But in romance the middle class had already captured the field. As aristocratic troubadours and trovatori wrote delicate lyrics for the ladies of southern France and Italy, so in northern France the poets of humble birth —known to the French as trouvères or inventors—brightened the evenings of the middle and upper classes with poetic tales of love and war.

The typical compositions of the trouvères were the ballade, the lai, the chanson de geste, and the roncan. Some lovely examples of the lai have come down to us from one whom both England and France may claim as their first great poetess. Marie de France came from Brittany to live in England in the reign of Henry II (1154–89); at his suggestion she turned several Breton legends into verse, and with a delicacy of speech and sentiment not excelled by any troubadour. One of her lyrics craves room here, both for an unusual theme—the living beloved to her dead lover—and for an exquisite translation:

Hath any loved you well down there,

Summer or winter through?

Down there have you found any fair

Laid in the grave with you?

Is death’s long kiss a richer kiss

Than mine was wont to be—

Or have you gone to some far bliss

And quite forgotten me?

What soft enamoring of sleep

Hath you in some soft way?

What charméd death holds you with deep

Strange lure by night and day?

A little space below the grass,

Out of the sun and shade,

But worlds away from me, alas,

Down there where you are laid….

There you shall lie as you have lain,

Though, in the world above,

Another live your life again,

Loving again your love.

Is it not sweet beneath the palm?

Is it not warm day, rife

With some long mystic golden calm

Better than love and life?

The broad quaint odorous leaves like hands

Weaving the fair day through,

Weave sleep no burnished bird withstands,

While death weaves sleep for you.

And many a strange rich breathing sound

Ravishes morn and noon;

And in that place you must have found

Death a delicious swoon.

Hold me no longer for a word

I used to say or sing;

Ah, long ago you must have heard

So many a sweeter thing.

For rich earth must have reached your heart

And turned the faith to flowers;

And warm wind stolen, part by part,

Your soul through faithless hours.

And many a soft seed must have won

Soil of some yielding thought,

To bring a bloom up to the sun

That else had ne’er been brought;

And doubtless many a passionate hue

Hath made that place more fair,

Making some passionate part of you

Faithless to me down there.43

The chanson de geste, or song of deeds, probably arose as a concatenation of ballads or lays. Upon a core of history usually offered by the chronicles, the poet laid a web of fancied adventures, running in lines of ten or twelve syllables to such lengths as only Northern winter evenings could sustain. The Chanson de Roland was a lithe forerunner of this genre. The favorite hero of the French chansons de geste was Charlemagne. Great in history, the trouvères raised him to almost supernatural grandeur in their poetry; they converted his failure in Spain into a glorious conquest, and sent him off on triumphant expeditions to Constantinople and Jerusalem, his legendary white beard waving majesty. As Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied echoed the “heroic age” of the migrations, so thechansons reflected the feudal era in subject, morals, and mood; whatever their theme or scene or time, they moved in a feudal atmosphere to feudal motives and in feudal dress. Their constant subject was war, feudal or international or interfaith; and amid their rough alarums woman and love found only a minor place.

As social order improved, and the status of woman rose with the growth of wealth, war yielded to love as the major theme of the trouvères, and in the twelfth century the chansons de geste were succeeded by the romans. Woman mounted the throne of literature, and held it for centuries. The name roman meant at first any work written in that early French which, as a Roman legacy, was called roman. The romances were not called romans because they were romantic; rather certain sentiments came to be called romantic because they were found so abundantly in the French romans. The Roman de la rose, or de Troie, or de Renard merely meant the tale of a rose, or of Troy, or of a fox, in roman or early French. Since no literary form should be born without legitimate parents, we may derive the romances from the chansons de geste crossed with the troubadour sentiment of courtly love. Some of their material may have come from such Greek romances as the Ethiopica of Heliodorus. One Greek book, translated into Latin in the fourth century, had enormous influence—the fictitious biography of Alexander falsely ascribed to his official historian Callisthenes. Alexander stories became the most popular and prolific of all the “cycles” of medieval romance in Europe and the Greek-speaking East. The finest form of the tale in the West was the Roman d’Alixandre composed by the trouvères Lambert li Tors and Alexander of Bernay about 1200, and running to some 20,000 twelve-syllabled “Alexandrine” lines.

Richer in variety, tenderer in sentiment, was the cycle of romances-French, English, and German—stemming from the siege of Troy. Here the chief inspiration was not Homer but Virgil; the story of Dido was already a romance; and had not France and England, as well as Italy, been settled by Trojans fleeing from undeserved defeat? About 1184 a French trouvère, Benoît de Ste.-Maure, retold the Roman de Troie in 30,000 lines; it was translated into a dozen languages and was imitated in a dozen literatures. In Germany Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote his Büche von Troye, of Iliadic size; in Italy Boccaccio took from Benoît the tale of Filostrato; in England Layamon’s Brut (c. 1205) described in 32,000 lines the foundation of London by Brutus, the imaginary great-grandson of Aeneas; and from Benoît came Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and Shakespeare’s play.

The third great cycle of medieval romance was the Arthurian. We have seen reason to believe that Arthur was a British Christian noble who fought against the invading Saxons in the sixth century. Who was it that turned him and his knights into such delectable legends as only lovers of Malory have fully savored? Who created Gawaine, Galahad, Perceval, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Tristram, the Christian knightliness of the Round Table, and the mystic story of the Holy Grail? After a century of discussion no certain answer remains; inquiry is fatal to certainty. The oldest references to Arthur are in English chroniclers. Some elements of the legend appear in the Chronicle of Nennius (976); it was expanded in the Historia Britonum (1137) of Geoffrey of Monmouth; Geoffrey’s account was put into French verse by Robert Wace, a trouvère of Jersey, in Le Brut d’Angleterre (1155); here first we find the Round Table. The oldest fragments of the legend are probably some Welsh tales now gathered in the Mabinogion; the oldest manuscripts of the developed story are French; Arthur’s court and the Holy Grail are by common consent located in Wales and southwestern Britain. The earliest full presentation of the legend in prose is in an English manuscript doubtfully ascribed to an Oxford archdeacon, Walter Map (1137–96). The oldest verse form of the cycle is in the romans of Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1140–91).

Of Chrétien’s life we know almost as little as of Arthur’s. Early in his literary career he composed a Tristan, now lost. It reached the eyes of the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and apparently led her to hope that Chrétien might be the man to phrase “courtly love,” and the highest ideals of chivalry, in the form of the roman. Marie invited him to be, so to speak, trouvère laureate at her court in Troyes. Under her patronage (1160–72) he composed four romances in rhyming couplets of eight-syllabled lines: Erec et Enide, Cligès, Yvain, and Le Chevalier de la charrette (The Knight of the Wagon)—no sublime title for the story of Lancelot the “perfect knight.” In 1175, at the court of Philip, Count of Flanders, he began his Conte del Graal, orPerceval le Gallois, wrote 9000 lines, and left it to be finished to 60,000 lines by another hand. The atmosphere of these stories appears at the outset of Erec:

One Easter Day King Arthur held court at Cardigan. Never was seen so rich a court; for many a good knight was there, hardy, bold, and brave, and rich ladies and damsels, gentle and fair daughters of kings. But before the court disbanded for the day the King told his knights that he wished on the morrow to hunt the White Stag, inorder to observe worthily the ancient custom. When my lord Gawain heard this he was sore displeased, and said: “Sire, you will derive neither thanks nor good will from this hunt. We all know long since what this custom of the White Stag is: whoever can kill the White Stag must kiss the fairest maiden of your court…. But of this there might come great ill; for there are here 500 damsels of high birth,… and there is none of them but has a bold and valiant knight who would be ready to contend, whether right or wrong, that she who is his lady is the fairest and gentlest of them all.” “That I know full well,” said the King; “yet will I not desist on that account…. Tomorrow we shall all go gaily to hunt the White Stag.”44

And at the outset, too, the amusing exaggerations of romance: “Nature had used all her skill in forming Enid, and Nature had marveled more than 500 times how on this occasion she had succeeded in making so perfect a creature.” In the Lancelot story we learn that “he who is a perfect lover is always obedient, and quickly and gladly does his mistress’ pleasure…. Suffering is sweet to him; for Love, who guides and leads him on, assuages and relieves his pain.”45 But the Countess Marie had a flexible conception of love:

If a knight found a damsel or lorn maid alone, and if he cared for his fair name, he would no more treat her with dishonor than he would cut his own throat. And if he assaulted her he would be disgraced forever in every court. But if, while she was under his escort, she should be won at arms by another who engaged him in battle, then this other knight might do with her what he pleased, without receiving shame or blame.46

Chrétien’s verses are graceful but feeble, and their dull abundance soon surfeits our modern haste. He has the distinction of having written the first full and extant statement of the chivalric ideal, in his picture of a court where courtesy and honor, bravery and devoted love, seemed of more moment than Church or creed. In his final romance Chrétien proved true to his name, and raised the Arthurian cycle to a nobler pitch by adding to it the story of the Holy Grail.* Joseph of Arimathea, ran the tale, had caught some of the blood falling from the crucified Christ in the bowl from which Christ had drunk at the Last Supper; Joseph or his offspring had brought the bowl and the imperishable blood to Britain, where it was kept in a mysterious castle by an ailing imprisoned king; and only a knight perfectly pure in life and heart could find the Grail and free the king, by asking the cause of his illness. In Chrétien’s story the Grail is sought by Perceval the Gaul; in the English form of the legend, by Galahad, the spotless son of the tarnished Lancelot; in both versions the finder carries it off to heaven. In Germany Wolfram von Eschenbach transformed Perceval into Parzival, and gave the tale its most famous medieval form.

Wolfram (c. 1165–c. 1220) was a Bavarian knight who risked his stomach on his verses, found patronage from the Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia, lived in the Castle Wartburg for twenty years, and wrote the outstanding poem of the thirteenth century. He must have dictated it, for we are assured that he never learned to read. He claimed to have derived his Parzival story not from Chrétien but from a Provençal poet named Kiot. We know of no such poet, nor of any other treatment of the legend between Chrétien’s (1175) and Wolfram’s (1205). Of the sixteen “books” in Wolfram’s poem eleven seem based on Chrétien’s Conte del Graal. The good Christians and fair knights of the Middle Ages felt no compulsion to acknowledge their literary debts. But the matter of the romances was felt to be common property; any man might forgivably borrow if he could improve. And Wolfram bettered Chrétien’s tutelage.

Parzival is the son of a knight of Anjou by Queen Herzeleide (Sorrowful Heart), who is a granddaughter of Titurel—the first guardian of the Grail—and sister to Amfortas, its present ailing king. Shortly before she bears Parzival she learns that her husband has fallen in knightly combat before Alexandria. Resolved that Parzival shall not die so young, she brings him up in rural solitude, conceals from him his royal lineage, and keeps him ignorant of arms.

Then full sore were her people grieved, for they held it an evil thing,

And a training that ill beseemed the son of a mighty king.

But his mother kept him hidden in the woodland valleys wild,

Nor thought, in her love and sorrow, how she wronged the royal


No knightly weapon she gave him, save such as in childish play

He wrought himself from the bushes that grew on his lonely way.

A bow and arrows he made him, and with these, in thoughtless glee,

He shot at the birds as they caroled o’erhead in the leafy tree.

But when the feathered songster of the woods at his feet lay dead,

In wonder and dumb amazement he bowed down his golden head,

And in childish wrath and sorrow tore the locks of his sunny hair

(For I know full well, of all earth’s children was never a child so


Then he thought him well how the music, which his hand had forever


Had thrilled his soul with its sweetness, and his heart was with sorrow


Parzival grows to manhood healthy and ignorant. One day he sees two knights on the road, admires their gleaming armor, thinks them gods, and falls on his knees before them. Informed that they are not gods but knights, he resolves to be as splendid as they. He leaves home to seek King Arthur, who makes men knights; and his mother dies of grief at his going. On his way Parzival robs a sleeping duchess of a kiss, her girdle, and her ring; and the taint of this deed leaves him unclean for many years. He meets Ither the Red Knight, who sends by him a challenge to King Arthur. Presented to the King, Parzival asks permission to assume the challenge; he returns to Ither, slays him with beginner’s luck, dons his armor, and rides off to seek adventure. At night he asks hospitality of Gurnemanz; the old baron takes a liking to him, teaches him the tricks of feudal combat, and gives him knightly counsel:

Take pity on those in need; be kind, generous, and humble. The worthy man in need is ashamed to beg; anticipate his wants…. Yet be prudent, neither lavish nor miserly…. Do not ask too many questions, nor refuse to answer a question fitly asked. Observe and listen…. Spare him who yields, whatever wrong he has done you…. Be manly and gay. Hold women in respect and love; this increases a young man’s honor. Be constant—that is manhood’s part. Short his praise who betrays honest love.48

Parzival sallies forth again, rescues the besieged Kondwiramur, marries her, challenges her returning husband to combat, kills him, and leaves his wife in search of his mother. By chance he comes to the castle of the Grail. He is entertained by its guardian knights, sees the Grail (here a precious stone), and—remembering the good Gurnemanz’ advice—asks no question about the magic Grail or the ailing king, whom he does not know to be his uncle. The next morning he finds the whole castle empty; he rides out, and the drawbridge rises behind him by unseen hands, as if forbidding his return. He rejoins Arthur’s court; but amid his welcome there the seeress Kundry accuses him of ignorance and discourtesy in not having asked the cause of Amfortas’ sickness. Parzival swears that he will find the Grail again.

But a mood of resentment darkens his life at this point. He feels that the disgrace that Kundry has laid upon him is unmerited; he perceives the abundance of injustice in the world, renounces and denounces God, and for four years visits no church, utters no prayer.49 In those years he suffers a hundred misfortunes, ever seeking, never finding, the Grail. One day he stumbles upon the retreat of an anchorite, Trevrezent, who turns out to be his uncle; learns from him the story of the Grail, and how Amfortas’ undying illness was due to leaving the guardianship of the Grail to serve an illicit love. The hermit wins Parzival back to Christian faith, and takes upon him the penalty of Parzival’s sins. Humbled and chastened, cured of his ignorance and cleansed by his sufferings, Parzival resumes his quest of the Grail. The hermit reveals to Kundry that Parzival is Amfortas’ nephew and heir; she finds him and announces that he has been chosen to succeed Amfortas as king and guardian of the Grail. Guided by her to the hidden castle, he asks Amfortas the cause of his illness, and at once the old king is healed. Parzival finds his wife Kondwiramur, who comes with him to be his queen. Lohengrin is their son.

As if to provide Wagner with another libretto, Gottfried of Strasbourg produced, about 1210, the most successful version of the Tristan story. It is an enthusiastic glorification of adultery and disloyalty, and dishonors the feudal as well as the Christian moral code.

Tristan, like Parzival, is born to a young mother, Blanchefleur, soon after she receives news that her prince husband has been killed in battle; she names the infant Tristan—sorrowful—and dies. The boy is reared and knighted by his uncle Mark, King of Cornwall. Grown up, he excels in tournaments, and kills the Irish challenger Morold; but in the combat he receives a poisoned wound, which the dying Morold tells him can be cured only by Ireland’s queen Iseult. Disguised as Tantris, a harper, Tristan visits Ireland, is cured by the queen, and becomes the tutor of the queen’s daughter, also named Iseult. Returning to Cornwall he tells Mark of the young Iseult’s beauty and accomplishments, and Mark sends him back to woo her for him. Iseult is reluctant to leave her home; and discovering that Tristan is the slayer of her uncle Morold, she is inflamed with hatred for him. But the mother persuades her to go, and gives her maid Brangäne a love potion to administer to Iseult and Mark to arouse their love. The maid gives the potion by mistake to Iseult and Tristan, who soon fall into each other’s arms. Dishonor multiplies; they agree to conceal their love; Iseult marries Mark, sleeps with Tristan, and plots to kill Brangäne as knowing too much. Mark is here (hardly in Malory) the only gentleman in the tale; he discovers the deception, tells Iseult and Tristan that they are too dear to him for revenge, and contents himself with exiling his nephew. In his wanderings Tristan meets a third Iseult, and falls in love with her, though he has sworn to be with Mark’s queen “one heart, one troth, one body, one life.” Here Gottfried leaves the tale unfinished, and all the ideals of chivalry shattered. The rest of the tale belongs to Malory and a later age.

In this astonishing generation—the first of the thirteenth century—Germany produced another poet who, with Walther, Wolfram, and Gottfried, made a quartet unequaled elsewhere in the literature of contemporary Christendom. Hartmann von Aue began by lamely following Chrétien in the poetic romances Erec and lwein; but when he turned to the legends of his native Swabia he produced a minor masterpiece—Der arme Heinrich (c. 1205). “Poor Henry,” like Job, is a rich man who at the height of his splendor is stricken with leprosy, which can only by cured (for medieval magic must have a say) when some pure maiden freely dies for him. Not expecting such a sacrifice, Henry abandons himself to lamentation and despair. But lo and behold, such a maiden appears, resolved to die that Heinrich may be healed. Her parents, thinking her decision God-inspired, give their incredible consent, and the girl bares her pretty bosom to the knife. But Heinrich suddenly becomes a man, calls a halt, refuses the sacrifice, stops his moaning, and accepts his pain as a divine visitation. Transformed in spirit by this new mood, his bodily ills rapidly disappear, and his rescuer becomes his wife. Hartmann redeemed the absurdity of the story with simple, flowing, unpretentious verse, and Germany treasured the poem until our unbelieving age.

A prettier tale was told, sometime in the first half of the thirteenth century, by an unknown Frenchman under the title C’est d’Aucassin et Nicolette. Half romance, half laughing at romance, it was fittingly phrased now in poetry now in prose, with music noted in the poetic text.

Aucassin, son of the count of Beaucaire, falls in love with Nicolette, adoptive daughter of the viscount of Beaucaire. The count objects, desiring to marry his son into some feudal family that can bring him aid in war, and he bids his vassal viscount hide the girl. When Aucassin tries to see her the viscount counsels him to “leave Nicolette alone, or you will never see paradise.” To which Aucassin answers in a literary correlate to the rising skepticism of the time.

In paradise what have I to do? I care not to enter it, but only to have Nicolette…. For into paradise go none but such people as aged priests, old cripples, and the maimed, who all day and night cough before the altars…. With them have I nought to do. But to hell will I go. For to hell go the fine scholars, and the fair knights who are slain in the tourney or the great wars, and the stout archer, and the loyal man. With them will I go. And there go the fair and courteous ladies, who have friends—two or three—besides their wedded lord. And there pass the … harpers and minstrels, and the kings of this world. With these will I go so only that I have Nicolette, my very sweet friend, by my side.50

Nicolette’s father confines her to her room, and Aucassin’s father imprisons him in a cellar, where the lad sings of a strange and charming cure:

Nicolette, white lily-flower,

Sweetest lady found in bower,

Sweet as grape that brimmeth up

Sweetness in the spicèd cup,

On a day this chanced to you,

Out of Limousin there drew

One, a pilgrim, sore and dread,

Lay in pain upon his bed,

Tossed, and took with fear his breath,

Very dolent, near to death.

Then you entered, pure and white,

Softly to the sick man’s sight

Raised the train that swept adown,

Raised the ermine-bordered gown,

Raised the smock, and bared to him

Daintily each lovely limb.

Then a wondrous thing befell,

Straight he rose up sound and well,

Left his bed, took cross in hand,

Sought again his own dear land.

Lily-flower, so white, so sweet,

Fair the faring of thy feet,

Fair thy laughter, fair thy speech,

Fair our playing each with each.

Sweet thy kisses, soft thy touch,

All must love thee overmuch.51

Meanwhile the lily-flower makes a rope of her bed sheets, and lets herself down into the garden.

Then she took her skirt in both hands … and kilted her lightly against the dew which lay thickly on the grass, and so she passed through the garden. Her hair was golden, with little love-locks; her eyes blue and laughing; her face most dainty to see, with lips more vermeil than ever rose or cherry in summer heat; her teeth white and small; her breasts so firm that they showed beneath her vesture like two rounded nuts. So frail was she about the girdle that your two hands could have spanned her; and the daisies that she brake with her feet in passing showed altogether black against her instep and her flesh, so white was the fair young maid.52

She finds her way to a barred window of Aucassin’s cell, cuts a tress of her hair, slips it to him, and swears that her love is as great as his. Her father sends searchers for her; she flees into the woods, and lives with appreciative shepherds. After some time Aucassin’s father, thinking her safely out of sight, frees him. Aucassin takes to the woods and hunts for her through half-comic vicissitudes. He finds her, sets her before him on his horse, “kissing her as they rode.” To escape their pursuing parents they take ship across the Mediterranean; they come to a land where men give birth and wars are fought by jolly pummeling with fruit. They are captured by less amiable warriors, are separated for three years, but at last are made one again. The irate parents kindly die, and Aucassin and Nicolette become the Count and Countess of Beaucaire. There is nothing more exquisite in all the rich literature of France.

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