The Carlisle Fragment of Thomas’s Tristan

The 12th-century French Roman de Tristran of Thomas of Britain has not survived as a complete text. A number of fragments from various manuscripts have survived. Until the Carlisle Fragment was discovered in 1995, all these fragments came from what must have been the last quarter or third of the original romance, beginning with Tristran’s leaving King Mark’s court to travel to his homeland in Brittany, and ending with the lovers’ deaths. Also surviving are a translation into Old Norse of the entire romance by Brother Robert, and a translation into 13th-c High German by Gottfried von Strassburg which, however, is unfinished–it ends with the very same scene as the scene represented by the first surviving fragment passage, Tristran’s departure. A Middle English poem, Sir Tristrem, also follows Thomas’s version of the story. Click here for a comparison of part of this text with that of Tristrams saga and the other texts based on it.

The Carlisle Fragment consisted at one time of a single sheet with two columns of 40 lines each on each side of it; this sheet has been trimmed down one side (cutting off the beginnings of the lines on one side and the ends of them on the other) and cut in two to be used as a binding for a set of legal documents. The following translation is based on the edition of Michael Benskin, Tony Hunt, and Ian Short, “Un nouveau fragment du Tristan de Thomas,” Romania 113 (1992-95): 289-319. (1)

Note: This fragment is precious because it presents scenes just after Tristran and Ysolt have drunk the love potion, as they are trying to determine how to react to their new feelings for each other. The words “la mer” (the sea) “l’amer” (love) and “l’amer” (bitter thing, bitterness) form a pun which allows the lovers to hint to each other about how they feel. Ysolt begins by recalling how she almost killed Tristran when she realized that he had slain her uncle.

Words which have been supplied by the translator (sometimes based on the editors’ suggestions) are in square brackets [like this]. Where several words or an entire line are missing and can’t be guessed at, an ellipsis is used: ….

Carlisle Fragment

[She thought how to make] her secret known
[And wondered if] he would notice it this way
For he sat beside her to comfort her.
[She says she] has been troubled at sea
and hidden it from him.
“And it was a miracle
I didn’t kill you-
If I hadn’t been a coward
I would have avenged my uncle.
If I had only known then–
If you were dead
who would comfort me?”

[She reflects on this] sorrow:(2)
“If for love [of my uncle]
[Tristran] had lost his life
I would be healed
And I could live [as I should].(3)
If I had cried out
… in this mad desire.”
[A blush] colors her face,
[Then it loses all] color
[As happens to a woman] by love
Seized and imprisoned.
[On Tristran] she leaned
[No more intimately than] was proper–
[If this pleased her] it was no miracle.
“[God’s] grace come to me–
[Bitterness] so holds me–
[How can I] please my heart
[While embarked] on the sea?
[Had I known] what the sea/love (4) was like–
[That it would be] so bitter–
[Never would] I have placed myself
[on a ship….]” (5)
“As you believed, my friend; (6),
If you weren’t (here?), I wouldn’t ever have been,
And I wouldn’t have known anything about bitterness/love.
It’s odd that people don’t hate the sea
When they know that at sea there is such bitter ill,
And that its anguish is so bitter!
If I can ever get out of it,
I’ll never go back in, I think.” (7)

Tristran has noted every phrase,
But she has confused him here
By “l’amer” on which she has rung such changes
That he doesn’t know if this pain
She has is from the sea or from love,
Or if she is saying “bitter” about “the sea”
Or is saying “love” is “bitter.” (8)
In the doubt he feels
He asks [himself if love has taken her], (9)
[and if she is yielding to it or refraining]
“[Yet… the truth…]
For one can feel two ills from this-
One from loving, the other from putrid illness.” (10)
Ysolt says, “The ill that I feel
is bitter, but not putrid at all;
It torments my heart and holds it tight.
This bitterness comes from the sea–
It took hold since I embarked on it.”

Tristran replies, “I have a similar one;
My ill is derived from yours.
Torment makes my heart love
Yet it does not feel the illness as bitter;
Nor does it come from the sea–
From loving I have this pain,
And on the sea love seized me.
Now I’ve said enough for wisdom.” (11)

When Ysolt hears his feelings
She is happy indeed … (12)
For both of them are hopeful; (13)
They speak of their needs and desires,
They kiss, caress, and embrace each other.

They speak to Branguen of love;
They promise her and tell her so much,
That they are all bound by a pact,
And she consents to their desire.
Privately they take what they need
And what joy and pleasure they want,
As often as they can day and night.

Delightful is the sport
Of him who in pain has comfort;
It is the custom with love
To follow pain with joy.
Since have they revealed themselves to each other,
The abstainer would be the loser.

The lovers travel in joy, (14)
Sailing over the smooth high seas,
Towards England at full sail.
Those on the ship see land–
They are all happy and joyful
Except for Tristran the Lover, (15)
For if he could travel by his own desire,
He would not wish to see it for a long time;
He would rather love Ysolt at sea
And carry on with their caresses.

Nevertheless they go towards the land;
By the eyes of the people
Tristran’s ship is recognized.
Before it comes to shore. (16)
A young man is on his way
On a swift horse to the king;
He finds him in the woods and tells him
That he saw Tristran’s ship arrive.
When the king hears this, he is happy-
He makes the youth a knight
For telling him the news
Of Tristran and the maiden.
He goes to meet them at the shore,
Then sends for all his lords.

He leads Ysolt before [them]; (17)
He does what is proper to [honor her];
He has married her with great [display],
And they enjoy themselves all [day].
Ysolt was very [clever? Worried?] (18)
She goes to her bedroom
With Tristran.
They call [Branguen] into counsel;
[Ysolt] weeps tenderly, [asking her]
To [help] her tonight
With the king in [her] place
Because he knows her to be [a virgin].
(And she is not [a virgin] at all.)
They persuade her so
And plead and [swear],
That she [agrees to] their request.
Branguen [gets ready]
As if she were a queen.
[She goes to bed] for her lady,
And the queen [wears her clothes].
Mark is…. (19)

Tristran [puts out] the candles.
That man takes Branguen [in his arms]
And [takes] her virginity.
[Ysolt] is very worried-
She thinks she will [betray them]
to the king;
Because she is enjoying [herself]
She will not want to leave.
She [waits] close by;
When the king had [finished? fallen asleep? called for wine?]
Branguen [got out of the bed]
And the queen [got in].
After the wine, [Mark sleeps with Ysolt] (20)
So that he never [notices]
That she is different.
He finds her [the same woman? just as compliant?].
He shows her [affection]
[He takes] such great joy [in her].


1. I have also referred to Ian Short’s edition, notes, and French translation in Tristan et Yseut: Les premières versions européens, gen. Ed. Christine Marchello-Nizia, Pléiade (Gallimard, 1995), 124-127 and notes.

2. I have put this section into a soliloquy for Ysolt because of the third-person “lost his life,” when she has been using the second-person to address Tristran. If the reading “I would be healed” is correct, and Ysolt were speaking out loud, her sense would be very clear indeed to Tristan….

3. Two lines missing, followed by three lines which have only a word or two clear in each.

4. Here there is a clear double entendre as Ysolt uses the terms l’amer or amer (love), la mer (the sea), and l’amer or amer, (bitterness/gall or the adjective bitter). In translating, it seems to me that Ysolt’s comments are very ambiguous while Tristran uses the verb “love” more openly.

5. Completely conjectural as to what this line, and the following line which is lost, might have said. The next line, the first full line to be preserved, is damaged and hard to reconstruct; I have followed the editors’ reading but it seems to me that it has a sense along the lines of “I should blame you, my friend.”

6. I follow the reconstruction of the editors for this damaged line, and also Short’s translation into modern French.

7. The language of embarkation on the sea is one of entering into or leaving from it, as if it were as room.

8. Ian Short translates this differently: “If she is saying `love’ meaning `the sea’ or saying `bitter’ instead of `love.'”

9. Here the editors have supplied the bracketed material based on a few letters in the text. I am not confident of the reconstruction. Then there are two lines missing and a third, in which Tristran is speaking, which neither the editors nor I make much sense of.

10. Short translates the two options as “a flux of bile or nausea,” taking “amer” as “bile,” in a translation closer to Gottfried. (In Gottfried the play is different– Tristan asks Isold, without using the French words, if she speaks of bitterness from the sea or from a taste, but he avoids the word love.) Tristran uses the word “puir” (to stink), which I have translated “putrid illness,” and Ysolt uses it again in her reply. Here, where “amer” is in parallel with the verb “puer,” it seems to me to refer to the verb “to love.” Recall that the wound Tristran received when he slew the Morholt became putrid, the odor driving his friends away, and finally had to be cured by Ysolt herself and her mother. So the notion of a stinking, putrid wound is part of the poem’s theme.

11. “I’ve said as much as is wise,” or, “I’ve said enough to indicate the truth to a wise listener.”

12. Here there is a line with several missing words; I have not tried to translate it.

13. The editors have emended the difficult MS word “esseir” to “espeir” (which I translate) here.

14. At this point, the Saga begins to record the passage quite closely, while Gottfried moves to a somewhat different order and interpretation of events. He gives the lovers a different motivation for wishing to stay at sea: shame and fear of discovery.

15. In the Douce fragment of Thomas’s poem, Tristran is called “Tristran l’Amerus” (Tristran the Lover) to distinguish him from a character named Tristran the Dwarf. Interestingly, although the Saga does not use the word in the Tristram the Dwarf incident, it here gives him the epithet, ástarfullr, love-full, which is best translated “the Lover.” In the Folie Tristran of Oxford, which follows Thomas’s version of events, Ysolt also refers to him as “Tristran le Amerus” (712).

16. Gottfried omits this incident, and has Tristan summon Mark.

17. Here begins the section where the ends of the lines are missing; the editors have suggested the missing words based on rhyme, as well as on the corresponding texts in the Saga and Gottfried’s Tristan. In most cases I have followed these excellent suggestions, though in other cases I used my own instinct or translated the truncated line without additions.

18. In Gottfried, the planning session takes place while the three are still on shipboard.

19. A line is missing here.

20. The Saga here inserts the information that Bringvet brought Mark the love-potion to drink, though Isond did not partake of it “that time.” This motivates the affection he shows to Isond a few moments later. In Sir Tristrem, also, the “love drink of Ireland” is brought by Brengwain to Ysonde and Mark in bed, but Ysonde does not drink “for she had no need.” Gottfried says explicitly that Mark drank wine to celebrate Isold’s deflowering, but that this wine was not the potion, since the flask had been thrown overboard, though “many” folks mistakenly claim he did drink it. Given the evidence, it is odd that Carlisle does not seem to recount the bringing of the wine, but only the moment “après le vin….” The editors note that Carlisle exculpates Thomas from the literary crime of which Gottfried seems to accuse him, at any rate.