Medieval Chansons de Geste Were Not Just Epics, but Popular Catechisms

October 15, 2020

God creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars by Jan Brueghel the Younger.

The epic poems—our chansons de geste—German in their origin are Christian in their object. They are more—they are the most ancient popular poems, which we can consult upon the doctrines of the Christian religion! No doubt, they are not theological works, and their authors were not clerics, but they are spontaneous in the best sense of the word, and reveal to us exactly the lay belief during the early centuries of the Middle Ages. What ideas our fathers had of God, of man, and of the future life? No one can answer those questions so well as our old poets.

We know that they regarded God as a spirit and as the Creator (Dex l’espirital, Dex li Creator). These two epithets place their faith upon a far higher pedestal than that of Homer or Virgil. There is a great gulf between the polytheism of the Iliad and the simple faith of our knights!

Coronation of the Virgin and the Heavenly Hosts by Jacobello del Fiore

It is the same as regards the future life. What did death leave to our Homeric heroes? A soul—a vain image—which, when life quitted it, dissolved, as a dream. In the realms of Pluto it was sometimes a soul, sometimes an image, but always without feeling.

But the Christian doctrine is altogether different as it is understood by our epic poets. Created in the image of God, the man was destined for Heaven, but the first man having sinned, all were condemned to hell. Jesus delivered us from this fate, and all men who do not die in mortal sin are saved and placed amidst “the flowers of Paradise,” but destruction awaits the rest. This is the pith of the Treaty of Man in our theological epic.

It is true that we are here far from the splendid examples of St. Anselm, St. Bernard, and St. Thomas Aquinas, contemporaries of our poets, but it is only necessary to seek here for the popular expression of a popular doctrine, and that is what renders the testimony of our old poets so valuable. Nothing can replace it.

Early 18th Century Ivory carvings of the Fall of the Rebel Angels, with the mouth of hell at the very bottom.

The ideas of hell were very material, and took the form of some vast gulf which was always ready to receive its victims. It was supposed to be situated in the center of the earth, and was so represented in the, more than simple, maps. This hell was peopled with demons, nor were the Mysteries less delicate in their representations of the place of punishment. . . . There is no question of the eternity of the punishment. We read that it is everlasting. “Diable emportent l’anme en enfer à tous dis!’ That is decisive!

Heaven was understood by our poets as it is by theologians and divines; but it is also eternal in existence and in loveliness. The Paradise of our knights had nothing sensual about it. Certainly they did not speak of the blessed light, nor of the clear view of God, which is the essence of eternal felicity; but we find angels bending over all those slain in battle, receiving their souls, and bearing them away to share the glories of Paradise, while demons snatch away the pagans. Our poets have not embellished the idea of a future life; but they did not falsify it nor degrade it, and they accepted it willingly.

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel relieving the souls in Purgatory.

I am not surprised at the infrequent reference to Purgatory—our poets went to the extremes; but I am astonished that the doctrine of the resurrection of the body did not strike our simple reciters. On the other hand, the judgment, considered by itself, dominates and alarms the whole Christian race. It has flourished on this wholesome terror, and has been saved by it. The idea was accepted by our poets, for we read that “if you (a certain king was in question) act in that manner the Saints, the Martyrs, the Apostles, and the Innocents will all rise up against you at the Day of Judgment!”

Such was the faith in which our baron lived, and in which he was to die.

León Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891), 489–90.


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