Chivalry, Adultery, Ambiguity: The Image of Tristan and Isolde in Medieval Art
Hannah Perham (Dartmouth College)
History Thesis, Dartmouth College (2009)
As Gottfried von Strassburg claimed in the thirteenth century, Tristan and Isolde2 live on in the popular imagination. The legend of the doomed lovers has endured the centuries, captivating audiences long before Shakespeare’s star-crossed couple. Although the romance has early medieval roots, the story in its familiar form was a creation of the twelfth-century renaissance. Since those prototypical poems, the scandalous lovers have inspired numerous works of literature and art. Wagner’s
nineteenth-century opera Tristan und Isolde immortalized the tragic lovers in a grandiose performance, and new media of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has revived and reworked the classic tale.
The legend of Tristan and Isolde was a sensation in the High Middle Ages, the unofficial bestseller of the thirteenth century. “No reader of medieval literature,” Roger Sherman Loomis wrote in 1916, “will need to be told that among the romantic themes of medieval song and story none threw a more potent spell over the mind of Christendom that that of Tristram and Isolt.” The romance defied the core values of medieval society and embodied a tension between love and loyalty. Tristan and Isolde committed adultery and treason against God and King, Church and State, and these transgressions mesmerized medieval audiences.