Monday, 20 March 2017

Adventures in Troyes

" Chretien de Troyes has had the peculiar fortune of becoming the best known of the old French poets to students of medieval literature, and of remaining practically unknown to anyone else."  W.W. Comfort.

The first kiss,  Lancelot and Guinevere    French ms. c.1400  Bibliotheque National Paris

A trouvere at the court of Marie, Countess of Champagne, in late12th century Troyes, Chretien de Troyes is credited with writing some of the earliest Arthurian romances of courtly love, particularly introducing the story of Lancelot (The Knight of the Cart) and his fin amor for Queen Guinevere.  The characters and tales in his poems are well known to us even today, without having read a single word he wrote, made popular by countless later writers and artists.

Lancelot and Queen Guinevere     Herbert James Draper c. 1900 

"Such extravagant claims for Chretien's art have been made in some quarters that one feels disinclined to give them even an echo here. The modern reader may form his own estimate of the poet's art, and that estimate will probably not be high.  Monotony, lack of proportion, vain repetitions, insufficient motivation, wearisome subtleties, and threatened, if not actual, indelicacy, are among the most salient defects which will arrest, and mayhap confound, the reader unfamiliar with medieval literary craft."

This beautifully expressed condemnation comes from the introduction to Chretien's Four Romances, translated by William Wistan Comfort in 1914, who continues: "No greater service can be performed by an editor in such a case than to prepare the reader to overlook these common faults, and to set before him the significance of this twelfth-century poet."  An expert in French medieval literature,  whose doctoral thesis was on French chansons de geste, Comfort concludes:

"So we leave Chretien to speak across the ages for himself and his generation.  He is to be read as a storyteller rather than as a poet, as a casuist rather than a philosopher.  But when all deductions are made, his significance as a literary artist and as the founder of a precious literary tradition distinguishes him from all other poets of the Latin races between the close of the Empire and the arrival of Dante.

The first kiss, Paolo and Francesca, illustrating Dante's "Divine Comedy"   
Dante Gabriel Rossetti * c. 1867  © Tate Gallery London

 " Noi leggevam quel giorno per diletto
Di Lancelotto, come l' amor lo strinse."

"We read that day for delight, about Lancelot, how love bound him."
from Dante's Inferno, Canto 5;   Clive James, in the introduction to his translation.

If you are still not won over to to read Chretien's poems, you may well prefer the delights of Troyes, his old stamping ground, which has retained its medieval centre, shaped like a champagne cork, (although little has survived from Chretien's time outside of museums).

Street in old Troyes

Typical timber framed houses, rebuilt in traditional local style after a fire in 1524. 

 Fifteen or so years ago, Troyes hardly catered for tourists - no postcards, fridge magnets or t-shirts on sale - and you could safely walk down its main roads of an evening and barely see a car.  Then you could visit the unrestored church of St. Jean-au-Marche, (where Henry V married his French princess, Catherine de Valois in June 1420) - and admire its world-class collection of cobwebs,  or be dazzled by the stained glass there and in Troyes' other churches, and be moved by the delicacy of the carved Madonnas and saints in each church and museum.

Tree of Jesse window, partly 13th  century,  in Troyes Cathedral

Madonna and Child  

We wined and dined in Troyes' narrow streets and watched the cats cavort on the roof tiles, admired the efficient French pompiers dealing with a fire nearby as morning worshippers left the Cathdral, (the previous Cathedral had been burnt down in 1188 and was rebuilt over several centuries) and strolled in its parks and markets.

Summer in the Jardin du Belfroi

We found the skills of the medieval glass craftsmen brought up to date in the Museum of Modern Art. Maurice Marinot gave up a painting in 1913 to create his masterly blown and enamelled bowls and sculptural glass vessels, some taking a year to complete. His legacy is here along with paintings by French artists from Vuillard to Picasso, and a large collection of Andre Derain's paintings.

Maurice Marinot flask

 The Museum building was the former Bishops' Palace,  where our  tentative request for a corner in which to eat our picnic baguettes was met with smiling directions into the Palace's tranquil garden.

Musee d'Art Moderne, Troyes

Maybe because English visitors were fewer then, we were met with smiles and help on our visits by local bus and train to surrounding villages like Nogent-sur Seine, Chaource, and Bar-sur-Aube (home of one Champagne's  great medieval international markets).  You could understand how the treasures of this region might inspire Chretien de Troyes to write his courtly tales of romance and beauty.

*Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the Pre Raphaelite artists and writers to be inspired by Arthurian and other tragic lovers.  He also translated  Dante's poetry.

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