The history of medieval French prose romance has often been told in stereotypical ‘romance’ style: the form rose suddenly to great heights in the early thirteenth century only to decline sadly in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This narrative, however, presupposes understandings of genre and aesthetics that derive more from modern definitions of style than from medieval literary practice. We can learn much more about medieval culture (about literacy, memory, patronage, etc.) by setting aside the ‘romance of romance’, in which even the thirteenth century is something of a disappointment compared to the verse arts of the twelfth. Comparisons between prose romances, prose compositions that are not romances, and romances not in prose, for example, can illuminate some of the varied attractions and functions of prose romance for medieval writers and readers.
The earliest prose romances tell stories of the Grail and its eventual relations with King Arthur's court. Derived partly from verse romances composed by Robert de Boron (Roman de lestoire dou Graal, Merlin, Perceval), these narratives coincide with French prose accounts of the Fourth Crusade (Robert de Clari, Geoffroi de Villehardouin, Henri de Valenciennes) and translations from Latin histories of more distant events (Pseudo-Turpin, Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, Li fet des Romains). These conjunctions illustrate two enduring characteristics of prose romance: its association with ‘truthful’ historiography, and its engagement with various forms of re-writing (translation, dérimage or mise en prose, continuation, interpolation, abridgement, cyclical expansion, etc.).