What Do Romance Languages Have to Do with the Type of Romance Between Lovers?

The word romance can refer to an enchanting quality that makes a heart beat faster, but in linguistics, Romance languages are the Indo-European languages descending from Latin, such as French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Why is one word used for both?

The link arises from a type of story. Romanz is the Old French term for “verse narrative.” In the 14th century, a romanz was a story told in vernacular (as opposed to Latin) about a chivalric hero’s adventures and quests. Fair maidens, often saved from some sordid fate by the hero, played consistent roles in the stories. The best-known romance of this time is probably Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The key to the romanz was that it was written in the language people spoke, the vernacular, or Romantic languages, and the name stuck as the fictional form grew in popularity across Europe.

One of the foundational characters of the romance is Sir Lancelot, who embodies the ideals of courtly love, which is roughly “a highly stylized code of behavior popular chiefly from the 12th to the 14th century that prescribed the rules of conduct between lovers, advocating idealized but illicit love.” This appears to be the link between romantic stories and the idea of romantic love. In short, it’s the first “love story.”

Romance stories had huge popularity through the end of the 17th century, after which they were dismissed as too over the top. Romances were ridiculed in satire such as Cervantes’s Don Quixote. By this time, romance as an idea connoted virtue, noble intentions, and the conquering of good over evil. As a fictional form, it dealt exclusively in ideals.

The idea of courtly love, the kind that makes one swoon from emotion, was attached to the word romance only in the early 20th century. Romance is still held high as an ideal, but it would serve those who love to remember that Lancelot’s story is a classic example of adultery. (Speaking of which, learn the real link between the words “adult” and “adultery,” here. You may be surprised.)