Thomas of Britain

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Thomas of Britain (also known as Thomas of England) was a poet of the 12th century. He is known for his Old French poem Tristan , a version of the Tristan and Iseult legend that exists only in eight fragments, amounting to around 3,300 lines of verse, mostly from the latter part of the story. It is calculated that this represents about one sixth of the original.

Old French was the language spoken in Northern France from the 8th century to the 14th century. In the 14th century, these dialects came to be collectively known as the langue d'oïl, contrasting with the langue d'oc or Occitan language in the south of France. The mid-14th century is taken as the transitional period to Middle French, the language of the French Renaissance, specifically based on the dialect of the Île-de-France region.

Tristan Cornish knight of the Round Table Arthurian legend

Tristan, also known as Tristram or Tristain, is a knight of the Round Table in Arthurian legend and the hero of the Tristan and Iseult story.

Tristan and Iseult medieval romance

Tristan and Iseult is an influential romance story, retold in numerous sources with as many variations since the 12th century. The story is a tragedy about the adulterous love between the Cornish knight Tristan (Tristram) and the Irish princess Iseult. The narrative predates and most likely influenced the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, and has had a substantial impact on Western art and literature. While the details of the story differ from one author to another, the overall plot structure remains much the same.



Because Thomas has an "obvious dependence" on Wace's 1155 Roman de Brut , [1] Tristan was written between 1155 and 1160, possibly for Eleanor of Aquitaine, [2] since the work suggests close ties with the court of Henry II. Beyond this, his identity is obscure; it has been speculated that he is to be identified with the "Thomas" who wrote the Romance of Horn , but this is unsupported. [3] It is similar to the Tristan-story Chevrefoil by Marie de France, but either author could have borrowed from the other, or both from a third source. [4]

Wace Norman writer from Jersey

Wace, sometimes referred to as Robert Wace, was a Norman poet, who was born in Jersey and brought up in mainland Normandy, ending his career as Canon of Bayeux.

<i>Roman de Brut</i> verse literary history of Britain by Wace

Roman de Brut or "Brut" is a verse literary history of Britain by the poet Wace. It is based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and was probably begun around 1150 and finished in 1155.

Eleanor of Aquitaine 12th-century Duchess of Aquitaine and queen-consort of France and England

Eleanor of Aquitaine was queen consort of France (1137–1152) and England (1154–1189) and duchess of Aquitaine in her own right (1137–1204). As a member of the Ramnulfids rulers in southwestern France, she was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe during the High Middle Ages. She was patron of literary figures such as Wace, Benoît de Sainte-Maure, and Bernart de Ventadorn. She led armies several times in her life and was a leader of the Second Crusade.

Although Thomas's own text is fragmentary, later adaptations of his work make it possible to reconstruct what is missing:

Gottfried von Strassburg medieval German poet

Gottfried von Strassburg is the author of the Middle High German courtly romance Tristan, an adaptation of the 12th-century Tristan and Iseult legend. Gottfried's work is regarded, alongside Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and the Nibelungenlied, as one of the great narrative masterpieces of the German Middle Ages. He is probably also the composer of a small number of surviving lyrics. His work became a source of inspiration for Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde (1865).

Middle High German is the term for the form of German spoken in the High Middle Ages. It is conventionally dated between 1050 and 1350, developing from Old High German and into Early New High German. High German is defined as those varieties of German which were affected by the Second Sound Shift; the Middle Low German and Middle Dutch languages spoken to the North and North West, which did not participate in this sound change, are not part of MHG.

Brother Robert was a cleric working in Norway who adapted several French literary works into Old Norse during the reign of King Haakon IV of Norway (1217–1263). The most important of these, Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, based on Thomas of Britain's Tristan, is notable as the only example of Thomas' "courtly branch" of the Tristan and Iseult legend that has survived in its entirety. It was the earliest Scandinavian version of the story, and is thought to be the first Norwegian adaptation of an Old French work. Its success may have inspired the spate of translations during King Haakon's reign.

Thomas' version is the earliest known representative of the "courtly branch" of the legend, to which Gottfried's also belongs. This branch differs from the "common" or "primitive" versions of Béroul and Eilhart von Oberge, in that greater emphasis is placed on pleasing the sensibilities and expectations of a courtly audience. Some scholars have theorized an "Ur-Tristan", an original French version that inspired all later accounts. Joseph Bédier attempted to reconstruct this original from the evidence provided by the later versions.

Béroul was a Norman poet of the 12th century. He wrote Tristan, a Norman language version of the legend of Tristan and Iseult of which a certain number of fragments have been preserved; it is the earliest representation of the so-called "vulgar" version of the legend. Eilhart von Oberge wrote a treatment of this version in German, and many of Béroul's episodes that do not appear in Thomas reappear in the Prose Tristan. Beroul's poem survives in a single manuscript now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. This copy is poorly written and there is a suggestion that part of the poem was written by a different scribe from the rest. The actual content of the poem also differs from the modern conception of what a narrative poem should be; the plot is disjointed and lacking in a flow of cause and effect, and the characters are poorly defined. Nevertheless, Fedrick proposes that this was common of literature in Beroul's time.

Eilhart von Oberge was a German poet of the late 12th century. He is known exclusively through his Middle High German romance Tristrant, the oldest surviving complete version of the Tristan and Iseult story in any language. Tristrant is part of the "common" or "primitive" branch of the legend, best known through Béroul's fragmentary Norman language Tristan. It is German literature's first rendition of the story, though Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, part of the "courtly" branch, is more famous and respected.

Joseph Bédier French philologist and writer

Joseph Bédier was a French writer and scholar and historian of medieval France.

See also

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Hartmann von Aue leading poet of the Middle High German period

Hartmann von Aue, also known as Hartmann von Ouwe, was a Middle High German knight and poet. He introduced the courtly romance into German literature and, with Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg, was one of the three great epic poets of Middle High German literature. He was also a Minnesänger, and 18 of his songs survive.

Poetry took numerous forms in medieval Europe, for example, lyric and epic poetry. The troubadours and the minnesänger are known for their lyric poetry about courtly love.

Medieval literature Literary works of the Middle Ages

Medieval literature is a broad subject, encompassing essentially all written works available in Europe and beyond during the Middle Ages. The literature of this time was composed of religious writings as well as secular works. Just as in modern literature, it is a complex and rich field of study, from the utterly sacred to the exuberantly profane, touching all points in-between. Works of literature are often grouped by place of origin, language, and genre.

Iseult lover of Tristan in the Arthurian legend

Iseult, alternatively Isolde, Yseult, Ysolt, Isode, Isoude, Iseut, Isaut, Iosóid (Irish), Esyllt (Welsh), Isolda (Spanish), Isotta (Italian), is the name of several characters in the legend of Tristan and Iseult. The most prominent is Iseult of Ireland, wife of Mark of Cornwall and lover of Tristan. Her mother, the Queen of Ireland, is also named Iseult. The third is Iseult of the White Hands, the daughter of Hoel of Brittany, sister of Kahedin, and eventual wife of Tristan.

Anglo-Norman literature is literature composed in the Anglo-Norman language developed during the period 1066–1204 when the Duchy of Normandy and England were united in the Anglo-Norman realm.

Mark of Cornwall king of Cornwall in Arthurian legend

Mark of Cornwall was a king of Kernow (Cornwall) in the early 6th century. He is most famous for his appearance in Arthurian legend as the uncle of Tristan and husband of Iseult, who engage in a secret affair.

Palamedes (Arthurian legend) Knight in the Arthurian legend

Palamedes is a Knight of the Round Table in the Arthurian legend. He is a Saracen pagan who converts to Christianity later in his life, and his unrequited love for Iseult brings him into frequent conflict with Tristan. Palamedes' father is King Esclabor. His brothers, Safir and Segwarides, also join the Round Table.

Canoel is the seat of the hero in of the medieval epic of Tristan and Iseult, versions of which were written by Gottfried von Strassburg, Thomas of England, Béroul, and others. The authors who mention Canoel situate it in "Parmenie", a fictitious land nebulously situated on the French side of the English Channel between Brittany and Normandy. Traditionally, Tristan is from Lyonesse, a lost land very similar to Parmenie.

The Prose Tristan is an adaptation of the Tristan and Iseult story into a long prose romance, and the first to tie the subject entirely into the arc of the Arthurian legend. It was also the first major Arthurian prose cycle commenced after the widely popular Lancelot-Grail, which influenced especially the later portions of the Prose Tristan.

Brangaine is the handmaid and confidante of Iseult of Ireland in the Arthurian legend of Tristan and Iseult. She appears in most versions of the story.

Chivalric sagas group of Norse prose sagas translated from or inspired by medieval chasons de geste

The riddarasögur are Norse prose sagas of the romance genre. Starting in the thirteenth century with Norse translations of French chansons de geste and Latin romances and histories, the genre expanded in Iceland to indigenous creations in a similar style.

Ipomedon is a romance composed in Anglo-Norman verse by Hugh de Rotelande in the late 12th century at Credenhill near Hereford. In the sequel Protheselaus, which must have been composed slightly later, Hue acknowledges as his patron Gilbert fitzBaderon, lord of Monmouth. Gilbert's death in or just before 1191 gives an approximate terminus ante quem to both romances.

The Folie Tristan d’Oxford, also known as the Oxford Folie Tristan, The Madness of Tristan, or Tristan’s Madness, is a poem in 998 octosyllabic lines written in Anglo-Norman, the form of the Norman language spoken in England. It retells an episode from the Tristan legend in which Tristan disguises himself as a madman to win his way back to Ysolt. The poem can be dated to the period 1175–1200, but the name of the author is unknown. It is not to be confused with the Folie Tristan de Berne, a different medieval poem on the same subject, each work taking its name from the city in which the manuscript is now kept.


  1. Legge, M. Dominica. Anglo-Norman Literature and its Background. London: Oxford UP, 1963. P. 46.
  2. Legge, p. 49
  3. Legge, p. 49
  4. Legge, p. 46

Editions and translations

Arthur Thomas Hatto was an English scholar of German studies at the University of London, notable for translations of the Medieval German narrative poems Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg, Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, and the Nibelungenlied. He was also known for his theory of epic heroic poetry, and related publications. He retired in 1977, and in 1991 the British Academy elected him as a Senior Fellow.