Medieval Romance: What is It?
Don Quixote of la Mancha is a parody of the 'medieval romance' genre: a type of literature that flourished from the 12th to the 14th centuries. Don Quixote was written when this genre was already in decline (15th century) but a detailed knowledge of the characteristics of the 'medieval romance' are necessary for a profound understanding of the work.
What does 'Medieval' Mean?: A Brief History of the Middle Ages
The Roman Empire started declining towards the AD 300's and its crumbling gave rise to the Medieval Ages, or Middle Ages. This period lasted from AD 500 to 1500 and is referred as "middle" because it was the time when the European nations began to form. Since the borders of present-day European nations were being set, the Middle Ages was a period of great warfare. The initial lack of strong government divided the people into feudal states. Because of the constant warfare between these states, the concept of the knight came into being. A knight is simply a mounted warrior. Young men were taught to wear heavy armor, ride a war-horse, and fight with sword and lance . With the rise of the knight came the rise of chivalry, the knightly code of behavior. The chivalrous knight was supposed to be loyal to his feudal state, virtuous, brave, selfless, and protector the weak.
What does 'Romance' Mean?: The Beginnings of the Genre
In the beginning of the Middle Ages, the word "romance" (in Old French "romanz") was a term used indiscriminately to any kind of long narrative in French verse. "Romanz" meant "the speech of the people" or "the vulgar tongue." For instance, the "Roman de la Rose," a chronicle of aristocratic courtship and "Roman d'Alexandre," a semi fantastic chronicle of the adventures of Alexander the Great, are two romances that were known by the vulgate. By the end of the Middle Ages, the term "romance" had been narrowed down to describe a tale of knightly prowess, usually set in remote times or places, and involving some element of the supernatural .
Several factors contributed to what "romance" meant during the Middle Ages: legends of now deceased Roman Empire, the curriculum of rhetoric used by the Catholic Church education system, and the transformation in perception that man was not a static object but a mobile one in a continuous spiritual journey. The classical Roman poet Ovid had postulated during his lifetime that love was a "restless malady." Medieval writers took this concept of love and interwove it into romantic classical stories by such greats as Virgil and Homer. Virgil's The Aneneid was transformed into the Roman d'Eneas and Homer's tale of Troy was transformed into the Roman de Troie. Professional writers of the time, known as "clerks," would be trained in rhetoric in cathedral schools. They in turn would copy classical stories, like the ones mentioned above, into the medieval romance format (described below). Where exactly these writers got the idea to interweave them with classical stories is still a mystery.
Finally, there occurred a change in perception about man during the Middle Ages. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, man had been perceived as a static object, hit upon by life events, and from these "hits" he would accrue spiritual meaning. During the Middle Ages, man was perceived as a mobile object, one that would be in a constant journey to find spiritual meaning. Instead of being "hit" by random life events, man would be in search of these "hits," therefore becoming the architect of his own spiritual world. For this reason, the imagery of "journeying" and the "knight errant" became popular during the Middle Ages. The knight is in search of spiritual meaning. In Arthurian romances, this spiritual meaning is usually portrayed as the unattainable Holy Grail. It is for this reason that Don Quixote leaves his home: by emulating medieval knights, he is in search of spiritual meaning. In the Middle Ages, action was only a means to a spiritual end .
The Characteristics of a Medieval Romance
We have talked much about the origins of medieval romance, but we have not touched upon the common characteristics which make up such a work. Here are then, the characteristics and themes that you will find in most medieval romances:
Journeying: The journey is a metaphor for the spiritual quest of man during the Middle Ages. In Arthurian romances, all of King Arthur's knights are in search of the Holy Grail, a metaphor for spiritual fulfillment. In the medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde, a story of young star-crossed lovers, Tristan and Isolde are in a continuous journey trying to escape situations that try to keep them apart and therefore of fulfilling their romantic destiny.
Love: The medieval knight usually swears his undying love to a beautiful maiden. (Don Quixote swears his undying love to Dulcinea del Toboso.) It is this love which keeps the knight alive in the course of his wanderings and also keeps him from entering any relationships with women he encounters along the way. The maiden may sometimes submit the knight to "tests" so that she can be sure that he loves her. For instance, in Arthurian romances, Lady Guinevere, King Arthur's wife, is actually in love with one of her husband's knights, Sir Lancelot. In Sir Thomas Malory's romance Le Morte D'Arthur, Guinevere makes Lancelot undergo perilous tests at a tournament to see if he really loved her.
Virtue: A medieval knight has to prove his virtue, specifically his purity of heart and purpose, time and time again during his journey. This purity of heart will give the knight fame and respect back at home. But most importantly, it will make it easier for him to find spiritual fulfillment. In the romance Queste del Saint Graal, we learn of Sir Galahad, the perfect knight. His perfection lies in his perfect morality and physical virginity, two Christian values. It is his perfection in virtue that allows him to find the Holy Grail and soon after die in ecstasy. No other knight had ever or will ever achieve this accomplishment in medieval literature.
Man and God: In their journeys, knights have to prove that they are pure of heart, specifically by not succumbing to any temptations or spells they encounter. It is only abstinence which will save the knight's soul when he dies. This theme of abstinence becomes more and more prevalent as medieval romances came to be influenced by Christianity. For instance, when Arthurian romances became impregnated with Christian ideals, the illicit love affair between Lady Guinevere and Sir Lancelot came to be seen as the ultimate sin of adultery. It is this sin which leads to a falling out between Lancelot and King Arthur, a breakdown between the knights of the Round Table, and finally to the destruction of King Arthur's kingdom. It also puts Sir Lancelot's soul in a perilous position with God.
Supernatural: Medieval romances are ridden of supernatural beings such as dwarves, fairies, magicians, and giants, to name a few. These beings were created by the authors themselves to add excitement to the story but also to test the knight's virtue. In Don Quixote, the protagonist encounters some windmills, which he believes to be giants. Although funny, this scene shows that elements of the supernatural are an integral part of medieval romances.
Amadis de Gaula: The Spanish Medieval Romance
In reading Don Quixote, you have probably already encountered the continuous reference to Amadis de Gaula. Many people have never heard of this man and usually continue reading without paying much attention. But sure enough, the name pops again and attention much be given to understand why Gaula is always being mentioned and why Don Quixote is always comparing himself to him.
Amadis de Gaula is the product of Arthurian romances. Gaula is the Spanish medieval knight, who like any Arthurian knight encounters supernatural adventures in his journeys. For Spain, Gaula was the epitome of what a perfect knight should be. This work first appeared towards late 13th century. But it was finally published in 1508 by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo. This work revolved around the concept of chivalry and the exercise of such a concept. After being published it was translated into many languages and it is said to have affected the concept of chivalry which we have today. Don Quixote adopts many of Amadis's habits because he wants to become a perfect knight. Today, the term chivalry connotes virtuousness, honor, and gallantry.
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