(chivalric romance)
   The chivalric romance was the most popular literary form of the later European Middle Ages. The term romance originally referred to anything written in the Old French language, thus categorizing it as composed in a language derived from Latin, or “Roman,” rather than something in Latin itself. Eventually the term came to refer to a particular kind of story—one concerned with courtly knights who, motivated by love or by religious fervor, went in search of adventure. Romance plots almost always involve a quest, in which a single knight sets forth to accomplish some task—to rescue a lady in distress, to answer a question, to meet an opponent’s challenge, to obey his Lord’s command, or to seek an artifact like the HOLY GRAIL. On the journey, the knight meets with numerous adventures, sometimes completely unrelated to the quest. Ultimately he achieves the quest and his honor and worth as a knight is established, or renewed. The romance was established as a distinct genre in the mid-12th century, particularly with the works of CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES and MARIE DE FRANCE. Romances quickly replaced in popularity the older CHANSONS DE GESTE, with their epic and heroic values, by presenting more fashionable and contemporary chivalric protagonists.Whereas the epic stressed the virtues of strength, courage, loyalty to one’s Lord, and a simple Christian piety, the romance added the importance of courtly manners and behavior as a sign of genuine nobility. The epic focused on war and on the fate of nations; the romance was more often concerned with COURTLY LOVE and with the fate of the individual hero. The epic plot was simple and straightforward, while the plot of romances was often episodic and even rambling. The epic hero was almost always static; the romance hero was dynamic— his quest was often ultimately a quest for his own identity, since in achieving the quest he established his name. Character is presented through action and dialogue in the epic, while in romance characters are presented as having an interior life and engage in interior monologues to an extent that does not occur in earlier literature. Further, romances display a fascination with magic and a sense of wonder and fantasy that is absent from the epic, which deals with the supernatural only in the form of God or the gods.
   Medieval romances have traditionally been categorized according to their subject matter. Some romances, especially in France, built on the earlier CHARLEMAGNE legends made popular by the chansons de geste. The well-known romances of FERUMBRAS and VALENTIN ET ORSON are examples of these. This narrative material is generally referred to as the “matter of France.” Classical history and literature provided another major source for narrative romance, in particular the legends of ALEXANDER THE GREAT and the myths surrounding the siege of Thebes (like CHAUCER’s KNIGHT’S TALE) and the Trojan War (including Chaucer’s great romance TROILUS AND CRISEYDE). Since most medieval knowledge of Greek culture came through classical Latin sources, this legendary material was known collectively as the “matter of Rome.” In England, a group of romances grew up around traditional English heroes and older Germanic legends, including romances like KING HORN, GUY OFWARWICK, and HAVELOCK THE DANE. This legendary stock came to be called the “matter of England.”
   But by far the most popular material for romance, the source from which Chrétien de Troyes drew his initial inspiration, is traditional Celtic lore, or the “matter of Britain.” This material comprises the legends of King ARTHUR and his knights of the Round Table, and includes the exploits of Sir LANCELOT, whose love for Arthur’s Queen Guenevere is the subject of one of Chrétien’s earliest romances. Arthurian romances incorporate as well the adventures of Sir GAWAIN, the most popular knight in MIDDLE ENGLISH romances, including the highly admired SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT, and those of Sir PERCEVAL and Sir GALAHAD, whose quest leads them to the Holy Grail. Sir TRISTAN, once a Celtic legend in his own right and hero of his own romances, most notably that of the German poet GOTTFRIED VON STRASSBURG, ultimately becomes associated with the court of King Arthur as well, and by the time of Sir Thomas MALORY’s 15th-century compilation of Arthurian lore, Le MORTE DARTHUR, is himself a knight of the Round Table.
   The romance genre had spread into Germany by the last years of the 12th century, and into Italy, Spain, and even Scandinavia by later in the Middle Ages. The earliest romances in English appeared in the 13th century, and flourished by the 14th and 15th centuries.Most romances are in verse, though prose romances began to appear in France in the 13th century, the most notable being those included in the VULGATE CYCLE of Arthurian romances. In English, romances might be composed in ALLITERATIVE VERSE, in rhymed couplets similar to the French, or in six- or 12-line units that came to be known as TAIL-RHYME stanzas. The romance continued to thrive well into the 16th century, until the genre was disparaged by Renaissance humanists and lampooned in Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
   ■ Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn. Shaping Romance: Interpretation, Truth, and Closure in Twelfth-Century French Fictions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
   ■ Green, D. H. The Beginnings of Medieval Romance: Fact and Fiction, 11501220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
   ■ Ker,W. P. Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature. 1897. New York: Dover Publications 1957.
   ■ Krueger, Roberta L. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
   ■ Loomis, Robert Sherman. The Development of Arthurian Romance. New York: Norton, 1963.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.


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