Very little is known about Chrétien de Troyes, one of the most influential authors of the Middle Ages, and the man considered the inventor of Arthurian romance.
Chrétien lived in late 12th century France, perhaps near Troyes. However, it is possible that he referred to himself as “of Troyes” because of connections to Marie de Champagne, whose court assembled there. Medievalist John Baldwin also suggests that Chrétien's name might simply indicate an instance of his deft irony: his first name means “Christian,” while Troy was a Pagan Greek city (Baldwin 3).
Most of what is known about Chrétien de Troyes is gleaned from his texts. Each romance includes a prologue explaining Chrétien’s motivation for the story, where he got his inspiration from, and more. From both these brief lines of poetry and what is known about his patrons, scholars have cobbled together a picture of his life. For instance, it has been determined that he composed his romances between 1160 and 1180, and that Lancelot would not have been composed until sometime after 1164, when Marie married to become the Countess of Champagne (Loomis 8-9). All evidence suggests that Chrétien de Troyes was a highly educated man who belonged to at least the minor church orders, meaning that he had religious obligations (Farina 9). He may have, in fact, been a member of the clergy. His texts, however, do not mirror the patterns of those typically authored by the clergy. As examples, Chrétien's celebration of courtly love and his reticence to resort to didacticism are quite distinct from those other works.
Though his romances are phenomenal works of poetry, they take on additional significance when read together. Part of Chrétien’s genius was the facility with which he interwove his romances, developing characters and themes throughout the corpus. Guinevere’s character, for instance, is only partially sketched in Lancelot, while it is far more fleshed out through his other romances (Noble 1972). Like Shakespeare, Chrétien was a master of reworking popular stories and tropes already circulating in society, adding contemporary themes and social commentary to time-honored literary traditions. That we know very little about him does nothing to alter his prominent place in literary history.
Study Guides on Works by Chretien de Troyes
Chrétien de Troyes’s romance, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (Le Chevalier de la Charrette in French), was written in the late 12th century, sometime after Louis VII’s daughter Marie became the Countess Marie de Champagne through her 1164...