Jul 1, 2012

The Medieval Romance and individuality

Some background notes...

The word romance comes from the French word "romans," which refers to the Old French language and a kind of poem written in it. Romances were written in the vernacular, not Latin. A romance dealt with "history", but we should use the term history loosely, for in the Middle Ages, historical accuracy and documentary evidence were far from reliable. A better term for the romance's subject matter might be "legend." These were entertaining poems, stories of legendary kings, knights and ladies. They were tales of adventure, love, and chivalry.

The romance genre flowered from the mid 12th century to the mid 13th (circa 1150 to 1250 AD). Many early romances dealt with the history of King Charlemagne as well as the legendary British King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Some romances emphasized war and feats of strength. Others added new elements: courtesy, gentility, loyal service, and the sacrifice of self. In these so- called chivalrous romances, the knights undergo trials and adventures, in the service of a lady whom they love and idealize.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell (whose book and series Transformations of Myth through Time has been influential throughout these notes ) sees this flowering of romance in Western Europe as the rise of a uniquely Western conception of the individual among society. In the West, the accent or emphasis is on the life of the individual: your life, your career, your soul. He opposes the West European concept of individuality to a more Eastern emphasis on society, rules, hierarchy, and laws: the individual in these cultures is seen more as an organism in a greater organism. The whole body is what really counts; it is paramount.

Where does the West’s concept of individualism come from? Many sources, really. Partly from the classical Greco-Roman tradition of individuality, of free citizens, etc. Athenian democracy was government organized around the principle of individuals meeting in assembly and casting individual votes. We already see powerful individuals in the characters of Greek drama and epic poetry: think of Oedipus, Achilles, Odysseus. We also see an emphasis on individual salvation in the life of Jesus and the teachings of St. Paul. This accent on individualism comes into flower in the 12th century with the romances. In so many of these tales, the message (as Joseph Campbell interprets it) is that you must choose your own path. You can get clues and guidance from others who have gone before, but ultimately it is you who must carom off those influences and make up your own rules. If you try to follow the letter of the law, or live your life the way someone else insists you must live it, you’re doomed. The goal of the romance is the fulfillment of one’s own potentialities. You discover what you were meant to do with your life, your calling or vocation, you discover who you were always meant to be with (your love), and you go there. And the journey is always an adventure, even when the outcome becomes tragic.