chansons de geste (shäNsôNˈ də zhĕst) [key] [Fr., = songs of deeds], a group of epic poems of medieval France written from the 11th through the 13th cent. Varying in length from 1,000 to 20,000 lines, assonanced or (in the 13th cent.) rhymed, the poems were composed by trouvères and were grouped in cycles about some great central figure such as Charlemagne. The origin of the form is disputed, but probably the first chansons were composed after the year 1000 by the joint efforts of wandering clerks and jongleurs (itinerant minstrels) to attract pilgrims to shrines where heroes of the chansons were supposedly buried. Sung by jongleurs to the accompaniment of a primitive viol, they spread to England, Germany, Italy, and Iceland. The earlier chansons—epic, aristocratic, and militantly Christian—passed as real history to their medieval listeners, though much of the material was legendary. Some later chansons utilize fantastic adventure or reflect bourgeois elements. The oldest extant chanson, and also the best and most famous, is the Chanson de Roland, composed c.1098–1100 (see Roland); others are Raoul de Cambrai, Huon de Bordeaux, Aliscans, and Renaud de Montauban.
See W. C. Calin, The Epic Quest (1966), J. Crosland, The Old French Epic (1971), and N. A. Daniel, Heroes and Saracens: A Reinterpretation of the Chansons de Geste (1983).
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