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2 - Gottfried and the Tristan tradition

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Mark Chinca
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

God creates, man imitates. Such were the limits placed on human creativity by Hugh of St Victor (1097–1141), who formulated a hierarchical division of labour between God, nature and man: God alone can make something out of nothing; nature brings forth what was hidden; the human artificer copies nature, joining what was dispersed and separating what was joined (PL 176, 747). Hugh gives a theologian's perspective on what in any case was an important characteristic of medieval art and literature, the one that modern observers are also most likely to find disconcerting: its traditionalism. Visual artists reproduced models; lyric poets drew on a common stock of situations, roles, metaphors and genres, reworking and recombining them; narrative authors retold stories about people whose names and exploits were already fixed in the repertoire of tradition. Gottfried, on his own admission, is no exception: ‘I know well that there have been many who have told the story of Tristan’ (131–2). The tradition not only provided Gottfried with a story, however; it also presented him with different ways of telling it. In order to see which possibilities Gottfried took up and developed, we must approach his work through the tradition out of which it came.

Traditionalism need not mean monotony or lack of originality, in spite of what detractors of medieval literature might say.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1997

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