Robert of Cisyle: Introduction

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Robert of Cisyle: Introduction

Although it is characteristic of romance to concentrate on the experience and values of one hero (or two, as in Amis and Amiloun), in Robert of Cisyle the focus on Robert is especially intense. It is his experience as he falls from high position, is punished, and rises again that is the whole substance of the poem. All other characters, even the angel who temporarily replaces him as king, are there only for our understanding of Robert and the meaning of his experiences.

The story was common and popular: there are ten manuscript versions of Robert of Cisyle. The theme appears in the Bible and folklore as well as romance: that the mighty will be brought low and the humble exalted. The most prominent Biblical statement of the theme is the Magnificat, Mary's speech to Elizabeth revealing that she has conceived the Redeemer, which is partially quoted in the poem:
Deposuit potentes de sede,
Et exaltavit humiles.

          (lines 40-41)
   (He has brought down the powerful from their seat,
And he has exalted the humble.)
The theme is pious and didactic — and comforting to a popular audience who can enjoy the fall of the great as well as the ultimate triumph of the hero once he has been thoroughly humiliated. That is the double enjoyability of Robert of Cisyle: in the fall of the mighty, so common in medieval tragedy (see, for example, the Monk's compendium in The Canterbury Tales), there is a didactic caution to "all of us." In romance versions, however, the fall and rise is doubly satisfying since we can observe the punishment of arrogance and the reward for humility which links the hero to "people like us."

The didactic point is sharpened by the insistent concentration on Robert, his position, his suffering, his remorse, and his restoration. Robert does not even have a wife. He begins as a good king of great family: one brother is Pope Urban, the other is the Holy Roman Emperor Valemounde. There is a temptation because of the specificity to find an historical model, but, although there were two Popes Urban who might fit the bill, there is no precedent for the trial and, indeed, no Holy Roman emperor named Valemounde (although his made-up name is suggestive since it means "farewell to the world," a version of contemptus mundi that Robert must learn in order to regain his kingdom). The importance of his brothers is just that — their importance. Robert is king of a prosperous Sicily and the brother of the two most powerful men in the Christian world. If he can be laid low, who is not vulnerable? This heightens the doubled joy of this romance. Even Robert can be humbled by God and even the sinful can be restored through genuine repentance.

At the outset it is made clear that he is high-born, the flower of chivalry:
In Cisyle was a noble kyng,
Fair and strong and sumdel yyng.
          (lines 3-4)
   somewhat young

The opening descriptions are abstract and laudatory; his youth may even mitigate to some extent the foolishness of his pride, though if that is the case it is one of the few mercies the poet allows Robert. More prominent is his arrogance:
The kyng thoughte, he hedde no peer
In al the worlde, fer no neer;
And in his thought he hedde pryde,
For he was nounpeer in uch a syde.
          (lines 25-28)

   arbiter (judge) on either side

His arrogance even extends, ominously, to matters of religion:
He thoughte more in worldes honour,
Than in Crist, ur saveour.
          (lines 33-34)
   cared more about
our savior

When he is at vespers and hears the Magnificat he must ask for a translation:
He made a clerk hit him rehers
In langage of his owne tonge,
In Latyn he nuste, that heo songe.
          (lines 36-38)

   He did not know Latin

Although his ignorance of Latin may soften some of the sharp edges of his personality for a popular audience, it also identifies him as an outsider who does not understand the language of the Church. When he hears the translation his reaction is not merely arrogant but blasphemous; he directly challenges the truth of Scripture:
"Al your song is fals and fable!
What mon hath such pouwer,
Me to bringe lowe in daunger?"
          (lines 50-52)
   man; power

And this challenge is explicitly chastised by the narrator: "This errour he hedde in thought" (line 58). Thus, he is so self-absorbed as to blind himself to the necessary truth of Scripture. This is a serious error, because revelation must be true even if it does not seem to be borne out in our own experience thus far. He is also so bored as to fall asleep. Robert's nap during vespers has consequences harsher than the ordinary experience of most drowsy worshippers because of his high position and because it is a metaphor for his indifference to the word of God.

That he is not recognized by the guards when he awakes after the service is not simply a convenience of romance but a sign that his obstinacy in the face of revealed truth has made him unrecognizable even by his own retainers. The angel who takes his form and place is easily accepted because he is an idealized version of Robert; he is Robert at his best. He is received joyously by the people while the fallen Robert is seized as a potential robber. Here again the poem is metaphorical and didactic. Robert at his best is angelic; Robert in defiance of Scripture is indeed a spiritual thief. When his asseverations of his identity are rejected by the porter and he is excluded from his own palace, he is displayed as someone who has put himself outside of the Christian community. His ferocity when he is rejected may not be more than one would expect of a confident king, but it is certainly presented as a sign of his failure to understand the limitations on the prerogatives of human power:
"Thou schalt witen, ar I go:
Thi kyng I am; thow schalt knowe.
In prison thou schalt ligge lowe
And ben anhonged and todrawe
As a traytur bi the lawe.
Thou schalt wel witen, I am kyng,
Open the gates, gadelyng."
          (lines 98-104)
know, before

   be hanged and pulled to pieces
traitor according to the law

His attempts to justify and identify himself by his family are tellingly futile:
"The Pope of Roome is my brother
And the emperour myn other."
          (lines 149-50)

When the porter reports his encounter with Robert, the angel-king uses the word "fool" for the first time to refer to Robert, and this becomes the dominant metaphor for his outcast situation throughout the rest of the poem:
"Thou art a fol, that art nought fert
Mi men to don such vilenye."
          (lines 142-43)
fool; afraid
   do; villainy

Spiritually foolish, Robert is in fact made into a "king's fool":
"Thow art my fol," seide the angel,
"Thou schal be schoren everichdel,
Lych a fool, a fool to be . . ."
          (lines 153-55)
   shaved completely

His relationship to animals, apes, and dogs establishes a new position for him in the hierarchy of creation. The irony is intensified by the fact that his assayer (royal food taster) will be a dog and not only will he be bestial (he might learn from an ape), but he will have to contend with the dogs for his food. Unlike the title character in Sir Gowther, who also is a "fool" and must eat under the table with the dogs, Robert is not undergoing the transformation from "wild man" to knight that Gowther is. Robert has been moved dramatically downward in the chain of being. Robert does not accept his humiliation easily, yet it is always clear that he has no choice. The narrator is sympathetic, but he does not justify Robert: his humiliation is painfully described, but we are told clearly that the angel-king ruled well.

Bad becomes even worse when, after three years of rule by the angel-king, Valemounde issues an invitation for the three brothers to get together in Rome. The invitation, coming at this point, only makes sense within the narrator's logic of romance: it is motivated by the development of theme rather than any internal necessity of plot; it is intended to make humiliation even more humiliating. The angel-king goes, clad in brilliant white (Robert at his best), and is joyfully greeted by his "brothers." Robert goes along as the king's fool and, despite his protestations, is perceived as the fool that he is both literally and figuratively:
Tho was he more fol iholde,
More then er a thousend folde;
To cleyme such a bretherhede:
Hit was holde a foles dede.
          (lines 289-92)
   Therefore; fool considered
before; times
claim; brotherhood
considered; fool’s deed

He goes wild with grief when he is rejected by his brothers:
"Allas," quath he, "nou am I lowe."
For he hopede, bi eny thing,
His bretheren wolde ha mad hym kyng:
And whon his hope was al ago,
He seide "allas" and "weilawo."
          (lines 296-300)
   hoped, somehow
brothers; have
when; gone
alas; wellaway

It is, however, this ultimate rejection by his potent brothers that occasions Robert's renovation, poignantly introduced by his "allas" in line 307. He here begins a series of recognitions, not just of his situation but of his interior disposition. He thinks of the biblical example of Nebuchadnezzar who was brought low even though Holofernes had thought of him as a "god." Despite the fact that the biblical basis of the exemplum is scanty, it is significant that Robert's first recognition comes through Scripture, the rejection of which had been the narrative turning point in his own fortunes.

Robert eventually applies the story to himself, accepts his guilt, and admits his pride:
"Now am I wel lowe ipult,
And that is right that I so be."
          (lines 346-47)
   brought down

Many casual critics of the poem (few have dealt with it intensively) have dismissed the narrative as "sprawling" and "simplistic." Such commentators should pay particular attention to the lyrical self-conviction that follows this fundamental recognition; the next twenty-four lines are devoted to a graceful revelation, by Robert himself, of his transgressions. He prays to Mary (and to God) to forgive him for his culpable foolishness. It is particularly appropriate that this admission insist on the metaphor of the fool that recurs throughout his confession as a refrain: "Lord, on Thi fool Thow have pité" (line 348). He explicitly cites his rejection of Scripture and lists his trespasses. He accepts his "fooldom" and generalizes it to the human condition. He prays to Mary for the very humility he is now displaying: his recognition is interior and total. Since we are "in a romance" we have every reason to expect that the consequences will be salubrious — and they are.

The angel accepts Robert's self-abasement and reinforces the lesson by restoring him, while explaining that one hour in heaven brings more joy than one hundred thousand years as a noble man on earth. Having underlined the point, the angel disappears and Robert, morally chastened and spiritually elevated, returns to his exalted role with a critical new awareness of where even the mighty fit into the great scheme of God's universe. When he regains power, he rules as a better king than ever. Why he, a "yyng" man (line 4), should die within two years is left unexplained; perhaps the kingdom of heaven is all that is left for his exaltation. Appropriately, upon his death, he lets his story be known as a lesson to his people and to the world.

In any case the lesson is clear and is reiterated: the mighty will be brought low and the humble exalted. The pious conclusion, which refers both to Christ's redemptive act and to the experience of the individual Christian, invites, more explicitly than is usual in romance, a fourfold allegorical interpretation. Literally, this is the story of the experience of the king of Sicily. Allegorically, it is the expression of the human condition within the divinely shaped hierarchy of the created world: human pride can expect a fall, while humility will bring rewards. Analogically, it is the story of Christ's self-abasement in his acceptance of the pain and humiliation of crucifixion for the salvation of mankind. Anagogically, it is advice to all Christians on what is necessary for salvation. Robert of Cisyle certainly is didactic, but it is not a slender or careless redundancy. It is a lively, powerful, and sometimes charmingly playful statement of a fundamental and gratifying Christian principle.

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Select Bibliography


Bodleian 3938, English Poetry A.1 (Vernon), at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. Fols. 300r-301r. [c. 1390. 444 lines.]

Trinity Oxford D.57, at Trinity College, Oxford University. Fols. 165r-167r. [c. 1380–1400. 440 lines.]

Cambridge University Ff.2.38 (formerly More 690), at the Cambridge University Library. Fols. 254r-257v. [late fifteenth to early sixteenth century. 516 lines.]

Cambridge University Ii.4.9., at the Cambridge University Library. Fols. 87v-93v. [late fifteenth century. 374 lines.]

Caius Cambridge 174, at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. Pp. 456-68. [late fifteenth century. 470 lines.]

BM Harley 525, at the British Library, London. Fols. 35r-43v. [mid- to late fifteenth cen­tury. 472 lines.]

BM Harley 1701 (formerly Harley Plutarch 1701), at the British Library, London. Fols. 92-95. [c. 1380. 476 lines.]

BM Additional 22283 (Simeon), at the British Library, London. Fols. 90v-91v. [c. 1390–1400. 444 lines.]

BM Additional 34801, at the British Library, London. Fol. 2. [c. 1417–32. 23 lines.]

Trinity Dublin 432 B, at Trinity College, Dublin. Fols. 60r-61v. [after 1461. 79 lines.]


The Vernon Manuscript: A Facsimile of Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Eng. Poet. a.1. With Introduction by A. I. Doyle. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987.

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Sammlung Altenglischer Legenden. Heilbronn: Henninger, 1878. Pp. 209-19.

Nuck, Robert, ed. Roberd of Cisyle. Berlin: Bernstein, 1887.

French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930. Pp. 931-46.


Baker, Joan. “Deposuit potentes: Apocalptic Rhetoric in the Middle English Robert of Sicily.” Medieval Perspectives (1997), 25–45.

Harper, Stephen. Insanity, Individuals, and Society in Late-Medieval English Literature: The Subject of Madness. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.

Hopkins, Andrea. “Roberd of Cisyle.” In The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Pp. 179–95.

Hornstein, Lillian Herlands. “King Robert of Sicily: Analogues and Origins.” PMLA 79 (1964), 13–21.

Olsen, Alexandra Hennessey. “The Return of the King: A Reconsideration of Robert of Sicily.” Folklore 93 (1982), 216–19.

———. “Oral Tradition in the Middle English Romance: The Case of Robert of Cisyle.” In Oral Poetics in Middle English Poetry. Ed. Mark C. Amodio. New York: Garland, 1994. Pp. 71–87.

Powell, Stephen D. “Multiplying Textuality: Generic Migration in the Manuscripts of Roberd of Cisyle.” Anglia 116 (1998), 171–97.

Simons, John. “A Byzantine Identity for Robert of Cisyle.” In The Matter of Identity in Medieval Romance. Ed. Phillipa Hardman. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002. Pp. 103–11.