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majority of the actual texts are in print. This is as well, for though a certain monotony is always charged against the chansons de geste' by those who do not love them, and may be admitted to some extent even by those who do, there are few which have not a more or less distinct character of their own; and even the generic character is not properly to be perceived until a considerable number have been studied. The old habit of reading this division of romance in late and travestied versions naturally and necesTheir distin. sarily obscured the curious traits of comow char- munity in form and matter that belong to it, and indeed distinguish it from almost all other departments of literature of the imaginative kind. Its members are frequently spoken of as “the Charlemagne Romances”; and, as a matter of fact, most of them do come into connection with the great prince of the second race in one way or another. Yet Bodel’s phrase of matière de France” is happier. For they are all still more directly connected with French history, 1 This monotony almost follows from the title. For geste in the French is not merely the equivalent of gesta, “deeds.” It is used for the record of those deeds, and then for the whole class or family of performances and records of them. In this last sense the gestes are in chief three—those of the king, of Doon de Mayence, and of Garin de Montglane—besides smaller ones. * Jean Bodel, a trouvère of the thirteenth century, furnished liter
ary history with a valuable stock-quotation in the opening of his Chanson des Saismes for the three great divisions of Romance:—
“Ne sont que trois matières à nul home attendant,
The lines following, less often quoted, are an interesting early locus for French literary patriotism.
seen through a romantic lens; and even the late and half-burlesque Hugues Capet, even the extremely interesting and partly contemporary set on the Crusades, as well as such “little gestes” as that of the Lorrainers, Garim le Loherain and the rest, and the three “great gestes” of the king, of the southern hero William of Orange (sometimes called the geste of Montglane), and of the family of Doon de Mayence, arrange themselves with no difficulty under this more general heading. And the chanson de geste proper, as Frenchmen are entitled to boast, never quite deserts this matière de France. It is always the Gesta Francorum at home, or the Gesta Dei per Francos in the East, that supply the themes. When this subject or group of subjects palled, the very form of the chanson de geste was lost. It was not applied to other things;" it grew obsolete with that which it had helped to make popular. Some of the material—Huon of Bordeaua, the Four Sons of Aymon, and others—retained a certain vogue in forms quite different, and gave later ages the inexact and bastard notion of “Charlemagne Romance’ which has been referred to. But the chanson de geste itself was never, so to speak, “half-known "–except to a very few antiquaries. After its three centuries of flourishing, first alone, then with the other two “matters,” it retired altogether, and made its reappearance only after four centuries had passed away. This fact or set of facts has made the actual nature of the original Charlemagne Romances the subject of "much mistake and misstatement on the part of gen **** eral historians of literature. The widely - read and generally accurate Dunlop knew nothing whatever about them, except in early printed Yosions representing their very latest form, and in the hopelessly travestied eighteenth-century Bibliothèque des Romans of the Comte de Tressan. He therefore *gned to them a position altogether inferior to their real importance, and actually apologised for the Y”ters, in that, coming after the Arthurian historians, they were compelled to imitation. As a matter of fact, it is probable that all the most striking and original chansons de geste, certainly all those of the best P°riod, were in existence before a single one of the *at Arthurian romances was written; and as both the French and English, and even the German, writers of these latter were certainly acquainted with the chansons, the imitation, if there were any, must lie on their side. As a matter of fact, however, there is little or none. The later and less genuine chansoms borrow to some extent the methods and incidents in the romances; but the romances at no time exhibit much resemblance to the chansons proper, which have an extremely distinct, racy, and original character of their own. Hallam, writing later than Dunlop, and if with a less wide knowledge of Romance, with a much greater proficiency in general literary history, practically passes the chansons de geste over altogether in the introduction to his Literature of Europe, which purports to summarise all that is important in the History of the Middle Ages, and to supplement and correct that book itself. The only excuse (besides mere unavoidable ignorance, which, no doubt, is a sufficient one) for this Their isolation neglect is the curious fact, in itself adding ** to their interest, that these chansons, though a very important chapter in the histories both of poetry and of fiction, form one which is strangely marked off at both ends from all connection, save in point of subject, with literature precedent or subsequent. As to their own origin, the usual abundant, warm, and if it may be said without impertinence, rather futile controversies have prevailed. Practically speaking, we know nothing whatever about the matter. There used to be a theory that the Charlemagne Romances owed their origin more or less directly to the fabulous Chronicle of Tilpin or Turpin, the warrior - Archbishop of Rheims. It has now been made tolerably certain that the Latin chronicle on the subject is not anterior even to our existing Chanson de Roland, and very probable that it is a good deal later. On the other hand, of actual historical basis we have next to nothing except the mere fact of the death of Roland (“Hruotlandus comes Britanniae.”) at the skirmish of Roncesvalles. There are, however, early mentions of certain cantilena, or ballads; and it has been assumed by some scholars that the earliest chansons were compounded out of precedent ballads of the kind. It is unnecessary to inform those who know something of general literary history, that this theory (that the corruption of the ballad is the generation of the epic) is not confined to the present subject, but is one of the favourite fighting-grounds of a certair" school of critics. It has been applied to Homer, to Bouls, to the Old and Middle German Roman ce?” and it would be very odd indeed if it had not bee IM- applied to the Chansons de geste. But it may be said with some confidence that not one tittle of e Sa. In as ever been produced for the existence of ballads containing the matter of any of the 72 & which do exist. The song of Roland which o , sang at Hastings may have been such a o it may have been part of the actual chanson ; ww. ... Inave been something quite different. But it, wax 1 nays” are not evidence; and it cannot but be *. to a real misfortune that, instead of confining *. ves to an abundant and indeed inexhaustible wo. the proper literary study of what does exist, * 'should persist in dealing with what certainly o not, and perhaps never did. On the general oint it might be observed that there is rather more positive evidence for the breaking up of the epic into ballads than for the conglomeration of ballads into the epic. But on that point it is not necessary to take sides. The matter of real importance is, to lay it down distinctly that we have nothing anterior to the earliest chansons de geste; and that we have not even any satisfactory reason for presuming that there ever was anything.
* Or only in rare cases to later French history itself—Du Guesclin, and the Combat des Trente.
1 Dunlop, History of Prose Fiction (ed. Wilson, London, 1888), i, 274-351. Had Dunlop rigidly confined himself to prose fiction, the censure in the text might not be quite fair. As a matter of fact, however, he does not, and it would have been impossible for him to do so.