1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chrétien de Troyes
CHRETIEN, or Crestien, DE TROYES, a native of Champagne, and the most famous of French medieval poets. Unfortunately we have few exact details as to his life, and opinion differs as to the precise dates to be assigned to his poems. We know that he wrote the Chevalier de la Charrette at the command of Marie, countess of Champagne (the daughter of Louis VII. and Eleanor, who married the count of Champagne in 1164), and Le Conte del Graal or Perceval for Philip, count of Flanders, who died of the plague before Acre in 1191. This prince was guardian to the young king, Philip Augustus, and held the regency from 1180 to 1182. As Chrétien refers to the story of the Grail as the best tale told au cort roial, it seems very probable that it was composed during the period of the count’s regency. It was left unfinished, and added to at divers times by at least three writers, Wauchier de Denain, Gerbert de Montreuil and Manessier. The second of these states definitely that Chrétien died before he could finish his poem. Probably the period of his literary activity lies between the dates 1150 and 1182, when his patron, Count Philip, fell into disgrace at court. The extant poems of Chrtien de Troyes, in their chronological order are, Érec et Énide, Cligés, Le Chevalier de la Charrette (or Lancelot), Le Chevalier au Lion (or Yvain), and Le Conte del Graal (Perceval), all dealing with Arthurian legend. Besides these he states in the opening lines of Cligés that he had composed a Tristan (of which so far no trace has been found), and had made certain translations from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and Metamorphoses. A portion of the last has been found by Gaston Paris included in the translation of Ovid made by Chrétien Legouais. There exists also a poem, Guillaume d’ Angleterre, purporting to be by Chrétien, but the authorship is a matter of debate. Professor Foerster claims it as genuine, and includes it in his edition of the poems, but Gaston Paris never accepted it.
Chrétien’s poems enjoyed widespread favour, and of the three most popular (Érec, Yvain and Perceval) there exist old Norse translations, while the two first were admirably rendered into German by Hartmann von Aue. There is an English translation of the Yvain, Ywain and Gawain, and there are Welsh versions of all three stories, though their exact relation to the French has not been determined. Chrétien’s style is easy and graceful, such as might be expected from a court poet; he is analytical, but not dramatic; in depth of thought and power of characterization he is decidedly inferior to Wolfram von Eschenbach, and as a poet he is probably to be ranked below Thomas, the author of the Tristan, and the translator of Thomas, Gottfried von Strassburg. Much that has been claimed as characteristic of his work has been shown by M. Willmotte to be merely reproductions of literary conceits employed by his predecessors; in the words of a recent writer, M. Bédier, “Chrétien semble moins avoir été un créateur épique qu’un habile arrangeur.” The special interest of his pcems lies in the problems surrounding their origin. So far as the MSS. are concerned they are the earliest Arthurian romances we possess. Did Chrétien invent the genre, or did he simply turn to account the work of earlier, and less favoured, poets? Round this point the battle still rages hotly, and though the extensive claims made by the enthusiastic editor of his works are gradually yielding to the force of critical investigation, it cannot be said that the question is in any way settled (see Arthurian Legend).
Chrétien’s poems, except the Perceval, have been critically edited by Professor Foerster (4 vols.). There is no easily available edition of the Perceval, which was printed from the Mons MS. by M. Potvin (6 vols., 1866–1871), but is difficult to procure. For Ywain and Gawain see the edition by Schleich (1887). The German versions are in Deutsche Classiker des Mittelalters, 1888 (Iwein), 1893 (Erec); the Welsh, in Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion (Nutt, 1902); Scandinavian translations, ed. E. Kölbing (1872). For general criticism see Willmotte, L’Évolution du roman français aux environs de 1150 (1903); also Legend of Sir Lancelot and Legend of Sir Percival (Grimm Library); and M. Borodine, La Femme et l’amour au XII e siècle, d’après les poèmes de Chrétien de Troyes (1909).