Dark romance. It’s a huge sub-genre in romance these days. It’s a repeat offender in the bestseller charts. In fact, I’m not even sure I can call it a sub-genre—it permeates all sorts of other romance sub-genres (paranormal, historical, billionaire, reverse harem/why choose?). So, what is dark romance and why am I devoting a blog post to it?
Well, beyond saying it takes a “dark” tone, dark romance is tricky to define. I’ve read academic papers that simply say “dark romance = paranormal romance”. Nope! Maybe paranormal tends towards darkness, but no way is all dark romance paranormal these days. Interestingly, academics also point out that dark romance has its literary roots in gothic romance. Quite probably, but The Castle of Otranto (1764) looks entirely sunny compared to today’s dark romance offerings. In essence, dark romance features taboos (usually sexual taboos), violence (psychological and/or physical), heroes that are practically villains, and dubious consent. Dark romance also branches out into sub-sub-genres of mafia romance, bully romance, biker romance, BDSM, and captive/kidnap scenarios, among others.
Doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? Perhaps you can see why I’m writing about this topic now. I want to know what in the deepest bowls of hell attracts readers to this stuff!
So I read some dark romances to try to figure it out. Here’s a summary of The Proposal by Kitty Thomas, one of the authors who kicked off the dark-romance fest of recent years. I love lots of things about this book—the timeline zigzags back and forth intriguingly, the psychological asides are quite profound at times, and the heroine (Livia) is strong-minded and independent. She is tired of being mucked around, commitment-wise, by the men she dates, so she openly declares she will date multiple men simultaneously without giving them the final prize: sex. She will continue to do this until one offers her marriage. If Livia loves him, she’ll accept. Great, I like this lady’s bold line of action! But the three men she’s currently dating do not. They scrape up some serious dirt on Livia’s past and then blackmail her into marrying them … all of them. At once. She signs legal contracts to give up her life to them (and produce at least one baby for each, by the way!) and must submit to their every sexual demand. The result? Livia’s independence and strong will is entirely swamped by three domineering billionaires. I kept waiting for it to make a resurgence, but it never did. The book ends with her dutifully producing babies and happily married to three men. Along the way, these men have subjected her to all sorts of sexual activities that Livia cannot refuse. But that’s all right, apparently, because they subtly ascertain that she really wants it. As for love, Livia says she loves each of the three, and each of the men want to tie themselves to this female “toy”, forsaking all others, with the implication that they love said toy. But if this is love, it’s a variety I don’t recognise.
Which brings me to my next question: what is love anyway? Dive in deep, right? I definitely don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, so I read around and came up with an intriguing approach to understanding the big L.
Narrative Theory and Romance
When it comes to the way humans feel, we draw upon two sources: biology and society. Sure, love has a lot to do with biology—the human race is wired to reproduce—but the way love plays out is also shaped by stories. These stories—narratives—are formed of event-sequences and character-types that societies produce and repeat; those narratives repeated most often gain the most power. Power to do what? To sink into our subconscious, to seem “right”, and be applied as frameworks to make sense of our lives. We are most inclined to seek out a useful narrative when something we experience does not initially make sense.
The Cinderella story is one such narrative. It has character types (a poor but beautiful heroine and a rich and powerful hero) and certain events (most notably, a wedding followed by happily-ever-after). It is retold in varying but recognisable forms over and over, and not just in books and movies. Everyone in the English-speaking world knows what a Cinderella story is and that it’s a recipe for lasting love. That’s the narrative message, no matter what an individual may think of it rationally … if they think about it at all. Narratives have a sneaky habit of taking up residence in the subconscious.
The Cinderella story is definitely not the only romantic love narrative in our cultural air. (Thank goodness, as princes are scarce on the ground.) Psychologist Robert Sternberg outlines 26 major love narratives in his book, Love is a Story, but says there are loads more. Here are two examples. Sternberg’s love as a “Police Story” features the characters of a “police officer” and a “suspect”. The officer approaches love in terms of surveillance and control and tries to ensure the “suspect” obeys all their laws of love. Break the law, and punishment will ensue. Or, in Sternberg’s “love as a garden” narrative, love needs to be nurtured and tended in order to grow. This sounds a lot healthier than the police narrative … until you consider the pruning and weeding. Topiary, anyone? (Check out more of Sternberg’s love stories here.) Interestingly, Sternberg says each person is likely to host a number of love narratives.
So, the potential problem with dark romance is that it reiterates and strengthens some narratives that I wouldn’t want slipping into my subconscious and defining my life. Livia is coerced into sex and marriage and babies with three men, but it ends in a life of luxury for her and happily-ever-after. Loss of (female) liberty is a frequent trope of dark romance, and a domineering hero is practically guaranteed. On the surface, we know that this is just fiction, but tell the story often enough and it may sink into the subconscious to seem a valid recipe for love. If I were in a coercive relationship, I might apply the narrative and decide to put up with abuse to get my happily-ever-after. Oh, and I’d also be reassured that the gender stereotypes of dominant man, submissive woman is conducive to love.
So what’s the attraction?
Okay, okay, stop preaching! Dark romance simply offers a fantasy escape. Readers are simply exploring taboos in fictional safety and know better than to mistake fairy tales for reality, right? Here are some reasons readers give for enjoying dark romance:
“the appeal is knowing that you alone have the power to change the monster. Knowing he’d change his very nature for you.”
“it’s a safe way to enjoy something dangerous. Like a horror movie or a roller coaster. You get to ‘experience’ it, but without the risk”
the hero goes to extreme lengths over the heroine: he will destroy anything or anyone that threatens her; this is “a level of devotion women rarely experience in life”
it’s “a battle of the sexes in which the woman always wins … the more obdurate the hero, the sweeter the triumph when the heroine brings him to his knees”.
As for me, I suspect the attraction is the reader’s experience of extremes of passion within the safety net of romance (a guaranteed happy ending). The hero loves the heroine and won’t truly hurt her: he always knows the true boundaries of her (often unspoken) consent and will never violate them.
In the end, a reader “consents” to take this dark romance ride. Authors generally provide content warnings or other indications of darkness within. Besides, we can’t actually ban publication, can we? I dived down this dark rabbit-hole because I was curious: what is dark romance, is it bad for women, and why do readers crave it? Here are my tentative answers: all about sexual taboos, probably, and extremes within a safety net. Happy reading!
Bhanot, S., “An assessment of the intersection between love and violence: Do romance narratives support the development, continuation and attitudinal tolerance of intimate partner violence?” PhD thesis, University of Windsor, 2009, https://scholar.uwindsor.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=8804&context=etd
@Ramonel11, “Genuine question: why do you like dark romances?” 15 August 2021, https://www.reddit.com/r/RomanceBooks/comments/p4stbd/genuine_question_why_do_you_like_dark_romances/
Sullivan, A. S, “From Darcy to dickheads: why do women love the bad boy?”, in S. Fanetti (ed.), New Frontiers in Popular Romance: Essays on the Genre in the 21st Century, McFarland, 2022.
Wood, J. T., “The normalization of violence in heterosexual romantic relationships: Women's narratives of love and violence”, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol. 18, 2001, pp. 239-261.
Medieval Minstrel. Troubadour. Jongleur. What do these words bring to mind? Maybe something like Jaskier/Dandelion from The Witcher (fantasy novels and TV series)? Or along the lines of these nineteenth-century tiles?
Minstrels were much romanticised by, you guessed it, the Romantics (think 1800s, e.g. Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel and Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border). That romantic legacy still influences us today, manifesting in characters like The Witcher’s Jaskier (right), or Kvothe in Rothfuss’s fantasy The Name of the Wind. As minstrel-expert Anthony Bonner puts it, mention “minstrel” today and you’re likely to imagine “a fellow dressed in a Robin Hood costume singing under his lady's window, and accompanying himself with a lute.”
Confession time: I did too. I also thought minstrels were honoured members of medieval society, as per Chambers' rosy 1903 description:
“[Minstrels] wandered at their will from castle to castle, … sure of their ready welcome alike in the village tavern, the guildhall, and the baron's keep.... In the great castles, while lords and ladies supped or sat around the fire, it was theirs to while away many a long bookless evening with courtly geste or witty sally. At wedding or betrothal, baptism or knight-dubbing, treaty or tournament, their presence was indispensable. The greater festivities saw them literally in their hundreds, and rich was their reward in money and in jewels, in costly garments, and in broad acres.”
Similarly, I always imagined minstrels as flamboyantly dressed, poetic and noble in spirit, and welcome guests wherever they wandered.
Turns out that, as a general rule, medieval people viewed them quite differently. Back then, minstrels were regarded as at best servants, or, if they didn’t have a regular employer, as downright disreputable. The very word “minstrel” likely derives from “to minister”, i.e. a minstrel is “somebody who serves another”. Minstrels were not ye olde equivalent of rock stars or looked up to as gifted artistes. Our modern concept of artistic genius is a Romantic creation too. In the Middle Ages, if a minstrel was itinerant and lacking regular respectable employment or patrons, they were likely to be considered suspect strangers, associates of thieves and gamblers, and promoters of lechery and immoral pleasures.
Medieval English prude, Thomas of Chobham, exemplified this divide when he described musicians in 1235:
“Some take part in public drinking-bouts and licentious gatherings, where they sing licentious songs to induce people to lasciviousness. These shall be damned like [other low entertainers]. There are, however, others … who sing the deeds of noble men and the legends of saints and these give comfort to men in their afflictions or in their anxieties.”
These latter, virtuous minstrels are therefore not damned. Note: Thomas was in holy orders, and thus predictably fixated on matters of sex and sin.
The main problem Chobham has with his damnable minstrels is the tone of their songs (they provoke wild and sinful behaviour in their listeners). Their wandering existence also offends him. Chobham declares that itinerant performers generally are
“entertainers who have no occupation, but are busybodies who have no fixed place of abode, but haunt the courts of the great and spread scandal and disgrace”.
So, wandering minstrels were disreputable. But I suggest they were also desirable. In those days before recorded music or instant access to news (near unimaginable today), travelling performers were in demand. People wanted to be entertained. They also wanted the latest from places the wanderers had visited. Lords also got kudos from employing minstrels to entertain guests. I’m going to borrow a theme from Chobham’s book and say most medieval people fancied a little licentious behaviour once in a while.
Disreputable and desirable: these are not mutually exclusive qualities. The one can increase the other. The allure of the wandering medieval minstrel was probably heightened by with a little whiff of wickedness. Which is exactly why I chose I write about them in my “Minstrel Knights” series.
Bonner, Anthony, Songs of the Troubadours, Allen & Unwin, 1973.
Chambers, E. K., The Mediaeval Stage, Clarendon Press, 1903.
Harris, Joseph, and Reichl, Karl, “Performance and performers”, in Karl Reichl (ed.), Medieval Oral Literature, De Gruyter, 2011, pp. 141–190.
Peters, Gretchen, The Musical Sounds of French Cities: Players, Patrons, and Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Shuffleton, George, “Is there a minstrel in the house?: Domestic entertainment in late medieval England”, Philological Quarterly, vol. 87, 2008, pp. 51–76.
Spiced, warmed red wine. Drink up—it’s good for you! Depending on what part of the world you’re in, you might call it glühwein (Germany), vino caliente (Spain), glögg (Sweden), vin brulé (Italy), bisschopswijn (Holland), vin chaud (France), candola (Chile), vinho quente (Portugal), kuhano vino (Croatia), or glintwein (Russia). In the later medieval period, mulled wine was frequently referred to as “hippocras” (also spelled hipocras, ipocras, and ypocras). (An earlier name was “piment”.)
So why call it hippocras? It’s all down to a borrowing a word from another language, then jumping to false conclusions about what it meant. Medieval scholars loved to etymologise—to explain the meanings and origins of words in ways that revealed their deeper, often spiritual, significance. Hippocrates was the ancient Greek father of medicine, and “hippocras” was understood to be a wonderfully health-giving drink. Thus, the necessary conclusion was that Hippocrates had invented hippocras. Alternatively, some posited that the name comes from the fabric used to strain the spices from the wine—the hippocras bag. (Hippocrates was said to have used his voluminous sleeves to sieve his plonk.) Actually, the word was probably adopted from a Byzantine Greek term for mulled wine, which I believe sounds like “hypo-cratos”. It means “lightly mixed” and had nothing whatsoever to do with Hippocrates (unless you count the shared Greekness).
Image 1. Hippocras being sieved with a hippocras bag (15th-century Tractatus de herbis, c142r Modena bib estense, ms.alfa L.2.98, Lat.993).
So why was hippocras recommended for medicinal reasons? Here’s what Bartolomaeus Anglicus says about spiced wine in his De proprietatibus rerum:
suche wynes with her savour pleseth the taste, and exciteth appetite, and comforteth bothe the brayn & the stomak with here good odour & smylle, & clenseth also the blood; & pureth and cometh into the innere partyes of the veynes & of the membres
(As the book title suggests, De proprietatibus rerum was originally written in Latin, but this quote is from the Middle English translation made by John Trevisa in 1397. I do love the spelling.)
If you really wanted to pump up the efficacy of your medicinal mulled wine, you could heat some gold and use the metal to warm your drink. The qualities of the gold would then transfer to the wine. So what would gold do for your wellbeing? As the medical authority Constantinus Africanus wrote in the eleventh century,
[gold] has the property of relieving a defective stomach and comforts the fearful and those who suffer from a heart complaint. Galen confirms that it is effective against melancholy and baldness.
Apparently, gold was also effective against haemorrhoids and warts. I can’t vouch for these effects, but I’m sure having enough gold to warm my wine would relieve any melancholy.
In case you’re wondering what set me exploring the medieval benefits of mulled wine in the first place, it’s all down to a recipe book ... and a friend with a vineyard.
I was asked to contribute to Dragonblade’s Historical Recipe Cookbook and I just happened to be helping with my friend’s grape harvest at the same time, so the solution was obvious. My friend paid me in wine, which I then dutifully mulled in accordance with medieval recipes. Of course, I had to taste my experiments extensively, but that's all right: doubtless my health benefitted as a result.
“hippocras, n.”. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2023, https://www.oed.com
“When gold was medicine”, Medievalists.net, https://www.medievalists.net/2014/10/gold-medicine/
Scully, T., The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, 1995.