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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

A fragment of the songs which celebrated Clotaire II


A

body of short poems, inspired by religious feeling, and often telling of miracles obtained by the intercession of the Virgin or the saints, is known as _Contes pieux_. Many of these were the work of Gautier de Coinci (1177-1236), a Benedictine monk; he translates from Latin sources, but with freedom, adding matter of his own, and in the course of his pious narratives gives an image, far from flattering, of the life and manners of his own time. It is he who tells of the robber who, being accustomed to commend himself in his adventures to our Lady, was supported on the gibbet for three days by her white hands, and received his pardon; and of the illiterate monk who suffered shame because he knew no more than his _Ave Maria_, but who, when dead, was proved a holy man by the five roses that came from his mouth in honour of the five letters of Maria's name; and of the nun who quitted her convent to lead a life of disorder, yet still addressed a daily prayer to the Virgin, and who, returning after long years, found that the Blessed Mary had filled her place, and that her absence was unknown. The collection known as _Vies des Peres_ exhibits the same naivete of pious feeling and imagination. Man is weak and sinful; but by supernatural aid the humble are exalted, sinners are redeemed, and the suffering innocent are avenged. Even Theophile, the priest who sold his soul to the devil, on repentance receives back from the Queen of Heaven the very document by which he had put his salvation
in pawn. The sinner (_Chevalier au barillet_) who endeavours for a year to fill the hermit's little cask at running streams, and endeavours in vain, finds it brimming the moment one tear of true penitence falls into the vessel. Most exquisite in its feeling is the tale of the _Tombeur de Notre-Dame_--a poor acrobat--a jongleur turned monk--who knows not even the _Pater noster_ or the _Credo_, and can only offer before our Lady's altar his tumbler's feats; he is observed, and as he sinks worn-out and faint before the shrine, the Virgin is seen to descend, with her angelic attendants, and to wipe away the sweat from her poor servant's forehead. If there be no other piety in such a tale as this, there is at least the piety of human pity.

II THE NATIONAL EPIC

Great events and persons, a religious and national spirit, and a genius for heroic narrative being given, epic literature arises, as it were, inevitably. Short poems, partly narrative, partly lyrical, celebrate victories or defeats, the achievements of conquerors or defenders, and are sung to relieve or to sustain the passion of the time. The French epopee had its origin in the national songs of the Germanic invaders of Gaul, adopted from their conquerors by the Gallo-Romans. With the baptism of Clovis at Reims, and the acceptance of Christianity by the Franks (496), a national consciousness began to exist--a national and religious ideal arose. Epic heroes--Clovis, Clotaire, Dagobert, Charles Martel--became centres for the popular imagination; an echo of the Dagobert songs is found in _Floovent_, a poem of the twelfth century; eight Latin lines, given in the _Vie de Saint Faron_ by Helgaire, Bishop of Meaux, preserve, in their ninth-century rendering, a fragment of the songs which celebrated Clotaire II. Doubtless more and more in these lost _cantilenes_ the German element yielded to the French, and finally the two streams of literature--French and German--separated; gradually, also, the lyrical element yielded to the epic, and the _chanson de geste_ was developed from these songs.

In Charlemagne, champion of Christendom against Islam, a great epic figure appeared; on his person converged the epic interest; he may be said to have absorbed into himself,


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