Arma et Amor: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in Medieval French Literature

Paris, BnF, fr. 116, f° 610v

Was King Arthur really in control of his realm? Why was it so important for his knights to find the Grail? Who was the greatest Knight of the Round Table? Why is love so crucial in Arthurian stories? Was the “damsel in distress” cliché as prevalent as we believe in medieval literature? These are just some of the questions that we will explore in this course on the Matter of Britain in medieval French texts.

Though the legend of King Arthur may seem quintessentially British, most medieval Arthurian stories were written in French in the Middle Ages. Many of the most famous Arthurian tropes, such as the Grail quest or the forbidden love between Queen Guinevere and Lancelot, initially appeared in French texts as early as the 12th century before spreading to other European cultures. A language spoken in feudal courts on both sides of the Channel and beyond, Old French was ideally positioned to invent a new genre of fiction known as romance, which led to a veritable Arthurian craze in the second half of the 12th century and the first half of the 13th.

Chrétien de Troyes, a writer at the court of Mary of Champagne, was particularly important in the early stages of this phenomenon, establishing several key aspects of Arthurian fiction in the series of verse romances he wrote between 1160 and 1190. The study of two of this most famous works, Erec et Enide (which asks whether it is possible for a knight of the Round Table to have a proper work-life balance) and Le Conte du graal (which started the Grail craze of the 13th century), will allow us to observe the emergence of early tropes in the hands of a master of nuance and ambiguity.

In the second half of the course, we will shift our attention first to Renaud de Beaujeu’s early-13th.-c. Le Bel inconnu, an ambiguous and experimental romance that tells the story of an amnesiac knight torn between the love of two women; then to the immensely popular cycle of prose romances known as the Vulgate Cycle, composed anonymously in the first third of the 13th century. We will focus on the final part of the cycle, La Mort le roi Artu, which offer a striking vision of an Arthurian court destroyed by betrayal, unbridled ambition, and civil war.

Required readings:

  • Chrétien de Troyes, Romans de la Table Ronde. Michel Zink (ed.). Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2002
  • Renaud de Beaujeu, Le Bel Inconnu. Michèle Perret & Isabelle Weil (ed. & trans.). Paris: Champion Classiques, 2003
  • La Mort le roi Artu. Jean Frappier & Patrick Moran (ed. & trans.). Geneva: Droz, 2021s.

Prerequisites: One of FREN 321, FREN 328, FREN 329 and one of FREN 225, FREN 402.

Language of instruction: French