Identity and Disguise in a Late French Epic: Hervis de Mes
Jones, Catherine M.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 4 (1987)
Hervis de Mes is a branch of the provincial epic cycle known as the geste des Loherains. The oldest and most prominent poem in the cycle, Garin le Loherain, depicts the bitter rivalry between two feudal houses during the reign of Pépin le Bref; succeeding branches relate the continuation of this conflict by the descendants of Garin and his enemies. Hervis de Mes was composed in the mid-thirteenth century, after most of the other works in the geste; fictionally, however, it extends the cycle by reverse chronology, recounting the adventures and exploits of Garin’s father before the great feud. Such instances of continuation in reverse were common in the formation of epic cycles, and were a tribute to the popularity of their heroes. While Hervis de Mes did not achieve the success of its celebrated predecessor, the assonanced version of the text survives in five manuscripts, and one manuscript preserves its sixteenth-century prose translation. Like many chansons de geste of the thirteenth century, Hervis represents a significant departure from the conventions of earlier epics such as the Chanson de Roland or Garin le Loherain. Indeed, it has often been criticized for its lack of epic tone and its appropriation of romanesque narrative devices; as a result, Hervis de Mes is most often cited rather for its supposedly realistic portrayal of contemporary institutions than for its literary merits. Scholars have shown particular interest in the striking representation of the bourgeoisie: since the hero is of both noble and bourgeois descent, some critics have interpreted the poem as a page 108 reflection of the rising middle class, a belated apology fog the bourgeois origin of the great Loherain heroes.