Friday, June 8, 2018

The Arthurian Romances of Chretien de Troyes

It finally happened.

I finally got around to reading Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian romances.

Everyone has been telling me how delightful Chretien is, and I've always believed them. Getting my hands on a copy of the book took me a while, and by the time I did, I was struggling deeply with Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and trying to figure out what I thought of it. My first novel, Pendragon's Heir, was the result of that struggle. Looking back, I think I have to conclude that Pendragon's Heir had to be about Malory: it didn't have space for anything else. So Chretien was postponed until I began preparing to write a novel set in the 1180s.

The four Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes are Erec et Enide, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot.

Erec et Enide seems to be an expansion of the Welsh story of Gereint and Enid. Erec meets and wins Enide during a quest on which he seeks to avenge an insult to Queen Guinevere. They happily marry and retire to Erec's father's kingdom, where Erec spends all his time relaxing in his wife's bower. Tongues wag, saying that Erec has gone soft, and when he overhears Enide complaining about this, he gets up in high dudgeon and rides out in search of adventures, taking his wife with him but threatening her not to speak to him. Though distressed by Erec's treatment, Enide remains loyal to him throughout all the adventures that follow, eventually proving that she loves him.

Cliges roams across Europe from Britain to Constantinople, telling the story of how Alexander, the son of the Greek emperor, travels to Britain where he falls in love with a sister of Sir Gawain's and wins her hand while helping Arthur put down a baron's rebellion. Their son, Cliges, is done out of the imperial throne by his uncle, who eventually travels to Germany to marry the daughter of the German emperor. The lady and Cliges fall for each other, though, and she comes up with a zany Romeo-and-Juliet scheme to switch husbands, which works only slightly better than it did in Shakespeare.

Yvain is another of the stories that also crops up in the Welsh Mabinogion, though like Erec et Enide, it's expanded. Yvain travels to a magical fountain where throwing a bowlful of water against a stone will cause a destructive storm in the surrounding countryside. The local count turns up to joust with him, and Yvain mortally wounds the man and then pursues him to his castle, where he is trapped and witnesses the death of the count and falls in love at first sight with the countess.

Lancelot tells how Queen Guinevere is kidnapped by a lovestruck knight and taken to a magical kingdom which nobody can ever leave, accessible only by two bridges, one of which is deep underwater and the other of which is a sword. ("There never was such a bad bridge"). Along the way, Lancelot finds himself obliged to incur significant knightly disgrace in order to prove his love for the Queen.

Did I mention that these stories are every bit as delightful as I had been told? To open Chretien is to step into a world of courtesy, adventure, love, and generosity. "Love would have it, and so would I, that I should be sensible and modest and kind and approachable to all for the sake of one I love..." A king reflects that "he ought rather to desire and long for his son's honour" than keep him at home. A knight refuses to ask for his beloved's hand in marriage because he "prefers to suffer without her rather than to win her against her will". And Our Lord is "the very honey and sweet savour of pity". If you know medieval literature at all, you know the kind of thing I mean; and if you don't, you've missed the most sweet and sensitive literature in the world.

The four stories were written between 1170 and 1180, probably commissioned by his employer Marie of France, the Countess of Champagne (the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine). Eleanor, Marie, and several others are central figures in the creation of the courtly love tradition of the high-to-late Middle Ages. According to Andreas Capellanus, these women set up a "Court of Love" in Poitiers, designed to adjudicate lovers' quarrels and make rulings on questions of romantic love. Whether Capellanus was correct or not, it definitely seems that the courtly love tradition came to prominence in twelfth century courts under the patronage of powerful and wealthy women. This is an obvious influence on Chretien's work, which I'll speak about in a bit. But according to the great medieval historian Richard Southern, there's another, less evident influence shown in the Arthurian romances.

The Personal Quest

In The Making of Europe, his great work on intellectual and cultural development through the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Southern ends with a fascinating chapter on epic poetry, the literature that characterised the start of his period, as contrasted with romance, the literary form that characterised the end of it. According to Southern, the two or three centuries leading up to Chretien's romances saw a definite change in several areas: it saw increased roles for individualism, sentiment and emotions, and logic. He contrasts this with the communality, practicality, and fatalism of pagan-influenced epic:
Briefly, we find less talk of life as an exercise in endurance, and of death in a hopeless cause; and we hear more of life as a seeking and a journeying. Men begin to order their experience more consciously in accordance with a plan: they think of themselves less as stationary objects of attack by spiritual foes, and more as pilgrims and seekers.
Southern believes that the primary influence in this development was Christian spirituality of the Benedictine and Cistercian tradition.
...the monastic life - or for that matter the Christian life in any form - could never be merely 'heroic' in its quality. That fatal struggle of man against superior forces, that meaninglessness of fate, and the purely resigned, defensive and heroic attitude of man in the face of fate could not, on a Christian view, be the whole story. As Europe became Christianised the epic was bound to decline, for it left out the personal and secret tie between man and God.
Epics in the pagan tradition, not just Homer and Virgil but also, even yet, Beowulf and The Song of Roland, were based on an understanding of man as ultimately passive in the face of an impersonal, transcendent fate. But Christianity gave both man and God a new role. God was personal, had reached into history, and could be understood and known. He acted according to his own laws, and his laws could be understood and applied through revelation and logic. Since God was intelligible, personal, and immanent, then man could respond in an intelligent, individual, and personal way to him.

St Anselm, himself a Benedictine monk, developed a concept of eager and active internal searching for God. Southern explains: "We enter here into an inner world of movement and struggle, in which attack has taken the place of resistance as the predominant method. The same attitude is apparent in St Anselm's famous programme of enquiry: Fides quaerens intellectum, 'Faith seeking understanding'."

As this attitude toward the spiritual life circulated in the monasteries, it percolated into the rest of the world as well. The Cistercians applied themselves to the intellectual pursuit of divine Love, and in the secular romantic literature, legendary knights applied themselves in much the same way to the pursuit of romantic love.

Logic and Emotion

As the personal, intelligible, and immanent concept of the Christian God became more ingrained in society, the result was a twofold flowering of the faculties of logic and emotion. In Reformed churches at least, logic and emotion are often pitted against each other like enemies, with logic seen as being good and emotion as dangerous at best and evil at worst. In truth, both logic and emotion are presented in Scripture as good gifts of God, both to be submitted to the revelation of Scripture.

Both logic and emotion are necessitated by Christian theology. If God is personal, intelligible, and immanent, then individual people can have personal relationships with him. They can both understand him and feel loyalty to him. They can both adore him and dispute with him. You cannot have one without the other. If God loses his personality, he loses his intelligibility as well.

Certainly, Southern notes that with the development of faith as a passionate quest for God, there appeared simultaneously with "a systematic and impersonal body of law and theological teaching": "It seems as if legalism was most pervasive when law was most difficult to come by." Further:
It was indeed one of the characteristics of our period that the connexion between thought and feeling, between emotional intensity and the formal structure of thought, was close: it was only in the later Middle Ages that the intellectual structure seems too weak for the feelings which produced the somewhat hectic piety of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
My own theory as to the reason for the intellectual weakness of the later Middle Ages is that Scripture was less accessible to the church, causing both logic and emotion to become untethered from their guiding principle. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, Scripture seems to have had a far greater influence on the culture, and as theology better embraced the true incarnation of Christ into a feeble human body, it caused a greater feeling of compassionate tenderness.

In earlier centuries, for example, Christ's suffering on the Cross was depicted in more heroic terms, as in The Dream of the Rood, in which Christ is depicted as a young warrior full of power. Southern goes into great theological detail as to why this was so, but I'll just skip to the part where theological developments resulted in greater pity and compassion for the sufferings of Christ. Similarly, where earlier art had depicted the Virgin and Christ as ageless and detached celestial beings, a more theologically rigorous understanding of Christ's incarnation into feeble human flesh resulted in art that more often depicted a young human mother playing with or feeding her helpless little baby, a subject for tenderness and pity. And this led in turn to a new tenderness and respect for all women and children.

Right doctrine resulted in right feeling. Orthodox logic prompted orthodox emotion. And the result was felt not just inside but also outside the cloister. Chretien's romances revel in the strong emotions of their characters. He goes on about them for paragraphs, reasoning, explaining, and feeling. His stories dig deep into psychological realism, inviting you to empathise with the characters' emotions in a way that previous literature didn't. Like the best fantasists, Chretien uses fantastical events to emphasise reality. His knights may be in love out of all reason, but they cannot be late for their twelve o'clock trial by combat.

Women and the Feminine Perspective

Last year, I reviewed the late chanson de geste The Song of the Cid and spent some time discussing its treatment of women, which shows a significant development from earlier literature. That development is even more evident in Chretien.

In the twelfth century we find noble women occupying a very high status in society. While parents often exploited their children for matrimonial and dynastic purposes, and while the nobility definitely exploited lower social strata, noble women often acted as legal and social equals with their men. As in all civilised Christian societies, they were not expected to fight (although occasionally they both could and did), but in the crusader states in the twelfth century, this apparently didn't hold them back. Military capacity was very important, putting pressure on heiresses to marry capable warriors for the good of their people, but the constant fighting meant the men had a low life expectancy. Women like Melisende of Jerusalem and her sisters, or Maria Comnena, Eschiva of Bures, or Stephanie of Milly outlived multiple husbands and provided stability and continuity to their society. They inherited and ruled fiefs and kingdoms, engaged in politics, and ran successful coups against their husbands or vassals. One Muslim historian expressed his surprise and disgust that a Frankish woman, walking in the street, might stop to converse with a man who was not her husband; that the husband would stop and wait quietly for her to finish talking; and that he might even go off and do his own business, leaving his wife to chat.

So much for the historical record. When it comes to Chretien, it's more difficult to say whether the image of women promoted in the romances reflects ideal or reality. It's pretty safe to say, however, that he must have been influenced by the wishes of the powerful women who patronised him and commissioned his work. And it's fascinating to watch him describe and develop his female characters. Chretien's ladies are all "fair and charming," of course, but they are also intelligent:
Fair, indeed, she is; but yet greater far than her beauty, is her intelligence. God never created any one so discreet and of such open heart.
Women are valued not just for their looks, but also for their character and conversation:
Then she took me to sit down in the prettiest little field, shut in by a wall all round about. There I found her so elegant, so fair of speech and so well informed, of such pleasing manners and character, that it was a delight to be there, and I could have wished never to be compelled to move.
But this is only the beginning. Chretien uses Enide and his other heroines as viewpoint characters, delving into their thoughts, worries, and motivations. They have friendships with each other, giving gifts or undertaking quests on behalf of each other. They rule over cities and pass judgement on those who offend them. Knights offer them service and meekly submit both to their whims and to their wisdom. And oh, they retain the right to mingle freely and sociably with men without being accused of leading them on:
Such persons may properly be rated as fools for thinking that a lady is in love with them just because she is courteous and speaks to some unfortunate fellow, and makes him happy and caresses him.
Chretien's romances are full of the feminine perspective. For instance, in Cliges he spends much time describing the pangs of unrequited love felt by the damsel Soredamors. Western lit is, of course, full of men complaining about women who don't return their feelings. The feminine perspective is not entirely absent, but it is kind of rare. It's almost entirely missing in the heroic tradition of earlier epic. The Song of Roland is marvellous and I love it, but it depicts a world in which masculine relationships are by far the most important thing: the one or two female characters barely appear. The Song of the Cid shows a wonderful development of Christian respect towards women, but it doesn't make them living characters like Chretien does.

Why Malory Is Still Better

The Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes were affected by theological developments and demonstrated an unusually high view of women, but the picture isn't all rosy.

In Chretien, the knights are focused on love. This had an analogue in the religious life: it was divine love for which the Benedictine and Cistercian monks were seeking. Like monks, Chretien's heroes must get away from even the good society of court for the character-building hardship and suffering of the quest. They are focused on high transcendent ideals, which they pursue as individuals. In Roland, "pagans are wrong and Christians are right," but in Chretien, there is no such collective morality. Just as in individual spiritual experience, the enemy may be anywhere.

Yet, as Southern points out, Chretien's stories about the heart's monastic journeying, seeking, and suffering in pursuit of love are not about the love of God, but romantic love: "The real internal religion of the heart was untouched by Christianity." Love is Chretien's deity, the sins his characters commit are sins against romantic love, and in Cliges one character is said to be "martyred" for love. The Christian religious observances don't go very deep, and indeed at one point Gawain is very cynical about it:
"But a man may give another counsel, which he would not take himself, just as the preachers, who are deceitful rascals, and preach and proclaim the right but who do not follow it themselves."
The knights and ladies of Chretien's world have a strong ethic of courtesy and service, but the deity at its heart is secular, not divine love, and there is no awareness that divine love may require some alteration in the carrying on of one's romantic affairs. The result is some of the worst aspects of Chretien's stories. Enide puts up with her husband's outrageous ill-treatment and enables his selfish behaviour because she makes her romantic love for him her highest ideal. Fenice in Cliges gives a truly hopeless exposition of Paul's teachings on purity which must be seen to be believed. Guinevere and Lancelot have their affair, but Chretien seems oblivious to the possibility that they have both betrayed Arthur - the important thing is that they have been true to love.

For all his gentility and sensitivity, Chretien doesn't dig deep. Not like Thomas Malory did later, in Le Morte D'Arthur. At the beginning of this review, I mentioned struggling deeply with Malory when I first read him. It's hard to say whether I would have been as scandalised at fifteen by Chretien as I was by Malory. Chretien wraps up his adulterous romances in a wispy sense of purity, while Malory is more blunt and satirical about sex. Where Chretien seems idealistic, Malory often seems jaded. Where Chretien constructs shiny, delicate confections of emotion to inhabit a faux religion of courtly love, Malory shows the bankruptcy of courtly love in the lust to which it gives birth, and the death and destruction that follows. By comparison to Chretien, Malory is blunt and rude. He shocked me as a teen, and it took much thinking and wrestling to come to grips with his message. But as much more palatable and pleasant as Chretien is by comparison, he also cuts less deep.

To quote Southern one last time:
There is in Chretien none of the melancholy, none of the sense of the sinfulness of the heart, which we sometimes find in Malory. Chretien probes the heart, but it is the enamelled heart of the twelfth-century secular world, not yet made tender by the penetration of strong religious feeling.
Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances are wonderful reading. I ought to have read them long ago - but I'm not sorry that I took the time to understand Malory first. Looking back, I think the Morte has far more to say.

I read the Arthurian Romances in an old translation by W Wistar Comfort, available at Project Gutenberg and Librivox. You can also find newer translations on Amazon and the Book Depository.

Have you read Chretien's Arthurian romances? Which translation do you recommend?


Anonymous said...


What role do you think the Black death played in sharpening subsequent writers to focus on the internal struggles and how they affected the external ones? As well as the contingency of life which prompts a need to do an examination of conscience?
Tirant lo Blach has a similar earthiness about love and there's a frank look at ambition too.
So I wondering if the ultimate failure of the Crusades, the perpetual dynastic conflicts, the Black death contributed to a harder look at life and a more forthright appraisal on the fall of man in literature?

Also, Chretien wrote for a female audience- a protochick lit that still appealed to men thanks to the heroic quest, so that's perhaps another factor for the lightness?

I disagree with you that the epic disappeared, it was baptized as the heroic quest and Christian themes were superimposed but the pagan substrate was still present.

Anonymous said...

Let me add how much I enjoyed Nigel Bryant's translation of Chretien's unfinished romance - Perceval, the Story of the Grail (including a couple of the continuations). You might enjoy trying it and following it up quickly (for added interest in comparing and contrasting) with Wolfgang von Eschenbach's Parzival (which I enjoyed in A.T. Hatto's translation).

Thanks for the taste of R.W. Southern's The Making of the Middle Ages in considering background and context! I thoroughly enjoyed his Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, but have not yet followed that up with trying any of his other books... (I wonder what contacts he had with the Inklings?)

Another book I enjoyed not so long ago which adds to the context is Amy Kelly's Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. (I'd never heard of it, and was wishing such a book existed, and, lo, there it was in a second-hand sale!)

Very interesting in Malory's background is The Quest of the Holy Grail (which I enjoyed in Pauline Matarasso's translation).

David Llewellyn Dodds

ChristianVictorianLiterature said...

I've actually never heard of this book. For some reason I never studied medieval literature in university. Too many other periods to study, I guess. I'm looking forward to checking this out.

Suzannah said...

I have to apologise for leaving these comments unanswered for so long!

Buscaraons -

> What role do you think the Black death played in sharpening subsequent writers to focus on the internal struggles and how they affected the external ones?

Well, the Black Death had ravaged Europe in the early Dark Ages - the 500s, IIRC - and after that it seems to have disappeared until the mid-1300s. And the process of coming to focus on individual, internal, personal struggle was well underway by the late 1100s. So I find it difficult to link that process to the Black Death.

The calamities of the 1300s DO seem to have affected the psychology of late medievals, creating widespread disenchantment with the institutional church and leading to people looking elsewhere for help, whether it was ancient humanism or the various reform movements. There was a general acknowledgement that something had failed and something new had to be tried, no contest. But throughout the medieval period it was common to attribute disasters to the sinfulness/fallenness of the people they happened to. In many cases this must have been lip service, but in many cases it was genuine. Again, I think it took the 1300s to really drive this home and eventually trigger the Reformation and the Renaissance, but the conceptual foundation was there previously in the High Middle Ages.

> Also, Chretien wrote for a female audience- a protochick lit that still appealed to men thanks to the heroic quest, so that's perhaps another factor for the lightness?

I don't see why writing for women would result in lightness :-)

Suzannah said...

David - thanks for the comment! I must have forgotten that you suggested reading Chretien's Perceval followed by Wolfram's PARZIVAL, but in fact that's exactly what I did for my Annual Epic this year. I've had PARZIVAL on my shelf for years and decided to read through it, and was planning to dig into it on Christmas morning, but lo and behold, a friend had slipped a copy of Chretien's complete romances, including Perceval, under the tree! I am going to have to write a review when I finish my holiday, in February!

I love the sound of that book on Eleanor of Aquitaine. I've been told recently I need to read Denis Rougemont's PASSION AND SOCIETY as well.

I do in fact have the Matarasso translation of THE QUEST FOR THE HOLY GRAIL on my shelf! I'll have to read that soon as well.


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