The medieval literary predilection for challenging the adequacy of written signs to access, identify, or contain “truth” is well documented: both Eugene Vance, in Mervelous Signals, and Umberto Eco in The Limits of Interpretation describe the relationship of pre-scholastic forms of interpretation to language as presupposing a fruitful “arbitrariness of the vernacular sign” which produces the semiotic landscape of “artistic play” evident in the literary output of high medieval vernacular culture. “The medieval metaphysical symbol is neither epiphany nor revelation of a truth concealed under the cloak of myth;” claims Eco, rather “Symbolism (in an Augustinian context) must make rationally conceivable the inadequacy of our reason and of our language.” Vance explains how this “conceivable inadequacy” figures as constitutive of the transgressive pleasures of vernacular textuality in the twelfth century trouvére lyric and succinctly demonstrates that this phenomenon extends over the whole of the century’s vernacular culture.
This “cultural awareness” that “bondage to the carnal signifier and to the law of the letter is the soul’s death” expands, within the Anglo-Norman Romance tradition (though not exclusively), to articulate an additional suspicion of verbal narrative as meaningfully expressive of identity. Rarely is this suspicion better articulated than in the twelfth Anglo-Norman La Folie Tristan, a “story of stories” containing, most importantly, a depiction of a series of narratives told by Tristan to Ysolt in an effort to persuade her to believe that Tristan is himself. Ultimately, these “narrative instrumentalities” fail. Since they form a summary of well-known Tristan narratives, their suspect effectuality at identifying Tristan to his lover articulates a secondary, critical suspicion of the romance-narrative’s effectuality at identifying “truth” or “chivalry” to the reader of Romance.
The mechanism of their failure is thus critical: Just as the trouvére lyric eroticized the “arbitrariness of conventional verbal signs” by expressing the “curious but subtle relationship of redundancy between non-sense in poetic language and self-thwarting libidinal desire,” La Folie Tristan poeticizes the inadequacy of conventional romance by expressing a corresponding relationship of redundancy between the failure of spoken narrative to reveal identity and lovers condemned to separation. Vernacular narratives therefore become as any outward signs in the Augustinian framework: lineaments of desire doomed to separate the individual from his “true” self and conventions derived from our imperfection rather than traditions directing us to God. “He (God) is not contradictory in Himself. Contradictoriness belongs to our discourses about Him and arises from our imperfect knowledge of Him.” Doomed to wholly ungratified desire from the beginning, Tristan’s narratives are undermined by the indices of his altered appearance. Ysolt’s desirous and extramarital love is demonstrated to respond ultimately to Tristan’s “appearing” to be himself, not on the truth of that self as such, which cannot be demonstrated by any conventional narrative within the text anyway.
The fragmentary La Folie Tristan narrative operates in three distinct parts, each demanding exegesis as it speaks to the text’s meditation on the limitations of its own textuality and narrativity: First, Tristan’s “disarmament”, wherein he puts on the outward appearance of a fool, shunning all of the conventional social symbols which identify knighthood as such within Romance; second, Tristan’s almost meta-textual litany of his own narratives, the most substantial of the poem’s portions and a discourse that is hyper-personal within the context of the poem and hyper-public within the broader social context of the poem’s reception; and finally, the uneasy resolution, where despite the failure even of “tokens” at convincing Ysolt of her lover’s identity, his self-hood is restored as he wipes away the deceitful outward signs by which he penetrated King Mark’s court.
The “honorific calculus” at work in a good knight’s “going incognito” as a fool has been effectively treated in J. A. Burrow’s article “The Uses of Incognito”, and demands no explication here: suffice it to say that the “scorn and ridicule” undergone by a knight disguised as a fool “contribute not only to his love-sufferings (in the dynamics of exchange which underpin courtly love) but also, in the end, to his ‘pris’. It is as if… the receiving of underserved scorn has the same effect as the refusal to receive deserved praise.” However, he finds the text he treats to be “conspicuous among English romances for its hospitality toward chivalric values, and for its relative reluctance to invoke more general moral ideas.” The same cannot be said of La Folie Tristan. Here Tristan’s “love-sufferings” predominate as a motive. “Miserable, dejected, sad, and downcast,” the poem opens, “Tristran dwelt in his land… He suspected everyone and hid his mind from them, fearing betrayal.” Already the poem identifies his motive as escape rather than achievement, and whatever “glory is left to accumulate undiminished” by his disguise must draw upon the interpretive faculties of the reader for acknowledgement at the story’s end. For Tristan, and the poet, the disguise trope engages in the tragic poetics of identity rather than any honorific calculus:
He kept his thoughts so quiet that he said nothing to anyone; he was wise, for disclosing secrets beforehand often brings great harm. No misfortune, I believe, will ever befall the man who thus hides, and will not reveal, his thoughts. Telling and disclosing secrets is often the cause of many disasters. People suffer from their own thoughtlessness. (122)
Secrets, which imply an inner self at odds with the apparent, here form the key to unlocking Tristan’s disguise. Hidden thoughts produce a hidden identity- disclosure jeopardizes that identity and appearance must change for its protection. This escape from disclosure also activates an escape from life, indeed, from Tristan’s Tristan-ness:
Death, then, was certain, since he had lost his love, his joy, since he had lost Ysolt, the queen. He wished to die, desired to die, but only so long as she knew he was dying for love of her, for if she knew it, he would at least die more easily. (121)
Life being a problem (without Ysolt), Tristan puts on the trappings of a new life, effectively bringing death to the old. We must be careful not to express this jeopardized concept of self as operatively internal. As Caroline Walker Bynum suggests, “If the religious writing, the religious practice, and the religious orders of the twelfth century are characterized by a new concern for the ‘inner man,’ it is because of a new concern for the group, for types and examples, for the ‘outer man.’” Wherever, in La Folie Tristan, an “internal individual” is suggested, that individual is expressed by a vocabulary of externals. Indeed, in the end we see Tristan’s visible “outer man” finally conformed to the speaking “inner man”, but that speaking inner man had deceived Ysolt just as effectively as the herb which turns his skin dark.
Which man, then, speaks to Ysolt? Tristan’s narratives form a catalogue of sign-identity structures, each recalling a token or moment to which Tristan attaches his self, defined, as it is, by its relation to Ysolt. Each account engages one person or object which “means” the memory which in turn “means” Tristan. However, “it would be mad and deceitful to recognize him as Tristran, when she saw, thought and believed he was not Tristran but another.” The validation of these sign structures as unifying the intent of their performance with their meaning depends, therefore, on Ysolt, for whom belief must precede recognition. That belief, in turn, depends not on the truth of the content of those signs but on their effective coherence with the signs surrounding them:
Ysolt said: ‘Tokens will convince me. Have you the ring? Show it to me.’ He drew out the ring and gave it her. Ysolt took it and looked at it; then she burst out weeping, she wrung her hands, she was distraught. ‘Alas for the day I was born!’ she said, ‘I’ve finally lost my love, for I know well that no other man would have this ring were he alive. Alas! I will never be comforted.’ (139)
Though the ring must be Tristan’s, its effect as evidence depends ultimately on Tristan being the one to produce it. Without the visual sign system which means ‘Tristan” surrounding it, the “meaning” of the ring is lost in a realm of fractured possibility. Each narrative possesses no intrinsic meaning which can be correlated independently to Tristan’s self, rather, their meanings depend on a relational system of sign structures rooted in the apparent signs of Tristan-ness which would lead Ysolt to “see, think, and believe” that Tristan stands before her.
But what does the text’s internal, relational semiotics suggest about the functionality of textual meaning? Twelfth century Romances had already developed a distinctive internal vocabulary of reference; as Melissa furrow demonstrates, “stories of Tristram and Isolde provoked specific readings that light up for us the variety of ways in which romances more generally were read morally and remembered as exemplary.” A wide range of “different, contentious” ways of reading the well-known story appear simultaneously to illustrate that variety as an unstable proliferation, subject to and representative of the variation in theological and philosophical perspectives produced by the twelfth-century renaissance. Indeed, it seems no interpretation stands as the correct one; rather, “in the disparate emotional responses it produces,” the Tristram and Isolde narrative “is not different from the genre (of romance) as a whole.” La Folie Tristan illustrates and engages with this disparity, relying upon the reader’s familiarity with the controversial Tristram narrative to develop ambiguities already at work more generally in romance as specific themes.
So we are asked to perceive the Tristan narratives similarly, in a sense, to Ysolt. Their meaning is ultimately developed relationally: rather than offering a consistent and coherent moral interpretive structure, dependent on the propriety of the text and the reader, romances in general, and specifically the Tristan and Ysolt story, operate in a flexible matrix of possible meanings. By cataloguing Tristan narratives, La Folie Tristan opens up these possibilities, engaging, ultimately, with their failure at summoning a “reality” independent of those factors -curiously absent from the text- which posit that reality as contiguous with our own.
Those factors, or signs of the text’s engagement with the social or cultural context of its production, are thereby rendered suspect within our reading. Stephen knight posits this social-critical aspect of romance a rare and redeeming characteristic for a genre generally bereft of such sophistication, but such elements feature prominently in a wider range of Romances than he allows. “Rather,” as Furrow argues, “twelfth century religious writing and behaviour show a great concern with how groups are formed and differentiated from each other, how roles are defined and evaluated, how behaviour is conformed to models.” It would seem, in fact, typical for the literary output of a culture so interested in its own social construction to speak to that construction, and, for the reasons outlined above, La Folie Tristan forms just one example.
But how does La Folie Tristan speak to its social context? What does it say? The trope of washing at the poem’s conclusion implies a vaguely moral aim, and indeed, “Sanctity,” in a twelfth century context, “is finally reformation of the total man, and it can be gained by imitation of the sanctity of others, which is accessible to us exactly because it is outer as well as inner.” By this logic, the emphasis on conforming Tristan’s outward appearance to his inner self justifies and affirms the Christian emphasis on faith expressed visually in the trappings of priesthood, church architecture, symbolic statuary and iconography. Certainly, the faithful reader could find a plethora of textual examples of the problems associated with the social expression of the internal phenomenon of love and devotion: the entire problem of the story revolves around love which is true, though unconsummated and disruptive of the socio-political hierarchy of King Mark’s court. A Christian ethos does not exclude the interpretive possibilities of an interpretive mode based on “a profound disillusionment with the possibilities of a noble life.” Rather, as wealth of examples (including the entire phenomenon of mendicant devotion) demonstrate, even an orthodox Christianity could produce such a reading.
However, it is also clear that the Tristan and Isolde archetype may be and was conceived as “depicting deeply immoral actions,” a “thoroughly secular” text in a thoroughly ecclesiastical age. Tristan’s continuing adultery is, by any measure, sinful. The flexibility with which medieval writers engaged Tristan’s transgression necessitates a further, all-encompassing description: Tristan operates as an outcast, holy or sinful, who, by abandoning his proper social stature, grants the reader access to an outsider’s perspectives on the social mores of the typical medieval court and, through the text’s particular operations, the narratives of romance which surround that court. These mores and narratives are, ultimately, neither affirmed nor critiqued. Rather, they form a structure whose dissolution produces a sophisticated and valuable –to the modern reader- meditation on the role of “identity” in the social norms of court life.
The poetics of sign and identity at work in La Folie Tristan therefore demonstrate the interpretive flexibility operative in Anglo-Norman literature. Romance narratives seem, at last, to follow the pattern at work in the general symbolic modes of pre-scholastic literary culture: the “conceivable inadequacy” of language systems spreads upward through more complex language artefacts, casting over chivalric tales a shadow of that disdain for “carnal signifiers” detectable elsewhere, but breaching also the very structural composition of narratives in general. In La Folie Tristan, “arbitrariness of conventional verbal signs” spreads to include a more general arbitrariness of conventional narrative modes whose truth-as the text argues- depends on the coherence of whatever social signifiers which surround it, not the inherent value of those social signifiers.
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Weiss, Judith, and Malcolm Andrew. “Folie Tristan.” The Birth of Romance: An Anthology : Four Twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Romances. London: J.M. Dent, 1992. N. pag. Print.
Weiss, Judith, Jennifer Fellows, and Morgan Dickson. Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000. Print.
 Eugene Vance, Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 86.
 Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 10.
 Vance, Mervelous Signals, 87.
 Vance, Mervelous Signals, 86.
 Peter Haidu, “Text, Pretextuality, and Myth in the Folie Tristan D’Oxford,” Modern Language Notes 88 (1973),713.
 Vance, Mervelous Signals, 87.
 Eco, The Limits of Interpretation, 10.
 J. A. Burrow, “The Uses of Incognito: Ipomadon A” in Readings in Medieval English Romance, ed. Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994), 32.
 Burrow, “The Uses of Incognito: Ipomadon A,” 33.
 “Folie Tristan” in The Birth of Romance: An Anthology, trans. Judith Weiss (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1992), 121
 Burrow, “The Uses of Incognito: Ipomadon A,” 30.
 Caroline Waler Bynum, “Did The Twelfth Century Discover The Individual?” in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (London: University of California Press, 1982), 85.
 Melissa Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde” in Expectations of Romance: The Reception of Genre in Medieval England, (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009), 144.
 Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde”, 175-176.
 Stephen Knight, “The Social Function of Romance” in Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology and History, ed. David Aers (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1986), 99-122.
 Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde”, 144.
 Bynum, “Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?”, 102.
 Arlyn Diamond, “Unhappy Endings: Failed Love/Failed Faith in Late Romances” in Readings in Medieval English Romance, ed. Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994), 66.
 Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde,” 143-144.
 Morgan Dickson, “Verbal and Visual Disguise: Society and Identity in Some Twelfth-Century Texts” in Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation, (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000), 53.