Some Remarks about Romance



Because of the volume and diversity of Middle English romances, the genre is difficult to define, but the recent studies of D. Everett, G. Kane, and A.C. Baugh have clarified the essential characteristics. The medieval romance is a narrative about knightly prowess and adventure, in verse or in prose, intended primarily for the entertainment of a listening audience. Didactic elements, to be sure, appear in some romances, but they are subordinate to the aim of entertainment. Although the romances draw upon an extremely broad range of subjects, the story is presented, even for bourgeois audiences, in terms of chivalric life, heightened and idealized according to the varying imaginative powers of the individual authors, whether pedestrian, crude, or genuinely sensitive to poetic values. The effort to idealize chivalry produces simplified characters, either heroes or villains, without psychological subtleties, and the happy ending is customary.  Innocence is vindicated, virtue rewarded, and wickedness punished or cast out by repentance. The romancers stress the lavishness and splendor of feasts and other public ceremonies, often with a prolixity irritating to the modern reader, and describe in similar detail the paraphernalia of courtly life.  Since the romances, like other kinds of medieval narrative, show little concern with historical accuracy in the modern sense, they regularly interpret ancient or exotic stories in terms of the contemporary and the familiar. Another marked characteristic is the conspicuous presence of the supernatural, once regarded as an indication of medieval naiveté but now recognized rather as a larger acceptance on the part of the medieval public of strange and unusual phenomena not explicable by reason or experience. 


Helen Newstead, “Romances,” from Severs and Hartung, eds., A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500 (New Haven, 1967)



Though the hero-alone story has been seen as 'the basic paradigm of the romance'. . . the family-based pattern is both very common and ideologically rich. In this structure, at the beginning, the knight already has a family and a disruptive force separates its members. They must struggle through many trials to enjoy reunion; the knight's own role is often important, but never total, and may indeed be marginal; wife or son can be the main agents of re-establishment. . . .


Significant differences between the knight-alone and the family-based patterns are located in their threat and resolution structures. Threats to the family may be in part the same as those of the knight-alone type--exile, isolation, shame. But many of the family-based romances involve threats to more than a single hero. The wife often plays a major role, she may be 'calumniated' as the folklorists call it--exiled, threatened with various oppressions. The child or children may also be of an age to suffer consciously; if very young, they may be abandoned, stolen by animals, or put in the care of merchants or infidels.

          The values which rescue the feudal family from these terrible fates are also wider than in the knight-alone romances. True, fighting does often play a major part, but it may be conducted by a son as well as (or instead of) a father, so embracing the reproduction of tide and authority as well as their re-imposition. The wife's virtues are often substantial and instrumental--endurance, fidelity, courage, shrewdness, but also physical action and intervention. Her overarching virtues of passivity and loyalty to her menfolk locate the stories in a patriarchal context . . . .


Stephen Knight, “The Social Function of the Middle English Romances,” in Medieval Literature: Critisicm, Ideology, and History, ed. David Aers (St. Martin’s 1986), pp. 99-122 [110-111]




…it is… difficult to understand why poems that are so bad according to almost every criteria of literary value should have held such a central position in the literary culture of their own period.


Derek Pearsall, “Understanding Middle English Romance,” Review 2 (1980): 105.



Sir Eglamour is a mechanical shuffling-together of stock incidents, whisked vigorously and poured out at a pace that aims to provice little time for reflection on what rubbish it all is. Sheer multiplication of stimuli is the writer’s recipe for success, and the existence of four manuscripts and five sixteenth century prints would seem to suggest that he knew what he was about.


Derek Pearsall, “The Development of Middle English Romance, in Studies in Middle English Romances: Some New Approaches, ed. Derek Brewer (D.S. Brewer, 1988), pp. 11-35 [31]



The new understanding of romance, as of folktale, comes from recognising what may be called 'the mimetic fallacy'. The mimetic fallacy is based on the belief that actions, people and things can and should be closely imitated in words. With this belief are linked two others. One is, that the actions and people so imitated should be such as could be met with in ordinary life. The second belief is that people cause actions, which affect people, and so forth - that is, that life is a series of identifiable materialistic causes and effects, which of course stories should in consequence imitate. Strictly speaking neither the belief in ordinary reality, nor that it is a sequence of cause and effect, need logically be associated with the mimetic fallacy, but it is easy to see that all three notions fall close together. It is a matter of historical fact in the history of literature that they did emerge together as a result of complex multiple factors in the course of the sixteenth century in Europe and began to predominate in the European mind from the second half of the seventeenth century. The grand marker in terms of literary history is the appearance of that great satire on romance, Don Quixote, (1605). Nothing less was in issue, ultimately, than a profound and only partly conscious change in the European sense of ultimate 'reality'. Formerly, as still in traditional worldviews, ultimate 'reality' was believed to lie behind the surfaces, the appearances, of things. Increasingly from the late seventeenth century the world of appearances, or, more subtly, the phenomenal world, the material world, has been taken to be the ultimate and indeed the only real world.

So brief an account is necessarily crude and oversimplified. Moreover, the twentieth century has seen so much more deeply into material 'reality' that it may almost be said to have come out on the other side. Hence indeed the new interest in romance, which is essentially a non-mimetic mode of writing. We note that twentieth-century art since Cubism, music since Stravinsky, literature since James Joyce's Ulysses, (to take outstanding examples) have all become non-mimetic. …

We can see a stranger truth. It is now clear that even the most realistic or naturalistic novel may, for all the Neoclassical assumptions of writer and first readers, incorporate below its surface structures which are in fact more like the romance or even the folktale than at first appears, So realistic a novel, for example, as Henry James' Princess Casamassima (first published 1886), has at its heart a romance fantasy, akin to fairy-tale, about the lost child of a noble parent. Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, offer more examples. But in these instances the romance or folktale theme lies beneath the realistic surface.

The persistence of the non-realistic fantasy theme within the Neoclassical novel itself suggests the fallacy of mimesis.


Derek Brewer, “Escape from the Mimetic Fallacy,” in in Studies in Middle English Romances: Some New Approaches, ed. Brewer (D.S. Brewer, 1988), pp. 1-10 [1-2, 3].




Modem narrative is often distinguished by the way in which it frustrates the conventional trajectory of desire, pulls it up short and resists the closure that is otherwise, in narrative terms, inevitable. Our desires, such narratives contend, are not finally satisfiable; indeed, desire is a perpetual want whose very resistance to satisfaction exposes the inescapable fictionality of stories that do close with desire's gratification. Of course such resistance to closure is not limited to modem literature, far from it. But it is wholly at odds with what we find in the popular romances. The kind of desire that propels popular romance always finds satisfaction. Aventure, the essence we are told of romance, presumes in fact an unfolding of narrative that--because it is literally advenire, "to arrive at' or 'to reach'--is inescapably mindful of its end. . . . The pleasure of romance is found then not simply in the gratification of desire (the desire of audience and protagonist may coincide, but it is not necessary), but in the way that desire is played out: in the way expectations are raised, challenged (by a series of apparently insurmountable obstacles), and then finally satisfied. The perfunctory nature of most romance conclusions (lovers are united, families reunited, status achieved, and wealth, property, dominion secured all in a few short lines) is indicative of their necessity (although short they cannot be omitted), but also of the fact that the narrative's energy, and with it its pleasure, is predominantly elsewhere. . . .


What so distinguishes popular romance as a genre is the way in which it forges its meanings out of the clash between the marvellous and the mundane. Because the narrative necessarily achieves satisfaction (the knight wins the lady, the Christian wins victory) and because satisfaction is always, for an audience who knows how romance works, a foregone conclusion, there are few limits to what can take place en route to satisfaction: nuns are raped, virgins stripped naked and whipped, mothers are mutilated by their sons, apes abduct small boys and knights feed with dogs, infants are slaughtered by their parents, Christians eat Saracens, the list goes on. But because that satisfaction is so selfconsciously, so overtly fictional, the narrative, with all of its extraordinary twists and turns, can never finally be reduced to the simple certainties (young girls will escape their incestuous fathers, the rightful heir will inherit unjustly lost property) that its end embodies. In other words, the structure of romance is too rigid to contain the complexities and effusions of its narrative; and that is why we enjoy it so much.


Nicola Mcdonald, “A Polemical Introduction,” from Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance, ed. McDonald (Manchester, 2004), pp. 14, 15-16



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But the majority of the audience would have been people who were not in positions of power but accepted the values of those who were--that acceptance depended upon cultural persuasions as well as more tangible coercions, as is normal in such situations.


First, a general summary of romance ideology. The romances confront problems seen from the viewpoint of a landowning, armed class, and resolve those problems with values felt to be potent and admissible. Threats and values are coded to produce a self-concept for the powerful and to present an acceptable image of power to those without it. But the coding and generalising into a cultural form of political dominance does not sever it from a traceable historicity. In the classic romance, the knight establishes his authority over property and creates a family; he excludes enemies and challengers from his land just as the texts exclude from their purview the productive classes; he is his own lord, honoured by the king, but not in any way ruled by him. . . . Those basic patterns of urgent and structural value in medieval secular society are ideologically central in English romance, and so is the consistent representation of a basic contradiction of feudalism, the public and honorific concept of a knightly class in dialectic with the actual one-to-one relations of lord and liege ... The result is a pattern of 'competitive assertiveness' …feudal knights reacting in that basic way towards others who are either of their class or aspire to their position. That structure underlies romance and is its central dominant ideological feature, validating the practices of the feudally powerful, and persuading the non-powerful of the authenticity of the whole imaginary. A classical example of a hegemonic culture.


Stephen Knight, “The Social Function of the Middle English Romances,” in Medieval Literature: Critisicm, Ideology, and History, ed. David Aers (St. Martin’s 1986), pp. 99-122 [101, 102-03]



          Taking the usual view of the original story as a composite of the Constance, Crescentia, and Eustace legends which has the adventure of Florent buried inside it as a distorted set of enfances, we may ask how such a text might have been of direct relevance to the events of the 1350’s . My answer would be that there is a close relationship between the disturbances in English society post-1348 and the events of the narrative, in that what we are presented with in Octavian is a state of national emergency which leads directly to a crisis not only of moral values but also of social position. The fact that this crisis is played out against the background of a bitter and continuing war against an old enemy would surely have added piquancy for the reader of, say, 1355. In other words, the precipitation of a prince into the world of the urban craftsman and the disruption of feudal hierarchy that this implies might well be a read as a displaced treatment and imaging of the class-based fears which were being experienced by the aristocratic and gentry audience at that time.

          It will be clear from the above indication that the audience reaction to the life of Florent in Paris will be complex. For example, if we assume that the laughter of the readers at Clement and his doings is wholly scornful, how can we come to terms with Clement’s subsequent heroism? If we assume that the laughter is that of aristocrat at bourgeois commoner, where do we place ‘the wives of London burgesses’ who Edward III invited to the great tournament at Windsor in 1344? While it is that the growth of large urban centres meant a considerable erosion of the traditional powers of the feudal aristocracy and signified a break in the surface of the feudal economy, nonetheless the powerful urban entrepreneur shared many interests with members of the more traditional ruling class, and many of its representatives swiftly joined the ranks of the titled. We must, therefore, look elsewhere for the source of the laughter, which is undoubtedly at Clement’s expense, and we must also accept that Clement is consistently seen in a dual focus: risible and admirable.



John Simons, “Northern Octavian and the Question of Class,” in Romance in Medieval England. Ed. Maldwyn Mills, Jennifer Fellows, and Carol M. Meale. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991, 108-09.