Digging for Stories: A Case for Medieval Romance by Sandra Schwab

In “Never to forsake one another,” Rose Lerner’s short for this year’s Queer Romance Month, we get to know about her character Elijah’s desperate yearning to find a happy ending for somebody like him—a gay man—in the books he reads:

[The fluttery excitement in his chest] always started up when he spotted someone like him in a book, even now at the wise old age of twenty-three, even though he knew it would only end with one or both of them dead or married. Every time he somehow, childishly, believed it wouldn’t happen—even rereading Twelfth Night, he thought that maybe this time Sebastian would stay with Antonio—but of course it always did.”

Of course, it always does.

Or doesn’t it?

If you’ve read Rose’s story (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), you know that Elijah eventually does come across a book that not only presents a gay relationship in a positive light, but also, and more importantly, gives the characters a happy ending. But what about earlier books and stories? From say, the Middle Ages?

(“Really, Sandra?” you might think. “The Middle Ages?!?” I know, I know. But hey, I’m weird that way, and I love going digging for stories. So please bear with me.)

Now, medieval romance1 is probably the last place anybody would look to for stories about queer relationships. After all, it’s a genre filled with hyper-masculine knights, galumphing about the countryside on their trusty steads, rescuing damsels in distress, and killing off dragons, necromancers, and what not (if you’re lucky, you might also get super-sexy green knights and fairies who abduct people from under ympe trees) (if you’re not lucky, you simply get endless battle descriptions—gah!). Yes, that sounds like the very last place where anybody would look for stories that challenge dominant gender roles and heteronormative depictions of sexuality.

But you see, medieval romance is a cunning little beast: it cleverly dodges all attempts at a clear definition, and it often happily challenges stereotypes. One of the most popular medieval stories about a male-male friendship, Amis and Amiloun, is a good example of a story that does rather interesting things with narrative patterns. Versions of this romance can be found in most European languages, and after the Middle Ages it survived in various other narrative forms – all attesting to its popularity.

Of course, on the face of it, the story merely celebrates male friendship: it is never explicitly stated that Amis and Amiloun are lovers, and indeed, both of them marry in the course of the tale. Nevertheless, I don’t think Elijah would have been disappointed with their story.

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For you see, in medieval romance meaning is often established across several different texts, and the motif that is used to emphasize the special character of Amis and Amiloun’s friendship is the very same that you can find in texts about childhood sweethearts turned lovers such as the popular Floris and Blancheflour: they are conceived in the same night and born on the same day. Moreover, when the two boys are brought to court, it turns out they look so much alike that they might be taken for twins. This imitation of twinship serves not only to mark the protagonists as special, but it also serves as a physical expression, an externalization, of the intense emotional bond that develops between them.

Indeed, we are told:

So wele þo children loued hem þo,

Nas neuer children loued hem so,

Noiþer in word no in dede;

Bitvix hem tvai, of blod & bon,

Trewer loue nas neuer non […] (139-43)

So well did these children love each other

as never children loved each other before,

neither in word nor in deed;

[As] Between them two, of blood and bone,

truer love was never known […]

They love each other so much that they eventually pledge everlasting loyalty and friendship to one another, and they repeat this pledge at their parting as young adults. In the course of the romance, their oath is then tested; each of the men is given a terrible choice, and each of them chooses friendship, thereby putting friendship above his own health or above his own flesh and blood.

What is more, Amis and Amiloun’s friendship is presented as the strongest and most intense relationship within the story, and in contrast to the heterosexual marital relations, it is not tainted by betrayal or trickery. Fiercely committed to one another, Amis and Amiloun are the real couple of the romance. So it is only fitting that theirs is the only relationship that remains at the end of the tale and that the two men die on the same day—another motif more commonly found in medieval love stories.

So even though the romance never explicitly states that Amis and Amiloun are lovers, the structure of the story and the motifs that are being used make it very easy to read their relation as not just homo-social, but as homo-erotic. Indeed, even their names encourage this reading: just as in Floris and Blancheflour the name of the boy is (partly) included in that of the girl, Amis’s name is part of Amiloun’s. Thus, once again the intensity of their bond is emphasized, as well as the importance of that bond for their very identity.

So yes, I think that Rose Lerner’s Elijah wouldn’t have been disappointed with the story of Amis and Amiloun. :-)


1 It is rather difficult to give a definition of medieval romance and to establish clear genre boundaries. In the broadest possible sense romance simply means “fiction written in the vernacular (rather than in Latin).” Medieval romance usually deals with the adventures of a knight and there is often some kind of quest involved, which results in the maturation of the protagonist. However, within the genre, there is a huge variety of forms and themes, and even if we look at only one specific story, we often find different emphasis on specific thematic aspects.

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About Sandra Schwab

Award-winning author Sandra Schwab started writing her first novel when she was seven years old, and thirty-odd years later, telling stories is still her greatest passion. For more than a decade she happily wrote stories set in the Regency era and the Victorian Age, when last year she let people on Twitter talk her into writing a romance set in ancient Rome. The first book of her Roman series, Eagle’s Honor: Banished, was released in summer 2015.

Sandra holds a PhD in English Literature (which she gained with a study on the history of dragonslaying) and lives in Frankfurt am Main / Germany with a sketchbook, a sewing machine, and an ever expanding library.

About The Lily Brand

LilyBrand-FINAL-700x1050(Oh, look! Sandra has finally managed to re-release her debut novel!)

Troy Sacheverell, fifth earl of Ravenhurst, was captured in France. He’d gone to fight Napoleon, but what he found was much more sinister. Dragged from prison to an old French manor on the outskirts of civilization, he was purchased by a rich and twisted widow. And more dangerous still was the young woman who claimed him.

Lillian had not chosen to live with Camille, her stepmother, but nobody escaped the Black Widow’s web. And on her nineteenth birthday, Lillian became Camille’s heir. Her gift was a plaything: a man to end her naiveté, a man perfect in all ways but his stolen freedom. Yet even as Lillian did as she was told, marked that beautiful flesh and branded it with the flower of her name, all she desired was escape. In another place, in another world, she’d desired love. Now, looking into burning blue eyes, she knew there was no place to run. No matter if should she flee, no matter where she might go, she and this man were prisoners of passion, inextricably linked by the lily brand…

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I love this Sandra! I have always found medieval romance (romans) to be a fascinating subject, and although I only did one module at Uni the sex was often very bawdy and explicit – whilst love and gender were often blurred. I nearly squealed with academic zeal when I saw you had a footnote <3

  • What a wonderful post, Sandra! So interesting- I had no idea medieval romance delved into gender and sexuality in that way. I haven’t dabbled very far into medieval romance, but this definitely makes me want go exploring. :)

    • Thank you, Sunnie! Medieval romance is pretty awesome – the only tiny-teeny problem is the language (which is why I haven’t read as many romances as I would have liked to do). And many of the older translations leave out the sexy stuff. Another wonderful example of a medieval romance that challenges gender stereotypes, in particular chivalric masculinity, is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” I can recommend the translation by Simon Armitage (NOT the audio book! that’s rather dreadful). There’s also a translation by Tolkien, but it uses a more formal style.

  • Really interesting post Sandra, and my heart just went *awwww* over the story of Amis and Amiloun & the part you translated <3

  • What an interesting post! I did never think about M/M romance in medieval times, though I must recognise I always thought that some of the more “gentle” knights were actually a little bit closeted… You know, all that brotherhood and sweet manners sounded too much like romance to me! 😉

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