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THE FLOWER OF CHIVALRY: MEDIEVAL ROMANCES
If a lover of romantic historical fiction were to search our catalog for "medieval romance," she might get a bit confused. You see, she'd find medieval romance... but she'd also find medieval romance! (See what I mean by "confused"?) The same term-- "medieval romance"-- gets used to describe two very different bodies of literature.
On one hand, "medieval romance" can refer to vernacular ("Romance language") literature written mainly between the 12th and 16th centuries, dealing with themes of chivalry and courtly love: The Lais of Marie de France, Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, and so on. On the other hand, there's what our romance reader was actually looking for: romantic fiction set in the European Middle Ages, written by modern-day authors.
At first it struck me as funny that the two genres could share a name. They didn't have much in common besides the setting, did they? Or did they...? As it turns out, modern romances can trace their roots back to medieval romance, and some interesting similarities turn up along the way. In their day, for example, medieval romances would have been part of the popular fiction collection, not literature. In the Middle Ages, Latin was reserved for "serious" pursuits, so the Romance languages (French, Italian, etc.) came to be used for works with broader appeal-- the pop songs and "trashy novels" of their time. This included writings that the Church might deem improper or frivolous, such as those on the subject of amour. It didn't take long for the word’s meaning to shift: for “Romance” (the language it was written in) to become “romance” (the style of literature), and a new genre was born.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, probably the wealthiest and most influential woman of the entire 12th century, was a great patroness of the arts. She ruled the richest duchy in France; she married the King of France, and later broke with him to marry the King of England. Her sons would be some of the most famous (and infamous) kings in history: King Richard, called “the Lionheart,” and King John, signer of the Magna Carta. Eleanor was also a huge fan of trashy nov-- er, romance literature, and had a lot to do with the spread of its popularity. Her own grandfather had been a troubadour, one of the earliest poets to write about courtly love. Eleanor's dazzling, witty court didn't want to hear boring histories, or tales of macho fighters engaged in endless, bloody military actions. (Eleanor had been on Crusade; she'd seen that already.) Instead, her poets wrote what court ladies wanted to hear: stories of love and adventure and knights in shining armor.
So what were these "romances" like? Many were written in verse. They often featured women in leading roles; a damsel in distress was the motivation for many a knightly quest. (Compare this to a medieval epic like the Song of Roland, where Roland's horse gets more air time than his fiancée does!) The settings of romances were often idealized, even including fantasy elements like mystical artifacts or fabulous beasts (much like Hollywood’s idea of the Middle Ages). Characters aspired to follow the rules of chivalry and love (yes, rules for love!). Lovers remained faithful and honorable to each other (if not to their legal spouses) through many adversities. Love was seen as a powerful force: strong enough to send a lover into a fatal decline if unrequited, profound enough to transform, inspiring a knight to mend his ways and become worthy of his lady's favor. Honor and chivalry might make him a better knight, but love would make him a better man!
Do these plot concepts sound a little familiar? They should. Stories like these-- Tristan and Yseult, Lancelot and Guinevere and Arthur, Dante and his Beatrice-- have inspired generations of romantics. The stories and the time from which they hailed have become inextricably linked in our imaginations, and that brings us right back where we started: modern medieval romances. Rather than describe them, I invite you to read one and see what they still hold in common with their ancestors. To search for modern medieval romances in our catalog, try using the keywords "medieval romance fiction." To make your life a bit easier, though, I've compiled a list of some of the biggest names in modern medieval romance. Check out a title from the list below, and pursue your own "courtly" romance!
Chalice of Roses by Jo Beverley, et al. (PbkRomance Chalice)
The Wolf Hunt by Gillian Bradshaw (Fantasy Bradshaw)
Ransom My Heart by Meg Cabot, writing as Princess Mia Thermopolis (Fiction Cabot)
The Winter Mantle by Elizabeth Chadwick (Fiction Chadwick)
The Widow's Kiss by Jane Feather (Fiction Feather)
Desiree by Roberta Gellis (PbkRomance Gellis)
The Marriage Prize by Virginia Henley (Fiction Henley)
The Truest Heart by Samantha James (LP James)
For My Lady's Heart by Laura Kinsale (PbkRomance Kinsale)
Prisoner of My Desire by Johanna Lindsey (Fiction Lindsey)
Enchanted by Elizabeth Lowell (Fiction Lowell)
The Warrior by Kinley MacGregor (PbkFiction MacGregor)
The Ground She Walks Upon by Meagan McKinney (Fiction McKinney)
Knave's Honor by Margaret Moore (PbkRomance Moore)
Mystique by Amanda Quick (LP Quick)
Black Lion's Bride by Tina St. John (LP St. John)
If Eleanor of Aquitaine has intrigued you, Elizabeth Chadwick's (non-romance) novel The Greatest Knight: The Unsung Story of the Queen's Champion features Eleanor. Alison Weir has also written a fantastic biography of her entitled Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life.