Chretien de Troyes and blogging funnies

November 26, 2008 at 1:54 am (reading notes) (, , )

There’s this line in Chretien’s “The Story of the Grail” that has intrigued me for years. When Perceval comes back after first meeting knights in the forest, the uncouth little Welshmen tells his (appalled) mother about the experience. She says,

Tu as veu, si com je croi,
Les enges don la gent se plaignent,
Qui ocient quan qu’il ataignent.

[Fair son, I commend you to God, for I am most afraid on your account: you have seen, I believe, the angels men complain of, who kill whatever they come upon.] [1]

Now, I don’t have Old French, and my modern French is seriously rusty, but I am dying to find out what this means and I can’t find a darned thing on it.  The only thing I’ve found so far is in a 1994 Gallimard French edition, [2] in which the “Percevel ou Le Conte du Graal” annotations are done by Daniel Poirion.  The note says, “Ce n’est pas une critique social, mais une allusion apocalyptique dont la fugitive image est un dernier recours pour detourner le fils de son destin.  Elle implique une terrible conception de la chevalerie: les chevaliers peuvent-ils passer pour des anges d’une mondaine apocalypse?”  If I’m not hideously off, this says something like, “This is not a social critique, but an apocalyptic allusion whose fugitive image is a last recourse to divert the son from his destiny.  She implies a terrible conception of chivalry: can the knights be regarded as the angels of an earthly apocalypse?”

Last time I read Revelation, I seemed to recall some trumpet-blowing and seal-opening, but not a lot of wholesale slaughter or even agency on the part of the angels.  And even if I ignore the apocalypse commentary, this seems like an odd description of even fallen angels (setting aside for the moment the whole issue of how Perceval’s mother has hardly reared him with anything resembling orthodox catechism). Toward what “apocalyptic” matter should I be looking, if I follow Poirion’s trail?  And is there some critical edition of Chretien in English that I’m not aware of that I am remiss in not looking at (ie, is there a Klaeber of Chretien?)… Should I be looking at folkloric material, and, if so, where in the world?  What are “the angels men complain of,” and how do they get figured as this terrible image of masculinity from which his mother would like to save him?  Yeah, so there’s my research question.  Gah.

[1] Trans. William Kibler.

[2] Chretien de Troyes.  Oeuvres Completes.  Part of the Litterature francaise du Moyen Age series.


Now, in funnier news, Sir Marrok still leads in search engine terms that bring people to this blog.  But this week brings a few others:

jeffrey Jerome cohen bibliography

(ETA) Here’s one, up to date, thanks to JJC himself.

free spirit 12th century

Can’t help you, sorry.

lee patterson castration

Play nice, now!

latin root word for obsess

How you ended up here is beyond me, but I hope you found what you were looking for.

revenge as a theme in icelandic folklore

Well, yeah.

reaction to second shepherds’ play

Well, if you’re like my Brit Lit students, your reaction was a little “huh” combined with a little “please don’t make me write a paper involving medieval exegesis.”  I wish they could have seen the Folger production.

the tale of two hospitals by marry wake

Wow.  I have absolutely no idea.

weland alfred smith beowulf

If I ever have any more kids, that’s going in the name hat.



  1. prehensel said,

    I don’t know about a standard critical edition of Chretien, but here are 2 good apocalyptic sources:

    1) Norman Cohn’s *Pursuit of the Mellenium*
    2) Bernard McGinn’s *Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism*

    Those scary angles remind me of Matt Damon in *Dogma*.

  2. Karma said,

    Thank you very much for these!

  3. Jeffrey Cohen said,

    Hi, I was searching bibliography about me when I cam across your blog.

    That link to my homepage is soooo out of date: it’s a ghost page hosted by a canceled program that I’ve been unable to take down. Here’s the real thing:

    And as to Chretien, I’ve always thought his was his antichivalric mother being willfully perverse. And she has good reason to depict knights badly, having lost her family to the chivalry machine.

  4. Jeffrey Cohen said,

    PS “Weland Alfred Smith Beowulf” is one of my noms de plume.

  5. Jeffrey Cohen said,

    OK, one more comment, this time about my poor typing skills: “And as to Chretien, I’ve always thought his was his antichivalric mother being willfully perverse” should read “And as to Chretien, I’ve always thought this was his antichivalric mother being willfully perverse.” By that I meant that I never connected it to apocalypse, and vaguely connected it to the romance possibility of incubi/rapists. The Daniel Poirion gloss makes little sense to me, especially because so much of Chretien’s oeuvre is given over to “une critique social.” There are as many negative examples of knighthood in his romances as their are positive ones … and very often his narratives focus upon the knightly learning curve. Perceval, for example, commits error after error in his becoming knight. Lancelot is one of the few main characters who changes very little: he doesn’t appear to need (like Erec, Yvain, Perceval) to be refined into a more perfect state.

  6. prehensel said,

    Typing skills…speaking of, I meant scary ANGELS, not scary angles. Sometimes they can be obtuse [snicker] but never scary.

  7. Richard Scott Nokes said,

    Yeah, I’m going to have to agree with JJC here, and say that Poirion’s reading doesn’t make any sense to me. It strikes me that he’s not using the word “apocalyptic” in a very sophisticated way here, suggesting that he’s essentially just using it as a throwaway line, and so it may not be able to bear the weight of your further research. I should point out, though, that I don’t read French, so I’m assuming that “apocalyptique” implies the same sorts of things regarding Biblical apocalyptic literature that the English word does.

    Sorry it has taken me so long to respond — the same computer issues as normal, you know.

  8. Karma said,

    Thanks for the comments. I have dug around a bit, mostly because I Really Want there to be some meat to this angel thing, and I haven’t found anything worth pursuing, nor have I gotten any clearer about what Poirion means exactly.

    Scott, near as I can tell “apocalyptique” has the same resonance — i asked my aunt the French teacher 🙂 but I could stand to be corrected if I’m mistaken.

  9. Karma said,

    Thanks, JJC. Re. “wilfully perverse,” I can’t disagree with your reading of his mother. And I can’t disagree with the “social critique,” either. I’m disappointed, as I really wanted there to be something to this apocalypse/angel reference — it’s such a striking and unusual phrase in a striking and unusual romance. Oh well.

    If what you suggest is true, though, about his mother’s description being part of her anti-chivalric stance, it’s odd that this utterance comes before she can know that he saw knights. She asks where he’s been, and he says, “I’ll tell you honestly… for I’ve experienced great joy because of something I saw…. Didn’t you used to say that our Lord God’s angels are so very beautiful that Nature never made such a beautiful creature, nor is there anything so fair in all the world?… Have I not just seen the most beautiful things there are…? They are more beautiful, I think, than God or his angels.” Then the “angels men complain of” line happens. Hmmm… maybe I should give some more thought to this incubi thing.

    Sorry, just thinking out loud.

  10. Leeds 2010 « Slouching Towards Extimacy said,

    […] with potential paleography, the impending PhD exam, and a prospectus defense, I decided to return to the question of those curious angels in Chretien de Troyes’ La Conte du Graal.  For other monstrous tidbits on the menu at the […]

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