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




Courtly love, damsels in distress, jousting and questing knights: the components of medieval romance intended as pure entertainment for aristocratic ladies sitting under trees and courtly companies at feasts. The purpose of this project is to recast that image and re-vision the romances as windows into medieval culture.  This edition is intended to introduce readers to late Middle English romances, an important but often overlooked literary form.  The works included are mainly from the fourteenth century, an exceptionally fruitful literary period in England.  Translation of Middle English poems are primarily limited to major works by authors such as Chaucer, Langland, Gower, and the Pearl-poet.  Romances have been sparsely translated into modern English, except a few considered to be of high merit, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The study of romance is a continuing flurry of critical controversy over genre, categorization, quality, value, author, audience, whether composition/transmission was oral and/or written, and other factors. This is too complex an area to enter here and would detract from the goal of focusing on the poetry and its meaning.  (See Appendix: “About Romances.”)  However, there is one point properly taken by critics: Middle English romances vary greatly in artistic range.  Some are magnificent, many are competent, and some approach doggerel, though even those may have charm.  The works in this collection were chosen for range of poetic mastery and cultural concerns, many of which were shared by authors of apparently different backgrounds.  Some are well known through inclusion in anthologies, and others are more obscure but deserving of attention.

This introduction is intentionally brief and avoids reference to plot in order to let the works speak for themselves.  Each romance is prefaced with a short excerpt from the original to give a glimpse of its language and prosody, and commentary follows the poem.  There is an abundance of literary criticism of Middle English romances, approached from a wide range of topical interests and theoretical methodologies, which can be found in scholarly books and journal articles, as well as in literature anthologies and editions and should be explored by the interested reader.  The emphasis here is on historical and cultural context so that the reader is drawn not only into the literature but also into the society in which it was created.

The poems in this collection demonstrate the difficulty in defining romance as a genre.  The selections are representational, sharing themes and narrative form with works within and outside of the collection, while impressed with distinctive, sometimes shocking, deviations.  Most, but not all, follow the pattern of separation and reunion, and most, but not all, have happy endings, though the “happiness” of some may be questioned.  Most, but not all, deal with love: not just between lovers, but in marriage, family and friendship.  Many involve supernatural beings: some good, some evil, and some cautionary.  In all the poems, despite the diversity with which they treat similar themes, the reader (or listener) is led beyond the surface to examine personal beliefs and behaviors.  The authors share concern over truth, trust, honesty, and loyalty in both individual and social relations.

Many, if not most, examine social, moral and political conditions and/or issues of the day, whether simply represented as part of the poet’s world or intended as critical commentary.  The fourteenth century was a complaining age, perceived by many to be corrupt, and authors seem to have felt a responsibility to address social and political issues, including in the romances.  Criticism of the monarchical reigns is not surprising during a century in which two kings, Edward II and Richard II, were deposed; some is delivered directly, often through Arthur, as in Sir Launfal and The Adventures of Arthur.  Rightful succession is examined in Sir Amadace and Havelok.  Justice was of great concern, as seen in Sir Launfal, and oppression, lawlessness and corruption are addressed in King Edward and the Shepherd.

Cultural ethics are not ignored, such as child abandonment in Lay le Freine.  There, and in virtually every other romance here (and elsewhere), poets struggle with the basis for judging human worth: by lineage, wealth and status, or by personal achievement and attributes regardless of background.  Acquisition of honor and property unaccompanied by altruistic values drives Ywain and Gawain, as does the proper use of chivalric prowess, also seen in Sir Gowther.  Motivation for generosity and charity are scrutinized in several of the works included here.  Poverty is often a path for the hero’s self-renewal and reappraisal of values, as in Sir Gowther, Sir Amadace, and Ywain and Gawain.  Most of these themes involve the individual’s identity and place in society.

Fairy and folk tale motifs infuse romance, but there is another commonality: they both seem at first to be an enjoyable, easy read, usually with an overt moral.  But with repeated readings, especially against a cultural backdrop, they become more engaging and reveal greater depth than initially detected.  While it may be true that we can never fully replicate the medieval mindset or culture, with some effort we can come close enough to follow the “ensaumple” (“example”) offered by the Lay le Freine poet.  And, as readers we are all appropriators; like medieval poets, we take a work, make it our own, and invest it with meaning, based on shared human experience across the ages, and/or within our own culture, personality and imagination.

Translators’ Note

The decision whether to translate poetry into verse or prose is always difficult, and often neither would be completely satisfactory.  Many scholars have strong opinions on which approach is preferable.  Some prefer to retain meter, form, syntax and rhyme (a difficult task since many Middle English words have no modern equivalent), and the result can be artistically exquisite or technically correct but flat.  Among those who espouse prose, some insist on literalism, while others endorse flexibility.  The translations here are in prose and are not intended as literal translations or glosses, nor are they strictly “free” translations.  Rather, while recognizing the “inevitable failure” of translation to carry text “from one cultural space to another, from one time to another, more or less intact” and undamaged (Finch ix), we have attempted to retain fidelity to the original while making the text accessible to the modern reader.  To do so, adjustments have been made, such as the abridgement and condensation of excessive repetition, tag lines, and empty fillers used by poets to satisfy metrical and rhyming requirements (often passed over by adept readers), occasional paraphrasing, and the recasting of confusing syntax. 

Another problematic area is the spelling of characters’ names, which differ between poems and even within works, as does the spelling of words since English was not yet standardized.  Scholars have normalized names, like Arthur and Guenevere, for consistency in reference.  In the present translations, the spelling of identifiable major figures’ names have been retained from the original text to preserve the individual characterization that is associated with names.  Others are modernized for reader recognition, as are most place names.

Some poems have been preserved in a single manuscript and some in two or more, which may differ depending on date, scribe, location and other factors.  In that situation, translation has been based on the version considered most competent, though emendations have occasionally been made for completeness and/or clarity.  Similarly, editions of works have been selected on the basis of reliable manuscript reproduction and appropriate glossing and notation, which reflect interpretation and understanding of the poem.  Seemingly simple details like punctuation and capitalization, and more serious matters like textual corruption, can seriously affect meaning and must be properly scrutinized.

In creating the translations for this special edition, decisions and choices about every word, line and stanza were guided by two goals:  to respect the prosody of the poem, and to convey its sense and spirit to today’s audience.  Hopefully this will not only increase appreciation and enjoyment of Middle English romances, but may even inspire some to take a look at the originals and investigate medieval culture in greater depth, which is surprisingly resonant with our own.

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