Metrical Romances : Medieval English

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      In the modern sense of the term, 'Romance' means something strange, remote and out of the ordinary. And in the imagination of the modern writers the Medieval Ages were the home of the romances. Today as we read the romances "we enter a new world, where damsels were always beautiful, sometimes even learned; where the men were prodigies alike of valour and muscular might and properly contemptuous of wounds that heal conveniently by miraculous interposition; where disappointed ladies find consolation in ministering to the poor and the afflicted; where true lovers overcome insuperable obstacles and are eventually united to live or die together" (C Rickett). To us this is a by-gone world, while to the contemporary readers of these romances it was the actual world though somewhat idealised. Thus the romances give us a glimpse of the mediaeval life in castles and cottages.

The Medieval knight is idealised as virtuous and piously Christian. Metrical romances ranged from 1000 to 6000 lines and employed octosyllabic couplets or a stanza of six, eight or twelve lines.
Metrical Romances

      Medieval English romances were of French origin and were influenced by the poetry of the troubadours and trouveres of France. The ideal of courtly love was the legacy of the former, while heroic adventure came from the latter. These romances in verse were written and sung by the minstrels.

      Roughly speaking, these romances were fashioned from the four cycles or romance that existed in France, with embroideries introduced by the naive minstrels. These four cycles are (1) The Matter of Britain. These deal with stories of King Arthur and his Round Table. Some of the notable of these romances are Sir Tristrem, Arthur and Merlin, Ywain and Gawain and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the finest of the group; (2) The Matter of Rome i.e., those dealing with the classical themes like the exploits of Alexander the Great and the Siege of Troy; (3) The matter of France, i.e., those dealing with the legends of Charlemagne, the French national hero. These have little value. Rauf Coilyear and alliterative romance, Sir Ferumbras, The Siege of Milan belong to this group; (4) The matter of England, those dealing with the English history and its heroes. Havelock the Dane, King Horn, Guy of Warwick, Richard Coeur de Lion are of this group. The most important of the cycles is that of King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table and the search for Holy Grail. King Arthur, a legendary king of Britain and his knights went out in search of it and had thrilling adventures and experiences. The Arthurian Saga consisted of the main story of King Arthur and multitudes of romance tales concerning the different kinghts of the Round Table, chiefly Sir Galahad, Gawain and Launcelot.

      The cycle of romance about Charlemagne and his twelve peers originated in France with the song of Roland and was mixed up with oriental legends. The song of Sir Roland was the most famous poem of the cycle. The romance cycle relating to Alexander came from Greek and Latin sources. It had a very little of historical Alexander, and much of romantic wonder, fiction and magic came from Arabian legends.

      The romance cycle about the siege of Troy was also of Greek and Latin origin. Two books named Dares Phyrgyus and Dicty's Cretensius written during the decline of Latin period furnished the basis of this cycle. Many stories written by Virgil and Tacitus were incorporated. The romances have great historical value as pictures of contemporary life. They were very popular in the Middle ages and were sung by the minstrels during and after feasts in the halls of the nobles and also before the common people during festivals. The chief features of the romances are: These romances are narratives of heroic adventures, usually strings of episodes not too closely related. Characters are types rather than individuals. Knights are types of chivalry. War and love are the themes of these romances. The heroes are engaged in highly imaginative encounters with extraordinary personages. Armed giants, mythical elements, enchanted castles and forests abound. The quest theme persists in the romances. There is either a Knight searching for the Holy Grail or on an acknowledged heir seeking this throne. Love interest, which eventually resulted in the modern association of romance with a love affair is the dominant interest. There is a veneration of women which was stimulated by the mediaeval cult of the virgin.

      The Medieval knight is idealised as virtuous and piously Christian. Metrical romances ranged from 1000 to 6000 lines and employed octosyllabic couplets or a stanza of six, eight or twelve lines. These romances were very popular in the middle ages and were sung by the minstrels. The style is often simple and direct but with lack of artistic finish. But the best examples like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight attain a perfection of style. There was a multitude of short romance stories in prose and verse and they came from various sources - French, Latin, Arabian and Oriental. During this time the country swarmed with tales of love and adventure translated and imitated from continental sources and written in meter and rhyme. These tales of romance provided inspiration to the nineteenth century English poetry - the poetry of Tennyson, Rossetti and Swinburne.

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