By the end of eleventh century, Western Europe had experienced a powerful cultural revival. The flourish of New towns provided a place for exchange of commerce and flow of knowledge and ideas. Universities, which replaced monasteries as centers of learning, poured urbanized knowledge into society. New technological advances and economics transformations provided the means for building magnificent architectures. These developments were representative of the mental and behavioral transformations that the medieval world underwent and the new relationships that were brought about between men, women and society in the twelfth century.
As in technology, science, and scholasticism, Literature was also reborn with a new theme. 3 Very different from traditional writings of the past was the new flourish of troubadour poetry. Troubadour poetry, derived of courtly romances, focused on the idea of unrequited love. “A young man of the knightly class loved a lady”, most often, “the lady was married to the young man’s lord”. The courtly lover would compose highly lyrical and erotic poems in honor of his lady, and the troubadour was filled with rapture even at the slightest kindness that the lady might offer him. This new literary artifice provides us clues to the cultural changes that took place in medieval Europe during this time. Of the many writers of courtly romance, the most distinguished literature can be found in the work of Chretien de Troyes. Troyes was a native of Eastern Champagne and most of his career was spent the court of Marie de Champagne. He was the inventor of Arthurian literature and the first to speak of Camelot, and write adventures of the Grail. He may even have been the first to sing the tragic love of Tristan and Isolde.
One of Chretein de Troyes’ works, Chevalier de la Charette (The Knight of the Cart) expresses the doctrines of courtly love in its most developed form. The plot of this story is believed to have been given to him by Marie of Champagne and has been called “the perfect romance” for its portrayal of Queen Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot of the Lake. 1 The elements of courtly love operate at several levels simultaneously in The Knight of the Cart; they are expressed by the behaviors of Lancelot, Queen Guinevere, Meleagant and other characters in the story.
Two vividly deployed elements are the concepts of loyalty and honor. Lancelot is shown to be infinitely honorable and loyal in his love to Guinevere, a true and unflinching love. He is tested at various stages in his voyage, such as by the damsel who requires him to sleep with her if he wants hospitality. Lancelot agrees only after pleading with her not to make him sleep with her. He did this not because the girl was unattractive for he states, “Many men would have thanked her five hundred times for such an offer. He agrees to this act only because he believes that he needs the lodging to rest himself so he can dutifully continue his quest for Guinevere. Yet, Lancelot does not even look at her when she is naked; his lack of interest causes the damsel to relinquish him from his promise. He stays perfectly loyal and faithful to his queen. Obedience is another factor that constitutes courtly behavior in the story. Lancelot battles arduous combats and suffers severe wounds for the love of Guinevere.
However, once throughout his voyage he falters in his obedience to her love, when he comes across a dwarf, driver of a cart, the dwarf tells Lancelot to ride in the cart in exchange for information on Guinevere’s whereabouts; Lancelot hesitates momentarily before leaping into the cart. Lancelot regrets this moment of hesitation and scolds himself, he argues “Reason, who does not follow love’s command, told him to beware of getting in and admonished himLove ordered and wished [he would ride in the cart]; since love ruled his action, the disgrace should not have mattered. 2 Lancelot is deeply ashamed and never falters again. His obedience to his love is tested and displayed at the Knights tournament. At the request of Guinevere, he deliberately embarrasses himself in every event to prove his undying obedience. Lancelot purposely looses his battles and is made a fool. From Lancelot’s behaviors, we can see the change that has taken place in medieval society. Lancelot, a vassal in King Arthur’s court, should be unremittingly loyal, honorable and obedient to the King. Nevertheless, his love for Queen Guinevere has challenged this relationship.
Lancelot’s quest to rescue Guinevere should be for his lord, the King, yet Lancelot’s mission is for his own love and lust of Guinevere. Lancelot may be considered to be Guinevere’s knight, rather than King Arthur’s. The climax of this change and the final defeat of lord-vassal relationship occurs when Guinevere and Lancelot consummate their love with an adulterous love making; at this point, love is conquered and feudal loyalty is defeated. Another significant derivation from The Knight of the Cart is the reverence in for chivalry and knighthood.
There are two class of knights depicted in the story; Lancelot, the very embodiment of chivalry: courageous, compassionate, selfless and honorable; and Meleagant, a cowardly knight, who battles dishonorably, conduct treacherous deeds and retains crude manners. Lancelot pursues his love with an undying diligence while trying, more often than not, to take pity on the individuals that he must combat. This is best demonstrated when Lancelot fights the knight that repeatedly taunts him about riding in the cart.
Although he initially shows this knight mercy by giving him another chance to fight against him, this compassion is revoked as Lancelot is wins for a second time, he beheads the knight. Lancelot reveals, by this action, that he is honorable and desires to be just to all; he wants to be generous to the defeated knight. Lancelot generally restrains himself and at least tries to look compassionately at those with whom he must do combat. On the other hand, Meleagant, who never “tired of baseness, treason and felony”, does not display any honor.
He refuses to give up Queen Guinevere when Lancelot arrives to Gorre to free her, even though the rules of the knight called for it; “disloyalty pleased him. ” It is said by his father, that while imprisoned, Queen Guinevere was “sequestered and safe from lust of [his] son,” showing that his father is aware of his dishonorable character. 2 Finally, in his most cowardly act, Meleagant imprisons Lancelot, preventing him from showing up to battle at King Arthur’s court, and ironically declares Lancelot a coward.
However, when Lancelot does show up and overthrows him, Meleagant is so enraged with hated of Lancelot that he cannot speak; not even for mercy. Lancelot beheads him. The death of Meleagant signifies the end of dishonorable and treacherous behavior by knights and reaffirms the cultural change that required new forms of honorable, courteous and “cheval” behavior. Finally, The Knight of the Cart also depicts a change in the role of women within the cultural change of twelfth century. Preceding the rise of courtly love, medieval tradition was patriarchal and misogynist. Only men [were] worthy of love”, women were viewed as dense, and foolish. 3 The worship of lady, instigated by courtly love, changed the role of certain women at top and gave them an elevated standing that they did not enjoy before. The worship of the lady can be seen through Lancelot treatment of Guinevere. Lancelot spends most of his day in meditation of his love for Guinevere, giving the impression that he is in prayer, illustrating Guinevere’s heavenly elevation. In addition, Lancelot literally sacrifices himself for her, when he finds out mistakenly that she has died, he tries to kill him self.
Guinevere is portrayed as a divinely creature. Only she had the power to save Lancelot and soothe his agony and pain. Lancelot reaffirming her alleviating power, begs Guinevere to allow him to go to her: “If you grant me permission, my way is clear. But if my scheme does not suit you, then the way is so difficult for me that my entry is impossible. ” Once she permits him to enter “Lancelot had every wish . as he held [Guinevere] in his arms greatest joy and pleasure,” confirming that his salvation was in her hands. When all the courtly love elements that flow through The Knight of the Cart are composed, in addition to a tale of love affair between Queen Guinevere and Lancelot of the Lake, a document revealing the enchanting history of the Twelfth Century Renaissance is created. Troyes, our powerful storyteller, was able to do this by taking us on a journey with Lancelot, not only though his exciting battles to Guinevere but, through his passionate and enamored thoughts and behaviors that yearns for his beloved.