Racism and sexism in three parallel medieval romances – ‘Peredur’, ‘Perceval’ and ‘Parzival’

Introduction

The Welsh Peredur (written down in the 14th century but of earlier composition), the French Perceval (11th century, by Chrétien de Troyes), and the German Parzival (circa 1200, by Wolfram von Eschenbach) – each can be called a “bildungsroman”, insofar as it traces the education, development and maturing of a young protagonist.

(Peredur starts very well, but the ending as we have it is confused; Perceval is unfinished; Parzival is very sophisticated.)

I wish to discuss two episodes about the hero, before he has gone out into the wider world, from the rural, isolated spot where his widowed mother is keeping him.

The lad and the knights

Early on, then, the young man suddenly comes across a posse of Arthurian knights.  The knights ask the hero for directions, and he asks them about their equipment. So their priorities are different.

(1) In the anonymous Welsh Peredur, when the eponymous hero meets three Arthurian knights, his questions are answered readily:

‘Say, friend,’ said Owein, has thou seen a knight go hereby today or yesterday?’  ‘I know not,’ he replied, ‘what a knight is.’  ‘Such a thing as I am,’ said Owein.  ‘Wert thou to tell me that which I would ask of thee, I in turn would tell thee that which thou dost ask.’  ‘I will, gladly,’ said Owein.’

[Peredur, tr G Jones & T Jones, p 184; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 118f]

(2) In the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, however, some of the five knights (passing by) treat the hero differently, when he asks questions, and they complain that he is holding them up.  They comment on Perceval unfavourably:

“So help me God,” says their chief, “he’s a real ignoramus….” – “You may be perfectly certain, my lord, that the Welsh are by nature more stupid than grazing beasts; and this is one is just like a beast.”

[Perceval, tr D D R Owen, page 377]

Has the writer picked up discriminatory attitudes from the Norman French who were interacting with the Welsh in Britain at the time?

(3) Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (based here upon Perceval) reproduces this scenario, with variations.  Here, the hero delays four passer-by knights with his questions: three become impatient (while their leader is more sympathetic):

The foremost lost his temper at the sight of the boy in mid-path.  ‘This stupid Waleis [Welshman] is slowing us down.’  (The Waleis, I must tell you, share the same distinction as the Bavarians, but are even denser than Bavarian folk…)

[Parzival, tr A T Hatto, Book 3, p 72]

The lad and the maiden in the tent

The hero’s first encounter with a stranger, on his way to Arthur’s court, happens to be with a lady.  (Note that the hero recalls his mother’s advice and applies it, or misapplies it, here.)  The main thread of the three parallel stories is this: the hero enters a tent (or pavilion) and finds there a beautiful lady; he helps himself to food and drink, takes a ring from her finger, and kisses her.  But the details vary a lot.  I need to quote from the descriptions at some length.

(4) Note that, when Peredur reaches the pavilion, he has not eaten for “two days and two nights”.  I proceed:

The maiden made him welcome and greeted him….’ My mother,’ said Peredur, ‘bade me wherever I saw meat and drink, to take it.’  ‘Go then, chieftain,’ said she, ‘to the table.  And God’s welcome to thee.’ [Peredur takes half, only.] ‘My mother,’ said he, ‘bade me take a fair jewel wherever I might see it.’  ‘Take it then, friend,’ said she.  ‘’Tis not I will begrudge thee.’  Peredur took the ring, and went down on his knee and gave the maiden a kiss [on her hand?], and took his steed and departed thence.

[Peredur, tr Jones & Jones, pp 185f; emphasis added; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 120f]

Note how polite both parties are and how generous the lady is.  She is a good hostess and he is a good guest.

Given the mythological and magical elements underlying the story, it is possible that the lady has insight into Peredur’s destiny; and she may indeed be an Otherworld character (and herself an educator).

In her study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, G Goetinck states:

The meeting of Peredur with the Tent Maiden is one of the first episodes in which the hero is helped and guided by the power of the Otherworld whilst he is being trained.  It is also a version of the meeting between the hero and Sovereignty….

[Goetinck, p 140]

(5) In Perceval, there are no indications of a mythological aspect to the lady, and the situation is quite different:

On the bed [in the tent], all alone, lay a young girl fast asleep….She woke with a start….The girl trembles with fear on account of the youth, who to her seems crazy….”Be on your way, lad!” she says.  “Be off, before my lover sees you.” – “By my head, I’ll kiss you first, whoever it may upset,” says the youth, “because my mother told me to!” – “I’ll certainly never kiss you if I can help it,” says the maiden. “Be off…!

Perceval is much stronger than the lady: he kisses her seven times [presumably on her mouth]; and he pulls her ring (“set with a brilliant emerald”) from her finger, and puts it on his own.  She bursts into tears.  He adds insult to injury:

“Bless you, maiden.  Now I’ll be off well rewarded – and it’s much nicer kissing you than any chambermaid in all my mother’s house, for there’s nothing bitter about your mouth!”

[Perceval, tr Owen, pp 383f]

Perceval takes food and drink, without asking permission, and departs, leaving the young woman still weeping.

Perceval, then, is cruel and unfeeling and not at all chivalric.  He does not treat the young lady as his equal.  He totally misapplies his mother’s advice about how to treat women.  His immaturity does not excuse his behaviour.  He gets off to a bad start in his career as a knight.

Perhaps the status of this lady reflects the low status of women in France, at the time, compared to the rights accorded to them in the Wales of the early Middle Ages (cf the laws attributed to Hywel Dda).  From the remarks made by the lady in Perceval, it is clear that she relies on her male friend to defend her; and for her it is unfortunate that he is temporarily absent.

(6) Parzival is like Perceval, at this point in the story.  (The lady is named Jeschute and she is a duchess.)  The account is long and circumstantial. It reflects badly upon the hero.  I quote a salient passage:

The lady wailed loudly.  He paid no attention to what she said but forced her mouth to his.  Wasting no time, he crushed her breast to his, duchess or no, and also took a ring.  On her shift he saw a brooch and roughly tore it off.  The lady was armed as women are: but to her his strength was an army’s.  Nevertheless there was quite a tussle of it.

[Parzival, tr Hatto, Book 3, p 77]

Conclusion

The fundamental theme of the three romances is the education of the hero concerning love, chivalry and government.  Evidently, Perceval and Parzival have a very long way to go before they can be regarded as educated!  Peredur, however, has already mastered basic courtesy.  The nature of his encounter with the lady is appropriate to the development of the overall story.  Perceval and Parzival’s behaviour, by contrast, is characterised by the use of brute force, so that they come across as villains rather than heroes, at least for the interim.

The Welsh story is shorter and more concise than the continental ones.  On the surface it is unsophisticated, in comparison with its continental analogues.  But it has beauties and subtleties of its of its own; and in some respects it deserves to be seen as more appealing than the other two.

References

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Goetinck, G W (editor) (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawc, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

See also:

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Lion, the Lady and the Lackadaisical Lover

Introduction

I am working my way through the five romances attributed to the French poet, Chrétien de Troyes (late 12th century) – albeit in translation, as medieval French is quite different from the present-day language, and difficult.

Arguably, Chrétien’s Yvain, le chevalier au lion, is his best or one of his best.  It has twists and turns, conflicts that are resolved, psychological interest, ethical dilemmas, and a happy ending.  (Perceval [which I’ll read last] is important, partly because of the first mention, there, of the Grail; but it is unfinished.)

For its part, Wales has inherited its own tale (or romance) – Iarlles y Ffynnon = the Lady (or Countess) of the Fountain. The hero is Owain.  Germany has Iwein, by Hartmann von Aue.  Hartmann’s version of the tale is based on Chrétien’s and (like his) is in verse.

The anonymous Welsh tale is similar to the others as regards the main plot, but it differs in details.

The Fountain of the title may be regarded as symbolising eternity and fertility and (here) sovereignty.  To defend the Fountain against all-comers is to defend the domain of the ruler.

Principals

The male hero – Owain/Ivain/Iwein – marries the noble widow (the Lady of the Fountain, called Laudine by Chrétien), after he has killed her husband in one-to-one combat.  (By marrying her he takes on the responsibility of defending her territory.)  He leaves her, by returning to Arthur’s court and failing to come back to her at the agreed time.  This is a dereliction of duty.

Note the custom that dictates (apparently) that a woman rules the Fountain country, and that she chooses a husband as a helpmate.  Does this reflect a matriarchal tradition?

Apart from Laudine/the Countess herself, there is another important and active lady, namely, Luned/Lunete.  She gives counsel to her mistress, who relies on her, as she is very practical and sensible. It is she who advises the Lady to accept the necessity of having a strong husband and hence to marry the hero, as he has already proved himself in combat.  It is she too that brings the couple together.  (With Chrétien, she is the female messenger who challenges Yvain, at Arthur’s court, over his desertion.)  She is blamed, however, by the Lady’s retinue, when the couple become estranged, and she is threatened with death by them.

Luned/Lunete is vividly portrayed, and she is perhaps the most colourful character in the tale.

The male protagonist has numerous adventures, while he is separated from his wife.  He rescues a lion that is being attacked by a serpent (or dragon), and thereafter is accompanied by him on his adventures, and helped in his fights.  Hence, in the French version, Yvain is known as the ‘knight with the lion’.

What exactly does the lion mean, here?  Lions commonly symbolise authority, strength, confidence and courage.  This lion also represents gratitude, friendship and loyalty.  Perhaps he offers an example to the hero of correct behaviour.

Another colourful character is the forester who directs questing knights to the Fountain of the story.  In The Lady of the Fountain, he is a black (black-haired) giant, with one eye and one foot: he carries an iron club, with which he exercises power over the many animals that graze around him.  He appears to be an Otherworld creature – a sun god, come down from pre-Christian mythology.  (The one eye represents the sun.)  It is possible that he is a storm god too, if he is responsible for the ensuing storm at the Fountain.

The continental versions retain the giant’s function but differ considerably in the nature and scope of their description of this figure, and his mythological aspects are diminished.  This “churl” (“vilain”) is said to be misshapen but also to have “a head larger than that of a pack-horse or any other beast” and “great mossy ears like an elephant’s, heavy eyebrows and a flat face with owl’s eyes and a nose like a cat’s, a mouth split like a wolf’s, [and] the sharp yellow teeth of a wild boar”.   [Yvain, tr Owen, pp 284f]  And Hartmann’s description is similar and includes comparisons with animals.

(In this respect, compare the ugly female messenger who challenges the hero of Peredur, Chrétien’s Perceval and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, respectively.  In Peredur, the maiden is described as misshapen, but there are no references to animals, whereas in the continental analogues there are several comparisons to them, as there are in Yvain.)

Stylistic features

Chrétien includes a subplot: Yvain and his friend Gawain fight on opposite sides as champions for two sisters.  Chrétien says, in a long passage, that the two knights love each other, but when they are fighting on opposite sides, they hate each other.  Love and Hatred become allegorical characters.  The Welsh version has none of this.

There are shared magical elements, notably, a ring that confers invisibility and a panacea-like ointment, and the raising of a mighty storm by the pouring of water on to the slab at the Fountain.

There are polarities and mirror images in the basic story.  The hero is rescued by Luned/Lunete from certain death; and in turn he rescues her from execution, later on.  The Lady’s hatred for the hero, as the killer of her husband, turns to acceptance of him (love for him, in Yvain), then to hatred of him (in Yvain, at least), and finally to reconciliation.

Conclusion

I am inclined to believe that the French version represents an enlargement upon the Welsh, rather than that the Welsh version is a summary of the French.  The Welsh account is concise and always to-the-point.  The French version is much longer and far more elaborate and much more rhetorical than the Welsh.  Chrétien addresses his audience directly, from time to time; he includes long dialogues between characters.

Both versions of the story are attractive and have literary merit.  The simpler, more direct, concentrated Welsh version stands up well, against Chrétien’s, in my view.

Principal sources

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Wright, J and Walshe, M O’C (1954), Middle High German Primer, 5th edition, Oxford: OUP

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

Lagarde, A and Michard, L (1964), Collections Textes et Littérature, I, Moyen Age, Paris: Bardas

Goetinck, G W (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)