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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Is assuredly this anonymous poem


word must be said of the humanism which preceded the Renaissance. Scholars and students there were in France two hundred years before the days of Erasmus and of Bude; but they were not scholars inspired by genius, and they contented themselves with the task of translators, undertaken chiefly with a didactic purpose. If they failed to comprehend the spirit of antiquity, none the less they did something towards quickening the mind of their own time and rendering the French language less inadequate to the intellectual needs of a later age. All that was then known of Livy's history was rendered into French in 1356 by the friend of Petrarch, Pierre Bercuire. On the suggestion of Charles V., Nicole Oresme translated from the Latin the Ethics, Politics, and Economics of Aristotle. It was to please the king that the aged Raoul de Presles prepared his version of St. Augustine's _De Civitate Dei_, and Denis Foulechat, with very scanty scholarship, set himself to render the _Polycraticus_ of John of Salisbury. The dukes of Bourbon, of Berry, of Burgundy, were also patrons of letters and encouraged their translators. We cannot say how far this movement of scholarship might have progressed, if external conditions had favoured its development. In Jean de Montreuil, secretary of Charles VI., the devoted student of Cicero, Virgil, and Terence, we have an example of the true humanist before the Renaissance. But the seeming dawn was a deceptive aurora; the early humanism of France was clouded and
lost in the tempests of the Hundred Years' War.


While the mediaeval historians, compilers, and abbreviators from records of the past laboured under all the disadvantages of an age deficient in the critical spirit, and produced works of little value either for their substance or their literary style, the chroniclers, who told the story of their own times, Villehardouin, Joinville, Froissart, Commines, and others, have bequeathed to us, in living pictures or sagacious studies of events and their causes, some of the chief treasures of the past. History at first, as composed for readers who knew no Latin, was comprised in those _chansons de geste_ which happened to deal with matter that was not wholly--or almost wholly--the creation of fancy. Narrative poems treating of contemporary events came into existence with the Crusades, but of these the earliest have not survived, and we possess only rehandlings of their matter in the style of romance. What happened in France might be supposed to be known to persons of intelligence; what happened in the East was new and strange. But England, like the East, was foreign soil, and the Anglo-Norman trouveres of the eleventh and twelfth centuries busied themselves with copious narratives in rhyme, such as Gaimar's _Estorie des Engles_ (1151), Wace's _Brut_ (1155) and his _Roman de Rou_, which, if of small literary importance, remain as monuments in the history of the language. The murder of Becket called forth the admirable life of the saint by Garnier de Pont-Sainte-Maxence, founded upon original investigations; Henry II.'s conquest of Ireland was related by an anonymous writer; his victories over the Scotch (1173-1174) were strikingly described by Jordan Fantosme. But by far the most remarkable piece of versified history of this period, remarkable alike for its historical interest and its literary merit, is the _Vie de Guillaume le Marechal_--William, Earl of Pembroke, guardian of Henry III.--a poem of nearly twenty thousand octosyllabic lines by an unknown writer, discovered by M. Paul Meyer in the library of Sir Thomas Phillipps. "The masterpiece of Anglo-Norman historiography," writes M. Langlois, "is assuredly this anonymous poem, so long forgotten, and henceforth classic."

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