Thursday, October 3, 2019

French literature from the beginning - let's get back to our sheep!

The foundation of French literature, as with English literature, lies in the 16th and 17th centuries.  French literature is perhaps even more narrow.  There is a twenty year period in the 17th century – well, I will return to that.

The origins of vernacular French literature go back to the 11th century, with some saint’s lives about which I know little and heroic epics like The Song of Roland and many other chansons de geste.  I say that as if I have the slightest idea what is in any of the chansons de geste besides Roland.  I do not.

The great, still entertaining, Arthurian poems of Chrétien de Troyes are from the late 12th century.

All of this is in Old French and, as I understand it,  is more or less unreadable for most French readers.  Looking at the text of La Chanson de Roland, I would say that Old French is nowhere as far from modern French as Old English is from modern English, but it is not nearly as close as Chaucer’s Middle English is to my English.  Somewhere in between.  Maybe like the Middle English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  I can read Chaucer, but I can’t read that.

French readers, and certainly French students, read these works in modern prose translations.  The prose versions of the medievalist Joseph Bédier, for example Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut (1900), have become classics in their own right.  I should read that someday.

I have no idea what French schools do with medieval not-quite-French literature, like the poems of courtly love cooked up by the Occitan troubadours, the poems that would migrate into Italy and eventually return to France in the 16th century.

I also have little idea when French literature becomes modern, becomes reasonably readable.  Differences of spelling aside, are writers of the early 15th century like Christine de Pisan and Froissart accessible?  They must be.  I am examining Villon’s Testament (1461), the or anyways a French text, in Galway Kinnell’s The Poems of François Villon (1965), a masterpiece of translation, and it looks readable, goosed by Kinnell’s version, certainly:

Icy se clost le testament
Et finist du pauvre Villon
Venez a son enterrement
Quant vous orrez le carillon
Vestus rouge com vermillon
Car en amours mourut martir
Ce jura il sur son couillon
Quant de ce monde voult partir.  (ll. 1996-2003, p. 152)

Heck, it’s spelled all screwy but it’s practically English.  This is Kinnell:

Here ends and finishes
The testament of poor Villon
Come to his burial
When you hear the bell ringing
Dressed in red vermillion
For he dies a martyr to love
This he swore on his testicle
As he made his way out of this world.

Yes, that’s Villon.  Half of what I am doing here is thinking about what I should read in French, what I can read.  I should read Villon’s Testament; with Kinnell’s help, I can.

Myself, I have read exactly one pre-17th century French book, The Farce of Monsieur Pathelin (1457), an anonymous popular play.  The title character is a con man and a lawyer.  I am currently reading Johannes Fried’s The Middle Ages (2009, tr. Peter Lewis), an intellectual history of the thousand-year period named in the title.  One long chapter is on “The Triumph of Jurisprudence,” about the 13th century innovation of law and lawyers that began in the papal and imperial courts and spread everywhere.  A couple of hundred years later, the lawyers have diffused among the peasantry and there are hit comedies making fun of them.

The play climaxes with a scene where the lawyer represents a shepherd in court.  Their strategy is to pretend that the shepherd has gone nuts and thinks he is a sheep, so that he responds to every question with bleating.  In good hands, this scene must be a scream.  The play is performed to this day, and this scene is the reason.  It contains one line that has become a commonplace: “Revenons à nos moutons [Let’s get back to our sheep],” which I am pretty sure I myself heard in an ordinary conversation, although with my comprehension, who knows.

All right, on to the 16th century.


  1. Somehow "“Revenons à nos moutons” seems like a lesson for our time, though I'm not sure why. Maybe because it suggests we have somehow lost track of our proper business?

    I admire the efficiency of this first installment. :-)

  2. It is a great phrase, of high utility. Evocative, too. It evokes sheep, which perks up many situations.

    "Efficiency" is a kind word. The 16th century will likely take as many as two posts. Looking at the time, those posts will likely be written tomorrow not tonight.

  3. Having had a most efficient and traditional French education at the hands of the alternately jovial and terrifying Mme Ruegg (she kept a bottle of booze in the bottom drawer of her file cabinet she thought we didn't know about), I am as familiar with "Revenons à nos moutons" as I am with, say, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," but I didn't know its source -- thanks for that! I can't wait to see your take on Ronsard and Racine/Corneille/Molière, who of course formed the backbone of my French education (Mme Ruegg nearly fainted when we cautiously suggested doing such a degenerate author as Rostand for our class play).

  4. Also, Villon is the earliest French author who speaks to me directly -- who I can and do read for pleasure when I take a break from the Roosians.

  5. Wow, that is the real thing, that French education. They don't do it like that in France anymore. Things have changed.

    Villon is astounding.

  6. I trust they still do dictées. Sans la dictée, la France n'existe pas.

  7. Oh yes, les dictées are still standard and frequent. There are national competitions!

  8. Of course we still do dictées, at some point you need to learn how to write. Don't you have spelling competitions?

    In school, literature usually starts with Molière, well except for modern versions of Chrétien de Troyes and poems by Ronsart. All texts are in modern French, unless you study literature in university.

    And yes, we still say "Revenons à nos moutons" after a digression. I didn't know where it came from, so thanks.

  9. Ah, that is what I wondered, when the less-modern French reading begins. I assumed at the university, but I did not know.

    Amazing to think that the expression about the sheep is over 500 years old.

  10. One of these days I'll get a book about the origins of expressions. French ones and English ones.