The English Romance

Men speken of romances of prys,
Of Horn child and of Ypotys,
Of Beves and sir Gy,
Of sir Lybeux and Pleyndamour --
But sir Thopas, he bereth the flour
Of roial chivalry!
Sir Thopas (VII.897-902)

Chaucer's work was much influenced by romance, the dominant mode of secular fictional narrative in his time: the Knight's Tale -- with its emphasis on aristocratic spectacle, knightly tournaments and courtly love as well as its thematic structure of balance and chiasmus -- clearly owes as much to romance as to Boccaccio's pseudo-classical narrative that is its source (the same can be said of Troilus and Criseyde). The Squire's Tale is the beginning of an exuberant fantastic romance of the sort that was to flower in the fifteenth century in the great works of Boiardo and Ariosto. The Franklin's Tale is, so its narrator claims, a Breton lay (a variety of short romance). Sir Thopas is at once a parody and a celebration of English popular romances. For an idea of the popular romance as Chaucer knew it, see:

The Tale of Gamelyn

This tale appears in a number of manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales and scholars once believed (without foundation) that it was among Chaucer's papers, where it lay ready to be adapted as a tale for the Yeoman. It was later adapted by Thomas Lodge for his euphuistic novel Rosalynde; Shakespeare in turn used Lodge's work as the source of As You Like It.

The Tale of Gamelyn has elements of the "outlaw romance," best known to modern readers in stories of Robin Hood. Such stories were known in Chaucer's time, though none have survived. Chaucer would not have known the fifteenth-century Gest of Robyn Hode, a "balled romance," composed by an unknown writer in the fifteenth century who combined a number of pre-existing ballads into a little "epic" of Robin Hood. It is not really relevant to Chaucer, but it is fun to read. Two versions are available, the original (with sometimes puzzling spellings) and a regularized (and slightly modernized) version:

A Gest of Robyn Hode. (This is the original version.)
A Gest of Robin Hood. (This is the regularized version,)

More typical of the romances that Chaucer knew was Libeaus Desconus, which embodies in a fully developed form one of the most popular themes in romance, "The Fair Unknown":

"Libeaus Desconus."

Chaucer knew this romance; he mentions its hero in Sir Thopas ("Sir Lybeux." VII.900).

The brief romance of Emare (which its author calls a Breton lay) shows the close relation of romance to moral tales and "secular saints' lives" such as the Man of Law's Tale. The other Breton lays -- The Erl of Toulous and Sir Launfal -- should be included in a consideration of Chaucer's understanding of romance. Chaucer probably knew some more sophisticated romances as well, though direct evidence is lacking. He mentions Sir Gawain in the Squire's Tale, and some critics have seen the influence of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on that tale (see note 75-295, p. 892 in Riverside Chaucer). There is a good text of Sir Gawain in the e-text collection at the University of Michigan, but it has no glosses and the work is best read in the edition by Andrew and Waldron, Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, Berkeley, UC Press, 1979 [PR1972.G35 1979].

The Greene Knight is a fifteenth-century adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a translation of that sophisticated work into the idiom of the popular romance:

The Greene Knight

A comparison of this simplified romance with its sophisticated source can can give one a good idea of the genre of popular romance.

A number of romances -- including The Alliterative Morte Arthur, The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, and Ywain and Gawain are available on the internet in the series produced by TEAMS (Consortium for Teaching the Middle Ages).

See also:

  • Bordman, Gerald Martin. Motif-Index of the English Metrical Romances. FF communications, v. lxxix, 2, no. 190. Helsinki, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1963 [Widener: 25237.37 no.190].
  • Crane, Susan. Gender and Romance in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c1994 [PR1875.R65 C73 1994].
  • Rice, Joanne A.. Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955-1985. New York, Garland, 1987 [PR321.Z99 R52 x 1987].

For a bibliography of Middle English romances click here and see also the section of Pearsall's biblography on Alliterative poetry.