Chanson de geste

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The genre of the chanson de geste (from Latin gesta "war acts") is one of the oldest narrative genres in French literature . Its origin falls in the 11th or even 10th century, but its heyday is the 12th century. The latest chansons of this genre originated in the 13th century, but the material and central characters of the long-lived genre still served as literary material well into the 15th century. Linguistically, they can be assigned partly to Old French and partly to Occitan .

The name chansons (French for songs ) is explained by the fact that they were not intended for written distribution and thus for reading or reading aloud, but for free performance in a kind of sing-song. The lecturers were usually professional traveling musicians who accompanied themselves with a (string) instrument or were accompanied by one. In contrast to the somewhat later courtly novel, the texts were aimed at a sociologically unspecified audience, that is, at listeners from all sections of the population.


Formally, the chansons consist of any number of stanzas, so-called laissez. These usually each represent an action sequence or episode, which is sometimes repeated in the following Laisse, slightly modified. The number of lines of verse per laisse was not fixed and fluctuates between approx. 5 and approx. 20. The individual lines of verse usually consist of ten, less often twelve and very rarely eight syllables and are connected by assonance .

The history of French literature knows about 80 chansons that have been preserved in written form, some of them in differing, e.g. B. as extended or shortened versions. Most are anonymous (d. E., Without an author name) handed and apparently based on older, long time orally traditional templates or precursors.


The chansons often revolve around one and the same hero figure, which is why contemporaries began to divide them into groups, e.g. B. the royal or Charles cycle around Emperor Charlemagne and his son Ludwig the Pious (see below).

Mostly it is about victorious campaigns of the Franconian kings or emperors and / or their military leaders against the "heathen", i. H. the Arabs or “ Moors ”, who ruled southern and central Spain since their invasion of Europe in 711/12, but were pushed back by the Christian northern Spain from around 1000 onwards. However, the wars of subjugation waged by the Franks around 800 against the Saxons , who remained pagan, are also dealt with. Later came the topic of the expansion of Christian rule against the Muslim states in the Middle East with the crusades of the armies of knights beginning in 1095 to conquer Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher .


The genre of "Chansons de geste", which also includes elements of contemporary saints' legends, seems to have been cultivated especially in the monasteries along the pilgrimage routes through France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain for the entertainment and edification of the pilgrims who stayed there . The chansons were also given at fairs or in castles.

The cycles

At the beginning of the 13th century, Bertran de Bar-sur-Aube divided the chansons de geste into three cycles in his Girart de Vienne :

  • the royal cycle or Charles cycle ( cycle de Charlemagne ), to which z. B. heard the Roland song ( Chanson de Roland );
  • the rioters and revolters, z. B. Gormond et Isembart ;
  • the Wilhelm cycle on the family of Garin de Monglane, to which Guillaume d'Orange also belongs. Guillaume and / or his nephew Vivien are the focus of 24 of the surviving epics. The most important examples from this cycle are the Chanson de Guillaume , Le Charroi de Nîmes and Aliscans .

Modern literary history distinguishes three further cycles:

  • the crusade cycle ( cycle de la croisade ), with works such as Le Chevalier au cygne or the Chanson d'Antioche
  • the Lorraine gesture ( geste des Loherain ), with z. B. Garin le Loherain
  • the Nanteuil gesture ( geste de Nanteuil )

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