The Literary Tourist goes to….Troyes
We’ve just returned from an impromptu trip to northern France and to have something interesting to do on a brumous last day, decided on a drive to Troyes in the Champagne region.
Now, I’ll be honest, I didn’t go with the intention of uncovering or learning about a great figure of French literature; I’d simply never been and wanted to take a look at this famously well-preserved medieval city (and to find a stylish brasserie for lunch. We did; the pork in a prune reduction was delicious).
Troyes is beautiful. Ancient, half-timbered houses overhang narrow streets, affording the city’s feline population easy aerial passage. Many properties retain their original detailed carvings, or have been restored lovingly.
This place takes its past seriously, as befits a town which played host to one of history’s most important days: it was here in 1420 that the Treaty of Troyes was signed by which Henry V of England was betrothed to Catherine, daughter of France’s Charles VI, allowing him to succeed to the French crown rather than the dauphin.
Aside from dynastic dealings and royal wranglings, Troyes has a more romantic and literary claim to fame; one occurring to me only later on, which is shameful considering my French degree background, including, of all things, a course on medieval literature.
Chrétien de Troyes is one of the most famous, if not the greatest of writers of courtly romances. It isn’t known if he was born in the city, but he certainly lived and worked there during the 12th century. He did so at the court of Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She set Troyes up as a centre of culture, modelled on that of her mother’s at Poitiers, and it appears that Chrétien de Troyes was a beneficiary of her largesse.
He was a trouvère. These were poets writing narrative, dramatic, satiric, comic and lyric verse during the 12th and 13th centuries. Trouvères were the northern French version of Provençal troubadours, famous for developing the conception of ‘courtly love’ which was a central theme of poetry at the time.
‘Courtly love’ was all about the relationship between a knight and his lady (the lord was frequently away crusading, leaving the lady of the manor home alone, as it were.) It was about the chivalric adventures of the chevalier and his love for his lady, a love which was often, if not always, unfulfilled. This, of course, was a time when the aristocracy made strategic marriages; love rarely came into it. Step forward therefore Sir Lancelot to make your chivalrous advances on the lady Guinevere.
The following are all impressions of courtly love as depicted at the time (thanks to google images).
This was how Chrétien de Troyes made a name for himself: he wrote a number of ‘poems’, including one about Lancelot, which were based on the relationship of the lover to his adored lady. Those poor knights: it must have taken hours to get out of their chain mail, only to be frustrated in their pursuit of their one and only true love. Armour and amour: the stuff of legend.
Chrétien de Troyes’ legacy is one that resonates still today. Everyone knows the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, but how many are aware that their tale first appeared in his work, ‘Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart’ (Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charette)?
It’s nearly nine hundred years since Chrétien plied his trade in Troyes; most of the city has been rebuilt many times over the centuries. Nevertheless, strolling the narrow streets it’s hard not to catch a sense of the chivalry and romance he wrote about seeping out of every ancient cobblestone and timber. Or perhaps it was simply the carafe of wine I enjoyed with that porc aux pruneaux. You’ll have to visit Troyes yourself to decide.