Some guy, I won’t name names, once wrote a book with the same title. This has nothing to do with that. Instead, I’d like to talk about how exactly how the first romances came about. Anyone who has studied much about the Arthurian legend will recognize the name of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in 1136 wrote Historia Regum Britanniae. They would also know that he introduced Arthur to the continent. There, with the help of Bretons and through the passing of crusaders to the continent, the legends of Arthur came to be told in Brittany and in time to the rest of France.
But they were not romances, none of them were. Nor would they necessarily have developed into them. A few decades after Geoffrey, there was a lovely young Countess of Aquitaine by the name of Eleanor. The King of France managed to woo her and the land that came with her, but she was not happy with their marriage. And, being a strong-willed woman with a great deal of power, she was not willing to maintain the status quo.
Enter the man who would later be Henry II of England. He heard about Eleanor and realized what a golden political opportunity he had been presented with. Then he met her, and they both fell in love. Now I don’t take that phrase lightly. She fell in love with him and vice versa, to the point where he wrote her poetry and together they presided over love courts.
Eleanor had given birth to several children by her first husband, however, and the most noteworthy was one Marie de Champagne. Marie was raised in the atmosphere her mother was a part of, but she saw medieval love as disadvatageous to the woman. You could call her a feminist. Marie espoused a philosophy that came to be known as courtly love. It had two main facets, that true love was to be foud outside of marriage, and that the man must absolutely submissive to the woman. She hired one man to write down her philosphy, but then she hired a masterful poet named Chretien de Troyes to show her philosophy in action. Chretien finally did so in a poem called “Le Chevalier de la Charrette” or “The Knight of the Cart”, the story of Guinevere’s abduction and rescue.
Chretien was the first person to write the Arthurian romance and his work was excellent within his genre, but the romance did not immediately become part of the Arthurian genre. In Germany a few years later the same story would be written as Lanzelet and would present the hero as a womanizer while the queen would be connected only to Arthur. Still, once presented by one of the great writers of the High Middle Ages, the idea of the romance would not die, and its association with Arthurian literature was inevitable.
We owe the hero Arthur to Geoffrey, but the Arthurian romance that the world loves and cherishes we owe to a twelfth-century French woman who had her own unique form of feminism and used the Arthurian stories as a vehicle for demonstrating how her philosophy should be put into practice. Thanks Marie de Champagne!