Was Chrétien de Troyes a Woman?

by JoHarrington

12th century poet Chrétien de Troyes has been called the grandfather of the modern novel. But should that be 'grandmother' instead?

As Medieval minstrels go, Chrétien de Troyes was luckier than most.

A true trouvère, Chrétien was not required to travel from town to town, seeking out the chance to entertain in order to secure bed and board.

The author of the Arthurian Romances enjoyed the patronage of one France's most powerful royals. Marie de France's Champagne court provided the time and leisure to compose those timeless classics. Her library added to their scope.

It's always assumed this towering figure of Medieval literature was a man. But what evidence exists to prove it? The notion of a female Chrétien de Troyes isn't quite as bizarre as it may at first appear.

The Enduring Influence of Chrétien de Troyes

Every time you read any novel, you can silently thank this French poet. Especially if it's about Lancelot as a knight in King Arthur's court.

It's possible that you've never heard of Chrétien de Troyes. Unless you've delved deeply into the Arthurian legends, or your scholarly studies involve Medieval France, the name rarely crops up.

Yet the poet's influence pervades popular culture even today.

Picture for a moment the world of Arthur. Are you in a stone castle called Camelot? Are all the knights gleaming in shining armor? Do the ladies wear pointed head-dresses with flowing veils? Is Lancelot sitting at Arthur's side, exchanging love-lorn glances with Guinevere? Does the knightly code of chivalry stand between them? Are knights errant coming and going on quests (some involving the Holy Grail)?

Then your imagination has been guided by the words of Chrétien de Troyes.

The poet wasn't the first to relocate the action. That shift - from the hill-forts and battlefields of 6th century Celtic Britain to the 12th century castles of their Norman conquerors - that was Wace, three decades before. However, he wrote in Anglo-Norman.

Chrétien's prolific output was penned in continental Old French and thus more widely circulated. It was the popularity of those Arthurian Romances, which set the environment and tone for most of the Arthur stories told throughout the following centuries.

We think of Arthur in a French Medieval world, because Chrétien de Troyes put him there.  Our common perception is based upon the court of Henri II and Marie de France in Champagne, circa 1170.  Camelot, as its name, was dreamed up by the poet. Its ruler is styled King Arthur, and his followers are all knights, because those titles were more familiar to Chrétien's readers than a Celtic warlord and his clan.

His queen is called Guinevere, because Chrétien didn't think we could pronounce Gwenhwyfar.

Her lover Lancelot wasn't even there, until Chrétien de Troyes inserted him into the story. Now he's probably the most famous of King Arthur's knights, able to be named by those whose knowledge of the tales has largely been picked up by osmosis.

They would possibly also know of Sir Lancelot's illicit love for Queen Guinevere. That epic romance - from initial unrequited pining on his part, through to the scandalous thrill of actual adultery and the climactic betrayal sequence of their discovery - is now generally considered fundamental to the story of King Arthur.

Chrétien de Troyes invented that whole saga. The poet wrote to please a patron and audience passionate about chivalric codes and courtly love. Even today, King Arthur and his knights are by-words for chivalry. Yet they only became such towering examples of the code, because an aristocratic crowd in Champagne expected it.

The addition of Lancelot allowed the story to transform into a classic of courtly love. Thus ensuring that it was the Medieval equivalent of a box office success.

Not merely in the 12th century either. Lancelot and Guinevere's ill-fated romance has been cited as one of the main reasons behind the enduring popularity of the Arthurian legends. It's a plot-line that you don't need a degree in Medieval history, nor initiation into the Celtic Mysteries, in order to grasp.

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Purists may roll their eyes, but Chrétien de Troyes's work - and the longevity of the legend that it inspired - has proven a gift to academics.

Beneath the French insertions, there is a core of Celtic history and mythology. Chrétien de Troyes not only recorded it, but inspired a flurry of fellow continental poets to do the same. Suddenly all over France, Germany, Italy and Spain, writers sought out Celtic legends to rework into their own tales.

In doing so, they preserved a great deal of lore, that would have been otherwise lost.

The Celts themselves had an oral tradition of story-telling. It was another two hundred years before anyone thought to write these legends down in Wales, and nothing exists in the Breton sources before the 15th century. By then, much original meaning had been diluted or forgotten.

Celtic scholars today can easily strip away the continental veneer of those earlier tales, uncovering clues to their own heritage. Nor are they the only historians to benefit.

Practically every century since has seen a retelling of the Arthur story, each one reworked in some way to appeal to its contemporary audiences. That long literary evolution provides an insight into the culture, concerns and mind-set of each era, revealed by the treatment of characters and story-lines. Just as scientists use ice cores to gain an overview of geological and climate change, historians may study the Arthurian legend.

All because Chrétien de Troyes threw in a love story.

Moreover, literary scholars have spotted something quite radical in Chrétien's story-telling, that may well have have a long-reaching effect. The poetic epics are arranged to tell tales with a distinct beginning, middle and end. This is the norm now, in literature and movies alike, but not then. Then stories generally encapsulated single scenes, or told sagas without any coherent timeline.

Chrétien de Troyes basically invented the narrative format that we commonly use today. It would be another five hundred years before it fully caught on, but this is why this Medieval French poet is called 'the inventor of the modern novel'.

The poet left an enduring legacy. Those words - and all they preserved, represented and inspired - impacted the world in ways still felt nearly a millennium on. How possible is it that someone so hugely influential was a Medieval woman?

The Arthurian Romances of Chrétien de Troyes

Unfortunately for those without Old French, we're stuck with translations of Chrétien's poems. By all accounts, the originals are pure genius in their composition.

The Uncertain Gender of Chrétien de Troyes

In truth, nobody knows for certain if Chrétien was a man or a woman. Too little survived about the poet to tell us much at all.

It's generally assumed that Chrétien de Troyes was male. I've certainly always considered that to be the case.

The Arthurian legend has fascinated me for over two decades. A book-shelf the length of my room bulges under the weight of my own personal Matter of Arthur collection. Stories, histories, spiritual guides and mythologies, I've read them all and many hundreds more besides.

Never once have I seen Chrétien de Troyes referred to by anything other than masculine pronouns.

It never even occurred to me to check, until I read the comments to my article on Erec et Enide. Ember asked, 'do you think (the Romances were) written by a woman?'

'No,' I began to reply, then stopped and thought about it. Then wondered.

For all the impact made by the work of Chrétien de Troyes, we know very little about the poet.

The name translates as Christian of Troyes, but that could well be a pseudonym. We can't even assume that its bearer was necessarily born and bred in Troyes. Located within that French town was one of the main royal residences of the Count de Champagne.

In short, Marie de France lived there, and Chrétien was lodged within her court.

Moreover, posterity has favored the moniker Chrétien de Troyes, the poet did not. It was only used once. That was during the preamble to Erec et Enide, which could also be viewed as the opening lines to the first poem penned under the patronage of Marie de France. It was written within the precincts of the royal court in Troyes.

We may speculate that there was a certain amount of glee in securing such a position. A more accurate translation of Chrétien de Troyes might be rendered, 'Chrétien zOMG Look at me! I'm writing for the Countess of Champagne! I'm in FREAKING TROYES!' 

In an earlier published work, retelling stories from Ovid, the author's name was Crestiiens li Gois. Later translators corrected that to Chrétien de Gouaix. Yet a birthplace can no more be proved in that town (located in Brie) than in Troyes. It might merely have been where that poem was penned. Or it could be a mistranslation.

Other analysts have tried to make a case for 'gois' being 'goy', meaning somebody somewhere was Jewish. Oliver Collet went for Chrétien himself, arguing for the unlikely epitaph of Christian the Jew. Others have opted for 'gais', translating it now as Chrétien the Joyful.

Generally, the poet merely used Chrétien. No surname, no designation, no origin. Just Chrétien.

However, that could still have been enough to go on. Chrétien was quite an unusual name in 12th century France.

The fact that the poet was literate, and educated in Classical literature, narrows the field even more. That suggests an aristocratic or monastic background, raising the likelihood of the name cropping up in administrative elsewhere.

Scholars have tried and drawn a blank. In Saint-Loup, an Augustine Abbey in Troyes, there was a canon called Christianius.  A chaplain of the same name served the church of St Maclou in Bar-sur-Aube. There's nothing in those respective archives to suggest that either cleric wrote courtly love Romances, nor even that they were attached to the court of Champagne.

That they signed their names Christianius not Chrétien is another strike against them being one and the same.

Researchers are yet to uncover another Chrétien at all. Though it's hard to read too much into this, as not all historical documentation survived the centuries until the first searches were undertaken.

Thus we return to the only records that we know for certain do discuss the poet. Those are rare self-references dotted throughout the Arthurian Romances.

From these we can glean little in the way of biographical facts. Marie de France provided the source material and direction for Lancelot; and Count Phillip of Flanders provided a book to help Chrétien with the research for Perceval.  The excessive praise of Philip has led to the general conclusion that he'd become the poet's patron by 1187-1191.

Following Philip's death in 1191, no more is heard of Chrétien. There is some debate about whether Perceval was left incomplete, or considered finished by its author. Many other poets opted for the former and there were several attempts by them to complete it during the ensuing decades.

Presumably, Chrétien would have clarified the issue. The resounding silence on that score leads to the general consensus that the poet died circa 1190. No record has ever been found in any parish register.

With so very little to go on, it's not surprising that we know little about the poet's life. Yet it still seems incredible that nothing points definitively towards a gender. That's usually the first label tagged onto any individual.

Chrétien de Troyes Romances (The Matter of France)

Evidence that Chrétien de Troyes was Male

Centuries worth of presuming that the poet was a man may be vindicated. A close look at the prefaces reveals strong hints regarding his gender.

Image: Medieval TroubadorsWithin the Arthurian Romances, Chrétien occasionally discussed the real world, all in the third person.

Patrons are thanked; other works cited; glimpses are afforded into the writing progress; or grandiose claims are made, like Erec et Enide being read as long as Christianity survives.

Those lines are long enough to require personal pronouns, which indeed they do. Chrétien uses the masculine forms. Each 'he', 'his' and 'him' would seem to settle the issue. Chrétien de Troyes was a man.

However, Chrétien proclaiming masculinity in print isn't conclusive evidence that the writer was actually male.

A moment's musing on the history of literature throws up any number of female authors concealing their gender.  Publishers and readers alike were fooled by ambiguous or masculine monikers. The latter group also used male pronouns while referring to themselves in prologues.

Yet there's a bit of a difference between Chrétien's position and, say, that of the Bronte sisters. The latter employed gender neutral names and male pronouns to mislead the world regarding their sex, just as we're proposing that Chrétien may have done. But the tactic worked solely because the sisters could hide away in their Yorkshire parsonage. Neither publishing house editors, nor their readership, ever clapped eyes on them.

Chrétien de Troyes didn't have that luxury. The poet wrote in the midst of his target audience. He met his patron personally, as he enjoyed her hospitality.  Presumably somebody would have noticed if there was a discrepancy between the figure before them, and the pronouns in print.

Then too is a question of motive.

The Bronte sisters faced uproar, when it was finally discovered that they were female. Even the poet laureate, Robert Browning, told Charlotte to put down her pen and get back into the kitchen. It's unlikely that any of their books would have made it into print, if their gender had been clear from the start.

Given that the Middle Ages appears notoriously misogynist to modern eyes - and its writers were mostly men - it might be assumed that female poets would have faced censure during that era too. But they didn't.

Chrétien's own patron, Marie de France, wrote her own epics of courtly love poetry. They were published and survived, as The Lais of Marie de France. Female troubadours Azalais de Porcairagues, Comtessa Dia and Gormonda of Montpellier were all active in France as contemporaries of Chrétien.

A couple of centuries on, Christine de Pizan was a professional poet in several royal courts, including that of the Dauphin Charles VI. She also focused upon tales of chivalry and courtly love.

Further down the social pecking order, itinerant minstrels and troubadours could be either gender in 12th century France.

With neither the opportunity to get away with subterfuge, nor a reason to want to, the case is reasonably strong that Chrétien de Troyes didn't lie. He referred to himself with masculine pronouns, because he was male.

Medieval Music by the French Troubadours

Evidence that Chrétien de Troyes was Female

The 'proof' is much too flimsy to cite as confirmation. But it's enough to challenge my own perception that the poet was probably male.

Image: Medieval women troubadoursThere is one final clue though, which seems to suggest that Chrétien de Troyes was female after all.

Medieval French poets and troubadours often embedded cryptic messages to each other into the fabric of their verse. Audiences and readers would be none the wiser, but fellow professionals could read the code.

A device called a 'senshal' was employed. It assigned a pseudonym to fellow poets, in order to gain their attention and indicate that the next lines were for them.

The senshal often referenced a phrase from the subject's work, or something known about the individual.

This was accompanied by verses blatantly inspired by the work of the other poet. For a stanza or two, each line would ping off the other, matching it in meter, content or rhyme. Enjoined, like some kind of poetic dance, with the twinned words seeming to mirror or answer each other. It was deliberate imitation, used as flattery, dismissal or merely a wry nod of acknowledgement.

Chrétien was well versed in the device. The poem D'amors Qui m'a Tolu a Moi for a moment there reflects in every way lines from Bernart de Ventadorn's Can Vei la Lauzeta Mover.

And it was done in homage to Chrétien too.

Aristocratic troubadour Raimbaut d'Aurenga, Lord of Orange and Aumelas, reached out via the senshal Carestia. It's a pun on the name Chrétien, but could also reference a line from D'amors Qui m'a Tolu a Moi, wherein the poet wrote about the 'scarcity of time'. Carestia is a word that still carries the same connotations in the Spanish language. There it can be used for loss, destitution, famine and the high cost of living causing hardship.

Yet it has its etymology, in the Romance languages, as a concept carried back from Byzantium by the Crusaders. This was only just happening in the 12th century.  For Chrétien and Raimbaut, the notion of kharistikion (the Byzantium root word of carestia) might not yet have become so divorced from its eventual meaning.

There it meant a benediction. Holy gifts or donations given by the Church to those deserving some allowance. Like a man claiming land after performing military service for a certain number of years.

During the 10th century, Byzantium aristocrats used their privilege and power to force monasteries into relinquishing all land, stock and other wealth as charity. Naturally the beneficiaries were the charisticary aristocrats themselves. Passing Crusaders saw the aftermath, with impoverished monks begging for food in the street. Hearing that carestia was the cause, they began to associate the word with the effects of its misuse.

Why did Raimbaut choose Carestia as his senshal for Chrétien?  If it's because the poet knew that Chrétien was a monk, who'd been diverted into the aristocratic home of Marie de France, then its further confirmation that Chrétien was male.

But if it's merely a play on the theme of 'scarcity of time', then a whole new insight opens up.

Chrétien's line was all about courtly love (as usual). It addressed the male hero, beseeching him to keep the faith, despite his lady's apparent lack of interest. Raimbaut responded with these lines:

Carestia, bring me joy
from that shelter
where is my lady, who keeps me rejoicing
more than I myself can tell.

In short, a contemporary nobleman moving in the same royal circles - who either knew Chrétien or could easily find who did - publicly referred to the poet as 'my lady'.

Books about the Troubadours in Medieval France

This was the world in which Chrétien lived, worked and composed game changing poetry. Discover more about these rock stars of the Middle Ages.
The Troubadours: An Introduction

This book offers a general introduction to the world of the troubadours. Its sixteen chapters, newly commissioned from leading scholars in Britain, the United States, France, It...

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Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours (Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the...

Before France became France its territories included Occitania, roughly the present-day province of Languedoc. The city of Narbonne was a center of Occitanian commerce and cultu...

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A Handbook of the Troubadours (Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, UCLA)

This book is a reference volume and a digest of more than a century of scholarly work on troubadour poetry. Written by leading scholars, it summarizes the current consensus on t...

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The World of the Troubadours: Medieval Occitan Society, c.1100-c.1300

Occitania, known today as the "south of France," had its own language and culture in the Middle Ages. Its troubadours created "courtly love" and a new poetic language in the ver...

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Troubadour Poems from the South of France

The poetry of the troubadours was famous throughout the middle ages, but the difficulty and diversity of the original languages have been obstacles to its appreciation by a wide...

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The Women Troubadours (Norton Paperback)

An introduction to the women poets of 12th-century Provence and a collection of their poems. This is the first twentieth-century study of the women troubadours who flourished in...

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Updated: 04/07/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/27/2014

Thank you very much. I'm glad it was worth the read! I totally enjoyed the journey of discovery involved in writing it.

Mira on 04/26/2014

Interesting comments (yours -- and others'!:), and, as always, I love the way you spin your yarns :-) Great read!!

JoHarrington on 04/09/2014

Awww! Thank you very much. :)

Chrétien was indeed at the top of his (or her) game.

WriterArtist on 04/09/2014

Jo - You are an expert in writing history. I marvel at the stories and the narration. Chrétien de Troye appears to be a talented poet whether or not it was a female.

JoHarrington on 04/05/2014

I much rather some long, detailed and informative, than little titbits here and here. Though, like you, I do love Twitter.

Guest on 04/04/2014

I don't know, to be honest, Jo. The paper used to have a webpage for them, but now they're just scattered throughout the content. I would say minimum 1,500 words, which, when an article here may be 400 words minimum, is just a tad longer. I personally love the longer articles and pieces. Sure, I'm a Twitterati as well, but when I write articles, I Write Articles. With some information behind them. Similar to your approach, only nowhere near as many right now.

JoHarrington on 04/03/2014

How long are they?

Guest on 04/03/2014

@EmmaSRose The Guardian has a wonderful thing called 'longreads'. Now THAT's what I call an article...

JoHarrington on 04/03/2014

It's posted now. You haven't yet seen the size of it. Two whole days writing it! >.> I'll write proper things when I stop having so much fun. :D

I hadn't thought that about Wizzley letting us play with length. I guess we're really lucky!

JoHarrington on 04/03/2014

WordChazer - Ah! And there we go. Christian can be a female name too!

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