Thursday, November 18, 2010

Medieval Romances

As reported at Dear Author, a medievalist who has worked on Middle English romances has recently turned her attention to modern romances set in the Middle Ages. On the 20th of October, Nicola McDonald of the University of York gave a lecture at the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham: “What’s Your Pleasure? Mass-Market Medieval Romance.”

McDonald is the editor of Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Medieval Romance (2004). It's a volume of essays about Middle English romances. These are texts which Jonathan A. Glenn has described as follows:
The basic material of medieval romance is knightly activity and adventure; we might best define medieval romance as a story of adventure--fictitious, frequently marvelous or supernatural--in verse or prose. Earlier romances in English are in verse; those in prose (Malory, for example) are generally late.

Perhaps surprisingly, any "love interest" is likely to be incidental to the story of a medieval romance. An exception to this rule may be found in the breton lai: the term refers both to the relatively brief form of medieval French romances, professed to have been sung by Breton minstrels on Celtic themes, and to the English medieval poems written in imitation of such works. These romances often wove their stories around a famous legendary figure (Arthur, for example, or Tristram) and took as their immediate subject matter a love story of some kind.

Structurally, the medieval romance often follows the loose pattern of the quest, tending thus to be merely episodic.
While these texts are, clearly, rather different from modern romance novels there are certainly some similarities between the two genres. Here's some of what McDonald has had to say about medieval romance:
Despite its status as medieval England's most popular secular genre [...], Middle English popular romance remains, with rare exceptions, under read and under studied. Popular romance is the pulp fiction of medieval England, the 'principal secular literature of entertainment' for an enormously diverse audience that endures for over two hundred and fifty years. It is fast-paced and formulaic; it markets itself unabashedly as genre fiction; it is comparatively cheap and, in performance, ephemeral; it has a sensationalist taste for sex and violence; and it seems content to reproduce the easy certainties of sexist, racist and other bigoted ideologies. But this is not a reason to dismiss it. On the contrary, popular romance provides us with a unique opportunity to explore the complex workings of the medieval imaginary and the world outside the text that feeds and supports it. (1)
Given this assessment of medieval romances, it's perhaps not entirely surprising that McDonald should have decided it might be worth examining some modern romances. So far her research in this area appears to have been based on a small sample of texts: "the Medieval Lords and Ladies Collection (Harlequin Mills and Boon, 2007), a set of six, two-volume anthologies." 1

Joseph McLaughlin provides a summary of Nicola McDonald's recent lecture:
Aspects of modern medieval romances uncovered by her inquiry include:

• self-conscious historicizing with a flagrant disregard for historical facts;

• descriptions of time that serve to wrench the reader back into the present; and

• depictions of violent sexual encounters, which are seldom found in non-medieval Harlequin romances.

[...] McDonald admitted that she enjoyed spotting historical blunders in the books’ pages and in the artwork on their covers.

She pointed out references to a two-pronged dinner fork, when that table utensil was invented after the medieval period; Caxton’s printed books classified as “new,” when Caxton had been dead for over a decade; and a cone-shaped hennin, a headpiece that was fashionable in the 15th century, on the cover of a romance set in the 11th century.

“What is especially pleasing to the snobbish scholar about these references is their very purposefulness, the way in which they are so intimately bound up in the self-evidently lowbrow work of historicizing for readers who, it seems, don’t know any better,” McDonald said.

She also noted how the Medieval Lords and Ladies novels portray time as pre-modern—something that is marked by hours of prayer or notches on a candle, despite the fact that clock was invented in the Middle Ages—while medieval sex acts are distinctly outside of time. [...]

As to how modern novels speak to Middle English romances, McDonald said she has no simple answer.

“As I ‘fall through time and space’ into the middle of my own research, I know that I can no longer be secure in the distance between my Middle Ages and the [romanticized] one I once so confidently disparaged.”


1 Since Nicola McDonald is currently supervising a number of PhD students at the University of York, I don't think it's any coincidence that Amy Burge, also from the University of York, has completed a research poster on the same set of HM&B texts, although the paper she presented to this year's IASPR conference "discussed sheikh romances," and mentioned that "the hero and his country are often described as being 'medieval': 'medieval customs,' a 'medieval-style palace,' a 'medieval mindset,' etc." (my translation of an article by Agnès Caubet).

The image is a non-medieval version of the White Rose of York, taken from Wikipedia.


  1. Interesting, as I am considering adapting some of the lais as romance novels. I certainly find them to be ripe for the 'conversion' and adaptation (I'm even thinking of switching one to an M/M).

    The errors that she points out fascinate me, too, because they show the flattening of not only the medieval period (which encompasses about a thousand years altogether), but of the past as a whole, along with the persistent picture of the Middle Ages as "primitive" and "dark" -- until the so-called Renaissance when someone remembered to turn on the lights!

  2. "which encompasses about a thousand years altogether"

    Yes, and so many different places. I studied the 15th century in Castile, so I'm often unsure how much of my knowledge of the Middle Ages is relevant to novels set earlier and/or in other parts of Europe. In addition, the type of work I was doing meant I didn't learn a lot about fashion or forks, so if an author made a mistake about that kind of thing, I probably wouldn't notice (unless there was a really, really blatant anachronism involving something like potatoes).

  3. The compression of long periods of time in the past is one of the real dangers of tinkering with historical settings. Even Roman Britain, which the uninitiated think of as a single period, lasted over 400 years, and first century material culture, costume, social customs, religions etc. were very different from those of the 4th century. As different, in many ways, as our own century is from the 18th century.