I was fortunate to be able to attend the What Is Love? Romance Fiction in the Digital Age Conference at the Library of Congress last Wednesday. For those who were unable to attend, tweets from the conference’s panel sessions have been Storified.
It was an informative event that brought together dozens of experts from a variety of fields that intersect with romance. Rather than attempting a comprehensive post on the whole conference, today I’m going to touch on a single highlight that aligns most closely with some of my other scholarly interests.
The second panel featured William Reddy, Professor of History and Cultural Anthropology at Duke, who asserted that contrary to popular belief, modern romance novels do not represent archetypal models of love. Rather, he maintained the birth of the love story as we understand it can be traced to the twelfth century, when the genre of romance largely supplanted other literary modes such as epic; with this shift, romantic love became a source of strength rather than weakness for the hero.
Reddy’s comments could have been a bit more nuanced, in particular his argument that romance represented a pushback against the Catholic Church’s new teachings on sex and marriage. Twelfth-century romance adopted a variety of postures toward love, including courtly and anti-courtly discourses. Moreover, the Church was eventually successful in assimilating romance to a large extent by radically Christianizing it, most notably in La Quête du Saint Graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail), in which the ideal knight is no longer the best fighter and lover but rather the most pious Christian.
It is also true that portrayals of love in medieval romance tend to be far different from their contemporary incarnation. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century love stories were typically based on adultery borne of unhappy marriages (Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere). And unlike today’s romance telos, in the Middle Ages there was no guarantee of a happy ending.
That said, medieval literature (including works that predate the explosion of romance) is a fruitful area of inquiry for those who study popular romance in its modern form.
Some disclosure is in order here: My scholarly training is in French literature, with an emphasis on the medieval and post-1968 periods. My dissertation analyzed reworkings of Arthurian legend in recent French novels, plays, TV series, comic books, and films, in particular how they engage with many of the textual strategies that mark the earlier works. So I have been attuned for years to points of resonance across the centuries in various literary traditions.
With that in mind, I would like to suggest that, although the definition of romantic love that guides popular romance fiction today is not transhistorical, the premodern Western literary tradition has a lot to offer scholars and readers of popular romance in terms of productive lenses through which to view current literary trends.
Here are some areas of correspondence between the premodern and the (post)modern that readily come to mind:
- alternative models of love, in particular possible slippage from the homosocial bond (i.e., bromance) to the homosexual, including iconic male couples such as Roland and Olivier, or Lancelot and Galehaut, as antecedents to today’s m/m romance
- narratives foregrounding cross-dressing, role reversal, and gender performativity in texts such as Aucassin et Nicolette and Le Roman de Silence
- Marie de France’s Lais such as Yonec and Bisclavret as medieval forebears to the were- and shapeshifter trends in romance, and more broadly, the medieval Otherworld’s link to fantasy-inflected love stories
- authorship and readerly community in the Middle Ages: Arthuriana as a medieval form of fanfic in which vast networks of writers contributed translations, reworkings, alternate continuities, continuations, prequels, and paratexts
- hagiography (saints’ lives) as a parallel genre associated with discourses of passion (both physical and spiritual), sacrifice, and bodily suffering, with particular emphasis on metaphor