French Medieval

A Resource Maintained by Professor Virginie Greene, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University

The following notes are based on the courses I teach on French medieval poetry. They are introductory, addressed to non-specialists, and do not claim to provide a complete overview of four centuries of poetic production. This work is in progress and will hopefully improve through time. My main goal is to incite visitors of the site to read or listen to the poems mentioned, and to explore in more depth this rich and inventive poetic tradition.

Most poems presented here were composed before the advent of the printing press. They came down to us in manuscripts, sometimes illustrated, sometimes with musical notations. The songs of troubadours and trouvères were collected from the thirteenth century on in large compilations called chansonniers. Some later poets, such as Guillaume de Machaut and Christine de Pisan, supervised the production of manuscripts gathering their works.

The Oldest French Song and a Few Reflections on Medieval Vernacular Poetry 
The oldest French poem that has been preserved is the anonymous Sequence of Saint Eulalia, a twenty-nine line poem narrating the martyrdom of one of the most revered Spanish female saints. Eulalia was martyred in 304, most probably in Merida. Why and how her story traveled to the Northern part of the Carolingian Empire remains a mystery. In any case, it was written down around 880-881 in the area of Valenciennes or in the Rhine valley, in a vernacular language that eventually became French. The poem is accessible online: folio 141 v. in Manuscript 150 of the municipal library of Valenciennes. This early, isolated piece of French poetry calls attention to several important characteristics of medieval poetry written in romance vernacular languages:


Poetry as TranslationThemes, motives, forms, metaphors, tropes, and characters traveled widely and crossed territorial and linguistic boundaries—if one can even speak of linguistic boundaries in a pre-national space. Medieval poetry very often involves some form of translation.
Poems as SongsThe notion of “song” or oral performance is inseparable from early poetry, at least until the fourteenth century for the French tradition.
A Poem for Every OccasionNarratives were poetic matter in their own right. Verses were used as mnemonics for subjects that today we would consider “un-poetic” or even “antipoetic” such as history, natural sciences, ethics, theology, and politics. Moreover, the powers of formalized language or “poetry” were not reserved to express a poetic view of the world. There were used to express a view of the world. Poetry was not a special area reserved only for special people gifted with a poetic sensibility. It was a linguistic and musical skill that some could master and that all (literate or not) could enjoy. This does not mean that medieval poetry was naive, imitative, repetitive, and formulaic. It was inventive, complex, and self-conscious. Medieval poets could choose to be clear or obscure, ornate or plain. They had the option to be narrative, didactic or lyric, or to blend these categories. They could adhere to a tradition, transform it, or invent a new one.
Anonymous Poets, Variable TextsMany medieval poets are anonymous. Many of the poems preserved in manuscript form are known in several variant versions. To appreciate medieval poetry, a modern reader needs to set aside the expectations associated with later conventions concerning inspiration, genius, and the original text.

Medieval poetry has been a source of reflection and inspiration for many post-medieval poets, down to this day. To explore in more detail, see the separate sections on troubadourstrouvèresepic, and the poetry of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.