The apparent ambiguity at the heart of Marie de France’s lai “Chèvrefeuille” has beguiled generations of readers. This short twelfth-century Old French verse text purports to tell a simple story of how the exiled Tristan manages to signal to Yseut as she passes through a forest with her entourage, and its only interpretive difficulty seems to be the way Tristan communicates his message by carving some words or letters onto a stick. This article argues that, by debating what exactly Tristan writes, the scholarship on “Chèvrefeuille” leaves aside the intertext of the Tristan tradition, and by extension, the literary and affective investments of the lai. This narrow critical question leads to a broader problem of how literature can or should be read. Reading “Chèvrefeuille” as imbricated in the twelfth-century Tristan tradition underscores the pleasure of recognition that both modern reader and medieval receiver might experience and invites a re-examination of the role of the imagination in the study of medieval literature.

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