A celebration takes place in a small city or town in the north of France in the 11th or 12th century. There’s food, revelry, and of course, entertainment, which is provided by itinerant musicians, poets, and storytellers known as minstrels and jongleurs. Accompanied by instruments like the harp, the vielle, or the lute, a jongleur sings an epic poem about the great deeds of noble Frankish heroes. The room falls silent as they listen to tales of the brave knight Roland, or the wise emperor Charlemagne. The jongleurs’ songs, which remained popular for hundreds of years, are called chansons de geste, or songs of deeds.
While the troubadours in the south of France wrote lyrical love songs, poet-musicians in the north of France wrote the chansons de geste, or songs of deeds. The origins of the chansons de geste are obscure and hotly debated among scholars. It is possible that they are poetic retellings of prose stories, perhaps inspired by the Latin epic poems like the Aeneid. Other scholars believe that they were collections of stories and scenes composed soon after important events or great battles, then later brought together in a single epic.
Scholars debate whether the poems come from an oral tradition, or whether writing played a key role in their creation. The texts of the chansons de geste show many signs of an oral tradition, such as poetic formulas like “Sun cheval brochet” or “He spurs on his horse.” These formulas allowed poet/musicians to improvise grand scenes such as large battles or grand feasts. Some poems included sections where the jongleur interrupted the story to demand money or gifts before he continued (a tactic modern faire performers might approve of as well)! Whatever their origins, the chansons de geste are the oldest epic poems in French, and one of them, the Song of Roland, is the first great classic of the French language.
Minstrels and jongleurs, who wrote the majority of chansons de geste, had a far lower position in society than the troubadours of southern France. While troubadours were often aristocrats, or at least from prosperous merchant families, minstrels and jongleurs were traveling musicians and entertainers who developed a reputation for being vagabonds. Minstrels had a somewhat higher station than jongleurs. Despite their unsavory reputation, jongleurs were highly skilled in different instruments and talents, which included playing instruments such as the vielle (a bowed strong instrument similar to a violin, but with five strings instead of four), harp, panpipes, organ, lute, drums, and bagpipe, as well as juggling, reciting poetry, and acrobatics. Troubadours (and their cousins in the North of France, the trouveres) often hired them as assistants. Yet, their low social status meant that their abilities were rarely recognized, though a few highly skilled jongleurs may have eventually become recognized as troubadours.
Perhaps for this reason, none of the music for the chansons de geste has survived. It’s likely that the music was simple and repetitive, with a basic accompaniment on the harp or vielle. While the specific music has not survived, contemporaneous music has, which can give crucial insights to modern performers who’d like to resurrect this lost art. It’s possible that the jongleurs used folk tunes as the basis for a chanson de geste’s music, as trouveres like Adam de La Halle did in larger works. For modern performers, a plainchant or troubadour/trouvere melody of the right length might be adjusted to fit a chanson de geste. Of course, many jongleurs may have simply improvised their melody, perhaps adjusting their songs to suit their audience and using favorite local tunes as the basis for their performance. Like troubadour songs or the plainsong of the church, the music for the chansons de geste may have had a free rhythm, while the melodies were likely based on Medieval modes.
The poetry of the chansons de geste typically had ten syllable lines with a caesura after the fourth syllable, which is the rhythmic pattern found in the Song of Roland. Later chansons de geste sometimes use a twelve syllable line called an Alexandrine. The lines don’t rhyme--instead the poem uses assonance to give each ‘laisse’ a unified sound. A laisse is like a verse paragraph, but with an irregular number of lines, from as few as three or four to as many as a hundred. English translations might not follow the syllable pattern of the poetic lines, but many try to preserve as much of the poetry as possible.
In the later part of the Middle Ages, jongleurs seem to have abandoned the music altogether and performed the chansons de geste as dramatic recitations instead of songs. Manuscripts of the Song of Roland include a mysterious set of letters (AOI) at the end of certain laisses. Scholars do not know what these letters represent, but it’s possible that they indicate something about the music, such as a change of key or the performance of a chorus. Other scholars think they might indicate a war-cry or a change of scene. Given the extensive dramatic and musical talents of the jongleurs, their performances were certain to be highly rousing, exciting, and dramatic.
The chansons de geste proved so popular throughout the Middle Ages that many of them were translated into different languages and spread across the Medieval world. The Song of Roland, for example, was translated into High German, Middle Dutch, Welsh, and Occitan, and its stories became part of the Karlamagnus Saga in Old Norse. They influenced later poems such as the Spanish epic Cantar a Mio Cid or the Italian Orlando furioso.
Perhaps most intriguing, people on the island of Faroe developed a Faroese folk song and dance called the Runtsivalstríðið (the Battle of Roncesvalles), based on the Song of Roland. The dance is a version of a Medieval chain or ring dance, where the dancers link hands and move in circles (there are videos depicting the song and dance available online). In the Faroese tradition, one person, the skiparin, sings all the verses to the song, while the dancers join in on the choruses. No one knows for sure how old the song and dance are. While the Faroese Runtsivalstríðið may not date to the time of the jongleurs, it certainly has a long history and may reflect some Medieval performance practices.
One of the challenges of performing a chanson de geste would have been their length. The Song of Roland has around four thousand lines, while other chansons de geste had over ten thousand lines. A single jongleur could likely perform around a thousand lines at a time, or about a hour long performance. Complete performances of these epic works would have had to take place over several days. It’s possible that multiple jongleurs would take part in the performance--each might take different characters within the story, or they might take over for each other when one of them tired. A jongleur, or a troop of jongleurs, might perform only a few pivotal sections of the poem for any particular event. This flexibility allows jongleurs to abridge the poems as they needed, perhaps only using a few scenes from a chanson for a performance. For the longest chansons de geste, few Medieval audiences may have heard the poems in their entirety.
There are over a hundred chansons de geste that survive in various manuscripts. The earliest of them, the Song of Roland, dates to around 1080 A.D., and poets continued writing them throughout the Hundred Years’ War in the fourteenth century. The stories and characters found in notable chansons de geste exerted a huge influence on literature well into the Renaissance. While they may have been intended for aristocratic audiences, they became so popular that jongleurs performed them in marketplaces and fairs. They reflected the values and ideals of the Age of Chivalry, like loyalty, honor, and courage, which gives modern readers key insights into the Medieval worldview. Full of action and drama, as well as memorable heroes and dastardly villains, chansons de geste are a literary and performance tradition worth exploring for anyone interested in Medieval history.