In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Epic and Romance

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies of Critical Essays
  • History of Italian Interpretations
  • Italian Renaissance Narrative Poems
  • England
  • France, Germany, Iberia, and the New World

Renaissance and Reformation Epic and Romance
Dennis Looney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0155


Epic and romance are distinct literary genres that poets combine in some of the most effective narrative poems of the early modern period, such as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Critics refer to these sorts of poems variously as “romance” or “romantic epics” or “epic romances” or “chivalric epics” or “heroic poems,” with each designation emphasizing a slightly different part of, or way of looking at, the hybrid literary form. To simplify greatly, one might say that the focus of epic is war, whereas that of romance is love. Renaissance rewritings of epic often include catalogues of armies, elaborate battles, extended similes, and funeral games; in addition to love, romance narratives tend to focus on adventure, magic, disguise, and flight. The primary goal of Renaissance humanism, the pedagogical movement that began in Italy in the 14th century and spread out from there over the following centuries, was the revitalization of contemporary culture through the recuperation of antiquity. Classical epic was a genre that humanistically inspired poets were eager to adapt to modern literary culture to establish the value of their own respective vernacular traditions. Canonical models like Homer and Vergil, as well as more adversarial and disputed ones, such as Ovid, Lucan, and Statius, served well. There is a tradition of prose romances in antiquity, and there are many romance-like passages in classical epic, but when critics speak of the romance tradition that a poet like Ariosto used, they generally mean Arthurian romances or the “matter of Britain.”This was a vast body of work codified in literary form by Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century, which was the inspiration for numerous romance works, prose and poetry, in different vernaculars from the medieval through the early modern period. The combination of epic and romance conventions and themes into a single literary work, then, is a fusion of elements of classical antiquity and literary medieval culture.

General Overviews

Lewis 1936 incorporates into a fundamental study of the literary form of the English and French romance lively readings of Boiardo and Ariosto pointing non-Italian critics to the authors. The canon of authors in Bowra 1972, a mix of writers associated with either romance or epic, becomes the starting place for subsequent studies on the Renaissance recuperation of classical antiquity in literature. Greene 1975 and Giamatti 1989 compartmentalize elements of the romance epic genre in their respective studies of a single theme across many different narratives. Burrow 1993 locates in the Homeric poems the source for the romance epic representation of sympathy, which he sees as a kind of theme. Murrin 1980 begins with Homer for a review of allegorical representation and interpretation in the major narratives of the Renaissance. In the author’s attempt to identify the constituent elements of romance, Parker 1979 expands the study of the romance epic genre to include examples not typically considered (Keats). In the comparatist mode of Greene and Giamatti and recognizing the Vergilian emphasis of Bowra 1972, Quint 1993 interprets the development of the epic genre’s literary form in specific political, social, and religious contexts. In Quint’s interpretation, there are two epic traditions, major and minor, Vergilian and Lucanic, the former focused on winners, the latter on losers. Through a convincing reading of the ecphrasis of Aeneas’s shield in Aeneid 8, he argues that the Vergilian tradition contains the seeds of the Lucanic within it, that is, epic contains romance. Durling 1965 remains fundamental for considerations of authorial voice.

  • Bowra, C. M. From Virgil to Milton. London: Macmillan, 1972.

    On the recuperation of literary epic in the Renaissance with a focus on Vergil’s Aeneid as literary model, which takes into account Camôes’s Os Lusíadas, Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, with substantial discussions of the narrative poems of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Spenser. Originally published in 1945.

  • Burrow, Colin. Epic Romance: Homer to Milton. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

    A survey of how the poets from Homer to Milton, including Vergil, Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser, represent the characteristics of the epic hero, with attention to how the supreme pagan virtues of imperial duty and honor eventually transform into Christian pity. Emotions in Homeric epic are the sources for literary depictions to come.

  • Durling, Robert M. The Figure of the Poet in Renaissance Epic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

    A still-fundamental starting place for study of the role of the authorial voice in Renaissance romance epic narratives, including sections on Boiardo, Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser, with a glance back at Chaucer and Petrarch.

  • Giamatti, A. Bartlett. The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

    A study of the theme of the terrestrial garden, the locus amoenus, focusing on its development in Ariosto, Camôes, Spenser, and Milton, with attention to other poets including Dante, Petrarch, Poliziano, and Trissino. The delights of the garden can be portrayed as temptation (romance) or as a reward for the hero (epic). Originally published in 1966.

  • Greene, Thomas M. The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

    A study of the motif of the messenger descending from heaven, whether pagan or Christian, to communicate with mortals, which privileges the Vergilian source from Aeneid 4 and its models in the Homeric poems. In addition to examining (following Bowra) the canonical authors of epic romance (Homer, Vergil, Ariosto, Tasso, Camôes, Spenser, Milton), Greene considers Sannazaro, Hojeda, Marino, d’Aubigné, Saint-Amant, and Vondel. Originally published in 1963.

  • Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1936.

    The author considers courtly love in Troubadour poetry and its influence on Chrétien de Troyes. He then considers the theme in English medieval and Renaissance authors up to Spenser. Assessing Spenser’s dependence on Boiardo and Ariosto, Lewis spends much time discussing the depictions of love in their respective poems.

  • Murrin, Michael. The Allegorical Epic: Essays in Its Rise and Decline. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

    A complement to his earlier The Veil of Allegory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), here Murrin offers readings in practical criticism that consider allegorical interpretations of Homer, Vergil (as read through Renaissance Neoplatonists), Boiardo, Tasso, Spenser, and Milton.

  • Parker, Patricia. Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

    A study of the essential characteristic of romance narrative in which the hero is unable to complete the quest because of endless digressions off the main course. In Ariosto, Spenser, and Milton, wandering astray and the narrative deferral to describe it assume a moral valence, whether in reference to protagonist, poet, or reader.

  • Quint, David. Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton. Literature in History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

    Argues that Vergilian narrative (symbolized in the ecphrasis of Aeneas’s shield in Aeneid 8) offers a model of the epic of conquest containing within it a critique of imperial ideology. While some subsequent narrative poets (Camôes, Tasso) value the Vergilian epic lesson, others prefer a model based on Lucan’s Pharsalia that emphasizes republican defeat (Ercilla, d’Aubigné).

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