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Sir Degrevant: Introduction


1 An exception is the edition of the poem in Gibbs' Middle English Romances.

2 For a comparison of the circumstances in which the two manuscripts were produced (including, in fact, a third, the Auchinleck Manuscript, containing Floris and Blancheflour), see Thompson, "Collecting Middle English Romances."

3 For a detailed description of the Thornton Manuscript, see the facsimile edition by Brewer and Owen.

4 See Robbins, "Findern Anthology," and the introduction to the facsimile edition by Beadle and Owen.

5 For an extensive review of the activities of the two scribes, see Thompson ("Collecting Middle English Romances," pp. 32-37). In contrast to what is generally assumed, it may well have been the case that the quire containing the second part, constituting the bulk of the text of Sir Degrevant, came into the possession of the Findern family first, and that the missing opening section was added later.

6 Sir Degrevant, ed. Casson, p. lviii.

7 Hornstein, "Miscellaneous Romances," p. 147.

8 Chaucer ridicules this meter in his parodic romance of Sir Thopas.

9 The line in which his name is mentioned is in the one stanza missing from C (between lines 160 and 161).

10 Since we had first been informed that Degrevant was in the Holy Land (line 117), the return from Granada (line 131) comes as a surprise.

11 Edwards, "Gender, Order and Reconciliation," p. 57.

12 Hornstein, "Miscellaneous Romances," p. 147.

13 Edwards, "Gender, Order and Reconciliation," p. 55.

14 See the explanatory note to this line.

15 On the significance of this word, see also Edwards ("Gender, Order and Reconciliation," pp. 61-62).

16 Hornstein, "Miscellaneous Romances," p. 148.

17 For a detailed statistical analysis of the number of lines showing alliteration, and of the various types, see the introduction to Casson's edition of the poem (pp. xlii-xlv).

18 Hornstein, "Miscellaneous Romances," p. 147.

19 Jurkowski, "'Findern Manuscript' and the History of the Fynderne Family," p. 206.

20 Jurkowski, "'Findern Manuscript' and the History of the Fynderne Family," pp. 208-09.

21 Scattergood, "The Tale of Gamelyn: The Noble Robber as Provincial Hero." A basis in history has also been argued for, for instance, Floris and Blancheflour and The Erle of Toulous (a poem with which Sir Degrevant is often associated in terms of plot and narrative detail). For further details on Floris and Blancheflour, see my introduction to the poem, above, and especially Grieve, "Floire and Blancheflor" and the European Romance. For The Erle of Tolous, see Cabaniss, "Judith Augusta and Her Time."

22 For a reverse case, see note to lines 1493-94.
The story of Sir Degrevant does not belong to the canon of Middle English romances: the number of editions of the text is small, it rarely figures in anthologies,1 and even a complete list of critical work would be relatively short. Yet the text survives in two manuscripts, both of them personal, private collections rather than professional, public ones.2


The older of the two manuscripts, Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91, constitutes a well-known collection of texts, assembled and written by Robert Thornton, about halfway through the fifteenth century.3 During his lifetime this North Yorkshire gentleman wrote down texts that were to his liking in two manuscripts, known today as the Lincoln and London Thornton manuscripts. The interest of these two miscellanies lies not only in the survival through them of the individual works, or in the collection as such, but also in the light they shed on the tastes of an active fifteenth-century reader/compiler. Their contents, though clearly thematically related, do not share a single item, which testifies to the care with which Thornton selected his material. Of the two, the Lincoln is the more voluminous collection with eighty items on 314 folios, against thirty-one on 181 folios for the London manuscript. The nine romances in the Lincoln MS all occur in the first part (the last is item 15), which is followed by a series of predominantly religious, and especially mystical, texts (e.g., by Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton). At several places in both manuscripts Thornton has added his name, and there is no doubt that he wrote the entire collection himself, in spite of the variations in the writing style of the script. The Lincoln manuscript has lost a few leaves at beginning and end, as well as from some of the quires. From Sir Degrevant one page, about two hundred lines, is missing.

Like the Thornton miscellanies, the only slightly later manuscript, Cambridge University Library Ff.i.6, is an anthology, and likewise it was compiled and written by the owners, the Findern family of Derbyshire, and their friends, while part of it was probably copied by itinerant scribes.4 It contains an interesting selection of "courtly poetry," including Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls and poems by Lydgate and Hoccleve, but also love lyrics, an abbreviated history of England, and even household notes scribbled in open spaces. The text of Sir Degrevant was written by two different scribes. The first broke off at line 564, in the middle of a stanza, at the bottom of what is now the last leaf of the quire (the leaf that was originally the last one was cancelled before the scribe started writing his text). The second scribe began on the first page of the new quire, and resumed the text where scribe 1 had left off.5 There is a marked difference between the two hands, but this does not mean that there is also a considerable lapse of time between the writing of the two parts. Sir Degrevant is followed by a short chronicle, written by yet another scribe, ending with a reference to King Henry VI. Since the end of his reign is not given, the text must have been written before 1461, when Edward IV succeeded to the throne.

There is general agreement that the two manuscripts were produced not very far from the original place of composition of the poem, which was probably in the northeastern Midlands.6 Less certainty, but no substantial disagreement, exists regarding the date of the original: Casson puts it "in the first ten years of the fifteenth century, or even earlier" (p. lxxiii), whereas Lilian Hornstein thinks of "the late fourteenth century."7 Hence a period of composition between 1385 and 1410 would satisfy most scholars.


For his poem the author has employed the so-called tail-rhyme stanza. In such a stanza two or three rhyming lines of usually four stressed syllables are followed by a shorter line of three stresses, which is followed by another rhyming couplet or triplet plus a shorter line, which rhymes with the previous short line: aa(a)bcc(c)b.8 The stanza may be extended to comprise three or four of such 2+1 or 3+1 "substanzas." This is the case in Sir Degrevant, which has a stanza of sixteen lines, rhyming aaabcccbdddbeeeb. The lines themselves, however, are shorter than ususal, the triplets having three (or even sometimes two), the b-lines two stressed syllables.


The story of Sir Degrevant is of a well-known type: a young knight falls in love with the daughter of a socially much higher ranking nobleman, and he has to win her by achieving for himself a reputation and status that will make him worthy of her - which of course he does, against all odds. What makes Sir Degrevant different is the emphasis on battle action and the realistic historical setting. The component episodes that make up the narrative occur frequently in many other romances; in the case of Sir Degrevant they have been competently cemented together, resulting in a fairly coherent account of the hero's vicissitudes before it reaches the happy ending.

The plot structure with its artful alternation of battle and love episodes (designated below as B and L) may be schematically represented as follows:
Prologue - Introduction of the two protagonists
B1 Degrevant vs. the Earl: confrontation between the household armies of Degrevant and the Earl; the Earl is defeated, and many of his men killed.
L1 Degrevant meets Melidor in the orchard and is rejected; Melidor's maid takes Degrevant into the Earl's castle.
B2 Degrevant vs. the Earl's preferred suitor, the Duke of Gerle; Degrevant unhorses the Duke both in the tournament and in the duel, the next day.
L2 Degrevant is accepted by Melidor; she takes him into the castle.
B3 Degrevant vs. the Earl's steward: Degrevant and his squire are ambushed by the steward, but overcome him and his men.
L3 Degrevant is accepted by the Earl, and a wedding follows.
The weakest part of the plot is the account of events with which Sir Degrevant opens. His neighbor is a certain Sir Sere of Cyprus, always referred to as "the Earl."9 For some unexplained reason he holds a grudge against Sir Degrevant, and when the latter is away fighting the infidels he invades his estates, hunting deer, killing foresters and farmers, and destroying his property. Degrevant's steward sends a messenger to call back his lord, who in twelve days covers the distance between Granada and home.10 The story then develops along the lines sketched above, and yet with enough deviations from the set pattern to keep the audience curious about the next intrigues of the plot. The two threads of love and battle are craftily mingled without sacrificing their individual contributions to the plot, as a closer look at the first battle and love scenes reveals.

The morning after their first confrontation ends dramatically for the Earl; Degrevant rides to his castle to challenge the Earl to a duel (battle). When he is waiting for an answer before the gates, the Earl's wife and his daughter Melidor appear on the embattlement to try to end the hostilities (battle). Degrevant replies that his estates have been destroyed, and that he wants to retaliate against the man who did that to him (battle). However, while he is speaking he cannot help observing the beauty of the daughter, and he falls in love with her (love). That same day he ravages the lands of the Earl (battle), but love for Melidor makes it impossible for him to feel the same satisfaction as on the previous day (love). Degrevant tells his squire about his love, and the squire promises to help him but warns him in the same breath: "Think that ye er enemys!" (line 578) (love and battle). In the evening they ride to the Earl's castle, fully armed, this time to visit not the father but the daughter (love). After spending the night under a rosebush in the castle's garden, "Yarmede as thei ware" (line 632), at last Degrevant has an opportunity to speak to Melidor, who has gone out for a walk. He kneels in front of her, mentions his name and offers his love (love), an act which elicits an indignant reaction from Melidor, who calls him a traitor and an enemy of her family, and tells him that before long he will receive his due reward from her father (battle). After this conversation Melidor returns to her chamber.

Throughout the narrative the poet manages to keep up this interplay between the two themes. With the exception of the first actions of the Earl, the fighting that takes place is connected to the love theme, and the love scenes are inextricably bound up with the hostilities between the Earl and Degrevant. This interrelationship and the resulting shifting of scenes provides variation and is undoubtedly a major factor in the appeal of the poem.

The two themes of love and battle are found not only in the actions of the poem but also in its main male characters. By all appearances, initially every one of them is linked up with battle only: when the vengeful Degrevant and his squire knock at the castle gate and demand a duel, the Earl and his family put up a united front to their enemy. But although Degrevant is not aware of this, the front has already sustained a few cracks, for after the Earl's defeat in the first encounter with Degrevant his wife had asked him why he wanted more land and why he had behaved so badly. We hear no answers, but the Earl expresses his regret that he ever went there and his intention never to return. Standing on the battlement the lady makes a similar move towards Degrevant and advises him to be reconciled "Or ther dey any moo" (line 452). It is through her that the theme of love enters the story. The first to come under the spell of love is, of course, Degrevant. He is soon followed by Melidor's maid and his squire, for whose betrothal he is responsible. Melidor herself had been impressed by the figure of Degrevant from the moment she saw him at the gate, and later she says that she fell in love then; but she only explicitly shows love when, in the duel for her hand, Degrevant has unhorsed the Duke of Gerle. Finally, towards the end of the story, the Earl is persuaded by his wife to be reconciled with Degrevant and to accept him as Melidor's husband. The only personage who can merely superficially be associated with the theme of love is the Duke, who returns home immediately after his defeat and subsequent loss of Melidor.

A special role in the poem is played by the three women, who, if not all to the same degree, have a considerable impact on the course of the plot. Most important in the first part of the story is Melidor's maid. When Melidor, after having rejected Degrevant, has returned to her room, the maid (who remains nameless) has an outrageous request: she asks for the boon promised her at Christmas, and what she wants is "yonde knyghth / To slep by my syde" (lines 783-84). Do as you like, Melidor says, and this enables the maid to smuggle Degrevant into the castle and give him supper (which he does not touch). She also informs him of his chances with Melidor and the plans of the Earl for a tournament, and when he leaves she shows him a secret entrance. Degrevant is so grateful that he promises to marry her to his squire, giving her a hundred pounds in addition, to seal the contract. This turns the maid into an even stronger advocate of Degrevant with Melidor, with whom she warmly pleads Degrevant's case - to no avail as yet. Melidor's own about-face comes at a moment when she no longer needs to fear the enforcement of paternal authority; her father's choice of husband, the Duke, the Earl's social superior, has been made to feel Degrevant's superiority on the battlefield; and with his retreat also her father's superiority over Degrevant, whatever was left of it, has come to an end. Her gesture of taking the Duke's horse and leading it to Degrevant as a reward is symbolic of her surrender to him. The combination of time and circumstances under which she does this might create the impression of a calculating streak had we not been told long before how much she had been impressed by Degrevant's outward appearance; moreover, the words she adds to the deed spring from a determined mind: "On this stede wol I ryde / By my lemmanus syde" (lines 1318-19). The role of the third woman, Melidor's mother, is that of a "peace-weaver." Her first action as such is when she asks her husband why he, with all his wealth and property, invaded Degrevant's estates and caused so much damage. We meet her next when she climbs the walls of her castle to plead with Degrevant to give up his reprisals and be reconciled with her husband. Finally it is she who reminds the Earl that Melidor is their only child, that Degrevant is not to blame for the deaths of their servants who ambushed him, and that the Earl had better accept Degrevant as his son-in-law. As A. S. G. Edwards has said of this aspect of the poem, "throughout the romance it is [in the world of the feminine] that the reconciling role of the woman achieves what cannot be achieved through battle or by men alone."11


In her account of Sir Degrevant, Hornstein has characterized the poem as "the story of a feud,"12 and indeed through the hostilities between Degrevant and the Earl we are given a realistic picture of the social-historical conditions that the country nobility, living far away from the centers of government, had to cope with. But, as Edwards has observed, "the poem is not centrally concerned, after its early stages, with the delineation of social injustice nor of reparation of that justice."13 It soon develops into a "normal" romance, with its inescapably invincible hero, beautiful lady, dramatic fights, mediating servants, secret meetings, resisting father, and all the other ingredients that we associate with the genre. Yet the author was competent enough not to fall victim to the easy, straightforward narrative technique. We have seen above that he regularly shifts both scene and theme, by means of which he keeps up the pace of the story as well as the interest of the audience. In addition to that, he introduces the suspense element of a lady who at first spurns the hero's declarations of love. For a long time Melidor remains loyal to her father and does not want anything to do with his enemy. This attitude opens up interesting possibilities for the role of the maid, whose loyalty is to Melidor and not to the Earl, and who can therefore openly show her support of Degrevant.

Through another stylistic device the author creates a sense of balance by contrast. When the Earl breaks into the estates of Degrevant, slaying both game and foresters, he does so from a feeling of superiority, as a territorial lord who had nothing to fear from anyone. Upon his return from Spain, Degrevant first mends the damage done to both his parks and his people, then sends his squire to the Earl to demand an explanation. The disdainful reply of the arrogant Earl renders a fight between him and Degrevant unavoidable. Due to the outcome of the battle, the tables are turned, and the victory is celebrated by Degrevant and his men with a great party, while the Earl has to flee, wounded and humiliated. But - and here we see the skill of the poet - the next day things are different again. To carry out his retaliation as announced to the Earl's wife and daughter, Degrevant goes hunting and fishing in the forests of the Earl. At the end of the day, however, we learn that he cannot rejoice over his revenge: "For Mayd Melidor the may / His care wax all cold" (lines 523-24). We have now had a scene describing the ravishing of Degrevant's estates by the Earl, a battle between these two, and a second ravishing scene, this time by Degrevant. The second duel, between Degrevant and the Earl's "stand-in," the Duke of Gerle, brings Degrevant another victory over the Earl, and this time there are celebrations again. Yet it is only a partial success: Degrevant has won the love of Melidor, but not the lady herself. For this a third battle is needed, the ambush set by the Earl's steward. Although it is directed against Degrevant, as were the earlier ones, what has provoked it is the behavior of Degrevant and Melidor as a couple. By his final triumph Degrevant has overcome this last obstacle, and he is awarded Melidor as his bride.

This basic pattern of balance is also found on a smaller scale. A single example may illustrate this. When Degrevant first meets Melidor in the castle's orchard, he kneels before her and gives his name. Later he is taken into the castle by Melidor's maid, who supplies him with a rich supper. After the duel with the Duke and Melidor's admission of her love for him, Degrevant again visits the castle. He is now met by Melidor herself, who kneels on the floor, and, having been raised up by him and kissed, orders her maid to make a fire, lay the table, and prepare a costly meal.

Especially in the beginning of the narrative the poet displays an interest in the legal formalities in the case of a conflict. His command of the correct legal terminology is evident in such lines as: "Ther was sesyd in hys hand / A thousand poundus worth of land / Of rentes, wel settand, / And . . . / An houndered plows in demaynus" (lines 65-69). When Degrevant discovers the destruction done to his property by the Earl he sets about to claim damages, but, as the text says explicitly, he "thought werke be lawe / And wyth non other schore" (lines 151-52). He therefore writes a letter to the Earl, demanding justice. He sends his squire to deliver it, and when the Earl refuses to stop breaking into Degrevant's hunting grounds, the squire, as representative of Degrevant, throws down his glove, at the same time summoning the Earl to "amend to schkyll" (line 203). The duel fought for the hand of Melidor shows equal care to abide by the rules. We may deduce the importance of this aspect from the fact that it is the Duke who sends a squire to Degrevant to enquire how he wants to fight: "To juste o pesse or of were" (line 1267), the latter phrase meaning "to the bitter end."14

In this context the prominent word trouthe should also be considered.15 Its usage varies considerably, from a mere asseveration, as when the Earl's wife says to Degrevant "Thou art a man marvelus, / My troth y thee plyght" (lines 423-24), to a legally valid betrothal, of Melidor's maid and the squire, orchestrated by Degrevant (lines 887-89). Precisely because it is such a meaningful word, the inability of the Duke of Gerle to make true his two solemn vows contrasts sharply with the supremacy of Degrevant.

That he has an eye for the luxury with which the nobility surrounds itself is evident from yet another feature of the poet's style. In the words of Hornstein: "Elaborated are details of social life, the glowing beauties of costume and architecture, of embroidery, jewel-work, table-fittings, wall-paintings."16 In all fairness it should be said that this elaboration of details is practically limited to the lengthy description of Melidor's bower, but the splendor of medieval architecture and the luxurious design of her chamber and the objects in it are described so evocatively that the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones was inspired by them to paint a series of murals.

Finally, a word must be said about two ornamental devices found in the poem: alliteration and concatenation. If the second is taken in the strict sense of a repetition of the same word in the last line of one stanza and the first line of the next, there are only four occurrences in Sir Degrevant, two of which concern the expression plyghte trouthe. If extended to words occurring in the last two lines of one stanza and first two of the next, there are seven more cases. Considering that the poem numbers 120 stanzas, it can hardly be called a prominent feature of the poet's style.

Anyone familiar with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales knows that in The Knight's Tale he used alliteration in his description of the tournament (especially in I[A]2601-16), possibly under the influence of the alliterative romances with their emphasis on knightly prowess and heroic battles. It is questionable, of course, if the poet of Sir Degrevant was acquainted with Chaucer's work, but the fact is that he too employs alliteration to heighten the tone in certain passages, fighting scenes in particular.17 The first of these is the battle between the Earl and Degrevant and their assembled retinues (lines 289-304):
And whan the batell enjoined
With speres ferisly they foynede.
Ther myght no sege be ensoynd
       That faught in the feld.
Wyth bryght swerdus on the bent       
Rych hawberkes they rent;
Gleves gleteryng glent
       Opon geldene scheldus.
They styken stedus in stour,
Knyghtus thorow her armere;
Lordus of honor
       Opon the hethe heldus.
They foughten so ferisly
Ther weste non so myghty
Who schold have the victory,
       Bot He that all weldus.
[they] engaged [in]
warrior be excused (permitted to delay)


swords; glanced
pierce steeds; battle


none knew, regardless of his might

Except; governs
In this stanza, ten of the sixteen lines show alliteration, while the vocabulary includes a few words that are found only in the context of battle and are typically reminiscent of the alliterative romances: foynede, gleves, glent, stour.


Apart from the two hundred lines missing from L and the one stanza from C, the text is complete in both manuscripts. Casson has printed them side by side, thus enabling us to see the numerous similarities and differences between them. According to Hornstein "[e]ach manuscript is independently derived from a lost common source."18 What this source is, however, we do not know. Because of the names of the protagonists, one might be inclined to think of a lost French original, but this is not necessarily so. French names should be no obstruction to the suggestion that the poem may reflect a realistic situation, perhaps even a historical event that took place in the North Midlands. According to Maureen Jurkowski such a connection with the contemporary social situation in the north country is not too far-fetched. In her comprehensive study of the vicissitudes of the Fynderne family of Findern, Derbyshire, in the fifteenth century she suggests that the "life and career of John Fynderne may reflect . . . the tail-rhyming romance of Sir Degrevant."19 She goes on to argue that the family possibly obtained possession of the romance around the time that said John had bought the manor of Stretton-en-le-Field, in April 1412, an acquisition that led the family into protracted litigation which ended only with John's death in 1420.20 A similar link with reality was argued by John Scattergood for the comparable romance of Gamelyn, in which the eponymous hero has to overcome, as a younger and less powerful son, the resistance of his two elder brothers to obtain his share in their father's inheritance.21


The two modern editors (i.e., post-1900) of the poem have both published the text in a parallel edition, in order to show the interesting differences between them. For a single text edition the C-text must clearly be preferred to the Thornton version simply because the latter lacks some two hundred lines. This does not mean that C is in any way superior to L. From both versions instances could be drawn to show how the one is better (not to say less corrupt) than the other. Thus in the following example C has a more felicitous reading than L (lines 1129-32):
He was stalworth in stoure,
For he loved par amoure
The lady lay in the toure,
      That shuld be hys mak.       
He was staleworthe in stowres,
Be Sayne Martyn of Towres;
The Lady laye in hir bowres
              That solde be his make.
A love "par amoure" makes a stronger incentive to battle than the Christian neighborly love for which St. Martin of Tours is known.22


Indexed as item 1953 in Brown and Robbins, eds., Index of Middle English Verse, and Cutler and Robbins, eds., Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse:
  • Cambridge, Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.6 (the Findern MS). Fols. 96r-109v. [C]
  • Lincoln, Cathedral Library MS Cathedral 91 (the Thornton MS). Fols. 130r-138v. [L]

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