Accessibility statement

Medieval Romances, Trash Fiction and Rebel Women

Friday 18 June 2021, 3.30PM to 4.30pm

Lydia Zeldenrust and Pamela Hartshorne (Chair)

Romance was one of the most popular and widely read literary genres of the medieval period, often seen as the forerunner of fairy tales, modern-day fantasy fiction, and the novel. These are fabulously entertaining stories about adventure, love, encounters with the supernatural, knights on daring quests, and women who are often perfectly capable of slaying a dragon themselves.

But why were romances viewed as the ‘popular’ or ‘trash’ fiction of the Middle Ages, condemned as filling a reader’s head with strange and corrupting ideas? Why has popular fiction been characterised as a form of guilty pleasure throughout the ages? 

Join Lydia Zeldenrust of the University of York and discover why 'romance' originally had nothing to do with anything ‘romantic’, and how the genre took medieval Europe by storm. Lydia will explain how romance moved from an elite literary context to being seen as popular smut, and why its depiction of an idealised kind of love still influences our ideas of love today, especially in film and fiction.

Find out why snobbery about popular culture turns out to be timeless, and how it is no coincidence that concerns over romances’ corrupting influence arose right around the time that more women started reading them. This is the start of a long tradition of snubbing women’s literary tastes. But Lydia will also look at the rebels – from saint Teresa to Chaucer’s granddaughter – who defied dictates that women should only read religious books, eagerly consuming these outrageous works.

The event will be chaired by author and historian Pamela Hartshorne who has written a number of historical novels and, as Jessica Hart, 60 books for Harlequin Mills & Boon. Together, Lydia and Pamela will discuss the parallels between medieval romances and modern romance novels.

Dr Lydia Zeldenrust is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow with the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York. Her research looks at the movement of medieval texts across multiple languages, and she is particularly interested in the place of English literary activity and book production in relation to continental Europe. Her current project examines what an ‘international bestseller’ means at a time when printed books were new. Her interests include: late medieval and early Renaissance literature, popular romance, Arthurian literature, the libraries of medieval book lovers, and stories about shapeshifters.

Dr Pamela Hartshorne is a York-based author, historian and project editor. She has five separate writing identities, all of which relate to her fascination with the relationship between the past and the present in some way or another.  She completed her PhD in Medieval Studies at the University of York in 2004.

BBC History Magazine is Britain’s biggest-selling history brand with a highly engaged and loyal audience. It brings history to life with informative, lively and entertaining features written by the world’s leading historians and journalists. Whether it’s the grand history of politics and institutions or the fascinating stories of our private lives through the ages, BBC History Magazine sheds new light on the past and helps us makes more sense of today’s world. 

Book tickets here 

This event is presented as part of the York Festival of Ideas with the support of BBC History Magazine.

Location: Online via Zoom