Romances of Chivalry. An Historical Overview.
Perhaps the most famous reader of romances of chivalry was Don Quixote. He was so addicted to the accomplishments of knights-errant that he sold off some of his land in order to buy books of chivalry. Eventually he decided to arm himself as knight-errant and go out into the world following the footsteps of his heroes. So began the adventures of the most famous knight-errant of them all.
But what were romances of chivalry? The term “romance” is rather slippery, but two definitions in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary give a useful summary: 1) “a medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural,” and 2) “a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious.”
Historically, “romance” derives from the Medieval French romanz/s referring to a work written in the vernacular rather than in Latin. The romans first appeared in France in the 12th century and applied to both verse and prose, and from the beginning were associated with adventure tales (e.g. the chivalric poems of Chretien de Troyes 1135?-1183?, or the Roman de Troie or Roman de Thebes, between 1155 and 1180). Preference for prose took off roughly between 1200 and 1225, probably to provide the romans with the gloss of historic truth since the authors often claimed their stories to be true, and historic authenticity was associated with the prestige of Latin chronicles (written in prose).
The core material of romances of chivalry comes from many sources, the most influential being the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, transmitted to Spain through France. Other sources include the fall of Troy, the Crusades, the deeds of the Emperor Charlemagne and his court, myths of the Holy Grail, and folklore.
The knight, although always of noble –even royal– blood, might be illegitimate or his parents might be unknown, and his birth kept hidden. When illegitimate or of unknown parentage, he is likely to be left in the care of a faithful servant in some secluded place, e.g. a forest. At an opportune moment, he is discovered thanks to something left with him that identifies his origin: a mark on his body, a letter, a sword, a token or jewel. He is then removed to the court where he undergoes the training necessary to become a knight. He is invariably handsome, fearless and strong, and during his training he shows his superiority by performing extraordinary feats.
Once his training is completed, the young man is ready to be dubbed knight. After watching over his weapons in a chapel or in a secluded spot, the king –or sometimes a maiden— taps him on the shoulders with a sword, tells him to rise and declares him a knight.
When the knight sets out (sometimes secretly) on his adventures, he has no specific destination (hence knight-errant i.e. wandering). Typically his travels –normally on horseback, sometimes on foot or in a boat– combine in some way the following: forests, cross roads, caves, seashore, castles, and courts (towns are not conducive to chivalric pursuits).
The knight’s adventures confirm his valour –whether he is defending the needy (maidens, widows, orphans) or helping a beleaguered monarch– in a world which is essentially violent. Battles are brutal (heads are lopped off, bodies split in two with one blow), but they highlight the importance of the hero’s participation and let us see him in another light… humble in victory and generous and magnanimous to those whom he defeats. He is, at the same time, loyal to those he befriends, and especially to his king.
Tournaments are another means of confirming the knight’s prestige since he competes against other famous knights, all seeking to distinguish themselves before the royal court and the ladies. It’s not the prize offered that attracts the knight but the honour and glory.
On his journeys, the knight confronts powerful enemies through whose defeat he achieves fame and glory (adversaries must be strong etc., for there is no glory in defeating weaklings or cowards). Each adventure tests his character and each conquest confirms his heroic qualities, in contrast to his enemies who frequently embody some vice or moral defect…avarice, pride, treachery etc. These enemies may be other knights or monarchs, or equally likely figures or creatures with superhuman powers.
Magic and prophecy are part and parcel of the knight’s world. He must be vigilant, for example, against enchanters or sorceresses, who can change their shape, concoct magic potions, or cast a spell on people, in which case the knight’s help is essential for their disenchantment. The enchanted victims may be transformed into statues or animals. They may also be imprisoned and can escape only with the help of the knight. The knight too may be persecuted by enchanters, although he also frequently enjoys the protection of a wise man endowed with some magical powers.
The knight regularly faces ugly giants who abduct maidens, overthrow kingdoms, or indulge in incest. Sometimes the hero faces wild animals, enormous serpents or hybrid creatures whose deformity and ferocity are frightening.
During the course of his adventures, the knight may acquire new names, each of which marks a change in his fortune or reflects something significant about his exploits e.g. Knight of the Sword, Knight of the Lion. Sometimes the knight conceals his identity, a strategy which allows him to confirm his heroic qualities before different audiences.
For all his heroic qualities, however, a knight-errant is nothing without the love of his lady. She is his inspiration and without her love he is incapable of action. Their love might be kept secret, although if other knights claim that their ladies are superior, he will challenge them in her name. His defeated adversaries then have to render homage to his lady.
The knight’s constant wanderings mean that he is away from his beloved for long periods. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, of course, and the exchange of letters and gifts keep them in touch. Nevertheless, absence also puts a strain on their relationship, and misunderstandings lead to jealousy on the lady’s part. She denies him her love, whereupon the despondent knight retires from the world to a secluded spot to do penance. Only when his lady forgives him is he able to return to his chivalric life.
The knight is always faithful to his lady, despite the temptations placed upon him by other ladies captivated by his fame and deeds. Queens, princesses, duennas, widows, wandering maidens, enchantresses all fall for him and, unlike his lady, they take the initiative in declaring their love and their readiness to bed him. (Sexual encounters are actually frequent in the romances of chivalry and are what led moralists to attack them as immoral.)
Events that are remote in time and place allow for the creation of myth and legend. The authors of the romances frequently added to the illusion by pretending that their books were translations of ancient texts written in a foreign language (Greek, Latin, Arabic etc.), and often claimed them to be true histories.
The world depicted in these romances is unreal, a world in which daily life is irrelevant, where action dominates reflection and exaggeration rules (the hero is the best, the greatest, the lady the most beautiful, the enemy the cruelest etc.). We have to suspend our disbelief as we enter the black and white world of heroes and villains, virtuous women and immoral women, giants and dwarves and so on.
Chivalric romance looks constantly to the future, as the knight moves from adventure to adventure. This active life contrasts significantly with, for example, with that of pastoral literature which is typically static, with the shepherd seated on a river bank comparing his past joy-through-love with his loveless present. For the shepherd there is no future; the knight-errant, on the other hand, constantly propels himself forward (unless he is enchanted, in which case he awaits release).
Romances of chivalry have a universal, timeless quality. The adventures are variations on the eternal struggle between good and evil, order and disorder, requited and unrequited love, and happen in some vague time in the past (but after the birth of Christ) and in exotic and distant places. The world of romance is still with us, but transformed. We have only to look, for example, at Western (cowboy) movies and novels, the highly popular James Bond novels and films (set in present time but exotic locales), the television series Xena: Princess Warrior (female “knight” and “squire”) and the Star Wars movies (which take us into a distant future).
In Spanish (or Castilian) literature, the greatest romance of chivalry is Amadís de Gaula (Amadis of Gaul), the hero and model for the most famous of knights-errant, Don Quixote.
Beer, Gillian The Romance London 1977
Brownlee, K and Brownlee M S Romance: Generic Transformation from Chretien de Troyes to Cervantes Hanover and London 1985
Cirlot, Victoria La novela artúrica Barcelona 1987
Eisenberg, D Romances of Chivalry in the Spanish Golden Age Newark, Delaware 1982
A very good blog site on Amadís de Guala: www.amadisofgaul.blogspot.com