Get to Know a Reading Module: The Legend of Tristan and Iseult

In a regular feature on the Blog of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, we invite you to “Get to know a Reading module.” We want to share with you examples of the innovative teaching that goes on in the department, as well as the excellent work that our students do inside and beyond the classroom. Each month we’ll invite one of our Lecturers to fill us in on one of the dozens of modules our department offers, from language and linguistics to cinema, history, literature, politics, and beyond. This month, we’re featuring a module on Medieval France.

IreneDr Irene Fabry-Tehranchi is a specialist of Medieval French Literature, in particular knightly romances of the court of King Arthur and text and image relations in illuminated manuscripts. Her FR305 module for final-year French students looks at the Legend of Tristan and Iseult in order to introduce her students to key aspects of Medieval French Literature and the cultural context within which it was written.

In the legend, the knight Tristan goes to Ireland to fetch the beautiful Iseult as a wife for his uncle Mark. On the way back, Tristan and Iseult drink by mistake a love potion and will carry on loving each other, despite Iseult’s wedding, hiding their affair from the court and from the King…

fr112 (3) f144This passionate love story and its tragic end played a key role in the development of medieval imagination, as well as its literary and artistic creation. In the Middle Ages, the legend of Tristan and Iseult was not transmitted in a single text. The story led to different versions, in verse and in prose, and had a wide diffusion, in French and other European languages. In addition to the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the prose Tristan, references to the legend appeared on medieval ivory or wooden caskets, mirror cases, tapestries, decorative tiles or even chairs, shoes and tin objects, showing its wide appeal and success.


tristan casketIn this module, which alternates between lectures and seminars including students’ presentations on particular themes or textual passages, we examine the rise of courtly love in vernacular literature, the cultural importance of chivalry, feudalism, and constructions of sexuality and gender.  We look at different representations of transgression, including deception and adultery, and examine the question of marginality, from life outside the royal court to madness or leprosy, considered as both a physical and moral stigma by medieval society.

The myth of Tristan and Iseult also proved very productive in the 19th and 20th century, from Wagner’s opera to Jean Cocteau’s filmL’Éternel retour, which we study together. 

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