Sir Isumbras

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Sir Isumbras


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The medieval romance known as Sir Isumbras (c. 1320) was perhaps one of the most popular romances in the fourteenth and fifteenth century and survives in numerous manuscript and print editions.

For a full-text version, see the following online edition by Harriet Hudson provided by the Middle English Texts Series: Sir Isumbras


Summary


Isumbras, a nobleman in an undisclosed European realm, is informed while hunting on horse-back that God intends to punish him for his prideful ways. The messenger (either an angel or a bird, depending on the version) asks whether he would care to suffer early or late in life. Isumbras chooses the former. Consequently, his horse drops dead, his dogs run off mad, his home is set on fire, and his livestock die. His family survives the conflagration, and, after wrapping his naked children in his own mantle, Isumbras carves a cross into his shoulder with a knife and states that he and his family will go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the way, two of his sons are abducted (either by beasts or angels, again depending on the version) and presumed dead. At the Greek Sea, Isumbras, his wife, and his remaining son are confronted by group of sea-faring Saracens on their way to sack an undisclosed kingdom in Christendom. The Sultan abducts Isumbras' wife and makes her his bride, orders Isumbras to be brutally beaten, and leaves him and his son on the shoreline; the wife is sent to Palestine to reside in the Sultan's palace while he and his men continue on their way into Christian territory. Isumbras's remaining son is, in turn, abducted (again, either by a beast or an angel). The hero makes his way to a town where he takes up blacksmithing and, after seven years, forges his own armor. He battles as an unknown knight among a Christian army and kills several Saracens including the aforementioned Sultan. The king of the Christian realm Isumbras helped to defend asks his name, clearly wishing him to join his retinue. Isumbras refuses to divulge his identity and continues on his pilgrimage. Once he reaches Jerusalem, an angel visits him and tells him that he has been absolved. Isumbras soon hears of a beneficent noblewoman and journeys to her castle—he finds that the woman is none other than his wife. They are happily reunited, and Isumbras is swiftly made king, having rightfully inherited the territory through the death of the Sultan and his wife's false marriage. He attempts to convert the inhabitants of his kingdom but they refuse, and Isumbras and his wife are soon confronted by a force of roughly thirty thousand Saracens. Isumbras' wife announces that she will wear armor and die alongside her husband, but, just in time, the three sons arrive either guided by an angel or riding on the beasts that had abducted them. Thus, the united family lays waste to the entire Saracen army, and Isumbras and his sons go on to conquer "three londes," each son inheriting one of them.


Analysis

The most notable and obvious crusades motif in this narrative is the "crossing" of Isumbras. Crusaders were referred to as cruce signati or "those signed by the cross," and before embarking on their respective martial pilgrimage, a ceremony would take place in which a red cross patch would be sewn into the shoulder of the knight's mantle. In this romance, Isumbras actually carves a cross into his flesh, an act that evokes the ceremonies undergone by crusading knights and suggests his religious zeal. The gesture also suggests that his pilgrimage to Jerusalem will become a martial one. Just as the crusader vow carried implicit martial undertones, so too does Isumbras' crossing hint at the many battles in which the hero will engage on his path to spiritual and social redemption.

As promised by the crossing, Isumbras' pilgrimage quickly becomes a martial one. He must literally reforge his identity as a knight, and his war in defense of unnamed Christian territory becomes, in many ways, the first of many wish-fulfillment fantasies at work in the narrative. Isumbras effectively helps a Christian kingdom shore up its borders in the face of aggressive Saracen expansion (something that was keenly wished for during the time of Isumbras' circulation given the increased power and reach of the Ottoman Empire).

The moment at which Isumbras is redeemed is, in effect, a fantastic embodiment of the fulfilled crusader vow itself. The vow typically stated that the knight in question must make his way to the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem—at this point he would be redeemed and a remission of sins granted.

That the romance does not end here might at first seem puzzling were it not for the final and most potent wish-fulfillment fantasy that comes at the romance's conclusion. By reuniting Isumbras with his wife, the hero achieves not only spiritual but social redemption and elevation (he rises to the status of king, instead of a mere knight or lord as he was at the romance's outset). Reuniting the parents with their children, moreover, enables the family to effectively reclaim the Holy Land, ostensibly for good, given Isumbras' and his sons' successful campaigns against the Saracens. Such a wish-fulfillment fantasy would have easily achieved popularity during the later middle ages, a time of great domestic instability that prevented responses to the Ottoman Turks and successful attempts by western European kingdoms to reclaim the Holy Land. Isumbras, in effect, presents a stream-lined crusades fantasy that plays upon the fears and desires of late medieval audiences.
Bibliography

The following lists of manuscripts and prints were compiled by Harriet Hudson for her Four Middle English Romances (1996).

Manuscripts

Gray's Inn MS 20 (1350) fol. 228a, 104 line fragment corresponding to Gonville and Caius College lines 216-308.

Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College MS 175 (1425-50) fols. 98-106.

Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, called the Lincoln Thornton MS (c. 1440) fols. 109-14.

Naples MS 13 B 9 (1457) fols. 114-18, a fragment containing the first 122 lines.

British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii (1450-1500) fols. 130-34.

Bodleian Library MS Ashmole MS 61 (1475-1500) fols. 9a-16a.

National Library of Scotland Advocates MS 19.3.1 (1475-1500) fols. 48a-56b.

Bodleian Library MS Douce 261 (1564) fols. 1a-7b.

Oxford University College MS 142 (end 14 c) fol. 128a, a 17-line fragment.



Prints

Bodleian Library Douce fragment f 37. London: Wynkynde Worde or W. Copland, 1530? 1550? (STC 14281) one leaf.

Bodleian Library 1119. London: William Copland? c. 1530. one leaf.

British Library C 21c61, Garrick Collection. London: William Copland, c. 1530 (STC 14282) fifteen leaves.

Harvard University Library. London: John Skot, c. 1525 (STC 14280.1) eight leaves.

Harvard University Library. London: I. Treveris, c. 1530 (STC 14280.2) one leaf.



Editions

Shuffelton, George, ed. "Sir Isumbras." In Codex Ashmole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2008.

Hudson, Harriet, ed. "Sir Isumbras." In Four Middle English Romances. Published for TEAMS by Medieval Institute Publications. Kalamazoo, MI: 1996. Revised Edition 2006/7.

Mills, Maldwyn, ed. "Sir Isumbras." In Six Middle English Romances. London: Dent, 1973.

Broh, Charles M., ed. A Critical Edition of the Romance of Sir Isumbras. Diss. Case Western Reserve University, 1969. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2008.

Schleich, Gustav, ed. Sir Ysumbras: Eine englische Romanze des 14. Jahrhunderts. Berlin: Meyer and Müller, 1901.

Here Begynneth the History of Syr Isenbras. English Experience series 245. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1970.



Criticism

Braswell, Laurel. '"Sir Isumbras' and the Legend of Saint Eustace." Mediaeval Studies 27 (1965): 128- 51.

Crane, Susan. Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Fowler, Elizabeth. "The Romance Hypothetical: Lordship and the Saracens in Sir Isumbras." In The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance. Ed. Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert. Harlow, England: Longman, 2000.

Manion, Lee. "The Loss of the Holy Land and Sir Isumbras: Literary Contributions to Fourteenth-Century Crusade Discourse." Speculum 85.1 (2010): 65-90.

Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.

Powell, Stephen D. "Models of Religious Peace in the Middle English Romance Sir Isumbras." Neophilologus 85.1 (2001): 121-36.

Simons, John. "Generic Identity and the Origins of Sir Isumbras." In The Matter of Identity in Medieval Romance. Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 2002.