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French romance: 12th - 13th century

The western half of Charlemagne's Frankish empire, approximating to modern France, introduces in the 12th century a new and influential strand in European literature. The Franks, as a Germanic tribe, enjoy a powerful epic tradition (from Beowulf to the Nibelungenlied) in which heroism is the stock-in-trade of fierce warriors beset by often monstrous dangers.

But in this western part of the Frankish empire - profoundly influenced by Rome, and speaking a Romance language rather than a Germanic one - there now emerges an element which borrows its name from these qualities. The arrival of romance transforms the warrior into a gentleman.

The first epic poems to reflect this change are a group of about eighty from the 12th and 13th century known as the chansons de geste ('songs of deeds'). Performed by professional minstrels in castles and manors, usually to the accompaniment of a lute, they celebrate the martial exploits of the kings of Carolingian France, and in particular of Charlemagne and his paladins.

The emphasis is now not so much on the violence of the battle. It is on the honour of the participants, on the loyalties required of them in the feudal system, and on their religious obligations in this age of crusades.

The greatest of the chansons de geste is also one of the earliest - the Chanson de Roland, dating probably from about 1100. Although it is set in one of Charlemagne's campaigns, the attention is on his followers Roland and Oliver rather than the king himself.

The same is true of another heroic cycle launched in France later in the 12th century. In the stories of King Arthur (a legendary English king, but featured in literature mainly by the French), the emphasis falls more on the knights of the round table than on the table's owner. And now there is a new element, in the prominent part played by a woman, Queen Guinevere. The ideal of courtly love becomes part of the tradition.

Among all the innovations of French authors in the 12th century, none is more influential than courtly love. This theme - of a gentleman's devotion to his often unattainable lady - is quintessentially romantic in concept. It long outlasts any other literary tradition of the Middle Ages.

Courtly love is associated first, in the 12th century, with the famous troubadours of southern France. Following their example, it moves through the rest of Europe and enters the mainstream of literature.

Chanson de Roland: c.1100

A very early manuscript of the Chanson de Roland (dating from about 1130, in Oxford's Bodleian Library) reveals that the author of France's first great epic poem is probably called Turold. The setting for his story is Charlemagne's expedition of 778 against the Muslims in Spain. The entire campaign was in reality disastrous, but Turold's choice of incident declares uncompromisingly that this is to be a new kind of heroic poetry.

The poet concentrates on a small but undignified event (the successful attack by hill people on the rear of Charlemagne's army in the pass of Roncesvalles) and transforms it into a glorious occasion. He does so by concentrating on the obstinate courage of two of Charlemagne's followers.

The rearguard is under the command of Roland, one of the paladins. Intead of a few Basques or Gascons (the historical reality), the enemy is now a vast army of Muslims. Seeing their number, Roland's companion Oliver urges him to sound his horn to summon Charlemagne back to their defence (one theme of the poem is the contrast between Oliver's commonsense and Roland's headstrong inclination to drama and heroism). Roland refuses to summon help and fights valiantly against overwhelming odds (20,000 against 400,000 men).

When only 60 Franks are left, Roland decides to sound his horn after all. Oliver this time argues against doing so (there is now no point), but Roland expands his lungs for one last flamboyant gesture.

Roland blows his oliphant (a horn of elephant tusk) with such force that he bursts a vein in his head. The mournful sound carries 30 leagues (some 90 miles) to the ear of Charlemagne, who turns south in response. By the time he reaches Roncesvalles, all the Franks are dead. But God delays sunset on that day, to give the Frankish king time to inflict a heavy defeat on the fleeing Muslims.

Roland, magnificent in failure, begins a long career as a new kind of hero. As Orlando, he is particularly popular with the Italians - becoming Innamorato ('enamoured') in Boiardo's epic of 1487, and Furioso ('frantic') in Ariosto's sequel of 1516.

The troubadours and courtly love: 12th - 13th century

The love poetry of the troubadours is linked with a very specific region - southern France and the adjacent regions of Spain and Italy. Unlike the earlier tradition of minstrels or jongleurs (a French word related to 'juggling', which suggests the level of entertainment involved), the troubadours tend to be aristocrats. Indeed the earliest troubadour whose poems survive is William IX, duke of Aquitaine in the early 12th century.

The central region of the troubadours is Provence and the language of their poetry Provençal - the southern version of French.

The feeling expressed in the poems of the troubadours is the refined passion known as courtly love. It is a sentiment exactly suited to the feudal world in which the troubadours and their audience live.

The devotion of the courtly lover to his mistress is in one sense a reflection of the unswerving loyalty owed by the vassal to his lord in the idealized concept of feudalism. In practical terms, this distant fidelity suits the social context of a nobleman's castle.

The lady of a feudal castle is likely to be a woman of high birth whose marriage has been arranged for reasons of practical and dynastic advantage. Love is not a factor here. But an affectation of illicit love makes an intoxicating diversion within the confined community of her lord's followers.

Two powerful reasons urge that such love remain an affectation. The lady and her retinue are greatly outnumbered by the men in this society; and they are mostly of a higher social class. No doubt base reality sometimes upsets the pretence. But the ideal of courtly love is that the lover serves his lady with utter devotion from afar.

Love poetry is a natural part of this game. Probably many a squire tries his hand at it. Some 400 troubadours (not all of them high-born) become sufficiently famous for their poems to be gathered in manuscripts and for details of their lives to be known.

The interconnecting marriages of feudal society soon spread the new fashion. Eleanor of Aquitaine (granddaughter of William IX, the troubadour duke of Aquitaine) is herself a great patron of troubadours, and her successive marriages to the kings of France and England bring new audiences. In the courts of Germany and Austria, by the second half of the 12th century, the Minnesinger are fulfilling the same role as the troubadours.

By the end of the 13th century the tradition of the troubadours has declined. Feudalism is losing its freshness, and the south of France has suffered greatly in the wars against the Albigensians. But these first poets of courtly love are long outlived by their romantic concept - of a passion, akin to worship of the distant loved one, which in its intensity of experience brings its own reward.

This is the feeling of Dante for Beatrice, of Petrarch for Laura. At a different level, in medieval churches and cathedrals, it is the affection of millions of ordinary Christians for the Virgin Mary - who can almost be called the sweetheart of the Middle Ages.

Arthurian romance: 12th - 15th century

The theme of Arthur, a legendary Celtic king of Britain, proves well suited to the demands of medieval romantic literature. The Carolingian kings have provided the basis for the chansons de geste. But they are historical figures, so a tenuous link with reality is desirable (though rarely attained). And with their emphasis on the heroic camaraderie of the paladins, there is little scope in the stories for female characters.

By contrast the world of King Arthur and his knights offers an already existing collection of exotic tales, which can be adapted and extended to suit the romantic interests of a new generation.

If there is a historical basis for King Arthur, it is as a leader of the Celts against the encroaching Anglo-Saxons in the 5th or 6th century (the same period as the dramatic events which inspire many of the incidents in Germanic legend). Stories about Arthur evolve from the late 8th century, mainly in the Celtic stronghold of Wales. In about 1135 they are gathered together in Historia Regum Britanniae ('History of the Kings of Britain') by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a cleric with an unbounded appetite for improbable detail.

It is this material which is transformed in France, a few decades later, into literature.

Of several French authors dealing with the theme, the most influential is Chrétien de Troyes who writes five Arthurian romances between about 1160 and 1190. Chrétien's light and elegant touch sets the tone for a developing tradition of courtly romance. Even more significant, he is the first to adapt courtly love (developed by the troubadours in their lyrics) to the more sustained pleasures of narrative and adventure.

He does so, above all, in his account of the passion of one of Arthur's knights, Lancelot, for the king's wife, Guinevere. The tale of their adultery (Lancelot is a courtly lover who succeeds in his quest) becomes one of the most popular love stories of the Middle Ages.

Chrétien de Troyes introduces another more spiritual adventure which later becomes an important theme in Arthurian legend - the quest for the Holy Grail, in which the activity of Arthur's knights is given a mystical and Christian dimension. In Chrétien's text the Grail is unexplained; in later authors it becomes the vessel used by Jesus for the wine at the Last Supper. Its great merit is that it ennobles the magic adventures undergone by the knights in their quest for it.

Subsequent French romances develop these two main themes - the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the quest for the Grail.

The Arthurian legends, transplanted from Wales to France in the 12th century, return amplified to Britain 300 years later.

In 1469 an English knight, Thomas Malory, is in gaol. With time heavy on his hands he begins to compile, from French texts, the first English account of King Arthur and his knights. He completes the task some time in 1470. All that is known of Malory comes from the last words of his book, where he gives his name and prays for deliverance from prison. In 1485 Caxton prints the manuscript, calling it Morte Darthur. It rapidly becomes one of the most popular books in Britain, teaching the British all that they know about their legendary king.

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