The (Second) Most Famous Love Affair of the Middle Ages

Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut. Renouvelé par Joseph Bédier de l’Académie Française. Ouvrage couronné par l’Académie Française.

Published by H. Piazza in Paris, 1926.

On the crossing from Ireland to England, Tristan and Isolde drink the love potion. Illumination from the medieval miniature by Évrard d’Espinques, 1470.

Tristan and Isolde are possibly the most famous lovers of the Middle Ages. Well, maybe the second most famous, after Lancelot and Guinevere. Quite understandable, as the legend contains all the ingredients of a really good story: a mystical setting, bloody battles, a bit of magic, passionate love, loyalty, betrayal and a tragic ending. No wonder it was handed down over centuries in Europe and written down in countless versions. There is little historical evidence as to whether the story is originally Celtic, English or French. Nevertheless, there have been some researchers, such as Joseph Bédier, claiming to have found this original ‘Ur-Tristan’…

Cornish Knight Meets Irish Princess

The story is quite long and complicated, so we’ll just be focussing on the essential parts here. It all begins on the British Isles, at some point between around 500 and 1000 AD. King Mark of Cornwall wants to marry Isolde, the daughter of the Irish king. He sends his nephew Tristan to Ireland, to ask for her hand on his behalf. The mother of the beautiful Isolde, also called Isolde, wants to make absolutely certain that her daughter’s marriage is a happy one, so she gives her a love potion for her and Mark to drink. And that’s the first big mistake. The second big mistake is when Tristan and Isolde accidentally drink the potion on the crossing from Ireland to England and fall madly in love. Whoops.

Master Gottfried von Strassburg. Codex Manesse, 1st quarter of the 14th century.

The pair then have a lengthy secret love affair, until King Mark finally finds out about them and Tristan has to flee to Germany. Once there, he meets – hold onto your hats, folks – the third Isolde, Isolde Weißhand (‘of the White Hands’). He marries her to forget about Isolde of England, but then one day, he is wounded in battle by a poisoned spear and the only thing that can save him is an ointment brewed according to a secret Irish recipe. The only people who know this recipe are Isolde Senior and Isolde Junior. So Isolde Junior sets off with the ointment in hand to rescue her beloved Tristan, but she is stopped by a ruse played by the German Isolde. Tristan dies believing that he cannot be saved. When Isolde of England arrives shortly afterwards with the medicine that could have saved her beloved, she finds him dead. She becomes extremely ill and soon dies too, of grief.

A Joint European Effort

Despite the best efforts of researchers, it is not possible to determine the precise origins of the story with any certainty. What we do know is that there was a number of oral folktales and Celtic legends that fed the story. There have also been written sources since the Middle Ages, but these are usually only fragments, i.e. incomplete. Among the earliest manuscripts preserved to this day are some fragments by one Thomas, an Old French court poet. It is not clear whether this poet’s correct byname would be ‘of England’, ‘of Brittany’ or ‘of Britain’. We simply don’t know enough about his life. The medieval poet Gottfried von Strassburg († around 1215) used Thomas’ work as a model for his Tristan. But he died before he could finish his verse novel, which meant that other medieval authors then continued the story in various ways.

An Allegedly French ‘Ur-Tristan’

So as you can see, due to the problematic nature of the source material, the condition of the manuscripts – which have often only been preserved in fragments – and the fact that the Tristan story has been adapted so many times and in so many different languages, it is extremely difficult to identify a ‘right’ version or to establish a clear line of tradition. Nevertheless, in the 20th century, French medievalist Joseph Bédier claimed that every version of the Tristan story had to have a single source, or an ‘Ur-Tristan’ as it was dubbed. This 1926 edition is Bédier’s retelling of the story and an attempt to reconstruct this original Ur-Tristan. What’s particularly interesting here is the culturally patriotic approach with which he tries to claim the story as originally French and dismisses the non-French adaptations of the story – such as the Middle High German version by Gottfried von Strassburg, for example – as ‘imitations’. Against this backdrop, it’s rather fitting that the book bears the endorsement ‘with distinction from the l’Académie Française’. The Académie, of which Bédier was also a member by the way, is known as something of a self-declared guardian for the preservation of French language and literature.

This book is a significantly modernised version of the story, though it still contains references to its medieval origins. For example, each individual chapter is preceded by short quotes from the medieval epic verses, e.g. by Béroul and Gottfried von Strassburg. The first letters of each chapter are stylised, modernised initials, reminiscent of the splendid, colourful illuminations of medieval manuscripts.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

There is a digital version of the oldest surviving manuscript by Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan available courtesy of the Bavarian State Library.

If you’d like to find out more about the story of Tristan and Isolde, I recommend – as I often do – the BBC podcast In Our Time, the episode ‘Tristan and Iseult’.

The Tristan story is one of the many Arthurian legends, just like the chivalric novel ‘Iwein’ by Hartmann von Aue, which you can find in the MoneyMuseum archive.

Historically, Miguel de Cervante’s parody of chivalry came a little later. We’ve already discussed the novel Don Quixote on Bookophile.

Text bewerten