Matter of France

From Academic Kids

The Matter of France is a body of mythology and legend that springs from the Old French medieval literature of the chansons de geste. Its tales were first developed in these metrical romances; the stories they told lived on after the romances themselves were no longer widely read.

It was contrasted by medieval French writers with the Matter of Britain, the legendary history of the British Isles; and the Matter of Rome, which represented the medieval poets' interpretations of Greek mythology and the history of classical antiquity. The three names were bestowed by the twelfth century French poet Jean Bodel, author of the Chanson de Saisnes, a chanson de geste in which he wrote:

Ne sont que iij matières à nul homme atandant,
De France et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant.
(There are but 3 literary cycles that no one should be without: the matter of France, of Britain, and of great Rome.)

Central figures of the Matter of France include Charlemagne and his paladins, especially Roland, hero of the Chanson de Roland, and Oliver, a hero who was frequently cast in conflict with the Muslim champion Fierabras. Originally, the Matter of France contained tales of war and martial valour, being focused on the conflict between the Franks and Saracens or Moors during the period of Charles Martel and Charlemagne. The Chanson de Roland, for example, is about the Battle of Roncesvalles during the Moorish invasion of southern France. As the genre matured, elements of fantasy and magic tended to accrue to the tales. The magic horse Bayard, for example, is a recurring figure in many of the tales, as is the fairy king Oberon. Sorcerers and wizards appeared as villains; the heroes were often assisted by magical relics.

After the period of the chanson de geste was over, the tales lived on in other literature. Their most well known survival is in the Italian epics by Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, and a number of lesser authors who worked the genre, whose tales of Orlando Furioso ("The Madness of Orlando") and Orlando Innamorato ("Orlando in Love") were taken directly from the chansons de geste. These poems, moreover, were imitated in English by Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene.

Tales of the Matter of France were also found in Old Norse, where the Karlamagnus Saga was written in the thirteenth century in Norway, and contains a synopsis of the main stories of the cycle. In Spanish literature, the epic of El Cid recreates much of the atmosphere of the earliest chansons de geste. Indeed, until the Celtic revival in Britain and Ireland breathed new life into the Arthurian cycle in the nineteenth century, the Matter of France and the Matter of Britain were more or less equally renowned divisions of medieval legend.

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