The Knight and the Lion

What was a 'romance' in the Middle Ages?

Nowadays the word 'romance' means a love story, a novel about a love affair. Stories like The Knight with the Lion were the first ones to be called 'romances'. This was because they were written in 'romanz', which meant French, rather than Latin. Up until then, almost all writing was in Latin, since most of those who could read or write were monks, nuns, priests or bishops. So there were many books on religious topics like the lives of saints.

In the 12th Century, though, there was a new audience for written books. Noblemen and noblewomen were learning to read, or enjoyed having stories read to them aloud, not in Latin but in their own language. They wanted to hear about knights and ladies like themselves, about adventure and the problems of love. The nobles had their own courts and castles. They could pay poets to write poems on these subjects for them. Chrétien wrote at least one of his stories for Countess Marie of Champagne, and another for Count Philip of Flanders.

Chrétien's poem was written in rhyme and sounded like this.

Click the play arrow on the player below to listen.

The words you are hearing look like this:

Il avint, pres a de set anz,
Que je seus come païsanz
Aloie querant avantures,
Armez de totes armeüres
Si come chevaliers doit estre,
Et trovai un chemin a destre
Parmi une forest espesse.
Mout i ot voie felenesse,
De ronces et d'espines plainne;
A quelqu'enui, a quelque painne,
Ting cele voie et cel santier.
A bien pres tot le jor antier
M'an alai chevauchant einsi
Tant que de la forest issi,
Et ce fut an Broceliande.

The language Chrétien wrote in is called 'Old French'. The language has changed quite a lot since then to become modern French. The kings and nobles of England also spoke a kind of French (called Norman French), as their ancestors had come from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066. The ordinary people spoke Anglo-Saxon ('Old English'). Gradually these two languages combined to become 'Middle English', which is nearer to the language we have today.

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