet was of mean extraction, but received a good education, and was introduced by La Noue to Jeanne d'Albret as a suitable assistant-tutor for her son. After the accession of his pupil, he was appointed to various offices, one of which, that of Chronologer Royal, no doubt occasioned the odd titles of his two principal works, Chronologie Novénaire and Chronologie Septénaire, which give the history of Henri's reign, dividing it into two portions, the one of nine years, the other of seven. Cayet also wrote several minor works, and divides with D'Aubigné the doubtful honour of being the author of the Divorce Satirique, a scurrilous pamphlet against Marguerite. The Chronologies are extremely full of matter, and admirably precise in their information, but their literary value is not great.

Pierre de l'Estoile.

From this point of view Pierre de l'Estoile[221] is of a higher class. He was a lawyer of rank and an indefatigable writer. Day by day he put down in his Tablettes all sorts of public and private affairs, as well as literary extracts, obituary notices, and, in short, almost the entire material of a modern newspaper. Pierre de l'Estoile, much more than Brantôme, is the French Pepys. Although occasionally prejudiced, the writer seems to have been acute and well-informed, and his manner of dealing with his heterogeneous materials is light and lively.


Of the three correspondence-writers just mentioned, though Henri himself is a vigorous and fertile writer, the most important by far is Cardinal D'Ossat. He was born in the south of France in 1536, and had not, unlike many of the diplomatist ecclesiastics of the period, the advantage of high birth. Like many of his contemporaries, he began as a lawyer and only subsequently took orders. He began diplomatic life as Secretary to the Archbishop of Toulouse, who was ambassador at Rome, and later on conducted the negotiations which led to the conversion of Henri IV. He then became Bishop of Rennes and cardinal. His letters are almost entirely devoted to subjects[Pg 256] connected with his profession, and have always held a position as one of the earliest models of diplomatic writing. D'Ossat's style, especially in respect of its vocabulary, was long regarded as a pattern, but it has less character than that of some other sixteenth-century writers.


The last two books to be named belong, in point of date, to the next century, but were written by, or for, men who were emphatically of the sixteenth. The extraordinary form of Sully's Memoirs is well known. They are neither written as if by himself, nor of him as by a historian of the usual kind. They are directly addressed to the hero in the form of an elaborate reminder of his own actions. 'You then said this;' 'his Majesty thereupon sent you there;' 'when you were two leagues from your halting-place, you saw a courier coming,' etc. It is needless to say that this manner of telling history is in the highest degree unnatural and heavy, and, after the first quaintness of it wears off, it makes the book very hard to read. It contains, however, a very large number of short memoirs and documents of all kinds, in which the elaborate farce of 'Vous' is perforce abandoned. It shows Sully as he was—a great and skilful statesman: but it does not give a pleasant idea of his character.


Pierre Jeannin was, like D'Ossat, a diplomatist in the service of Henri IV. He had previously discharged many legal functions of importance, and subsequently he was Controller-General of the Finances. His Négotiations contain the record of his proceedings on a mission to the Netherlands to watch over the interests of France. The book consists of letters, despatches, treaties, and such-like documents, very clear, precise, and written in a remarkably simple and natural style.

Minor Memoir-writers.

There were many other writers of memoirs during the period, most of whose works are comprised in the invaluable collections of Petitot, Michaud, Poujoulat, and Buchon. But few of them require a separate mention here. Guillaume and Martin du Bellay, two brothers, have left a history of Francis I.'s reign, of which the part belonging to Guillaume is only a small fragment of an immense work which he entitled Les Ogdoades, it being divided into seven batches of eight books each.[Pg 257] The imitation of the classics is obvious, and the constant intrusion of classical parallels rather tedious. The Memoirs of the Duke of Guise, composed in great part of what we should call his secretary's letter-book, are very voluminous, but not of much literary value. François de Rabutin, author of Commentaires des Guerres de la Gaule Belgique, has the fault, common to his time, of enormous sentences, but is often lively and picturesque enough, as becomes a member of the family of Madame de Sévigné and of Bussy-Rabutin. The famous Marshal de Tavannes, on whom more than on any single man rests the blood of St. Bartholomew's Day, found a biographer in his son Jean de Tavannes, whose work, though somewhat too elaborate, is interesting. Another son, Guillaume de Saulx-Tavannes, has written his own memoirs on a smaller scale. The memoirs of Michel de Castelnau show more of the tradition of Comines than most of their contemporaries, and are remarkably full of political studies. Boyvin du Villars, of whom little is known, left voluminous memoirs which have some literary merit. The last book of memoirs of some size which needs to be mentioned, is that of Nicholas de Neufville, Seigneur de Villeroy, a politician of eminence and a vigorous writer. Some short pieces may be noticed, such as the Siege of Metz, by Bertrand de Salignac, that of St. Quentin, by Coligny himself, the only literary monument of the Admiral (an excellent specimen of the military writing of the time), and a very curious history of Annonay in the Vivarais by Achille Gamon, which gives perhaps the liveliest idea obtainable of the sufferings of the French provincial towns during the religious wars.

General Historians.

The general histories, which make up a second class of historical writings, are, as a rule, of very much less value than these personal memoirs. Not till the extreme end of the period did the historical conception take a firm hold in De Thou, and the Thuana was written in Latin, which excludes it and its author from detailed notice here. D'Aubigné's Histoire Universelle of his own time has been mentioned for convenience' sake already. Lancelot de la Popelinière attempted in the last quarter of the century a general history of France, and incidentally of Europe during his own day. He is said to have spent all his[Pg 258] fortune on getting together the materials, but his literary powers were small. About the same time Bernard Girard, Seigneur du Haillan, published a history of France from the earliest times, which an extract of Thierry's, giving the speeches of Charamond and Quadrek, Merovingians of Du Haillan's own creation, who speak on the advantages of different forms of government at the election of Pharamond, has made known to many persons who never saw the original. The source of this grotesque imagination is of course obvious to readers of Herodotus, and similar imitation of classical models is frequent in Du Haillan's work. François de Belleforest also wrote a general history of France, which was long read, and the names of Du Tillet, Jean de Serres, Charron, Dupleix, etc. may be mentioned. But they represent writers of little importance, either from the point of view of history, or from that of literature.


[213] The standard edition until recently has been that of Le Clerc (4 vols. Paris, 1866). That of Louandre in the Bibliothèque Charpentier is handy and useful. MM. Courbet and Roger have begun a handsome edition.

[214] The references are to the edition of Louandre.

[215] De la Sagesse. 2 vols. Paris, 1789.

[216] Ed. 1641.

[217] Ed. 1578.

[218] Ed. Feugère. Paris, 1846.

[219] Ed. Buchon. 2 vols. Paris, 1839. The Société de l'Histoire de France has a voluminous edition on hand. Mérimée, who was a great admirer of Brantôme, began an edition for the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne, but left it unfinished.

[220] Montluc's Memoirs, as well as most of those mentioned below, will be found in the collection of Michaud and Poujoulat.

[221] The earlier editions of this writer are not complete. In 1875 a full reprint was begun.

[Pg 259]



Satyre Ménippée.

The period of the Renaissance in France closed with two works (one for the most part in prose and due to various authors, the other wholly in verse and the work of one only) which exhibit the highest excellence. The Satyre Ménippée and the satires of Regnier are separated in point of date of publication by some fifteen years, and the contributors to the first-named work belong for the most part to an earlier generation, and represent a less accomplished state of the language than the great satirist who, after fifteen centuries, took up the traditions of his Roman masters. But both are satirical in substance, though the Ménippée is almost wholly political, and Regnier busies himself with social and moral subjects only. Both possess in a high degree the characteristics of the period which they close. Both exhibit a remarkable power of treating ephemeral subjects in a manner calculated to make their interest something more than ephemeral. Both have met with the just reward of continuing to be popular even at times when the most unjust unpopularity rested on work scarcely less excellent but less calculated to please the taste of those who, however much they may sympathise with the fashions of their own day, are unable to sympathise with those of a day which is not theirs.

The Satyre Ménippée[222] was a remarkable, and, for those who take an interest both in literature and in politics, a most encouraging instance of the power of literary treatment at certain crises of political matters. It appeared in 1594, at the crucial period of the League. For years there had existed the party known[Pg 260] for the most part uncomplimentarily as Les Politiques. These persons professed themselves unable to find, in the simple difference of Catholic v. Protestant, a casus belli for Frenchmen against Frenchmen. Their influence, however, though it occasionally rose to the surface in the days of Charles IX. and Henri III., had never been lasting, and they laboured under the charge of being Laodiceans, trimmers, men who cared for nothing but hollow peace and material prosperity. The assassination of Henri III., and the open confederation between the Leaguers and the Spanish party, at last gave them their opportunity, and it was seized with an adroitness which would have been remarkable in a single man, but which is still more remarkable in a group of men of very different antecedents, professions, ages, and beliefs. The Satyre Ménippée is, in fact, the first and most admirable example of the theory of the modern newspaper—the theory that the combined ability of many men is likely, on the whole, to treat complicated and ephemeral affairs better than the limited, though perhaps individually greater, ability of any one man. The Ménippée, prose and verse, was due to the working of a new Pléiade—Leroy, Gillot, Passerat, Rapin, Chrestien, Pithou, and Durant. Most of them were lawyers, a few were more or less connected with the Church. Pierre Leroy, a canon of Rouen, of whom nothing is known, but whose character De Thou praises, is said to have planned the book, and to have acted in some way as editor. Jacques Gillot, clerk-advocate of the Parliament, received the literary conspirators in his house. Passerat and Rapin represented the mixed classical and French culture of the immediate companions of Ronsard. Florent Chrestien was a converted Huguenot, much given to translation of ancient authors. Pithou (the writer of the harangue of Claude d'Aubray, the most important piece of the whole and containing the moral and idea of the book) was, like Chrestien, a convert. He ranks as one of the most distinguished members of the French bar, and had a deserved reputation for every kind of learning in his time. Lastly, Durant, who contributed rather to the appendix of the book than to the book itself, was an Auvergnat gentleman, who preferred poetry to law, and justified his preference by some capital work, partly of a satirical[Pg 261] kind, partly of an elegant and tender gallantry, anticipating, as has been justly said, the eighteenth century in elegance, and excelling it in tenderness.

The plan of the Ménippée (the title of which, it is hardly necessary to say, is borrowed from the name of the cynic philosopher celebrated by Lucian) is for the time singularly original and bold; but the spirit in which the subject is treated is more original still. Generally speaking, the piece has the form of a compte-rendu of the assembly of the states at Paris. The full title is De la Vertu du Catholicon d'Espagne et de la Tenue des États de Paris. The preface contains a sarcastic harangue in orthodox charlatan style on the merits of the new Catholicon or Panacea. Then comes a description (in which, as throughout the work, actual facts are blended inextricably with satirical comment) of the opening procession. To this succeeds a sketch of the tapestries with which the hall of meeting was hung, all of which are, of course, allegorical, and deal with murders of princes, betrayal of native countries to foreigners, etc. Next comes L'Ordre tenu pour les Séances, in which the chief personages on the side of the League are enumerated in a long catalogue, every item of which contains some bitter allusion to the private or public conduct of the person named. Seven solemn speeches are then delivered by the Duke de Mayenne as lieutenant, by the legate, by the Cardinal de Pelvé, by the bishop of Lyons, by Rose, the fanatical rector of the University, by the Sieur de Rieux, as representative of the nobility; and, lastly, by a certain Monsieur d'Aubray, for the Tiers-État. A burlesque coda concludes the volume, the joints of which are, first, a short verse satire on Pelvé; secondly, a collection of epigrams due to Passerat; and, thirdly, Durant's Regret Funèbre à Mademoiselle ma Commère sur le Trépas de son Âne, a delightful satire on the Leaguers, which did not appear in the first edition, but which yields to few things in the book.

It has been said that the plan of the Ménippée has of itself not a little originality. Satirical comment and travesty devoted to political affairs had been common enough almost for centuries in France, but no satire of the kind had hitherto flown so high, or with so well-organised a flight. The seven speeches, which form[Pg 262] the bulk of the book, display moreover a remarkable variety and a still more remarkable combination of excellences. The first six—those of Mayenne, the legate, Pelvé, the bishop of Lyons, Rose, and Rieux, none of which is long—are, without exception, caricatures, and of that peculiar order of caricature in which the victim is made, without a glaring violation of probability, to render himself vile and ridiculous, and to give utterance to the satire and invective which the author desires to pour upon him. Butler (who beyond all doubt had the Satyre Ménippée in his mind when he projected his own immortal travesty of the Puritan party) is the only writer who has ever come near to its authors in this particular department of satire. Treated as they were by different hands, there is a curiously pleasing variety of style in the portraits. Mayenne uses a mixture of aristocratic and somewhat haughty frankness with garrulous digression. The two cardinals indulge in an astounding macaronic jargon, the one of Italian mingled with Latin, the other of Latin mingled with French. The bishop of Lyons, and Rose the rector, preach sermons, after the fashion of the time, thickly larded with quotations, stories, and so forth. Rieux (he was a noted bandit) expresses with soldierly frankness his extreme surprise that he should have become a gentleman and the representative of the nobility, and mildly reproaches Mayenne and the League for not having given carte-blanche to himself and his likes to finish off the Politiques bag-and-baggage. But in the last harangue, that of the representative of the Tiers-État, Claude d'Aubray, which is, as has been said, the work of Pithou, and which occupies something like half the book, the tone is entirely altered. In this remarkable discourse the whole political situation is treated seriously, and with a mixture of practical vigour and literary skill of which there had hardly been any precedent instance. D'Aubray denounces the condition of Paris first, and the condition of the kingdom afterwards. The foreign garrisons, the sufferings of private persons by the war, the deprivation or suspension of privileges, are all commented upon. A remarkable historical sketch of the religious wars follows, and then turn by turn the speaker attacks those who have spoken before him, and exposes their conduct. A vigorous sketch of 'Le Roy que nous[Pg 263] voulons et que nous aurons,' leads up to the announcement that this king is no other than 'Notre vray Roy légitime, naturel et souverain, Seigneur Henry de Bourbon, cy-devant Roy de Navarre.' After this discomposing harangue the assembly breaks up in some confusion.

The Satyre Ménippée had an immense effect, and may, perhaps, be justly described as the first example, in modern politics, of a literary work the effect of which was really great and lasting. It is not surprising that such should have been its fortune. For it is a remarkably happy mixture of the older style of gaulois jocularity (in which exaggeration, personal attack, insinuations of a more or less scandalous character and the like, furnished the attraction) and the newer style of chastened and comparatively polished prose. The greater part of the first six speeches are of a more antique cast than Montaigne; and though the speech of D'Aubray exhibits a more elaborate and less familiar style, it too is definitely plain and popular in manner. Although there are the allusions usual at the time to classical subjects, the Pléiade pedantry, with which at least two of the contributors, Passerat and Rapin, were sufficiently imbued, is conspicuously absent. Rabelais is frequently alluded to; and when the style of the book and the obvious intention of appealing to the general, which it exhibits, are considered, no better testimony to the popularity of Gargantua and Pantagruel could be produced. The descriptions, too, have a Rabelaisian minuteness and richness about them; and in the burlesque parts the influence of that master is equally perceptible. But the strictly practical point of view is always maintained; and the temptation, always a strong one with French writers of the middle age and Renaissance, to lose sight of this in endless developments of mere amusing buffoonery, is constantly resisted. There is certainly less exaggeration in the Ménippée than in Hudibras, though the personal weaknesses of the innumerable individual persons satirised contribute more to the general effect than they do in Butler's great satire. The distinguishing trait of the Satyre Ménippée, next to those already mentioned, is the constant rain of slight ironical touches contributing to the general effect. Thus the arms of the processioning Leaguers are, 'le[Pg 264] tout rouillé par Humilité Catholique;' the League scholastics and preachers 'forment tous leurs arguments in ferio.' The deputies' benches are covered with cloth, 'parsemées de croisettes de Lorraine et de larmes miparties de vair et de faux argent.' These sure and rapid touches distinguish the book strongly from nearly all mediaeval satire, in which the satirists are wont, whenever they make a point, to dwell on it, and expound it, and illustrate it, and make the most of it, until it loses almost all its piquancy. Very different from this over-elaboration is the confident irony of the Ménippée, which trusts to the intelligence of the reader for understanding and emphasis. 'Vous prévoyez bien,' says Mayenne, 'les dangers et inconvéniens de la paix qui met ordre à tout, et rend le droit à qui il appartient.' Hardly even Antoine de la Salle, and certainly no other among the authors of the preceding centuries, would have ventured to leave this, obvious as it seems now-a-days, to reach the reader by itself.


A similar but a still more remarkable, because an individually complete, example of the combination of Gallican tradition with classical study was soon afterwards shown by Mathurin Regnier[223]. Regnier was born at Chartres on the 21st of December, 1573, his father being Jacques Regnier, a citizen of position; his mother was Simonne Desportes, sister of the poet. Jacques Regnier desired for his son the ecclesiastical, but not the poetical, eminence of his brother-in-law, and Mathurin was tonsured at nine years old. The boy, however, wished to follow his uncle's steps in the other direction, and early began to write. It is said that he wrote lampoons on the inhabitants of his native town, and, repeating them to the frequenters of a tennis-court which his father had built, got himself thus into trouble. His father's threats and punishments, however, had no more effect than is usual in such cases, and Regnier soon, but at a date not exactly known, betook himself to his uncle at Paris. By Desportes, who was in favour with many high personages, he was recommended to the Cardinal de Joyeuse, and took part in that prelate's embassy to Rome in 1593. Joyeuse, however, did nothing for him, and in 1601 he again went to Rome in the suite of Philippe de[Pg 265] Bethune. He returned before long, and, in 1604, a canonry, to the reversion of which he had been presented long before, fell in. His first collection of satires appeared in 1608. Five years afterwards, in 1613, on the 22nd of October, he died at Rouen, having not quite completed his fortieth year. His way of life had unfortunately been by no means regular, and his early death is said to have been directly caused by his excesses.

In this short sketch almost everything that is known of Regnier, except a few anecdotes, has been included, and the total is, it will be seen, exceedingly meagre. Nor is his work abundant even for a man who died comparatively young. Sixteen satires, three epistles, five elegies, and a few miscellaneous pieces, make it up, and probably the total does not exceed seven or eight thousand lines. The relative excellence of this work is however exceedingly high. Regnier is almost the only French poet before the so-called classical period who has continuously maintained his reputation, and who has only been decried by a few eccentric or incompetent critics. He was an ardent defender of the Ronsardising tradition, yet Malherbe, whom he did not hesitate to attack, thought and spoke highly of him. In the next age Boileau allotted to him a mixture of praise and blame which is not too apposite, but in which the praise far exceeds the blame, and elsewhere declared him to be the French writer, before Molière, who best knew human nature. The approval of Boileau secured that of the eighteenth century, while Regnier's defence of the Pléiade propitiated the first Romantics. Thus buttressed on either side, he has had nothing to fear from literary revolutions. Nor will any judgment which looks rather at merit than authority arrive at an unfavourable conclusion respecting him. His satires are not indeed absolutely the first of their kind in French. Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, Jean de la Taille, and above all, D'Aubigné, had preceded him. But in breadth as well as, except in the case of D'Aubigné, in force, and above all in even excellence and technical merit, he far surpassed those who in a manner had shown him the way. His satire is exclusively social, and thus it escapes one of the chief drawbacks of political satire, that of dealing with matters of more or less ephemeral existence and interest. He has indeed borrowed considerably[Pg 266] from the ancients, but he has almost always made his borrowings his own, and he has in some cases improved on his originals. He has softened the exaggerated air of moral indignation which his English contemporaries, Hall and Marston, borrowed from Juvenal, and which sits so awkwardly on them and on many other satirists. He has avoided such still more awkward followings as that which made Pope upset all English literary history in order to echo Horace's remarks about Rome and Greece. Sometimes he has fallen into the besetting sin of his countrymen, the tendency to represent mere types or even abstractions instead of lifelike individuals embodying the type, but he has more often avoided it. His descriptive passages are of extraordinary vigour and accuracy of touch, and his occasional strokes are worthy of almost any satiric or didactic poet. He is perhaps weakest, like all poets with the signal exception of Dryden, when he is panegyrical. Yet his first satire—in the order of arrangement not of writing—addressed to the King, Henri IV., has much merit. The second, on poets, has more, and abounds in vigorous strokes, such as that of the courtier bard who

Méditant un sonnet, médite un évêché;

and as the couplet which concludes a lively sketch of his diplomatic experiences—

Mais instruit par le temps à la fin j'ai connu
Que la fidélité n'est pas grand revenu.

This poem, which contains some humorous descriptions of the poverty of poets, ends with an eloquent panegyric on Ronsard. The next, on 'La Vie de la Cour,' attacks a very favourite subject of the age, and winds up with an extremely well-told version of the fable of the beast of prey and the mule whose name is written on its hoof. The fourth returns to the subject of the poverty of poets. The fifth argues at some length, and in a spirit not very far removed from that of Montaigne, the thesis that 'Le goût particulier décide de tout.' It contains some of Regnier's finest passages. A subject somewhat similar in kind, 'L'honneur ennemi de la vie,' gives further occasion, in the sixth, for the display of the[Pg 267] moralising spirit of the age, which, in Regnier, takes the form of a kind of epicurean pococurantism mingled with occasional bursts of noble sentiment. The seventh is one of the most personal of all; it is entitled 'L'amour qu'on ne peut dompter,' and is a comment on the text Video meliora proboque. The eighth is one of the innumerable imitations of the famous ninth satire of the first book of Horace, Ibam forte via sacra, and perhaps the happiest of all such, though it is difficult not to regret that Regnier should have devoted his too rare moments of work to mere imitation. The ninth, however, is open to no such charge. It is entitled Le Critique outré, and is an extraordinarily vigorous and happy remonstrance against the intolerant pedantry with which Malherbe was criticising the Pléiade. This satire is addressed to Rapin, the veteran contributor to the Ménippée. It is impossible to describe the weak side of the reforms which Malherbe, and after him Boileau, introduced into French poetry, better than in these lines, which deserve citation for their literary importance:—

Cependant leur scavoir ne s'estend seulement
Qu'à regratter un mot douteux au jugement,
Prendre garde qu'un qui ne heurte une diphtongue;
Espier si des vers la rime est brève ou longue;
Ou bien si la voyelle, à l'autre s'unissant,
Ne rend point à l'oreille un vers trop languissant.
Ils rampent bassement, foibles d'inventions,
Et n'osent, peu hardis, tenter les fictions,
Froids à l'imaginer; ear s'ils font quelque chose
C'est proser de la rime, et rimer de la prose,
Que l'art lime et relime, et polit de façon,
Qu'elle rend à l'oreille un agréable son.

The tenth satire, with its title 'Le souper ridicule,' seems to return to Horace, but in reality the scene described has little in common with the Coena of Nasidienus. It affords Regnier an excellent opportunity for displaying his talent for Dutch painting, but is in this respect inferior to the sequel 'Le mauvais gîte.' The subject of this is sufficiently unsavoury, and the satire is almost the only one which in the least deserves Boileau's strictures on the author's 'rimes cyniques,' but the vigour and skill of the treatment are most remarkable. The twelfth is short, and once more apologetically personal. But the thirteenth is the longest,[Pg 268] one of the most famous, and unquestionably on the whole the best work of the author. It is entitled 'Macette,' and describes an old woman who hides vice under a hypocritical mask and corrupts youth with her evil philosophy of the world and its ways. Indebted in some measure to the Roman de la Rose for the idea of his central character, Regnier is entirely original in his method of treatment. Nowhere are his verses more vigorous—

Son œil tout pénitent ne pleure qu'eau béniste.
L'honneur est un vieux saint que l'on ne chomme plus.
La sage se sait vendre où la sotte se donne.

Nowhere is Regnier so uniformly free from technical defects and from colloquialisms in which he sometimes indulges. The fourteenth returns to general and somewhat vague satire, dealing with the vanity of human reason and conduct, while the fifteenth is once more personal, 'Le Poète malgré soi.' Lastly, the sixteenth sums up the author's theoretical philosophy in the opening line, 'N'avoir crainte de rien et ne rien espérer.'

The satires are in bulk and in importance so much the larger part of the work of Regnier, and represent such an important innovation in French literature, that it has seemed well to describe them with some minuteness. The miscellaneous poems may be reviewed more rapidly, though the best of them add very considerably to the poet's reputation, because they show him in an entirely different light. Not a few of the elegies are imitated from Ovid, and some of them might perhaps have been left unwritten with advantage. Indeed, Regnier is here much more open to Boileau's censure than in his more famous verse. But some lyrical pieces exhibit his command of other measures besides the Alexandrine, and afford occasion for the expression of a melancholy and genuine sensibility which is not common in French poetry. The poem called 'Plainte' is very beautiful, and is written in a lyric stanza of much more elaboration than any which was to be used in France for two centuries. One of its peculiarities is a hemistich replacing the expected fourth line of the stanza, which is of eight verses, with singularly musical effect. A so-called 'Ode' is almost better, and ends thus:[Pg 269]

Un regret pensif et confus
D'avoir esté, et n'estre plus,
Rend mon âme aux douleurs ouverte;
A mes despens, las! je vois bien
Qu'un bonheur comme estoit le mien
Ne se cognoist que par la perte.

Regnier was in many ways a fitting representative for the close of the great poetical school of the sixteenth century. In manner he represented the fusion of the purely Gallic school of Marot and Rabelais, with the classical tradition of the Pléiade in its best form. His Alexandrines, if not quite so vigorous as D'Aubigné's, have all the polish that could be expected before the administration of Malherbe's rules. His lyric measures have the boldness and harmony which those rules banished from French poetry for full seven generations. In matter he displays a singular mixture of acute observation and philosophic criticism with ardent sensibility both to pleasure and pain. This, as has been repeatedly pointed out, is the dominant temper of the French Renaissance, and though in Regnier it shows something of the melancholy of the decadence as compared with the springing hope of Rabelais and the calm maturity of Montaigne, it is scarcely less characteristic.


[222] Ed. Labitte. Paris, 1869.

[223] Ed. Courbet. Paris, 1875. In this edition some of the dates and statements in the text, which have been generally accepted, are contested.

[Pg 270]



The literary movements of the sixteenth century in France and their accomplishments—in other words, the course and result of the French Renaissance—can be traced with greater ease and with more precision than those of any other age of the literature. The movement is double, but, unlike most movements, literary and other, it is not sufficiently described as flux and reflux or action and reaction. The later or Pléiade half of the century was in no sense a reaction against the first or Marot-Rabelais half. If there is an appearance of opposition between the two it is only because, both in Marot and in Rabelais, there was actually a kind of reaction from the movement which faintly and imperfectly foreshadowed that of the Pléiade, the rhétoriqueur pedantry of the writers from Chartier to Crétin. In this first half of the century, while something of a protest was made by Rabelais explicitly, and implicitly by Marot, against the indiscriminate Latinising of the French tongue, very much more was done by their contemporaries, and in a manner by Rabelais himself, in the way of importing novelties of subject, style, and language, both from ancient and modern sources. Long before Du Bellay wrote, Calvin had modelled the first serious and scholarly work of French prose very closely on a Latin pattern. The translators, with Étienne Dolet and Amyot at their head, had begun to transfer to the vernacular, in versions or in original work, the principles of style which they had admired and imitated in the classics. On the other hand, Marot, representing the extreme vernacular school, succeeded, tolerably early in the period, in refining and chastening the language of the fifteenth century to such an extent that his style, transmitted through[Pg 271] La Fontaine, and then through the lighter work of the eighteenth century, has retained a certain hold on literature for its particular purpose almost to the present day. The most remarkable writer, from the point of view of style, in this part of the century is perhaps Bonaventure des Périers, who displays both the vernacular purity free from classical mixture, and at the same time the Renaissance admiration and imitation of the classics in a very high degree. Yet the same lesson is taught by the prose of Des Périers as by the verse of Marot. The language had not as yet arrived at its full growth, it had not taken in its full supply of nourishment. It was therefore not equal to the complete duties of a literary tongue. It wanted enriching, strengthening, educating.

This task it was which was performed, and performed on the whole with remarkable skill and success, by the Pléiade movement. It is not easy to fix on any period in the history of any other language in which, at an interval of fifty years, the advance in the capacities, as distinguished from the mere accomplishments of the tongue, is so noticeable as it is in French between 1550 and 1600. It is not merely that between these dates writers of talent and even genius may be mentioned by the dozen, that the language can boast of having added to its stores the odes of Ronsard, the sonnets of Du Bellay, the myriad graceful songs of the lesser poets of the Pléiade, the stately descriptions of Du Bartas, the fiery invective of D'Aubigné, the polished satire of Regnier, the essays of Montaigne, the immortal pasquinades of the Ménippée—it is that the whole constitution and organisation of the language has been strengthened and improved. That the secret of the Alexandrine has at last been mastered means that the whole future course of French poetry is in a manner mapped out. That lyric measures have been devised, intricate, not merely in arrangement like those of the mediaeval forms, but in harmony, means that at any future time French poets who choose to recur to this storehouse may find the withal to equip themselves. That the vocabulary has been enormously if somewhat indiscriminately increased, means that writers in the future, at whatever loss they may be for thought, need certainly be at no loss for words to express it. But the gain is greater even than this. Not merely have the glossary, the grammar, the prosody[Pg 272] of the language been enriched, but entirely new moulds in which literary work can be cast have been added to the literature. The form of drama in which France was to achieve, with but little formal alteration, some of her greatest literary triumphs, has been discovered and acclimatised; the essay has become a recognised thing; attempts at history proper as distinct from mere annals and chronicles have been made. Literature, in short, is organised, and literary labour works in matter roughly at least prepared and shaped. One of the greatest drawbacks of mediaeval literature, the confusion of styles, the handling of science in verse, of theology in terms taken from amatory romances, of politics in 'dreams,' of social satire in clumsy allegories, is cleared away. The form most suitable for every kind of literary work has been more or less made clear to the literary workman, and a plentiful supply of material in the shape of vocabulary is at his disposal.

That this great accomplishment is on the whole the doing of the Pléiade in its larger sense, as designating and including the men of letters of 1550-1600, no impartial student of the period can doubt. But at the same time there is no doubt either that their work was both incomplete and in some respects open to grave objection. They had, like all reformers, literary as well as political, neglected to preserve the historical continuity, and deliberately turned their backs on the traditions of the language and the literature. Their importations and imitations had been sometimes unnecessary, sometimes awkward, sometimes absurd. The mass of their contributions required examination, arrangement, and no doubt in some cases rejection. Moreover, they had on the whole concentrated their attention too much upon poetry; prose, the less exquisite but the more useful instrument, had been comparatively neglected. Almost all styles had been tried in it, but no general style nor the conditions of any had been elaborated. In drama much remained to be done. The model was there in the rough, but the workmen had been unskilful, and fifty years of practice on the plan of Jodelle had not yet resulted in the composition of one really dramatic play. In short, though the Pléiade movement had begun by being nothing if not critical, it had not kept up the habit of self-criticism. The application of this[Pg 273] criticism was what was left for the seventeenth century to supply, and at the same time the elaboration of a complete and workman-like prose style. We shall see how early and how eagerly this task was accepted, and how thoroughly it was carried out; so thoroughly, that the seventeenth century is the age of perfect French prose. But what was gained in prose was lost in poetry, and, putting the dramatists aside, the drop in this respect from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century is immense. The sixteenth is, putting our own days out of question, the palmy time of poetry in France. The urbanity of Marot, the stately grace of Ronsard and his followers, the majesty of Du Bartas, the fire of D'Aubigné, the nervous and yet effortless strength of Regnier, have never been surpassed, and until the last half century they have rarely been equalled. If to this be added the more irregular and unequal, but hardly inferior merits of the best sixteenth-century prose, the inexhaustible humour of Rabelais, the simplicity and varied colour of the great memoir-writers, the subtle eloquence of Montaigne, it may perhaps seem that the period can contest the primacy with any other. The dispute between it and its successor is, however, only an instance of one which recurs again and again in literature, and which neither need nor should be handled here at length.

[Pg 274]






The history of the poetry of the seventeenth century in France naturally and necessarily opens with Malherbe, though he was forty-five years old at its beginning, and considerably the senior of Regnier, who has been included among the poets of the Renaissance. François de Malherbe[224] was born at Caen in 1555, being the eldest son of his father, another François de Malherbe, and both on the father's and mother's side of noble family. He was educated at his native town, in Germany and in Paris, and when he was twenty-one he entered the army. He married in 1581, and had three children, two of whom died young—a circumstance not immaterial in connection with his most famous poem, which is a 'Consolation' to a certain M. du Périer, whose daughter Marguerite had died in her youth. He seems to have written verses tolerably early, but, exercising on himself the same rigid principles of criticism which he applied to others, he preserved none or hardly any of them. It was not till he was past forty that his best-known poems were written, and the whole amount of his surviving work is not large. During the first two-thirds of his life he was not rich, for his patrimony was scanty, and the death of the Grand Prior, Henri d'Angoulême, to whom he had attached himself, deprived him of the chances of preferment.[Pg 275] But in 1605 he was presented to Henri IV.; he soon afterwards received various places, and for more than twenty years was a court favourite, and in a way the autocrat of poetry. He died in 1628.

It has been said that Malherbe's poetical work is by no means voluminous: a small volume of two hundred pages, not very closely or minutely printed, contains it all; and ingenious persons have calculated that as a rule he did not write more than four or five verses a month. Nor even of this carefully produced, and still more carefully weeded, result is there much that can be read with pleasure by a modern student of poetry. The verse by which Malherbe is best known,

Et, rose, elle a vécu ce que vivent les roses,

is worth all the rest of his work, and it can hardly be said to be more than a very graceful and touching conceit. But Malherbe's position in the history of French poetry is a very important one. He deliberately assumed the functions of a reformer of literature; and whatever may be thought of the result of his reforms, their durability and the almost entire acquiescence with which they were received prove that there must have been something in them remarkably germane to the spirit and taste and genius of the nation. His first attempt was the overthrow of the Pléiade. He ridiculed their phraseology, frowned on their metres, and, being himself destitute of the romantic inspiration which had animated them, set himself to reduce poetry to carefully-worded metrical prose. The story is always told of him that he went minutely through a copy of Ronsard, striking out whatever he disapproved of; and when some one pointed out the mass of lines that were left, that he drew his pen (presumably across the title-page, for it is not obvious how else he could have done it) through the rest at one stroke. The insolent folly of this is glaring enough, for Malherbe is not worthy as a poet to unloose the shoe-latchet of Ronsard. But the critic had rightly appreciated his time. The tendency of the French seventeenth century in poetry proper was towards the restriction of vocabulary and rhythm, the avoidance of original and daring metaphor and suggestion, the perfecting of a few metres (with the Alexandrine at their head) into[Pg 276] a delicate but monotonous harmony, and the rejection of individual licence in favour of rigid rule. The influence of Boileau came rapidly to second that of Malherbe, and the result is that not a single poet—the dramatists are here excluded—of the seventeenth century in France deserves more than fair second-class rank. La Fontaine, indeed, was a writer of the greatest genius, but, though the form which his work takes is metrical, the highest merits of poetry proper are absent. La Fontaine, too, was himself, though an admirer of Malherbe, a rebel to the Malherbe tradition, and delighted both in reading and imitating the work of the Renaissance and the middle ages. But he is always clear, precise, and matter-of-fact in the midst of fancy, never attaining to the peculiar vague suggestiveness which constitutes the charm of poetry proper.

The School of Malherbe.
Vers de Société.

It was, however, impossible that so large a change should accomplish itself at once, and signs of mixed influences appear accordingly in all the poetical work of the first half of the century. Cardinal du Perron, Malherbe's introducer at court, was himself a poet of merit, but rather in the Pléiade style. His Temple de l'Inconstance, though rougher in form, is more poetical in substance than anything, save a very few pieces, of Malherbe's. Chassignet displayed some of the same characteristics with a graver and more elegiac spirit. Gombaud is chiefly remarkable as a sonneteer. The two most famous of the actual pupils of Malherbe were Maynard and Racan. Maynard was a diplomatist and lawyer of rank, who was born at Toulouse in 1582, and died in 1646. His work is miscellaneous, and not very extensive, but it shows that he had learned the secret of polished versification from Malherbe, and that he was able to apply it with a good deal of vigour and of variety. Honorat de Bueil, Marquis de Racan[225], was the author of a pastoral drama, Les Bergeries, founded on, or imitated from, the Astrée of D'Urfé, of an elaborate version of the Psalms, and of a considerable number of the miscellaneous poems, stances, odes, épitres, etc., which were fashionable. Racan, though his amiable private character and the compliance of his principal work with a fashionable folly of the time have caused him to be somewhat over-estimated[Pg 277] traditionally, was a thoroughly pleasing poet, with a great command of fluent and melodious verse, a genuine love of nature, and occasionally a power of producing poetry of a true kind which was shared by few of his contemporaries. The remarkable author of Tyr et Sidon, Jean de Schélandre, produced, besides his play, a considerable number of miscellaneous poems; but he was a thorough reactionary, avowed his contempt of Malherbe, and studied, not without success, Ronsard and his own coreligionist Du Bartas as models. One of the most original, though at the same time one of the most unequal poets of the early seventeenth century, was Théophile de Viaud, often called Théophile[226] simply. He, too, was a dramatist, but his dramas do not do him much credit, their style being exaggerated and 'precious.' On the other hand, his miscellaneous poems, though very unequal, include much work of remarkable beauty. The pieces entitled 'La Solitude,' 'Sur une Tempête,' and the stanzas beginning 'Quand tu me vois baiser tes bras,' have all the fervour and picturesqueness of the Pléiade without its occasional blemishes of pedantic expression. Théophile was a loose liver and an unfortunate man. He was accused, justly or unjustly, of writing indecent verses, was imprisoned, and died young. All the poets hitherto mentioned were writers of miscellaneous verse, who, except in so far as they held to the elder tradition of Ronsard or the new gospel of Malherbe, can hardly be said to have belonged to any school. Towards the middle of the century, however, two well-defined fashions of poetry, with some minor ones, distinguished themselves. There was, in the first place, the school of the coterie poets, who devoted themselves to producing vers de société, either for the ladies, or for the great men of the period. The chief of this school was beyond all question Voiture[227]. This admirable writer of prose and verse published absolutely nothing during his lifetime, though his work was in private the delight of the salons. That it should be, under the circumstances, somewhat frivolous is almost unavoidable. But, especially after the cessation of the great flow of inspiration which had[Pg 278] characterised the sixteenth century, it was of no small importance that the art of perfect expression should be cultivated in French. Voiture was one of those who contributed most to the cultivation of this art. His letters are as correct as those of Balzac, and much less stilted; and of his poetry it is sufficient to say that nothing more charming of the kind has ever been written than the sonnet to Uranie, which stirred up a literary war, or the rondeau 'Ma foi c'est fait de moi.' This last put once more in fashion a beautiful and thoroughly French form, which it had been one of the worst deeds of the Pléiade to make unfashionable. The chief rival of Voiture was Benserade, a much younger man, whose sonnet on Job was held to excel, though it certainly does not, that to Uranie. Benserade was of higher birth and larger fortune than Voiture, and long outlived him. He was a great writer of ballets or masques, and not unfrequently, like Voiture, showed that a true poet underlay the fantastic disguises he put on. Around these two are grouped numerous minor poets of different merit. Boisrobert, the favourite of Richelieu and the companion of Rotrou and Corneille in that minister's band of 'five poets;' Maleville, who in one of the sonnet-tournaments of the time, that of the Belle Matineuse, was supposed to have excelled even Voiture; Colletet, whose poems make him less important in literature than his Lives of the French poets, which unfortunately perished during the Commune before they had been fully printed; Gomberville, more famous as a novelist; Sarrasin, an admirable prose writer, and a clever composer of ballades and other light verse; Godeau, a bishop and a very clever versifier; Blot, who was rather a political than a social rhymer; Marigny, who was also famous for his Mazarinades, but whose satirical power was by no means the only side of his poetical talent; Charleval, whose personal popularity was greater than his literary ability; Maucroix, the friend of La Fontaine; Segrais, an eclogue writer of no small merit; Chapelle, an idle epicurean, who derives most of his fame from the fact of his having been intimate with all the foremost literary men of the time, and from his having composed, in company with Bachaumont, a Voyage in mixed prose and verse, the form of which was long very popular in France and was imitated[Pg 279] with especial success by Anthony Hamilton and Voltaire; Pavillon, who deserves a very similar general description, but who gave no such single example of his abilities: all belong to this class.

Epic School. Chapelain.

Side by side with the frivolous school, but in curious contrast with it, there existed a school of ponderous epic writers, the extirpation of which is the best claim of Boileau to the gratitude of posterity. The typical poets of this class are Georges de Scudéry, the author of Alaric, and Chapelain, the author of the Pucelle. Scudéry was a soldier and a man of considerable talent, who lacked nothing but patience and the power of self-criticism to produce really good work. Like his more famous sister, he had invention and literary facility. His plays are not without merit in parts, and his epic of Alaric, amidst astonishing platitudes and extravagances, has occasional good lines. But Chapelain is by far the most remarkable figure of the school. He was bred up to be a poet from his earliest age, and by a stroke of luck, impossible in less anomalous times, he was taken at his own valuation for years. La Pucelle was quoted in manuscript, and anxiously expected for half a short lifetime. It only appeared to be hopelessly damned. There are passages in it of merit, but they are associated with lines which read like designed burlesques. The onslaughts of Boileau have created a kind of reaction in favour of Chapelain with some who disagree with Boileau's poetical principles: but he is not defensible. His odes are indeed tolerable in parts; not so the Pucelle, save, as has been said, in occasional lines. The Clovis of Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin is worse than the Pucelle. On the other hand, the Père le Moyne in his St. Louis, taking apparently Du Bartas as his model, produced work which, if not very readable as a whole, manifests real and very considerable poetical talent. Lastly, Saint Amant in the Moïse Sauvé showed how far below himself a clever writer may be when he mistakes his style.

Bacchanalian School. Saint Amant.

Saint Amant[228], who, to do him justice, did not call Moïse Sauvé an epic but an 'idylle héroique,' is the link between this school and a third composed of purely convivial poets, who even in this[Pg 280] century furnished work of remarkable excellence, and who produced a numerous and brilliant progeny in the next. Saint Amant's Anacreontic poems are of great merit. Of the same class was Saint Pavin, who was not merely a free liver, but a member of the small but influential free-thinking sect which preceded and gave birth to the Philosophes of the next century. This time, moreover, was the period of a curious literary trick, the resuscitation or forging of the convivial poems of Oliver Basselin by a Norman lawyer of the name of Jean le Houx. A genuine and contemporary Basselin, in the person of a carpenter named Adam Billaut, produced some notable work of the same kind. Unfortunately the Anacreontic poetry of this time suffers from the too frequent coarseness of its language; a fault which indeed was not fully corrected until Béranger's days.

La Fontaine.

The members, however, of all these schools have long lost their hold on all but students of literature, and, with the exception of La Fontaine and Boileau, it is not easy to mention any non-dramatic poet of the seventeenth century who has kept a place in the general memory. Jean la Fontaine[229] was born at Château Thierry in Champagne in the year 1621, and died at Paris in 1695. His father held a considerable post as ranger of the neighbouring forests, an office which passed to his son. La Fontaine seems to have been carelessly educated, but after a certain time literature attracted him, and he began to study in a desultory fashion, without however, as it would appear, being himself tempted to write. At the age of six-and-twenty he married Marie Héricart, a girl of sixteen, who is said to have been both amiable and beautiful, and not long afterwards he was left his own master by his father's death. He was suited very ill by nature either to fill a responsible office or to be head of a house. The well-known stories of his absence of mind, his simplicity, his indifference to outward affairs, have no doubt been exaggerated, but there is, equally without doubt, a foundation of fact in them. On the other hand, though the most serious charges against his wife seem to rest on no foundation, it is certain that she had little aptitude for housewifery. After a time the household was broken[Pg 281] up, though there was offspring of the marriage. A division of goods was effected, and husband and wife separated, not to meet again except on visits and for brief spaces of time, though they seem to have remained on perfectly friendly terms. La Fontaine went to Paris, and very soon attracted the notice of Fouquet, the magnificent superintendent of the finances, who gave him a pension of a thousand livres and made him a member of his literary household. Here La Fontaine began to write. At the downfall of Fouquet he was constant to his friend, and produced the best-known of his miscellaneous poems, the 'Pleurez, Nymphes de Vaux[230].' The misfortune unsettled him for a time, and he travelled about. But returning to his native place, he was taken into favour by the Duchess of Bouillon, and this was the beginning of a series of patronages which lasted till the end of his life. Once more visiting Paris, he became a favourite with many men and women of rank, and began his serious literary work by producing the first part of his Contes. The remaining parts and the Fables appeared at intervals during the remainder of his life. His second visit to Paris brought about his traditional association with Boileau, Molière, and Racine, the four meeting at regular intervals, either in taverns or at lodgings in the Rue Vieux Colombier. During the later years of his life La Fontaine was a confirmed Parisian. His office at Château Thierry had been sold, and he was the guest of various hospitable persons, the chief of whom was Madame de la Sablière. In 1668 appeared the first part of the Fables with universal approval. But the free character of the Contes, and still more the association of La Fontaine with some of the freethinkers who were in ill-repute with the king's spiritual advisers, retarded his admission to the Academy. When Colbert died, La Fontaine and Boileau were the two candidates; an awkward accident, considering their friendship, and the fact that the court was as decidedly for Boileau as the Academy itself for La Fontaine. The latter was elected, but the king delayed his assent, and even seemed likely to exercise a veto, when fortunately a second vacancy occurred, and Boileau being elected, both were approved by the king, Boileau warmly,[Pg 282] La Fontaine with the grudging terms 'Vous pouvez recevoir La Fontaine; il a promis d'être sage.' A curious warning of a similar tenor was contained in the 'Discours de Réception.'

La Fontaine's work is considerable, including many miscellaneous poems, the romance of Psyche, and various dramatic attempts which were more or less failures. But the Contes and the Fables are the only works which have held their ground with posterity, and it is upon them that his reputation is justly based. The first part of the Contes appeared at the extreme end of 1664[231], the second in 1667, the third in 1671, but the author added pieces in successive editions. The first part of the Fables appeared in 1668, dedicated to the Dauphin, the second in 1679, dedicated to Madame de Montespan, the third in 1693, dedicated to the Duc de Bourgogne, who is said to have been taught by Fénelon to delight in La Fontaine, and to have sent him just before his death all the money he had. The two books are complementary to each other, and La Fontaine's genius cannot be judged by either alone. It has been remarked that he was a diligent though apparently a very desultory reader. He read the Italians, and, apparently with still more relish and profit, the works of the old French writers, to whom the Italians owed so much. The spirit of the Fabliaux had been dead, or at any rate dormant, since Marot and Rabelais; La Fontaine revived it. Even purists, like his friend Boileau, admitted a certain archaism in lighter poetry, and La Fontaine would in all probability have troubled himself very little if they had not. His language is, therefore, more supple, varied, and racy than even that of Molière, and this is his first excellence. His second is a faculty of easy narration in verse, which is absolutely unequalled except perhaps in Pulci and Ariosto, while it is certainly unsurpassed anywhere. His third distinguishing point is his power of insinuating, it may be a satirical point, it may be a moral reflection, which is also hardly equalled and as certainly[Pg 283] unsurpassed. In the authors whom La Fontaine followed, either deliberately or unconsciously, the models of his tales and his fables were indiscriminately mingled; but he separated them by so rigid a line that, while there is hardly a phrase in his Fables which is not suited virginibus puerisque, the Contes are not exactly a book for youth. In the latter the author has taken subjects, always amusing but not unfrequently loose, from the old fabulists, from Boccaccio, from the French prose tale-tellers of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles and similar collections, from Rabelais, from a few Italian writers of the Renaissance, and has dressed them up in the incomparable narrative of which he alone has the secret. Where he treads in the steps of the greatest writers he is almost always best. 'Joconde' supplies the opportunity of a remarkable comparison with Ariosto; 'La Fiancée du Roi de Garbe' of a still more remarkable comparison with Boccaccio. In this latter respect the palm of vivid and varied narration is with La Fontaine, but he misses something of the spirit of the original in his portrait of Alaciel; indeed La Fontaine's weakest point is in the comparatively pedestrian character of his treatment. He has little romance, and in translating, not merely the Italians but such countrymen and women of his own as the authors of the Heptameron, he loses the poetical charm which, as has been pointed out, graces and saves the morality or immorality of the Renaissance. Therefore, despite the wonderful variety and vivid painting of the Contes, presenting a series of pictures which for these qualities have few rivals in literature, the disapproval with which censors more rigid than Johnson (whose excuse of Prior will fairly stretch to Prior's original) have visited them is not altogether unjustifiable.

The Fables, with hardly less excellence of the purely literary kind, are fortunately free from the least vestige of any similar fault. La Fontaine, instead of in the smallest degree degrading the beast-fable, has, on the contrary, exalted it to almost the highest point of which it is capable. Not many books have made and kept a more durable and solid reputation. The few dissentient voices in the chorus of eulogy have been those of eccentric crotcheteers like Rousseau, or sentimentalists like Lamartine. It is, indeed, impossible to read the Fables without prejudice and not be captivated[Pg 284] by them. As mere narratives they are charming, and the perpetual presence of an undercurrent of sly, good-humoured, satirical meaning relieves them from all charge of insipidity. La Fontaine, like Goldsmith, was with his pen in his hand as shrewd and as deeply learned in human nature as without it he was simple and naïf.

Something has to be said of the form and strictly poetical value of these two remarkable books—as remarkable, let it be remembered, for their bulk as for their excellence, for between them they cannot contain much less than 30,000 verses. The measure is almost always an irregular mixture of lines of different lengths, rhyming sometimes in couplets, sometimes in interlaced stanzas, which La Fontaine established as the vehicle of serio-comic narration. For this, in his hands, it is extraordinarily well fitted. As for the strictly poetic value of the work, it is perhaps significant that though he is, taking quantity and excellence together, the most important non-dramatic writer of verse of the whole century in France, he is rarely thought of (out of France) as a poet. A poet, indeed, in the highest sense of the word he is not. He has hardly any passion, evidences of it being almost confined to the elegy to Fouquet and, perhaps, as M. Théodore de Banville pleads, to the 'Faucon' and 'Courtisane Amoureuse' of the Contes. He has no indefinite suggestion of beauty; even his descriptions of nature, though always accurate and picturesque, being somewhat prosaic. He may be said to be a prose writer of the very first class who chose to write in verse, and who justified his choice by a wonderful technical ability in the particular form of verse which he used. There is no greater mistake than the supposition that La Fontaine's verse-writing is mere facile improvisation.


Nicolas Boileau[232], who was long known in France as the 'Law-giver of Parnassus,' and who, perhaps, exercised a more powerful and lasting influence over the literature of his native country than any other critic has ever enjoyed, was born at Paris on All Saints' Day, 1636. His father held the post of registrar of one of the numerous courts of law, and his family had legal connections of wide range and long date. He himself[Pg 285] was brought up to the law, but had not the least inclination for it; and at his father's death, which happened exactly when he attained his majority, his inheritance was considerable enough to allow him to do as he pleased. The family was a large one, and, according to a custom of the time, the brothers, or at least some of them, were distinguished by additional surnames. That which Nicolas took—Despréaux—was, at any rate during his youth, more frequently used than his patronymic, and has continued to be applied to him indifferently, thereby causing some odd blunders on the part of ignorant people. He himself sometimes signed Despréaux and sometimes Boileau-Despréaux. Besides law, he had also studied theology, and, though he never took orders, he enjoyed for a considerable time a priory at Beauvais, the profits of which, however, he returned when he definitely abandoned the idea of the church as a profession. He very early made attempts in literature, and when he was a man of seven- or eight-and-twenty, he joined La Fontaine, Racine, and Molière in the celebrated society of four. Social and literary criticism was even thus early his forte, and his first collections of Horatian satire were published in 1666, though, owing to the influence of Chapelain, the royal privilege was shortly after withdrawn from them. Boileau, however, soon became a great favourite with the king, as, though in actual conversation he retained his natural freedom of speech, he did not hesitate to use the most grovelling flattery of expression in verse. Pensions and places were given to him freely, so that, his own property being not inconsiderable, he was one of the few wealthy men of letters of the day. He was kept out of the Academy for some time by the fact that he had libelled half its members and was unpopular with the other half, but the royal influence at last got him in in 1684. In his later years the morose arrogance, which was his chief characteristic, increased on him, and was doubtless aggravated by the bad health from which he suffered during the whole of his long life. He died in 1711, having outlived all his friends except Louis himself.

Boileau's works consist of twelve satires, of the same number of epistles, of an Art Poétique, of the Lutrin, a serio-comic poem, of two odes, and of three or four score epigrams and miscellaneous[Pg 286] pieces in verse, with a translation of Longinus on the Sublime, some short critical dissertations, and a number of letters in prose. With the exception of the Lutrin it will be observed that almost all his poetical work is very closely modelled on Horace. His satire is extremely clever, but, as necessarily happens when the frame and manner of one time are used for the circumstances of another, it is altogether artificial. The Horatian satire is nothing if not personal, and as Boileau (even more than Pope, who strongly resembles him) had a bad heart, his personalities are unusually reckless and offensive. Thus in a couplet against parasites he inserted at one time the name of Colletet (son of the Colletet mentioned above), at another that of Pelletier, though both were notoriously free from the vice, and guilty of no fault except poverty and a disposition to produce indifferent verse. Boileau's crusade, too, against the minor poets of his day was unfortunately followed by his own production of a ridiculous ode, excellently burlesqued by Prior, on the taking of Namur in 1692 by the French. This, with certain pieces of Young's, is perhaps the most glaring example extant of how a writer of great talent and literary skill may combine the basest flattery with the most abjectly bad verse. But where he confined himself to his proper sphere, Boileau exhibited no small power. He was, in fact, a slashing reviewer in verse, and there has rarely been so effective a practitioner of the craft. Narrow as was his idea of poetry, it was perfectly clear and precise, and, as his pupil Racine showed, he could teach it to others with the most striking success. Le Lutrin, too, is a poem which, in a rather trivial kind, is something of a masterpiece. Its subject, the quarrel of a chapter of ecclesiastics about the position of a lutrin (lectern), afforded Boileau plenty of opportunity for introducing that sarcasm on the upper middle classes which was his forte; the verse is polished and correct, the satire, though rather facile and conventional, agreeable enough. His satires and epistles are full of striking traits evidently studied from the life, but he is always personal and almost always artificial, never rising to the large satiric conception of Regnier or of Dryden. So, too, most of the stories which are recorded of him (and they are many) are stories of ill-natured remarks. In his heart of hearts he knew and acknowledged[Pg 287] the greatness of Corneille, yet formally and in public he could not refrain from directing unjust satire at the veteran whose masterpieces had been produced when he was in his cradle, in order to exalt his own pupil Racine, whom he privately owned to be simply a very clever and docile rhymester. He himself was very much the same with the exception of the docility. His good sense, his talents, his eye for the ludicrous—except in his own work—were admirable, and the ill-nature of his satires, with their frequent injustice and the strange ignorance they display of all literature except the Latin classics and French and Italian contemporary authors, does not prevent their being excellent examples of French and of the art of polite libelling. It is probable that Boileau might have fared better but for his inconceivable folly in attempting, in the Namur ode, a style for which he had not the least aptitude, and for the parrot-like monotony with which Frenchmen before 1830, and even some of them since that date, have lauded and quoted him and accepted his dicta. But the most lenient estimate of him can hardly amount to more than that he was an excellent writer of prose and pedestrian verse, a critic of singular acuteness within a narrow range, and a satirist who had a keen eye for the ludicrous aspect of things and persons, and a remarkable skill at reproducing that aspect in words.

Minor Poets of the later Seventeenth Century.

The list of poets of the century has to be completed by some of more or less importance who flourished in the later days of Louis XIV., and, in some few cases, outlived him. Brébeuf might have been mentioned before, as he was Boileau's elder, and, dying young, did not reach even the most brilliant period of the reign. But he is unlike any of the three schools who have been described, and his language is more modern than that of most of the poets who wrote before or during the Fronde. His principal work is a translation of the Pharsalia, in which both the defects and the merits of the original are represented with remarkable fidelity. Boileau, who found fault with his fatras obscur, allowed him frequent flashes of genius, and these flashes are rather more frequent than might be supposed, being also of a kind which Boileau was not usually inclined to recognise. Brébeuf is decidedly of what may be called[Pg 288] the right school of French poets, though he is one of the least of that school. His minor poetry displays the same characteristics as his translation, but is of less importance. Madame Deshoulières, still more unjustly criticised by Boileau, is unquestionably one of the chief poetesses of France; indeed, with Louise Labé and Marceline Desbordes Valmore, she is almost the only one of importance. Her poems, like those of most of her contemporaries, are of the occasional order, and have too much in them that is artificial, but frequently also they have real pathos and occasionally not a little vigour. 'Le Songe' is a very admirable ode, having some of the characteristics of the English Caroline school. Racine himself, independently of his dramas, and the choruses inserted in them, wrote some poetry, chiefly religious, which has his usual characteristics of refinement in language and versification. Anthony Hamilton has left some verses (notably an exquisite song, beginning 'Celle qu'adore mon cœur n'est ni brune ni blonde') as dainty and original as his prose. At the end of the century two poets, whose names always occur together in literary history, the Abbé de Chaulieu and the Marquis de la Fare, close the record. They were not only alike in their literary work, but were personal friends, and not the worst of Chaulieu's pieces is an elegy on La Fare, whom, though the older man of the two, he survived. They were both members of the libertine society of the Temple, over which the Duke de Vendôme presided, and which, somewhat later, formed Voltaire. The verses of both were strictly occasional. Chaulieu, like many men of letters of the time, published nothing during his long life, though his poems were known to French society in manuscript. Besides the verses on La Fare, Chaulieu's best poem is, perhaps, that 'On a Country Life' (the author being an inveterate inhabitant of towns). La Fare, on the other hand, is best known by his stanzas to Chaulieu on 'La Paresse,' which he was well qualified to sing, inasmuch as it is said that during many years of his long life he did nothing but sleep and eat. The verses of the two continued to be models of style, and (in a way) of choice of subject, during the whole eighteenth century. Macaulay's rhetorical description of Frederic's verses, as 'hateful to gods and men, the faint echo of the lyre of Chaulieu,' is not quite just in its suggestion.[Pg 289] Chaulieu, and still more La Fare, wrote very fair occasional poetry. One curious application of verse during this century requires mention in conclusion. This was the Gazette, or rhymed news-letter, in which the gossip of the day, the diversions of the court, etc., were recorded for the amusement and instruction of great persons in the most pedestrian of octosyllables. The chief writer of these trifles, which are very voluminous, and which have preserved many curious particulars, was Loret, who was succeeded by Robinet, Boursault, Laurent, and others.


[224] Ed. Lalanne. 5 vols. Paris, 1862 67; also (poems only) conveniently by Jannet. Paris, 1874. Besides his verse Malherbe wrote some translations of Seneca and Livy, and a great number of letters, including many to Peiresc, a savant of the time who is best known from Gassendi's Life of him.

[225] Ed. Latour. 2 vols. Paris, 1857.

[226] Ed. Alleaume. 2 vols. Paris, 1855.

[227] Ed. Ubicini. 2 vols. Paris, 1855.

[228] Ed. Livet. 2 vols. Paris, 1855.

[229] This is in reality the beginning of the second line of the poem, though it is often quoted as if it were the first.

[230] Ed. Moland. 7 vols. Paris, 1879. Also ed. Regnier, vol. i. Paris, 1883.

[231] In previous editions this date was, by an oversight, wrongly printed as 1662. M. Scherer in correcting it has himself made a probable mistake in giving '1665.' That date is on the title-page, but the achevé d'imprimer is dated Dec. 10, 1664, and as a second edition was finished by Jan. 10, 1665, it is practically certain that the book was out before the end of the year.

[232] Ed. Fournier. Paris, 1873.

[Pg 290]



While the influence of Malherbe was thus cramping and withering poetry proper in France, it combined with some other causes to enable drama to attain the highest perfection possible in the particular style practised. In non-dramatic poetry, the only name of the seventeenth century which can be said even to approach the first class is that of La Fontaine, whose verse, except for its technical excellence, is almost as near to prose as to poetry itself. But the names of Corneille, Racine, and Molière stand in the highest rank of French authors, and their works will remain the chief examples of the kind of drama which they professed. Nor is this difference in any way surprising. It has been already shown that the style of drama introduced into France by the Pléiade, and pursued with but little alteration afterwards, was a highly artificial and a highly limited kind. It lent itself successfully to comparatively few situations; it excluded variety of action on the stage; it gave no opening for the display of complicated character. But these very limitations made it susceptible of very high polish and elaboration within its own limited range, and made such polish and elaboration almost a necessity if it was to be tolerable at all. The correct and cold language and style which Malherbe preached; the regularity and harmony of versification on which he insisted; the strict attention to rule rather than impulse which he urged, all suited a thing in itself so artificial as the Senecan tragedy. They were not so suitable to the more libertine genius of comedy. But here, fortunately for France, the regulations were less rigid, and the abiding popularity of the indigenous farce gave a healthy[Pg 291] corrective. The astonishing genius of Molière succeeded in combining the two influences—the lawless freedom of the old farce, and the ordered decency of the Malherbian poetry. Even his theatre shows some sign of the taint with which 'classical' drama is so deeply imbued, but its force and truth almost or altogether redeem the imperfections of its scheme.


We have seen that the early tragedy, which was more or less directly reproductive of Seneca, attained its highest pitch in the work of Garnier. This pitch was on the whole well maintained by Antoine de Montchrestien, a man of a singular history and of a singular genius. The date of his birth is not exactly known, but he was the son of an apothecary at Falaise, and belonged to the Huguenot party. Duels and lawsuits succeed each other in his story, and by some means or other he was able to assume the title of Seigneur de Vasteville. In one of his duels he killed his man, and had to fly to England. Being pardoned, he returned to France and took to commerce. But after the death of Henri IV. he joined a Huguenot rising, and was killed in October 1621. Montchrestien wrote a treatise on Political Economy (he is even said to have been the first to introduce the term into French), some poems, and six tragedies, Sophonisbe, or La Cartaginoise, Les Lacènes, David, Aman, Hector, and L'Écossaise. Racine availed himself not a little of Aman, but L'Écossaise is Montchrestien's best piece. In it he set the example to a long line of dramatists, from Vondel to Mr. Swinburne, who have since treated the story of Mary Queen of Scots. It is not part of the merit of Montchrestien to have improved on the technical defects of the Jodelle-Garnier model. His action is still deficient, his speeches immoderately long. But his choric odes are of great beauty, and his tirades, disproportionate as they are, show a considerable advance in the power of indicating character as well as in style and versification. Beyond this, however, the force of the model could no further go, and some alteration was necessary. Indeed it is by no means certain that the later plays of this class were ever acted at all, or were anything more than closet drama.

Minor predecessors of Corneille.

For a not inconsiderable time the fate of French tragedy trembled[Pg 292] in the balance. During the first thirty years of the seventeenth century the most prominent dramatist was Alexandre Hardy[233]. He is the first and not the least important example in French literary history of a dramatic author pure and simple, a playwright who was a playwright, and nothing else. Hardy was for years attached to the regular company of actors who had succeeded the Confrérie at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and wrote or adapted pieces for them at the tariff (it is said) of fifty crowns a play. His fertility was immense; and he is said to have written some hundreds of plays. The exact number is variously stated at from five to seven hundred. Forty-one exist in print. Although not destitute of original power, Hardy was driven to the already copious theatre of Spain for subjects and models. His plays being meant for acting and for nothing else, the scholarly but tedious exercitations of the Pléiade school were out of the question. Yet, while he introduced a great deal of Spanish embroilment into his plots, and a great deal of Spanish bombast into his speeches, Hardy still accepted the general outline of the classical tragedy, and, though utterly careless of unity of place and time, adhered for the most part to the perhaps more mischievous unity of action. His best play, Mariamne, is powerfully written, is arranged with considerable skill, and contains some fine lines and even scenes; but, little as Hardy hampered himself with rules, it still has, to an English reader, a certain thinness of interest. A contemporary of Hardy's, Jean de Schélandre, made, in a play[234] which does not seem ever to have been acted, a remarkable attempt at enfranchising French tragedy with the full privileges rather of the English than of the Spanish drama; but this play, Tyr et Sidon, had no imitators and no influence, and the general model remained unaltered. But during the first quarter of the century the theatre was exceedingly popular, and the institution of strolling troops of actors spread its popularity all[Pg 293] over France. Nearly a hundred names of dramatic writers of this time are preserved. Most of these, no doubt, were but retainers of the houses or the troops, and did little but patch, adapt, and translate. But of the immediate predecessors of Corneille, and his earlier contemporaries, at least half-a-dozen are more or less known to fame, besides the really great name of Rotrou. Mairet, Tristan, Du Ryer, Scudéry, Claveret, and D'Aubignac, were the chief of these. Mairet has been called the French Marston, and the resemblance is not confined to the fact that both wrote tragedies on the favourite subject of Sophonisba. The chief work of Tristan, who was also a poet of some merit, was Marianne (Mariamne), very closely modelled on an Italian original, and much less vigorous, though more polished than Hardy's play on the same subject. Du Ryer had neither Mairet's vigour nor Tristan's tenderness, but he made more progress than either of them had done in the direction of the completed tragedy of Corneille and Racine. Scudéry's Amour Tyrannique is vigorous and bombastic. Claveret and D'Aubignac (the latter of whom was an active critic as well as a bad playwright) principally derive their reputation, such as it is, from the acerbity with which they attacked Corneille in the dispute about the Cid; nor should the name of Théophile de Viaud be passed over in this connection. His Pyrame et Thisbé is often considered as almost the extreme example (though Corneille's Clitandre is perhaps worse) of the conceited Spanish-French style in tragedy. The passage in which Thisbe accuses the poniard with which Pyramus has stabbed himself of blushing at having sullied itself with the blood of its master is a commonplace of quotation. Yet, like all Théophile's work, Pyrame et Thisbé has value, and so has the unrepresented tragedy of Pasiphaé.


Among these forgotten names, and others more absolutely forgotten still, that of Rotrou[235] is pre-eminently distinguished. Jean de Rotrou (the particle is not uniformly allowed him) was born at Dreux in 1609, and was thus three years younger than Corneille. He went earlier to Paris, however, and[Pg 294] at once betook himself to dramatic poetry, his Hypocondriaque being represented before he was nineteen. He formed with Corneille, Colletet, Bois-Robert, and L'Etoile, the band of Richelieu's 'Five Poets,' who composed tragedies jointly on the Cardinal's plans[236]. He also worked unceasingly at the theatre on his own account. Thirty-five pieces are certainly, and five more doubtfully, attributed to him. For some time he had to work for bread, and the only weakness charged against him, a mania for gambling, left him poor, and perhaps prevented him from devoting to his work as much pains as he might otherwise have given. After a time, however, he was pensioned, and appointed to various legal posts which members of his family had previously held at Dreux. His fidelity to his official duty was the cause of his death. He was at Paris when a violent epidemic broke out at Dreux. All who could left the town, and Rotrou was strongly dissuaded from returning. But he felt himself responsible for the maintenance of order, likely at such a time to be specially endangered. He returned at once, caught the infection, and died. Rotrou's plays are too numerous for a complete list of them to be here given, and by common consent two of them, Le Véritable Saint Genest and Venceslas, greatly excel the rest, though vigorous verse and good scenes are to be found in almost all. These plays, it should be observed, were not written until after the publication of Corneille's early masterpieces, though Rotrou had exhibited a play the year before the appearance of Mélite. The two poets were friends, and though Corneille in a manner supplanted him, Rotrou was unwavering throughout his life in expressions of admiration for his great rival. Of the two plays just mentioned, Venceslas is the more regular, the better adapted to the canons of the French stage, and the more even in its excellence. Saint Genest is perhaps the more interesting. The central idea is remarkable. Genest, an actor, performs before Diocletian a part in which he represents a Christian martyr. He is miraculously converted during the study[Pg 295] of the piece, and at its performance, after astonishing the audience by the fervour and vividness with which he plays his part, boldly speaks in his own person, and, avowing his conversion, is led off to prison and martyrdom. Many of the speeches in this play are admirable poetry, and the plot is far from ill-managed. The play within a play, of which Hamlet and the Taming of the Shrew are English examples, was, at this transition period, a favourite stage incident in France. Corneille's Illusion is the most complicated example of it, but Saint Genest is by far the most interesting and the best managed.


There is every reason to believe that though, as has been said, Rotrou's best pieces were influenced by Corneille, the greater poet owed something at the beginning of his career to the example of his friend. Pierre Corneille[237] was born at Rouen in 1606. His father, of the same name, was an official of rank in the legal hierarchy; his mother was named Marthe le Pesant. He was educated in the Jesuits' school, went to the bar, and obtained certain small legal preferments which he afterwards sold. He practised, but 'sans goût et sans succès,' says Fontenelle, his nephew and biographer. His first comedy, Mélite, is said to have been suggested by a personal experience. It succeeded at Rouen, and the author took it to Paris. His next attempt was a tragedy or a tragi-comedy, Clitandre, of a really marvellous extravagance. It was followed by several other pieces, in all of which there is remarkable talent, though the author had not yet found his way. He found it at last in Médée, where the famous reply of the heroine 'Que vous reste-t-il?' 'Moi,' struck at once the note which no one but Corneille himself and Victor Hugo has ever struck since, and which no one had ever struck before. Corneille, as has been said above, was one of Richelieu's five poets, but he was indocile to the Cardinal's caprices; and either this indocility or jealousy set Richelieu against Le Cid. This great and famous play was suggested by, rather than copied from, the Spanish of Guillem de Castro. It excited an extraordinary turmoil among men of letters, but the public never went wrong about it from the first. Boileau's phrase—

Tout Paris pour Chimène a les yeux de Rodrigue,
[Pg 296]

is as sound in fact as it is smart in expression. The Cid appeared in 1636, and for some years Corneille produced a succession of masterpieces. Horace, Cinna, Polyeucte, Le Menteur (a remarkable comic effort, to which Molière acknowledged his indebtedness), and Rodogune, in some respects the finest of all, succeeded each other at but short intervals. Half-a-dozen plays, somewhat inferior in actual merit, and which had the drawback of coming before a public used to the author and his method, followed, and the last and least good of them, Pertharite, was damned. Corneille, always the proudest of writers, was deeply wounded by this ill-success, and publicly renounced the stage. He devoted himself for some years to a strange task, the turning of the Imitation of A'Kempis into verse. At last Fouquet, the Mæcenas of the day, prevailed on him to begin again. He did so with Œdipe, which was successful. It was followed by many other plays, which had varying fates. Racine, with a method refined upon Corneille's own, and a greater sympathy with the actual generation, became the rival of the elder poet, and Corneille did not obey the wise maxim, solve senescentem. Yet his later plays have far more merit than is usually allowed to them.

The private life of Corneille was not unhappy, though his haughty and sensitive temperament brought him many vexations. His gains were small, never exceeding two hundred louis for a play, and though this was supplemented by occasional gifts from rich dedicatees and by a scanty private fortune, the total was insufficient. 'Je suis saoul de gloire et affamé d'argent' is one of the numerous sayings of scornful discontent recorded of him. He had a pension, but it was in his later days very ill paid. Nor was he one of the easy-going men of letters who console themselves by Bohemian indulgence. In general society he was awkward, constrained, and silent: but his home, which was long shared with his brother Thomas—they married two sisters—seems to have been a happy one. He retained till his death in 1684, if not the favour of the King and the general public, that of the persons whose favour was best worth having, such as Saint-Evremond and Madame de Sévigné, and his own confidence in his genius never deserted him.

Corneille's dramatic career may be divided into four parts; the[Pg 297] first reaching from Mélite to L'Illusion Comique; the second (that of his masterpieces), from the Cid to Rodogune; the third, from Théodore to Pertharite; the fourth, that of the decadence, from Œdipe to Suréna. The following is a list of the names and dates (these latter being sometimes doubtful and contentious) of his plays. Mélite, 1629, a comedy improbable and confused in incident and overdone with verbal pointes, but much beyond anything previous to it. Clitandre, 1630, a tragedy in the taste of the time, one of the maddest of plays. La Veuve, 1634, a comedy, well written and lively. La Galerie du Palais (same year), a capital comedy of its immature kind, bringing in the humours of contemporary Paris. La Suivante, a comedy (same year), in which the great character of the soubrette makes her first appearance. La Place Royale, a comedy, 1635, duller than the Galerie du Palais, which it in some respects resembles. Médée, a tragedy (same year), incomparably the best French tragedy up to its date. L'Illusion Comique, 1636, a tragi-comedy of the extremest Spanish type, complicated and improbable to a degree in its action, which turns on the motive of a play within a play, and produces, as the author himself remarks, a division into prologue (Act i), an imperfect comedy (Acts ii-iv), and a tragedy (Act v). Le Cid, 1636, the best-known if not the best of Corneille's plays, and, from the mere playwright's point of view, the most attractive. Horace, 1639, often, but improperly, called Les Horaces, in which the Cornelian method is seen complete. The final speech of Camille before her brother kills her was as a whole never exceeded by the author, and the 'qu'il mourût' of the elder Horace is equally characteristic. Cinna, 1639, the general favourite in France, but somewhat stilted and devoid of action to foreign taste. Polyeucte, 1640, the greatest of all Christian tragedies. La Mort de Pompée, 1641, full of stately verse, but heavy and somewhat grandiose. Le Menteur, 1642, a charming comedy, followed by a Suite du Menteur, 1643, not inferior, though the fickleness of public taste disapproved it. Théodore, 1645, a noble tragedy, which only failed because the prudery of theatrical precisians found fault with its theme—the subjection of a Christian virgin to the last and worst trial of her honour and faith. Rodogune, 1646, the chef-d'œuvre of the style, displaying from beginning[Pg 298] to end an astonishing power of moving admiration and terror. This play marks the climax of Corneille's faculty. In Héraclius, 1647, no real falling-off is visible; indeed, the character of Phocas stands almost alone on the French stage as a parallel in some sort to Iago. Andromède, 1650, introduced a considerable amount of spectacle and decoration, not unhappily. Don Sanche d'Aragon, 1651, Nicomède, 1652, and Pertharite, 1653 (each of which may possibly be a year older than these respective dates), show what political economists might call the stationary state of the poet's genius. The first two plays produced after the interval, Œdipe, 1659, and La Toison d'Or, 1660, both show the benefit of the rest the poet had had, together with certain signs of advancing years. La Toison d'Or, like Andromède, includes a great deal of spectacle, and is rather an elaborate masque interspersed with regular dramatic scenes than a tragedy. It is one of the best specimens of the kind. In Sertorius, 1662, there are occasional passages of much grandeur and beauty, but Sophonisbe, 1663, is hardly a success, nor is Othon, 1664. Agésilas, 1666, and Attila, 1667, have been (the latter unfairly) damned by a quatrain of Boileau's. But Tite et Bérénice, 1670, must be acknowledged to be inferior to the play of Racine in rivalry with which it was produced. Pulchérie, 1672, and Suréna, 1674, are last-fruits off an old tree, which, especially the second, are not unworthy of it. Nor was Corneille's contribution to the remarkable opera of Psyché, 1671, inconsiderable. This completes his dramatic work, which amounts to thirty pieces and part of another. It should be added that, to all the plays up to La Toison d'Or, he subjoined in a collected edition very remarkable criticisms of them, which he calls Examens.

The characteristics of this great dramatist are perhaps more uniform than those of any writer of equal rank, and there can be little doubt that this uniformity, which, considering the great bulk of his work, amounts almost to monotony, was the cause of his gradual loss of popularity. We shall not here notice the points which he has in common with Racine, as a writer of the French classical drama. These will come in more suitably when Racine himself has been dealt with. In Corneille the academic criticism of the time found the fault that he rather excited admiration[Pg 299] than pity and terror, and it held that admiration was 'not a tragic passion.' The criticism was clumsy, and to a great extent futile, but it has a certain basis of truth. It is comparatively rare for Corneille to attempt, after his earliest period, to interest his hearers or readers in the fortunes of his characters. It is rather in the way that they bear their fortunes, and particularly in a kind of haughty disdain for fortune itself, that these characters impress us. Sometimes, as in the Cléopâtre of Rodogune, this masterful temper is engaged on the side of evil, more frequently it is combined with amiable or at least respectable characteristics. But there is always something 'remote and afar' about it, and the application by La Bruyère of the famous comparison between the Greek tragedians is in the main strictly accurate. It follows that Corneille's demand upon his hearers or readers is a somewhat severe one, and one with which many men are neither disposed nor able to comply. It was a greater misfortune for him than for almost any one else that the French and not the English drama was the Sparta which it fell to his lot to decorate. His powers were not in reality limited. The Menteur shows an excellent comic faculty, and the strokes of irony in his serious plays have more of true humour in them than appears in almost any other French dramatist. Had the licence of the English stage been his, he would probably have been able to impart a greater interest to his plays than they already possess, without sacrificing his peculiar faculty of sublime moral portraiture, and certainly without losing the credit of the magnificent single lines and isolated passages which abound in his work. The friendly criticism of Molière on these sudden flashes is well known. 'My friend Corneille,' he said, 'has a familiar who comes now and then and whispers in his ear the finest verses in the world, but sometimes the familiar deserts him, and then he writes no better than anybody else.' The most fertile familiar cannot suggest fifty or sixty thousand of these finest lines in the world; and the consequence is that, what with the lack of central interest which follows from Corneille's own plan, with the absence of subsidiary interest and relief which is inevitable in the French classical model, and with the drawbacks of his somewhat declamatory style, there are long passages, sometimes whole scenes[Pg 300] and acts, if not whole plays of his, which are but dreary reading, and could hardly be, even with the most appreciative and creative acting, other than dreary to witness. It was Corneille's fault that, while bowing himself to the yoke of the Senecan drama, he did not perceive or would not accept the fact that there is practically but one situation, by the working out of which that drama can be made tolerable to modern audiences. This situation is love-making, which in real life necessitates a vast deal of talking, and about which, even on the stage, a vast deal of talking is admissible. The characters of the French classic or heroic play are practically allowed to do nothing but talk, and the author who would make them interesting must submit himself to his fate. Corneille would not submit wholly and cheerfully, though he has, as might be expected, been obliged to introduce love-making into most of his plays.

To a modern reader the detached passages already referred to, and the magnificent versification which is displayed in them, make up the real charm of Corneille except in a very few plays, such as the Cid, Polyeucte, Rodogune, and perhaps a few others. Du Bartas, D'Aubigné, and Regnier, had indicated the capacities of the Alexandrine; Corneille demonstrated them and illustrated them almost indefinitely. He did not indulge in the pedantry of rimes difficiles, by which Racine attracted his hearers, nor was his verse so uniformly smooth as that of his younger rival. But what it lacked in polish and grace it more than made up in grandeur and dignity. The best lines of Corneille, like those of D'Aubigné, of Rotrou, from whom, comparatively stammering as was the teacher, Corneille perhaps learnt the art, and of Victor Hugo, have a peculiar crash of sound which hardly any other metre of any other language possesses. A slight touch of archaism (it is very slight) which is to be discovered in his work assists its effect not a little. The inveterate habit which exists in England of comparing all dramatists with Shakespeare has been prejudicial to the fame of Corneille with us. But he is certainly the greatest tragic dramatist of France on the classical model, and as a fashioner of dramatic verse of a truly poetical kind he has at his best few equals in the literature of Europe.


The character, career, and work of Racine were curiously[Pg 301] different from those of Corneille. Jean Racine[238] was more than thirty years younger than his greater rival, having been born at La Ferté Milon, at no great distance from Soissons, in 1639. His father held an official position at this place, but he died, as Racine's mother had previously died, in the boy's infancy, leaving him without any fortune. His grandparents, however, were alive, and able to take care of him, and they, with other relatives, willingly undertook the task. He was well educated, going to school at Beauvais, from 1650 (probably) to 1655, and then spending three years under the care of the celebrated Port Royalists, where he made considerable progress. A year at the Collège d'Harcourt, where he should have studied law, completed his regular education; but he was always studious, and had on the whole greater advantages of culture than most men of letters of his time and country. For some years he led a somewhat undecided life. His relations did their best to obtain a benefice for him, and in other ways endeavoured to put him in the way of a professional livelihood; but ill-luck and probably disinclination on his part stood in the way. He wrote at least two plays at a comparatively early age which were refused, and are not known to exist, and he produced divers pieces of miscellaneous poetry, especially the 'Nymphe de la Seine,' which brought him to the notice of Chapelain. At last, in 1664, he obtained a pension of six hundred livres for an ode on the king's recovery from sickness, and the same year La Thébaïde was accepted and produced. For the next thirteen years plays followed in rapid, but not too rapid succession. Racine was the favourite of the king, and consequently of all those who had no taste of their own, as well as of some who had, though the best critics inclined to Corneille, between whom and Racine rivalry was industriously fostered. The somewhat indecent antagonism which Racine had shown towards a man who had won renown ten years before his own birth was justly punished in his own temporary eclipse by the almost worthless Pradon. He withdrew disgusted from the stage in 1677. About the same time he married, was made historiographer to the king, and became more or less fervently devout.[Pg 302] Years afterwards, at the request of Madame de Maintenon, he wrote for her school-girls at St. Cyr the dramatic sketch of Esther, and soon afterwards the complete tragedy of Athalie, the greatest of his works. Then he relapsed into silence as far as dramatic utterance was concerned. He died in 1699. Thus he presented the singular spectacle, only paralleled by our own Congreve, and that not exactly, of a short period of consummate activity followed by almost complete inaction. That this inaction was not due to exhaustion of genius was abundantly shown by Esther and Athalie. But Racine was of a peculiar and in many ways an unamiable temper. He was very jealous of his reputation, acutely sensitive to criticism, and envious to the last degree of any public approbation bestowed on others. Having made his fame, he seems to have preferred, in the language of the French gaming table, faire Charlemagne, and to run no further risks. He had, however, worse failings than any yet mentioned. Molière gave him valuable assistance, and he repaid it with ingratitude. With hardly a shadow of provocation he attacked in a tone of the utmost acrimony the Port Royal fathers, to whom he was under deep obligations. The charge of hypocrisy in religious matters which has been brought against him is probably gratuitous, and, in any case, does not concern us here. But his character in his literary relations is far from being a pleasant one.

The following is a list of Racine's theatrical pieces. La Thébaïde, 1664, indicates with sufficient clearness the lines upon which all Racine's plays, save the two last, were to be constructed—a minute adherence to the rules, very careful versification and subordination of almost all other interests to stately gallantry—but it is altogether inferior to its successors. In Alexandre le Grand, 1665, the characteristics are accentuated, and what Corneille disdainfully called—

Le commerce rampant de soupirs et de flammes

is more than ever prominent. In Andromaque, 1667, an immense advance is perceptible. The characters become personally interesting (Hermione is perhaps more attractive than any of Corneille's women), and a power of passionate invective not unworthy to be compared with Corneille's, but with more of a feminine character[Pg 303] about it, appears. This was followed by Racine's only attempt in the comic sock, Les Plaideurs, 1668, a most charming trifle which has had, and has deserved, more genuine and lasting popularity than any of his tragedies. He returned to tragedy, and rapidly showed the defects of the stereotyped mannerism inevitably imposed on him by his plan. Britannicus, 1669, Bérénice, 1670, Bajazet, 1672, and Mithridate, 1673, with all their perfection of technique, announce, as clearly as anything can well do, the fatal monotony into which French tragedy had once more fallen, and in which it was to continue for a century and a half. Iphigénie, 1674, has much more liveliness and variety, the deep pathos and terror of the situation making even Racine's interminable love casuistry natural and interesting. But Phèdre, 1677, the last of the series, is unquestionably the most remarkable of Racine's regular tragedies. By it the style must stand or fall, and a reader need hardly go farther to appreciate it. Britannicus was indeed preferred by eighteenth-century judges; but for excellence of construction, artful beauty of verse, skilful use of the limited means of appeal at the command of the dramatist, no play can surpass Phèdre; and if it still is found wanting, as it undoubtedly is by the vast majority of critics (including nowadays a powerful minority even among Frenchmen themselves), the fault lies rather in the style than in the author, or at least in the author for adopting the style. Esther, 1689, and Athalie, 1691, on the other hand, while retaining a certain similarity of form and machinery, are radically different from the other plays. It is evident that Racine before writing them had attentively studied the sixteenth-century drama, to the strict form of which with its choruses he returns, and from which he borrows, in some cases directly, the Aman of Montchrestien having clearly suggested passages in Esther. His great poetical faculty has freer play; he escapes the monotonous 'soupirs et flammes' altogether, and the result is in Esther on the whole, in Athalie wholly, admirable.

Racine's peculiarities as a dramatist have been already indicated, but may now be more fully described. He was emphatically one of those writers—Virgil and Pope are the other chief notable representatives of the class—who, with an incapacity for the finest[Pg 304] original strokes of poetry, have an almost unlimited capacity for writing from models, for improving the technical execution of their poems, and for adjusting the conception of their pieces to their powers of rendering. These writers are always impossible without forerunners, and not usually possible without critics of the pedagogic kind. Racine was extraordinarily fortunate in his forerunner, and still more fortunate in his critic. He was able to start with all the advantages which thirty years of work on the part of his rival, Corneille, gave him; and he had for his trainer, Boileau, one of the most capable, if one of the most limited and prejudiced, of literary schoolmasters. Boileau was no respecter of persons, and arrogant as he was, he was rather an admirer of Racine than of Corneille; yet, according to a well-known story, he distinguished between the two by saying that Corneille was a great poet, and Racine a very clever man, to whom he himself had taught the knack of easy versification with elaborate rhyming. It is indeed in his versification that both the strength and the weakness of Racine lie, and in this respect he is an exact analogue to the poets mentioned above. He treated the Alexandrine of Corneille exactly as Pope treated the decasyllable of Dryden, and as Virgil treated the hexameter of Lucretius. In his hands it acquired smoothness, softness, polish, and mechanical perfections of many kinds, only to suffer at the same time a compensatory monotony which, when the honied sweetness of it began to cloy, was soon recognised as a terrible drawback. The extraordinary estimation in which Racine is held by those who abide by the classical tradition in France depends very mainly on the melody of his versification and rhymes, but it does not depend wholly upon this. There must also be taken into account the perfection of workmanship with which he carries out the idea of the drama which he practised. What that ideal was must therefore be considered.

It must be remembered that the object of the French drama of Racine's time was not in the least to hold the mirror up to nature. The model which, owing to admiration of the classics, the Pléiade had almost at haphazard followed, rendered such an object simply unattainable. The so-called irregularity of the English stage, which used to fill French critics with alternate wonder and disgust, is[Pg 305] nothing but the result of an unflinching adherence to this standard. It is impossible to reproduce the subtilitas naturae in its most subtle example—the character of man—without introducing a large diversity of circumstance and action. That diversity in its turn cannot be produced without a great multiplication of characters, a duplication or triplication of plot, and a complete disregard of pre-established 'common form.' Now this 'common form' was the essence of French tragedy. Following, or thinking that they followed, the ancients, French dramatists and dramatic critics adopted certain fixed rules according to which a poet had to write just as a whist-player has to play the game. There was to be no action on the stage, or next to none, the interest of the play was to be rigidly reduced to a central situation, subsidiary characters were to be avoided as far as possible, the only means afforded to the personages of explaining themselves was by dialogue with confidantes—the curse of the French stage—and the only way of informing the audience of the progress of the action was by messengers. Corneille accepted these limitations partially, and without too much good-will, but he evaded the difficulty by emphasising the moral lesson. The ethical standard of his plays is perhaps higher on the whole than that of any great dramatist, and the wonderful bursts of poetry which he could command served to sugar the pill. But Racine was not a man of high moral character, and he was a man of great shrewdness and discernment. He evidently distrusted the willingness of audiences perpetually to admire moral grandeur, whether he did or did not hold that admiration was not a tragic passion. Probably he would have put it that it was not a passion that would draw. Love-making, on the contrary, would draw, and love-making accordingly is the staple of all his plays. But the defect which has attended all French literature, which was aggravated enormously by this style of drama, and which is noticeable even in his greater contemporaries, Corneille and Molière, manifested itself in his work almost inevitably. If there is one fault to be found with the creations of French literary art, it is that they run too much into types. It has been well said that the duty of art is to give the universal in the particular. But to do this exactly is difficult. It is the fault of[Pg 306] English and of German literature to give the particular without a sufficient tincture of the universal, to lose themselves in mere 'humours.' It is the fault of French literature to give the type only without differentiation. An ill-natured critic constantly feels inclined to alter the lists of Racine's dramatis personae, and instead of the proper names to substitute 'a lover,' 'a mother,' 'a tyrant,' and so forth. So great an artist and so careful a worker as Racine could not, of course, escape giving some individuality to his creations. Hermione, Phèdre, Achille, Bérénice, Athalie, are all individual enough of their class. But the class is the class of types rather than of individuals. After long debate this difference has been admitted by most reasonable French critics, and they now confine themselves to the argument that the two processes, the illustration of the universal by means of the particular, and the indication of the particular by means of the universal, are processes equally legitimate and equally important. The difficulty remains that, by common consent of mankind—Frenchmen not excluded—Hamlet, Othello, Falstaff, Rosalind, are fictitious persons far more interesting to their fellow-creatures who are not fictitious than any personages of the French stage. There is, moreover, a simple test which can be applied. No one can doubt that, if Shakespeare had chosen to adopt the style, and had accepted the censorship of a Boileau, he could easily have written Phèdre. It would be a bold man who should say that Racine could, with altered circumstances but unaltered powers, have written Othello.

Minor Tragedians.

The style of tragedy which was likely to be successful in France had been pointed out so clearly by Corneille and by Racine that it could not fail to find imitators. As usual, the weakness of the style was more fully manifested by these imitators than its strength. The best of them was Thomas Corneille, the younger brother of Pierre. A much more facile versifier than his brother, he produced a large number of plays, of which Camma, Laodice, Ariane, Le Comte d'Essex, have considerable merit. Thomas Corneille succeeded his brother in the Academy, and died at a great old age. He was an active journalist and miscellaneous writer as well as a dramatist, and his principal misfortune was that he had a brother of greater genius than himself.[Pg 307] Pradon, whose success against Phèdre so bitterly annoyed Racine, was a dramatist of the third, or even the fourth class, though he enjoyed some temporary popularity. Campistron, a follower rather than a rival of Racine, was a better writer than Pradon, but pushed to an extreme the softness and almost effeminacy of subject and treatment which made Corneille contemptuously speak of his younger rival and his party as 'les doucereux.' Quinault, before writing good operas and fair comedies, wrote bad tragedies. The only other authors of the day worth mentioning are Duché and Lafosse. Lafosse is a man of one play, though as a matter of fact he wrote four. In Manlius he gave Roman names and setting to the plot of Otway's Venice Preserved, and achieved a decided success.

Development of Comedy.

The history of French comedy is remarkably different from that of French tragedy. In the latter case a foreign model was followed almost slavishly; in the former the actual possessions of the language received grafts of foreign importation, and the result was one of the capital productions of European literature. Whether the popularity of the indigenous farce of itself saved France from falling into the same false groove with Italy it is not easy to say, but it is certain that at the time of the Renaissance there was some danger. At first it seemed as if Terence was to serve as a model for comedy just as Seneca served as a model for tragedy. The first comedy, Eugène, is strongly Terentian, though even here a greater freedom of movement, a stronger infusion of local colour is observable than in Didon or Cléopâtre. So, too, when the Italian Larivey adapted his remarkable comedies the vernacular savour became still stronger. Yet it was very long before genuine comedy was produced in France. The farces continued, and kinds of dramatic entertainment, lower even than the farce, such as those which survive in the work of the merry-andrew Tabarin[239], were relished. The Spanish[Pg 308] comedy, with its strong spice of tragi-comedy, was imitated to a considerable extent. A few examples of the Commedia erudita, or Terentian play, continued to be produced at intervals; and the stock personages of the Commedia dell'arte, Harlequin, Scaramouch, etc., at one time invaded France, and, under cover of the comic opera and the Foire pieces, made something of a lodgment. In the earlier years of the seventeenth century, moreover, a considerable number of fantastic experiments were tried. We have a Comédie des Proverbes, in which the action is altogether subordinate to the introduction of the greatest possible number of popular sayings; a Comédie des Chansons spun out of a vast and precious collection of popular songs; a Comédie des Comédies, which is a cento made up of extracts from Balzac, the moralist and letter-writer; a Comédie des Comédiens, in which the famous actors of the day are brought on the stage in their own persons[240], etc., etc. While French comedy was thus endeavouring to find its way in all manner of tentative and sometimes grotesque experiments, dramatists of talent occasionally struck, as if by accident, into some of the side paths of that way, and directed their successors into the way itself. The early comedies of Corneille have been spoken of; despite the improbability of their Spanish plots, they show a distinct feeling after real excellence. The eccentric Cyrano de Bergerac, especially in his Pédant Joué, furnished Molière with hints, and displayed considerable comic power. Scarron, a not dissimilar person, whose Roman Comique shows the interest he felt in the theatre, also wrote comedies, the chief of which were extremely popular, the character of Jodelet in the play of the same name (1645) becoming for the time a stock one both in name and type. Scarron's other chief pieces were Don Japhet d'Arménie, L'Héritier ridicule, La Précaution inutile. It was in the Menteur of Corneille that Molière himself considered that true comedy had been first reached, and it was this play which[Pg 309] set him on the track. But French comedy of the seventeenth century, before Molière, is one of the subjects which have hardly any but a historical and antiquarian interest. Although far less artificial than contemporary tragedy, it is inferior as literature. It was attempted by writers of less power, and it is disfigured by too frequent coarseness of language and incident. It was on the whole the lowest of literary styles during the first half of the century. With Molière it became at one bound the highest.


Jean Baptiste Poquelin[241], afterwards called Molière, was born at Paris, probably in January 1622, in the Rue St. Honoré. The Poquelin family seem to have come from Beauvais. Some hypotheses as to a Scotch origin have been disproved. Molière's father was an upholsterer, holding an appointment in the royal household, and of some wealth and position. Molière himself had every advantage of education, being at school at the famous Jesuit Collége de Clermont, and afterwards studying philosophy (under Gassendi) and law. He was, according to some accounts, actually called to the bar. At his majority he seems to have received a considerable share of his mother's fortune, and thus to have become independent. He joined some other young men of fair position in establishing a theatrical company called L'Illustre Théâtre, which, however, failed with heavy loss to him, notwithstanding the assistance of a family of professional actors and actresses, one of whom, Madeleine Béjart, figures prominently in his private history. He was not to be thus disgusted with his profession. In 1646 he set out on a strolling tour through the provinces, and was absent from the capital for nearly thirteen years. The notices of this interesting part of his career which exist are unfortunately few, and, like many other points connected with it, have given rise to much controversy. It is sufficient to say that he returned to Paris in 1658, and on the 24th of October performed with his troupe before the court. He had long been a dramatist as well as an actor, and had written besides minor pieces, most of which are lost, the Étourdi and the Dépit Amoureux. Molière soon acquired the favour of the king, and the Précieuses Ridicules, the first of his really great works,[Pg 310] gained for him that of the public. In 1662 he married Armande Béjart, the younger sister of Madeleine—a marriage which brought him great unhappiness, though it was probably not without influence on some of his finest work. The king was godfather to the first child of the marriage, and Molière was a prosperous man. He became valet-de-chambre to Louis, and it was some insolence of his noble colleagues which is alleged, in a late and improbable though famous story, to have occasioned the incident of his partaking of the king's en cas de nuit. The highest point of his genius was shortly reached; Tartuffe, the Festin de Pierre, and Le Misanthrope being the work of three successive years, 1664-6. Tartuffe brought him some trouble because it was supposed to be irreligious in tendency, or at least to satirise the profession of religion. These, his three greatest comedies, were not all warmly received, and he fell back upon lighter work, producing in rapid succession farce-comedies for the public theatre, and divertissements of divers kinds for the court until his death in February 1673, which happened almost on the stage.

The following is a complete list of Molière's work which has come down to us. During his provincial sojourn he had written many slight pieces half-way in kind between the Italian comedy and the native farce. Of these two only survive, Le Médecin Volant and La Jalousie du Barbouillé. Both have considerable merit, and Molière subsequently worked up their materials, as no doubt he did those of the lost pieces. L'Étourdi, 1653, is a regular comedy in five acts, still strongly Italian in style and somewhat improbable in circumstances, but full of sparkle and lively action and dialogue. Le Dépit Amoureux, 1654, is even better and more independent. Nothing had yet been seen on the French stage so good as the quarrels and reconciliation of the quartette of master, mistress, valet, and soubrette. But Les Précieuses Ridicules, 1659, struck an entirely different note. The stage had been employed often enough for personal satire, but it had not yet been made use of for the actual delineation and criticism of contemporary manners as manners and not as the foibles of individuals. The play was directed against the affectations and unreal language of the members of literary coteries which, with that of the Hôtel Rambouillet as the chief, had[Pg 311] long been prominent in French society. It has but a single act, but in its way it has never been surpassed either as a piece of social satire or a piece of brilliant dialogue illustrating ludicrous action and character. Sganarelle, 1660, relapses into the commonplaces of farce, and has no moral or satirical intention, but is amusing enough. Don Garcie de Navarre, 1661, may be called Molière's only failure. He styles it a comédie héroïque, and it is in fact a kind of anticipation of Racine's manner, but applied to less serious subjects. The jealousy of the hero is, however, the only motive of the piece, and its exhibition is rather tiresome than anything else. The play is monotonous and unrelieved by action. The genius of the author reappeared in its appropriate sphere in L'École des Maris (same date), where a Terentian suggestion is adapted and carried out with the greatest skill. Then, still in the same prolific year, Molière returned to social satire in Les Fâcheux, an audacious lampoon on the forms of fashionable boredom common among the courtiers of the time. In 1662 appeared L'École des Femmes, which is generally considered the best of Molière's plays before Tartuffe. A certain slyness about the character of Agnes is its only drawback. This gave occasion to the brilliant and most amusing Critique de L'École des Femmes, 1663. Here the author is once more the satirist of contemporary society, which he introduces as criticising his own work. L'Impromptu de Versailles (same date), according to a curious habit which Molière did not originate, brings the author himself and his troupe in their own names and persons before the spectator. Le Mariage Forcé, 1664, a slight piece, was worked up into a ballet for the court. La Princesse d'Elide (same date) is Molière's most important court piece, or comédie-ballet, and, though necessarily artificial, has great beauty. Next in point of composition came The Hypocrite, that is to say Tartuffe, but the difficulties which this met with made Le Festin de Pierre, 1665, appear first. This is a tragi-comic working up of the Don Juan story, and is of a different class from any other of Molière's comedies. It has been thought, but without sufficient ground, that Molière here gave expression to a modified form of the freethinking which was so common at the time. It may, perhaps, be more truly regarded as an excursion into romantic comedy—the[Pg 312] comedy which, like Shakespeare's work, is not directly satiric on society or on individuals, but tells stories poetically and in dramatic form with comic touches. It is noteworthy that Don Juan is of all Molière's heroes least exposed to the charge of being an abstraction rather than a man. The pleasant trifle, L'Amour Médecin (same date), was succeeded by Le Misanthrope, 1666. Here Molière's special vein of satire was worked most deeply and to most profit, though the reproach that the handling is somewhat too serious for comedy is not undeserved. Alceste the impatient but not cynical hero, Célimène the coquette, Oronte the fop, Éliante the reasonable woman, Arsinoé the mischief-maker, are all immortal types. The admirable farce-comedy of the Médecin malgré Lui (same date), founded upon an old fabliau, followed, and this was succeeded almost immediately by the graceful pastoral of Mélicerte, the amusing Pastorale Comique, and the slight sketch of Le Sicilien, ou L'Amour Peintre. At last, in 1667, Tartuffe got itself represented. It is a vigorous and almost ferocious satire on religious pretension masking vice, and many of its separate strokes are of the dramatist's happiest. Here however, more than elsewhere, is felt the drawback of the method. Comparing Tartuffe with Iago, we have all the difference between a skilful but not wholly probable presentation of wickedness in the abstract, and a picture of a wicked man. In Amphitryon, 1668, Molière measured himself with Plautus and produced an admirable play. George Dandin (same date), the working up of La Jalousie du Barbouillé, is one of the happiest of his sketches of conjugal infelicity. Then came L'Avare (same date), in which Molière was once more indebted to the ancients and to his French predecessors, but in which he amply justified his borrowings. At this time he extended his field and brought his knowledge of provincial and bourgeois life to bear. M. de Pourceaugnac, 1669, is an ingenious satire, pushed to the verge of burlesque and farce, on the country squires of France. Les Amants Magnifiques, 1670, shows the writer once more in his capacity of court playwright. But Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (same date) is the most audacious and by far the most successful of the wonderful extravaganzas in which a sound and perennial motive of satire on society is wrapped up, the theme this time being[Pg 313] the bourgeoisie of Paris, of which the author was himself a member. Psyché, 1671, is, perhaps, the most remarkable example of collaboration in literature, Molière, Pierre Corneille, and Quinault, the greatest comic dramatist, the greatest tragic dramatist, and the greatest opera librettist of the day, having joined their forces with a result not unworthy of them. Les Fourberies de Scapin (same date) is again farce, but farce such as only Molière could write; and in La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas (same date) the theme of M. de Pourceaugnac is taken up with a certain heightening of colour and manner. Les Femmes Savantes, 1672, brings the reader back to what is as emphatically 'la bonne comédie' as its original Les Précieuses Ridicules. The tone and treatment are more serious than in the older piece and deal with a different variety of feminine coxcombry, but the effect is not less happy, and is free from the broader elements of farce. Lastly, Le Malade Imaginaire, 1673, the swan-song of Molière, combined both his greatest excellences, the power of raising audacious farce into the region of true comedy and the power of satirising social abuses with a pitiless but good-humoured hand. The main theme here is the absurdity of the current practice of medicine, but as usual the genius of the writer veils the fact of the drama being a drama with a purpose.

The unique individuality and the extraordinary merit of the various pieces which make up Molière's theatre have made it necessary to give a tolerably minute account of them, and that account will to a certain extent dispense us from dealing with his general characteristics at great length, especially as a few remarks on French comedy of the Molièresque kind as a whole will have to be given at the end of this chapter. Independently of the characters which Molière shares with all the great names of literature, his fertility and justness of thought, the felicity of the expression in which he clothes it, and his accurate observation of human life, there are two points in his drama which belong, in the highest degree, to him alone. One is the extraordinary manner in which he manages to imbue farce and burlesque with the true spirit of refined comedy. This manner has been spoken of by unfriendly critics as 'exaggerated,' but the reproach argues a deficiency of perception. Even the most roaring farces of Molière, even such pieces as M. de Pourceaugnac [Pg 314]and the Bourgeois Gentilhomme, demand rank as legitimate comedy, owing to his unmatched faculty of intimating a general purpose under the cloak of the merely ludicrous incidents which are made to surround the fortunes of a particular person. This general purpose (and here we come to the second point) is invariably a moral one. Of all dramatists, ancient and modern, Molière is perhaps that one who has borne most constantly in mind the theory that the stage is a lay-pulpit and that its end is not merely amusement, but the reformation of manners by means of amusing spectacles. Occasionally, no doubt, he has pushed this purpose too far and has missed his mark. He has never given us, and perhaps could not have given us, such examples of dramatic poetry of the non-tragic sort as Shakespeare and Calderon have given. Indeed, it seems to be a mistake to call Molière a poet at all, despite his extraordinary creative faculty. He was too positive, too much given to literal transcription of society, too little able to convey the vague suggestion of beauty which, as cannot be too often repeated, is of the essence of poetry. But, if we are content to regard drama as a middle term between poetry and prose, he, with the two poets just named, must be appointed to the first place in it among modern authors. In brilliancy of wit he is, among dramatists, inferior only to Aristophanes and Congreve. But he took a less Rabelaisian licence of range than Aristophanes, and he never, like Congreve, allows his action to drift aimlessly while his characters shoot pleasantries at one another. If we leave purely poetic merit out of the question and restrict the definition of comedy to the dramatic presentment of the characters and incidents of actual life, in such a manner as at once to hold the mirror up to nature and to convey lessons of morality and conduct, we must allow Molière the rank of the greatest comic writer of all the world. Castigat ridendo mores is a motto which no one challenges with such a certainty of victory as he.

Although the number and the diversity of Molière's works were well calculated to encourage imitators, it was some time before the imitators appeared. Unlike Racine, whose method was at once caught up, Molière saw during his lifetime no one who could even pretend to be a rival. Those who are now classed as being[Pg 315] in some degree of his time were for the most part in their cradles when his masterpieces were being acted. Regnard, the best of them, was born two years after the appearance of Le Dépit Amoureux and only three years before the appearance of Les Précieuses Ridicules. Baron was his pupil and adoring disciple. Dufresny was but just of age, and Dancourt but ten years old, at his death. Brueys and Palaprat (the Beaumont and Fletcher, mutatis mutandis, of the French stage) did not make up their curious association till long after that event, at the date of which Le Sage was five years old. Quinault, Boursault, and Montfleury alone were in active rivalry with him, and though none of them was destitute of merit, the merit of none of them was in the least comparable to his. He owed this advantage, for such it was, to his relatively early death and to the wonderfully short space of time in which his masterpieces were produced. Molière is identified with the age of Louis XIV., yet Les Précieuses Ridicules was written years after the king's nominal accession, and even after his actual assumption of the reins of government from the hands of Mazarin, while Le Malade Imaginaire was acted by its dying author more than forty years before the great king's reign ended.

Contemporaries of Molière.

The three authors just mentioned as actually contemporary with Molière require no very lengthy notice. Quinault may almost be said to have founded a new literary school (in which none of his pupils has surpassed him) by the excellence of his operas. Of these Armida is held the best. His comedies proper are not quite so good as his operas, but much better than his tragedies. One of them, L'Amant Indiscret, supplied Newcastle and Dryden with hints to eke out L'Étourdi, and most of them show a considerable command of comic situation, if not of comic expression. Montfleury, whose real name was Antoine Jacob, was, like Molière, an actor. He belonged to the old or rival company of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and was born in 1640. He wrote sixteen comedies, partly on contemporary subjects and partly adaptations of Spanish originals. The two best are La Femme Juge et Partie and La Fille Capitaine. They belong to an older style of comedy than Molière's, being both extravagant and coarse, but there is considerable vis comica[Pg 316] in them. Boursault, who was born in 1638 and died in 1701, had still more merit, though he too was an enemy of Molière. His Mercure Galant is his principal play, besides which Ésope à la Cour, Ésope à la Ville, and Phaeton may be mentioned. He was decidedly popular both as a man and a writer. Vanbrugh imitated more than one of his plays. In all these comedies a certain smack of the pre-Molièresque fancy for Comédies des Chansons and other tours de force may be perceived. Besides these three writers others of Molière's own contemporaries wrote comedies with more or less success. La Fontaine himself was a dramatist, though his dramas do not approach his other work in excellence. Thomas Corneille wrote comedies, but none of importance; and Campistron attained a certain amount of success in comic as in tragic drama. No one of these, however, approached the authors of the younger generation who have been mentioned.

The School of Molière-Regnard.

Jean François Regnard, the second of French comic dramatists in general estimation (though it is doubtful whether any single piece of his equals Turcaret), was born at Paris in 1656, and lived a curious life. He was heir to considerable wealth and increased it, singular to say, by gambling. He had also a mania for travelling, and when he was only two-and-twenty was captured by an Algerian corsair and enslaved. After some adventures of a rather dubious character he was ransomed, but continued to travel for some years. At last he returned to France, bought several lucrative offices and an estate in the country, and lived partly there and partly at Paris, writing comedies and indulging largely in the pleasures of the table. He died at his château of Grillon in 1710, apparently of a fit of indigestion; but various legends are current about the exact cause of his death. He wrote twenty-three plays (including one tragedy of no value) and collaborated with Dufresny in four others. Many of these pieces were comic operas. At least a dozen were represented by the 'Maison de Molière.' The best of them are Le Joueur, Le Distrait, Les Ménéchmes, Le Légataire, the first and the last named being his principal titles to fame. Regnard trod as closely as he could in the steps of Molière. He was destitute of that great dramatist's grasp of character and moral earnestness;[Pg 317] but he is a thoroughly lively writer, and well merited the retort of Boileau (by no means a lenient critic, especially to the young men who succeeded his old friend), when some one charged Regnard with mediocrity, 'Il n'est pas médiocrement gai.'

Baron the actor was born in 1643 and died in 1729, after having long been the leading star of the French stage. He wrote, though it is sometimes said that he was aided by others, seven comedies. One of these, L'Andrienne, is a clever adaptation of Terence, and another, L'Homme aux Bonnes Fortunes, has considerable merit in point of writing and of that stage adaptability which few writers who have not been themselves actors have known how to master.

Charles Rivière Dufresny, a descendant of 'La Belle Jardinière,' one of Henri IV.'s village loves, was born in 1648 and died in 1724. He was a great favourite of Louis XIV. and a kind of universal genius, devoting himself by turns to almost every branch of literature and of the arts. He was, however, incurably desultory, and was besides a man of disorderly life. His comedies were numerous and full of wit and knowledge of the world, but somewhat destitute of finish. Besides those in which Regnard collaborated he was the author of eleven pieces, of which L'Esprit de Contradiction, Le Double Veuvage, La Coquette de Village, and La Réconciliation Normande are perhaps the best.

Florent Carton Dancourt was born in 1661 and died in 1725. He too was a favourite of Louis XIV., but, unlike Dufresny, he was an actor as well as an author. Towards the end of his days, having made a moderate fortune, he betook himself to a country life and to the practice of religious duties. His théâtre is considerable, extending to twelve volumes. The great peculiarity of his comedies is that they deal almost exclusively with the middle class. Les Bourgeoises de Qualité and Le Chevalier à la Mode, perhaps also Le Galant Jardinier and Les Trois Cousines, deserve mention.

The collaboration of Brueys and Palaprat resulted in the modern version of the famous mediaeval farce, L'Avocat Pathelin, and in an excellent piece of the Molière-Regnard type, Le Grondeur. Some other plays of less merit were written by the friends, while each is[Pg 318] responsible for two independent pieces. Both were Provençals, David Augustin de Brueys having been born at Aix in 1640, Jean Palaprat at Toulouse ten years later. Brueys, who, as an abbé converted by Bossuet and engaged actively in propagating his new faith, had some difficulty in appearing publicly as a dramatic author, is understood to have had the chief share in the composition of the joint dramas.

Characteristics of Molièresque Comedy.

The general characteristics of this remarkable comedy are not hard to define. Based as it was, after Molière had once set the example, on the direct study of the actual facts of society and human nature, it could not fail to appeal to universal sympathy in a very different degree from the artificial tragedy which accompanied it. It was, moreover, far less trammelled by rules than the sister variety of drama. Unities did not press very heavily on the comic dramatist; his choice and number of characters, his licence of action on the stage, and so forth, were unlimited; he could write in prose or verse at his pleasure, and, if he chose verse, he was bound to a much less monotonous kind of it than his tragic brother. Consequently the majority of the objections which lie against the masterpieces of Corneille and Racine, and which make the work of their imitators almost unreadable, leave Molière and his followers unscathed. One drawback only remained, the drawback already commented on in the case of tragedy, and admitted by French critics themselves in some such terms as that Shakespeare took individuals, Molière took types. The advantage of the latter method for enforcing a moral lesson is evident; its literary disadvantages are evident likewise. It leads to an ignoring of the complexity of human nature and to an unnatural prominence of the 'ruling passion.' The highest dramatic triumphs of single character in comedy, Falstaff, Rosalind, Beatrice, become impossible. As it has been remarked, the very titles of these plays, Le Misanthrope, Le Joueur, Le Grondeur, show their defects. No man is a mere misanthrope, a mere gambler, a mere grumbler; and the dramatist who approaches comedy from the side of Molière is but too apt to forget the fact in his anxiety to enforce his moral and deepen the strokes of his general type.


[233] Ed. Stengel. 5 vols. Marburg, 1884. Cf. Rigal, Alexandre Hardy. Paris, 1889.

[234] This singular work has been published in vol. 8 of the Ancien Théâtre Français in the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne. It consists of two parts (or, as the author calls them, days), and fills some two hundred pages. The traditions of the classical drama are thrown to the winds in it, and the liberty of action, the abundance of personages, the bustle and liveliness of the presentation are almost equal to those of the contemporary English theatre.

[235] Ed. Viollet-le-Duc. Also in a convenient selection of his best plays, by L. de Ronchaud. Paris, 1882.

[236] It is pretty generally known that Richelieu himself (besides other dramatic work) composed the whole, or nearly the whole, of a play Mirame, which he had sumptuously performed, and which was fathered by Desmarest. It possessed no merit.

[237] Ed. Marty-Laveaux. 12 vols. Paris, 1862-67.

[238] Ed. Mesnard. 8 vols. Paris, 1867.

[239] The work of (or attributed to) this singular and obscure person has been edited by M. G. Aventin in 2 vols, of the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne (Paris, 1858). The name was certainly assumed, and the date and history of the bearer are quite uncertain. The third decade of the seventeenth century seems to have been his most flourishing time. He was the most remarkable of a class of charlatans, others of whom bore the names of Gaultier-Garguille, Gros-Guillaume, etc., and the work which goes under his name is typical of a large mass of facetiae. It consists of dialogues between Tabarin and his master, of farcical adventures in which figure Rodomont (the typical hero of romance) and Isabelle (the typical heroine), etc., etc.

[240] These will be found in the dramatic collection of the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne already cited, as well as other pieces, of which the most remarkable is the Corrivaux of Troterel (1612). Saint-Evremond among his earlier works produced a Comédie des Académistes, satirising the then young Academy.

[241] Ed. Moland. 7 vols. Paris, 1863. Ed. (in 'Grands Ecrivains' series) Despois, Regnier, and Mesnard. Paris (in progress).

[Pg 319]




Prose fiction, for reasons which it is not at all hard to discover, is in its more complete forms always a late product of literature. Up to the beginning of the seventeenth century, France had known nothing of it except the short prose tales which had succeeded the Fabliaux, and which had been chiefly founded on imitation of the Italians, with the late and inferior prose versions of the romances of chivalry, the isolated masterpiece of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the translated and adapted versions of the Amadis and its continuations. The imitation of Spanish literature was constant in the early seventeenth century, and the great wave of conceited style which, under the various names of Euphuism, Gongorism, Marinism, invaded all the literary countries of Europe, did not spare France. The result was a very singular class of literature which, except for a few burlesque works, almost monopolised the attention of novelists during the first half of the century. The example of it was in a manner set by Honoré d'Urfé in the Astrée, which was, however, rather pastoral than heroic. D'Urfé, who was a man of position and wealth in the district of Forez, imagined, on the banks of the Lignon, a stream running past his home, a kind of Arcadia, the popularity of which is sufficiently shown by the adoption of the name of the hero, Céladon, as one of the stock names in French for a lover. He took, perhaps, some of his machinery from the Aminta of Tasso and from the other Italian pastorals, but he emulated the Amadis in the interminable series of adventures and the long-windedness of his treatment. He had, however,[Pg 320] some literary power, while the necessary verisimilitude was provided for by the adaptation of numerous personal experiences, and the book has preserved a certain reputation for graceful sentiment and attractive pictures of nature. It was extraordinarily popular at the time and long afterwards, so much so that a contemporary ecclesiastic, Camus de Pontcarré, considered it necessary to supply an antidote to the bane in the shape of a series of Christian pastorals, the name of one of which, Palombe, is known, because of an edition of it in the present century.

The Heroic Romances.

D'Urfé belonged as much to the sixteenth as to the seventeenth century, though the Astrée was the work of the latter part of his life, and was indeed left unfinished by him. It was shortly afterwards, under the influence chiefly of the growing fancy for literary coteries, that the heroic romance properly so called was born. This was usually a narration of vast length, in which sometimes the heroes and heroines of classical antiquity, sometimes personages due more or less to the author's imagination, were conducted through a more than Amadis-like series of trials and adventures, with interludes and a general setting of high-flown gallantry. This latter possessed a complete jargon of its own, and (though the hypothesis of its power over the classical French drama is for the most part exaggerated) continued to exercise a vast influence on literature and on society, even after Molière had poured on its chief practitioners and advocates the undying mockery of his Précieuses Ridicules. There were three prominent authors in this style, Mademoiselle de Scudéry, La Calprenède, and Gomberville. Mademoiselle de Scudéry, known in the coterie nomenclature of the time as 'Sapho,' was the sister of Georges de Scudéry, and a woman of considerable talent and more considerable industry. Madeleine de Scudéry was born at Havre in 1607, and died at Paris in 1701, her life thus covering nearly the whole of the century of which she was one of the most conspicuous literary figures. She had no beauty—indeed she was very ugly—but the eccentric military and literary reputation of her brother and her own talents made her the centre and head of an important coterie in the capital. Her romances, the earliest of which was Ibrahim, were published under her brother's name, but[Pg 321] their authorship was well known. She was extremely accomplished, not merely in the accomplishments of a blue-stocking but in art, and even in housewifery. After her series of romances was finished she published many volumes, chiefly condensed or extracted from them, containing Conversations of the moral kind, which attracted attention from some persons who had not condescended to the romances themselves. It ought never to be forgotten that among the most fervent admirers of her books and of their fellows was Madame de Sévigné, who was certainly almost as acute in literary criticism as she was skilful in literary composition. Her novels, the most famous of their class, are the Grand Cyrus, otherwise Artamène, Clélie, Ibrahim, or the Illustrious Bassa, and Almahide, the latter being partly, but chiefly in the name of the heroine, the source of Dryden's Conquest of Granada. The Grand Cyrus is, at least by title, the best remembered, but it is in Clélie that the best-known and most characteristic trait appears, the delineation and description namely of the Carte de Tendre[242]. Tendre is the country of love, through which flows the river of Inclination watering the villages of 'Pretty Verses,' 'Gallant Epistles,' 'Assiduity,' etc., while elsewhere in the region are the less cheerful localities of 'Levity,' 'Indifference,' 'Perfidy,' and so forth. La Calprenède, a Gascon by birth, was the author of Cléopâtre (which ranks perhaps with Cyrus as the chief example of the style), of Cassandre and of Pharamond. Gauthier de Coste (which was his personal name) figures, like most of the notable persons of the middle of the century, in the Historiettes of Tallemant, who says of him, 'Il n'y a jamais eu un homme plus Gascon que celui-ci.' The assertion is supported by some characteristic but not easily quotable anecdotes. The criticism of Tallemant, however, does not apply badly to the whole class of compositions. 'Les héros,' says he, speaking of Cassandre, 'se ressemblent comme deux gouttes d'eau, parlent tous Phébus (the euphuist jargon of the time), et sont tous des gens à cent mille lieues au dessus des autres hommes.' Marin le Roy, Seigneur de Gomberville, who was something of a Jansenist, attended rather to edification than gallantry in his[Pg 322] Alcidiane, Caritée, Polexandre, and Cythérée. Though earlier in date he is inferior in power to Mademoiselle de Scudéry and to La Calprenède, the first of whom had some wit and much culture, while La Calprenède possessed a decided grasp of heroic character and some notion of the method of composing historical novels. Gomberville, a man of wealth and position, was also a writer of moral works. Putting the artificiality of the general style out of the question, the chief fault to be found with these books is their enormous length. They fill eight, ten, or even twelve volumes; they consist of five, six, or even seven thousand pages, though the pages are not very large and the print by no means close. Even the liveliest work—work like Fielding's or Le Sage's—would become tiresome on such a scale as this; and it is still incomprehensible how any one not having some special object to serve by it could struggle through such enormous wastes of verbiage and unreality as form the bulk of these novels. Even when the passion for the heroic style strictly so called began to wane no great improvement at first manifested itself. Catherine Desjardins[243] (who wrote under the name of Madame de Villedieu) produced numerous books (the chief of which is Le Grand Alcandre), not indeed so absolutely preposterous in general conception, but even more vapid and destitute of originality and distinction[244].

These impracticable and barren styles of fiction were succeeded in the latter half of the century by something much better. The Picaroon romance of Spain inspired Paul Scarron with the first of a long line of novels which, in the hands of Le Sage, Defoe, Fielding, and Smollett, enriched the literature of Europe with remarkable work. Madame de la Fayette laid the foundation of the novel proper, or story of analysis of character; and towards the close of the century the fairy tale attained, in the hands of Anthony[Pg 323] Hamilton, Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy, its most delightful and abundant development.


Paul Scarron was one of the most remarkable literary figures of the century in respect of originality and eccentric talent, though few single works of his possess formal completeness. He was of a family of Piedmontese origin and very well connected, his father, of the same name, being a member of the Parliament of Paris, and of sufficiently independent humour to oppose Richelieu. Paul Scarron the younger (he had had an elder brother of the same name who had died an infant) was born in 1610, and his mother did not outlive his third year. His father married again; the stepmother did not get on well with Paul, and he was half obliged and half induced to become an abbé. For some years he lived a merry life, partly at Rome, partly at Paris. But when he was still young a great calamity fell on him. A cock-and-bull story of his having disguised himself as a savage in a kind of voluntary tar-and-feather suit, and having been struck with paralysis in consequence of plunging into an ice-cold stream to escape the populace, is usually told, but there seems to be no truth in it. An attack of fever, followed by rheumatism and mismanaged by the physicians of the day, appears to have been the real cause of his misfortune. At any rate, for the last twenty years of his life he was hopelessly deformed, almost helpless, and subject to acute attacks of pain. But his spirit was unconquerable. He had some preferment at Le Mans and a pension from the queen, which he lost on suspicion of writing Mazarinades. Besides these he had what he called his 'Marquisat de Quinet,' that is to say, the money which Quinet the bookseller paid him for his wares. In 1652 he astonished Paris by marrying Françoise d'Aubigné, the future Madame de Maintenon, the granddaughter of Agrippa d'Aubigné. The strange couple seem to have been happy enough, and such unfavourable reports as exist against Madame Scarron may be set down to political malice. But Scarron's health was utterly broken, and he died in 1660 at the age of fifty. His work was not inconsiderable, including some plays and much burlesque poetry, the chief piece of which was his 'Virgil travestied,' an ignoble task at best, but very cleverly performed. His prose, however, is of much[Pg 324] greater value. Many of his nouvelles, mostly imitated from the Spanish, have merit, and his Roman Comique[245], though also inspired to some extent from the peninsula, has still more. It is the unfinished history of a troop of strolling actors, displaying extraordinary truth of observation and power of realistic description in the style which, as has been said, Le Sage and Fielding afterwards made popular throughout Europe.

Cyrano de Bergerac.

With Scarron may be classed another writer of not dissimilar character, but of far less talent, whose eccentricities have given him a disproportionate reputation even in France, while they have often entirely misled foreign critics. Cyrano de Bergerac was a Gascon of not inconsiderable literary power, whose odd personal appearance, audacity as a duellist, and adherence, after conversion, to the unpopular cause of Mazarin, gave him a position which his works fail to sustain. They are not, however, devoid of merit. His Pédant Joué, a comedy, gave Molière some useful hints; his Agrippine, a tragedy, has passages of declamatory energy. But his best work comes under the head of fiction. The Voyages à la Lune et au Soleil[246], in which the author partly followed Rabelais, and partly indulged his own fancy for rodomontade, personal satire, and fantastic extravagance, have had attributed to them the great and wholly unmerited honour of setting a pattern to Swift. Cyrano, let it be repeated, was a man of talent, but his powers (he died before he was thirty-five) had not time to mature, and the reckless boastfulness of his character would probably have disqualified him at all times from adequate study and self-criticism. Personally, he is an amusing and interesting figure in literary history, but he is not much more. In company with him and with Scarron may be mentioned Dassoucy, alternately a friend and enemy of Cyrano, and a light writer of some merit.


Charles Sorel, an exceedingly voluminous author, historiographer of France, deserves mention in passing for his Histoire Comique de Francion[247], in which, as in almost all the fictitious work of the time,[Pg 325] serious as well as comic, living persons are introduced. The chief remarkable thing about Francion is the evidence it gives of an attempt at an early date (1623) to write a novel of ordinary manners. It is a dull story with loose episodes. More interesting is Antoine Furetière, author of the Roman Bourgeois[248]. Furetière, who was a man of varied talent, holds no small place in the history of the calamities of authors. He wrote poems, short tales, fables, satires, criticisms. He is said to have given both Boileau and Racine not inconsiderable assistance. Unfortunately for him, though he had been elected an academician in 1662, he conceived and executed the idea of outstripping his tardy colleagues in their dictionary work. He produced a book of great merit and utility, but one which brought grave troubles on his own head. It was alleged that he had infringed the privileges of the Academy; he was expelled from that body, his own privilege for his own book was revoked, and it was not published till after his death, becoming eventually the well-known Dictionnaire de Trévoux. Furetière's side has been warmly taken in these days, and it has been sought, not without success, to free him from the charge of all impropriety of conduct, except the impropriety of continuing to be a member of the Academy, while what he was doing could hardly be regarded as anything but a slight on it. The Roman Bourgeois is an original and lively book, without any general plot, but containing a series of very amusing pictures of the Parisian middle-class society of the day, with many curious traits of language and manners. It was published in 1666.

Madame de la Fayette.

Of very different importance is the Countess de la Fayette, who has the credit, and justly, of substituting for mere romances of adventure on the one hand, and for stilted heroic work on the other, fiction in which the display of character is held of chief account. In the school, indeed, of which Scarron set the example in France, especially in Gil Blas, its masterpiece, the most accurate knowledge and drawing of human motives and actions is to be found. But it is knowledge and drawing of human motives and actions in the gross rather than in particular. Gil Blas, and even Tom Jones, are types rather than[Pg 326] individuals, though the genius of their creators hides the fact. It is, perhaps, an arguable point of literary criticism, whether the persevering analysis of individual, and more or less unusual, character does not lead novelists away from the best path—as it certainly leads in the long run to monstrosities of the modern French and English 'realist' type. But this is a detail of criticism into which there is no need to enter here. It is sufficient that the style has produced some of the most admirable, and much of the most characteristic, work of the last century, and that Madame de la Fayette is on the whole entitled to the credit of being its originator. Her pen was taken up in the next century by the Abbé Prevost and by Richardson, and from these three the novel, as opposed to the romance, may be said to descend. The maiden name of Madame de la Fayette[249] was Marie Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, and she was born at Paris in 1634. Her father was governor of Havre. She was carefully brought up under Ménage and Rapin, among others, and was one of the most brilliant of the précieuses of the Hôtel Rambouillet. In 1655 she married the Count de la Fayette, but was soon left a widow. After his death she contracted a kind of Platonic friendship with La Rochefoucauld, who was then in the decline of life, tormented with gout, and consoling himself for the departure of the days when he was one of the most important men in France by the composition of his undying Maxims. She survived him thirteen years, and died herself in 1693. During the whole of her life she was on the most intimate terms with Madame de Sévigné, as well as with many of the foremost men of letters of the time. In particular there are extant a large number of letters between her and Huet, bishop of Avranches, one of the most learned, amiable, and upright prelates of the age. Her first attempt at novel-writing was La Princesse de Montpensier. This was followed by Zaïde, published in 1670, a book of considerable excellence; and this in its turn by La Princesse de Clèves, published in 1677, which is one of the classics of French literature. The book is but a small one, not amounting in size to a single volume of a modern English novel, and this must of itself have been no small novelty and relief after the[Pg 327] portentous bulk of the Scudéry romances. Its scene is laid at the court of Henri II., and there is a certain historical basis; but the principal personages are drawn from the author's own experience, herself being the heroine, her husband the Prince of Clèves, and Rochefoucauld the Duke de Nemours, while other characters are identified with Louis XIV. and his courtiers by industrious compilers of 'keys.' If, however, the interest of the book had been limited to this it would now-a-days have lost all its attraction, or have retained so much at most as is due to simple curiosity. But it has far higher merits, and what may be called its court apparatus, and the multitude of small details about court business, are rather drawbacks to it now. Such charm as it has is derived from the strict verisimilitude of the character drawing, and the fidelity with which the emotions are represented. This interest may, indeed, appear thin to a modern reader fresh from the works of those who have profited by two centuries of progress in the way which Madame de la Fayette opened. But when it is remembered that her book appeared thirty years before Gil Blas, forty before the masterpieces of Defoe, and more than half a century before the English novel properly so called made its first appearance, her right to the place she occupied will hardly be contested[250].

The precise origin of the fancy for writing fairy stories, which took possession of polite society in France at the end of the seventeenth century, has been the subject of much discussion, and cannot be said to have been finally settled. Probably the fables of La Fontaine, which are very closely allied to the style, may have given the required impulse. As soon as an example was set this style was seen to lend itself very well to the still surviving fancy for coterie compositions, and the total amount of work of the kind produced in the last years of the seventeenth and the first of the eighteenth century must be enormous. Much of it has not yet been printed, and the names of but few of the authors are generally known, or perhaps worth knowing[251]. Three, however,[Pg 328] emerge from the mass and deserve attention—Anthony Hamilton, Madame d'Aulnoy, and above all, Charles Perrault, the master beyond all comparison of the style.

Fairy Tales.

Marie Catherine, Comtesse d'Aulnoy, was born about the middle of the seventeenth century, and died in 1720. It is sufficient to say that among her works are the 'Yellow Dwarf' and the 'White Cat,' stories which no doubt she did not invent, but to which she has given their permanent and well-known form. She wrote much else, memoirs and novels which were bad imitations of the style of Madame de la Fayette, but her fairy tales alone are of value. Anthony Hamilton was one of the rare authors who acquire a durable reputation by writing in a language which is not their native tongue. He was born in Ireland in 1646, and followed the fortunes of the exiled royal family. He returned with Charles II., but adhering to Catholicism, was excluded from preferment in England until James II.'s reign, and he passed most of his time before the Revolution, and all of it afterwards, in France. Hamilton produced (besides many fugitive poems and minor pieces) two books of great note in French, the Mémoires de Grammont, his brother-in-law, which perhaps is the standard book for the manners of the court of Charles II., and a collection of fairy tales, less simple than those of Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy and more subordinated to a sarcastic intention, but full of wit and written in French, which is only more piquant for its very slight touch of a foreign element. Many phrases of Hamilton's tales have passed into ordinary quotation, notably 'Bélier, mon ami, tu me ferais plaisir si tu voulais commencer par le commencement.'


The master of the style was, however, as has been said, Charles Perrault, whose literary history was peculiar. He was born at Paris in 1628, being the son of Pierre Perrault, a lawyer, who had three other sons, all of them of some distinction, and one of them, Claude Perrault, famous in the oddly conjoined professions of medicine and architecture. Charles was well educated at the Collège de Beauvais, and at first studied law, but his father soon afterwards bought a place of value in the financial department, and Charles was appointed clerk in 1662. He received a curious and rather nondescript preferment (as[Pg 329] secretary to Colbert for all matters dependent on literature and arts), which, among other things, enabled him to further his brother's architectural career. In 1671 he was, under the patronage of Colbert, elected of the Academy, into the affairs and proceedings of which he imported order almost for the first time. He had done and for some time did little in literature, being occupied by the duties which, under Colbert, he had as controller of public works. But after a few essays in poetry, partly burlesque and partly serious, notably a Siècle de Louis XIV., he embarked on the rather unlucky work which gave him his chief reputation among his own contemporaries, the Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes, in which he took the part of the moderns. The dispute which followed, due principally to the overbearing rudeness of Boileau, has had something more than its proper place in literary history, and there is no need to give an account of it. It is enough to say that while Boileau as far as his knowledge went (and that was not far, for he knew nothing of English, not very much of Greek, and it would seem little of Italian or Spanish) had the better case, Perrault, assisted by his brother, made a good deal the best use of his weapons, Boileau's unlucky 'Ode on Namur' giving his enemies a great hold on him. After six years' fighting, however, the enemies made peace, and, indeed, it does not seem that Perrault at any time bore malice. He produced, besides some memoirs and the charming trifles to be presently spoken of[252], a good many miscellanies in prose and verse of no particular value, and died in 1703.

His first tale, Griselidis (in verse, and by no means his best), appeared in 1691, Peau d'Âne and Les Souhaits Ridicules in 1694, La Belle au Bois Dormant in 1696, and the rest in 1697. These are Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, La Barbe Bleue, Le Maître Chat ou le Chat Botté, Les Fées, Cendrillon, Riquet à la Houppe, and Le Petit Poucet. It is needless to say that Perrault did not invent the subjects of them. What he contributed was an admirable and peculiar narrative style, due, as seems very probable, in great part to the example of La Fontaine, but distinguished therefrom by all the difference of verse and prose. The characteristics of[Pg 330] this style are an extreme simplicity which does not degenerate into puerility, great directness, and at the same time vividness in telling the story, and a remarkable undercurrent of wit which is never obtrusive, as is sometimes the case in the verse tales. Perrault's stories deserve their immense popularity, and they found innumerable imitators chiefly among persons of quality, who, as M. Honoré Bonhomme, the best authority on the obscurer fairy-tale writers, observes, probably found an attraction in the style because of the way in which it lent itself to cover personal satire. This, however, is something of an abuse, and little or nothing of it is discernible in Perrault's own work, though later, and especially in the eighteenth century, it was frequently if not invariably present.

Note to the last Three Chapters.

Although the list of names mentioned here under the respective heads of poets, dramatists, and novelists is considerable, it is very far indeed from being exhaustive. It may, indeed, be said generally that it is only possible in this history, especially as we leave the invention of printing farther and farther behind, to mention those names which have left something like a memory behind them. The dramas and novels of the seventeenth century are extremely numerous, and have been but very partially explored. In regard to the poems there is an additional difficulty. It was a fashion of the time to collect such things in recueils—miscellaneous collections—in which the work of very large numbers of writers, who never published their poems separately or obtained after their own day any recognition as poets, is buried. Specimens, published here and there by the laborious editors of the greater classics in illustration of these latter, show that with leisure, opportunity, and critical discernment, this little-worked vein might be followed up not without advantage. But for such a purpose, as for the similar exploration of many other out-of-the-way corners of this vast literature, conditions are needed which are eminently 'the gift of fortune.' These remarks apply more or less to all the following chapters and books[Pg 331] of this history. But they may find an appropriate place here, not merely because it is from this period onwards that they are most applicable, but because this special department of French literary history—the earlier seventeenth century—contains, perhaps, the greatest proportion of this wreckage of time as yet unrummaged and unsorted by posterity.


[242] Not du Tendre, as it is often erroneously cited in French and English works.

[243] The learned editor of Tallemant des Réaux calls her Marie Hortense. She also wrote verses and plays. There were many other romance writers of the period now forgotten, or remembered only for other things, such as the Abbé d'Aubignac.

[244] I cannot boast of an intimate or exhaustive acquaintance with the 'heroic' romances; but I have taken care to satisfy myself of the accuracy of the statements in the text.

[245] Ed. Dillaye. 2 vols. Paris, 1881.

[246] The full title is Histoire Comique des États de la Lune et du Soleil. Cyrano's works have been edited by P. L. Jacob. 2 vols. Paris, 1858.

[247] Ed. Colombey. Paris, 1877.

[248] Ed. Jannet. 2 vols. Paris, 1878.

[249] Ed. Garnier. Paris, 1864.

[250] Madame de la Fayette also wrote La Comtesse de Tende, and interesting Memoirs of Henrietta of England. Zaïde was published under the name of Segrais, who was a nouvelle-writer of no great merit, though a pleasant poet.

[251] See H. Bonhomme, Le Cabinet des Fées.

[252] Ed. Lefèvre. Paris, 1875. Ed. Lang. Oxford, 1888.

[Pg 332]



Although the seventeenth century did not witness the acceptance in France of what may be called a philosophical conception of history, and though few or none of the regular histories of the time (with the exception of that of Mézeray) hold high rank as literature, no period was more fruitful in memoirs, letters, and separate historical sketches of the first merit. The names of Madame de Sévigné, of the Cardinal de Retz, of La Rochefoucauld, and at the extreme end of the period of Saint Simon, rank among those of the most original writers of France, while the historical essay has rarely assumed a more thoroughly literary form than in the short sketches of Retz, Sarrasin, and others. The subject of the present chapter may, therefore, be divided into four parts, the historians properly so called (the least interesting of the four), the historical essayists, the memoir-writers, and the letter-writers, with an appendix of erudite cultivators of historical science and of miscellaneous authors of historical gossip and other matters.

General Historians. Mézeray.

[253]It is said not unfrequently that the only historical work of this particular period, combining magnitude of subject with elevation and originality of thought and literary excellence of expression, is Bossuet's discourse on universal history. There is not a little truth in the saying. Still there are a few authors whose work deserves[Pg 333] mention. The great history of De Thou was written in Latin. But the century produced in Mézeray's History of France the first attempt of merit on the subject. François Eudes de Mézeray was the son of a surgeon, who seems to have been of some means and position. Mézeray was educated at Caen (he was born in 1610), and he early betook himself to historical studies. After beginning by supervising a translated history of the Turks, he set to work on his masterpiece, the History of France, which appeared in three huge and splendid folios in 1643, 1646, and 1651. He was accused of treating his predecessors with too great contempt; but this was more than justified by the superiority, not merely in style but in historical conception and attention to documentary evidence, which he showed. Mézeray had been protected and pensioned by Richelieu, but under Mazarin he became a violent pamphleteer and author of Mazarinades. Later, when Louis XIV. was settled on the throne, he published an abridgment of his own history, in which the keen scent of Colbert discovered uncourtly strictures on the fiscal abuses of the kingdom. Mézeray refused to alter them, and was mulcted accordingly of part of his pension. He died in 1683, having earned the title of the first historian, worthy of the name, of France. With due allowance for his period, he may challenge comparison with almost any of his successors, though his style, excellent at its best, is somewhat unequal. Péréfixe (who may have been assisted by Mézeray) is responsible for a history of Henri IV.; Maimbourg for a history of the League which has some interest for Englishmen because Dryden translated it. The same great English writer projected but did not accomplish a translation from a much more worthless historian, Varillas, who is notorious among his class for indifference to accuracy. It is indeed curious that this century, side by side with the most laborious investigators ever known, produced a school of historians who, with some merits of style, were almost deliberately unfaithful to fact. If the well-known saying ('Mon siége est fait') attributed to the Abbé Vertot is not apocryphal[254], he must be ranked in the less respectable class. But[Pg 334] his well-known histories, the chief of which is devoted to the Knights of Malta, were not wholly constructed on this principle. Pellisson wrote a history of the Academy, of which he was secretary, and one of the living Louis XIV., which, as might be expected, is little more than an ingenious panegyric. The Père Daniel wrote a history of France, the Père d'Orléans one of the English revolutions; while Rapin de Thoyras, a Huguenot and a refugee, had the glory of composing in a foreign language the first book deserving the title of a History of England. Superior to all these writers, except to Mézeray, are the ecclesiastical historians Fleury and Tillemont. Fleury was a good writer, very learned and exceedingly fair. Tillemont, with less pretentions to style, is second to no writer of history in learning, industry, accuracy, and judgment.

Historical Essayists.
Saint Réal.

The historical essay, like much else of value at the time, was in great part due to the mania for coteries. In these select societies literature was the favourite occupation, and ingenuity was ransacked to discover forms of composition admitting of treatment in brief space and of the display of literary skill. The personal 'portrait,' or elaborate prose character, was of this kind, but the ambition of the competitors soared higher than mere character-drawing. They sought for some striking event, if possible contemporary, which offered, within moderate compass, dramatic unity and scope for something like dramatic treatment. Sometimes, as in the Relation du Passage du Rhin, by the Count de Guiche, personal experiences formed the basis, but more frequently passages in the recent history of other nations were chosen. Of this kind was the Conspiration de Walstein of Sarrasin, which, though incomplete, is admirable in style. Better still is the Conjuration de Fiesque of the Cardinal de Retz, his first work, and one written when he was but seventeen. Not a few of the scattered writings of Saint Evremond may be classed under this head, notably the Letter to Créqui on the Peace of the Pyrenees, which was the cause of his exile, though this was rather political than historical. Towards the end of the century, the Abbé Vertot preluded his larger histories by a short tract on[Pg 335] the revolutions of Portugal, and another on those of Sweden, which had both merit and success. It will be observed that conspiracies, revolutions, and such-like events formed the staple subjects of these compositions. Of this class was the masterpiece of the style—the only one perhaps which as a type at least merits something more than a mere mention—the Conjuration des Espagnols contre Venise[255] of Saint Réal, a piece famous in French literature as a capital example of historical narration on the small scale, and not unimportant to English literature as the basis of Otway's principal tragedy. César Vichard, Abbé de Saint Réal, was born at Chambéry in 1631, and died at the same place in 1692. He was sent early to Paris, betook himself to historical studies, and published various works, including certain discourses on history, a piece on Don Carlos, and the Conjuration des Espagnols itself, which appeared in 1672. Shortly afterwards he visited London, and was for a time a member of the coterie of Saint Evremond and Hortense Mancini. He returned to Paris and thence, in 1679, to his native town, where the Duke of Savoy made him his historiographer and a member of the Academy of Turin. Not long before his death he was employed in political work. Saint Réal's chief characteristics as a historian are the preference before everything else of a dramatic conception and treatment, and the employment of a singularly vivid and idiomatic style, simple in its vocabulary and phrase and yet in the highest degree picturesque. He has been accused of following his master, Varillas, in want of strict accuracy, but in truth strict accuracy was not aimed at by any of these essayists. Their object was to produce a creditable literary composition, to set forth their subject strikingly and dramatically, and to point a moral of some kind. In all three respects their success was not contemptible.


The memoir-writers proper, who confine themselves to what they in their own persons have done, heard, or thought, are, as has been said, of far more importance. Their number is very great, and investigations into the vast record treasures which, after revolutionary devastation, France still possesses,[Pg 336] is yearly increasing the knowledge of them. Only a brief account can here be attempted of most of them; and where the historical importance of the writer exceeds or equals his importance as a literary figure, biographical details will be but sparingly given, as they are easily and more suitably to be found elsewhere. The earliest writer who properly comes within our century (the order of the collection of Michaud and Poujoulat is followed for convenience sake) is François Duval, Marquis de Fontenay Mareuil. Fontenay was a soldier, a courtier, and a diplomatist, in which last character he visited England. He has left us connected memoirs from 1609 to 1624, and some short accounts of later transactions, such as the siege of La Rochelle, and his own mission to Rome. Fontenay is a simple and straightforward writer, full of good sense, and not destitute of narrative power. To Paul Phélypeaux de Pontchartrain (1566-1621) we owe a somewhat jejune but careful and apparently faithful account of the minority of Louis XIII. A short and striking relation of the downfall of Concini is supposed to be the work of Michel de Marillac, keeper of the seals (1573-1632), afterwards one of the victims of Richelieu. Henri de Rohan (1579-1638) is very far superior to the writers just named. Of the greatest house, save one or two, in France, he travelled much, distinguished himself in battle, both in foreign and civil war; was once condemned to death, made head for a time against all the strength of Richelieu; was near purchasing the principality of Cyprus from the Venetians, and establishing himself in the east; was recalled, commanded the French forces with brilliant success in the Valtelline, and met his death under Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar at Rheinfeld. Besides his memoirs he wrote a book called the Parfait Capitaine, and some others. The memoirs extend from the death of Henri IV. to the year 1629, and have all the vigour and brilliancy of the best sixteenth-century work of the kind. A further account of the Valtelline campaign is also most probably Rohan's, though it is not written in the first person, and has been attributed to others. Of still greater personal interest are the memoirs of François, Maréchal de Bassompierre, another of the adversaries of Richelieu,[Pg 337] and who, less fortunate than Rohan, languished twelve years in the Bastille. Few persons played a more active part in the first years of the reign of Louis XIII. than Bassompierre, and no one has left a livelier description, not merely of his own personal fortunes, but of the personality of his contemporaries, the habits and customs of the time, the wars, the loves, the intrigues of himself, his friends and his enemies. He has not the credit of being very accurate, but he is infinitely amusing. His memoirs were written during his sojourn in the Bastille. This was terminated by the death of Richelieu, but Bassompierre followed his enemy before very long in consequence of an attack of apoplexy.

In singular contrast to Bassompierre's work are the memoirs of another chronicler of the same time, François Annibal, Maréchal d'Estrées, brother of the mistress of Henri IV. D'Estrées excludes all gossip, confines himself strictly to matters of public business, and recounts them apparently with scrupulous accuracy, and in a plain but clear and sufficient style. Among the most curious and not the least interesting of the works of this class are the memoirs of Pontis—one of the famous solitaries of Port Royal in his old age. Pontis died at the age of eighty-seven, and had been for fifty-six years in the army. His memoirs, which are strictly confined to his personal experiences, obtained the approbation of two such undeniably competent judges as Condé and Madame de Sévigné, and are by no means unworthy of the honour. The actual composition of the memoirs is said to be the work of Thomas du Fossé. The memoirs called Richelieu's are different from all these, and, notwithstanding their great extent and the illustrious name they bear, of very inferior interest, at least from the literary point of view. Richelieu's talents, it is sufficiently notorious, were not literary; and even if they had been, but little of these memoirs comes from his own hand. They are the work of secretaries, confidants, and under-strappers of all sorts, writing at most from the cardinal's dictation, and probably in many cases merely constructing précis of documents. There is, therefore, no need to dwell on them.

In the memoirs of Arnauld d'Andilly and of his son, the Abbé[Pg 338] Arnauld, the personal interest and the abundance of anecdote and character-drawing which characterise the memoir work of the time reappear; the latter are, indeed, particularly full of them. Those of the father are chiefly interesting, as exhibiting the curious mixture of worldly and spiritual motives which played so large a part in the history of the time. For Arnauld who was the fervent friend and disciple of Saint Cyran, the practical founder of Jansenism in France, was also an assiduous courtier of Gaston d'Orléans, and not too well satisfied with the results of his courtiership. There are memoirs attributed to Gaston himself, but they are almost certainly the work of another hand; their historical value is not inconsiderable, but they have little literary interest. Those of Marie, Duchess de Nemours, and daughter of the Duke de Longueville, are short, but among the most interesting of all those dealing with the Fronde, from the vividness and decision of their personal traits.

Madame de Motteville.

More important still among the memoirs of this time are those of Françoise Bertaut, Madame de Motteville, a member of the family of the poet Bertaut. She was introduced by her mother, when very young, to Anne of Austria, and soon became her most intimate confidante. The jealousy of Richelieu banished her for a time from the court, and she married M. de Motteville, a man of wealth and position in the civil service of the province of Normandy. Shortly before Richelieu's death she lost her husband; and as soon as Anne of Austria succeeded to the regency she was recalled to court, and spent her time there during the queen's life. She survived her mistress many years, and was a member of the society of Madame de Sévigné. She died in 1689. Her memoirs, which were not published till many years after her death, contain many curious revelations of the court history of the time, for she was not only intimate with Anne of Austria, but also with the unfortunate Henrietta Maria of England, and with La Grande Mademoiselle. With the latter she interchanged some curious and characteristic letters on a fantastic project of Mademoiselle's for founding a new abbey of Thelema. The general style of her memoirs is sober and intelligent, but it is injured by the abundance of moral reflections,[Pg 339] in matter according to the taste, but in manner lacking much of the piquancy, of the time. These memoirs are somewhat voluminous, and extend to the death of Anne of Austria. Madame de Motteville, notwithstanding her affection for her mistress, is one of the best authorities for the period of the Fronde, because, unlike Retz and La Rochefoucauld, she was only secondarily interested in the events she relates. Some curious details of the later Fronde are found in the short memoirs of Père Berthod, of whom nothing is known. Of the Comte de Brienne, who was a favourite and minister of Anne of Austria, and whose book contains much information on foreign, and especially English affairs; of Montrésor and Fontrailles, both followers of Gaston of Orléans, and the latter the author of a relation of the Cinq Mars conspiracy, short, but minute and striking; of La Châtre, an industrious courtier and intriguer, and a vivid and picturesque writer, whose work, as will presently be mentioned, became entangled in a strange fashion with that of La Rochefoucauld; of the great Turenne, a worthy follower of Montluc and Rohan in the art of military writing, little more than mention can be made. There are some military memoirs of interest, which go under the name of the Duke of York (James II).

Cardinal de Retz.

The works and personages of some other writers demand a fuller notice. Paul de Gondi[256], Cardinal de Retz, who occupies with Saint Simon, and perhaps La Rochefoucauld, the first place among French memoir-writers of the seventeenth century, was born in 1614, and died in 1679. He was a younger son of an ancient and noble house, uniting French and Italian honours, and was early destined for the church, for which probably no churchman ever had less vocation. He intrigued in society and politics, was a practised duellist, and though he was not more than seven-or eight-and-twenty at Richelieu's death, had already caballed against him. His appointment by Louis XIII., almost on his deathbed, to the coadjutorship (involving the reversion) of the archbishopric of Paris, which was then held by his uncle, a very old man of no personal capacity or influence, put into his hands a formidable political weapon, and he was not long[Pg 340] in making use of it. He was more than any other man the instigator of the Fronde, that singular alliance of the privileged bourgeoisie of the great towns with the still more privileged nobility against the royal authority as exercised through ministers. The history of this confused and turbulent period is in great part the biography of Retz. It is not easy to see that he had any definite political views except the jealousy of Mazarin, which he shared with almost all his order, an inveterate habit of insubordination, and a still more inveterate habit of conspiracy. The Fronde was and could have been but a failure, and Retz was a failure with it. He was for some time in exile, but at last reconciled himself to the inevitable, and even enjoyed some public employments under Louis XIV. His principal occupation, however, was the payment of his enormous debts, which he effected with an honesty not common at the time among his class by rigorously reducing his expenditure, selling and mortgaging his numerous benefices, and, as Madame de Sévigné put it, 'living for his creditors.' He is said thus to have paid off four millions of francs, a vast sum for the time. Meanwhile he was writing the Memoirs which, like the Maxims of his rival and half-enemy, La Rochefoucauld, unexpectedly gained for him a higher reputation in literature than he could have hoped for in politics. When a mere boy he had shown in the Conjuration de Fiesque no small literary talent, and his sermons deepened the impression. His Memoirs, however, are different in style from both. They are addressed to a lady friend, and contain a most extraordinary mixture of anecdote, description, personal satire, moral reflection, and political portraiture. In the three points of anecdote, portrait-drawing, and maxim-making, Retz has no rival except in the acknowledged masters of each art respectively.

The Memoirs of Guy Joly, a lawyer and the friend and confidant of Retz, in a manner supplement this latter's work. Joly was faithful to his master even in exile, but at last they quarrelled, and the Memoirs do not always throw a very favourable light on the proceedings of the turbulent cardinal. They are very well written. Claude Joly, the uncle of Guy, an ecclesiastic, has also left anti-Mazarin writings of less literary worth.[Pg 341]


Of very great importance historically, and by no means unimportant as literature, are the Memoirs of Pierre Lenet, a man of business long attached to the house of Condé. These memoirs are, in fact, memoirs of the great Condé himself, until the peace of the Pyrenees. Personal and literary interest both appear in a very high degree in the Memoirs of Anne Marie Louise de Montpensier, commonly called La Grande Mademoiselle. The only daughter of Gaston of Orleans and of the Duchess de Montpensier, she inherited enormous wealth, and a position which made it difficult for her to marry any one but a crowned head. In her youth she was self-willed, and by no means inclined to marriage, and prince after prince was proposed to her in vain. During the Fronde she took an extraordinary part—heading armies, mounting the walls of Orleans by a scaling ladder, and saving the routed troops of Condé, after the battle of the Faubourg Saint Antoine, by opening the gates of Paris to them, and causing the cannon of the Bastille to cover their flight. Mazarin never forgave her this, nor perhaps did Louis XIV. When she was past middle age, Mademoiselle conceived an unfortunate affection for Lauzun, then merely a gentleman of the South named Puyguilhem. By dint of great entreaties she obtained permission from the king to marry him, but the combined efforts of the queen and the princes of the blood caused this to be rescinded, and Lauzun was imprisoned in Pignerol. After many years Mademoiselle purchased his release by making over a great part of her immense possessions to Louis' bastard, the Duke du Maine, and secretly married her lover, who was not only younger than herself, but a notorious adventurer. He was basely ungrateful, and she separated from him before her death. Her memoirs, which are voluminous, contain a minute history of her singular life, written with not a little egotism, but with all the vivacity and individuality of savour which characterise the best work of the time. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that, although entirely occupied with herself and her fortunes, Mademoiselle does not appear either to exaggerate her own merits, or to disguise her faults. She photographs herself, which is not common. Valentin Conrart, a man of letters, who figures[Pg 342] repeatedly in the history of the time, who was the real founder of the Academy, who published but little in his lifetime, and who has only recently been the subject of a sufficient study, left memoirs of no great length, but of value in reference to the Fronde. The Marquis de Montglat, of whom not much is known, wrote important military memoirs of the latter portion of the Thirty Years' War, and of the campaigns between France and Spain, which continued until the peace of the Pyrenees.

La Rochefoucauld.

The Memoirs of La Rochefoucauld[257] would have assured him a considerable place in the history of literature, even had he never written the Maxims, and the singular fate of these Memoirs would have deserved notice even had they been far less intrinsically interesting in matter and style than they are. The seventeenth century was the palmy time of literary piracy, and this piracy was facilitated not merely by the absence of any international copyright, but by the common habit of circulating books in manuscript long before their appearance in print. They were thus copied and re-copied, and the number of unauthorised duplicates made it impossible for the author to protect his work. Not unfrequently the difficulties of authors were increased by the custom (inherited from the middle ages) of simultaneously or rather continuously transcribing different works in the same large notebook, without any very scrupulous attention to their separate origin, plan, and authorship. When La Rochefoucauld, after the conclusion of the Fronde and the triumph of Mazarin, retired in dudgeon and disgrace to his estates, he devoted himself to the writing of memoirs, and the fact soon became known. He succeeded once in preventing an unauthorised publication at Rouen. But the Elzevirs (who were as much princes of piracy as of printing) were beyond his reach, and in 1662 there appeared a book purporting to be the Memoirs of M. L. R. F. This book excited much indignation in the persons commented upon, and La Rochefoucauld hastened to deny its authenticity, alleging that but a fraction was his, and that garbled. His denial was very partially credited, and has remained the subject of suspicion almost to the present day. Probably, however, he was[Pg 343] warned by the incident of the danger of this sort of contemporary criticism, and no authentic edition was issued. After his death a new turn of ill-luck befell him. A fresh recension of the Memoirs was published, not indeed quite so incorrect as the first, but still largely adulterated, nor was the injustice repaired until 1817, and then not entirely. It is only within the last few years that the publication of the Memoirs from a manuscript in the possession of his representatives has finally established the text, and that laborious enquiries have demonstrated the conglomerate character of the early editions (which were made up of the work of La Rochefoucauld, of La Châtre, of Vineuil, and of several other people, even such well-known writers as Saint Evremond being laid under contribution), and the justice of the author's repudiation. The genuine Memoirs are, however, extremely interesting; they are less full, and perhaps less absolutely frank than those of Retz, but they yield to these alone of the Fronde chronicles in piquancy and interest, while their purely literary merit is superior. The strange bird's-eye view of conduct and motives which characterises the Maxims is already visible in them, as well as the profundity of insight which accompanies width of range. The form is less finished, but its capacities are seen.

Jean Hérault de Gourville stood to La Rochefoucauld in something like the relation which Guy Joly bore to Retz, but was far more fortunate. Born at La Rochefoucauld, without any advantages of family or fortune, he began as a domestic of its seigneur. He passed from this service to that of Condé and Mazarin, held public employments which enriched him, became the friend of Fouquet, and escaped the general ruin which fell on the superintendent's friends at his fall, married, it is said, secretly a daughter of the house where he had served in a menial capacity, was recalled honourably to his country, discharged important political and diplomatic offices, lived on equal terms with the greatest nobles of the court, and died full of years, riches, and honours, in 1703. His Memoirs, which were written but a short time before his death, were dictated to a secretary. They are of a somewhat gossiping character, but full of curious information. The so-called memoirs of Omer Talon are really accounts, written in a stilted and professional[Pg 344] style, of the proceedings of the Parliament of Paris. Henri de Guise, the last, the least fortunate, but not the least remarkable of his famous family, has left an account of the wild expedition which he made to Naples at the time of the revolt of Masaniello, which is somewhat too long for the subject. The Memoirs of the Maréchal de Grammont were composed from his papers by his second son, Louvigny, afterwards Duke de Grammont. The eldest son, Count de Guiche, the most accomplished cavalier of the earlier court of Louis XIV., died before his father. Guiche left a brilliant relation (written some say on the spot and at once) of the passage of the Rhine, an exploit much exaggerated by the king's flatterers, but which was really a brilliant feat of arms, and was mainly due to Guiche himself. Like those of Grammont, the Memoirs of the Maréchal du Plessis are not the work of the hero, but in this case a professional man of letters—it is thought Segrais—seems to have been called in. Their somewhat stilted regularity contrasts with the irregular vigour of most of the work mentioned in this chapter. Some anonymous Mémoires pour servir à l'Histoire du XVIIème Siècle, though evidently a compilation, are not destitute of literary merit. They seem to be extracted for the most part from works already mentioned. The Memoirs of La Porte, the valet de chambre of Anne of Austria and the youthful Louis XIV., are rather important to history than to literature. Madame de la Fayette wrote Memoirs of Henrietta, the daughter of Charles I., and the first wife of the Duke of Orleans, but they are not equal to her novels in merit. The poet-Marquis La Fare began memoirs on an extensive plan, but only completed a small part of them. Those of the Duke of Berwick are justly considered models of simple straightforward writing, of clear judgment, and of accurate statement. The Souvenirs of Madame de Caylus had the honour of having Voltaire for their first editor, and deserved it. They are purely personal, and might even be called frivolous, were it not for the interest and historical importance of the society whose manners they depict. The memoirs of Torcy give a clear and lucid account of the negotiations in which that diplomatist was engaged. Last of this long list come three works of value, the memoirs of Villars,[Pg 345] Forbin, and Duguay Trouin. The last two are among the somewhat rare records of French prowess on sea. Both are somewhat boastful, and the memoirs of Forbin, which are the longer and the more amusing of the two, are suspected of some inaccuracy. They were not, it appears, the unaided work of their nominal authors. The memoirs of Villars are of greater historical importance, and of much literary interest.

Saint Simon.

A few authors, not included in the collection the order of which has been followed, have now to be mentioned. Bussy Rabutin, cousin of Madame de Sévigné, and one of the boldest, most unscrupulous, and most unlucky of aspirants after fortune, has left a considerable number of letters and memoirs in which he exposes his own projects and wrongs, and, above all, a kind of scandalous chronicle called the Histoire Amoureuse des Gaules, in which gossip against all the ladies of the court, not excepting his own relations and friends, is pitilessly recorded. Bussy had many of the family qualities which show themselves more amiably in the cousin whom he libelled. His literary faculty was considerable, his brain fertile in invention, and his tongue witty in expression; but he made no very good use of his powers. The Marquis de Dangeau[258] has left an immense collection of memoirs, describing in the minutest detail the etiquette of the court of Louis XIV. and all that happened there for years; but he had hardly any faculty of writing, and his work, except for its matter, is chiefly remarkable because of the contrast which it presents to a book which deals with much the same subject, and which has yet to be noticed. This book, with grave defects and inequalities, exhibits in the highest degree the merits of the class and period of literature which is now under review. These are the skill shown by writers in no respect professional, but trained to expression only by literary amusements and the conversation of the salons; the keen insight into motive and character; the intense interest and power of reflection with which contemporary events are taken in and represented.

Louis de Rouvroy, Duke de Saint Simon[259], was born at La Ferté[Pg 346] Vidame, the family seat, in 1675. The family was of very great antiquity and unblemished noblesse, claiming descent from Charlemagne; the dukedom and the peerage—it is to be remembered that peerage in France has, or rather had under the old régime, an entirely different sense from the modern English sense, referring not in the least to the ennobling of the persons enjoying it, but to their admission into a kind of great council of the kingdom which had indeed long lost its active functions, but retained its dignity—were conferred only on Saint Simon's father, a favourite and a faithful servant of Louis XIII. His mother was Charlotte de l'Aubespine, of a family which had much distinguished itself for several generations since the days of Francis the First. Saint Simon was brought up by the Jesuits, went to the wars in Flanders at the age of seventeen, and a year later succeeded to the title and estates by the death of his father. Thus at the age of eighteen he found himself in a position theoretically superior to every man in France except the princes of the blood, and his few brother peers—theoretically, for the rule of Louis did not admit of any real exercise of the privileges of the peerage. Saint Simon, however, began at once to show his devotion to the idol of his whole life—the status of his order—by going to law with Luxembourg, the famous Marshal, on a question of precedence and title of the most intricate kind. At the Peace of Ryswick he left the army, to the displeasure of the king; but he was none the less constant at court, though he could hardly be called a courtier, and though his inveterate stickling for precedence frequently brought down the king's wrath on his head. In 1705 he was made ambassador to Rome, but the appointment was almost immediately cancelled. Many years later, however, a similar, but greater, honour fell to his lot. The death of Louis put power into the hands of Philippe d'Orléans, who was a friend of Saint Simon's, and the latter enjoyed the greatest triumph of his life by bringing about the degradation of the 'Bastards' (the illegitimate sons of Louis), on whom, to the indignation of the peers, the king had bestowed the rank and precedence of princes of the blood. In 1721 Saint Simon went on a special embassy to Spain to arrange the double marriage of Louis XV. to the Infanta, and of the Prince of the Asturias to[Pg 347] the Regent's granddaughter. There he was made a grandee of the first class. Soon after his return he gave up interference in public affairs, but he lived for thirty years longer, writing incessantly, and died in 1755.

The history of his enormous literary productions is curious enough. Nothing was published, and, from the personal nature of most of his work, nothing could well be published, during his lifetime. He died intestate, and with no immediate heirs, and opportunity was taken to impound the whole of his manuscripts, amounting to hundreds of volumes. Extracts from the memoirs were surreptitiously published from time to time during the eighteenth century, but it was not till 1839 that the whole was fully and faithfully given to the world. These memoirs, however, form relatively but a small part of the vast mass of Saint Simon's manuscripts, though they fill twenty printed volumes. Until very recently obstacles of a not very intelligible character have been thrown in the way of publication by the French Foreign Office, to which the MSS. belong; but at length these seem to have been overcome, and three different workers, M. de Boislisle, M. Drumont, and M. Faugère, have been engaged in editing or re-editing different parts of the total. The minor works, however, from the specimens already published, would seem to be of less interest than the memoirs; most of them bearing on the, to Saint Simon, inexhaustible subject of the privileges of the peerage, and its place in the hierarchy of government. To discuss these subjects would lead us out of our way. It is sufficient to say that it is a great mistake to regard Saint Simon as a mere selfish aristocrat in the cant sense. He would have had the kingdom justly and wisely governed for the benefit of the whole nation, but he regarded the nobility, and, above all, the peers, as the pre-destined instruments of government. 'Much for the people, but nothing by the people,' was his political motto.

The importance of Saint Simon in literature is, however, entirely independent of his standpoint as a politician, though that standpoint was not without influence on his literary characteristics. He is valuable to us as, without exception, the most vivid and graphic painter of contemporary history of the anecdotic kind in French or any other[Pg 348] language. His style is incorrect, and sometimes barely grammatical, and all his work bears the character of notes, hurriedly dashed off, rather than of a finished and regularly arranged history. Opinions differ as to his trustworthiness in matters of fact, but it is certain, from his positive manner of recounting the incidents and the actual words of interviews at which he could not have been present, and as to which he is not likely to have had more than hearsay information, that his testimony is to be received with caution. His prejudices, too, were extraordinarily strong, and he is in the habit of representing everything and everybody that he does not like in the blackest possible colours. His furious denunciation thus makes a curious contrast to the good-humoured malice of the author with whom he is most likely to be compared—Madame de Sévigné. But all these drawbacks affect only the matter, not the manner of his work. The picture which he has given of the inner life of the court of Versailles during the later years of Louis XIV. is unrivalled in history. Still more extraordinary is the power of single passages, such especially as the famous one describing the Dauphin's death. Saint Simon has often been compared to Tacitus, but his torrent of words very little resembles the laconic incisiveness of the Roman. A much nearer parallel, though with remarkable differences, might be found in the late Mr. Carlyle.

Some memoirs of great extent and interest, valuable as checking Saint Simon and Dangeau (whom Saint Simon annotated), have recently appeared for the first time, at least in a form that is to be complete. They are the work of the Marquis de Sourches[260], a great court officer, and they cover the last thirty years of Louis's reign. Their chief literary peculiarity is the formal and almost official character of the text contrasted with the greater freedom of the numerous notes.

Madame de Sévigné.

The most famous and remarkable of all the letter-writers of the time—perhaps the most famous and remarkable of all letter-writers in literature—was Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné[261]. She was born at Paris on the 6th of[Pg 349] February, 1626, and died at Grignan, of small-pox, on the 10th of August, 1696. Her family was a distinguished one both in war and other ways. Her grandmother was the well-known Sainte Chantal, the pupil of St. François de Sales, and her first cousin, as has been mentioned, was Bussy Rabutin. Her father and mother both died when she was very young, and an uncle, not more than twenty years older than herself, the Abbé de Coulanges, took charge of her, remaining, for the greater part of her life, her chief friend and counsellor. She soon became a great beauty, and something of a scholar, though not of a blue-stocking. Ménage and Chapelain had, among others, much to do with her education, and she was a member of the celebrated coterie of the Hôtel Rambouillet, though her satirical humour saved her from being a précieuse. At the age of eighteen she married the Marquis de Sévigné, of a good and wealthy Breton family. Her husband was, however, a selfish profligate, who wasted her substance with Ninon de l'Enclos, and such-like persons,—though Ninon herself, to do her justice, never plundered her lovers,—and did not pretend the slightest return for the affection she gave him. He was killed in a duel in 1651, leaving her with two children, a daughter, Françoise Marguerite, and a son Charles. After a few years of seclusion she returned to the world, being then in the full possession of her beauty, and only twenty-eight years old. She continued for more than forty years to form part of the best society of the capital, without suffering the least stain on her reputation. The selfish vanity of the superintendent Fouquet made him keep certain of her letters; but though they were discovered in a casket which was fatal to many of his friends of both sexes, Madame de Sévigné came scathless out of the ordeal. In 1669 her daughter, then twenty-two years old, married the Count de Grignan, a Provençal gentleman of the noblest birth, of great estate, rank, and fortune, but already twice a widower, past middle age, plain, and of somewhat embarrassed means, considering the great expenses which, as Governor of Provence, he had to meet. He was, however, a man of good sense and probity, and his wife seems to have been sincerely attached to him. The great bulk of Madame de Sévigné's voluminous correspondence was addressed to her daughter, for[Pg 350] whom she had an almost frantic fondness; Charles de Sévigné, though apparently far the more lovable of the two, having but an inferior share of his mother's affection. The letters to Madame de Grignan are for the most part dated either from Paris (in which case they are full of court news and gossip), or from Les Rochers, the country seat of the Sévignés, near Vitré, in which case they are full of social satire and curious details of the provincial life of that time. One very interesting series describes the habits and regimen of Vichy, which Madame de Sévigné visited in consequence of a severe attack of rheumatism. The correspondence thus serves as a minute and detailed history of the author for the last thirty years of her life, except during her rare visits to Grignan, in one of which, as has been mentioned, she caught the illness which proved fatal to her.

It has been said that Madame de Sévigné's letters are very numerous. Those to her daughter especially were garbled in the earlier editions by omissions, and by the substitution of phrases which seemed to the 18th century more suitable than the fresh nature of the originals. The edition cited gives the extant MSS. faithfully. The enthusiastic affection lavished by the mother on the daughter naturally commends itself differently to different persons. It is certain that if it is not tedious, it is only due to the extraordinary literary art of the writer, an art which is at once the most artful and the most artless to be anywhere found. The only other faults of the letters are an occasional crudity of diction (which, however, is, when rightly taken, perfectly innocent and even valuable as exemplifying the manners of the time,) and a decided heartlessness in relating the misfortunes of all those in whom the writer is not personally interested. Madame de Sévigné has been blamed for not sympathising more with the oppression of the French people during her time. This, however, is an unfair charge. In the first place she simply expresses the current political ideas of her day, and, in the second place, she goes decidedly beyond those ideas in the direction of sympathy. Her treatment of some of her own equals leaves much more to desire. The account of Madame de Brinvilliers' sufferings—unworthy of much pity as the victim was—is callous to brutality, and it seems to be[Pg 351] sufficient for any one to have ever offended Madame de Grignan, or to have spoken slightingly of her, to put him, or her, out of the pale of even ordinary human sympathy. But no other fault can be found. For vivid social portraiture the book equals Saint Simon at his best, while it is far more uniformly good. The letters describing the engagement of La Grande Mademoiselle to Lauzun, the death of Vatel, the trial of Fouquet, the Vichy sojourn, the meeting of the states of Britanny, and many others, are not to be surpassed in this respect. Unlike Saint Simon, too, Madame de Sévigné has no fixed idea—except that of Madame de Grignan's perfections, which rarely interferes—to prevent her from taking fresh, original, and acute views of things in general as distinguished from mere court intrigues. Her literary criticism is excellent, and if she somewhat overvalues moralists like Nicole and novelists like Mademoiselle de Scudéry, who ministered to her peculiar tastes, her remarks on the great preachers, on La Fontaine, on Corneille and Racine, display a singular insight as well as a singular power of expression. She is, indeed, except in politics, on which few persons of her class had at the time any clear or distinct ideas, never superficial; and this union of just thought with accurate observation and exceptional power of expression makes her position in literature.

Tallemant des Réaux.

Madame de Sévigné, so to speak, dwarfs all other letter-writers of her time. Yet many of those already mentioned under the head of memoirs left letters which have been preserved, and which are of merit. It is, however, not necessary to specify any except Madame de Maintenon, whose correspondence is voluminous and important both as history and as literature. It has not the charm of Madame de Sévigné, but it displays the great intellectual powers of the writer[262]. Of a very different kind, but not less worthy of notice are the letters of Guy Patin, which are for the most part violent Mazarinades, and full of scandalous anecdotes, but full also of lively wit. Scandal, indeed, was very much the order of the day, as appears from the large and curious collection of broadsheets and pamphlets republished by the late M. Fournier in his Variétés Historiques et Littéraires[263]. These,[Pg 352] most of which refer to the present period, form a kind of appendix to historical and biographical writing of the more serious kind. There is, however, one remarkable work which remains to be noticed, and which, for want of a better place for it, must be noticed here, the Historiettes of Tallemant des Réaux[264]. The author of this singular book, Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux, was born at La Rochelle about 1619, and died in 1692. He was of a family not noble but wealthy and well connected, and he himself was able, by marriage with a cousin who was an heiress, to live without any profession, and to purchase an estate and seignory of some importance. Little, however, is known of his life except that he was much at the Hôtel de Rambouillet in his youth, and that in his old age he underwent some not clearly defined misfortune or disgrace. The Historiettes were written in the years immediately preceding 1660, and form an almost complete commentary on the persons most celebrated in society and literature for three quarters of a century before that date. There is no other book to which they can be exactly compared, though they have, with much less literary excellence, a certain resemblance in form to the work of Brantôme. They are, as published by Monmerqué, 376 in number, filling five (nominally ten) stout volumes. Each is as a rule headed with the name of a single person, though there are a few general or subject headings. The articles themselves are not regular biographies, but collections of anecdotes, not unfrequently of the most scandalous kind. Tallemant, though by no means of small ability, appears to have been a somewhat malicious person, and not too careful to examine the value of the stories he tells, especially when they bear heavily on the old nobility, of whom, as a new man, he was very jealous. Yet his sources of information were in many cases good, and his statements are confirmed by independent evidence sufficiently often to show that, if they are in other cases to be accepted with caution, they are not the work of a mere libeller. No one, even in that century of unstinted personal revelations, has taken us so much behind the scenes, and certainly no one has left a more amusing book of its kind or (with the proper precautions) a more valuable one.

[Pg 353]

Historical Antiquaries.
Du Cange.

The class of learned investigators into the sources of history cannot be omitted in any account of French literature; though their work was chiefly in Latin, and though even when it was not it was rather of value as material for future literature than as literature itself. This century and the earlier part of the succeeding one were the palmy time of really laborious erudition—the work of the Benedictines and Bollandists, and of many isolated writers worthy of being ranked with the members of these famous communities. The individuals composing this class are, however, too numerous, and, from the purely literary view, too unimportant to detain us. Exceptions may be made in favour of André Duchesne, whose collections of French and Norman Chronicles, and his genealogical histories of the houses of Laval and Vergi, are valuable examples of their kind; of Mabillon, famous for his labours in hagiology, in the history of France, and above all in that of Italy; and lastly, of Du Cange. The last-named has a special right to a place here because, both directly and indirectly, he did much towards the rediscovery of old French literature. Du Cange was his seignorial style, his personal name being Charles Dufresne. He devoted himself to the study of the middle ages generally, and particularly of the Byzantine Empire. He edited Joinville, wrote a history of the Latin Empire, and in his most famous work, the Glossarium Mediae et Infimae Latinitatis, contributed not a little to the study of the oldest form of French.


[253] The following paragraph contains, except as far as Mézeray is concerned, chiefly second-hand information. I have hitherto been unable to devote the time necessary to enable me to speak at first hand of these books, which are very bulky, not as a rule interesting or important in manner, and for the most part long obsolete in matter.

[254] The legend, familiar probably to most readers, is that Vertot required documents for his account of a certain military operation. Tired with waiting for them, he constructed the history out of his own head, and when they arrived made the ejaculation in the text.

[255] This, with some other of the pieces here mentioned, will be found in two volumes of the Collection Didot, entitled Petits Chefs d'œuvre Historiques.

[256] Ed. Feillet, Gourdault and Chantelauze. Paris (in progress).

[257] Ed. Gilbert et Gourdault. Paris, 1868-81.

[258] Ed. Feuillet de Conches. 19 vols. Paris, 1854-61.

[259] Memoirs, ed. Chéruel. 20 vols. Paris, 1873. Now being re-edited by M. de Boislisle. Miscellaneous works are also appearing.

[260] Ed. Bertrand et de Cosnac. Vol. i. Paris, 1882.

[261] Ed. Monmerqué. 14 vols. Paris, 1861-66, to which must be added 2 vols. of Lettres Inédites discovered and published by M. Capmas.

[262] A full and excellently edited selection has been given by A. Geffroy. 2 vols. Paris, 1887.

[263] 10 vols. Paris, 1855-63.

[264] 10 vols. in 5. Ed. Monmerqué. Third edition. Paris, n. d.

[Pg 354]



The enormous popularity which the Essays of Montaigne enjoyed could not fail to raise up imitators and followers in the century succeeding their publication. But Montaigne's influence on the production of short pieces, complete in themselves and having for the most part an ethical bearing, was supplemented by the feature of the time so often referred to, the fancy for literary coteries, and for wit combats between the members of those coteries. For this latter purpose pieces of moderate length in prose, corresponding to the sonnets, the madrigals, and such-like things in verse, were well suited. The Academy, too, with its competitions and its ordinary critical occupations, stimulated literary production in the same direction. The essay was therefore much cultivated in the seventeenth century, and not a few minor styles of composition descended from it. Such were the Pensée, a short essay on some definite and briefly handled point; the Conversation, an essay or sketch in dialogue; the Portrait, a sketch of personal character; the Maxime, a condensed Pensée, just as the Pensée was a condensed essay. In these various styles some of the most excellent work existing in French literature was composed during the time which we are at present handling; and four names of the first, or almost the first rank in literary history, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, and Saint Evremond, belong to this division, besides not a few others of less importance. Pascal, indeed, might be almost as well treated in either of the two following chapters as in the present; but if the substance of his work is for the most part philosophical or theological, the form of it seems to fall more suitably under the present head. He does not, however, open the series of Essayists.[Pg 355]


Something of Montaigne's manner, as well as of his peculiar sceptical doubt, which nevertheless does not transcend the limits of orthodoxy, was continued far into the century by La Mothe le Vayer, a man of talent, but of some deliberate eccentricity and archaism in costume and manners as in style. But the most important name in the history of French prose next after that of Montaigne is that of Jean Guez de Balzac, who occupies nearly the same place in it as Malherbe does in that of French poetry. Balzac was a gentleman of rank and fortune in the province of Angoumois, where he was born towards the end of the sixteenth century, and where he died in 1655. In his younger days he served in some diplomatic employments, then for a long time resided in Paris, and finally retired to his country seat. Balzac's works are almost entirely of the essay character, though they are sufficiently diverse, and for the most part rather artificial in form. The most considerable part of them is composed of letters—not such letters as have been discussed in the preceding chapter, but elaborate epistles written deliberately for the sake of writing, and with a definite attempt at style. Besides these, which are very numerous, Balzac was also the author of discourses on various subjects and of certain nondescript works of an ethico-political character, the principal and best known of which is the Socrate Chrétien. In all, his work was sufficient to fill two folio volumes when it was collected[265]. Balzac is a really remarkable figure in literary history, because he is, in his own tongue and nation, almost the first person who deliberately wrote for the sake of writing, and not because he had anything particular to say. The practice is perhaps not one to be commended to the general run of men at any time, or even to exceptional men, except at a peculiar time. But done as it was, and when it was, Balzac's work was really of importance and advantage to his countrymen. The prose literature of the sixteenth century had been admirable, but it had not resulted in the elaboration of any general style of all work. Each writer had followed his instincts, and when those instincts were under the guidance of genius, as they frequently were, many writers had produced admirable results.[Pg 356] But the general use of the printing press, and the adaptation of literature to all sorts of journey-work, made it imperatively necessary that the tools should be put ready fashioned into the hands of ordinary workmen instead of each man having to manufacture them for himself. Various steps had been taken in this direction. Guillaume du Vair had already written a Traité de l'Éloquence Française; Vaugelas, a Savoyard by birth, was shortly to undertake some valuable Remarques on French grammar and style, which long remained a standard book. But not many examples of deliberate composition had been given. It was these examples of deliberate composition which Balzac furnished, and which, in a lighter and more graceful fashion, and to a more limited circle, were also given by the letters of the poet Voiture. Balzac, as is natural in the first attempts at a polished prose style, has the drawback of being somewhat rhetorical and occasionally ponderous. But the important point is that the mechanism of the clause, the sentence, and the paragraph has evidently been considered by him, and that he has succeeded in getting it into very tolerable condition. His sentences no longer run on to the interminable length of earlier writers, or finish in the haphazard manner, neglectful of rhythm, balance, and proportion, also noticeable in his predecessors. The substitution of the full stop for the conjunction, which, speaking generally, may be said to be the initiating secret of style (though of course it must not be applied too indiscriminately), is at once apparent in Balzac's best passages, and he rarely falls into the error which waits on this substitution, the error of scrappiness. His style is perhaps better suited to oratory than to writing; a not unlikely result, since his models were pretty obviously the classical orators. But there can be no doubt that to him in no small part is due the extraordinary outburst of rhetorical power which distinguished the preachers of the latter half of the century. Nor was it long before what was faulty in Balzac's style was corrected by the example of very different writers.


Blaise Pascal[266] was born at Clermont, in Auvergne, on the 19th[Pg 357] of June, 1623. His father was President of the Court of Aids, but when the boy was eight years old the family moved to Paris. Pascal was one of the small number of extraordinarily precocious children who have justified their precocity by genius equally extraordinary in after-life; but it does not appear that he was forced by his father (who took the whole charge of his education), and it is said that he did not begin Latin until he was twelve years old—a very late age for the time. Mathematics, however, were his chief study and delight, and he early excelled in them, showing also an extraordinary faculty in applying them to physics. At nineteen he invented a calculating machine. But his application to study did not improve his health. He was but five-and-twenty at the time of his famous experiment with the barometer on the Puy de Dome in his native province. He was soon exposed to the philosophical influence of Descartes on the one hand, and the theological influence of the Jansenists on the other, and he felt both deeply. His greatest work, the Provinciales, appeared in 1656. He died on the 19th of August, 1662, having long lived in retirement and asceticism, giving much of his substance to the poor, and abandoning himself almost entirely to religious, mathematical, and philosophical meditation.

We have nothing to do here with his purely mathematical works or those in natural science. The two books by which he belongs to literature, and which have placed him among the foremost writers of his country, are the Provinciales and the so-called Pensées. The former were regularly published by himself in his lifetime, though they were ostensibly anonymous, or rather pseudonymous. The Pensées consist of scattered reflections, which were found in his papers after his death. They were published, but, as has been discovered of late years, with much omission and garbling, and the restoration of them to their authentic form has been effected in comparatively recent times.

The famous title of Les Provinciales is only a convenient abbreviation of the original, which is Lettres Ecrites par Louis de Montalte à un Provincial de ses Amis et aux Révérends Pères Jésuites sur le Sujet de la Morale et de la Politique de ces Pères. This somewhat cumbrous appellation has at any rate the merit of[Pg 358] exactly describing the contents of the book, except that Louis de Montalte is of course a pseudonym. The letters were written at the height of the early struggle (which had not yet been interfered with by the secular arm) of Jansenists and Jesuits, and they inflicted on the famous society a blow from which it has never wholly recovered, and from which it can never wholly recover. The method and style of Pascal are entirely original, except in so far as a slight trace of indebtedness to Descartes may be observed in the first respect, and a slight debt to Montaigne and the Satire Ménippée in the second. His great weapon is polite irony, which he first brought to perfection, and in the use of which he has hardly been equalled and has certainly not been surpassed since. The intricate casuistries of the Jesuits are unfolded in the gravest fashion and without the least exaggeration or burlesque, but with a running comment or rather insinuation of sarcasm which is irresistible. The author never breaks out into a laugh, never allows himself to be declamatory and indignant. There is always a smile on his countenance, but never anything more pronounced than a smile. Yet the contempt of this is more crushing than that of the bitterest invective. In the later letters indeed the mask of irony is to a certain extent dropped, and a more serious tone is taken. But effective as these are they are not the most effective part of the Provinciales. That part is the earlier one, in which, without dry scholastic argument, without the coarse abuse which the sixteenth century had regarded as inseparable from theological controversy, and at the same time with almost absolute accuracy of statement—for the misrepresentations which two centuries of eager and able apologists for the Order have been able to detect are insignificant—the author carried the discussion out of the schools into the drawing-room, made every man of fair education and breeding a judge of it, and triumphantly brought the judgment of the vast majority of such men on his side. To this day Pascal, with Swift and Courier, is the greatest example in modern literature of irony, excelling Swift as much in elegance and good-breeding as he falls short of him in sombre force, and having the advantage over his brilliant follower at the beginning of this century in depth and nobility of thought.[Pg 359]

The Pensées supply the reverse side of Pascal's character, and the supplement to any proper estimate of his literary genius. But from the circumstances already referred to, they are evidence of a less complete though an even more genuine kind than the Provinciales. The scepticism which ate so deeply into the heart of the seventeenth century affected Pascal, though he rarely wavered in point of abstract faith. To few men, however, was doubt more painful, and as no clearer or more piercing intellect has ever existed, so to none was doubt more constantly present. The Pensées in their genuine form exhibit the thoughts to which this conflict of opinion gave rise in him, and are in remarkable contrast with the polished and sedate badinage of the letters. But few if any of them are finally worked up into the form in which the author would have been likely to present them to the public, and therefore, from the point of view of pure literary criticism, they require less notice here than the sister volume.

The revolution, as far as style is concerned, which in point of time is already noticeable in Descartes, has entirely accomplished itself in Pascal. The last vestige of archaism, of quaintness of phrase, of clumsiness in the architecture of the sentence or the paragraph, has passed away. Indeed, it can hardly be said that two centuries have added much to the language except in point of richness and adaptation to the more multifarious needs of the describer in modern times. The style is extremely simple, but it has none of the monotony, the lack of colour, and the stereotyped form which are the great drawbacks of French after Boileau as contrasted with French before him. It is extraordinarily graphic, sparkling with epigram at every point, and yet never sacrificing sense to the play of words. The Pensées (which it must always be remembered were never finally worked up) yield matter which will compare with the carefully concocted Maxims of La Rochefoucauld or of Joubert, while the Provinciales are, as has been said, unsurpassable in their own line. It is probable that most good judges would allot to Pascal in French the place which Dryden occupies in English, that is to say, the place of the writer who combines most of the advantages of the elder[Pg 360] and younger manners. But Pascal, who wrote merely to please himself, had this great advantage over Dryden, that his work contains no mere journey-work, and especially nothing unworthy of him. Admirable as it is in style, it is equally admirable in meaning and in adaptation to that meaning, and it has thus both the sources of lasting popularity at command. Dealing, moreover, as it does with subjects of perennial importance and interest, it is almost entirely exempt from the necessity of comment and explanation which weighs down much admirable work of past ages. No man, however indisposed to serious reading, can put down the Provinciales as dull; no man, however unwilling to read anything that is not serious, can complain of levity in the Pensées. There are few authors in any language who unite as Pascal does the claims of importance of subject, charm of style, and bulk, without too great voluminousness of production. He has, moreover, the additional merit of being in a high degree representative of his age. That age had grown too complex for one man to reflect the whole of it, but Pascal and Molière (with perhaps Saint Evremond or La Rochefoucauld as thirdsman) supply an almost complete reflection.

Saint Evremond[267], who was thirteen years Pascal's senior, and who outlived him by more than forty years, was, in almost every respect except intellectual vigour and literary faculty, his opposite. He was a Norman by birth (Charles de Marguetel de Saint Denis was his proper name), and was born in 1610. He was educated by the Jesuits, entered the army early, served through the later campaigns of the Thirty Years' War and in the Fronde, was a favourite of Condé's but fell into disgrace with him, and after the fall of Fouquet, which led to the discovery of his very able and very uncourtly letter on the Peace of the Pyrenees, also incurred the king's displeasure. This displeasure is said to have been aggravated by his notorious membership of the freethinking and materialist school which Gassendi, if he had not founded it, had helped to spread. Saint Evremond was practically if not formally banished, and the time of his misfortune coinciding pretty nearly[Pg 361] with the Restoration in England, he made his way thither, was well received by the king and his courtiers, many of whom he had known in their exile, and dwelt in London for almost the whole remainder of his long life. He died in 1703, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His works are almost entirely occasional, consisting of 'conversations,' letters, 'portraits,' short literary disquisitions and tractates on subjects of historical and ethical interest. They display a placid epicurean philosophy which in its indifference to the assaults of fortune is not destitute of nobility, an extraordinary catholicity and acuteness of literary judgment, and remarkable wit and finesse. The Conversation du Père Canaye, which is of the same date as the Provinciales, is worthy of Pascal for its irony, and possesses a certain air of being written by a 'person of quality,' which Saint Evremond could throw over his writings better almost than any one else. His Portraits, not always flattering, are full of nervous vigour. But his literary remarks are perhaps the most surprising of his works. At a time when English literature was almost unknown in France, and when Boileau ostentatiously pretended never to have heard of Dryden, Saint Evremond, perhaps with some assistance from his friend Waller, drew up some masterly remarks on the humour-comedy of the Jonson school. His criticisms of French plays, as compared with classical tragedy and comedy, are also full of pregnant thought; and some comparative studies of his on Corneille and Racine show a power of detachment and independence which may be due in some part to the cosmopolitanism given by residence abroad, but which is certainly due also to native power. From the point of view of literary history, however, Saint Evremond is perhaps most remarkable as having formed, in conjunction with Pascal and Bayle, a singular trio, which supplied Voltaire with the models[268] whence he drew his peculiar style of persiflage. As far as form is concerned, it may be fairly said that Saint Evremond was the most influential of the three. Like many other men of his time he rarely published anything in the ordinary way, and it was not till[Pg 362] very late in life that he empowered Desmaizeaux to issue an authorised edition of work that had either circulated in manuscript or been piratically printed.

La Rochefoucauld.

François de Marcillac[269], Duke de la Rochefoucauld, was born in 1613 of one of the noblest families of France. His father had just been created duke and peer, the highest honour possible to a French subject, and for many years the son was known under the title of Prince de Marcillac. He was very imperfectly educated, but was early sent to serve in the army and introduced to the court. Young as he was, he was deeply engaged in the various intrigues against Richelieu, chiefly in consequence of his affection for the celebrated Madame de Chevreuse. After Richelieu's death and the comparative effacement of Madame de Chevreuse, he transferred his affections to Madame de Longueville and his aversion to Mazarin. He was one of the chiefs of the Princes' party, and fought all through the Fronde, winning a reputation, not so much for military skill as for the most reckless bravery. The establishment of the royal authority first sent him into retirement, and then reduced him to the position of an ordinary courtier. This last period of his life was distinguished by a third attachment to a lady hardly less celebrated than either of his former loves, Madame de la Fayette, the author of La Princesse de Clèves, in which novel he is said to figure under another name. He was also an intimate friend of Madame de Sévigné. In the latter part of his life he suffered terribly from gout, and died of that disease in 1680.

His Memoirs have been already noticed. The more famous and far more remarkable Maxims were published shortly afterwards, and at once attained a wide popularity. The first edition appeared in 1665, and four others were published, with considerable alterations and additions, during the author's lifetime, in 1666, 1671, 1675, and 1678. After his death a sixth edition was published by Claude Barbin, containing fifty new maxims, the authenticity of which is uncertain but probable.

The fullest authoritative edition of La Rochefoucauld's Maxims[Pg 363] contains 504 separate paragraphs, to which, besides the fifty just noticed, about another fifty can be added by restoring those which the author suppressed during his lifetime. The last, which is avowedly a kind of appendix, and on a different plan from the others, extends to a couple of pages. But the average length of the remainder is not more than three or four lines, and many do not contain more than a dozen words. The art of compressing thought and then pointedly expressing it has never been pushed so far except by Joubert, and hardly even by him. All La Rochefoucauld's maxims, without exception, are on ethical subjects, and with a certain allowance they may be said to be generally concerned with the reduction of the motives and conduct of men to the single principle of self-love. In consequence, accusations of misanthropy, of unfairness, of short-sightedness, have been showered upon the author by those who do not like a spade to be called a spade. We have nothing to do with the moral side of the matter here, and it is sufficient to say that La Rochefoucauld is not an advocate of the selfish or any other school of moralists. He is simply an observer, setting down with the utmost literary skill the results of a long life of unusual experience in business and pleasure of every kind. He is a man of science who has got together a large collection of facts, and who expounds and arranges them on a certain coherent and sufficient hypothesis. As a work of literary art the result of his exposition is unrivalled. The whole of the Maxims, even with the doubtful or rejected ones, need not occupy more than a hundred pages, and they contain matter which in the hands of an ordinary writer would have filled a dozen volumes. Yet there is no undue compression. It is impossible ever to mistake the meaning, though the comprehension of the full application of that meaning depends, of course, on the intellectual equipment and social experience of the reader. The clearness with which Descartes had first endowed French is here displayed in its very highest degree. The style, as was unavoidable in work of the kind, is entirely devoid of ornament. Imagery is wholly absent, and though metaphorical expressions abound, they are of the plainest and simplest kind of metaphor. The philosophical language of the day is present, but in no very prominent measure.[Pg 364] The motto of the book (at least in the fourth and fifth editions), 'Nos vertus ne sont le plus souvent que des vices déguisés,' is a very fair example of the simple straightforward fashion of La Rochefoucauld's style. Sometimes, but rarely, the author explains his meaning, and slightly lengthens his phrase by repeating the sentiment in a somewhat different form, as thus, 'Le plaisir de l'amour est d'aimer, et l'on est plus heureux par la passion qu'on a que par celle que l'on donne.' But even here it is to be observed that the explanation is in a manner necessary to take off the air of sententious enigma, which the words 'le plaisir de l'amour est d'aimer' might have had by themselves. La Rochefoucauld is never enigmatical, rarely sententious merely, and is almost indifferent to the production of mots. How continually the study of brevity, combined with precision, occupied the author, and how severe he was on any exuberance, can be seen very instructively in the successive alterations of his work. Thus, in the first edition Maxim 295 ran, 'La jeunesse est une ivresse continuelle, c'est la fièvre de la santé, c'est la folie de la raison;' but La Rochefoucauld seems to have thought this unduly pleonastic, and it appears later as 'La jeunesse est une ivresse continuelle, c'est la fièvre de la raison,' the improvement of which in point and freshness is sufficiently obvious. The result of this process is that the best of these Maxims are absolutely unrivalled in their own peculiar style, and that all subsequent writers in the same style have taken their form as a model. French critics have, as a rule, rather under-than over-estimated the purely literary talent of La Rochefoucauld. But this is due to two causes: first, to the supposed antagonism of his spirit to conventional morality; secondly, to the fact that he somewhat anticipated the writers of the particular period which for a century and a half was the idol of academic criticism. His language is rather that of Louis XIII. than of Louis XIV., and in his words and phrases there is a certain archaism, not to say an occasional irregularity, which critics who look only at the stop-watch apparently find it hard to forgive.

La Bruyère.

These critics generally give the palm of style, as concerns writing of this kind, to Jean de la Bruyère[270]. Less is known of the personal[Pg 365] history of this author than of that of any contemporary writer of great eminence. He was born at Paris, in August 1645, and his family appears to have been anciently connected with the law. He must have been a man of some means and of good education, for he had just bought himself an important financial post at Caen, when, on the recommendation of Bossuet, he was appointed Historical Preceptor to Duke Louis of Bourbon, the grandson of Condé, in whose household he continued till his death in 1696. He had published his Caractères in 1687, and was elected to the Academy in 1693.

The works of La Bruyère consist of the Caractères just mentioned, of a translation of Theophrastus, of a few literary discourses, and (probably) of some chapters on Quietism, written on the side of his patron Bossuet during the great controversy with Fénelon, but not published till after the author's death. The Caractères alone are of much importance or interest.

The design of this curious and celebrated book is taken, like its title, from Theophrastus, but the plan is very much altered as well as extended. Instead of copying directly the abstract qualities of Theophrastus and his brief, pregnant, but somewhat artificial and jejune description of them, La Bruyère adopted a scheme much better suited to his own age. He took for the most part actual living people, well known to all his readers, and, disguising them thinly under names of the kind which the romances of the middle of the century had rendered fashionable, made them body forth the characters he wished to define and satirise. These portraits he inserted in a framework not altogether unlike that of the Montaigne essay, preserving no very consecutive plan, but passing from moral reflection to literary criticism, and from literary criticism to one of the half-personal, half-moralising portraits just mentioned, with remarkable ease and skill. The titles of his chapters are rather more indicative of their actual contents than those of Montaigne's essays, but they represent, for the most part, merely very elastic frames, in which the author's various observations and reflections are mounted. The result of this variety, not to say desultoriness, combined as it is with the display of very great literary art, is that La Bruyère's[Pg 366] is a book of almost unparalleled interest to take up and lay down at odd moments. Its apparently continuous form and its intermixture of narrative save it from the appearance of severity which the avowed Maxim or Pensée has; while the bond between the different chapters, and even the different paragraphs, is so slight that interruption is not felt to be annoying. Even now, when the zest of personal malice, which, as Malézieux remarked to the author, made him sure beforehand of 'plenty of readers and plenty of enemies,' is past, it is a most interesting book to read; and it is especially interesting to Englishmen, because there is no doubt that the English essayists of the Queen Anne school directly modelled themselves upon it.

It has been objected to La Bruyère that he is less of a thinker than of a clever writer, and there is truth in the objection. He was possessed of a remarkable shrewdness, common sense, and soundness of taste; thus, for instance, he protests energetically against the foolish pedantry which rejected as obsolete many of the most useful and most picturesque words in French, and so sets himself directly against the dominant and very unfortunate literary influence of his time, that of Boileau. Yet he himself wrote in the fashionable style, and in the language rather of Racine than of Corneille. A further objection, also a just one, is that his characters are too much of their age and not of all time. This objection, indeed, applies to almost all writers after 1660, except Molière, and La Fontaine, and La Rochefoucauld. But La Bruyère (though there are some sarcastic insinuations which seem to hint that his range was wider than he chose to show) is as unwilling to disentangle himself from Versailles and Paris as his English followers are to extend their gaze to something beyond 'the town.' Nor is there the force and vigour about La Bruyère's moral reflections that there is about La Rochefoucauld's. They are frequently commonplace, sometimes even platitudinous, and the author occasionally falls into what is perhaps the most dangerous pitfall for a moralist and social satirist, the adoption of stock butts and types. It is indeed most probable that La Bruyère was one of those who, according to a famous phrase of his enemy and successor, Fontenelle, 'may have their hands full of truth, but[Pg 367] may not care to open more than their little finger.' He was not, like La Rochefoucauld, a great noble with the liberty of the Fronde in his mind, but a man of no exalted rank, living in the most absolute period of Louis the Fourteenth's rule. His remark that 'les grands sujets sont défendus' is a pregnant one, especially when it is remembered how near to the 'grands sujets' (as, for instance, in his oblique denunciation of the misery of the French peasantry) he sometimes goes. But his style, though looser than that of his forerunner, and destitute of the character of sharp and enduring sculpture which is impressed on the Maxims, is a model of ease, grace, and fluency without weakness[271].


[265] He has not recently been re-edited, but a selection was published in 1822.

[266] Editions of Pascal are numerous, but a complete and definite one is still wanting. Of the Pensées, etc., the editions of Faugère, Havet, and Rocher may be mentioned; of the Provinciales, the edition of 1867.

[267] Ed. Giraud. 3 vols. Paris, 1866. (A selection only, but containing almost everything of importance.)

[268] Perhaps Anthony Hamilton should be added, as a channel of communication with Saint Evremond and some of the seventeenth century coterie-writers.

[269] Ed. as before noticed. The Maxims have been constantly reprinted by themselves.

[270] Ed. Servois. Paris, 1865-1882.

[271] Under the head of this chapter, in an exhaustive history, not a few classes of writers might be ranged. Such are, besides great numbers of miscellaneous writers of criticism from Corneille in his Examens downwards, the classical commentators, editors, and translators. Few of these have left a very enduring reputation. In the earlier part of the century Perrot d'Ablancourt, a fertile translator, may be mentioned. His work was so free that his versions were called 'les belles infidèles,' but Boileau himself admitted that he was a master of French style. In the latter part the best-known and perhaps the most remarkable name is that of the still famous Madame Dacier. Many of the early members of the Academy, and some who never attained to its ranks, have left a reputation more anecdotic than strictly literary, such as Ménage (a representative of the class), Cotin, Costar, Bautru, etc. But they can only be alluded to here. Law also contributed in the person of Patru, a writer for the most part on professional topics, but occasionally on literature, who is ranked by Boileau with Perrot d'Ablancourt in respect of style.

[Pg 368]



The history of literature and the history of philosophy touch each other only at certain points of their course. There are periods (the nineteenth century itself is perhaps an example) when the study of philosophy is almost divorced from style. There are others when the two are intimately wedded. Nowhere is this latter more the case than in the seventeenth century, and in France. Much of the most excellent writing of the time was directed to philosophic subjects. But it so happened that the great reformer of philosophy in France was also the greatest reformer of her prose style, and that his greatest disciple carried philosophical writing, as far as style is concerned, to very nearly, if not quite, the highest pitch which it has yet attained in French. We shall not have to concern ourselves in more than the very slightest degree with the subject of the writings of Descartes and Malebranche, but they have as legitimate a place in the history of French literature as they have in that of European philosophy.


René Descartes[272] was born at La Haye in Touraine on the 31st of March, 1596. His family belonged by descent to the province in which he was born, but by occupation and official position (as well it would seem as by possessions) to Britanny. It was of noble rank, though only of noblesse de robe, and possessed enough landed property to leave estates and territorial designations to two sons. Thus René was Seigneur du Perron, though, quite contrary to the wont of the day, he[Pg 369] never made use of the title. He was of weak health both at this time and afterwards, and, unlike most of his contemporaries, did not begin his studies very early. In 1604 he was sent to the Jesuit College of La Flèche, and remained there nearly eight years. After a short stay at home he was sent to Paris, where he divided his time between ordinary pursuits and amusements on the one hand, and hard study on the other. In 1617, when he had just attained his majority, he joined the army as a volunteer, and the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War soon gave him plenty of employment. He visited various parts of Europe, partly on duty, partly as an ordinary traveller. First he served for two years at Breda under Prince Maurice of Nassau, pursuing the same mixture of study and routine employments. Then he went to Germany, where in his winter quarters his great philosophical idea, as he has told in memorable words, flashed across him. He served in various parts of the empire, and in Hungary and Bohemia, but left the army in 1621 and went to Holland, experiencing on the way a curious and dangerous adventure. After a year at the Hague he went home, and was put in possession of his share of his mother's property. He visited Italy, where he made a pilgrimage to Loretto, then returned to France, and dwelt in Paris for some time; resuming however his military character for a while, and serving at the siege of La Rochelle. At last, in 1628, being then thirty-two years old, he left the service finally, and gave himself up wholly to the study of philosophy. For this purpose he retired to Holland, where he was still somewhat restless[273]. But his chief centres were successively Amsterdam, Egmond, not far from Alkmaar, and Endegeest, within easy distance of the Hague. He returned to France more than once, and was asked to settle at court, receiving from Mazarin a pension of 3000 livres. But the troubles of the Fronde made Paris a distasteful and unsuitable residence for him. He then accepted, at the end of 1649, an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden and went to Stockholm, where the severe weather and the gracious habit which the queen had of summoning him for discussion at five o'clock in the morning (he had all his life when not on active service made a[Pg 370] point of not rising till eleven), put an end to his life, by inflammation of the lungs, on Feb. 11, 1650.

The works of Descartes are numerous, though few of them are of very great extent. He wrote a treatise (not now extant) on the art of fencing when he was but sixteen; and during the succeeding years small treatises on different points, chiefly of mathematics and natural theology, constantly issued from his pen, though he was not a ready writer. The works which alone concern us here are his famous Discours de la Méthode, 1637, and his letters. The Méditations, of equal importance philosophically with the Discours, and the Principia Philosophiæ, a rehandling of the two, were originally published in Latin. No attempt can here be made to give any account of Descartes' mathematical, physical, and metaphysical speculations, or of the means by which he endeavoured to work out his great principle, that all knowledge springs from certain ideas clearly and distinctly conceived, and is deducible mathematically, or rather logically, from these principles.

Until and including Victor Cousin, who, though his own style has some drawbacks, was a keen judge and a fervent admirer of the best classical French, French writers have always regarded the style of Descartes as one of the most remarkable, and above all the most original in the language. There cannot be the slightest doubt in the mind of any one historically acquainted with that language, and accustomed to judge style critically, that the opinion is a thoroughly sound one. Of late, however, there have been dissidents, and their opinion has been strangely adopted by the latest English biographer of Descartes[274]. Controversy as a rule is out of place in these pages, but on this particular point, involving as it does one of the most important questions in French literary history—the proper distribution of the epochs of style—an exception must be made. According to Mr. Mahaffy's view it is Descartes' few letters to Balzac which have gained him a reputation for style, but he is 'seldom more than clear and correct;' he is 'seldom grand, not often amusing.' The temptation to enlarge on this singular definition of style as that which is grand or amusing must be resisted. Those who have followed the foregoing[Pg 371] pages will perceive that the refusal to recognise in a writer who is 'seldom more than clear and correct' (Descartes is a great deal more than this, but no matter) the characteristics of a master of style arises from ignorance of what the characteristics and drawbacks of French style had hitherto been.

Prose style may be divided, as conveniently as in any other way, into the style of description or narration, and the style of discussion or argument. The former deals with the imagination, with the passions, with outward events, with conversation; the latter with the reason only. The former propounds images, the latter ideas. The former constructs a picture, the latter reduces words to their simplest terms as symbols of thought. French had been making very rapid progress in the former division of style, though there was much left to be done; in the latter it was yet entirely at its rudiments. Before Descartes there are three masters of this latter style, and three only, Rabelais, Calvin, and Montaigne. There is little doubt that Rabelais might have anticipated Descartes, had it not been for the fact, first, that, except on rare occasions, he chose to wrap himself in the grotesque; and, secondly, that he came before the innovations of the Pléiade had enriched the language, and the reaction against the Pléiade had pruned off the superfluity of richness. Calvin was also exposed to this second drawback, and had besides a defect of idiosyncrasy in a certain dryness and heaviness allied with, and partly resulting from, a too close adherence to Latin forms. Montaigne again, like Rabelais, deliberately refuses to be bound by the mere requirements of argument, and expatiates into all sorts of digressions, partaking of the other style, the style of description. If any one will take the famous passage of Descartes already referred to (the passage in which he describes how being in winter quarters, with nothing to do and sitting all day long by a warm stove, he started the train of thought which ended or began in Cogito ergo sum), and, having a good acquaintance with the three authors just mentioned, will imagine how the same facts and arguments would have appeared in their language, he will not find it difficult to realise the difference. The grotesque by-play and the archaic vocabulary of Gargantua, the garrulous digression and anecdote of the Essays,[Pg 372] are not more strikingly absent than the jejune scholasticism which is the worse side of Calvin's grave and noble style. The author does not think it necessary to attract his readers with ornament, nor to repel them with dry and barren marshalling of technicalities. All is simple, straightforward, admirably clear, but at the same time the prose is fluent, modulated, harmonious, and possesses, if not the grace of superadded ornament, those of perfect proportion and unerring choice of words.

As a prose writer Descartes is generally compared to his contemporary, and in some sort predecessor, Balzac, and his advantage over the author of the Socrate Chrétien is stated to lie chiefly in the superiority of his matter. This is not quite the fact. Balzac had, indeed, aimed at the simplicity and classical perfection of Descartes, but he had not attained it; he still has much of the quaintness of Montaigne, though it must be remembered that in comparisons of this kind censure bestowed on the authors compared is relative not positive, and that Descartes could no more have written the Essays than Montaigne the Discours. Descartes has almost entirely discarded this quaintness, which sometimes passed into what is called in French clinquant, that is to say, tawdry and grotesque ornament. It is a peculiarity of his that no single description of his sentences fully describes their form. They are always perfectly clear, but they are sometimes very long. Their length, however, as is the case with some English authors of the same century, is more apparent than real, the writer having chosen to link by conjunctions clauses which are independently finished, and which, by different punctuation even without the omission of the conjunction, might stand alone. The mistake of saying that Descartes is nothing more than clear and correct can only arise from an imperfect appreciation of the language. Let, for instance, his condemnation of scholastic method in the Discours be taken. Here the matter is interesting enough, and the comparison with the gorgeous but unphilosophical disdain which Bacon is wont to pour on the studies of the past is interesting also. But we are busied with the form. In the first place, any one must be struck with the modernness of the phrase and style. With insignificant exceptions there is nothing which would not be most excellent[Pg 373] French to-day. Further examination of the phrase will show that there is much more in it than mere clearness and correctness, admirably clear and correct as it is. There is no 'spilth of adjectives,' as it has been termed. The words are just so many as are necessary for clear, correct, and elegant expression of the thought. But it is in the selection of them that the master of style appears. The happy phrase, 'La gentillesse des fables réveille l'esprit;' the comparison of the reading of the best authors not merely to a conversation, but a conversation étudiée, in which the speakers 'show only their best thoughts;' the contrast between eloquence and poetry (too often forgotten by the writer's countrymen); the ironic touch[275] in the eulogium on philosophy; all these things show style in its very rarest and highest form—the form which enables the writer to say the most, and to say it most forcibly with the least expenditure of the stores of the dictionary. One sees at once that the requirement of one of the greatest French writers of our time, that the master of style 'shall be able to express at once any idea that presents itself requiring expression,' is fully, and more than fully, met by Descartes; and one sees also how the miracles of expression which Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Bossuet, were to produce became possible, and who showed them the way. It may be asserted, without the slightest fear, that the more thoroughly Descartes is studied with the necessary apparatus of knowledge, the more firmly will his claims in this direction be established.

It is not superfluous to call attention to the fact that the Discours de la Méthode appeared within a few months of the Cid. Thus it happened that the first complete models of French classical style in prose and verse, and two of the most remarkable examples of that style which have ever been produced, were given to the public as nearly as possible contemporaneously. This fact, and the brilliant group of imitators who almost immediately availed themselves of the examples, prove satisfactorily how powerful were the influences which produced the change, and over how wide a circle they worked. As the influence of Descartes was thus no[Pg 374] less literary than philosophical, it followed naturally enough that his school (which soon included almost all the men of intellectual eminence in France) preserved literary as well as philosophical traditions. This school, so far as it concerns French literature, may be said to have produced two remarkable individuals and one remarkable group. The group was the school of Port Royal; the individuals were Malebranche and Bayle.

Port Royal.

We are not here concerned with the religious fortunes of the community of Port Royal[276]. It is sufficient to say that it was originally a nunnery at no great distance from Versailles, that it underwent a great religious revival under the influence of St. Francis de Sales and Mère Angélique Arnauld, and that, chiefly owing to the inspiration of the Abbé de St. Cyran, there was engrafted on it a community of Solitaires of the other sex, who busied themselves in study, in religious exercises, in manual labour, and in the education of youth. The society was early imbued with Jansenist principles, which brought it into violent conflict with the Jesuits, and eventually led to its persecution and destruction. It was also the head-quarters of a somewhat modified Cartesianism, and this, with its importance as a centre of literary instruction and its intimate connection with many famous men of letters, such as Pascal, Nicole, and Racine, gives it a place in the history of literature. The most remarkable work of an educational kind which proceeded from it was the famous Port Royal Logic, or 'Art of Thinking,' which seems to have been a work of collaboration, Arnauld and Nicole being the chief authors. This, though open to criticism from the point of view of the logician, had a very great influence in making the methodical treatment and clear luminous exposition which were characteristic of the Cartesian school common in French writers. Of the two authors just mentioned, Arnauld was the greater thinker, Nicole by far the better writer. He was, in fact, a sort of minor Pascal, his Lettres sur les Visionnaires corresponding to the Provinciales of his greater contemporary, while he was the author of Pensées, which, unlike Pascal's, were regularly finished, and which, though much inferior to them, have something[Pg 375] of the same character. The intellectual activity of Port Royal was very considerable, but most of it was directed into channels which were not purely literary, owing partly to incessant controversies brought on by the differences between the community and the Jesuits, partly to the cultivation of philosophical subjects. The age was perhaps the most controversial that Europe has ever seen, and the comparative absence of periodicals (which were only in their infancy) threw the controversies necessarily into book form, as letters, pamphlets, or even volumes of considerable size. But no very large portion of this controversial matter deserves the name of literature, and much of it was written in Latin. Thus Gassendi, the upholder of Neo-Epicurean opinions in opposition to Descartes, and beyond all question the greatest French philosopher of the century after Descartes and Malebranche, hardly belongs to French literature, though his Latin works are of great bulk and no small literary merit. The Gassendian school soon gave birth to a small but influential school of materialist freethinkers. What may be called the school of orthodox doubt, which had been represented by Montaigne and Charron, had, as has been said, a representative in La Mothe le Vayer. But this special kind of scepticism was already antiquated, if not obsolete, and it was succeeded, on the one side, by the above-mentioned freethinkers, who were also to a great extent free livers[277], and whose most remarkable literary figure was Saint Evremond; on the other, by a school of learned Pyrrhonists, whose most remarkable representative in every respect was Pierre Bayle.


Bayle was born in the south of France in 1647, and, like almost all the men of letters of his time, was educated by the Jesuits. He was of a Protestant family, and was converted by his teachers, his conversion being however so little of a[Pg 376] solid one that he reverted to Protestantism in less than two years. After this he resided for some time in Switzerland, studying Cartesianism. In 1675 he was made Professor of Philosophy at Sedan, a post which he held for six years, moving thence to Rotterdam. Here he began to write numerous articles and works in the periodicals, which were slowly becoming fashionable, especially in Holland. They were mostly critical, and dealt with scientific, historical, philosophical, and theological subjects. Bayle's utterances on the latter subject, and especially his pleas for toleration, brought him into a troublesome controversy with Jurieu, and in 1693 he was deprived of his professorship, or at least of his right to lecture. He then devoted himself to the famous Dictionary which is identified with his name, and which, though by no means the first encyclopædia of modern times (for Alsten, Moreri, Hoffmann, and others had preceded him within the century), was by far the most influential and most original yet produced. It appeared in 1696, and brought him new troubles, which were not however of a serious character. He died in 1706.

The scepticism of which Bayle was the exponent was purely critical and intellectual. He was not in the least an enemy of the moral system of Christianity, nor even, it would appear, an enemy to Christianity itself. But his intellect was constitutionally disposed to see the objections to all things rather than the arguments in their favour, and to take a pleasure in stating these objections. Thus, though he was after his religious oscillations nominally an orthodox Protestant, the tendency of his works was to impugn points held by Protestants and Catholics alike, and though he was nominally a Cartesian, he was equally far from yielding an implicit belief to the doctrines of Descartes. His most famous work is the reverse of methodical. The subjects are chosen almost at random, and are very frequently nothing but pegs on which to hang notes and digressions in which the author indulges his critical and dissolvent faculty. Nor is the style by any means a model. But it is lively, clear, and interesting, and no doubt had a good deal to do with the vast popularity of his book in the eighteenth century. Bayle had a strong influence on Voltaire, and though he had less to do with his follower's style than Saint Evremond[Pg 377] and Pascal, he is nearer to him in spirit than either. The difference perhaps may be said to be that Bayle's pleasure in negative criticism is almost purely intellectual. There is but little in him of the half-childish mischievousness which distinguishes Voltaire.


Cartesianism was not less likely than its opposites to lead to philosophical scepticism, but in the main its professors, taking their master's conduct for model, remained orthodox. In that case, however, the Cartesian idealism had a tendency to pass into mysticism. Of those in whom it took this form Nicolas Malebranche[278] was the unquestioned chief. He was born at Paris, where his father held a lucrative office; in 1638, and from his birth had very feeble health. When he was of age he became an Oratorian, and passed the whole of his long life in study and literary work, sometimes being engaged in controversies on the compatibility of his system—the famous 'Vision in God,' and 'Spiritual Existence in God'—with orthodoxy, but never receiving any formal censure from the Church. Despite his bad health he lived to the age of seventy-seven, dying in 1715. A curious story is told of a verbal argument between him and Berkeley on the eve of his death. He wrote several works in French, such as a Traité de Morale, Conversations Métaphysiques, etc., but his greatest and most remarkable contribution to French literature is his Recherche de la Vérité, published in 1674, which unfolds his system. From the literary point of view the Recherche is one of the most considerable books of the philosophical class ever produced. Unlike the various works of Descartes it is of very great length, filling three volumes in the original edition, and a thousand pages of close type in the most handy modern reprint. It also deals with subjects of an exceedingly abstract character, and is not diversified by any elaborate illustrations, any machinery like that of Plato or Berkeley, or any passages of set eloquence. The purity and beauty of the style, however, and its extraordinary lucidity, make it a book of which it is difficult to tire. The chief mechanical difference between the style of Malebranche and that[Pg 378] of his master is that his sentences are shorter. They are, however, framed with equal care as to rhythm and to logical arrangement. The metaphor of limpidity is very frequently applied to style, but perhaps there is hardly any to which it may be applied with such propriety as to the style of Malebranche.


[272] Not fully edited yet. Cousin's edition is the fullest, but the important French works figure in many popular collections and are easily accessible.

[273] He was 'as restless as a hyæna,' says De Quincey, not unjustly.

[274] Professor Mahaffy, Descartes. Blackwood, 1880.

[275] 'La philosophie donne moyen de parler vraisemblablement de toutes choses, et se faire admirer des moins savants.'

[276] Sainte-Beuve, Port Royal. 6 vols. Paris, 1859-61.

[277] These men, such as Saint Ibal, Bardouville, Desbarreaux, and others, figure largely in the anecdotic history of the time. In the persons of Théophile and Saint Evremond they touch on literature: but for the most part they were chiefly distinguished by revolting coarseness and blasphemy of expression, and by a childish delight in outraging religious sentiment, which was often changed into abject terror or hypocritical compliance as death approached. They were commonly called philosophes, a degradation of the word which was not much mended in the next century, though it then acquired a more strictly literary meaning.

[278] Ed. Simon. 1854.

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There is no period in the whole course of French literature in which theological writers and orators contribute so much to literary history as in the seventeenth century. The causes of this energy can only be summarily indicated here. They were the various sequelae of the Reformation and the counter-reformation, the latter of which was in France extraordinarily powerful; the influence of Richelieu and Mazarin in politics, which assured to the Church a great predominance in the State, while its rival, the territorial aristocracy, was depressed and persecuted; the personal inclination of Louis XIV., who made up for his loose manner of life by the straitest doctrinal orthodoxy; but perhaps most of all the accidental determination of various men of great talents and energy to the ecclesiastical profession. Bossuet, Fénelon, Bourdaloue, Massillon, Fléchier, Mascaron, Claude, Saurin, to name no others, could hardly have failed to distinguish themselves in any department of literature which they had chosen. Circumstances of accident threw them into work more or less wholly theological.

St. François de Sales.

This peculiarity of the century, however, belongs chiefly to its third and fourth quarters. The first preacher and theologian of literary eminence in this period belongs about equally to it and to the preceding, but his most remarkable work dates from this time. François de Sales was born at Annecy in 1567. He was destined for the law, and completed his education for it at Paris, but his vocation for the church was stronger, and he took orders in 1593. He soon distinguished himself by reconverting a considerable number of persons to the[Pg 380] Roman form of faith in the district of Chablais, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century preached at Paris, and latterly at Dijon. He was soon made bishop of Geneva, an episcopate which, it need hardly be said, might almost be described as in partibus infidelium. But in the south of France, in Savoy, and in Paris itself, his influence was great. His chief works are the 'Introduction to a Devout Life' (1608), the Traité de l'Amour de Dieu, 'Spiritual Letters' (to Madame de Chantal), and sermons. His style is by no means destitute of archaism, but it is clear, fluent, and agreeable. He and Fenouillet, bishop of Marseilles, with other preachers whose names are now forgotten, were the chief instruments in recovering the art of sacred oratory from the low estate into which it had fallen during the heat of the religious wars and the League, when it had been disgraced alternately by violence and buffoonery. But the Thirty Years' War and the Fronde were again unfavourable to theological discussion, except of a quasi-political kind, and the best spirits of this time threw themselves into the unpopular direction of Jansenism. The 'Siècle de Louis Quatorze' proper, that is the period subsequent to 1660, was the palmy time, from the literary point of view, of theological eloquence and discussion in France.


Of the authors already named Bossuet deserves precedence in almost every respect except that of private character. Jacques Benigne Bossuet[279] was born at Dijon, in 1627, of a family of distinction in the middle class. He went to school to the Jesuits in his native town, and finished his education at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, receiving his doctor's degree and a canonry at Metz in 1652. He soon distinguished himself both as an orator and a controversialist, preached before the king in Advent 1661, and in 1669 was appointed to the bishopric of Condom. His subsequent appointment to the post of tutor to the Dauphin made him resign his bishopric; but on the completion of his task (in virtue of which he had been elected to the Academy in 1680) he was made almoner to the prince, and in the following year received the bishopric of Meaux. He was soon after engaged in[Pg 381] the Gallican controversy, in which he defended not so much the rights of the Church as the claims of the royal prerogative. The most unfortunate incident of his life was his controversy with Fénelon. Bossuet, though thoroughly learned in some respects, was not a man of the widest culture, and the whole region of mystical theology was unknown to him. He, therefore, mistook certain utterances of the archbishop of Cambray, which were neither new nor alarming, for heterodox innovations, and began a violent polemic against him. Supported by the king, he was able to obtain a nominal victory, but the moral success rested with Fénelon, and still more the advantage in the literary duel. Bossuet died in 1704. His works were very numerous, and of very various kinds. His first reputation was, as has been said, earned as a controversialist (his principal adversaries in this respect were the Protestant ministers Ferri and Claude) and as a preacher on general subjects. On his appointment to the see of Condom, however, he struck out a new line, that of funeral discourses (oraisons funèbres), and produced, on the occasions of the death of the two Henriettas of England, mother and daughter, of the great Condé, of the Princess-Palatine, and of others, works which are undoubtedly triumphs of French eloquence, and which, with the exception of the best passages of Burke, are perhaps the only things of the kind comparable to the masterpieces of antiquity. His controversial work is equal in perfection of execution to his oratory, the Exposition de la Doctrine de l'Église Catholique, and still more the Histoire des Variations des Églises Protestantes, being deservedly regarded as models of their kind, notwithstanding the obvious fallacy pervading the latter. Of his other works the most remarkable (perhaps the most remarkable of all if originality of conception and breadth of design be taken into account) is his Discours sur l'Histoire Universelle jusqu'à l'Empire de Charlemagne. This has, though not universally, been held to be the first attempt at the philosophy of history, that is to say, the first work in which general history is regarded and expounded from a single comprehensive point of view, and laws of a universal kind drawn from it. In Bossuet's case the point of view is, of course, strictly theological, and the laws are arranged accordingly.

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Bossuet's character was unamiable, and, despite the affected frankness with which he spoke to the king, it will always remain a blot on his memory that he did not seriously protest either against the loose life of Louis, or against his ruinous ambit