Béroul Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.