La Chanson de geste


With the exception of a few incomplete saints' lives, there is no vernacular literature extant from France before the beginning of the 12th century.

Nonetheless, from this moment on, there are a considerable number of extant works, many of which, including the earliest, belong to the epic narrative genre known as chansons de geste from the Latin gesta, deeds.

The chansons de geste, Old French for "songs of heroic deeds" are the epic poems that appear at the dawn of French literature. They appeared about the XI century and their metrical structure is the assonanced "laisse", a group of decasyllabic verses of variable length in which the last stressed vowel is the same in each line throughout the laisse, but the last consonant differs from line to line.

The traditional subject matter of the chansons de geste became known as the Matter of France. From 1150 to 1250, the chansons de geste are ordered in cycles:

  • The King Charlemagne cycle
  • The Doon de Mayence cycle or the cycle of the rebelled barons
  • The Garin de Monglane cycle

Later chansons were composed in monorhyme laisses, in which the last syllable of each line rhymes fully throughout the stanza.
Then, a second change occurred: the verses changed from a decasyllabic form (ten syllables) to an alexandrine form (twelve syllables). This name, alexandrine, come from the Li romans d'Alexandre, an XII-century epic poem in which Alexander the Great is the hero.

Useful links

- A detailed website on the Chanson de geste, with excerpts and a bibliography((University of Montreal), in French):

La chanson de geste

The epic cycles (in French)

- Jacques Flach's article: "Le compagnonnage dans les chansons de geste" (by Gallica)

"Le compagnonnage dans les chansons de geste"

- Paris Paulin's article: "Les chansons de geste, poèmes du XIIe et du XIIIe siècles" (by Gallica)

"Les chansons de geste, poèmes du XIIe et du XIIIe siècles"

A bibliography on the Chansons de gestes

The Rencesvals Society - La Société Rencesvals