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Sir Eglamour of Artois: Introduction


1 Reiss, "Romance," p. 126.

2 Ramsey, Chivalric Romances, p. 158.

3 Wittig, Stylistic and Narrative Structures, p. 189.

Sir Eglamour of Artois tells a familiar story of lovers separated by a disapproving father, their vicissitudes, and their eventual marriage in a triumph of faithful love. Despite its French locale, the poem seems to be of English origin; it has no known French analogues or antecedents. The romance was probably produced around 1350 somewhere in the north­east Midlands, perhaps in Yorkshire. To judge from the number of surviving manuscripts (six) and prints (four), it was widely known and well liked. The story’s appeal is further attested by references to Eglamour in writings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance and the existence of other romances which show its influence: Emaré, Sir Torrent of Portengale, and The Squire of Low Degree. The narrative was dramatized, for a London chronicle records that a play of Eglamour and Degrebelle was performed at St. Albans in 1444. The story cir­culated in ballads and one episode found in the romance may still live in Kentucky ballad tradition as “Bangum and the Boar.”

No doubt Eglamour’s audiences would have been attracted to its formula plot, which is a vehicle for the exploration of such concerns as family and social conflict, codes of conduct, and moral values. The romance is carefully structured, the action highly unified, the nar­ra­tion lively. The story threatens taboos such as illegitimacy, incest, and patricide while con­cluding with a wish-fulfillment fantasy of love and social success. The wronged lovers are natural objects of sympathy while the treacherous father makes a suitably evil villain. Though Eglamour has not been much esteemed by scholars, it has its virtues and repays close scrutiny.

The hero, a knight in the service of the earl of Artois, loves his lord’s daughter, Crista­belle. Though he is of lesser rank, she is receptive to his marriage suit. The earl assents and proposes a series of tests through which Eglamour can win Cristabelle and all of Artois; how­ever, it soon becomes evident that he intends the knight to die in his attempts. The tasks to win the bride are those customary to mythic heroes: the slaying of a deer, a boar, giants, and, finally, a dragon. In the course of these adventures, Eglamour saves the princess Or­ganata who promises to wait fifteen years for him. The first two tasks accomplished, Egla­mour returns to Artois; when he departs to complete his third task, Cristabelle is pregnant.

At this point, the focus shifts to Cristabelle and the legend of the calumniated queen; how­ever, she is not falsely accused. When a son, Degrebelle, is born to her, the earl sets mother and child adrift. A griffin carries Degrebelle to Israel where he is raised by the king as his son and heir; Cristabelle washes ashore in Egypt, whose king, her uncle, takes her in. When Eglamour returns to Artois and discovers the earl’s treachery, he seizes power and undertakes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where he remains for fifteen years. Then, as the kings of Egypt and Israel arrange the marriage of their wards, the family is reunited by a series of tournaments in which son and father both win the hand of Cristabelle. Degrebelle’s identity is recognized before the marriage to his mother is consummated. Eglamour is iden­tified as he claims Cristabelle for his wife. Degrebelle marries Organata and both couples return to Artois where the fleeing earl falls to his death, leaving the lovers to rule happily to their lives’ ends.

In this tale of love triumphant there is never any doubt as to the characters’ moral valences. Eglamour and Cristabelle are sustained by heavenly aid for which they often give thanks; the wicked earl is destroyed through divine providence. The Middle English ro­mances rarely feature heroines and heroes who bear a child out of wedlock (but see Sir Degaré) and generally condemn premarital sex (Amis and Amiloun); Eglamour conforms to this morality by establishing the orthodoxy of the lovers’ union. Their love is not secret and the earl has assented to their betrothal; the consummation of their union and Eglamour’s gift of a ring to Cristabelle (“Yyf God send the a chylde,” line 705) even constituted a valid marriage according to canon law. The lovers’ guilt is diminished in contrast to the treachery and cruelty of the earl. He breaks his pledge to Eglamour, schemes to have the knight de­stroyed, and only grudgingly allows him respite to heal his wounds. Further, the earl attempts to kill his daughter and grandson, the latter without benefit of baptism. His cow­ardice makes him even more despicable and literally causes his downfall, for he retreats to his tower and, when Eglamour returns, tumbles to his death.

The story is given further moral and structural cohesion since the tests Eglamour under­goes form a graduated series developed in a parallel manner. Each combat is more difficult and lasts longer than the preceding one, and in each his opponents are more deserving of destruction. Eglamour easily slays the hart in the giant Arrok’s dolorous forest and dis­patches him after a day of battle. The boar is further away, in Sidon, and as Eglamour ap­proaches, he finds the dismembered bodies of the beast’s earlier opponents. The boar kills the knight’s horse and requires three days to subdue, but his eradication is a great boon to the country which he had ravaged. In a further combat, undertaken of his own chivalrous volition, Eglamour defeats the boar’s giant owner who has been demanding the king’s daughter, Organata. After these trials, the knight requires a month’s recuperation. The dragon of Rome is Eglamour’s most formidable opponent — the most unnatural and de­structive of all. The serpent has ravaged a whole city, the very center of Christendom. In this battle, not only is Eglamour’s horse slain, but he himself is wounded, which Edmund Reiss suggests is punishment for his sin.1 The wound requires a year of healing in the care of the Roman emperor’s daughter.

The narrative exhibits parallelism and balance throughout. The structure is binary: the first movement brings the couple together, culminating in their betrothal and the con­ception of Degrebelle; in the second movement the lovers are separated from each other and their child, tested, then reunited. The plot is developed by doubling and tripling type-episodes: tournaments, combats, adoptions, departures, returns, recognitions. The doubled exile and return plot occurs frequently in Middle English romances. King Horn and Havelok the Dane are early exemplars of the type, but the formulas are handled differently in Egla­mour and in the romances it influenced. In the earlier romances, the heroes are orphaned, exiled princes who win noble brides in the process of recovering their patrimonies. These narratives develop themes of kingship and right rule; the conflicts are national in scope. Eglamour, however, uses the separation and return formula to explore conflicts within families. Problems of incest, patricide, and clandestine marriage are featured in these works. As Lee Ramsey has observed, in these romances family is very important, but relations among family members are not close; indeed, the major threats to the family come from within.2 The possessive, treacherous father of Eglamour comes from a tradition of jealous, even incestuous fathers, as, for example, in Emaré or Apollonius of Tyre. Degrebelle’s narrowly avoided incestuous union with his mother is much remarked by the narrator and the char­acters and reminds one of a similar episode in Sir Degaré. Actual patricide is avoided in Eglamour since the earl is killed by divine providence, but in other similar romances, such as Torrent of Portengale, the wronged suitor vindicates himself by killing the father. An earlier opportunity for patricide occurs when father and son joust incognito for the hand of Cris­tabelle, but they fight to a draw and the father prevails with humor over his son’s brag­gadocio.

The family conflicts arise because the parents and children can not agree on the choice of a spouse. Eglamour posits contradictory models of marriage — marriage for love’s sake and marriage for status’ sake. The agendas of patriarchy and patrilineage require the latter, and it was accepted practice among gentry and nobility in the fourteenth century. Marriage for love’s sake, or companionate marriage, gives greater autonomy to women. Cristabelle goes further, defying her father and conventional morality by consummating her rela­tion­ship with Eglamour before they are formally married. The romance threatens the authority of parents and lords and affirms the authority of love for its own sake, yet this love renews the family and reestablishes social order, validating the very structures it once seemed to threaten.

In addition to conflicting models of marriage, Eglamour incorporates contradictory notions of social status. The choice of a spouse is important because Cristabelle is an heiress; with her goes Artois. She is thus in an ambiguous position. She is a liability to her family since the patrimony will pass to her husband. However, she is an opportunity for other fam­ilies who would marry into that patrimony. Though he is preeminent among the earl’s men and of gentle birth, Eglamour is a “knyght of lyttyll land” (line 64), not at all the peer of the emperors and kings who vie for Cristabelle’s hand, nor of the earl. Eglamour offers the hope of upward mobility to worthy men of lower status while simultaneously suggesting that, in the words of Susan Wittig, “worth and birth are synonymous” and that “only a gen­tleman can be a gentle man.”3 Thus Eglamour takes up the debate on gentilesse which claimed the attention of other writers of the period, most notably Chaucer. The relationship of personal worth to lineage and social status was a fundamental concern to the gentry who made up a large portion of the romances’ audience. Historians show them to have been devoted to family aggrandizement and social advancement, particularly through marriage. In the romance, the attention given to chivalric matters — polite conversation, the lady’s gifts of weapons and hunting animals, descriptions of heraldic devices, arms, and feasts — further develops the theme of social status. Even the minstrel-style narration may assert the story’s claim to gentle status since minstrels were still retained in aristocratic households where they had traditionally composed narratives of their patrons’ chivalric activities.

Eglamour achieves its happy ending without resolving the dilemmas of patrilineage which cause disequilibrium in family and society. Circumstances allow the characters to avoid the dilemmas: the heiress bears only sons, who will keep the patrimony in the family; the son is adopted by a ruler who has no other heirs and accepts an arranged marriage to marry an heiress, so he is supported independently of his patrimony; Eglamour does not have to share Artois or give up control as the earl did. It has been said that the appeal of popular romance stems from its ability to simultaneously create tension by questioning received values and offer reassurance by affirming them. Eglamour makes the most of this aesthetic.

Texts of Eglamour survive in four medieval and two Renaissance manuscripts. The ear­liest, Egerton, contains only the first 160 lines of the romance. Three fifteenth-century volumes preserve complete texts which present two slightly different versions of the narrative. The romances in MS Cotton Caligula A.2 and MS Cambridge Ff. 2.38 contain material not present in the text in the Thornton manuscript, and tend to agree with each other in varying from Thornton and Egerton. Most notably, the Cotton and Cambridge texts contain narratorial intrusions dividing the narrative into three fitts and describing the hero’s arms and the vanquished dragon, as well as a lengthier treatment of the reunion scene. These may be later modifications to an earlier version preserved in the Egerton and Thornton manuscripts. The Cotton text is the basis for this edition since it preserves the fullest form of the narrative.

As it is a Northern poem, Eglamour exhibits characteristic dialectal features. The most pervasive is the a/o isogloss, still found in Scots dialect; that is, a appears where more southerly dialects, and Modern English, would have o: bald-bold, mare-more. The present participle ending is -ande rather than -ing. The third-person singular feminine pronoun is scho. More southerly Midland forms appear in the third-person plural pronouns which begin with h rather than th (hem=them, here=their). The neuter pronoun “it” also begins with h (hyt).


Indexed as item 1725 Boffey and Edwards, eds., New Index of Middle English Verse:
  • London, British Library MS Egerton 2862 (c. 1400), fols. 148r–179v.
  • Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, called the Thornton MS (c. 1440), fols. 138v–147r.
  • London, British Library MS Cotton Caligula A 2 (c. 1450), fols. 5b–13a. [Base-text for this edition.]
  • Cambridge, Cambridge University Library MS Ff. 2.38 (c. 1460), fols. 71r–79v.
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 261 (1564), fols. 26r–48v.
  • London, British Library MS Additional 27879, called the Percy Folio (c. 1650), pp. 296–313.
  • Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland. Edinburgh: Chepman and Myllar, 1508? (STC 7542). [Three leaves missing.]
  • Cambridge, Cambridge University Library. Inc. 5.J.1.2. London: Wynkyn de Worde, c. 1530 (STC 7541). [A fragment.]
  • Cambridge, Cambridge University Library. Syn 7.52.12. London: Richard Bankes, c. 1530. [Three fragments.]
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library S. Selden d. 45(5). London: William Copland, 1548–69 (STC 7543).
  • London, British Library C, 21.C.59. London: John Walley, 1570? (STC 7544).

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