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Art. 70, The Geste of Kyng Horn: Introduction

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CCC: Corpus Christi College (Cambridge); CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); IMEV Suppl.: Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse (Robbins and Cutler); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

MS Harley 2253 is one of three manuscripts to preserve the famous Matter of England romance King Horn, considered the oldest romance in Middle English (ca. 1225–75). An earlier copy survives in Cambridge, CUL, MS Gg. 4.27.2, and that version has become the text of choice by most editors, as in the editions or partial editions produced by French and Hale (1964); Sands (1966); Gibbs (1966); Allen (1984, a critical edition); Garbáty (1984); and Herzman, Drake, and Salisbury (1999). Even though Cambridge holds the best-known version, two modern editors have featured the Harley text: Dunn and Byrnes (1973) and Treharne (2010). The Harley version was also chosen for treatment by the antiquarian Joseph Ritson, who printed it in 1829. (References given here to Ritson’s edition are taken from the second edition of Goldsmid’s 1877 revision, published in 1885.)

The third surviving version of the Middle English King Horn resides next to the other major Matter of England romance, Havelok the Dane, copied by the same hand in Oxford, Bodl. MS Laud Misc. 108, a codex famous for its preservation of a large collection of saints’ lives, the South English Legendary (SEL), in its earliest known form. The juxtaposition of Havelok and Horn in the second part of that manuscript suggests a compiler or readership that viewed these tales of secular heroic chosenness as correspondent to some saints’ lives, especially those with nationalistic valence, as in the lives of the king-saints of England. The Oxford text has been printed only in the two parallel-text editions that give all three versions, that is, by McKnight (1901; a revision of an 1866 edition by J. Rawson Lumby), and by Hall (1901), the standard edition for Horn. Recent research on Horn in this context appears in Bell and Couch, particularly in the essays by Liszka, A. Taylor 2011, Lynch, and Bell.

What influences and causes might explain the inclusion of Horn in MS Harley 2253? Wiggins considers its appeal within the secular setting we imagine as most likely to have been the incubator for Harley: “King Horn, which recounts the trial by sea of the young Horn and his eventual marriage to maiden Rymenild, was regarded as suitable reading material for the trilingual Herefordshire household for whom Harley 2253 was compiled in the 1330s” (p. 251). Such a predominately French-speaking household might also have known the older Anglo-Norman Romance of Horn by Mestre Thomas (ca. 1170; ANL 151). Moreover, in the scribe’s immediate vicinity there certainly existed a late Anglo-Norman romance, Fouke le Fitz Waryn (ca. 1280), which like Horn is a tale of enforced exile, daring return, and restored inheritance. The Ludlow scribe copied the sole extant version of Fouke (ca. 1330) into MS Royal 12.C.xii. He might in fact be its author, for it is evidently a prose reworking of a verse original. Crane has deftly delineated the Anglo-Norman baronial milieu, “tenaciously legalistic yet adaptable and practical,” in which such romances were made, read, and disseminated (p. 21). We glimpse more of this milieu — now specific to the scribe’s world — in the Old Testament Stories (art. 71) that follow Horn, written in an Anglo-Norman prose style much like the prose of Fouke. This string of stories seems also to be the scribe’s own authorial product; in it, we see more of his fascination with narrative. His interest in romance also turns up in his other books, where, besides Fouke, he has copied the Anglo-Norman Purgatoire s. Patrice (in MS Harley 273) and the Short Metrical Chronicle (in MS Royal 12.C.12) (see Rock).

Other clues embedded in the Harley context for Horn exhibit a clear understanding that this romance is here being preserved as a performance piece. If much of the stylistic variation in the Harley text may be credited to the Ludlow scribe (as often seems the case), he here shows himself to be “well-versed in the tradition of romance diction and formulaic style” (Allen, p. 62). Beyond his mastery of the minstrel idiom, he stages an aural reading or singing of the romance by fashioning for it a preface. What precedes Horn in MS Harley 2253 (and only there) is the macaronic Maiden, Mother Mild (art. 69), a prayer-poem that brings listeners to a mood of reverence and receptivity for the Horn performance (Fein 2007, pp. 86-87, 94). Rhyme words found in its first stanza resonate through the romance: mylde/childe. Until he is knighted, the hero is perpetually termed Horn Child, and when his mother Queen Godild prays that Christ protect her son in exile, she invokes the term myld (line 86). Her request is fulfilled when King Aylmer welcomes the vulnerable child: “He spec to Horn Child / Wordes suythe myld” (lines 167–68). The prayer also names the betrayal of Judas, exemplar for wicked Fikenild in Horn’s band of twelve friends. Most tellingly, the last lines of Maiden, Mother Mild enunciate the same rhyme that powers the first ones of the romance: synge/kynge. The scribe apparently envisioned a performance of Horn for which the elegant prayer to Mary would commence the occasion, and the final line (“Crist to heovene us lede. Amen”) would aptly end it. Moreover, the act of beginning Horn with a Marian lyric parallels other moments in Harley 2253 where a French poem to Mary introduces an English lyric on Jesus’ name (arts. 49–50, 57–58). It confirms that Horn was seen by contemporary readers as a type for Christ.

Numerous thematic threads tie Horn to other works copied by the Ludlow scribe. Phillips connects Horn’s two important “sea-centered dreams” to the scribe’s evident interest in interpretation of dreams (A Book of Dreaming [art. 85]) and their moral valence as seen in the quasi-dream poem Debate between Body and Soul (art. 22) (see also Corrie 2003, pp. 67–73). The Harley lyrics’ recurrent interest in exploring male/female love relationships is realized narratively in the romance. One can readily imagine how Horn would have appealed viscerally to adolescent boys in a well-to-do household, where such entertainment would have helped to inculcate social skills and good morals in prospective heirs. Horn’s own exciting travels enact a paradigm of maturation from child to knight to king, with examples of eloquence before royalty and ladies fitted neatly in among scenes of combat and suspenseful disguise. The romance charts Horn’s gradual departure from youthful play among boys, to the pitfalls of derne love, and then to a full sense of how character is proven by deeds, by responsible married love, and by wise governance of oneself and others.

Much has been written about the fuzzy geography of the place-names in Horn. One cannot identify exactly where Horn’s homeland is. It has the name Sudenne (defined as by weste in line 5), and once it is called Eastness (line 954), which seems to indicate merely that it is east of everywhere else in the poem. It appears to refer to some portion of England, south as well as east. Westness — “Westerness” in the Cambridge text — is somewhere west of Sudenne, perhaps the Wirral in Cheshire. It may be that poets, scribes, and readers from the West Midlands would have vaguely imagined it to be of their own region. Notably, Westness is the key intermediate location for all of Horn’s adventures: his fostering by King Aylmer, his education by Athelbrus, his romance with Rimenild, and his rescues of her from two ill-conceived marriages. It has been suggested that the westward movements of Horn, after he leaves Sudenne, mark his entrance into Celtic worlds. Such is true of his third destination, which is oddly specific in how it has a real place-name: Ireland. Horn’s adventures in Ireland, where he encounters and kills his father’s murderer, mark the most westward point in his travels. For the scribe’s immediate Herefordshire audience, the Irish references were likely to resonate with the real admixture of Anglo-Hiberno business dealings by powerful local magnate families. On such active cross-cultural commerce as an illuminating backdrop to the contents of MS Harley 2253 and its sister manuscripts, see Thompson 2007, who reminds us that the families who owned most of Ludlow were the Mortimers and the de Verduns, both of whom managed extensive holdings and interests in Ireland (2007, pp. 125–26). One may recall that a binding fragment in MS Harley 2253 is from the account rolls of a Mortimer household in Trim, County Meath (Ker, p. xxii). For further new research in this direction, see Bell, pp. 268–74, who examines the expansionist efforts to colonize Ireland under Edward I, connecting this history (or its aftermath) to the events in Horn. Bell comments that “Horn’s embrace of the Irish also brings two of the Irish sanctorale poems [found in the Oxford MS], St. Patrick and his Purgatory and St. Brendan the Navigator, more fully into the SEL’s sphere of English sanctity” (p. 273). It is also worth recalling that the Anglo-Norman Le Purgatoire de s. Patrice (ANL 55) is another narrative collected and copied by the Ludlow scribe. Consequently, there are several intriguing leads, awaiting further study, between the geographical mapping of the Horn narrative and the sociopolitical interests of its various compilers in different manuscripts, including MS Harley 2253.

[Fols. 83r–92v. IMEV, NIMEV 166. MWME 1:18 [1]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quires: 9–10. Meter: Couplets, predominately aa3, “with numerous two- and four-stress lines intermixed and with feminine rhymes far outnumbering the masculine” (Sands, p. 16). Layout: No columns; one couplet per line. Sections are headed with paraphs. Editions: Ritson 1885, 2:100–147; McKnight, pp. 1–69; Hall, pp. 1–88; Dunn and Byrnes, pp. 114–49; Treharne, pp. 583–614. Other MSS: Cambridge, CUL MS Gg.4.27.2, fols. 6ra–13rb; Oxford, Bodl. MS Laud Misc. 108, fols. 219v–228r.]

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