The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance
Cambridge University Press
By Roberta Krueger
July 1, 2000
The essays in this volume analyze critical features of what is arguably the most influential and enduring secular literary genre of the European Middle Ages. The story of medieval romance's evolution is one of translation and transformation, adaptation and refashioning, and fertile intertextual and intercultural exchange among the linguistic and political entities of medieval Europe. Medieval romance narratives astound the modern reader by their broad circulation in France, Germany, England, The Netherlands, Italy, Scandinavia, Portugal, Greece and Spain, and by the many stories, characters, themes, and motifs they hold in common. These fictions continue to intrigue modern audiences--as they undoubtedly did medieval ones--by the diversity of their forms and subject-matter, the complexity of their narrative strategies and perspectives, and the many critical responses they invite.
Romance's history is integrally bound up with the creation of elite lay culture in courts and wealthy households throughout the European Middle Ages. However, romance narratives are rarely simple reflections of courtly ideals. Romances of all national origins are remarkable for their authors' capacity to remake their shared stories anew in different contexts and to reposition their ethical systems as they respond to particular audiences, in distinct geographic locations and social contexts--often with a critical perspective that calls social ideals or practices into question. The Companion to Medieval Romance is intended as an introduction to the voyages, transformations, and interrogations of romance as its fictions travel within and between the linguistic, geo-political, and social boundaries of Europe from 1150 to 1600.
The term "romance" used today to refer to the narratives of chivalric adventures that were first encountered in medieval courts derives from the Old French expression "mettre en romanz," which means to translate into the vernacular French. Consequently, many kinds of vernacular narratives were dubbed "romans" (and were also sometimes called "contes" [tales] or "estoires" [stories/histories]). These stories shared characteristics with other genres, whose boundaries were fluid rather than fixed. But gradually there emerged at royal and feudal courts a dynamic network of fictions, written first in verse and then in prose, that recounted the exploits of knights, ladies, and noble families seeking honor, love, and adventure. These narratives did not conform to a single, easily discernible type; rather, they sprang from diverse origins and took a myriad of shapes. Thanks to over one hundred years of scholarship, in which the stories contained within medieval manuscripts have been edited, analyzed, and interpreted--an enterprise that is still ongoing--the genre of medieval romance has come to encompass far more than the celebrated tales of King Arthur. Medieval romances survive in a rich spectrum of narratives whose themes and issues intersect with virtually every aspect of medieval social and cultural life.
The earliest vernacular romances were free translations of Latin epics and chronicles into French, composed in the mid-twelfth century at the Angevin royal court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in England, where Anglo-Norman, a form of Old French, was the literary language of the elite. Simultaneously or soon afterwards, romance fictions were created at other francophone courts in England and on the Continent. The Roman de Thèbes. the Roman d'Eneas, and Benoît de Sainte-Maure's Roman de Troie were imaginative retellings of Classical epics with distinctive additions: descriptions of extraordinary objects, deeper analyses of sentimental affairs, as well as narratorial interventions. Wace's Roman de Brut (c. 1155) adapted Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) into a popular vernacular history that disseminated not only the myth of Britain's historical link to Troy through Brutus, Aeneas's grandson, but also the legend of King Arthur, whose Round Table is first mentioned in this romance. Most of these tales telling the "matter of Rome" and the "matter of Britain" were in rhyming pairs of eight-syllable verses. The lively style of the Old French octosyllabic couplet soon became the preferred mode for clerks who would tell tales of love and adventure to aristocratic audiences in the francophone circles of England and France.
At some point after 1160, a clerk on the Continent, who signed his work "Chrétien de Troyes," created a "molt bele conjointure" ("a beautiful conjoining") of fictional elements that was grafted onto a central stock drawn from Arthurian legend. With Erec et Enide, the first full-blown Arthurian romance, Chrétien initiated a series of stories about Arthur's knights, including those of Lancelot and Perceval. His tales of noble love and chivalric prowess launched a vogue for Arthurian fiction that altered the course of literary history, first, by inspiring a spate of imitations in verse and then by prompting production of the monumental French prose romances, which in turn inspired translations and adaptations throughout Europe. Arthurian romances were not the first vernacular courtly fictions, but their tremendous popularity--in a wide range of linguistic registers, cultural settings, and aesthetic modes--established them as a major force that other romance authors might choose to imitate, adapt, criticize, or even burlesque, but which they did not often ignore.
At the same time, other early verse narratives, unrelated to Arthurian lore, also sowed the seeds for later cultivation. The legend recounting the adulterous affair between Tristan, nephew of King Mark, and Queen Iseut, which circulated orally in Celtic culture, inspired some of the earliest romance fictions. The tristan romances of Béroul, composed in France perhaps as early as 1155, and of Thomas in England, written c. 1173, are extant only in fragments today. However, these and other written and oral tales of Tristan and Iseut's tragic love traveled widely in Europe and Scandinavia throughout the Middle Ages. Their survival in literary and operatic forms in the present makes the Tristan legen one of the founding romantic myths of European culture.
Floire et Blancheflor, a tale of star-crossed lovers and of religious conversion, had a long-lived and multifaceted career in France, Germany, England, Flanders and Holland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The Latin legend of Apollonius of Tyre, which recounts a harrowing escape from incest and a series of wondrous travels and discoveries, inspired vernacular narrative retellings throughout Europe, as did the antifeminist frame-story of the Seven Sages of Rome. Some romancers, such as Gautier d'Arras in Eracle, drew their inspiration not from the Arthurian past, but from distant Byzantium. In another register, the feminocentric lais Fresne and Eliduc of Marie de france were recast into longer narratives that heralded a more "realistic" strain of romances. The framework of biographical romance, which recounts the extraordinary history of an individual or a family, served to tell the stories of exemplary national heroes, for example, in the Middle English Havelok the dane. Romance would continue to provide a mold in which patrons could establish impressive genealogies, as did Jean de Berry for the Lusignan family in Jean d'Arras's Mélusine (1393), whose serpentine heroine bears marvelous children.
Early verse romances were composed in writing but intended for public reading, and they often display their author's sense of both literary aesthetics and oral performance. Drawing their material from a broad range of sources that included oral folktales, vernacular epics and saints' lives, courtly lyrics, classical Latin literature and contemporary chronicles, romance authors self-consciously blended ancient and contemporary stories into new shapes, created characters who appealed to the sentimental, moral, and political concerns of their audience, and drew attention to their own art as they did so.
The audience for romance in all its guises grew and diversified throughout the Middle Ages. Noble male and female patrons were evidently eager to listen to stories in which their own ideals and anxieties were reflected, often through the clerk's tongue-in-cheek humor, for they commissioned the composition of romances in manuscripts that could be circulated among the court and family members and could be passed along to children or to foreign courts. These might later be recopied or re-adapted in fresh surroundings, in other households, in new linguistic or political terrains...
These essays offer a sampling of the rich fare that is European romance and of the diversity of critical perspectives that it has inspired. This volume is not intended as an exhaustive or comprehensive survey...We hope that the Companion of Medieval Romance will inspire further study of individual romances in all European traditions from a multiplicity of perspectives.