Medieval Monday – King Arthur and the Birth of the Romance Novel

Apr 09, 2012

Last week I talked about the tradition of storytelling that emerged in the Early Middle Ages and flowered into the High Middle Ages.  I talked a bit about the troubadours and their lyric poetry in the south of France and the adventure-romance stories that grew up in the north of France and England.  The merging of these two traditions was one of the great game-changers in the history of writing.

But let’s take a small step back.

Europe in the Early Middle Ages was a fiercely male-dominated society.  It was all about battle and conquest.  It wasn’t a good place to be a woman.  When they weren’t being thought of as objects of sexual gratification or baby-machines women were seen as weak and inferior, even sinful in the eyes of the Church.  But change was in the air.  A lot of this change came from the Muslim countries to the East, where women had a higher status in the community and were allowed a greater share in life.  Through trade, the Crusades, and Moorish Spain these influences slowly began to creep into Western European thought, and through that into literature.

What made the troubadours and their idea of courtly love so special was that it actually elevated the value and position of women.  The idea that a knight would fight not for the honor of his king or the Church, but for the love and favor of a lady was revolutionary.  The very fact that fashionable entertainment was made up of songs of love and stories of lovers, illicit and pure, was a drastic change from older barbarian ways.  Even in the adventure-romance tradition of the north heroes were starting to be effected by the influence of love.  “Feminine” virtues, such as compassion and sentimentality, were seen as belonging to the very masculine heroes.  And that was okay.  The heroes were still secure in their masculinity.

When these two traditions converged in the Arthurian Legend it really did awaken a whole new world of thought.  The Arthurian Legend, first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, spread like wildfire through Europe.  It captured the imagination and was expanded on by the likes of Chretien de Troyes in France and Walther von der Vogelweide in Germany.  Subsidiary characters, such as Sir Lancelot and Sir Percival, were added and the quest for the Holy Grail was included.  More importantly, these stories contain some of the first really strong female characters in western literature, Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, and the Lady of the Lake among them.  By the late part of the High Middle Ages it was the Lady of the Lake that bestowed Arthur with Excalibur.  That’s serious power for a woman!

I think Norman F. Cantor in his book The Civilization of the Middle Ages puts it best:

“The romantic literature also instructed the aristocracy that the sensibility that had hitherto been regarded as a mark of feminine inferiority was now made into a virtue practiced by heroes, such as Lancelot, Parsifal, and Tristan.  By making feminine qualities heroic, the romantic poets enhanced the dignity of woman and made her a being with distinctive and valuable qualities.  The teaching of the fourth-century church fathers on sex and marriage was the first and very modest stage in the emancipation of women in western civilization.  The romantic ethos of the twelfth century marked the second and more important stage.”

So suddenly here we have a world where the highest form of literature is the romance novel!  Well, sort of.  These stories, the Arthurian Legend and its offshoots, like the stories of Lancelot, Sir Gawain, and Tristan and Isolde, were more “romantic” in the sense that they centered around strong emotions and secular ideals of love rather than lofty Church moralizing.

The point is that with the Arthurian Legend and within a century or so Europe in the High Middle Ages had changed from a male and Church dominated society of subsistence to a more secular world in which women had greater importance.  It’s the difference between the values of Beowulf and the values of Arthur.  Both were great warriors, but Arthur endured love, loss, and emotional conflict whereas Beowulf just had to fight Grendel.  It’s a subtle difference, but the subtly is what defines the age.

Of course all of this focus on the sentimentality of female life backfired to a certain extent where women were concerned.  Out of the stories of Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot, of Tristan and Isolde and King Mark, and of the traditions of courtly love came the dreaded double-standard that would plague women well into the 20th century.  With all these stories of love triangles, love triangles where the women did NOT end up with her husband in the end, came a heightened awareness that a man had to watch out for the women in his life lest they were lured away by a more virile man.  Women may have been elevated to a pedestal, but it gets kind of lonely up there on that pedestal when your husband has the key.  And yet it was still fine and dandy for men to have affairs and produce as many bastard children as they wanted.

Granted, life doesn’t shape itself in the image of the literature of the time in which it was written.  This new brand of romance story didn’t create the conditions that stifled women.  But literature is a reflection of the ideals of the time in which it was written.  The fusion of the courtly love of the troubadours and the adventure-romance tales of the north represents the explosion of the intellect that happened in the High Middle Ages.  It speaks to a movement that was already there: greater political stability and a growing economy that enabled people to focus on more than just subsistence.  It speaks to a society that had time for love and not just reproduction.  And we still love those stories almost a thousand years later.

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  1. Lisa Hall-Wilson

    The Arthurian legends are perhaps, some of the earliest romance tales. I love reading them. The role of women in the Arthurian tradition is a fascinating study. The Lady of the Lake, or Dame du Lac is one of the few female characters with any real power – and she’s portrayed as evil as often as benevolent. Morgan Le Fay was a later Celtic addition, as many of the Arthurian women are – Guinevere, Isolde, etc. It was my understanding though that the women were largely excluded from the Holy Grail tales, the Lady of the Lake playing only a minor role – but those tales were largely transcribed by French monks (I believe) so that’s not so surprising that the Christianized versions excluded women. The story of Lancelot’s bastard son Galahad is often rewritten for Christian sensibilities also.

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