King Arthur is a French Romance?

Hi, folks! I hope this finds you well. I was working on another blog post, and it occurred to me that I talk a lot about the French Romances and how they relate to stories of King Arthur, but I haven’t really talked much about what, exactly, they are. So, let’s do that.

Now, when I hear the term, ‘French Romances’, I get a mental image of paperbacks with Fabio bursting out of a silk shirt while sweeping a busty maiden onto his galloping horse. I swear, I’ve never read one of those. Anyhoo, the term has almost nothing to do with that sort of story.

I say “almost” because the medieval writers who spawned the Chivalric Romances, as they are sometimes called, were concerned a great deal with the idea of romance, or rather, ‘courtly love‘. Marie of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine are often credited as the first patronesses of the courtly love literary cycle, primarily through what was called ‘The Matter of Britain‘: stories set in Britain and Brittany about legendary kings and heroes, and especially of King Arthur and his court. These were the first stories in Europe that were written primarily for a female audience.

King Arthur French Romance
Tragic love triangle: King Marc, Tristan and Iseult by Edmund Leighton

The idea of courtly love evolved from the late 12th century through the Renaissance. In the beginning, it was primarily about the devotion of a knight to a (often married) noble lady. This was not about adultery, but rather the efforts of a knight to prove himself worthy to a woman he loved, yet never hoped to consummate a relationship with. That unrequited tension was part of the romance. The knight would go off on quests, battle villains, and rescue fair maidens. His lady would long for him but remain chaste. Some of these values would change over time. . .

The concept of courtly love developed over time into a ritualized set of behaviors and rules. Chivalry was the highest ideal, stressing loyalty, forbearance, hardihood, generosity, protection of the weak, and bravery. These ideals may have rarely been achieved, but the noble aspiration has much to do with the evolution of human society from barbarism to enlightenment. The church tried to moderate the militaristic nobility, and the Catholic Church’s “Peace of God” and “Truce of God” were the first mass peace movements in history.

King Arthur and French Romance
Meeting on the Turret Stairs by Frederic William Burton

The focus on courtly love and chivalry is probably why the Romance stories of King Arthur and his knights stray so far from the ancient British legends that they are based upon. The late medieval writers were the novelists of their time, writing stories and poems for their contemporaries, about subjects their readers cared about and images they recognized.

The focus on Arthur’s court is due primarily to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, or HRB), published in the early 12th century. Stories of Arthur were already in circulation before the HRB was published, particularly in Brittany and the Welsh, Cornish and Cumbric regions of Britain. Yet, the HRB is the oldest known complete story about Arthur, and created a sensation across Europe that is still strong world-wide a thousand years later. Even the English co-opted Arthur the Briton to make him their own.

The HRB is included in ‘The Matter of Britain’, though it really doesn’t count as a Romance. The French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, takes the honor of the first published stories of Arthur after the HRB, and the first of the Romances. It is he who gives us Lancelot, Camelot, and the Holy Grail. Many others followed from German, Italian, and English writers.

King Arthur and French Romance
The Round Table, from Boorman’s Excalibur, 1981

Perhaps the pinnacle of the medieval Arthurian Romances come from England. In the 14th century, an anonymous author penned my favorite Arthurian story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And in the 15th century, Sir Thomas Mallory spent his time in prison writing Le Morte d’Arthur, which has become the basis for nearly every version of Arthurian stories since.

It is interesting that in the older Welsh legends and the HRB, the stories tend to focus on Arthur and his deeds. The Romances, however, stray further and further from Arthur and, aside from the final fall of Camelot details, focus mostly on other characters. Arthur is eventually reduced to a background character, while his knights are the focus of the stories.

There are countless interpretations of Arthurian themes today. Many are variations of King Arthur’s French Romances, creating new stories, or showing the same stories through different perspectives. Others, like my historical fiction series, The Arthurian Age, build a story around the different theories of who the historical Arthur was and what he did. There’s a reason Arthurian tales hold such power after so long, but each of us must enter Arthur’s world to find that reason for ourselves.

Book II of The Arthurian Age

7 thoughts on “King Arthur is a French Romance?”

  1. Interesting that they codified and regulated what is often part of growing up, the “Crush”. Knighthood was a matter of paradoxes. One was knighted by a blow which symbolised that the knight would never accept another blow without response yet perfect obedience in knighthood was perfect freedom. Passion for another must be overwhelming but never be requited.

    The not accepting another blow was excepted if one broke the etiquette of the hunt but removing the culprit’s trousers and beating them was all part of the rowdy boys’ day out.
    Makes one wonder if the system of outsourcing boys as pages did delay their adolescence.


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