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Sir Cleges: Introduction


1 See George H. McKnight, Middle English Humorous Tales in Verse (Boston: Heath, 1913; rpt. New York: Gordian Press, 1971), pp. 38-59.

2 A. Treichel, "Sir Cleges: Eine mittelenglische Romanze," Erlanger Studien 22 (1896), 345-89.

3 Laura A. Hibbard [Loomis], Medieval Romance in England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1924; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1960), pp. 79-80.

4 Mary Elizabeth Housum, A Critical Edition of Middle English Sir Cleges (Ph. D. dissertation, Catholic University, 1988). The three motifs are the Spendthrift Knight, the Unseasonal Fruit, and the Strokes Shared.

5 Sir Degaré, King Horn, and Beves of Hampton, for example.

6 Unseasonable growth motifs linked to Celtic folklore and hagiography include Sts. Ciaranus of Saigir, Kentigern, Barrus, Berrachus, Aidus, and Brynach. See C. Loomis Grant, "Unseasonable Growth in Hagiology," Modern Language Notes 53 (1938), 591-94.

7 Sherwyn T. Carr, "The Middle English Nativity Tree: The Dissemination of a Popular Motif," Modern Language Quarterly 36 (1975), 133-47. Carr traces the motif to the apocryphal Pseudo- Matthew, which "was for the whole of Europe a major source of legends concerning the lineage, birth, and education of the Virgin, and of stories purporting to describe Christ's early life" (p. 135).

8 See John R. Reinhard, "Strokes Shared," Journal of American Folklore 36 (1928), 380-400.
Sir Cleges is preserved in two fifteenth-century manuscripts, one early (c. 1400), the other twenty-five to thirty years later. Though both have been identified as originating in the East Midlands, the earlier version (Advocates) exhibits linguistic features pointing to a more specific origin in the South while the later Bodleian 6922 (Ashmole 61) is from the North. The differences between the two versions are significant; both poems tell the story of Sir Cleges, but vary in dialect, diction, and dramatic representation. These variations have led at least one scholar, G. H. McKnight, to conclude that neither derives from the other, but rather each harkens back to a common lost original. [1] The narratives then, according to McKnight, developed independently of one another through separate tracts of oral transmission. The nuances in dialect between the two seem to bear this out. Yet any consideration of the non-dialectic variations such as diction and dramatic representation - facilitated by a close examination of A. C. Treichel's dual edition [2] - indicates not only separate lines of development, but suggests the possibility for differing perspectives on the issues the narrative raises, differences which encourage questions about changing attitudes of both audience and poet. How, for instance, does the idea of charity or almsgiving change over time? What are the attitudes toward women, minstrels, and the poor? What is the significance of a belief in miracles? For this volume I have chosen the Bodleian MS because it is more complete (it includes the ending Advocates lacks), and it provides a more comprehensive substrate for asking these kinds of questions.

Despite the existence of two manuscripts and an unknown source, Sir Cleges is a poem often described as "unique" or "original." Laura Hibbard Loomis, for example, sees the poem's uniqueness in the mixing of "humor, piety, and romance"; [3] Mary Housum claims its originality lies in its combination of three folk motifs, [4] while others determine its uncommon status to reside in generic hybridization - fabliaux, conte devot, family drama, Christmas story. All scholars concur that the poet's hybridization of discursive elements is the secret to the poem's success. Yet the intertextuality that Sir Cleges demonstrates by establishing likeness to other narratives, both literary and folkloric, seems to argue against originality or uniqueness, and rather for commonality and synthesis. Sir Cleges is not original or unique because it stands alone as an independent creation, uncommon only in its method of composition, but because it resonates the sonorities of other narratives, genres, and modes of discourse; it is literally uncommon in its degree of commonality. Folk motifs play an important role in Sir Cleges, adding substance and direction to the narrative while pointing to the formidable oral tradition informing the poem. These motifs remind us of the viable presence of that oral/aural mode of discourse and the interactive aspect of medieval poetry read aloud and often performed to groups of attentive and responsive listeners, an audience not exclusively made up of courtly aristocrats, but of diverse ordinary folks. Cleges' claim to an uncommon commonality, therefore, is possible not only by its intertextuality but because it speaks to "common people," a burgeoning fifteenth-century lay audience, of what must have been common concerns: their place in the social hierarchy, their customs and practices, aspects of daily life, and their dreams for the future. It offers an uncommon glimpse into a medieval nuclear family - their familial relations one to another, their charity, their hope, and their faith in miracles. It is a Christmas story that expresses the meaning of family solidarity, the dignity of poverty, the necessity of undiscriminating kindness, the intrinsic value of human integrity, and the satisfaction in the meting out of justice. Three major folk motifs have been identified in Sir Cleges: The Spendthrift Knight, The Miraculous Cherries/Unseasonable Fruit, and the Strokes Shared. The Spendthrift Knight, a motif that concerns a knight whose generosity exceeds the bounds of common sense is found in Sir Amadace, Sir Launfal, The Knight and His Wife, and A True Tale of Robin Hood. In these Middle English poems the motif establishes the necessary conditions for the hero's rehabilitation - a fall into poverty and despair - then a return to a better condition for himself and those around him. In Sir Amadace the knight's destitution results from his charitable and chivalrous action toward a despairing widow who is prevented from burying her husband's corpse until she pays his debts to a wicked merchant. Amadace comes to her rescue, pays the debts and funeral expenses, and is left profoundly poverty-stricken, a condition from which he recovers only with the aid of the "grateful dead." Likewise, in Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal, and later in Sir Lambewell, the hero gives away his newly acquired wealth to all who ask and creates a state of poverty he would not be able to overcome were it not for his rescue by a fairy mistress. In The Knight and His Wife, the knight's poverty, resulting from feasts he gives on behalf of the Virgin, compels him to seek the forest for shame to be rescued only by the intervention of the Virgin herself. In the ballad A True Tale of Robin Hood the hero, Lord Robert Hood, Earl of Huntington, consumes his wealth "For wine and costly cheere," an act which results in his being outlawed and forced to live by stealth.

The cause for the knight's fall into poverty in Cleges is, as in the previous narratives, his uncontrolled liberality. Cleges holds elaborate feasts particularly at Christmas time to which everyone is invited: "Hys mete was redy to every man / That wold com and vyset hym than" (lines 22-23). An open house and a reputation for generosity attract a clientele for Cleges which, over the course of "ten or twelve years," literally eats him out of house and home. His real estate holdings dwindle to a single manor; he would rather sell than desist in his almsgiving and hospitality until finally he's unable to pay his debts. Like those heroes in the narratives above, Cleges confronts an economic crisis with consequences that extend beyond himself. He is left with nothing, no means by which to support his family, and little hope for engineering his own restitution. It is clear by this point in the poem that Cleges' spendthrift days must end for his life or the narrative to continue. The motif of the Spendthrift Knight creates an economy of exchange among these narratives that momentarily facilitates interaction. Once the moment is over, the motif spent, however, the poems differ widely in their concerns and emphases.

One of the primary concerns of Cleges is in the strength and integrity of the family unit. Cleges is a family man, happily married to Dame Clarys, a woman of admirable attributes; together they are the parents of two children. As a married couple they demonstrate a deep concern for one another and their children, and a genuine interest in the needs of others. Clarys shares Cleges' compassionate attitudes toward the poor; they both participate in almsgiving forming a kind of medieval social welfare system, a locus of distribution, that takes care of those who meet with hard times - "squyres, that traveyled in lond of werre / And wer falleyn in poverte bare" (lines 16-17), "pore" men, friars, and minstrels, groups of people in a state of powerlessness and dependency on the kindness of others. Cleges and Clarys together "cheryd many a wyght" (line 33), for to them everyone had something of value to offer. Both are able to read beyond surfaces to discern the intrinsic worth of those who come to them for succor and supper. So too do they recognize the intrinsic value of their children. One of the most poignant scenes in the poem depicts the parents playing with their children - an altogether rare scene in medieval poetry - in an attempt to maintain emotional equilibrium in the face of profound loss:

With myrth thei drofe the dey awey
   The best wey that they myght.
With ther chylder pley thei dyd
And after evensong went to bede
   At serteyn of the nyght.
   (lines 158-62)
they drove; day

their children play they did

At an appropriate time
But medieval romance demands that the hero incur great difficulty so that his rehabilitation and return to a better condition, the substance of the plot, may the better be facilitated. The poet of Sir Cleges sets up the knight's fall into poverty and subsequent despair quickly so that the rest of the story might focus on his ability to overcome the obstacles put before him. Many romances require the hero to fight dragons, oppose vicious giants, or submit to extraordinary tests in order to prove himself worthy enough to win the lady and live happily ever after. [5] Not so in Cleges. Here the hero fights the psychological assault of poverty resolvable finally not by anything he can act against - no dragon to slay, or giant to defeat - but rather by an act of faith. Cleges' trial is one that requires not only personal fortitude and emotional support from his family, but mediation from a higher authority; this hero cannot orchestrate his own restitution, but must rely upon a miracle from God. For this the poet incorporates the Miraculous Cherries or Unseasonable Growth motif.

This motif concerns the discovery and acknowledgment of unseasonable fruit, a motif common to several Celtic saints' legends. [6] Sometimes the motif takes the form of miraculous flowering as in the legend of Joseph of Arimathea when Joseph's staff planted in the earth was thought to blossom profusely every Christmas Eve. As a cherry motif it appears in an amusing scene in the Ludus Coventriae or Play of Corpus Christi (N-town cycle) in the fifteenth play known as The Birth of Christ. The miracle occurs on the road to Bethlehem when Mary spies a fruit tree bursting with fruit out of season. [7] When Joseph tries to gather the fruit, he discovers that the tree is too high and complains indignantly: "Let hym pluk yow cheryes [who] begatt yow with childe." The tree then bows down to deliver its fruit into Mary's hands, whereupon Joseph is dutifully repentant for his presumption.

A similar incident takes place in a popular ballad called "The Cherry Tree Carol," when the unborn Christ child commands the tree to bend down and offer its fruit to the expectant mother. In the Secunda Pastorum of the Wakefield master a comic prefiguration of the generous gift of the Magi takes place when Coll, the eldest shepherd exhorts the Christ child to "Have a bob of cherys!" Given in the winter, clearly out of season, the cherries, along with the holly and a ball, replace the frankincense, gold, and myrrh traditionally associated with the kings at Christ's nativity. The fruity gift resonates as symbolically as do gifts of rare and precious objects, at least to those who believe in miracles and are able to read the signs correctly. Though Cleges is aware that fruit spontaneously grown out of season indicates something of import, he has difficulty interpreting the miracle that occurs in his garden just after he has said a prayer on behalf of those suffering in poverty. He takes the bough to Clarys and expresses his anxiety over just having complained to God:

"Lo, dame, here is a nowylté;
In ouer garthyn upon a tre
   Y found it sykerly
Y ame aferd, it is tokenyng
Be cause of ouer gret plenyng
   That mour grevans is ny."
His wyfe seyd: "It is tokenyng
Off mour godness, that is comyng.
   (lines 217-24)
our garden
I am afraid; omen
our; complaining
more grievance; coming
a token (sign)
Of more goodness
To Cleges the cherries signify an omen "that mour grevans is ny," while Clarys interprets the sign as a miracle, a "tokenyng off mour godness." She then offers a course of action that will get Cleges back on track, suggesting that he take the gift to King Uther for recompense as was customary. She directs their son to follow his father carrying the basket containing the precious fruit and as two poor shepherds, horseless and armed only with walking staffs, they make their way to Uther's castle.

The third motif, the Strokes Shared, is widely disseminated and is known to numerous cultures and nationalities beyond the geographic boundaries of Europe. [8] Basically, the motif involves the discovery of a precious object and its presentation to an overlord with the expectation of reward; the extortion by hindering servants, also a component of the motif, would consume all the profits, so the clever discoverer asks for strokes rather than money. The distribution of strokes and the receiving of a proper reward conclude the plot. Variations of the motif are found in Gesta Romanorum (How the King's Son Won his Reward), in John Bromyard's Summa Praedicantium (a collection of exempla used in sermons), and in a French tale called Le Vilain au Buffet. In Cleges the motif is played out in an amusing scenario with the porter, the usher, and the steward, servants who exemplify in their attempts to extort a portion of Cleges' reward the selfishness that opposes charity and social welfare. Their avaricious behavior stands in sharp contrast to Cleges' generosity at the outset of the story. In their abuse of the power and responsibility of their positions the hindering servants obstruct the feudal family, the kinship of king and knight, king and servant, and king and subject; they impede the distribution of wealth among the king's subjects by undermining a system dependent upon individual adherence to chivalric ethics and codes of behavior. The avaricious servants discriminate against Cleges for all the wrong reasons: his "pore clothyng," his unassuming manner, his vulnerability. The porter scornfully directs him to "beggars' row," the usher threatens to beat him, and the steward commands his immediate departure, calling him "Herlot" (line 355) and "Cherle"(line 331). All three officers are unable to recognize any intrinsic value in the person before them; they read external signs in a literal manner concluding that the poor man requesting an audience with the king is unworthy of such an honor. Like Chaucer's virtuous Knight, who is likewise plainly dressed and "meeke as is a mayde" (I [A] 69), Cleges' virtues lie in his inner fortitude and magnanimous spirit.

Though the officious servants are unable to recognize the intrinsic worth of a good man, they are able to recognize the extrinsic value of the cherries in Cleges' basket; fruit out of season is indeed a valuable gift for the king and worth the extortion attempts which set up the humorous payback. Cleges, in a display of business savvy worthy of a medieval merchant, strikes a bargain with the servants and their demands for an appropriate return for their services. The payback scene offers them as satisfying a dispensation of social justice as any dishonest middle man might deserve.

Although Cleges is not usually placed in the company of Breton lays, its attention to minstrels and minstrelsy, an emphasis that has caused several scholars to call the poem a minstrel tale, is one of its integral features. Cleges' largesse is extended to all minstrels, itinerant members of medieval society, whose very mobility functioned in real life as a nexus between courtly society and the lower classes. Minstrels drew their stories from the sources available to them; they brought to court the stories of ordinary folk as well as stories of aristocrats, stories derived from life experience as well as pure fictions, stories from the past as well as the present. They often performed their tales as actors in a play and were rewarded by audience response and tokens in the form of garments, cups, or other articles of value. It is their performances that Marie de France wished to preserve from being lost by the wayside. Not only are minstrels mentioned during Cleges' days of good fortune, "mystrellus wold not be behynd" (line 46), but they signal the advent of the miracle about to happen:

And as he walkyd uppe and done
Sore sygheng, he herd a sowne
   Off dyverse mynstralsy,
Off trumpers, pypers and nakerners,    
Off herpers notys and gytherners,
   Off sytall and of sautrey.
Many carrals and grete dansyng
In every syde herd he syng.
   (lines 97-104)
up; down
Pitifully sighing; sound
Of diverse
trumpeters, pipers; drummers
harpers' music; cythernists
citole; psaltery
carols; dancing
Everywhere he heard singing
Resonating the uninhibited joy of David and, later, the Son of David, as they entered Jerusalem triumphantly, the "joy and mirth" expressed by the performances of these unseen minstrels lends an air of buoyant Christmas optimism to an otherwise despairing scene. The mood-elevating aspect of music has a positive psychological effect on Cleges and casts him into a frame of mind more accepting of events that are beyond his control; he becomes optimistic, if only momentarily.

But if the power of music elevates the human spirit it also reminds us to cast our thoughts beyond the present moment to imagine the future or remember the past. In Sir Cleges minstrels are reminders of the living presence of poetry and music of the past. The mise en scene of the poem places it firmly in the Christian past at a time when the Celtic bardic tradition was strong. In this way the minstrel functions as a mediator between past and present, various oral traditions and written poetry. Thus it is not surprising that the poem's "harper" facilitates the identification of Cleges as a knight King Uther thought long dead:

   "My lege, withouten les,
Somtyme men callyd him Cleges;
   He was a knyght of youre.
I may thinke, when that he was
Full of fortone and of grace,
   A man of hye stature."
   (lines 493-98)


high status
Then, as if Cleges were a minstrel himself, he tells the story of retribution so compellingly that the "lordes lewghe [laugh], both old and yenge" (line 517), and, like many a talented minstrel, he is amply rewarded for his services. But, as if in a last gesture to remind us that Cleges does not act exclusively alone, the poet returns to the obedient son and Dame Clarys. Uther bestows upon Cleges' son a "colere forte were" (line 554) and a "hundryth pownd of rente" (line 555), the means for a young man to establish an identity and a place of his own in medieval society. Upon Clarys the King bestows a "cowpe of gold" (line 550), an item of great intrinsic value and a token of "joy and myrthe" (line 552). Dame Clarys is not to be forgotten either for her role as mediatrix or for her role as wife and mother, for she forms the nucleus of the family around which her husband and their children revolve. Hers is an unliberated position by modern standards to be sure, but one which is - at least in this medieval poem - honored and respected.

Go To Sir Cleges
Select Bibliography


National Library of Scotland Edinburgh MS 19.1.11 (Advocates). Fols. 71a-79b.

Oxford MS Bodleian 6922 (Ashmole 61). Fols. 67b-73a. [The entire MS is written by a single scribe identified as Rate and features drawings of a pike and a flower after several of the pieces.]

Critical Editions

Ginn, R.K.G. "A Critical Edition of the Two Texts of Sir Cleges." Index to Theses for Higher Degrees 18. Queen's University of Belfast, 1967-68, 317.

Treichel, A. "Sir Cleges: Eine mittelenglische Romanze." Englische Studien 22 (1896), 345-89.

Housum, Mary Elizabeth. A Critical Edition of Middle English Sir Cleges. Ph. D. dissertation, Catholic University, 1988.


French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930. II, 877-95.

McKnight, George H. Middle English Humorous Tales in Verse. Boston: Heath, 1913; rpt. New York: Gordian Press, 1971. Pp. 38-59; 171-80.

Morley, Henry. Shorter English Poems. London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1876. Pp. 23-40.

Weber, H. Metrical Romances of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth & Fifteenth Centuries Published from Ancient Manuscripts. Edinburgh: Constable, 1810. Pp. 331-53, 381, 345-46.

Related Studies

Carr, Sherwyn T. "The Middle English Nativity Cherry Tree: The Dissemination of a Popular Motif." Modern Language Quarterly 36 (1975), 133-47. [Demonstrates that the nativity tree associated with Ludus Conventriae is the common source for both Cleges and the "Cherry Tree Carol."]

Loomis, C. Grant. "Sir Cleges and Unseasonable Growth in Hagiology." Modern Language Notes 53 (1938), 591-94. [Explores the development and dissemination of this folk motif.]

Reinhard, John R. "Strokes Shared." Journal of American Folklore 36 (1928), 380-400. [Traces the dissemination of a widespread, popular folk motif.]

Modernizations and Translations

Curry, Jane Louise. The Christmas Knight. Illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan. New York: Maxwell Macmillan Books, 1993. [An illustrated children's adaptation.]

Darton, F. J. Harvey, ed. A Wonder Book of Romance. New York: F. A. Stokes, 1907.

Hadow, Grace Eleanor and W. H. eds. The Oxford Treasury of English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906-08. Pp. 37-50. [From Weber's edition.]

Krapp, George Philip, ed. Tales of True Knights. New York: Century, 1921.

Weston, Jessie. Libeaus Desconus and Sir Cleges. London: D. Nutt, 1902.