on 8 February 2015
A.T. Hatto in his introduction of the Penguins edition states page 9:
“The Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg (fl 1210) has every right to be considered the classic form of the romance.”
This is both true and false: true since it is vastly developed and it demonstrates the Christianization of the tale has reached a fair level, but unluckily false since we miss the second half of the tale which is cut short before Tristan’s marriage to Isolde of the White Hands. But it is long and developed enough to enable us to understand why this story of forbidden love, I mean adulterous and quasi-incestuous, could be accepted in the Middle Ages, in the 12th and 13th centuries, two or three centuries after the main religious reform of the 9th-10th centuries. We should develop this religious reform to understand why these authors were not burnt at the stake, especially since this version insists on the witchcraft that Tristan would have used in some of his enterprises.
Before entering the discussion it is important to understand that “love” in English is not feminine, in spite of the Goddess of Love. Love is just as much feminine as masculine according to who feels it and who makes it. A man is a real man when he experiences love and eventually makes love to the person he loves. In a similar way a women is a real woman when she experiences love and eventually makes love to the person she loves. In a traditional approach, that of this romance, the couple has to be a man and a woman. But that is nothing but a convention. Love does not necessarily imply making love. In the text there is an opposition between “love” seen as feminine and “desire” seen as masculine (202). This reflects the vision of the time that the male lover was dominant. The feminine gender of “love” is of course transferred from German: the word used in the original is not “die Liebe” but “die Minne,” the older word for “love” that produced “Minnesänger” generally translated as “minstrel,” a poet, singer and musician that went from castle to castle to sing lays and other poems or romances generally centered on love, but also on heroic fights. This remark enables me to say right away that Tristan and Isolde must have had a long oral career in Wales, Cornwall, and maybe though marginally Ireland. There might also have been a Breton or maybe even Gaulish tradition. The Celtic roots of the tale are practically all erased in this versiun but they are quite strong in previous versions and in traditional documents quoting Tristan, or Dristan or Drystan such as the Triads of the Island of Britain from Wales. See Rachel Bromwich and her edition of these triads.
This German version is written from previous French versions, in fact Anglo-French which is the Norman French dialect as it was spoken more than one century after Hastings (1066). English does not exist yet. The natives are speaking some Anglo-Saxon dialects or languages whereas the invaders or conquerors are speaking the French dialect of Normandy, a dialect of the Oil language of Northern France not to be mixed with Breton, Picard or Occitan. At the time, that of Eleanor of Aquitania for example, the most dynamic culture was in Occitania and the South West of what is France today. Troubadours existed already in some parts of Occitania. Trouvères did not exist yet. The first one, Conon de Béthune, was just born (c. 1150) and he wrote and spoke Picard and not Oil. Picard is highly different at the time from Oil language and Norman French or Anglo-French. Eleanor of Aquitania was speaking some Occitan dialect since she was from Monségur (in Gironde today) in the very heart of the vast Gascony of the time.
The father is presented as a military hero, a knight that gets his best reputation from fighting. He is a traditional warrior and as such he seduces the sister of the young king of Cornwall, Mark. She visits him under disguise when he is supposedly dying after a harsh battle and she revived him so much that on his “death”-bed he makes her pregnant. When he has to go home to defend his own territory she elopes with him. We assume that the advice to marry is actually respected though it is not clearly described. He goes to battle and is killed which means that he loses his territory to a certain Morgan. His wife Blancheflor delivers a boy and dies in childbirth. The boy will never know his mother alive since she dies when he was actually being born. He was born from a dead mother. He will be hidden under the name of Tristan, duly baptized, as one of the sons of the Steward or Marshall who will take care of what’s left of Parmenie, Tristan’s land after accepting the authority of the Morgan who killed Tristan’s father. This man, Tristan considers his father, is Rual li Foitenant.
He gets the best education which explains why he is abducted by Norwegian merchants who are at once taken in a storm and have to release Tristan in Cornwall. There he is helped by two pilgrims, joins a hunt and shows his mastery in venery by demonstrating how excoriation (the break-up), then the fourchie and finally the quarry are supposed to be performed. Taken to the court of King Mark he is at once accepted. He later demonstrates his musical talent by competing with a minstrel on the harp. He is only fourteen, which is the normal age of adulthood at the time for boys. Girls were often married as soon as the age of thirteen.
That’s when Rual who had been looking for Tristan finally arrives in Cornwall and is recognized by Tristan who introduces him as his father to King Mark. Tristan’s real identity is revealed. He is the direct cousin of King Mark who at once practically adopts him as his future heir declaring he has no intention of marrying and having an heir of his own. Tristan has to go back to Parmenie to avenge his father and kill Morgan.
CHRISTIAN GOD ANC CELTIC TRADITION
It is necessary at this moment to insist on the presence of God in this story. God is mentioned all the time as the only protector of humanity, of justice, of stability on earth. This is not a side remark. It is a fundamental characteristic of this version. Just in that constant reference to God the story has been Christianized to the utmost and this Christianization explains the eradication of all Celtic elements. But this eradication has to be based on a sacrifice of some sort and that will come with the Morold.
The Morold is the one who imposed a tribute onto Cornwall and England. Note we are definitely situated after King Arthur, after the transition between the old ante-Christian world and the introduction of Christianity. It is extremely important to understand this new phase of the eradication of all Celtic and archaic practices. Morold is, as the text says, “justly slain” because “ he had placed his trust not in God but in his own strength, and had always come to battle with violence and pride, in which he was laid low.” (137) That is the difference with Tristan who has always invoked God and trusted God to support him in this battle because it is just in God’s own terms: it is a battle to get rid of an unacceptable tribute, reduced in this version to 30 boys and only boys (meaning still virginal hence before puberty, so between ten and twelve) from Cornwall and England each. Note the unity once again.
This is the first stage of the eradication of Celtic mythology and what is probably considered superstitions and identified as witchcraft in Queen Isolde and what the barons accuse Tristan of practicing.
The second step of this stage is the poisoned wound and its treatment. Tristan has to go to Ireland to get the proper treatment from Queen Isolde. He is taken there on a ship and he is accompanied by Curvenal. It’s only when they come close to Dublin that Tristan is set in a barque with some provisions and his harp. Once again the magic of the full trip done in a barque transported by winds and currents is gotten rid of because unrealistic. Now he is able to charm the people with his harp and singing. That enables him to get to the Queen and her daughter, the two Isolde. He is treated, healed and he instructs Princess Isolde in Latin, the art of writing, and playing string instruments (199). All that under the fake identity of Tantris
He comes back to Cornwall to be confronted to rumors about his witchcraft. He is called a trickster. King Mark is manipulated into accepting to marry to have an heir of his own and the woman chosen by the barons is Princess Isolde. They even suggest Tristan is supposed to go. So he gets ready for the second voyage with “twenty dependable knights . . . sixty mercenaries . . . twenty barons without pay.” (154) Tristan declares the ship as a merchant ship and he asks for protection from the King. This procedure is part of the Peace of God movement that developed, at the initiative of the Catholic Church from the end of the 10th century starting in Aurillac with the support of Occitan bishops from Le Puy, Clermont Ferrand and the bishop of Poitiers attached at the time to Gascony and Guyenne. That movement enabled merchants to travel and take part in important markets all over Europe. They were protected on their trips by local kings and nobles and then during their stays on the markets. Tristan uses that privilege and the King of Ireland grants him the favor. But the second stage of the eradication of Celtic roots comes with the killing of a dragon, one Indo-European rooted important symbol of Celtic culture. The hero has to kill the dragon in that tradition. But the whole scene is set so that it becomes a ritual sacrifice. First the hero is infested by the tongue of the dragon; then the head is removed by some cheater who wants to get the credit of the killing. This leads the whole killing of the dragon into a law suit in Ireland because the prize of the killing, the daughter of the king and half the kingdom, is bluntly refused by the Queen herself and of course the Princess.
THE DRAGON RITUAL
But, and that is the essential element, to refuse without forcing the king to be unfaithful they have to prove the fake killer is just that. So the two women go out and recuperate Tristan, heal him from the poisoning and he is the one who is going to save their day by proving, with the tongue, that he is the real killer. But He is discovered as being Tristan and not Tantris as he was pretending. That requires the two Isolde to be politicians and not avengers. It is rather easy for the queen but it is very difficult for the princess. Tristan is nevertheless accepted, even by the king at the request of the Queen and with the promise of an important gift. Tristan thus saves the day, the pretending fake killer is sent back to his fief and Isolde is won by Tristan for her to become the wife of his uncle. The second stage of this eradication is successful. Note this dragon was taking any time he wanted a tribute on the population of Ireland.
This second stage very clearly brings in the Peace of God in the negotiation and agreement around an alliance between the old foes of Ireland and Cornwall-England with the marriage of King Mark and Princess Isolde. The reconciliation is emphasized by the fact that Tristan speaks French or Breton with Curvenal and it is clearly stated that the Barons who take part in the celebration of this reconciliation cannot speak to the locals because they do not have the language, which is Irish Celtic. This is partly surprising but is important because the reconciliation is all the more seen as bridging more than a piece of sea, but also two cultures, two countries, two worlds. The reconciliation is also the proper time to repair the old tribute of Morold’s time: all surviving slaves that had been taken are authorized to go back to their families and are freed for that purpose.
Isolde is clearly depicted as unable to drop her hatred against Tristan and her desire to get vengeance for Morold’s death. That’s when she and Tristan are presented, by accident, by some young maids, with the philter. And Love is then shown as the “reconciler.” From this moment on love is the only passion that can exist between Isolde and Tristan. Love is described and identified in all possible ways. Till the end of the book. Love is an arch-disturber of tranquility, the way-layer of hearts, the reconciler able to purge hearts of enmity. Love can wound Tristan’s heart and soul with Isolde. Love is able to harass, torment, make Tristan suffer more than Honor or Loyalty. Love is a noose. Love is a dyer and it can paint lovers’ cheeks. Love has huntsmen, lovers. Isolde is Love’s falcon. Love brings suffering: it sees lovers “pining and languishing, sighing and sorrowing, musing and dreaming and changing color.” (200) Love is also a physician, as much as an ensnarer. Love is the instructor of perfidy, fraud and even murder. Love can gild your joys, but love is blindness. “Love’s blindness blinds outside and in” (275) But the author clearly opposes “love” seen as feminine and “desire” seen as masculine and the previous blindness is immediately, on the same page amplified: “no blindness blinds so utterly as lust and appetite.” (200) This is the very heart of the romance here: love is maybe dangerous, probably beautiful but love must not be abandoned to the domination of “lust” and “desire.”
That’s probably the most important originality of this romance. And yet the Celtic roots are not completely eradicated.
AFTER THE MARRIAGE
After the marriage Tristan and Isolde will continue their passion started on the ship with all traditional elements: the loss of Isolde’s virginity, Brangane’s substitution for the wedding night, the attempt to have Brangane killed (not by two serfs but by two knights) and its lucky failure, the metaphor of the pure white nightshirts. The traditional three (expanded to four in later versions) plotting barons are dropped but replaced by another triplet: Melot the dwarf, Mark the king and Marjodoc the Chief Steward. Of course we have the king – with the dwarf – spying from up in a tree, and the subsequent fake rendezvous. But what is essential is that this version insists constantly on justice and what is today called “due course of justice.” The king summons his council at his own initiative. In that council the best advice comes from the Bishop of the Thames, which leads to an ordeal: a judgment of God. Isolde will have to swear an oath on the reliquary of the country and then accept to seize a red-hot iron to prove her truth. She will arrange Tristan disguised as a pilgrim to carry her across some ford and to fall with her in his arms on the other bank. She will make fun on the incident and that will enable her to lie without lying with some double-entendre in her oath: “No man in the world had carnal knowledge of me or lay in my arms or beside me but you, always excepting the poor pilgrim whom, with your own eyes, you saw laying in my arms.” (247-248) She is lying and not lying since for the human audience the man in whose arms she fell is a pilgrim, hence not Tristan, whereas the man being Tristan in reality she did not lie in the eyes of God. And that is the main contradiction of this Christian religion and its confession. You can easily fool God. The author says is in quite more words than I.
“Thus it was made manifest and confirmed to all the world that Christ in His great virtue is pliant as a windblown sleeve. He falls into place and clings, whichever way you try Him, closely and smoothly, as He is bound to do. He is at the beck of every heart, for honest deeds or fraud. Be it deadly earnest or a game, He is just as you would have Him. This was amply revealed in the facile Queen. She was saved by her guile and by the doctored oath that went flying up to God, with the result that she redeemed her honor and was again much beloved of her lord Mark, and was praised, lauded, and esteemed among the people.” (248)
THIRD STAGE OF CELTIC ERADICATION
For no reason at all Tristan sails to Duke Gilan in Swales. There he will go through the third stage of the eradication of all Celtic old traditions. In order to obtain a very bewitched dog he will go out and kill a giant, Urgan li Vilus who is also a tribute taker, this time cattle from the Duke. Tristan will be successful, the third stage of the sacrifice will take place and be fulfilled. Tristan will win the bewitched little dog and have it sent to Isolde who completes the eradication by destroying the magic bell it carried. The dog will not be bewitched any more.
But now the old Celtic roots have been eradicated the story must go on as for love and the ethical morality that has to come. So rumors going on King Mark finally bans the two suspects. They disappear in some forest and live in a cave. The cave, dedicated to the Goddess of Love, is ”la fossiure a la gent amant” or “the Cave of Lovers.”
We should spend a good twenty pages on the description of the cave, in German if possible. But let me be slightly less verbose. The cave embodies various qualities of Love. Its roundness represents Love’s simplicity, no corners, no cunning, no treachery. Its breadth represents love’s power without end. Its height represents love’s aspiration to reach the crowning virtues. It being white, smooth and even represents love’s integrity and love’s constancy. The bed being made of crystal represents the full transparency and translucency of love. It has no lock or key outside on love’s gate, so you cannot enter it by treachery, by deceit or by force. Two bars outside are the seals of love. One is made of cedar, love’s discretion and understanding. The other is made of ivory, love’s purity and modesty. The spindle of tin is the symbol of love’s firm intent. The latch of gold is the symbol of success for love’s transports. Finally the three small windows in the cave represent kindness, humility and breeding. The light that comes through these three windows is the symbol of Honor, the dearest of all luminaries. And here we are in connection with two other fundamental allusion to Genesis.
When Tristan is revived from his swoon because of the dragon’s poisoned tongue, he says:
“Ah, merciful Lord, Thou has not forgotten me! Three lights encompass me, the rarest in all the world, joy and succor to many hearts, delight of many eyes – Isolde, the bright Sun; her mother isolde, the glad Dawn; and noble Brangane, the fair Full Moon!” (166)
And it will be repeated page 185-187.
Genesis 1:14-16 King James Version
“And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.”
The binary character of these two luminaries, Sun and Moon, rejecting the stars out of this logic of light giving, is made ternary in the most beautiful Christian way with the metaphor of dawn, the daybreak that gives birth to the Sun itself applied to Queen Isolde, the mother of Princess Isolde. We can also note the social stratification that makes Brangane, Isolde’s cousin, a secondary person. Note the two luminaries, the Sun and the Moon, are not really sexualized in this context and their grammatical gender is rather not stiff in English, even if some popular version might see the Sun as being male and the Moon as being female. In German it is slightly different since “die lichte Sonne” is feminine, das fröhliche Morgenroth” is neuter and “der Vollmond” is masculine. We can wonder where the stars are. They are not very far. And they are attached to Tristan:
“On his head he wore an aureole of cunning workmanship – an excellent chaplet that burned like candlelight and from which topaz and sardonyx, chrysolite and ruby, shone out like stars.” (187-188)
These stars are Tristan. We have to see the Christian symbols of the aureole and the chaplet. We could also consider candlelight has going along with these two, building one more ternary group. And yet the Christian symbol of four is imposed onto these happy trinities. Sun, Dawn, Moon and the stars; Princess Isolde, Queen Isolde, Brangane and Tristan ring out like the crucifixion in standard Romanesque symbology. We should be more thorough with such numerical symbols and we would find some others like five, six, seven, eight and nine, all having a heavy meaning in Romanesque culture. But that would lead us too far here.
ADAM AND EVE
The last important element is connected with Genesis. It is the strongly anti-women discourse of this version of the romance. The philter that means hell for Tristan was prepared by a woman, entrusted to a woman, served by several women, drunk along with another woman and this last woman is heavily identified to Eve. But it is not only some standard reference.
When King Mark discovers the two lovers in the cave: he can’t go in because there is no way to open the gate. He can only look through one window. He blocks it with flowers and earth because the sun goes through and falls on Isolde’s face. So there is no ermine glove, no exchange of swords, no exchange of rings, no confession to a monk, no repentance (because the philter is no longer active or for any other reason), no reference to Saint John’s night, no absolution and no penitence. The king will just let them know they are welcome back, though he will at once suspect something, will finally come upon them lying together amorously in the garden one hot afternoon. They will be separated. No stake, no escape, no lepers, no chapel and Tristan’s leap, just the plain banning of Tristan. No killing of three or four barons. Just Tristan regressing to being a warrior in Germany and Arundel. That brings in Kaedin and Isolde of the White Hands. But we can overlook this beginning of this uncompleted second part of the story.
But let us come back to tha anti-Eve anti-women discourse.
“But indeed it is my firm belief today that Eve would never have done so [broken God’s commandment], had it never been forbidden her. In the first thing she ever did, she proved true to her nature and did what was forbidden. But as good judges will all agree, Eve might very well have denied herself just that one fruit. When all is said and done, she had all the rest at her pleasure without exception, yet she wanted none but that one thing in which she devoured her honor! Thus they are all daughters of Eve who are formed in Eve’s image after her. Oh for the man who could forbid all the Eves he might find today, who would abandon themselves and God because they were told not to do something! And since women are heirs to it, and nature promotes it in them, all honor and praise to the woman who nevertheless succeeds in abstaining! For when a woman grows in virtue despite her inherited instincts and gladly keeps her honor, reputation, and person intact, she is only a woman in name, but in spirit she is a man! . . . No, no, it is not Love, but her deadly enemy, the vile and shameful one, base Lechery! She brings no honor to the name of woman, as a true proverb says: “She who thinks to love many, by many is unloved!” Let the woman who desires to be loved by all first love herself and then show us all her love-tracks. If they are Love’s true traces, all will love in sympathy.” (277-278)
It may sound ambiguous but it is not. The idea that there should be no forbidden thing for women (not for men) is in a way hypocritical and it forgets the commandments are mostly negative. The first sentence might be the reflection of a slight awareness in this beginning 13th century that women are maybe starting to emerge, probably under the influence of the Catholic cult dedicated to Mary. But in this book there is no mention of Mary in anyway, the Holy Virgin or the Mother of God or whatever.
But I might consider there is such a spark of liberation on the side of women if one page later the author had not written:
“Now Tristan did just as Adam did; he took the fruit which his Eve offered him and with her ate his death.” (280)
The story then can be concluded at the moment of Tristan’s flight from Cornwall and Isolde as follows by the barons of the King’s council.
“Sire, it is very wrong of you continually to drag your wife and honor to judgment on scandalous charges without reason. You hate your honor and your wife, but most of all yourself! How can you ever be happy so long as you thus injure your happiness in her, and make her the talk of the land? – for you have never discovered anything that goes against her honor. Why do you reproach the Queen? Why do you say that she is false, who never did a false act against you? My lord, by your honor, do not do so again! Have done with such infamy, for God’s sake and your own!” (282-283)
This spirit is definitely a reflection of what is happening in England for sure, but also in Europe at the time. In 1215, five years later, in Runnymede the barons of England in union with the Catholic Church of England imposed the Magna Carta onto King John and this Magna Carta for the first time recognized some rights to women, when they became widows, and some rights to children, when they became orphans. There is in this conclusion of the romance closing the first part of it, when Tristan was able to see Isolde and satisfy his passion, the emergence of some kind of state of law, a law based not on the caprice of a ruler but on an agreed procedure to come to consensual decisions.
The tone is moralistic along a Christian line of ethics.
The Celtic heritage is entirely eliminated with three sacrifices to enforce that elimination: Morold, the dragon and Ungar Li Vilus.
The Peace of God is instated with the reconciliation between Ireland and Cornwall-England. Yet this Peace of God is difficult for Tristan who cannot manage to fit in that peaceful approach. He manages to break all consensual decisions.
This implies the survival of some kind of feudal militaristic practice, though not in England or Cornwall, or as far as we know in Ireland, but on the continent.
On the other hand we can see some kind of feudal state of law emerging with at the same time some procedure of justice that implies a due course of law.
Yet women who might have some say in some ways are globally rejected as the heirs of Eve who are able to lie even in order to manipulate God and Jesus themselves.
This version is a lot more advanced in Christianization and feudalization than older versions and it is proof that the 10th-12th century period, up to the beginning of the 13th century, is witnessing the shifting from old Celtic cultures to “modern” feudal Christian culture, though one reference is missing, the reference to Mary, the Mother of God.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU