The Old French Epic

The Old French Epic

The Old French Epic

The Old French Epic

Excerpt

The object of this study is not to break a lance in support of any of the conflicting theories which have been put forward as to the date, the origin or the historical accuracy of the Old French national epic, though these questions will have to be considered in the course of the work, but to give a plain, unvarnished account of this remarkable 'genre', this outburst of epic poems during the eleventh and twelfth centuries which is quite unparalleled in the history of French literature. It has been estimated that some eighty to a hundred epic poems were produced, mostly in the twelfth century. The poems were, of course, of very unequal value, but the importance of this phenomenal output cannot be overlooked. They appeared 'not (as) single spies but in battalions'--the history of each outstanding hero developed into a cycle of poems which revolved round the original hero and furnished him with ancestors and descendants. The cyclic manuscripts containing these poems may contain as many as twenty-seven 'chansons' which form a kind of continued story in which the same characters appear and reappear--sometimes after they have been killed off in a previous chapter. The 'jongleurs' themselves were responsible for these collections and in some cases have added a few lines to one poem in order to form a connecting link with the next in the series, thus ensuring continuity. There is much that is decadent in character in the later ones and more still that is purely conventional, but, strange to say, fresh shoots of this 'floraison épique' appeared in other lands long after it had passed its prime in the land of its birth. The present work is an attempt to view this phenomenon against its historical background, to examine the soil from which it sprang, to indicate the unique character and beauty of its most noble exponents and to trace the development of certain ideals of thought and conduct which run through it. The poems have a value to-day not only from the place they occupy in literary history and a certain alluring quality which constantly draws the reader on, but they are extremely important as representing the best and the worst in the epoch which produced them. They present a picture of feudal society with its combination of idealism and brutality, its extremes of loyalty and treachery, such as no chronicle of the time can give. It is frankly admitted that in consideration of such a vast and complex subject much will be unavoidably omitted both in respect of the 'chansons'

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