Start with a quest

This can be a rescue operation, a hunt for a magical object or animal, a giant who threatens the land or a Green Knight who lets you lop off his head. Particular favourites are transformation curses that need to be broken (eg werewolves) and the identity quest, where a knight must find out who his parents are (always nobility, never peasants).


Medieval romances have a drive towards a goal that is ultimately achieved, despite many obstacles. Some turn familiar tropes on their head. In Lybeaus Desconus the knight thinks he must save a lady by killing a dragon, but instead “the dragon kisses him on the mouth” and transforms into a beautiful woman.


Go full circle

Romances are circular, moving from order to chaos back to order. This is often reflected in the trajectory of plots. A common example is for the tale to start at court before something causes the knight to travel abroad or, even better, to a forest, enchanted castle or fairy realm. When all is resolved, the knight returns to court.


Let love rule

The 12th century saw increased concerns over the inheritance of lands, titles and properties. Aristocratic marriages had long been made for political or economic gain, but the church now insisted that marriage must be between consenting partners who loved each other.

As a result, romances turn the transactional marriages of real life into perfect love stories. Characters fall in love at first sight and love becomes wish-fulfilment, where the lover brings lands, status, wealth and solves all problems. Common tropes of love in film and fiction today – including that there is one person who can complete you – can be traced back to this.


Remember the “good” old days

Nostalgia is not just a modern vice. Many romances show a longing for the good old days – the time of Charlemagne, of King Arthur or ancient Rome. There is a dark side to this, however. Several romances written after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 reflect western imperialist fantasies about reconquering the city for Christendom.

Saracens are the go-to enemy for medieval romances, much like Russians in American cinema. Stories of triumphs over pagans may have influenced Spanish conquistadors who travelled to the New World – and not for the better.


End on a happy note

A happy ending is a must. Romances typically conclude with marriage and a pregnancy. As in fairy tales, we never hear about the forever after – do they fight over who does the dishes? That’s left to our imaginations.

Sometimes, however, this formula leads to problems, for example when one knight stars in so many romances that he accumulates multiple wives. The author of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle hurdles this obstacle by simply killing off the lady at the end, so our hero is free to marry again in the next romance!

Lydia Zeldenrust is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of York. You can also listen to her talk about medieval romances on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast


This article was first published in the June 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine


Lydia Zeldenrust is a historian specialising in literature of the late medieval period