Apologies for my absence. Lots of applying for jobs, fellowships, and publishers going on. As an apology, I’ve cleaned up and hopefully improved some of the pages on my site. I have also written out a critical bibliography which I am happy to expand on with requests. If the book is older, I have no doubt read it. If it is newer I’m likely to know the author and should be reading it if I haven’t already.
Onto the week’s topic. My thesis and most of my thinking since then has been based on the theory that medieval romances began as historical events. Unlike the modern story based on historical facts, however, they were never transitioned in one step; the process was much more interesting.
An event happened. Just to make it tangible let’s say our end product will be Le Chevalier de la Charrette by Chrétien de Troyes. So the event is simple, someone attempts to steal Arthur’s wife in order to marry her and become the legal ruler of the land she represents. Our abductor is of course foiled, likely being killed as an example to other potential usurpers.
There are no historians in sixth-century Britain, so bards take up the story. They begin with the core elements, but the nature of their education demands that the story itself changes almost immediately. Motifs are thrown in, like the sword and water bridges or an episode involving Picts or Pictish symbols. If it was interesting enough, it would survive in an oral environment for centuries.
In the years following William the Conqueror’s conquest of Britain, his Breton allies would make use of their position to gather as much of the Welsh materials as possible. Their latimari would act mainly as translators of the materials, no doubt altering a few things but mainly transferring the Welsh stories onto the continent into the more familiar French language.
Trouveres, professional storytellers, would take up the story from there. The evidence is that they focused on single qualities for each of the Arthurian characters – Tristan became associated with the hunt, Gawain with courtly love, and so forth. Arthurian tales normally made use of the plot to introduce them and their stereotyped qualities.
Romance poets, like Chrétien de Troyes, took up the mantel from there. Under the influence of patrons like Marie de Champagne they had their own specific goals as well; the rendering of courtly love into a story form. Specifically in the case of Chrétien and Marie, the character of L’Ancelot, the servant, was generated to replace the original hero. So, too, were scenes like the bloodstained sheets and the tournament where he was told to do his worst before he was allowed to shine in her honor.
The transformation, as massive as it was from reality to romance, shouldn’t surprise anyone. The telephone game gives us all a good idea of what happens when a story is passed from one person to another. The time factor (700 years) and the different interests of the various groups who passed on the tales would only have magnified the changes over time. The surprise is that anything recognizable as from about 500 has survived at all.