Béroul’s Tristan narrates evil persons’ lies vs. good ones’ truth

In Béroul’s twelfth-century romance, evil dwarfs and malicious barons repeatedly told King Mark of his vassal-nephew Tristan having sex with Mark’s wife Iseut. The evil dwarfs and malicious barons were wicked liars! One day, Queen Iseut and Tristan planned a tryst in her garden. An evil dwarf learned of their planned tryst. He informed King Mark. The king was astonished that his loyal nephew Tristan would cuckold him. The dwarf urged the king to hide in a tree in the garden to see for himself. That’s what Mark did. But before Tristan and Iseut embraced, she caught sight of the king’s reflection in the water of a fountain.

Tristan courting Iseut:

Iseut and Tristan fabricated a drama in the garden for the spying King Mark. Iseut admonished Tristan and declared her innocence before God:

By God, who made the air and sea,
do not send for me ever again.
I tell you, Tristan, once and for all,
certainly I shouldn’t have come.
The king thinks it’s with a sinful love,
Sir Tristan, that I have loved you.
But before God I swear my faithfulness.
May He send a scourge upon me
if anyone but he who had me as a virgin
ever had my love thereafter even a single day!

{ Par Deu, qui l’air fist et la mer,
Ne me mandez nule foiz mais.
Je vos di bien, Tristran, a fais,
Certes, je n’i vendroie mie.
Li rois pense que par folie,
Sire Tristran, vos aie amé;
Mais Dex plevis ma loiauté,
Qui sor mon cors mete flaele,
S’onques fors cil qui m’ot pucele
Out m’amistié encor nul jor! }[1]

In fact, before Iseut married King Mark, she and Tristan accidentally drank a love potion that made them sexually desire each other. Iseut ended her virginity with Tristan. To obscure her subsequent, extensive sexual activity with Tristan, Iseut’s virgin maid Brengain secretly took Iseut’s place in bed on her wedding night with the king.

Tristan and Iseut embracing

Iseut told of her lived experience in relation to Tristan. She, the niece of the giant Morholt, had been an Irish princess. Tristan killed Morholt in battle after Morholt threatened King Mark’s realm. When Tristan was in Ireland seeking a wife for his uncle Mark and dying of a dragon’s poison, Iseut saved his life. Iseut subsequently returned with Tristan to be King Mark’s wife. For the spying Mark, Iseut told Tristan:

You had to suffer much pain
from the wound you received
in the battle you fought
with my uncle. I healed you.
If because of that you were my friend,
it was no wonder, by my faith!
But they have given the king to understand
that you love me with a dishonorable love.
Let them see God and His kingdom!
Never would they look Him in the face.
Tristan, take care not to send for me
in any place, for any reason.
I should not be so bold
as to dare to come.
I’m staying here too long, truth to tell.
If the king knew one word about this,
I would be torn limb from limb.
I know well that he would have me killed,
and yet it would be quite wrongfully.
Tristan, surely the king doesn’t know
that it’s for his sake that I have loved you.
I have held you dear
because you are of his kin.
Long ago I believed that my mother
dearly loved my father’s relatives.
She used to say that never a wife
would cherish her lord
if she would not love his kin.
Indeed, I know well that she was speaking the truth.

{ Mot vos estut mal endurer
De la plaie que vos preïstes
En la batalle que feïstes
O mon oncle. Je vos gari.
Se vos m’en erïez ami,
N’ert pas mervelle, par ma foi!
Et il ont fait entendre au roi
Que vos m’amez d’amor vilaine.
Si voient il Deu et son reigne!
Ja nul verroient en la face.
Tristran, gardez en nule place
Ne me mandez por nule chose:
Je ne seroie pas tant ose
Que je i osase venir.
Trop demor ci, n’en quier mentir.
S’or en savoit li rois un mot,
Mon cors seret desmenbré tot,
Et si seroit a mot grant tort;
Bien sai qu’il me dorroit la mort.
Tristran, certes, li rois ne set
Que por lui par vos aie ameit:
Por ce qu’eres du parenté
Vos avoie je en cherté.
Je quidai jadis que ma mere
Amast mot les parenz mon pere;
Et disoit ce, que ja mollier
N’en avroit ja son seignor chier
Qui les parenz n’en amereit.
Certes, bien sai que voir diset. }

Tristan in turn explained Mark misunderstanding the truth:

His men have made him believe
something about us that is untrue.

{ Si home li ont fait acroire
De nos tel chose qui n’est voire. }

In Béroul’s romance, the truth is defined in terms of worldly persons’ characteristics.[2] Iseut and Tristan are good persons, so what they say is true. Evil men are wicked liars. Whatever they say is false!

Tristan and Iseut gazing into each other's eyes

Iseut and Tristan eventually had to flee into the Morrois forest to avoid being executed for treasonous adultery. After three years of living in the forest together, the love spell that bound them ended. They both sought to return to more comfortable, civilized life. They turned to the wilderness-dwelling holy hermit Brother Ogrin for advice:

Iseut fell down at the hermit’s feet,
and was not half-hearted in imploring him
to reconcile them with the king:
“I shall have no inclination toward illicit love
on any day of my life.
For your understanding, I don’t say
that I feel remorse for a single day with Tristan,
or say that I don’t love him with good love
and as a friend, without dishonor.
As for the carnal union of my body
and his, we’re entirely free of it.”
The hermit heard her speak and wept.
He praised God for what he had heard.

{ As piez l’ermite chiet encline,
De lui proier point ne se faint
Qu’il les acort au roi, si plaint:
“Qar ja corage de folie
Nen avrai je jor de ma vie.
Ge ne di pas, a vostre entente,
Que de Tristran jor me repente,
Que je ne l’aim de bone amor
Et com amis, sanz desanor:
De la comune de mon cors
Et je du suen somes tuit fors.”
L’ermites l’ot parler, si plore,
De ce qu’il ot Deu en aoure }[3]

Brother Ogrin then provided theological and pastoral counseling to the lovers:

When a man and a woman commit sin,
if they have first taken each other, and then have separated
and have come to acknowledge their fault
and have true repentance,
God pardons them for their transgression,
however horrible and ugly it might be.
Tristan and Queen, now listen
a little and pay attention to me.
In order to take away shame and cover up evil,
it’s necessary to lie a bit, fittingly.

{ Qant home et feme font pechié,
S’aus se sont pris et sont quitié
Et s’aus vienent a penitance
Et aient bone repentance,
Dex lor pardone lor mesfait,
Tant ne seroit orible et lait.
Tristran, roïne, or escoutez
Un petitet, si m’entendez.
Por honte oster et mal covrir
Doit on un poi par bel mentir. }

Christians regard this theological lesson on repentance and forgiveness of sin as eternally true. Pastoral counseling, in contrast, always depends on specific circumstances. With Iseut and Tristan’s agreement, the hermit Brother Ogrin drafted a letter to King Mark in which Tristan offered to return Iseut to him and leave Mark’s realm if Mark so decided. The letter asserted that Tristan and Iseut never had sexual relations. Tristan offered to undergo an ordeal to prove their innocence.

King Mark lovingly accepted Iseut to be his queen once again. He ordered Tristan to depart from his realm for a year. Iseut’s return was celebrated with a great feast and much popular rejoicing. But three malicious barons advised the king:

King, listen to our words.
If the queen has been wanton —
she has never formally denied it —
this is said to your shame.
And the barons of your land
have many a time entreated you concerning this,
because they want her to deny formally
that Tristan ever had her love.
She must clear herself if people are lying about it.
And so have her put to the test,
and straightaway require this of her,
privately, when you retire.
If she does not want to make a formal denial,
let her leave your realm.

{ Rois, or entent nostre parole.
Se la roïne a esté fole,
El n’en fist onques escondit.
S’a vilanie vos est dit;
Et li baron de ton païs
T’en ont par mainte foiz requis,
Qu’il vuelent bien s’en escondie
Qu’o Tristran n’ot sa drüerie.
Escondire se doit c’on ment.
Si l’en fait faire jugement
Et enevoies l’en requier,
Priveement, a ton couchier.
S’ele ne s’en veut escondire,
Lai l’en aler de ton enpire. }

King Mark was furious with these barons for continuing to accuse his queen. They offered to drop the matter forever. But Mark threatened to arrest them. Then he told them to get out of his realm. Mark’s actions created a serious threat to peace.

When Mark returned home to Iseut, he was upset and anxious. She asked him about what was troubling him. To resolve the crisis, she offered to make a formal denial concerning her relationship with Tristan. She insisted that King Arthur and his knights be present, as well as all the people of the realm. They would defend her honor if any dared to accuse her after she had formally established her innocence. She set the place for this proceeding to be the Blanche Lande next to the marsh at Mal Pas. King Mark agreed with her plan. He ordered that this proceeding be arranged.

Meanwhile, Iseut sent instructions to Tristan. He hadn’t departed the realm, but was hiding nearby. She told him of the appointed time and place for the proceeding of her formal denial. She told him to come then to the ford at Mal Pas. She instructed him to disguise himself as a leper and beg from all those coming to the proceeding. She didn’t give him any other instructions on how to act.

One the day of the formal denial, Iseut came to the ford at Mal Pas. Others had become covered in filth from crossing there. With King Arthur, King Mark, and all the rest of the people watching, Iseut sought a ride across a muddy bridge on the back of Tristan disguised as a leper:

“My goodness, sick man, you are very large!
Turn your face that way and your back this way.
I shall mount you like a boy.”
And then the leper smiled at that request.
He turned his back, and she mounted.
They were all watching, kings and counts.
He held her thighs over his crutch,
raised one foot and limped with the other,
and often seemed about to fall.
He made a great show of suffering.
The fair Iseut rode him,
one leg on each side of him.

{ “Diva! malades, mot es gros!
Tor la ton vis et ça ton dos:
Ge monterai conme vaslet.”
Et lors s’en sorrist li deget,
Torne le dos, et ele monte.
Tuit les gardent, et roi et conte.
Ses cuises tient sor son puiot:
L’un pié sorlieve et l’autre clot,
Sovent fait senblant de choier,
Grant chiere fai de soi doloir.
Yseut la bele chevaucha,
Janbe deça, janbe dela. }

Phyllis rode Aristotle, but Iseut’s riding is described more like Emperor Domitian atop Earinus. Iseut treated Tristan disguised as the leper with contempt after benefiting from a ride on his back. In contrast to King Arthur and King Mark, she refused to offer anything in response to the leper’s begging from her some food for the night.[4]

A reason for Iseut riding on the leper’s back became clear when it was time for her to make her formal denial. A collection of holy relics were set out to create reverence and fear. King Arthur then instructed Iseut:

Listen to me, fair Iseut.
Hear what you are called to affirm:
that Tristan towards you had no love
marked by debauchery or infidelity,
nothing but the love that he was duty-bound to have
towards his uncle and his uncle’s wife.

{ Entendez moi, Yseut la bele,
Oiez de qoi on vos apele:
Que Tristran n’ot vers vos amor
De puteé ne de folor,
Fors cele que devoit porter
Envers son oncle et vers sa per. }

Iseut in response thanked God and made a more specific, more earthy oath:

Here I see holy relics.
Listen now to what I here swear,
by which I affirm to the king here present —
so help me God and Saint Hilaire,
and these relics, this reliquary,
and all those relics that are not here
and all those reliquaries throughout the world —
that between my thighs no man has entered
except for the leper for whom I made a heavy load,
who carried me beyond the fords,
and King Mark my spouse.
These two I except from my oath.
I except no one else, of all people.
Concerning two men I cannot exonerate myself:
the leper, and King Mark my lord.

{ Saintes reliques voi ici.
Or escoutez que je ci jure,
De quoi le roi ci aseüre:
Si m’aït Dex et saint Ylaire,
Ces reliques, cest saintuaire,
Totes celes qui ci ne sont
Et tuit icil de par le mont,
Qu’entre mes cuises n’entra home,
Fors le ladre qui fist soi some,
Qui me porta outre les guez,
Et li rois Marc mes esposez.
Ces deus ost de mon soirement,
Ge n’en ost plus de tote gent.
De deus ne me pus escondire:
Du ladre, du roi Marc, mon sire. }[5]

All the people there acclaimed Iseut’s innocence and declared that she need not say more. The three felonious barons who had accused Iseut of having sex with Tristan were universally condemned. Everyone detested those evil liars.

Iseut and Tristan lying dead

In highly contentious matters such as relations between women and men, lazy, cowardly persons tend to favor a false understanding of truth. They believe to be true whatever persons they regard as good want them to believe to be true. They call false whatever persons they don’t like — persons given disparaging labels — say. In twelfth-century Europe, Béroul’s romance of Tristan and Iseut ironically showed that even evil dwarfs and malicious barons might convey the truth.[6] That truth is still true today.

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[1] Béroul, Tristan, vv. 16-25, Old French text from Muret & Defourques (1947), English translation (modified insubstantially) from Sargent-Baur (2015b). For alternate Old French editions, Sargent-Baur (2015a) and Ewert (1967). For an alternate English translation, Lacy (1994).

Béroul’s Tristan apparently dates from between 1165 and 1200. It survives in only one, poorly copied manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français 2171. That manuscript was written in the second half of the thirteenth century. Nothing more is known about Béroul than what can be surmised from this manuscript. Some scholars, including Sargent-Baur, believe that one author composed a first part, and another author a second part.

The story of Tristan and Iseut was widely known in medieval Europe. It probably originated in an oral Celtic tale. It became “one the two best-known themes of European secular literature (the other being the quest for the Grail).” Sargent-Baur (2015) p. 10. Among the numerous retellings of it are Thomas of Britain’s Tristan, composed in Old French about 1160, and Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, composed in Middle High German about 1210. Here’s more on sources and retellings of the story of Iseut and Tristan. For visual representations, Kertz (2014).

The names in this tale vary. Béroul’s Old French text uses the names Tristran, Yseut, Iseut, and Marc. I’ve standardized those in modern English text to Tristan, Iseut, and Mark. Other names commonly found in modern English for the two main characters are Tristram, Tristain, Iseult, Yseult, and Isolde. Other names above follow Sargent-Baur’s transcriptions of the Old French names.

Subsequent quotes from Béroul’s Tristan are similarly sourced. They are vv. 50-78 (You had to suffer much pain…), 83-4 (His men have made him believe…), 2320-31 (Iseut fell down at the hermit’s feet…), 2345-54 (When a man and a woman commit sin…), 3041-54 (King, listen to our words…), 3929-40 (My goodness, sick man…), 4191-96 (Listen to me, fair Iseut…), 4198-4212 (Here I see holy relics…).

[2] Cf. John 14:6. Lacy perceptively observed:

There does appear to be one reliable guide to truth in Béroul: it can be understood to be the opposite of whatever the lovers’ enemies, the felons, say. Their accusations and protestations, though factually correct, must be dismissed simply because they are the enemy.

Lacy (1999) p. 6. For a discussion of the “thick tangle of truth and falsehood, appearance and reality, of which Béroul’s romance is very largely composed,” Sargent-Baur (1984b), with quote from p. 399.

[3] Once Mark accepted Iseut back as his wife, she and Tristan resumed their trysts. Marie de France’s lai Honeysuckle {Chevrefoil} tells of one of their secret meetings:

In the wood she found him
who loved her more than any living thing.
They share their great joy.
She spoke to him quite at leisure,
and told him her pleasure.

{ Dedenz le bois celui trova
que plus l’amot que rien vivant.
Entre els meinent joie mult grant.
A li parlat tut a leisir,
e ele li dist sun plaisir }

Marie de France, Chevrefoil, vv. 92-6, Old French text and English translation from Waters (2018). For freely accessible English translations of Chevrefoil, Shoaf (1993) and Terry (1995), Ch. 4.

Tristan eventually departed and in Brittany married Iseut of the White Hands. But he never consummated his marriage to her. According to Wilhelm, Tristan told Iseut of the White Hands that he was castrated. Wilhelm (1994) p. 284. Castration culture had significant influence in medieval Europe. But Iseut of the White Hands probably had opportunities to see or feel whether Tristan was actually castrated. Thomas of Britain’s Tristan merely states that Tristan spent their wedding night in prayer and silence. In Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, Tristan claims a thigh wound and fatigue.

[4] King Arthur told Iseut that the leper had earned food and that she should give him some. Underscoring the sexual innuendo, Iseut in response essentially described herself groping the leper:

Under his cloak I felt his belt.
King, his pouch doesn’t grow smaller:
half-loaves and whole ones
and pieces and quarter-loaves —
I felt them well through the bag.

{ Soz sa chape senti sa guige.
Rois, s’aloiere n’apetiche:
Les pains demiés et les entiers
et les pieces et les quartiers
Ai bien parmié le sac sentu. }

Béroul’s Tristan, vv. 3965-9. In one scholar’s understatement, Iseut responded to King Arthur with “unnecessarily realistic detail.” Sargent-Baur (1984a) p. 307. Iseut then went on to chide King Arthur and King Mark, as well as express further contempt for the leper:

He’s a good-for-nothing, that I know.
Today he has obtained good pickings.
He has found people to his measure.
From me he’ll not take away anything worth
a single farthing or a penny.

{ Il est herlot, si que jel sai.
Hui a suï bone pasture,
Trové a gent a sa mesure.
De moi n’en portera qui valle
Un sol ferlinc n’une maalle. }

Béroul’s Tristan, vv. 3976-80. Iseut’s words might be interpreted ironically and humorously with sexual innuendo.

While Béroul obviously intends for Iseut to be regarded as a “good person,” he includes dishonorable aspects of her behavior. One clearly dishonorable aspect of Iseut’s behavior is her apparent cruelty. With a brutal lance thrust, Tristan’s companion Governal killed an evil forester who had sought to expose Iseut and Tristan:

That man fell dead so quickly that never did a priest
come in time, nor could one have been there.
Iseut, who was noble and frank,
laughed at this softly beneath her wimple.

{ Cil chaï mort, si c’onques prestre
N’i vint a tens ne n’i pot estre.
Yseut, qui ert et franche et sinple,
S’en rist doucement soz sa ginple. }

Béroul’s Tristan, vv. 4053-6. That’s a vicious response to brutal violence against men. Iseut also guided Tristan in shooting an arrow through the head of the baron Godoïne. Godoïne was spying on her trysting with Tristan in her royal bedroom. The baron Godoïne, while unquestionably characterized as evil, was arguably serving the king’s interests.

[5] A Hebrew story in the Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus tells a similar story of an adulterous woman and her lover. She contrived to slip in the mud and have her lover help her up. She then swore that no man had touched her since her husband left for a business trip except the man who had helped her up from the mud. See note [4] in my post on men’s inferiority in guile in manipulation of paternity. On the similarity of Béroul’s Tristan to fabliaux, Sargent-Baur (1984a).

[6] Reviewing Béroul’s Tristan in relation to “medieval Christianity,” Chappelle-Thomas calls it “a blatant parody and condemnation of the romance genre.” Chappelle-Thomas (2005) p. 2. Within the context of relatively tolerant medieval Christianity, Beroul’s Tristan seems to me to have wider-ranging intent than literary parody.

[images] (1) Tristan courting Iseut (Tristan et Iseult). Mid-nineteenth-century painting by French artist Hugues Merle. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Tristan and Iseut embracing (Tristán e Iseo; La vida). Painting by Spanish artist Rogelio de Egusquiza in 1912. Preserved as accession # 1035 in Museo de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo de Santander y Cantabria (Santander, Spain). Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Iseut and Tristan gazing into each other’s eyes (Tristan et Isolde). Painting in 1911 by French artist Gaston Bussière. Preserved as accession # 999.11.88.12 in Musée des Ursulines (Macon, France). Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Iseut and Tristan lying dead on the ground (Tristán e Isolda; La muerte). Painting by Spanish artist Rogelio de Egusquiza in 1910. Preserved as accession # inv. 00/9 in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Bilbao, Spain). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Chappelle-Thomas, Julia. 2005. “Medieval Christianity and the Tristan and Iseult Romances.” Course paper posted online.

Ewert, Alfred, ed. 1967. Béroul. The Romance of Tristran: A Poem of the Twelfth Century. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kertz, Lydia Yaitsky. 2014. “Shadows and reflections: Tristan and Isolde in manuscripts and ivory.” Word & Image. 30 (2): 131-154.

Lacy, Norris J. 1994. “Béroul: The Romance of Tristan.” Ch. 10 (pp. 225-276) in Wilhelm, James J., ed. The Romance of Arthur: an anthology of medieval texts in translation. New, Expanded Edition. New York: Garland.

Lacy, Norris J. 1999. “Where the Truth Lies: Fact and Belief in Béroul’s Tristran.” Romance Philology. 52 (2): 1-10.

Muret, Ernest, and L. M. Defourques. 1947. Béroul. Le Roman de Tristan: poème du XIIe siècle. Classiques Français du Moyen Âge, 12. 4th edition. Paris: Honoré Champion. Alternate presentation via Base de Français Médiéval. 2nd edition (1922): online book, online text.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 1984a. “Between fabliau and romance: love and rivalry in Béroul’s Tristran.” Romania. 105 (418): 292-311.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 1984b. “Truth, Half-Truth, Untruth: Béroul’s Telling of the Tristran Story.” Ch. 11 (pp. 393-421) in Arrathoon, Leigh A. The Craft of Fiction: Essays in Medieval Poetics. Rochester, MI: Solaris Press.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 2015a. The Romance of Tristran by Beroul and Beroul II: a diplomatic edition and a critical edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 2015b. The Romance of Tristran by Beroul and Beroul II: student edition and English translation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Shoaf, Judith P., trans. 1993. “Chevrefoil, by Marie de France.”
Lais of Marie de France: verse translations by Judy Shoaf. Online.

Terry, Patricia, trans. 1995. The Honeysuckle and the Hazel Tree: medieval stories of men and women. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Waters, Claire M. 2018. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Translation. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Wilhelm, James J., trans. 1994. “Thomas of Britain: Tristan (‘The Death Scene’).” Ch. 12 (pp. 283-293) in Wilhelm, James J., ed. The Romance of Arthur: an anthology of medieval texts in translation. New, Expanded Edition. New York: Garland.