Back to top

Four Romances of England: Introduction


1 See Introduction to King Horn in this volume for an alternative dating of King Horn in the middle of the thirteenth century.

2 W. R. J. Barron, English Medieval Romance (London: Longman, 1987), p. 54. See also Derek Pearsall, "The Development of Middle English Romance," Mediaeval Studies 27 (1965), 91-116; Susan Crane, Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Harriet Hudson, "Middle English Popular Romances: The Manuscript Evidence," Manuscripta 28 (1984), 67-78.

3 Gabriel Josopovici, The Book of God: A Response to the Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 199.

4 Barron, pp. 5-6.

5 For a comprehensive discussion of the hybrid nature and transformative potential of romance see Kevin and Marina Scordilis Brownlee, Romance: Generic Transformation from Chrétien de Troyes to Cervantes (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985).

6 See Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon, 1949).

7 Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976).

8 For general discussions of medieval marriage, see Georges Duby, Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth-Century France, trans. Elborg Forster (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), and Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), especially pp. 141 ff. See also Christopher Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

9 Stephen Knight, "The Social Function of the Middle English Romance." In Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, & History, ed. David Aers (New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1986), p. 107.

10 Knight, p. 113.

11 Knight, pp. 109-10.

12 Barron, p. 85.

The English word "romance" has accrued multiple meanings over the centuries: the joys of private love, heroic adventure on land and sea, the choice of the risky and exotic over the mundane. Romance is also a generic term that has been applied to such disparate works as ancient Hellenistic and Latin narratives, twentieth-century novels by authors such as Barbara Cartland, and even the mass-produced fantasies of Harlequin. Roman, from which the word "romance" derives, is still the word used for "novel" in several modern European languages. The poems in this volume are also known as romances, a particular type of vernacular narrative which saw popularity in late medieval western Europe.

Of the four romances of England presented here, King Horn (c. 1225) is probably the earliest (other than, arguably, Layamon's Brut, itself a translation of Wace's twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poem on Arthurian themes).1 Havelok the Dane is dated at approximately 1290, with Bevis of Hampton following shortly thereafter (about ten years before Dante began to write his Divine Comedy). Athelston, the latest of the four, was probably composed between 1355 and 1399; thus it was completed shortly after Boccaccio's Decameron (1349-51) and around the time Chaucer was becoming the "father" of English poetry.

These were not the only English romances, of course. Romance was an extremely popular genre in medieval England; from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries dozens of English romances were produced, including, for example, Guy of Warwick, Sir Perceval of Galles, Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Tryamour, and Ywain and Gawain; numerous retellings of Trojan and Theban history, the deeds of Alexander the Great and Richard the Lionhearted as well as the exploits of Charlemagne and his followers exist in Middle English versions; the legends of King Arthur and his knights, originally in Latin, French, and Welsh narratives, experienced a flowering in England in such classics as the Alliterative Morte Arthure (c. 1350-1400) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But the romances in this volume bring together some of the finest imaginative work in what became known as the Matter of England, the non-Arthurian romances dealing largely with English subjects and locales. They stand out as well by their reduced interest in the nuances of courtly behavior so characteristic of French romance, as they pay more attention to the socio-political issues contained within folktale motifs. Manuscript evidence suggests that romance reading in England was hardly confined to the nobility but became part of the increasingly prosperous and literate middle classes' attempts to style themselves after the upper classes.2

Romance and the Epic

It was in the Middle Ages that the word "romanz" was first used to describe vernacular narratives as opposed to Latin poetry. But the meaning of the word narrowed to tales of knightly adventure and love together, linking the masculine, battlefield world of the chanson de geste with the increasing upper-class interest in what we would now call "romantic love." The idea of a personal love-interest between a man and woman, devoid of dynastic or financial concerns, had already taken root in the oral poetry of Provençal trouvères and the court of Marie, Countess of Champagne, which produced courtly love debates and nuanced descriptions of love-relationships set down by her chaplain, Andreas, in his De Amore. This combination of battlefield and boudoir, so to speak, is perhaps the chief way that romance diverges from epic. In the epic genre, an individual character of extraordinary strength demonstrates his martial skills and wisdom as he leads a nation or a group of comrades in great crisis - Odysseus in the Odyssey, Aeneas in the Aeneid, Beowulf in his eponymous epic. While love interests are of some concern to the protagonist, they are incidental to larger dynastic and foundational concerns. For example, Odysseus' return to Penelope is subordinated to his re-establishing the hereditary monarchy on Ithaca. Aeneas' dalliance with Dido delays him from his ultimate goal: to win Italy for the Trojans and to found a line through marriage with King Latinus' daughter, Lavinia. Indeed, Beowulf seems to have little intimacy beyond his band of warriors. Dynasty and glory are the point; love is not.

Romance itself can be distinguished in a number of other ways from epic. In the first place, it invests more heavily than epic in the personal story of the main character, in his response to challenges which test his strength, courage, and knightly courtesy. One can even argue that this happens in Arthurian legend, in which the dominance of the Round Table is eclipsed by the lonely quests for the Holy Grail or by the torn loyalties and madness of Lancelot or Tristan. At times, one may see, with Gabriel Josopovici, that fairy tale and romance "function in a timeless present in which the hero is the centre of the universe," a paradigm in which the nation takes second place.3 Another equally important component of the hero's development is the challenge of love, making women major players in the action, whereas in epic women more usually lure the hero with dilatory lusts, commune weirdly with dead spirits, or stay at home and weave. And this greater centrality of women reminds us of the social and political functions of romance, which to many critics display a class consciousness and a certain anxiety over the instability of feudal relationships.

Romances, especially in England, nevertheless combine social realism with superhuman or supernatural events. This lends a "mixed" quality to romance, the combination of the real and the ideal. As W. R. J. Barron argues, romance is less a genre than a mode of writing:
The expressive conventions of the literary form reflect in their antithetical nature - adventure and instruction, fantasy and idealism, symbolism and realism - the mixed nature of the romantic mode, poised between the mythic and the mimetic. The tension between the various expressive means reflects the paradox within the mixed mode, which in turn reflects the dual nature of man as sensualist and idealist, escapist and moralist. . . . Throughout the Middle Ages [this mode] was all-pervasive, showing itself not only in almost every literary genre, including the professedly mimetic categories of chronicle, history, and biography, but in the other arts and even the forms and ceremonies of courtly life.4
The protean nature of romance, poised as it is between binary oppositions, or existing within a "mixed mode," as Barron describes, renders a potentiality for expression and possibility for transformation that few other "modes of writing" can claim.5 Thus what appears in the beginning to offer dim prospects for the future for a disenfranchised hero may be transformed into success by the end. Perhaps this marks yet another distinction between epic and romance. While epics often conclude in tragedy - the deaths of Hector, Beowulf, and Arthur in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, even the "unfinished" twelfth book of the Aeneid which describes the death of Turnus but no actual wedding between Aeneas and Lavinia - romances are basically comic in structure. Life may be hard for Horn, Bevis, Havelok, or Athelston in the beginning, but by the end they receive rewards for their perseverance and valor: honor and glory for themselves, wedded bliss, and a restored kingdom to rule.

While romances have a similar paradigm of exile and return, the development of the hero's virtue through danger and hardship, there is no such singular scheme of romance composition. Sometimes, as in King Horn or Athelston, the structure is carefully sym-metrical, while at other times it is more asymmetrical and episodic. The plot of Bevis, for instance, is far more complicated, switching from one location to another or adding new adventures that do not seem to build on earlier adventures as keenly as in these shorter, relatively simpler romances. Often, the plot of a romance moves from a position of high privilege to a loss of that privilege followed by subsequent recovery. Horn, for instance, becomes a child exile, serves two different foreign kings to prove himself, and eventually wins back his rightful kingdom from Saracen invaders. Bevis' mother sells him off to Armenian merchants; he later returns to oppose his stepfather and reclaim his patrimony.

This U-shaped motif (called the "monomyth" by such modern mythographers as Joseph Campbell)6 is common to most epic and romance, and especially in romance it helps focus attention on the development of the central hero. Romance follows a pattern of separation and reunion or, as Northrop Frye views it, a journey of descent followed by ascent and a corresponding resolution of the hero's purpose and place in the world.7 Because the very structure of such romances is the development of the hero towards maturity, achievement, and resumption of his rightful title, they often focus on questions of identity - as initial concealment followed by gradual revelation. Havelok conceals his identity as a fisherman; Bevis becomes, at various points in the narrative, a shepherd, messenger, and pilgrim; Athelston begins as a lowly messenger but gradually grows into his identity as king.

Inevitably, the hero will have to prove himself through his valor by some test, usually in warfare. Romance tends to zero in on individual combat more than the expansive and highly exaggerated battle scenes of epic. The chivalric code, not always explicitly spelled out in romance, is nevertheless implied in the bravery, justice, and glory of knightly combat - as, for instance, in the single combat between Yvor and Bevis on an island, and the bravery and triumph that the hero asserts throughout his life.

The Politics of Love and Class

A significant love-relationship, usually ending in marriage, is not only integral to romance as a genre but also to the hero's development. Typically, the hero will fall in love with a high-born woman, whom he marries only after significant obstacles impeding their union have been overcome. Both Horn and Bevis nearly lose their loved ones in marriage to an evil or unwanted man; a neat variation on the idea occurs in Havelok, as Goldeboru is forced to marry against her will a man she thinks is a vulgar peasant, only to discover by a sign from heaven that the peasant is Havelok, of royal lineage equal to her own. In Bevis Josian endures two forced marriages to unsavory men until she is finally wedded to her beloved. For Dame Edyff and Athelston's queen it is not marital union that is impeded, but reunion and reconciliation of family members brought about through their personal sufferings.

The reason these women figure so prominently, in fact, has mostly to do with heterosexual love and courtship. Yet the hero is not always the active pursuer and agent, nor is his female counterpart always the hapless damsel in distress. As if demonstrating the inherent power of transformation, gender roles can surprisingly reverse themselves in romance. Goldeboru, for example, often acts as an equal partner and companion to Havelok. Rymenhild - dismissed by some readers as a cardboard character known mostly for her overwhelming passions - takes the lead in wooing the gallant young Horn. Dame Edyff and Athelston's queen demonstrate an integrity and fortitude that set an example for the men around them, while Josian, one of the most active and well-developed of all medieval heroines, shows remarkable strength through a series of amazingly adverse situations. Medieval romance heroines, just as women in the real medieval world, are prohibited from participating in military combat, but they take an active role in personal relationships in these narratives. This may be in part because the relatively new concept of romantic love in companionate marriage was making its way into popular culture. Marriage was slowly moving away from being mostly an exchange of property (the woman and her dowry being the items of exchange) and towards a loving if not always socially equal partnership.8

The importance of women to romance reminds us that issues of gender in these tales are intertwined with matters of class and the vicissitudes of political power in medieval England. Some political issues had already become ancient history: the attacks by the Saracens in Horn are probably memories of the Viking invasions that had plagued England in the ninth to eleventh centuries. A world that joined a son of Southampton with the daughter of the King of Armenia in Bevis of Hampton may have had its historical roots in England's active role in the Crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In Athelston, trial by ordeal recalls an already discarded practice. Yet the power struggle between the king and clergy in this romance was a continual reality in England. From the Crusades to the Barons' Revolts and the civil uprisings of 1381 to armed conflict with France in the Hundred Years' War, the unglamorous realities of war were well known to the English.

Besides conflict between royalty and clergy, English romance reveals the changing status of the nobility. Throughout the later Middle Ages, the nobility faced innovative legal arrangements and centralized royal power on the one hand and the growing power of the mercantile classes on the other. The increasing practice of primogeniture created an uneasy position for the younger sons of noble families with no inheritance and little else to do except take holy orders or fight. Stephen Knight argues that the figure of the solitary knight, who must prove himself in arms by winning back his patrimony, reflects this uneasy position in contemporary English life.9 In such "family romances" as Amis and Amiloun, The Avowing of Arthur, King Horn, and Athelston, Knight sees that "competitive assertiveness is the inner strain upon the fraternal bond [between knights]."10 But even in the imaginative world of romance, the solitary chivalric hero is sometimes overpowered by a dialectic of multiple interests - as Knight observes, Havelok "shows 'lower-class' features in its village games and physical work, royal myth in its hero and his revelation, urban connections in its links to an origin legend for Grimsby. This text is much broader than the specifically knightly and feudal world, being both older than and marginal to the main romance pattern."11

A threat from below was imposing even more reality on English romance in the changing value of peasant labor in the fourteenth century and in an independent merchant class that would eventually replace feudal society with a dependence on money, capital, deeded property, and litigation. Indeed, congruent with a genre aware of the vicissitudes of contemporary daily life, there is an engaging realism in these romances. Havelok features lists of particular fish on sale in Lincoln, and the hero engages in peasant wrestling contests. Horn is a convincing sooty beggar when he decides to approach Rymenhild in disguise. Athelston's four main characters are initially messengers before they acquire higher social status. Bevis plays various roles from the lower classes before regaining his patrimony. Furthermore, local colors in the form of place names and graphic descriptions of a variety of battles and methods of execution point to the realities of social and political discontent emanating from the lower classes. Even so, Barron's reading of the Matter of England romances suggests a caveat against universalizing class analysis. In comparison to the models of French Romance, "The struggles in which [English romance heroes] are caught up spring not from the internal contradictions of courtly codes but the oppressive forces of a wicked world."12

Everyday life in this wicked world nonetheless comes with eerie surprises. In the simple home of the fisherman Grim, Havelok is identified as a special figure by a mysterious light and a cross-shaped birthmark. Much of the plot of Athelston hangs on a miraculous outcome of a trial by ordeal; Bevis is often saved deus-ex-machina style from certain death. Such intrusions of the supernatural mark the romance hero's life as rather extraordinary. The very real and immediate body of the hero becomes the slate upon which the truth of God's will is indelibly and infallibly written. It is this combination of supernaturalism and a kind of homey realism that gives the Middle English romances in this volume the distinctive "mixed" quality so often seen as definitive of the notion of romance.

Go To King Horn, Introduction
Go To King Horn
Go To Four Romances of England, Menu
Select Bibliography

Barron, W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. London: Longman, 1987. [A general discussion of the genre, audience, and historical backgrounds.]

Brownlee, Kevin, and Marina Scordilis. Romance: Generic Transformation from Chrétien de Troyes to Cervantes. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985.

Crane, Susan. Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. [Delineates distin-guishing features of English romance as well as cultural and ideological issues.]
Fewster, Carol. Traditionality and Genre in Middle English Romance. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987. [Discusses theories and approaches, implied audiences, style, structure, and romance narrativity.]

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Hudson, Harriet. "Middle English Popular Romances: The Manuscript Evidence." Manuscripta 28 (1984), 67-78. [Discusses the provenance of romance manuscripts and their probable audiences.]

Hume, Kathryn. "The Formal Nature of Middle English Romance." Philological Quarterly 53 (1974), 158-80. [Distinguishes three types of romance based upon the hero's ability to fulfill his destiny.]

Knight, Stephen. "The Social Function of the Middle English Romance." In Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, & History. Ed. David Aers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986. Pp. 99-122.

Loomis, Laura A. [Hibbard]. "The Auchinleck Manuscript and a Possible London Bookshop of 1330-1340." PMLA 57 (1942), 595-627. [Study of internal evidence in order to locate the manuscript's production in a commercial scriptorium in London.]

---. Mediæval Romance in England: A Study of the Sources and Analogues of the Non-Cyclic Metrical Romances. 1924; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1960. [A useful study of various versions of thirty-nine English romances.]

Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968. Pp. 146-52. [Addresses historical contexts, audience, generic definitions, narrative techniques of several categories of romance.]

Pearsall, Derek. "The Development of Middle English Romance." Mediaeval Studies 27 (1965), 91-116. [Follows the growth and development of the genre from 1240 to 1400.]

---. "Middle English Romance and Its Audience." In Historical & Editorial Studies in Medieval & Early Modern English for Johan Gerritsen. Ed. MaryJo Arn and Hanneke Wirtjes, with Hans Jansen. Froningen: Wolters-Noordhoof, 1985. Pp. 37-47. [Discusses a range of possible audiences from urban to provincial.]

Ramsey, Lee C. Chivalric Romances: Popular Literature in Medieval England. Bloom-ington: Indiana University Press, 1983. [A general survey of the origins of medieval romance as well as the major types of English romance plots. Includes a chronological list of romances.]

Strohm, Paul. "Storie, Spelle, Geste, Romaunce, Tragedie: Generic Distinctions in the Middle English Troy Narratives." Speculum 46 (1971), 348-59. [A useful study of genre as perceived by medieval writers.]

---. "The Origin and Meaning of Middle Engish Romaunce." Genre 10 (1977), 1-28. [Discusses the use of the term from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries and addresses such related terms as storie, geste, and lay.]

Wittig, Susan. Stylistic and Narrative Structures in the Middle English Romances. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978. [A study of the problems of stylistic analysis and various structural units.]