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Chrétien de Troyes was a French poet and trouvère who flourished in the late 12th century. Little is known of his life, but he seems to have been from Troyes, or at least intimately connected with it, and between 1160 and 1181 he served at the court of his patroness Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, perhaps as herald-at-arms (as Gaston Paris speculated). His work on Arthurian subjects represents some of the best of medieval literature.
Chrétien's works include five major poems in rhyming eight-syllable couplets:
The last romance, Perceval, was composed for Philip, Count of Flanders, to whom Chrétien was attached in his last years. He finished only 9,000 lines of the work, but four successors of varying talents added 54,000 additional lines in what are known as the
The immediate and specific source for his romances is of deep interest to the student; unfortunately, he has left us in the dark as to what these were. He speaks in the vaguest way of the materials he used, and though Celtic influence is easily detectible in the stories, there is no direct evidence that he had Celtic written sources. Geoffrey of Monmouth or Wace might have supplied some of the names, but neither author mentioned Erec, Lancelot, Gornemant and many others who play an important role in Chrétien's narratives. One is forced to guess about Latin or French literary originals which are now lost, or upon continental lore that goes back to a Celtic source. It is the same problem that faces the student in the case of Béroul, an Anglo-Norman who wrote about 1150. However, Chrétien found his sources immediately at hand, without much understanding of its primitive spirit, but appreciating it as a setting for the ideal society dreamed of, although not realized, in his own day. And Chrétien's five romances together form the most complete expression from a single author of the ideals of French chivalry.
Chrétien's writing was very popular, as evidenced by the high number of surviving copies of his romances and their many adaptations into other languages. Three of Middle High German literature's finest examples, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and Hartmann von Aue's Erec and Iwein, were based on Perceval, Erec, and Yvain; the Three Welsh Romances associated with the Mabinogion, Peredur, son of Efrawg, Geraint and Enid, and Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain are derived from the same trio. Especially in the case of Peredur, however, the connection between the Welsh romances and their source is probably not direct, and has never been satisfactorily delineated. Chrétien also has the distinction of being the first writer to mention the Holy Grail (Perceval) and the love affair between Queen Guinevere and Lancelot (Lancelot), subjects of household recognition even today.
A French narrative poet of the twelfth century had three categories of subject matter from which to draw his material: The Matter of France, or legends of that country foremost of which was the battle of Roncevaux – in which the sensechal Roland fights a doomed final stand – as well as other legends surrounding the court of King Charlemagne; The Matter of Rome, or legends culled from Antiquity about Thebes, Alexander the Great, Troy and Aeneas; and lastly The Matter of Britain, legends connected with King Arthur and other Celtic heroes. It is to Chrétien's credit that he was alive to literary interest of this material when adapted to suit the taste of his French readers; to his greater credit of giving to the somewhat crude folk-lore a polish and elegance, which is inseparably associated with the Arthurian legends in modern literature.
This article incorporates material from an essay by W. W. Comfort, published in 1914.