Ah Lancelot, thou were head of all Christian knights, and now I dare say thou Sir Lancelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight’s hand. And thou were the couteoust knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest (Malory II: 530).
By 1485, when Caxton published Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, the character of Sir Lancelot ruled supreme among the Arthurian knights. None were more praised, adored, or respected than he. He was the ideal of an era, the spokesman of an age, the dream of a generation, the apotheosis of the courtly lover.
Although Sir Lancelot was known throughout Europe by the fifteenth century, we must not forget that his character was born in relative obscurity. It was only though a complex series of literary forces that the legend of Sir Lancelot developed from its unpromising roots in Celtic mythology to the delightful tale we read today in Malory. The primary force in transforming the legend was public taste: people knew what they wanted to hear and the legend accommodated its audience. In this paper, we shall trace the history of the Lancelot legend and show how the public’s changing conception of love was instrumental in transforming the legend.
First, let us look at the earliest versions of the Lancelot legend, dating from when love existed mainly in the Ovidian sense of sensual fulfillment, when men were men and woman were cursed with Eve’s Primal Sin. We begin our journey in pagan Ireland.
Long before Lancelot was part of Arthurian legend, he, or more properly his prototype, existed in Celtic mythology. The Irish deity legends contain tales of the Celtic sun god Lluch Llauynnauc, or Lluch of the Long Hand. Roger Loomis has found eight very striking correspondences between this pagan myth and the earliest versions of the Lancelot legend which seem to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the Lancelot legend was derived from the Celtic myth (16).
The story of Lluch, like most Celtic stories, was designed to be sung rather than read. The actual plot was rather bland and had little to recommend its survival among so many other stories. Jessie L. Weston suggests that perhaps the primitive Lancelot story survived, not because of the plot of the story, but rather because of a certain charm in the music with which the lai was associated. The Celtics may have liked the music so much that they demanded more verses and episodes to the song (25). Eventually, some unknown scribe dedicated the story to paper and after a while it found its way to the continent and into the hands of Ulrich von Zatzikhoven..
The Lanzelet of Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, although it is not the oldest written version of the Lancelot legend, does contain the earliest extant literary material we have pertaining to Lancelot. Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet is a translation of “das welschez buoch von Lazelete” which Hugh de Morville carried with him when he came to Austria in 1194 to replace the captive Richard Coeur de Lion, whom the Emperor Henry VI held hostage. The “welschez buoch” is no longer extant, but it is believed that Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet is a faithful translation of it (Webster,5). The original “welschez buoch” is generally believed to have been written some years before it came into the hands of the Swiss Priest of Thurgau, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven. So, although the actual Lanzelet manuscript was written some twenty years after Chretien’s Le Chevalier de la Charrette, we can safely treat Zatzikhoven’s story as being of an earlier period, for most certainly the thematic material antedates the document.
The actual story of Lanzelet is quite simple. It includes, but does not dwell upon on, the classical abduction theme ala Helen of Troy, which has since become part of all of the Lancelot legends. Lanzelet is different than later versions in that this time the rescuer of “Queen Ginovere” is not Lancelot, as we would expect, but a now obscure knight named Malduc.
The remainder of the story deals with Lanzelet’s adventures against a variety of foes in which he wins and sleeps with four ladies, all but one of which pass out of the story without explanation. Such moral looseness did not discredit Lanzelet. Looseness, such as he exhibited, was the cultural norm at his time. As Roger Loomis wrote, “[At the time of Ulrich’s Lanzelet,] society tolerated every license except mercenary or promiscuous relations” (9).
Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet had no mention of the Love-Service or Minnedienst with which we have come to associate the Lancelot story. All mention of courtly love is noticeably absent from the story. As Hermann J. Weigand writes, “It cannot be said of him [Lanzelet] that he fights in the service of ladies. The conception of Chivalry as an ideal is noticeably absent from this biographical romance” (7). This is not surprising, for as we already have shown, Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet dates from a time when chivalric ideals did not predominate.
As we have seen, Ulrich’s Lanzelet is not a Lancelot romance of the romantic kind with which we are more familiar. It is more representative of the early Bildungsroman tradition, those early biographical and historical romances which trace the life and adventures of a character, but give little psychological insight into the character’s motivation.
The next transformation the Lancelot legend underwent was when it came to France and met with the new and radical idea of courtly love.
There are many theories as to why courtly love arose in Europe. Probably the most interesting explanation is that put forth by Denis de Rougemont in his Love in the Western World. He claims that passionate, courtly love developed from a combination of Arabic mystical poetry based on Iranian Manichaeism, Neo-Platonism, and Arabian Mohammedism, coupled with feudal customs and the Catharist Heresy (136).
Whatever the causes are, we do know that in the beginning of the twelfth century, women suddenly began to garner more courtesy and respect. Minnedienst was initiated. Guillaume IX of Poitiers becomes the first troubadour. The queen figure was added to the game of chess and made the most powerful piece. With all these changes, the Church soon began to capitalize on the sudden interest in ladies. Monks began to call themselves “Knights of Mary” and initiated the cult of Mary, as the Regina Coeli.
In particular, France was at first split when it came the new idea courtly love. The North, with its intellectual centers at Paris and Orleans, was a stronghold for the Church, and did not allow courtly love to get too firm a root. They preferred to stick to the historic, battle versions of the Arthurian legends.
Southern France, however, was overcome by this new philosophy of courtly love. The South had its warmer climate, resulting in an easier time growing crops, and therefore more spare time for music, dance, poetry and games. Provençal love poetry flourished in Southern France. The South also allowed women to inherit property. When a woman came into possession of land, she was still expected to fulfill the traditional feudal obligations to her overlord, namely military service and donation of part of the year’s crops. The ladies, of course, could not fight and so the overlord took it upon himself to arrange the lady’s marriage for her, as to get a husband who would prove worthy in battle. In this way, marriage broke down to a convenient economic relationship, with any love existing between the husband and wife being totally incidental (Paton 27).
These new views on the independence of marriage and love found a home at the court of Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleonore of Aquitane and Louis VII of France. Marie, a believer in the new philosophy of love, ordered her chaplain, Andreas Capellanus, to compile a list of the rules which governed courtly love. The resulting book was De arte honeste amandi, “on the art of loving properly,” or as it is better known to English speaking readers, the Art of Courtly Love.
Capellanus defines love as “…a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which cause one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embrace” (2). Its effect is “…[it] causes a rough and uncouth man to be distinguished for his handsomeness; it can endow a man even of the humblest birth with nobility of character ; it blesses the proud with humility; and the man in love becomes accustomed to performing many services gracefully for everyone” (4).
He continues with eight scenarios demonstrating how men of different social classes should confess their love to women of various levels of the social strata. It seems that courtly love was reserved for the nobility and forbidden to the villein, for Capellanus at one point writes, “If you should by some chance, fall in love with a peasant woman, be careful to puff her up with lots of praise and then when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to take what you seek and embrace her by force” (24).
The highlight of the Art of Courtly Love is the list of 31 rules, “…which the King of Love himself, with his own mouth, pronounced for lovers.” We saw earlier how the marriage institution had degenerated into an economic dependency, so it is no surprise to see that number one on the list is “Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.” This was taken so far as to mean a married couple cannot possibly love one another. Capellanus describes a case which was brought before the “Court of Love”:
A certain knight was in love with a woman who had given her love to another man, but he got from her this much hope of love — that if it should ever happen that she lost the love of her beloved, then without a doubt her love would go to this man. A little while after this the woman married her lover. The other knight then demanded that she give him the fruit of the hope she had granted him, but this she absolutely refused to do, saying that she had not lost the love of her lover. In this affair the Queen gave her decision as follows: “We dare not oppose the opinion of the Countess of Champagne, who ruled that love can exert no power between man and wife. Therefore we recommend that the lady should grant the love she has promised” (34).
Other rules include: “The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized,” “Every lover regularly turns pales in the presence of his beloved,” “When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates,” “Real Jealousy always increases the feeling of love,” and “Every act of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved.”
Marie de Champagne’s court was instrumental in bringing chivalric thought into Northern France. Sometime between 1164 and 1177, Marie became the patron, and some say the lover (Paton, 31), of a certain Chretien de Troyes who wrote for her Le Chevalier de la Charrette, the first version of the Lancelot legend to exhibit themes of courtly love.
Although Chretien’s other works exhibited chivalric themes in one way or another, his Lancelot story, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, is fundamentally different than his other, earlier works in that only in Le Chevalier de la Charrette do we see the glorification of extramarital relationships, a precept of Capellanus’s De arte honeste amandi. One way of seeing this distinction is to look at the portrayal of marriage in two of his earlier works: Cliges and Ywain.
Cliges was written around 1176 and deals with the love of Fenice and Cliges. The marriage between them is described in these words:
Both of them are crowned at once. His mistress he has made his wife, but he still calls her his mistress and sweetheart, and she can complain of no loss of affection, for he loves her still as his mistress, and she loves him, too, as a lady ought to love her lover. And each day saw their love grow stronger: he never doubted her, nor did she blame him for anything (178).
Note how this harmonious, loving relationship between husband and wife is in direct conflict with Capellanus’s rules on jealousy and marriage.
In his Ywain, Chretien also portrays a successful marriage. Of the relationship between Ywain and his lady, Chretien writes:
… Ywain is reconciled, and you may believe that, in spite of the trouble he has endured, he was never so happy for anything. All has turned out well at last; for he is beloved and treasured by his lady, and she by him. his troubles are no longer in his mind; for he forgets them all in the joy he feels with his precious wife (269).
Such a relationship is clearly impossible within the narrow framework of true courtly love, as defined by Capellanus.
Chretien’s next work, on the other hand, abounds with Capellanus’s doctrine of courtly love. This was not a spontaneous change for Chretien, but was induced by Marie de Champagne, who instructed Chretien, as she did Capellanus, to write of courtly love. The result of the Countess Marie’s directions to Capellanus was De arte honeste amandi. From Chretien we get Le Chevalier de la Charrette.
In the opening of the story, Chretien expresses his debt to Marie:
I will say, however, that her [Marie’s] command has more to do with this work than any thought or pains that I may expend upon it. Here Chretien begins his book about the Knight of the Cart. The material [matiere] and the treatment [sens] of it are given and furnished to him by the countess, and he is simply trying to carry out her concern and intention (270).
The question then remains, what is the matiere and the senswhich Marie gave Chretien? The story outline, or plot, would be a reasonable candidate for the matiere and the tone, or thematic slant, could be the sens. Thus we see how Le Chevalier de la Charrette became fundamentally different than the other of Chretien’s stories, for only with Le Chevalier de la Charrette did a noted expert on courtly love, Marie de Champagne, give him the story slant with which to work.
Le Chevalier de la Charrette deals, as did Lanzelet, with the abduction of Queen Guinevere. This time, however, Lancelot not only plays a pivotal role in her rescue, but is also her lover. It is improbable that Marie invented the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. A more likely source of the theme of the lovers has been given by Jessie Weston. He writes that the Lancelot legend might have borrowed the love theme from the then greatly popular Tristan and Iseult romances. In this way, the weaker plot of the earlier Lancelot stories could be made to appeal better to “modern” tastes (208).
To illustrate Chretien’s portrayal of courtly love, let us examine the consequences of Lancelot’s one breach of the laws of courtly love.
At the beginning of his search for the captive Guinevere, Lancelot come across a dwarf who offers to take Lancelot to where Guinevere is being held captive, if he will but ride in the back of his cart. In medieval times, carts, such as the one the dwarf drove, were used to take criminals to prison and execution. To ride in one would bring one great dishonor, so Lancelot hesitated for two steps before he jumped on. This moment of hesitation and vanity transgressed the laws of love. Through unrevealed methods, Guinevere learns of Lancelot’s shortcomings as a lover and receives him coldly when he comes to rescue her:
“Sire, truly he [Lancelot] has made poor use of his time. I shall never deny that I feel no gratitude toward him.” Now Lancelot is dumbfounded; but he replies very humbly like a polished lover: “Lady, certainly I am grieved at this, but I dare not ask your reason.” The Queen listened as Lancelot voiced his disappointment, but in order to grieve and confound him, she would not answer a single word, but returned to her room. And Lancelot followed her with his eyes and heart until she reached the door; but she was not long in sight, for the room was close by. His eyes would gladly have followed her, had that been possible; but the heart, which is more lordly and masterful in its strength, went through the door after her, while the eyes remained behind weeping with the body (320).
Notice how Lancelot serves Guinevere with blind faith. Even though she scorns him, Lancelot remains her absolute lover, content to love even without being loved.
Soon after, Queen Guinevere hears a rumor that a band of ruffians has killed Lancelot. As all noble lovers should, she is overtaken by grief:
When I refused to speak with him, then doubtless at one blow I deprived him of his heart and life. These two strokes have killed him, I am sure: no other bandits have caused his death. God! can I ever make amends for this murder and this crime? No, indeed; sooner will the rivers and sea dry up. Alas! how much better I should feel, and how much comfort I should take, if only once before he died I had held him in my arms! What? Yes, certainly, quite unclad, in order the better to enjoy him (323).
Lancelot, of course, is not dead and the lovers meet again in a later scene to consummate their love, “quite unclad.”
Through all his exploits, with the exception of his hesitation to ride in the cart, Lancelot remained the staunchest defender of courtly love, willing to go through the highest levels of disgrace, danger, and still did not lose heart when he was brushed off by the object of his love. As Hermann Weigand describes it, “In terms of modern sport this Lancelot shows a spirit not content with bettering the existing world’s record in whatever he undertakes; his goal is rather to set a record that will never again be equalled” (15).
The idea of courtly love, it seems, did not earn universal acceptance, even in Southern France. There always remained those few people, mainly men of the Church, who believed chastity and faith in God to be the noblest gestures of man. For them, those who found Chretien’s Le Chevalier de la Charrette unredeemably sinful, was the Grail legend created.
The tale of the Holy Grail can best be described as an anti-romance. In praising the pure and relatively noncombatant knights Percival and Galahad, the Grail myth goes against the courtly romantic tradition. With the rise of the Crusades, this anti-romance became quite popular. It was probably then inevitable that the Lancelot would borrow from the Grail myth, as it did earlier from the Tristan legend. The result of the joining of the Grail myth with the more secular Lancelot/Guenevere romance was the anonymous Prose Lancelot of 1225 (Weston, 208).
The story of the Prose Lancelot begins similarly to Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet. That is they both are Bildungsromanen. The Prose Lancelot, however, sheds all resemblance to the early non-chivalric versions when Lancelot first meets Guinevere (Weigand, 15):
And right fixedly she looked upon the young squire, and he upon her, whensoever he might turn his eyes toward her covertly…. Then the queen took him by the hand, and she asked him whence he was. And when he felt her touch him, he trembled even as if he awoke from sleep, and he so set his thought upon her that he knew not what she had said to him (116).
Read again the above passage with Capellanus’s rule number sixteen, “When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved, his heart palpitates,” in mind. This conception of love has the all passionate and chivalric sense of Capellanus.
The Prose Lancelot is much more intricate than any of the earlier versions of the legend. The characters are not all one dimensional. They begin to show motivation for their actions. The thirteenth century public demanded more in a romance than ever before, and the realistic character portrayal and complex conception of love of the Prose Lancelot was much more in tune with the publics want’s than earlier versions (Weigand, 17).
The romance between Lancelot and Guinevere is not as blameless as it once was, however. With the introduction of the Grail quest into the legend, Lancelot can finally be faulted for his carnal sin. In this scene, Guinevere tells Lancelot how their affair has rendered it impossible for Lancelot to receive the Grail:
… And it irketh me sore that through lust of the flesh ye have lost the power to bring to an end that for which all the chivalry of the world travaileth. In sooth, well may ye say that ye have bought my love dear, since through me ye have lost that which ye shall ne’er be able to recover. And wit ye well that I grieve no less therefor than ye, but perchance even more (318).
Scenes like as the above, and other didactic scenes such as Lancelot’s confession and vow of chastity to a hermit (reminiscent of the Ogrin scene in Beroul’s Tristan) and Lancelot’s ascension to Heaven, lend credence to one theory that the author of the Prose Lancelot was a Cistercian monk (Paton,50). In any case, the Prose Lancelot is able to bring out the conflict between the beauty and sin of love.
During the later Crusades, it was versions such as the Prose Lancelot that gained public acceptance. Fifteenth century Britain saw the popularity of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Then came Aristo, Dante, Spencer, Tennyson, T.H. White and many other versions and adaptations of the Lancelot legend. Each age wrote the tale anew, working into it their own images and ideals, combining it with other stories and themes.
As we have seen, the prime factor in transforming the legend in medieval times was the public’s changing conception of love. As they changed from Ovidian to chivalric to religious views, the Lancelot legend changed with them. And so, the Lancelot cycle remains a priceless telescope, allowing us to look back with relative ease, and see how man thought and loved in the bygone days.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Trans Jay Parry. Ed. Frederick W. Locke. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1963.
Chretien de Troyes. Arthurian Romances. Trans. W.W. Comfort. London: Everyman’s Library, 1984.
Loomis, Roger. Introduction to Lanzelet by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven. Trans. G.T. Webster. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. 2 vols. Ed. Janet Cowen. New York: Penguin, 1987.
Paton, Lucy. Introduction to Prose Romance of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929.
Prose Romance of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Trans. Lucy Paton. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929.
De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. Trans. Montgomory Belgion. New York: Pantheon Books Inc, 1956.
Weigand, Hermann J. Courtly Love in Arthurian France and Germany. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956.
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von Zatzikhoven, Ulrich. Lanzelet. Trans. G.T. Webster. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.