In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Romance, English

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Genre
  • Form
  • Thematic Studies
  • Essay Collections
  • Journals
  • Performance

British and Irish Literature Medieval Romance, English
Aisling Byrne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0115


Romance is probably the mode of writing that modern audiences most readily associate with the Middle Ages, yet it is a notoriously difficult term to define. Etymologically the term derives from the French romanz, which initially designated the narrative works composed in that vernacular that first appeared in 12th-century France. Texts usually described as “romance” typically concern chivalry, questing, romantic love, and magic. There are also various subgenres that fall under the heading of medieval romance such as the Breton lay and Arthurian romance. Romance arrives in England definitively with the Norman settlers, though a single romance in Old English, Apollonius of Tyre, survives from the years immediately prior to the Norman Conquest. Many of the earliest romances are written in the Anglo-Norman dialect of French, and some of these are translated into Middle English at a later point. Romances in Middle English begin to appear regularly in the mid-14th century, and some of the most famous English romances, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the romances included in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, are composed at the end of the 1300s. Defining what exactly constitutes “English” romance presents its problems: does it mean romances written in English, or romances written in England? The definition cannot be limited to romance in the English language because so many of the early texts from England are Anglo-Norman productions. Some texts that could readily be characterized as romance were also written in Latin. Furthermore, Continental French texts were often translated and adapted into English (though there was little or no movement of texts in the other direction), so the category of “English romance” is not necessarily limited to narratives that originate in England itself. However, English romance also presents certain features or emphases that could be described as distinctive. The interest in romantic love is generally less pronounced than in French texts. Political concerns are to the forefront, and Arthurian material has a particular tendency to explore disputes and tensions over political boundaries and territories. English romance is usually written in verse (not in prose) with over eighty verse romances surviving in Middle English. Vernacular prose romance arrives late in England, only flourishing in the second half of the 15th century. The corpus of surviving prose romances is relatively small but includes one of the most celebrated of all Middle English texts, Malory’s Morte Darthur. This bibliography focuses on medieval romances in various languages written in England or translated into English. It takes the year 1500 as its chronological terminus, but it is worth noting that many of these texts were still being printed, copied, and performed well after this date.

General Overviews

Although most Middle English romances were edited at an early stage, the seemingly low literary quality of many of the texts and the obscurity of the editions they appeared in led to their relative critical neglect. However, by the 1980s scholars had begun to reassess the significance of the Middle English romance tradition, culminating in the influential study Barron 1987. Work on the area has burgeoned since, and romance from medieval England is an increasingly well-served field. New Historicist trends have proved particularly fertile ground for study of English romance and have enabled more fruitful and more frequent engagement with a wide variety of texts in the romance mode. The social background, manuscript contexts, politics, and cultural impact of a range of romances have been studied extensively. Crane 1986 stresses the shared concerns of romances in the two linguistic traditions of England: Anglo-Norman and Middle English. Crane illustrates how these works were shaped by distinctive social and political factors. Political concerns are also at the forefront in Heng 2003, which explores proto-national identities articulated in English romance and in Knight 1986, which analyzes how romance ideologies relate to their social context. The rise of feminist scholarship also encouraged the study of Middle English romance, which often seems designed to appeal to female audiences and female interests. Cooper 2004 is perhaps the most comprehensive and influential account of romance in England; its introduction articulates a convincing redefinition of the genre. The book also makes a powerful argument for the continuity of romance readings across the medieval/Renaissance divide. Increased attention to romance in undergraduate courses has also prompted and been facilitated by a number of useful companion volumes, including Krueger 2000 and Saunders 2004, the latter of which ranges well beyond the medieval period. The most user-friendly reference work for romances in Middle English is MacDonald 2012.

  • Barron, W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. London and New York: Longman, 1987.

    An influential account that traces the development of romance in England and balances attention to major texts with analysis of often neglected minor works.

  • Cooper, Helen. The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199248865.001.0001

    Generally considered the major work in this field. This book is not arranged chronologically but by particular motifs. There is a valuable appendix listing romance texts that still circulated after 1500.

  • Crane, Susan. Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

    A concise account of a group of romances in Anglo-Norman and English that articulate the distinctive concerns of the baronial class in the period after the Norman Conquest.

  • Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

    Situates the rise of romance in the context of European exposure to the East through crusading and travel. Also deals with the thorny question of medieval attitudes to ethnicity and nationality.

  • Knight, Stephen. “The Social Function of the Middle English Romance.” In Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, and History. Edited by David Aers, 99–122. New York: St. Martin’s, 1986.

    Analyzes the political and historical background to Middle English romance. Particular attention is paid to Libeaus Desconus, Emaré, Sir Amadace, and Sir Eglamour.

  • Krueger, Roberta L., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521553423

    A good handbook for undergraduate students, primarily focused on the English context, though the final third of the book also considers romance in other European traditions.

  • MacDonald, Nicola. Database of Middle English Romance. 2012.

    Hosted by the University of York and originally launched in 2012, this online database provides summaries of each text in the extant corpus of romance material in English. Each entry is accompanied by a list of manuscripts and early prints in which the work survives along with modern editions. The keyword search is useful for motif-related research, and the database may also be searched by manuscript and form.

  • Saunders, Corinne, ed. A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

    Employs a capacious definition of “romance” across periods. Chapters 2–6 treat medieval romance, covering Anglo-Norman romance (Weiss), English metrical romance (Brewer), Arthurian romance (Barron), Chaucer’s romances (Saunders), and Malory and English prose romance (Cooper).

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