Forerunners of the French Novel: An Essay on the Development of the Nouvelle in the Late Middle Ages

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Forerunners of the French Novel: An Essay on the Development of the Nouvelle in the Late Middle Ages

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An Essay on the Development of the Nouvelle in the late Middle Ages




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Published by the Umiversity of Manchester at THE



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mM: friends and former colleagues have helped me in a diversity of ways in the preparation of this work, and I am glad to be able to acknowledge my debt to them. Particular mention should be made of Dr. F. Whitehead who generously lent me his transcription of the relevant parts of the Cambridge Add. Ms. 7071; Mr. C. E. Pickford who allowed me to see his edition of Alixandre Orphelin in proof ; and Miss Christine Hill who kindly verified certain references in the last chapter. I have received help and encouragement at every turn from Professor E. Vinaver, to whom I must express my especial thanks. Lastly, I acknowledge with much gratitude the handsome grant made by the Bretey Fund Committee, which has made it possible for this book to be published.

J. M.F. May, 1953

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THE ForM IN EmpBryo The Story of Pelleas and Arcade


THE ForM PERFECTED Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles






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“Te, fifteenth century in France witnessed a remarkable vogue for the kind of short story called a nouvelle. Brevity was not the sole or even the dominant characteristic of these stories, and all short narratives of

the period cannot properly be termed nouvelles. What especially distinguishes the nouvelle is a particular flavour, found in nearly all examples, arising out of a characteristic attitude of the author to the substance of his narrative. This substance was doubtless for the most part as familiar to the readers of nouvelles as to their authors. Novelty is added and the reader’s curiosity stimulated, not by psychological development of the characters—on the contrary, they are systematically flattened and deprived of individuality—but by the concentration of interest upon the situation, which is the core of the action. These stories of the fifteenth century are cast almost without exception in a rigid and highly formal mould. Despite their prosaic backgrounds and their concern with everyday affairs they can by no means be classed as realistic literature. There is hardly a single character of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles who can be recalled to mind as an individual personality ; all are examples of three or four unvarying types. In the same way their actions, resulting from the impact of these constant figures one upon another, fall into recurrent conventional patterns. The author’s skill and originality I


Forerunners of the French Novel

are shown, not in a departure from these familiar patterns, but in the arrangement of the same pieces to form a new and unexpected combination. The result is a literary form as highly stylised and artificial as the courtly writings that existed side by side with it.1 For it is perhaps not without significance that the nouvelle flourished in France at the same time that lyric poetry was being built up by its more esoteric practitioners into the subtleties of the Ballade Balladant and the Lai with rimes batelées and rimes équivoques. In these lyrics the substance remains almost uniform, and uniformly negligible, and the form is fixed; but the poet’s duty and delight is to achieve original and striking variations and complexities within the structural limits thus imposed. In the nouvelle the same cult of the set form appears: the precision and exactitude of the form on the one hand and the writer’s evident interest in it on the other show the same esthetic principle at work. The characteristic form that the nouvelle adopted was therefore not an isolated phenomenon in the literature

of fifteenth-century France, any more

than was the

overriding interest in a situation, which largely determined that form. It was part of the normal development of French writing at the end of the Middle Ages ; _the lyric and the short story were parallel manifestations, one in verse, the other in prose, of the same esthetic tendency. The historian of a literary genre, concerned with 1 It is not without interest to note that Paul Ernst, reviving the Novelle as a literary form in German at the beginning of the present century, insisted that here, as in drama, the most important element is the structure, everything else being of secondary consideration. See Ernst’s Der Weg zur Form (Munich, 1928), p. 273. Cf. K. Cunningham, Paul Ernst’s Theory of the Novelle, in German Studies presented to Prof. H. G. Fiedler (Oxford, 1938), pp. 125-44.



technique and not with subject-matter, is in a peculiarly fortunate position when the matter offers so little variety that the same themes occur over and over again, for he is able to see the different approach of succeeding generations of writers to the same story and to observe their variations in technique. This has been in part the method employed here. This study makes no pretension to provide an exhaustive examination of every nouvelle that was written in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in France ; nor is it another attempt—of which there have already been many—to catalogue with a multiplicity of cross-references the themes that recur with such regularity in the writings of successive nouvellistes.

‘The themes, indeed, which seem chiefly to pre-

occupy the critics who have examined the nouvelle, are a very subsidiary concern here ; for this is an attempt to analyse the manner and not the matter of the nouvelles of this period. ‘The changes in emphasis that a writer makes in working over a commonplace theme show, more clearly than if he were inventing his material, the esthetic and literary principles upon which, consciously or unconsciously, he works. It is the nature of these principles that I have tried to discover by the analysis of individual nouvelles and the comparison of some of them with other narratives based on the same material. But it is not enough merely to deduce these tendencies from some examples of the fifteenth-century nouvelle. No doubt the term “‘ source ” is-one which any critical writer must use with extreme caution, and the present study makes no claim to discover the source of the nouvelle as a literary type. Nevertheless, once the narrative principles that the fifteenth-century nouvelliste employs are revealed, it is possible to look for a


Forerunners of the French Novel

manifestation of the same or similar principles in earlier writings. Here again, it is important not to be obsessed by the themes of the short-story writers, or even by the type of story they seem to prefer. The fact that the same story has been told by a writer in another period or another country does not mean that the earlier version is the true model of the later one. ‘The themes of the nouvelle may well be reminiscent of Boccaccio or of the French fabliaux. But the search for the real origins of the narrative technique characteristic of the fifteenthcentury writers of nouvelles leads neither to Boccaccio nor to the fabliaux. 'The change in the method of presentation which is revealed with more or less equal clarity whenever it is possible to compare a fabliau with a nouvelle is always of the same kind: a movement towards crystallising the situation and the characters that compose it. The deficiency of new matiére that everywhere characterises the literature of the later Middle Ages in France here produces a type of literature whose interest is neither in the events recounted nor in the persons taking part in them. A modern writer hopes to catch the reader’s attention by something unusual in the character he creates or in his actions;

he expects the reader to ask, “‘ What kind of person is this?’ and, “ What is likely to happen to such a

person?”’ ‘The fifteenth-century author and his reader know the answers to both these questions from the beginning ; what they want to know is how the situation is to be worked out on the basis of these known quantities, and the criterion of success is the degree of unexpectedness in the answer supplied by the author. The attempt to discover earlier manifestations of this variety of narrative takes us back to certain portions of



the thirteenth-century prose romances where preoccupations and types of emphasis which were to become familiar to readers of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles clearly emerge. The gulf between these romances and the modern novel is so vast that from the point of view alike of structure, style and the presentation of character the two seem to stand apart as totally separate kinds of fiction. ‘The nouvelle, though often regarded as yet another separate type, is in fact the vital link between the two, and to study it is to do more than to attempt the analysis of a defunct and frivolous kind of writing. At the Renaissance,





despised and traditional lyric forms abandoned, the short story retained a certain literary respectability because it had been used, though in fact very differently, by Boccaccio. Its adoption by Marguerite de Navarre, who dominates the host of lesser nouvelle-writers of her day, and the uses to which she put it, may well have saved the nouvelle from dying without leaving a ripple on the surface of succeeding literature. The nouvelle, cynical, often obscene, antifeminist and anticlerical in inspiration, seems a strange literary medium for a lady of such piety and such pronounced feminist views as Marguerite;

she was

drawn to it,

perhaps, by the same conservatism that caused her to write allegorical verse in a more or less outmoded style. Whatever the reason for her choice, her characteristic

interest in human motives and problems of behaviour infused new life into the French short story. In her hands the nouvelle, without altogether losing the kind of emphasis which distinguishes it from its Italian counterpart, acquires an element essential to modern prose fiction: we see in the Heptaméron the first beginnings


Forerunners of the French Novel

of the novel of situation where action is brought about by the interplay and conflict of opposing personalities. The French short story of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, at first sight so specialised in subject and appeal, spans the gulf between an apparently remote medizeval tradition and that of the novel familiar to modern readers. It is the essential link which demonstrates the continuity of fiction in France from the Middle Ages to our own time.





The Story of Pelleas and Arcade HORT stories in prose did not make a sudden and ee eided appearance on the French literary scene in the fifteenth century. In the later Arthurian romances examples of self-contained units of narrative frequently occur within the larger complex structure of interwoven stories.1_ In the Prose Tristan they vary in length and degree of elaboration from the individual episodes that follow each other in apparently endless succession to such stories as that of Alixandre l’Orphelin,? but they can all, or nearly all, be regarded as early forms of contes or nouvelles? Thus Alixandre l Orphelin opens with a terse statement of the situation around which the narrative

is built.





the minimum of elaboration in indicating the exact state of affairs at the beginning of the action and the 1See E. Vinaver, The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (Oxford, -1947), Introduction, Vol. I, p. Ivi ss. 2 Alixandre l’Orphelin, A Prose Tale of the Fifteenth Century, ed. C. E. Pickford (Manchester, 1951). 3 By conte is meant, in this context, a short story less specialised in appeal and less rigid in form than the nouvelle. It is often episodic and may be crowded with both incidents and characters of greater or less importance. In the fifteenth century, Jehan de Paris—a short narrative in comparison with full-length romances of the day—may be cited as an example of this looser form of short story.




Forerunners of the French Novel

relationship in which other :

the characters


to each

En ceste partie dist le compte que vray fut que le roy Marc de Cornoaille occist ung sien frere qu’il avoit, et sa serorge, quant elle sceiilt la mort de son mary, si s’en fuist a tout ung sien filz que elle avoit, que moult doubtoit que le desloyal son serorge ne le meist a la mort. Et sachez qu’en celui jour mesmes que elle s’en fuist a tout l’enfant, le roy Marc l’envoia querre, et quant il vit qu’il avoit failli a lui tenir, si en fut moult courroucé.

But the Alixandre is a forerunner of the conte rather than of the nouvelle. It has a considerable number of characters engaged in a variety of adventures, and it admits even within its limited scope a certain lack of cohesion. The reader’s interest is held by the unfolding of succeeding incidents rather than concentrated upon a situation. A truer example of a narrative foreshadowing the nouvelle is the tragic story of the Maid of Astolat which occurs in the Mort Artu. 'This story appears in five sections, interwoven with other adventures connected with the tournament at Winchester where Lancelot distinguished himself without revealing his identity.2 At first sight nothing could seem further removed from the cynicisms of the nouvelle than this moving tale of an idyllic love doomed to a tragic end. Yet it stands out from the narrative in which it is embedded not only by reason of the acute and sympathetic psychological observation which causes Frappier to place the author “ parmi les peintres les plus délicats de 1 As Mr. Pickford remarks (Introduction, p. xi), ‘‘ The chivalric and amorous adventures in which the hero becomes involved divert him from this task [of avenging his father’s death], and the story”

culminates, not in the death of an assassin, but in the idyllic marriage of Alixandre and Aylies la Belle Pelerine.” 2 La Mort Artu, édité par Jean Frappier (Paris, 1936) : §§ 12-14; 25-30; 38-39; 573; 70-71. See also Etude, pp. 267-73.

The Form in Embryo


lame féminine au Moyen Age,” ! but also by the nature of the story itself and the author’s narrative methods. This story is above all, from the technical point of view, one

of situation:

a situation




author extracts everything possible both of irony and of poignancy. A young girl’s admiration for a mysterious knight, brave, handsome and much older than herself, is a theme whose significance springs from the impact of these two opposing types; when the reader knows—as Gawain was later to discover—that the knight is Lancelot, bound by his courtly devotion to the Queen, the situation increases in intensity. The irony of Gawain’s overtures of love while he is still unaware of the girl’s fatal passion introduces a new element that serves only to increase that intensity. The ending of the story in the discovery of the girl’s lifeless body with its message of farewell depends primarily for its effect upon the reader’s conviction of its inevitability. As she herself foretold,

« Il m’est ensi destiné que je muire por lui; si en morrai que vos le verroiz apertement. » ‘Tout en ceste maniere devisa la damoisele sa mort;

si l’en avint tout issi comme

ele dist ; car ele morut sanz faille por l’amour de Lancelot, si com li contes le devisera ¢a en avant.?

Nothing in this ending is irrelevant to what has gone before; the girl’s death is inevitable, but not in the sense that she is doomed by an arbitrary destiny. It is inherent in the situation itself from the moment that it is first presented to us, and nothing in the narrative is permitted to distract attention from that situation : itis significant, for example, that few characters are involved

in the events of the story and none 1 Etude, p. 272.


are introduced

2 Mort Artu, p. 34.


Forerunners of the French Novel

that do not have their part to play in them. ‘This tale seems to show, not only pathos and psychological insight in its material, but also the beginning of a new approach to that material. The characters, Lancelot and the young girl, placed in certain circumstances, produce a certain striking state of affairs. ‘The interest of the story is not so much in further psychological development as in the manner in which their predicament is intensified and finally resolved into tragedy. The successive meetings between Lancelot and the girl are not a series of loosely connected episodes such as make up so much of the narrative of Arthurian prose romance, but form rather a number of modulations of this theme,

which do not change it but serve to increase the pathos and dramatic force of its impact upon the reader. Stories such as this, slenderly connected with the narrative that precedes and follows them, may be—and no doubt wére—read and appreciated on their own merits. Another example which falls into this category and presents many more features familiar to readers of the nouvelle is that of Pelleas and Arcade, which is to be found in the bulky Arthurian romance known as the

Suite du Merlin that occurs in Ms. Fr. 112 of the Bibliothéque Nationale and the Cambridge Add. Ms. 7071.1 The incident? is worthy of detailed examination. Gawain, riding to seek adventure, sees a melancholy knight who, after defeating in single combat ten other knights in succession, allows them to kill his horse and drag him shamefully away. Gawain is amazed to see 1 See Appendix

I for a summary

of this story.

The text used

was that of the Cambridge MS. 2 It is interesting that in this case the story has not been interrupted by the technique of entrelacement, but can be read in one piece as a continuous narrative.

The Form in Embryo


so noble a knight receive such treatment ; that evening he learns the story of Pelleas and his cruel lady Arcade, who spurns him for his lowly birth but cannot shake him by any scorn and shameful treatment from his loyalty and devotion. Gawain, stirred by this story, resolves to help Pelleas to win the loveof Arcade. The real story begins at this point; and it begins with a situation. The reader—like Gawain himself—is arrested by the state of affairs caused by the devotion of a worthy lover to a lady not merely indifferent but actively hostile. ‘To these juxtaposed characters is now added a third—the

lover’s friend;

the remainder


the story consists in the development and final resolution of this situation. The story that follows falls into a clear pattern, each stage providing some modification of the situation: 1. Gawain meets Pelleas, explains that he is a knight errant seeking adventure, and persuades Pelleas to-allow him to try to win the lady for him. At first Pelleas can scarcely believe that so generous an offer is being made, and swears eternal gratitude to his benefactor, exclaiming, “Sil avenoit par vostre purchase qu’il ensi fust, vus i avriez gaaigné a toz jors un tel chevalier com jeo sui, ne ne serrai plus cum vostre compaignes mais cum vostre chevalier e cum vostre serf.” It is in this chivalrous atmosphere of loyalty and generosity that Gawain formulates his plan of wearing Pelleas’s armour, pretending that he has killed Pelleas, and so winning Arcade’s confidence that he will be able ‘‘ savoir si jeo purrai trover nule debonerté.”” He rides off promising to return to report to Pelleas at the earliest possible moment, and leaves him “ moult liez e moult joiuse de

ceo qu'il li a promis.”


Forerunners of the French Novel

2. The reason for the author’s insistence upon Pelleas’s joy and confidence is soon apparent; for it is doomed to an early disappointment. Arcade’s initial joy at learning that the lover she despises is dead quickly changes to admiration for a knight who adds to his other attractions that of being King Arthur’s nephew, and she sets about a systematic seduction of Gawain. Her ardour is the greater because she has never before known the pangs of love, but her guile is as great as her passion. Gawain, at first pleased with her enthusiasm because it augurs well for his friend, soon becomes embarrassed by it; and when she presses him to reveal the lady he loves—for all of Arthur’s knights have a lady they love ‘‘ par amors ’’—he declares that it is herself. She then says that it would be discourteous not to return his love, especially as he is so young, handsome ! and of nobler birth than herself, and so infects him with her ardour that he loves her passionately and his desire to help Pelleas is turned to hatred and jealousy of one who

also loves this lady. When their love is consummated this jealousy changes to mere indifference, and Gawain, happy in the love of Arcade and the respect of her courtiers, forgets his friend, still waiting for news


his lady : Ensi ama misir Gawain la damoisele dont il se quidoit gabier, e ele aime autersi lui. Si ont mise Pelleas en oblie, qu il n’en sovient ne l’un ne [’auter. 1 She calls him ‘‘ biax cum jeo sui bele ’’—a compliment that reveals more of her vanity than her beauty. Gawain’s host, in recounting the original story, had remarked that it was respect for Pelleas’s daring and not admiration for Arcade’s beauty that caused his awarding her the golden circlet to go unchallenged, “‘ car il le conissoient ausi prodome e a si preus chevalier e hardi qu’il ne s’oserent drescier encontre li e nepurquant il le voient tuit aperte-

ment que en la place en avoit assez de plus beles que cele n’estoit, mais il n’oserent plus parler.”

The Form in Embryo


This passage of commentary, emphasising an irony already sufficiently evident in the events of the story themselves, shows how much the author is aware that

this paradoxical situation is the vital element in his narrative. 3. Meanwhile Pelleas, tired of waiting for Gawain, sets off early in the morning after a sleepless and wretched night to see if he can find news of his friend. He finds four tents in a meadow and resolves to see if he can find his lady sleeping there, “‘e se il trueve la damoisele, il li charra a sez pes, e li priera que ele ait merci de lui, car ilse muert.”’ With this guileless intention he looks into the tents, and in the third finds Gawain.

and Arcade asleep. At first he is tempted to kill Gawain in his sleep, but he reflects that even a faithless friend does not deserve such treachery ; instead he leaves his sword across the pillow to show that he has seen them and goes back to make arrangements for sending his heart to Arcade after his death. When Gawain and Arcade awake and find the sword, they cannot at first think whose it is or how it came there ; but eventually she recognises it and accuses Gawain of having deceived her in declaring that he has slain Pelleas. This dramatic reminder of the friend he has betrayed and the evidence it provides of that friend’s own chivalry and loyalty bring home to Gawain the enormity of his own conduct and —while declaring that he will always love Arcade—he pleads with her to accept Pelleas as her true and faithful lover. She replies, reasonably enough, ‘“‘ Coment le porroie jeoamer? Jel’ai touz jours hai si mortelement,” but eventually yields to his entreaty and agrees to accept Pelleas, not because she loves him, but for Gawain’s sake.

4. Gawain rides in haste to Pelleas’s tent, rouses him


Forerunners of the French Novel

from his grief, begs his pardon and finally succeeds in persuading him that Arcade is willing to accept him as her knight and lover. Leaping naked from his couch, Pelleas







rendue la vie. Chertez ore m’avez vous bien amendé che que vus m’avez mesfait. Jou estoie par vous mise a la morte, mais ore ai par vous vie recovré.”’ Arcade receives him with honour—though not with the enthusiasm she had shown for Gawain—and they are betrothed and eventually married. This story of love requited after many disappointments is quite self-contained: only the presence of Gawain links it with the narrative that precedes and follows it, as he pursues his search for adventure. The emphasis throughout is not on character ! or predominantly on action, but on situation. The story has three pivotal points: the irony of Gawain’s betrayal of the friend he had set out to help; the contrast between Gawain’s perfidy and the nobility of Pelleas’s conduct ; and the final irony of Arcade’s consent to accept Pelleas for Gawain’s sake. Each of these elements has its source in the relationship of the three principal characters to each other and, ultimately, in the personality of Arcade. Dr. Whitehead has pointed out ? that the action—or the inaction—of Pelleas, which Malory found so repugnant that he felt compelled to alter the story to conform to his more robust and righteous beliefs, is entirely explained by the French writer’s acceptance of the 1 Cf. F. Whitehead, ‘“‘ Episodes in Morte Darthur Book IV ” (Medium AXvum, II, 3, p. 203): ‘‘ In his French model, Malory had a narrative which . . . presented a number of ‘ stock ’ characters in a ‘ stock’ situation.” 2 Op. cit., pp. 202 ss.

The Form in Embryo doctrineof Courtly Love.


The submission of Pelleas

to the service of love, no matter into what indignities it leads him, and the evident delight of his lady in securing such submission, explain the passive réle that Pelleas plays, not only in allowing Arcade to put him to shame and scorn, but also in acquiescing in Gawain’s betrayal. It accounts, too, for the character of Arcade, by per-

mitting her arbitrary immoral conduct.

and, to an. uncourtly


If, however, we remove the charac-

ters of the story from their courtly background and examine them and their actions on their own merits, the

incidents assume a very different flavour from the “ gracious and high-bred charm” noted by Dr. Whitehead and no doubt appreciated by the prose romance’s first readers. The story is so self-contained that it is possible to isolate it in this way and consider it as a separate piece of narrative. Moreover, the growth in the fifteenth century of a reading public that did not accept or take for granted courtly ideas makes it permissible to do so. We find, then, a cruel and sensual woman dominating

the scene. She is without pity and takes an active pleasure in humiliating her lover, though she is willing to accept his tribute when it takes the form of a public declaration of her surpassing beauty. When, however, she meets another man whom she considers socially desirable, she sets about a systematic and rapidly successful seduction of this new victim. It is worth noting that when Pelleas’s sword is discovered and identified by the lovers, Gawain is full of shame and horror at what he has done; but the lady is quite unmoved : « —E je lai, fait il, si vilainement trai que jamais a nul jor ne sarrai nus la verité de ceste chose qui ne me tiegne


Forerunners of the French Novel

a traitour e a desloial.... E pur ceo que jeo voie apertement sa grand loiauté e ma grant felonnie, sui jeo tant dolans que jeo vauroie bien estre mors. Car onques homme de mon lignage ne si s’entremist de desloiauté faire vers chevalier prodhomme e loial.— E de che, fait la damoisele, que volez vous faire ? il ne poet mais remainoir qu’il ne soit ainsi

avenu. » | Even in her final acceptance of Pelleas she remains cynical, only consenting to be betrothed to him for the sake of Gawain. Nor do the male characters of the story emerge very creditably from the incidents in which they take part. Malory, as Dr. Whitehead has indicated, evidently found Pelleas a sorry figure and in his own version saw to it that he behaved more gallantly. Although in the French story we are repeatedly told of the nobility of this luckless lover, and although his actions are indeed courtly, he is, on an objective showing, a pathetic if not a comic figure: we are reminded of the deterioration in the character of Mark in those later versions of the Tristan story produced by and for an age that evidently considered the deceived husband a creature of comedy rather than of tragedy. ‘To forgive an erring lady is an act of Christian forbearance ; but when the friend who

has greatly betrayed him says, “ Jeo ai tant parlé pur vous e pur la grant loiauté que jeo ai trové en vous que vous avez si outreement vostre pais vers la damoisele qu’ele vous mande par moie que vous veingiez parler a lui,”’ it is somewhat extravagant a gesture to leap naked from a bed of despair, as Pelleas does, exclaiming, “Vous m’avez rendue la vie.” As for Gawain, although it is true that he ultimately repents and fulfils his promise of prevailing upon Arcade to accept Pelleas, the speed with which he allows himself to be seduced and to

The Form in Embryo betray his friend can scarcely commend reader:

7 him to the

Car maintenant en fu misir Gawain si ardans e si enchaufez qu’il a en poi d’eure oblié le covenant qu’il avoit fait a Pellias.

The story of these three persons is self-contained not only in the sense that it can be separated completely from the surrounding narrative. The same element is inherent in the story itself. Here are no extraneous events or marvellous adventures ; nothing but the situation created by the interaction of these characters upon one other. The author tells us that the disaster of Gawain’s seduction is in reality the triumph of Love: “ Ainsi est Amors estrange e merveilleuse e poissans qui tost turne e flequist lez cuers des hommez e des femmez a sa volunté.” Yet it seems to be much more the triumph of Arcade, who tricks him into naming her as his lady if he is not to appear discourteous, and then quickly persuades him to passion. So clear does this domination of the scene by a cruel and unscrupulous lady appear to be that one is tempted to wonder if this tribute to Amors were not thrown in as a sop to convention by an author who knew that his story was capable of a different interpretation. What evidently interests the author most in this story is the sudden contrast between Gawain’s noble and disinterested offer to help a friend whom he admires and his speedy forgetfulness of all his promises in the delights of passion. Again and again the irony of the situation is emphasised: Ore estoit mi sire Gawain venus a la damoisele pour la besoing au chevalier e pur l’oster de la grant dolur ou il estoit.

Or ne l’est a riens, ainz l’a del tuit oblié.....


ama misir Gawain la damoisele dont il se quidoit gabier, e


Forerunners of the French Novel

ele aime autersi lui.

Si ont mise Pelleas en oblie, qu’il n’en

sovient ne l’un ne I’auter, e n’entendent fors a mener lor joie e lor deduit.

Gawain, so quickly abandoning his friend, was nevertheless a reluctant lover at first, and began by rejoicing for Pelleas’s

sake at Arcade’s



‘‘ Car

moult serroit liez s'il pooit tant faire que li chevaliers qui pour lui se muert en eust ses voluntez.”’ It is therefore peculiarly fitting and essentially part of the inherent logic of the situation that its climax should be a turning of the tables on Arcade ; now it is she who unwillingly accepts a lover whom Gawain assures her she is bound in honour to receive. Her cruelty to Pelleas and her sensuality when confronted with the young and highborn Gawain have brought their own reward, and Gawain makes it clear to her that he will continue to be her faithful knight only if she accepts Pelleas, Si nel die jeo mie que jeo ne vous aime touz jours en quelconques lieu que jeo soie, e que jeo ne soie vostre chevalier dezoremais si tant voles faire pur l’amor de moie que vous de lui facies vostre ami, ainsi com avies fait de moie. E chertez, se vous ne m’octroiez que vous ensi le ferrez, bien sachiez que vous avrez failli e a amor e a quantquez jeo purrai faire.

The situation, then, possesses an essential irony in which all three characters are involved and which itself binds the narrative into compact shape and gives it point. This is a flavour as much in contrast with the generally accepted “courtly tone”’ of prose romance as the compactness of this story is in contrast with the diffuseness of the romance in which it is embedded. Here we have, not the recounting of a loosely linked series of events, but a situation at first presented, then

The Form in Embryo


developed within itself—that is, without the introduction of any extraneous happenings or personalities—and finally resolved by the ironical turning of the tables upon the lady who herself brought about the situation. —This is, in fact, a short story, one of many which emerge from the complex structure of the prose romances, and stand out the more by the evident contrast between the narrative principles that govern them and the complexities of the larger structure in which they are embedded. It is, moreover,

a short story of a particular tone and

flavour which will at once be familiar to any reader of nouvelles of the fifteenth century. When, therefore, the nouvelle appears as a literary type in its own right in France, it is not a mere importation from Italy but the development of a well-established native tradition.

It is true that the French writers of

nouvelles, acknowledging with reverence the name of Boccaccio as the supreme master of this kind of composition, believed that they were following a tradition begun by him, though they scarcely hoped to emulate his achievement. This, indeed, is all that the author —or the compiler—of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles + tells us in his dedicatory note to the Duke of Burgundy of the narrative principles he had in mind when he wrote these stories. ‘They are, he says, “ Assez semblables en matere, sans attaindre le subtil et tresorné

langage du livre des Cent Nouvelles.” Again, the author of the twenty-eighth story of the French collection observes, Se au temps du tresrenommé et eloquent Boccace Vadventure dont je veil fournir ma nouvelle fust advenue... 1 Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, (Paris, 1928).

publiées par Pierre Champion


Forerunners of the French Novel

je ne doubte point qu’il ne l’eust adjoustée e mise au reng du compte des nobles hommes mal fortunez.

This similarity of theme between the French nouvelle and the tales of the Decameron has in the past been commented on at some length by various critics.1 Nevertheless, while these analogies do exist, from the

point of view of literary history the theme matters little in comparison with the manner in which it is treated; and the technique of narration employed by the French nouvelle-writers, and their principal preoccupations in telling their stories, are quite different from those of Boccaccio.2, Whatever their veneration for the great Italian, the French nouvelle-writers of the fifteenth cen-

tury were in fact following adifferent tradition ;they were, whether consciously or not, the heirs of the writers of the courtly romances. As these structures become more massive and unwieldy, their component parts tend, like the story of Pelleas—which has been chosen for detailed comment because it particularly lends itself to analysis, and not because it is in any way unique—to resolve themselves into self-contained short stories. But their brevity is not their only or their most significant feature. The debasement of the courtly ideal, proceeding side by side with the formal disintegration of romance, produces human types and situations in fiction likely to appeal especially by reason of their irony and cynicism to a non-courtly reader—to a member, for example, of the Court of Burgundy which produced the Cent 1 See Pietro Toldo, Contributo allo Studio della Novella Francesa del XV e XVI Secolo (Roma, 1895); cf. Gaston Paris, La Nouvelle Francaise aux XV* et XVI* Siécles (Mélanges de Litt. Fr. du Moyen Age, Paris, 1912, p. 627 ss.). 2 See my L’Histoire de Messire Guido de Plaisance et de Fleurie sa Femme (Manchester, 1949) for a detailed comparison of the same story recounted by Boccaccio and by a French writer.

The Form in Embryo


Nouvelles Nouvelles. It is here that we must look for the first manifestations of the interests and narrative emphasis that characterise the French short story and distinguish it from its Italian counterpart: the concentration of attention on a situation produced by the juxtaposition of certain fixed characters, rather than on a sequence of events.





Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles HILE the narrative principles described in Ww Chapter I were beginning to appear in the bulky late Arthurian


there was

no lack of short

narratives of various kinds. ‘The use of a short anecdote to point a moral is found increasingly throughout the latter half of the Middle Ages in France. Its most widespread use was naturally in preaching, when moral exhortation and doctrinal exposition were enlivened by stories taken from the common stock.1 But no didactic works of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are free from

the illustrative




the dual

function of giving some kind of authority or precedent, however specious it may be on occasion, to the writer’s teaching and of providing some relief and amusement for the reader. ‘Thus the Chevalier de la Tour Landry, writing in 1371, tells us in the Prologue to his work how he set about the task of compiling a book for the edification of his daughters: ..Jé me pensay que je feroye un livret, ot je escrire feroye les bonnes moeurs des bonnes dames et leurs bien faiz, 4 la fin de y prendre bon exemple et belle contenance 1 See, e.g., the stories used by Jacques de Vitry for this purpose : Exempla, or Illustrative Stories from the Sermones Vulgares (ed. T. F. Crane, London, Folk-Lore Society, 1890). ¥


The Form Perfected


et bonne matiere, et comment par leurs bontés furent honnourees et louees.... Si leur (sc.: a deux prestres et deux clers) fiz mettre avant et traire des livres que je avoye, comme le Bible, Gestes de Roys et croniques de France, et de Grece, et d’Angleterre, et de maintes autres estranges terres; et chascun livre je fis lire, et la ot je trouvay bon exemple pour extraire, je le fis prendre pour faire ce livre.}

A more elaborate and varied use of the anecdote as a means of illustration had been made some fifty years earlier by the English writer Nicole Bozon in his Contes Moralizés * which are an elaboration of the normal type of Bestiary. Bozon describes the “ property” of each animal or plant in turn, draws from this a moral, and

then illustrates this moral by means of either a fable (Fabula) or a story about human beings (Narratio). These stories are of various kinds. Some are of the parable type: § 32, for instance, which is entitled De contrarietate corporis et animi, tells the story of the wise man and the fool at the fork of the road, and then goes

on to elucidate: ‘‘ Ces deus compaignons sont cors et alme; le quarfourke de la veie si est frankes arbitrement...’ etc. Some tell of events alleged to have happened to real people (§ 43, Monsir Rauf Baron; § 137, Seinte Clare);

and some

of miraculous


such as that of the nun who, on the way to meet a lover, found her way barred by a Cross, and so was saved from mortal sin (§ 80, De misericordia Dei et Virginis gloriose). Some of the Narrationes, however, are straightforward short stories. In § 28, for example, Bozon talks of the

hare and the way it runs when it leaves and when it returns to its form. The fact that the hare is so made 1 Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry, ed. Ee oii de Montaiglon, Bibliothéque Elzévirienne (Paris, 1854),p 2 Nicole Bozon, Contes Moralizés, S.A.T.F. } hes 1889). Cc


Forerunners of the French Novel

that it can run faster uphill than down causes him to remark, Ceo est a dire que les gentz plus se hastent en pourchaceant de monter as richessez, mes laschement e avalant

se hastent de feare nul bien quant apreshent vers la fyn.... E pur ceo dit P.: « Les foux mourront e lur biens a estranges lerront. »

—and the story that follows illustrates this theme. Here, as in other examples where Bozon’s narratives are capable of standing on their own merits as stories, the method of narration is remarkable for its conciseness and economy. It gains its effects by those means, though the result is sometimes excessively bald and terse, as in the Fabula used to illustrate this theme: Un veox homme jadis out une joene femme. E pur graund afhance ge out en lui touz ses biens a lui dona en morrant. Si la pria pur Dieu que ele pensast de lui eyder apres sa mort.