ENGL 203: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Arthurian Romance I:
Chrétien de Troyes's Knight of the Cart


Review the hand-outs on courtly love and Translatio.  Read Introduction to Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances (1-22), paying particular attention to the manuscript tradition of Chrétien's romances (1-3) and what's known of Chrétien's biography (1-7); recall that he was active ca. 1170-1190. Note comments on the prologues to the five romances (9-12 and 15; review online reading on prologues); discussion of the Knight of the Cart (8, 10, 13-14, 16-17); and Chrétien's influence on later Arthurian romance (20-22). Be familiar with titles of Chrétien's five romances and their significance within this class: we have read and discussed the Prologues to the first two, Erec and Enide and Cligés. We are reading The Knight of the Cart, the Lancelot romance which was composed simultaneously with his The Knight With the Lion (Yvain) (the plots of these two romances are intertwined; see intro. 16-17). Chrétien's fifth romance, The Story of the Grail (Perceval), was left unfinished at his death; it introduces the idea of the Holy Grail into Arthurian literature.

Manuscript Tradition:

Chrétien's Knight of the Cart is a good illustration of the fragmentary nature of manuscript transmission (on the manuscript tradition of Chrétien's romances, see Intro 1-3). It has been preserved in eight full or partial manuscripts. The oldest dates from the first half of the thirteenth century. None were copied during the lifetime of the poet, who died in the early 1190s, leaving his Story of the Grail unfinished. Thus, none of the extant manuscripts of the poem can be considered "authentic" versions written by the hand of the poet. And no two of them are alike. You can explore the fragments of these eight manuscripts in the Web-based Charrette project (French for "Cart") found at


This web site is an excellent resource containing information on Chrétien de Troyes and his Lancelot romance--see esp.


Through the website, you can scrutinize actual pages of the extant medieval manuscript and compare them to a modern edition of the poem. From the Charrette Project home page, click on "Browsing the On-Line Archive" or point your browser to: the original interface at


or use Figura, the new interface at

ORIGINAL INTERFACE:  the nine columns of the chart correspond to the eight extant manuscripts which contain all or part of the romance (referred to as Ms. A, C, E, F, G, I, T and V) and to a modern critical edition of the poem (labelled U, after Karl Uitti, one of the editors of the critical edition).   From the edition of the poem, you can compare how a given line appears -- or does not appear -- in each of the eight manuscripts.  

An example: in the column labelled "U" (ed.) at the right of the chart, click on "1-31" to link to the text of the Prologue in the modern edition. (These first thirty lines of Chrétien's poem correspond to the first two paragraphs on p. 207 of Arthurian Romances). It doesn't matter that you don't understand the Old French text -- simply note that the first line begins with the words "Des que" (as soon as). Now click in turn on the links to each of the manuscripts: A, C, E, F, G, I, T and V. Note that four of these pages are blank, indicating that manuscripts A, F, I and V are fragmentary (the Prologue has not been preserved).

Now click on E, C, G, and T to link to the four remaining manuscripts. On the transcription pages, scroll up and click on the link "Image" at the top of the transcription to see the actual manuscript page which contains the Prologue, with line numbers keyed to those found in the critical edition. Note that three of these manuscripts begin with an illuminated letter "D": In E, G and T the first line begins with "Des que" (as soon as), which the editor of the edition (U) chose to print. One manuscript (C) begins with an illuminated letter "P"; its first line begins "Puis que" (since). Interestingly, Kibler, the translator of our edition, has chosen to follow the reading found ONLY in manuscript C ("Puis que" or "Since") rather than that found in the THREE other extant manuscripts ("Des que" or "as soon as").

Browse around in the archive, clicking on various images, and you will have a good notion of the beauty and diversity of medieval manuscripts. NOTE: "f" means "folio," Latin for "page." The page number is followed by "r" for "recto" (the "right" side, like the first page in a book) and "v" for "verso" (the back side of a given manuscript page). You will be able to see the pores left by hair follicles on one side of the parchment and note the smoothness of the flesh side. You will see some beautiful illustrations and illuminated letters (which are not present in all manuscripts or all in the same place in a given manuscript).

FIGURA (NEW INTERFACE):  Figura allows you to access the transcription of a passage side by side with the manuscript page from which it was transcribed.  

An example: click on "episodes" and then, from the "Text Search" screen, select episode 1, the Prologue.  On the right, in the "Text Object" screen, click on the letters "TR" to the left of the first line of the edition, "Des que ma dame de Chanpaigne."  There will appear, below this line from the edition, a transcription of this line exactly as it appears (spelling and word variants and all) in each of the extant manuscripts which contain it.  By clicking on the link to the left of the transcribed line, you can access, in the left hand screen, an image of the manuscript page from which the line has been transcribed.  For example, below the first line of the prologue you can: 

  • click on "C-27-r" to view the first line of the romance in manuscript C, folio 27 recto (front side of page 27 of manuscript "C"); 
  • click on "E-1-r" to view the first line of the romane in manuscript E, folio 1 recto (front side of page 1 of manuscript "E"); 
  • click on "G-34-r" to view the line in manuscript G, folio 34 recto (front side of page 34 of manuscript "G"); and 
  • click on "T-41-r" to view the line in manuscript T, folio 41 recto (front side of page 41 of manuscript "T").  
The fact that there are no other links indicates that the Prologue is preserved only in these four of the eight extant manuscripts.  (In the old interface, you could consult the chart or, from the edition, click on each of the manuscript letters in turn to determine how many extant manuscripts contain the passage in question.)  ; this chart provides a useful overview of what part of the romance each manuscript contains.)

NOTE: While the new interface offers various advanced search capabilities of interest to Chrétien de Troyes scholars, the original interface makes it easier to page through the manuscript virtually, by allowing one to scroll down the lines of the transcription and click on "image" to access each successive manuscript page.  Additionally, the old interface's chart provides a useful overview of what portions of the romance each of the manuscripts contains.

Framework: Prologue, Midpoint and Epilogue

In the prologue, Chrétien claims to have composed The Knight of the Cart at the request of the Countess Marie of Champagne, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. He presents himself as the servant of Marie who devotes his clerkly skill to doing her bidding, just as the knight Lancelot serves his lady, Queen Guinevere, with chivalric skill. This implicit parallel of clerkly and knightly service recalls the linking of clerkliness and chivalry in the notion of translatio studii et imperii (see e.g. the Prologue to Cligés, 123). Chrétien states that Marie furnished him with his "subject matter and meaning" (207) but neglects to identify what that "subject" and "meaning" were. As a result, there has been a lot of debate about it. Some people (including Kibler, the author of our introduction) take seriously the claim that the romance was left unfinished by Chrétien and completed by one Godefroy de Lagny according to Chrétien's instructions (see the epilogue, 294). They feel that Chrétien must not have liked or approved of the story Marie asked him to tell, since it supposedly glorifies adultery (and Chrétien elsewhere glorifies married love, for instance in Erec and Enide). These critics suggest that Chrétien couldn't bring himself to finish the Knight of the Cart due to his distaste for the subject and so asked Godefroy to do so, turning his own attention to The Knight with the Lion (Yvain), a second romance which glorifies married love. This explanation is shaky, since 1) close examination shows that Chrétien's poem DOESN'T in fact glorify adultery and 2) there's no proof that Chrétien DIDN'T finish the romance-- "Godefroy" may be a fiction made up by Chrétien to warn potential continuators not to add to or change his poem, since any addition or omission to it would "harm the story" (294). In any event, the reference to "Godefroy" reminds us that in the Middle Ages, poetry was typically conceived of more as an on-going process than a product: one poet's work was frequently changed and added to by future poets. (Chrétien's resistance to this tendency is unusual and very "modern"; recall also his pride in his personal poetic achievement as expressed in the Prologues to Erec and Enide and Cligés, 37 and 123).

Whether or not "Godefroy" really existed, the poem was carefully constructed. The midpoints of Chrétien's poems are very significant and frequently concern the hero's identity. In the Knight of the Cart, Lancelot is named for the first time very near the midpoint of the extant poem (line 3676 of 7134 in Uitti's edition-- the one found in the Charrette Project; line 3660 of 7112 in the edition used by our translator, Kibler; p. 252 in our translation). Lancelot's name is a much commented-on mystery throughout the first half of the romance, where he is simply called "The Knight of the Cart" ("Chevalier de la Charrette"). It is extremely unlikely that his identity would just happen to be revealed at the midpoint of the poem unless "Godefroy" was following Chrétien's instructions closely-- or never existed!


The Knight of the Cart suggests that Chrétien deliberately imitated the situation found in the Romance of Tristan-- a love triangle involving a King, his Queen, and his best knight-- in order to contradict the claims of some clerics who attacked vernacular romance as a dangerous and immoral form capable of leading its audience astray. Chrétien borrows the love triangle found in the Tristan romances-- the best-sellers of the twelfth century-- but presents it as force for good rather than evil. Because his love for Guenevere leads him to rescue her from the Land of Gorre-- the "Land from which no one returns" (215, 231, etc.; possibly a reference to the land of the dead)-- Lancelot becomes the savior of Arthur's kingdom, Logres. He liberates the citizens of Logres from prison in Meleagant's kingdom, Gorre, according to the "Custom of Gorre," the law that all the prisoners will be liberated if any one of them is (231, 233-4, 270, etc.). ( Some critics even see Lancelot as a figure of Christ, citing e.g. the wounds on his hand and feet which he gets crossing the Sword Bridge into the Land of Gorre--see 245-6.) In any event, Lancelot does save Arthur's wife AND RESTORE HER TO HER HUSBAND, despite his love for her (272). Moreover, their "love affair" is limited to ONE night together during which, according to the laws of Arthur's own Kingdom, Logres, he has EVERY RIGHT TO ENJOY HER. The "Custom of Logres" (223-4) states that if a knight encounters an unescorted lady, he must respect her utterly. But if she is travelling with a male companion and a knight defeats him in battle, the victor knight has the right to do anything he wants with the lady, without incurring any blame. By this law, Arthur lost his "right" to Guinevere when he sent her into the woods under the escort of Kay, who was defeated by Meleagant. Lancelot "won" her from Meleagant in turn, so he has the legitimate right to enjoy her favors by Arthur's own law. Although they both love each other, they have never slept together before (see Guenevere's lament when she thinks he is dead, 259) and they never will again (see Lancelot's sadness upon leaving her after their one night together: "It grieved him that no second tryst had been arranged, but such was impossible" [265]).

In addition to the love triangle of King, Queen and best Knight, note the way Chrétien plays with other elements that are borrowed from the Tristan story. The "Flour on the Floor" and "Ambiguous Oath" episodes in Béroul's Tristan (63-4; 133-6, 141-2) are playfully combined and reworked by Chrétien in the aftermath of Lancelot and Guinevere's night together (Knight of the Cart 265-8). Unaware that he has cut his fingers on the bars in the window to Guinevere's room, Lancelot bleeds all over her bed. That night, Kay's wounds reopen and he bleeds in his bed as well. The next morning, Meleagant discovers the blood in both beds and accuses Guinevere of having slept with Kay. Lancelot comes to her defense, swearing (ambiguously) that Guinevere has not slept with Kay (but not revealing that she has slept with him!) But Chrétien takes great care to indicate that Lancelot and Guinevere's "affair" is NOT in fact like that of Tristan and Yseult -- it is strictly a one-time occurrence (see 259, 265) rather than an on-going affair involving repeated sneaking around behind the back of the king. "Godefroy"'s closing comment indicates that Chrétien did NOT want anyone to continue the tale of an on-going love affair -- but it happened anyway!

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2008

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