Readers in the Middle Ages didn’t have any Harlequin paperbacks, but works of medieval romance literature were just as plentiful and popular.
Learn more about this literary genre, its characteristics, and some of its examples in this lesson.
Medieval Romance Literature
Have you ever seen the movie The Princess Bride? If so, you might recall its swashbuckling scenes and its story of love and daring exploits. Although it was adapted from a book published in the 1970s, The Princess Bride shares a lot in common with medieval romance literature, a literary genre comprised of fictional works of chivalry and adventure from the Middle Ages.Works of medieval romance literature were widely popular between the 5th and 16th centuries, and represented the bulk of major literary output at the time. There are examples of the genre composed in prose as well as in verse, with some of the earliest being poetic works closely resembling the verse epics of Ancient Greece and Rome in both form and content.By the 17th century, the popularity of the genre was already dwindling, and writers were beginning to explore other avenues of expression.
You might say that medieval romance literature received its final deathblow in 1605 and 1615 when the two parts of Don Quixote were published. The most notable work of Miguel de Cervantes is actually a satire that contrasts the chivalrous deeds performed in previous romance works with the bounds of reality. Let’s take a look now at some of the characteristics of medieval romance literature that Cervantes would have satirized.
Many (though certainly not all) of the works of medieval romance belong to one of three distinct cycles, or groups of tales based on the same frame story.
In other words, a cycle uses the same essential story through all its permutations. Two of the story cycles are the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France, denoting their countries of origin. However, there’s also the Matter of Rome, which is not so much regional as topical in its reference, as we’ll discuss momentarily.
Characteristics: Source Material
The practice of producing verse romances owes its origins to early oral epics, as well as to the tradition of the chansons de geste (Old French for ‘songs of deeds’). Much of the source material for works in the genre comes from mythology, legends, and folklore, such as the Arthurian legends that provide most of the framework for the Matter of Britain.
Medieval romance writers also frequently reworked historical events, as with much of the Matter of France and its focus on Charlemagne and his knights. Of course, we can’t forget the works of Classical authors (e.g. Virgil, Ovid) as sources for these authors, and the Matter of Rome owes the majority of its framing material to stories surrounding Alexander the Great or the Trojan War.
Characteristics: Subject Matter
The most prominent subject matter of medieval romance literature is knightly exploits, like chivalry and adventure, but to what end are such feats attempted? Perhaps the primary motivator in the genre is the pursuit of courtly love, though this aspect is not what gives the genre its name. Romance is actually Old French for ‘from the Romantic tongue’ (i.e.
Latin-derived languages). Within these stories, there is also a prevalence of improbable, miraculous, or even mystical events, objects, and people.
The most notable feature of the genre’s style is the authors’ use of elevated, what we might call exaggerated, language. Authors of medieval romance literature typically used elevated language because they saw their work as thematically on par with their ancient epic predecessors. While employing such florid and lofty speech, it’s no far stretch to imagine that the dialogue and pronouncements of the characters are rather melodramatic.There are also stock scenes that are typically inserted into these works; for instance, there’s the ‘knight’s triumph’ or the classic ‘damsel-in-distress,’ either of which can usually be a great source of the story’s improbability. This sort of hyperbolic, high-stakes action, though, was purposeful since authors knew it would draw readers in.
Let’s take a look at some examples of medieval romance literature that have been drawing readers in for centuries.
Examples: La Chanson de Roland
La Chanson de Roland, a literary chanson de geste from around 1100, is one of the earliest major works of French literature in existence and is most often attributed to the Norman poet Turold. As many other examples from the Matter of France, The Song of Roland centers on one of the most renowned paladins, or knights in Charlemagne’s court.Particularly, this poetic romance’s focus is the Battle of Roncevaux in A.
D. 778, which was fought between the armies of Charlemagne and Basques. Turold, however, has taken some poetic license with the historical facts, making the arrogance and death of Roland and his subsequent avenging by Charlemagne much more dramatic and significant than any of the events of the battle actually were.
Examples: Troilus and Criseyde
Like La Chanson de Roland and the vast majority of other romance literature produced before the 15th century, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was first written in verse, sometime between 1381 and 1386. Despite it being composed in Middle English, Chaucer’s romance is considered part of the Matter of Rome due to its earliest roots in works such as Homer’s Iliad or the Aeneid of Virgil.Troilus and Criseyde is a tragic tale of a Trojan prince and his lost love.
Chaucer also heavily drew inspiration for his tale from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato of the 1330s, which in turn owes its origins to the Roman de Troie of Benoit de Sainte-Maure from the mid-12th century.
Examples: Le Morte D’Arthur
Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory was first published in 1485 and represents the serious shift of romance literature toward prose rather than poetry at the time. In spite of its French title, Malory’s collection of tales is very much considered part of the Matter of Britain and deals with considerably more than Arthur’s death (Le Morte D’Arthur = ‘The Death of Arthur’).In fact, the stories concern not only the exploits of Arthur and his mystical sword, Excalibur, but also those of his notorious Knights of the Round Table (e.
g. Lancelot, Perceval). Much of what we understand concerning Arthurian legend today is thanks to the work of Malory and others who produced work in this particular cycle of medieval romance literature.
Medieval romance literature is a literary genre comprised of fictional works of chivalry and adventures from the Middle Ages. Works in the genre were widely popular and typically belonged to one of three cycles, or groups of tales based on the same frame story.Sources for medieval romance writers came from folklore and history, such as Arthurian legend and the deeds of Charlemagne in the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France, respectively.
They also heavily relied upon the works of Classical authors, and much of the Matter of Rome is focused on stories of Alexander the Great and the Trojan War.The subject matter of the genre is largely founded in adventurous treks and knightly exploits, most often in the pursuit of courtly love. The authors frequently insert improbable, miraculous, or even mystical events and objects into these stories in accordance with their lofty stylistic choices. Examples of medieval romance literature include La Chanson de Roland, Troilus and Criseyde, and Le Morte D’Arthur.
Lesson at a Glance
A popular genre in its day, Medieval romance literature is a literary genre comprised of fictional works of chivalry and adventures from the Middle Ages. They belonged to one of three cycles, or groups of tales with the same core story.
Medieval romance writers drew their inspiration from folklore and history, telling tales of adventure, knightly conquests, and courtly love.
After reviewing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define Medieval romance literature and list some examples
- Identify the three cycles of Medieval romance literature
- Describe the source, style, and subject matter of Medieval romance literature