Explore the Objects

Explore the Objects

Romance is the name we give to a kind of story-telling that flourished in Europe in the late Middle Ages—in poetry and prose, in popular and rarified forms. Like folk tales, romances are grounded on relationships between parents and children, the monstrous and the familiar, and between triumph and disaster. While romances often tell stories of love or loyalty, not all do: in medieval French, to write en romans can simply mean to use the vernacular language, not Latin.

No kind of writing is an island, entire of itself: romances incorporate motifs and settings from epic poetry, Norse sagas, Middle Eastern tales, saints’ lives, chronicles, and lyric love poetry. Most of all, romances are impelled by the narrative shape of a life, tracing an arc from orphaned child to emperor, from exile to return, or from slandered daughter to revered queen. In this way, they create person-shaped narratives that satisfy our repeated desire to learn about ourselves through telling stories.

This exhibition reveals the Bodleian’s outstanding holdings of manuscripts and printed books containing medieval romances. We have matched these books with works of art inspired by romance narratives, before following the story of romance itself, through its constantly shifting presence in literature and art up to the present day.

Mini-documentary: The Romance of the Middle Ages

The amazing variety of medieval romance continues to feed our imagination. The Romance of Middle Ages exhibition looks at how its compelling stories have inspired writers and artists across the centuries, including Shakespeare, William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien. In this introduction, Dr Nicholas Perkins (curator) joins with other experts from the University of Oxford to illustrate this in a mini-documentary.

Exhibition themes

Some of the earliest medieval romances were written in or set around Britain. They use the lives of legendary heroes—Horn and Havelok, Athelstan and Arthur—to explore larger issues of...

Origin Stories

Romance was not confined to literary works: its characteristic scenes, ethical dilemmas and splendid imagery permeated medieval culture. Many people would never own a book of romances, but would know...

Romance and the Medieval World

Romances often investigate what in Middle English is called trawthe—loyalty, faith, truth, or integrity—testing this quality in the most extreme circumstances. They also implicitly ask...

Truth, Deceit and Desire

How much truth lies behind the legends of Arthur? This question was debated throughout the later Middle Ages. The huge attraction of Arthur for mythmaking and romance was, however, never in doubt....

Empires of Romance: Arthur

Alexander of Macedon (356–323 BC), known as Alexander the Great is, unlike King Arthur, a firmly historical figure. His bold leadership and exceptional series of conquests, stretching from...

Empires of Romance: Alexander

Medieval artists were experts in telling a story through a series of pictures—in stained glass, ivory, wood, tapestry, stone, or the pages of an illuminated manuscript. They also shared motifs...

The Objects of Romance

The legendary exploits of the Classical past were a great source for romance treatment—none more so than the web of stories surrounding the troubled cities of Thebes and Troy. They could become...

Cities under Siege

One striking way in which romances entertained their audiences was by the unexpected, bizarre or shocking. A devil in disguise makes love to an unsuspecting duchess (Sir Gowther); the child of a...

Strange Encounters

Gawain is a key figure of Arthurian mythology. In the chronicle tradition, he is one of Arthur’s closest lieutenants. But as early as Chrétien de Troyes’ brilliant twelfth-century...

The Fortunes of Sir Gawain

This section celebrates the variety of romance materials in the Bodleian Library, the evidence they give about medieval writers and audiences, and the ongoing work involved in conserving them for...

Composing, Writing, Preserving

Thomas Percy (1729–1811) was the son of a grocer, and studied at Christ Church, Oxford, before being ordained as an Anglican priest. Eventually he was to become Bishop of Dromore in Ireland. He...

The Percy Folio

The end of the Middle Ages was not the end of medieval romance. Early printers included romances amongst their most succesful publications. Some writers mocked romances for their clichéd verse...

Routes of Romance I

Many writers and artists in the nineteenth century looked to the Middle Ages as a highpoint of chivalric honour, innocent belief and romantic passion. The works of Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson and...

Routes of Romance II

The romance of the Middle Ages is still all around us. Filtered through generations of retellings, combined with motifs from other literatures and times, the narrative patterns and characteristic...

Romance and the Modern World