The Medieval Romance - Short Fiction Analysis

Origins of the Romance

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although the romance assumed a generic identity and acquired a defined form during the Middle Ages, it had its roots in a much earlier tradition. The genre’s development was significantly aided by the infusion of material from classical sources. Medieval romances are to some degree analogous to narrative prose tales, known as Greek romances, written from the first century b.c.e. to the third century c.e. by such authors as Chariton, Xenophon, Heliodorus of Emesa, and Longus. Although medieval writers probably had no direct contact with the original Greek tales, the stories, often about faithful lovers separated and reunited after perilous adventures, were carried on in the oral tradition. The tale of Apollonious of Tyre, a story of Greek origin but only extant in a third or fourth century Latin version, became one of the most widely retold stories of the Middle Ages.

Clerks, the professional writers of the twelfth century, had been trained in the cathedral schools in the arts of Latin grammar and rhetoric. Such Latin works as Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567) and Ars amatoria (c. 2 b.c.e.; Art of Love, 1612) provided not only more material for the early writers of romance but also a style of exposition which encouraged a systematic development and a symbolic framework in which to elaborate their tales. Rhetorical embellishments with elaborate descriptions of surroundings and procedures and lists of everything from dishes at a feast to flowers in a field decorate the romances as details in an intricate tapestry.

Classical epics such as the Odyssey (c....

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The Matter of Rome

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although medieval romances concerned with the matter of Rome had as possible subjects the adventures of Alexander the Great, the Trojan War, the siege of Thebes, and the adventures of Aeneas, stories of Alexander and of Troy seem to have been the most popular. Kyng Alisaunder (fourteenth century), the best of the Alexander romances, first tells of Alexander’s begetting through the magical powers of the Egyptian king Nectanebus, who contrives to mate with Olympias, the wife of Philip II of Macedon, and thereby fathers Alexander. The romance also details Alexander’s rise to power and his various military accomplishments, particularly his wars with Darius the Great of Persia. The second part of the romance, treating Alexander’s conquest of India and the many adventures he experienced in the Far Eastern countries, relies heavily on the excitement of the unknown and the distant in its description of mythical beasts and other wondrous sights.

The Alexander romances, although concerned with a historical figure, had as little basis in history as did the romances based upon the Troy theme. Since Homer was unknown to Western Europe in the medieval period, Troy romances were based not on the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) but on two later accounts of the Trojan siege by Dictys of Crete and by Dares Phrygius. Their works concern the story of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece, the siege of Troy, and the Greeks’ return home. Among the Troy romances that make use of these accounts are The Gest Historiale of the Destruction of Troy (thirteenth century); the Laud Troy Book (c. 1400), which selectively treats the material of The Gest Historiale of the Destruction of Troy; John Lydgate’s The Hystorye, Sege and Dystruccyon of Troy (1513; better known as Troy Book); and, most notably, Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde (1382), the finest execution of this theme. Chaucer uses the Trojan War, however, merely as a backdrop for an examination of chivalric love and the complex psychologies of his two main characters; his concern is with human love, human relations, and human idealism, and the student of romance could do no better than to study Chaucer’s poem in order to obtain a thorough understanding of the genre of romance.

The Matter of France

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Those romances concerned with the matter of France—the Charlemagne romances—are closest in kind to the epic form. They concern themselves less with love and psychology and more with warfare and heroism. The Charlemagne romances have as their ultimate source Chanson de Roland (eleventh century; The Song of Roland, c. 1100), the Old French epic detailing Roland’s heroism, Oliver’s wisdom, Ganelon’s treachery, and Archbishop Turpin’s bravery and piety. The Charlemagne romances (early fourteenth century) fall roughly into two groups: One group, concerning the story of Otuel, contains such romances as Otuel, The Sege of Melayne, and Roland and Vernagu, while the other group, concerned with the story of Ferumbras, contains such romances as The Sowdone of Babylone and Sir Ferumbras. The earliest Charlemagne romance in English, Otuel, contrasts with the original Old French epic by diminishing the stature of Roland in order to elevate that of the hero Otuel. After detailing Otuel’s conversion to Christianity in the midst of his combat with Roland, who had killed Otuel’s uncle Vernagu, the romance describes Otuel’s performance as a Christian knight in battles against the Saracens. The Sege of Melayne, another romance in the Otuel group, is notable for its depiction of Archbishop Turpin as a heroic figure in battle and for its presentation of religious visions and miracles....

(The entire section is 504 words.)

The Matter of Britain

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The most popular of the four matters was the Arthurian theme, the matter of Britain, which was treated extensively by writers in England and on the Continent. The treatment accorded the story of Arthur, surely one of the most famous figures in European literature, well exemplifies the change in literary expression from epic to romance. The earliest accounts in which Arthur appears portray him as a historical hero who comes to assume national importance. By the twelfth century he has been transformed by courtly writers from a historical and national hero to a hero of romance.

Apparently the first historian to mention Arthur is Nennius, whose ninth century Historia Brittonum, a redaction of previous chronicles from the seventh and eighth centuries, describes Arthur as dux bellorum, “the leader of battles,” who slaughters many pagans. Carrying the image of the Virgin Mary on his shield and invoking the name of the Mother of God as a battle cry, Arthur is said to have single-handedly slain 960 men in one day. A similar but much briefer account of Arthur’s prowess in battle is found in the Annales Cambriae, the tenth century work of a Welsh writer who states that Arthur, having carried the cross of Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights, was victorious in the Battle of Badon. Around 1125, William of Malmesbury, in his Gesta regum Anglorum (The Deeds of the Kings of the English, 1847), attests Arthur’s historicity while he simultaneously acknowledges that myth-making concerning Arthur is taking place; he differentiates between the Arthur of truthful histories and the Arthur of false myths produced by the Britons. In fact, the Arthurian legend expanded greatly during this time, both in Britain and on the Continent; with every crossing of the English Channel the legend accumulated more and more material, so that the actual historicity of Arthur became increasingly difficult to verify.

These historical and pseudohistorical accounts provided the basis for the more deliberately imaginative Arthurian writings, the major sources of contemporary Arthurian legend, which begin to appear in the twelfth century. In that century there is a shift from the treatment of Arthur as a historical figure to the treatment of him as a figure of mythic proportion. Much Arthurian material was carried orally by Breton conteurs. The widespread influence of these bilingual (Breton and French) storytellers was in no little way aided by the military and political success of their patrons, the Normans. As Anglo-Norman power spread by conquest and marriage, the conteurs found welcome in courts in Britain, France, Scotland, Germany, Spain, and Italy. The nature of the Arthurian tales was modified as they traveled.

Traditions and motifs from Celtic legend and folklore were the earliest accruals to the legend of Arthur. The Welsh invested Arthur with the trappings of kingship. Prominent in the early verse is his position at the head of a band of heroes renowned for their skill at slaying monsters. Among these heroes listed and described in Culhwch ac Olwen (c. 1100) are some who survived into later legend including Cai (Sir Kay), Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere), and Mabon, son of Modron. The quest motif became an integral part of the Arthurian legend in Welsh tradition. One version of the quest is told in Culhwch ac Olwen when Arthur travels to the Otherworld to steal a cauldron, reputed to be able to restore the dead to life. The theme of a hero traveling to far-off lands, even into the Otherworld, to bring back gifts to his people, is also a basic story in folklore and myth worldwide. That the Welsh tales are the prototypes for the Grail quest has been the matter of much argument, but at least it can be said that here the theme of the questing hero was first connected to Arthurian legend. Jeffrey Gantz, translator of the Mabinogion (1976), connects the quest in Culhwch ac Olwen to similar raids in the other tales in which a hero ventures forth to capture an object—a bowl, a cauldron, or a woman—which...

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The Matter of England

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The romances said to concern the matter of England for the most part differ in some important ways from the other medieval romances discussed. They are often much less courtly and less sophisticated than the other romances, and they advance and support humble and simple virtues rather than the aristocratic virtues of chivalry and the courtly life. The inherited material of these romances, whether of native or foreign origin, having been adapted to the lower-class taste, is consequently often spare and realistic, with little of descriptive set pieces and other courtly elements. Action is preferred to introspection and analysis, and the poems are usually vigorous and balladlike in their concision.

Among these romances concerning the matter of England are King Horn (c. 1225), which uses the exile and return theme; Bevis of Hampton (c. 1200-1250), which begins with a variation on the Hamlet theme; The Tale of Gamelyn (c. 1350), from which William Shakespeare drew for As You Like It (c. 1599- 1600); and William of Paleme (early fourteenth century), which uses the popular werewolf theme. Perhaps most reflective, however, of the spirit and the values of England’s peasantry and its growing middle class is Havelok the Dane (c. 1350), a romance concerning a hero who is wrongly excluded from his kingdom in Denmark by an untrustworthy guardian. When the poor fisherman who reared Havelok can no longer support him, Havelok obtains work as a kitchen helper, soon earning renown locally for his ability to putt the stone; while such activities seem the very antithesis of courtly endeavor, they are nonetheless solidly representative of middle-class virtues. In time Havelok marries an orphaned English princess, Goldeboru, who, like Havelok, was betrayed by a guardian; when one night Goldeboru sees a luminous mark on Havelok’s shoulder that indicates his royalty, she is overjoyed. After returning to Denmark and claiming his throne, Havelok conquers England and rewards all who have treated him well. The emphasis throughout the poem is on adventure, justice, and homely but traditional virtues, an emphasis that clearly distinguishes this romance and the other romances on the matter of England from those romances of the period which emphasize courtliness.

Courtly Love

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The ideals of chivalry and courtly love, hallmarks of the romance, were signs of a revolutionary change in Western culture. Although debate continues as to whether or not a “system” of courtly love was recognized as such in the Middle Ages, historians do know for certain that courtly attitudes existed, that people aspired to courtly ideals, and that those courtly attitudes and ideals influenced people’s conduct. One of the reasons for the importance of these attitudes undoubtedly is attributable to the patronage of artists and writers by such influential women as Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen first of France and then of England, and her daughter Marie de Champagne. In conjunction with the cult of the Virgin, the courtly...

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Influence of the Medieval Romance

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In sum, then, medieval romances can be seen to encompass a wide variety of subjects and to represent various cultural attitudes. In the medieval age the form drew upon a broad spectrum of sources, including history, legend, folktale, saints’ lives, exemplum, fairy lore, and classical materials. After its beginning in the twelfth century, the romance was widely adapted throughout the next three centuries by writers of many countries whose works influenced one another to the extent that establishing direct lines of descent for particular themes or subjects is generally impossible. The pervasiveness of those ideas in later fiction results in part from the genre’s use of themes that transcend temporal limitations; the motifs of the...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Barron, W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. Longman Literature in English Series. London: Longman, 1987. A comprehensive study of Middle English romance which starts with the European roots of romance and its evolution in twelfth century France. The bulk of the book focuses on a detailed study of English romances—the variety of forms and the grouping of story material into the four historical matters of romance.

Clogan, Paul Maurice, ed. Medieval Hagiography and Romance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. An introductory study of the medieval romance, including a discussion of Christian saints in literature. Includes a...

(The entire section is 394 words.)