Born in France about 1150, Chrétien de Troyes (kray-tyan duh trwah), author of the earliest extant Arthurian romances in French, is one of those important medieval writers of whom little is known. Not even his poems can be dated more certainly than the second half of the twelfth century, though they can be listed in chronological order: Erec and Enid, Cligés, Lancelot, Yvain, and Perceval. The latter, containing the first use of the Holy Grail motif in Arthurian legend, was left incomplete at Chrétien’s death. Other works, including a Tristan, have been lost or are of doubtful authorship. Guillaume d’Angleterre, a romanticized saint’s legend, is sometimes attributed to him.
Chrétien enjoyed the patronage of Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who provided him with subject matter for Lancelot, and of Philip of Flanders. His enormously popular works were translated into Old Norse, German, and English, and they inspired later medieval authors to develop the Arthurian legends. Even though there is some controversy among scholars concerning his originality of style and subject matter, he cannot be denied an attractive power of characterization. In general, but especially in Lancelot, he wrote in the tradition of the code of courtly love and followed the rules of Andreas Cappellanus, except that he seemed to believe love in marriage was possible. Perceval, the ultimate source of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal (1882), is especially valuable for showing the medieval ideal of a perfect knight embodying all the Christian virtues. Chrétien died about 1190, probably in Paris.