À ma petite Nicole afin qu’elle découvre notre belle France
À Gabriel, mon adorable petit-fils,
et à mes fils Mickael et Francky
afin qu’ils se reconnaissent dans leurs ancêtres
To my sweet Nicole so she will discover our beautiful France
To Gabriel, my delightful grand-son
and to my sons Mickael and Francky
so they may see their soul in their ancestors
To my beautiful Sister Claudine, the marvellous artist, who painted the superb aquarelle Le
Dormeur du Val for the cover of this book and some of the other paintings reproduced inside.
To my precious Mum, who gave me her incredible optimism and cheerfulness, and to my little
Sister Josyane always close to my heart.
To my dearest friends, Nicolas and Irina, who offered me judicious advice; to Lynette who
attentively read my manuscript with a kind critical eye, and to Alice who eagerly encouraged me all the
To Sybille who shares my love for poetry and offered me a superb work on Baudelaire. This
amazing gift triggered the wish to write this anthology.
To Casimir who brightened our arrival in Australia with his wonderful and lasting friendship.
Finally, thanks to my wonderful husband, mon Petit Canard (my Little Duck), who
unwearyingly supported my complete immersion in this captivating work.
My thanks also to the fantastic libraries of Australia and France; and to the magical Internet,
which allowed me to consult remarkable manuscripts online; particularly, the Bibliotheque Nationale de
France (BNF) and Mandragore, and all the members of Wikipedia, who created and are contributing to
the most outstanding online encyclopaedia. All images taken from the Internet are under the GNU Free
Documentation License or on Public Domain.
Without them all, nothing would have been achieved.
Poetry is the language of the soul and the beauty of language itself. As Dante once says, French
seems to have been created for poetry and it is probably why so many people love the sound of it. Being a
lover of poetry, to them and to those who have no or very rudimentary knowledge of French, I wrote this
anthology on France’s most prestigious poets. I did it with no pretension and enjoyed every minute of
this very demanding but fascinating task.
French poetry is built on rhymes, number of syllables, caesura, enjambments and rejects.
Furthermore, the rhyme scheme is incorporated in the poem’s meaning; for instance, the successive
rhymes aabb generally present two thoughts while the embrasure abba indicates that the first idea
encompasses the next. In the 19th Century, versification changes drastically. The caesura moves as the
poets want, and free verses of various lengths are introduced; furthermore, the first poems in prose mark
the coming of modern poetry.
Of course, I would have been delighted to keep the poems’ structure but my first priority was to
convey the poets’ feelings and the music of their magnificent works; this was at the expense of meters
The art of translating French poetry is very complex. According to my research, translations from
French to English are generally ‘versions’ which means that a document in foreign language is translated
in one’s native language. The present work is not a version but a ‘theme’ and if deep inside you, waves of
emotions flow into your heart when you read or listen to the most beautiful poems of France whether in
French or in English language, this will be my ultimate reward.
A brief word now about the selection of poets and poems. Though the beauty of French poetry is in
the music of its language, it is not only the sound of words precisely chosen and arranged that convey
delightful emotions but their meaning. French poetry evolved as the French language evolved and it
really began when the French were able to communicate their feelings. Tristan et Iseult, the Arthurian
legends and the Roman de la Rose are marvellous works of art praised all over Europe simply because
Middle Ages people finally realised that Love was one of their raisons d’être (reasons of being). This
anthology therefore starts with them and even if they sometimes hurt our modern ear, they nevertheless
mark the beginning of French poetry.
For the next centuries, I must concede that my choice was arbitrary; I simply selected those I love
the most. At first, my aim was to present one poet and his best works per century. For the 19th, this was
impossible; I could not even choose all the poets and poems I love, as this would have required many
volumes. Consequently, I chose only the greatest and sincerely apologise if you do not find those you
expected. Indeed, the 19th Century deserves a whole book and this is my next project.
Finally, I must say that this book is the result of meticulous research in numerous libraries. I
cannot however assert that every document refers with certitude to the original. Furthermore, this is not
a philological work and my dear readers will most certainly find many signs of ignorance and regrettable
distractions. I sincerely hope that these blunders will not spoil their pleasure.
In texts, all French words or phrases are in italic; and to help readers who do not really master
French but want to feel the music of the poem in French, letters that must be stressed are written in bold
and mute vowels in italic. Liaisons are underlined. An audio CD of all the poems in French and English
will be released soon but poetry lovers can already listen to some online www.poetry/bellepage.com.
So stay with me for few hours of history and beautiful poetry. Light the fire, prepare your
favourite drink, sit on your best armchair, and listen to the music of the words.
In this anthology of French poetry, we shall travel through the centuries with the poets who not
only improved French language but left to the world one of the most beautiful literary heritages.
From the night of time, all forms of beauty have impressed men and women; unsurprisingly,
poetry and music have always occupied a privileged place in their heart.
At the end of the Roman Empire, the Church decided to use simple metric so people could
memorise the teaching of the new religion with its traditions and legends. The syllabic mode was
adopted and lines of six, seven, eight, and twelve syllables appeared. The longest lines were divided in
hemistiches (equal parts) so the reader was able to breathe at the caesura; and they ended with similar
sounds to create an echo effect. At first, the similarity called assonance stayed on the last accentuated
vowel; then, the similarity reached the consonant so the assonance became rhyme. Opposed to the prose
always going forward, the lines whose flow returns to the beginning through the assonance or rhyme
were called verses or vers from the Latin, vertere that could be translated as the labourer’s furrow turning
the soil in regular lines.
Saint Ambroise1 was the first bishop who raised people’s enthusiasm with his hymns. To stir
the Faithfull’s heart and encouraged them to sing, he added simple melodies to his poems. The first poets
who composed in vulgar language strictly followed these principles and the Cantilène de Sainte-Eulalie
was written on this syllabic model.
Then, in the Middle Ages, era of darkness and superstition, trouvères and troubadours translated
their concept of beauty into their own language, which may seem quite coarse and tortuous to our
modern ear. As years and centuries went by, the concept did not changed but the language evolved and
became beauty itself. With emotion, medieval people who rarely knew how to read and write listened to
the jongleurs who sang the lives of the saints and the popular chansons de geste accompanied by the harp,
the viola, or the lyre.
1 Bishop of Milan around 390.
Most jongleurs had more than one skill to their arc; they were prestidigitators, fire-eaters,
jugglers, acrobats, and tamers of beasts. Travelling from one province to the next, they performed in the
market places; and those with exceptional talents were invited to seigniorial courts. As the jongleurs
rarely composed, we may ask who were the first poets and where did they come from?
Medieval poetry began in the South of France with the troubadours who believed that love is the
fundamental raison d’être (reason of existence) and this love often goes beyond the physical attraction of
two human beings. Unsurprisingly, such noble theme required a rich and complex vocabulary, finely
tuned musical arrangements, highly sophisticated versification with strophes and verses of various
lengths and rare rhymes.
The troubadours came from different backgrounds; they were kings, princes, and nobles of
various ranks, clerks and canons, monks and priests, or people from humble condition, including the
jongleurs. For these highly sensitive people, love rhymed with beauty, which not only embraced the
permeability to the revelation of ‘being’ but also elegance of manners and speech, and nobleness of
sentiment, in one word, courtoisie (courtesy).
In the South a new civilisation was therefore at an embryonic stage thanks to the troubadours
while in the North of France, trouvères focused on religious matters and military prowess. The public
essentially masculine loved the Chansons de geste, which combine reality with magic and mystery. These
epopees based on important victories or disasters were well known as every-one used to sing them at the
veillée (after-dinner gathering) or when going to battle. The chansons have an impersonal and historic
character in which heroes incarnate the good and bad of the race they represent. To embellish their story,
the poets introduced the marvellous; through God’s intervention, heroes accomplish superhuman tasks.
The Chansons were written in octosyllable or decasyllable verses grouped in laisses (strophes of various
lengths); the style is naïf, concrete, and analytical; and like in children stories, comparisons and images
French poetry however drastically evolved with the arrival of Aliénor d’Aquitaine and her
troubadours at the court of France. As the country was experiencing the longest peace ever, the nobility
spent more time in court than in the garrison; and if the knights’ muscles and bravery impressed women,
Ladies were above all very fond of compliments and chivalric manners. Inspired by the new fashion and
the troubadours’ conception of lyrical poetry, the trouvères softened their style and created a new genre of
literature called roman (romance) where courtesy took the path of chivalry. The valiant knight of the
chansons de geste is the respectful lover whose magnificent legend spread all over Europe as a gigantic
tidal wave. Masterpieces like Tristan et Iseult and Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian legends are the greatest
monuments of medieval poetry.
Thanks to Aliénor and her literate children, French literature blossomed all over France. In
Champagne, Aliénor’s daughter, Marie had a brilliant court at Troyes where Chrétien probably met the
troubadour Bernard de Ventadour. At Blois, Marie’s sister Aélis welcomed all poets; and Richard Coeur
de Lion (Lion-heart), their brother, was a remarkable poet who composed in langues d’oil and d’oc
(languages of the North and South France).
The troubadours realised that long verses had more majesty and solemnity than short verses. The
twelve-syllable verse or alexandrine, which took its name from the Roman d’Alexandre was more
appropriate than the octosyllable to capture the unfolding of epics, brooding emotion, and reasoning. In
this alexandrin classique, the reader marks a neat break at the caesura to separate the verse in two
hemistiches. Nonetheless, many liked the octosyllable, as Guillaume de Lorris who used it gracefully in
Roman de la Rose and François Villon who as we shall see had some predilection for this type of verses
and the huitain.
The rhymes also got richer. Since the 7th Century in Ireland, poets knew the rimes plates (aabb)
also called couplettes or doublettes, which were used in the first Latin poems. From the South, the trouvères
learnt new schemes: the rimes croisées, alternées or entrelaissiées (abab), the rimes embrassées or desjoinctes
(abba) and the rimes mélées, which regroup them all. For such patterns, the rimes have to be more
elaborated; from the assonance or rimes pauvres emerged the rimes suffisantes also called consonantes or
sonnantes where the similarity reaches the consonant preceding the last vowel. Then followed the rimes
riches and their three elements of similarity, the rimes léonines simples and their four elements, the parfaites
with five, and the plus-que-parfaites with six or more.
Still from the South, another improvement dating from the Middle Ages was the alternation of
feminine (silent vowels) and masculine (accentuated syllables) rimes, a technique, which harmoniously
breaks the monotony of the stance; it softens the verse and slows down its tempos. Through the centuries,
poets have been very fond of alternation. In Éléments de littérature, Marmontel emphasises: « Les vers
masculins sans mélange auraient une marche brusque et heurtée ; les vers féminins sans mélange auraient de la
douceur, mais de la mollesse. » (With no alternation, the masculine verses would have a brusque and
dashing cadence; with no alternation, the feminine verses would be soft but flabby.)2
The 13th Century went a step further with the beginning of didactic poetry whose purpose was
to transmit intellectual and moral knowledge in a pleasant and easy way. Such poetry allowed authors to
expose their views about the society in which they lived and formulate critiques. Many enjoyed
Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose and its superb allegories; but forty years later, the public preferred
Jean de Meung’s satirical verve, more challenging than Guillaume’s art d’aimer. Jean threw his whole
knowledge in the poem and severely criticised the courteous tradition referring to love as the best device
for the propagation of the species. Satires were indeed popular and poets of wretched conditions did not
hesitate to use them to talk about their misfortune; but rather than weeping on their fate, they chose to
gaily mock the upper class responsible for their misery. The sarcastic but humorous and merry style
2 Jean-François Marmontel, French historian, writer, and member of the French Accademia; among
others, he wrote Éléments de littérature published by Éditions Desjonquères in 2005.
encountered in the fabliaux and the excellent Roman de Renart sprang from this esprit gaulois (Gaul spirit),
one of the most typical characteristics of being French even today.
In the following century, poetry gained structure. With Guillaume de Machaut, rondets became
musical poems called rondeaux and rondels, the ballettes ballades; and triolets, lais and virelais took a fixed-
form. The lai lyrique and its twelve symmetrical couplets differ from Marie de France’s lais narratives,
which are short compositions in octosyllable and rimes plates. These types were suitable for tragedies and
sad events. Guillaume also introduced the autobiographical je (I) in his Dit (Say), and as Michel Stanesco
emphasises, such personal revelations allowed poetry to advance from the abstract to the circumstantial,
the general to the particular.3
In this 14th Century, France had never been so small and seemed unable to regain the territories
lost during the disastrous Guerre de Cent Ans (Hundred Years War), which was still going on.
Nevertheless, the precariousness of the situation did not stop many cities to found their own académie
and organised competitions of poetry. In Toulouse, the seven bourgeois who created the Consistoire du Gai
Savoir were reviving the poetry of the troubadours with their famous Jeux Floraux (literally, floral games
but in our context literary contests). Paris, however, was still Europe’s centre of attraction and despite its
secrecy, Isabeau de Bavière’s Cour d’Amour was the meeting place of illustrious intellectuals who
passionately pondered on love and poetry.
The 15th Century then arrived; Black Death, wars, and famine brought great sorrows all over
Europe; Charles d’Orléans and François Villon, two brilliant poets very different in style and character
recalled their moving experiences. While with exquisite and noble manners, Charles, the aristocrat,
venerated ultimate and ideal beauty in the traditional and artificial way of the littérature courtoise,
François, the poor escolier (scholar) boldly revealed his impressions; but he wrote with such candidness
and intensity that he luminously stands out as the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. Following the steps
of Rutebeuf, his themes embrace poverty, physical decrepitude, thought of death, and obscenity (the
parody of the fin’amor); they also show an ardent devotion to the Virgin Mary. Charles d’Orléans also
composed profound poems, but he wrote with such incredible facility that people failed to see the depth
of his work. What united Charles and François was their misfortune, the lost of their youth, the regret of
the past, and the awareness that nothing is made to endure. These poets signalled the end of the Middle
Ages and the coming of the magnificent Renaissance all over Europe.
The 15th Century ended with the grands rhétoriqueurs (lovers of rhetoric) who did not leave
much for posterity except complicated and exuberant techniques of versification. The richer the rhyme,
the better it was; and the greater the intricacy of the verse, the greater the poet’s achievement.
La Bibliothèque de Poésie, Le Moyen Âge, Troubadours et Trouvères, XIe au XVe siècle, p 21
Without discarding his father’s teaching, Clément Marot was impressed by the Italian
Renaissance; and with the encouragements of François 1er, he composed the first French sonnets
combining Villon’s humour and naivety. Since Petrarch, the sonnet always had a prestigious reputation.
All the great masters wrote sonnets and despite the strophes’ and rimes’ variations, it kept its form
through the centuries. Most of the time, the sonnet expresses états d'âme (states of mind) but it can also be
satirical, political, moral, religious, and even burlesque.
Marot, the humanist poet was overshadowed by the Pléiade’s members who scorning medieval
poetry searched for inspiration in Greek and Latin classics. In his Deffence et Illustration de la Langue
Francoyse,4 Du Bellay strongly advises poets to leave the vieilles poésies françaises (old French poems) to
the Jeux Floraux arguing that rondeaux, ballades, virelais, chants royaux, and chansons are only groceries that
corrupt French language and show evidence of ignorance.
Nevertheless, Ronsard, the Pléiade’s master and Prince des Poètes did receive the highest reward
from the same Jeux Floraux, proving against du Bellay that Toulouse was up-to-date with modern
literature. It is incontestable that Ronsard excelled in all poetic fields; his delightful odes and pastorals,
drinking songs, love-sonnets, and discourses on religious and political matters charmed every-one; and
Mignonne allons voir… is still on the curriculum of all French primary schools. Even today, Ronsard is
known as the universal poet par excellence.
Odes and sonnets were in great favour in the 16th Century. The ode lyrique, well known since
Antiquity, celebrates great events and prestigious people. Divided in strophes of equal number of lines
and meters, this type of poem was sung or accompanied by music up to 19th Century. Nonetheless, poets’
preferred form was and has always been the sonnet. Traditionally, this fixed-form poem of fourteen lines
is divided in two quatrains and two tercets; the first tercet exposes the argument and the second presents
the conclusion with a striking last verse.
After the talented Pléiade, followed a decadent phase with the emergence of the baroque and its
anti-rational and anti-classical conception of poetry and art. Desportes’s maniérism soon encouraged
préciosité (extreme sophistication) in the ruelles5. This préciosité was a return to courtly love and chivalry
characterised by an excessive refinement in language, manners, and designs, and by a disappointing lack
of deep feeling. The aim was only to distinguish oneself from the vulgar.
The baroque age marks a period of excess and agitation. On one hand, the wars of religion
decimated the population, the monarchy was in crisis, and the humanists were losing faith; on the other
hand, Henri IV’s Edit de Nantes signed in 1598 brought great relief to free thinkers; and with Descartes’s
Méthode and Newton’s scientific discovery, philosophy and science made prodigious progress.
4Joachim Du Bellay La Deffence et Illustration de la Langue Francoyse, p 107.
5Meeting so called as the hostess was receiving in bed, her guests sitting on each side at the edge of the
bed; such edges being called ruelles
The 17th Century is indeed known as the Grand Siècle. Louis XIV and Richelieu founded
numerous academies, the Académie Française (French Academia) in 1634 and the Académie Royale de
peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academia of painting and sculpture) in 1648. Eighteen years later the
Académie de France (French Academia) opened its door in Rome. Finally in 1671, the Académie Royale
d’architecture (Royal Academia of architecture) was founded with the superb château de Versailles as an
With its balance, clarity, and natural, classicism was a response to the grotesque and préciosité
shone in all forms of art.
Courageously and pleasantly, La Fontaine, the brilliant fabulist depicted his society in his
Fables, unafraid of the wrath of King Louis XIV who had great respect for art and its creators but
tolerated no criticism. Similar to the famous Roman de Renart and the fabliaux of the Middle Ages, fables
are short comedies; their personages are generally animals and their moral intent is revealed at the
beginning or end of the story. In his Fables, La Fontaine used the vers libre classique (classical free verse)
which differs from the vers libre symbolique of the 19th Century.
Louis XIV also showed his intolerance in religion with the revocation of the Edit de Nantes. This
and the beginning of the Counter Reformation brought back questions about death and salvation; and
with the king’s support, the Jansenists spread their rhetoric.
To the Grand Siècle followed the siècle des lumières (the enlightenment), French poetry was
exhausted and more concerned by religious, philosophical, and political matters than romances, poet-
philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau spread their revolutionary ideas but still found the time to write
beautiful novels. The romantic style of Rousseau’s Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse deeply impressed Madame
de Staël and Chateaubriand, the precursor of the Romantic Movement. Alas, the French Revolution
horribly ended the 18th Century without bringing the justice so many desperately expected.
France soon became an Empire, then more revolutions brought new Republics and another
Empire; finally and lastingly, at the end of the 19th Century, the Republic came back. Meanwhile, France
was not only fighting to install a fair political regime, it also eagerly participated in the industrial and
scientific revolutions; and Paris, with her impressive Tour Eiffel, her large boulevards, and her
magnificent shopping centres became the world’s capital for its charm and elegance.
Amazingly and despite tremendous activities, the 19th Century also witnessed the apotheosis of
French poetry with a succession of master poets. Lamartine, Hugo, Vigny, and Baudelaire had a mission
to accomplish; they were the seers and lawgivers of humankind.
In the middle of the 19th Century, poets began discarding rules and invented new poetical
forms. Different meters alternate eliciting a rhythm the reader has to discover. Baudelaire used the vers
impairs (uneven verse) to create special effects in his Invitation au voyage; and he modified the sonnet by
changing its rhyme scheme. Even more, the rhymes are not systematic; either they have totally
disappeared as in Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en Prose and Rimbaud’s Saison en enfer (Season in hell) and
Illuminations or they have been replaced by assonance and alliteration. In Verlaine’s melodious poems,
rhythm and sonority reflect the poet’s melancholy.
As we shall see, Baudelaire’s magnificent work embraces romanticism and symbolism, the new
school emerging from the Parnasse. Among its leaders, the impressionist-poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud
splendidly ended the 19th Century with their sensibility and exaltation. Alienated from a society where
the Industrial Revolution had invaded every realm of life, these poets, the Bohémiens strived to create new
worlds matching their états d’âme.
Then came the 20th Century with the new masters, Prévert, Aragon, Eluard, and Géraldy,
Apollinaire, Valéry, and Cocteau; but this is another project.
La Complainte de Rutebeuf By Claudine Bigaut (2004)
9 and 10 Centuries
French literature emerges in the second half of the Middle Ages with the birth of French
language. French does not originate, as we could have expected, from the gaulois (Gallic), the numerous
Celtic dialects spoken in Gaule (Gaul) before Caesar’s invasion.1 Being under Roman domination for
more than five hundred years, the Gaulois (the Gauls) learned Vulgar Latin at the market places and in
camps; but unable to pronounce this popular Latin, much different from the Latin of Caesar and
Cicerone, they deformed it, and gradually, new dialects appeared.
Almost everywhere in Europe, the metamorphoses of Vulgar Latin occurred simultaneously
and produced the langues romanes (Roman languages): Basque, Rumanian, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish,
Old German known as langue tudesque, and Old French or vieux français with its many dialects. In the 13th
Century, the great Dante Alighieri classifies some of them according to people’s manner of saying ‘yes’.
The Middle Ages is a period of constant evolution and instability in which faith and feudality
illustrate the literature of the time. It is also the birth of human sentiment and patriotism.
The Serment de Strasbourg (Strasbourg’s Oath)2 is one of the first documents written in the new
idiom, an intermediary stages between Latin and French. Sworn near Verdun, on 14 February 842 in a
freezing meadow covered with snow, the oath seals the alliance of two of Charlemagne’s grandsons,
Charles II le Chauve (the Bald) and Louis I le Germanique (the German)3 against their brother, Lothaire I,
who claimed the title of empereur d’Occident (Holy Roman emperor).4 While Charles uses the langue
tudesque to be understood by Louis’s soldiers, Louis chooses the langue romane for Charles’s soldiers.
Pro Deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro comun salvament, d'ist di in avant, in quant
Deus savir et podir me dunat, si salvarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo, et in adjudha et in
cadhuna cosa si cum om per dreit son fradra salvar dift, in quid il mi altresi fazet; et ab
Ludher nul plaid nunquam prindrai qui meon vol cist meon fradre Karlo in damno sit.
1 From the gaulois spoken during the Roman conquest, only few geographic names remain such as Isère,
Verdun, and Rouen.
2 Extract from Nithard’s manuscript: Louis’s oath in langue romane.
3 Also called Louis II as his father was Louis I le Pieux (the Pious).
4 This Serment has been preserved in Historiae De dissensionibus filiorum Ludovici pii (Dissensions among
the sons of Louis the Pious) written by the Frankish chronicler, Nithard, the son of Bertha, Charlemagne’s
daughter, and the imperial chancellor and poet Angilbert.
For the love of God, for Christian people and our common safety, from this day and as long
as God gives me knowledge and power, I shall defend my brother Charles here present. I
shall help him in everything, as a dutiful man ought to protect his brother, on the condition
that he does the same to me; and with Lothaire, I shall never make any arrangement, which
of my own free will, could injure my brother Charles here present.
Serment de Strasbourg5
In the 10th Century, the langue romane is evolving toward French as in the twenty-five
assonanced verses of the Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie (Saint Eulalie’s Cantilena) composed in 881.6
6The manuscript of this Cantilène was found in Valenciennes in 1837; the author was probably Hucbald,
one of Charles le Chauve’s favourite Benedictine monks, who taught at Saint-Amand-les-Eaux until 883.
Eulalie, a Spanish maiden from Medina was martyrised in 304 under the reign of the emperor Maximien.
Cantilenas are popular lyrical epics but for the first time, the story is written in vernacular so that it
can be revealed to ordinary people. As we can see in this extract, we are a little closer to French.
Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie
Buona pulcella fut Eulalia.
Bel avret corps, bellezour anima
Voldrent la veintre li Deo inimi,
Voldrent la faire diaule servir.
Elle no'nt eskoltet les mals conselliers
Qu'elle Deo raneiet, chi maent sus en ciel,
Ne por or ned argent ne paramenz
Por manatce regiel ne preiement.
Niule cose non la pouret omque pleier
La polle sempre non amast lo Deo menestier.
Eulalie was a good maiden
With a fair body and a fairer soul
God’s enemies wanted to defeat her,
Pressing her to serve the devil.
She did not listen to the vile advisers
Asking her to reject God dwelling in Heaven,
Not even for gold, money, or jewellery
Not even under threats or at the king’s request
Nothing could ever bend her will or bring
The young girl not to always love serving her God…
This is how French people express themselves in the 9th and 10th Centuries;7 but are they really
France as we know it does not exist yet and we must wait the coming of Hugues Capet, the duc
de l’Ile-de-France, to see her birth. With the support of the clergy, Hugues becomes king of France in 987;
7 Even today, many people speak various dialects. At the end of the 19th Century, half of the population
hardly spoke French but Breton, Flemish, German, Gascon, Basque, Languedocian, Provençal, or Italian,
to name some of the dialects in vigour at the time.
and gradually, the Ile-de-France extends its boundaries, spreads its language, and finally becomes a vast
country known as France.
Cantilène de Sainte-Eulalie
Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes (Codex 150, f. 141v-143r)
In this very young France, the literature of the Middle Ages starts two hundred years after the
Serment de Strasbourg. The public of the 11th Century is still illiterate and manuscripts are rare;8 but French
people love listening to the legends composed by musician-poets who interpret lyrical poems and
illustrious chansons de gestes (epic songs relating heroic deeds), while the jongleurs—the entertainers—
mime the scenes.9 These minstrels are the trouvères and troubadours10 who crisscross the country;
travelling from castle to castle, they entertain the nobles and also perform in market’s places.
Middle Ages literature deals with realistic—though much embellished—situations chosen from
three categories. French subjects focus on the crusades and the great battles to defend France and
Christianity; Brittany subjects involve Celtic legends and their heroes; and subjects from Antiquity deal
with Greek and Roman history and mythology.
The audience particularly welcomes the chansons de geste celebrating the exploits of French
heroes who fight for a noble cause. According to Gaston Paris’s theory of the cantilènes, these chansons
originate from popular songs spontaneously composed on the battlefield. Joseph Bédier however prefers
the hypothesis of epic legends forged by friars on various sanctuaries and widespread by pilgrims.
Certainly, the chansons de geste are based on historical events; but to captivate their credulous
public, poets adorn them with splendours and magical interferences.
La Chanson de Roland (Roland’s Song) is not only one of the oldest vernacular epics, it is also the
most beautiful épopée of the Middle Ages written before the first crusade of 1095-1099 by the Norman
8 Paper did not exist yet and parchments were made of animal skin
9 Most poets were also jongleurs.
10The trouvères were poets from the North of France and the troubadours from the South especially
Provence. The word troubadour derives from trobar itself coming from the Latin tropare, which means
composing tropes (liturgical songs); it therefore implies ideas of invention and creation.
11 ‘Barbe Blanche tiret. Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet’ (He tore his white beard. So ends the geste
Turold conceived). Though the interpretation of ‘declinet’ still poses numerous problems as the word
means also transcribe or declaim. This Turoldus or Théroulde, a Norman Benedictine Monk from Fécamp
abbey, could be the author of the song or the keeper of an older geste written about the battle of
Roncesvalles and its hero Roland. Others suggest that the monk’s father could be the author. On the
Bayeux Tapestry, Turold is indeed presented as one of Guillaume the Conqueror’s advisers. The only
logical assumption we can make is that the Chanson was certainly written before the first crusade
La Chanson de Roland recounts the famous battle of Roncevaux (Roncesvalles) where on 15
August 778, Roland, Préfet (Prefect) de la Marche de Bretagne, lost his life, having refused three times to
blow his horn and alert Charlemagne of the treacherous ambush of the Saracens. This story however
greatly exaggerates what really happened; according to Charlemagne’s chronicler, Einhard, the battle of
Roncevaux was an insignificant event where the Vascons, the Basques’ ancestors, not the Saracens, killed
the last column of the Frankish army, headed by some Hroudland or Roland, Prefect of the Marche de
The plan of the chanson is simple and in few words, the author characterises the personages.
Roland, the French hero par excellence is brave, Olivier is wise, and every-one in the chanson has
prodigious strength. Nevertheless and as a chronicler, the
poet calmly describes their prowess introducing here and
there the merveilleux (the marvellous, the inexplicable, the
supernatural), which remains essentially Christian.
La Chanson de Roland is a very long epic poem
written in Avranchin dialect.12 It counts five songs of more
than 4200 decasyllables (ten-syllable verses) and few
alexandrines (twelve-syllable verses)13 organised in 291
laisses (strophes of various lengths) of twelve and fifteen
feminine and masculine14 verses. The cadence of the
chanson is obtained through the assonance and the caesura
after the fourth accentuated syllable. Each laisse is
constructed on the same assonance based on the last
accentuated vowels.15 Many critiques have condemned the
gaucherie and naïve popularity of the chanson,
nevertheless, the style is noble; all traces of vulgarity have
been scrupulously avoided; and despite the diversity and
rusticity of the dialect, we see the evolution of a marvellous
In Laisse CLXXIV verses 2355-2365, Roland and
considering that if such a grand endeavour had already begun, the author would have mentioned it one
way or another.
12 However, the Chanson could have been written in another dialect and copied
13The Oxford manuscript retrieved in 1836 is now in the Oxford Library
14All verses ending with a mute e or et, es, or ent are feminine, the others masculine.
15The rhyme became necessary only when the public was able to read poetry.
his men valiantly fight on the sharp stones of the gorge where scarce brushwood hardly survives in this
austere land. One after the other, they die preserving not only their honour but also the honour of their
family, of their country, and of their king. Roland accepts this ultimate sacrifice with pride and dignity.
Ço sent Rollant ║que la mort le tresprent, But Rolland feels that Death is coming,
Devers la teste ║ sur le quer li descent. Going down from his head toward his heart.
Desuz un pin ║ i est alet curant, To a pine-tree, he runs in haste
Sur l’erbe verte ║ s’i est culchet adenz. And on the green grass, lies on his face.
Desuz lui met ║ s’espee e l’olifan, His sword and olifant16 beneath him,
Turnat sa teste ║vers la paiene gent : He turns his head toward the pagan race.
Pur ço l’at fait║ que il voelt veirement He does all this because he dearly wants
Que Carles diet║ e trestute sa gent, Charles to loudly proclaim to his people
Li gentilz quens, ║ qu’il fut mort cunquerant. That the gentle earl died while conquering.
Cleimet sa culpe ║ e menut e suvent, Then he lightly strikes his breast many times;
Pur ses pecchez ║Deu en puroffrid lo guant. And for his sins, gives his glove17 to God.
Despite its nationalist inclination, the chanson seduces all European countries, charming them
by its simplicity and originality. These medieval writers not only master the art de l’intrigue (art of
intrigue) with brio, they also depict with astonishing vividness unique personages. Unfortunately,
modern readers are swift to single out the numerous clichés, repetitions, and unoriginal formulas of
transition; they seem to forget that these ingenious means cleverly facilitate memorisation.
Roland gives himself and all his strength and courage to God. La Mort de Roland
Musée Condé Folio 153v des Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (1412–1416)
French language is evolving so rapidily that despite three hundred years of popularity, la
Chanson de Roland will be forgotten, as no one will be able to read this vieux français for centuries to come.
Meanwhile, French poetry is slowly taking shape. In the North, the trouvères continue to focus
on manhood and rigid morality so their poetry remains severe and cold; and in the south, the troubadours
are deeply inspired by Hispano-Arabic literature.18 Since the beginning of the 11th Century, Arab poets
from Spain are singing idealised love; but this love being far from platonic, women are rather objects than
subjects. In most of the troubadours‘works, especially in the cansos (songs) of Guillaume IX d’Aquitaine,19
we find the same sensuality and eroticism as in Tawq al-hamâma (The Dove’s Necklace) written by the
Andalusian poet Ibn Hazm in 1022. In both works, the poets acknowledge their submission to their
beloved and address them with masculine honorific titles such as Milord or Master not Milady or
Mistress; furthermore, the obstacles hindering their love are always the Lady’s guardian, the calumniator,
the envious, and the moralist.
Arabic music however largely differs from provençal melody. While the former is sensual and
oriental, the other is sober and grave reminding us of the chants grégoriens (Gregorian chants).20 There are
certainly some similitude with the tropes (lyrical works inserted in liturgy) and the troubadours’
compositions; in four of Guillaume’s poems, we find the syllabic and accentuate verses, the rimes plates
(successive pairs of masculine and feminine rhymes) aabb, and the structured strophes of four
octosyllables (eight-syllable verses) and two tetrasyllables (four-syllable verses).
18 Though the Muslim invasion was stopped with Charles Martel’s victory at Poitiers in 732, the Arabs
continued to have a very strong influence on Provençal culture
19 Guillaume or Guilhem (or William) de Peitous, was Aliénor d’Aquitaine’s grandfather. He is the first
known troubadour from whom eleven chansons have been preserved. The poet was certainly a gai luron
20 The Church’s ritual songs from the 11th and 12th Centuries
(1071 – 1127)
Guillaume le Jeune, duc d’Aquitaine and seventh comte (earl) de Poitou is one of the most
powerful seigneurs (lords) of France; his domain is impressive, spreading in
Aquitaine and Poitou as well as Périgord, Limousin, Angoumois, Saintonge, and
Gascony. The comte also has suzerainty over Auvergne and the county of Toulouse.
This is significant compared to the Kingdom of France covering only Paris, Orléans,
and Compiègnes. Guillaume21 cherishes his dear Poitou with its dried and wet
marshes, its small islets bathed by natural canals, its ancestral forests of oaks,
beeches, and elms skirting narrow bands of meadows.
As all the comtes de Poitou, Guillaume holds his court in Poitiers and
speaks a northern dialect; yet, he writes all his chansons in provençal, the meridional
dialect spoken by his subjects in the South of France. Certainly, Guillaume is a pure
Gaulois; he loves women and often, he crudely associates them with pleasure in his
chansons paillardes (ribald songs) as in the following extract
Dos cavalhs ai a ma selha ben e gen ;
Bon son e adreg per armas e valen ; …
Ges non sai ab qual mi tengua de N’Agnes o de N’Arsen.22
I have two fillies for my saddle and this is very well;
Both are good, trained for battle and valiant; …
I do not know which one to keep: Agnes or Arsen.
This love is certainly quite remote from the sublimate love later found in the romans chevaleresques
(chivalric romances). Nevertheless, our troubadour clearly understands that poetry is the perfect medium
to express his feelings and he uses it brilliantly in Ab la dolchor del temps novel (Sweetness of Renewal).
Here, Guillaume chooses the octosyllable and the assonance with the structure aabcbc and
bbcaca, a modification of the old strophe couée (aabccd), quite different from the variations of the popular
form of the time (aaabab).
21 Image from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS Cod. fr. 12473
22 Guillaume IX, Les Chansons de Guillaume IX Duc d’Aquitaine, pp 1-2.
Ab la Dolchor del Temps novel 23 Sweetness of Renewal
Ab la dochor del temps novel With spring and the sweetness of renewal
Foillo li bosc, e li aucel Leaves glow in the woods while birds
Chanton chascus en lor lati Sing, and every-one in its own Latin
Segon lo vers del novel chan ; Exults and chants the verse of a new song;
Adonc esta ben c’om s’aisi It is so good that all seek and obtain
D ‘acho don him a plus talan. What men have always desired so much.
De lai don plus m’es bon e bel From what is good and sweet to my heart
Non vei mesager ni sagel, I see no messenger or sealed letter
Per que mos cors non dorm ni ri, My heart does not sleep or laugh anymore
Ni no m’aus traire adenan And I dare not advance a step further
Tro qe sacha ben de la fi So at last, I could know the end
S’el’ es aissi com eu deman. And find out if my hope is not vain.
La nostr'amor vai enaissi This is our wandering love carelessly dragged
Com la branca de l'albespi Like the hawthorn branch,
Qu'esta sobre l'arbre en treman, Trembling on the tree
La nuoit, a la ploja ez al gel, All night, under icy rain and cruel frost
Tro l'endeman, que-l sols s'espan Till morning, when the sun at last shines
Pel las fueillas verz e-l ramel. On the green and tender leaves of the shrub.
Enquer me membra d'un mati I remember very well one morning
Que nos fezem de guerra fi, When we finally ended the long war
E que-m donet un don tan gran, And when she granted me the supreme gift:
Sa drudari’ e son anel : To seal our Love
Enquer me lais Dieus viure tan God! Let me live a little longer
C’aja mas manz soz so mantel ! So I may keep my hands under her gown!
Qu’eu non ai soing d’estraing lati I care not about the strange Latin
Que-m parta de mon Bon Vezi, That diverts my neighbours from me,
Qu’eu sai de paraulas com van As I know very well all the vain words
Ad un breu sermon que s’espel, Which always abound in brief sermons;
Que tal se van d’amor gaban, While some boast about their love affairs,
Nos n’avem la pessa e-l coutel. Luckily, we have the piece and the knife.24
23 Ibid., pp 24-26
Guillaume’s works mark the beginning of the golden age of the littérature romane. Courtly love,
amour courtois also known as Fin’ amors seduces the trouvères and the whole France, when the beautiful
and sophisticate Aliénor d’Aquitaine marries the king of France in 1137.25 Life is indeed more joyful and
refined in Provence where the rich seigneurs build luxurious castle, buy sumptuous furniture, tapestries,
jewels, and beautiful clothes made of silk and embroidery.
Having greatly expanded her domain thanks to the charming Aliénor, France is enjoying a
relative stability and this facilitates intellectual and economic growth. Around 1100, Paris, the new capital
of France, has already gained an excellent academic reputation; and scholars from all over Europe are
coming to study with illustrious masters. The young Abélard teaches dialectic at the Écoles de Notre-
Dame and Montagne Sainte-Geneviève on the left bank of the River Seine in the famous Quartier Latin.26
Soon, Abélard’s intellectual jousts with the theologians Guillaume de Champeaux and Bernard de
Clairvaux27 attract so many students that lodging in Paris become almost impossible.28
Yet, Abélard’s celebrity stands on the distressing result of his love affair with Héloïse, the fair
and well-educated niece of Canon Fulbert. The professor is fully aware that seducing his beautiful
student is unacceptable; nonetheless, he openly shows his passion, and despite Héloïse’s wise objections,
he marries her in secrecy. Unsurprisingly, the girl’s family is enraged by the scandalous affair, and one
night, Abélard is ferociously emasculated. Forever unable to satisfy his beloved, he dedicates his life to
God; and at his request, Héloïse becomes a nun.
Everyone in Paris weeps for the unfortunate lovers and soon, all in Occident know about
Abélard’s tragedy. Certainly, the times have changed; warriors and knights are not fighting so they
spend most of their time in tournaments and festivities. Their unique challenge is to love and be loved.
Accordingly, poetic eloquence smoothly supplants heroism in war; and women become an inexhaustible
source of inspiration.
For poets and writers, this is the opportunity to develop the art d’aimer (the art to love) and
rapidly, the romans chevaleresques take over the chansons. These romans are read not sung and this is an
24 In other words, ‘we don’t dream about love we make love!’
25 Aliénor (1122-1204) was married to Louis VII for fifteen years
26 Régine Pernoud, Héloïse et Abélard, p 11.
27 While Bernard fought for the primacy of the heart but warned against sensuality and luxury, Abélard
succumbed to earthly love but vehemently defended reason
28 I. Heullant Education et Cultures. Occident Chrétien XII- mi XVe siècle, p 378.
Abelard and Heloise surprised by Fulbert29
29 Paint by Romanticist Painter Jean Vignaud in 1819. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Abelard
In chivalric romans, the etiquette of courtly love has suppressed the sensuality of fin amors but
idealisations of love outside marriage taken from Celtic legends delight the public. Le Roman de Tristan
(Tristan’s Romance)1 composed by Béroul2 probably about 1150 and adapted by Thomas d’Angleterre3 in
1170 is not a roman, as we know it, but a long poem of more than 4485 octosyllables written in Vieux
Français; the structure of many sentences is still Latin but the vocabulary has evolved. Furthermore and
this is the main poetic innovation, the poem is read without musical accompaniment.
After having accidentally drunk the love potion prepared by the queen of Ireland for her
daughter and King Marc, Tristan and Iseult fall irresistibly in love. Unfortunately, this innocent love
brings misery and sorrow, raising the big questions about good and evil, innocence and culpability,
passion and reason, will and fatality. Soon, Tristan’ and Yseult’s love is stained by deceit and treachery
but how could we not feel compassion for this passionate love even when the magical effect of the potion
ceases. Indeed, how could they forget the tenderness and ardour they experienced for so long?
« Ahi, Yseult, fille de roi, “Ah! Yseult, king’s daughter,
Franche, cortoise, en bone foi,! Noble and courteous; in faith,
Par plusors foiz vos ai mandee, I asked to see you many times,
Puis que chambre me fu veee, As your room was closed to me
Ne puis ne poi a vos parler. And I could not talk to you.
Dame, or vos vuel merci crier Lady, I beg your mercy
Qu'il vos membre de cel chaitif Remember the hapless man
Qui a traval et a duel vif; Who suffers so much for you;
Quar j'ai tel duel c'onques le roi The king alas suspects me
Out mal pensé de vos vers moi Of evil thoughts toward you
Qu'il n'i a el fors que je muere... So I prefer to die…
…Qu’il n’en creüst pas losangier …He believed the delators
1 Manuscript from the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris probably written in 1185.
2 Béroul signed post it verses 1268 and 1788 ‘Berox l’a mex en sen memoire…La ou Berox le vit excrit’
(Béroul kept it in his memory…where Béroul saw it written.) He was Norman and lived in England.
3 The Anglo-Norman poet, Thomas d’Angleterre lived at the court of Henry II of England and Aliénor
d’Aquitaine. Only few fragments of the manuscript remain.
Moi desor lui a esloignier. And has kept me away. 4
While Béroul is compassionate, Thomas writes like a tragedian and his work is known as the
courtly version; he does not take side and simply exposes the lovers’ misfortune focusing on their
extreme suffering. After Roland’s epopee of the will, Tristan is the romance of fatality where tragic fate
devastates three heroes’ lives.
Marie de France, the first known French woman-writer, also contributes
to Middle Ages literature. Again, we know very little about her; born in France,
probably in Ile-de-France, she later lives at the brilliant court of Henry II
Plantagenêt and Aliénor d’Aquitaine.5
In 1160-75, Marie dedicates twelve lais6 in Vieux Français to Henry II. In
the prologue, she modestly confides that she only narrates the legends sung by
the bards. For Marie, oral tradition is therefore of primary importance. With its
one hundred eighteen verses, Chevrefoil (Honeysuckle) is one of Marie’s shortest
lais7 but it is certainly the most beautiful as nowhere before, have melancholy and
exaltation been dealt with such refinement. The lai exposes the poet’s tender and
feminine feelings blending delicately subtle emotion and melancholy; it also
announces the ultimate sacrifice depicted in the Tristan of Thomas.
In this extract, Tristan exiled from his marvellous queen walks in the
wood; and as a sign of reconnaissance, he puts on the path the symbol of his
indestructible love, a twig of honeysuckle tied up to a branch of hazel. When
Yseult enters the wood, she recognises the sign and soon meets Tristan. 8
D'eus deus fu il tut autresi They were two bound together
Cume del chevrefoil esteit As the honeysuckle always
Ki a la codre se perneit : Binds to the hazel tree:
Quant il est s'i laciez e pris When caught in its branchs,
E tut entur le fust s'est mis, They hug tightly
Ensemble poënt bien durer, Together they can live long
Mès ki puis les volt desevrer, But should anyone part the two,
Li codres muert hastivement The hazel tree surely dies
E li chevrefoil ensement. And the honeysuckle follows it.
4 Tristan de Béroul in Les Tristan en vers, verses 87-99.
5 In the epilogue of her fables, Marie says her name and that she came from France. Perhaps, Marie was
also Abbess of Shaftesbury and this explains her erudition.
6 Coming from the Celtic word laid, lais are musical compositions.
7 The longest is Eliaduc with 1184 verses.
8 Extract from Lai du Chèvrefeuille in Les Tristan en vers, verses 68-78. Image from BNF
« Bele amie, si est de nus : “My beloved, so it is with us.
Ne vus sanz mei, ne mei sanz vus. » No you without me, no I without you.”
Inspired by the legends of Britain and Bretagne (Brittany), Marie composes many fables in
verses. While beast tales written in Latin remain in monasteries, she is the first to write an Ysopet (word
derived from Aesop) in vernacular so that lay people can appreciate them. Clearly, Marie’s aim is to
depict the 12th Century society, while preserving the merveilleux of the Celtic soul and its Breton
We may wonder why Thomas and Marie wrote in French. England at the time or at least the
royal court is very French. Since 1152, the duc de Normandie, Henri Plantagenêt is king of England; and
thanks to his wife Aliénor (ex-king of France’s wife) his domain largely extends to France. Furthermore,
Aliénor continues to rule her duchy and holds a brilliant court at Poitier where she protects artists and
Normandie was a strategic place; this sends us back to the 10th Centuries, when men coming
from the North, the Danes or Vikings, settled in the northern coast of France and the North and East of
For more than a century, the Vikings were devastating the Seine Valley running from Verdon to
Le Havre. In 911, the French king Charles le Simple and Rollon, the chieftain of the Danes, agreed to sign
a treaty in Saint-Clair, a small town near Vernon. Rollon accepted to end pillages and massacres; in
exchange, he obtained the right to occupy Neustrie, which he renamed Normandie. The province became
a duchy and Rollon was the first duc de Normandie. Soon, the
North-men or Normands (Normans) adopted French civilisation
as their own, abandoned their language, and converted to
The relation between England and Normandie was
excellent; and when Ethelred the Unready was chased by the
Danes in 1002, he took refuge in Normandie, his wife’s native
country. Ethelred’s son, Edward was then raised in France; and
when the last Danes in power finally died in 1042, Edward
regained the throne and brought back with him many Norman
Edward’s affinity with the Normands greatly displeased
the English Earls particularly Godwin of Wessex, his father-in-
law, who raised an army against him. Godwin was defeated and
banished from the country. Free, Edward continued to favour the
Normands.9 This generated hostile reactions and Edward was
9Robin Hood’s legend depicts the hatred of the Saxons for the Norman sheriffs who occupied their land
and made their lives miserable.
constrained to call back Godwin for the security of the country. Later, Godwin’s son, Harold became one
of the king’s most influential advisers. Nevertheless, Edward designated his cousin Guillaume (William
the Conqueror), the duc de Normandie, as his successor; and reluctantly, Harold had to swear allegiance
to the future king of England.10 This pledge did not deter Harold to seize the crown one day after
Edward’s death on 5 January 1066; he argued that just before he died, the king changed his mind and
named him as his heir. Of course, Guillaume challenged this claim; and while in September, Harold was
defeating Hardrade III (The Hard Ruler), the king of Norway, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in the
north of England, Guillaume and his impressive army landed on the south coast of England at Pevensey.
Harold met the invaders with a small army on 14 October but his position on the hill of Senlac
was so advantageous and his soldiers fought so well that Guillaume retreated. This, however, was a
clever stratagem to drive the enemy off the hill; indeed, as soon as Harold’s army pursued the Normands
down the hill, the latter immediately turned back and the famous Battle of Hastings started. During the
fierce fight, Harold was instantly killed by an arrow in his eyes; and deprived of their leader, the English
retreated in confusion allowing Guillaume to take possession of the field.
On Christmas Day of the same year, Guillaume was finally crowned king of England. The
conquest and the campaigns of rebellion that followed nearly decimated the English nobility; and for
many generations, the Normans held the most important positions in the government. As a result, French
became the court’s language while the lower classes continued to speak English.
As the years passed, the nobles became bilingual through intermarriages and associations; and
the kings of England, deeply attached to their duchy of Normandie, spent most of their reign in France.
The court accordingly travelled from one country to the other. Even the great English landowners were
seduced by the country behind the sea; they bought large properties in France and arranged marriages to
protect their interests. Finally and as the Danes did before, all these people embraced the French culture
and loved the littérature courtoise (courtly literature).
10Tapisserie de Bayeux (Tapestry of Bayeux) showing Harold’s allegiance to Guillaume. This giant
needlework measures 70m long and 0.495m wide and is preserved in the Musée de la Reine Mathilde in
Dominions of William the Conqueror around 1087 11
11Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd in
Chrétien de Troyes
(~1150 - ~1200)
Erec et Enide written by Chrétien de Troyes around 1170 is probably one of the greatest chef
d’oeuvres (work of art) of courtly literature. It is the oldest version of the Arthurian legend.
As for many Middle Ages’ poets, we do not know much about Chrétien. His patroness, Marie
de Champagne is the daughter of Louis VII and Aliénor d’Aquitaine; thanks to her mother, Marie not
only has a Provencal conception of love, she also knows and loves all the legends from Brittany. Chrétien
has therefore a splendid opportunity to enrich his culture. Indeed, Marie teaches him the style of poetry
from the South of France; and she encourages him to read the Latin Chronicle of Nennius, which depicts
the conflicts between the Celts and the Saxons in the 5th and 6th Centuries, and Robert Wace’s Roman de
Brut, a translation of Historia Regum Britaniae written around 1135 by the Bishop, Geoffrey of Monmouth.1
Deeply inspired by his teacher, Chrétien concentrates his writing on love and begins the amazing legends
of King Arthur.
In the courteous universe of his romances, we now travel in a fairylike world where the
merveilleux swerved from Christianity. While the knight in the Chansons de Gestes accomplished fabulous
deeds for God, the courteous knight wants to conquer his Lady’s heart.
Though Chrétien’s work is sometimes monotonous with repetitions and tedious details, his
audience loves lengthy descriptions and argumentations about the art d’aimer. Furthermore, Chrétien
uses analogy and contrast with great subtlety and elegance, when he reveals his characters’ weaknesses
and virtues. Rather than exposing the torments of love and the ravages they cause in lovers’ hearts,
Chrétien observes and analyses their feelings; he describes the mechanism of love with intelligence and
wit; but in Erec et Enide, Chrétien goes much further.
With its 6958 verses, Erec et Enide emphasises the social ideal of French aristocracy and chivalry;
here, men and women revere the rules of courtesy, are generous toward the weak, and highly praise
truth. Primarily, the legend exposes the conflict between love and adventure. By overcoming all the
hindrances they find on their journey, Erec and Enide learn self-respect, friendship, and love—love for
the people they will rule one day. Only then, are they crowned king and queen. Surprises, obstacles, and
extraordinary quests abound; and by interrupting the story at the most captivating moment, Chrétien
cleverly keeps his public on edge. The master-poet also uses vivid images and skilfully introduces new
1According to Geoffrey, Arthur or Artus was a Breton king who united the Celtic tribes of Great Britain
and Brittany against the Anglo-Saxons in the sixth century. However, Geoffrey’s Historia, which blends
paganism and Christianity, is purely fictional. The Anglo-Norman Wace was the Canon of Bayeux; he
dedicated his Roman de Brut to his queen, Aliénor d’Aquitaine, in 1155.
poetic devices like enjambment. The romance is written in octosyllables grouped in assonanced strophes
of unequal length. In the extract, Chrétien describes King Arthur’s outstanding court with its valiant
knights and fair Ladies.
Un jor de Pasque, au tans novel, One Easter day in renewal,
A caradigan, son chastel, In his town of Caradigan,
Ot li rois Artus cort tenue. The good King Arthur held his court.
Ains si riche ne fu veüe; No one had ever seen such a rich place
Car mout i ot buens chevaliers, So many valiant knights, courageous
Hardiz et corageus et fiers, And proud were present,
Et riches dames et puceles, With their rich ladies and damsels,
Filles a rois, jantes et beles.2 Daughters of kings, gentle and fair.
Erec et Enide
BNF Français 113 (3), fol. 111v, Mort d’Erec
2 Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide, édition Forster, verses 27-34.
The exceptional success of the Arthurian Romances contributes to the spreading of the francien,
the dialect of the Ile-de-France. Soon, the legends cross the frontiers making Chrétien the père de la
littérature précieuse (father of precious literature) and a master in the art of storytelling.
Empire Plantagenêt 1144-11663
A century later, Europe sees the opening of its first universities. Originally, universitas means
union or corporation of academic or non-academic nature;1 and universities are before anything else
associations of masters and students. Founded by Philippe Auguste, the Université de Paris is attached to
the beautiful cathedral Notre Dame de Paris.2 Like most universities, it is primarily a school of theology,
philosophy, medicine, and law, where teachers are paid by their students. Nevertheless, the university
also attracts poor students unable to pay for their tuition; for them, Robert de Sorbon, the confessor and
chaplain of Louis IX3 opens a college Montagne Sainte Geneviève in 1257; it soon becomes a faculty of
excellent reputation, the famous Sorbonne.
13th Century poets still cherish the art d’aimer, which reaches its apogee in le Roman de la Rose
(Romance of the Rose), a superb allegory of 22000 octosyllables first written by Guillaume de Lorris
around 1230 and achieved in 1270-75 by Jean Clopinel de Meung. Le Roman de la Rose is of a didactic
genre as the poets’ essential objective is to teach something to their readers. With Guillaume, the reader is
initiated to the art d’aimer; and with Jean, they learn moral, social, and philosophical values.
1 Durkheim, p 154-157
2 Built in 1180, the cathedral was finished around 1320.
3 Louis IX was canonized Saint-Louis in 1297.
Guillaume de Lorris
(1210 – 1237)
The only thing we know about Guillaume4 is from Jean de Meung5 who indicates in his work
that Guillaume wrote the first part of Le Roman de la Rose.
In the poem, Guillaume alias Amant (Lover) dreams. He walks in a magnificent garden where
Plaisir (Pleasure), Jeunesse (Youth), Richesse (Wealth), Liesse (Gaiety), and Beauté (Beauty) live happily.
He then encounters Amour (Love), the wonderful but exigent master of the garden, when he sees the
reflection of a marvellous rosebud in the clear fountain of Narcissus. The Rose is the classic symbol of
love and desire; but to conquer her, Amant must learn the art d’aimer enclosed in Amour’s ten
commandments. With this code of courtesy, Amant escapes the ruses of Malebouche (Wicked-tongue)
Alas, Guillaume dies and the poem suddenly ends when Amant reaches the high walls of
Jalousie’s castle, the last obstacle between him and his Rose.
Guillaume’s delicate and graceful poetic descriptions charm the public even though his writing
is sometimes a little dull. Nevertheless, poetry has evolved with Guillaume; for the first time, assonances
have become rimes and some even contain more than two elements of similarity so they are called rimes
riches (rich rhymes). Here is Guillaume’s introduction.
El vintiesme an de mon aage, In the twentieth year of my age,
el point qu’Amors prend le paage when Love calls on the young
des jones genz, couchier m’aloie to pay their tributes, I was lying
une nuit, si con je souloie, on my couch one night as usual,
et me dormoie mout forment, having a deep and peaceful rest,
si vi un songe en mon dormant, when I had a dream
qui mout fut biaus, et mout me plot ; so sweet it gave me great delight;
mes en ce songe onques riens n’ot every detail came true
qui tretot avenu ne soit, All happened exactly
si con li songes recensoit. as the dream predicted it.
Or veil cel songe rimeer, Thus, I put it into verse
por vos cuers plus feire agueer, to brighten and enchant your hearts,
4 Guillaume de Lorris wrote the Roman de la Rose in 1230
5 Jean was an erudite clerk and a philosopher without nobility
qu Amors le me prie et comande. as Love commands me to do so.
Et se nule ne nus demande And if anyone asks
comant je veil que li romanz the title of this Romance
soit apelez, que je comanz, that will soon commence here after,
ce est li Romanz de la Rose, it is the Romance of the Rose,
Ou l’art d’Amors est tote enclose where the art of love is enclosed.
La matire est et bone et nueve, The theme is sweet and new,
or doint Dex qu’en gré le receve and may God grant it, be well viewed
cele por qui je l’ai empris : by her for whom I cheerfully wrote it:
c’est cele qui tant, a de pris she is so dear to me
et tant est digne d’estre amee and deserves love so much
qu’el doit estre Rose clamee. 6 that Rose she should be named.
Roman de la Rose7
6 Guillaume de Lorris et Jean de Meung (1995) Le Roman de la Rose, verses 21-44.
While in his 4058 verses Guillaume depicts with beauty and vividness a naïve and enchanted
world of abstractions symbolising the state of the soul in love, Jean is cynical and sometimes obscene.
Rather than a poet, he is a thinker and his style is certainly not courteous, as we perceive the new esprit
bourgeois (bourgeois spirit) with its unshaken will to rise above poverty to be free to undertake whatever
can be achieved.
Though in the end Amant finally conquers the Rose, Guillaume’s romance is now a satire.
Amant has lost his chivalric illusions and uses force and ruse to hastily reach his goal. The conquest is
more or less a rapt as Christine de Pisan later suggests.8
This second part is indeed the blatant critique of the first. No more should we learn the art
d’aimer but science and strategy; and Jean coldly exposes his knowledge, as he would do in a treatise.
Furthermore, his ideas are not always original; many passages are directly inspired from Latin literature
especially Sallust.9 Above all, Jean vociferates against women, the institution of marriage, the clergy, and
the legitimacy of the monarchy. To him, poverty is ugly, and Abstinence and chastity unnatural.
However, he worships Nature who tirelessly creates beings to replace those who perish.
Lost are Guillaume’s elegance, respect, and devotion for his beloved rosebud; but despite his
cynicism, Jean is seen by his contemporaries as a talented writer and a bright pamphleteer.
Literature from the 12th and 13th Centuries reveals more than courtly love and philosophical
ideas. With audacity and humour, poets denounce the their rulers’ injustice, the nobles’ corruption and
hypocrisy, and the avarice and cupidity of the church. If Jean de Meung displays an esprit bourgeois, the
fabulists of the time are not bitter and prefer to laugh. This is the esprit gaulois excellently defines by
Sidney Lee :
It is often confused unjustly with humorous obscenity. In its original manifestations, l’esprit gaulois
implies three enviable qualities: firstly, flexibility of thought; secondly, gaiety, tending at times to
levity and coarseness, but readily yielding to pathetic tenderness; thirdly, a melodious ease of
frank and simple utterance.10
Yes, the esprit gaulois is the natural tendency to mock and denigrate with good humour and cynicism the
high society. Inspired by this spirit, the satiric literature of the Middle Ages with its fables and fabliaux
despises the littérature féodale, chevaleresque, and courtoise. This literature bourgeoise is spontaneous and
joyful so it attracts a very large public.
8 The feminist poet and historian Christine de Pisan (1360-1431) severely condemned Jean’s romance as
immoral and misogynistic.
9 Roman historian and political leader from the 1st Century B.C.
10 Sidney Lee (1968) The French Renaissance in England, pp 13-14
11 Paris’s University was founded by Philippe Auguste in 1200 not as this map suggests in the 12th
Century. Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd in
Pierre de Saint Cloud & all
(~1150 – ~1250)
Among the best satires of the time, are the twenty-eight versed narratives called branches or
estoires12 of the hilarious Roman de Renart (Renart’s Romance) written between 1150 and 1342 by Pierre de
Saint-Cloud, Richard de Lison, Rutebeuf, and anonymous authors. The
first two branches were inspired by the Latin poem Ysengrinus written by
the Flemish monk, Nivart in 1148-49, and by the German poem, Reinhart
Fuchs (Reinhart the Fox), composed by the Alsatian writer, Heinrich der
Glïchezäre13 in 1180.14
Le Roman de Renart 15does not teach any moral. In this amusing
epopee of 100 000 verses written in octosyllables and rimes plates, the
authors’ funny and impish descriptions make people laugh.16 Here,
animals live in a well-structured society, a society, which clearly mirrors
the human society of the time. These animals not only have a family,
they also have names; such individualisation is a great innovation and
Renart, the fox, is so popular that his name will forever supplant the
word goupil in French language.
Le Roman de Renart is a parody of the aristocracy and while
Ysengrin personifies the church’s greed and stupidity, Renart is the
cunning intelligence and the good little devil who mocks courtly love and its heroic knights. Indeed,
Renart’s love affair with Ysengrin’s unfaithful spouse, Hersent, comically evokes Lancelot and
Guinevere; and the lion and his barons closely resemble King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table;
but above all, Renart is the symbol of the poor but intelligent rebel whose amorality is excused by the
futility and hypocrisy of his oppressors. This transposition of the animal world to the human world is not
a protest but a picturesque and realistic painting of the 13th Century society.
Here follows an extract of Le Jugement de Renart (Renart’s Judgment) 17 with the poignant but
ludicrous discourse of Pinte, the eccentric hen! The tone is light but passionate.
12 Isolate short stories or tales.
13 Der Glïchezäre means ‘the Hypocrite’.
14 The story of the lion cured by the wolf’s skin was written in 940 by a monk from Toul in Lorraine.
15 Le Roman de Renard, XIVe siècle Bibliothèque Nationale Français 1581, fol. 19, Renart
16 Even today, French children study it in primary school and they love it
17 Extract of Jugement de Renart in Le Roman de Renart, edited by Ernest Martin, branche I, verses 295-344.
Quant li rois ot jugie asez, When the king was tired of listening
Qui del pleider estoit lassez, To so many pleaders,
Ez les jelines meintenant The hens arrived with Chantecler
Et Chantecler paumes batant. They were beating their palms madly.
Pinte s'escrie premereine Pinte was the first to declaim while
Et les autres a grant aleine : The others yelled in one breath:
« Por Deu, fet ele, gentix bestes “Before God, she said, gentle beasts,
Et chen et leu tex con vos estes, Dog, wolf, all of you sitting here,
Qar conseilliez ceste chaitive ! Give your advice to a poor hen!
Molt he l'oure que je sui vive. O! I hate the hour I was born.
Mort, car me pren, si t'en delivre, Death, please come and deliver me,
Quant Renart ne me lesse vivre ! As Renart wants to take my life!
Cinc freres oi tot de mon pere : From Father I had five brothers:
Toz les manja Renart li lere, Renart, the vile thief, ate them all,
Ce fu grant perte et grant dolors. Such a great loss and great sorrow!
De par ma mere oi cinc serors, From Mother, I had five sisters,
Que virges poules, que mescines : All young maidens, all lovely chicks:
Molt i avoit beles jelines. So young and beautiful pullets.
Gonberz del Frenne les passoit, Gonberz from Fresne fed them quite well
Qui de pondre les anguissoit : Fattening them just for laying:
Li las ! mal les i encressa. Alas! Why did he fatten them?
Qar ainc Renart ne l'en laissa For Renart only spared one
De totes cinc que une soule : Yes, only one out of five:
Totes passerent par sa goule. Soon all of them went down his throat.
Et vos qui la gisez en bere, And now you lay in this coffin,
Ma douce suer, m'amie chere, My sweet sister, my darling friend,
Con vos estieez tendre et crasse ! Oh! How tender and plump you were!
Que fera vostre suer la lasse How your poor sister could now live
Que a nul jor ne vos regarde ? Without seeing you one more day?
Renart, la male flambe t'arde ! Renart, the flame of hell burn you!
Tantes foiz nus avez foleez How many times did you harm us?
Et chacies et tribulees, You always chase and torment us.
Et descirees nos pelices, Many times, you wrecked our silk coats
Et enbatues dusq'as lices. Hunting us to the palisades.
Ier par matin devant la porte Yesterday morn, on my doorstep
Me jeta il ma seror morte, He threw the corpse of my sister
Puis s'en foï parmi un val. And ran away in the val.
Gonberz n'ot pas isnel cheval, Gonberz who had no fast horses
Ne nel poïst a pie ateindre. Had no hope to catch him on foot.
Ge me voloie de lui pleindre, At once, I wanted to sue him
Mes je ne truis qui droit m'en face, But found no one to hear my case
Car il ne crent autrui manace Because Renart fears no menace
N'autrui coroz vaillant deus foles. » And no anger can alarm him.”
Pinte la lasse a ces paroles So tired after such a discourse
Chaï pamee el pavement, Pinte soon fainted on the pavement
Et les autres tot ensement. With her distressed and loyal friends.
Por relever les quatre dames To revive and comfort the ladies
Se leverent de lor escames The dog, the wolf, and all the beasts
Et chen et lou et autres bestes, Left their wooden stools instantly
Eve lor getent sor les testes. And sprinkled their head with water.
After two centuries of economic prosperity, demographic growth, and territorial expansion,
France is now the most powerful European country. Unfortunately, famine, war, and horrible diseases
soon ruin the country.
From the beginning of the 14th Century, the king of France, Philippe IV le Bel (the Fair) enters
into conflict with the papacy objecting to its intrusion in the affairs of France. With the support of the first
États Généraux (Estates-General),1 Pope Boniface VIII is arrested in 1309 and a French pope is elected and
settled in Avignon.2 Philippe also wants to replenish France’s coffers with the Knights Templar’s
impressive wealth3 and in 1312, he obtains the suppression of their order; many knights are tortured and
sent to the stake including the Great master, Jacques de Molay who curses him and his offspring.
The rois maudits (the cursed kings) indeed die prematurely one after the others starting from
Philippe in 1314 and ending in 1328 with his last son Charles IV le Bel who leaves no male heir. The
crown then passes to Philippe VI de Valois, Philippe le Bel’s nephew, despite the legitimate claim of
Edward III of England, Philippe’s grandson.
Edward is furious but has no choice, he must pay homage to the new king in order to keep his
possessions in Gascogne (Gascony) and Guyenne; yet, Philippe has no respect for England; he complots
with Scotland, seizes the free towns of Flanders, which are England’s wool market, and takes back
Guyenne and Bordeaux. With the fair motive to defend England’s trade, Edward challenges the king of
France; and on 7 February 1337, the Guerre de Cent Ans (the Hundred-Years War), the longest war France
has ever known, begins.
At first, England is successful; its fleet remarkably defeats the French navy at L’Écluse, a port on
the Channel; and Edward’s army wins decisive battles on land—especially Crécy in 1346—scaring the
enemy with its deadly canons and its swift and accurate longbows. Finally, by 1347, England holds
Is it the war, the famine, or Europe’s insalubrious conditions that propagates the Peste Noire
(Black Death), the terrifying plague from Asia? All contributes to the decimation of one-third of the
European population between 1347 and 1351. Nevertheless, the horrible disease does not even stop the
war and to make things worse, the new king of France, Jean II le Bon (the Good), is threatened by his son-
1 Assembly representing the three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the Third State or Tiers États
representing the people.
2 The papacy returned to Rome in 1377 but another French pope was elected the following year leaving
the Church with two and even three popes in 1409.
3 Religious and military order founded in 1118 to protect pilgrims going to Jerusalem
in-law, the king of Navarre, Charles II le Mauvais (the Bad). On 5 April 1356, Charles is thrown in jail for
the murder of the king’s adviser.
The war is still raging with England and in September, Jean is captured at Poitiers by the Black
Prince4 of Wales; Jean’s son, Charles must assure the regency but the États Généraux led by the merchant
Etienne Marcel, rejects his authority and constrains him to release le Mauvais, who becomes Paris’s
leader. The regent, nevertheless, aborts Marcel’s revolution on 22 February 1358;5 but another problem
threatens the city; fed up with the wars ravaging their fields, the peasants join, and armed with batons
and forks, they come to Paris and demand justice. With Gaston Phoebus’s alliance,6 le Mauvais finally
defeats the Grande Jacquerie7 in June.
Two years later, King Edward finally accepts a treaty in Brétigny. He regains his territory and in
compensation, he receives the Limousin, Périgord, Rouergue, Saintonge, and Angoumois. Edward also
demands a ransom of three millions of livres tournois—the equivalent of twelve tonnes of gold—for two of
Jean’s sons kept as hostages. To repay this enormous sum, the king implements a tax on salt, the gabelle,
and creates a new gold coin, the Franc;8 but this is not enough; and when the duc d’Anjou escapes from
England, Jean must take his place. Accompanied by his other son, the duc du Berry, he goes to London
where he dies in 1364.
The same year in May, the new king Charles V le Sage (the Wise) and the General Du Guesclin
finally vanquish le Mauvais, who was occupying Paris with his Gascon troupes.
Charles is indeed a very wise and cultivated king who enjoys art and poetry and encourages the
Compagnonnage, a secret association of apprentices travelling from town to town to perfect their skills.9
Charles also reconstructs the Louvre so he may use it as one of his royal residences, and he brings his
magnificent collection of 917 books. The king then founds the Bibliothèque Royale (Royal Library) and
builds the Bastille, the fortress that will become the famous state prison under Louis XIII.
4 Always wearing a black armour, the son of Edward III, was called the Black Prince.
5 EMarcel’s objective was to limit royal power by imposing the great ordinance of 1357; this ordinance
ensured the control of the state’s subsidies
6 The fierce and powerful Comte de Foie
7 The Jacqueries were peasants’ revolts against the nobles and the écorcheurs (mercenaries) who pillaged
their land. Peasants were often called Jacques and their leaders or kings were nicknamed Jacques
8 The name Franc was chosen as a symbol of liberty
9 This association still exists today and apprentices of various trades now travel from country to country.
Le Louvre in 1334, Miniature from Limbourg, Musée Condé, Chantilly
The 14th Century is very rich in literature from its beginning to its end. While Guillaume de
Machaut invents new lyrical forms, rondeaux, ballades, chants royaux, lais and virelais, in Florence, the
illustrious Dante Alighieri compose his grandiose Divina Commedia (1309-1320), an allegorical and
personal journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Then, in 1358, a new genre of literature appears
with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a book of audacious and spicy novels set up in the wake of the
plague and featuring unfaithful wives, priests, nuns, merchants, sultans, and kings of the Orient engaged
in promiscuous adventures. Finally, ending this tumultuous century, the brilliant Geoffrey Chaucer gives
us his superb Canterbury’s Tales written in verses between 1387 and 1400; this unfinished series of stories
are told by thirty pilgrims travelling from London to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
In France, lyric poetry, which derives from the chanson, is an art still reserved to the nobles; and
as usual, its favourite theme is love. However, poets being inspired by their own experiences and
environment, general ideas are becoming more personal. They express their états d’âme (states of mind)
and to highlight deepest values, they continue to use the personified abstractions of the Ancients.
Compared to older works, the rimes are richer and as the pronunciation drastically evolves, the melody is
harmonious and elaborate.
Guillaume de Machaut is certainly one of the greatest poets and musicians of the Middle Ages;
he is also the first poet of vernacular and it is with him that this anthology really starts.
Guillaume de Machaut
Born just at the turn of the century, Guillaume de Machaut grows up in Machaut, a small
village of Champagne where he receives a clerk formation. In 1323, he becomes the secretary of the
valiant knight, Jean de Luxembourg, king of Bohème (Bohemia), with whom he travels extensively. When
he comes back to Reims in 1340, Guillaume shares the position of Canon with his brother; and in homage
to his patron Jean and his daughter, Bonne,10 he composes Remède de Fortune (Fortune’s Remedy). He
then writes the Dit du Lion (the Say of the Lion); and after Jean’s heroic death at Crécy in 1346, he starts
Jugement du Roi de Behaigne (King of Behaigne’s Judgement), a narrative relating the king’s campaigns
Guillaume de Machaut, the last trouvère, is also one of the first masters of Western music and
the most eminent avant-garde composer of the Middle Ages.11 Furthermore and for the first time, the
term ‘poet’ has been attributed to a writer of vernacular; this epithet, invented by Brunetto Latini12 in his
Livre du Trésor (Treasure’s Book), was given only to the great authors of Antiquity.
As his predecessors, Guillaume uses l’amour courtois as a theme but with his new forms of
verses, and his exceptional monophonic and polyphonic songs, he brilliantly distinguishes himself from
the other poets of his time. Undeniably, Machaut is impressed by Philippe de Vitry’s ars nova,13 which he
elegantly blends with ars antiqua in more than four hundred lyric works.
For Guillaume, poetry is not the mere arrangement of words and sounds; it is music, not the
artificial music of the instruments, but the natural music of language with its rhymes, rhythms,
alliterations and much more. His most exceptional works are the grandiose and austere four-voice Messe
de Nostre Dame (Mass of Notre Dame) and the Livre du Veoir-dict.
The next poem, Dame de qui toute ma Joie vient, is a ballade taken from Remède de Fortune, which
regroups nine lyrical pieces. In Remède, the poet proposes a new way to perceive reality by introducing
the innovative dit (autobiographical narrative); furthermore, he presents fixed-form poems such as the
glorious ballades. Originally, the word ballade comes from the Old Provencal ballada, which means dance;
10 Jean le Bon’s wife
11 Great men whose techniques or ideas are far ahead of their time
12 The Florentine poet, Brunetto Latini, was Dante’s master. In 1267, he wrote his Livre du Trésor in French
not only because he lived in France at the time but because la parleure (language) of this country seemed
to him plus délitable (more delectable) than those of other countries and plus commune à toutes gens (more
common to all people).
13 French leading composer and theoretician of the Ars nova (new art) written in 1325.
and being a chanson de danse (a dance song), a Middle Ages ballade is always accompanied by music.
Machaut’s ballade or baladelle consists of three strophes and a refrain focusing on the main idea of the
poem. The half strophe called envoy only exists (at the time) in Machaut’s chant royal; this extended ballade
implying grandeur and majesty always praises a royal person.
Though Machaut’s ballades generally adhere to the pattern ababbccb, in Dame de qui toute ma
Joie, the poet prefers the structure ababccdD14 and plays with assonance. The rhymes are pauvres (poor)
and if Machaut is not rigorous in the metric (one heptasyllable15 among decasyllables), the shortness of
some verses, pleasantly accelerates the tempo of the ballade; and the syncopate rhythm is particularly
suitable for a poem reflecting a lover’s unabated enthusiasm and confidence.
After having received Hope’s advice about Love and Fortune, Amant composes a beautiful
ballade in which he reveals his hope to see his beloved; this exhilarating expectation brings him a joy
almost impossible to conceive. Yes, Machaut is fond of allegory as his predecessors were; but above all,
we are witnessing the shaping of French poetry with the poet’s undisputable poetical and musical skills.
Dame de qui toute ma Joie… Lady whom my Joy… 16
Dame, de qui toute ma joie vient, Lady, whom my joy comes from,
Je ne vous puis trop amer ni chierir, I love and cherish you so much,
N'asses loër, si com il apartient, That I cannot praise you as you deserve,
Servir, doubter, honnourer n'obeïr; When I serve, doubt, honour, and obey you,
Car le gracieus espoir, Because the gracious hope,
Douce Dame, que j'ay de vous vëoir That I have to see you, my sweet Lady,
Me fait cent fois plus de bien et de joie Gives me more than one hundred times the joy
Qu'en cent mille ans desservir ne porroie. That I could not earn in one thousand years.
Cils dous espoirs en vie me soustient The sweet hope that keeps me alive
Et me norrist en amoureus desir, Feeds me with amorous desire,
Et dedens moy met tout ce qui couvient Putting in my bosom the softest balms
Pour conforter mon cuer et rejoïr; To comfort and rejoice my heavy heart;
N'il ne s'en part main ne soir, All day all night it stays
Einçois me fait doucement recevoir So that always, I may gently receive
Plus des dous biens qu'Amours aus siens ottroie, The warmest joys Pure Love can offer and
Qu'en cent mille ans desservir ne porroie. That I could not earn in one thousand years.
14 Capital letter for the refrain
15 Seven-syllable verse
16 Œuvres de Machaut, edited by Ernest Hoepffner, pp 110-111.