Chanson de geste

Chanson de geste
Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript of a chanson de geste.

The chansons de geste, Old French for "songs of heroic deeds", are the epic poems that appear at the dawn of French literature. The earliest known examples date from the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, nearly a hundred years before the emergence of the lyric poetry of the trouvères (troubadours) and the earliest verse romances. The French chanson gave rise to the Old Spanish tradition of the cantar de gesta.



Composed in Old French and apparently intended for oral performance by jongleurs, the chansons de geste narrate legendary incidents (sometimes based on real events) in the history of France during the eighth and ninth centuries, the age of Charles Martel, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, with emphasis on their conflicts with the Moors and Saracens. To these historical legends, fantasy is gradually added; giants, magic, and monsters increasingly appear among the foes along with Muslims. There is also an increasing dose of Eastern adventure, drawing on contemporary experiences in the Crusades; in addition, one series of chansons retells the events of the First Crusade and the first years of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Finally, in chansons of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the historical and military aspects wane, and the fantastic elements in the stories dominate.

The traditional subject matter of the chansons de geste became known as the Matter of France. This distinguished them from romances concerned with the Matter of Britain, that is, King Arthur and his knights; and with the so-called Matter of Rome, covering the Trojan War, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the life of Julius Cæsar and some of his Imperial successors, who were given medieval makeovers as exemplars of chivalry.[1]

The poems contain a small and unvarying assortment of character types; the repertoire of valiant hero, brave traitor, shifty or cowardly traitor, Saracen giant, beautiful Saracen princess, and so forth is one that is easily exhausted. As the genre matured, fantasy elements were introduced. Some of the characters that were devised by the poets in this manner include the fairy Oberon, who made his literary debut in Huon de Bordeaux; and the magic horse Bayard, who first appears in Renaud de Montauban. Quite soon an element of self-parody appears; even the august Charlemagne was not above gentle mockery in the Pèlerinage de Charlemagne.


Early chansons de geste are composed in ten-syllable lines grouped in assonanced stanzas (meaning that the last stressed vowel is the same in each line throughout the stanza, but the last consonant differs from line to line). These stanzas are typically called laisses. Stanzas are of variable length. An example from the Chanson de Roland illustrates the technique. The assonance in this stanza is on e:

Desuz un pin, delez un eglanter
Un faldestoed i unt, fait tout d'or mer:
La siet li reis ki dulce France tient.
Blanche ad la barbe et tut flurit le chef,
Gent ad le cors et le cuntenant fier.
S'est kil demandet, ne l'estoet enseigner.
Under a pine tree, by a rosebush,
there is a throne made entirely of gold.
There sits the king who rules sweet France;
his beard is white, with a full head of hair.
He is noble in carriage, and proud of bearing.
If anyone is looking for the King, he doesn't need to be pointed out.

Later chansons are composed in monorhyme stanzas, in which the last syllable of each line rhymes fully throughout the stanza. A second change is that each line now contains twelve syllables instead of ten. The following example is from the opening lines of Les Chétifs, a chanson in the Crusade cycle. The rhyme is on ie:

Or s'en fuit Corbarans tos les plains de Surie,
N'enmaine que .ii. rois ens en sa conpaignie.
S'enporte Brohadas, fis Soudan de Persie;
En l'estor l'avoit mort a l'espee forbie
Li bons dus Godefrois a le chiere hardie
Tres devant Anthioce ens en la prairie.
So Corbaran escaped across the plains of Syria;
He took only two kings in his company.
He carried away Brohadas, son of the Sultan of Persia,
Who had been killed in the battle by the clean sword
Of the brave-spirited good duke Godfrey
Right in front of Antioch, down in the meadow.


The songs were recited (sometimes to casual audiences, sometimes possibly in a more formal setting) by jongleurs, who would sometimes accompany themselves, or be accompanied, on the vielle, a mediæval fiddle played with a bow. Several manuscript texts include lines in which the jongleur demands attention, threatens to stop singing, promises to continue the next day, and asks for money or gifts. Since paper was extremely expensive and not all poets could read, it seems likely that even after the chansons had begun to be written down, many performances continued to depend on oral transmission. As an indication of the role played by orality in the tradition of the chanson de geste, lines and sometimes whole stanzas (especially in the earlier examples) are noticeably formulaic in nature, making it possible both for the poet to construct a poem in performance and for the audience to grasp a new theme with ease.

The poems themselves

Approximately eighty chansons de geste survive, in manuscripts that date from the 12th to the 15th century. Several popular chansons were written down more than once in varying forms. The earliest chansons are all (more or less) anonymous; many later ones have named authors.

About 1215 Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube, in the introductory lines to his Girart de Vienne, subdivided the Matter of France, the usual subject area of the chansons de geste, into three cycles, which revolved around three main characters (see quotation at Matter of France). There are several other less formal lists of chansons, or of the legends they incorporate. One can be found in the fabliau entitled Des Deux Bordeors Ribauz, a humorous tale of the second half of the 13th century, in which a jongleur lists the stories he knows.[2] Another is included by the Catalan troubadour Guiraut de Cabrera in his humorous poem Ensenhamen, better known from its first words as "Cabra juglar": this is addressed to a juglar (jongleur) and purports to instruct him on the poems he ought to know but doesn't.[3]

The listing below is arranged according to Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube's cycles, extended with two additional groupings and with a final list of chansons that fit into no cycle. There are numerous differences of opinion about the categorization of individual chansons.

Geste du roi

The chief character is usually Charlemagne or one of his immediate successors. A pervasive theme is the King's role as champion of Christianity. This cycle contains the first of the chansons to be written down, the Chanson de Roland or "Song of Roland".

  • Chanson de Roland (c. 1100 for the Oxford text, the earliest written version); several other versions exist, including the Occitan Ronsasvals[4], the Middle High German Ruolandsliet and the Latin Carmen de Prodicione Guenonis.
  • Entrée d'Espagne[5]
  • Galiens li Restorés known from a single manuscript of about 1490[6]
  • Anseïs de Carthage (c. 1200)
  • Pèlerinage de Charlemagne or Voyage de Charlemagne à Jérusalem et à Constantinople dealing with a fictional expedition by Charlemagne and his knights (c. 1140; two 15th century reworkings)
  • Fierabras (c. 1170)[7]
  • Aspremont (c. 1190); a later version formed the basis of Aspramonte by Andrea da Barberino
  • Aiquin or Acquin[8]
  • Chanson de Saisnes or "Song of the Saxons", by Jean Bodel (c. 1200)
  • Otuel or Otinel
  • Berthe aux Grands Pieds by Adenet le Roi (c. 1275), and a later Franco-Italian reworking
  • Mainet
  • Basin
  • Les Enfances Ogier by Adenet le Roi (c. 1275)
  • Ogier le Danois by Raimbert de Paris[9]
  • Jehan de Lanson (before 1239)[10]
  • Gui de Bourgogne[11]
  • Gaydon (c. 1230)[12]
  • Macaire or La Chanson de la Reine Sebile
  • Huon de Bordeaux originally c. 1215-1240, known from slightly later manuscripts. A "prequel" and four sequels were later added:
  • Hugues Capet (c. 1360)
  • Huon d'Auvergne, a lost chanson known from a 16th century retelling. The hero is mentioned among epic heroes in the Ensenhamen of Guiraut de Cabrera, and figures as a character in Mainet

Geste de Garin de Monglane

The central character is not Garin de Monglane but his supposed great-grandson, Guillaume d'Orange. These chansons deal with knights who were typically younger sons, not heirs, who seek land and glory through combat with the Infidel (in practice, Muslim) enemy.

  • Chanson de Guillaume (c. 1100)
  • Couronnement de Louis (c. 1130)
  • Le Charroi de Nîmes (c. 1140)
  • La Prise d'Orange (c. 1150), reworking of a lost version from before 1122
  • Aliscans (c. 1180), with several later versions
  • La Bataille Loquifer by Graindor de Brie (fl. 1170)
  • Le Moniage Rainouart by Graindor de Brie (fl. 1170)
  • Foulques de Candie, by Herbert le Duc of Dammartin (fl. 1170)
  • Simon de Pouille or "Simon of Apulia", fictional eastern adventures; the hero is said to be a grandson of Garin de Monglane[13]
  • Floovant (late 12th); the hero is a son of Merovingian King Clovis I
  • Aymeri de Narbonne by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube (late 12th/early 13th)
  • Girart de Vienne by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube (late 12th/early 13th); also found in a later shorter version alongside Hernaut de Beaulande and Renier de Gennes[14]
  • Les Enfances Garin de Monglane (15th century)
  • Garin de Monglane (13th century)
  • Hernaut de Beaulande; a fragment of the 14th century and a later version[14]
  • Renier de Gennes[14]
  • Les Enfances Guillaume (before 1250)
  • Les Narbonnais (c. 1205), in two parts, known as Le département des enfants Aymeri, Le siège de Narbonne
  • Les Enfances Vivien (c. 1205)[15]
  • Le Covenant Vivien or La Chevalerie Vivien
  • Le Siège de Barbastre (c. 1180)
  • Bovon de Commarchis (c. 1275), reworking by Adenet le Roi of the Siege de Barbastre
  • Guibert d'Andrenas (13th century)
  • La Prise de Cordres (13th century)
  • La Mort Aymeri de Narbonne (c. 1180)
  • Les Enfances Renier
  • Le Moniage Guillaume (1160–1180)[16]

Geste de Doon de Mayence

This cycle concerns traitors and rebels against royal authority. In each case the revolt ends with the defeat of the rebels and their eventual repentance.

  • Gormond et Isembart
  • Girart de Roussillon (1160–1170). The hero Girart de Roussillon also figures in Girart de Vienne, in which he is identified as a son of Garin de Monglane. There is a later sequel:
    • Auberi le Bourgoing
  • Renaud de Montauban or Les Quatre Fils Aymon (end of the 12th century)
  • Raoul de Cambrai, apparently begun by Bertholais; existing version from end of 12th century
  • Doön de Mayence (mid 13th century)
  • Gaufrey
  • Doon de Nanteuil current in the second half of the 12th century, now known only in fragments which derive from a 13th century version.[17] To this several sequels were attached:
    • Aye d'Avignon, probably composed between 1195 and 1205. The fictional heroine is first married to Garnier de Nanteuil, who is son of Doon de Nanteuil and grandson of Doon de Mayence. After Garnier’s death she marries the Saracen Ganor
    • Gui de Nanteuil, evidently popular around 1207 when the troubadour Raimbaut de Vaqueiras mentions the story. The fictional hero is son of the heroine of Aye d'Avignon (to which Gui de Nanteuil forms a sequel)
    • Tristan de Nanteuil. The fictional hero is son of the hero of Gui de Nanteuil
    • Parise la Duchesse. The fictional heroine is daughter of the heroine of Aye d'Avignon. Exiled from France, she gives birth to a son, Hugues, who becomes king of Hungary[18]
  • Maugis d'Aigremont
  • Vivien l'Amachour de Monbranc

Lorraine cycle

This local cycle of epics of Lorraine traditional history, in the late form in which it is now known, includes details evidently drawn from Huon de Bordeaux and Ogier le Danois.

Crusade cycle

Not listed by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube, this cycle deals with the First Crusade and its immediate aftermath.

  • Chanson d'Antioche, apparently begun by Richard le Pèlerin c. 1100; earliest surviving text by Graindor de Douai c. 1180; expanded version 14th century
  • Les Chétifs telling the adventures (mostly fictional) of the poor crusaders led by Peter the Hermit; the hero is Harpin de Bourges. The episode was eventually incorporated, c. 1180, by Graindor de Douai in his reworking of the Chanson d'Antioche
  • Matabrune tells the story of old Matabrune and of the great-grandfather of Godefroi de Bouillon
  • Le Chevalier au Cigne tells the story of Elias, grandfather of Godefroi de Bouillon. Originally composed around 1192, it was afterwards extended and divided into several branches
  • Les Enfances Godefroi or "Childhood exploits of Godefroi" tells the story of the youth of Godefroi de Bouillon and his three brothers
  • Chanson de Jérusalem
  • La Mort de Godefroi de Bouillon, quite unhistorical, narrates Godefroi’s poisoning by the Patriarch of Jerusalem
  • Baudouin de Sebourg (early 14th century)
  • Le Bâtard de Bouillon (early 14th century)


  • Gormont et Isembart[19]
  • Ami et Amile, followed by a sequel:
    • Jourdain de Blaye
  • Beuve de Hanstonne, and a related poem:
    • Daurel et Beton, whose putative Old French version is lost; the story is known from an Occitan version of c. 1200
  • Aigar et Maurin
  • Aïmer le Chétif, a lost chanson[20]
  • Aiol (13th century)[21]
  • Théséus de Cologne, possibly a romance

Legacy and adaptations

The chansons de geste created a body of mythology that lived on well after the creative force of the genre itself was spent. The Italian epics of Torquato Tasso (Rinaldo), Orlando innamorato (1495) by Matteo Boiardo, and Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto are all founded on the legends of the paladins of Charlemagne that first appeared in the chansons de geste. As such, their incidents and plot devices later became central to works of English literature such as Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene; Spenser attempted to adapt the form devised to tell the tale of the triumph of Christianity over Islam to tell instead of the triumph of Protestantism over Roman Catholicism. The German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach based his (incomplete) 13th century epic Willehalm, consisting of seventy-eight manuscripts, on the life of William of Orange. The chansons were also recorded in the Icelandic saga, Karlamagnús.

Indeed, until the 19th century, the tales of Roland and Charlemagne were as important as the tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, and the Italian epics on these themes were still accounted major works of literature.

Narrative structure

The narrative structure of the chanson de geste has been compared to the one in the Nibelungenlied and in creole legends by Henri Wittmann[22] on the basis of common narreme structure as first developed in the work of Eugene Dorfman[23] and Jean-Pierre Tusseau[24]


  1. ^ This three-way classification of mythology is set out by the twelfth century poet Jean Bodel in the Chanson de Saisnes: for details see Matter of France.
  2. ^ Recueil général et complet des fabliaux ed. A. de Montaiglon (1872) vol. 1 p. 3
  3. ^ Martín de Riquer, Los cantares de gesta franceses (1952) pp. 390-404
  4. ^ Le Roland occitan ed. and tr. Gérard Gouiran, Robert Lafont (1991)
  5. ^ Ed. A. Thomas. Paris: Société des anciens textes français, 1913.
  6. ^ Galiens li Restorés ed. Edmund Stengel (1890); Le Galien de Cheltenham ed. D. M. Dougherty, E. B. Barnes. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1981.
  7. ^ La geste de Fierabras, le jeu du réel et de l'invraissemblable ed. André de Mandach. Geneva, 1987.
  8. ^ Aiquin ou la conquête de la Bretagne par le roi Charlemagne ed. F. Jacques. Aix-en-Provence: Publications du CUER MA, 1977.
  9. ^ Raimbert de Paris, La Chevalerie Ogier de Danemarche ed. J. Barrois (1842)
  10. ^ Jehan de Lanson, chanson de geste of the 13th Century ed. J. Vernon Myers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
  11. ^ Ed. François Guessard, Henri Michelant. Paris, 1859.
  12. ^ Ed. F. Guessard, S. Luce. Paris: Vieweg, 1862.
  13. ^ Simon de Pouille ed. Jeanne Baroin (1968)
  14. ^ a b c La geste de Beaulande ed. David M. Dougherty, E. B. Barnes (1966)
  15. ^ Ed. C. Wahlund, H. von Feilitzen. Upsala and Paris, 1895.
  16. ^ Ed. W. Cloetta. Paris, 1906-13.
  17. ^ "La chanson de Doon de Nanteuil: fragments inédits" ed. Paul Meyer in Romania vol. 13 (1884)
  18. ^ Parise la Duchesse ed. G. F. de Martonne (1836); Parise la Duchesse ed. F. Guessard, L. Larchey (1860)
  19. ^ Gormont et Isembart ed. Alphonse Bayot (1931)
  20. ^ R. Weeks, "Aïmer le chétif" in PMLA vol. 17 (1902) pp. 411-434.
  21. ^ Ed. Jacques Normand and Gaston Raynaud. Paris, 1877.
  22. ^ Wittmann, Henri. 1995. "La structure de base de la syntaxe narrative dans les contes et légendes du créole haïtien." Poétiques et imaginaires: francopolyphonie littéraire des Amériques. Edited by Pierre Laurette & Hans-George Ruprecht. Paris: L'Harmattan, pp. 207-218.[1]
  23. ^ Dorfman, Eugène. 1969. The narreme in the medieval romance epic: An introduction to narrative structures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  24. ^ *Tusseau, Jean-Pierre & Henri Wittmann. 1975. "Règles de narration dans les chansons de geste et le roman courtois". Folia linguistica 7.401-12.[2]

External links

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См. также в других словарях:

  • Chanson De Geste — La mort de Roland à Roncevaux, sujet de chanson de geste. Une chanson de geste est un récit versifié (un long poème) en décasyllabes ou, plus tardivement, en alexandrins, assonancés regroupés en laisses (longues strophes de taille variable) re …   Wikipédia en Français

  • CHANSON DE GESTE — Les chansons de geste, chansons d’histoire romancée, sont des poèmes qui narrent les hauts faits, les guerres, les drames imaginaires et les légendes pieuses d’illustres personnages historiques ou inventés. Composées par des trouvères, dont on… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • chanson de geste — [ˌʃɒchanson de gestesɒchanson de geste də ʒɛst] noun (plural chansons de geste pronunciation same) a French historical verse romance of the Middle Ages. Origin Fr., lit. song of heroic deeds , from chanson (see chanson) and geste from L. gesta… …   English new terms dictionary

  • Chanson de geste — Chan son de geste [F., prop., song of history.] Any Old French epic poem having for its subject events or exploits of early French history, real or legendary, and written originally in assonant verse of ten or twelve syllables. The most famous… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • chanson de geste — [də zhest′] n. [Fr, song of heroic acts] any of the Old French epic poems of the 12th to 14th cent., esp. one connected with the exploits of Charlemagne and his knights, as the Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland) …   English World dictionary

  • Chanson de geste — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Geste (homonymie). La mort de Roland à Roncevaux, sujet de chanson de geste. Une chanson de geste est un récit …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Chanson de Geste — Die altfranzösische Epik nennt man auch chanson de geste. Neben dem höfischen Roman (roman courtois) und dem Antikenroman war sie vom 11. bis zum 13. Jahrhundert in Frankreich weit verbreitet. Das Wort geste im Namen (von lat. gesta Taten )… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Chanson de geste — Песнь о Роланде. Рукопись XIV века Chanson de geste (буквально «песнь о деяниях»)  жанр французской средневековой литературы, эпические поэмы, самая известная из которых  «Песнь о Роланде». Содержание …   Википедия

  • Chanson de geste — Chan|son de geste 〈[ʃãsɔ̃: də ʒɛ̣st] n.; , s [ʃãsɔ̃:] 〉 altfranzösisches episches Heldenlied * * * Chanson de Geste   [ʃãsɔ̃d ʒɛst] die, / s , französisches Heldenepos des Mittelalters, Geste. * * * Chan|son de Geste [ʃãsõd ʒɛst], die; , s [ʃãsõ …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Chanson de Geste — Chan|son de Geste [ʃãsõd ʒɛst] die; , s [ʃãsõd ʒest] <aus gleichbed. fr. chanson de geste> altfranz. Heldenlied …   Das große Fremdwörterbuch

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