Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Tristan Embraces King Mark
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    In 1853 amateur archaeologist Manwaring Shurlock discovered significant numbers of decorated tile fragments among the medieval ruins of Chertsey Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Surrey. Shurlock and the Surrey Archaeological Society further excavated the abbey’s chapterhouse and found many tiles with secular narrative scenes and inscriptions relating to the romance of Tristan and Isolde and the life of Richard the Lionheart. This remarkably preserved round tile depicts the knightly hero Tristan embracing his uncle and liege lord, King Mark. Each man grasps the other’s chin in a gesture marking the moment just prior to a kiss that insures Tristan’s fealty to his uncle. Mark’s crown and full beard illustrate the age difference and power dynamic between the two men. The embrace also clearly parallels visual representations of the kiss of Judas.

    Careful examination of the Tristan tiles from Chertsey revealed that the scenes adhere closely to the twelfth-century Tristan romance as told by the troubador poet, Thomas of Britain. Thomas’s version of Tristan’s tale focuses on Tristan’s adventures and his demonstration of courtly virtues rather than the hero’s affair with Mark’s wife, Iseult (Isolde). The scene of Tristan and King Mark’s embrace takes place as Tristan departs to slay the Irish knight Morhaut and prevent him from collecting the sons of English barons as tribute. Tristan’s bravery impresses his unmarried and childless uncle, King Mark. The king then demands his nephew’s fealty and rewards Tristan by naming him as his heir. The kiss between Mark and Tristan, the ceremonial osculum sometimes accompanied acts of homage and oaths of fealty which legally sealed an agreement between a lord and his vassal. In the Tristan romance, however, the kiss also takes on an air of betrayal and sexual taboo. Tristan engages in an affair with Mark’s intended bride that is not only adulterous, but also incestuous by medieval standards. Tristan and King Mark’s embrace on the tile thus collapses into a single moment the tensions of political, familial and moral conflict that permeate the Tristan and Isolde romance.

  • Source: Flickr
  • Rights: Reproduced by permission of Becky Pitzer
  • Subject (See Also): Courtly Love Family Fealty Kisses Masculinity Nephews Romance Thomas de Bretagne, Poet- Tristan Tristan (Literary Figure)
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 13
  • Date: c. 1250-60
  • Related Work:
  • Current Location: London, British Museum, 1947, 0505.8773
  • Original Location: England, S.E., in Chertsey Abbey, Surrey.
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Ceramics
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Clay; Paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 8.6/10/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Camille, Michael. "Gothic Signs and the Surplus: The Kiss on the Cathedral," Yale French Studies 80 (1991), pp. 161;
    Eames, Elizabeth. Catalogue of Medieval Lead-Glazed Earthenware Tiles in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities, British Museum vols. 1 & 2. The British Museum: 1980;
    Eames, Elizabeth. English Tilers. University of Toronto Press: 1992, pp. 38-41;
    Furrow, Melissa. Expectations of Romance: The Reception of a Genre in Medieval England. Boyell & Brewer: 2009, pp. 4-15;
    Loomis, Roger Sherman. Illustrations of Medieval Romance on Tiles from Chertsey Abbey. University of Illinois: 1916.
    Slitt, Rebecca L. "Acting out Friendship: Signs and Gestures of Aristocratic Male Friendship in the Twelfth Century," Haskins Society Journal 21(2009), pp. 147-164.