Medieval romance

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Miniature, Herr Kristan van Hamle, 71v, Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, c. 1300-1340, University Library Heidelberg

Medieval manuscripts containing romances were widely read in the Middle Ages.
Image: Herr Kristan van Hamle, 71v, Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, c. 1300-1340, University Library Heidelberg, CC.

What do the Middle Ages have to do with the twenty-first century? Knights, quests, dragons, giants; these are motifs integral to the medieval romance, but which seem very far from the gleaming modernity of today’s contemporary romances. Yet whilst medieval and modern romances are separated by hundreds of years, there are some surprising similarities between them. A closer look at one of the most popular late medieval romances, Sir Eglamour of Artois, reveals some of these parallels.

Eglamour, a Middle English romance dating from the mid-fourteenth century, tells the story of our hero, a knight in the service of the earl of Artois, who falls in love with his master’s daughter, Christabelle. A series of tests, including the slaying of a deer, a boar, giants, and a dragon, are proposed by the earl, after which Eglamour and Christabelle may marry.

The first similarity which can be drawn with contemporary romance, is that medieval romances, whilst not on a par with the popularity of today’s romance novels, were among the most widely consumed texts in the late Middle Ages: almost 90 manuscripts containing romances survive today, indicating a substantial demand for romance stories (Hudson 1984, 67). Eglamour survives in six manuscripts, suggesting that it was one of the most popular romances at the time (Hudson 2006, np).

Yet Eglamour’s popularity has not prevented modern scholars from disparaging the romance, which has been labelled mediocre (Mehl 1968, 78). These are, incidentally, the same kinds of comments which have been made about modern romance. So, both genres are enormously popular, but have encountered a hostile critical reception.

A third parallel is in the use of fantasy, exotic, and luxury settings. Today’s romances are often set in foreign locations, characterised by wealth and extravagance. Medieval romances are often partly set in fantasy locations: created geographical spaces or entirely fantastic fairy realms. Eglamour is no exception, and its characters roam through a mysterious forest guarded by a giant, and travel to Egypt and Israel. Luxury descriptions similarly abound in Eglamour: characters wear “ryche colours” (1179) of “scarlet”(833) and “golde” (836), and are hyperbolically generous, giving the minstrels at the wedding feast “gyftus [gifts] […] worth an hondred pownd” (1316). It is possible that descriptions of indulgence and riches are an integral part of the pleasure of romance, both medieval and modern.

A final similarity is in the barriers facing the love relationship. Many medieval romances are deeply concerned with social mobility through marriage. Socially-advantageous marriage often occurs: the pattern of plucky romance heroes marrying high status women has been called the ‘male Cinderella’ motif (Wittig 1978, 89).

Eglamour is well-established in the earl’s court, but he is still a “knyght of lyttyll land” (64), and is of a lower social status than Christabelle who, as sole heiress, would be expected to marry strategically. However, just as contemporary Harlequin romances present couples who eschew tradition in favour of true love, so too do Eglamour and Christabelle, consummating their union and conceiving a child before they are officially married. Eglamour thus simultaneously subverts familial order and social hierarchy, by marrying a woman of a different status and consummating the relationship before marriage, and sustains it, through the production of a male heir to continue the earl’s lineage.

So, to return to my initial question: what do the Middle Ages have to do with the twenty-first century? In romance, a popular genre in both periods, sharing themes and motifs which are still dismissed by modern academics, the answer is: a great deal.

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Amy Burge is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for Women’s Studies, The University of York.

If you enjoyed this post, you can find more information at Amy Burge’s web page.

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Sir Eglamour of Artois,” Four Middle English Romances, 2nd edition, ed. Harriet Hudson (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006), accessed 2/1/2012.

Harriet Hudson, “Middle English Popular Romances: The Manuscript Evidence,” Manuscripta 28 (1984): 67-78.

Harriet Hudson (ed.), “Sir Eglamour of Artois: Introduction,” Four Middle English Romances, 2nd edition (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006), accessed 2/1/2012.

Dieter Mehl, The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (London, 1968).

Susan Wittig, Stylistic and Narrative Structures in Middle English Romance (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978).