Béroul Essay - Critical Essays



Béroul fl. c. second half of the 12th century-

French poet.

Béroul's Roman de Tristran, which has survived as a single 4485-line, incomplete manuscript, is considered a skillful retelling of the story, set in medieval Cornwall, of the doomed lovers Tristran and Queen Iseut. Because of the numerous renditions of this story in existence by the end of the thirteenth century, scholars have hypothesized a common source that has been lost. Thomas of Britain wrote a 3,100-line tale about Tristan and Iseut in French before 1160, but the extant text only covers the conclusion of the story. Other well-known Tristan and Iseut narratives include Eilhart von Oberge's Tristant (1170) and Gottfried von Strassburg's incomplete verse Tristan (c. 1210), which is based on Thomas's text.

Biographical Information

Nothing is known about Béroul's life, but scholars have made certain suppositions about him based on details embedded in Tristran. For example, they presume that he lived in the second half of the twelfth century, since Tristran contains a mention of The Roman de Renart, written anonymously around 1180, as well as a reference to the Siege of Acre, which took place in 1190-91. Béroul was probably of Norman origin, for he wrote in French and demonstrates some familiarity with Brittany. He was most likely educated in a monastic school and would, therefore, have been regarded as a clericus, or learned person, in his own era. Most modern scholars concur that Tristran was orally composed, so it is likely that Béroul made his living as a jongleur, or itinerant minstrel. His travels seem to have included England and Cornwall; Tristran is filled with detailed descriptions of those locales.

Major Works

The beginning of Béroul's Tristran is missing but scholars postulate that it deals with Tristran's preparations to visit his uncle, King Mark, as well as the journey to Cornwall with Iseut, during which the philter (or love potion) is mistakenly drunk. Tristran opens with Queen Iseut and Tristran discussing their situation under a tree, with King Mark eavesdropping from a high branch. Iseut's artful use of words fools Mark and he agrees to allow Tristran to spend the night. However, the dwarf Frocin, loyal to Mark, devises a way to check whether or not Tristran and Iseut are sleeping together: he sprinkles flour between their two beds, hoping to cite Tristran's footprints as evidence of Iseut's infidelity. Tristran tries to avoid the trap by leaping to Iseut's bed, but he opens a wound in the process, spilling drops of blood on the flour instead. With the lovers' guilt confirmed, King Mark condemns Tristran to death. As he is to be burned, Tristran asks to be allowed to pray in church first; while there, he escapes through a high window. King Mark is persuaded to send Iseut to a leper colony as punishment, but, with the help of his tutor, Governal, Tristran manages to carry her off into the forest. The lovers spend the next three years living in the forest as outcasts. After that time, the magic potion that caused them to fall in love in the first place wears off and Tristran regrets the wrong he has done his uncle. He and Iseut send a letter to King Mark and Tristran tells Iseut that he will defend her honor when they get back to the court. King Mark's barons now urge him to exile Tristran for a year and to demand that Iseut swear an oath proving her honor. As she is being brought to court—where King Arthur is also in attendance—to pledge her oath, Tristran, disguised as a leper, pushes the barons into a mire and carries Iseut off on his back across it. As Tristran continues to fight, Iseut formally (and craftily) swears that no man has been between her thighs but King Mark and the leper she rode across the mire. Mark is satisfied, but the distrustful barons persist in spying on Iseut in her bedroom. There Béroul's narrative breaks off.

Scholars have pointed out that Béroul's Tristran is the most primitive of the Tristan and Iseut narratives in terms of structure, and that it clearly bears traces of oral composition and performance. Tristran's instances of repetition, internal inconsistencies, and narrative gaps are typical of compositions intended for oral recitation in parts. There is, too, an ongoing debate about whether Béroul himself was literate, or whether he dictated his story to someone else who set it down in writing. Regardless of its origin, scholars acknowledge Tristran as a masterly piece of storytelling with highly individualized characterizations and adept use of detail. Critics note that Béroul deliberately changed certain descriptions from the earlier versions of the tale in order to make his romance more realistic, although he retained such fantastic elements as a dragon and the love potion. They add that even though Béroul borrowed the narrative device of the love potion, his use of it is sophisticated because he relates it to the psychological state of his characters rather than merely employing it as a trick to advance the action. The structure of Tristran has also been the subject of much critical attention. Some scholars fault Béroul for focusing too closely on individual episodes to the detriment of the overall unity of the romance, but others argue that he highlights important themes like deception and revenge through separate scenes that nevertheless form a unified central narrative. Béroul's fascination with the themes of adultery, deception, and revenge has been widely discussed, as has the problem of ethics in Tristran: on the one hand, the work is clearly derived from Christian tradition; on the other, Béroul seems to condone the lovers' transgression and implies that God is on their side.

Critical Reception

Scholars presume that Tristran must have been popular in its own time since it has survived to modern times, but enthusiasm for Arthurian narratives had waned by the end of the thirteenth century and Béroul was virtually forgotten during the years after. The poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott reawakened readerly interest in the Trust in and Iseut legend in the nineteenth century when he rediscovered and championed some of Thomas's fragments. Modern critics continue to explore lingering questions about Tristran's authorship, its mode of composition, and the condition of the manuscript itself, as well as Béroul's handling of the Christian elements in the poem. For example, Sandro Sticca and Brian Blakey have both written about various aspects of Béroul's treatment of ethics in Tristran. Ann Trindade (see Further Reading) has made a detailed study of the elements of characterization of Tristran and Iseut, while E. M. R. Ditmas has written more broadly about Béroul's knowledge and treatment of Cornwall. As critics have lauded Béroul's artistic merit, studies of specific aspects of his writing have proliferated. For example, Renée L. Curtis has written about his use of the oath, F. Xavier Baron has analyzed Béroul's handling of visual imagery, Reginald Hyatte has traced his handling of weaponry as a motif, and Brent A. Pitts (see Further Reading) has explored the central role of memory in Tristran.

Principal Works

Roman de Tristran (poetry) c. late 12th century

Tristran and Iseult, a Twelfth-Century Poem (translated by Janet Hillier Caulkins and Guy R. Mermier) 1967

The Romance of Tristran; and, The Tale of Tristran's Madness (translated by Alan S. Fedrick) 1970

Tristran and Iseult in Cornwall (translated by E. M. R. Ditmas) 1970

Beroul's Romance of Tristran (translated by John C. Barnes) 1972

Tristran and Yseut: Old French Text with Facing English Translation (translated and edited by Guy R. Mermier) 1987

The Romance of Tristran (translated and edited by Norris J. Lacy) 1989

The Romance of Tristran (translated and edited by Stewart Gregory) 1992


Alberto Varvaro (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Varvaro, Alberto. “The Structure of the Tristran.” In Beroul's Romance of Tristran, translated by John C. Barnes, pp. 18-44. Manchester, Eng. and New York.: Manchester University Press/Harper & Row Publishers Inc. (Barnes & Noble Import Division), 1963.

[In the following excerpt from his Beroul's Romance of Tristran, originally published in Italian in 1963, Varvaro examines the episodic structure of Tristran, noting that individual episodes are often preceded and followed by narrative pauses that serve to emphasize Béroul's theme in that section.]




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Renée L. Curtis (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Curtis, Renée L. “The Abatement of the Magic in Beroul's Tristan.” In TristanStudies, pp. 28-35. München, Germany: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1969.

[In the essay below, Curtis discusses Béroul's handling of the love potion in Tristran, asserting that the author does not use it merely as a stock device to advance the story, but rather carefully develops characterization and theme in order to incorporate the potion into the narrative.]

The most immediately striking fact about Béroul's use of the philtre is no doubt the limited duration of its potency in his version of the legend. I am not concerned here with the origin of this idea, whether it...

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Sandro Sticca (essay date June 1972)

SOURCE: Sticca, Sandro. “Christian Ethics and Courtly Doctrine in Béroul's Tristan et Iseut.Classica et Mediaevalia 29 (June 1972): 223-48.

[In the following essay, Sticca explores how Béroul uses Christian elements—personified by the character Ogrin—to elevate his narrative from an amoral, adulterous story to a tale about a spiritual journey toward redemption.]

There are literary critics today who whether out of reluctance to make overt religious affirmations or out of fear to impose predetermined meanings on medieval poetry, have produced a criticism which is both farfetched and eccentric. Although I would refrain from suggesting that, in...

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F. Xavier Baron (essay date June 1972)

SOURCE: Baron, F. Xavier. “Visual Presentation in Béroul's Tristan.Modern Language Quarterly 33, no. 2 (June 1972): 99-112.

[In the essay below, Baron focuses on Béroul's development of visual elements in three key scenes—the Pine Tree, Flour Trick, and Forest Hut Discovery—and suggests that the poet is able to create irony through his use of Mark as the point-of- view character.]

Béroul's twelfth-century Tristan has received considerable attention, but little has been said about its sophisticated narrative techniques and complex irony. The most brilliant of the recent studies, concerned almost exclusively with how the poem illustrates its...

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Brian Blakey (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Blakey, Brian. “Truth and Falsehood in the Tristran of Béroul.” In History and Structure of French: Essays in Honour of Professor T. B. W. Reid, edited by F. J. Barnett, A. D. Crow, C. A. Robson, et al., pp. 19-29. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972.

[In the following essay, Blakey points out how a proper understanding of the medieval interpretation of oaths can inform the critical debate regarding God's apparent support for the lovers in Tristran.]

If a resurrected Tristran and Iseut were once more to stand before us charged with perjury, it seems they would have no lack of prosecutors. As one modern critic would have it, the pair are...

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Eugène Vinaver (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Vinaver, Eugène. Foreword to The Romance of Tristan and Isolt, translated by Norman B. Spector, pp. xi-xviii. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

[In the following introduction to Spector's translation of the later prose Tristan and Isolt, Vinaver briefly touches on the origin and central themes of the legend, as well on differences from Béroul's version.]

The love story of Tristan and Isolt was originally a “legend,” not in the sense in which we now use the term, but in the literal sense of “something to be read”—a written composition which one of its earliest adaptors, Béroul, claims to have found in that form:


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E. M. R. Ditmas (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Ditmas, E. M. R. “Béroul the Minstrel.” Reading Medieval Studies 8 (1982): 34-74.

[In the essay below, Ditmas outlines the evidence for Béroul's knowledge of contemporary Cornwall, citing details of Cornish history and topography interwoven into the romance.]

This study makes no attempt to examine Béroul's Romance of Tristran from the point of view of linguistics, nor is it a detailed consideration of the derivation and development of the plot of the story. Such studies have been published by experts in those particular fields and can be consulted by those for whom they are of special interest.

The present study is an attempt to...

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Peter S. Noble (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Noble, Peter S. “The Lovers.” In Beroul's Tristan and the Folie de Berne, pp. 17-34. London, England: Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Noble discusses the characterization of Iseut and Tristran respectively, emphasizing their wit and resourcefulness in difficult situations.]

One of Beroul's great strengths as an author is ability to depict character, not so much by outright description, of which there is very little in the text, but through his skill in making the characters come to life by their speech and their actions. Inevitably he is particularly concerned with the lovers, whose story after all this is and with whom he...

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Reginald Hyatte (essay date autumn-spring 1983-84)

SOURCE: Hyatte, Reginald. “Tristran's Curving Bow: The Arms of Love's Revenge in Beroul's Tristran.Tristania 9, nos. 1-2 (autumn-spring 1983-84): 70-80.

[In the following essay, Hyatte examines Béroul's use of weapons imagery in Tristran, noting that its main function is to delineate levels of knightly worth, to accent the theme of retribution, and to link narrative.]

Beroul arms Tristran with a great variety of weapons—swords, lances, bows, javelins, and clubs—which he wields in the service of love's revenge. In contrast, Thomas' Tristran is usually portrayed as unarmed or impotent. Weapons, like words, are an extension of self; while...

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G. N. Bromiley (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Bromiley, G. N. “The Making of Beroul's Tristan: The Role of Repetition.” Medium Aevum 54, no. 1 (1985): 47-58.

[In the essay below, Bromiley focuses on instances of narrative repetition in Tristran, concluding that Béroul often repeats older material just before introducing an original passage.]

At line 3028 in the most recent editions of Beroul's Tristan, a new series of episodes begins. By this time, Iseut has been returned to King Mark after her stay with Tristan in the Forest of Morrois. Tristan himself is hiding in the vicinity, in the house of the forester, Orri, but he is generally believed to have ridden off into exile. The...

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Further Reading


Bromiley, G. N. “A Note on Béroul's Foresters.” Tristania 1, no. 1 (November 1975): 39-46.

Suggests that Béroul invented the character of the forester, who does not appear in other versions of the romance, to create a more cohesive plot.

———. “Andret and the Tournament Episode in Béroul's Tristran.Medium Aevum 46, no. 2 (1977): 181-93.

Discusses the place of the tournament episode in the romance and argues that Béroul may not be the author of that section, or that perhaps Béroul's text was tampered with at some later point.

———. “The Order of the...

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