Chrétien de Troyes Additional Biography

Biography

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.

Biography

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Although details of Chrétien de Troyes’s life are unknown, he names himself in his romances and gives a list of his writings to date in the Cligès. His dialect is that of Champagne. There have been many hypotheses concerning his identity, but no significant evidence in support of any of them has been brought forward. That he was attached to the courts of Marie de Champagne and possibly of Phillipe of Flanders may be detected from the texts of Lancelot and Perceval, respectively. Stylistic traits such as the use of formal rhetorical techniques indicate clerical training, and he may have been in holy orders, although not necessarily higher than the diaconate. If, indeed, he was an inhabitant of Troyes, the site of twice-yearly fairs, he had opportunities for wider general culture than other regions might have provided, and this may account for the variety of his not-too-accurate geographical references. There is, in fact, little beyond the works clearly attributed to Chrétien that can provide evidence, and that only of artistic skill, of this author of at least five influential “courtly” romances.