An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 1
An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) The Chansons de Geste, Pt 1
Good Afternoon, Everyone!
Really into vacation mode here on the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest, with many hours devoted to beach-combing with Sophia & the kids, kayaking & crab-hunting with our old friend & host, John, and simply watching the waters of the Puget Sound while we converse late into the evening.
However, the time here hasn’t been entirely filled with jogging 5Ks along the coastline with my son, Seth, or hanging out with daughter, Adriana, & her boyfriend, Ethan; the beauty of the seaside environment inspires creativity, & I’ve been working on The Codex Vindicta, the next book in my Artifacts of Destiny epic fantasy series, & also spending some time re-reading the works of Fritz Leiber, one of my favorite writers. (I’d forgotten how quickly immersed one can become in Lankhmar, & the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser…if you haven’t read Leiber’s books yet, I envy your first exposure to this fighting team in the short story collection, Swords and Deviltry!)
As my readers know, part of my epic fantasy work includes maintaining a social media presence and, for me, blogging gives me a chance to discuss “matters medieval & fantastical” that fall outside the pages of a novel.
So, drafted last night between sips of Balvenie scotch & listening to stories by a roaring bonfire on the beach, here’s the latest entry on medieval literature; specifically, how would-be epic fantasy writers who try to recreate a faux-medieval world might use certain 9th-15th c. literary styles to inform our 21st c. works. In this case, we’ll take a look at the chansons de geste.
As with any decent lecture, let’s have a clearly defined term to get us started; for a textbook definition of this literary form & its historical context, here’s an excerpt from Norman F. Cantor’s The Civilization of the Middle Ages:
(Begin Cantor excerpt)… The chansons de geste were long epic poems indigenous to northern France that portrayed deeds of heroics and other aspects of the life of the feudal nobility. They were certainly meant to entertain aristocratic courts, and they were probably stories that had circulated orally and been slowly expanded over three centuries before being written down at the end of the eleventh or in the early twelfth century. They were based upon incidents, some of he them known from historical sources, that occurred in Carolingian times.
These epic poems, written for the entertainment of the French feudal nobility, presumably portray the great lords of northern France in the way they liked to think of themselves. The result is an idealized picture of feudal life; it is one that is recognizable from, and in many instances vividly confirms, what we know about feudal life from non literary sources. Iberian-Christian literature began about the middle of the twelfth century with the great Spanish epic The Cid, an account of the deeds of a famous eleventh-century Spanish warrior. The ideals and attitudes expressed in The Cid are the same as in the French chansons de geste.
The chansons de geste portray the feudatories as the leaders of society. The emperor-king is at best distant and at worst appears as weak and crooked, churchmen are merely assistants to the feudal nobility, peasants are a negligible social force who have no other function except to toil for their lords and be massacred during feudal wars, and the bourgeois are hardly mentioned. The cohesive force in the world of the chanson de geste is loyalty, and the theme around which the poem is built is always some question of vassalage, it’s fulfillments or it’s violations.
Thus, in The Song of Roland, the earliest work of French literature through. Which so many generations of students have had to toil, the hero is a count who fulfills his oath of loyalty to Charlemagne even though it involves his certain death. Raoul of Cambrai, which is the most valuable of the epic poems for the social historian, is built round the troubles and violence that result when the emperor does not reward one of his leading vassals with the fief he claims by inheritance. In Raoul the bellicose disposition of the feudal nobility is starkly revealed; the wronged hero engages in a bloody rebellion and the massacre of innocent churchmen and bourgeois. Apparently the aristocratic audience enjoyed such incidents, and, in certain backward frontier regions such as Brittany and the Massif Central, such violence was still common, even in the year 1200…(End excerpt, 345-346)
Next Time: Themes in the Chansons that Might be of Use to an Epic Fantasist…