Chrétien de Troyes, 12th cent

Portrait

Biographical note

French poet and trouvère who flourished in the late 12th century. Little is known of his life, but he seems to have been from Troyes, or at least intimately connected with it, and between 1160 and 1172 he served at the court of his patroness Marie of France, Countess of Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, perhaps as herald-at-arms. His work on Arthurian subjects represents some of the best regarded of medieval literature. His use of structure, particular in Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, has been seen as a step towards the modern novel.

Chrétien's works include five major poems in rhyming eight-syllable couplets. Four of these are complete; Erec and Enide (c. 1170); Cligès (c. 1176), and Yvain, the Knight of the Lion and Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, both written simultaneously between 1177 and 1181. Chrétien's final romance was Perceval, the Story of the Grail, written between 1181 and 1190, but left unfinished, though some scholars have disputed this. It is dedicated to Philip, Count of Flanders, to whom Chrétien may have been attached in his last years. He finished only 9,000 lines of the work, but four successors of varying talents added 54,000 additional lines in what are known as the Four Continuations. Similarly, the last thousand lines of Lancelot were written by Godefroi de Leigni, apparently by arrangement with Chrétien. In the case of Perceval, one continuer says the poet's death prevented him from completing the work, in the case of Lancelot, no reason is given. This has not stopped speculation that Chrétien did not approve of Lancelot's adulterous subject.

To him are also attributed two lesser works: the pious romance Guillaume d'Angleterre (an attribution that is no longer believed), and Philomela, the only one of his four poems based on Ovid's Metamorphoses that has survived. Chrétien names his treatments of Ovid in the introduction to Cligès, where he also mentions his work about King Mark and Iseult. The latter is presumably related to the Tristan and Iseult legend, though it is interesting that Tristan is not named.

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