Unwanted Husbands and Adultery : Medieval Marriage in the Twelfth-Century Tristan and Isolde Legend
By Heli Lähteelä
BA Thesis, University of Sidney, 2006
Abstract: This thesis discusses the evidence provided by late twelfth-century and early thirteenth-century romances on medieval marriage. During the twelfth century marriage was a much debated topic in the medieval Church, which was making great efforts to bring the institution of marriage under its jurisdiction. It was thus a time when the marriage philosophy was being molded to correspond to both lay and ecclesiastical ideology. The three case studies focus on Chrétien de Troyes’ Cliges, Beroul’s Tristran and Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan. Even if these romances cannot be considered directly descriptive of the society they were written in, they show what medieval people thought about marriage and what values were directly associated with it in the turn of the twelfth century.
Introduction: Marriage in the medieval period is an elusive topic for a historian to explore. While it simultaneously involved nearly everyone’s lives in the Middle Ages, it was discussed sparingly in the documents that survive to our day. In the twelfth century, however, we suddenly have an abundance of ecclesiastical sources on marriage, due to the medieval Church’s developing interest in marriage as a Christian institution. These ecclesiastical texts are the main surviving sources regarding marriage and they focus on its theological or legal aspects – little is known of people’s actual lives at the time. In the later Middle Ages, when the Church had already established enough control over the legal proceedings of marriage for there to be actual court records, we get glimpses of married life in crisis. However, the formation of the medieval marriage ideology, which still to a great extent influences modern concepts of marriage, happened mostly during the twelfth century. Romance literature is one of the most useful sources for contrasting the ecclesiastical marriage policy, with secular ideas of marriage. The two obviously influenced each other enough for the lines to blur between what can be considered Christian influence and what were pressures of lay society. The study of literature shows glimpses of the kind of conflicts that arose especially between personal feelings and the requirements of secular society and Christian morality.
There are of course great difficulties in interpreting fiction as a reflection of reality. Fiction rarely gives a very reliable view of people’s lives, especially in the case of the very stylised and fantastic approach of twelfth-century romance. However, it is entirely plausible for literature to still mirror ideas and ideals, even fantasies, that people had in relation to their lives. The romances’ ideals of chivalry and the descriptions of love and marriage came from the imaginations of their authors, who ultimately should be perceived as products of their times. The authors’ creative works show what kind of societies the authors were living in and how they experienced the world. If an author’s society was mirrored in his works of art and his stories also found a large audience, he must have succeeded in relating to his contemporaries enough to suggest that his views could be applied more widely to the medieval world.