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Bevis of Hampton

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Bevis of Hampton (c. 1300) is a Middle English translation of an Anglo-Norman romance, and the Auchinlek manuscript (c. 1330) contains the earliest extant version.  Several iterations exist, and the differences among them are so great that scholars have recently argued for the romance’s existence as a narrative “tradition rather than [as] a singular . . . text” (Four Romances of England 189).  The deployment of crusades imagery, however, can be seen in virtually all versions, given the construction of the Saracen Other and of the hero Bevis as a crusader— narrative moves that are vital and largely unchanging elements in the tradition.

For a full-text version, see the following online edition from the Middle English Texts Series: Bevis of Hampton

Bevis is born to Guy, Earl of Hampton, and an evil Scottish princess.  His mother’s lover Devoun—in Auchinlek, the Emperor of Germany—comes to England and, with the help of Guy’s wife, lures the Earl to the battlefield and decapitates him.  Bevis is eventually sold to merchants, who give him to the Saracen King of Armenia. The king welcomes him into his court in hopes that he will convert to Islam, but continues to support Bevis’ presence even after the young man refuses conversion. Bevis trains alongside the young Armenian warriors and is eventually made a knight by the king and gifted both the sword Morgelai and the horse Arundel. Meanwhile, the king’s daughter Josian falls in love with Bevis, and eventually promises to convert to Christianity in return for his love. The two remain chaste, but Bevis is imprisoned due to rumors that he seduced her.

After several years, he escapes and—disguised as a pilgrim—rescues Josian from her forced marriage to the King of Mombrant. Shortly thereafter, the giant Ascopard ambushes them but becomes their ally shortly thereafter.  Bevis, Ascopard, and Josian flee to Cologne, where Josian is baptized and where, in the Middle English versions, Bevis defeats a marauding dragon (an episode that links him to St. George).

Bevis eventually travels to England and kills Devoun, thus avenging the death of his father. His mother also dies, and he is thus instated as the legitimate heir and inheritor of Southampton.  He marries Josian and builds Arundel Castle (presumably named for his horse).

When his beloved warhorse kills the son of the fictive King Edgar of England, Bevis is forced to leave his homeland once more. Bevis and Josian are separated at this point, and she gives birth to twins after his departure. Ascopard abducts her shortly thereafter, but is overtaken and killed by Saber, Bevis’ trusty steward.  Saber and Josian journey forth—disguised as pilgrims—in search of Bevis. The family is eventually reunited and Bevis’ son Guy becomes the king of Armenia. In turn, Bevis kills the King of Mombrant and becomes the ruler of that realm.

Bevis returns to England one final time to assist Saber’s son, who is at risk of being usurped by King Edgar.  Bevis remaining son, Miles, marries Edgar’s daughter—becoming the heir to the throne as a result—and Saber becomes the rightful Earl of Southhampton.  Bevis returns to Josian in Mombrant, where the two live for the rest of their days.
Bevis’ “continual geographical relocation within the romance” has prompted many to argue that the tale focuses intently on the matter of individual and national identity (Rouse 114). The presence of Saracens and implicit crusading motifs are significant to this discourse on the nation, since the text, as Kofi Cambell argues, “seeks to educate its audience as to what comprises Englishness and, equally importantly, what does not”; the Saracens, and the heroes’ consistent conflicts with them serve this project by crystallizing the limits of English and Christian culture (Campbell 232).  Given that Bevis finds himself consistently surrounded by Saracens throughout the romance, these figures in many respects “define Bevis's status as a heroic Christian knight” (Calkin 127). 

As Susan Crane observes, the romance gradually reveals “the Christian awareness and solemnity of an ideal Crusader knight, ‘þe kniʒt of cristene lawe’” (143-4). Marked by “Christian didacticism and an extended engagement with the spiritual,” the romance presents Christianity as an inevitably superior and ascendant global power.  Bevis’ repeated encounters with Saracens (and his eventual realization that they are a untrustworthy and inimical), as well as its emphasis on Armenia as a site of Saracen/Christian contact and conflict, operate conspicuously out of crusader history and fantasy to support this vision.  

Dorothee Metlizki observes that Bevis—by romance’s end—succeeds in uniting England, Armenia and the kingdom of Mombraunt, and that this
alliance of England and the kingdom of Armenia against Muslim power . . . is celebrated in the romance theme [and] faithfully expresses the serious needs of a political reality. English kings both in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries took an active part in the efforts of popes and emperors to stem the tide of Islam by pacts with Armenia, the Christian outpost on the Muslim frontier.  The steady pursuit of this policy is seen in Edward I (1272-1307), in Haithon, the Armenian prince who fled to the West and composed the well-known, propagandistic history of the Tartars, and, in the time of Chaucer, in the diplomatic activities of Leo V, king of Lesser Armenia, at the court of Richard II. (Metlizki 130)
Armenia played a key role—one often overlooked by contemporary scholars—in the planning of late medieval crusading, as references to the kingdom in crusades-inspired medieval romances can attest (Collette and Dimarco, “The Matter of Armenia”). That a romance such as the Bevis— one keenly focused on place, and which was composed only a decade after the fall of Acre—fixates on Armenia and its shift from Saracen to Christian hands is hardly surprising, given the kingdoms role as a site of crusading aspiration and anxiety during the time the romance enjoyed widespread circulation.

The world of the Saracen in Bevis is one that promises “both land and money” to those who would inhabit it, and Siobhain Bly Calkin links this “dual emphasis” to the array of recovery treatises circulation during the fourteenth century that advertised crusading “as an opportunity to acquire commercial wealth as well as territory” (Calkin 129-30). But even as the romance concludes with a vision of an ascendant, and potentially global, Christian empire, both Calkin and Robert Rouse detect a relationship between Christian and Saracen in the tradition of the Bevis romance that complicates simple binaries. Calkin’s comparison of several versions of the romance reveals several “distinct portraits of the ideal Christian knight" (143). Earlier versions such as the Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone (13th century) and the version found in the Auchinlek manuscript (c. 1330) show Saracens and Christians interacting in “multifaceted ways”; the Christian faith might enjoy an assumed superiority, but it is not as “inimical to the Saracen world” as it is in other crusading romances (Calkin 143). The late fifteenth-century version (found in Cambridge, University Library, Ff.2.38), however, places each faith in binary opposition to the other. This increase in hostility towards the Saracen corresponds with the heightened anxieties over the Turks during the late fifteenth century (particularly in the wake of their conquest of Constantinople in 1453). The textual tradition of Bevis, as a result, reveals the romance as one capable of being reinvented and adapted to reflect historically specific notions of Christian knighthood and its interactions with foreign adversaries (Calkin 143).
Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College 175/96 (c. 1450)
Cambridge, University Library Ff.2.38 (c. 1500)
Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates 19.2.1 (c. 1330)
London, British Library, Egerton 2862 (c. 1400)
Manchester, Chetham's Library 8009 (c. 1500)
Naples, Royal Library 13.B.29 (c. 1457)
Calkin, Siobhain Bly. “Defining Christian Knighthood in a Saracen World: Changing Depictions of the Protagonist in Sir Bevis of Hampton.” In Sir Bevis of Hampton in Literary Tradition. Eds. Jennifer Fellows and Ivana Djordjević. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008.
Collette, Carolyn P. and Vincent J. DiMarco. “The Matter of Armenia in the Age of Chaucer.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001): 317-58.
Crane, Susan. Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston. Ed. Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999
Rouse, Robert.  “Expectation vs. Experience: Encountering the Saracen Other in Middle English Romance.” SELIM 10 (2000): 125-40.
-----. "For King and Country? The Tension between National and Regional Identities in Sir Bevis of Hampton." In Sir  Bevis of Hampton in Literary Tradition.