Chrétien de Troyes is one of the best known of the old French poets to students of mediaeval literature. He wrote in Champagne during the third quarter of the twelfth century. After the works of his youth, consisting of lyric poems and translations embodying the ideals of Ovid and of the school of contemporary troubadour poets, Chrétien took up the Arthurian material and started upon a new course. As far as we know, it was Chrétien who first recounted the romantic adventures of Arthur’s knights, Gawain, Yvain, Erec, Lancelot, and Perceval.
Of his life, we know neither the beginning nor the end. Yet, we know that between 1160 and 1172 he lived (perhaps as herald-at-arms) among the court of his patroness, the Countess Marie de Champagne. She was the daughter of Louis VII and the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The old city of Troyes, where Marie held her court, was where Chrétien wrote 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, treat respectively of Erec and Enide, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot. It is true the romance of “Lancelot” was not completed by Chrétien, we are told, but the poem is his in such large part that one would be over-scrupulous not to call it his. The other three poems mentioned are his entire.
Chrétien belonged to a generation of French poets who rook over a great mass of Celtic folk-lore they imperfectly understood, and made it what it had never been before: the vehicle to carry a rich freight of chivalric customs and ideals. However, there is no evidence that Chrétien had any Celtic written source. We are thus thrown back upon Latin or French literary originals which are lost, or upon current continental lore going back to a Celtic source. Somehow Chrétien appropriated the material, without much understanding of its primitive spirit, but appreciated it as a setting for the ideal society dreamed of but not realized in his own day. Add to this literary perspicacity, a good foundation in classic fable, a modicum of ecclesiastical doctrine, a remarkable facility in phrase, figure, and rhyme and we have the foundations for Chrétien’s art as we shall find it upon closer examination.
Not only was he alive to the literary interest of this material when rationalized to suit the taste of French readers, but he gave crude folk-lore that polish and elegance which is peculiarly French, and which is inseparably associated with the Arthurian legends in all modern literature. Chrétien constituted Arthur’s court as a literary centre and rallying-point for an innumerable company of knights and ladies engaged in a never-ending series of amorous adventures and dangerous quests. Rather than unqualifiedly attribute to Chrétien this important literary convention, one should bear in mind that all his poems imply familiarity on the part of his readers with the heroes of the court of which he speaks.
This Arthurian material, as used by Chrétien, is fundamentally immoral as judged by Christian standards. Beyond question, the poets and the public alike knew this to be the case. Therein lay its charm for a society in which the actual relations of the sexes were rigidly prescribed by the Church and by feudal practice, rather than by the sentiments of the individuals concerned.
Chrétien’s poetry is of vigorous manhood, of uncompromising morality, and of hard knocks given and taken for God, for Christendom, and the King of France. So we leave Chrétien to speak across the ages for himself and his generation. He is to be read as a story-teller rather than as a poet, as a casuist rather than as a philosopher. But when all deductions are made, his significance as a literary artist and as the founder of a precious literary tradition distinguishes him from all other poets of the Latin races between the close of the Empire and the arrival of Dante.
*This material was excerpted from the introduction to Four Arthurian Romances by the translator W. W. Comfort.
Works by Chrétien de Troyes Available on the Podcast:
Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart
Written by Chrétien de Troyes, circa 1170
Translated by W.W. Comfort in 1914