Identifying Boeve and Bevis: romance, ballad, or ‘romantic ballad’?

This page addresses the very important matter of how to identity medieval literary genres as this affects the definition of the Boeve and Bevis poems, which have again been misrepresented (well-meaningly at least) as a ‘medieval romantic ballad’. This proposed definition could hardly be further from the medieval genres into which both early versions of the poem fit.

To begin with the Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone. This is still subject to academic debate. Some scholars regard it as an early romance in the medieval sense of the word (see below) but in many respects it fits more properly into the genre of the chanson de geste. It is written at least in part in laisses, a quite complex stanza form deriving from Old French. Chanson de geste means ‘a song about the deeds’ (of great men). It is implicitly and explicity a poem about the adventures and lives of real or fictional heroes. It has nothing to do with romance in the sense of the sentimental attachment implied by the term ‘romantic’, which plays only a small part in most chansons de geste.

The medieval romance: the 14th century Sir Bevis of Hampton is unequivocally a medieval romance. This means that it is an adventure story in which fictional Christian knights confront a series of challenges which may involve mythical creatures as well as human opponents. The adventures test the knight in ways which prove his moral as well as his martial strength. Love quests may be included, but they are not the prime motivating factor except in Arthurian romances. Although both Boeve and Bevis were both written in England, neither are Arthurian romances and love is not the primary motivation for the heroes’ adventures although ladies play their part in testing the strength and nobility of the heroes.

There is a sub-category of English romance which is that of the Matter of England, in which Bevis is included. It concerns young heroes who are exiled and their English lands usurped by treacherous family members or guardians. Their adventures include learning their trade as warriors and confronting numerous enemies. Their love-interest may be a lady who is above their station or related to an enemy, but winning her is not his motivation, indeed some romance heroes do their best to avoid ladies who love them! So there is little that is ‘romantic’ about these medieval romances.

The final term in the misdefinition is ‘ballad’. This in fact refers to a form of poetry which may or may not have been originally oral. It is set out in a specific arrangement of lines and follows its own rules which are not those of the English medieval romance or the chanson de geste. The ballad became popular again in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as part of the Romantic movement, hence the easily confusion. In the medieval era the ballad and the romance would not have been confused.

The medieval romances that still exist may have been created for oral performance but their preservation in manuscript implies that they had gained status. The preferred view is that they were created for noble or wealthy patrons. Ballads may have been popular in origin, but their origins are obscure, and their history is complex.