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Lybeaus Desconus: Introduction

1 Renaut de Bâgé, Le Bel Inconnu. Renaut de Bâgé, formerly known as Renaut de Beujeu, is thought to have written his poem c. 1195.

2 von Grafenberg, Wigalois; Wigamur, ed. Busch; Cantari di Carduino, ed. Branca; see also I Cantari di Carduino, ed. Rajna.

3 Predelli, Bel Gherardino, argues that elements of the Fair Unknown story circulated in Europe earlier than Renaut’s version. Renaut drew on these, of course, but so did the Lybeaus poet and the Carduino poet (p. 227).

4 H. Cooper, English Romance in Time, p. 3.

5 Still other analogues named as part of the Fair Unknown tradition with various degrees of resemblance include an Old Yiddish narrative called Widwilt, the Old French Le Chevalier du Papegau, Claude Platin’s L’hystoire de Giglan, Robert de Blois’s Beaudos, Le Roman de Belris, a 140-line fragment called “Gogulor,” Bel Gherardino, Ponzela Gaia, the English Ipomadon, and Ulrich Von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet.

6 The two narratives resemble each other structurally in the first part only, as the Middle English romance omits the second part, which continues the story after the disenchantment of the Lady of Synadoun. Also, only major differences in plot and characterization are noted in this introduction; minor variations and other details appear in the Explanatory Notes.

7 According to Carol Fewster, Traditionality and Genre, such invocations form part of the self-consciousness of English romances and constitute a deliberate realignment of the narrative away from the French tradition (p. 32).

8 Lybeaus Desconus and other verse romances are often categorized as popular romances, a frequently pejorative classification that colors both style and audience. For a recent discussion of the problems associated with the idea of popular romance audience, see Field, “Popular Romance,” and Radulescu, “Genre and Classification.”

9 See M. Dickson, “Female Doubling and Male Identity in Medieval Romance.”

10 Renaut de Bâgé, Le Bel Inconnu, p. 95. The French reads: "Cele qui l’esprevier ara / et a le perce le prendra / si ara los de la plus biele" (lines 1589–91).

11 Renaut de Bâgé, Le Bel Inconnu, p. 103. The French reads: "Molt estoit et laide et frencie!" (line 1727); "Amor ne l face bestorner; / la laide fait biele sanbler, / tant set de guile et d’encanter" (lines 1733–35).

12 There are two orders of giants in Lybeaus Desconus, the typical villainous giant who often opposes the knight with unchivalric weapons, such as a club or a grilling spit, and the giant as merely an extra­ordinarily large human being, who retains chivalric values for the most part, such as Sir Lambard. Although Lambard is called a “giant,” he has neither the feral characteristics of the malevolent red and black giants who threaten Violet nor the animal features of Maugis; these are stereotypical giants of romance, and thus no match for Lybeaus. Lambard appears as a giant because of his size, and in this, he is more akin to Sir Valentine in Sir Launfal (lines 505–12). Lambard has no associations with vio­lence against women, treacherous and unchivalric behavior, or unorthodox fighting as do the stereo­typical giants: instead he tests knights for the task of rescuing the Lady of Synadoun, and once de­feated in combat by Lybeaus, he identifies Lybeaus (“Thowe arte of Sir Gawynes kynne,” Lambeth, line 1708) and with many expressions of courtesy welcomes him as the deliverer of his Lady. In Naples, Lybeaus’s mother is said to be “a giantis lady” (line 2249). See also Explanatory Note to line 1708.

13 At that moment, the Fair Unknown in Renaut de Bâgé’s version discovers his real name, given to him at baptism: la Pucele tells him that, “King Arthur called you by the wrong name / he called you the Fair Unknown, / but Guinglain is the name you were given at baptism” – “Li rois Artus mal te nonma: / Bel Descouneü t’apiela, / Guinglains as non es batestire” (lines 3231–33). In the English version, Lybeaus discovers from Lambard and the Lady of Synadoun that he is related to Sir Gawain, but his mother reveals his full identity as Gawain’s son only in the Naples and Ashmole manuscripts.

14 Roger Sherman Loomis, Development of Arthurian Romance (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000), cites correspondences between Lybeaus and several popular romances: “In Libeaus we find correspondences to phrases and sequences of detail in Sir Tristrem, Sir Launfal, Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hampton, Sir Degaré, and Roland and Vernagu — correspondences so exact as to rule out the possibility of mere coincidence.” His exempla are from Bevis of Hampton and Degaré, but he goes on to say that “all six romances which show these correspondences with Libeaus are, or were, contained in the Auchinleck manuscript” (pp. 136–37). See also Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 212.

15 Derek Pearsall and I. C. Cunningham suggest that Lybeaus Desconus was originally included in the Auchinleck manuscript but ultimately lost. See Auchinleck Manuscript, p. viii. The prevailing view now, however, is that Lybeaus was influenced by the Auchinleck manuscript but written afterward. Rhiannon Purdie comments: “this metropolitan literary circuit was clearly also drawn upon by Lybeaus Desconus, a later fourteenth-century London-area tail-rhyme romance which is almost certainly the referent of Chaucer’s ‘sir Lybeux’ in his Tale of Sir Thopas (line 900). Sir Degaré has lent some battle scenes and a des­cription of a dwarf; a version of Guy has lent details from Guy’s battles with Amoraunt and Colbrond; dtw2 Bevis appears to have contributed some phrasing. Otuel and Roland may have been the inspiration for Lybeaus’ usual stanza of three-stress lines throughout since these (and Roland and Vernagu after line 425) are the only romances to use such a pattern, albeit partially masked by an inevitable scribal drift towards the more usual four stresses in the couplet lines” (Anglicising Romance, pp. 124–25).

16 See Burrow, “Explanatory Notes: Sir Thopas,” p. 918.

17 Despite Pearsall’s claim that the poem was originally in the Auchinleck manuscript only to be excised later (see note 14 above), Purdie thinks that Chaucer’s knowledge of the work comes from another source entirely, a “later fourteenth-century London-area tail-rhyme romance” (Anglicising Romance, p. 124). Burrow, in the explanatory notes to Sir Thopas, says “Chaucer perhaps read these [Sir Launfal as well as Lybeaus] in a lost antecedent of the fifteenth-century MS B.L. Cotton Caligula A.ii, in which they both appear along with Sir Eglamour and Ypotis” ("Explanatory Notes: Sir Thopas", p. 917).

18 Archibald, “Breton Lay in Middle English,” p. 59. See also Brereton, “Thirteenth-Century List of French Lays”; Ker and Piper, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, pp. 296–97.

19 This is according to Max Kaluza, the earliest editor of the poem. See Kaluza, Libeaus Desconus, pp. x–xi. Helen Cooper, English Romance in Time, concludes that Kaluza’s surmise has merit on two grounds — the accuracy of the Percy texts and Skelton’s allusions: “Skelton lists [Lybeaus Desconus] among other romances known to have been printed in Philip Sparrow” (lines 649–50, in Skelton, Complete English Poems; see H. Cooper, English Romance in Time, p. 490n19). In other words, because all of Skelton’s allusions are known to be printed versions, it stands to reason that his allusion to Lybeaus came from a printed version as well.

20 Although controversy surrounds the date of its original construction, Henry’s Round Table was painted in its current design with the names inscribed in 1516 or shortly thereafter. See Badham and Biddle, “Inscriptions in the Painting,” p. 256. The spelling, Lybyus Dyscony[us] — a Latin abbreviation for “us” follows the “y” — corresponds to the spelling of the Naples and Percy manuscripts. The Winchester inscription, in other words, attests to the popularity of the literary text and provides further evidence of the continued and wide circulation of Lybeaus Desconus in the sixteenth century.

21 See Badham and Biddle, “Inscriptions in the Painting,” p. 255.

22 Badham and Biddle, “Inscriptions in the Painting,” pp. 256, 268.

23 For the spelling on the Winchester Round Table, see Fleming, “Round Table in Literature and Legend,” pp. 5–30.

24 Furrow, Expectations of Romance, pp. 43–94.

25 Trounce, “English Tail-Rhyme Romances,” p. 88, and Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 1. See Calin, French Tradition, who observes: “Recent scholars, especially Dürmüller (1975) and Fewster (1987), have made the point that the composers of tail-rhyme consciously employ a conventional, indeed archetypal style and diction and thus constitute a school of writing. According to this thesis, conventional metre and diction ought not to be condemned; they are inherently no better and no worse than other sorts of metre and diction. This formulaic, stylized, distinctive style is formed by and appeals to pre-established audience expectations. It appeals to generic awareness and is, to some extent, self-referential as a code signaling archaic authenticity, narrative pleasure, and the actual presence of romance” (pp. 440–41).

26 All versions of Lybeaus end with Amen but two, the Percy Folio (which ends with ffine) and MS Hale 150, which ends with Explicit Libeaus Desconus, followed by two lines in a later hand.

27 See Dalrymple, Language and Piety in Middle English Romance, pp. 29–34.

28 Crane, Insular Romance, p. 93.

29 Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 6.

30 Zaerr, “Music and Magic.” However, as Zaerr points out, references to music and minstrelsy in the narrative come from the outside and suggest threat or evil, threat perhaps when associated with the dwarf, but danger and evil when associated with Dame Damour and the sorcerers Mabon and Igrain. See below, pp. 25–26, especially notes 90 and 91.

31 The argument that Thomas Chestre is the author of Sir Launfal, Lybeaus Desconus, and Octovian Imperator (the Southern Octavian) has been advanced on grounds of content and meter by Sarrazin and Kaluza and on grounds of “habits of composition” by Mills (see Mills, “Composition and Style”; Mills, Lybeaus Desconus; see Kaluza, “Thomas Chestre, Verfasser des Launfal”). Two of the romances (Sir Launfal and Octavian Imperator) attributed to Chestre are unique to British Library, MS Cotton Caligula A.ii, and McSparran argues that the unique layout of Sir Launfal, Lybeaus Desconus, and Octovion Imperator in this manuscript suggests a grouping found in the copyist’s exemplar, which might confirm the common authorship of Thomas Chestre for all three romances (see McSparran, “British Library Manuscript Cotton Caligula A.II,” and M. Evans, Rereading Middle English Romance, p. 71).

32 Sir Launfal, lines 1039–40, in Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, eds., Middle English Breton Lays, p. 239.

33 As Purdie states, “The case should perhaps be reopened, although I am not sure there is enough evidence available to solve it” (Anglicising Romance, p. 212). The problem with this hypothesis, she notes, is that the “evident fame of Lybeaus (compare the reference in Chaucer and wide distri­bution of its manuscripts) and the very minor impact of Launfal (unique manuscript; lack of con­temporary references),” mitigates the link between Launfal and Lybeaus Desconus. There must have been an earlier copy of Lybeaus Desconus by another poet in the London area.

34 Mills, “Composition and Style,” p. 89.

35 McSparran, "British Library Manuscript Cotton Caligula A.II," pp. 55–58, summarizes the views on common authorship expressed by earlier scholars.

36 Another famous exemplar of the anonymous author is the Gawain-/Pearl- poet.

37 The popularity and therefore the centrality of Lybeaus Desconus in the Middle English romance tradition has largely been overlooked, despite the survival of six manuscript copies and numerous allusions to it. Recently, for example, Ivana Djordjevi? and Jennifer Fellow’s “Introduction” in Sir Bevis, argues: “Although it is relatively little known today, the story of Bevis of Hampton was among the most popular narratives of the medieval and early modern periods, its only serious rival in this respect being that of Guy of Warwick” (p. 1). Furrow’s Expectations of Medieval Romance makes no mention of Lybeaus.

38 See Richmond, Popularity of Middle English Romance, especially pp. 1–24. Richmond traces the dissemination of romances in England from manuscript culture to the advent of printing and beyond. As is well known, Caxton printed new materials to satisfy the demand of a growing vernacular audience; medieval romances were widely disseminated in the fifteenth century. This assessment comes from Todd’s Catalogue of the Archiepiscopal Manuscripts, p. 41.

39 There is much speculation about the relation of The Wife of Bath’s Tale to the loathly lady/ Gawain romances as well as to those of the Fair Unknown. See Riverside Chaucer, pp. 872–73.

40 Another narrative that belongs at least tangentially to this group is The Marriage of Sir Gawain, which survives in the Percy Folio. The absence of the child of the union between Gawain and Dame Ragnelle as in Wedding suggests yet another variation on the tale. See Hahn, Sir Gawain. All citations are from this edition.

41 Hahn, Sir Gawain, p. 69.

42 Hahn, Sir Gawain, p. 86.

43 Hahn, Sir Gawain, p. 106n55.

44 Malory, Works, ed. Vinaver, pp. 494–95 and p. 1164.

45 Bruce, Arthurian Name Dictionary, p. 60.

46 Kooper, Sentimental and Humorous Romances, pp. 136, 148.

47 Kooper, Sentimental and Humorous Romances, p. 132.

48 Scherb, “John Skelton’s ‘Agenst Garnesche,’” p. 123.

49 Skelton, Poetical Works, ed. Dyce.

50 Schibanoff, “Taking Jane’s Cue.” See also Daileader, “When a Sparrow Falls.”

51 Vives, Instruction of a Christen Woman. Vives’s list of censured texts reads: “in Spain Amadise, Florisande, Tirante, Tristane, and Celestina. . . . In France Lancilot du lake, Paris and Vienna, Ponthus and Sidonia, and Melucyne. In Flanders, Flori and Whit flowre, Leonel and Canamour, Curias and Floret, Pyramus and Thysbe” (p. 25).

52 Crosse, Vertues Common-Wealth, pp. 102–03. When Crosse describes the items on his list as “editions,” it suggests that there is indeed another printed version of the Lybeaus narrative, one that ties him explicitly to Arthur. This edition is apparently lost. “For if a view be had of these editions, the Court of Venus, the Pallace of Pleasure, Guy of Warwicke, Libius and Arthur, Bevis of Hampton, the wise men of Goatam, Scoggins jeasts, Fortunatus, and these new delights that have succeeded these, and are now extant, too tedious to recken up: what may we thinke? but that the floudgates of all impieties are drawne up, to bring a universall deluge over all holy and godly conversation: for there can be no greater meanes to affright the mind from honestie, then these pedling bookes, which have filled such great volumes, and blotted so much paper, theyr sweete songs and wanton tales do ravish and set on fire the young untempered affections” (pp.102–03).

53 See the discussion below on medieval conduct books and romance reading.

54 Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 3:317.

55 “If an Epic Poem may be defined, ‘a fable related by a poet, to excite admiration, and inspire virtue, by representing the action of some one hero, favoured by heaven, who executes a great design, in spite of all the obstacles that opposed him;’ I know now why we should withhold the name of Epic Poem from the piece which I am about to analyse” (Percy, Reliques of Ancient Poetry, 3:xxii–xxiii).

56 Percy Folio, “Such is the fable of this ancient piece, which the reader may observe, is as regular in its conduct, as any of the finest poems of classical antiquity. If the execution, particularly as to the diction and sentiments, were but equal to the plan, it would be a capital performance; but this is such as might be expected in rude and ignorant times, and in a barbarous unpolished language” (Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 3:xxvi).

57 Catalogue of the Archiepiscopal Manuscripts, pp. 40–41.

58 Catalogue of the Archiepiscopal Manuscripts, p. 40.

59 Sir Walter Scott viewed the Naples manuscript in 1832. He copied Bevis of Hampton, but it is unknown if he viewed or read the Naples Lybeaus Desconus.

60 Mills, “Mediaeval Reviser,” pp. 11–12. Mills dismisses the Lincoln’s Inn manuscript because half of it is missing, but he claims that it stands “midway between CL and ANP” (“Mediaeval Reviser,” p. 12n4).

61 Mills, Lybeaus Desconus, p. 12.

62 Mills, “Mediaeval Reviser,” pp. 11–12.

63 It is not altogether certain, however, that the shorter form (C and L in this case) indicates the more authorial version of a Lybeaus Desconus. Jill Mann, for example, has called into question the assumption that medieval texts that exist in two versions (or more) necessarily progress from a shorter form (closer to the original) and a rewritten expansion. There is no external evidence to support the view that the C and L shorter accounts of Lybeaus Desconus reflect more authoritative texts than the lengthier N, A, P, LI tradition. See “Power of the Alphabet,” pp. 21–50, especially p. 24.

64 Guddat-Figge, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Middle English Romances, p. 28. Descriptions of Lambeth Palace MS 306 also occur in James and Jenkins, Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Lambeth Palace; Mills, Lybeaus Desconus; Jones, “Life of St. Eustace,” p. 13; and Pickering and O’Mara, Manuscripts in Lambeth Palace Library, online at the University of Edinburgh.

65 Guddat-Figge, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Middle English Romances, p. 28.

66 The spelling of “disconious” in the marginal note differs from the text; in fact, it matches the spelling of the Naples title.

67 That is, according to a scribal colophon at the end of the manuscript. As to the accuracy of this date, Manly and Rickert note that they have “no reason to doubt it” (Text of the Canterbury Tales, 1:376).

68 Descriptions of the Naples manuscript can be found in Mills’s introduction to Lybeaus Desconus, as well as in Guddat-Figge and Manly and Rickert.

69 Without considering the medical recipes, Mills contends that two scribes copied the manuscript, one beginning Bevis, and the second completing the manuscript from the second half of Bevis (Lybeaus Desconus, pp. 56–79) and all the other narratives until the end (see Mills, Lybeaus Desconus, p. 7). Manly and Rickert perceive one scribe for the entire manuscript (Text of the Canterbury Tales, 1:376–78), whereas Ralph Hanna suggests there may be three, one for the medical recipes, and the two others described by Mills (Ralph Hanna, private email correspondence with James Weldon, 27 August 2006; it should be pointed out, however, that Hanna’s reading was based upon representative samples from the three contended areas of the manuscript and not the entire manuscript).

70 See Weldon, “Naples Manuscript,” pp. 139–48.

71 Knight, “Social Function.”

72 For medieval conduct books, scholarly investigation begins with Nicholls, Matter of Courtesy, and Ashley, “Medieval Courtesy Books.”

73 An example of a female version of the disenfranchised or foundling child is Marie de France’s Lai le Freine and its Middle English translation Lay le Freine. See Laskaya and Salisbury, Middle English Breton Lays, pp. 61–87 and 409–14.

74 Hahn, Sir Gawain, p. 3.

75 At the end of the poem is the motto of the Order of the Garter founded in 1350, added by a copyist: hony soyt qui mal pense (shame be to him who thinks evil).

76 The Lambeth manuscript omits Gawain’s training of Lybeaus, and the passage is missing in LI. C and the N, A, P manuscripts include a three-line passage: “Aftur, him taught Gaweyn, / With strenghe in the pleyn, / Poynt of knyghtis play” (N, lines 91–93).

77 Lybeaus Desconus evinces a kinship to enfances narratives particularly in relation to their emphasis on chivalric training. These stories include Enfances Garin de Monglane, Enfances Gauvain, Enfances Guillaume d’Orange, Enfances Hector, Enfances Ogier, and Enfances Vivien. Les Enfances Gauvain is the most relevant of these, though it exists now only in a fragment. The Latin version is complete in its telling of the rise of Gawain; his illegitimate birth, and his abduction, fostering and adoption by the emperor of Rome. See The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur (De ortu Waluuanii nepotism Arturi), ed. and trans. Mildred Leake Day (New York: Garland, 1984).

78 See Hoffman, “Malory’s ‘Cinderella Knights.’” To this list of notable protagonists Sarah Patricia Flanagan adds Sir Torrent of Portugal, Tristram, Ipomedon, Sir Isumbras, Guy of Warwick, William of Palerne, Gamelyn, Octavian, Eglamour, and Sir Gowther. See her “Male Cinderella in English Metrical Romance.” See also Wilson, “‘Fair Unknown’ in Malory,” and Salisbury “(Re)dressing Cinderella.” While we recognize the fluidity of gender categories, the designation of “male” Cinderella simply acknowledges traditional scholarship on the subject and provides nomenclature that identifies the essentialist nature of this particular narrative.

79 See Furrow, Expectations of Romance, pp. 1–42.

80 Caxton, “Caxton’s Prologue,” 1:2–3.

81 Vives, Instruction of a Christen Woman, p. 25.

82 Crosse, Vertues Common-Wealth.

83 Tyler, Mirrour of Princely Deeds and Knighthood, p. Ai (title page).

84 Tyler, Mirrour of Princely Deeds and Knighthood, p. Aiiiir.

85 In C, Violet’s father, “Erl Antore . . . Profrede hys doftyr hym to wyue” (lines 688–89). Although missing in all other versions, these lines, Mills in his edition maintains, are “genuine” (Lybeaus Desconus, p. 220n688–99).

86 See Weldon, “Naples Manuscript.”

87 Karras, From Boys to Men, p. 30.

88 See Neal, Masculine Self, pp. 217–22, especially p. 219, for an interesting psychoanalytical reading of this scene.

89 See Predelli, Bel Gherardino, pp. 225–39, for an analysis of the fairy mistress motif in Lybeaus and its analogues. The portrayal of Morgan le Fay as a malevolent enchantress is being reconsidered in the work of a new generation of scholars. See Hebert, Morgan Le Fay.

90 Dame Amoure’s sorcery includes music, one of the clerical arts linking her to the necro­mancers Iran and Mabon. Part of Dame Amoure’s enchantment of Lybeaus, then, is a result of her minstrelsy: “She made hym suche melodye / Of all maner mynstralsye / That any man myght discryve” (L, lines 1488–90). As Linda Marie Zaerr points out, Dame Amoure’s conjunction of magic and music reappears later in the narrative in the enchanted hall of the clerics Iran and Mabon, so that one seems to be an extension of the other. In Iran and Mabon’s enchanted hall, Lybeaus hears and sees minstrels: “Trumpys, hornys, sarvysse, / Right byfor that highe deys, / He herde and saughe with sight” (L, lines 1836–38). As he proceeds further into the hall, he sees minstrels in the niches of the walls and again hears their music in language, recalling Dame Amoure’s sorcery, “Suche maner mynstralsye / Was never within wall” (L: lines 1855–56). The same “musical” magic victimizes Lybeaus and the Lady of Synadoun, who is transformed into “A worme . . . With a womanes face” (L, lines 2067–68).

91 Saunders, Magic and the Supernatural, p. 188. Saunders sees Dame Amoure as essentially separate from the evil sorcerers; she is “a powerful enchantress whose explicitly faery magic contrasts with the ‘nigromancy’ of the two clerks who have enchanted the lady of Synadoun. The episode interweaves the folk motifs of the magical condition and transformation into bestial form, but these enchantments are shaped by clerical magicians” (p. 171). Dame Amoure’s Circe-like enchantment perhaps figures in the animal features of Maugis, but it especially recurs in the music that characterizes her enchantment of Lybeaus and the clerks’ transformation of the Lady of Synadoun.

92 Saunders, “Subtle Crafts.” See also her article “Erotic Magic.”

93 Larrington, King Arthur’s Enchantresses, p. 215n56; Saunders, Magic and the Supernatural, p. 188.

94 Loomis, “Fier Baiser in Mandeville’s Travels.” One such version is John Mandeville’s tale of Hippocrates’s daughter, who is changed into a dragon by the goddess Diana until a kiss from a daring knight turns her back into a mortal woman before she dies. Unfortunately, no knight is sufficiently courageous, and she dies having found no rescuer to lift the curse.

95 For an interesting range of possibilities see Passmore and Carter, “Loathly Lady” Tales, and particularly Peck’s “Folklore and Powerful Women in Gower’s ‘Tale of Florent.’”

96 See Tyssens, “Les Sources de Renaut de Beaujeu,” and Ferlampin-Acher, “La Fée et la Guivre,” pp. xx–xxii. For a more recent survey of the fier baiser episode, see Jewers, “Slippery Custom(er)s,” pp. 19–23.

97 Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1:311–13 and 306–11.

98 Hibbard, Mediæval Romance in England, p. 142.

99 For an interesting reading of Lybeaus, see Cohen, Of Giants, especially pp. 73–76.

100 See Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, esp. pp. 188–221. Also relevant to the discourse on race and ethnicity in the Middle Ages is Heng, Empire of Magic.

101 Augustine, De bono coniugali, p. 7.

102 Brand, “Family and Inheritance.”

103 Because she succeeds to the kingdom, she can legally "welde all with wynne" (L, line 1787), since she operates within the same framework as male heirs; she exercises seignorial powers as well as manorial rights and later accepts the fealty of her tenant-knights.

104 For the significance of female consent and legal arrangements, see Weldon, "'Naked as she was bore.'"

105 It is difficult to decide with certainly authorial lines or phrases from authorial revisions, scribal corruptions of authorial revisions, and scribal interventions. For speculations on spurious lines in Lybeaus, see Mills, Lybeaus Desconus, pp. 10-13, and his articles, "Composition and Style" and "Medieval Reviser at Work."

106 We are referring to Max Kaluza’s early composite version and Maldwyn Mills’s critical edition of C and L. For a comparison of the two editions, see Hunt, "Editing Arthuriana," p. 45.

Lybeaus Desconus belongs to a widely disseminated intertextual network of narratives in which a handsome and mysterious young outsider comes to the Arthurian court to prove him­self worthy of inclusion. Raised in the wilderness and given the nickname Bewfiz (Beautiful Son) by his mother in most versions of the tale, the young man lacks any “real” identity; when he appears before the king unable to articulate a name deemed appropriate for a reputable chevalier, he receives a temporary desig­nation — Lybeaus Desconus, the Fair Unknown — along with an opportunity to demonstrate his physical prow­ess and intrinsic nobility. The young knight is then tested in the ways in which nearly all medieval romance heroes are tested, and in the course of his quest he learns about chivalric codes of behavior and the truth of his birthright as Guinglain, the illegitimate son of one of the most famous of Arthur’s knights — Sir Gawain.

By whichever name this young man is known in the tale’s many variants, individual, familial, and communal identities form a nexus of recurring medieval concerns. The mode of chivalry practiced by Arthurian knights and the potentiality for an illegitimate young man to discover who he is, who his parents are, where he belongs, and what he is destined to do, all make for compelling narration. That the aspiring youth achieves his reputation and social status not merely on his good looks but rather by earning recognition as one of Arthur’s most notable retainers suggests an appreciation for the role that determination and courage play in the making of a respectable knight, especially one who has been excluded from the court by circumstances beyond his control. The story of the illegitimate but chivalric son not only imagines a place for any disenfranchised youth in courtly society but provides the means by which estranged parents may be reunited and kinship relations legitimated.

The closest analogue to the Middle English Lybeaus Desconus is Renaut de Bâgé’s 6,266-line, late twelfth-century Old French poem, Li Biaus Descouneüs (Le Bel Inconnu), which perhaps explains why the story is repeatedly referred to as “the Frensshe tale.”1 Other analogues typically associated with the Fair Unknown tradition, which vary in length and emphasis as well as in language and culture, are the Middle High German Wigalois by Wirnt von Grafenberg; its own close analogue, the anonymous Wigamur (both exceeding 6,000 lines); and the Italian Carduino, which consists of two cantari in ottava rima of a mere thirty-five and seventy-two stanzas respectively.2 While the German and Italian variants may be considered adaptations of Renaut’s poem,3 as to some extent is Malory’s “Tale of Sir Gareth,” many other retellings may be more aptly described as episodic parallels or the products of transformative motifs or “memes” with the capacity, as Helen Cooper suggests, “to adapt, mu­tate, and therefore survive in different forms and cultures.”4 Narratives as diverse as the Middle English Sir Perceval of Galles, the Irish/Scottish Laoidh an Amadain Mhoir (a goatskin-clad simpleton raised outside of civilization), and the Welsh Peredur,Son of Evrawg, whose mother whisks him away from court and raises him in the wilderness, reflect diverse recast­ings of this oft-told tale.5 Accounts of the Fair Unknown prompt additional stories that move in different directions, in other words, whether by translation and adaptation or by more subtle shifts in emphasis, characterization, and narrative framing. Memes such as the illegit­imate/orphaned/abandoned child, the sovereign/loathly lady, or the supernatural/bestial /human hybrid, to name a few, have the capacity to mutate and reemerge as auton­omous narratives in different cultures at different times.


While the Old French Li Biaus Descouneüs and the Middle English Lybeaus Desconus resemble one another in terms of basic narrative structure, there are a number of differ­ences that distinguish the later Middle English poem from its French predecessor.6 The French poem is controlled by the voice of a courtly narrator who dedicates his creative work to his lady, indulges in frequent interjections, and revels in lengthy ethical asides on the ne­cessity for a knight’s courtesy to the ladies and taking matters of the heart seriously. This apparatus is omitted in the English poem, whose poet establishes instead a distinctly omni­scient distance, adhering to the facts of the events with minimal interpretive and/or philo­sophical commentary, particularly in relation to love and the women so integral to its expression. Rather than beginning with an encomium to a lady and setting the stage for the courtliness of romance, the English Lybeaus begins in a way commensurate with many English and Scottish tail-rhyme romances, that is, with an explicit invocation to “Jhesus Criste oure Savyour / and His Moder, that swete floure” (Lambeth, lines 1–2).7 Moreover, the English poem’s brevity and focus upon the action-adventure components of the narrative underscore a modest narrative economy. The elaborate detail of the French poem — the list of knights at court and at tournament, lengthy descriptions of clothing, armor, décor, urban and natural landscapes, and material wealth — gives way to concision in an English work that intensifies the progressive complexities of the episodic plot. In a move toward a more pre­scriptive and streamlined retelling of the Fair Unknown story, in other words, the English Lybeaus poet concentrates on pivotal scenes among fewer characters refashioned in accor­dance with the poem’s emphasis and concerns. These reconstructed figures appear in epi­sodes that reveal the inexperienced nature of the novice chevalier often referred to as a “child” until he proves himself worthy of inclusion in Arthur’s retinue. In its emphasis on the youthful knight’s bumbling attempts at courtesy and his eventual acquisition of experience in love and chivalry, the narrative takes on characteristics of a medieval conduct book for a popular rather than an aristocratic audience.8

Another notable variation between the French and the English versions of the poem is in the account of the early childhood experience of the hero (his enfances) outside the Arthurian court. In the French version, his identity as the illegitimate son of Gawain is kept in abeyance until later in the poem, at the moment he is called upon to proffer the trans­formative kiss that only Gawain or a kinsman of Gawain can provide. In the English version, however, the revelation to the audience of the hero’s “real” name and his relationship to Gawain occurs early, immediately foregrounding the matters of identity so central to Fair Unknown narratives.9 The young man appears before the court not knowing his legitimate name, whereupon Arthur, apparently equating nobility, integrity, and success with the boy’s good looks, dubs him the Fair Unknown and promises him the first boon to come along. When a maiden (Helie in the French, Elene in the English) comes to court to procure a cham­pion who will liberate her lady (la Blonde Esmeree in the French, the Lady of Synadoun in the English), the inexperienced knight reminds Arthur of his earlier promise and receives the king’s permission to participate in the quest, much to the maiden’s dismay. Another important difference between the two poems is embedded in this scene — when the maiden asks for a knight in the French version she describes him as one who must not only be combat-ready but prepared to withstand the infamous fier baiser (fearsome kiss) in order to break the magic spell cast upon her lady. Judged by the maiden to be too young and inexperienced, the Fair Unknown appears unqualified to endure such dangerous intimacy. In the English version, the achievement of the fearsome kiss is not listed among the hero’s expected qualifications at the poem’s beginning; we must wait until Lybeaus is ready to stand up to the test before considering the maturity of his valor.

Nonetheless, the audacious young man accompanies the lady and her dwarf (a character given greater license to speak in the English version) and soon engages in combat with a series of formidable opponents. Beginning with the guard of the Perilous Ford, Blioblïeris and his cohort, followed in the next scene by two giants caught in the act of raping a young woman (Clarie in the French version, Violet in the English), Lybeaus’s successes impress all who watch him vanquish his opponents with methodical aplomb. In the French version, Claire returns to her family while Li Biaus, Helie, the dwarf, and Squire Robert continue. The next episode involves a lost dog, which turns out to be a test of the knight's willingness to take up what amounts to a trivial challenge. Li Biaus's attempts to persuade Helie to return the brachet to its rightful owner (l'Orguillous de la Lande) are met with adamant refusal, at which point its master prepares to retreive his property by force. In the English verion, the dog episode occurs later. When Lybeaus and Elene encounter the whelp (lost for eight years) Elene admires its beauty, and Lybeaus bestows the dog upon her. When they come upon the original owner, in a gesture of chivalric courtesy, Lybeaus defends the right of Elene to keep the wandering whelp and fights for the claim on her behalf. Whether this act constitutes an error in judgment is left to the audience to decide.

The episode of the sparrowhawk in the French poem is likewise markedly different from its English counterpart. The custom associated with the prized bird is as follows: “any maiden who gains possession of the hawk by taking it from its perch will be renowned as the most beautiful of women. But the maiden who wishes to have this hawk must bring with her a knight who will maintain that she is more beautiful than any other lady or maiden,” and challenge by force of arms his claim against the reigning champion.10 Seeing the hawk, desired by a lady named Margery whose own beloved knight has died in an effort to acquire the bird, persuades Li Biaus to take up her cause. In an astonishing twist in the French narrative, however, the presumably beautiful lady, who is defended by the Knight of the Falcon, is actually “quite ugly and wrinkled,” a reve­lation that prompts the poet’s rationalization: “Love makes the ugliest woman seem a beauty, so skilled are her ways of deceit and enchantment.”11 In the English version the scene has been cast into a beauty contest grounded in the mercantile realities of the marketplace, omitting reference to love’s deceptive powers. Unfairly and unilaterally pitted against the lady of the knight of the hawk in order to provoke combat, Elene, while not unattractive, is neverthe­less judged inferior in beauty by the townspeople. The English Lybeaus’s lack of chivalric courtesy is notable in this episode. While the French poem exalts a knight’s commitment to his lady and love’s notorious blindness, the English poem exposes Lybeaus’s lack of genuine feeling for Elene and insensitivity to chivalric protocols; his motive for combat derives from a beauty contest to which a mature knight would never have subjected his lady.

Points of departure in plot are significant to be sure, but there are also variations in the ways in which some characters are portrayed that underscore differing poetic agendas and emphases. The suitor of la Pucele as Blances Mains (the Maiden of the White Hands) — Malgiers li Gris, in Renaut’s version — is transformed from a hostile knight into Maugis, a menacing giant. Malgiers’s mission is to defend the causeway to the island for a period of seven years, as local custom requires, at which point he earns the right to marry la Pucele. In the English version, this character becomes a stereotypical Saracen giant whose defense of the lady of the Golden Isle (Dame Amoure) appears to be driven not by a desire to protect her in­terests but rather to inflict harm whenever another knight approaches. His function in the English narrative, moreover, shifts from unwanted lover of the mistress of the Golden Isle to a serious impediment to Lybeaus’s quest.

In a comparable transformation and variation between the French and English versions, a beneficent enchantress such as la Pucele becomes the malevolent sorceress Dame Amoure, who, like her guardian Maugis, threatens Lybeaus by means of her captivating spells, until Elene wakes him out of his stupor and he continues to Synadoun. Once there he encounters Lambard, the steward to the Lady of Synadoun in the English version, who, like Maugis, ap­pears as a giant defender of her castle and therefore just another opponent who stands in Ly­beaus’s way.12 While discernible shifts in characterization of these otherwise chivalric figures appear to be in keeping with changes in the portrayals of the enchantresses of the poem, so too is another dimension of meaning added to the English retelling. When the hero defeats the evil enchanters Mabon and Iran (Mabons and Evrain in the French), he enters the castle where the lady, transformed through sorcery into a dragon (a serpent in the French version), is imprisoned. In Renaut’s telling, the disclosure of the young knight’s identity comes from a disembodied voice (we learn later that it is la Pucele who speaks here) after the transformative kiss has taken place, and he is told that only the son of Gawain could accomplish such a deed.13 This disclosure fulfills the requisites set out by Helie at the beginning—that the knight who rescues her lady must be able to endure the fier baiser to break the magic spell. At this point in the French narrative Li Biaus (a.k.a. Guinglain) learns who his parents are and that his mother, Blancemal la Fee, had armed and sent him to Arthur’s court rather than choosing to resist his desire to become one of Arthur’s knights as in the English version. The understandably grateful Blonde Esmeree (French version) offers Li Biaus her love, her kingdom, and a very political marriage, to which the astonished young knight agrees. But before the wedding takes place, Li Biaus returns to la Pucele where he learns, among other things, that she had known about him from the beginning and was, in fact, the disembodied voice that divulged his identity. The knight lingers with his “true love” in amorous bliss until a call to a tournament at the Castle of Maidens proves too much for him to ignore. Knowing that he will lose la Pucele forever if he leaves her to compete in this prestigious event, he departs nonetheless and subsequently wins the praise of all who wit­ness his prodigious expertise on the field. When the tournament is over, the king urges the now-proven Arthurian knight to agree to marry Blonde Esmeree, an arrangement that will make him the king of Wales. All the while, he longs to return to his true love — la Pucele.

The Middle English romance omits the second part of Renaut’s story with the hero’s conflict between two women, la Pucele and Blonde Esmeree (a conventional tension between passionate love and marriage), his return to la Pucele after his rescue of Blonde Esmeree, and the narrator’s suggestion at the conclusion that Li Biaus’s love for la Pucele might unfold as a narrative sequel. Instead, Lybeaus Desconus concludes with the eponymous hero’s marriage to the Lady of Synadoun, though the marriage in the English tale is always the conclusion of the tale. Rather, a final reconciliation scene, present in only two of six redactions, brings Lybeaus’s mother to Arthur’s court where, in a dramatic face-to-face with Gawain, she announces that the newly validated knight is their son. Neither attempting denial nor re­jecting accountability, Gawain responds affirmatively, and in a poignant narrative moment father and son reunite. Such an emotional scene is rare even in romances driven by familial reunion (Sir Degaré, Southern and Northern Octavian, Emaré, Lai of Le Freine, and Sir Isumbras come to mind here). The Lybeaus poet solves the problem of the hero’s identity and place in the world through reconciliation with his separated and heretofore “lost” biological parents in a memorable way.


There are six manuscripts containing Lybeaus Desconus: London, British Library, Cotton, MS Caligula A.ii (C, c. 1400); Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale, MS XIII.B.29 (N, 1457); London, Lambeth Palace, MS 306 (L, c. 1460); Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS 6922, also known as Ashmole 61 (A, c. 1490); London, Lincoln’s Inn, MS 150 (LI, c.1400); and London, British Library, MS Additional 27879 (P, the Percy Folio, c. 1650). The poem is thought to have been written in the mid-four­teenth century (c. 1350), though the precise date is still a matter of speculation. Corre­spondences with a number of romances in the Auchinleck collection, “so exact as to rule out the possibility of mere coincidence,” suggest that the work was influenced as much by the literary environment of the time as it was by its continental analogues.14 That there is “evident borrowing from several earlier London romances,” including Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hampton, Sir Degaré, and Otuel and Roland, appears in the battles with giants, the descrip­tions of dwarves, some phrasing, and the atypical three-stress line that binds the poem together. All of these romances are contained in the Auchinleck collection, although Lybeaus Desconus, once thought to have been included, now appears to be conspicuously absent.15

Among those to whom the story and its fair protagonist are known is Chaucer, who first mentions the narrative by including “sir Lybeux” (line 900) in a list of “romances of prys” (line 897) in The Tale of Sir Thopas. The Host’s noteworthy interruption of the tale suggests to J. A. Burrow that Chaucer must have had the structure of the Canterbury journey in mind when Sir Thopas was written, which would make this first reference to Lybeaus after 1386.16 Whether the English version of the Fair Unknown’s story was originally included in the Auchinleck manuscript thought to have been in Chaucer’s possession, or existed in a now-lost exemplar of the redaction included in the fifteenth-century Cotton Caligula A.ii manuscript, is a matter yet to be resolved.17

Evidence that an earlier, possibly Anglo-Norman version of the poem was in circulation in England is found in a list of romances that includes Beu Desconu in Shrewsbury School MS 7, a mid-thirteenth-century manuscript held in the library of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Werburg in Chester. And while it is important to note that the Shrewsbury list is not a modern-day table of contents literally noting items contained in the text but rather an individual folio added toward its end, probably sometime after 1270, it is also important to recognize that some version of the Fair Unknown was known in England earlier than originally thought.18 Though the title is Anglo-Norman in spelling, the question of whether this Beu Desconu refers to a French or Anglo-Norman narrative cannot be answered definitively. As is the case with other such manuscript evidence, the narrative to which the citation appears to refer is non-extant, a status that places it in the company of other such documents, including the one re­ferred to by Chaucer, a “lost antecedent” of the version attributed to Thomas Chestre circulating from about 1350 on, and an apparently lost printed version circulating from the late fifteenth century to the seventeenth century, the version from which the Percy Folio is thought to have been copied.19

In a different sort of evidence both extant and prominently displayed, the name “Lybyus Descony[us]” appears along with the names of twenty-four other knights inscribed on the Winchester Round Table sanctioned by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.20 Lybeaus’s name is painted on the wood in the left hand margin of a table large enough to name twenty-three other knights. Literally written as “S[ir] lybyus dyscony[us],” the Fair Unknown's name is located in the twenty-second position in a sequence that includes Galahad, Lancelot, Gawain, and Perceval.21 Although this artifact was repainted in 1749, the names of the knights are the same as on the original painting in 1516.22 The style of the script, the textura precissa used for display in manuscripts and adopted for early printed texts, may or may not bear witness to an­other lost document, the early printed edition of Lybeaus Desconus thought to have served as the exemplar for the Percy Folio. Another possibility is that there is a connection to the Naples and Percy manuscripts to which the spelling of the hero’s name corresponds.23 Whether there is a tangible link between the Winchester inscription and these versions of the poem remains to be seen. What the inscription indicates without further verification, however, is public ac­knowledgment of and familiarity with the story of the Fair Unknown in the early sixteenth century.


Lybeaus Desconus belongs to a group of Middle English literary works identified as tail-rhyme romances not only because of their stanzaic form (typically twelve lines) and distinctive rhyme scheme — aabccbddbeeb or aabaabccbddb — but because of their association with French “romaunz,” that is, poetry written in vernacular French. By the fourteenth century the meaning of romance had changed from a mere signification of the vernacular language in which a narrative was written into a literary genre with identifiable patterns of plot, structure, and narrative style.24 Despite their obvious associations with French antecedents, however, the English tail-rhyme romances distinguish themselves enough from prior influences to be considered a “unique” poetic corpus, although not a distinct “school of writing” as Trounce believed.25 Certainly the rhyme scheme and stanzaic structure differentiate tail-rhyme poetics from early Anglo-Saxon alliteration and its subsequent revival in the alliterative long line of Piers Plowman or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the rime royal and early iambic pentameter of Chaucer.

Each rhyming unit of this unique form of Middle English poetry is comprised of a four-stress couplet, usually followed by a short, three-stress line, in a stanzaic pattern that calls atten­tion to the short line as the primary element holding the structure together. Tail-rhyme romance may be rough around the edges, even amateurish or “hack” writing as so many critics have alleged, but it is a significant poetic form acknowledged for its ability to trans­form old stories into a distinctive literary corpus. That Chaucer parodied tail-rhyme romances in Sir Thopas in a negative way is generally accepted by Chaucerians, though perhaps too uncritically. When the tail-rhyme romances are accepted as a significant collective enterprise, however flawed in their execution and design, the mockery may be understood in a more positive sense, that is, as Chaucer’s acknowledgment of the presence of a competing native poetic, fresh in its approaches to the retelling of tales in a style in accordance with popular interests and a newly recognized need for vernacular reading materials.

A feature of tail-rhyme poetry particularly relevant to a discussion of Lybeaus Desconus is its tendency toward piety. As the shifts in emphasis from the French to the Middle English Lybeaus suggest, the English poem demonstrates a more self-conscious recognition of a theo­centric environment than its courtly-oriented French antecedent. One of the first differ­ences noted between the two is, in fact, in the framing of the narrative and Lybeaus Desconus’s prayerlike invocations at the poem’s beginning as well as the “Amen” at its conclusion.26 Such narrative framing, when considered in relation to the pious asides and enunciations to various saints throughout the poem, creates the impression of an underlying devotional consciousness that validates the poem’s otherwise secular concerns.27 Indeed, as Susan Crane suggests, “piety enriches and broadens the importance of heroic action, and in so doing it becomes in some ways merely an attribute of secular heroism.”28 That the pious framework of Lybeaus has the effect of catapulting secular heroism into the realm of the divine is sug­gested by the implicit sanctification of a hero watched over by Christ and “heven’s queene” and protected by a coterie of influential saints.

But there is something more specific to note about the piety found in tail-rhyme poetry, namely, the influence of Latin hymnody. As Rhiannon Purdie observes, “the primary asso­ciations accumulated by the tail-rhyme stanza from the twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries were, as one might expect with a verse form related to that of hymns, almost exclusively with didactic and religious material. The authors of the first Middle English tail-rhyme romances may therefore have been attracted to this stanza form precisely because its associations hitherto had been entirely separate from those of the romance genre, or indeed any other overtly secular form of literature.”29 While this theory is somewhat speculative, there is something to be said for an underlying presence of religious music in a poem driven by secular desires. The possible influence of Latin hymnody in fact renders the minstrel music at the Lady of Synadoun’s enchanted castle, among other things, a far more suggestive scene.30 The inclination toward a prescriptive morality literally underwritten by liturgical song indicates a poetic agenda aimed not merely at the production of pleasure but at the shaping of ethical behaviors.


Lybeaus Desconus has been attributed to Thomas Chestre, whose claim to be the “maker”31 of Sir Launfal appears in one of the manuscripts in which Lybeaus is also found: “Thomas Chestre made thys tale / Of the noble knight Syr Launfale”. Such evidence of Chestre’s writing of Launfal is rendered credible mostly because there is an identifying signature and claim to author­ship by someone named Thomas Chestre.32 Based on what amounts to very slim evidence indeed, the claim is underwritten by an assertion that Thomas Chestre authored two other Middle English romances also found in Cotton Caligula A.ii — Octovian Imperator (Southern Octavian) and Lybeaus Desconus, despite the fact that neither is accompanied by an identifying comment such as that found in Launfal, though there are similarities in content and style.33 Those who advocate Chestre’s authorship of Lybeaus Desconus advance a plausible argu­ment based on diction, dialect, meter, and “habits of composition.”34 Nonetheless, the lack of convincing external evidence, especially when added to the absence of a signature in any of the redactions of the poem, raises more concerns than it lays to rest.35 For these reasons we have chosen to identify the poet of Lybeaus Desconus not as Thomas Chestre but in keeping with the way that other anonymous authors of the time have been identified, that is, as “the Lybeaus poet.”36


The six extant manuscripts of Lybeaus Desconus attest to its popularity, placing Lybeaus in the company of Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hampton, and Sir Isumbras as among the most popular Middle English romances.37 In addition to Chaucer’s allusion in Sir Thopas, the poem and/or its hero are cited in the anonymous Squire of Low Degree and in two of the Gawain romances, briefly in Malory’s Works, and twice by John Skelton — in Phyllyp Sparowe and “Agenst Garnesche” — in ways that indicate a positive valuation and appreciation of the work, its protagonist, and its genre. That perception appears to change by the time Richard Hyrde translates Juan Vives’s De Institutione Feminae Christianae (1524) as The Instruction of a Christen Woman (1529), and Henry Crosse pens Vertues Common-Wealth or The High-Way to Honour (1603). Indeed, reservations expressed about Lybeaus as suitable ftlinereading material for young women indicate that the genre of the poem had become suspect for a vernacular audience, especially one including women. Likewise, though for slightly different reasons, the seventeenth-century clergyman Bishop Thomas Percy expresses ambivalence in his as­sessments of the poem, and by the nineteenth century, even after significant efforts had been made to enfold early English poetry into a distinctively British literary tradition, the canon ap­pears not to have included Lybeaus Desconus. If the remarks of Henry J. Todd in his 1812 catalogue are any indication of Lybeaus’s reception by English-reading audiences, then the tale seems to have enjoyed its heyday from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, falling into the sphere of the “strangely neglected” by the early nineteenth century.38

While there is a lack of absolute certainty about how Chaucer came to know the tale in the late fourteenth century, it apparently intrigued him enough to invent a rivalry between the indefatigable protagonist of Sir Thopas and Sir Lybeux. Given the association of The Wife of Bath’s Tale with the transformation motif so central to Fair Unknown narratives, it is also quite possible that Alisoun's tale of an unnamed knight errant may be understood to describe another variation on Lybeaus Desconus or even a disguised version of Gawain himself. Since the knight’s ultimate marriage to the loathly lady who saves his life is common to a number of interrelated narratives, the Fair Unknown’s presence in the Canterbury Tales becomes all the more plausible.39 That The Wife of Bath’s Tale evinces such a compelling kinship to the Gawain romances that form a subset of the imposing corpus of Arthurian tales known to a wide audi­ence by Chaucer’s time underwrites an intertextual affiliation that includes The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle, The Squire of Low Degree, and to a lesser extent, Malory’s “Tale of Sir Gareth.”40

Not surprisingly, the Gawain narratives allude to Gawain’s son in terms that bind the charismatic knight’s progeny firmly to the English branch of the Fair Unknown family. In Wedding, for instance, when Gawain not only promises to marry Dame Ragnelle, the loathly lady figure in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, but bequeaths her sovereignty on their wedding night, Ragnelle changes into a beautiful woman with whom Gawain begets a son subsequently named Gyngolyn: “Syr Gawen gatt on her Gyngolyn / That was a good knyght of strengthe and kynn / And of the Table Round” (lines 799–801).41 Within the context of marriage, this characterization of Gawain’s progeny is untroubled by the stigmatizing effects of illegitimacy that appear to haunt Lybeaus Desconus. Instead, he is a crucial signifier of a procreative nuptial ideal, the wedding of “true” love and the famously elusive knight errant, Gawain.

In Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle, the name "Lybeaus Desconus" appears in the list of knights in Arthur’s hunting entourage in an early scene that sets up the meeting of the king’s men with the Carle of Carlisle, a man who, like Bertilak/Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Sir Gromer Somer Jour in Wedding, challenges the Arthurian court and the veracity of its “proude” knights: “Syr Lebyus Dyskonus was thare / Wytt proude men les and mare” (lines 55–56). Lybeaus is named along with Gawain, who is described as “stwarde of the halle” (line 46) and “master of hem all” (line 47); and while Gawain’s paternity of the young man is not in evidence here, his authority as “master of hem all” makes him re­sponsible for overseeing the less-experienced knight.

While the association of Gawain and Lybeaus Desconus is noteworthy, however vaguely that association is forged, what deserves to be addressed more explicitly in Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle is that Lybeaus’s name as cited in the lines above (Lybeaus Desconus) appears shortly before Syr Ferr Unkowthe (Sir Fair Unknown) — as if the two were completely different characters: “Syr Grandon and Syr Ferr Unkowthe / Meryly they sewyde wytt mouthe, / Wytt houndys that wer wyght” (lines 61–63).42 Thomas Hahn’s suggestion that Lybeaus’s “mysterious identity seems to have led to his being presented in Carlisle as two dif­ferent knights” is clearly the case.43 The division of one character into two separate entities — one presumably derived from Li Biaus Descouneüs and the other from the translation of that name to “the Fair Unknown” — suggests that the meaning of “Lybeaus Desconus” may not be fully understood in English, though confusion and/or doubling of names is not unusual in medieval romance.

While Lybeaus seems to have found a place in this family of narratives, his presence in Malory’s Works is less overt, perhaps even latent and embedded in other motifs. Lybeaus is mentioned ever so briefly by his other name — Gyngolyn — as the knight defeated by Tristan during his madness and later as one of the “twelve accompanying his uncles Mordred and Aggravayne in the ambush of Lancelot.”44 He is neither a crucial signifier of legitimate wedlock nor much of a signifier at all. As obscure and fleeting as these moments are, how­ever, they register a degree of awareness of this character’s presence. Many have noted the general outlines of the Fair Unknown in the “Tale of Sir Gareth,” the kitchen boy whose kinship to Gawain goes unrecognized when he comes to Arthur’s court to ask for a boon. Sir Kay’s pejorative nickname for Gawain’s brother, “Beaumains” or “Fair Hands,” indicating Gareth’s inexperience at manual labor and combat, as Christopher W. Bruce points out, “suggests Malory’s familiarity with the Bel Inconnu or Fair Unknown romances, featuring Gawain’s son.”45 The Fair Unknown may be known, in other words, in the figure of the dis­enfranchised youth who rises to a position of status and renown in Arthur’s court, his covert presence accounting for the near absence of an explicit reference to him by name.

There seems to be no absence of citation of the Fair Unknown in subsequent narratives. In The Squire of Low Degree, for instance, the young hero is alluded to twice: first, when the Squire expresses a wish to be a king’s son “Or els so bolde in eche fyght / As was Syr Lybius that gentell knyght” (lines 77–78), and second, when his lady advises him to emulate “Sir Lybyus” in order to win her hand in marriage (line 614).46 As a poverty-stricken squire “of symple kynne,” the aspiring young man has little chance of becoming a suitor to the daughter of a powerful king. Nonetheless, the lady offers him a glimmer of hope when she cites the Fair Unknown as an exemplum for his edification:
Though you be come of symple kynne.
Thus my love, syr, may ye wynne,
Yf ye have grace of victory,
As ever had Syre Lybyus (or Syr Guy) —
Whan the dwarfe and mayde Ely
Came to Arthoure kyng so fre
As a kyng of great renowne —
That wan the lady of Synadowne.
Lybius was graunted the batayle tho;
Therfore the dwarfe was full wo,
And sayd: ‘Arthur, thou arte to blame.
To bydde this chylde go sucke his dame
Better hym semeth, so mote I thryve,
Than for to do these batyles fyve
At the chapell of Salebraunce.’
                                                           (lines 611–25)
humble descent
In the following way
the good fortune


It is probably no coincidence that a redaction of The Squire of Low Degree is found in the seventeenth-century Percy Folio, an anthology that also contains Lybeaus Desconus. The very fact that these narratives pass into a new audience of “not-so-wealthy commoners, who had only just started to read and buy books,” as Erik Kooper suggests, attests to their cultural capital in an increasingly literate economy.47 But popular interest is driven as much by subject matter as by affordability, and the Squire’s humble background and ultimate success are ap­pealing narrative themes. When the proof of the Squire’s eligibility for marriage to a king’s daughter resides in actions modeled on those of Sir Lybeaus, an outsider and ostensible social inferior, his success offers hope that any young man can grow up to be a knight of great renown.


The appeal of these themes may provide an explanation, at least in part, for the pop­ularity of the Fair Unknown during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. At least that inference appears to be possible if the work of John Skelton may be taken as evidence. The first of Skelton’s references to Lybeaus is in a poem called “Agenst Garnesche” in which the poet verbally eviscerates his rival “Master Garnesche” in response to an impudent challenge. In an act of what one scholar calls “poetic territorialism,” Skelton defends his art at the expense of his hapless opponent, who not surprisingly loses the debate.48 The poet casts his flyting in terms of a tournament, a metaphorical framework aptly chosen for its one-to-one confrontational pairing in which the combatant is characterized as a foul and fierce brawler whose disagreeable countenance exceeds only his ineptness in battle: “Ye fowle, fers, and felle, as Syr Ferumbras the ffreke, / Syr capten of Catywade, catacumbas of Cayre, / Thow ye be lusty as Syr Lybyus launces to breke, / Yet your contenons oncomly, yor face ys nat fayer, / For alle your proude prankyng, yor pride may apayere”(lines 15–19).49 Though deemed to be as “lusty” as Lybeaus in the joust, Master Garnesche fails miserably in his attempt to overcome a more skilled rhetorician. The allusion to the Fair Unknown, the name that tacitly supplants the hero’s other name, provides a comparative standard against which the uncouth and naive poetic novice eager for rhetorical combat and not very good looking is measured. Although the comparison makes the challenger worthy of combat he fails to equal the Fair Unknown. What becomes immediately apparent is that the poet’s insult works only if his audience is familiar with the reputation of Lybeaus as a hero known for his physical attributes as well as for his martial prowess.

The subject of Skelton’s Phyllyp Sparowe suggests that the early modern audience included female readers. The 1,382-line poem is a lament for a dead bird spoken by a fictional narrator named Jane Scrope from her confinement in the Benedictine nunnery at Carrow. The bird, killed by an apparently voracious convent cat, is the subject of this lengthy eulogy, one that draws heavily from the liturgical Office of the Dead found in every layperson’s primer. That dimension of the work is noteworthy in itself: Skelton has provided a credible female speaker with literary skills and an impressive reading list. Not only does the list of works acknowledge and comment upon the triumvirate of early British literature — Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate — but it also includes several works of classical literature and an ample sampling of the “matter” of France, of Rome, and of Greece. Of most interest, especially in relation to the canonical literature just noted, is Jane Scrope’s citation of tail-rhyme romances such as “Gawen and Syr Guy . . . And of Syr Libious / Named Dysconius” (lines 629, 649–50). If Phyllyp Sparowe is “quite simply, about reading and readers,” as one scholar suggests, then readers are invited to identify with this highly literate woman in the act of performing a linepoem of her own.50 At the very least, both speaker and poem acknow­ledge women’s study of literature and endorse an education that includes romances such as Lybeaus Desconus.

Such an inclusive approach to literary study seems not to be endorsed by Richard Hyrde or Henry Crosse. When Hyrde translated Juan Luis Vives’s De Institutione Feminae Christianae (1524) as The Instruction of a Christen Woman (1529), he added a number of English narratives that young women were advised not to read: “Parthenope, Genarides, Hippomadon, William and Melyour [William of Palerne], Libius and Arthur, Guye, Bevis, and many other.”51 The association of this list of romances, which includes Libius and Arthur, with women’s reading is clear — after all, Hyrde is translating a work aimed directly at their instruction. But lest we understand Hyrde’s recommendation as merely another example of gender bias, it is important to point out that the censure of certain reading materials fits into a larger pattern of changing attitudes toward creative work deemed threatening to the morals of minors and other such impressionable people. Henry Crosse’s early seventeenth-century Vertues Common-Wealth or The High-way to Honour (1603), in which the author addresses the value of education and the proper discipline of “youth”, follows in this vein when it prompts such an audience to avoid those who have succumbed to vice: “The drunkard, idler, spendthrift, person with a painted face, etc.” And while Crosse’s primary target is the theater and everyone involved in its production and performance, he nonetheless lists medieval romances such as Libius and Arthur as works to avoid.52 Like other reformers of the time, Crosse suspects poets to be purveyors of pleasures deemed detrimental to the young whose “untempered affections” are so easily set ablaze.53

One would think that nearly a half century later (c. 1650), attitudes toward romances such as Lybeaus might have changed, particularly since Bishop Percy, the antiquarian responsible for assembling the Percy Folio, includes the poem in his collection of reliques.54 Percy’s pref­atory remarks do indeed seem to provide an antidote to previous negative assessments of certain medieval romances when the bishop voices an affirmative opinion of early poets. As evidence of his high regard, he selects Lybeaus as “one specimen of their skill in distributing and conducting their fable, by which it will be seen that nature and common sense had sup­plied to these old simple bards the want of critical art, and taught them some of the most essential rules of Epic Poetry” (3:xxii). As positive an assessment as this seems to be — that is, even without training these “old simple bards” are able to write something of note — Percy’s subsequent commentary qualifies that assessment by denying the poem epic status.55 The bishop apparently thinks highly enough of Lybeaus to present it as an exemplary piece of work valued more highly as historical artifact than as a work of art to be appreciated on its own terms.56 Like subsequent antiquarians interested in recovering lost texts and shaping a distinctive literary canon in English (John Dryden comes to mind here), Percy acknow­ledges Middle English romance primarily as evidence that native poetry — beyond the bounds of an evolving Chaucerian canon — might be worth knowing about, its values worth assimilating.

Such interest in the poem appears to have waned in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, though it was not completely forgotten. In his preface to the 1812 Catalogue of the Archiepiscopal Manuscripts in the Library at Lambeth Palace, Henry J. Todd, antiquarian and keeper of the archives, describes the Lambeth manuscript as one of many volumes to be of great value to patrons interested in early literary work:
To the lovers of our early literature the POEMS in this Collection present an abundant feast. . . . Of the ancient metrical Romance of Sir Libeaus Disconus, there is a most valuable copy, till lately unknown. And in the same volume are several poetical reliques of the olden time.57
Todd’s implication of himself as a lover of literature is abundantly apparent and perhaps the primary reason for his statement in a subsequent description in his catalogue of the version of Lybeaus Desconus contained in Lambeth 306:
This is a valuable copy of the ancient romance of Sir Libeaus Disconus; a copy hitherto unknown to the curious inquirers after our ancient literature. In the old manuscript catalogue this ROMANCE OF PRICE, as Chaucer esteemed it in his RIME OF SIRE THOPAS, has been strangely neglected.58
That Todd would consider the work to be valuable but “strangely neglected” and “unknown to the curious inquirers after our ancient literature” appears to contradict claims to the popularity of the work after it passed through the hands of poets, historians, education re­formers, antiquarians, bibliophiles, and various others over time. Whether interest in the poem falls away due to a shift in values or as an effect of educational reform and a con­comitant antimedieval sentiment remains a subject for further inquiry.59 What can be said about Todd’s observation with a measure of certainty is that he considered Lybeaus Desconus to be worth studying.


The Lambeth and Naples versions of Lybeaus Desconus chosen for this edition represent two traditions in the manuscript production of the text. According to Maldwyn Mills, the author’s “own version of the story is reasonably well preserved in manuscripts Cotton Caligula A.II and Lambeth Palace 306 (CL), while the texts found in manuscripts Ashmole 61, Naples XIII.B.29 and the Percy Folio manuscript (ANP) must derive from a common source in which an unknown reviser had tidied up some of the contradictory material found in the original version.”60 As Mills maintains, the Lambeth version is “fundamentally the best text of those available to us,”61 though the Naples redaction is the longest and therefore the most complete reflection of the reviser’s work, one that demonstrates a connection to one of the alleged authorial manuscripts, that is, Cotton Caligula A.ii.62 Although Mills argues that the reviser mainly corrected the errors and inconsistencies of the author, a case can be made that the reviser, rather than being a correcting “hack,” creatively introduces changes in the text that reflect a fifteenth-century reception of Lybeaus Desconus. What emerges from this sequence is a clear illustration of manuscript production in the late medieval period where a reviser functions not merely as a scribe but rather as a co-author. The most relevant of the revised texts is the Naples version with its consistent exploration of the hero, the villains, and the heroines in the cluster containing the Ashmole, Lincoln’s Inn, and Percy versions.

The texts presented together in this volume make it possible for readers to compare the two most significant threads of development in the Lybeaus textual tradition.63 Both the Naples and Lambeth manuscripts were produced in the mid-fifteenth century, so that differences in certain key passages render the Lambeth and Naples redactions particularly fruitful substrates for comparative examination. When studied together, each complements the other in ways that reveal something more significant about the Fair Unknown tradition as a whole.


An incipit designating Gyngelain as the “bastard son” of Gawain informs the audience uniquely in Lambeth, and Lybeaus’s identity as Gyngelain is made apparent to readers right from the beginning of the poem in all but the Lincoln’s Inn version. Further, his “real” name — Gyngelain — is revealed to the hero and the Arthurian court as well as the audi­ence at the end of the poem in three of the six manuscripts — Naples, Lincoln’s Inn, and Ashmole, a final revelation of identity missing in Cotton Caligula, Lambeth, and the Percy Folio, which lacks an ending altogether. In Naples, Lincoln’s Inn, and Ashmole, at the marriage feast of Lybeaus and the Lady of Synadoun, Gawain commands all those gathered together to call Lybeaus by the name given to him by Gawain, that is, Guinglain: “calle Libeous ‘Gyngelayn’” (Naples, line 2267). Because all versions except Lincoln’s Inn begin with the narratorial naming of Gyngelayn, Gawain’s revelation of his son’s name at the end is an expected conclusion provided by those versions that end with this scene. Moreover, in the final episode in Naples and Ashmole, Lybeaus’s mother returns to the court of Arthur, and even though time has passed and her son Bewfiz has matured, she recognizes him instantly. In Naples she is afforded the opportunity to reveal the young knight’s identity to Gawain in a disclosure that prompts a joyful kiss of acknowledgment from the famous knight. Gawain then explains to the Lady of Synadoun that he begat Lybeaus of “a giant’s lady” (“a gentyll lady” in Ashmole). These scenes, played out in the last few stanzas in Naples, are completely absent in Lambeth.


Lambeth 306 is a compendious commonplace book (or miscellany) consisting of ten “originally independent” gatherings or fascicles, many of which are dated to the second half of the fifteenth century.64 The entire book, written on paper, measures 29.5 x 21.5 centimeters and sports a style of binding that can be dated to the Tudor era. The section of the fascicle in which Lybeaus Desconus is found, thought to date from around 1460, makes that particular section of the manuscript roughly contemporary with the Naples manuscript. The principal scribe writes in a distinctive fifteenth-century secretary hand, though the manuscript includes a number of items added to its contents over time. Some items are attributed to John Stowe, a well-known sixteenth-century historian, while others, written in different hands, indicate owners with interests other than history. Because of the overwhelming number of medical “recipes” and various nonliterary items scattered among didactic narratives, chron­icles, historical documents, and memoranda by Stowe, Gisela Guddat-Figge surmises that “the manuscript must have passed through the hands of owners interested in science, especially biology, and medicine, who, in their turn, filled blanks with recipes, diets for a nightingale and other curiosities.”65 Lybeaus Desconus is located between a list of names of herbs — nomina herborum—and “The Adulterous Falmouth Squire.” The text is written in single columns (fols. 73r–107r) with one marginal note (fol. 74r), where “lybeus disconius” is inserted in a later hand.66 Lybeaus Desconus is the only romance in Lambeth 306.


The Naples manuscript is a plain paper manuscript (73 folios and two fly leaves), copied in the mid-fifteenth century and completed in 1457.67 The vellum binding is modern, and the leaves have been trimmed so that pages have an average size of 28.5 x 19.5 centimeters. 68 There are catchwords but no signatures or marginal notes. Why or how it ended up in Naples or in its present location in the former Royal Library remains unknown. Although there are several opinions concerning the number of scribes responsible for copying the entire manuscript, the Lybeaus poem was copied by one scribe who calls himself “More.”69 The manuscript contains in the following order: medical prescriptions (the first three are gynecological recipes), Sir Beuys of Hampton, Of Seint Alex of Rome, Libious Desconious, Sir Isumbras (brief fragment, lines 1–123), and Chaucer’s Grisilde or The Clerk’s Tale (missing lines 1–91). Libious Disconious appears in double columns, pages 87–113, with anywhere between fifty-two and sixty lines per page. There are also scribal jottings (including lines from Lydgate’s “Beware of Doubleness”) as well as later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century notes and drawings. The nature of the medical recipe collection together with the concentration of romances, a saint’s life, and Grisilde may indicate a collection intended for a female audience.70

Like the Ashmole version, the Naples Lybeaus contains a number of passages and interpretations not found in Lambeth or Cotton Caligula. In addition to what Mills cites as correcting revisions and adjustments, the most significant additions include an enhancement of the giant features of Maugis, the comparison of Dame Diamour’s sorcery to the power of witches, the follow-up killing of Iran, and the arrival of Lybeaus’s mother at the marriage celebrations following the wedding of Lybeaus and the Lady of Synadoun at Arthur’s court. The significance of these features and their relation to other manuscript versions appear in the Explanatory Notes, but the episode of Lybeaus’s mother represents an important addition to the narrative. Up until this point, Lybeaus only knows that he is in some way related to Sir Gawain: Sir Lambart and the Lady of Synadoun have both explained to him that only Sir Gawain or one of his relations could have accomplished the fier baiser and rescued the Lady of Synadoun from the evil enchantment of Mabon and Iran. Lybeaus’s mother supplies his final identification as the son of Sir Gawain, thus providing a conclusion to Lybeaus’s search for identity both personal and social, and it is this knowledge that moves Sir Gawain to embrace his son, acknowledge him publicly, and disclose his true name as Gyngelayne (N).


In an enactment of what Stephen Knight has dubbed the “social function of Middle English romance,” Lybeaus Desconus, perhaps more than other Arthurian narrative in the English literary canon, addresses the concerns of a variety of audiences — the problematic nature of intimate kinship relations, the resolution of troubled social and political affiliations, the perpetual quest for self-identity and place in the world, and the “proper” relationship between men and women.71 Romances functioned to some extent like conduct books in medieval society, setting parameters for interpersonal and communal identity and action.72 The illegitimate child relegated to the fringes of society, the stigmatization of unwed mother­hood, forced separation of family members, the loss of patrimony and social status, as well as simple consent and choice of marriage partner are some of the matters addressed in narra­tives that encourage audiences to revel in the glamorous life of the adventurous knight while contemplating reconciliation and recompense for those not born into a privileged class or disenfranchised by circumstances beyond their control.73

Typically in chivalric romances, discipline and training prepare a novice knight to negotiate a range of obstacles designed to challenge his martial prowess as well as his adherence to strict codes of knightly behavior. Hence, many of these narratives offer situations and circumstances that test the novice at every stage of development. Such physical and intellectual training ostensibly contributes to the shaping of discernment and the young knight’s ability to exercise sound judgment in difficult situations, to decide quickly and correctly when to apply force and when to offer mercy, for instance. The process, so evident in the training of renowned chevaliers such as Perceval, Tristan, Lancelot, and Gawain, explains its ubiquitous presence in the literary work of the time.

Mentorship of young knights as a component of chivalric education is particularly relevant to Lybeaus Desconus when it comes to the shaping of the protagonist’s identity, especially since his father is Gawain, a native British knight whose reputation as “the pro­verbial equivalent of courtesy itself,” accompanies his renown for prowess and loyalty to the king.74 By the fifteenth century, Sir Gawain was well known not only in the late medieval literature often referred to as the “Gawain romances” but even beyond the literary world that made him a household name. Perhaps most famous in this regard is the acknowledg­ment written at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, signaling the close connection between the establishment of the Order of the Garter by Edward III, the poem, and the knight whose character is tested by a verdant outsider, his seductive wife, and Morgan le Fay.75 Yet Gawain’s training of the Fair Unknown in the English version is perfunctory com­pared to his more extensive guidance in Wigalois, for example, and omitted entirely in some English manuscripts, leaving the impression that everything Gawain’s son knows about jousting, horsemanship, and the wielding of lethal weapons is somehow hardwired into his DNA, ready to be recalled by some triggering gesture or verbal cue.76 Lybeaus at first appears to know very little about chivalry or the protocols of honor and loyalty or even the basic strategies of civil discourse; he seems to be the very antithesis of courtesy and refined courtly behavior; in other words, he is everything his father is not. But what Lybeaus expresses in a rather flagrant disregard for decorum — barging into Arthur’s court to demand a boon, for instance — he makes up for in martial acumen, skills apparently bequeathed as much by natural law and biological determinism as by formalized discipline and training.

Akin to Bildungsroman and enfances literature, Lybeaus Desconus is a compelling narrative, a veritable emblem of a hero’s progress from a state of ignorance and marginalization to a state of experience and integration.77 His story demonstrates the ramifications of illegitimacy and the lack of a “proper” name in a world that demands identities, genealogies, and verification at every turn. The Fair Unknown’s entry into a realm from which he has been excluded or denied — equivalent perhaps to a “wild” child’s introduction into polite society — makes for an attractive underdog narrative, the story of the gradual recognition of a hero’s potentiality for success in the world. Like medieval male Cinderella figures such as Havelok the Dane, King Horn (or Horn Child), Bevis of Hampton, Degaré, Perceval, Lancelot, Gareth, La Cote Male Tayle, Alexander the Orphan, and even Arthur himself,78 Lybeaus encourages an audience to identify with his unwavering determination in the face of otherwise impossible odds. With their emphasis on physical attractiveness and the pro­wess that complements the protagonist’s good looks, male Cinderella narratives foreground the duties and responsibilities of those destined to assume governance of the land. Like their female counterparts, the heroes of these tales engage in domestic labor as a pre­requisite for the public recognition of inner virtues disguised at first by humble outward appearances. Like a male Cinderella, the Fair Unknown is typically born of noble blood though he is often unaware of his patrimony until the end of the tale when he is about to marry an appropriately chosen mate.

As is also evident in chivalric literature and conduct books, training for medieval combat did not fully prepare a young man for participation in the refined discourses of the court — the recitation of poetry, the playing of musical instruments, the demonstration of exemplary table manners, carving skills, and overall civility and deference to courtly protocols. Courteous behavior and a dedication to helping those in need—widows, orphans, and disadvantaged others — were expectations for all experienced chevaliers. Since a knight was imagined not only to be a better combatant when he had a lady to impress but to be a better man vis-à-vis her influence and guidance, formidable feats of arms, as well as impressive displays of courtly refinement, were prerequisites to attaining an honorable reputation. The social function of the lady was to lend her prospective champion a patina of civility and to introduce him to the ways of women.

Medieval references to romances indicate that different readers approached these narratives in different ways, however. Male clerics would not necessarily view the genre in the same way as aristocratic women, and even within these groups one finds variations among responses.79 In vernacular circles, romances were frequently read as courtesy or conduct books, that is, texts that taught social skills not only for young men and women of the gentry and aristocratic families but also for the children of the upwardly mobile urban middle class. Indeed, in his preface to Malory’s Morte Darthur, William Caxton argued that stories of knightly deeds formed appropriate reading for “al noble lordes and ladyes, wyth al other estates of what estate or degree they been of,” wherein they will find vice punished but also “many ioyous and playsaunt hystoryes and noble and renomed actes of humanyte, gentylness, and chyualryes.”80

Romances also served as mirrors for young princes and engaged women readers, a practice to which later moralists objected. As noted earlier, Richard Hyrde strongly com­plained of women who wasted their time and endangered their morals by reading such improper narratives: “I marvayle that wyse fathers wyll suffre theyr daughters, or that husbandes wyll suffre theyr wyves, or that the maners and customes of people wyll dissemble and over loke, that women shal use to rede wantonness.”81 Hyrde stands in a long line of critics who charged medieval romances with inciting lechery (“wantonness”) and promoting violence through tales of knightly combat. Henry Crosse voiced a similar opinion: “it will be demaunded how Ladies, Gentlewomen , &c. should spend the time, and busie their heads, as though idlenesse were not a vice bade inough of it self, without fire to be added, and as though there were not a Bible, and many good bookes wherein they might be virtuously exercised.”82 Margaret Tyler, who translated and published Diego Ortúñez de Calahorra’s Espejo de Príncipes y Cavalleros in England in 1578, changed the title to The First Part of the Mirrour of Princely Deedes and Knighthood, suggesting not an audience of “princes and knights” but a wider audience responsive to a more universal focus on admirable behavior or “deedes.”83 And although she counters male charges that such reading is inappropriate for women and outside their proper spheres of knowledge, she also makes it clear that her edition is primarily aimed at women. As for allegations of inciting lust and violence, Tyler asserts that her defense is “by example of the best” and despite controversial subject matter such as war, she states that women “can farther wade into them to the search of a truth.”84 Hyrde, Crosse, and Tyler attest to a widely disseminated female practice in the late Middle Ages that placed romances at the center of their reading: whereas Hyrde and Crosse dismiss them as empty stories with immoral themes, Tyler defends both the genre and the practice; she suggests that discerning women “farther wade into them” and that they constitute, as her title intimates, “mirrors” of behavior, conduct books for both men and women.

Shunning bad behavior and embracing approved behavior, then, constituted a way of reading romances in the late Middle Ages and beyond. Lybeaus, with his uncouth back­ground, frequently acts wrongly or questionably, especially in the early parts of the narrative. His impetuous and abrupt speeches in Arthur’s court mirror uncourtly comportment, and his entry in the gerfalcon contest, where he coerces Elene to substitute deceptively for his lady, or his insistence on keeping the hunting dog of Otis d’Lyle, at best, seem dubious motives for generating the ensuing violence. Women guide and nurture Lybeaus: his mother seeks to protect him from the world of male violence, but in the end (in the Naples and Ashmole versions) endorses his chivalric accomplishments and confirms his completed identity by publicly announcing Gawain’s paternity before the court. Elene acts as initiator (as messenger she proclaims his defining quest, the rescue of the Lady of Synadoun), critic (she chastises and belittles Lybeaus at the beginning but ceases when she recognizes his prowess), and finally guide, especially when she stirs Lybeaus from the enchantment of Dame Amoure and sets him back on the road to Synadoun.

Various women present false alternatives to Lybeaus. Violet, whom he rescues from giants, offers the possibility of an arranged marriage, which while acceptable in many ways (she is an earl’s daughter), falls below Lybeaus’s destiny (he ultimately marries a queen); Elene, in her guise as his lover in the gerfalcon incident, represents a false option, as does Dame Amoure, whose sorcery and sexuality bewitch Lybeaus into temporarily abandoning his quest.85 Even when they require rescue, women often offer positive assistance to the young knight as guides and mentors in ways that go beyond damsel-in-distress stereotypes. Violet tests his ability to obey a lady’s direction and the Lady of Synadoun prepares him for political marriage and a kingship that he would not be able to attain in any other way. The functions of Elene’s guidance and chastisement have already been mentioned, but the loyalty that she demonstrates toward her lady, not unlike the loyalty of any knight to his feudal lord, is exemplary. The Lady of Synadoun and Elene, her messenger and, in many ways, her surrogate, mirror strong independent women; while Elene provides guidance and counsel at every turn, the Lady of Synadoun offers the final pronouncement of Lybeaus’s lineage and confirms his true identity.

There is much to admire about a poem that addresses the kinds of kinship matters so much at stake in the real lives of actual women, and it is not surprising that at least one redac­tion of this poem was thought to have been intended explicitly for an audience of female readers.86 Certainly its strong female characters — Elene, the Lady of Synadoun, Violet, Dame Amoure, the hero’s unnamed mother — whether cast in terms of stereotypes of victimization or unfettered from the constraints of literary convention, demonstrate ways in which women could assert a modicum of control on the world around them. The possibility of transfor­mation by a kiss initiated not by the knight but by the lady he rescues speaks to the emotional and psychological changes brought about by contact with a force beyond the control of any individual, and offers a potentiality for transcendence that speaks provocatively not only to women but to all readers.

The literary construction of female characters, whether in supporting roles or the role of the woman in need of rescue, may be attributed in part to the literary conventions of the time and the expectations of medieval audiences who by the late Middle Ages had acquired a taste for romance. But so too may the conceptualization of “Woman” have something to do with the real-life experience of young men of the upper classes who often spent their formative years, as Ruth Mazo Karras notes, “in a military atmosphere, highly charged with knightly values . . . [wherein] the daily companionship was with other men, with whom a knight competed for the favor of a higher-status man,” hence, “the young knight-to-be thus learned that women were objects to be won, while men were comrades and rivals in the winning of honor.”87 While such childhood indoctrination may account, at least in part, for the development of fantasy stereotypes such as the unattainable courtly goddess, the trans­formative loathly lady, the vulnerable damsel-in-distress, and the erotic enchantress, it does not address the strength of many of the female characters in supporting roles, characters who provide narrative direction, initiate the rescue operation, and guide the knight through the perils of the quest. In the trope of rescue at the center of much chivalric romance, a knight is compelled to defeat marauding villains in whatever form they appear, to acquire the object that will prove him to be a man among men, and to restore order to the kingdom. Such constructions of the opposing other, an antagonist typically depicted as rapist giant or fire-breathing dragon, point to an amorphous fear of the unknown and otherworldly places, fears that the literary knight is expected to conquer. But when the lady is both damsel-in-distress and desiring monster (a woman deformed by sorcery and kept captive in an enchanted castle) as in Lybeaus Desconus, anxiety and confusion can drive the hero into momentary paralysis.88


Like Li Biaus Descouneüs, Lybeaus Desconus incorporates a version of the fairy mistress tale, where a knight falls in love with an otherworldly woman or an enchantress. Usually, the fairy mistress of medieval romance, such as la Pucele as Blances Mains in Li Biaus Descouneüs, Tryamour in Sir Launfal, La Fata Bianca in Bel Gherardino, or Ponzela Gaia in Ponzela Gaia: Galvano e la donna serpente, helps the knight accomplish his mission, often becoming the beloved woman who initiates the hero into true love while more malevolent sorceresses or fairies, such as Morgan le Fay, entice the knight to betray his chivalric principles and his destiny.89 Dame Amoure (Lambeth) or Diamour (Naples) appears to be the latter sort of captivating enchantress whose function is to undermine the hero’s progress and prevent him from fulfilling the conditions of his quest.90 Despite the abbreviated nature of Lybeaus’s liaison with her, as Corinne Saunders points out, “[t]he emphatic vocabulary of sorcery and witchcraft characterises the love of this lady as dangerous: rather than fulfilling desire, she literally corrupts vision to keep Lybeaus in her seeming paradise, a Circe figure in whom the power of Tryamour is negatively written.”91

Perhaps the most memorable scene in Lybeaus Desconus comes when the eponymous hero meets the Lady of Synadoun, the damsel whose castle-under-siege distress call prompts Arthur’s delegation of the mission to Lybeaus. Having been transformed by two sorcerers, the draconian lady approaches an awestruck Lybeaus, wraps her massive winged appendages around him, and plants the fiercest of draconian kisses upon his lips, an amorous act that trig­gers her metamorphosis from hybrid monster to fully-formed woman. Like Sleeping Beauty awakened by the kiss of her prince or a female Beast transformed by a male Beauty, the Lady is suddenly returned to her pre-enchanted state, as she appears “moder naked” before the astonished young knight. There is much to be said about a moment in which the en­chanted world intimately touches the realm of the human as it does when the dragon lady kisses this impressionable young man.92

The fearsome audacity of such an intimate gesture clearly would challenge any knight’s fortitude and restraint, but given Lybeaus’s kinship to Gawain it is not surprising that such an episode emerges in a romance in which he must prove himself as stalwart in love as he is in battle. As he is the son of Gawain, whose own reputation includes the capacity to break magic spells and resist the temptation of a woman’s kiss, it stands to reason that this scene would be necessary to prove Lybeaus’s ability to endure this species of erotic assault, if only to provide evidence of his kinship to Gawain.93 But perhaps what is most notable about this particular narrative moment is that Lybeaus neither attempts to slay the beast nor to defend himself from her ardent embrace. Instead, he stands immobilized and awestruck as the beastly beauty makes her move.

The transformative kiss known as the fier baiser has drawn so much critical attention that it has acquired a name and a genealogy of its own. The fier baiser is a popular medieval story in which a young man is required to kiss an enchanted woman who appears in some dormant state of inaction or repulsive physical form, typically as a serpent or dragon, in order to trig­ger her transformation back to her previous condition. Versions of this motif appear in medieval narratives throughout Europe, overlapping, as Roger Sherman Loomis has demon­strated, with the loathly lady tale in which a knight is tested by his willingness to kiss (or have sex with and/or marry) an enchanted woman in the shape of an ugly hag or loathly lady.94 His willingness to grant the lady sovereignty and choice in the matter results in her trans­formation into a feminine icon and fantasy lover. Whether this transformation occurs by day or by night is typically left up to the woman to decide.95

While Loomis has argued for a Celtic nature myth as the source of these related tales, Madeleine Tyssens and Christine Ferlampin-Acher demonstrate that the snake-kiss is a pan-European folktale phenomenon, and not just a Celtic variation of the tale.96 Two versions of fier baiser tales in Great Britain have been recorded by Francis James Child in “Kempe Owyne” and “The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heughs.”97 Other variations are also in evidence. According to Laura A. Hibbard, in the Old French Gui de Warewic Guy’s son Reinburn, in what seems an inverted form of the fier baiser, must kiss Amis in order to prevent his being turned into a serpent.98 In some versions — Li Biaus Descouneüs, Lybeaus Desconus, Lanzelet, Le Roman de Belris, and L’Hystoire de Giglan, for example — the serpent/dragon woman takes the initiative, while in others — such as Carduino and Ponzela Gaia — the knight (sometimes with a little coaxing) initiates the disenchanting act.


As in the transmogrification of the enchantresses noted above, Lybeaus Desconus presents several of the knight’s opponents in ways that transform their otherwise chivalric charac­teristics into something far more sinister and threatening. Transformations of characters such as Malgiers and Lambard indicate a shift in perceptions of otherness by late medieval audiences as well as by poets. Not only is Malgiers made into a stereotypical giant named Maugis, but he is aligned with pagan idols associated with Mohammed (Mahomet). And while it is fair to say that negative portrayals may be requisites of the genre, it is also fair to point to increasing xenophobia in England at the time.99 Giants of Middle English romance, including Amoraunt and Colbrond in Guy of Warwick, Grander’s brother and Ascopart in Bevis of Hampton, the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the giant of Mont St. Michel in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, to name a few, provide a means by which a hero’s martial skills and deliberative acuity may be tested, to be sure. But also at stake in these con­frontational moments is the validation of institutional authority, since the winner of such battles was thought to be on the side of justice. That being said, there is a discernible element of fearsomeness added to depictions of larger-than-life characters who do not subscribe to the dominant values of the land.100 Lambard’s characterization accords with other giants of romance, most notably Sir Valentine in Sir Launfal, but his otherness is distinctly ethnic when he is made into a Lombard. The presence of giants is clearly nothing new to Middle English romance, but the shifting nature of their characterization provides a significant marker of changing perceptions of religion, race, and ethnicity.


That marriage is considered to be a stabilizing social force in the late Middle Ages probably goes without saying. In a romance that addresses illegitimacy, however, the subject of legitimate marriage accrues greater significance, not only for the children born out of wedlock or not knowing who their parents are, but for the couple whose illicit sexual liaison produces offspring, the procreative “good” reserved for marriage.101 According to medieval law, an illegitimate child was filius nullius and could not legally inherit property from either parent, a situation that places Lybeaus in a disadvantageous position from the start.102 Even though his parents come together in the end in one version (Naples), there is no overt indication that they marry. This leaves the rather awkward dilemma of Lybeaus’s status as re­nowned but socially disenfranchised, a dilemma resolved by his own marriage to the Lady of Synadoun. And despite the approval of this nuptial alliance by Arthur, both parties consent to an arrangement that promises to benefit each one, albeit in different ways. While the Lady of Synadoun stands to inherit a sizeable kingdom, with “Castellys fyfty and fyve” (L, line 2110), medieval law allowed such property to pass into the governing hands of a husband.103 Lybeaus/Guinglain thus gains sovereignty over the Lady of Synadoun’s land and erases his illegitimacy by the reconciliation of his parents, by their public acknowledgment of him as their son, and by his marriage to a queen.104


Readers will note that the editors do not identify possible scribal or spurious verses.105 Our decision to present both the Lambeth and Naples versions of Lybeaus Desconus was made in an effort to provide a complementary double perspective on this important narrative rather than a compilation of all extant redactions or a single tradition of manuscripts consid­ered to be “the two best copies.”106 An edition that attempts to blend all available redactions, to splice together stanzas and passages too often disjunctive in diction and phrasing, greatly affects the reading of the narrative as a whole. Likewise, a presentation of texts that represents a singular component of a complex manuscript network forecloses a full appreciation of the richness of the late medieval literary environment in England. The editors of this METS edition believe that by presenting these two versions — one that represents the central editorial tradition of the text (Lambeth) — and the other that represents the most complete of the revisions (Naples) — our readers will generate more illuminating readings of a pivotal nar­rative in the Arthurian literary corpus and come to a more comprehensive understanding of the dissemination and development of a thriving manuscript industry in the late Middle Ages.

We have followed the editorial conventions of the Middle English Text Series:
  • The Middle English letters thorn (þ) and eth (ð) have been replaced by th, and yogh (3) by g, gh, or y.
  • The use of u and v as well as i and j has been regularized in accordance with modern English practices.
  • In order to avoid confusion with the definite article the, the second person pronoun, often spelled the in the manuscripts, is regularly printed as thee.
  • Roman numerals have been replaced with their numerical equivalents in word form.
  • Manuscript abbreviations have been silently expanded throughout the text.
  • Punctuation is editorial and follows modern usage. Final e’s deemed to have syllabic value as a long vowel have been marked by an accent.
  • Word division has been silently regularized in accord with modern English practice, including compound and frequently hyphenated words.
  • Capitalization conforms with modern English practice.
  • Double ff’s have been silently emended to single f, except for words such as off.
Any other deviations from the Lambeth or Naples manuscripts have been addressed in the textual notes.

Go To Lybeaus Desconus (Lambeth Palace, MS 306)
Go To Libious Disconius (Biblioteca Nazionale, MS XIII.B.29)