Four Middle English Romances: Introduction


1 Knight, “Social Function,” p. 111.

2 Loomis, Medieval Romance, p. 269.

3 The Chester cycle plays and a life of St. Eustace also make use of tail-rhyme.

4 Wittig, Stylistic and Narrative Structures, p. 18.

5 Southworth, English Medieval Minstrel, pp. 96–98.

6 Evans, Rereading Middle English Romance, p. 56.

7 A booklet is a series of quires forming a self-contained unit. Often composed of several texts, booklets were produced independently but could be bound together in one larger volume. See Robinson, “Booklet,” pp. 46–64.
Print Copyright Info Purchase

Four Middle English Romances: Introduction

Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, and Sir Tryamour are important works in a major literary development of the fourteenth century: the flourishing of Middle English popular romance. These four narratives were among the most popular; all survive in multiple manuscripts and continued to circulate in prints through the sixteenth century. All were composed in the northeast Midlands in the fifty years between 1325 and 1375, and they appear together in several manuscripts. Furthermore, they employ the same style, stanza form, and plot elements. The basic story concerns the separation and reunion of a family accompanied by a fall and rise in social and/or spiritual status. Sometimes called family romances, these narratives can be distinguished from those of the earlier hero alone pattern that originated in twelfth-century France. Stephen Knight notes that the family-based romances grant a larger role to women and embrace a wider range of values than the earlier works, adapting the feudal ideology to a different social context.1

The tale the romances tell — of exiled queens, orphaned children, and penitent fathers — was one of the most prevalent medieval stories. Sometimes called the Constance/ Eustace legend (after two well-known pious versions), its influence can be seen in numerous romances. In addition to the four works in this volume, there are Emaré, Sir Degaré, The King of Tars, The Erle of Toulous, Florence of Rome, Sir Torrent of Portengale, Chevalier Assigne, Robert of Sicily, Sir Gowther, and others. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century audiences must have found the story compelling. Individual treatments may emphasize the vicissitudes of the wife, the tribulations of the father, or the adventures of the children, or a combination of all three. The wife’s story often conforms to the type known as the calumniated queen, the husband’s follows the pattern of the man tried for his faith. The calumniation takes three well-defined forms: the heroine is falsely accused of sexual misconduct and exiled by either her jealous, sometimes incestuous father (Eglamour), her jealous mother-in-law (Octavian), or her seducing steward (Tryamour). The man tried for his faith is tested by exile and poverty (Isumbras). Frequently exile is accomplished by a voyage, children are carried off by animals and raised by foster parents, sons engage in combat with their fathers and are married at the reunion of their parents. The romances’ composers developed various possibilities inherent in the formulaic plot: Isumbras is a lesson in penance and family devotion, Octavian deals in exotic romance and social comedy, Tryamour focuses on loyalty and combat, Eglamour combines chivalric adventure with family conflict.

With the exception of Octavian’s story, which was first composed in French, these four romances are all original English compositions. They have no direct sources, but similar stories had long circulated in pious legends of Sibelle, Charlemagne’s exemplary queen, and tales of Constance were current in England at the time, as evidenced by Gower’s story of Constance in Book 2 of the Confessio Amantis, Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, and a variant in the Gesta Romanorum. Legends of St. Eustace exist in numerous English manuscripts; some version of this saint’s life was doubtless the model for Isumbras.

Almost nothing is known of the authors who fashioned these four narratives. The southern version of Octavian (which is not the one printed here) is sometimes attributed to Thomas Chester, author of Sir Launfal, and L. H. Loomis, following Sarazzin, indicates that Isumbras and northern Octavian are by the same author, but we know nothing of him.2 It used to be assumed that these romances were the work of minstrels; however, that now seems unlikely. More probably, the poems were composed by clerics, both ecclesiastical and secular, since they could read, write, and have access to books and patrons. It is possible that some of the romances were composed in association with bookshops, as Loomis has suggested of the earlier romances in the Auchinleck manuscript.

All the authors wrote in an indigenous English verse form, tail-rhyme, which was used almost exclusively for romances and, from the mid-fourteenth century on replaced the French-derived couplet of earlier Middle English narratives.3 The basic unit of the tail-rhyme stanza is the triplet rhyming aab; in general, the couplet lines have four stresses, the tail (or tag) lines have three. The form may be derived from the French octosyllabic couplet. The stanzas consist of from two to five triplets, all with the same rhyme in the tail line, though six and twelve line stanzas are the norms. The shorter is more common in poems in southern dialects, the longer in those from eastern regions. Usually the stanzas are fairly discrete units relating individual episodes, exchanges of dialogue between characters or descriptions of particular things. Enjambment is the exception. Each line tends to be a clause; often each three-line unit constitutes a loose sentence.

The tail-rhyme romances are notable for their use of syntactic and lexical formulas. Susan Wittig’s analysis of their language shows Isumbras to be 22% formulas, Octavian 25%, Tryamour 25%, and Eglamour 29%.4 Because the romances are highly formulaic, and because the tail lines lend themselves to conventional rhyming expressions, there are many instances of repetition and near repetition. Sometimes the tail lines are mere filler, but they also serve to emphasize, to regulate the pace of the narration, and to establish a relationship between the narrator and the audience.

The oral style of narration, based on formulas of direct address to the audience, suggested to early scholars that the romances were composed by minstrels, or by others writing for minstrel performance. While minstrels undoubtedly did recite romances, evidence suggests that such performances declined in the fourteenth century (when our romances were composed), as the roles of minstrels changed.5 Indeed, the minstrel style may be a nostalgic feature of genre validation. The texts in the fifteenth-century manuscripts edited here were probably copied from written exemplars and owe little to minstrel performance, though there are some signs of oral transmission. The audiences would have heard the story read from a manuscript. The romances’ lengths and episodic structures are such that they could be conveniently related in a couple of sessions.

Texts of these romances survive in many of the same manuscripts. They were frequently included in compendium-type manuscripts — those large collections of diverse instructional and entertaining works common in the fifteenth century. Often texts of the four romances occur near each other, as though they circulated together in the scribes’ exemplars. Murray Evans, in his study of romances in their manuscript contexts, identifies them as part of an “Isumbras group.”6 In the Lincoln Thornton Manuscript, one booklet7 (fols. 53–153) contains The Alliterative Morte Arthur, Octavian, Isumbras, Erle of Toulous, Sir Degrevant, and Eglamour of Artois. Cambridge Manuscript Ff. 2.38, folios 63–102, contains Erle of Toulous, Eglamour, Tryamour, and Octavian. Manuscript Cotton Caligula A.2 contains Eglamour, Octavian, and Isumbras. Isumbras and Eglamour appear together in the sixteenth-century manuscript Douce 261. In the seventeenth century Tryamour and Eglamour were copied together in the Percy Folio.

The principal manuscripts postdate the composition of the romances by fifty to one hundred years. Despite the names found in the manuscripts, few specifics are known about their original owners or the romances’ original audiences, with the exception of the Lincoln Thornton Manuscript, which was compiled by Robert Thornton, a knight of Yorkshire. But we do know something about the social class to which the audiences belonged, namely the gentry (used in the broad sense to include professionals and members of the upper bourgeoisie as well as landed families). The gentry class was evolving and proliferating in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and it is tempting to see a relationship between this and the simultaneous proliferation and evolution of romance in English. This class seems to have been particularly concerned with social advancement. Through the ownership of books, especially works of chivalric literature and private devotion, they aligned themselves with the aristocracy. Many of the romance manuscripts contain items of instruction in etiquette and appropriate behavior bespeaking a concern for gentility. The romances themselves doubtless served as exemplars of courtesy. The anonymous eulogy for John Berkeley, a Leicestershire knight of the fifteenth century evokes something of the romances’ cultural function. He is described as a generous host with whom one could hunt or read romances in the company of fair ladies — the very picture of a gentleman. Larger romance manuscripts also contain works for religious instruction and devotional use, including saints’ lives, and items of a domestic nature as well. Such volumes contained material for all members of the family and provide a fascinating glimpse of the tastes and interests of their owners.

A note on stanza form and punctuation: in the manuscripts, stanzas and tag lines are not indicated, though some do have brackets to mark rhymed tail lines. I have followed the fairly standard editorial practice of printing the stanzas separately and indenting tail lines. Punctuation has been introduced for clarity; the manuscript texts are not punctuated.

Go To Sir Isumbras: Introduction
Go To Sir Isumbras