If one man can be said to have flown the flag for Troyes across the globe, it is Chrétien de Troyes. Although there is no formal evidence that he was born in the city, he claimed Troyes as his own by assigning himself the name “Crestiens de Troies” at the start of his first novel, Erec et Enide.
On the subject of the “novel”, it is widely accepted that Chrétien de Troyes “invented” this literary form in the 12th century and, as such, was history’s first “novelist” in the modern sense of the word. The novel continues to dominate all other literary forms to this day, having spread across the globe over the centuries since its invention.
Despite his influence, only five of Chrétien de Troyes’ works, written in verse, survive today, two of which are incomplete. Yet the names of his heroes are firmly rooted in our imagination: Lancelot, Perceval, Gawain, King Arthur... Indeed, the quest for the Holy Grail is a tale known worldwide.
He made a deliberate decision to write in French rather than Latin(1), and the Troyen author was a master of the chivalry novel. The adventures of his characters – the Knights of the Round Table – have become the stuff of legend. Chrétien de Troyes drew his inspiration from Celtic legends, making them his own and creating a magical, poetic world of love stories and armed battles.
His tales combine action and reflection, idealism and realism, religious aspirations and carnal temptation, and his characters display extraordinary passion.
In his novels, he focuses on the themes of justice, loyalty and humanity. The author was the first to introduce the flawed knight, with his complex emotions. Indeed, it could be argued that his works were the first examples of psychological study in the French literary canon.
We know very little about Chrétien de Troyes the person, other than his close ties to the Court of Champagne during the era of Henry I the Liberal and his wife, Mary, Countess of Champagne.
By his own admission, the daughter of King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine commissioned him to write a novel and gave him guidelines on its subject. The resulting piece, completed in 1181, was the famous Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart. Like the Court of Champagne its hero, Lancelot, was the epitome of courtly love, an enlightened man with a love for art, science and literature.
It was at this very same court that The Art of Courtly Love, a treatise on the rules of courtly love, was written. It was also the apparent setting for the “Courts of Love”, where noble ladies would bring disputes of the heart to be resolved. In all likelihood, these “Courts of Love” never really took place, but the idea is romantic nonetheless.
Whatever the truth behind these stories, Chrétien de Troyes has stood the test of time and remains one of only a handful of authors from the Middle Ages whose works are still read and taught in schools to this day. In fact, there is a sixth form college that bears in name in Troyes.
(1) The French word for novel is «roman», which originally referred to the “Roman” language, i.e. the “vulgar”, vernacular language, rather than Latin.