Item 5, Sir Isumbras: Introduction


1 See lines 35–40 of the Speculum Vitae, p. 469: “I warne yow ferst at the begynnyng, / I wil make no veyn spekyng / Of dedes of armes ne of amours, / Os don mynstreles and other gestours, / That make spekyng in many a place / Of Octovian and Isanbrace.” Until the appearance of a forthcoming EETS edition, Ullman’s text of the first 370 lines of the Speculum Vitae is the only version available in print.

2 Hopkins, Sinful Knights, p. 138.

3 Crane, Insular Romance, p. 116.

4 Fowler, “Romance Hypothetical,” p. 118.

5 For the likely existence of an “Isumbras group” of texts that traveled together in exemplars, see M. Evans, Rereading Middle English Romance, pp. 51–102.

6 Schleich, Sir Ysumbras, p. 87.

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Item 5, Sir Isumbras: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Sir Isumbras has long been cited as a test case for the definitions of Middle English romance, as it straddles categories that would distinguish stories of warrior heroes from examples of saintly patience. The earliest mention of the story comes from William of Nassington, writing in the first half of the fourteenth century in his Speculum vitae (Mirror of Life). He includes Sir Isumbras as one of the frivolous stories he will not take up in his work, and his condemnation is as good a reason as any to consider it a romance.1 Modern readers, however, have tended to focus on the story’s exemplary piety and its close resemblance to saints’ lives. The Middle English poem derives from no known source, but the various lives of Saint Eustace are certainly a major influence (see item 1).

Like his counterpart in Saint Eustace, Isumbras begins as a knight in his prime, virtuous but heedless of his dependence on God’s grace. While riding in the woods, Isumbras meets a talking bird who forces him to choose between immediate misery or misery late in life. Isumbras chooses to endure misery while he is young and strong, and immediately he suffers a series of disasters, including the loss of his property and separation from his three sons and his wife. Isumbras toils in obscurity until he successfully vanquishes the sultan who has taken his wife. But Isumbras refuses the fruits of this victory and returns to his life of obscurity, now as a pilgrim in the Holy Land. He finally receives word that his initial sins of pride have been forgiven, and he reencounters his wife, who now rules over the sultan’s court. The couple engages a heathen army in a final, miraculous battle, in which their three sons return and the family emerges victorious.

Though scholarship on the poem has largely been limited to questions of form and genre, some of the best readings have examined the themes of penitence and social identity. Though the misfortune that Isumbras suffers seems haphazard, it reaches a decisive climax when the sultan attempts to convert Isumbras and then forcibly takes his wife, leaving Isumbras with money in exchange. In refusing to convert, Isumbras finally places his faith above all else, and then receives money which degrades him rather than ennobles him. At this terrible moment, the proper values of God and worldly wealth have been restored. The same gold which Isumbras receives in payment for his wife later serves as the means by which they recognize each other, and thus further establishes the poem’s hierarchy of value. Wealth can only be appreciated for what it may represent — God’s grace and familial bliss — and not as a good in itself.

The reappearance of the gold is only one of several crucial moments of remembrance and restoration within the poem. Andrea Hopkins argues that the tears Isumbras sheds when he sees the joyful life of his (still unrecognized) wife’s court are not tears of self-pity, but instead shed as “he recalls his former life with regret because it led to the loss of those he loved and all his sorrow.”2 Isumbras is restored to his former glory, but now he is a crusader and not simply a wealthy, pleasure-loving lord. The proper use and enjoyment of secular power has been redefined.

Though the hagiographical elements of the story enforce the sense of penitential suffering, Susan Crane draws an important distinction between the romance values of Sir Isumbras and the romance tropes of stories like Saint Eustace (item 1). Whereas saints’ lives ultimately urge a rejection of the world, “perceiving earthly and heavenly ambitions as antithetical,” Isumbras’s “misfortunes generate an argument for persevering through bad times . . . rather than for rejecting the world altogether.”3 Again, the emphasis lies in the proper habitation of worldly roles and a sense of their vulnerability, rather than a complete transformation of them. When Isumbras crafts his own suit of armor after his years in the smithy, he momentarily reassumes his identity as a knight, but he knows he is not ready to reinhabit this role until his penance is complete. After the battle with the sultan is over, he once again returns to poverty, now in the guise of a pilgrim, one who has detached himself almost completely from the world. Elizabeth Fowler sees in this succession of roles — nobleman, smith, pilgrim, crusader, father, and husband — an analysis of “the longing to find a place for one’s body within the three forms of dominion: the political, the sexual, and the religious.”4 If, as Fowler suggests, the poem’s conclusions are not entirely consistent, it is nonetheless a powerful engagement with the question of how identities are owned.

Linguistic and manuscript evidence suggests that Sir Isumbras was written in the early decades of the fourteenth century in East Anglia. Perhaps the poem’s combination of seriousness and narrative excitement fostered its considerable popularity, as it survives in more manuscripts (nine, including Ashmole 61) and early printed editions (five) than any other Middle English romance. Several of these manuscripts, including London, British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1 (the “Heege” MS), and Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 (one of the Thornton MSS) share several other items with Ashmole 61 and help establish the sense of an audience that consisted of provincial gentry families.5 The themes of Sir Isumbras were also broadly popular, and its long-suffering penitential hero resembles those of a number of other romances, including Sir Gowther, Robert of Cisyle, and Guy of Warwick. Similar kinds of familial suffering appear in the tail-rhyme romance Octavian, and many Middle English romances feature a woman captured by a lustful sultan.

The tail-rhyme style, 12-line stanzas of aabccbddbeeb (but with considerable variation, as stanza lengths vary), tends to feature frequent repetition and relatively spare description. While modern readers have not always responded well to these characteristics, the repetition can produce fruitful connections within the text. The phrases “lyves fode” (life’s food, nourishment) and “gold and fee,” repeated at key moments within the story of Isumbras’s fall and resurrection, provide structural coherence and reinforce the poem’s considerable symmetry.

Manuscript Context

As noted, Sir Isumbras parallels Saint Eustace (item 1) very closely, sharing a considerable number of motifs, incidents, and ideas. Some of the parallels include the initial vision in the forest (in one, a talking bird, in the other, a stag), the loss of children to wild beasts in the course of crossing a river, the loss of wives to rapacious men at sea, the years of hard labor, the subsequent successes in battle, and the final reunion of the families. Sir Cleges (item 24) involves another generous knight’s descent into poverty, and the hero of The Erle of Tolous (item 19) adopts a similar succession of roles before his final success. The poem is perhaps more closely connected to Sir Orfeo (item 39), another story of loss and recovery. Isumbras’s suffering frequently resembles Orfeo’s years in self-imposed exile, and the two stories both examine the vulnerability and proper ownership of social identities.


As is the case elsewhere, Rate’s copying is occasionally erratic, but often can be read without emendation. He seems to have engaged in his characteristic abridging, and as a result the lengths of stanzas vary considerably. No crucial episodes or dialogue are lost, but the text is occasionally garbled. The other eight surviving manuscripts feature considerable variation, with the result that it is not always possible to make out where Rate has altered his source. According to Schleich, his text most closely resembles those in Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1 (the “Heege” MS) and the Lincoln Thornton manuscript.6

Printed Editions

Brown, Carleton. “A Passage from Sir Isumbras.Englische Studien 48 (1914), 239. [Prints the text of Oxford, University College MS 142, the one manuscript not collated by Schleich.]

D’Evelyn, Charlotte. “The Gray’s Inn Fragment of Sir Isumbras.” Englische Studien 52 (1918), 73–76.

Hudson, Harriet, ed. Four Middle English Romances. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996. [Prints the text of Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College MS 175.]

Kölbing, E. “Das Neapler Fragment von Sir Isumbras.” Englische Studien 3 (1880), 200–02. [Prints the text of Naples, National Library of Naples MS 13.B.29.]

Mills, Maldwyn, ed. Six Middle English Romances. London: Dent, 1973. Pp. 125–47, 208–14. [Prints the text of London, British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.2.]

Schleich, Gustav, ed. Sir Ysumbras: Eine englische Romanze des 14. Jahrhunderts. Berlin: Meyer and Müller, 1901. [Collates all but one manuscript, including Ashmole 61.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1184
MWME–23, 279–80
Rice, Joanne A. Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955–1985. Pp. 469–71.

See also L. Braswell, Crane, M. Evans, Finlayson (1980), Fowler, Gaunt, Hopkins (1990), Mehl, M. Mills (1994), Purdie, Riddy (2000), A. Thompson, and Trounce in the bibliography.

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