THE Roman de Flamenca occupies a unique place in Provençal literature. ‘It has,” says Meyer, “nothing in common with the old Carolingian and Breton traditions; its subject is not borrowed from the legends transmitted by antiquity to the middle ages; nor would it be possible to see in it one of those popular narratives which are to be found in practically every literature, and whose impersonal character renders it impossible to determine their origin. Flamenca is the creation of a man of talent who wished to write an agreeable work representing the most brilliant aspects of courtly life in the twelfth century. It is a novel of manners.” (2) As such it has affinities with certain romans d’adventure, in the northern idiom, which [viii] similarly combine a sentimental intrigue with the representation of a particular milieu. Flamenca, however, is far superior to any of these in its delicacy, in its verve, in its richness, in the truthful delineation of its characters, and in the bold originality of its conception. Thus it stands alone, not only in Provençal literature, but in medieval literature generally, and may be called, without exaggeration, the first modern novel.
The unique manuscript of Flamenca is incomplete. Among the pages missing are the first and last. Hence we have no knowledge of the author or of the date of composition. The latter has been placed approximately in the first half of the thirteenth century. At that time the splendour of the little courts south of the Loire had waned; but the poet shows us the largeness and liberality that had reigned there, while his lightness of tone reflects that relaxing of the old restraints in a sophisticated and pleasure-loving society, which stern moralists would, no doubt, hold [ix] responsible for the ensuing swift decadence. Love was the one real religion of the upper classes, and the code of lovers, hardened into a vast, complicated system, constituted the sole effective morality. Flamenca and Guillem are characteristic products of this system, and its perfect exponents. Their acceptance of it is complete. Never does any doubt enter the mind of either as to the sovereignty of the rights conferred by mutual love. Both regard themselves as accomplishing a sacred duty in going directly — or as directly as possible — to the goal of their desire. At the same time, there are forms to observe, and our two lovers are so scrupulous in their observance that they may occasionally seem engaged much more in going through an elaborate ritual than in pursuing dangerously a passionate adventure. Yet the danger was there, and Flamenca never forgets that if, in a sense, she is playing a game, it is a game the stake of which is death.[x]
In my version I have stressed the realistic elements in order to bring the story into closer harmony with modern sentiment. Nor is this the only liberty I have taken. If Flamenca’s virtues are its own, its defects it shares with nearly all imaginative literature of the middle ages. It is inordinately long and lacking in a sense of proportion. The interest is not sustained throughout and, after the meeting of the lovers, ceases entirely. Accounts of banquets and fêtes are interminably protracted, and page after page is filled with ingeniously subtile discourses on love. Although the allegorical element does not dominate here, as in the Roman de la Rose, it begins to rear its head obtrusively, and there is a marked abuse of dreams and visions. It is because of these shortcomings that, despite its charm, it has remained relatively unknown. Hence I have not hesitated to operate heroically, cutting to the bone in many places, and adding a ligature or two when necessary. Some will, [xi] no doubt, reproach me with the sacrifice of more than one delightful passage; but my purpose throughout has been to disengage the story itself, in its main lines, and anything that interfered with this had to go.
Wishing to take counsel of Flamenca in my undertaking, I made a pilgrimage last summer to the scene of her suffering and happy release. Alas, I found little at Bourbon-l’Archambault, now an obscure thermal station of the Centre, to remind me of my heroine. There are, indeed, on a height dominating the town the romantic ruins of an imposing castle which one would willingly accept as her prison; but my guide informed me that this fortress was not erected till more than a century later, though doubtless it occupies the same site. At the baths, save for a few remains from Roman times, nothing goes farther back than the seventeenth century, when this was one of the favorite resorts of the court. Madame de Montespan is remembered in the name of a hotel which, [xii] for all I know, replaces the comfortable establishment of the complaisant Pierre Gui; but not the slightest construction of any sort evokes the memory of the real lady of Bourbon.
It was only when I reached the church, situated on a green knoll outside the town, that I touched a little of that remote past. Though the venerable edifice has been much restored, parts of it may well have been standing in Flamenca’s time. The interior is degraded by the grossest modern polychroming, but I remarked certain capitals which belong to the earliest period of Gothic sculpture. One, representing gnome-like musicians playing curious instruments, wind and string, brought irresistibly back the description of Flamenca’s wedding feast, when “harpers harped, fifers fifed . . . and all performed so well that a great uproar reigned in the hall.” Placing myself in the choir, as nearly possible where, it seemed to me, Guillem must have stood when he heard [xiii] mass there for the first time, I too waited for Flamenca to appear. It was, no doubt, one of those lesser feasts, “for which Flamenca would no more have set foot out of doors than for that of a simple martyr not in the calendar”; for I waited in vain. Never a glint of her golden hair crossed the threshold. So I was obliged to leave Bourbon-l’Archambault no richer than I had gone there, and finish my little book without her aid.