Until the 12th cent. A.D. most forms of writing in Gaul were in Latin. Old French emerged from the Latin vernacular of the south known as the langue d'oïl. Because of the French Crusades and military interests abroad (1050–1210), Old French became an international tongue, and a literature arose that reflected the attitudes and activities of the military, as in the Chanson de Roland (c.1100; see Roland). A tradition of epic poetry was developed by traveling minstrels, or jongleurs. Lengthy narratives were recited in groups of laisses, 10- to 12-syllable lines rhyming in groups of varied lengths (see chansons de geste).
Another early literary strain developed in the 12th cent. from the stories of saints and heroes and the Celtic romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Later, more refined romances and allegories include the philosophical Roman de la Rose and the witty Reynard the Fox. Marie de France and others created new forms, including the lai, animal fable, and fabliau (rhymed anecdotal piece). Many of these were based on themes from classical mythology. The works of Ovid and Aesop were especially popular sources, as was Arthurian legend.
French lyric poetry developed with the songs of the troubadours and the trouvères and from the more personal works of professional poets. Among the best-known lyric poets of the Middle Ages are Colin Muset, Rutebeuf, Christine de Pisan, Alain Chartier, Charles d'Orléans, and the outstanding poet of Old French, François Villon. The earliest French drama consisted of religious plays, the most familiar of which are the anonymous mystères (such as the Mystère d'Adam ) of the 12th cent. The miracle plays of the 13th cent. include Jehan Bodel's Jeu de St. Nicolas (1200). By the end of the century secular and didactic pieces, many of them comedies and fantasies, were being performed by nonclerics. French prose literature began with the writings of the chroniclers and historians, among them Geoffroi de Villehardouin, Jean de Joinville, Jean Froissart, and Philippe de Comines, last of the major medieval historians.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.