What Is Romance? The Romantic Tradition in History & Literature

Romance is defined by one prominent publication as “a feeling or excitement or mystery associated with love”. That’s a good jumping off point for a discussion of romance and romantic love. Any two people could have an entirely different idea what romance is and be right.

Some might equate romance with the butterflies people have on their first kiss, or the sense of longing for the object of their affections, while others view romance as the outward display of your feelings of love, whether it’s gift-giving or grand gestures towards your romantic partner.

Some might view sacrifice for the object of one’s love as the highest form of romance, while others might view a good Jane Austen novel, a good romantic comedy, or the Twilight films as the highest form of romance our culture has produced.

Most of these interpretations of “romance” have some validity. Western culture has an entire tradition of romance to discuss, and each of the examples I gave hearkens back to an earlier romantic tradition. So I want to discuss this tradition to inform you about the long romantic tradition.

Courtly Love – Chivalric Romance

Websters Dictionary places heavy emphasis in their definition of romance on romance literature based on the medieval concept of chivalry, and terms romance “a medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural”. Chivalry derives from the courtly love tradition of the Middle Ages, and involves nobly and chivalrously expressing ones love and admiration for another. In the courtly tradition, the man and woman are nobles and they are not a married couple. Instead, the noble admirer seldom consummates their love for the target of their affection, instead suffering in secret as they perform noble and brave deeds in this person’s honor. The subtext is that the noble lady being admired is part of an arranged marriage, generally a loveless marriage, and the man’s admiration is an ideal outlet for such a man with a secret love obsession.

Courtly love became a part of the literature of Southern France in the 12th century (from the 1170s onward), and were heavily influenced by Western Europe’s new-found discovery of Arab culture–especially the advanced Arab poetry of the time. This was absorbed into the culture of France through the troubadours and trouveres, who wrote poetry dedicated to courtly romance. This poetry combined what we consider the contradictory elements of illicit love and spiritual transcendence, described by one commentator as illicit, passionate, humiliating, disciplined, and human.

Romance Literature

From this tradition came the wider idea of romance literature we discussed above, where the medieval knight strode into the world and did brave deeds on behalf of the object of his affections. These stories were told and retold for several centuries, falling out of favor around the year 1600 in lieu of more realistic themes and more modern storylines. Examples of the medieval romance are the Matter of Rome, an odd conflation of the stories of Alexander the Great and the Trojan War; a Matter of France, about Roland, the chief paladin riding under the banner of Charlemagne; and a Matter of Britain, about the Arthurian legends and Camelot.

The popular stories of King Arthur heavily borrow from the courtly love tradition, where Lancelot is in love with the wife of his king, Queen Guinevere. In later retellings of these stories, Lancelot and Guinevere consummate their mutual love, helping to bring about the downfall of Camelot.

In the generation of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes (circa 1600), the medieval romance finally was surpassed. Cervantes explicitly breaks from the past, as his Don Quixote reads too much about a famous medieval legend (Amadis of Gaul) and travels the modern countryside as a medieval knight. Because he is a man out of time, all the modern people he meets think poor Don Quixote is mad.

Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is also about a man clashing with the prevailing culture, but Hamlet inverts the formula. Instead of being a medieval man in a modern setting, Hamlet is a modern man in a medieval revenge story. Where a medieval knight would have learned who had wronged him, taken out his sword, and cut a swath through his tormentors (something like a modern action movie), Hamlet hesitates, wonders whether the ghosts tell the truth, tries to solve the mystery through deduction, and procrastinates the decision to take the life of his dastardly uncle.

With these stories, and many stories influenced by them, the medieval romance was dead.

Later Romance Traditions

In the Gothic Romance tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries (mainly in England), the romance in literature once again found a place. In the Gothic Romance, supernatural themes sometimes tinged with horror were set in haunted castles and amidst medieval ruins. The first of these was the 1764 novel by Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, which set many of the conventions of the genre. Later authors like Charles Robert Maturin, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne du Maurier drew from this tradition.

The Romantic Era

This genre was subsumed in a greater Romantic Era that pervaded the arts from around 1800 and lasted throughout much of the 19th century, in some fields of art deep into the Victorian Age. The Romantic Period roughly coincides with the innovations Beethoven brought to classical music, as he injected passion and melodrama into his compositions. The period before was about refinement and sophistication, so Beethoven’s revolution in music both electrified and scandalized the European public. It was no coincidence that his innovations occurred during the days of the French Revolution and the resulting Napoleonic Era which followed. In fact, Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, originally called The Bonaparte Symphony, is considered the beginning of the Romantic period in music. When Beethoven learned that Napoleon had taken the imperial crown of France, thus betraying revolutionary ideas, Beethoven is said to have struck out the title and renamed it the Eroica or Heroic Symphony.

Romantic composers such as Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin, Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky were just some of the men who contributed to the outstanding achievements of the romantic era of classical music.

The romantic era was embraced by most other forms of European art at the time. Romanticism in painting (and in all fields) was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, and the painters of the late-18th and early-19th century drew on medieval and classical themes and portrayed life in dramatic, larger-than-life ways. Not all hearkened back to the old days, because nationalism was often a theme of romantic artists of the time–though even these often drew upon the folk legends and traditions of the regions they were from.

In writing, the Romantic poets became world famous. The great English romanticists included Lord Byron, William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, but fine romantic poets were found in most of the European countries of that time (such as the towering figure of German poetry, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). This body of romantic poetry is considered among the finest poetic verse ever written. Meanwhile, romantic prose found form in the works of Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre) and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), James Fennimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans), and Herman Melville (Moby Dick). As with the romantic poetry, nature is a major part of the romantic setting, while emotion and imagination are more important than intellect and reason. Again, these are reactions to the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment, when science and mathematics truly came into their own.

While the 18th century can be said to have elevated reason and learning to new heights, the 19th century often involved the lone romantic figure struggling against seemingly impossible odds. While this is far afield from the idea of romantic love, this concept still pervades the romance stories of our time. In romantic literature today, the couple tends to be struggling against seemingly impossible circumstances.

Modern Romance

The 20th and early 21st century has its own share of romance novels. With the inception of Hollywood and the film industry, a whole new medium was found to tell romantic stories. So much of the movies and tv shows we watch these days have to do with love and romance that it would be hard to imagine the film industry without romantic films.

Hardly a week passes with a romantic comedy, chick flick, or bromance coming out in wide release. Jane Austen movies and Jane Austen novels, and all kinds of odd derivations of her works, are a phenomenon among a certain niche. Meanwhile, the New York Times Bestseller list is full of romantic novels. These might be the romantic stories of Danielle Steele or the horror romance of Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyers.

Romance Explained

So when you talk about romance and the romantic tradition, you draw on nearly a thousand years of western literary and artistic tradition. People have so many different ideas what romance is, because there have been so many definitions over the years. In the end, romance tends to be about “love no matter what”, feelings over reason, and that magical moment when love is first realized. Romance is when two very different people put their differences aside and come together in love.

Often over the generations, romance and youth intertwine, because our teen years is when most of us first experience romance. From Romeo & Juliet to the 100-year old vampire dating a high school girl, youth is served when it comes to the romantic tradition. Luckily, romance is more than that, because romance occurs anytime two people share the bonds of love, anytime one lover makes sacrifices for another, and anytime you reach out to show your loved one how much they mean to you. Romance isn’t just for those new to the passions of love, but for anyone who is willing to shed their skepticism and cynicism and believe that love can be theirs.

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