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Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1130-c.1190)


12th-century French poet, known for his five Arthurian romances. Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval, of which 9,234 lines survived, is the earliest extant narrative of the legend of the Holy Grail. The romance was left unfinished, possibly before he could complete it. If he completed the work, its copies may have been destroyed in a fire at Troyes in 1188.

"Thus largess makes the gentleman, which result can be accomplished neither by high birth, courtesy, knowledge, gentility, money, strength, chivalry, boldness, dominion, beauty, or anything else. But just as the rose is fairer than any other flower when it is fresh and newly blown, so there, where largess dwells, it takes its place above all other virtues, and increases five hundred fold the value of other good traits which it finds in the man who acquits himself well." (from Cligès, c. 1176

Little is known of Chrétien de Troyes's life. It is possible that he was educated as a cleric, although the content of his romances is not especially religious even in Perceval, dealing with the quest for the Grail. Moreover, the chivalric conception of love, which Chrétien advocated, was not really in tune with the Church's requirement of chastity.

Chrétien's narration is effortless and confident and does not give the impression that the author himself was a starving poet, who lives by his pen. Developing a style as free-flowing as his required writing lots of drafts and a good supply of writing material, parchment probably. By the time of  publication of his famous romance, he was a mature writer.

Chrétien has been associated with the town of Troyes, the court of the count of Champagne and a centre for the Templars, whose activities nourished the Grail legend. Moreover, since 1070 an influential school of Cabalistic and esoteric studies founded by Rabbi Solomon ben Itzhak, known as Rashi, had flourished in the city. It has been argued that Chrétien's name ("a Christian from Troyes") might imply that he was a converted Jew. Jews were formally expelled from France in 1182.

During his literary career Chrétien worked in eastern France under the patronage of Countess Marie de Champagne (1145-1198), and under Philippe d'Alsace, Count of Flanders (1141-1191). Marie de Champagne also sponsored Andreas Capellanus, the writer of The Art of Courtly Love. Allegedly Chrétien found the story of the Grail in a manuscript given to him by Philippe. Frank Brandsma has argued that Chrétien perhaps invented the source to gain greater legitimacy for his own idea: "Because no trace had been found of the count's Grail book, and since it is also not mentioned or used by poets following in Chrétien's footsteps, it is quite possible that the source book never existed". ('Searching for the Grail: Chrétien de Troyes, Le conte du graal' by Frank Brandsma, in European Literary History: an Introduction, edited by Maarten de Pourcq and Sophie Levie, 2018, p. 111)

If Chrétien attended the courts of Champagne and Flanders, he paid no attention to their political activities, like other contemporary chronicles writing in Latin. His major concern was the celebrated Round Table. Basically Chrétien was an entertainer, whose world of beauty and miracles was removed from the reality of his own time and place. Tournament is portrayed as a bloodless sport, a fight for glory and honor. 

Chrétien mastered Latin, the lingua franca of the educated elite. His translations of Ovid are lost, possibly because only a few copies, if any, was made of the work. Also at least two songs, 'Amors tençon et bataille' and 'D'Amors, qui m'a tolu a moi,' has been assigned to him. From Chrétien's own writings we can conlude, that he had both knowledge of classical literature and the literature of his own time. Much of his material originated from Celtic legends prevalent in Brittany. He possibly had visited England; moreover, the court of Champagne had contacs there. The style of his romances, written in vernacular, is elegant, light and easy. In the thematic core of is the idea of courtly love, a romance between a knight and a noblewoman, who is married.

Although Chrétien used occasionally Christian symbols, he drew very little from the Bible. He was familiar with Greek and Roman mythology, the legends of the Trojan war, and possibly with some Byzantine legends and tales of the Holy Land. Noteworthy, his characters do not cherish the bourgeois virtues of thrift and prudence, but courage, honor, and refined manners. Written expressly for the courtly society, Chrétien's romances were high quality luxury products. The superiority of nobility over townsmen is most clearly expressed in Guillaume d'Angleterre, a non-Arthurian story, which is in some sources credited to Chrétien. Generally this adaptation of the Saint Eustace legend is considered the work of a rather gifted imitator.

For later writers, Chrétien provided fascinating characters, a treasury of motifs, and a new way to look at the romances, a sort of code for the portrayal of the Arthurian world. His poems remained popular for a long period after his death, and influenced the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. These stories were well-known in France through the pseudo-chronicle Historia regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1138). The Norman poet Wace translated Geoffrey's work into French under the title Roman de Brut (1155) and also enlarged it. Though after the mid-1300s, Chrétien's romances were no longer recopied and his name vanished, his influence was still strong. In Germany his achievement was replaced by Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (1200-12), and in England Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur (1469-70).  Chrétien's romances were rediscovered in the fifteenth century, and turned into prose to suit the tastes of the growing mass of readers. 

Erec et Enide, written circa 1170, was most likely the first of Chrétien's long poems. It is in the prologue of this work, where he called himself "Crestïens de Troies". The tale of a impoverished noblewoman, Enide, who is married to Erec, a knight of the Round Table, was based on oral tradition. Enide's marriage is threatened by her husband's search of adventures, but she proves her love for him by disobeying his commands.

Cligès has a wide setting from Greece and Constantinople to the court of King Arthur and Germany. Probably it was modeled in part on Thomas's Tristan, written between 1150 and 1165, whose heroine Chrétien criticized. In the beginning of the story the writer refers to himself: "The clerk who wrote the tale of Erec and Enid, and translated the Commandments of Ovid and the Art of Love, and composed the Bite of the Shoulder, and sang of King Mark and of the blonde Iseult, and of the metamorphosis of the Hoopoe and of the Swallow and of the Nightingale, is now beginning a new tale of a youth who was in Greece of the lineage of King Arthur." (translated by L.J. Gardiner)

In Lancelot the famous knight chooses love over loyalty to his king, but before the legendary adulterous affair his horse is killed. Lancelot is forced to travel in the cart of a peasant, a great humiliation, which he endures stoically. "Whoever was convicted of any crime was placed upon a cart and dragged through all the streets, and he lost henceforth all his legal rights, and was never afterward heard, honoured, or welcomed in any court." The goal of Lancelot's quest is to rescue Guinevere, abducted by Meleagant, son of King Bademagu of Gorre. From the point, that follows Lancelot's imprisonment in the tower built by Meleagant, Chrétien turned the remainder of the romance over to Godefroy de Lagny, who finished it, but why Chrétien did not do it himself is an open question.

In Yvain a knight of the Arthur's court kills another knight at a magic spring and wins the love of the widow. A Swedish verse translation of Yvain, entitled Herr Ivan Lejonriddaren, was commissioned by the Norwegian Queen Eufemia in 1303, probably as a present to her son-in-law to be, the Duke Erik Magnusson of Sweden, at his betrothal and wedding to her daughter, the Princess Ingeborg.

Chrétien's sixth romance, which he refers to having written, is lost. He mentions that he composed Perceval, the Story of the Grail, for Count Philip of Flanders, a crusader knight, whom the poet called "the most excellent noble / in the Holy Roman Empire." Chrétien began to work on the verse romance at Count Philip's request. The prologue implies that the story already existed in oral and written form. In Chrétien's work, the grail plays the role of Hitchcock's MacGuffin (a plot device), but it don't have any special powers, as it would have in the Arthrian legends in the decades to come. Perceval was written after th 1187 fall of Jerusalem. "The Jews, in their wicked jealousy (They ought to be killed like dogs!)," Chrétien stated. 

The hero is the son of the "Widowed Lady," who meets on his wanderings an enigmatic fisherman – the mysterious Fisher King – in whose castle he is invited. There he sees the bleeding white lance (the Holy Lance of Longinus) carried ceremoniously across the hall, and the Grail, which has been worked with the purest gold and set with the most precious stones. The hero do not ask the vital question, "what is the Grail," and after the banquet he wakes up in an empty room, alone.

The story of Grail, or Sangreal, has a pagan origin. It is assumed to be derived from the miraculous Celtic cauldron of plenty and regeneration, which could restore the dead to life.¹ Possibly this Celtic myth also found expression in the form of Sampo, the magic device in the Finnish national epic Kalevala.

In Wolfram's Parzival, one of the famous versions of the story, the essence of Grail is that of "lapsit exillis," a precious stone that makes a man so vigorous that his bones and flesh recover their youth instantly. According to some scholars, the phrase could be a corruption of "lapis elixir," the fabulous Philosopher's Stone of alchemy. In Le Morte Darthur the sacred relic is described as a "vessel of gold" containing "part of the blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ." In Perceval Chrétien do not directly say what the graal is, but the mysterious object can described in the context of the scene as a plate or a dish of some kind; in the story a beautiful maiden carries it in a mysterious procession: it "was pure gold. Set in the grail were precious stones of many kinds, the best and costliest to be found in earth or sea: the grail's stones were finer that any others in the word." ('Searching for the Grail: Chrétien de Troyes, Le conte du graal' by Frank Brandsma, in European Literary History: an Introduction, edited by Maarten de Pourcq and Sophie Levie, 2018, p. 110) Since its birth, the Grail quest have captured people's imagination for centuries, even until today.

Similarities between the Templars and the Knights of the Grail were not coincidental. In Troyes, where Chrétien worked, the court of the count of Champagne had maintained close connections with the Order since 1124, when the Count became a Templar in 1124, after making two journeys to the Holy Land. The Order was officially sanctioned by the Church during the Council of Troyes in 1129. In Wolfram's Parzival the Knights Templar guard the Holy Grail, the Grail castle and the Grail family. Starting from the effects of the Crusades, the circumstances, that contributed to the atmosphere of orthodox and heretical mysticism in the twelfth century, were favourable both to the spread of Arthurian legends and the growing influence of the Templars, surrounded by secrets and mysteries.

Perceval was written about at the same time or just before the Third Crusade (1189–1192) took place. Chrétien died before finishing his work, which eventually had several continuators. It has been speculated that the poet of courage, honor, and loyalty participated in the crusade and perished in the plague that swept through army. However, if Chrétien was born in the 1130s, he would have been relatively old for the hardships of the journey – at that time he life expectancy was averaging 25 to 35 years. Many documents were lost in a great fire in 1188 in Troyes and the year of Chrétien's death is unknown.

¹Jessie L. Weston has rejected this derivation in From Ritual to Romance (1920). It was one of the scholarly works that inspired T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (1922).

For further reading: Memory and Narrative at the Origins of the Novel: Three Studies, from Chrétien de Troyes to Proust by Lorenzo Mainini (2024); 'From Homilies to Little Saint Hugh: Antisemitism in Medieval Literature' by Haley Wells, in Vulcan Historical Review, Vol. 27 (2023); Courtly Pastimes, edited by Gloria Allaire and Julie Human (2023); The Philomena of Chrétien the Jew: The Semiotics of Evil by Peter Haidu; edited by Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner (2020); Réécritures des romans de Chrétien de Troyes: du XIIIe au XVe siècle by Sana Sassi (2018); 'Searching for the Grail: Chrétien de Troyes, Le conte du graal' by Frank Brandsma, in European Literary History: an Introduction, edited by Maarten de Pourcq and Sophie Levie (2018); Chrétien de Troyes and the Dawn of Arthurian Romance by William Farina (2010); A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes, ed. by Norris J. Lacy, Joan Tasker Grimbert (2005); The Holy Grail by Carter Scott (2004); The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief by Richard Barber (2004); The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes by Joseph J. Duggan (2001); Magic in Medieval Romance from Chrétien De Troyes to Geoffrey Chaucer by Michelle Sweeney (2000); The Arthurian Romances of Chrétien de Troyes: Once and Future Fictions by Donald Maddox, et al. (1991); The Legacy of Chrétied de Troy, ed. by Norris J. Lacy, Douglas Kelly, Keith Busby (1988); Chrétien De Troyes, the Man and His Work by Jean Frappier (1982); 'Introduction,' in Perceval, or, The Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline (1985); Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien De Troyes by Roger Sherman Loomis (1982); Chrétien De Troyes by Holmes Urban (1970)

Selected works:

  • Erec et Enide, c. 1170
    - Erec and Enide (translated by Carleton W. Carroll, 1987); Erec and Enide (translated by Ruth Harwood Cline, 2000)
  • Cligès, c. 1176
    - Cligès: a Romance, (translated by L. J. Gardiner, 1966); Cligès (translated by Ruth Harwood Cline, 2000)
  • Lancelot, ou Le Chevalier de la charrette, c. 1177-81
    - Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart (translated by William W. Kibler & Carleton W. Carroll, 1981); Lancelot, or, the Knight of the Cart (translated by Ruth Harwood Cline, 1990); Lancelot: the Knight of the Cart (tranlated by Burton Raffel, 1997); 
  • Yvain, ou Le Chevalier au lion, c. 1177-81
    - Yvain; or, the Knight with the Lion (translated by Ruth Harwood Cline, 1985); Ywain, the Knight of the Lion (translatedby Burton Raffel, 1987) 
  • Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal, c. 1181-90
    - Perceval, the Story of the Grail (translated by Nigel Bryant, 1982); Perceval, or, the Story of the Grail (translated by Ruth Harwood Cline, 1983); The Story of the Grail (ed. Rupert T. Pickens, translated by William W. Kibler, 1990)
  • Philomena, 1909 (edited by C. de Boer)
  • Arthurian Romances, 1913 (translated by W. Wistar Comfort)
  • Erec et Énide, 1952 (edited by Mario Roques)
  • Conte du Graal, 1956 (edited by William Roach)
  • Cligès, 1957 (edited by Alexandre Micha)
  • Lancelot, 1958 (edited by Mario Roques)
  • Yvain, 1960 (edited by Mario Roques)
  • Arthurian Romances, 1975 (includes translations of Erec and Énide, Cligès, Yvain, Lancelot; translated by W.W. Comfort, edited by D.D.R. Owen)
  • Arthurian Romances, 1987 (translated by D.D.R. Owen)
  • The Complete Romances of Chrétien De Troyes, 1990 (translated by David Staines)
  • Arthurian Romances, 1991 (translated by William W. Kibler, Carleton W. Carroll)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1994 (edited by Daniel Poirion et al.)
  • Romans, suivies des Chansons, avec, en appendice, Philomena, 1994 (edited by Michel Zink et al.; general introduction by Jean-Marie Fritz)

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