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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Henri de Champagne and Thibaut de Blois


The

_poesie courtoise_, moulded in form and inspired in its sentiment by the Provencal lyrics, lies within the compass of about one hundred and thirty years, from 1150 to 1280. The Crusade of 1147 served, doubtless, as a point of meeting for men of the North and of the South; but, apart from this, we may bear in mind the fact that the mediaeval poet wandered at will from country to country and from court to court. In 1137, Louis VII. married Eleonore of Aquitaine, who was an ardent admirer of the poetry of courtesy. Her daughters inherited her taste, and themselves became patronesses of literature at the courts of their husbands, Henri de Champagne and Thibaut de Blois. From these courts, and that of Paris, this poetry of culture spread, and the earlier singers were persons of royal or noble rank and birth. The chief period of its cultivation was probably from 1200 to 1240. During the half-century before its sudden cessation, while continuing to be a fashion in courts and high society, it reached the wealthy bourgeoisie of the North. At Arras, where Jacques Bretel and Adam de la Halle, the hunchback, were eminent in song, it had its latest moments of splendour.

It is essentially a poetry of the intellect and of the imagination, dealing with an elaborated theory of love; the simple and spontaneous cry of passion is rarely heard. According to the amorous doctrine, love exists only between a married woman and the aspirant to her heart, and the art of

love is regulated by a stringent code. Nothing can be claimed by the lover as a right; the grace of his lady, who is placed far above him, must be sought as a favour; for that favour he must qualify himself by all knightly virtues, and chief among these, as the position requires, are the virtues of discretion and patience. Hence the poet's ingenuities of adoration; hence often the monotony of artificial passion; hence, also, subtleties and curiosities of expression, and sought-out delicacies of style. In the earlier chansons some outbreak of instinctive feeling may be occasionally present; but, as the amorous metaphysics developed, what came to be admired was the skill shown in manipulating a conventional sentiment; the lady became an abstraction of exalted beauty, the lover an interpreter of the theory of love; the most personal of passions lost the character of individuality. Occasionally, as in the poems of the Chatelain de Couci, of Conon de Bethune, of Thibaut de Champagne, and of Adam de la Halle, something personal to the writer may be discerned; but in general the poetry is that of a doctrine and of a school.

In some instances the reputation of the lyrical trouvere was founded rather on his music than his verse. The metrical forms were various, and were gradually reduced to rule; the _ballette_, of Provencal origin, was a more elaborate _rondet_, consisting of stanzas and refrain; the _estampie_ (_stampon_, to beat the ground with the foot) was a dancing-song; the lyric _lai_, virtually identical with the _descort_, consisted of stanzas which varied in structure; the _motet_, a name originally applied to pieces of church music, was freer in versification, and occasionally dealt with popular themes. Among forms which cannot be included under the general title of chansons, are those in dialogue derived from the Provencal literature; in the _tenson_ or _debat_ the two interlocutors put forth their opinions on what theme they may please; in the _jeu parti_ one of the imagined disputants proposes two contrary solutions of some poetical or amorous question, and defends whichever solution his associate refuses to accept; the earliest _jeu parti_, attributed to Gace Brule and Count Geoffroi of Brittany, belongs to the second half of the twelfth century. The _serventois_ were historical poems, and among them songs of the crusades, or moral, or religious, or satirical pieces, directed against woman and the worship of woman. To these various species we should add the songs in honour of the saints, the sorrows of the Virgin uttered at the foot of the cross, and other devout lyrics which lie outside the _poesie courtoise_. With the close of the thirteenth century this fashion of artificial love-lyric ceased: a change passed over the modes of thought and feeling in aristocratic society, and other forms took the place of those found in the _poesie courtoise_.


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