A Brief History of “Romance”

I am putting the finishing touches on a novella set in the Dark Apostle world, around the time of the accession of King Hugh. I’m happy with the work, but also a little concerned that it might have too much romance. Definitely a lot of adventure, too, but are my fans okay with romance? Feel free to weigh in. . .

A medieval wall painting from St. Winifred's Church, Branscombe, UK, depicting an embracing couple.

A medieval wall painting from St. Winifred’s Church, Branscombe, UK, depicting an embracing couple.


However, I should also note that this novella is based on some bits of Arthurian legend, and this lead me to remember the origins of “romance.” Nowadays, the word is so strongly associated with Harlequin novels and Valentine’s Day that we often assume there have always been hearts, flowers and scantily clad people involved. In fact, the origins of the term as applied to story are closer to the adventure side of narrative.

According to the OED:

“A tale in verse, embodying the adventures of some hero of chivalry, esp. of those great cycles of medieval legend, and belonging both in matter and form to the age of knighthood, also, in later use, a prose tale of similar character.”

The term is referenced here to the 14th century, and you’ll find works with titles like “The Romance of the Rose,” begun around 1230 BCE. These works are often compatible with the theme of Courtly Love, so prominent during the High Middle Ages. Some aspects of Courtly Love explored in the romances of the day include the idealized woman, the “lover” beneath her station, flowery declarations of love–and often tragedy. I used the word “lover” in quotes because, in modern parlance, it has the connotations of sexual love, but in the context of these works, it is more platonic. It likely includes lust, but that lust is rarely acted on. Indeed, the idea of distance from the beloved is another theme.

My novella is certainly all about chivalry and the idea of Courtly Love. It also agrees with the 16th century definition of “Romance” as a work remote in time or place from the present of the writer (though the OED says these works may include long digressions–I hope I manage to avoid those!).

It’s not until the 1830’s that the term “Romance” is applied specifically to “romantic tales.” We also use related terms like “Romanticize,” which relates to that 16th century literature remote in time and place–adding a dream-like quality to the work, or to the beloved, seen from such a distance.

I am certainly all in favor of history being messy, and of medieval fantasy in particular being more true to the reality of the Middle Ages. However, their reality of brutal warfare, loveless marriage and dangerous medicine also included this, well, romanticized overlay of chivalry: a Golden Age to look back to, when men like Arthur and Roland still walked, a noble ideal to live up to, a devotion to beauty and poetry which might have carried them through some very difficult times. And so, I must conclude that, even in my usually gritty and grim fantasy realm, there must be space for some old-fashioned “Romance.”

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in essays, etymology, fantasy, history, medieval, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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