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Chrétien de Troyes

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Chrétien de Troyes

'One of the greatest vernacular writers of the Middle Ages,
Chrétien is the first known author of an Arthurian romance
(initially, a narrative poem written in octosyllabic couplets),
active between 1165 and 1190. He wrote five such romances
(Erec et Enide, Cligès, Le Chevalier de la charrette, Le Chevalier
au lion, and Le Conte du graal), two surviving lyric
poems, a series of adaptations from Ovid, and a lost poem
about King Mark and Iseult, all of them in Old French. He
may also have been the author of a non-Arthurian romance,
Guillaume d’Angleterre.
Chrétien wrote Le Chevalier de la charrette (also known
as Lancelot) for Marie of Champagne (d. 1198), daughter of
King Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and wife
of Henry I (the Liberal), count of Champagne (d. 1181). He
wrote Le Conte du graal (Perceval) for Philip of Alsace,
count of Flanders (d. 1191). Given that he wrote for the
courts of Flanders and Champagne, both of which had
strong crusading traditions, Chrétien’s work is astonishingly
free of references to the crusade movement. It does contain
a handful of allusions to the Near East (Arabia, Babylon,
Beirut, Constantinople, Greece, India, Persia, Saracens, and
Turks), but these occur almost invariably in stock expressions
or as the sources of exotic stuffs and objects. He never
mentions Jerusalem, and the only reference to Saracens in
the entire oeuvre occurs in the Chevalier de la charrette,
where the people of the fictitious land of Gorre are said to be
“worse than Saracens” [Chrétien de Troyes, The Complete
Romances, p. 196]. The only direct references to the crusade
movement occur in the Chevalier au lion (Yvain), where the
character Kay the Seneschal notes that “after dinner, without
budging, everyone goes to slay Noradin,” that is, Nur al-
Din, the Muslim ruler of Syria (d. 1174) [Chrétien de Troyes,
The Complete Romances, p. 264], and in the Chevalier de la
charrette, where the narrator states that certain knights
refrained from participating in a tournament because they
had taken the cross to go on crusade. These references show that Chrétien was aware of the crusade
movement. His description of the order of chivalry as
“the highest honor God had created and ordained,” in the
Conte du graal [Chrétien de Troyes, The Complete Romances,
p. 360], perhaps also owes something to Bernard of Clairvaux’s
ideas about the new chivalry. It has also recently been
argued that his portrayal of the ailing Fisher King in Conte
du graal may have been influenced by the historical figure
of the Leper King, Baldwin IV of Jerusalem (d. 1185). However,
the crusade movement never figures directly in any of
Chrétien’s works. This may have been because the
Arthurian world he describes supposedly dated to the sixth
century, or because it was a resolutely fictional world whose
literary strength lay precisely in its detachment from the
everyday world of its audiences; but it is a remarkable and
curious absence.' –Jeff Rider
- The Crusades; An Encyclopedia

Chrétien de Troyes wrote five Arthurian romances in the last part of the twelfth century;- ‘Erec et Enide’, ‘CligÚs’, ‘Le Chevalier de la Charrette’ (Lancelot), ‘Le Chevalier au Lion’ (Yvain – Owain) and ‘Le Conte du Graal’ (Perceval);the last was left unfinished on his death in, apparently, 1191. . A related romance by Chrétien entitled ‘Du roi Marc et d'Iseut la Blonde’ ( Tristram and Iseult) hasn’t survived.

Marie, Countess of Champagne, the patroness of Chretien de Troyes was the daughter of King Louis VII of France and his first wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who later married Henry II of England. (Making Marie the half-sister of Richard the Lion-heart)

According to Chrétien himself in 'Le Conte du Graal' he had  - 'turned into rime the best tale ever told in a royal court, which Count Philip* had given him in the form of a book’

(* Count Philip was Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders. He went on pilgrimage and was in Jerusalem in 1177-78, after which he returned to France. Ten years later around 1189 he joined the Third Crusade, subsequently dying in Outremer in 1191.)

Le Conte du Graal is an Arthurian romance that relates the story of a young knight, Perceval or Parzival. Raised by his mother in a forest after the death of his father in war. On growing up Perceval departs for the king’s court

Journeying home to see his mother, Perceval happens upon a splendid castle. There he is ushered in by a retinue of servants and greeted by a handsome but infirm nobleman who rises with difficulty. He presents Perceval with a richly mounted sword and treats him with great honor.

"While they were talking of this and that, a squire entered from a chamber, grasping by the middle a white lance, and passed between the fire and those seated on the couch. All present beheld the white lance and the white point, from which a drop of red blood ran down to the squire's hand."

Though curious, the youth withholds any questioning about the lance because his lord and teacher, Gornemant, had forbade him from talking too much. At this point two squires bearing candelabra come in, followed by a beautiful damsel holding a grail (graal) between her hands.

"Once she had entered with this grail that she held, so great a radiance appeared that the candles lost their brilliance just as the stars do at the rising of the sun and the moon...The grail...was of pure refined gold [and] was set with many kind so precious stones, the richest and most costly in sea or earth."

"...As each course was served, he saw the grail pass before him in plain view, and did not learn whom one served with it, though he would have liked much to know....In no stingy fashion were the delicious viands and wines brought to the table. The food was excellent; indeed, all the courses that king or count or emperor are wont to have were served to that noble and the youth that night."

Perceval keeps his vow to his teacher and refrains from asking about the grail throughout the meal. Later he is escorted to a bed chamber where he sleeps soundly until the break of day. Upon awakening Perceval discovers that, except for himself and his horse, the castle is deserted. Perceval gallops away through the forest and comes upon a maiden mourning over "the headless body of a knight which she clasps.". It is from her that Perceval learns the identity of his mysterious host in the castle - the Fisher King. Questioning Perceval further, she berates him for not inquiring about the bleeding lance and the grail

"Ah, unfortunate Perceval, how unlucky it was that you did not ask all those things! For you would have cured the maimed king, so that he would have recovered the use of his limbs and would have ruled his lands and great good would have come of it! but now you must know that much misery will come upon you and others."

The maiden reveals that she is Perceval's cousin and enlists his aid in vanquishing the knight who killed her lover. Perceval later defeats the knight in combat and sends him to surrender at King Arthur's court. Perceval's exploits precede him and he is given a warm welcome when he arrives in Camelot.

"Great was the joy which the King, the Queen, and the barons made over Perceval of Wales. They returned that evening with him to Caerleon, and the rejoicing lasted that night and through the morrow. On the third day they saw a damsel come riding on a tawny mule, with a scourge in her right hand. Her hair hung in two black twisted braids, and, if the book describes her truly, never was there a creature so loathly save in hell. Her neck and hands were blacker than any iron ever seen, yet these were less ugly than the rest of her. Her eyes were two holes, as small as those of a rat; her nose was like that of a monkey or a cat; her lips were like those of an ass or an ox; her teeth resembled in color the yolk of an egg; she had a beard like a goat. In the middle of her chest rose a hump; her backbone was crooked; her hips and shoulders were well shaped for dancing! Her back was hunched, and her legs were twisted like two willow wands. Her figure was perfect for leading a dance! the Loathly Damsel rebukes Perceval for being so reticent to inquire about the lance or grail and so cure the Fisher King. As a result, she say, Perceval is responsible for the continuing misfortune

"Do you not know what will happen if the King does not hold his land and is not healed of his wound? Ladies will lose their husbands, lands will be laid waste, maidens, helpless, will remain orphans, and many knights will die. All these calamities will befall because of you!"

The Loathly Damsel then tells the King how a knight may "have the supreme glory of the world" by delivering a besieged damsel. The Loathly Damsel departs and Sir Gawain and fellow knights vow that they will do anything in their power to rescue the lady.

But Perceval spoke otherwise, and vowed that henceforth he would not lie two nights in the same lodging, nor avoid any strange passage of which he might hear, nor fail to engage in combat with any knight who claimed to be superior to every other, or even two other knights, until he could learn whom one served with the grail, and until he had found the lance that bleeds, and had heard the true reason why it bled. He would not give up the quest for any suffering. Thus as many as fifty arose and swore, one to another, that they would not fail to pursue any adventure or seek any marvel of which they heard, even though it were in the most perilous land."

As the years pass Perceval "had so lost his memory that he had forgotten God", but continues his chivalrous quest and sends "sixty knights of fame to Arthur's court as prisoners." Percival learns of the saving grace of Christ and seeks out a holy hermit to confess his sins. When he finds him, the hermit reveals that the Fisher King is actually Perceval's uncle. The hermit then explains the cause of Perceval's failure to ask about the miracles at the castle

"Brother, a sin of which you know nothing has wrought this harm. It was the sorrow you caused your mother when you left her, for she fell swooning to the earth at the end of the bridge before her gate, and died of that grief."

It was her prayers, the hermit explains, that has preserved Perceval "from death and from prison."

Perceval stays two days with the hermit and the two men pray together as Perceval rediscovers his Christian faith. This is the last mention of either Perceval or the Grail by Chrétien in his unfinished poem

The name Camelot for Arthur’s capital first appears in Chrétien.



Continuations -

(Chrétien died before he finished ‘Le Conte du Graal’ and there are four continuations two anonymous, one by Manessier (1214-1220), and one by Gerbert de Montreuil.)

What Professor Loomis calls "the shortest and simplest account of Joseph's connection with the Grail and his voyage to Britain." Is to be found in the Interpolation in the First Continuation of Chrétien's ‘Le Conte du Graal’ (Perceval);-

"But rumor, which is swifter than the wind, swiftly brought the news to the Jews, who were by no means delighted but rather were deeply dejected. Among themselves they held a council in order to banish Joseph and expel him from the land, and they informed him at once that he must depart because of his crime, he and all his friends, and also Nicodemus, who was a marvelously wise man, and a sister of his."

"Joseph and his company prepared their fleet and entered without delay, and did not end their voyage till they reached the land which God had promised to Joseph. The name of the country was the White Isle; well I know that thus it was called. One part belongs to England, which is enclosed and locked by the sea. There they made port and went ashore, built lodges there and whatever else they needed. Two whole years they were there before anyone made war on them or seized a foot of land. But in the third year the people of the country gathered together and made war and often wrought harm. Often they fought and either won or lost. When Joseph was defeated and there was a famine, he prayed to God, his creator, that He would lend him, by His favor, that Grail of which I tell you and in which he had collected the blood. Then he caused a horn to be blown and all went to wash their hands, and seated themselves ceremoniously at the tables. The Grail came at once and served the wine to all and other dishes in great plenty. Thus Joseph preserved the land against his enemies as long as he has life and health.

"At the end of his life he prayed God sweetly that He would consent that Joseph's lineage would be rendered illustrious by the Grail. And thus it befell; it is the pure truth. For after his death no man in the world of any age had possession of it unless he was of Joseph's lineage. In truth the Rich Fisher descended from him, and all his heirs and, they say, Guellans Guenelaus and his son Perceval." - Perceval

In the First Continuation (probably before 1200) Gawain sees the 'rich grail', which moves about by itself at the feast, serving each course and filling the wine-cups. The lord of the castle explains that the lance which bleeds is the Holy Lance with which a Roman soldier pierced Christ on the cross, ' and at once there came out blood and water' (John 19:34). " Gawain is also told that the broken sword he had earlier seen in the castle is the one which destroyed the whole realm of Logres (Britain)."


related pages

The Grail Legends.

Perlesvaus or the High History of the Holy Grail
L’Estoire del Saint Graal



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