Chrétien de Troyes: Life and Work

Sir Percival and two other knights with the Holy Grail

Above: Sir Percival and two other knights with the Holy Grail, 1286. Below: Scenes from the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes.
Scenes from the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes

Chrétien de Troyes the Poet

The poet Chrétien de Troyes ([kresˈtjẽn də ˈtrojəs]; died no earlier than 1185) was probably the greatest writer of medieval romance: stories written in the vernacular rather than in Latin. His stories were about Arthurian figures such as Sir Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, and Perceval, using materials he borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace.1

Chrétien was the first to write episodic verse romances about chivalrous heroes of the Arthurian round-table, and their heroic deeds, rather than a story of king Arthur himself. His stories introduced both Lancelot and Perceval into the mythology of Arthurian legend. Chrétien's first major work Eric and Enide is considered the first Arthurian romance. It was in his Lancelot (the first romance in which Lancelot is the central character) that king Arthur and his knights first assembled at Camelot. Chrétien is regarded as the inventor of the genre of courtly romance. Of his life we know neither the beginning nor the end, but we know that between 1160 and 1172 he lived, perhaps as herald-at-arms (according to Gaston Paris, based on Lancelot lines 5591-94) at Troyes, where was the court of Count Henry and later of his widow, the Countess Marie de Champagne (1145-1198). She was the daughter of Louis VII and of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The old city of Troyes must feature prominently in any map of literary history. For it was there that Chrétien de Troyes was inspired to write four romances which together form the most complete expression we possess from a single author of the ideals of French chivalry. These romances, written in eight-syllable rhyming couplets, are tales of knighthood, bravery and courtly-love. They treat respectively of Erec and Enide, Cligés, Yvain, and Lancelot. The poem "Guillaume d'Angleterre" has been attributed to him by some scholars, although many find this doubtful. A list of works in "Cligés" mentions a romance "Du roi Marc et d'Iseut la Blonde", of which no trace remains. Another poem, Le Roman de Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal, was begun in about 1175 for Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders (1142-1191), to whom Chrétien was attached during his last years. It was left unfinished at his death after he had written more than 9000 lines.

Book cover: The Manuscripts of Chrétien de Troyes

Chrétien's Roman de Perceval in Context

Contemporary poets (in the last two decades of the twelfth century) writing about the Grail included Robert de Boron, although he wrote only about the history of the Grail and not about the Quest. For Boron the Grail is the cup of the Last-Supper, while for Chrétien it is wondrous but not explicitly holy. Then for Wolfram it became a magical stone. There can be no doubt that Wolfram's main source, for his poem Parzival (ca.1205), was Chrétien's romance or that he also used other, related material, probably in Old French: his naming of characters suggests a French source other that Perceval. The existence of other Grail stories, some of them now lost, is suggested by Wolfram's claim to have found the story in a book. For example, Wolfram, in his retelling of the story, gives the name Anfortas to the Fisher King and it has been suggested that the name derives from the Old French "enfertez". Similarly, Parzival's wife he renames as Condwiramurs, which is plausibly derived from the Old French "conduire amours". A few characters are given names by Wolfram although they (or their equivalents) were not named in the Perceval. It is possible that Wolfram invented these names but more likely that he found them in another book, not by Chrétien, that told the story of Perceval. So by 1200 there was a growing literature about the quest for the Holy Grail, of which only a few poems have survived.

Chrétien's Sources: the Welsh/Breton Tradition

It is widely although not universally accepted that Chrétien de Troyes based some of his poetic writings on Celtic sources (the so-called Matter of Brittany) one such candidate being the story of Peredur, a version of which would be incorporated into the collection of Welsh legends known as the Mabinogion2; alternatively, Welsh and Breton tales provided material used in both romances. This would explain Chrétien's Perceval the Welshman. Welsh tales about Peredur and Gwalchmei might have arrived in Brittany with refugees from Roman Britain fleeing from the Anglo-Saxon invasion. That there was migration during the fifth century, beginning perhaps as early as 380, is mentioned by writers such as Nennius (c.800). Procopius, the Byzantine chronicler, recorded that both Britons and other peoples, in need of land for an expanding population, migrated from England to western Gaul and to north- western Spain, where they were allowed to settle on depopulated land. Continued contact with kin in England and Wales can be assumed and so it is likely that songs and stories about Peredur, Gwalchmei and other heroes circulated on both sides of the Channel. The surviving but fragmentary Welsh/Breton literature suggests a rich tradition from which Chrétien and other writers shaped the Matter of Brittany.

The Story of Perceval and his Quest (in a nutshell)

Chrétien's story, which later authors would follow to a lesser or greater extent, is about a youth who had a sheltered upbringing. After the deaths of his father and brothers, his mother took him to her castle in the Welsh forest and there brought him up in ignorance of war and weaponry. After the boy has met a group of knights who were passing through the forest, he leaves his mother, who dies of a broken heart. Perceval goes out into the world and naively tries to follow his mother's advice, which only causes trouble for himself and others. He goes to Arthur's court and asks to be knighted but there he is only laughed at. He meets an old knight called Gornemant who gives him a rudimentary education in the use of weapons and the code of chivalry. Gornemant advises the boy not to ask too many questions. Perceval wanders in search of knightly adventure: he rescues a damsel in distress and falls in love with her, his Blancheflor. Then his wandering takes Perceval to an encounter with the Fisher King, who invites him into the Grail Castle: where he witnesses a strange procession in which a boy carries a spear that bleeds, while a maiden carries a shining Grail. The boy, recalling his teacher's advice, does not ask for any of this to be explained and he fails to ask the Question that would have healed the wounds of the infirm king. The king gives Perceval a sword which his cousin later tells him will break at a crucial moment. It is not mentioned again by Chrétien de Troyes but in Gerbert's Continuation we can read that Perceval shatters the sword at the gates of the Earthly Paradise. As a result of his failure to ask the Question, the land becomes a Waste Land. (In versions of the Grail story in which Gauvain is the quester, the land is already wasted before the quester arrives at the Grail Castle and so his failure fails to heal both the wounded king and the land.) Chrétien does not provide the names of Perceval's parents (these and other names were later added by Wolfram von Eschenbach in his retelling) but he does say that the Fisher King is Perceval's maternal uncle.

Perceval meets his cousin (who is unnamed in this story but who will become Sigûne in Wolfram's poem). She explains that he failed at the Grail Castle and that it was because of the boy's sin against his mother, who died of grief at his departure. This implies that Perceval's lack of concern for his mother and his lack of compassion for the Fisher King are related, at least in the opinion of his cousin. As he rode to the court of Arthur there was a curious incident (also retold by Wolfram) in which Perceval falls into a trance while contemplating three drops of blood in the snow, which make him think of his beloved. After other knights have failed to do so, Gauvain breaks the trance and accompanies Perceval to Arthur's court. There he is abused by the messenger of the Grail, the Loathly Damsel, for failing to ask the healing question. Another knight arrives with a complaint against Gauvain and so both he and Perceval depart from the court, each on his own quest. In subsequent chapters the poem tells alternately of the adventures of these very different knights. Gauvain demonstrates his courage and courtesy, while Perceval is growing in chivalric honour but lacks spiritual awareness. He meets five knights who criticize him for wearing armour and bearing weapons on Good Friday. They direct him to a hermit (who turns out to be Perceval's uncle) to begin his spiritual instruction. Only when Perceval has achieved a balance between chivalric and spiritual values will he be able to complete his quest. But the poem breaks off before Perceval can return to the Grail Castle, where we assume that he will ask the question(s) and so heal the Fisher King and perhaps his land too.

The Continuations to the Perceval

The unfinished poem Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal is generally considered to be the "definitive" Grail Romance. It is accompanied by four Continuations by other writers, so called because these books continue the story left incomplete by Chrétien. Although he cannot have been the first poet to write about the mystical Grail Castle, the quester and the Fisher King, his Perceval is the earliest written account of the Grail Quest to have survived. Unless the First Continuation, a story about Gauvain, existed in some form already. Several important elements of the story, which were adopted and developed in later versions by other poets, appear for the first time in the Perceval: such as the strange procession seen by the quester at the Grail Castle, and the presence there of two kings, one old and hidden from view, the other wounded. The inconsistencies between the First Continuation and the poem left unfinished by Chrétien can leave no doubt that it is an entirely separate story about a search for the Holy Grail; including the second visit of King Arthur's nephew Gauvain (Gawain) to the Grail Castle. The four Continuations are the following:

  • The First Continuation (FC) was once attributed to Wauchier de Denain. The author writes that it is based on an account by a certain Bleheris or Bliobliheri (whom J.L. Weston identified with the Master Blihis of the Elucidation) who was born and bred in Wales. So apart from the initial bridging passage, this is a story about Gauvain and the Grail, possibly adapted from a Welsh original.
  • The Second Continuation (SC) has also been attributed to Wauchier: even if he was not the author, it is possible that one author was responsible both for this Continuation and for connecting the FC to the unfinished Perceval. So that the main text + FC + SC would appear as one unbroken narrative. This is how the poem would have been known in around 1200 CE. This Continuation relates the further adventures of Perceval but hardly mentions Gauvain.
  • Gerbert's Continuation (GC), attributed to Gerbert de Montreuil, was almost certainly the last to be written, probably after the Lancelot-Graal. It is a long interpolation connecting the end of SC with the start of TC. Sometimes, confusingly, it is called the Fourth Continuation.
  • The Third Continuation (TC), attributed to Manessier, was probably written several decades after the SC, in an attempt to bring closure to the story of Perceval and Gauvain, tying up the loose ends that remained from the FC and SC, of which there were several.

Of the fifteen manuscripts of the Conte de Graal, only 4 consist of Chrétien's text alone and the remaining 11 also include the FC. Of these, 10 also include the SC, 7 the TC and 2 the GC.

The First Continuation: A Story About Gauvain

The First Continuation is a story in which Perceval is hardly mentioned: it tells of the adventures of Gauvain. Jessie L. Weston and R.S. Loomis were probably right to assert that it was written independently of the Perceval and it could be older. This is not really a "continuation": it appears to be a different version of the Grail story in which Gauvain is the hero. A short bridging passage connects the abrupt end of the main text (which breaks off in mid- sentence) to this story. R.S. Loomis commented that, in this Continuation, The castle is situated not in a valley but [on an isle] at the end of a causeway washed by the sea. The lord of the castle is not an invalid who cannot walk but a stalwart, able-bodied king. There is no Grail bearer but the dish moves itself ... It serves not the host's father but the king and his guest in the hall, and it has no sacramental character. The lance is not borne in procession but is fixed in a sort of rack.3 More importantly, the effect of the Question is not, as the reader might have expected from the incomplete poem, the healing of the king (who in this Continuation is not an invalid) but restoring fertility to the waste land: which raises the possibility that the Continuation is based, perhaps at several removes, on the Irish tale Adventures of Art son of Conn or other tales from Irish folklore. At the Grail Castle the king asks the quester to mend a broken sword, which Gauvain fails to do. The sword will reappear in later Continuations and seems to have become the object of the quest, leaving the mysteries of the Lance and Grail in the background. The FC exists in three versions: a short version, a long version in which there is a long interpolation (about the knight Caradoc or Carados) with multiple adventures none of which advance the main narrative, and a mixed version.

The Second Continuation: A Story About Perceval

After the many digressions of the FC, and its discrepancies with the earlier text, the author of this next Continuation attempts to bring the story back to the narrative begun by Chrétien. Of the 35 episodes in this long poem, William Roach identified 27 concerning Perceval and only 4 about Gauvain. So although the SC is more closely related to the Perceval, it does not have the same pattern of alternating between and contrasting the adventures of the two very different heroes. Perceval finds the path to the Castle of the Fisher King but he gets distracted by a beautiful lady with whom (forgetting his betrothed Blancheflor) he falls in love. She lends him a hunting dog and sends him off on a quest for a white stag (a curious echo of the Arthurian hunt that features in Erec and Enide). Perceval finds and kills the white stag but then the stag's head and the dog are stolen by a knight. So the story becomes a quest to recover the stag's head and the dog, turning aside from the Grail quest in favour of one that is ultimately about secular love. The character of this Continuation is quite different from that of the earlier poems: it takes place in a fairy land of glass bridges and invisible castles, where everything is white, like the stag. The lady who has bewitched Perceval is some kind of enchantress. Among his adventures in this Continuation, Perceval arrives at the Castle of Maidens, where he asks many pointless questions, as if he has gone to the opposite extreme from his reticence at the Grail Castle. The SC ties up some but not all of the loose ends from the earlier poems: Perceval returns to Beaurepaire as he had promised Blancheflor he would do, but it is only a one night visit before he leaves her to continue his quest. By chance he wanders into the forest of his childhood, where he finds a sister (never before mentioned) who tells him about the distress he had caused by leaving home. Then, losing his way in a storm, Perceval takes shelter in a chapel, which turns out to be the same one that was visited by Gauvain in the FC, complete with a frightening disembodied hand. He moves quickly on, to find the Grail Castle. Instead of solving the mysteries of Lance and Grail, however, the story becomes focussed on the broken sword: which Perceval almost but not quite mends. The king tells him that this shows him not yet to be perfected. It is understandable that readers who reached this point and found so many questions either unanswered or unasked would be disappointed.

Gerbert's Continuation: An Interpolation

Gerbert's interpolation is only found in two of the surviving manuscripts. It is in the form of a loop in which the text returns, after 17,000 lines, to repeat its first 14 lines. Perceval has been found wanting and so he seeks a path of perfection and redemption, before he can return yet again to the Fisher King. He reflects on his sins, confesses them and tries to make amends. The text is moralising and reminiscent both of the Lancelot-Graal and the Perlesvaus, which suggests that it was written much later than the other Continuations and perhaps for a different audience. This Continuation brings to a close many of the loose threads that still remained after the SC (for example, rescuing the patient maiden, apparently forgotten by Gauvain, who has been besieged by the Dragon Knight all this time at her castle of Montesclaire) but it does not address Perceval's original quest. At the end of the GC he returns yet again to the Fisher King, asks many unimportant questions (by this stage the original significance of the unasked question has been forgotten) and perfectly mends the broken sword.

The Third Continuation: Closure

Probably to satisfy readers who were unhappy with the inconclusive ending of the SC, Manessier continues the story of Perceval. Loomis commented that the TC resembled the Peredur in that it is a tale of murder and revenge. Perceval like Peredur avenges the wrongs done to his kinsmen. Manessier not only borrows an episode from Erec and Enide but also from the Lancelot-Grail cycle and from the Perlesvaus. Although the SC had tied up some threads left over from the earlier poems, it introduced new threads that still need to be tied up. The broken sword is, initially at least, the focus of the story. The Fisher King reveals that the sword had been used to kill his brother, after which in his distress the king injured himself with the broken pieces. He sends Perceval off on a new quest, to avenge the death of his brother. Before doing so, however, the king gives an explanation of the Lance (as the holy lance of Longinus that had pierced the side of Christ, as already was revealed in the FC), the Grail (as the vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea had collected the blood of Christ) and the platter (which is used to cover the Grail). It might have been better to end the story there but Manessier continues with a violent and bloodthirsty sequence of adventures, often of a quasi-religious nature. After slaying the killer of the king's brother, which lifts the curse from the Grail domain, Perceval is assigned another mission, which is to purify the haunted chapel, whose disembodied hand had killed thousands of knights. Perceval destroys the hand by making the sign of the cross. This presumably shows that he has become a perfect Christian knight. On his return again to the Grail Castle, it is the turn of the Fisher King to ask a question: what is the name of the quester? And so it is discovered that Perceval is the king's nephew and heir. The king offers to turn over the Grail domain at once but Perceval chooses to return to Arthur's court. When the Fisher King dies, Perceval returns to the Grail Castle for the last time, to be anointed as the new Grail King.

Chrétien's Influence and Legacy

Chrétien's influence extends well beyond the literature of the middle ages. The characters and their exploits that were introduced by Chrétien in his poetic romances were further developed variously by German authors, such as Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach, and by the compilers of later prose romances, including the Vulgate cycle. From "The Franklin's Tale" in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and even to Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King, the Arthurian tradition that was initiated by Chrétien de Troyes has been a thread of European literature.

Further Reading

Chrétien's Arthurian Romances

Discussions and References

A Chrétien Bibliography

There is a vast literature concerning Chrétien de Troyes. Here are a few selected titles.

  • Chrétien de Troyes, an Analytic Biography, Kelly Douglas, Grant and Cutler, 1976.
  • The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes, J.J. Duggan, Yale, 2002.
  • Chrétien de Troyes: the Man and his Work, Jean Frappier. English translation by Raymond Cornier, Ohio U.P., 1982.
  • A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes, N.J. Lacy and J.T. Grimbert, Brewer, 2005.
  • Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, R.S. Loomis, Clarendon Press, 1959.
  • Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien de Troyes, R.S. Loomis, Columbia U.P., 1961.
  • The Arthurian Romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Donald Maddox, CUP, 1991.
  • From Plato to Lancelot: A Preface to Chrétien de Troyes, K. S-J. Murray, Syracuse U.P., 2008.
  • Chrétien de Troyes: a Study of the Arthurian Romances, L.T. Topsfield, CUP, 1981.
  • Chrétien de Troyes Revisited, K.D. Uitti and M.A. Freeman, Twayne, 1995.

Footnote 1: Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudo-chronicle Historia regum Britanniae ca.1137, in Latin. Derived from it is Wace's Roman de Brut 1155, in Old French.

Footnote 2: The romance of Peredur is not a branch of the Mabinogion: but it appears in the same manuscripts as the Mabinogion proper.

Footnote 3: R.S. Loomis, Objections to the celtic origin of the «Matière de Bretagne», Romania, 1958.