Thirteenth Century Literary Forms Essays About Love

As a literary genre of high culture, romance or chivalric romance is a type of prose and versenarrative that was popular in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe. They were fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures, often of a knight-errant portrayed as having heroic qualities, who goes on a quest, yet it is "the emphasis on love and courtly manners distinguishes it from the chanson de geste and other kinds of epic, in which masculine military heroism predominates."[1] Popular literature also drew on themes of romance, but with ironic, satiric or burlesque intent. Romances reworked legends, fairy tales, and history to suit the readers' and hearers' tastes, but by c. 1600 they were out of fashion, and Miguel de Cervantes famously burlesqued them in his novel Don Quixote. Still, the modern image of "medieval" is more influenced by the romance than by any other medieval genre, and the word medieval evokes knights, distressed damsels, dragons, and other romantic tropes.[2]

Originally, romance literature was written in Old French, Anglo-Norman, Occitan, and Provençal, and later in Portuguese, in Castilian, in English, in Italian (particularly with the Sicilian poetry) and German. During the early 13th century, romances were increasingly written as prose. In later romances, particularly those of French origin, there is a marked tendency to emphasize themes of courtly love, such as faithfulness in adversity.


Unlike the later form of the novel and like the chansons de geste, the genre of romance dealt with traditional themes. These were distinguished from earlier epics by heavy use of marvelous events, the elements of love, and the frequent use of a web of interwoven stories, rather than a simple plot unfolding about a main character.[3] The earliest forms were invariably in verse, but the 15th century saw many in prose, often retelling the old, rhymed versions.[4]


Overwhelmingly, these were linked in some way, perhaps only in an opening frame story, with three thematic cycles of tales: these were assembled in imagination at a late date as the "Matter of Rome" (actually centered on the life and deeds of Alexander the Great conflated with the Trojan War), the "Matter of France" (Charlemagne and Roland, his principal paladin) and the "Matter of Britain" (the lives and deeds of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, within which was incorporated the quest for the Holy Grail); medieval authors explicitly described these as comprising all romances.[5]

In reality, a number of "non-cyclical" romances were written without any such connection;[5] these include such romances as King Horn,Robert the Devil,Ipomadon,[8]Emaré,Havelok the Dane,Roswall and Lillian,Le Bone Florence of Rome,[12] and Amadas.

Indeed, some tales are found so often that scholars group them together as the "Constance cycle" or the "Crescentia cycle"—referring not to a continuity of character and setting, but to the recognizable plot.[5]


Many influences are clear in the forms of chivalric romance.

Medieval epic[edit]

The medieval romance developed out of the medieval epic, in particular the Matter of France developing out of such tales as the Chanson de Geste, with intermediate forms where the feudal bonds of loyalty had giants, or a magical horn, added to the plot.[14] The epics of Charlemagne, unlike such ones as Beowulf, already had feudalism rather than the tribal loyalties; this was to continue in romances.

Contemporary society[edit]

The romance form is distinguished from the earlier epics of the Middle Ages by the changes of the 12th century, which introduced courtly and chivalrous themes into the works. This occurred regardless of congruity to the source material; Alexander the Great featured as a fully feudal king. Chivalry was treated as continuous from Roman times. This extended even to such details as clothing; when in the Seven Sages of Rome, the son of an (unnamed) emperor of Rome wears the clothing of a sober Italian citizen, and when his stepmother attempts to seduce him, her clothing is described in medieval terminology.[19] When Priam sends Paris to Greece in a 14th-century work, Priam is dressed in the mold of Charlemagne, and Paris is dressed demurely, but in Greece, he adopts the flashier style, with multicolored clothing and fashionable shoes, cut in lattice-work—signs of a seducer in the era.

Historical figures reappeared, reworked, in romance. The entire Matter of France derived from known figures, and suffered somewhat because their descendants had an interest in the tales that were told of their ancestors, unlike the Matter of Britain. Richard Coeur de Lion reappeared in romance, endowed with a fairy mother who arrived in a ship with silk sails and departed when forced to behold the sacrament, bare-handed combat with a lion, magical rings, and prophetic dreams.Hereward the Wake's early life appeared in chronicles as the embellished, romantic adventures of an exile, complete with rescuing princess and wrestling with bears.[22]Fulk Fitzwarin, an outlaw in King John's day, has his historical background a minor thread in the episodic stream of romantic adventures.

Folklore and folktales[edit]

The earliest medieval romances dealt heavily with themes from folklore, which diminished over time, though remaining a presence. Many early tales had the knight, such as Sir Launfal, meet with fairy ladies, and Huon of Bordeaux is aided by King Oberon, but these fairy characters were transformed, more and more often, into wizards and enchantresses.[25]Morgan le Fay never loses her name, but in Le Morte d'Arthur, she studies magic rather than being inherently magical. Similarly, knights lose magical abilities.[25] Still, fairies never completely vanished from the tradition. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late tale, but the Green Knight himself is an otherworldly being.[25]

Early persecuted heroines were often driven from their husbands' homes by the persecutions of their mothers-in-law, whose motives are seldom delineated, and whose accusations are of the heroines' having borne monstrous children, committed infanticide, or practiced witchcraft — all of which appear in such fairy tales as The Girl Without Hands and many others. As time progressed, a new persecutor appeared: a courtier who was rejected by the woman or whose ambition requires her removal, and who accuses her of adultery or high treason, motifs not duplicated in fairy tales.[27] While he never eliminates the mother-in-law, many romances such as Valentine and Orson have later variants that change from the mother-in-law to the courtier, whereas a more recent version never goes back.[27]

In Italy there is the story called Il Bel Gherardino. It is the most ancient prototype of an Italian singing fairy tale by an anonymous Tuscan author. It tells the story of a young Italian knight, depleted for its "magnanimitas", who gets the love of a fairy. When he loses this love because he does not comply with his conditions, Gherardino reconquers his lady after a series of labours, including the prison where he is rescued by another woman and a tournament where he wins. Other examples of Italian (Tuscan) poetry tales are Antonio Pucci's literature: Gismirante, Il Brutto di Bretagna or Brito di Bretagna ("The ugly knight of Britain") and Madonna Lionessa ("Lioness Lady"). Another work of a second anonymous Italian author that is worth mentioning is Istoria di Tre Giovani Disperati e di Tre Fate ("Story of three desperate boys and three fairies").

Classical origins[edit]

Some romances, such as Apollonius of Tyre, show classical pagan origins. Tales of the Matter of Rome in particular may be derived from such works as the Alexander Romance. Ovid was used as a source for tales of Jason and Medea, which were cast in romance in a more fairy-tale like form, probably closer to the older forms than Ovid's rhetoric. It also drew upon the traditions of magic that were attributed to such figures as Virgil.[30]

Religious practices[edit]

The Arthurian cycle also contains many magical elements, some of which appear to be Celtic in origin, but which are chiefly drawn from Christian ritual and story.

Courtly love[edit]

The new courtly love was introduced to the romance by Chretien de Troyes, combining it with the Matter of Britain, new to French poets.[32] In Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (unlike his earlier Erec and Enide), the behavior of Lancelot conforms to the courtly love ideal; it also, though still full of adventure, devotes an unprecedented amount of time to dealing with the psychological aspects of the love. By the end of the 14th century, counter to the earliest formulations, many French and English romances combined courtly love, with love sickness and devotion on the man's part, with the couple's subsequent marriage; this featured in Sir Degrevant, Sir Torrent of Portyngale, Sir Eglamour, and William of Palerne.[35]Ipomadon even explicitly describes the married couple as lovers, and the plot of Sir Otuel was altered, to allow him to marry Belyssant. Similarly, Iberian romances of the 14th century praised monogamy and marriage in such tales as Tirant lo Blanc and Amadis of Gaul.[37]

Early forms[edit]

Many medieval romances recount the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroicknight, often of super-human ability, who, abiding chivalry's strict codes of honor and demeanor, goes on a quest, and fights and defeats monsters and giants, thereby winning favor with a lady.[38] The Matter of France, most popular early, did not lend itself to the subject of courtly love, but rather dealt with heroic adventure: in The Song of Roland, Roland, though betrothed to Oliver's sister, does not think of her during the course of events. The themes of love were, however, to soon appear, particularly in the Matter of Britain, leading to even the French regarding King Arthur's court as the exemplar of true and noble love, so much so that even the earliest writers about courtly love would claim it had reached its true excellence there, and love was not what it was in King Arthur's day. A perennial theme was the rescue of a lady from the imperiling monster, a theme that would remain throughout the romances of the medieval era.

Originally, this literature was written in Old French, Anglo-Norman and Occitan, later, in Spanish, English and German— amongst the important Spanish texts were Cantar de Mio Cid and Book of the Knight Zifar; notable later English works being King Horn (a translation of the Anglo-Norman (AN) Romance of Horn of Mestre Thomas), and Havelok the Dane (a translation of the anonymous AN Lai d'Haveloc); around the same time Gottfried von Strassburg's version of the Tristan of Thomas of Britain (a different Thomas to the author of 'Horn') and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival translated classic French romance narrative into the German tongue.

Forms of the High Middle Ages[edit]

During the early 13th century, romances were increasingly written as prose, and extensively amplified through cycles of continuation. These were collated in the vast, polymorphous manuscript witnesses comprising what is now known as the Vulgate Cycle, with the romance of La Mort le Roi Artu c. 1230, perhaps its final installment. These texts, together with a wide range of further Arthurian material, such as that found in the anonymous cycle of English Brut Chronicles, comprised the bases of Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Prose literature thus increasingly dominated the expression of romance narrative in the later Middle Ages, at least until the resurgence of verse during the high Renaissance in the oeuvres of Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, and Edmund Spenser.

In Old Norse, they are the prose riddarasögur or chivalric sagas. The genre began in thirteenth-century Norway with translations of French chansons de geste; it soon expanded to similar indigenous creations. The early fourteenth century saw the emergence of Scandinavian verse romance in Sweden under the patronage of Queen Euphemia of Rügen, who commissioned the Eufemiavisorna.

Late Medieval and Renaissance forms[edit]

In late medieval and Renaissance high culture, the important European literary trend was to fantastic fictions in the mode of Romance. Exemplary work, such as the English Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1408–1471), the Catalan Tirant lo Blanch, and the Castilian or Portuguese Amadis de Gaula (1508), spawned many imitators, and the genre was popularly well-received, producing such masterpiece of Renaissance poetry as Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso and Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata and other 16th-century literary works in the romance genre. The romances were freely drawn upon for royal pageantry.[42] Queen Elizabeth I's Accession Day tilts, for instance, drew freely on the multiplicity of incident from romances for the knights' disguises.[43] Knights even assumed the names of romantic figures, such as the Swan Knight, or the coat-of-arms of such figures as Lancelot or Tristan.

From the high Middle Ages, in works of piety, clerical critics often deemed romances to be harmful worldly distractions from more substantive or moral works, and by 1600 many secular readers would agree; in the judgement of many learned readers in the shifting intellectual atmosphere of the 17th century, the romance was trite and childish literature, inspiring only broken-down ageing and provincial persons such as Don Quixote, knight of the culturally isolated province of La Mancha. Hudibras also lampoons the faded conventions of chivalrous romance, from an ironic, consciously realistic viewpoint. Some of the magical and exotic atmosphere of Romance informed tragedies for the stage, such as John Dryden's collaborative The Indian Queen (1664) as well as Restoration spectaculars and opera seria, such as Handel's Rinaldo (1711), based on a magical interlude in Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata.

In the Renaissance, also, the romance genre was bitterly attacked as barbarous and silly by the humanists, who exalted Greek and Latin classics and classical forms, an attack that was not in that century very effective among the common readers.[45] In England, romances continued; heavily rhetorical, they often had complex plots and high sentiment, such as in Robert Greene's Pandosto (the source for William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale) and Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde (based on the medieval romance Gamelyn and the source for As You Like It), Robert Duke of Normandy (based on Robert the Devil) and A Margarite of America.

Don Quixote (1605, 1615), by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), is a satirical story of an elderly country gentleman, living in La Mancha province, who is so obsessed by chivalric romances that he seeks to emulate their various heroes.

Related forms[edit]

The Acritic songs (dealing with Digenis Acritas and his fellow frontiersmen) resemble much the chanson de geste, though they developed simultaneously but separately. These songs dealt with the hardships and adventures of the border guards of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) - including their love affairs - and where a predominantly oral tradition which survived in the Balkans and Anatolia until modern times. This genre may have intermingled with its Western counterparts during the long occupation of Byzantine territories by French and Italian knights after the 4th crusade. This is suggested by later works in the Greek language which show influences from both traditions.

Relationship to modern "romantic fiction"[edit]

In later Romances, particularly those of French origin, there is a marked tendency to emphasize themes of courtly love, such as faithfulness in adversity. From c. 1760 - usually cited as 1764 at the publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto - the connotations of "romance" moved from fantastic and eerie, somewhat Gothic adventure narratives of novelists like Ann Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790) or The Romance of the Forest (1791) with erotic content to novels centered on the episodic development of a courtship that ends in marriage. With a female protagonist, during the rise of Romanticism the depiction of the course of such a courtship within contemporary conventions of realism, the female equivalent of the "novel of education", informs much Romantic fiction. In gothic novels such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, the elements of romantic seduction and desire were mingled with fear and dread. Nathaniel Hawthorne used the term to distinguish his works as romances rather than novels,[49] and literary criticism of the 19th century often accepted the contrast between the romance and the novel, in such works as H. G. Wells's "scientific romances" in the beginning of science fiction.[50]

In 1825, the fantasy genre developed when the Swedish literary work Frithjof's saga, which was based on the Friðþjófs saga ins frœkna, became successful in England and Germany. It was translated twenty-two times into English, 20 times into German, and into many other European languages, including modern Icelandic in 1866. Their influence on authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien, William Morris and Poul Anderson and on the subsequent modern fantasy genre is considerable.

Modern usage of term "romance" usually refer to the romance novel, which is a subgenre that focuses on the relationship and romantic love between two people; these novels must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending."[51]

Despite the popularity of this popular meaning of Romance, other works are still, occasionally, referred to as romances because of their uses of other elements descended from the medieval romance, or from the Romantic movement: larger-than-life heroes and heroines, drama and adventure, marvels that may become fantastic, themes of honor and loyalty, or fairy-tale-like stories and story settings. Shakespeare's later comedies, such as The Tempest or The Winter's Tale are sometimes called his romances. Modern works may differentiate from love-story as romance into different genres, such as planetary romance or Ruritanian romance. Science fiction was, for a time, termed scientific romance, and gaslamp fantasy is sometimes termed gaslight romance. Flannery O'Conner, writing of the use of grotesque in fiction, talked of its use in "the modern romance tradition."


Medieval examples:


  1. ^Chris Baldick (2008). "Chivalric Romance". The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-172717-7. OCLC 4811919031. 
  2. ^Lewis, C. S. (1994). The Discarded Image (Canto ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-521-47735-2. 
  3. ^Lewis, C. S. (1961). A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford University Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-19-500345-1. 
  4. ^Huizinga, Johan (1996). The Autumn of the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 354. ISBN 978-0-226-35992-2. 
  5. ^ abcHibbard, Laura A.; Loomis, Laura A. (1963). Medieval Romance in England: A Study of the Sources and Analogues of the Non-Cyclic Metrical Romances. New York: Burt Franklin. p. iii. ISBN 978-0-8337-2144-0. 
  6. ^Purdie, Rhiannon. 2001. Ipomadon. Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society.
  7. ^Heffernan, Carol Falvo (1976). Le Bone Florence of Rome. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-0647-0. OCLC 422642874. 
  8. ^Ker, William Paton (1908). Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature. London: Macmillan. p. 53. 
  9. ^Scott, Margaret (2007). Medieval Dress & Fashion. London: The British Library. pp. 137–140. ISBN 978-0-7123-0675-1. 
  10. ^Keen, Maurice Hugh (1989). The Outlaws of Medieval Legend. New York: Dorest Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-88029-454-6. 
  11. ^ abcBriggs, Katharine M. (1977). "Fairies in medieval romances". An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hoglobins, Brownies, Bogies and Othersupernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon. p. 132. ISBN 978-0-394-73467-5. 
  12. ^ abSchlauch, Margaret (1969). Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens. New York: Gordian Press. pp. 62–63. OCLC 892031418. 
  13. ^Jolly, Karen Louise; Raudvere, Catharina; Peters, Edward; Ankarloo, Bengt; Clark, Stuart (2002). "Medieval Magic: Definitions, Beliefs, Practices". The Middle Ages. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. 3. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-8122-1786-5. 
  14. ^Lewis, C. S. (1995). The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford Paperbacks. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-19-281220-9. 
  15. ^Mathew, Gervase (1981). "Marriage and Amour Courtois in Late Fourteenth Century England". In Sayers, Dorothy. Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans. p. 132–133. ISBN 978-0-8028-1117-2. 
  16. ^Seed, Patricia (2004). To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflicts Over Marriage Choice, 1574-1821. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-8047-2159-2. 
  17. ^Frye, Northrop (1973). Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (3rd print ed.). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 186. ISBN 978-0-691-06004-0. 
  18. ^Strong, Roy C. (1973). Splendor at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and the Theater of Power. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-395-17220-9. 
  19. ^Strong, Roy C. (1977). The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry. University of California Press. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-520-05840-8. 
  20. ^Lewis, C. S. (1954). English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 29. OCLC 634408223. 
  21. ^O'Connor, Flannery (1984). Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (12th print ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus [and] Giroux. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-374-50804-3. 
  22. ^Atwood, Margaret (2005). Writing With Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose, 1983-2005. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. p. 391. ISBN 978-0-7867-1535-0. 
  23. ^"Romance Novels--What Are They?". Romance Writers of America. Archived from the original on 2006-10-03. Retrieved 2007-04-16. 

External links[edit]

Holger Danske, or Ogier the Dane, from the Matter of France
A knight rescues a lady from a dragon.

Medieval prose romances

Arthurian themes

The Arthurian prose romances arose out of the attempt, made first by Robert de Boron in the verse romances Joseph d’Arimathie, ou le Roman de l’estoire dou Graal and Merlin (c. 1190–1200), to combine the fictional history of the Holy Grail with the chronicle of the reign of King Arthur. Robert gave his story an allegorical meaning, related to the person and work of Christ. A severe condemnation of secularchivalry and courtly love characterize the Grail branch of the prose Lancelot-Grail, or Vulgate, cycle as well as some parts of the post-Vulgate “romance of the Grail” (after 1225); in the one case, Lancelot (here representing fallen human nature) and, in the other, Balain (who strikes the Dolorous Stroke) are contrasted with Galahad, a type of the Redeemer. The conflict between earthly chivalry and the demands of religion is absent from the Perlesvaus (after 1230?), in which the hero Perlesvaus (that is, Perceval) has Christological overtones and in which the task of knighthood is to uphold and advance Christianity. A 13th-century prose Tristan (Tristan de Léonois), fundamentally an adaptation of the Tristan story to an Arthurian setting, complicates the love theme of the original with the theme of a love rivalry between Tristan and the converted Saracen Palamède and represents the action as a conflict between the treacherous villain King Mark and the “good” knight Tristan.

In the 14th century, when chivalry enjoyed a new vogue as a social ideal and the great orders of secular chivalry were founded, the romance writers, to judge from what is known of the voluminous Perceforest (written c. 1330 and still unpublished in its entirety), evolved an acceptable compromise between the knight’s duty to his king, to his lady, and to God. Chivalry as an exalted ideal of conduct finds its highest expression in the anonymous Middle English Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight (c. 1370), whose fantastic beheading scene (presumably taken from a lost French prose romance source) is made to illustrate the fidelity to the pledged word, the trust in God, and the unshakable courage that should characterize the knight.


The Vulgate Lancelot-Grail cycle displays a peculiar technique of interweaving that enables the author (or authors) to bring together a large number of originally independent themes. The story of Lancelot, of Arthur’s kingdom, and the coming of Galahad (Lancelot’s son) are all interconnected by the device of episodes that diverge, subdivide, join, and separate again, so that the work is a kind of interlocking whole, devoid of unity in the modern sense but forming as impregnable a structure as any revolving around a single centre. One of its most important features is its capacity for absorbing contrasting themes, such as the story of Lancelot’s love for Guinevere, Arthur’s queen, and the Quest of the Grail; another feature is its ability to grow through continuations or elaborations of earlier themes insufficiently developed. The great proliferation of prose romances at the end of the Middle Ages would have been impossible without this peculiarity of structure. Unlike any work that is wholly true to the Aristotelian principle of indivisibility and isolation (or organicunity), the prose romances satisfy the first condition, but not the second: internal cohesion goes with a tendency to seek connections with other similar compositions and to absorb an increasingly vast number of new themes. Thus the prose Tristan brings together the stories of Tristan and Iseult, the rise and fall of Arthur’s kingdom, and the Grail Quest. It early gave rise to an offshoot, the romance of Palamède (before 1240), which deals with the older generation of Arthur’s knights. A similar example of “extension backward” is the Perceforest, which associates the beginnings of knighthood in Britain with both Brutus the Trojan (reputedly Aeneas’ grandson and the legendary founder of Britain) and Alexander the Great and makes its hero, Perceforest, live long before the Christian era.

Later developments

The Arthurian prose romances were influential in both Italy and Spain; and this favoured the development in these countries of works best described as romans d’aventure, with their constantly growing interest in tournaments, enchantments, single combat between knights, love intrigues, and rambling adventures. In Italy, early prose compilations of Old French epic material from the Charlemagne cycle were subsequently assimilated to the other great bodies of medieval French narrative fiction and infused with the spirit of Arthurian prose romance. The great Italian heroic and romantic epics, Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato (1483) and Ludovico Ariosto’sOrlando furioso (1516), are based on this fusion. The serious themes of the Holy Grail and death of Arthur left no mark in Italy. The romantic idealism of Boiardo and Ariosto exploits instead the worldly adventures and the love sentiment of Arthurian prose romance, recounted lightly and with a sophisticated humour.

In Spain the significant development is the appearance, as early as the 14th, or even the 13th, century, of a native prose romance, the Amadís de Gaula. Arthurian in spirit but not in setting and with a freely invented episodic content, this work, in the form given to it by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo in its first known edition of 1508, captured the imagination of the polite society of western Europe by its blend of heroic and incredible feats of arms and tender sentiment and by its exaltation of an idealized and refined concept of chivalry. Quickly translated and adapted into French, Italian, Dutch, and English and followed by numerous sequels and imitations in Spanish and Portuguese, it remained influential for more than four centuries, greatly affecting the outlook and sensibility of western society. Cervantes parodied the fashion inspired by Amadís in Don Quixote (1605); but his admiration for the work itself caused him to introduce many of its features into his own masterpiece, so that the spirit and the character of chivalric romance may be said to have entered into the first great modern novel.

More important still for the development of the novel form was the use made by romance writers of the technique of multiple thematic structure and “interweaving” earlier mentioned. Like the great examples of Romanesque ornamental art, both sculptural and pictorial, the cyclic romances of the late Middle Ages, while showing a strong sense of cohesion, bear no trace whatever of the classical concept of subordination to a single theme: an excellent proof, if proof were needed, of the limited relevance of this concept in literary aesthetics. Even those romances which, like the Amadís and its ancestor, the French prose Lancelot, had one great figure as the centre of action, cannot be said to have progressed in any way toward the notion of the unity of theme.

The spread and popularity of romance literature

This is as true of medieval romances as of their descendants, including the French and the English 18th-century novel and the pastoral romance, which, at the time of the Renaissance, revived the classical traditions of pastoral poetry and led to the appearance, in 1504, of the Arcadia by the Italian poet Jacopo Sannazzaro and, in about 1559, of the Diana by the Spanish poet and novelist Jorge de Montemayor. Both works were widely influential in translation, and each has claims to be regarded as the first pastoral romance, but in spirit Diana is the true inheritor of the romance tradition, giving it, in alliance with the pastoral, a new impetus and direction.

Medieval romance began in the 12th century when clerks, working for aristocratic patrons, often ladies of royal birth such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughters, Marie de Champagne and Matilda, wife of Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, began to write for a leisured and refined society. Like the courtly lyric, romance was a vehicle of a new aristocratic culture which, based in France, spread to other parts of western Europe. Translations and adaptations of French romances appear early in German: the Roman d’Enéas, in a version written by Heinrich von Veldeke before 1186, and the archetypal Tristan romance in Eilhart von Oberge’s Tristant of c. 1170–80. In England many French romances were adapted, sometimes very freely, into English verse and prose from the late 13th to the 15th century; but by far the most important English contribution to the development and popularization of romance was the adaptation of a number of French Arthurian romances completed by Sir Thomas Malory in 1469–70 and published in 1485 by William Caxton under the title of Le Morte Darthur. In the Scandinavian countries the connection with the Angevin rulers of England led to importation of French romances in the reign (1217–63) of Haakon of Norway.

The decline of romance

As has been seen, in the later Middle Ages the prose romances were influential in France, Italy, and Spain, as well as in England; and the advent of the printed book made them available to a still wider audience. But although they continued in vogue into the 16th century, with the spread of the ideals of the New Learning, the greater range and depth of vernacularliterature, and the rise of the neoclassical critics, the essentially medieval image of the perfect knight was bound to change into that of the scholar-courtier, who, as presented by the Italian Baldassare Castiglione in his Il Cortegiano (published 1528), embodies the highest moral ideals of the Renaissance. The new Spanish romances continued to enjoy international popularity until well into the 17th century and in France gave rise to compendious sentimental romances with an adventurous, pastoral, or pseudo-historical colouring popular with Parisian salon society until c. 1660. But the French intellectual climate, especially after the beginning of the so-called classical period in the 1660s, was unfavourable to the success of romance as a “noble” genre. Before disappearing, however, the romances lent the French form of their name to such romans as Antoine Furetière’sLe Roman bourgeois (1666) and Paul Scarron’sLe Roman comique (1651–57). These preserved something of the outward form of romance but little of its spirit; and while they transmitted the name to the kind of narrative fiction that succeeded them, they were in no sense intermediaries between its old and its new connotations. The great critical issue dominating the thought of western Europe from about 1660 onward was that of “truth” in literature; and romance, as being “unnatural” and unreasonable, was condemned. Only in England and Germany did it find a home with poets and novelists. Thus, while Robert Boyle, the natural philosopher, in his Occasional Discourses (1666) was inveighing against gentlemen whose libraries contained nothing more substantial than “romances,” Milton, in Paradise Lost, could still invoke “what resounds/In fable or romance of Uther’s son . . .”

The 18th-century romantic revival

The 18th century in both England and Germany saw a strong reaction against the rationalistic canons of French classicism—a reaction that found its positive counterpart in such romantic material as had survived from medieval times. The Gothic romances, of which Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764; dated 1765) is the most famous, are perhaps of less importance than the ideas underlying the defense of romance by Richard Hurd in his Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762). To Hurd, romance is not truth but a delightful and necessary holiday from common sense. This definition of romance (to which both Ariosto and Chrétien de Troyes would no doubt have subscribed) inspired on the one hand the romantic epic Oberon (1780) and on the other the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott. But influential though Scott’s romantic novels may have been in every corner of Europe (including the Latin countries), it was the German and English Romantics who, with a richer theory of the imagination than Hurd’s, were able to recapture something of the spirit and the structure of romance—the German Romantics by turning to their own medieval past; the English, by turning to the tradition perpetuated by Edmund Spenser and Shakespeare. In the 19th century, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville adapted the European romance to address the distinct needs of a young American republic and literature.

Eugène VinaverFrederick WhiteheadThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
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