The prose romance of Perceforest with lyrical interludes of poetry, in six books, appears to have been composed in French in the Low Countries between 1330 and 1344. It forms a late addition to the cycle of narratives with loose connections both to the Arthurian cycle and to the feats of Alexander the Great.
Alexander, having conquered Britain according to this accounting of origins, departs for Babylon, leaving Perceforest in charge. Perceforest, king of Britain, introduces Christian faith and establishes his Franc Palais of free equals, the best knights, with clear parallels to the Round Table. "Thus the romance would trace back the model of ideal civilization that it proposes, a model also for the orders of chivalry created from the 14th century onwards, to a legendary origin where the glory of Alexander is united with the fame of Arthur." (Voicu 2003,2014)
Perceforest, concerning the hardy king errant who dared "pierce" the evil forest, was first printed in Paris in 1528, as La Tres Elegante Delicieux Melliflue et Tres Plaisante Hystoire du Tres Noble Roy Perceforest in four volumes and soon (1531) printed in Italian. A Spanish translation is also known. An 800-page abridged English translation/precis appeared in 2011.
Sleeping Beauty theme
An episode contained in Perceforest, the “Histoire de Troïlus et de Zellandine,” (Book III, chapter lii) is the one of the earliest known versions of the Sleeping Beauty theme - an often overlooked earlier version to be found in a less well-known Occitan 'novas' - though here Troilus rapes Zellandine in her deep coma, and she delivers the child without waking. According to the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, "it was read in France, and in northern Germany was performed as a pre-Lenten Shrove Tuesday drama in the mid-1400s." Charles IX of France was especially fond of this romance: four volumes of Perceforest were added to the Royal library at Blois sometime between 1518 and 1544, and were shelved with the Arthurian romances. The royal library was later removed to Fontainebleau and thence to Paris, where it became the core of the Bibliothèque Nationale.
An elaborate frame story tells how the "Greek" manuscript was discovered by count William of Hainault in a cabinet at “Burtimer” Abbey; in the same cabinet was deposited a crown, which the count sent to king Edward. The romance was known and referred to in 14th-century England.
Perceforest, like other late Gothic romances, was vaguely remembered but largely unread until the late 20th century: earlier and High Medieval literature have previously taken center stage. Readers of the Age of Enlightenment were not always delighted with Perceforest when they came upon it:
- "Donna Rodolpha's Library was principally composed of old Spanish Romances: These were her favourite studies, and once a day one of these unmerciful Volumes was put regularly into my hands. I read the wearisome adventures of 'Perceforest,' 'Tirante the White,' 'Palmerin of England,' and 'the Knight of the Sun,' till the Book was on the point of falling from my hands through Ennui."
confesses Matthew Lewis's hero of The Monk (1796), an early example of the Gothic novel. Gérard de Nerval, in a fictional letter published as part of his Angélique (1850), tells of an antiquary who fears for the safety of the valuable first printed edition of Perceforest at the hands of a rioting mob, using Perceforest to suggest the antiquary's arcane concerns.
- Myriam Yvonne Jehenson, "Quixotic Desires or Stark Reality?", the "Sleeping Beauty" episode mentioned.
- Dr Helen Nicholson, "What was a Medieval woman?", includes excerpts.
- Gilles Roussineau, Le Roman de Perceforest, 2001, ISBN 2-600-00620-6. Roussineau identified the Perceforest origins of "Sleeping Beauty" in "Tradition Littéraire et Culture Populaire dans L'Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine (Perceforest, Troisième partie): Version Ancienne du Conte de la Belle au Bois Dormant," in Arthuriana (Spring 1994): pp30 – 45.
- Mihaela Voicu, Histoire de la littérature française du moyen âge, xii.1, Bucharest, 2003 e-text (in French)
- Rossineau, Gilles, Perceforest. Premiere partie partie. 2 vols (Geneve: Droz, 2007) (Textes Littéraires Français).