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The Romance of Tristan

The Romance of Tristan


by Béroul

The Romance of Tristan Theme of Justice and Judgment

King Mark relies on the medieval version of detective work and forensic evidence to convict Tristan and Yseut of treasonous adultery: flour spread on the floor and blood all over Yseut's bed that testifies to Tristan's presence there. But that's where the comparisons to the modern justice system end. Mark condemns the lovers to death by burning without a trial, showing the complete lack of due process in medieval times. Even if there were a trial, it would be trial-by-combat, which Tristan would be sure to win. (How would that prove he's innocent, exactly?) These are only a couple of examples of the way in which the poem highlights the practices of the medieval justice system—a system that may seem just a little bit crazy today.

Questions About Justice and Judgment

  1. On what evidence does Mark convict Tristan and Yseut of adultery? Does the process he uses seem fair? Why or why not?
  2. What makes Tristan and Yseut's adultery a punishable crime?
  3. How does Tristan want to prove his innocence? Why is he unable to do it? What does this impasse reveal about the problem with this system of determining guilt and innocence?
  4. Why does Yseut ask Arthur to serve as the guarantor of her oath? What is Arthur's job once Yseut has taken the oath?
  5. How does Yseut manage to swear a true oath without revealing her adultery?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The Romance of Tristan reveals the problems with several of the systems of justice and judgment it portrays.

King Mark appears to view the purpose of punishment as personal vengeance and power-consolidation, rather than upholding justice.

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