Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Anglo-Norman Influences III: Tristan and Isolde
(Required reading in ENGL 252, Great Books II: Medieval to Early Modern Literature; in ENGL 380 and ENGL 459, Love and Death: The Tristan Tradition; and in ENGL 439, Love in Medieval Literature. Recommended reading in ENGL 203)


Along with this online reading, you may find it helpful to read or review the following background and contextual readings:

  • Required online readings: Translatio, "Courtly Love" and "Medieval Attitudes toward Vernacular Literature";
  • Optional background reading: "A Note on Thomas's Tristran" (appendix I, pp. 355-63 in Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, or on e-reserve in PolyLearn);
  • Optional background reading: the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Béroul's Romance of Tristan (if this work is among the required textbooks for your class). 
If you choose to read the optional background readings, note in particular: how little we know about Béroul and Thomas; the fact that Béroul's poem is preserved in a single manuscript (MS B.N. fr. 2171), while Thomas's exists only in fragmentary form in five different manuscripts.  In the Béroul Introduction, pay attention to the discussion of the poem's episodic structure and the comments concerning the broader Tristan tradition. 

Other poems which preserve versions of the legend include Marie de France's lai Chevrefoil (available on e-reserve in PolyLearn if the Lais of Marie de France are not a required textbook for your class), as well as the "Tale of Tristan's Madness" (by an unknown author, it is preserved in two versions, one of which is printed in the Béroul textbook, pp. 151-64), among many others.

The Romance of Tristan and Isolde

The romance tradition of Tristan and Isolde is without question the "best-seller" of the twelfth century. The large number of versions which have been preserved indicate the popularity of stories about King Mark of Cornwall, his nephew Tristan (a.k.a. Tristran, Tristrant, Tristram, etc.), and Mark's wife and Tristan's lover, Isolde the Blonde (a.k.a. Isolt, Ysolt, Iseut, Yseut, Iseult, Yseult, Isalde, etc.). There are references to or full-length adaptations ("translatios" rather than "translations" in the modern sense) of these stories in virtually every vernacular literature in the European Middle Ages (French, Provençal, German, Dutch, Norse, English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese -- even Byelorussian!) 

The Tristan tradition did not represent one unified story with an established sequence of events. Rather, there were multiple versions by different authors, most of them unknown today, which circulated widely. The basic premise of all the stories is the same: Tristan and Isolde fall passionately in love after mistakenly sharing a love potion intended for Isolde and her husband King Mark. In all the versions which recount the end of the story, Tristan and Isolde die of love for each other. But within these basic parameters, the poems that have been preserved offer endless variations on the lovers' adventures.

Béroul's poem (a required textbook for all but ENGL 203 students) is a fragmentary text preserved in a single, incomplete manuscript (MS B.N. fr. 2171). Be aware that italicized portions in your book are NOT translations of the single medieval manuscript preserving Béroul's text; they were supplied by the editor, who filled in gaps in the extant text of Béroul using plot elements taken from other versions of the story (based primarily on Joseph Bédier's retelling of the Tristan legend, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, 1900, a required reading for ENGL 380 and ENGL 459). 

Thomas's text is preserved, in an even more fragmentary state, in five different manuscriptsThe Thomas fragments (printed in the Gottfried textbook, pp. 301-64, or on e-reserve in PolyLearn) recount events from the time of Tristan's marriage to a second Isolde, Isolde of the White Hands, until the lovers' death.  While most of Thomas's poem has been lost, translations of Thomas's lost poem have been preserved in the adaptations into German by Gottfried von Strassburg (ca. 1210; required reading in ENGL 380 and ENGL 459) and into Norse by Brother Robert (the Saga of Tristram and Isold, 1226). 

Some scholars divide the extant texts into a so-called "common" tradition represented by Béroul and its derivatives (notably the Berne manuscript version of the episode of Tristan's Madness, which is printed in Béroul, pp. 151-64; as well as Eilhart of Oberge's German adaptation), and a "courtly" tradition represented by the French poem of Thomas (preserved only in fragments) and its vernacular adaptations (the Oxford manuscript version of the episode of Tristan's Madness, Gottfried von Strassburg's German poem, the Norse Saga of Tristram's and Isold of Brother Robert, and others). While similar events occur in many of these versions, there are significant differences. For instance, in Béroul and the works of the so-called "common tradition," the love potion which caused Tristan and Isolde to fall in love wears off after three years, allowing the lovers to renounce their passion and attempt a reconciliation with King Mark (see Béroul, pp. 95-116). In the "courtly" version represented by Thomas and Gottfried, by contrast, the effect of the love potion is permanent; arguably, the question of the the lovers' guilt or innocence is thereby deflected or diminished, since the lovers are less responsible for their actions.

The existing stories are episodic rather than presenting one continuous narrative. Different texts recount different incidents in which the enemies of the lovers plot against them, the lovers contrive to meet, get caught together, and manage to disculpate themselves. Many of these incidents involve elaborate deception and ruses (e.g. the "Tryst under the Tree," Béroul pp. 47-59; the "Flour on the Floor," Béroul pp. 60-65; and Yseut's Ambiguous Oath , Béroul pp. 127-143).  Other examples of the episodic nature of the Tristan stories include e.g. "Tristran Returns Again" (Thomas fragment, found in Gottfried pp. 336-7 or on e-reserve), the episode of Tristan's Madness (of which the "common" version, a fragment of 572 lines from the Berne manuscript, is printed in the Béroul textbook, pp. 151-64), and the brief meeting of the two lovers recounted in Marie de France's "Chevrefoil" (the Lais of Marie de France, pp. 190-195, or on e-reserve).

You will notice many incidents of questionable moral content as you read. For whom are we rooting as an audience?  Note whom the narrator calls "slanderers" and "liars" . . . those who (accurately) accuse Tristan and Isolde of having an affair! How do you think the Church would react to such characterizations? What would it think about the depiction of the Hermit Ogrin? Compare the advice Ogrin gives the lovers before and after the love potion wears off (Béroul pp. 78-80, 99-108). Would representatives of the medieval Church be comfortable with this representation of Ecclesiastical authority? Consider alsoYseut's manipulation of the truth in the Ambiguous Oath episode, in which she swears upon holy relics, to tell the truth . . . and proceeds to mislead Marc and everyone except Tristan (and the audience of readers/listeners) into thinking she is innocent of adultery.

Obviously, the popularity of a vernacular literary tradition with such a scandalous theme did not sit well with the Church. Unlike Latin writings, poems written in the vernacular could easily be enjoyed by large audiences, regardless of their literacy (since vernacular literature tended to be performed orally and "consumed" aurally by an audience of listeners rather than individual readers). Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot romance, The Knight of the Cart, is in part a reaction to the Church's alarm about the potentially pernicious influence of vernacular romance on an impressionable lay audience. In addition to borrowing the central premise of the adulterous love between a Queen and her husband's best knight, it incorporates easily recognizable Tristan episodes: the blonde hair that causes King Mark to fall in love with Isolde (Béroul 42); elements of the Flour on the Floor and Ambiguous Oath episodes (Béroul 60-75, 127-43); etc. Students who will be reading The Knight of the Cart this quarter should read these episodes carefully in order better to notice and appreciate how Chrétien reworks them in the Knight of the Cart

But mostly, enjoy the Tristan stories.  I think you will find them a good read!

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2013

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