The programme found in the head of an average poet, after all, was written by the poet's civilisation, and that civilisation was in turn programmed by the civilisation that preceded it.
This chapter looks at the use of vernacular poetic sources in Latin prose accounts of the First Crusade in the first half of the twelfth century. It begins by defining what vernacular poetry means in this context and how its traces can be detected. It analyses the use of vernacular poetry, concentrating on four genres: the chanson de geste, the lai, hagiography, and the lyric. It then offers some conclusions about the use of vernacular poetry in First Crusade sources, arguing that poetic source material already existed at this date; that it was routinely used in these accounts; that it was used in specific contexts; and that there was nothing surprising in contemporary or near-contemporary figures making their way swiftly into verse. The chapter does not tackle the wider question of accounts of the First Crusade written in poetry, whether Latin or vernacular, and does not examine songs and lyrics which specifically depict or discuss crusading activities: it focuses purely on the use made of poetry in Latin prose accounts of the crusade.
DEFINING VERNACULAR POETIC SOURCES
What is a poetic source?
It is important to differentiate poetic sources from the wider and ill-defined category of oral and vernacular sources. The latter introduce a wide range of material spanning personal anecdote, eyewitness accounts, and fantastic elements. Poetic sources may overlap with these but are not the same. By definition they are sources which show affinity with extant poetic sources and genres through subject material and/or form. They are a way of portraying and expressing a common view of events in the vernacular at a time when vernacular prose did not exist: in the words of Zumthor, ‘la poésie médiévale apparait moins […] polarisée par le dessein de percevoir et de manifester les qualités particulieres de son sujet, qu'engendrée par une activité mimétique, fondée sur un besoin de communication collective’.
What does vernacular mean?
The boundary between Latin and vernacular poetic sources is fluid. Thus Orderic Vitalis retells the vita of William of Gellone, the eponymous hero of the Guillaume cycle of chansons de geste.