chansons de geste

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chansons de geste

(shäNsôN` də zhĕst) [Fr.,=songs of deeds], a group of epic poems of medieval France written from the 11th through the 13th cent. Varying in length from 1,000 to 20,000 lines, assonanced or (in the 13th cent.) rhymed, the poems were composed by trouvères and were grouped in cycles about some great central figure such as Charlemagne. The origin of the form is disputed, but probably the first chansons were composed after the year 1000 by the joint efforts of wandering clerks and jongleurs (itinerant minstrels) to attract pilgrims to shrines where heroes of the chansons were supposedly buried. Sung by jongleurs to the accompaniment of a primitive viol, they spread to England, Germany, Italy, and Iceland. The earlier chansons—epic, aristocratic, and militantly Christian—passed as real history to their medieval listeners, though much of the material was legendary. Some later chansons utilize fantastic adventure or reflect bourgeois elements. The oldest extant chanson, and also the best and most famous, is the Chanson de Roland, composed c.1098–1100 (see RolandRoland
, the great French hero of the medieval Charlemagne cycle of chansons de geste, immortalized in the Chanson de Roland (11th or 12th cent.). Existence of an early Roland poem is indicated by the historian Wace's statement that Taillefer sang of Roland's deeds
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); others are Raoul de Cambrai, Huon de Bordeaux, Aliscans, and Renaud de Montauban.


See W. C. Calin, The Epic Quest (1966), J. Crosland, The Old French Epic (1971), and N. A. Daniel, Heroes and Saracens: A Reinterpretation of the Chansons de Geste (1983).

Chansons de Geste


French heroic epic poems, cycles of poems dealing with historical themes (approximately 90 are extant). The poems, based on ninth- and tenth-century oral folk tradition and on literary works composed and performed by wandering musician-jongleurs, were written at the beginning of the 12th century. The cycles of poems are unified by a central figure (for example, Charlemagne as a spokesman for national unity). Among the chansons de geste is the Chanson de Roland. Some chansons de geste express the point of view of the people in the depictions of the king’s interest in his own power and the evil deeds of feudal lords, such as Raoul de Cambrai.

Most chansons de geste contain 1,000 to 20,000 lines of verse. They are divided into stanzas consisting of five to 40 decasyllabics united by assonance. In later versions from the 12th and 13th centuries the ten-syllable line and assonance were replaced by the 12-syllable line and rhyme. The genres of chansons de geste range from heroic epics to comic narrative poems about everyday life.


htoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1946. Pages 30–53.
Lot, F. Etudes sur les légendes épiques françaises. Paris, 1958.


References in periodicals archive ?
Aix-en-Provence: Cuer, 1987), 2:757-75; Karl-Heinz Bender, "Die Chanson d'Antioche: eine Chronik zwischen Epos und Hagiographie," Oliphant 5 (1977): 89-104; Karl-Heinz Bender, "Des chansons de geste a la premiere epopee de croisade.
For the titles of other chansons de geste in which the warrior-saints appear, see the appropriate volumes and entries in Andre Moisan, Repertoire des noms propres de personnes et de lieux cites dans les chansons de geste francaises et les oeuvres etrangeres derivees, 5 vols.
The very rare occurrences of estoire in chansons de geste are always in reference to a source or sources.
The use of estoire in reference to a source presumed to be historical and trustworthy is not of course restricted to courtly romance, but may bone be found in chansons de geste such as Aiol, ed.
10) The theory was first advanced in Joseph Bedier, Legendes epiquer Recherches sur la formation des chansons de geste, 4 vols (Paris, 1912-15), III, 41-114.
If the composers of the chansons de geste wanted to find a biblical analogue for the capture and fall of an enemy city by a 'crusading' hero, then that of Jericho would seem to be an ideal example.
37) In the chansons de geste the defeat of the Saracens, the fall of the city (in which often the hero is imprisoned), is accomplished through his alliance with the Saracen princess.
The typological status of both Moses and Tharbis, therefore, is in accord with the typological value displayed both by the hero of the chansons de geste - God's warrior, and himself a type of the crusaders - and by the Saracen princess, whose own conversion from an alien race dramatizes the missionary ideal of the crusades, and who can herself be seen as a type of Ecclesia.
45) However, this would not necessarily have deterred the writers of the chansons de geste from perceiving her so to be.
This only serves to strengthen the argument that Tharbis is herself a fitting analogue for the converted Saracen princess in the chansons de geste.
In conclusion, it is clear that although Josephus' tale of Moses and the princess cannot be claimed to be the sole source of the theme in the chansons de geste, it is certainly a story that could have been known by and would have appealed to the authors of the chansons in which the theme occurs, with which it has many significant points of connection in terms of its structure and in terms of the typological meaning that could be assigned to it.
2 See above all Paul Bancourt, Les Musulmans dans les chansons de geste du Cycle du Roi, 2 vols (Aix-en-Provence, 1982), II, 571-827 on the portrayal of Saracen women in general; ibid.