Chrétien de Troyes

Can we count on the account of a count?

(An earlier version of this article is available in French)

            Le Conte du Graal, also known as Perceval, is the last poem of Chrétien created between 1179 and 1190 CE. Many manuscripts open with a prologue of 68 lines which ends with an ambiguous word play where the mystery word GRAAL is uttered for the first time. Although Chrétien acknowledges the patronage of Marie de Champagne in an earlier work, he praises Philip of Alsace, the count of Flanders, so lavishly in the prologue of the Conte du Graal that it is widely assumed he attached himself to the count in Bruges. This conjecture has some support from a local legend, which depicts Count Philip as a keeper of the "Holy Grail". His father had allegedly brought a vessel with the Holy Blood to Bruges after the Second Crusade where it is venerated to this day (1). Hence, we are led to believe that Chrétien lived and died in Flanders, because his poem ends abruptly before Perceval can correct his failure at the grail castle. The poet Gerbert, one of several continuators of the Conte du Graal, points out la mort, qui l’adevancha, that Chrétien died before he could finish the work (2).  

             There is, however, the option that the experts misunderstand a few esoteric messages. In Old French the word conte can either mean story, count, account, amount, value, meaning, or calculation (3), which makes the word play in lines 62-68 highly ambiguous. As it is the first time a grail is mentioned, the lack of clarity makes the unknown word even more mysterious, which the poet surely intended! In modern French, 'conte' is spelled differently to distinguish between conte (story, tale), comte (the title) and compte (amount, calculation), but the nasal pronunciation of "conte" (4) remains, which still forces an audience today to identify its meaning from the context. This led experts like Roach to interpret the entire prologue this way, although it differs greatly from the poet's other works because it is religiously themed. Consequently, this is how the word play is usually interpreted:      

 62 CRESTIIENS, qui entent et paine
64 Par le comandement le conte
63 A rimoir le meillor conte
65 Qui soit contez a cort roial
66 Ce est li CONTES DEL GRAAL,
67 Dont li quens li bailla le livre,
68 Oeez coment il s’en delivre.

62 CHRETIEN, who knows and strives
64 By the count's
63 To rhyme the better story
65 Which is (to be) told at the royal court
66 It is the STORY OF THE GRAIL,
67 To which the count gave him the book,
68 Listen how he delivers it.

(Note: Roach used ms T where lines 63 and 64 are reversed!)

        That the experts conclude from the general context that count Philip (l. 64) commanded the poem is not the only problem with the prologue, which can be checked in Appendix 2.  There is also a biblical quote from St. John (I Jn 4:16), which Chrétien  attributes wrongly to St. Paul, and scholars to a scribe's error. In the context of "one hand not knowing the good the other is doing," Philip is praised for an unknown secret side as extremely charitable and generous, and raised high above an otherwise unidentified Alexander, although the ambiguity may confirm his bad reputation. However, we believe that Chrétien chose these ambiguities himself and that the "errors" have a rhetorical function, which we will review in detail. In the process, we intend to identify Chrétien's "lost sources," expose the prologue as a satire on the account of a most pious count, and show that the key to matière and sen of the poem is hidden in an allegorical veil of flattery. If we succeed, it would not only reverse the current interpretation of Chrétien's work, but also resolve a few enigmas of grail romance. 

        According to most experts, Chrétien paraphrases the apostles Paul (II Cor.9:6) and Matthew (13:5-6,8,23) to stress the poem's importance, and quotes II Cor. 9:8-9, Mt. 6:3-4,2, I Jn 4:16, and II Cor. 9:7 to celebrate the count as the most noble man in the Roman empire. If we ignore the sarcasm, because Flanders wasn't even part of the despised the Roman Empire, we have to take the poet literally, as scholarship has. In that case, the jeu de mots would serve exclusively the praise of the count and suggest Chrétien got senile and flattered a new patron for room and board. If true, this would indeed have been a sad end for one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages.

        This has been implied by the experts for over a hundred years, including Wendelin Foerster (1844-1915), Alfons Hilka (1877-1939), William Nitze (1876-1957), Jean Frappier (1900-1974), and William Roach (1907-1993). They noticed the ambiguities, but instead of looking for an explanation blamed medieval scribes for the mistakes (5). On the other hand, Foerster noticed "Chrétien grossly overdoes the praise of the count" (6) and Frappier calls it a "flattering dedication" and finds the prologue "too discrete about the poem's source" (7). Scholars are clearly at odds with the flattery, but like Frappier seem to avoid any speculation because the poem is unfinished. Their dilemma is probably best summed up by Roach who admits: "The textual critique of literary works from the Middle Ages is a long series of unstable hypotheses and arbitrary decisions of the editors" (8). 

          However, the poet gives his audience an explanation for his ambiguous concept in another jeu de mots (3250/51). After Perceval has seen the grail for the first time and failed to ask about it, Chrétien suggests:            

Qu'aussi bien se puet an trop teire
Con trop parler a la foiiee..
(One can also remain too silent
by talking too much)

         This may be an invitation to question why Chrétien reveals so little about Alexander and St Paul, for example, and why he came up with such lavish praise for Count Philip. Keeping a proper balance or measure was a high virtue in the Middle Ages, and the poet would have violated this ideal if the ambiguities were not an important part of his rhetoric. Could it be that he wanted his listeners to accuse him of excessiveness and ambiguities in the prologue – to which he could reply with the above second jeu de mots to enhance the mystery?  He also uses a modern form of suspense like Hitchcock by not revealing Perceval's name until very late in the poem, when he has to guess it after he saw the grail and failed to ask the right question. In this sense, this may be the first interactive poem in history because we are challenged to interpret the ambiguities from the context. But so far, only our scholars have complied – but is it the right context?

          Lines 63-64 are reversed in manuscript U (Paris, Bibl. Nat. ffs 12577) and would only support the count's command if we accept that line 64 is interjected. In manuscripts A (Paris, Bibl Nat. ffs 794), M (Montpellier, Ecole de Médicine H.249), and T (Paris, Bibl. Nat. ffs 12576 ) the lines are not reversed, which changes their meaning and the general context. It must be said, as amazing as it seems, that this option hasn't been considered either:                 

                                               Manuscript A (used by Hilka) has lines 63 and 64 in order:

62 CRESTIIENS, qui antant et painne
63 A rimoiier le meillor conte  
64 Par le comandemant le conte  
65 Qui soit contez an cort real:
66 Ce est li contes del GRAAL,
67 Dont li cuens li bailla le livre,
68 S'orroiz comant il s’an delivre.

62 CHRETIEN, who knows and strives
63 To rhyme the better story
64 As commanded by the story
65 That is told at the royal court:
66 It is the story of the GRAIL,
67 To which the count gave him the book,
68 So listen how he delivers it.

            Although still ambiguous, the word play favors the command of a false story, which was told at the royal court. A story that obliged Chrétien to compose a better story entitled The Story Of The Grail or even The Count From The Grail. This translation would require a "peiour conte" (Lt. peior, OFr. peiour, pire = worse) that was told at the court, and which Philip's book would correct. The opposition of better and worse in regards to Philip and Alexander may be an additional clue, but the flattery was taken literally and a false story never considered.  In view of the two Alexanders, it would make perfect sense if Chrétien quoted another St. Paul, especially because he insists that he read it himself. In view of the reversals of the Alexanders, of destre/senestre, and of lines 63/64, Frappier (9) is of the opinion that "the opposition of the largesse of chivalry and Christian charity, and the superiority of one over the other was not in the mind of an author so careful with 'conjointure' if it has nothing to do with the 'sen' of the poem".

           It is possible that Chrétien opposed the sinister North with the enlightened South where Gnostic sects were free to practice their religious beliefs. Such dualism is reflected in the parallel quests of Perceval and Gauvain, and the Grail Castle and Castle of Wonders. Chrétien's "heretic" sympathies are also expressed in his quotes from the New Testament, particularly the one he attributes to St. Paul. Love (charité) and perfection (parfaits) are central ideals of the Cathar sects, which were so brutally annihilated during the Albigensian Crusades. Frappier refrains from touching upon these issues, perhaps because Chrétien did not complete the poem, but concedes that he may have dedicated the poem to the count without leaving the service of Marie de Champagne (10) as most scholars maintain. In view of our interpretation of the contes and the flattery, it would seem that Chrétien did not move to Flanders – at least not voluntarily.

          Unfortunately, the Conte du Graal ends in the middle of a scene, which might imply to the suggestible that Chrétien paid the ultimate penalty for insulting the count! According to Albert W. Thompson, “of the fifteen existing Old French manuscripts of Chrétien’s Perceval, only four stop at the end of the work of the original author" (11). It is not surprising from our point of view that “In the majority of the Perceval manuscripts, there is no indication of a change of author" (12), which reveals that some continuations used to be passed off as Chrétien’s work.

         Two continuations are “ascribed to Wauchier de Denain”, although he is still disputed as the author because “he was a pious writer of saints’ lives, referred to as an authority rather than as an author of the Perceval" (13). Loomis points out that it was churchmen who composed "the Didot Perceval, the Queste del Saint Graal, and the Estoire del Saint Graal" (14), which shows that there may have been a concerted effort to diffuse Chrétien’s popular ideas if they supported the heretics.

         This could explain why the Manessier continuation was written under the patronage of Countess Jeanne of Flanders (1194-1244) and why some manuscripts replaced Chrétien’s prologue with an Elucidation. The overlong introduction mimics the style of Chrétien but omits the ambiguous praise and even fails to maintain the octosyllabic rhymes. The proof that it was meant to replace Chrétien’s ambiguous prologue is revealed in the last seven lines, which were retained from the original:  

478   Crestiiens qui entent et paine

479   A rimoier le mellor conte,

480   Par le commandement le Conte,

481   Qui soit contés en court roial:

482   Cou est li contes del Gréal,

483   Don’t li Quens li balla le livre;

484   S’orez coment il se delivre.

        Because of Chrétien's satire on the account of the pious count, we can only hope he composed the prologue after Philip’s death in 1191, which is a theory Duggan, Luttrel, and Diverrès propose for independent reasons (16). Hence, the poet could have been alive in the 1190s and his death had natural causes. With this new evaluation of the prologue, based on the reversals of the two Alexanders, of destre/senestre, and of lines 63/64, Chrétien gives us access to his ambiguous riddle. As a result, the etymology of graal and different meanings of conte can take us straight to the grail region as we will show in the next article.

         Eight centuries have passed and we can only hope with Chrétien that his work was not in vain! Let us also hope that he did not have to pay the ultimate penalty for insulting the Roman pontiff and his devout disciple – and for saving the keys to the grail mystery.    


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        Appendix 1:

        We will show in other articles that Wolfram's work gives us better access to Chrétien's "Conte du Graal". The German poet presents portions of his adaptation before 1204, and may have even met the French master in person. His initiation indicates that both were either members of an esoteric order or Wolfram worked with another source, perhaps a continuation of the poem that was destroyed after Chrétien's death. In view of the continuators, who altered and diffused Chrétien's ideas and intentions, it is conceivable that they were hired to obscure the grail secrets. If this hypothesis can be proven some day and the mystery decoded, it would be but a short step to the conclusion that the poet was murdered. All we can say today is that Wolfram had either a manuscript of the poem, or it was quoted to him verbatim by Chrétien or a witness of his presentation. Only this could have enabled him to follow the French original so closely, often scene by scene – including the smooth and invisible transition from where Chrétien ends. Thus, Wolfram could have saved the grail secrets from the distortions of Chrétien's "continuators" of which at least one appears to have worked for the Flemish court and truly by the "count's command".

                    Otto Springer's Wolfram studies (17) suggest that Wolfram adopted Chrétien's use of etymological plays with a number of his word creations. In our opinion, the key mediator was the mysterious "Meister Kyot", as we show in a rough draft. Wolfram's word play with "hilfe" (help) may very well be an intentional "help" for us to understand Chrétien, and on how to solve his riddles. Anyone who has performed for audiences, like this writer,  would notice that Wolfram's "help" literally jumps into your face! Let us not forget that these poets were entertainers in front of live audiences, and that some hints can be articulated with greater emphasis. Here is one of several examples, quoted by Springer, where helfe/hilfe is used like "conte":    

des gihe ich dem ze schanden
der aller helfe hat gewalt,
ist sin helfe helfe balt,
daz er mir denne hilfet niht,
so vil man im der hilfe giht'..  (P.461,18-26)

      The time has come for a French scholar to re-translate the prologue and restore Chrétien's ambiguities. (Please send your translation to so that we can post it.) Because as long as the current "general context" is maintained, all translations and prose adaptations into modern French (and other languages) will continue to distort the intentions of the poet. We owe it to him – so that his effort was not in vain !


        Appendix 2

      The two versions of the prologue show the structure of twelve lines that are followed by a pause, a kunstpause which only a dramaturg or entertainer would understand. Important examples are the suspense after line 12, who the most noble man in the empire might be, the change of style in line 13, and the return to the innocuous and hypocritical tone in line 25, which gets pathological by leading from his hands to the kidneys, etc. These lines and pauses should be rehearsed aloud to appreciate how Chrétien played with his audience:        


1  Qui petit seem petit quialt
2  E qui auques recoillir vialt
3  An tel leu sa semance espande
4  Que fruit a cent dobles li rande
5  Car an terre qui rien ne vaut
6  Bone semance i seche e faut.
7  Crestiens seme e fet semance
8  D'un romans que il ancomance
9  E si le seme an si bon leu
10 Qu'il ne puet estre sanz grant preu
11 Qu'il le fet por le plus prodome
12 Qui soit an l'empire de Rome

13 C'est li cuens Phelipes de Flandres
14 Qui mialz valt ne fist Alexandres
15 Cil que lan dit qui tant fu buens.
16 Mes je proverai que li cuens
17 Valt mialz que cist ne fist asez
18 Car il ot an lui amassez
19 Toz les vices et toz les max
20 Dont li cuens est mondes e sax.
21 Li cuens est tex que il n'escote
22 Vilain gap ne parole estote
23 E s'il ot mal dire d'autrui
24 Qui que il soit ce poise lui.

25 Li cuens aimme droite justise
26 E leauté e sainte iglise
27 E tote vilenie het
28 S'est plus larges que lan ne set
29 Qui'il done selonc l'evangile
30 Sanz ypocrisye et sanz guile
31 E dit ne saiche ta senestre
32 Le bien quant le fera la destre
33 Cil le saiche qui le recoit
34 E dex qui toz les segrez voit
35 E set totes les repostailles
36 Qui sont es cuers e es antrailles.

37 L'evangile por coi dit ele
38 Tes biens a ta senestre cele ?
39 La senestre selonc l'estoire
40 Senefie la vainne gloire
41 Qui vint de fause ypocrisie.
42 E la destre que senefie ?
43 Charité qui de sa bone oevre
44 Pas ne se vante encois la coevre
45 Que nus ne le set se cil non
46 Qui dex e charité a non.
47 Dex est charitez e qui vit
48 An charité selonc l'escrit

49 Sainz Pos lo dit e je le lui
50 Qui maint an deu e dex an lui.
51 Donc sachoiz bien de verité
52 Que li don sont de charité
53 Que li bons cuens Felipes done
54 C'onques nelui n'an areisone
55 Fors son franc cuer le debonere
56 Qui li loe le bien a fere.
57 Ne valt mialz cil que ne valut
58 Alixandres cui ne chalut
59 De charité ne de nul bien ?
60 Oil n'an dotez ja de rien
61 Donc avra bien sauvé sa peinne

62 Crestiens qui antant e peinne
63 A rimoier le meillor conte
64 Par le comandement le conte
65 Qui soit contez an cort real

66 Ce est li c o n t e s d e l g r a a l
67 Don li cuens li baille le livre.
68 S'orroiz comant il s'an delivre.


Ki petit semme petit quelt,
Et qui auques requeillir velt,
En tel liu sa semence espande
Que Diex a cent doubles li rande
Car en terre qui riens ne valt,
Bone semence seche et faut.
CRESTÏENS semme et fait semence
D'un romans que ii encomence,
Et si le seme en si bon leu
Qu'il ne puet [estre] sanz grant preu,
Qu'il le fait por le plus preudome
Qui soit en 1'empire de Rome.

C'est li quens Phelipes de Flandres,
Qui valt mix ne fist Alixandres,
Cil que l'en dist qui fu si buens.
Mais je proverai que ii quens
Valt mix que il ne fist assez,
Car cil ot en lui amasse
Toz les visces et toz les maus
Dont li quens est mondes et saus.
Li quens est teus que il n'escoute
Vilain g[ap] ne parole estoute,
Et s'il ot mesdire d'autrui,
Quels que il soit, ce poise lui.

Li quens aime droite justise
Et loiauté et sainte eglise
Et toute vilonnie het
S'est larges que 1'en si ne set,
Qu'il done selonc 1'evangille,
Sanz ypocrisie et sanz gille,
Qu'el dist: "Ne sache ta senestre
Les biens quant les [fera] ta destre.
Cil le sache qui les reçoit,
Et Diex, qui toz les secrez voit
Et set totes les repostailles
Qui sont es cuers et es entrailles.

L'evangille por coi dist ele
"Les biens a ta senestre cele" ?
Le senestre, selonc 1'estoire,
Senefie la vaine gloire
Qui vient de fausse ypocrisie.
Et la destre que senefie ?
Carité, qui de sa bone oevre
Pas ne se vante, ançois se coevre,
Si que ne le set se cil non
Qui Diex et caritez a non.
Diex est caritez, et qui vit
En carité selonc 1'escrit,

Sainz Pols le dist et je le lui,
Il maint en Dieu, et Diex en lui.
Dont sachiez bien de verité
Que li don sont de carité
Que li bons quens Phelipes done
Onques nului n'i araisonne
Fors son bon cuer le debonaire
Qui li loe le bien a faire.
Ne valt cil mix que ne valut
Alixandres, cui ne chalut
De carité ne de nul bien ?
Oil, n'en doutez ja de rien
Dont avra bien salve sa paine

CRESTÏENS, qui entent et paine
Par le comandement le conte
A rimoier le meillor conte
Qui soit contez a cort roial :

Dont li quens li bailla le livre.
Oëz coment il s'en delivre.


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       1. Wikipedia: Basilica of the Holy Blood, (Flemish: Heilig-Bloedbasiliek). The relic was allegedly brought to the city after the Second Crusade by Thierry of Alsace and is paraded every year through the streets of Bruges. More than 1,600 inhabitants take part in this mile-long religious procession, many dressed as medieval knights or crusaders. The link dismisses the above as a legend and shows that the relic was brought during the Fourth Crusade, which could be interpreted as a reaction to Chrétien poem.  


   2. Gerbert de Montreuil, La continuation de Perceval, ed. Mary Williams, (Paris, 1922), p. 214: “Ce nous dist Crestiens de Troie Qui de Percheval comencha, Mais la mort qui l’adevancha ne li laissa pas traire affin” (vv. 6984-87).   


       3. Wendelin Foerster, Kristian von Troyes, Wörterbuch zu seinen sämtlichen Werken, (Halle, 1914), p. 88: 1. conte (computu) m.  Zahl…Zählen, Rechnung, Betrag, gut gezählt, Erzählung, Bericht erstatten…2. conte (comite), N. cuens (comes), m. Graf... Also “conter” (computare)… tr. zählen… anrechnen als… erzählen, erwähnen, verlauten lassen


   4. Tobler-Lommatzch, Altfranzösisches Wörterbuch, Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, Berlin, 1936, Zweiter Band, pp.751-757


       5. Alfons Hilka (Gottfried Baist), Der Percevalroman (Li contes del graal), Max Niemeyer Verlag, (Halle, 1932), p.4


       6. Foerster, (see above, no. 3), p.152: "…sich sehr überschwenglich ergeht in Lobe des Grafen von Flandern.”


       7. Jean Frappier, Chrétien de Troyes et le Mythe du Graal, Societé d'édition d'enseignement superieur, Paris V, 1972, pp.51


       8. William Roach, Le Roman de Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal, (Geneva, 1956), p. xi: “la critique textuelle des oevres littéraires du moyen âge a été une longue suite d'hypothèses instabiles et de décisions arbitraires des éditeurs".


    9. Frappier, (see above, no. 7), pp. 267-272.


       10. Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, tr. William W. Kibler, (London, 1991), p.20


      11. Albert Wilder Thompson, Additions to Chrétien’s Perceval – Prologues and Continuations, (see above, n. 3), pp. 209-212.


    12. Bryant, (see above, n. 19), p.106.


    13. Ibid., p. 334.


    14. Roger Sherman Loomis, ‘The Origin of the Grail Legends’ in Arthurian Literature, pp. 277-278.


    15. Nicholas Vincent, The Holy Blood: King Henry III and the Westminster Blood Relic, (Cambridge, 2001), p.73.


    16. Joseph J. Duggan, The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes, (New Haven and London, 2001), p. 38. Armel Diverrès, Culture and the King: the social implications of the Arthurian legend…, ed. Martin B. Shichtman (New York, 1994), p. 69. Diverrès writes in note 32: “I have expressed my arguments in favour of 1190 as the likely date for the start of Perceval in The Grail and the Third Crusade.”


       17. Otto Springer, Etymologisches Spiel in Wolfram's Parzival, Arbeiten zur germanischen Philologie und zur Literatur des Mittelalters, (München, 1975), p.219




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