The Avowyng of Arthur: Introduction

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The Avowyng of Arthur: Introduction

The Avowyng of Arthur takes as both its starting point and the substance of its story a series of knightly vows. In many romances, chivalric identity - worship and honor - turns upon a hero's living up to his own established reputation, or to the general ideals of knightly behavior, such as courtesy. In particular cases, a knight's renown may be established or tested in intimate circumstances, through his giving and keeping his private word, as in the "forwards" or agreements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Greene Knight, or through a delicate pact like that entered into by Gawain in Gologras. But much more frequently, a knight's worship rests entirely upon a public utterance - an extravagant vow - and upon the fit between that formulaic self-description and his consequent actions. The "gabs" sworn in Cornwall, the oaths made before the court at the Christmas feast in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Greene Knight, or the ill-considered boasts of Carlisle all illustrate this pattern.

The Avowyng begins when Arthur, Kay, Gawain, and Baldwin leave the court at Carlisle in order to hunt a great boar in Inglewood Forest. Once there, they utter vows that determine the unfolding of the poem's plot. The first three propose to undertake some immediate adventure within the Forest: Arthur will hunt the marauding boar, Gawain will maintain a "wake" or watch at the Tarn Wathelene all night, and Kay will ride the Forest in search of battle (lines 114 ff.). Fulfilling these vows takes up precisely half of Avowyng - that is, thirty-six of the poem's seventy-two stanzas (though the eighteenth stanza lacks four lines following line 284). The vows that Baldwin swears differ from those of the other heroes in number and kind: while the three oaths he pronounces equal the total for the others, they commit him to no peremptory action. In fact, they more resemble prohibitions than promises of achievement, committing Baldwin to avoid certain reactive behaviors rather than to undertake risk or knightly deeds: he swears never to be jealous of a woman, never to refuse anyone his hospitality or food, and never to fear violent death. The testing out and explanation of Baldwin's vows take up the second half of Avowyng.

As in Ragnelle, Arthur goes off by himself on a hunt, but in Avowyng the emphasis falls upon his successful skills as a woodsman rather than upon any unanticipated adventure in Inglewood. After a strenuous pursuit, the King kills this "Satan" or "fiend" of a boar, and then expertly butchers him (lines 161 ff., 257 ff.). The episode ends almost as a dream-vision: the King falls asleep and remains in the Forest until dawn (line 468), though he has no visitors, supernatural or otherwise. In the meantime, Kay in his travels through Inglewood meets a knight who holds a maiden captive (lines 273 ff.). Heeding the calls of the woman, Kay challenges the knight to battle; he turns out to be Sir Menealfe of the Mountayn (line 307), a name (with its -elf component) that perhaps connects him to the enchanted realms of fairy. Despite his bold challenge, Kay is predictably defeated by the strange knight (lines 321 ff.), but he then asks that Menealfe seek ransom for him from Sir Gawain at the Tarn Wathelene.

Through Kay's petition, Gawain's encounter with Menealfe and the unnamed woman comes to constitute Gawain's adventure at the Tarn. He fulfills his vow by unseating his opponent twice, once for the ransoming of Kay and a second time for mastery over the fate of Menealfe and of the maiden as well (lines 381, 417 ff.). He swears Menealfe and the woman to abide by the judgment of Queen Guenevere. Accompanied by these two, Kay and Gawain then rejoin the King, and they return to Carlisle bringing "Bothe the birde and the brede" (i.e., "the woman and the meat," line 491). After a favorable interview with the King, Menealfe presents himself to the Queen, who resigns him to the King's power (lines 513 ff.); on the basis of his prowess in the combat with Gawain, he is made a Knight of the Round Table (lines 565 ff.). The first part ends with all parties reconciled and all vows fulfilled - except for Baldwin's.

The second half of Avowyng - precisely equal to part one, except for its missing quatrain - divides into two further sections, the testing out of Baldwin's vows and then the rationalization of their meaning. At Arthur's instigation, Kay gathers a force of a half dozen knights and blocks Baldwin's way on his return to Carlisle (lines 585 ff.). Baldwin, without hesitation, prepares to joust, unhorses each knight in his turn, and proceeds to dine with Arthur. When the King asks about his journey, he reports he encountered nothing "butte gode" (line 683); the King marvels all the more when he hears of the beating Kay and the others sustained (lines 689 ff.). Arthur next sends his minstrel as a spy to Baldwin's household, enjoining him to observe the nature of the knight's hospitality; the minstrel finds that all guests - "the grete and the smalle," "knygte, squyer, yoman, [and] knave" - are served without distinction and to their complete satisfaction (lines 717 ff.). Arthur marvels at Baldwin's largesse, and then devises a test for the remaining vow. Arthur sends Baldwin on a hunt, arranging for him to spend the night in the forest (lines 781 ff.); back at the manor house, the King orchestrates matters so that one of his retainers literally spends the night in bed next to, but completely apart from, Baldwin's wife (lines 813 ff.). When Baldwin is brought in to witness the scene and is told the facts of the case, he shows neither anger nor shame, accepting the propriety of the situation because it must have come about "atte hur awen wille" (line 897).

Arthur's expressed surprise at Baldwin's complete lack of reaction - not merely in this bedroom scene, but in the first two "tests" as well - leads Baldwin to explain how his vows stem from principles of his behavior. These explanations take the form of three further stories, all ostensibly based upon Baldwin's experience as a veteran of chivalric warfare. The anecdotes do not however add depth to Baldwin's character, or offer the audience insight into any deeper motives. Instead they work almost as sermon exempla, and offer the etiology for an unusual variety of chivalric pragmatism. Baldwin first tells a brutally misogynistic variant of Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, in which three washerwomen plot to murder one another, though here one survives (lines 925-88). In this story, the focus of the women's desire is not the defeat of death or even a bushel of gold, but masculine attention, in the form of collective physical violation by five hundred men. Besides working as laundresses, the women service the sexual needs of an entire barracks, and successively kill one another out of jealousy for the men's desire. The lesson Baldwin draws from this incident is not altogether clear, but it seems to be that a man should stay clear of a woman's jealousy, for women are dangerous when they feel discontent. Versions of this story appear elsewhere in medieval literature, both in learned sources (John of Garland's Latin Poetria) and fabliau narrative, though the precise source used by the Avowyng poet remains uncertain.

Baldwin's second anecdote offers a rationalization for his not ever fearing for his life (lines 1013-45). While in charge of his castle, Baldwin and others sortie out into fierce combat; they return to find that one of their knights, who had hidden in a barrel to avoid the fighting, has been killed by a stray missile. Baldwin's final illustration resembles a story that recurs in a number of medieval chronicles (lines 1053-1126). Baldwin's besieged garrison, at the point of being starved out, welcomes an emissary from the opposing forces with a lavishness that exhausts their last bit of food and drink. Upon returning to his own troops, the emissary reports that the garrison's supplies remain so abundant that they will never surrender, and the siege is lifted.

Arthur's hunt and the chivalric combats of Kay and Gawain, together with the boasts that motivate them, operate as self-explanatory chivalric pursuits in the first part of Avowyng. Baldwin's boasts and behavior, on the other hand, insist on their need for explanation, and thus raise suspicions about their proper chivalric status. On the one hand, all three episodes unarguably address central virtues of chivalry: the first assays Baldwin's physical courage and prowess, and the other two prove his courtesy, both public (in the manor hall) and private (in his Lady's bedroom). Yet their unshakable, downright practicality appears far removed from the idealizations of knighthood associated with both aristocratic and popular celebrations of chivalry. The stimulating arguments of Burrow and Johnson that Baldwin's character represents the mature view of a seasoned knight perhaps credits Avowyng with a fuller chivalric ethos than it actually possesses; in tethering apparent daring and recklessness to rationality and calculation, the poem effects a transformation of knighthood that may have rendered it especially appealing to a bourgeois audience.

Burrow and Johnson have also properly and convincingly redirected readers' attention to the remarkable symmetries of Avowyng. Each half of the poem contains thirty-six tail-rhyme stanzas; moreover, the three vows of three heroes in the first part are countered by the three vows and three anecdotal explanations of a single hero in the second. Perhaps even more than Awntyrs, Avowyng structures itself as a diptych. In Burrow's view, the poem contrasts the boldly active life of youthful chivalry with the more sedate geniality of Baldwin's mid-elde existence; Johnson argues that the diptych more precisely opposes an impractical and idealistic chivalry to a "real-world, socially-grounded system of values" that reflects "the actuality of warfare" as a "flesh-and-blood fifteenth-century Englishman" would have known it. Yet, like Baldwin's explanations, the structure of Avowyng seems finally too rigid. The poem notably lacks the gothic spikiness that Spearing identifies in the framework of Awntyrs, and which in that poem and in Gologras excite so much readerly response. Avowyng, in providing so shapely a narrative, rounds off all its corners; its alignment of incident and explanation suggests that all mysteries have their reasons, and that, as in Baldwin's case, all motives are self-interested or at least justifiable.

Avowyng is composed in sixteen-line tail-rhyme stanzas, rhyming aaabcccbdddbeeeb. Its lines are made up not of regular metric feet, but contain varying numbers of stresses; the triplets contain from three to five beats, and the linking b-lines two or three stresses. Some of the individual stanzas are linked through verbal concatenation, but in a way that is much less consistent and structurally telling than in Awntyrs or Pearl. Alliteration is common throughout, but is not a structural feature of the verse, as in Awntyrs and Gologras. Though the surviving copy contains linguistic features associated with the Midlands, these appear to be scribal, and the original version was produced in the northwest of England, with Cumberland itself - the county in which Inglewood Forest and the Tarn Wathelene are located - a possible place of origin.


Avowyng survives in a single manuscript, Ireland Blackburn, fols. 35r-59r; the manuscript is now in the Robert H. Taylor Collection at Princeton University. The extant version dates from about the third quarter of the fifteenth century, though Avowyng may have been composed as early as the last quarter of the fourteenth century. Like many other late Middle English texts, Avowyng is written in a hand that often does not distinguish decisively between letter forms (especially a and ei, and e and o), and that does not indicate clearly when strokes added to the middle or end of words are significant. Different readings in earlier editions often reflect this ambiguity. The present edition in general disregards scribal strokes and flourishes, rather than transcribing them as unstressed -e. Exceptions, differences from earlier editions, and puzzling cases are recorded in the notes.

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Selected Bibliography


Ireland Blackburn MS, Robert H. Taylor Collection, Princeton, New Jersey.

Editions (arranged chronologically)

Madden, Frederic. 1839. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Robson, John. 1842. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Smith, James A., ed. "The Avowynge of King Arthur, Sir Gawan, Sir Kaye and Sir Bawdewyn of Bretan": A Middle English Romance from the Ireland MS. Leeds University Master's Thesis, 1938.

French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, ed. Middle English Metrical Romances. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930. Rpt. in two volumes, Russell and Russell, 1964. Pp. 605-46.

Brookhouse, Christopher, ed. "Sir Amadace" and "The Avowing of Arthur," Two Romances from the Ireland MS. Anglistica, 25. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1968.

Dahood, Roger, ed. The Avowing of King Arthur. New York: Garland, 1984.

Dass, Nirmal. The Avowing of King Arthur: A Modern Verse Translation. New York: University Press of America, 1987.


Burrow, J. A. "The Avowing of King Arthur." In Medieval Literature and Antiquities: Studies in Honor of Basil Cottle. Ed. Myra Stokes and T. L. Burton. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 1987. Pp. 99-109.

Greenlaw, E. A. "The Vows of Baldwin: A Study in Mediaeval Fiction." PMLA 21 (1906), 575-636.

Johnson, David. "The Real and the Ideal: Attitudes to Love and Chivalry in The Avowing of King Arthur." In Companion to Middle English Romance, eds. Henk Aertsen and Alasdair A. MacDonald. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1990. Pp. 189-208.

Kittredge, George L. "The Avowing of Arthur." Modern Language Notes 8 (1893), 251-52.