Medieval Romance in Literature : Definition and Characteristics

In the realm of Middle English literature, the Middle English literature, the Medieval romances occupied an unrivalled place as an unique literary form with their simple diction, melodious versification and variety in contents. Thus, with a detailed study of the elements of Medieval romance with its definition and history will enable us to enumerate the characteristics of Medieval romance.

Medieval Romance in Literature : Definition and Characteristics

The Medieval romance were of the 12th century France in origin. Etymologically, the word ‘romance’ represents any word written in French, which originates from a dialect of a Roman language, i.e , Latin. These romances found way to the English literature through the Normans. Dealing with the romantic and chivalric spirit, it fully signifies the ‘temper’ of the middle age society. For the thorough presentation of the romantic temper of the age with its tales of adventures, love, knights, lovely ladies and monsters it epitomize the childish, adventurous and credulous soul of the society and thereby pervaded the literary world, overshadowing other forms of literature. Perhaps, it can be deemed as the most popular form of literature of the Middle English period.

Characteristics of medieval romances

Medieval romance is a type of narrative representing courtly and chivalric age, often one of highly developed manners civility. Previously it was written in verse but later prose form also came into being. As courtly love is the central interest of these romances, its standard plot is usually a quest undertaken by a single knight for gaining a ladies favour. Narrating a knightly adventure together with tournaments fought and dragons and monsters for damsel’s sake, it stresses the chivalric ideals of courage, loyalty, honour, mercifulness to an opponent and elaborate manners. In dealing with supernatural events, romances distinguished itself from epics. Unlike epics, supernatural events in romances doesn’t have their causes in the will and action of the God, but shifts them to this world and makes much of the mysterious effects of magic spells and enchantment.

According to Jean Bodel, an old French poet, there are three principle sources of the recurrent materials of Medieval romances, namely, the matter of France, the matter of Rome and the matter of England; among them the matter England were the most popular.

The matter of France in medieval romance

The first cycle of romances, the matter of France, had a great literary influence. It was mainly concerned with the heroic exploits of the great French peer, Charlemagne and his followers. Started in France with the story of Ronald, it includes all the subjects of the old France national epics – such as the story of Ronald, Ronald of Montalven; the four songs of Aymon; Ferabros; Ogier the Dane;. The matter of France couldn’t get popularity in England as in France for its wand in variety, the vague of Arthurian cycle and the anti-Gaelic spirit. Among the France romances names may be mentioned of “Rouf Coilyear”, “Sir Ferumbras”, “The Geste” and “The geste of Robinhood”.

The matter of Rome in medieval romance

The matter of Rome includes romances dealing with the deeds of Alexander, classical legends of Virgil and Ovid etc.Having its origin in the East, these tales includes “The Arabian Nights”, tales of squire of low degree, “Barlaam’ and “Joshaphat” containing Lord Buddha’s story, “Flores” and “Blancheflar” and so on.

The matter of England in medieval romance

On the analogy of Jean Bodel’s classification, the subject matter of these romances has been called the matter of England. They celebrate the feats of gallantry, the spirit of adventure, consistense in love and so on. 

The romances dealing with King Arthur and the knights of his round table are at the pinnacle with “Sir Gawain and the Green knight” as the finest of them. About its authorship the details available are not real but authentic- it is believed that it had been composed by an unknown contemporary of Chaucer, sometime in the later part of the 14th century. A harmonious metrical melody is well marked all through the poem which remains an outstanding Middle English work that achieves the successful fusion of a romantic theme and a happy technique.
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