Madness in Medieval Arthurian Literature

Madness in Medieval Arthurian Literature

By Sarah Lowson

(Ab)Normalities, edited by Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze and Paul Scott (University of Durham, 2001)

Introduction: The label ‘mad’ is one which has since time immemorial been ascribed to those who do not conform to the current norms of a society; who display ‘abnormal’ behaviour. Its scope goes far beyond the realm of the affliction of mental illness implied to embrace a range of characteristics which we today would probably no longer label ‘mad’; subnormal intelligence, post-traumatic stress disorder, manic depression, self-imposed eremitic lifestyle, eccentric personalities, all involve behaviour likely to have been perceived as mad. Arthurian literature of the Middle Ages is indeed not unfamiliar with the depiction of characters answering this description.

Obvious examples include Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, the Knight with the Lion, whose episode roaming the woods as a madman is precipitated by rejection by his wife Lunete upon his failure to return to her from his knightly adventures within the agreed time limit. It is only when a fair lady takes pity on the wretch as he sleeps in the woods and applies her ointment that a cure is effected. Lancelot too undergoes a well-documented episode of insanity when he is banished by Guinevere after she finds him in the arms of Elaine: as a result of this liaison Galahad is born. Even Tristan, famed lover of Queen Iseult of Cornwall, has two surviving poems dedicated to his episode of madness. The Folie Tristan de Berne and Folie Tristan d’Oxford recount the hero’s attempt to make himself known to the Queen at court after a long period of absence. The debate as to whether his mad behaviour is a true reflection of his state of mind or an elaborate ploy to enable entry to court still continues.

medievalverse-24-300x418But these and other well-known examples, which are taken up again and again by romancers, are almost all episodes of love-madness: simply put, a man falls in love, is rejected by his lady and thus loses his reason. The victims display characteristics already long associated with the affliction of madness — withdrawal from society, refuge sought in the woods, acquisition of an animal-like appearance including nakedness, wild behaviour, eating wild plants. A certain homogeneity is preserved as each character reappears in new versions: their story is retold, the episode of madness is transferred, not developed, and taken on, unchanging, as an aspect of their character.

Click here to read this article from the University of Durham


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