The Romances of Chretien de Troyes [NOOK Book]


Twelfth-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes was one of the most influential figures in Western literature, for his romantic poems on the legend of King Arthur gave rise to a tradition of storytelling that continues to this day. This important and fascinating book is a study of all of Chrétien’s work.

Joseph J. Duggan begins with an introduction that sets Chrétien within the social and intellectual currents of his time. He then organizes the...
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The Romances of Chretien de Troyes

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Twelfth-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes was one of the most influential figures in Western literature, for his romantic poems on the legend of King Arthur gave rise to a tradition of storytelling that continues to this day. This important and fascinating book is a study of all of Chrétien’s work.

Joseph J. Duggan begins with an introduction that sets Chrétien within the social and intellectual currents of his time. He then organizes the book in chapters that focus on major issues in Chrétien’s romances rather than on individual works, topics that range from the importance of kinship and genealogy to standards of secular moral responsibility and from Chrétien’s art of narration to his representation of knighthood. Duggan offers new perspectives on many of these themes: in a chapter on the influence of Celtic mythology, for example, he gives special attention to the ways Chrétien integrated portrayals of motivation with mythic themes and characters, and in discussing the Grail romance, he explores the parallels between Perceval’s and Gauvain’s adventures.

Works by Chrétien de Troyes available in paperback from Yale University Press: Erec and Enide, Cligès, Yvain (The Knight of the Lion), Lancelot (The Knight of the Cart), and Perceval (The Tale of the Grail).

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Editorial Reviews

Jacques E. Merceron
A landmark in Chretien scholarship.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300133707
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 4 MB

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The Romances of Chretien de Troyes

By Joseph J. Duggan

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08357-2

Chapter One

Chretien and His Milieu

The role of Chretien de Troyes's five romances in literary history is crucial. His Erec and Enide is, to our knowledge, the first Arthurian romance, whatever was the contribution to that tale of the professional storytellers that he refers to in his prologue. In fact, the only extended tales about King Arthur that survive from before Chretien's time are the eleventh-century Welsh prose story Culhwch and Olwen, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin prose History of the Kings of Britain, Wace's translation of Geoffrey's work into French verse as the Roman de Brut, and possibly other such translations (on the latter, see Tatlock 1950: 456-60). The Latin prose Story of Meriadoc (Historia Meriadoci) and Rise of Gawain (De Ortu Waluuanii) appear to date from the first half of the thirteenth century or the end of the twelfth (Bruce 1913; Day 1984, 1988), and the French work from which the Swiss Ulrich von Zatzikhoven translated his romance Lanzelet is lost, as are perhaps other works that may have preceded Erec. In any case, Chretien continued traditions of narrative set in motion by the authors of the medieval romances of antiquity, particularly the Roman d'Eneas. He launched, in the form that later generations would take up, two of the most widely developed narrative subjects of medieval and modern literature: the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere and the Grail quest. He was translated or adapted in the Middle Ages by authors writing in German, English, Norse, Swedish, and probably Welsh. His character Erec was appropriated as the protagonist of a fifteenth-century prose romance in three widely differing versions (Foerster 1890; Pickford 1968) and his Yvain was revised in the sixteenth century by Pierre Sala (Burin 1993). Beyond these versions of his works, he exercised decisive influence on the development of Arthurian romance written in French, both verse and prose (see Lacy, Kelly, and Busby 1987-88; and Schmolke-Hasselmann 1998), and, through the intermediary of the French tradition, in other major European literatures. Insofar as an idealizing representation of the life of medieval nobles influenced behavior, Arthur and his court as depicted in romance played a major role in the self-image of countless men and women of the Middle Ages and later periods. The medieval tradition of Arthurian literature that he helped launch has produced, in addition, a vast postmedieval progeny.

The modern reader of Chretien de Troyes who wants to view the romances as the author saw them, however, is laboring under two major handicaps. The first is that this reader has the advantage of knowledge and perspectives that were not available to Chretien. Modern exactness in measurement, for example, allows the use of certain narrative motifs that were beyond Chretien's reach because they were beyond his world. A simple example is the role of time. Try to imagine the genre of the adventure film without deadlines, without clocks ticking off the hours, minutes, and seconds, without the pervasive temporal pressure of impending time limits. Deadlines are not completely absent from Chretien, although they are rare and are expressed only in terms of days: in Yvain, Lunete has to find a champion to defend her against her three accusers, but only within a limit of forty days (Yvain 3687), and when the final day arrives, her captors are prepared to execute her, but at no specified moment of the day. The time of day was a much more fluid construct in the twelfth century, measured only by inexact and undependable means such as the water clock (provided that the water was not frozen) or the sundial (except on cloudy days) or the burning of calibrated candles (but calibrated against what?) (see Duggan 1986a). Chretien's modern audiences must peel away layers of technological change and try to imagine themselves in a world in which fire was the only source of artificial light, most commodities were acquired by barter rather than by purchase, roads were dependable only in dry weather, medical attention was much more likely to harm than to heal, and the span of human life was brief. But the discrepancies were mental and moral as well as physical and technological: most marriages were arranged, theologians deemed extreme sexual pleasure in the marriage bed to be sinful, there was no central legal authority, maps were extremely rare and full of fantasy, the causes of events were conceived as either divine or demoniac, and judicial guilt and innocence were often decided by combat, the "judgment of God" based on the premise that God would see to it that the unjust would not triumph over the just.

The second handicap is the necessity of replacing the mental structures that we provisionally suppress in our process of reading medieval literature with the structures that Chretien would have taken for granted and within which his characters carry out their lives. Among these are the high importance accorded to kinship, the nature of the marriage relationship, how renown was acquired, the degrees of human responsibility, and the nascent twelfth-century concept of the interior life.

Several hypotheses are tested in this book. One is that characters in Chretien's romances, as distinct from characters in the works of other medieval writers of romance and in opposition to what certain critics maintain, are sometimes depicted as changing and developing. An author can, of course, conceive of a variety of motivations for a character to change conduct: the instruction of parents, teachers, and acquaintances, the imitation of models of conduct, the admonitions of ecclesiastical authorities or other forces external to immediate influences, or self-motivation, when the character is shown coming to decisions independently. But whatever the scenario that leads to change, its very existence implies a narrative of interiority. In medieval society, with its pervasive belief in the soul and in the effects of original sin, the distinction between body and mind underlies any examination of motivation. Whether motivation, as depicted in medieval romances, can profitably be studied according to our own theories of the psyche is of great interest to me, but less so than the elucidation of the process of decision-making in Chretien's characters as he conceived it.

Another hypothesis is that medieval concepts of kinship and genealogy are essential to understanding how Chretien structures his characters' motivations. Still another is that the system of values operating in northern France in the late twelfth century differs essentially from our own. This may seem obvious to medievalists, but it is seldom articulated in the critical literature except as regards the depiction of medieval institutions. That French authors living in this period, and so the characters they created, should have entertained concepts of secular moral responsibility that differ not only in their accidentals but in essential features from those of the modern reader is one of the keys to understanding Chretien's romances. Finally, the eclipsing of source study during the past twenty years, understandable within the context of exciting new initiatives in scholarship, has resulted in neglect of an extremely significant aspect of Chretien's achievement, his subtle integration of myth, particularly Celtic myth, with the depiction of medieval life and medieval motivations.

That the interior life of characters should be the subject of narrative does not go without question. In the major narrative genre of medieval French literature, the chanson de geste, characters are typically seen acting according to decisions they have made, but the narrators seldom tell us how they have come to be made. Depiction of characters in the chanson de geste is in terms of externals, of who does what, and decisions are the subject of dialogues that are largely contrastive in nature rather than of insights provided by the narrator. It may well be that the poets who created these works had no concept of interiority, although that would be surprising in the context of a set of religious beliefs that placed great weight on the notion of sin. But whether the concept of interiority was readily available to them or not, they do not seem to pay much attention to it.

In twelfth-century French romance that precedes Chretien, by contrast, beginning with the Roman d'Alexandre and continuing through the Roman de Thebes, the Roman de Troie, and the Roman d'Eneas, poets do attempt to let the reading or listening audience in on what is transpiring in characters' minds. References in Chretien's romances show that he was acquainted with all four of these works.


Chretien is not a common name in twelfth-century Champagne (Holmes and Klenke 1959: 52-61). The association of Chretien the writer of romances with the town of Troyes has led to a search among surviving documents for his trace in history. One candidate, a canon of the Augustinian abbey of Saint-Loup in Troyes named Christianus, is mentioned as witness to a charter issued by the bishop of Troyes and dated 1173, preserved in the cartulary of the Premonstratensian abbey of La Chapelle-aux-Planches (Vigneras 1934-35). Another was Christianus chaplain of the collegiate church of Saint-Maclou, a dependency of the count of Champagne in the town of Bar-sur-Aube, who copied a document of 1179 in his own hand (see the photograph in Holmes and Klenke 1959: fig. 1) and is mentioned in another document dated 1172. The Christianus of Saint-Loup in Troyes may or may not be identical with the chaplain of Saint-Maclou in Bar-sur-Aube. The emblem of St. Loup in legend was a mythic animal called the cocatrix, which Chretien may refer to in line 6721 of Erec where he says that two cocadrilles were carved on the faldstools (folding seats) used in Erec's coronation (Walter 1997: 21-22; 1999: 61-62), but since the cocatrix was carried every year in procession at Troyes, there does not seem to be any particular reason to link the use of this word with a canon of the monastery of Saint-Loup. Although it would be entirely possible for a writer of worldly tales to be a cleric in this period, neither of the clerics named Christianus is referred to as an author or as an associate of the court of Champagne, and the charters of the counties of Champagne and Flanders for this period have yielded no Christianus (Benton 1961: 562).

Nothing, then, is known of Chretien's life except what can be gathered from his works and the occasional medieval reference (see Van Coolput 1987), and that is extremely little. He refers to himself in his romances: Erec 9, 26; Cliges 23, 45, 6702; Lancelot 25; Yvain 6805; Perceval 7, 62, in the third person perhaps influenced by the knowledge that the texts were destined to be read aloud to an audience by a reader or perhaps treating the author as a source among several (for this last, see Marnette 1998: 218). Twice Godefroy de Lagny mentions Chretien as the one who began the romance Lancelot, which Godefroy is finishing with Chretien's permission (7105, 7107). Only once does Chretien call himself Chretien de Troyes, in Erec 9, the romance in which he also boasts that his tale will be remembered as long as Christianity lasts, which he no doubt thought of as until the Second Coming of Christ. In Perceval he speaks of himself as putting his effort and pains (entant et poine, 62) into rhyming the best tale ever told in royal court (63-65), and in Lancelot he uses the same terms to indicate his own contribution to what his patron has supplied (his painne and his antancion, pains and effort, 29). Ten mentions of the author's name in more than thirty-six thousand lines are little to go on. Moreover, had those lines not contained references to place and time and, more specifically, to two patrons, we would know virtually nothing about the author. As it is, almost all we know is by inference.

Only one twelfth-century reference to Chretien by another author has survived, in the Chevalier a l'epee, and he was rarely referred to in the thirteenth century (Van Coolput 1987). The fullest references are in Huon de Mery's Tournoiement de l'Antechrist (1235), where Huon calls him "he who had such high repute for composing" (cil qui tant out pris de trover) and says that Chretien and Raoul de Houdenc "took the beautiful French language smoothly, just as it came to hand" (prenoient / Le bel francois trestout a plain, / Si com il lor venoit a main). Other references are found, naturally enough, in the first and fourth continuations of Perceval and in the Didot Perceval. (All are cited in Pickford 1981.)

In an ingenious study, Aurelio Roncaglia (1958) made a convincing case for seeing in the senhal "Carestia" of the renowned troubadour Raimbaut d'Aurenga, the lord of Orange in Provence, a reference to Chretien de Troyes. A senhal is a fictitious name or sobriquet that one poet uses to address another. Chretien's poem "D'amors qui m'a tolu a moi" contains correspondences in imagery, reference, and wording to Raimbaut's "No chan per auzel ni per flor," as well as to Bernart de Ventadorn's famous "Can vei la lauzeta mover." Roncaglia shows that Chretien is taking a tack contrary to the stances of the two troubadours. The senhal "Carestia," meaning 'rarity, scarcity', would derive from a concept dear to Chretien, reflected in the phrase chier tans 'time of scarcity', in line 42 of Chretien's poem, in which he exhorts his heart not to abandon faith toward the lady despite the scarcity of love it is experiencing. The idea that a love that is delayed-and thus "scarce"-is all the more enjoyable is found among Gauvain's arguments to Yvain in the Chevalier au lion (2515-23). "Carestia" appears also to be a pun on the name "Crestiien." If Roncaglia is right, and in my view he is, then Chretien would have been active as a poet in the early 1170s, since Raimbaut d'Aurenga died in 1173.

Chretien's work on Lancelot under the patronage of Countess Marie de Champagne (1145-1198) and on Perceval under Count Philip of Flanders, known from the prologues of those two romances, makes it clear that he was writing actively between Marie's marriage with Count Henry I "the Liberal" of Champagne (1127-1181, count from 1152) and 1191, when Count Philip died. The earliest reference to Marie as countess of Champagne is in a charter of Henry's dated to 1159 (Holmes and Klenke 1959: 18; Misrahi 1959: 112; Benton 1961: 554). In seeking more precise dates for Chretien's activity as a writer than the broad period 1159 to 1191, one enters the realm of conjectures and estimates of probability.


Excerpted from The Romances of Chretien de Troyes by Joseph J. Duggan Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Abbreviations
1 Chretien and His Milieu 1
2 Kinship and Marriage 47
3 Values 93
4 Interiority and Responsibility 133
5 Celtic Myth, Folklore, and Historical Tradition 183
6 The Art of the Storyteller 271
7 Knights and Ladies 311
Notes 329
Bibliography 343
Index 373
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