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 c. 1185) was probably the greatest writer of medieval romance. 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.

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. It was in his Lancelot that king Arthur and his knights 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 his patroness, the Countess Marie de Champagne. 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, Count of Flanders, 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

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, as Jessie L. Weston asserted, the First Continuation to Perceval, a story about Gawain, existed in some form already. The inconsistencies between this 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. R.S. Loomis commented that, in the 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.1 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 from other Irish folklore.

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 Gawain 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. According to Boron in his Joseph of Arimathea the father of Perceval was called Alain Gros, the son of Bron the Rich Fisher.

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, Gawain 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 Gawain 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. Gawain 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.

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

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