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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Behold Maitre Pathelin is in a raging fever


A

dramatic monologue or a _sermon joyeux_ was commonly interposed between the _sottie_ and the Morality or miracle which followed. The sermon parodied in verse the pulpit discourses of the time, with text duly announced, the customary scholastic divisions, and an incredible licence in matter and in phrase. Among the dramatic monologues of the fifteenth century is found at least one little masterpiece, which has been ascribed on insufficient grounds to Villon, and which would do no discredit to that poet's genius--the _Franc-Archer de Bagnolet_. The francs-archers of Charles VII.--a rural militia--were not beloved of the people; the _miles gloriosus_ of Bagnolet village, boasting largely of his valour, encounters a stuffed scarecrow, twisting to the wind; his alarms, humiliations, and final triumph are rendered in a monologue which expounds the action of the piece with admirable spirit.

If the Mystery served to fill the void left by the national epopee, the farce may be regarded as to some extent the dramatic inheritor of the spirit of the fabliau. It aims at mirth and laughter for their own sakes, without any purpose of edification; it had, like the fabliau, the merit of brevity, and not infrequently the fault of unabashed grossness. But the very fact that it was a thing of little consequence allowed the farce to exhibit at times an audacity of political or ecclesiastical criticism which transformed it into a dramatised pamphlet. In general it

chose its matter from the ludicrous misadventures of private life: the priest, the monk, the husband, the mother-in-law, the wife, the lover, the roguish servant are the agents in broadly ludicrous intrigues; the young wife lords it over her dotard husband, and makes mockery of his presumptive heirs, in _La Cornette_ of Jean d'Abondance; in _Le Cuvier_, the husband, whose many household duties have been scheduled, has his revenge--the list, which he deliberately recites while his wife flounders helpless in the great washing-tub, does not include the task of effecting her deliverance.

Amid much that is trivial and much that is indecent, one farce stands out pre-eminent, and may indeed be called a comedy of manners and of character--the merry misfortunes of that learned advocate, _Maitre Pierre Pathelin_. The date is doubtless about 1470; the author, probably a Parisian and a member of the Basoche, is unknown. With all his toiling and cheating, Pathelin is poor; with infinite art and spirit he beguiles the draper of the cloth which will make himself a coat and his faithful Guillemette a gown; when the draper, losing no time, comes for his money and an added dinner of roast goose, behold Maitre Pathelin is in a raging fever, raving in every dialect. Was the purchase of his cloth a dream, or work of the devil? To add to the worthy tradesman's ill-luck, his shepherd has stolen his wool and eaten his sheep. The dying Pathelin unexpectedly appears in court to defend the accused, and having previously advised his client to affect idiocy and reply to all questions with the senseless utterance _bee_, he triumphantly wins the case; but the tables are turned when Master Pathelin demands his fee, and can obtain no other response than _bee_ from the instructed shepherd. The triumph of rogue over rogue is the only moral of the piece; it is a satire on fair dealing and justice, and, though the morals of a farce are not to be gravely insisted on, such morals as _Maitre Pathelin_ presents agree well with the spirit of the age which first enjoyed this masterpiece of caricature.

The actors in mediaeval comedy, as in the serious drama, were amateurs. The members of the academic _puys_ were succeeded by the members of guilds, or _confreries_, or _societes joyeuses_. Of these societies the most celebrated was that of the Parisian _Enfants sans Souci_. With this were closely associated the Basochiens, the corporation of clerks to the _procureurs_ of the Parlement of Paris.[3] It may be that the _sots_ of the capital were only members of the _basoche_, assuming for the occasion the motley garb. In colleges, scholars performed at first in Latin plays, but from the fifteenth century in French. At the same time, troupes of performers occasionally moved from city to city, exhibiting a Mystery, but they did not hold together when the occasion had passed. Professional comedians were brought from Italy to Lyons in 1548, for the entertainment of Henri II. and Catherine de Medicis. From that date companies of French actors appear to become numerous. New species of the drama--tragedy, comedy, pastoral--replace the mediaeval forms; but much of the genius of French classical comedy is a development from the Morality, the _sottie_, and the farce. To present these newer forms the service of trained actors was required. During the last quarter of the sixteenth century the amateur performers of the ancient drama finally disappear.


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