Medieval European Literature

Chivalric Romance

Starting from the 13th century, secular culture advanced with the increasing importance of cities. Thus, the growth of literacy in Europe gave birth to vernacular literature in the national languages. Secular literature was not anti-Catholic, but it visibly withdrew from clerical character, and this showed itself both among the nobility, and among the common people. In European literature, there was developed a new genre - romance. Originally the word "romance" referred to narrative poems written not in Latin, but in one of Romanic languages. Later, the term meant author's works matching the ideals of courtly chivalric culture. The first romances were written in verse, prose narratives appeared only in the 13th century. Romance is a genre of narrative literature which was completely imaginative as the fruit of poetic invention of the author. Romances not only portrayed the personal fates of the characters via the trials or adventures, they described their love and other inner feelings, their personal, private life. Medieval romance was a genre in which authors raised and tried to find a solution to the major psychological problems of the human personality and his relationship with the world.

The ancient literature, retelled in the spirit of the medieval time, continued to exist in form of the antique cycles. Romances about Alexander the Great, and the romances of Troy were the most popular.

Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The Romance of Troy
The manuscript collection of the National Library of Russia includes five books from the 14th to early the 16th centuries with the works of the Trojan cycle. The most famous of them was "The Romance of Troy" by Benoît de Sainte-Maure (+ 1173). De Saint-Maure used a medieval Latin retelling of Homer made by Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis. "The Romance of Troy" recounts the events preceding the Trojan War - the expedition of the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece, the story of Jason and Medea's love, the abduction of Helen of Troy, diplomatic negotiations on the eve of the war, and so on. Speaking of the Amazon country, de Saint-Maure summarized all geographical and historical information about the Middle East, which was in his possession. His huge, over 30,000 line poem describes 24 battles, developed three love stories. Describing women - Briseis, Medea and Polyxena, de Saint-Maure made an attempt to create personalized characters.

Out of all extant copies of this work, the 15th century Italian manuscript, kept in NLR, is recognized as the most remarkable in its decoration. The large parchment codex is adorned with 343 miniatures. The Trojans and Greeks, depicted on them, live, love and fight like people of the Middle Ages.

The core of chivalric romances was a mix of the theme of love and fantastic adventures. Their central character is the perfect knight who wanders the lands alone and performs heroic exploits. The travels serve as a plot of these "knight-errantry tales", giving a good opportunity for storyteller to narrate an immense number of stories of all the deeds of the hero to demonstrate his chivalric virtues.

The National Library of Russia stores manuscripts consisting of three French romances: the allegorical poem "The Panther of Love" by Nicolas de Margival, the romance "Athis and Prophilias" by the 12th century poet Alexander of Bernay and "The Romance of a Violet or Gérard de Nevers" by Gerbert de Montreuil (1190-c. 1230).

Gerbert de Montreuil. «The Romance of a Violet»
“The Romance of a Violet” enjoyed the greatest success. The story inspired the works of many writers, including Giovanni Boccaccio and Shakespeare. The plot is based on the fidelity of an innocent lady, the mistake of the hero and the wickedness of a third party. At the court of King Louis, Count Lisiard de Forez accuses the bride of Count de Nevers, Princess Euriant, of unfaithfulness and offers a bet - if he manages to seduce the princess, then domains of Count de Nevers will be transferred to him. Lisiard de Forez dishonestly got knows of a violet-shaped mark on the princess' bosom. He tells of the mole in the presence of the king. The whole court and Gérard de Nevers believe a lie. The count intends to kill the bride and leads Euriant into the forest, but shows mercy and leaves her in the woods. Then he secretly sneaks home where overhears a conversation of a traitor-maid who had said about the mole to Lizard. Count de Nevers returns to the forest, but can not find the bride. In search of his lady, he, as befits a hero of a knight-errantry tale, accomplishes a lot of feats, exposes deception of Lisiard de Forez and, finally, marries the princess Euriant. Like many romances, "The Romance of the Violet" implicitly develops the notion of the ennobling power of love.

Fr. F.v.XIV.3
Benoît de Sainte-Maure. Le Roman de Troie.
Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The Romance of Troy.

Italy, 14th cent.
Parchment. In French.
From the Collection of P. Dubrovsky.
Fr. Q.v.XIV.3
Gerbert de Montreuil. Roman de la violette ou de Girart comte de Nevers.
Gerbert de Montreuil. The Romance of a Violet, or Gérard de Nevers.

15th cent. France.
Parchment. In French.
From the Collection of P. Dubrovsky.