Amis and Amiloun: Introduction

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Amis and Amiloun: Introduction

The story of Amis and Amiloun was popular in many versions throughout Europe, but the Middle English version is especially lively, entertaining, and perplexing. The pace of the narrative, despite its frequent formulaic language, has a forward impulse that drives the characters from one moral dilemma to another with speed and clarity. The twelve-line stanza, rhyming aabaabccdeed, effectively presses the development of the action. The basic structure is a series of interrelated challenges which culminate in a predictable, though not fully earned, happy ending. That the happy ending is not earned is not a narrative flaw but the ultimate moral complexity that the poem proposes. Amis and Amiloun are taken out of the simple world of romance, in which the hero is exactly what his world calls for and rewards. Although they finally succeed, Amis and Amiloun's values are scrutinized all along the way.

The premise of the story is the deep and abiding friendship of Amis and Amiloun first manifested in their mutual pledge of "trewthe," total loyalty and fidelity. Such pledges were apparently common, and elaborate descriptions of them ornament many romances. The profound vow of friendship is the foundation of the poem's narrative structure and moral exploration. The pledge derives its power and authenticity from the way it is embedded in the poem: Amis and Amiloun, born on the same day, so physically alike that they are distinguishable only by their clothing, put to the service of "the duke" together at age twelve, and simultaneously knighted at fifteen, are almost identical in their behavior as young "flowers of chivalry." It thus seems natural and proper that they should promise perpetual fidelity to each other.

Although the immediate source of the poem as a whole is undeterminable, the pledge probably came through a chanson de gestes version but ultimately from more distant and diverse origins in folklore. The pledge itself is tested and its significance probed by confrontation with a variety of other familiar motifs from folklore: an evil steward, a persistent wooer, trial by combat, a test of chastity, punishment by leprosy, and infant sacrifice. Of course, these folkloric motifs had been long incorporated into the fabric of medieval narrative and are observable in romance, legend, ballad, and hagiography. Indeed, there are versions of Amis and Amiloun which are more strongly hagiographic than our poem is, in that the resolution is clearly attributable, say, to a "miracle of the Virgin." Such is not the case in this narrative. The Middle English Amis and Amiloun lodges the problem directly in the vow the two companions make and the consequences of the playing out of that pledge in unpredictable circumstances. As one might expect in folklore, the precise language is significant:
On a day the childer, war and wight,
Trewethes togider thai gun plight
While thai might live and stond
That bothe bi day and bi night,
In wele and wo, in wrong and right,
That thai schuld frely fond
To hold togider at everi nede,
In word, in werk, in wille, in dede . . .
          (lines 145-52)
alert and brave
   Pledged their loyalty together

good and ill
nobly try
to stick together

The implicit perils of such a promise should be clear — and the essence of it is repeated when they part from each other. The pledge is to be maintained even when it comes into conflict with competing moral values, which it does in a succession of events, each familiar in itself, but intensified and complicated by the context of the solemn pledge. The structural elegance of the poem and its moral sophistication may be illuminated by an examination of these complications and the troubling issues they raise.

All begins with Amis and Amiloun, who are always at the center of the narrative surrounded by stock or token characters who exist and act only to illuminate the natures and behavior of the heroes. These "counters" are allowed only enough development to clarify the challenges that Amis and Amiloun face. The configurations of the heroes and the "counters" reveal the moral issues. It has been argued that the heroes begin and end at the same place. It does not seem to me, however, that characterization or character development is as important in the poem as the "problems" that they face, individually and together, in these changing configurations.

The first problem arises when they must separate. It is not problematic that they should be left by their parents in the service of "the duke." Such was a common practice in the Middle Ages and commonplace in romance. It only becomes intriguing by virtue of the simultaneity, their physical resemblance, and the bond that is thereby established. When Amiloun must return home to receive his lands upon the death of his parents, the possibilities for substantive problems emerge and are highlighted by the special attention the narrator gives to their parting:
   When thai were bothe afot light,
Sir Amiloun, that hendi knight,
Was rightwise man of rede
And seyd to Sir Amis ful right,
"Brother, as we er trewthe plight
Bothe with word and dede,
Fro this day forward never mo
To faile other for wele no wo,
To help him at his nede,
Brother, be now trewe to me,
And y schal ben as trewe to the,
Also god me spede!"
          (lines 289-300)   
on foot set
justly; counsel

   earlier pledged fidelity


God give me fortune

Without direct statement, the narrator makes us suspicious that distance will result in tests of the oath so prominently asserted and here reasserted. In the rest of his speech, Amiloun warns Amis of two potential problems which quickly materialize:
   "Ac brother, ich warn the biforn,
For His love that bar the croun of thorn
To save al mankende,
Be nought ogain thi lord forsworn,
And yif thou dost, thou art forlorn
Ever more withouten ende.
Bot ever do trewthe and no tresoun
And thenk on me, Sir Amiloun,
Now we asondri schal wende.
And, brother, yete y the forbede
The fals steward felawerede;
Certes, he wil the schende!"
          (lines 301-12)
But; I; in advance
in no way against your lord
if; lost

asunder shall travel
   still I warn you against

While emphasizing their "brotherhood," Amiloun identifies precisely the difficulties Amis will immediately face. The steward is identified as evil even before he does anything evil, and the danger of infidelity to the duke is raised even before any temptation is offered to Amis.

Even without Amiloun's warning, readers of romance would expect a steward to be evil, and he quickly satisfies that expectation. He proposes a "trewthe-plight" with Amis as soon as Amiloun is gone. Amis rejects the offer on the grounds that, despite separation, his relationship with Amiloun is exclusive. Whatever the steward's motive, perhaps envy, Amis' reaction only serves to further antagonize the steward, against whom Amiloun has already warned him. There is a complex human problem in the steward's offer: jealous of the friendship of Amis and Amiloun, the steward is eager to replace Amiloun in Amis' favor. His attempt and Amis' rejection enrich the conventional and expectable treachery beyond simple jealousy without excusing his behavior. The steward begins jealous, seeks friendship, and in rejection becomes all the more bitter. This is a psychologically complex steward delineated in action rather than description or direct statement.

Amiloun's other warning, about fidelity to the duke, takes shape in the powerful passion that Belisaunt, the daughter of the duke, conceives for Amis. Here again the narrator complicates familiar conventions. That Belisaunt falls desperately in love with Amis just by looking at him and the oddity that she seems never to have seen him before should come as no surprise; love at first sight and unaccountable first sightings are common in romance. The complication is in that she turns out to be a "persistent wooer," a folklore motif grafted on to courtly love-longing and physical decline occasioned by a poignant encounter in a garden. She reveals her love and will not take no for an answer. She goes beyond the reticence of the courtly lady and even the calculated enticements of ladies like Bercilak's wife in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. She presses her entreaty beyond the bounds not only of propriety but of morality. She threatens to cry rape if Amis does not acquiesce and coerces him into a profession of "love-plight." This is not a violation of his troth to Amiloun, but Amis makes it clear that it is a violation of his subordinate position and consequent duty as a member of the duke's household. Amis is trapped by Belisaunt's persistence and compromised by his own failure of nerve: he does the wrong thing and this is not a romance in which characters are protected from the moral consequences of their actions.

Belisaunt's successful stalking of Amis occurs while the duke is hunting, and he is finally seduced while the duke is hunting again. This is reminiscent of Sir Gawain's situation at the castle of Bercilak de Hautdesert, though in this case the literal hunter is unaware of the love-hunting going on at home. Although Amis and Amiloun lacks that complexity, it develops a complexity of its own by the way it rings changes on folk and romance conventions and capitalizes on the confluence of them. The evil, but correct, steward spies on the courtly, but culpable, rendezvous in Belisaunt's chamber. Despite Amis' misgivings, there is no doubt what happens:
And so thai plaid in word and dede,   
That he wan her maidenhede,
Er that sche went oway.
          (lines 766-68)
won; maidenhead
Before; away

When the narrator wishes to be clear he is perfectly clear. Initially, the evil steward has the moral high ground when he reports the transgression to the duke, regardless of his spiteful intention. The immediate consequence is the proposal of a trial by combat, yet another familiar circumstance but here fraught with paradox. The steward is evil, but in the right; Amis, however much he is a victim, is in the wrong and his compromised position is emphasized when he himself proposes the trial which, according to all that is right and good, he should not win. It is peculiar that the duke should so easily take the steward's word against Amis (and become so fierce and implacable), but it is appropriate that Amis have trouble finding "borwes" (guarantors) and have to rely on Belisaunt and her mother, the only two members of court who really do know his guilt. The complications of the moral universe are not only not ignored, but emphasized.

When Amis thinks of Amiloun as his only savior in the situation, he proceeds directly to seek his help despite the fact that the presentation of his moral situation makes it clear that he is abusing his "trewthe-plight" to save himself. The description of Amis' journey to Amiloun (his horse drops dead of fatigue and he continues on foot until he collapses) would in other circumstances be pathetic but here seems a sign of desperation, almost comic. Amiloun, on the other hand, becomes involved by having a conventional dream about the nearness of his friend and immediately acts on his vow of friendship. On the surface, his reaction is a conventional fidelity, but Amis' situation has become so compromised that it is hard to look on with a simple and sympathetic eye. When Amiloun sets out disguised as Amis so he can successfully defend the trial by combat, since his oath will technically be true, the established situation does not allow us to view the enterprise with the happy complicity we usually share in such "trick contests."

While Amiloun is off on his unworthy mission, Amis sleeps with Amiloun's wife. The fact that Amis ensures his chastity by placing a sword between Amiloun's wife and himself in bed is a convention of folklore and romance, but this narrator again shakes our sense of convention by having Amiloun's wife reflect on her "husband's" uncharacteristic sexual restraint in a comic and cranky way. This is a small point but illustrative of how the characters are not allowed the "reprieve of romance."

Meanwhile, Amiloun is engaging in a trial by combat which he and we know is a sham. The battle is intense and extended, a tour de force of the poet's narrative power, but we know all along that this is all wrong. When Amiloun wins, we are relieved; after all, the steward is a scoundrel and Amis was ensnared; but we are not reconciled. We cannot help but see the conflict in the context of Amis' dishonesty, Amiloun's prior warning, and the clear admonition that the angel gives to Amiloun before the battle:
. . . "Thou knight, Sir Amiloun,
God, that suffred passioun,
Sent the bode bi me;
Yif thou this bataile underfong,
Thou schalt have an eventour strong   
Within this yeres thre;
And or this thre yere be al gon,
Fouler mesel nas never non
In the world, than thou schal be!"
          (lines 1252-60)



And Amiloun explicitly rejects what is not only advice but reliable prediction:
"Certes," he seyd, "for drede of care
To hold mi treuthe schal y nought spare,
Lete God don alle His wille."
          (lines 1282-84)

In keeping his word to Amis, Amiloun is directly challenging God. When Amis returns ostensibly vindicated, marries Belisaunt, and eventually inherits the kingdom, we cannot escape our sense that vice is its own reward - happily for Amis but disastrously for Amiloun who, within a year, contracts the promised leprosy, not only a physical visitation but, in medieval lore, a clear sign of moral culpability.

The unusual doubleness (or tripleness) of this narrative returns in Amiloun's wife's reaction to his affliction: she turns him out to a hut and eventually gives him an ass to travel with on the condition that he get out of the neighborhood for good. Her vindictiveness, even malignity, provides an interesting contrast, implied rather than specified, to Belisaunt's original amorality and her later generosity. So much for "token" wives. In any case, the result is that Amiloun must leave his home and wander as a beggar served only by the fair and faithful young Amoraunt. The steadfastness of Amoraunt's loyalty, through all of the touchingly described tribulations of Amiloun, cannot help but be seen in contrast with the relationship between Amiloun and Amis. There is no equal "plighting" here; Amoraunt simply serves Amiloun in a humble and determined way. Why Amiloun does not immediately seek out Amis for succor in his distress is not explained, but the fact that he does not allows Amoraunt to demonstrate a selfless and uncomplicated loyalty that is seen nowhere else in the poem. The description of his faithful service is long and edifying.

Through Amoraunt's good offices, Amiloun is recognized and received, joyfully and generously, by Amis and the now good Belisaunt. The key to the acceptance is, however, Amis' recognition of the cup, one of two identical cups Amiloun had made at the time of their original parting. Recognition through such a token is nothing new and in some ways fulfills our sense of the rightness of the resolution, but the narrator will not leave well enough alone. Amiloun still must be healed of his leprosy (in the logic of this poem) and this procedure occasions still further moral ambiguities.

Amis has a dream in which he is told that Amiloun will be cured only if Amis kills his two children and anoints Amiloun with their blood. Amis agonizes over his dilemma but really he has no choice. He expresses his anguish, does the deed, and Amiloun is healed. Now, I have expressed this sequence of events flatly and without moral excuses, because that is the effect of the way the narrator tells the story. It is difficult by this time to have unambiguous sympathy with Amis' plight. His anguish is pathetic, but his behavior is already determined by the ambiguous logic of the poem. Everything is now resolved, except of course Amis has slaughtered his children. The description of his behavior once again does not allow him the "reprieve of romance." There is, however, another resolution, derived from saints' legends but used here in a darker context: the children are, miraculously, found alive and well. In other circumstances, this could be accepted as hagiographic, a "miracle of the Virgin" or the intervention of some patron saint. But the world is already too messy for easy acceptance of this resolution as praise of God for intervening on behalf of a larger good. Too much has gone wrong in this world for us to find pleasure in divine vindication. Rather, the preservation (resurrection?) of the children simply provides an assertively happy ending, which, as I have indicated before, the tendency of the narrative has not earned. The consequence is that there is an irony in the resolution which, although it does not damn Amis or Amiloun or Belisaunt, will not let us forget the unresolved moral ambiguities of the tale.

By looking only at results, Amis and Amiloun can be seen as a simple vindication of the value of friendship, or "trewthe," in the face of imposing challenges. The problem is that the story is not told that way. We are continually asked to see complexities and to remember them. In this implacability, we are reminded of comparable examples of moral ambiguity in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century: Gawain's self-doubt despite his comrades' approbation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lancelot's attractiveness despite his culpability in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Malory. In Amis and Amiloun, romance conventions are configured so as to call into question the possibility, even the propriety, of total devotion to an abstraction: Amis and Amiloun fits a pattern that signals if not the end of idealism at least a hearty skepticism about its efficacy. Chaucer was not alone in his critique of local ethics. Lillian Herlands Hornstein (in J. Burke Severs' A Manual of the Writings in Middle English) is correct to classify the poem among the romances of "Didactic Intent," but the didacticism of Amis and Amiloun reveals a world of moral ambiguity and tenuous ideals.

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Advocates 19.2.1 (Auchinleck), at the Advocates Library, Edinburgh. Fols. 49r–61v. [c. 1330. 2287 lines, missing beginning and ending. The base text for this edition.]

BM Egerton 2862 (formerly Trentham-Sutherland), at the British Library, London. Fols. 135r-147v. [c. 1400. 2186 lines, supplying a trustworthy version of the beginning and ending.]

Bodleian 21900 (Douce 326), at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. Fols. 1r-13v. [c. 1500. 293 lines, often faulty.]

BM Harley 2386, at the British Library, London. Fols. 131r-137v. [c. 1500. A fragment of 894 lines.]

Previous Editions

The Auchinleck Manuscript. National Library of Scotland Advocates' MS 19.2.1. With an introduction by Derek Pearsall and I. C. Cunningham. London: The Scolar Press, 1979.

Fellows, Jennifer. Of Love and Chivalry: An Anthology of Middle English Romance. Everyman’s Library. London: Charles E. Tuttle, 1993. Pp. 73–145.

Kölbing, Eugen, ed. Amis and Amiloun, zugleich mit der altfranzõsischen Quelle. Altenglische Biblioteck 2. Heilbronn: Henninger, 1884.

Leach, MacEdward, ed. Amis and Amiloun. EETS o.s. 203. London: Oxford University Press, 1937. Reprinted 1960.

Le Saux, Françoise, ed. Amys and Amylion. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1993. [Based on the Bodleian (Douce) MS.]

Rickert, Edith. Early English Romances in Verse. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1967. [Modernized text.]

Weber, Henry. ed. Metrical Romances of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Centuries. 3 vols. Edinburgh: George Ramsay and Company, 1810. Vol. 2. Pp. 367-473. [Uses Auchinleck as his base text with the beginning and ending taken from the Bodleian (Douce) MS.]


Baldwin, Dean R. “Amis and Amiloun: The Testing of Treuthe.” Papers on Language and Literature 16 (1980), 353–65.

Cook, Robert G. “Chaucer’s Pandarus and the Medieval Ideal of Friendship.” JEGP 69 (1970), 407–24.

Dannenbaum, Susan. “Insular Tradition in the Story of Amis and Amiloun.” Neophilologus 67 (1983), 611–22.

Delany, Sheila. “A, A, and B: Coding Same-Sex Union in Amis and Amiloun.” Pulp Fictions of Medieval England. Ed. Nicola McDonald. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004. Pp. 63–81.

Fewster, C. S. Narrative Transformations of Past and Present in Middle English Romance: Guy of Warwick, Amis and Amiloun, and the Squyr of Lowe Degre. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, 1984.

Ford, John C. “Merry Married Brothers: Wedded Friendship, Lovers’ Language and Male Matrimonials in Two Middle English Romances.” Medieval Forum 3 (2003).

———. “Contrasting the Identical: Differentiation of the ‘Indistinguishable’ Characters of Amis and Amiloun.” Neophilologus 86 (2002), 311–23.

———. “A New Conception of Poetic Formulae Based on Prototype Theory and the Mental Template.” Neuphilologishche Mitteilungen 103 (2002), 205–26.

Heather, P. J. “Sworn-Brotherhood.” Folklore 63 (1952), 158–72.

Hume, Kathryn. “Amis and Amiloun and the Aesthetics of Middle English Romance.” Studies in Philology 70 (1973), 19–41.

Johnston, Alexandra F. “‘Amys and Amylon’ at Bicester Priory.” Records of Early English Drama Newsletter 18.2 (1993), 15–18.

Jost, Jean E. “Hearing the Female Voice: Transgression in Amis and Amiloun.” Medieval Perspectives 10 (1995), 116–32.

Kramer, Dale. “Structural Artistry in Amis and Amiloun.” Annuale Mediaevale 9 (1968), 103–22.

Kratins, Ojars. “The Middle English Amis and Amiloun: Chivalric Romance or Secular Hagiography.” PMLA 81 (1966), 347–54.

Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968 [1969].