As a literary genre of high culture, romance or chivalric romance is a type of prose and verse narrative 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." 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.
- Early forms
- Forms of the High Middle Ages
- Late Medieval and Renaissance forms
- Related forms
- Relationship to modern romantic fiction
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. The earliest forms were invariably in verse, but the 15th century saw many in prose, often retelling the old, rhymed versions.
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.
In reality, a number of "non-cyclical" romances were written without any such connection; these include such romances as King Horn, Robert the Devil, Ipomadon, Emaré, Havelok the Dane, Roswall and Lillian, Le Bone Florence of Rome, 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.
Many medieval romances recount the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, 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. 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 English and German— 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
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 dominanted 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
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. Queen Elizabeth I's Accession Day tilts, for instance, drew freely on the multiplicity of incident from romances for the knights' disguises. 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. 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.
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"
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, 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.
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."
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."
In The Sydney Morning Herald, Timothy Laurie and Jessica Kean note that reviewing 50 Shades of Grey has attracted "the stigma already attached to the romance genre" because it is "explicitly pitched at female audiences".