How "Romance" Went From Latin to Love

Thursday, May 113 min read

“Romance” may conjure images of dinner in Paris with the Eiffel Tower twinkling in the distance, or a gondola picnic while floating down a Venice canal, but French and Italian aren’t called “Romance languages” because their countries of origin offer the perfect date-night settings.

Coming from the Latin Romanicus, which means “in the Roman style,” “Romance” (with a capital “R”) refers to the languages that descended from Vulgar Latin (also referred to as “common Latin,” because it’s what most people spoke). There are 44 Romance languages, with French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish accounting for more than 90% of the world’s Romance-language speakers. Around 1 billion people — about one out of every seven people on the planet — speak a Romance language.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

We look primarily to French to pinpoint when “Romance” expanded from a Latin-derived language to become a lowercase descriptor of love. In Old French, romanz applied to a narrative verse, which by 1300 had moved into English as “romaunce, meaning "a story, written or recited, in verse, telling of the adventures of a knight, hero, etc." In modern French, the word roman still means “a novel.”

In the Middle Ages, chivalric romantic legends became a distinctive literary form. These stories, written or recited in verse, date to the mid-12th century in France, and were founded on a code of honor interwoven with elements of love and adventure. They featured brave knights on heroic quests and were popular among the aristocracy of medieval Europe. The best-known examples are the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th-century Anglo-Norman cleric, historian, and author of several influential Latin works, is credited as a major source for the Arthurian legends. In Historia regum Brittaniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Monmouth described the king as he took the throne: “a youth of such unparalleled courage and generosity, joined with that sweetness of temper and innate goodness, as gained him universal love.” With this description, we start to see links between the qualities of knightly romantic tales and the attributes of the modern definition of romance.

The Queen of Love

Outside of the fanciful legends, chivalry and love flourished in the aristocratic courts of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a duchess and queen of both France and England, as wife to Louis VII of France from 1137 to 1152, and to Henry II of England from 1152 to 1204 (Henry died in 1189). Eleanor was an enthusiastic patron of two poetic movements of the era: the courtly love tradition as portrayed through the songs of the troubadours who performed at court, and the historical matière de Bretgane (legends of Brittany), rooted in Celtic traditions and documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

The 12th-century royal houses were quite contentious, and while she was known to be at the center of many of the most famous political intrigues of the time, Eleanor also presided over the Courts of Love, where knights would bring their disputes over love and romance for Eleanor and her female companions to pass judgment (or so the legend goes). There is some dispute as to whether the Courts of Love were real, however, or if they were a literary creation in the vein of King Arthur.

One for the Books

Today, the word “romance” connotes love and passion, while someone who is “romantic” might be said to put sentiment and emotion ahead of logic and reason. But there was a time when being called a “Romantic” meant something more academic. The Romantic era (or Romanticism), which peaked in Europe in the mid-19th century, was an artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement in critical response to the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. Romanticism emphasized emotion and individualism, and glorified history and nature instead of the rigorous scientific and philosophical discourse of the previous period. The writers, artists, musicians, and philosophers of the time were called “Romantics,” but the moniker had little to do with sentimental romance as we know it.

The ideals of romantic marriage, based on intimacy and passion, have flourished since the 19th century, when the basis of marital unions shifted away from the idea of cementing ties between families or expanding territory. While the expectation that a romance should always culminate in marriage has waned, romance continues to boom — at least in books. Romance novels, defined as containing a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending (known in the genre as an “HEA” or “happily ever after”), are a billion-dollar industry and account for 23% of all book sales in the U.S. fiction market, second only to general fiction. Historical romance is one of the most popular subgenres of romance fiction, and readers can still find tales of love and chivalry based on the medieval Arthurian legends.

Eleanor of Aquitaine might find that terribly romantic.

Featured image credit: natalie_board/ iStock

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