The Mills & Boon of the Middle Ages? Unpicking the mysteries of medieval romances

Romances were the literary sensation of the Middle Ages. Lydia Zeldenrust reports on our forebears’ love affair with tales of gallant knights, dragon-slaying damsels… and rotting chicken

Medieval romances were sometimes considered subversive material. This scene from the Roman de la Rose, written in the 13th century, depict two lovers. In later centuries, it was said romances “inflamed beastly and filthy desire”

It is surprising what you can learn from reading medieval romances. One much-loved tale gives this handy tip: if you are a beautiful woman and you are wondering how to keep unwanted suitors at bay, why not put some rotting chicken meat under your armpits? Once admirers get a whiff, all amorous attention is guaranteed to stop. This is probably the first recorded use of a chastity chicken.

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The chicken is one of the main plot points of Paris and Vienne, a romance that took medieval Europe by storm from the early 15th century (the best-known version was composed around 1432). It was all the rage at the courts of Burgundy. The famous printer William Caxton translated it into English. Sweden’s last Catholic bishop had a copy, and so did the archbishop of Armagh. The romance was written down in Arabic script by converted Muslims in Spain – not long before all use of Arabic was banned – and it was also translated into Italian, Dutch, Yiddish, Greek and Armenian.

Paris and Vienne was a pan-European sensation. Yet it was hardly a one-off: romance was the most popular secular genre of literature of the Middle Ages. These are highly entertaining stories about adventure, love, duels and battles, encounters with the supernatural, knights on daring quests, and women who are often perfectly capable of slaying a dragon themselves. The genre is the ancestor of fairy tales, the novel and modern-day fantasy fiction – and its popularity endured for centuries.

French kissing

The origins of the romance go back to 12th-century France. The earliest romances emerged from a courtly context, with poets writing for an aristocratic audience. Patrons like Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie de Champagne played a key role in the genre’s development. What happened at French courts also had a profound impact on English literature, with its earliest romances written not in English but in Anglo-Norman, the variety of French spoken by the nobility. After all, this was a time when the kings of England (Stephen of Blois, Henry II and Richard the Lionheart) were still more French than English.

Surprisingly, the word “romance” originally had nothing to do with love. Romanz was a term used to describe works written “en roman” – in the Romance language, as opposed to Latin. “Romance” simply meant “book written in French”.

The earliest romances were translations of classical texts rooted in history and legend. The Roman d’Eneas adapted the Aeneid, and the Roman de Troie was a retelling of the Trojan War. They were part of a move designed to elevate French as a literary language, with the Latin source material lending its high status to a still-emerging vernacular literature.

Poets also composed stories about King Arthur and his knights, greatly elaborating what they had read in Latin histories, adding new elements and characters such as Lancelot. Key works include Wace’s Roman de Brut and Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances, which in turn sparked countless retellings and translations, starting a long history of re-imaginings that continues to this day.

From the French courts romances moved to the courts of Germany and the Low Countries. They soon conquered the rest of Europe, too. The genre gradually emerged as a distinct category of literature which became, over time, highly formulaic. Its main heroes were no longer only classical figures or Arthurian knights. And in romances like Emaré, Mélusine and Silence, noble ladies played a starring role.

One of the key developments that sets romances apart from earlier epics such as Beowulf is that characters are motivated not only by fame or loyalty to a lord but also by love. Martial prowess is not enough: the perfect knight must also know how to treat a lady.

Not much is known about the authors of medieval romances. Many remain anonymous, and when we do have a name, we know little else. For instance, Paris and Vienne – the chastity chicken story – is attributed to Pierre de la Cépède, but apart from the possibility that he came from Marseilles we know nothing about this person. It may not even be the author’s real name.

Geoffrey Chaucer is an interesting exception, as he is one of few medieval authors about whom we know a great deal. His Canterbury Tales include several romances and he translated the highly influential Roman de la Rose. However, it is more common for the lives of named romance authors to be shrouded in mystery, where all we know is that they were well-educated and often worked for the nobility.

Monstrous children

For centuries, the nobility were the main audience of romances. With their courtly settings and adventures of knights, dukes, kings and damsels, romances reflected a world they knew. Some even had a personal connection. The Lusignan kings of Cyprus and a branch of the House of Luxembourg claimed descent from a romance character. This was Mélusine, who spends her Saturdays splashing around the bath with “a serpent’s tail as large as a barrel of herring” and who gives birth to part-monstrous children.

Mélusine, the water spirit and popular romance figure, shown in a 16th-century woodcut
Mélusine, the water spirit and popular romance figure, shown in a 16th-century woodcut (Photo by Alamy)

Supposed descendants who owned copies of this romance include Jean de Berry – son of John II of France and a famous book collector – and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother to Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville. The House of Cleves saw the hero of the Swan Knight as their legendary founder. This is the story of children born with chains around their necks, who transform into swans when the chains are removed.

That romances were part of an elite literary culture is also reflected in their manuscripts. Many French romances, in particular, are found in lavish, beautifully illuminated books. One example is the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, which contains five romances and several other chivalric texts, including the Statutes of the Order of the Garter. The book features a high number of illustrations, with expensive colours and gold leaf, and was given by the English knight John Talbot to the French princess Margaret of Anjou as she came over to England to marry Henry VI. Manuscripts like this doubled up as status symbols.

The late medieval period saw some important changes. Faster methods of manuscript production and the rise of printing meant that books could be produced on a much larger scale. Across Europe, romances were among the earliest tales set to print – printers were clearly confident they would sell well. Mélusine survives in no fewer than 54 manuscripts – including two in English – but it was printed at least 73 times before 1600, with each print run consisting of several hundred copies. Such romances became early European bestsellers. It was probably possible to walk into a bookshop in any major European city and find a local translated version.

Increases in literacy and better access to education also meant that more people were reading books. Romances were no longer associated with an exclusively aristocratic milieu. In England, more and more members of the gentry, well-to-do merchants and the emerging middle classes read romances. The books they owned were not lavish and many were shared by the entire household.

At the same time, the production of romances moved from the court to urban centres. This shift affected the content of romances, too: one of the heroes of Sir Amadace is a merchant, who teaches a spendthrift knight that aristocratic wealth is often a shallow performance.

Tales of a magical horse

One phenomenon that distinguished romances from other literary genres was their popularity among women – as both consumers and patrons. Romances came to Sweden because of the patronage of Queen Eufemia. Margaret of York patronised the first book printed in English, also a romance: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, printed around 1473. And Eleanor of Scotland translated the French Ponthus et Sidoine into German.

In a 15th-century illustration of the story of Ponthus et Sidoine, a group disguised as wildmen dance at the wedding of the eponymous Sidonia. Women were voracious consumers, patrons and translators of romances; Eleanor of Scotland (1433–80) translated this story from French to German (Photo by Alamy)
In a 15th-century illustration of the story of Ponthus et Sidoine, a group disguised as wildmen dance at the wedding of the eponymous Sidonia. Women were voracious consumers, patrons and translators of romances; Eleanor of Scotland (1433–80) translated this story from French to German (Photo by Alamy)

But women especially enjoyed reading romances. Alice Chaucer – granddaughter of the famous poet – owned a romance about four brothers who travel around on a magical horse. Owners of Arthurian romances included Isabella of France, and major players in the Wars of the Roses such as Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville. Even the Spanish nun, Saint Teresa, admitted that she loved romances. Rebecca Lemp – a woman burned at the stake for witchcraft – referred to herself as the romance heroine Maguelonne in the last letter she wrote to her husband.

One reason why the romance appealed to women is that it was one of the few medieval genres in which they feature as key characters. Women also starred in saints’ lives, but romances offered something different from spiritual hardship and martyrdom.

Although in early romances women are often a commodity to be won, late medieval romances feature characters who are smart and well-read, the kind of women upon whom knights depend for advice. In Amoryus and Cleopes, it is the lady who knows how to defeat a dragon. Cleopes has an encyclopaedic knowledge of dragons and their weaknesses, telling Amoryus that the one he faces can be defeated by using gemstones for protection (a ruby and emerald “always pointed at his eyes”) and herbs to counteract its venom, including “orygannum, fenel, and dragannys” (oregano, fennel and tarragon).

Such strong female characters may have appealed to the substantial female readership. But not everyone was at ease with the idea of women voraciously reading romances. By the end of the medieval period, the genre had started to spark a backlash, and women were at the centre of it. Critics counselled against filling women’s heads with strange ideas, and issued dire warnings over romance’s depravity and corrupting influence. A genre once seen as the emblem of sophistication and noble literary culture was now branded as pulp fiction.

Wit-besotting trash

Sixteenth-century humanists were at the vanguard of this outbreak of anti-romance sanctimony. Michel de Montaigne called romances “wit-besotting trash”, while the English scholar Roger Ascham warned that readers would be led to “manslaughter and bawdry”. One commentator added that romances dealt with “no other material than sex and war”.

Juan Luis Vives, another prominent humanist, intoned that romances inflamed “beastly and filthy desire” and were especially damaging to women, who should “avoid these books as she would a viper or a scorpion”.

It is no coincidence that this outbreak of moral outrage came at a time when women were being recognised as romances’ main readers. This period also saw heated debates over whether women should have access to education. Many of these critiques were thinly veiled demands that women know their place. After all, a wife who reads about worlds beyond her own might not be content to stay at home. This snobbery against popular smut is also the start of a centuries-long tradition of men snubbing women’s literary tastes and policing their reading habits.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, such warnings did little to dampen romances’ popularity. If anything, they acted like parental advisory labels on CDs in the 1990s, or 18+ ratings on games, merely ensuring that every teenager rushed out and procured a copy.

Some romances appeared on lists of books prohibited by the church, but that rarely meant they went out of circulation. Even Robert the Devil – whose moral lesson is that, if you sleep with the devil, your child will get the unfortunate habit of setting nuns on fire – remained in print; the only prohibition was that it should not be taught to children. In fact, romances remained in fashion well in to the early modern period. Many were turned into plays, pageants, ballads or other forms of popular entertainment that ensured their stories lived on.

Though the romances themselves are now often forgotten, their plots and characters shaped popular culture for centuries after. William Shakespeare was a fan: he borrowed Oberon (the fairy king in A Midsummer’s Night Dream) from Huon of Bordeaux, while Pericles is based on Apollonius. Charles Dickens read Valentine and Orson (about twins separated at birth, one raised by a bear) and Fortunatus, with his ever-replenishing purse and teleporting hat. Authors such as Walter Scott and Goethe later re-popularised romances with works such as Ivanhoe and Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, respectively.

And some of the most popular characters from medieval romances are still with us today: take a stroll along your local high street and there’s every chance you’ll catch sight of Mélusine staring back at you from the most unlikely of places: a Starbucks coffee cup. Who said romance was dead?

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

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This content first appeared in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine