Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



Appendix: About Romances

For those completely unfamiliar with romances (and Middle English literature in general), here are a few background basics.  First, a brief history.

During the twelfth century, France was comprised of regalian lands and a number of fiefdoms with independent lords, who were nominally vassals of the king but often in conflict with the crown as the kingdom became more unified.  The country also experienced expansion in education, urban growth, commerce and agriculture, money circulation, the rise of a bourgeoisie, and a flourishing of the arts, including literature.

The romance developed in the courtly culture, particularly those of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter, Marie de Champagne.  We have seen examples of poems based on the works of Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes:  Le Fresne and Lanval by the former, and Yvain by the latter.  Material for the romances was probably taken from oral tradition, and in addition to the works of court poets, they were supplied by traveling trouvères to jongleurs who performed them, so they circulated widely in Europe.

“Romances display a characteristic ambivalence . . . of life viewed both as it is and as it might be” (Barron 25).  The tension between reality and ideal emerge in central themes of love relationships and self-fulfillment, which attract much critical attention, but romances also present the ideals of chivalry, nobility, cultural stability, and personal and social values and the pressures that affect their realization.

Romances waned in France during the thirteenth century but grew in popularity in England.  They continued to be read (and heard) in Anglo-Norman, particularly at the courtly level, but they began to appear increasingly in English.  Scholarly consensus estimates eight English texts dated between 1125-1300, and the number grew to thirty-six between 1350-1400, excluding Chaucer and Gower (Barron 53).  Most, about ninety percent of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century English romances derive from French originals (Rumble xxv), but they took on their own character as they developed.  English poets employed forms and techniques not only from French and Latin literature, but from their own Anglo-Saxon predecessors, particularly the alliterative verse seen in The Awntyrs.  And, like all redactors, they shaped received material to reflect their own cultural context and personal interests.

Now on to more technical matters.  Medieval literature is preserved in manuscripts, usually dated later, sometimes centuries, than the date of composition.  Some works are found in a number of manuscripts, others in only one, and most manuscripts contain a collection of works, often of different genres.  Manuscripts that have survived are often damaged, with parts of works missing or unreadable.  They are also subject to scribal error, as the copyists misread or made changes to written sources, and/or did not capture their oral source correctly. 

Errors and/or changes could also result from differences between the source and the scribe’s dialect, of which there were many; English was not standardized, and dialects might contain unique words used nowhere else.  Thus versions of works most likely do not represent the original faithfully, and those that exist in more than one manuscript may differ slightly or considerably, often having been copied from different sources.  All these factors present challenges to modern editors and readers.  An example is Sir Amadace, which is contained in two manuscripts, the Advocates in Edinburgh, dated late fifteenth century, and the Ireland-Blackburne at Princeton, dated mid-fifteenth century.  The two are generally similar but differ in number of lines and stanzas and textual content, so that there is editorial doubt that one version was copied from the other, and postulation of the existence of at least one missing version that served as sources(s) (Brookhouse 109).  For an illustration of differences in poetic expression between two manuscripts, see the concluding stanzas in the translation of Sir Gowther.

Syntax appears convoluted to the modern reader and takes some unraveling.  Spelling was not normalized, so the same word may appear differently within the same work: for example, Gowther, Gother, Gowtheyr, Gwother, Gwothere; doghthy, doghtty, doghtté, doghttey (valiant, brave, bold); mykyll, mikil, mykull, mekull (much, great) all appear in the Advocates manuscript of Sir Gowther.  There were special alphabetical characters: the “thorn,” usually representing a “th” sound and “d” in some dialects, and the “yogh,” usually representing “g, gh, and y” with some variations.  These letters are frequently normalized to modern English by editors, as they have been in the present translations, but not always.1

Pronunciation was generally different from modern sounds of the alphabet.   Chaucer’s London dialect became the basis of modern English and is therefore most recognizable; if one learns the proper pronunciation, which is explained in most editions of his works, sounding out an unfamiliar word makes it clear compared to the almost impenetrable West Midlands dialect of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which has been translated numerous times.  In truth, linguistic difficulties occasionally puzzle scholars, who make best guesses at the meaning of problem words or passages.

Word usage in only one dialect or specific to one work obscures meaning that might be derived from context, compared to words used more widely, even in variant spellings.  For example, a peculiar case is found in King Edward and the Shepherd. It is assumed by most scholars that “passilodion” and “berafrynde” are nonsense words.  A few have attempted to find possible sources for the words, generally in cultural ritual, but seldom seem to have considered the obvious: Middle English linguistics.  The following is a very tentative exploration but useful demonstration of the translation or glossing process.

A hint comes from two other seemingly meaningless words in the poem that are usually passed over: “Hakderne” and “Lanycoll,” which may tentatively be traced linguistically.  “Hakderne” is likely a compound of “hak,” pickaxe or digging fork, and “derne,” secret; together they aptly describe a hidden underground chamber.  “Lanycoll” may come from ”lan,” reward, and “colok,” a drinking vessel, appropriate for a cup that holds three servings.

We may therefore cautiously consider the possibility that “passilodion” and “berafrynde” also have linguistic bases.  “Berafrynde” seems straightforward: “Bere” (OE “bera”), to bear, and “frynde,” friend.  The word may be a double entendre: the player or cup bears drink to a friend, and contains a friend, the beverage.

“Passilodion” is a bit trickier.  It may help to look at the shepherd’s instructions for playing the game.  The cup is filled and whoever drinks first, “wesseyle the mare dele” (line 326); this is “Passilodion.”  While “wesseyle” (wassail) is a toast, especially to good health, or simply a greeting, it may also be the game itself, the cup, and/or the beverage.  The first component of “passilodion” is “passen,” to pass, and the second may be from ”ileoden,” to grow or increase, which corresponds well with “mare dele,” greater part.  Put together in the context of the game, “pass,” “increase,” and “wassail” may suggest “move along and increase the play, cup, and/or drink,” or “may health/cheer increase as the cup is passed.”  The other player’s response, “berafrynde,” intends that the cup be emptied by the first drinker, then refilled often and well: “Thus shal the game go aboute” (line 331).  Perhaps this was all obvious to the medieval audience, who enjoyed the poet’s word play.2

Dating works is often problematic since the manuscripts do not always replicate the original language, and linguistics is one of the tools used in dating both sources and manuscripts.  Fortunately some works, like King Edward and the Shepherd, contain references to historical events and characters, which aids dating, as do occasional mentions by contemporaneous authors to other poets’ works.  But often guesses must be made using vocabulary, customs, cultural environments and other elements, which often lead to imprecise or misleading results.  For example, estimates for the date of Ywain and Gawain range from the first half of the fourteenth century, to the second quarter, and the last half of the century.  (The present translators favor a late date based on thematic similarities with contemporary works.)  This may seem like quibbling, but it is quite pertinent to those who wish to interpret the literature within its cultural context or, conversely, understand cultural context through the study of literature.

The classification of a poem as “romance” has created such a range of opinion between scholars that some consider it a “mode” rather than a genre, which allows for some flexibility.  Categories like theme, style, form, content, “matters” and other elements are overall unsuccessful.  We’ve already encountered two examples in this collection: are the Breton lays romances or a separate group or genre, and is King Edward and the Shepherd a ballad or a romance?

Added to that confusion is the division of the romance corpus into “courtly” and “non-courtly” or “popular” literature.  The basis for the distinction is that theoretically romances for the aristocracy were in French, and those for the middle and lower classes were in English.  The critical proclivity has been to view “courtly” romance as superior to “non-courtly” though that is shifting somewhat.  For one thing, by the second half of the fourteenth century French had become largely an acquired language and was being replaced by English among the upper classes, and there is evidence that aristocrats read (or heard) some vernacular literature.  For another, some sophisticated poets like Chaucer were familiar with “popular” works.  His and some other romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are “courtly” in artistry, fit for the nobility, but are also believed to have trickled down the social scale and that some popular works rose in the other direction.  It is best to view the literary era as one of cross-currents, consonant with a culture undergoing fluid movement.

Critics spend much effort identifying the audience for romances, a difficult task considering the complex social stratification that defies the imagined three-estate system which, in reality, encompassed many classes, some of which were in motion like the bourgeoisie and yeomanry.  Nor would an audience necessarily be composed of a single group.  Concern over identifying the audience of a work is associated with assessing the poem’s quality, as well as its reflection of class interests and values.  While there is validity in both topics of study, there are some problems.  Often, audience and quality of a work identify each other tautologically, with little successful result.  And, as has been seen in the cross-section of romances in this volume, though there is often authorial agenda based on class interests, there are also a number of values that are shared by different social strata.

Scholars attempt to identify authors, usually not specific persons but their level of education, literary ability, and social class and environment in order to learn more about the work and, again, its intended audience.  However, this runs into the same complications as reconstructing an audience, and with a few exceptions, is generally fruitless.  Again, guesses are made from the quality of the work, but during a time of growing literacy, authorship was no longer restricted to the clergy or aristocracy.  Original authorship is further obscured by scribal overlays, dialect differences, and the passage of time between original presentation and manuscript production, another area of shifting opinion.  Traditionally seen as primarily orally composed and/or transmitted by minstrels, romances may also have been read as well.  As literacy grew during the later fourteenth century, spurred greatly by the desire for moral edification as evidenced by manuscripts that contain didactic works along with romances, personal reading also grew.  A combination of oral transmission such as reading aloud within a family or by a minstrel in a manor hall or public square, and silent reading may well represent romance reality.

A word should be said about manuscripts and scribes, which are mentioned frequently but may be unfamiliar to some new readers of medieval texts and studies.  As mentioned earlier, many manuscripts contained collections of diverse types of works, probably compiled for a patron.  They were of various quality, ranging from elaborately decorated, like the Ellesmere, which contains The Canterbury Tales, to plain.  Scholars often attempt to judge audience by the quality of a manuscript; for example, the fact that the Advocates manuscript of Sir Gowther is on paper and the Royal on vellum suggests that the latter was intended for a more refined audience (Novelli, qtd. in Marchalonis 24).  And the ownership of manuscripts can sometimes be traced as they passed through patrons and libraries (manuscripts are often named after owners).

The common vision of manuscript preparation is of a scribe, often a cleric, perhaps in a noble household or scriptorium.  Their work was not always perfect, with unintentional errors perhaps due to a difference in dialect, lack of understanding or intentional alterations.  The competency of scribes varied, and as manuscript production moved towards commercialism, there were professional scribes of differing levels.  Some worked in urban “book shops,” like the one in which the famous Auchinleck manuscript (ca. 1330-40) was produced, as were individual “booklets” made to order.  But the traditional methods continued in the provinces.  This knowledge is, of course, somewhat conjectural; much information about manuscript production, quality and contents has been lost, since the number of extant manuscripts may represent a fraction of those produced.

Lastly, a word about the history of romance scholarship, which has passed through many phases.  Like most disciplines, approaches to literary study are in great part culturally determined, influenced by social, political and ideological trends.  In the late eighteenth century, romance was valued as a means for recovering a utopian past in which imagination was unfettered, a “model of aesthetic liberation” (Ganim 151).  The Gothic remoteness and imaginative freedom of medieval romance inspired the Romantic movement of self-exploration.

Romance became a popular genre in the early nineteenth century. During England’s war with France, it provided conservative anti-Republican authors like Sir Walter Scott with a venue for critiquing modernity, industrialization, urbanization and democratization, with the aristocracy idealized as chivalric and the folk as cultural producers (Ganim 152).  Conservative ideologies supported by romance were countered by revolutionary political authors like William Morris, who envisioned a utopian society.

As the study of Middle English romance was absorbed into institutional academic study, the scholarly focus on philology driven by the Germanic model drew attention away from the romance corpus, except a few privileged texts considered of high quality.3  In 1864 the Early English Text Society began publishing its series of medieval works, which included a broad range of genres including romance.  The editions are highly academic, also based on scientific philology; unlike modern editions with which the reader is familiar, the text is accompanied by manuscript variants but no glosses, with a glossary provided at the end.  The EETS is still a primary source for many medieval works and continues to publish new entries in the series annually.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, romance and medievalism were bounced between conservative and radical ideologies and politics, imaginative and scientific models, prominent and marginalized positions, amateur and academic scholarship, and antiquarian and progressive models.  Associated with nationalism, the debate over the superiority of French over English romances continues in this century, as does theorizing over sources.  Recent trends in the study of romance are often strongly theory-centered, and critics offer analyses using many different methodologies (a sampling may be seen in the Bibliography to this edition).

These are but a few of the elements and intricacies of romance treated by scholars. This brief appendix may give the impression that their work often involves debate and inconclusive solutions, which is true, but they also provide invaluable information and insight without which many books and articles could not be written.  For the newcomer to romance, however, the enormous body of critical study can be bewildering, and the best place to begin may be the standard introductory volumes; even there, the bibliography is too vast to provide here.  The following selections will help the curious get started and provide direction from various approaches for further exploration into romance and Middle English literature in general.

Barron, W. R. J.  English Medieval Romance.  London:  Longman, 1987.

Coleman, Janet.  Medieval Readers and Writers, 1350-1400.  New York:  Columbia UP, 1981.

Crane, Susan.  Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Mehl, Dieter.  The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries.  London:  Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

Mills, Maldwyn, Jennifer Fellows, and Carol M. Meale, eds.  Romance in Medieval England.  Cambridge:  D. S. Brewer, 1991.

Pearsall, Derek.  Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.

Putter, Ad and Jane Gilbert, eds.  The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance.  Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2000.

Ramsey, Lee C.  Chivalric Romances: Popular Literature in Medieval England.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983.


1 It is extremely difficult to replicate the special characters on websites and even in printed text.  For the curious, the best way to view the “thorn” and “yogh” is in printed text published by a press that specializes in Middle English and has not regularized the characters.  (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight would be a good example, and there are a number of editions available that retain the special characters.)

2 Snell cites the Middle English Dictionary (MED) definition of “berafrynd” as a nonsense word, but she conjectures that it is a combination of “beer” and “friend.”  According to the MED, “passilodion” might be a form of “passiludium,” derived from “passum” (raisin wine) and “ludium” (a game or contest).  She concludes that both words “attempt to combine the jovial elements of alcohol and play” (145).

3 Graham explains that the prominence of Germanic Romance philology was due largely to the intensive courses and methods of teaching at their universities, which allowed specialization.  The French universities were reformed after German models, including their approach to philology.  Gaston Paris taught at the new École des Hautes Études from its creation in 1868 (75), though he later claimed to be disillusioned with the results of the reforms, a reaction Graham suggests may have been rooted in Paris’ dissatisfaction with his own intellectual struggles over awareness of the “increasing impossibility, in the later nineteenth century, of reconciling the idealistic nationalism constitutive of the philological project—the restoration of the link between text and the voice of the people—with political reality” (79).

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