The Romances of Chr��tien de Troyes

By Joseph J. Duggan

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08357-2

Chapter One

Chr��tien and His Milieu

The role of Chr��tien de Troyes's five romances in literary historyis crucial. His Erec and Enide is, to our knowledge, the firstArthurian romance, whatever was the contribution to that taleof the professional storytellers that he refers to in his prologue.In fact, the only extended tales about King Arthur that survive from beforeChr��tien's time are the eleventh-century Welsh prose story Culhwch andOlwen, 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 deBrut, and possibly other such translations (on the latter, see Tatlock 1950:456-60). The Latin prose Story of Meriadoc (Historia Meriadoci) and Rise ofGawain (De Ortu Waluuanii) appear to date from the first half of the thirteenthcentury or the end of the twelfth (Bruce 1913; Day 1984, 1988), andthe French work from which the Swiss Ulrich von Zatzikhoven translatedhis romance Lanzelet is lost, as are perhaps other works that may have precededErec. In any case, Chr��tien continued traditions of narrative set inmotion by the authors of the medieval romances of antiquity, particularlythe Roman d'En��as. He launched, in the form that later generations wouldtake up, two of the most widely developed narrative subjects of medievaland modern literature: the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere and theGrail quest. He was translated or adapted in the Middle Ages by authorswriting in German, English, Norse, Swedish, and probably Welsh. His characterErec was appropriated as the protagonist of a fifteenth-century proseromance in three widely differing versions (Foerster 1890; Pickford 1968)and his Yvain was revised in the sixteenth century by Pierre Sala (Burin1993). Beyond these versions of his works, he exercised decisive influenceon the development of Arthurian romance written in French, both verseand prose (see Lacy, Kelly, and Busby 1987-88; and Schmolke-Hasselmann1998), and, through the intermediary of the French tradition, in other majorEuropean literatures. Insofar as an idealizing representation of the life ofmedieval nobles influenced behavior, Arthur and his court as depicted inromance played a major role in the self-image of countless men and womenof the Middle Ages and later periods. The medieval tradition of Arthurianliterature that he helped launch has produced, in addition, a vast postmedievalprogeny.

The modern reader of Chr��tien de Troyes who wants to view the romancesas the author saw them, however, is laboring under two majorhandicaps. The first is that this reader has the advantage of knowledge andperspectives that were not available to Chr��tien. Modern exactness in measurement,for example, allows the use of certain narrative motifs that werebeyond Chr��tien's reach because they were beyond his world. A simple exampleis the role of time. Try to imagine the genre of the adventure filmwithout 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 Chr��tien, although they are rareand are expressed only in terms of days: in Yvain, Lunete has to find achampion to defend her against her three accusers, but only within a limitof forty days (Yvain 3687), and when the final day arrives, her captors areprepared to execute her, but at no specified moment of the day. The timeof day was a much more fluid construct in the twelfth century, measuredonly by inexact and undependable means such as the water clock (providedthat the water was not frozen) or the sundial (except on cloudy days) or theburning of calibrated candles (but calibrated against what?) (see Duggan1986a). Chr��tien's modern audiences must peel away layers of technologicalchange and try to imagine themselves in a world in which fire was theonly source of artificial light, most commodities were acquired by barterrather than by purchase, roads were dependable only in dry weather, medicalattention was much more likely to harm than to heal, and the span ofhuman life was brief. But the discrepancies were mental and moral as wellas physical and technological: most marriages were arranged, theologiansdeemed extreme sexual pleasure in the marriage bed to be sinful, there wasno central legal authority, maps were extremely rare and full of fantasy,the causes of events were conceived as either divine or demoniac, and judicialguilt and innocence were often decided by combat, the "judgment ofGod" based on the premise that God would see to it that the unjust wouldnot triumph over the just.

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

Several hypotheses are tested in this book. One is that characters inChr��tien's romances, as distinct from characters in the works of other medievalwriters 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 changeconduct: the instruction of parents, teachers, and acquaintances, the imitationof models of conduct, the admonitions of ecclesiastical authoritiesor other forces external to immediate influences, or self-motivation, whenthe character is shown coming to decisions independently. But whateverthe scenario that leads to change, its very existence implies a narrative ofinteriority. In medieval society, with its pervasive belief in the soul and inthe effects of original sin, the distinction between body and mind underliesany examination of motivation. Whether motivation, as depicted in medievalromances, can profitably be studied according to our own theories ofthe psyche is of great interest to me, but less so than the elucidation of theprocess of decision-making in Chr��tien's characters as he conceived it.

Another hypothesis is that medieval concepts of kinship and genealogyare essential to understanding how Chr��tien structures his characters'motivations. Still another is that the system of values operating in northernFrance in the late twelfth century differs essentially from our own. Thismay seem obvious to medievalists, but it is seldom articulated in the criticalliterature except as regards the depiction of medieval institutions. ThatFrench authors living in this period, and so the characters they created,should have entertained concepts of secular moral responsibility that differnot only in their accidentals but in essential features from those of the modernreader is one of the keys to understanding Chr��tien's romances. Finally,the eclipsing of source study during the past twenty years, understandablewithin the context of exciting new initiatives in scholarship, has resulted inneglect of an extremely significant aspect of Chr��tien's achievement, hissubtle integration of myth, particularly Celtic myth, with the depiction ofmedieval life and medieval motivations.

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

In twelfth-century French romance that precedes Chr��tien, by contrast,beginning with the Roman d'Alexandre and continuing through the Romande Th��bes, the Roman de Troie, and the Roman d'En��as, poets do attempt tolet the reading or listening audience in on what is transpiring in characters'minds. References in Chr��tien's romances show that he was acquaintedwith all four of these works.


Chr��tien is not a common name in twelfth-century Champagne (Holmesand Klenke 1959: 52-61). The association of Chr��tien the writer of romanceswith the town of Troyes has led to a search among surviving documentsfor his trace in history. One candidate, a canon of the Augustinianabbey of Saint-Loup in Troyes named Christianus, is mentioned as witnessto a charter issued by the bishop of Troyes and dated 1173, preserved inthe cartulary of the Premonstratensian abbey of La Chapelle-aux-Planches(Vigneras 1934-35). Another was Christianus chaplain of the collegiatechurch of Saint-Maclou, a dependency of the count of Champagne in thetown of Bar-sur-Aube, who copied a document of 1179 in his own hand (seethe photograph in Holmes and Klenke 1959: fig. 1) and is mentioned inanother document dated 1172. The Christianus of Saint-Loup in Troyes mayor 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 Chr��tien may refer to in line 6721 of Erec where he says that twococadrilles were carved on the faldstools (folding seats) used in Erec's coronation(Walter 1997: 21-22; 1999: 61-62), but since the cocatrix was carriedevery year in procession at Troyes, there does not seem to be any particularreason to link the use of this word with a canon of the monastery ofSaint-Loup. Although it would be entirely possible for a writer of worldlytales to be a cleric in this period, neither of the clerics named Christianusis 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 periodhave yielded no Christianus (Benton 1961: 562).

Nothing, then, is known of Chr��tien's life except what can be gatheredfrom his works and the occasional medieval reference (see Van Coolput1987), 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 destinedto be read aloud to an audience by a reader or perhaps treating theauthor as a source among several (for this last, see Marnette 1998: 218).Twice Godefroy de Lagny mentions Chr��tien as the one who began theromance Lancelot, which Godefroy is finishing with Chr��tien's permission(7105, 7107). Only once does Chr��tien call himself Chr��tien de Troyes, inErec 9, the romance in which he also boasts that his tale will be rememberedas long as Christianity lasts, which he no doubt thought of as untilthe Second Coming of Christ. In Perceval he speaks of himself as puttinghis effort and pains (entant et poine, 62) into rhyming the best tale ever toldin royal court (63-65), and in Lancelot he uses the same terms to indicatehis own contribution to what his patron has supplied (his painne and hisantancion, pains and effort, 29). Ten mentions of the author's name in morethan thirty-six thousand lines are little to go on. Moreover, had those linesnot contained references to place and time and, more specifically, to twopatrons, we would know virtually nothing about the author. As it is, almostall we know is by inference.

Only one twelfth-century reference to Chr��tien by another author hassurvived, in the Chevalier �� l'��p��e, and he was rarely referred to in the thirteenthcentury (Van Coolput 1987). The fullest references are in Huon deM��ry's Tournoiement de l'Antechrist (1235), where Huon calls him "he whohad such high repute for composing" (cil qui tant out pris de trover) andsays that Chr��tien and Raoul de Houdenc "took the beautiful French languagesmoothly, just as it came to hand" (prenoient / Le bel fran��ois trestouta plain, / Si com il lor venoit a main). Other references are found, naturallyenough, in the first and fourth continuations of Perceval and in the DidotPerceval. (All are cited in Pickford 1981.)

In an ingenious study, Aurelio Roncaglia (1958) made a convincing casefor seeing in the senhal "Carestia" of the renowned troubadour Raimbautd'Aurenga, the lord of Orange in Provence, a reference to Chr��tien deTroyes. A senhal is a fictitious name or sobriquet that one poet uses to addressanother. Chr��tien's poem "D'amors qui m'a tolu a moi" contains correspondencesin imagery, reference, and wording to Raimbaut's "No chanper auzel ni per flor," as well as to Bernart de Ventadorn's famous "Can veila lauzeta mover." Roncaglia shows that Chr��tien is taking a tack contrary tothe stances of the two troubadours. The senhal "Carestia," meaning 'rarity,scarcity', would derive from a concept dear to Chr��tien, reflected in thephrase chier tans 'time of scarcity', in line 42 of Chr��tien's poem, in whichhe exhorts his heart not to abandon faith toward the lady despite the scarcityof 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 argumentsto Yvain in the Chevalier au lion (2515-23). "Carestia" appears also to be apun on the name "Crestiien." If Roncaglia is right, and in my view he is,then Chr��tien would have been active as a poet in the early 1170s, sinceRaimbaut d'Aurenga died in 1173.

Chr��tien's work on Lancelot under the patronage of Countess Marie deChampagne (1145-1198) and on Perceval under Count Philip of Flanders,known from the prologues of those two romances, makes it clear that hewas writing actively between Marie's marriage with Count Henry I "theLiberal" of Champagne (1127-1181, count from 1152) and 1191, when CountPhilip died. The earliest reference to Marie as countess of Champagne isin a charter of Henry's dated to 1159 (Holmes and Klenke 1959: 18; Misrahi1959: 112; Benton 1961: 554). In seeking more precise dates for Chr��tien's activityas a writer than the broad period 1159 to 1191, one enters the realm ofconjectures and estimates of probability.


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