The First Trickster: Chrétien and his Knight in a Cart

Writers have always been tricksters. Through their words they suck readers into a contrived world. They use tricks such as flashback, simile, unreliable narrators, and subtle episodes to shape a story and its message.

The feudal society of the 12th century was rigid. If one was born a peasant, they would die as a peasant and conversely, if born a noble, one’s birth and breeding would guarantee a room for the night, no matter how far their fortunes had fallen. There was no movement from one class to the next and the easiest way to distinguish class was by outward appearances—knights wore armor or fine silk and they looked noble while peasants wore threadbare robes and looked dejected. Criminals were ridden through town on a cart, subjected to the mockery and torture of a whole town.

Every writer must know their audience and Chrétien had no doubts about his. He wrote “The Knight of the Cart” for his patron, Marie de Champagne, and her court—nobles and knights and clergy. In order to please his lady and her court, he wrote a poem about a knight who would go through anything to rescue his love; nothing was too demeaning for this brave and praiseworthy knight. After the queen is kidnapped, her noble lover rushes after her resorting to riding in a cart after his horse dies. The cart is a wicked thing as Chrétien explains:

“In those days carts were used as pillories are now; for all traitors and murderers, for all those who had lost trials by combat, and for all those who had stolen another’s possessions by larceny or snatched them by force on the highways. The guilty person was taken and made to mount in the cart and was led through every street; he had lost all his feudal rights and was never again heard at court, nor invited or honoured there. Since in those days carts were so dreadful, the saying first arose: ‘Whenever you see a cart and cross its path, make the sign of the cross and remember God, so that evil will not befall you.’” (211)

But Chrétien soon begins to question this snap judgment, this idea that riding in a cart instantly turns one into an outcast. When Lancelot rides into a field to battle another knight who has his hopes set the maiden Lancelot escorts, the people gathered playing games flee in disgust saying, “‘Damned be anyone who seeks to amuse himself or dares to play as long as he is here’” (228). Lancelot is not worried by this response, he is a noble and brave knight and he knows it. He is not the only one.

The knight hoping to defeat Lancelot rides up quickly to an old knight present on the field. The young knight explains his happiness and that he will soon possess the woman he has wanted for so long. The wise old knight, his father, sees something in Lancelot and tries to talk his son out of his chosen course of action. When the son refuses to listen to the father, he orders not to fight and has him restrained (229). Lancelot leads the woman away from the field and the fickle people rush back to their games exclaiming, “‘A hundred curses on anyone who stops his play on his account! Let’s return to our games!’” (230).

Further evidence of Lancelot’s greatness comes a few lines later when he comes upon a church and, “being neither a boor nor fool,” enters to pray. After his prayers, he looks at the crypts and asks a hermit about the one covered with a heavy stone slab. The slab prophesies that the man who can lift it with his unaided strength will free all the people from the land of no escape and Chrétien tells the reader that it would take seven strong men to even budge the slab. But Lancelot, the knight who rode in a cart, “went at once and seized hold of the slab and lifted it without the least difficulty” (231). By lifting the slab Lancelot becomes a savior, he will free the people from a land of no escape.

Is Chrétien arguing against the cart? Does he use the noble Lancelot to challenge his readers’ ideas about class, about the judgment of a person based on superficial evidence? The episodes of the challenging knight and the slab may only serve to highlight Lancelot’s nobility—that nothing is below this great man when it comes to the love of his woman. Indeed, this would be an example of “fin amor” leading to detrimental public action. If this were the case, Chrétien would have already made his point. But he returns to the cart once again and makes stronger statements against it.

After Lancelot finds lodging for the night in the home of knight, he is challenged by another knight who has been searching for him. This knight calls out, wanting to know “which one of you was so proud and foolish and so empty-headed as to come into this land, believing he can cross the Sword Bridge?” (239). When Lancelot answers that he is seeking the Sword Bridge, the knight mocks him and reminds him of his shame for riding in a cart. When the knight brings up the cart, Chrétien writes, the lord of the manor and all those with him lament: “‘Oh God! What a misfortune!’ thought each to himself. ‘Damned be the hour when a car was first conceived and constructed, for it is a vile and despicable thing’” (240). No one says this out loud, they only think it, yet “on this matter, everyone spoke with one voice” (240).

This incongruity between the nobility of Lancelot and the shame of his riding in a cart is similar to the incongruity between Jesus being free of sin and his saving of and talking to a whore who is now venerated as a saint. In the same way a new citizen of America is often more familiar with the history United States than one who has lived here all their life, Chrétien, as a convert to Christianity, would have been familiar with the way Jesus constantly sought out the dejected and rose them up to the status of people worthy of love and respect.

Chrétien is concerned about those who were unlucky enough to be born to the peasant class, those unlucky enough to be paraded through town on a cart. But he has to balance this concern for the downtrodden with the sensibilities of the nobility he wrote for. It would have done him, or his message, any good to denounce the class structure of the day in any kind of certain terms. Those who went against the comfortable hierarchy of the 12th century would be labeled agitators and most likely end up at the stake. Chrétien, by words and thoughts, tells a story with a subliminal message. Writers are still using these same tricks.

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