Medieval Literature: The Romance of Tristan and Iseult


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

One of the oldest and most enduring romance plots is the story of star-crossed lovers Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde). It derives from Celtic folk tradition and made its way unto writing via an Anglo-Norman poet called Thomas of Britain, who was active in the mid-12th century and possibly attached to the court of England’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

painting showing a man and a woman in medieval clothes standing face to face
Tristan and Iseult’s story is an enduring romance plot from the Middle Age. (Image: Herbert James Draper/Public domain)

An Elaborate Romance

Although we have only about 3,000 verse lines of this romance, it inspired numerous retellings in subsequent decades and centuries—up to and beyond Richard Wagner’s opera of that title. Chrétien de Troyes, who worked for Eleanor’s daughter Marie of Champagne, also claims to have made a treatment, which doesn’t survive.

The longest and most elaborate version is the Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg, composed in Middle High German—and still not finished at 19,548 verse lines!

A Classical Plot

Gottfried begins with the backstory of Tristan’s parents whose tragic deaths before his birth—his father’s in battle, his mother’s in childbed—are responsible for his name, derived from the French triste (sorrow). It also recounts Tristan’s extensive youthful adventures, which include being captured by pirates and arriving, disguised as a hunter, at the court of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall.

Another set of adventures surround his mission to Ireland, on Mark’s behalf, where he eventually negotiates a betrothal between the Irish princess Isolde the Fair and the Cornish king. Since the marriage is an arranged one, Isolde’s mother—a noted healer—gives her maid, Brangane, a love philter for the married couple to drink on their wedding night; but it is accidentally consumed by Tristan and Isolde on the voyage, with predictable results.

A Tragic End

Isolde still marries Mark, but she and Tristan continue to carry out an amorous relationship until Mark discovers their liaison and banishes Tristan to Normandy. There, he marries another Isolde, of the White Hands, but builds a hall full of statues portraying his lost love, Isolde the Fair. Gottfried never got beyond this point, but Thomas’s ending has Tristan being wounded by a poisoned arrow and sending for Isolde the Fair, to come and heal him. 

He tells his messenger that the ship on which he returns should have a white sail if Isolde is on board, but a black one if she refuses to come. When the ship is sighted, flying a white sail, his jealous wife Isolde of the White Hands lies about the color and tells him it is black. Tristan kills himself and Isolde the Fair, discovering his body, dies of grief.

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A Wide Range of Concerns

This story clearly contains Classical elements as well as Celtic ones, including the deluded lovers familiar from the Greek tale of Pyramus and Thisbe (which Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” enact for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream)—and the motif of the mistaken sail that features in the story of Theseus’s triumphant return from Crete, after the slaying of the Minotaur, when he forgets to change the black sail to a white one, causing his stricken father Aegeus to throw himself into the sea that bears his name. 

But for a contemporary medieval audience, it addressed a whole range of current concerns in an imaginative, and often controversial, way.

In a world where elites were almost universally involved in arranged marriages, the fact that Tristan is the hero, and not the wronged husband, would have been very striking. That the wronged wife, Isolde of the White Hands, should be cast as the villain was similarly unsettling.

And there is no doubt that the audience was supposed to be rooting for the lovers: Tristan, the perfect courtier and medieval “Renaissance” man; Isolde, the beautiful and morally upright. Clearly, the love potion and the bungling Brangane are meant to bear some of the blame. 

No Christain God, No Moral

Illuminated manuscript page of Parzival
In the pages of his verse romance, Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach condemned the Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg as an immoral romance. (Image: Wolfram von Eschenbach/Public domain)

But what of Tristan’s open idolatry of Isolde as a statue—at the very time when statues to the Blessed Virgin were becoming ubiquitous for the first time? Indeed, where is the Christian God in this story?

For all of these reasons, indeed, Gottfried’s contemporary and rival, Wolfram von Eschenbach, condemned this poem as immoral in the pages of his own verse romance, Parzival—a reworking of Chrétien de Troyes’s story of Perceval and the quest for the Holy Grail. 

Wolfram’s story is as long and as masterly as Gottfried’s, but it is set squarely in a world of Christian values and Christological imagery. Still, there are also marked similarities; both romances belong to the genre that we know as bildungsroman, “growing-up novels”, in which the family backgrounds, childhoods, and adolescent misadventures of the hero are crucial to the plot and its messages.

Medieval Romances

Contrary to many modern representations of them, then, these and other medieval romances rarely revolve around a damsel in distress; often the damsels are the ones doing the fighting, the healing, and the adventuring. If they do have to be rescued, it is usually from a situation created by the hero’s own mistakes. 

Medieval romances are also remarkable for their playful handling of social hierarchies and gender identities. One of my favorites, the Roman de Silence, “Story of silence”, survives in just a single manuscript and follows the birth and growth of a princess, intriguingly named Silence, who spends most of the story dressed and acting as a man. She is a female, or transgender, version of Tristan—a jack-of-all trades including minstrel, healer, and knight.

Common Questions about the Romance of Tristan and Iseult

Q: What is the longest and most elaborate version of Tristan and Iseult?

It is the Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg, which is all composed in Middle High German and contains 19,500 verse lines.

Q: Why did Wolfram von Eschenbach, condemn Gottfried von Strassburg’s romance plot as immoral?

This was because of the openly isolated Isolde as a statue in Tristan. This was at the very time when statues of the Blessed Virgin were becoming ubiquitous. Plus, there where no Christian God in this romance story. These altogether made Wolfram von Eschenbach accuse Gottfried von Strassburg’s work of being immoral.

Q: What is an example of a medieval romance about the playful handling of social hierarchies and gender identities?

A good example is the Roman de Silence, “Story of silence”, which follows the birth and growth of a princess, intriguingly named Silence. She is a female or transgender who spends most of the story dressed and acting as a man, a jack-of-all-trades including minstrel, healer, and knight.

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