Romance (genre)

Romance (genre)
Yvain fighting Gawain. Medieval illumination from Chrétien de Troyes's romance, Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion
Major forms

Novel · Poem · Drama
Short story · Novella


Epic · Lyric · Drama
Romance · Satire
Tragedy · Comedy


Performance (play· Book


Prose · Verse

History and lists

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As a literary genre of high culture, romance or chivalric romance is a style of heroic 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. 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 satirised 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 invokes knights, distressed damsels, dragons, and other romantic tropes.[1]

Originally, romance literature was written in Old French, Anglo-Norman and Occitan, later, in English 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.

During the Gothic Revival, from ca. 1800 the connotations of "romance" moved from the magical and fantastic to somewhat eerie "Gothic" adventure narratives.



Holger Danske, or Ogier the Dane, from the Matter of France

Unlike the later form of the novel and like the chansons de geste, the genre of romance dealt with traditional themes. 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.[2]

In reality, a number of "non-cyclical" romances were written without any such connection;[3] these include such romances as King Horn,[4] Robert the Devil,[5] Ipomadon,[6] Emaré,[7] Havelok the Dane,[8] Roswall and Lillian,[9] Le Bone Florence of Rome,[10] and Amadas.[11]

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.[3]


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,[12] but these fairy characters were transformed, more and more often, into wizards and enchantresses.[13] Morgan le Fay never loses her name, but in Le Morte d'Arthur, she studied magic rather than being inherently magical.[14] Similarly, knights lose magical abilities.[15] 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.[16]

Early persecuted heroines were often driven from their husbands' homes by the persecutations of their mothers-in-law, whose motives are seldom delineated, and whose accusations are of the heroines' having borne monstrous children, or committed infanticide, or practicing witchcraft—all of which appear in such fairy tales as The Girl Without Hands and many others; but, as time progresses, 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, and 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.[17]

Some romances, such as Apollonius of Tyre, show classical pagan origins.[18] Tales of the Matter of Rome in particular may be derived from such works as the Alexander Romance.

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 boarderguards 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.

A related tradition existed in Northern Europe, and comes down to us in the form of epics, such as Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied. However, the richest set of Germanic literature of Romance comes from Scandinavia in the form of the legendary sagas. The setting is Scandinavia, but occasionally it moves temporarily to more distant and exotic locations (including Constantinople). There are also very often mythological elements, such as gods, dwarves, elves, dragons, giants and magic swords. The heroes often embark on dangerous quests where they fight the forces of evil, dragons, witchkings, barrow-wights, and rescue fair maidens.

The new courtly love was introduced to the romance by Chretien de Troyes, combining it with the Matter of Britain, new to French poets.[19] In Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (unlike his earlier Erec and Enide), the behavior of Lancelot conforms to the courtly love ideal;[20] it also, though still full of adventure, devotes an unprecedented amount of time to dealing with the psychological aspects of the love.[21]

Early forms

Many medieval romances recount the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who, abiding chivalry's strict codes of honour and demeanour, goes on a quest, and fights and defeats monsters and giants, thereby winning favour with a lady.[22] The story of the medieval romance focuses not upon love and sentiment, but upon adventure.

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.

Late medieval forms

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 riddarasögur or chivalric sagas. The genre began in the 13th century with translations of French chansons de geste; it soon expanded to similar indigenous creations.

High Middle Ages 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), and the Spanish 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 sixteenth-century literary works in the romance genre.

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 seventeenth 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.[23] In England, romances continued; heavily rhetorical, they often had complex plots and high sentiment,[24] such as in Robert Greene's Pandosto (the source for William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale)[25] 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.[26]

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.

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 ca. 1800 the connotations of "romance" moved from fantastic and eerie, somewhat Gothic adventure narratives of novelists like Ann Radcliffe's The 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.

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."[27] 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.


Medieval examples:


  1. ^ C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, p. 9 ISBN 0-521-47735-2
  2. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England, New York Burt Franklin,1963 p. iii
  3. ^ a b Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England, New York Burt Franklin, 1963 p. iii
  4. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England, New York Burt Franklin,1963 p. 83
  5. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England, New York Burt Franklin,1963 p. 49
  6. ^ Purdie, Rhiannon. 2001. Ipomadon. Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society.
  7. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England, New York Burt Franklin,1963 p 23
  8. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England, New York Burt Franklin,1963 p 103
  9. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England, New York Burt Franklin,1963 p. 290
  10. ^ Carol Falvo Hefferman, Le Bone Florence of Rome, p vii ISBN 0-7190-647-3
  11. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p. 73 New York Burt Franklin,1963
  12. ^ C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964) pp. 129–30.
  13. ^ Katherine Briggs (1976) An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures "Fairies in medieval romances" p. 132.ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  14. ^ Katherine Briggs (1976) An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures "Morgan Le Fay" p. 303.ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  15. ^ Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Fairies of medieval romances", p. 132. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  16. ^ Katherine Briggs An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. "Fairies in medieval romances" tu mamap. 132. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  17. ^ Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens, New York: Gordian Press 1969 pp. 62-3
  18. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p169 New York Burt Franklin,1963
  19. ^ C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, p. 23 ISBN0-19-281220-3
  20. ^ C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, p26 ISBN0-19-281220-3
  21. ^ C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, p29 ISBN0-19-281220-3
  22. ^ Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p. 186, ISBN 0-691-01298-9
  23. ^ C. S. Lewis English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, p29 Oxford History of English Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1954)
  24. ^ C. S. Lewis English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, p. 421 Oxford History of English Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1954)
  25. ^ C. S. Lewis English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, p. 422 Oxford History of English Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1954)
  26. ^ C. S. Lewis English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, pp. 423-4 Oxford History of English Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1954)
  27. ^ "Romance Novels--What Are They?". Romance Writers of America. Retrieved 2007-04-16. 

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