Romance was the most popular and the most inventive genre of the Middle Ages. Romances or tales of knightly adventure invent courtly love. They contain medieval ideas of cognition (How do we see and hear?) and of feeling (How do we fall in love with what we see and hear?). Romances describe an ethic (how do we woo? How do we fight?) and instructs readers in assigning value to their objects of desire (Who and what is worth fighting for? What risks are worthwhile?). Romance narratives described communities—the Round Table, a court, a noble household, a kingdom—and prescribed ideals of rule and describe a system of right reward. Romances remain satisfying because they inaugurate the narrative expectations which remain familiar in narratives we now denigrate as “mere romance” or even “cheap” romance. Attractive men and attractive women meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. The good are transformed for the better. The unrelentingly evil are severely punished.
In the first third of the class, we will become familiar with medieval romance and its conventions, beginning with the Latin text that inaugurates the tradition of Arthurian romance after 1066, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. We then proceed to read multiple “romance” or vernacular narratives indebted to Geoffrey’s Latin Arthurian material, from the shorter Breton lays of Marie de France to selections from Malory’s encyclopedic Le Morte d’Arthur. In addition, we will read medieval poetry that already began to spoof romance and its narrative and stylistic excesses such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Sir Thopas.
In the second section of the class, we will read two Renaissance responses to romance: Spenser’s nationalist romance The Faerie Queene and Francis Beaumont’s comic spoof of romance featuring the public playhouse in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The final third of the class will be dedicated to even later trans-Atlantic responses to the tradition of romance which might include Lord Byron’s Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Alfred Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King. We will watch two films that revisit the medieval Quest for the Holy Grail—the English schoolboy spoof of romance convention in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (now also the musical Spamalot) and Stephen Spielberg’s American revision of that same medieval quest in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Two short papers and a longer paper. One translation exercise. No exams.