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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Gender and Genre
  • Romance and Theory
  • Romance and the Novel
  • Romance and Drama

British and Irish Literature Romance
Helen Moore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0117


Western European romance (understood in its broadest outlines as a vernacular narrative of love and war, often with a supernatural dimension) emerged in France in the 12th century. It arrived in England via Anglo-Norman romances and their translations and was swiftly naturalized, flourishing in the 14th century in the works of Chaucer and the Gawain poet as well as in popular forms, and developing in the 15th century in prose, of which Malory’s Morte Darthur (1485) is the high point. This pattern of translation and naturalization continued through the 16th century, with the rediscovery of the ancient Greek romances and the importing of peninsular prose romance. During the 17th century, English romance—again reinvigorated by French in the form of the heroic romance—coexisted with the early novel; often characterized as conflicted or supplanting, this relationship was actually one of mutual engagement. As noted in The Cambridge History of the English Novel (Caserio and Hawes 2012) the novel has always been, and remains, entangled and engaged with romance. A similarly close and cross-fertilizing relationship is evident between Romance and Drama, especially in the early modern period. Romance has also played an important role in many periods as both the spur to and a mechanism of political retrospection and resistance. Unrestrained in its matter (exotic, fantastic, military, political, allegorical, erotic, religious, and so forth), romance has provided ample opportunities for the articulation and performance of multiple identities, and so has been hospitable to modern engagements of critical and theoretical variety, from structuralism and Marxism to feminism and postcolonialism. A core component of the antiquarian researches of the 18th century, romance has always drawn attention in its material aspect, as witnessed by the strong presence of romances among the volumes of the Early English Text Society, and in the 21st century in online resources.

General Overviews

The early period of romance is much better provided with general overviews than later periods; Arthurian romance commands particular attention, as Pearsall 2003 shows. Often approached according to the classification of its ‘matter’ (Beer 1970, Barron 1987) or national or linguistic affiliation (Krueger 2000), Medieval Romance has also been considered from the point of view of its self-designation (Strohm 1977) or form (Purdie 2008). Cooper 2004 has been highly influential in arguing for the continuation of medieval romance across the boundaries of medieval/Renaissance and manuscript/print. Fuchs 2004 provides the best modern overview, addressing both the literary-historical and theoretical complexities of the genre, while the period-specific chapters of Saunders 2004 provide many helpful points of entry.

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

    Providing a detailed and linguistically wide-ranging survey, with plentiful attention to the continental inheritance, this volume considers English Medieval Romance according to its ‘matter’ (England, France, Rome, or Britain).

  • Beer, Gillian. The Romance. Critical Idiom 10. London: Methuen, 1970.

    Like other studies of romance published in the 1970s, Beer’s survey of the genre is conditioned by a belief in its continuities of matter (love, magic) and attitude (nostalgia, wish-fulfilment) across historical periods. Abstract notions of idealism and desire feature strongly in her account, which nonetheless contains many perceptive and still valuable observations on the transformations of romance tropes and strategies across English literature.

  • Caserio, Robert L., and Clement Hawes, eds. The Cambridge History of the English Novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    In their introduction to this survey of the English novel, the editors return repeatedly to the entanglement of the novel and romance.

  • 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

    A wide-ranging study examining the perpetuation of romance motifs (or ‘memes,’ as Cooper terms them) from English Medieval Romance into early modern works by, primarily, Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare. The romance ‘memes’ discussed by Cooper are the quest, the rudderless boat, “magic that doesn’t work” (p. 137), fairy monarchs, desiring women, calumniated women, the rightful heir, and the unhappy ending.

  • Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203337646

    This volume dramatically updated Beer’s conception of romance by considering the writing and reading of romance as acts of cultural appropriation, consumption, and transformation. Beginning with an overview of major interventions by Frye, Jameson, and Parker on the theorization of romance, Fuchs provides an historically detailed and critically original account of romance as manifested in the interlocking literatures of ancient Greece, England, and continental Europe.

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

    Addressing the major vernaculars of western Europe, this study provides a wide-ranging overview of the matter and manifestations of romance in the medieval period. Cast in ambitious and thought-provoking terms, it exemplifies the importance of gender, society, and material culture in current romance studies. It looks backward to antiquity and forward to the novel in the form of Cervantes.

  • Pearsall, Derek. Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470775998

    Focused on the English and later the American tradition, this accessible introduction begins with chapters on the historical Arthur and the continental underpinnings of Arthurian romance in English.

  • Purdie, Rhiannon. Anglicising Romance: Tail-Rhyme and Genre in Medieval Literature. Studies in Medieval Romance. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2008.

    Detailed examination of tail-rhyme romance, the twelve-line stanza form that developed uniquely in England. Looking back to the Anglo-Norman tradition and outward to the role of scribes and their practices, this book considers the relationships of genre and “Englishness,” with particular attention to the 14th-century Auchinleck manuscript.

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

    Covering a very wide range of texts and traditions, this introduction to the genre is organized chronologically, from ancient romance to the present day. While its primary focus is on English romance, there are individual chapters on Anglo-Norman Romance and on America. The interactions of romance with politics, gender, history, and the novel are addressed throughout.

  • Strohm, Paul. “The Origin and Meaning of Middle English Romaunce.” Genre 10.1 (1977): 1–28.

    Detailed survey of the origin and application of romance as a generic term and its relationship to other medieval categories such as “conte” and “lay.”

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