In Modern times, people seem to think that they know what the medieval romance and its modern day replacement, the novel, are, and no further probing is necessary. Taxonomists like classical literature, because it has clear rules and is easily duplicated. The romance and the novel tend to be written in the mother language, and were considered to be outside the realm of classical literature. The medieval romance and the novel are fairly new as a genre compared to other classical genres. They were often meant to be read aloud, and to offer the listener entertainment.
The definitions that we do have for romance are not concise enough; they tend to allow for a lot of wiggle room within the genre. Helaine Newstead attempts to describe the characteristics of a romance in the revised Wells Manual: “The medieval romance is a narrative about knightly prowess and adventure, in verse or in prose, intended primarily for the entertainment of a listening audience” (2).
The typical characteristics of the romance genre include: written in the vernacular; boldly fictitious and no use of formal templates; does not have to be written in prose; alliterative verse, rhymed couplets, and stanzaic forms with tail-rhyme are acceptable; and the length varies. Everyone assumed that these narratives were fictitious, even though they used historical and/or legendary figures. The use of magic and the supernatural also made these narratives appear fictitious.
The romance needed to use an “aristocratic milieu,” which they got from historical events and figures or popular legends and legendary characters to set the stage for their tale, but beyond that the characters behaved as their contemporaries. Romances used historical events, and popular figures to make themselves seem credible even though their characters often didn’t go along with their prescribed roles.
The generic descriptions posed by the early modern taxonomists misled readers into believing that romances were solely for entertainment. Romances play an integral part in the ideology of when and where they were written. They gave a glimpse into the sophisticated medieval courts of France; so when giving a definition of the genre one must include this element.
They tend to describe the ideology of the elite. Romances are primarily concerned with the political and social aspects of the ideology of the elite. In romances, the political aspect is renamed as chivalric, and the social is renamed as the courtly.
The chivalric code appears to be more prominent in the English court than the French court. The chivalric code “defines the relation of the king and knight, the ruler and those noble military followers on whom he depends for the maintenance of his realm, providing protection from enemies without and ensuring order and justice within” (3). In Malory’s Tale of King Arthur, King Arthur tells his knights: “never to do outerage nothir mourthir, and allwayes to fle treson,and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy…; and allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes [socour:] strengthe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, upon payne of dethe. Also, that no man take no batayles in a wrongefull quarrel for no love ne for no worldis goodis” (3).
The code is “an elaborate social mythos of idealized heterosexual relationships that persists in Western culture at all levels and has completely appropriated, in popular “pulp fiction,” the generic label of ‘Romance'” (4).
The narrative forms of romance are the quest and the test. The quest consists of “an arrival at the royal court on holiday brings a mission, which one of the knights undertakes and fulfills (usually), then returns with at least his story of what happened, often with prisoners and occasionally a kingdom or a bride or both” (5). The test is when a knight overcomes an obstacle while on his journey that may reveal something about his character that the reader did not previously know.
Burlin, Robert B. “Middle English Romance: The Structure of Genre.” The Chaucer Review 30.1 (1995): 1-13.