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An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt. 4

Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, 800 (from Chroniques de France ou de Saint-Denis, V. 1, c. 1325-50)

Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, 800 (from Chroniques de France ou de Saint-Denis, V. 1, c. 1325-50)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt. 4 (Defined)

Good Morning, Everyone!

For those would-be epic fantasy writers seeking to create a believable faux-medieval world, I’ve been recommending a return to the source-material of medieval literature and seeing what the chansons de geste have to offer for inspiration.

In haste today, so here’s an entry from the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the chansons to capture aspects I might have missed.

The Locales of the Chansons

The Locales of the Chansons

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("The Song of William," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“The Song of William,” art by John Vernon Lord)

[Begin Ency. Brit. definition] chanson de geste, ( French: “song of deeds”) any of the Old French epic poems forming the core of the Charlemagne legends. More than 80 chansons, most of them thousands of lines long, have survived in manuscripts dating from the 12th to the 15th century.

They deal chiefly with events of the 8th and 9th centuries during the reigns of Charlemagne and his successors. In general, the poems contain a core of historical truth overlaid with legendary accretions. Whether they were composed under the inspiration of the events they narrate and survived for generations in oral tradition or were the independent compositions of professional poets of a later date is still disputed. A few poems have authors’ names, but most are anonymous.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("The Deeds of the Norman People," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“The Deeds of the Norman People,” art by John Vernon Lord)

Chansons de geste are composed in lines of 10 or 12 syllables grouped into laisses (irregular stanzas) based on assonance or, later, rhyme. The poems’ lengths range from approximately 1,500 to more than 18,000 lines. The fictional background of the chansons is the struggle of Christian France against a conventionalized polytheistic or idolatrous “Muslim” enemy. The emperor Charlemagne is portrayed as the champion of Christendom. He is surrounded by his court of Twelve Noble Peers, among whom are Roland, Oliver (Olivier), Ogier the Dane, and Archbishop Turpin.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("The Song of William," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“The Song of William,” art by John Vernon Lord)

Besides the stories grouped around Charlemagne, there is a subordinate cycle of 24 poems dealing with Guillaume d’Orange, a loyal and long-suffering supporter of Charlemagne’s weak son, Louis the Pious. Another cycle deals with the wars of such powerful barons as Doon de Mayence, Girart de Roussillon, Ogier the Dane, or Raoul de Cambrai against the crown or against each other.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Charlemagne's Dream in "The Song of Roland," by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Charlemagne’s Dream in “The Song of Roland,” by John Vernon Lord)

The earlier chansons are heroic in spirit and theme. They focus on great battles or feuds and on the legal and moral niceties of feudal allegiances. After the 13th century, elements of romance and courtly love came to be introduced, and the austere early poems were supplemented by enfances (youthful exploits) of the heroes and fictitious adventures of their ancestors and descendants. The masterpiece and probably the earliest of the chansons de geste is the 4,000-line La Chanson de Roland (“The Song of Roland”).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Charlemagne Legends ("The Song of Roland," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Charlemagne Legends (“The Song of Roland,” art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Godfrey of Boulogne" art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Godfrey of Boulogne” art by John Vernon Lord)

Appearing at the threshold of French epic literature, Roland was the formative influence on the rest of the chansons de geste. The chansons, in turn, spread throughout Europe. They strongly influenced Spanish heroic poetry; the mid-12th-century Spanish epic Cantar de mío Cid (“Song of My Cid”), in particular, is indebted to them. In Italy stories about Orlando and Rinaldo (Roland and Oliver) were very popular and formed the basis for the Renaissance epics Orlando innamorato by Matteo Boiardo (1495) and Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532).

In the 13th century the German poet Wolfram Von Eschenbach based his incomplete epic Willehalm on the life of William of Orange, and the chansons were recorded in prose in the Icelandic Karlamagnús saga. Charlemagne legends, referred to as “the matter of France,” were long staple subjects of romance. In the 20th century the chansons continued to enjoy a strange afterlife in folk ballads of the Brazilian backlands, called literatura de la corda (“literature on a string”) because, in pamphlet form, they were formerly hung from strings and sold in marketplaces. Frequently in these ballads, through a misunderstanding of a Portuguese homonym, Charlemagne is surrounded by a company of 24 knights—i.e., “Twelve Noble Pairs.” [End of Ency. Brit. definition]

Next time: Raoul of Cambrai, the Song of Roland,  the Song of William, and A.J.’s troubadour at the Battle of Mecina!

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