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The Setting of the Tournament in Chrétien de Troyes and its Historical Actuality

The Setting of the Tournament in Chrétien de Troyes and its Historical Actuality

By Tiago Viúla de Faria

Medievalista on line, vol.1 (2005)

Introduction: The way medieval tournaments became influenced by their literary counterparts has already been written lengthily about. Since at least the first quarter of the thirteenth century the Arthurian world with its heroes, and their deeds, fortunes and misfortunes, started to be enacted in the gallant setting of the tournament and its pageantry. Far and wide, from Cyprus, where “the adventures of Brittany and of the Round Table were imitated” to the spectacular festivities in the English court of Edward III, more than two centuries later, far from becoming tiresome, they kept on being a joyous entertainment particularly to the aristocracy. The early beginnings of the popularity of Lancelot, Gawain, Perceval and their peers are the work of Chrétien de Troyes, which was to be followed soon after by numerous others.

But in Chrétien’s time there were already tournaments. From c.1160 to c.1190, when he would have written the five romances we know today, he was also witnessing the flourishing of a tournament circuit that was bringing the lords from the Anglo-French world together into a premier league of knightly teams. He happened to attend both the cultured courts of Flanders and Champagne, under the patronage of two of the most active tourneyers of the time; and was therefore almost certainly acquainted with the greatest pastime of the nobility he was writing for. We will observe from the texts that Chrétien does make clear that to a great extent he had knowledge of the procedures a tournament would require in his days. There could be various reasons for organising one, and matters such as the time and the place, when and where to have it, are crucial for the understanding of the tournament in its historical background.

There has long been much debate as to whether medieval literary records are or are not of avail for tracing historical evidence, and if they can be equal testimonies of reality and of imagination. The period that concerns us is not rich in comprehensive accounts about tournaments, and so I will largely rely for my assessments on our other major source of information. It is a biography, the Histoire de Guillaume le Maréschal, completed between 1226 and 1231, which comprises his adventures in the lists, and in the main reliable throughout;

In one particular instance, the portrayal of tournaments, it has been pointed out by Larry Benson that the Histoire’s account of certain of them seems to have been inspired directly by the writings of Chrétien de Troyes, a half-century before.

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