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An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 1: Defined

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Grail Quest ("Carbonek, Castle of the Fisher King," Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Grail Quest (“Carbonek, Castle of the Fisher King,” Alan Lee)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 1: Defined

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

In haste, on matters medieval & fantastical (read: serious research & writing day), but I wanted to start on next aspect of medieval literature with which would-be epic fantasists (and fans of the form) should be familiar: the romance!

So, here’s a definitional excerpt from one of the better, most recent books on the subject.

Enjoy!

A.J.

Perkins & Wiggins, "The Romance of the Middle Ages" (Oxford, 2012)

Perkins & Wiggins, “The Romance of the Middle Ages” (Oxford, 2012)

[Begin excerpt from Nicholas Perkins, “Romance and the Medieval World,” in Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins, The Romance of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2012), pp. 9-32.]
Picture the scene. A magnificent dining hall, tables laden with food. Knights and ladies flirting, dancing, and playing Christmas games. Costly eastern fabrics, fashioned into the latest styles. On the raised dais sit King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, with the cream of the Round Table, including Sir Gawain, Sir Ywayne and Sir Agravayne. Arthur, the court poet tells us, requires ‘sum aduenturus þing, an vncouþe tale / Of sum mayne meruayle þat he my3t trawe / Of alders, of arms, Of over auentures’ (‘an adventure story, a strange tale of some great marvel that he’d believe in, of princes, of combat, of other escapades), or to witness a knightly challenge before eating. As if summoned by this Arthurian yearning for adventure, into the hall rides a huge knight, exquisitely dressed, his small waist and powerful mien demanding the admiration of men and women alike.  In one hand he holds a threatening axe, in the other a festive holly branch.  The courtiers stare in amazement: the knight and his horse are totally green.

Carlisle's World: Medieval Romance ("Sir Gawain & the Green Knight," art by John Howe)

Carlisle’s World: Medieval Romance (“Sir Gawain & the Green Knight,” art by John Howe)

[Perkins excerpt continued]:  This moment of anticipation and surprise is taken from one of the greatest narrative poems in English, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the late fourteenth century in a dialect from north-west England. A fantasy of the mythic British past and yet sharply contemporary in descriptive detail, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight embodies many of the elements that make romance such a rewarding genre. Arthur’s criteria for entertainment — adventure, novelty, the marvelous, feats of arms and story-telling — are all characteristic of romance, which engages its audiences by teasing or satisfying their desires in narrative form. Such desires can include a taste for the grotesque and miraculous, for love frustrated and consummated, for religious and military conflict, for acts of shocking violence and uncalculating generosity. While indulging in the pleasures of the fictive, however, romances also focus our attention on how individuals act and interact at moments of crisis or decision, and ask an implicit question of their audience: what would you do if this happened to you?

Inspiration of Medieval Lang & Lit: Romance ("Sir Gawain & the Green Knight," Cotton MS Nero A.x, article 3, ff.94v95)

Inspiration of Medieval Lang & Lit: Romance (“Sir Gawain & the Green Knight,” Cotton MS Nero A.x, article 3, ff.94v95)

Medieval Romance: The Quest for the Holy Grail ("Chretien de Troyes, "Yvain," 13th c. ms)

Medieval Romance: The Quest for the Holy Grail (“Chretien de Troyes, “Yvain,” 13th c. ms)

[Perkins excerpt continued]: …Cycles of integration-disintegration-reintegration are at the core of these traditional narratives, or ‘symbolic stories,’ which share many motifs with folktale and ballad. Often they end with marriage, wealth, and acclaim, while the disloyal or inconvenient are punished: that is, cultural norms are reinforced and celebrated. The imaginative spaces that romances open can enable dark fantasies of infanticide, incest, betrayal and exile to be explored, and this space feeds the imagination long after the text closes.  The romance stories spin off one another, with continuations, adaptations, and the reprise of favorite motifs and heroes such as Gawain …

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance ("Lancelot at the Chapel of the Holy Grail," Edward Burne-Jones, 1870)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance (“Lancelot at the Chapel of the Holy Grail,” Edward Burne-Jones, 1870)

[Perkins excerpt continued]:  Every literary genre is s thing of shreds and patches, and romance is constantly overlapping , mingling with and reforming the stories that medieval writers called tale, lay, storie, fable, song, spel, geste, romance. … the surviving [texts] containing romances give us valuable evidence about how medieval readers understood and developed this variety; and allow us to speculate about reasons for copying them with other matrerial — for improving literature to a fascination with exotic lands,  Attempts have been made to categorize romances as ‘chivalric’, ‘popular’, ‘Arthurian’, ‘penitential’, or ‘burlesque’; such attempts raise good questions, but are at best partial.  Thinking about them genre, then, is more like studying the mix of colors on a palette than biological taxonomy … .

Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Wife of Bath's Tale," from "The Canterbury Tales" (Ellesmere ms, 1405-1410)

Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” from “The Canterbury Tales” (Ellesmere ms, 1405-1410)

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales equally illustrates the fluidity of romance. Several tales take romance forms, from the classically grounded Knight’s Tale of Palamon and Arcite’s rivalrous love for Emily, to the Squire’s Tale of marvels and exoticism. The Franklin tells a ‘Breton lay’ — a short form often involving enchantment and transformation — while The Wife of Bath’s Tale is an Arthurian romance whose protagonist rapes a young woman and is disciplined by the ladies of the court: his punishment is to discover what women most desire …

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Alexander Romances (Jehan de Grise, 1344; MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 58r)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Alexander Romances (Jehan de Grise, 1344; MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 58r)

Part of the pleasure that romance generates is in the evocation of cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces, the splendor of tournament and battle, without the many inconveniences of medieval travel and warfare.  One magnificently illustrated collection of Alexander romances in the Bodleian Library includes dozens of pictures showing the public glory of Alexander’s conquests … The stories of Alexander and some of the other ‘Nine Worthies’ were used as gauges for those aspiring to chivalric honor, and seeking precedents for war against easter peoples. Roman narratives and ideas were cultivated in medieval courts throughout Britain as part of a political landscape, projecting images of power, courtesy, and restraint …

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance: "The Nine Worthies" (from left to right: Charlemagne, King Arthur, Godfrey of Bouillon; Julius Caesar, Hector, Alexander the Great; David, Joshua, and Judas Maccabeus; 13th Cent. carving, City Hall, Cologne, Germany; "Neun Gute Helden")

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance: “The Nine Worthies” (from left to right: Charlemagne, King Arthur, Godfrey of Bouillon; Julius Caesar, Hector, Alexander the Great; David, Joshua, and Judas Maccabeus; 13th Cent. carving, City Hall, Cologne, Germany; “Neun Gute Helden”)

[Perkins excerpt continued]: Romances provided fertile grounds for debating and emulating honorable and shameful acts. Courts staged reenactments of romance scenes and Arthurian tournaments, and noble families fiercely guarded the rights to their heraldic emblems along with their accompanying narratives of origin …

The Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

The Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

[Perkins excerpt continued]: Romance’s interaction with medieval culture was not confined to the public realm, however, and romance protagonists must frequently escape a stifling or corrupt court. Lovers seek a private space to speak or make love, though in the Middle Ages being alone was a relative concept, hence the many narratives involving prying eyes and gossiping tongues….

"The Garden of Pleasure," from Roman de la Rose (late 15th-century Flemish ms)

“The Garden of Pleasure,” from Roman de la Rose (late 15th-century Flemish ms)

A romance, then, could project religious or courtly ideologies, but its very adaptability means that rarely is a story wholly controlled by them. Tellingly, Chrétien de Troyes’ influential and engaging French romances, written in the late twelfth century, imagine romance stories emerging in an interlude between Arthur’s serious military campaigns. Romance time is not always linear or consistent: it can fold back on itself, or split into fragments, allowing space for unlikely conquests both military and sexual …

In the hugely popular French poem, The Romance of the Rose, the tangled allegory of a dreamer seeking to pluck the rose he desires is wrapped around with parodic romance imagery, for example of the God of Love besieging the castle of Jealousy (fig. 10) Here romance, Ovidian irony and religion combine to spawn the bastard God Cupid, directing a military campaign to capture love’s prize. John Gower’s major English poem, Confessio amantis (A Lover’s Confession), written in the late 1380s, combines this ironic treatment of human desire familiar from The Romance of the Rose with a host of exemplary stories.  Gower’s alter ego, Amans (Lover), confesses to every deadly sin, committed in the pursuit of love. His confession is heard not by a Christian priest but by Genius, priest of Venus, whose answering stories combine romance adventure and revelation with an undertow of ethical seriousness that culminates with a book of advice on kingship that Aristotle supposedly gave Alexander…  [End of excerpt, from Nicholas Perkins, “Romance and the Medieval World,” in Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins, The Romance of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2012), pp. 9-32.]

Next time: The Transitions from Chansons de Geste to Romantic Lyric & Epic Poetry

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