Sunday, February 15, 2015

Thoughts on medieval literature and popular romance

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 QuĂȘte 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
I would be delighted to know of any scholars who have worked in these areas, or of popular romance authors who are deploying medieval literary traditions (either stories or textual practices) in their own work.


  1. "I would be delighted to know of any scholars who have worked in these areas"

    Amy Burge has written about the parallels between modern and medieval romances. The two articles she's had published so far are:

    Burge, Amy, 2012.
    “Do Knights Still Rescue Damsels in Distress?: Reimagining the Medieval in the Mills & Boon Historical Romance,” The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction , ed. Katherine Cooper and Emma Short (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 95-114.

    Burge, Amy, 2014.
    "‘For you are a man and she is a maid’: Performing masculinity in Orientalist medieval and modern popular romance fiction." Journal of European Popular Culture 5.2: 89-103.

    She's also written about this at her blog e.g these two posts about Floris and Blancheflur:

    Testing Virginity: The Middle English Way

    ‘made [into] a eunuch’: Masculinity in Medieval Romance

    Also of relevance, I think, is Pulp fictions of medieval England: Essays in popular romance, edited by Nicola McDonald and available for free download here.

    I haven't written anything particularly focused on medieval romances but in For Love and Money, for example, I do discuss some ways in which

    Margaret Malcolm’s Leave Me No More (1963) and Jessica Hart’s Business Arrangement Bride (2006), for example, both recall the mythos of ‘Sir Gawain and the loathly lady’

  2. Thanks so very much, Laura -- this is precisely the kind of material I am looking for!

  3. The first chapter of Hsu-Ming Teo's Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels discusses the Middle Ages and refers to some medieval romances.

    Voaden, Rosalynn, 1995.
    'The Language of Love: Medieval Erotic Vision and Modern Romance Fiction', in Romance Revisited , ed. Jackie Stacey and Lynne Pearce (New York: New York UP), pp. 78-88.

    Helen Hackett's Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance. Cambridge: UP, 2000 is a book I've blogged about at Teach Me Tonight because it threw up some interesting parallels.

    I know Sandra Schwab's PhD thesis was about the dragonslayer myth but I only saw some of the chapters in draft, quite a few years ago, and they were ones about modern romances so I don't know if she discussed medieval romances. You could ask her, though.

    1. Which is a good reminder that I still owe you a massive big book package. Sorry about my problem with mail!

      And yes, I used medieval romances as the jumping board for my study on the history of the dragonslayer story. Though the chapter on medieval literature is more of an overview, and the analysis proper starts with The Seven Champions of Christendom (1590s)

  4. Thanks for these as well! I confess that I've had Desert Passions sitting on my bookshelf for the past five weeks but haven't managed to crack it open. I'll try to give that first chapter priority.

  5. (Followed a Twitter link to get here.) I'm not as familiar with the re-use of medieval romance in the modern romance genre as I am with re-uses in modern fantasy, often with romantic elements but typically not as the central plot. As that seems tangential to your questions I won't list titles. I can't lay any claim to original research on the topic, but I've been trying to pass along information about information about queer readings of medieval romance (among other topics) to writers of lesbian historic romance via my blog series "the lesbian historic motif project" ( I'm working on several medieval romance inspired projects myself, but the only one yet close to publication is a romance inspired by the Welsh Mabinogi which will be appearing on the audio fiction podcast later this month.