Sir Amadace: Introduction

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Sir Amadace: Introduction

The complexity of the apparently simple Sir Amadace lies in the ambiguity of its ideal. The poem uses much of the idealistic paraphernalia of conventional romance in the exposition of an ideal that sometimes seems merely materialistic. Is Sir Amadace a story of generosity put to the test and finally vindicated? Or is it just a story of wealth lost and regained? Traditionally, the values of the romance hero are vindicated by the complicit universe in which he lives. Certainly Sir Amadace, despite his tribulations, is, like more obviously altruistic romance heroes, in the right world at the right time. The narrator seems to imply that Amadace's predicament is the result of excessive, but basically admirable, liberality; he may be foolish, but he is not evil, and therefore deserves the restoration of his wealth. It is hard to ignore, however, the pervasively materialistic context in which the "ideal" is represented. This discontinuity between the vision of the narrator and the tendency of the narrative makes a slight, amusing story problematic and fascinating.

The version of Sir Amadace presented here is from the Ireland Manuscript, but it differs little from the version in the Advocates Manuscript. Although neither version seems derived from the other or from an identifiable common source, the ambiguities of idealism and materialism are prominent in both. Despite uncertainty about what its moral "lesson" is, the poem is a good specimen of whatever it is. The twelve-line stanza rhymed aabccbddbeeb in tetrameters except for trimeters in the B lines, provides a compact structural unit that is generally executed successfully. The movement is lively and the story, no matter what it means or implies, is engaging. The romance is not even bourgeois; it often seems the most lower class of romances, celebrating money and its associated power from a vantage point near the bottom of the social scale. It is popular not aristocratic, indeed, a view of the world, or the world of romance, from the perspective of the underclasses who mistake the bourgeois for the noble. And perhaps that is why moral idealism and material well-being become so intriguingly intertwined. All of the ingredients of romance are there, and all of the ingredients of didactic narrative, as well as a fair helping of folklore. Yet, largely because of the ambiguity of its ideal, Sir Amadace remains a good story that defies literary taxonomy.

Both versions (those in the Ireland and the Advocates Manuscripts) are acephalous. We enter the story when it is already clear that something has gone seriously wrong with Amadace's finances. His expenses exceed his income, and he is down to his last forty pounds. He reminds us of other admirable "spendthrift knights" like Sir Launfal and Sir Cleges. However, Launfal's decline in wealth is largely attributable to the malice of Guenevere and Cleges' extravagance is more fully and sympathetically described. With Amadace, perhaps because the poem is acephalous, his steward, a pragmatic rather than an evil one in this poem, gives him some straight talk:
   "Sir, ye awe wele more
Thenne ye may of your londus rere
In faythe this sevyn yere.
Quoso may best, furste ye mun pray,
Abyde yo till anothir day.
And parte your cowrte in sere;
And putte away full mony of your men;   
And hald butte on, quere ye hald ten,
Thaghe thay be nevyr so dere."
          (lines 4-12)
steward; owe much more
Than; lands collect
seven years
Whoever best; must ask
Endure you
divide your court in parts
   keep but one, where you kept
Though; never
Whether the cause is liberality or prodigality, Amadace is facing a version of "romance adversity." If he is guilty it seems likely that his failure is foolishness rather than self-indulgence. He honorably refuses to force payment from his debtors but foolishly wants to leave with a last flourish:
"Yette wille I furst, or I fare,
Be wele more riall then I was are,
Therfore ordan thu schall,
For I wulle gif full ryche giftus
Bothe to squiers and to knyghtis;
To pore men dele a dole."
          (lines 37-42)
      first, before I travel
royal; before
decree you
will give; gifts
give alms

He departs, like Sir Orfeo, not in order to do something specific, to take on some well-defined quest, but in reaction to the way things are at his court. Unlike Orfeo, he is not motivated by the desperation of the human agony of lost love, but by the need to avoid his creditors until his income catches up with his expenses. He is buying time; presumably he will not be able to get further into debt in the woods; if he has a plan it is not related to anything but regaining financial solvency.

When he comes upon the stinking chapel (the elaborate insistence on the stench is one of the things that keeps his nobility in perspective), with the weeping wife and unburied husband, he has a folkloric opportunity. The dead man cannot be buried because of his debts; this has an ominous ring to it. Why the merchant, who is the creditor, has such power over the body and soul of the knight is not made clear in the story, but the problem is common in folklore. Amadace's immediate reaction is identification with the victim - for good reason. Despite the "self-interest," his expenditure of his last forty pounds, thirty for the creditor and ten for burial and memorials, suggests that his own difficulties are the result of instinctive generosity rather than profligacy. The problem is that the situation is framed in such wholly economic terms that it is difficult to focus on the spiritual dimensions that the poem's didactic intentions seem to call for.

Pointlessly proceeding into the woods, penniless, Amadace is visited by a "white knight." Although we are not told explicitly, this knight seems to be a manifestation of the knight he has buried and becomes a guide. The white knight's advice is curious. He comforts Amadace and urges him to seek out the marriageable daughter of the king. Why Amadace is wandering, for what specific purpose, is not clear, nor is the motive of the mysterious white knight. Unlike its analogues, this poem does not have Amadace set off on a quest for a specific rich maiden. It is also clear that his spiritual guide, however helpful, is duplicitous. He recommends that Amadace present himself as the victim of a shipwreck to explain his lack of companions; there is enough of a real wreck nearby, apparently magically provided, for Amadace to equip himself plausibly. The white knight, however, is not simply a "romance engineer," a figure sent to lead the hero in a direction that will prove successful and establish the hero's essential harmony with the world he lives in. The white knight is oddly commercial even in referring to God when he counsels Amadace that Amadace's situation is the way of the world, but that God will set things right and, even more strongly, when he insists on half of whatever Amadace gets from the mercenary quest he has set him on.

Warmly received at court, Amadace wins a series of tournaments and gives half of the proceeds to the king, "nobly" reserving half for the white knight whom he knows he owes. Amadace also wins the love of the king's daughter, and has a child, wherein lies the problem when the white knight returns to collect his "half." Amadace, with his wife's devoted compliance, is willing to have her and their child riven in half in order to keep his word to the white knight. Fortunately, if predictably, the white knight relents - he is after all "a good guy" and in fact the person whose burial Amadace arranged - and praises the wife for her loyalty. The white knight then departs, Amadace pays off his debts, the king conveniently dies, and Amadace inherits the kingdom.

Although the elements and impulse of romance are present, there is an insistently commercial quality about the story of Amadace that limits the idealism and may finally compromise his eventual success. As a romance, Sir Amadace is based on the folk motif of "the grateful dead" and his behavior is shaped accordingly. Like countless knights of romance he is beset by misfortune, undertakes a vague quest, behaves generously to the unburied knight, wins jousts, overcomes adversity with the magical help of the white knight and finds a rich and happy ending. The form fits and yet the poem remains oddly ambiguous as romance, though fascinating as narrative.

This narrator implies that this is all to be taken as the story of the reward for Amadace's original liberality: his generosity got him into difficulties but God restores him because his insolvency was the result of noble impulses. But these hints do not seem to be fully developed or realized in the plot. As a result, Sir Amadace seems to be a "commercial romance." The structural elements of traditional romance are present, but there is a peculiar reduction of ideals to wealth. It is not simply that Amadace is too middle class to be a romance hero. Long before, Havelok presented us with a romance hero not even middle but lower class. However, the terms of Havelok's situation are different. Havelok's means, and much of his heroism, are lower class, not even bourgeois, while his ideals are transcendent. Amadace is further up the social scale, but his context and motives, despite the shape of romance, remain material and mercantile. There are many noble and magical ornaments, but this finally is a story of a knight who gets out of debt.

Amadace's original plight is material, his succor of the unburied knight is material, the white knight's assistance to him is material, his redemption is material (paying off his debts), and his ultimate happiness is material. Yet the narrator seems to hope that we will somehow make something more of all this. This is not to say that it is a poorly made or unworthy poem, but it does take the form and matter of folklore and romance and turn them not to the celebration of moral idealism but to the vindication of material well-being. Doubtless the poem is also didactic, but its lesson may be more commercial than spiritual and therein lies its special fascination.

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Select Bibliography


Advocates 19.3.1 (formerly Jac V.7.27), at the Advocates Library, Edinburgh. Fols. 68r-84r. [1475-1500. 778 lines.]

Ireland Blackburn, at Robert H. Taylor Collection, Princeton University Libraries (Taylor MS. 9). Fols. 16r-34v. [1450-60. 852 lines.]

Previous Editions

Brookhouse, Christopher, ed. Sir Amadace and The Avowing of Arthur: Two Romances from the Ireland MS. Anglistica 15. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1968. [Ireland MS. This edition is rife with errors.]

Mills, Maldwyn. Six Middle English Romances. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973. Pp. 169–92.

Robson, John, ed. Three Early English Metrical Romances. Camden Society 18. London, 1842. Pp. 27-56. [Ireland MS.]

Weber, Henry, ed. Metrical Romances of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Centuries. 3 vols. Edinburgh: George Ramsay and Company, 1810. Vol. 3. Pp. 241-75. [Advocates MS.]


Foster, Edward E. “Simplicity, Complexity, and Morality in Four Medieval Romances.” Chaucer Review 31 (1997), 407–19.

Harkins, Patricia. “The Speaking Dead in Sir Amadace and the White Knight.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 3.3 (1994), 62–71.

Kane, George. Middle English Literature: A Critical Study of the Romances, the Religious Lyrics, and Piers Plowman. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1951.

Loomis, Laura Hibbard. Medieval Romance in England: A Study of the Sources and Analogues of the Noncyclic Metrical Romances. Second ed. New York: Burt Franklin, 1960.

Putter, Ad. “Gifts and Commodities in Sir Amadace.” Review of English Studies 51 (2000), 371–94.

Williams, Elizabeth. “Sir Amadace and the Undisenchanted Bride: The Relation of the Middle English Romance to the Folktale Tradition of ‘The Grateful Dead.’” Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance. Ed. Rosalind Field. Cambridge: Brewer, 1999. Pp. 57–70.