Epic to Romance in British Literature: Role of Kingship and the Feminine
(Notes prepared from Paul Poplawski's English Literature in Context)
Epic is otherwise known as heroic poetry in Old English terminology. Strict definition of heroic poetry says it ended in 1066 with the battle of Hastings. But a loose definition of epic poetry says they are long narrative celebration of military ethos and courageous individuals who risk life and limb for honour of themselves or of others. This longer, loose definition of epic fits well for Middle English Romantic poetry as well. The only difference would be that the scene shifts from chivalry on the battle field to the internal, private, psychological arena. This way Romance is a continuation of OE heroic poetry or they both are similar. But for some they are separate and different. Romance comes from the Old French romans which meant a story told in French. Therefore, the initial difference was in language, not in structure, theme, etc.
Beowulf is considered the best epic poem. Many OE poems are hybrids with religious or elegiac elements in them. They would be short as well sometimes. These examples outside the definition indicate problems and limitations of self contained genres. Over centuries when times change along with language, we have evidences of OE stories changing genre to become Romantic poems during ME.
For Normans and Anglo Saxons heroic poetry was a living tradition. They lived their lives fighting and singing those poems. Warriors dreamt of becoming the characters they celebrated in their songs. They felt they were also making history and songs by being brave in the face of odds.
Place of Women in Epics and Romance
Without elaborating if one wants an answer, this is it: there was no place for women in epics. Heroic poetry was deeply masculinated. The nature of activities described in there excludes women. Comitatus of Tacitus talks about the retinue for fighting elite. There was shared accommodation for them where they delighted in each others' company- all male fighters. If one is an outstanding fighter and proves his mettle, he will be awarded land, home, estate and facilitated marriage. Even after becoming rich and settled such would continue to serve the king whenever the king needs them on a retainer basis. These elite fighters also had their own gang of fighters to keep. All male companies!
Women bore children and brought them up. Nothing else is prominently mentioned in epics. But if we look at Beowulf, one of his main enemies is a woman. Woman's political role becomes evident in marriages which seal pacts between tribes. Women carried physical evidences of pacts in their own bodies. These can be considered exceptions.
Kingship and rulership
Medieval kings were fighters. Royal lineage was strictly kept. The family kept authority and land to themselves strictly. But in Anglo Saxon tradition, kingship was a flexible affair. It depended on need and claims of blood. When there was a need, they could consider men out of the clan to be kings. King was the center of the nation, but king was not the nation itself.
Powerful kings did not limit themselves to their little kingdoms. They ruled trans-tribe. Still their authority had limits. This is evident in Beowulf’s story. Beowulf went to serve Hrothgar of Denmark despite King Hygelac's wish to remain in Geats. King Hygelac did not have the authority to prevent Beowulf from going to Hrothgar. Beowulf was disregarded in Geats. But he built repute through his exploits at Heorot. He represented a nation- like medieval knights of romance. Heroic poetry of Old English is ‘equal’ to chivalric romance of Middle English.
Late heroic poetry, historic chronicle and early English romance overlap. Chronicle was used to fix dates and years to fix movable feasts, etc. But chronicle also gave us heroic poetry, historic commentary, critique and commemorations.
Beowulf, Chronicle and Brut are about kingship between the lines. Brut by Lazamon is between heroic narrative and metrical chronicle. It is also romance in its motif. It was influenced by Insular French. Interaction between Insular French and English brought forth a new identity. This enabled writing about King Arthur. So far such writings were about Romans (Trojans, Alexander, etc.) or about the French (Charlemagne, Roland, etc.). Brut has OE alliterations but also has rhyme, syllabic rhythm and assonance. It lacks presence of distressed damsels like OE heroic poetry.
Treachery has central role in poems like Song of Roland which are influenced by French. Treachery was a cardinal sin and honour was a cardinal chivalric virtue. Honour is celebrated in oath taking on relics. These scenes are picturesquely described in many such poems.
Descriptions of arming scenes, fights, tournaments, etc. show martial rituals of cultural importance. These show the importance of good rulership. King should be as good as best of his men and more. King should be the epitome of justice, administer of law, mediator, peace maker, etc. Such ideal kingship is detailed in short reign of Aurelie who build halls, churches, restored buildings, administered laws, etc. well.
Good rulership is always a concern or theme in this era. It reflects the political circumstances of the period.
Place of the Feminine
All these establish the continuity between heroic poetry and ME Romance. But for romance, at the centre there is a more feminine preoccupation with courtliness, love and marriage unlike epic's masculine interests. These though speaks of love doesn't give up the characteristics of epics like centrality of kingship and courtly integrity. We also find that the line between a saint's life and romance is blurred. Thus romance stories could stand comfortably adjacent to rather than in opposition to religious material. The separation of sacred and secular is slowly beginning to disappear in medieval literature.
By the end of 15th century, romance was not about military function and was fast becoming an icon of social prestige available to whoever could afford it. But before that happened, it was the ultimate expression of chivalry. Though we mentioned the role of women above, we should not hesitate in stating that the owners of English romances were most likely to be men. The class of men who could have it was widened. Lesser knights, provincial men, burghers and the mercantile class could consume romance by 15th century. It was offered to anyone who was free and gentle (Note that free and gentle excluded serfs and commoners!).