Back to top

The Tristan Legend in the Middle Ages

The Tristan Stone is a megalith located near Castle Dore and dating perhaps from the sixth century, It is inscribed:
“Drustanus hic jacet Cunomori filius” ("Here lies Drustan son of Cynvawr")

Welsh Literature

Tristan son of Tallwch is mentioned in Welsh Triads:
•    in Triad 19, he is one of the “Three Enemy Subduers of the Island of Britain”
•    in Triad 21, he is one of the “Three Battle-Diademed Men of the Island of Britain”
•    in Triad 71, he is said to be one of the “Three Lovers of the Island of Britain” (Drustan is said to love Essylt, wife of his uncle March)
•     in Triad 26, he is said to be one of the “Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain”

A Welsh tale called Trystan ac Esyllt or the Ystorya Trystan survives in mss. of the 16th
to 18th centuries but the tale is considerably older

A fragmentary poem in the Black Book of Carmarthen speaks of Drystan and March. The poem is the only Welsh Tristan material that predates the twelfth-century French poems

French Literature: The Common and Courtly Versions

Beroul’s Tristran (probably written in the last quarter of the 12th century) represents the “common” or “primitive” tradition of Tristan literature
•    preserved in one incomplete ms. B.N. f. fro 2171

Thomas’s Tristran (c. 1180) represents the “courtly” tradition of Tristan literature
•    preserved in 9 fragments, the last of which, the Carlisle ms. was discovered in 1995

Folie Tristan—2 versions
•    Berne (Berne Library MS 354)—common version
•    Oxford (Bodleian Library MS Douce d 6—following a fragment of Thomas’s Tristan)

Tristan rossignol (Tristan the Nightingale) (which appears in the Donnei des amants [The Lover’s Conversation]), a didactic poem of the late 12th century

Marie de France’s Chevrefeuille (The Honeysuckle) (written in the latter half of the
twelfth century)
•    translated into Norse prose as Geiterlauf

Tristan menestrel (Tristan the Minstrel) is an episode in Gerbert de Montreuil’s Continuation of Chretien’s Perceval (c. 1230)
•    Iseut recognizes a minstrel as Tristran when he plays for her the Lay of the Honeysuckle

The Prose Tristan and Its Influence

Prose Tristan (written in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the thirteenth century)
•    incorporates Tristan into the Round Table fellowship
•    introduces the character of Palamède (Palamedes)

The Prose Tristan influenced Italian versions of the legend, such as:
•    Cantari di Tristano, 6 short poems based on themes from the Prose Tristan
•    Tristano riccardiano (written in the last quarter of the thirteenth century)
•    Tristano panciatichiano (early fourteenth century)
•    La Tavola Ritonda (fourteenth century)

The Prose Tristan was the primary source of Sir Thomas Malory’s “Book of Sir Tristram
de Lyones” in Le Morte d’Arthur (1469-1470)

German Versions

Eilhart von Oberge’s Tristrant (written between 1170 and 1190)
•    an example of the common version
•    Tristrant und Isalde, a prose adaptation of Eilhart’s poem, was published as a chapbook in 1484

Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan (c. 1210)
•    based on Thomas’ poem, but it is incomplete, ending just before Tristan’s wedding to Isolde of the White Hands
•    two continuations, Ulrich von Türheim’s Tristan (c. 1240) and Heinrich von Freiberg’s Tristan (1285-1290), tell of the events from the wedding until the death of the lovers
•    Tristan als Mönch, a poem in which Tristan disguises himself as a monk to see Isolde, appears in two mss. between Gottfried’s poem and Ulrich’s continuation

Gottfried’s and Eilhart’s poems, along with Heinrich’s continuation of Gottfried, were sources for a fourteenth-century Czech poem, Tristram a Izalda

Scandinavian Versions

Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar (The Saga of Tristram and Ísönd), a Norse prose adaptation of Thomas’s poem, is the earliest complete rendition of the courtly version of the legend

Saga af Tristram ok Ísödd (The Saga of Tristram and Isodd) is a fourteenth-century adaptation, with significant variations, of the Tristrams saga

“Tristrams kvӕði” (“Tristrams’ Poem”) (Perhaps written before 1400)
•    an Icelandic ballad about the final events of the story of Tristram

There are also Danish ballads (“Tristram og Isold” and “Tristram og Jomfru Isolt” [“Tristram and the Maiden Isolt”]) and a Faroese ballad, “Tístrams Táttur” (“Tístrams’ Tale”)

The Legend in England

Sir Tristrem, a Middle English romance (written at the end of the thirteenth century)
•    an adaptation and abbreviation of the courtly version
•    the only medieval English literary treatment of the Tristan story except Malory’s “Book of Sir Tristram”

The Chertsey Abbey Tiles (a series of tiles created c. 1270) at Chertsey Abbey in Surrey
•    more than 30 tiles or tile fragments depicting scenes from the courtly version

For information on Tristan and Isolt in medieval art, see: Van D'Elden, Stephanie Cain. Tristan and Isolde: Medieval Illustrations of the Verse Romances. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2016.