CategoryArchetype, Key Term, Motif
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Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309)

When we hear the term “madness”, perhaps what comes to mind first would be an idea of mental pathology or derangement. Folie is the literal translation of “madness” in the French language, yet this term does not limit itself to insanity. Its meaning contains many nuances, such as recklessness, foolishness, insult, sin, and sexual ardour. Given this, folie may not necessarily indicate madness per se but also an act that may be perceived as such, regardless of the actual state of mind of the individual. This suggests that folie characterizes the aberrant individual through deviation from sanity as well as from the social expectations of medieval European norms. Sylvia Huot indeed argues that the term folie or fol appears in medieval tales when describing a behaviour corresponding to madness and folly, as well as foolishness and the court fool. She also points out that this concept serves as “a literary device to characterise the culture and ethos of a royal court” and to show how “social exclusion operates in defining communal identity”.

The concept of folie in medieval romance reveals the many aspects of love and its accepted norms in medieval European society. Folie complicates love’s impact on a person’s state of mind and seems to unveil what is normally expected from a lover, both in terms of actions and appearances. In the Oxford Folie Tristan, love is depicted as driving Tristan mad, almost into insanity, as he would rather choose death over the torment inflicted by his love and desire for Yseut. This feeling of internal deterioration hints at the bitter side of love, which is a motif shared with many other works, such as Chretien de Troyes’ Cliges and some of the Lais of Marie de France. Madness is not only depicted through Tristan’s torment but also Tristan’s new ugly appearance in both the Oxford and Berne versions of the tale. This indicates that medieval European societies may have tended to associate insanity with a certain type of appearance. Tristan’s act of cutting off his blond hair is itself considered as mad and reckless by his those around him in the Berne Folie. This judgment seems on par with the inability of the others to understand the intentions in his act, thereby making his action appear aberrant.

In these tales, love is the source of Tristan’s mental breakdown that drives him to act against accepted norms, which is to embody the appearance of a madman. With these various nuances of folie involved, these romances seem to challenge the accepted norms through Yseut withstanding the change in Tristan’s appearance and name by finally recognizing him. The combination of love and folie (both madness caused by love and the so-called recklessness of Tristan’s actions) serves as a device to question and critique accepted norms about romance. All in all, it is thanks to Tristan’s ‘foolish’ deviation and social exclusion that we can clearly see the existing norms about courtly love and their absurdity.


Huot, Sylvia. “The Specular Madman.” Madness in Medieval French Literature. 2003.

Lacy, Norris J. “La Folie Tristan (Berne).” Early French Tristan Poems, D.S. Brewer, Woodbridge, 1998.

Lacy, Norris J. “La Folie Tristan (Oxford).” Early French Tristan Poems, D.S. Brewer, Woodbridge, 1998.


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