The Monnaie de Paris has launched two new coins in the ongoing series “Heroes of French Literature.” The latest author to be featured, Béroul, was a 12th century Norman poet.
The coins feature Tristan and Isolde (Yseult in French), which tells the story of two star-crossed lovers whose ill-fated relationship is doomed to tragic consequences. The story can be attributed to Thomas of England, also a poet of the 12th century, who may have had close ties to the Court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Scholars have theorized over the years that neither Beroul or Thomas devised the story of Tristan and Isolde, but elaborated upon a primitive legend. It is surmised that Thomas’s version was reconstructed from Gottfried von Strassburg’s German rendering. By the mid-12th century, the popular legend apparently evolved from a fusion of Scottish, Irish, Cornish, and Breton elements, which began in Scotland and moved south.
Tristan and Isolde are the main characters of the eponymous story. Tristan is a Cornish hero, son of Blancheflor, Princess of Cornwall, and Rivalen, King of Lyonesse; he is also the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall. Isolde is an Irish princess, daughter of King Anguish of Ireland, and Queen Isolde the Elder.
Orphaned at a young age, Tristan is first raised by Rohalt Marshall, then by Grovenal the equerry. He is taught the arts and skills appropriate for the rank of a Baron, including sword-handling. As a young knight, he is captured by rogue Merchants from Norway, and when freed he eventually reaches the kingdom of his uncle, the King of Cornwall.
Welcoming his young nephew, King Mark restores to Tristan both his late father’s weapons and his lands. Tristan in turn gives these lands to Rohalt Marshall in gratitude for having raised him. Tristan then commits himself to the service of King Mark and takes part in the conflict between his uncle and the King of Ireland. During a fierce battle, he kills the giant knight Morholt, a grotesque sent by the King of Ireland to Cornwall. As a consequence of his victory, he wins the hand of the King’s daughter, Princess Isolde, who is now betrothed to his uncle, King Mark. As Tristan ventures to Ireland to fetch his uncle’s intended and bring her to Cornwall, Isolde’s maid serves the two of them a love potion intended for Isolde and the King of Cornwall. As a result, Tristan and Isolde fall madly in love.
Bound by duty, Isolde marries King Mark and, even though the potion has worn off, Tristan and Isolde are unable to control their passion for one another. They continue to meet and, as their love grows stronger, they are discovered and condemned to death. King Mark decrees that Tristan should be put to death by hanging. Isolde is to be burnt at the stake, but the King commutes her to life in a leper colony.
On his way to the gallows, Tristan escapes and makes a miraculous leap from a chapel wall to rescue Isolde. The lovers escape into the forest and take shelter there until they are discovered by King Mark. To save their lives, they make peace with the King after Tristan agrees to return to leave the country.
Tristan then travels to Brittany where he marries a princess also named Isolde, for her name as well as her beauty. Gravely injured during a battle in Brittany, Tristan asks for the Queen of Cornwall to come to his bedside, believing that only she could save him. He asks her to fly a white sail on her ship to indicate she is nearing; when Tristan’s wife learns of her husband’s request, she in her jealousy leads him to believe that Queen Isolde is not on board the Royal ship, since a black sail is flying. Filled with despair and a broken heart, he lets himself die moments before Queen Isolde arrives. The Queen, filled with sorrow that she didn’t see her beloved in time, dies of a broken heart beside him. Learning of his wife’s fate, King Mark travels to Brittany. Realizing he did not have his Queen’s true affection, has the two lovers buried together in a chapel.
The obverse side of the coins depict the legend’s characters, Tristan and Isolde. On the left side is the sword that Tristan used to defeat the knight Morholt. The lower half of the coin includes the flask containing the love potion consumed by Tristan and Isolde during the voyage that sealed their destiny.
The reverse includes a supposed portrait of Béroul, the Norman poet from the 12th century who composed the Legend of Tristan and Isolde. Beside him is the the quote, BELLE AMIE, SI EST DE NOUS NI VOUS NI MOI, NI MOI NI VOUS, declared by Tristan to Isolde, which means he could not live without her nor she without him.
The coins are available as separate purchases. The five-year series, which began in 2011, will see two more coins released this year: one in October featuring French playwright and poet Pierre Corneille (1606-1684), the other in December in honor of author Antoine François Prévost (1697 – 1763). For more information on these and other coins offered by the Monnaie de Paris, please visit their Web site. Information is offered in English and French, with international orders dispatched where applicable under the guidelines published by the Monnaie de Paris.