In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chrétien de Troyes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals

Medieval Studies Chrétien de Troyes
Keith Busby
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0063


Chrétien de Troyes, fl. c. 1160–c. 1181, was the author of five Arthurian romances in verse (Erec et Enide, Cligés, Yvain (Le chevalier au lion), Lancelot (Le chevalier de la charrette), Perceval (Le conte du Graal), and a version of the Philomela story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The tale of Guillaume d’Angleterre has also been attributed to Chrétien with more or less plausibility, as have a number of courtly lyrics. Less credible is the attribution of two shorter Arthurian romances of Gauvain (Gawain), Le chevalier à l’épée and La mule sans frein, the latter by “Paien de Maisières” (pagan from Maisières). The dating and order of Chrétien’s works are based on dedications to patrons and internal evidence; none are dated with precision. Lancelot is dedicated to Marie de Champagne (b. 1145–d. 1198), the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII, and the unfinished Perceval to Philippe d’Alsace, Count of Flanders (b. 1145–d. 1198). Little is known of Chrétien’s life. He names himself in Erec et Enide as “Crestïens de Troies,” suggesting that he was from the town of Troyes in Champagne. This has also been taken as a pun (a Christian from Troy; compare the pagan from Maisières). He seems to have died in the early 1180s, judging from the prologue of Perceval. His two named patrons situate his activity in the highest echelons of courtly society. Chrétien was the first to write episodic verse romances about individual heroes of the Arthurian court rather than about Arthur himself, the story of whose kingdom had been related in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniæ (c. 1135) and its vernacular adaptation, Brut, by the Jersey poet Wace (c. 1155). Chrétien’s originality lies in the reworking of traditional, mainly Celtic, material, with the help of techniques derived from the Latin arts of poetry, articulating contemporary concerns about the relationships among love, marriage, knighthood, and social obligations. His are the first surviving versions of the stories of Lancelot’s love for Guinevere and Perceval’s quest for the Grail. In France his legacy is directly visible in a number of 13th-century verse romances written in his wake by authors responding to him in different ways, sometimes by means of parody and less directly in the great Arthurian prose cycles of the same period. Four authors continued the story of Perceval, finally bringing it to a conclusion by c. 1225. Erec et Enide and Cligés were put into prose for the Burgundian court in the 15th century. Outside of France, Chrétien’s romances were adapted into Middle High German, Old Norse, Middle English, Middle Dutch, and Middle Welsh.

General Overviews

A number of general studies on Chrétien can serve as introductions to the works. Cohen 1948 is foundational, and Frappier 1982 (French publication 1969) is still useful, although Walter 1997 is probably a better introduction in the French critical tradition. Topsfield 1981, Duggan 2001, and Lacy and Grimbert 2005 provide sensible assessments of the works and critical approaches. A number of volumes of collected essays, such as Kelly 1985, exemplify views of Chrétien from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Burgess and Pratt 2006 surveys French Arthurian romance generally and is useful in situating Chrétien in a French context. Some other major studies devoted solely or mainly to Chrétien and the individual romances are listed in other sections of this article, as representative of particular types of scholarship or as dealing with a particular theme or text. Because the study of Chrétien has not been without disagreement or controversy, particularly with respect to sources or the meaning of the Grail, only relatively balanced and impartial assessments are included in this section.

  • Burgess, Glyn S., and Karen Pratt, eds. The Arthur of the French: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006.

    Contains an important chapter on Chrétien and several other chapters that deal with his legacy.

  • Cohen, Gustave. Un grand romancier d’amour et d’aventure au XIIe siècle: Chrétien de Troyes. Paris: Boivin, 1948.

    Originally published in 1931. Arguably the first serious modern attempt to rank Chrétien among the French classics.

  • Duggan, Joseph J. The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

    A good overview that takes into account most important aspects of Chrétien, from sources through questions of form and meaning.

  • Frappier, Jean. Chrétien de Troyes: The Man and His Work. Translated by Raymond J. Cormier. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1982.

    The classic French introduction to Chrétien, now perhaps somewhat dated but by one of the most influential French medievalists of the 20th century. French publication Chrétien de Troyes: L’homme et l’œuvre (Paris: Hatier-Boivin, 1957).

  • Kelly, Douglas, ed. The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes: A Symposium. Lexington, KY: French Forum, 1985.

    Chapters on Chrétien’s narrative art and on each of the Arthurian romances, by important scholars, make this a good overview of major issues in the field.

  • Lacy, Norris J., and Joan Tasker Grimbert. A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 2005.

    Part overview, part handbook, this collection of essays provides an excellent introduction to the background, texts, and reception of Chrétien.

  • Topsfield, Leslie. Chrétien de Troyes: A Study of the Arthurian Romances. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    Essentially a running commentary on the five romances, stressing Chrétien’s place in the development of courtly literature and his evolving stance toward courtly values and courtly love.

  • Walter, Philippe. Chrétien de Troyes. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1997.

    A concise and generally well-balanced overview of Chrétien’s works, including the lyrics, Guillaume d’Angleterre, and the Philomena.

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