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Sir Isumbras: Introduction


1 Mehl, Middle English Romances, p. 121.

2 Crane, Insular Romance, pp. 116 and 129.

Sir Isumbras is one of the most popular Middle English romances, surviving in more manuscripts and prints (nine and five, respectively) than any other romance. It relates a version of one of the most widespread stories of the European Middle Ages, the man tried by fate. This plot was often developed in hagiographic narratives. Indeed, Isumbras is a secularized retelling of the legend of Saint Eustace, which circulated widely in England in martyrologies, legendaries and homilies. No immediate source for the romance of Sir Isumbras has been found. However, certain treatments of the Eustace story, such as that in the Middle English Gesta Romanorum where the concluding martyrdom is omitted, or that in Digby MS 86, which employs tail-rhyme, may have suggested ways in which the story could be cast as romance. The romance was circulating in England before 1320, when William of Nassington referred to it in his Speculum Vita. His comment is revealing, for he disparages stories of Isumbras as vanities (along with those of the equally popular and pious Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton), an indication that he saw a generic difference between it and the legends of saints. However, in several manuscripts, Isumbras is grouped with saints' legends and other religious materials.

Isumbras is aptly described as a "homiletic romance," a term used by Dieter Mehl to refer to narratives that occupy a middle position between the genres of saint's legend and romance.1 The author of Isumbras adapted his hagiographic material to the patterns of romance. The Eustace legend consists of three main episodes: the visionary conversion of a Roman officer including the foretelling of his suffering and eventual martyrdom; his exile and separation from his family; and their reunion and martyrdom in battle against the Romans. Isumbras is not converted, for he is already a Christian; rather his vision warns him of his separation from God through pride and gives him the choice of atoning for it in youth or age. The alteration in the terms of the heroes' suffering C Eustace suffers for his faith, Isumbras for his sins C casts the romance's hero in a more worldly light. The "choice of woe" motif, too, has been adapted to a worldly frame of action; by converting, Eustace rejects well-being in this life for joy in heaven. Isumbras knows his atonement in youth will be followed by well-being in this life. The romance also elaborates the episode of the separated family, which was the basis for numerous other romances. There it is often a vehicle for the exploration of secular problems relating to social status and family structure, but the composer of Isumbras focused on more spiritual matters. Unlike the families of Octavian, Tryamour, and Eglamour, which are separated by internal conflicts, Isumbras' and Eustace's families are separated by causes which lie outside the family, in spiritual relationships. Isumbras follows the formulas of romance in its secular comic ending. There is no martyrdom. Rather, the family is reunited and restored to wealth and exalted social status. Eustace, of course, concludes with the spiritual comic vision of the hero freed from earthly ties, and the soul reunited with God in heavenly bliss.

Though they follow the patterns of romance, some parts of Isumbras seem to challenge the values of romance. At the beginning of the story, Isumbras is described as a paragon of chivalry and renowned patron of minstrels, living lavishly with his beautiful wife and three sons. However, he has become estranged from God by his "pryde of golde and fee" (line 45), as he is told in his vision. "Gold and fee" is a formula common to tail-rhyme romances; it is almost always used in a positive sense. Pride, of all the seven deadly sins, is the one most suited to treatment in romance, since it was usually depicted as the sin of nobles and other members of the wealthy and powerful classes. Following his vision, the hero is stripped of his chivalric accoutrements: his hawks fly away and his hounds and horse die; his estates are ravaged, the buildings burned and his workers and their chattel destroyed. The episode culminates in an emotional scene of Isumbras' simultaneous relief to learn of his family's survival, and his pity to see them running naked toward him "that erste were comely cladde" (line 105).

The adventures which follow are related with little attention to features often embellished in romances such as romantic love, combats, and occasions and objects of chivalric display. His only battles are against the enemies of Christendom. The closest Isumbras comes to armorial description is the cross the hero carves on his own shoulder as a badge of his pilgrim status. Isumbras humbly submits to God, acknowledging His power and accepting His punishment: "All the sorow that we ben inne, / Hit is for owre wykked synne, / Worthy we be well more" (lines 112–14). The family sets out for the Holy Land, but two children are carried off by animals. Isumbras approaches a sultan's ship to beg for food and is spurned. When a courtier points out his noble features, the sultan offers to make Isumbras his knight in his campaigns against Christendom. The hero refuses to forsake his faith, but is unable to prevent the sultan from buying his wife to make her queen. Before her departure, she is able to give him food, a ring, and promises of aid if he can undertake to kill the sultan. The next day, an eagle carries off Isumbras' payment, and a unicorn abducts his remaining son.

Bereft of worldly goods and human ties, Isumbras prays for guidance, and from this point on, his fortunes slowly reverse themselves. The mechanism of reversal is a kind of economic initiative seldom found in the heroes of romance or saint's legend.2 Havelok, the industrious cook's knave, comes to mind, but that romance is exceptional for its realistic and sympathetic treatment of laborers. Isumbras is one of the few romance heroes who actually earns his way back to chivalric status. Coming upon some ironworkers, he asks for food, appealing to their charity. The smiths propose instead that he work for his food as they do. For seven years he labors with them, progressing from lowly stone carrier to apprentice to paid craftsman. Eventually he is able to make himself a suit of armor, giving new meaning to the term "self-made knight." This episode contains precise references to various smelting operations and to the trade hierarchy of smiths. The author chose to embellish the motif of hero, unrecognized, performing lowly tasks, and to embellish it in this particular way, while other, more chivalric episodes such as combats are not embellished at all.

When the sultan attacks Christendom, Isumbras rides to battle on a blacksmith's horse. The homemade armor and inferior mount are conventional in tales of knights in reduced circumstances, and here, as in other tales, they play a role in the initial combats by which the hero demonstrates his prowess, but are then replaced by proper arms, signifying his achievements and restoration of status.

Vanquishing the enemies of Christendom and killing the sultan who had seized his wife would seem to prepare the way for Isumbras' reunion with her and rule in the sultan's lands, but this culmination is delayed until he has fulfilled his vow of pilgrimage. Significantly, he maintains his humble identity, telling the king he is a smithy man, and leaves the court before he can be knighted. Only after seven years of begging and doing God's will does he complete his penance. Arriving famished at Jerusalem, he stops at a well where an angel appears to tell him his sins are forgiven and that he may return home. He journeys to the castle of a great queen renowned for her generosity to the poor; from among a crowd of beggars, he is brought into the hall and fed.

Throughout this episode of penance, and in the earlier episode of exile, the many references to hunger heighten the pathos of the hero's suffering. At every encounter Isumbras begs food and drink. Embarking on their exile, he tells his family to trust to God to "sende us our lyves fode" (line 132). The angel who brings him news of God's forgiveness also brings him food. This hunger can be read allegorically, as a spiritual hunger (just as Jerusalem has allegorical significance), but it is always treated simply as a physical need so its larger implications are not dwelt upon; rather it is a measure of the hero's misery and humility.

Pathos is a major feature of the reunion episode as well. Seated in the joyous hall, Isumbras is overcome by memories of his former happiness and weeps, unable to eat. Remarking this, the lady inquires of his journeys, then takes him into her court. The reunion of husband and wife seems imminent, but it is postponed, offering another depiction of Isumbras' suffering for the loss of his family. In a wood one day, he discovers the mantle and the sultan's gold taken from him by the eagle. He keeps these in his chamber, meditating upon his loss; his sadness and isolation are noted at court, and their causes sought. His treasure is found and brought to the queen. Recognizing it, she asks the palmer to tell how he acquired it and he relates the story. Thus, in large part, Isumbras regains his wife, not as a result of combat, or of courteous service, but because his grief attracts the lady's sympathetic notice.

The bond between husband and wife is both spiritual and emotional, a model of Christian union rather than romantic love. They are faithful, not only to each other (the sultan sends the wife to rule his countries in his absence; they never cohabit), but also to God and the sacrament of marriage. When the sultan asks to buy his wife, Isumbras replies that he can not sell her because he has "weddyd her in Goddys lay [law]" and will "holde here to myn endyng day, / Bothe for wele or woo" (lines 283–85). To be parted from her willingly is tantamount to forsaking his faith. His wife affirms this, saying she prefers to meet her end rather than live apart from him. Later, when they have been reunited (and remarried), she insists on being armed and fighting the infidel beside her husband so that, by God's grace, they might die together.

This battle is the culminating step in the hero's spiritual career as well as the occasion of the family's complete restoration. The couple is about to be slain when three knights arrive riding a lion, a leopard, and a unicorn. They vanquish the remaining 20,003 Saracens before identifying themselves to Isumbras as his children. After a celebration, father and sons conquer and convert three kingdoms. At their deaths, we are told, their souls go to heaven. The near-martyrdom of the parents, coupled with the more conventional reference to their souls' destination, may have been suggested by the apotheosis of the martyrs at the end of St. Eustace's legend.

Isumbras' adventures are spiritually motivated, but his sufferings and his reward are presented in material terms of poverty and wealth. He interprets his choice of woe economically, asking to be given poverty in youth and wealth in age, and comforts his ravaged tenants saying ". . . God bothe geveth and taketh / And at His wyll ryches maketh / And pore men also" (lines 94–96). The sultan's attempt to buy Isumbras' wife, and the importance of his treasure as an identifying token have no counterpart in the Eustace legend. At the end of the story it is explicitly stated that Isumbras is even richer than he was before his loss. The restoration to wealth and high social status can be read spiritually, but they are employed as literally as the hunger of earlier episodes.

Sir Isumbras is among the shortest of the Middle English romances. At 771 lines, it is half the length of most romances of separated and reunited families. Events unfold at a brisk pace in very regular stanzas of twelve lines. There is little elaboration, no doubling or tripling of episodes, and few descriptive details. The composer limits the narration to the father's adventures, providing no information about the careers of the sons or of the wife, apart from her husband. Isumbras' brevity heightens the plot's symmetry. The structure is bipartite, consisting of the fall and rise of Isumbras. The turning point comes halfway through the romance when he prays for guidance. Each half is comprised of two main episodes: Isumbras loses his worldly goods and then his family in the first; he becomes a smith and then a palmer in the second. Both episodes in the second half conclude with battles against the infidel.

As was mentioned earlier, Sir Isumbras survives in nine manuscripts and numerous prints. The earliest manuscript, Gray's Inn, is a 104-line fragment dated around 1350. This text closely resembles that of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge MS 175, the second oldest manuscript, dating from 1425–50, which is the basis for the present edition. These texts differ significantly from the Thornton, Ashmole, and Advocates' manuscripts, which give the story a more "heroic" treatment. The Cotton and Naples manuscripts form a third group; their versification closely resembles that of the Gonville and Caius text. For that reason the Cotton was chosen to supply the lines of folio 91, which is missing from the Cambridge volume.

The Cambridge manuscript was produced in the southeast Midlands; its text of Isumbras shows a mixture of dialectal forms, as the poem itself was composed in the northeast Midlands. Characteristic northeast Midland features include the use of are (rather than more southerly bee[n]) for the indicative present plural of to be: the use of -ande (not -ing) for the participial ending, as in wayvande; and the spellings swyche and mekyll, among others. However, characteristically southeast Midland forms are present in the third-person plural pronouns, which begin with h- (hem), not northerly th- (them), and in the initial spelling sch- (schal) rather than s- (sall).


Indexed as item 1184 in Boffey and Edwards, eds., New Index of Middle English Verse:
  • London, Gray's Inn MS 20 (1350), fol. 228, 104-line fragment corresponding to Gonville and Caius, MS lines 216–308.
  • Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College MS 175 (1425–50), fols. 98r–106 [Base-text for this edition].
  • Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, called the Thornton MS (c. 1440), fols. 109r–114v.
  • Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale MS 13 B 9 (1457), fols. 114r–115r, a fragment containing the first 122 lines.
  • London, British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii (1450–1500), fols. 130r–134r.
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61 (1475–1500), fols. 9r–16r.
  • Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland Advocates' MS 19.3.1 (1475–1500), fols. 48r–56v.
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 261 (1564), fols. 1r–7v.
  • Oxford, University College MS 142 (end 14 c), fol. 128r, a 17-line fragment.
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library Douce fragment f 37. London: Wynkynde Worde or W. Copland, 1530? 1550? (STC 14281), one leaf.
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library 1119. London: William Copland?, c. 1530 (STC 14282), one leaf.
  • London, British Library C 21c61, Garrick Collection. London: William Copland, c. 1530 (STC 14282), fifteen leaves.
  • Boston, Harvard University Library. London: John Skot, c. 1525 (STC 14280.1), eight leaves.
  • Boston, Harvard University Library. London: I. Treveris, c. 1530 (STC 14280.2), one leaf.

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