Chrétien de Troyes’ Cligès, like his later Lancelot: Ou, Le Chevalier à la charrette (c. 1168; Lancelot: Or, The Knight of the Cart, 1913), can be read as part of his analysis of and response to what scholars call “courtly love,” though that is a modern, not a medieval, term. The twelfth century was the first point in recorded history in which the consensus did not hold amorous love in contempt. Both the Roman and the Germanic traditions regarded love as something that conflicted with higher passions—loyalty to Rome in the first instance, and to the king in the second. When political conditions in Europe settled down after the long period of anarchy ensuing from the collapse of the Roman Empire, the troubadours, or minstrels of southern France, began to express a new idea. Peace gave women a new prominence in society, and these minstrels were eager to make a profit from it. They began to write love songs that extolled ladies for their charm, wit, and beauty. It did not matter if she returned the emotion; what was important was the experience and the analysis of the emotion of desire itself. When the northern poets picked up the theme, it underwent a transformation. For such a love to be satisfactory, they argued, it must be mutual, and if it was mutual, it must be deserved on both parts. So, not only must the lady be charming, witty, and beautiful, but also must her lover (the knight, since the common people were not considered capable of fine emotion) be brave, courteous, and utterly devoted to pleasing the lady. Some regard as the ultimate expression of courtly love Tristan and Isolde, the story of the adulterous passion of Tristan, Cornwall’s greatest knight, for Queen Isolde, the wife of his uncle.
Many have seen Cligès as a kind of anti-Tristan. The prologue indicates that Chrétien already wrote a romance “of King Mark and Isolde the Blonde,” and he also makes a number of other references to the story. Cligès suggests to Fenice that they run away together, but she refuses. She does not want others to speak of them “as they do of Isolde the Blonde and Tristan,” for everyone will “blame our pleasures.” Her solution is to feign her own death before the consummation of her marriage and to have Cligès hide her in an orchard. According to medieval custom, marriage was binding only if consummated, so technically they are not committing adultery. In addition, the potion Alis is given to convince him that he is taking his pleasure with Fenice parallels an episode in the Tristan legend....
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