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Types of Poem Forms - French Chanson de Toile Poems

Updated on February 12, 2012

Out of obscurity comes a Medieval French form of narrative poetry called the Chanson de toile (aka Chanson d'histoir). They are also referred to as spinning songs or songs of cloth. While only a few examples of these late French twelfth and early thirteenth century poems have survived, there are still some that remain for us to both enjoy and imagine what other such delightful poems may have been lost might have been like.

If you look at the title of this fixed poem form you’ll notice the word “toile,” which plays an important part in the symbolism of the form and gives an chief clue as to what guides this type of poem. Toile simply is referring to fabric, specifically in respect to weaving a fabric or to sewing. It is no secret practically the beginning of time that women were involved in the weaving of fabrics, intricate needlework, and in the sewing of fabrics. And one way that women passed time and marked rhythm in this laborious work was to sing or tell stories while they created the end products.

Chanson de toile is all about a woman’s form of poetry. Chason de toile poems are meant to be sung by women and the substance of this whole narrative poem is solely from the perspective of a woman.

Fable of Arachne (aka The Tapestry Weavers) 1657, Prado Museum
Fable of Arachne (aka The Tapestry Weavers) 1657, Prado Museum | Source

Poems That Were Meant To Be Sung

Poetry and the music are an example of a stereotype co-dependent relationship with an incestuous twist. They both have pedigree in the same type of inspiration, each feeding the other even though they are quite capable of feeding themselves. Both have common ancestors in rhyme, rhythm, a story to tell, and the ability to evoke great feelings of many dimensions. Where music and poetry leave the same family tree is solely how the content is structured.

Set to music, most of the Chanson de toile’s that have survived with the musical part intact have unexpectedly complicated music compared to the simplicity of the Chanson de toile accompanying poems.

Lise Sewing - Oil painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir - 1866
Lise Sewing - Oil painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir - 1866 | Source

Rules For Writing Chanson de toile Poems

Details on the rhyme scheme are sketchy, but basic rules for writing a Chanson de toile poems are:

  • Opening stanza are often addressed to noble person of importance
  • Generally sixty-one lines, but not rigidly
  • Eight to ten stanzas
  • Short Refrain in last line of each stanza that sometimes but not always changes to a second refrain halfway through the poem.
  • It is important to keep true to the Chanson de toile poem in remembering who is speaking and who is sewing. Make it very clear if the voice of a stanza is male or female.
  • In many of these poems the women are singing of themselves in third person, in others first person

In examining surviving examples of Chanson de toilet poems it appears that the rhyme scheme may vary depending upon author, one popular form is:

  • 1, 2, 3, 4 Refrain 1
  • 1, 1, 2, 3 Refrain 1
  • 1, 2, 3, 4 Refrain 1
  • 1, 1, 2, 3 Refrain 1
  • 1, 2, 3, 4 Refrain 1
  • 1, 1, 2, 2 Refrain 2
  • 1, 1, 2, 2 Refrain 2
  • 1, 2, 3, 4 Refrain 2

Another rhyme scheme for this fixed French poem form is:

1,2,2,3,3,4,4,5,5, Refrain for all stanzas

Livia - Wife of Augustus Supervising the Weaving of Robes For Her Family

Original Drawing:  Andre Castaigne
Original Drawing: Andre Castaigne | Source

Storyline of Chanson de toile Poems

A beautiful woman yearning for a lover (with a joyful ending) was a common theme, however, there were subtle twists and justifications to this overall subject matter. Sometimes the woman’s husband is away fighting a war; sometimes she’s been unhappily yoked to a much older man whom she did not choose to marry; and a number of other complications. Other commonalities within Chanson de toile poems include portrayals of women who are exceptionally attractive or clever and almost without exception, the poems lead to a cheery ending in which love always prevails over any hurdle, such as:

  • Abusive husband
  • Betrayal by false gossip
  • Forced betrothal
  • Forced long distance relationship
  • Interference by another person in marriage
  • Jealousy of spouse
  • Parental disagreement over marriage choice
  • Separated by War

Remember that these poems portrayed lovesick young women moaning and yearning for romantic love, isolated in estates and castles, whose daily life and primary pastime was spent in approved womanly pursuits (such as embroidery, sewing, and weaving) and their songs were meant to breathe out their heartaches in poetic song form. In Medieval times, it has been said that a woman had no life, except for love if she were lucky.

Authentic fixed form Chanson de toile poems always revolved around something that had to do with sewing or weaving -- keeping in mind that only the woman sews. There is great debate among scholars over the feminine voice of these poems as to who may have authored and preformed the Chanson de toiles.

Trobador | Source

Who Was Audefroi le Batard?

Not a lot is known about Audefroi le Batard who was at the very least a trouvere of Arras. What is known about this illegitimate son of mostly likely a liaison between a nobleman and a peasant woman, exists in what remains of some of his Chanson de toile poems that were entitled:

  • Belle Aiglentine
  • Belle Idoine
  • Belle Isabeau
  • Belle Emmelos
  • Biatrix

Examples of Chanson de toile Poems

Depending upon which online source or book you consult, there are less than twenty remaining Chanson de toile poems known to still exist -- some experts will claim there are only fifteen, and so on. My personal favorite Chanson de toile is Bele Yolanz, a delightful poem with the translated refrain:

"God, how sweet is the name of love."

A number of these French poems are by anonymous poets, and the remaining ones are attributed to:

  • Audefroi le Batard
  • Blondel de Nesles
  • Conon de Bethune
  • Gautier d'Arras (Ille et Galeron)
  • Gerbert de Montreuil
  • Grace Brule
  • Jean Renart (Guillaume de Dole/Le Roman de le Rose)
  • Thiebaut

Hardanger Embroidery
Hardanger Embroidery | Source

Catherine Le Jeune married Francois Savoie in Port Royal, Acadie. They had nine children.

Her sister, Edmee Le Jeune married Francois Gauterot in Port Royal, Acadie. They went on to have twelve children.

In real life, they were not twins but sisters who supposedly looked identical and often switched places on unsuspecting friends and family as a joke. I am a direct descendant of Catherine and Francois Savoie.

Chanson de toile -- Belles Edmee and Catherine

L'Amour de my Maman is almost done

A trousseau that took her seven years

Filled with parental expectations

Of the life I am supposed to want

As the needle pricks my finger I silently cry, "What hope or future have I?

It's for Francois Savoie's betrothed she spun

When Francois Gauterot is secretly my beloved one

The thought of marrying a man I do not love leaves me in tears

Only my bebe soeur Catherine offers me her consolations

As the needle pricks my finger I silently cry, "What hope or future have I?"

The bans have been posted, public objections made by none

Only treize marrying a man over trente, Maman cannot calm my fears

My hands shake as I thread the needle, it's my Francois who offers temptations

"Run away with me to Port Royal," says he who is so gallant

As the needle pricks my finger I silently cry, "What hope or future have I?"

Every night when the sun is setting, my thoughts come undone

All the promises we once made make me want to run

Cher Catherine has stitched a plan as the forced wedding day nears

She may be a girl but she understands love's complications

As the needle pricks my finger I silently cry, "What hope or future have I?"

We tell Maman who swears not to tell Papa, we have won

Jumelles, Catherine and I, joyful that true love perseveres

Celebrate with hardanger, white on white, our counted threads return to perfection

Flying needles, nerves fearing the plot's detection, feigning giddy nonchalant

As the needle pricks my finger I silently cry, "What hope or future have I?"

Tomorrow Catherine will wed Francois Savoie's while I stand by

No one knowing it is she, not I, even Papa cannot tell us apart, that he cannot deny

Only Maman the wiser, all because of the counting of fifty threads to the pouce

Identical we two sisters except in our abilities to count thread Maman did deduce

With tears in our eyes we sing and stitch tonight our dream of wedded bliss

Francois’ Papa will announce the promesse de mariage and Maman will cry

Her two daughters both saying goodbye

It will be Catherine’s name he will introduce

Only Francois and Maman will know the untruth

With tears in our eyes we sing and stitch tonight our dream of wedded bliss

My nom de baptême, Mademoiselle Edmee Catherine Marie Lejeune

Soon becomes Madame Gauterot in love with Francois forevermore

My sister's nom de baptême, Mademoiselle Catherine Edmee Marie Lejeune

A distant memory for Madame Savoie, the richest woman in all of Port Royal

With tears in our eyes we sing and stitch tonight our dream of wedded bliss

Jerilee Wei © 2011

Belle Doette

Acadian and French Glossary

  • L'Amour de Maman -- Acadian (and Cajun) hope chests for the bride-to-be, prepared not only with her wedding trousseau, but also all her homespun linens all necessary to start out married life.
  • bebe soeur -- baby sister
  • nom de baptême -- birth name
  • pouce -- inch
  • promesse de mariage -- engagement
  • treize -- thirteen
  • trente -- thirty


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    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks Eiddwen! I'm working on a whole series of French form poetry how tos.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      What a gem, for the last few weeks I have wanted to learn more about poetry ; to study and experiment with different genre; which is what I have done.

      Therefore this truly excellent hub is just what I need;thak you so much for sharing.

      I am voting up plus bookmarking; you have so obviously put in a great deal of hard work into this one and it certaily shows.

      Take care and enjoy the rest of your day.


    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks Senoritaa! This is part of a series on French fixed forms that I'm working to complete.

    • Senoritaa profile image

      Rinita Sen 

      6 years ago

      That's a lot of good info. Amazing work. I am always on the lookout for information on different types of poems, and this one is excellent.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks howtohandbook! I try to be clear, not always achieving that though.

    • howtohandbook profile image


      6 years ago from Riyadh

      Great hub. You have explained it really well.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks mathira! I couldn't agree more!

    • mathira profile image


      6 years ago from chennai

      Good hub and made me aware of types of poems and nothing can be more expressive than a good poem.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks alekhouse! I think you are right this poem form certainly is yoked musically.

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 

      6 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      This is really interesting, Jerilee. When I was in music school, we studied early chant forms. This is very similar in form, harmony and melody. Of course, the text is quite different. Thanks.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks B. Leekley! I'm working on a series on French fixed forms.

      Thanks Tom Rubenoff! I'm learning some interesting things by doing so.

      Thanks Ginn Navarre! I thought of you when I was writing this article and Gram. I think as women we are lucky to get the connection from creating with our hands in rhythm with thoughts and dreams.

    • Ginn Navarre profile image

      Ginn Navarre 

      6 years ago

      Excellent, I too have spent many hours at a spinning wheel and found the simple rhythm of the wheel made magical thoughts and songs to be brought forth. love ya

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image

      Tom Rubenoff 

      6 years ago from United States

      You do an awesome job with your poetic/instructional hubs.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 

      6 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      This is a very interesting hub. I hope you write more hubs on related topics.


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