The chansons de geste ("songs of deeds") were Old French epic poems centering around heroic historical figures. Dealing primarily with events of the 8th and 9th centuries, chansons de geste focused on real individuals, but with a large infusion of legend.
Those chansons that survive in manuscript form, of which there are more than 80, date to the 12th through 15th centuries. Whether they were composed then or survived in oral tradition from the 8th and 9th centuries is under dispute. The authors of only a few of the poems are known; the vast majority were written by anonymous poets.
Poetic Form of the Chansons de Geste
A chanson de geste was composed in lines of 10 or 12 syllables, grouped into irregular rhyming stanzas called laisses. Earlier poems had more assonance than rhyme. The length of the poems ranged from about 1,500 to 18,000 lines.
Chanson de Geste Style
The earliest poems are highly heroic in both theme and spirit, focusing on feuds or epic battles and on the legal and moral aspects of loyalty and allegiance. Elements of courtly love appeared after the 13th century, and enfances (childhood adventures) and the exploits of ancestors and descendants of the main characters were related, as well.
The Charlemagne Cycle
A large proportion of the chansons de geste revolves around Charlemagne. The emperor is depicted as the champion of Christendom against pagans and Muslims, and he is accompanied by his court of Twelve Noble Peers. These include Oliver, Ogier the Dane, and Roland. The most well-known chanson de geste, and possibly the most important, is the Chanson de Roland, or "Song of Roland."
Charlemagne legends are known as "the matter of France."
Other Chanson Cycles
In addition to the Charlemagne Cycle, there is a group of 24 poems centering on Guillaume d'Orange, a supporter of Charlemagne's son Louis, and another cycle about the wars of powerful French barons.
Influence of Chansons de Geste
The chansons influenced medieval literary production throughout Europe. Spanish epic poetry owed a clear debt to the chansons de geste, as is most notably demonstrated by the 12th-century epic Cantar de mio Cid ("Song of my Cid"). The incomplete epic Willehalm by the 13th-century German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach was based on the stories told in the chansons of Guillaume d'Orange.
In Italy, tales about Roland and Oliver (Orlando and Rinaldo) abounded, culminating in the Renaissance epics Orlando innamorato by Matteo Boiardo and Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.
The matter of France was an essential element of French literature for centuries, influencing both prose and poetry well beyond the Middle Ages.