Origins, Definitions, and Categories of Romance

views updated

Origins, Definitions, and Categories of Romance

The New-Found Power of Women.

The invention of the romance genre occurred because of a confluence of historical events, cultural developments, and shifts of literary taste and audience. When Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade in 1095, the lords of hundreds of demesnes (manorial lands) throughout Europe answered the request of their religious lord and marched or sailed to the Middle East to spend years in military combat. These aristocrats and their followers were exposed to Eastern and Arabic cultural and literary influences, as well as opportunities for economic exploitation and importation of the luxury goods, spices, and exquisite fabrics from the region. Literary forms of the first half of the twelfth century, such as the chanson de geste, not only reflected the heroic warrior ethic of European Crusaders, but also provided textual vehicles for Crusading propaganda. While these male members of the aristocracy were absent from their courts and manors, life and business went on at home in Europe, chiefly through the management of these estates by their wives and mothers. This trend is reflected in the transitional work, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Willehalm, in which the hero Willehalm leaves his citadel in Orange in the capable hands of his wife Gyburc, who not only runs the estate, but also literally defends its ramparts against invading armies of Moors. Two royal women in such circumstances—Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204) and eventually her daughter, Marie—had a particular influence on the development of romance. Duchess of the largest duchy in France, extending from the Poitou to the Pyrenees Mountains near the border of Spain, Eleanor was first married to the king of France, Louis VII, whom she accompanied to the Second Crusade, where according to one chronicler, she paraded herself to the troops dressed as an Amazon queen. When, after fifteen years of marriage, she failed to produce male heirs, Louis divorced her in 1152, and shortly thereafter Eleanor made an even more lucrative marriage to Henry II, Plantagenet king of England.

Female Literary Influence.

Eleanor brought to the English court her interests in poetry, music, and the arts, all of which were cultivated at the court of Aquitaine where she was raised by her grandfather William IX of Aquitaine (1071–1127), a Crusader and also the first known troubadour poet. In the vernacular narratives now seen as early "romances" that may have been written for and/or dedicated to Eleanor, an emphasis on the sort of love relationship that is depicted in troubadour poetry, commonly known as "courtly love" (fin'amors in Provençal, the language of troubadour poetry), can be found. In such relationships the female beloved is elevated to have extreme emotional power over her male lover, a supremacy that was probably a literary wish fulfillment fantasy of the female audiences of romances. Marie, Eleanor's daughter by Louis, also made an advantageous marriage by which she became duchess of Champagne, presiding over not only a political court, but also a "court of love," at which troubadour poets and writers of the newly emerging genre of romance, such as Chrétien de Troyes, were supported with her patronage and, at times, that of her mother. Another important writer at Marie's court was Andreas Capellanus, whose Art of Courtly Love, a treatise on conducting relationships involving fin'amors, reflects the new examination of interior feelings and motives that characterize the heroes and heroines of the emerging romance genre. Thus, the new audience of powerful women who presided over the courts of France, England, and Germany influenced the subject matter of many of the narratives that were written in Europe in the second half of the twelfth century. It is no accident that the earliest romances, which were about the "Matter of Antiquity"—the history of Thebes, the Trojan War, and the settlement of Rome by Aeneas—featured female characters who were militarily powerful, such as Camille in the Roman d'Eneas, based on the Amazon warrior queen Camilla in Vergil's Aeneid, or the Amazon Penthesileia in the Roman de Troie, a romanticized version of the story of the Trojan War.

New "Matter" for Romance.

Another factor that gave rise to the development of this new genre was the twelfth-century emergence and dissemination of Celtic legends, circulated by traveling conteurs (storytellers) and jongleurs (court entertainers) from Brittany. These oral tales of Breton folklore contributed such characteristic Celtic themes and motifs as magic, the supernatural, human to animal transformations, and a faery "otherworld" not only generally to the romance genre, but also particularly to its most famous product, Arthurian romance, which got its start in the mid-twelfth century when Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100–55) wrote about a semi-mythical king, Arthur, in his History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey established Arthur's conception and birth at Tintagel in Cornwall, his marriage to Guinevere, and his reliance on his sorcerer-like advisor Merlin. Geoffrey's chronicling of British royal history, which began with a "Matter of Antiquity," the foundation of Britain by Brutus (great-grandson of Aeneas), soon became disseminated in France when a Norman chronicler named Wace translated these British materials for a French audience in his verse narrative, Brut (1155), incorporating his own inventive embellishments to Geoffrey's themes such as the "Round Table" and the sword "Excalibur." At the end of the twelfth century still another English writer, Layamon (or Lawman), retranslated Wace's French narrative into alliterative poetry in the Middle English Brut. This trans-Channel transfer of stories about Arthur rendered him and his Roundtable knights one of the most enduring subjects of medieval romance. When combined with the effects of the first Crusades and the beginnings of troubadour lyric poetry, the dissemination of Celtic and Arthurian motifs resulted in the development of romance, a genre that was to remain popular in nearly all areas of Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

Conventions of Medieval Romance.

Medieval romances, which liberally took their plots from the various "matters" of France, Britain, and Rome (or Antiquity), comprised a very elastic form subject to much variation. In certain ways, romances duplicate some of the characteristics of heroic narratives. In fact, both genres are populated by knights who engage in elaborately described martial combat. Nevertheless, certain narrative conventions characteristic of romance help distinguish it from other heroic poetry. A romance is usually a long, loosely organized, episodic narrative, composed in verse or prose, whose plot involves a search or quest and the testing of the prowess or morality of its knightly hero, for whom events are often governed by chance, accident, fate, or supernatural intervention. The romance's handling of narrative time varies: in some cases, plot events are slowly protracted, almost suspended in time; in other cases, there are rapid jumps in narrative time. Observing artificial deadlines is part of the hero's test, as in Chrétien de Troyes's Yvain, when the protagonist fails to return to his wife Laudine within a promised year and, to make amends for this betrayal, must spend the second half of the romance in the service of distressed women.

Male and Female Protagonists.

The goal of the male protagonist—usually the bravest, most handsome specimen of courtly society—is to achieve self-realization through physical adventures, following a plot pattern of separation from the group (often the other Roundtable knights), disruption, testing, and ultimately a return to harmony, often, but not necessarily, gained through a romantic love interest. The focus of romance is the psychologically flawed and un-self-aware individual hero on a quest or journey away from the known to test his moral strength. It is usually not King Arthur himself, but rather one of his individual Roundtable knights who is the hero of Arthurian romances. The female characters of romance, almost always extraordinarily beautiful, are sometimes peripheral objects of exchange between men, sometimes the goal of the quest, sometimes catalysts to disaster as temptresses, and sometimes the ultimate rewards for the ennobling behavior they elicit from the knightly protagonist. Antagonists are either monsters—giants, mythical beasts, grotesque hybrids like the Green Knight of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—or pathological versions of the self, as in Malory's fratricidal brothers, Balin and Balan. Romances are set in the exotic other world of faery, an "unofficial" or liminal fantasy world that is juxtaposed with the "official" court, from whose safety knights journey through the dark forest of aventure (what happens to you) on a quest to discover the self.


introduction: This passage from Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain, in which a knight consults with a churl on the question of where to go to find an opportunity to acquire reputation, illustrates the randomness of the concept of "adventure," the goal of knights on quests to find the self in medieval romance. It is comic that Calogrenant, something of a braggart, must consult with a bull-keeper who fits the medieval description of "ideal ugliness" (as the lady in Lanval represents ideal beauty) to fulfill his role as a knight. Calogrenant's assumption that this bull-keeper, probably a rustic who tends cattle for the local lord, is monstrous reveals the contempt the aristocracy had for the lowest class in the social hierarchy, the serfs. The rustic has no time for seeking "adventure," but he does send Calogrenant into a situation that challenges him suitably and disgraces him.

[Calogrenant narrates:] I had not put my lodging-place far behind me when, in a clearing, I came upon some wild, unruly bulls, all fighting together with such a din and displaying such haughty ferocity that, to tell you the truth, I drew back in fear … Sitting on a tree-stump, with a great club in his hand I saw a churl, who looked like a Moor and was immensely huge and hideous: the great ugliness of the creature was quite indescribable. On approaching this fellow, I saw he had a head larger than that of a pack-horse or any other beast. His hair was tufted and his forehead, which was more than two spans wide, was bald. He had great mossy ears like an elephant's, heavy eyebrows and a flat face; with owl's eyes and a nose like a cat's, a mouth split like a wolf's, the sharp yellow teeth of a wild boar; a black beard and tangled moustache, a chin that ran into his chest, and a long spine that was twisted and hunched. He leant on his club wearing a most odd garment containing no linen or wool: instead he had, fastened on his neck, the recently flayed hides of two bulls or oxen. The instant he saw me approach him, the churl leapt to his feet. Whether he wanted to touch me I don't know, nor what his intention was, but I prepared to defend myself until I saw him standing up quite still and quiet, having climbed onto a tree-trunk. He was a full seventeen feet tall. He looked at me without uttering a word, any more than a beast would have done. Then I assumed he was witless and unable to talk.

At all events, I plucked up my courage to say to him: "Pray tell me if you are a good creature or not!" And he replied: "I'm a man!"—"What sort of a man are you?"—"Such as you see: I'm never any different."—"What are you doing here?"—"I stay here, looking after these animals in this wood."—"Looking after them?.… I don't believe a wild beast can possibly be looked after in any plain or woodland or anywhere else unless it is tethered or penned in."—"I look after these and control them so well that they'll never leave this spot." [The Churl explains how he controls the bulls by brute force.] "That's how I am master of my beasts. Now it's your turn to tell me what kind of a man you are, and what you're looking for."—"I am, as you see, a knight looking for something I'm unable to find: I've sought long and can find nothing."—"And what do you want to find?"—"Some adventure, to put my prowess and courage to the proof. Now I beg and enquire and ask of you to give me advice, regarding some adventure or marvel, if you know of any."—"You'll not get any of that," says he. "I don't know anything about 'adventure' and never heard tell of it." [The Churl then directs Calogrenant to the spring of Broceliande, where he meets the defender of the spring, Sir Esclados, who defeats him and unhorses him.]

source: Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain (The Knight With the Lion), in Arthurian Romances. Ed. and trans. D. D. R. Owen (London: Everyman, 1987): 284–285.

Categories of Medieval Romance.

Although to modern audiences medieval romances can seem utterly fantastic, completely unconnected to the concerns of reality, for their original audiences these narratives served not only to entertain but also to instruct. The predicaments in which the heroes of romances found themselves and the manner in which they met these challenges served as models of behavior for aristocratic auditors or readers. For example, in the roman d'aventure (romance of adventure) a knight achieves great feats of arms almost solely to enhance his reputation through a series of what appear to be random adventures. The similar "courtly" or "chivalric" romance serves as a vehicle for presenting and examining the chivalric ethic, where each in the progression of adventures demonstrates different things about the hero or represents different stages in his journey towards internal harmony. In the knight's quest or search, the locales he traverses are meaningfully related to the knight's individual moral progress or expose some aspect of the aristocratic life to critical scrutiny. In this way, courtly romance is educative, proposing for the knight-protagonist (and for the romance's original medieval audience) models of courtly behavior or courtoisie (courtesy) in various areas such as combat, social relations, or the service of women and the oppressed. In long romances, the series of adventures becomes something like a fated and graduated test encouraging the knight to strive for personal perfection. Other secular romances follow the general pattern of adventure and quest, but combine these elements with another genre: the allegorical dream vision. For example, the narrator of the Romance of the Rose, a work that examines the spectrum of erotic love and satirizes aspects of courtly life, dreams that he undergoes a quest for a special rose (symbolizing the psyche of a young woman), resulting in a poem that, while called "romance," is really more closely related to moral or didactic literature.

Religion and Romance.

Medieval romance was not only about the secular subjects of knightly combat, social niceties, and erotic attraction. A large component of many romances reflected the influence of Christianity and its teachings. In "religious romances" the allegorical and symbolic potential of the genre is exploited to direct the action from secular to religious goals. The knight's progress is turned to a narrower examination of the state of his soul; through the process of the quest, the hero arrives at spiritual revelation and, in the end, he rejects the physical world altogether. The romances about Galahad's achievement of the Grail Quest—where Lancelot's son Galahad concludes that he cannot achieve spiritual perfection and remain in the earthly world—and Gawain's humble acknowledgment of his flawed troth in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustrate this romance sub-type. Moreover, in "homiletic" or "didactic romances," the usual elements of romance are superimposed on a story told primarily for its moral significance according to the pattern of a saint's life as established in a narrative genre called "hagiography." In these "hagiographic romances," the central character suffers extreme hardships either as punishment for transgression or as a test of faith in a trial by ordeal rather than by adventure. The romance concludes not with the achievement of self-knowledge, but with the granting of grace or reprieve, as is illustrated by Chaucer's Clerk's Tale of Griselda and his Man of Law's Tale of Custance, where after seemingly losing children and family, the heroines have their losses restored to them at the end of the tale.


J. F. Benton, "The Court of Champagne as a Literary Center," Speculum 36 (1961): 551–591.

John Finlayson, "Definitions of Medieval Romance," Chaucer Review 15 (1980): 44–62; 168–181.

June Hall McCash, "Marie de Champagne and Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Relationship Re-Examined," Speculum 54 (1979): 698–711.

John Stevens, Medieval Romance: Themes and Approaches (New York: Norton, 1973).