Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart
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|French literary history|
Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (French: Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette) is an Old French poem by Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien probably composed the work (in the 1170s) at the same time as or slightly before writing Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, which refers to the action in Lancelot a number of times. The love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot appears for the first time in this poem as does Arthur's court city of Camelot.
The action centers on Lancelot's rescue of the queen after she has been abducted by Meleagant, the son of Bademagu. The Abduction of Guinevere is one of the oldest motifs in Arthurian legend, appearing also in Caradoc of Llancarfan's Life of Gildas and carved on the archivolt in Modena Cathedral. After Chrétien's version became popular, it was incorporated into the Lancelot-Grail Cycle and eventually Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The story deals with Lancelot's trials rescuing Guinevere and also his struggles to balance his duties both as a warrior and a lover bound by the conventions of courtly love.
Chrétien says he composed the romance at the behest of Marie, countess of Champagne, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France and apparently his patroness at the time. There is reason to believe the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere was invented wholecloth by Chrétien for the poem, but it is possible he found the episode already in whatever source material Marie provided him. It is also interesting to note that this work is the only work of Chrétien where Guinevere is featured as a main character. In nearly all his other works, she has a smaller and more traditional role. The poet did not finish the work himself, leaving Godefroi de Leigni to complete the last thousand lines, with Chrétien's permission. There has been much speculation about Chrétien's attitude towards the poem; some scholars suggest he abandoned it because he disapproved of its adulterous subject. Additionally, he may have been uninterested by a tale thrust on him by his patroness, preferring to spend more time on Yvain. There is also speculation as to its relationship to the German Lanzelet by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, which features the Queen's abduction but not her affair with Lancelot, and may derive from a version of the story that predates Knight of the Cart.
The context in which Chretien wrote this work is essential in explaining some of its content. The customary legal traditions that are featured so prominently in the work were undergoing a gradual change in the twelfth century. Gratian had earlier written his 'Decretum' which helped to establish a unified canonical law. Secular law too was undergoing codification owing in part to the increasing prevalence of Roman law. Both secular and religious law can be seen in Chrétien’s work, particularly in Lancelot’s mounting of the cart and his adherence to the courtly ideals. It is particularly important to recognize the customary nature of the law that caused Lancelot to mount the cart and the hadsfh a decreasing prevalence of such law in Chrétien’s time.
Courtly love or "amour courtois" was coined by the medievalist Gaston Paris in 1883 to help understand the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere in "Lancelot ou le chevalier de la charrete." "Paris defined courtly love principally from the male lover's perspective an illicit, furtive, and extraconjugal liaison that placed the lover in the service of and at the mercy of a haughty and capricious lady" (Burns 28). Therefore, to define Lancelot's behavior as representative of that within the tradition of "courtly love" becomes circular.[clarification needed] An important distinction is made between "fin’ amours" as depicted by the Troubadours of in the Occitane dialect of southern France from "amour courtois" in what is known as Old French, coming from the literature of Northern provinces.[clarification needed] There exists some debate as to whether the examples set by Lancelot, and others in this tradition, were actually in practice at medieval courts. One side maintains this practice did exist and the other believes that "courtly love" is a construction of the Romantics and, at best, a game to be taken lightly in medieval courts. This position can be evidenced by Chretien's treatment of the ideal in "The Knight of the Cart."
Significance of the Cart
Lancelot within the narrative portrays the ideal behaviors of courtly love. His actions are subordinate to his relationship and indeed, his behaviors are forced more by his affair than by more conventional social norms of the time. When Lancelot and Gawain first encounter the cart driving dwarf in the woods, Lancelot hesitates because his social standing will be crushed by riding in the cart, or more appropriately, pillory. Lancelot does inevitably mount to the amazement of Gawain and proceeds to the castle of the perilous bed. The significance of Lancelot mounting the pillory is subtle and substantial. The cart, which is reserved for criminals, is in fact an appropriate vehicle for Lancelot's progress. Being as the protagonist engages in an affair with the queen Guinevere he is subverting social order. Lancelot has essentially broken the social contract and become a malefactor. His actions remind us that the relationship between king and vassal are meant to supersede those of the private life. By ruining his reputation Lancelot also tarnishes the reputation of the king he represents. Lancelot is thus a criminal, though his crime is private and unknown.
- Grant, Edward. “Reason Asserts Itself: The Challenge to Authority in the Early Middle Ages to 1200.” God and Reason in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2001, 78-79
- Colman, Rebecca V. “Reason and Unreason in Early Medieval Law.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4 (Spring, 1974)573-575
- Proper Behavior in Chrétien's Charrette: The Host-Guest Relationship Jerome Mandel The French Review Vol. 48, No. 4 (Mar., 1975), pp. 683-689
- Chrétien de Troyes; Owen, D. D. R. (translator) (1988). Arthurian Romances. New York: Everyman's Library. ISBN 0-460-87389-X.
- Colman, Rebecca V. “Reason and Unreason in Early Medieval Law.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4 (Spring, 1974):571-591.
- Grant, Edward. “Reason Asserts Itself: The Challenge to Authority in the Early Middle Ages to 1200.” God and Reason in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2001. ISBN 0-521-00337-7
- Lacy, Norris J. (1991). "Chrétien de Troyes". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 88–91. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- Roquebert, Michel. "Les cathares et le Graal". ISBN 2-7089-5379-6 ISBN 13: 9782708953796
- Hopkins, Andrea. "The Book of Courtly Love: The Passionate Code of the Troubadours". San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. ISBN 0-06-251115-7.
- Condren, Edward I. "The Paradox of Chrétien's Lancelot." MLN (May, 1970): 434-453
- Paris, Gaston. "Lancelot du Lac, II:Conte de la charrette." Romania 12(1883): 459-534
- Burns, E. Jane. "Courtly Love: Who Needs It? Recent Feminist Work in the Medieval French Tradition." Signs 27.1 (2001): 23-57.
- Chretien de Troyes. Arthurian Romances. Trans. William W. Kibler and Carleton W. Carroll. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
- Noble, Peter. “The Character of Guinevere in the Arthurian Romances of Chretien de Troyes” The Modern Language Review July 1972: 524-535
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Four Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes' at Project Gutenberg (includes Lancelot)
- The Charrette Project 2 at Baylor University
- Princeton's Charrette Project
- Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart in a freely-distributable PDF document
- JSTOR access to Burns article previously cited