Who was Chrétien de Troyes, and why are his Arthurian romances important?

He is known as the author of a number of Arthurian romances, but can we say anything about the writer with certainty? And was Chrétien even his real name? Lydia Zeldenrust, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of York, considers what we know

A scene from Perceval, one of the Arthurian romances attributed to Chretien De Troyes

The 12th-century author who calls himself ‘Chrestïens de Troyes’ is a key figure in the early development of romances – a medieval form of literature characterised by chivalry, adventure, and questing, and which features characters motivated by romantic love.

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But we know surprisingly little about him – even his name is uncertain. It suggests that this is a man named Chrétien from Troyes, in Champagne, but the name could also be a pun, where he identifies himself simply as a Christian.

What we do know is that he was well-read, well-educated, and that he worked for courtly patrons in France and Flanders. He may have been a court cleric.

Chrétien de Troyes’ works

Chrétien wrote five Arthurian romancesErec and EnideCligèsYvain, or The Knight of the LionLancelot, or The Knight of the Cart, and Perceval, the Story of the Grail. His works are not dated, but some include dedications to a patron, from which we can deduce their approximate date.

Lancelot is dedicated to countess Marie de Champagne, who did not receive her title until 1159, and Perceval is dedicated to count Philip of Flanders, who left on crusade in 1190 and died at Acre in 1191.

Perceval remains unfinished, and one of the later authors who continued the story – Gerbert de Montreuil – says that Chrétien died before he could finish this romance. Based on what later continuators claim, it seems likely that Chrétien wrote his romances between 1160 and the early 1180s.

Chrétien introduced elements that were to become hallmarks of Arthurian romances, including conflicts between love and chivalric duties, Lancelot (and his affair with Guinevere) and the Holy Grail. His works show Celtic influences and a knowledge of classical authors, especially Ovid.

The unfinished Perceval sparked four continuations by later authors, and Chrétien’s romances also inspired longer cycles of Arthurian narratives, starting a tradition of Arthurian prequels, sequels, and spin-offs. His romances survive in a high number of manuscripts for the period, and they were also translated into many other languages.

Lydia Zeldenrust is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of York. She will be giving a free online talk – Medieval Romances, Trash Fiction and Rebel Women – at the York Festival of Ideas on 18 June 2021. You can also listen to her talk about medieval romances more broadly on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast.

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This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021