Medieval Chivalric Romance

​Illustration for Roman de la Rose

De Lorris, Guillaume/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Chivalric romance is a type of prose or verse narrative that was popular in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe. They typically describe the adventures of quest-seeking, legendary knights who are portrayed as having heroic qualities. Chivalric romances celebrate an idealized code of civilized behavior that combines loyalty, honor, and courtly love.

Knights of the Round Table and Romance

The most famous examples are the Arthurian romances recounting the adventures of Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, and the other “Knights of the Round Table.” These include the Lancelot (late 12th century) of Chrétien de Troyes, the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century), and Thomas Malory's prose romance (1485).

Popular literature also drew on themes of romance, but with ironic or satiric intent. Romances reworked legends, fairy tales, and history to suit the readers' (or, more likely, the hearers') tastes, but by 1600 they were out of fashion, and Miguel de Cervantes famously burlesqued them in his novel Don Quixote.

Languages of Love

Originally, romance literature was written in Old French, Anglo-Norman and Occitan, later, in English and German. During the early 13th century, romances were increasingly written as prose. In later romances, particularly those of French origin, there is a marked tendency to emphasize themes of courtly love, such as faithfulness in adversity. During the Gothic Revival, from c. 1800 the connotations of "romance" moved from the magical and fantastic to somewhat eerie "Gothic" adventure narratives.

Queste del Saint Graal (Unknown)

The Lancelot–Grail, also known as the Prose Lancelot, the Vulgate Cycle, or the Pseudo-Map Cycle, is a major source of Arthurian legend written in French. It is a series of five prose volumes that tell the story of the quest for the Holy Grail and the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. 

The tales combine elements of the Old Testament with the birth of Merlin, whose magical origins are consistent with those told by Robert de Boron (Merlin as the son of a devil and a human mother who repents her sins and is baptized).

The Vulgate Cycle was revised in the 13th century, much was left out and much was added. The resulting text, referred to as the "Post-Vulgate Cycle," was an attempt to create greater unity in the material and to de-emphasize the secular love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. This version of the cycle was one of the most important sources of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' (Unknown)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in Middle English in the late 14th-century and is one of the best known Arthurian stories. The “Green Knight” is interpreted by some as a representation of the “Green Man” of folklore and by others as an allusion to Christ.

Written in stanzas of alliterative verse, it draws on Welsh, Irish and English stories, as well as the French chivalric tradition. It is an important poem in the romance genre and it remains popular to this day.

'Le Morte D'Arthur' by Sir Thomas Malory

Le Morte d'Arthur (the Death of Arthur) is a French compilation by Sir Thomas Malory of traditional tales about the legendary King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the Knights of the Round Table.

Malory both interprets existing French and English stories about these figures and also adds original material. First published in 1485 by William Caxton, Le Morte d'Arthur is perhaps the best-known work of Arthurian literature in English. Many modern Arthurian writers, including T.H. White (The Once and Future King) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (The Idylls of the King) have used Malory as their source.

'Roman de la Rose' by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1230) and Jean de Meun (c. 1275)

The Roman de la Rose is a medieval French poem styled as an allegorical dream vision. It is a notable instance of courtly literature. The work's stated purpose is to entertain and to teach others about the Art of Love. At various places in the poem, the "Rose" of the title is seen as the name of the lady and as a symbol of female sexuality. The other characters' names function as ordinary names and also as abstractions illustrating the various factors that are involved in a love affair.

The poem was written in two stages. The first 4,058 lines were written by Guillaume de Lorris circa 1230. They describe the attempts of a courtier to woo his beloved. This part of the story is set in a walled garden or locus amoenus, one of the traditional topoi of epic and chivalric literature.

Around 1275, Jean de Meun composed an additional 17,724 lines. In this enormous coda, allegorical personages (Reason, Genius, etc.) hold forth on love. This is a typical rhetorical strategy employed by medieval writers.

'Sir Eglamour of Artois' (Unknown)

Sir Eglamour of Artois is a Middle English verse romance written c. 1350. It is a narrative poem of about 1300 lines. The fact that six manuscripts and five printed editions from the 15th and 16th centuries survive is evidence for the case that Sir Eglamour of Artois was likely quite popular in its time.

The story is constructed from a large number of elements found in other medieval romances. Modern scholarly opinion is critical of the poem for this reason, but readers should note that “borrowing” material during the Middle Ages was quite common and even expected. Authors made use of the humility topos in order to translate or re-imagine already popular stories while acknowledging original authorship.

If we view this poem from a 15th-century perspective as well as from a modern standpoint, we find, as Harriet Hudson argues, a "romance [that] is carefully structured, the action highly unified, the narration lively” (Four Middle English Romances, 1996).

The action of the story involves the hero fighting with a fifty-foot giant, a ferocious boar, and a dragon. The hero’s son is carried off by a griffin and the boy’s mother, like Geoffrey Chaucer's heroine Constance, is carried in an open boat to a distant land.

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Burgess, Adam. "Medieval Chivalric Romance." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Burgess, Adam. (2021, September 8). Medieval Chivalric Romance. Retrieved from Burgess, Adam. "Medieval Chivalric Romance." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).