This Latin phrase refers to the the transfer or translation (translatio) of culture or knowledge (what one studies: studium) and of political power or legitimacy (what creates an empire: imperium) from one civilization to another.  In the Middle Ages, both political and cultural legitimacy were thought to have been passed down from classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome) to modern-day (i.e. medieval) Europe.  Both England and its archrival France would seek to prove their superior claims to cultural and political legitimacy by asserting their direct descendance from the "glory that was Rome."


Studium means the sort of WRITTEN knowledge that constitutes literary "Authority" (auctoritas)--that is, the Authors whose Latin-language works have been preserved within the monastic environment; these works are read, studied and taught by church-educated "clerks" (i.e. members of the clergy, but also scholars and intellectuals who are not destined to a career within the Church):

1) Authors from (pre-Christian) classical times (ancient Greece and Rome). Examples:

-- Homer's Greek epic about the fall of Troy, the Iliad (but note that Homer's work was known to the Middle Ages only in Latin translation);
-- Virgil's Latin epic the Aeneid (about the founding of Rome by the Trojan prince Aeneas after the fall of Troy);
-- Ovid's Latin writings: poems about erotic love (the Art of Love and the Remedy for Love--which "teach," in a humorous and cynical way, how to get a lady into bed, and how to break up with her afterwards); a long narrative poem called the Metamorphoses (a collection of Pagan myths about lovers' transformations. During the Middle Ages, the Metamorphoses were "cleaned up" by Christian writers who interpreted them as allegories about spiritual truths; the most famous example is the 14th c. French "Moralized Ovid.")

2) Christian authors (who also wrote in Latin). Examples:

-- the Church Fathers (i.e. Jerome, source of many of the misogynistic stories in Janekin's "Book of Wikkid Wives"--see the Wife of Bath's Prologue);
-- other medieval scholars, philosophers and theologians. An example: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote a series of sermons on the allegorical interpretation of the biblical Song of Songs. Bernard explained that the Bridegroom and Bride in that Old Testament book of erotic love poetry were actually allegorical figures representing:



Imperii refers to both the idea of political power itself, and to the idea of political legitimacy. Medieval people thought that this power had been "translated" (i.e. transferred, passed down) from Greece to Rome, and then from Rome to "modern" (i.e. medieval) Europe. The Holy Roman Empire was regarded as the Christian "descendant" of classical Rome. The French kings regarded Charlemagne, crowned as Holy Roman Emperor on New Year's Day in the year 800, as their "National Hero" in part because he represented political legitimacy: the direct transfer of political power from Greece, to the Roman Empire, to the Holy Roman Empire (Charlemagne), to the Kings of France.

The Anglo-Norman kings of England did not like being considered the vassals of the Kings of France (which they technically were, since William the Conquerer was also the Duke of Normandy--that's why we refer to his invasion of England in 1066 as the Norman Conquest--and the Duke of Normandy was the vassal of the King of France). The Norman kings of England therefore had to create a mythology justifying their political independence from France. To do so, they used the theme of translatio imperii to "prove" how political legitimacy had been "translated" or "transferred" (translatio imperii) from the "Ancients" not only to the French, but also to England. They therefore devised the story of the "first" British king, Brutus, grandson of Aeneas (the legendary founder of Rome in Virgil's Aeneid) who supposedly founded the kingdom of "Britain" (a name derived from his name, "Brut" in Anglo-Norman French).

The first work to introduce this (totally fabricated) story was Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the King's of Britain (1136), which was presented as a serious, scholarly work, and thus written down in LATIN--the language of knowledge, culture and "Authority." Geoffrey begins his History with Brutus, and continues down to the Anglo-Norman Kings. He mentions--almost in passing--a certain war-lord named "Arthur" who helped to organize British resistance against the Anglo-Saxon invaders after the fall of the Roman Empire (some time in the 6th century). Interestingly enough, one of Arthur's exploits was said to be conquering Rome (see Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., vol. 1, p. 6)--thus Arthur's descendants (the English kings) can claim NOT to owe allegiance to the French Kings, since the French claim to political legitimacy is rooted in their descendancy from Rome (via the Holy Roman Empire). Since "Arthur" had conquered Rome, Rome's descendants (France) could not claim control over Arthur's descendants (Anglo-Norman England). The rivality between the English people's "new" hero, Arthur, and the French people's national hero, the emperor Charlemagne, also accounts for the development of the story of Arthur's Round Table--a fellowship of Knights modelled on Charlemagne's traditional group of warrior followers, the twelve "peers."

This "round table" is not mentioned in Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain. It is the invention of the Anglo-Norman poet Wace, who in 1155 translated and expanded Geoffrey's Latin chronicle into Anglo-Norman (a dialect of FRENCH). He called his poem the Roman de Brut ("Romance of Brutus" --recall that "romance" originally did NOT refer to any idea of "romantic" love; it simply meant a narrative told in the vernacular language called "romanz"--i.e. French--rather than in Latin.  French is still classified as one of the "Romance Languages," which derive from Latin, the language of the Roman empire).  Wace dedicated his "romance" to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who actively supported many poets writing in the vernacular (Anglo-Norman French) with her patronage, providing them with both financial support and a receptive audience for their works.

Eleanor was a fascinating figure in her own right. She was the grand-daughter of Count William IX of Poitiers, the Duke of Aquitaine, who was the first known troubadour poet (remember that the troubadour poets are the ones who first wrote poetry about what we now call "courtly love"); she was brought up in the cultivated court of Aquitaine, where poetry, music and the arts flourished. She was married first to King Louis VII of France, who had the marriage annulled in 1152--a very bad political move on his part, since she promptly married Henry II of England (1153), thereby bringing to the English crown her own vast territories (essentially all of modern-day France south of the Loire river). Eleanor also brought to England her great love of the arts, and supported many poets and musicians with her patronage; she also brought, presumably, her taste for literature dealing with love (including the "courtly love" written about by troubadours such as her grandfather), works in which women play important roles (unlike earlier epics, such as Beowulf).

Many of the earliest "romances" were written for and dedicated to Eleanor. A famous example is the Roman d'Eneas or "Romance of Eneas" (ca. 1160), a French adaptation of Virgil's Aeneid, containing a lot more emphasis on love (and on Eneas's bride Lavinia) than Virgil's Latin poem. Most of these early romances were adapted from classical sources (translatio studii in action), and many of them had to do with the rise and fall of classical empires (Greece, Troy, Thebes, Rome: the theme of translatio imperii).

It is understandable that the Anglo-Norman court would be interested in exploring this theme, since they wished to be seen as "descendants" in their own version of the translatio imperii equation (from Troy to Britain, via "Brutus"). Since Rome was founded by another Trojan prince, Aeneas, they reasoned, the British and the French are two equal branches of the same family--"cousins" rather than direct descendants. The implication is that the British Kings should not be subject to French rule; the Anglo-Norman kings of Britain can thus conveniently forget that, as Dukes of Normandy, they owe fealty to the King of France. Note the use of the translatio imperii theme at the beginning and end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (see references to Brutus in lines 1-36 and 2522-2526).

The Arthurian court and characters were therefore introduced in Geoffrey of Monmouth's learned (Latin) chronicle for purposes of political propaganda--not as literary "entertainment." (Geoffrey claimed to have a Welsh "source" for his book--although he probably did not. We see here an example of the typical medieval way of "proving" the "truth" of what one says: by citing a written "Authority.") This learned "history," popularized in Wace's French-language "Romance of Brutus," gave rise to a purely fictive literary world in the romances of the great French poet Chrétien de Troyes (active ca. 1170-1190). Chrétien wrote highly crafted, intricately structured verse romances, full of literary symbolism and poetic resonance. Arthur is not a main character in these romances; rather, he is the figurehead of the Arthurian Court, the place where the romance action begins and ends. Typically, a romance tells the story of one quest undertaken by one knight (sometimes two, who are then contrasted to each other), a member of the Arthurian court who returns there when he has accomplished his goal. The setting is a timeless fairy-tale world; there is no "rise and fall" of Arthur's empire (as there will be in the prose romances of the 13th century that were the source for Malory). Many of these romances concern the role of love (courtly or otherwise) in human existence: love is presented as an ennobling force which should help the lover to be a better human being and a better knight (he commits his deeds of valor in order to win, or regain, his Lady's favor, and thereafter to be worthy of her love). Frequently, the knight has some difficulty in working out an appropriate balance between love and chivalry, and the romance concerns his efforts to be both a faithful lover and a good knight. Chrétien is the poet who first had the idea of making Lancelot and Guenevere into courtly lovers: their story is recounted in a romance that Chrétien wrote at the request of the Countess Marie of Champagne--the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Louis VII of France.

In Chrétien's Lancelot romance (also called The Knight of the Cart), the love of Lancelot and Guenevere is still a very positive, ennobling force; it inspires Lancelot to rescue the queen and many other members of Arthur's kingdom from an evil knight who is holding them prisoner. It is also interesting to note that their love was NOT originally an immoral, adulterous triangle: at the start of the romance, Guenevere and Lancelot love each other but have never slept together (as one might expect of the stereotypical "courtly love" relationship), and by an ingenious narrative twist, the only time when they DO sleep together "doesn't count" as adultery: due to a complicated story involving one of his own laws, Arthur has lost all claims to his wife Guenevere. In fact, far from being a traitor to his king, the Lancelot of Chrétien's romance rescues Guenevere and then restores her to her husband. There the romance ends. NOTHING MORE HAPPENS BETWEEN THEM--they do NOT engage in a long-term affair, sneaking around behind Arthur's back (like Tristan and Iseut, two other famous lovers from 12th-c. French romance, sneaking around behind the back of her husband King Marc.)

However, the love affair between Arthur's queen and his best knight caught the imagination of the late-12th and early-13th-c. public--and so the Church had to take notice. Church authorities had tended to ignore the vernacular romances as "popular culture" unworthy of their notice, something like "trashy romance novels" today. They felt that they did not NEED to worry about them since a) no vernacular language could ever replace Latin as the language of literature (!) and b) the main audience for these romances was women anyway so we start finding references to them in sermons and other written texts. They are attacked as "vain and frivolous" (a complaint that reminds one of Bede's statement concerning the sort of "vain and idle songs" that he claimed Caedmon would never write) and as being "untrue" (since they are written in verse, the poets were more concerned with finding a rhyme word than with being wholly accurate and "truthful.") They also started to be regarded as potential didactic tools, which should be used to teach moral "truths" to people who were incapable of understanding the "higher" truths found in Latin works (specifically: women and children).

The Church Authorities also disapproved of romance's typical emphasis on love stories: these stories are "bad" examples, capable of leading impressionable readers astray. So early in the 13th century, the Arthurian verse romances are reworked into a vast prose cycle, also written in French. This so-called "Vulgate Cycle" linked the Arthurian kingdom to Christian salvation history, and emphasized the importance of love of God rather than love of women; the supreme adventure of the Knights of the Round Table no longer concerns courtly love, but the Quest of the Holy Grail. Moreover, since Lancelot and Guenevere's love had become too well-known and popular to be stamped out entirely, its meaning is transformed: L and G are made into long-term adulterous lovers sneaking around behind Arthur's back (like Tristan and Iseut). Their sinful love causes the downfall of Arthur's kingdom, which is recounted in gory detail.

Malory's Morte D'Arthure (note the French title) is based upon these 13th-century French prose romances, and incorporates their essentially negative view of Lancelot and Guenevere's love (the sin causing the downfall of Arthur's kingdom), as well as of ANY physical union between men and women (the influence of Cistercian monasticism is felt in the fact that only a virgin such as Galahad can hope to achieve the Grail). But it is interesting to note that the original meaning of "courtly love" still shows through: in Malory (and in the Vulgate Cycle) the love of Lancelot and Guenevere is (paradoxically) BOTH the ennobling force that made him into the best of all possible EARTHLY knights, AND the sin that prevents him from becoming a "HEAVENLY" knight like his son Galahad (and ultimates causes the downfall of Arthur's kingdom). This double aspect is apparent in Ector's eulogy upon Lancelot's death.

Malory thus offers a reaction to the theme of "courtly love" invented and developed in the highly "woman-influenced" Provençal, French and Anglo-Norman literature of the 12th c. In those works, "courtly love" was an ENNOBLING FORCE, inspiring the knight to do great deeds; while the knight was generally unmarried and his Lady was generally married to someone else, the adulterous aspect was NOT emphasized in these early works--and the courtly love relationship did not always include physical intimacy (see description of Chrétien's Lancelot, above).

We noted a similar uneasiness with the "immoral" aspect of "courtly love" in the Franklin's Tale, in which the "courtly love" relationship is legitimatized by marriage: Arveragus and Dorigen continue to love each other in the "courtly" fashion even AFTER their marriage, and the more "traditional" (i.e. adulterous and secret) "courtly love" affair desired by Aurelius never takes place.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight represents yet another transformation of the courtly love motif. It preserves the structure typical of French verse romance: a carefully crafted story recounting ONE quest undertaken by ONE knight, which begins and ends at the Arthurian court, and in which every detail has poetic or symbolic meaning. It does not however use the rhyming couplets typical of French romance (and copied by many English writers such as Chaucer, whose use of rhymed couplets links them to an English literary tradition that began in the French-speaking Anglo-Norman courts.) Instead, it revives an Old English verse form: alliteration. (The Alliterative Revival seems to have been based at certain baronial courts in the North and West of England; their choice of a "home-grown" verse form based on Old English poetry rather than the rhymed couplets popular at the King's court may correspond to a desire to assert their increasing independence from the Crown.) The SGGK poet shows both his difference from and his endebtedness to French-inspired literary traditions by using BOTH alliterative verse AND rhyme (the "bob and wheel") for his Arthurian poem. However, SGGK represents a negative reaction to "courtly love" similar to that in the French prose romances: a rejection of sensual earthly love (represented by the temptress wife of Sir Bercilak) in favor of a SPIRITUAL love (represented by Gawain's "love service" of the Virgin Mary).


The fact that many early "romances" (i.e. French-language narratives) concerned love, and included women in pivotal roles, is undoubtedly part of the reason why the term "romance" today means what it does. The fact that women had power of their own in these love stories--remember, the courtly love relationship was in part modelled on the relationship between a liege lord and a knight (the lover serves the Lady, owing her the same obedience that he would to his feudal lord)--helps explain why the Wife of Bath tells a story about women's maistrye in matters of love. And the fact that Arthurian romances were intimately associated with women--both through the influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie of Champagne, and because women were the primary readers of early Arthurian romance--makes the Wife of Bath's choice of a tale set at the Arthurian court particularly appropriate.

        Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2002

Click here for Dr. Schwartz's "Courtly Love" handout

Click here for Images of Courtly Love

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Last updated 6 January, 2002