Old French offers a rich corpus of chansons de geste—about a hundred songs, from 1,000 to more than 20,000 lines. They were composed between the late eleventh and fourteenth century. In the fifteenth century, about fifty epic songs were adapted in prose. The most famous Old French epic poem, The Song of Roland, is probably one of the oldest. Toward the end of the twelfth century poems started to be grouped in cycles, linked by a common theme (such as the First Crusade) or a lineage. The Song of Roland belongs to the cycle of the King (Charlemagne). The cycle of William of Orange and his lineage (also known as the cycle of Garin de Monglane) counts about twenty-five songs, the cycle of the Lorrains, five songs.
Old French epics thrive on hyperboles and refrains, deliberately ignore verisimilitude, but do not avoid brutal facts—such as death. For a long time, modern readers have tended to evaluate the whole corpus along the aesthetics proper to The Song of Roland. It is, however, one of the most austere songs we have. Its admirable poetics felt archaic one or two generations after its composition. The fact that the version of Roland we revere so much has been preserved in only one manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 23) indicates this rapid change of taste. Many epics integrate comic episodes next to tragic ones, and fantastic creatures next to feudal politics. Women, marriage and love play a significant role. Irony and parody are not beyond the pale. The classic, dry decasyllabic assonant line gives way to the more ample and lavish rhyming alexandrine. Still the old epic call for attention does not loose its appeal, even when it is written down in a book:
Oëz, seignor, franc chevalier honeste!
Plest vos oïr chançon de bonne geste
Si comme Orange brisa li cuens Guillelmes?
[Listen, my lords, noble and honorable knights!
Will you, please, listen to a good old song
Telling how count William crushed Orange?]
(La Prise d’Orange / The Conquest of Orange, laisse II, l. 1-3)
Everyone loves to be called “my lord” and knows that William (of Orange), the man with the short nose and the big laugh, is always up to fast action and tricky schemes. So, listen, my lords...
For a more specific encounter with the Old French epic corpus, you can look at a digitized image of two pieces of parchment owned by Houghton Library. MS Fr. 323 contains a fragment of Garin le Lorrain, a late twelfth-century chanson de geste. Click here for a guide to the document, which includes an introduction, description, transcription, edition and translation.