Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart  

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Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (Template:Lang-fr) is an Old French poem by Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien probably composed the work at the same time as or slightly before writing Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, which refers to the action in Lancelot a number of times. The love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot appears for the first time in this poem as does Arthur's court city of Camelot.

The action centers on Lancelot's rescue of the queen after she has been abducted by Meleagant. The Abduction of Guinevere is one of the oldest motifs in Arthurian legend, appearing also in Caradoc of Llancarfan's Life of Gildas and carved on the archivolt in Modena Cathedral. After Chrétien's version became popular, it was incorporated into the Lancelot-Grail Cycle and eventually Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

Chrétien says he composed the romance at the behest of Marie, countess of Champagne, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France and apparently his patroness at the time. There is reason to believe the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere was invented wholecloth by Chrétien for the poem, but it is possible he found the episode already in whatever source material Marie provided him. The poet did not finish the work himself, leaving Godefroi de Leigni to complete the last thousand lines. There has been much speculation about Chrétien's attitude towards the poem; some scholars suggest he abandoned it because he disapproved of its adulterous subject. Additionally, he may have been uninterested by a tale thrust on him by his patroness, preferring to spend more time on Yvain. There is also speculation as to its relationship to the German Lanzelet by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, which features the Queen's abduction but not her affair with Lanzelet, and may derive from a version of the story that predates Knight of the Cart.

The context in which Chretien wrote this work is essential in explaining some of its content. The customary legal traditions that are featured so prominently in the work were undergoing a gradual change in the twelfth century. Gratian had earlier written his 'Decretum' which helped to establish a unified canonical law. Secular law too was undergoing codification owing in part to the increasing prevalence of Roman law.<ref>Grant, Edward. “Reason Asserts Itself: The Challenge to Authority in the Early Middle Ages to 1200.” God and Reason in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2001, 78-79</ref> Both secular and religious law can be seen in Chrétien’s work, particularly in Lancelot’s mounting of the cart and his adherence to the courtly ideals. It is particularly important to recognize the customary nature of the law that caused Lancelot to mount the cart and the decreasing prevalence of such law in Chrétien’s time.

Courtly Love

Courtly love or "fin’ amours" was coined by the medievalist Gaston Paris in 1883 to help understand the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere in "Lancelot ou le chevalier de la cherrete." "Paris defined courtly love principally from the male lover's perspective an illicit, furtive, and extraconjecjugal liaison that placed the lover in the service of and at the mercy of a haughty and capricious lady" (Burns 28). Therefore, to define Lancelot's behavior as representative of that within the tradition of "courtly love" becomes circular. An important distinction is made between "fin’ amours" as depicted by the Troubadours of in the Occitan dialect of southern France from "amour courtois" in what is known as "Old French," coming from the literature of Northern provinces. There exists some debate as to whether the examples set by Lancelot, and others in this tradition, were actually in practice at medieval courts. One side maintains this practice did exist and the other believes that "courtly love" is a construction of the Romantics and, at best, a game to be taken lightly in medieval courts. This position can be evidenced by Chretien's treatment of the ideal in "The Knight of the Cart."




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