Tyolet and Tydorel underscore Perceval’s devastating father-death

Both Perceval in Chrétien de Troyes’s late-twelfth-century French romance Perceval and Tyolet in an early thirteenth-century lai Tyolet grew up in the woods with their mothers after their fathers died. Neither Perceval nor Tyolet knew a father’s love. A father’s death or absence from his son’s life tends to re-orient his son’s seminal blessing toward death-seeking.[1] Perceval and Tyolet experienced men’s loyalty and devotion to other men as knights engaged in the death-seeking of brutal violence against men. In the lai Tydorel from about the same time, Tydorel ardent desire to know his father similarly prompted him to die to this world in departing to another world.

Men deeply need fellowship with other men. Consider, for example, Tyolet’s encounter with men “knight-beasts {chevaliers bestes}.” A stag that Tyolet was hunting crossed a river. It then metamorphosed:

It assumed the appearance of a knight.
The knight was fully armed at the water’s edge
and, mounted on a horse with flowing mane,
he sat just like an armed knight.
The youth observed him.
He had never seen the like.
He looked upon him in amazement
and gazed at him for a long time.
He wondered at such a thing,
for he had never before seen its like.
He stared at him intently.

{ Et .I. chevalier resembloit;
Tot armé sor l’eve s’estoit,
Sor .I. cheval detriés comé,
S’estoit com chevalier armé.
Le vallet l’a aparceü;
Onques mes tel n’avoit veü.
A merveilles l’a esgardé
Et longuement l’a avisé.
De tel chose se merveilloit,
Car onques mes veü n’avoit;
Ententivement l’avisa. }[2]

The knight pleasantly greeted Tyolet. When Tyolet inquired “what kind of beast a knight was {quel beste chevalier estoit},” the knight explained:

It’s a beast which is much dreaded.
It captures and eats other beasts.
Much of the time it dwells in the woods,
but it dwells as well on open land.

{ C’est une beste molt cremue;
Autres bestes prent et menjue,
El bois converse molt souvent
Et a plainne terre ensement. }

Tyolet hunted in the woods, capturing and eating various beasts. But he had never before encountered a beast like a knight. He asked about the knight’s helmet, shield, hauberk, greaves, sword, and lance. Tyolet, who hunted with whistling and a knife, envied the knight’s elaborate equipment, but he also sought companions:

Would to God, who never lied,
that I might have such equipment
as you have, so fine and handsome,
that I had such a coat, such a cloak,
as you have, and such a head-piece.
Now tell me, knight-beast,
in God’s name and his holy festival,
if there are any other beasts like you
or any as beautiful as you are.

{ Car pleüst Dieu qui ne menti
Que j’eüsse tiex garnemenz
Con vos avez, si biaus, si genz,
Tel cote eüsse, et tel mantel
Con vos avez, et tel chapel.
Or me dites, chevalier beste,
Por Deu, et por la seue feste,
Se il est auques de tiex bestes
Ne de si beles con vos estes. }

The knight pointed out many other men knight-beasts:

Two hundred armed knights
were making their way across a meadow.
They came from the king’s court and
had been carrying out his orders.
They had captured a fortress,
set fire to it, and reduced it to ashes.
They were returning fully armed
in three squadrons in close array.

{ Que .II. cenz chevaliers armez
Erroient tres par mi uns prez,
Qui de la cort au roi venoient.
Son commandement fet avoient;
Une fort meson orent prise
Et en feu et en charbon mise,
Si s’en repairent tuit armé,
En .III. eschieles bien serré. }

Marveling at them, Tyolet wanted to become one of them:

Would to God on his holy festival
that I were a knight-beast.

{ Car pleüst or Dieu a sa feste
Que je fusse chevalier beste. }

Men, all wearing similar equipment, working together on a common mission — that’s an ideal of masculine fellowship. That their mission is killing and burning matters little relative to the good of masculine fellowship. Tyolet was a young man living in the woods with only his mother. Men will become beasts to be part of a group with other men.

Islamic Republic of Iran Army soldiers marching

Tyolet became a knight-beast against his mother’s wishes. She didn’t want her son to become a beast that captures and devours others, where the others were not the deer and wild game that Tyolet hunted for food, but human beings like him.[3] Tyolet insisted. Then his mother brought him his father’s armor:

All the arms she had
she quickly brought him.
The arms had belonged to her husband.
She armed her son with them splendidly,
and when he had mounted his horse,
he looked just like a knight-beast.
“Do you know, fair son, what you will do now?
You will go straight to King Arthur,
and I shall tell you all you need to know.
Do not associate with any man,
nor pay court to any woman,
who is of ill-repute.”

{ Totes les armes qu’ele a
Isnelement li aporta,
Qui son seignor orent esté.
Molt en a bien son f[i]lz armé.
Et quant el cheval fu monté(z)
Chevalier beste a bien semblé.
‘Sez or, biauz filz, que tu feras?
Tot droit au roi Artur iras
Et de ce te dirai la somme:
Ne t’acompaingnes a nul homme,
Ne a fame ne donoier
Qui commune soit de mestier.’ }

The mother directed her son into a quest for social status. Seeking social status is different from seeking masculine fellowship.

Tyolet took up the quest that his mother set for him. He went to King Arthur’s court. There he sought to learn about good breeding, wisdom, courtliness, knighthood, and gift-giving. These are qualities associated with knightly status.

Tyolet also sought to gain status through marriage. The daughter of the King of Logres arrived at King Arthur’s court. She ominously was described as being as beautiful as Dido or Helen of Troy. She established a challenge for a man to become her husband: the man must cut off the white foot of a stag guarded by seven lions and living across a menacing river. Many knights attempted the challenge, but turned back at the river. Tyolet, however, plunged into river, risking his life. He made it across. He found the stag and cut off its white foot. Then the seven lions attacked him. The lions mauled him badly before he managed to kill them. Then another knight deceived Tyolet and sought to kill him. Ultimately, the badly wounded Tyolet got back to Arthur’s court, prevailed over the deceptive knight, and earned the hand of the daughter of the King of Logres.

The lai ends with Tyolet withdrawing from King Arthur’s court. The daughter of the King of Logres led the badly wounded Tyolet away:

Then she took him to her land.
He was king and she was queen.
Here ends the lai of Tyolet.

{ En son païs donc le mena;
Rois fu et ele fu roïne.
De Tyolet le lai ci fine. }

Marrying the daughter of the King of Logres great increased Tyolet’s social status, land-holdings, and other wealth. That’s beneficial, but gender-atypical. A man executive might marry a low-status woman secretary. In contrast, a woman executive might have an affair with a low-status man manual laborer, but she’s unlikely to marry him. Much more than men, women commonly seek to marry up (hypergamy). Marrying up can lead to passionless, unsatisfying marital life. Because masculine fellowship largely motivated Tyolet to become a knight, the ending of the lai Tyolet should imply troubling thoughts about the mauled Tyolet’s future.[4]

The lai Tydorel has a more obviously troubling conclusion. Tydorel’s parents, the queen and king of Brittany, had been married for ten years without producing any children. One day when the queen was relaxing in a garden, a handsome knight proposed a sexual affair with her. She quickly fell passionately in love with him and consented to an affair, provided he told her his name and where he was from. That at least shows some interest in the man beyond his sexual allure. He mysteriously showed her that he came to her from passing through the bottom of a deep lake. This knight was an unworldly man.

As the knight predicted, the queen soon became pregnant. The king was overjoyed to have a forthcoming heir, but in fact the child wasn’t of his lineage:

He didn’t know the true state of affairs.
The peasant says to his neighbor,
in a spiteful saying in his own language:
“A man thinks he’s bringing up his own child
when it does not belong to him at all.”
This is what happened to the king in this case.
The child was not his, but someone else’s.

{ Mes ne sot pas tout le covine.
Li vilains dit a son voisin
Par mal respit en son latin:
‘Tex cuide norrir son enfant
Ne li partient ne tant ne qant’.
Issi fist li rois de cestui;
N’iert mie siens, ainz est autrui. }[5]

Gender asymmetry in parental knowledge is a fundamental gender inequality. It could easily be eliminated with modern DNA testing, but under gynocentrism, that fundamental gender inequality is of relatively little public concern. Gender asymmetry in parental knowledge has enormous implications for men and women.

After the queen’s husband died and Tydorel had reigned as king for ten years, he learned that his father wasn’t the queen’s husband. Tydorel was furious about this deception:

He arose swiftly,
took his sword from his bedside
and went into his mother’s chamber.
He came to her bed and woke her up.
When she saw him, she sat up,
reclining on her elbow.
“Son,” she said, “have mercy, in God’s name!
What is this? What do you want here?”
“By God!” he said, “you shall die.
You will never escape my hands,
unless you tell me the truth,
whose son I am, I want to know.”

{ Il s’est levez hastivement,
Soz son chevez s’espee prent,
En la chambre sa mere entra;
A son lit vint, si l’esveilla.
Qant el(e) le vit, si s’est drecie,
Sor son coute s’est apuïe.
‘Filz’, fet ele, ‘por Deu merci!
Qu’es[t] ce? Que querez vos ici?’
‘Par Deu!’ fet il, ‘toute i morrez,
Ja de mes mains n’eschaperez,
Se vos ne me dites le voir
Qui filz je sui, je veil savoir.’ }

Children deserve to know the truth about who their biological fathers are. Tydorel’s mother told him the truth that he wasn’t her husband’s son. She told him that his father was a knight who came to her from the deepest part of a deep lake.

Tydorel immediately resolved to go to his father’s place. The lai Tydorel ends with Tydorel’s dramatic journey:

When Tydorel heard this,
he left his mother.
He returned to his chamber,
woke his chamberlains,
and gave orders for his arms to be brought
and his good horse to be fetched.
They did what he commanded,
and he armed himself at once.
As soon as he was armed,
he mounted his horse.
Spurring it, he came to the lake
and plunged straight into the deepest part.
There he remained, in this way,
and never came back.
This tale is held to be true
by the Bretons who composed the lai.

{ Qant Tydorel a tot oï,
De sa mere se departi;
En ses chambres est reperiez,
Ses chambellans a esveilliez,
Ses armes rova aporter
E son bon cheval amener.
Cil ont fet son conmandement,
Et il s’arma delivrement.
Sitost conme il se fu armez,
Sor son cheval estoit montez;
Poignant en est au lai venuz,
El plus parfont s’est enz feruz.
Illec remest, en tel maniere,
Que puis ne retorna ariere.
Cest conte tienent a verai
Li Breton qui firent le lai. }[6]

Perhaps Tydorel downed in the lake. But the lai Tydorel is filled with supernatural elements. Tydorel is better understood to have gone to his father and remained with his father. Persons today, living among pervasive falsehoods, should be able to understand ardently seeking to go to one’s true father.

The death or absence of a father inflicts terrible pain on children. Medieval literature recognized this human reality in various ways. Perceval’s comically absurd behavior in Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval is one example. Tyolet’s burning desire to become a “knight-beast {chevalier beste}” like other men and Tydorel’s plunge into the depths of a deep lake are both directly connected to their lacking a true father. Children, especially young men, need fathers.

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[1] In recent decades, academics have invented the denial of reality. Following this invention with little additional creativity, Braet (1981) considers the “invention of the father” in Tyolet and Perceval. In fact, organisms have been sexually reproducing on earth for at least 1.2 billion years. Denying the reality of fatherhood supports sex discrimination against men in child custody and child support rulings.

[2] Tyolet, vv. 109-19, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2007). Burgess & Brook (2005), freely available online, provides a similar Old French edition and English translation. For earlier Old French editions, Tobin (1976b) and Paris (1879). For earlier English translations, Donnelly (1998) and Weston (1900). For a freely available Spanish translation, Cobos (1985). The lai (lay) Tyolet survives in only one manuscript, MS S: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouvelles acquisitions françaises, 1104, f. 15v-20r.

Subsequent quotes from Tyolet are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 137 (what kind of beast a knight was), 141-4 (It’s a beast which is much dreaded…), 184-92 (Would to God, who never lied…), 197-204 (Two hundred armed knights…), 217-8 (Would to God on his holy festival…), 263-74 (All the arms she had…), 702-4 (Then she took him to her land…).

[3] Tyolet consistently describes knights as engaged in vicious violence. The knight that Tyolet first encountered himself described a knight as a beast “that deceives and kills others {que autre engingne et autre tue}.” Tyolet, v. 236.

[4] The academic Arthur regarded as problematic that all men’s achievements, including those of Tyolet, aren’t fully and clearly credited to women. In his view, Breton lais, apparently including the lais of Marie de France, represent a conversation among an anachronistic “class” of men:

These texts are the record of an oft-repeated conversation between the members of a historically-defined class of men, some of whom fought battles, some of whom wrote poems, some of whom, for that matter, wrote philosophy and delivered sermons.

Arthur (1992) p. 71. In contrast, medieval women themselves regarded knights and clerics as distinctive classes of lovers. Medieval estate satire such as Richeut assumed that knights and clerics belong to different estates. Arthur’s intellectual contortions in his interpretation of Tyolet apparently were directed toward a concluding flourish of poor-dearism:

This romantic text, and all the others which share its concerns, says, repeatedly, “We may be in a situation of powerlessness, in which all that we do, from writing poetry through to risking our lives in battle, is done for the benefit of a master. But it could be worse. We could be isolated from each other, with no sense of a community and no governing providential plan to ensure our escape. We could be stuck here permanently. We could be women.”

Id. p. 72. With such a poignant conclusion, Arthur could hope to be recognized as a good man within gynocentric academia. However, medieval women weren’t isolated from one another. Women were at the center of medieval communities. What it means to have a providential plan to escape from “here” isn’t clear. Death might be regarded as an escape. Largely as a result of pervasive violence against men, medieval men had a life expectancy about nine years less than that of medieval women.

[5] Tydorel, vv. 164-70, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2007). Burgess & Brook (2016) includes a similar English translation not presented by corresponding Old French verse. For earlier Old French editions freely available online, Tobin (1976a) and Paris (1879). Donnelly (1998) provides a freely available English translation of Tydorel.

Subsequent quotes from Tydorel are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 339-50 (He arose swiftly…) and 475-90 (When Tydorel heard this…).

[6] The eminent nineteenth-century medievalist Gaston Paris described Tydorel as a “beautiful lai {beau lai}.” Paris (1879) p. 66.

[image] Soldiers of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army. Image thanks to Reza Dehshiri and Wikimedia Commons.


Arthur, Ross G. 1992. “Tyolet and the Marginalization of the Romance Feminine.” LittéRéalité. 4 (2): 65-72.

Braet, Herman. 1981. “Tyolet/Perceval: l’invention du père.” Incidences, Médiévalités. Nouv. Série, 5 (1): 71-77. Translated into English as “Tyolet/Perceval: The Father Quest,” in Varty, Kenneth, and Lewis Thorpe, eds. 1981. An Arthurian Tapestry: essays in memory of Lewis Thorpe. Glasgow: British branch of the International Arthurian Society.

Burgess, Glyn S., Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2005. Doon And Tyolet: Two Old French Narrative Lays. Liverpool Online Series, 9. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, Department of Modern Languages and Cultures.

Burgess, Glyn S., Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2007. French Arthurian Literature. Volume IV: Eleven Old French Narrative Lays. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 2016. Twenty-Four Lays from the French Middle Ages. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Cobos Castro, Esperanza. 1985. “Tyolet lay anonimo Francés del siglo XIII.” Alfinge. 3: 283-294.

Donnelly, Linda Marie Asfodel. 1998. The Anonymous Fairy-Knight Lays: Tydorel, Tyolet, Doon and Espine. M.A. Thesis, University of Alberta.

Paris, Gaston. 1879. “Lais inédits de Tyolet, de Guingamor, de Doon, du Lecheor et de Tydorel.” Romania. 8 (29): 29-72.

Tobin, Prudence Mary O’Hara, ed. 1976a. Tydorel. Genève: Droz. Publié en ligne par l’ENS de Lyon dans la Base de Français Médiéval, dernière révision le 19-6-2016.

Tobin, Prudence Mary O’Hara, ed. 1976b. Tyolet. Genève: Droz. Publié en ligne par l’ENS de Lyon dans la Base de Français Médiéval, dernière révision le 19-6-2016.

Weston, Jessie L., trans. 1900. Guingamor, Lanval, Tyolet, Bisclaveret: Four Lais Rendered Into English Prose From the French of Marie De France and Others. With Designs by Caroline Watts. London: David Nutt. Alternate textual presentation.

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