“I am not even my own”: Unfree and Coerced Labor in the Romances of Chrétien de Troyes

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The remarkable tower constructed by Cligés’s serf Jehan in Chrétien de Troyes’s romance Cligés has inspired much metatextual examination of the craftsmanship involved in Chrétien’s own process of composing texts. As Michelle A. Freeman has argued, the romance’s celebration of Jehan and the talented nurse Thessala as artificers supports Chrétien’s self-glorification in the famous translatio studii prologue. Yet much of the scholarly discussion on Jehan’s work elides the extent to which Cligés, and Chrétien’s other romances, both problematize and obscure the romances’ recurring exploitation of forced labor. In contrast to Yvain’s ugly plowman, the enslaved and imprisoned workers in Chrétien’s romances are objects of pity or admiration—Jehan’s work has given him an internationally respected reputation, while pitiful state of the maidens in the textile sweatshop in Yvain inspires the hero’s sympathy. Yet neither pity nor admiration ever allows them to act in their own interests, and indeed these sentiments and Chrétien’s metaphorical descriptions of love as a kind of slavery may distract from the concrete ways that unfree labor undergirds the world of the romance, benefiting its noble characters. In this paper, I build on the work of scholars including Sharon Kinoshita and Monica Wright to argue that an overly allegorized view of characters like Jehan and the sweatshop maidens glosses over the courtly structures of labor extraction that Chrétien mystifies in his depiction of Arthur’s court. By uncovering Chrétien’s strategies of both highlighting and downplaying the prominent role of coerced labor in his romances, we may not only elucidate the normalized exploitation of work in Chrétien’s courtly milieux but also identify ways in which intellectual work, including Chrétien’s, is also depicted as vulnerable to exploitation.