NEW EXHIBITION: The Romance of the Middle Ages

28 January 2012

Romance of the Middle Ages posterThe Bodleian main exhibition has opened to the public today. It celebrates the stories of medieval romance and how they have influenced our culture, literature and art over the last thousand years.  It includes the dramatic love stories about King Arthur and Tristan and Isolde as they are illustrated in sumptuous medieval manuscripts, alongside works of art and draft papers by J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman and Monty Python, the last on public display for first time.

The Romance of the Middle Ages exhibition at the Bodleian Library draws on the Bodleian’s outstanding collection of manuscripts and early printed books containing medieval romances. These range from lavishly-illustrated volumes to personal notebooks and fragments only saved by chance. Alongside these will be works of art from across Europe that illustrate romance legends; these include ivory carvings, jewellery and caskets, on loan from national museums and collections.

Romance writing developed in Britain after the Norman Conquest and flourished as a form of storytelling right through to the Middle Ages, forming the basis for many kinds of later drama, poetry and prose fiction. This colourful exhibition tells how these compelling medieval stories have inspired writers and artists across the centuries; from the early modern period (including Shakespeare, Ariosto and Cervantes) through to medievalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (including Walter Scott, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris) and, finally, to contemporary versions and adaptations (including manuscripts and drafts by J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman and the Monty Python team). From the Knights of the Round Table to the Knights that say ‘Ni!’, The Romance of the Middle Ages exhibition tells the fascinating story of medieval romance across the ages.

Highlights of the exhibition include:
  • The Song of Roland – the earliest copy of France’s national epic (mid-12th century)
  • Exquisite ivory carvings from France (14th century)
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – One of the most precious manuscripts of Middle English poetry. On loan from the British Library (c.1400)
  • The Red Book of Hergest – amongst the most important books written in Welsh, containing The Mabinogion and many other texts, on loan from Jesus College, Oxford (c.1400)
  • William Caxton’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye – a copy of the first book ever printed in the English language (1473/4)
  • A draft illustrated page from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1946)
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Terry Jones’s own working copy of the screenplay for the film, never shown to the public before (1973)
Dr Nicholas Perkins, exhibition curator said: ‘It’s a great pleasure to open up the Bodleian’s wonderful collections for this exhibition. They are of huge importance in telling the story of romance, and include some of the most spectacular books from medieval Europe. They have also offered inspiration to those captivated by the Middle Ages as a time of romance and wonder. From the young William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones beguiled by the Arthurian legends as Oxford students, to providing a working base for J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Library has nourished both scholarly and imaginative engagement with the medieval for centuries.’

An online exhibition ( with the same title will be launched on 29 January.  It will feature nearly all the items on display in the exhibition room, along with many additional items. A 12-min video with the curator of the exhibition and scholars from the University of Oxford introducing the exhibition and the ideas behind it is also available. Twitter hashtag is #BODromance

Events accompanying the exhibition include lunchtime talks, special school activities and a show A Love Like Salt inspired by the exhibition to be held in the Divinity School, Bodleian Library on 20 April. 

Nicholas Perkins is Fellow and Tutor in English at St Hugh's College and University Lecturer in Medieval English, University of Oxford. He has published widely on medieval literature, and on how modern writers and artists have been inspired by the Middle Ages. 




The companion volume of the same title, The Romance of the Middle Ages by Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins is published by Bodleian Library Publishing.

‘A richly woven tapestry of image and text. A great resource and a wonderful read.’   —Simon Armitage

The book can be purchased in the Bodleian Shop or online at  Paperback, 152 pp, 70 colour illustrations, ISBN: 9781851242955I, £19.99




Location: Convocation House, Old Bodleian Library (Entrance in Old Schools Quadrangle) Time: 13.00 – 13.30

  • Before Tolkien: Manuscripts, Audiences and Readers of Middle English Romance - Dr Alison Wiggins (Senior Lecturer in English Language, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow) Wednesday, 1 February 
  • The Birth of Romance in England - Dr Laura Ashe (University Lecturer and Tutor in English Literature, Worcester College, Oxford) Wednesday, 15 February 
  • Medieval Romance and the Gift of Storytelling - Dr Nicholas Perkins (University Lecturer and Tutor in English, St Hugh’s College, Oxford; Curator of the exhibition) Wednesday, 7 March 
  • Shakespeare and Medieval Romance - Professor Helen Cooper (Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Magdalene College, Cambridge) Friday, 23 March

Romance of the Middle Ages

  • 28 January – 13 May 2012
  • Exhibition Room, Bodleian Library
    Old Schools Quad, Catte Street
  • Opening Hours
    Mon-Fri 9am – 5pm
    Sat 9am – 4.30pm
    Sun 11am – 5pm
Back to top