Cultural differences have often caused communication problems, but you might not expect this to be the case among highly-educated scholars and critics. Nonetheless, scholars have, at times, arrived at misreadings of great works of literature written in the Middle Ages, because of their tendency to discount the effect of a Christian outlook on “secular” literary works. They seem to overlook the fact that in the twelfth century, for example, even secular literary and reading practice was much more profoundly influenced by monastic reading of the Bible, and the theological works of St. Augustine of Hippo and other Christian writers, than it was by any other literary source or tradition. This oversight has caused no small amount of dissent and confusion in modern literary scholarship, because some scholars and critics expect “secular” medieval writers of literary fiction to share their own godless views and tendency to trivialize religion. This unconsciously anachronistic approach presumes that “secular” means “having all taint of religion removed,” or even “atheistic,” which blinds such readers to many subtleties such as irony.
One medieval work which has frequently suffered such misreadings is Chrétien de Troyes’ Story of the Grail (Perceval). Although this romance is not as well known in the English-speaking world as it is in France (where Chrétien is regarded as the father of French literature, much as Chaucer is to English), it is of fundamental importance in the Western literary canon. It is, among other things, the first work in which that mysterious object called the Grail (later known as the Holy Grail) appeared, and it, along with Chrétien’s other Arthurian romances, changed the course of literature for more than four centuries. Although there are many features of this poem that make the critic’s work difficult (for one thing, the poem was never completed), much of the dissension among Chrétien scholars over how best to understand the romance springs from disagreement over how much weight should be given to religious elements in the poem (which seems, on the surface, to be a celebration of courtly chivalry). In recognizing that Chrétien wrote for a worldly audience, the court of Henry I of Champagne, some critics have assumed that the poet catered to secular tastes of the “rich and famous” of his day. Instead, however, the poet dared his readers to reassess their worldly values, by cunningly presenting a challenge to the reader in the poem’s prologue. There, he compares the romance he is about to unfold to the Gospel and warns that the poem will not “bear much fruit” if the reader is not guided by Charity. In other words, the poet hints fairly obviously that his poem is a kind of parable, whose meaning will become plain only to readers focused upon Charity.
After comparing the poem to a parable from the Gospels, the prologue goes on to introduce a contrast between the generous life motivated by charity and one ruled by vainglory, which may look like generosity but is motivated by “false hypocrisy.” The difference between these two ways of life—epitomized, respectively, by Count Philip of Flanders and Alexander the Great—is one that is hidden, known only to Him “who is called God and Charity.” The narrator announces that he “shall prove that the count is far worthier than [Alexander], for he [i.e., Alexander] has amassed in himself all the vices and all the evils of which the count is clean and free.” The narrator goes on to enumerate the count’s superior virtues:
[He] doesn’t listen to vulgar gossip or proud speech,
and if he hears ill spoken of another, whoever it may be,
it troubles him. The count loves true justice,
and loyalty and Holy Church, and hates all villainy.
Is he not worthier than Alexander,
who cared not for charity nor for any good deed?
Thus, Count Philip is set before the reader as the standard against which to judge a way of life that may seem admirable but actually be selfishly motivated, and that standard is clearly the one against which the reader should judge the story that follows.
The story follows Perceval, a young man who has been raised by his mother in the wilds of the Welsh countryside to keep him away from the royal court and to protect him from being drawn into knighthood, which had caused the deaths of his father and his elder brothers. Nonetheless, Perceval one day runs across some knights in the woods, admires their beautiful armor, and is instantly smitten with the idea of becoming like them. Although ignorant of the nature of knighthood, soon manages to acquire the accoutrements of knighthood—a charger, armor, lance, sword and shield—which he takes from a knight he killed in a fit of pique. He has no clear idea what to do with these armaments until, wandering through the forest, he seeks lodging at the castle of a nobleman named Gornemant. Perceval’s host, sensing the youth’s boorish ignorance, gives him a brief instruction in combat techniques and, when Perceval demonstrates a natural aptitude for armed warfare, impressed, Gornemant decides to confer knighthood formally upon the young Welshman. The next morning, as Perceval prepares to dress, Gornemant attaches his spur, gives him a sword, and tells him that he is now invested with “the highest order ordained by God,” namely, chivalry, “which must be free of all villainy.”
Now, before Perceval arrived at Gornemant’s castle, where he is instructed in the practices of chivalry, Perceval had run up against two different villainous and dangerous knights, who sought to work their will through brute force and who seemed to follow no code of honor; therefore, the courteous brand of chivalry in which Gornemant instructs Perceval seems to be of a very different, and nobler, nature. However, close examination of the effects of Gornemant’s ethical and social instruction will reveal that the chivalric code he enunciates is no more than a superficial improvement over the willful arrogance of the knights Perceval has encountered up to this point.
This is what Gornemant says to Perceval, when he gives him his spurs and sword:
Fair brother, I remind you now, if it happens
that you are forced to do combat with any knight,
I tell you and beg this of you: If you gain the upper hand
so that [the other knight] can no longer defend himself
or hold out against you, but is forced to beg for mercy,
certainly do not kill him deliberately.
And be careful not to be too talkative or gossipy;
no one can be too talkative without often saying something
that people consider rude; and the wise man says:
“He who talks too much commits a sin.”
For this reason, fair brother, I forbid you to talk too much.
And I also bid you, if you find a maiden or a woman,
be she damsel or lady, who is in need of any help,
assist her and you’ll do well, if you know how to help her
and if you have the power to do so.
Gornemant goes on to instruct Perceval to “go gladly to church” to pray for God’s mercy on his soul, and concludes by saying: “Never again say, fair sir, that it was your mother who taught you…say it was the vavasor who gave you your spur.”
Now, Gornemant seems to mix practical tips on social behavior indiscriminately with more formal ethical rules: in addition to sparing conquered foes, helping women in distress, and praying for God’s assistance, Perceval must refrain from idle chatter and from constant references to his mother, which make him sound foolish and childish. Perceval’s inept interpretation of this advice in his later adventures gives the impression that his ignorance prevents him from discerning the difference between mere social tips and serious principles of chivalric conduct. But if we look closely, we see that the prohibition against gabbiness is presented as being just as binding upon a knight as the rules to show mercy and to render aid to women in distress. In fact, Gornemant’s speech seems to be presented as a single rule with three parallel clauses dealing with how to behave toward others, and a second, separate rule that relates to religious observance. This two-part rule might seem to correspond to the double law of charity—love of neighbor and of God. In other words, it may seem that Gornemant is instructing Perceval in the kind of noble charity epitomized by the charitable Philip of Flanders in the prologue. But is this truly the case?
Defense of the helpless
Almost immediately, we have an opportunity to test the hypothesis. The episode that follows Perceval’s departure from Gornemant’s castle shows the new knight putting into practice for the first time the instruction he has received from the vavasor. After leaving Gornemant, Perceval soon arrives at the castle of the beautiful and helpless damsel Blancheflor, besieged by a wicked knight who wishes to take both the damsel and the castle by force. Here is a perfect opportunity for Perceval to practice what he has been taught about aiding helpless women. The mistress of the castle has only a handful of men left to defend her, all enfeebled by famine from the siege, but Perceval learns that her uncle is Gornemant, who lives comfortably less than a day’s ride away, while the helpless damsel languishes in famine and peril. When he first arrives, remembering Gornemant’s instruction not to be too talkative, Perceval is foolishly silent, even as the young lady and her companions try to draw him out, but eventually his hostess coaxes a little small talk out of him. When Perceval tells her that he has just come from Gornemant, Blancheflor says she is sure that “he showed you very happy and joyful hospitality, for he knows well how to do so, being a worthy and well-born man, powerful and comfortable and rich. But here there are no more than five crumbs .” The contrast between the pitiful state of the maiden and her dependents, and the ease and comfort of her uncle, could hardly be starker. “But,” the maiden says, “I’ve not seen him for a good long while.”
Blancheflor, however, does not speak harshly of her rich but neglectful uncle Gornemant. (Perhaps she has learned to expect little help from knights.) She allows Perceval to go to off to bed without his having expressed any concern for her plight; meanwhile, she herself lies sleepless, tormented by her desperate situation and the knowledge that her handsome young guest may leave without offering any help. She does not blame Perceval for failing to rush to her defense—she seems to understand that she must engage his self-interest before she can hope to win his help. First she tries to lure him with sexual enticement, arriving at his bedside scantily dressed and weeping so copiously that her tears waken Perceval when they drip onto his face. Fortunately for her, Perceval is just a boy and knows nothing of sexual pleasures, so he fails to take full advantage of the situation, but neither does he make any pledge to defend her. “Unfortunately,” however, being insensible of the sexual lure she is dangling before him, he fails to rise to the bait. There is some ambivalence in her tactic, for the young lady finds herself compelled to offer as payment for his assistance help the same sexual favors that she has vowed, upon pain of death, to deny to the knight who holds her besieged. Yet when Perceval invites her to sleep beside him, the young woman knows that she is on the point of achieving her purpose, as the narrator tells us:
Soon the knight will be able to win himself glory,
if he dares, for she never wept over his face for any other reason,
whatever she may have led him to believe,
save to encourage him to undertake the battle for her lands
and to defend her, if he dared to do so.
She lures him not only with the promise of winning fame, but also with the lure of her lands and her love, prizes that might tempt any knight to take up her cause. Perceval seems to have little interest in her property but he does agree to defend her, on one condition: “If I kill and conquer [your enemy], I demand that your love-service be mine, as recompense; I’ll take no other payment.”
Both parties seem to be agreeing to a transaction that benefits each side: she hires a protector and he gets paid with her love-service. There is no suggestion on either part that he is acting out of kindness, or even under obligation to the chivalric code. The maiden accepts the mercenary character of their agreement just as equitably as she does the fact that her rich uncle never troubles himself on her account (she could not, after all, pay her uncle with the same currency she offers Perceval).
Mercy to the defeated
The courtly code of chivalry, then, in its expectation that knights will assist helpless females does not demand that the champion go unrewarded: he is entitled to both the lady’s property and her person. Is there a similar element of self-interest in the rule of mercy toward conquered opponents?
Perceval’s battle with Anguingueron, the knight who has besieged the castle of Blancheflor, seems to suggest that there is. The rule of mercy is tested as soon as Perceval sallies out to engage Anguingueron. When the wounded opponent, knocked from his horse, falls under Perceval’s repeated blows and begs for mercy, Perceval at first refuses, until he remembers that Gornemant told him never to kill a vanquished knight who pleads for mercy; then he hesitates.
Anguingueron takes advantage of this moment of hesitation to argue the benefit of sparing his life—namely, that Perceval’s victim will become a walking advertisement of his prowess:
Fair sweet friend, now don’t be so haughty or foolish
that you fail to show me mercy. I concede and grant you
that you have the better of me and you are a very good knight,
but not so good that a man who hadn’t seen it
and who knew us both would believe that you had killed me
single-handed in armed combat. But if I testify and bear witness
that you have bested me at arms with all my men watching,
in front of my own tent, my word will be believed
and your fame will be made known,
greater than any knight has ever had.
Anguingueron is as crafty in his manipulation of Perceval as the besieged maiden was: both appeal to Perceval’s sense of self-interest by promising him fame and glory if he will agree to their terms. Both cases, also, can be read as transactions that have benefits on both sides: here, Anguingueron retains his life and Perceval advertises his own prowess.
Sins of speech
Now, I suggested earlier that Perceval acted foolishly when he took too literally Gornemant’s instruction not to run off at the mouth, but perhaps he was not so foolish after all, as we shall see in a moment. After dickering over the exact arrangements for Anguingeron’s imprisonment, Perceval agrees to send him off into King Arthur’s custody. This decision could hardly serve the cause of his fame better, for when Anguingueron arrives at Arthur’s court, the king immediately realizes that the “knight in red armor” who defeated Anguingueron must be the same brash young Welshman who so effortlessly won that red armor by killing the Red Knight of Quinqueroi, who had been threatening Arthur’s kingdom.
As Arthur becomes aware of each of Perceval’s conquests, he berates Kay for having alienated such a promising young knight through his rash and imprudent speech (Kay had sarcastically told Perceval that he could have Quinqueroi’s shiny red armor if he could get it off him). Misuse of his tongue seems to be Kay’s besetting sin, for every mention of him in this romance includes some reference to his felon gap (dastardly speech), the malicious and sarcastic comments that the whole court fears:
“Kay,” said the king, “For the love of God!
You are too eager to speak ill, and it doesn’t matter to whom.
This is a terrible vice in a gentleman.
So, even though the lad is ignorant,
yet he may be a very well-born man,
and if this [his ignorance] comes from instruction
that he had from a vulgar teacher, he may yet
prove brave and wise. It is villainous to mock another
and to promise without giving.”
Vilenie (villainy or baseness) is mentioned twice in this passage, once with reference to Perceval’s rude behavior, and again to describe Kay’s sarcastic and spiteful words. The message is clear enough: an ill-educated boy may get away with rudeness, but in a courtly knight such behavior is downright shameful. This courtly attitude suggests that Gornemant, in his instruction of Perceval, was motivated by a measure of self-interest in his determination to tutor the boy in social skills, because Perceval’s manners from here on out would reflect upon the man who taught him.
The connection between rude speech and villainy, or baseness, was first introduced in the prologue, when Chrétien praised the virtue of his patron Philip. After stating that Alexander “had amassed in himself all the vices and all the evils” that the count shuns, Chrétien specifies one of the vices that Philip avoids: “The count…does not heed vulgar gossip or arrogant speech…he hates all vilenie [base behavior].” The members of Arthur’s court, however, are apparently not able to take the high road of ignoring malicious gossip; everyone at court fears Kay because of the harm his spiteful talk can do them, “for he is not wise who fails to fear maliciousness made too public, whether it be said in jest or in truth.”
This kind of villainy is feared because an insult brings public shame upon its object. On the most literal level, the villain is the man of low birth, who lives below the social stratum of corteisie (nobles of the royal court); when applied to a person of noble birth and upbringing, villainy becomes a reproach against the person’s behavior and can refer simply to bad manners or to outright wickedness. In its most grievous forms, villainy is a deadly offense: for instance, when Perceval first met Arthur, the king told him that the queen was literally suicidal because the Red Knight had discourteously spilled wine on her.
In light of the importance of this kind of social infraction, we should reconsider the code of chivalrous conduct that Gornemant teaches Perceval. As noted earlier, that instruction falls into two parts, the first of which refers to behavior toward others while the second deals with religious observance. Both are prefaced by the statement that the order of knighthood must be maintained sanz vilenie (free of baseness). If we interpret “vilenie” to mean “socially unacceptable behavior,” it becomes clearer why Gornemant’s prohibition against talking too much is wedged between the rule to show mercy to the defeated and the one to assist helpless women: all three are guidelines designed to keep the knight from committing social faux pas. They restrain the knight from violent excesses of force and willfulness by placing social constraints on his speech and actions. The improvement, however, is superficial, because the motivation of the courtly knight, remains essentially selfish. In fact, each of the rules of chivalry can be interpreted in terms of self-interest: advertising one’s prowess by sparing defeated opponents who can attest to that prowess; protecting one’s reputation by avoiding loose talk that might cause offense; increasing one’s worldly goods by defending women who reward the successful protector with their lands and their love-service. Even the injunction to attend church regularly also seems to have more to do with appearances than with genuine love of God.
It seems, then, that even courtly chivalry, which is superficially superior to the brutish behavior of rude knights like Anguingueron, falls short of the criterion of charity. Courtly practice may look like charity, but it is truly nothing more than “false hypocrisy” motivated by “vainglory.” Like Alexander the Great, courtly chivalry is superficially generous in its defense of the helpless and clemency toward the defeated, but is far removed from the charity of the noble Philip of Flanders, which is truly concerned with the good of the other.
Recognizing that the chivalry practiced by Perceval is defective, according to the standard of Charity proposed at the beginning of the poem, is crucial to understanding what the poet intended the reader to see. The rest of the poem becomes an incomprehensible nonsense if the reader lacks this key insight. Yet many modern critics have argued that the prologue served simply to flatter Chrétien’s wealthy patron, Count Philip of Flanders, and they overlook the challenge to read the poem in the light of Charity. In doing so, they fall into the trap set by the poet and fail to recognize the true meaning of the poem, as relevant today as it was in the twelfth century: that worldly success is worth nothing if it is simply self-glorification, and that the greatest hero must allow himself to be humbled if he would truly serve the good of others.