The earliest French literature that survives today dates back to the 11th century. The Song of Roland, which tells the epic story in poetical form of a noble knight ambushed on his way back from Spain where he was fighting the Muslims in 778, is the most famous of early French literature.
Romance in Early French Literature
Romance was a big theme recurring through much of early French literature. During the 11th and 12th centuries love poems were particularly popular which were performed by traveling troubadours. The themes of these poems were often taken from old Celtic stories and English folktales like King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail.
The romance of the rose is a 22,000 line epic love poem written by Guillaume De Lorais and Jean de Meung. It brought innovation to the world of French literature at the time because of its allegorization of emotions like pleasure, shame and fear.
Francois Villand, another famous figure in French literature from the middle ages, was as famous for his run-ins with the law as he was for his literature. When he finally went to his grave he left behind a large body of poems including the famous Ballad of Dead Ladies.
French Renaissance Literature
The great French authors of the renaissance period included such figures as La Pleaide, Montaigne and Rabelais. Francois Rabelais wrote the epic adventure detailing the adventures of a giant named Gargantua and his son. This was one of the earlier examples of the use of humour in French literature with the entire piece being written in rather a farcical style including plenty of crude humour as well 16th century French slang.
La Pleaide were actually a group of authors as opposed to a single person who were active on the French literary scene primarily through the 1550’s. The most famous member of this literary group was perhaps Pierre de Ronsard who is remembered mostly for his lyrical poems.
Michel Montaigne, who was a French author living at the same period, left behind a long series of essays about his own life that can be considered one of the first autobiographical works.