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Bevis of Hampton: Introduction


1 The six manuscripts referred to do not include fragments found in Douce MS 19.

2 A. C. Baugh, "The Making of Beves of Hampton," Bibliographic Studies in Honor of Rudolf Hirsch, ed. William E. Miller and Thomas G. Waldman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), p. 34.

3 See Judith Weiss, "The Major Interpolation in Sir Beves of Hamtoun," Medium Aevum 48 (1979), 71-79. Laura [Hibbard] Loomis adds a third scene to the two described by Weiss, i.e., the Christmas battle. See Mediæval Romance in England: A Study in the Source and Analogues of the Non-Cyclic Metrical Romances (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), p. 116.

4 On the relationship between Bevis and its Anglo-Norman source, see Baugh, pp. 17-23.

5 Baugh, p. 15. See also Laura Hibbard Loomis, Mediæval Romance in England (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), p. 115.

6 Dieter Mehl, The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 213.

7 See Douglas Kelly, The Art of Medieval French Romance (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).

8 W. R. J. Barron, English Medieval Romance (London: Longman, 1987), p. 217.

Bevis of Hampton (c. 1324) is a romance that has it all: a hero whose exploits take him from callow youth to hard-won maturity to a serene and almost sanctified death; a resourceful and appealing heroine; faithful servants and dynastic intrigue; a parade of interesting villains, foreign and domestic, exotic and local; a geographical sweep which moves back and forth from England to the Near East and through most of western Europe; battles with dragons and giants; forced marriages and episodes of domestic violence; a myriad of disguises and mistaken identities; harsh imprisonments with dramatic escapes, harrowing rescues, violent urban warfare; and, last but not least, a horse of such valor that his death at the end of the poem is at least as tragic as that of the heroine, and almost as tragic as that of Bevis himself. Not surprisingly, however, this much variety makes the poem a difficult one to characterize with any degree of certainty. And several other factors make it a poem which is perhaps easier to enjoy than to evaluate accurately.

The Text of Bevis

One of these complicating factors is textual. Unlike the other romances in this volume, which survive in only one or two manuscripts, there are six manuscripts of Bevis, and the relationship between them is complex.1 A. C. Baugh's conclusion is that the six extant manuscripts - descended from a lost earlier Middle English version of the poem, which in turn is descended from the Anglo-Norman Boeuve de Haumton - are so different from each other that "[i]nstead of speaking of a single Middle English romance of Bevis of Hampton it would be more in accordance with the facts to say that we have at least five versions, each of which is entitled to be considered a separate romance."2 Our decision to edit the A version (the Auchinleck MS) was not especially problematic; indeed, it was the obvious decision, since this manuscript is recognized as the most complete and also, as scholarly consensus suggests, the best. Nonetheless, it is important to be forthright in acknowledging that what we have done is present "a" version of Bevis rather than "the" definitive version.

The wide variation in manuscripts would certainly seem to be unusual, at least from the point of view of somewhat more "canonical" texts - Biblical and classical - which were held in such awe by medieval authors that they dared not alter them. As Baugh puts it, a "Biblical text was protected by the sanctity of the work, a classical text by the fame of the author. One did not try to improve on Virgil" (p. 17). What happens when a text is protected neither by sanctity nor sufficient authorial fame? Since so many of the Middle English romances survive in only a single manuscript, this is not always a relevant question. But, in the case of an anonymous, non-canonical poem such as Bevis of Hampton, its relevance is significant.

Baugh's own explanation for the great differences among the existing manuscripts of Bevis is that the written texts represent versions based on oral recitations from minstrels relying on memory and not unwilling to resort to improvisation when memory failed (p. 34). Whether or not one accepts his conclusion, it is clear from a comparison of the Bevis manuscripts that the vast textual differences cannot be accounted for by claiming either scribal variation or serendipitous oral performance. Not only are words changed, but entire scenes as well. Bevis' battle with the dragon which likens him to St. George, the patron saint of England, and the descriptive urban war in London, for example, do not appear in the Anglo-Norman version.3 Likewise, from the textual evidence available, it is also clear that the lost Middle English original from which the Auchinleck manuscript descends was in no sense an attempt to translate literally the French of the Anglo-Norman version. Rather, while retaining fidelity to what Baugh calls "incident and idea," the "author" of the original Middle English text felt free to paraphrase and even to invent.4

This brief textual history reminds us that what survives is a Bevis tradition rather than a singular Bevis text, though it would be an exaggeration to compare it too closely to a Troilus tradition, for example. But the way in which the story of Troilus and Criseyde is developed by a writer such as Chaucer can at least be suggestive of what we mean here. In composing Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer meticulously translated blocks of narrative from the Italian Il Filostrato written by his predecessor Boccaccio. Yet much, if not most of what he does, is something more than a literal translation of his illustrious predecessor, something more aptly described as imaginative recreation. The proportion between imitation and individuality is perhaps reversed in the various versions of Bevis - for all their differences, there are still greater similarities in the surviving manuscripts than between Boccaccio and Chaucer - and we are not claiming that anything like the individual genius of Chaucer (or Boccaccio) has put a stamp on any of the later versions of the poem. But the "tradition" of Bevis apparently continued to interest a wide number of people over a long period of time, apart from the authority of any individual text. Baugh writes:

The story's popularity continued on into the sixteenth and even the seventeenth century when various early printed editions appeared. Like the story of Guy of Warwick, it doubtless owed something of its popularity to national pride, but it is a good story in itself and was told three times in French verse, even at great length, to say nothing of versions in Celtic, Old Norse, Dutch, Italian, even in Romanian, Russian, and Yiddish.5

Bevis as an Episodic Narrative

A second interesting aspect of Bevis concerns the shape of the poem itself, more specifically the verse form. The first 475 lines of the poem are written in six-line tail-rhyme stanzas. Then, for reasons that remain unexplained, there is a switch and the rest of the romance, over 4000 lines, is written in couplets. Rather than attempt to posit another theory to account for this change, perhaps we can do no more than suggest what it points toward, which is the highly episodic nature of the work. Dieter Mehl confidently divides the romance into five parts of almost equal sections of 900 lines each, and suggests the obvious reason for these breaks - ease in recitation at different intervals.6 These narrative episodes in Bevis are largely self-sufficient, without the kind of interlace that is characteristic of, for example, the French romances of Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century which are carefully conjoined both structurally and thematically into the larger fabric of the work.7 Nevertheless, both the dynastic and the personal characteristics of the story are tied up at the end, allowing Mehl to say that Bevis is "indeed a unified whole" (p. 216).

While it would be too much even to describe all of the hero's adventures, a brief summary is useful at the outset to provide the reader with the flavor of an episodic plot that is so complex as to challenge even the best of memories.

Episode One:

Like many of the poems of the thirteenth century, this one begins with the death of the hero's father - Guy of Hampton who, in his old age, decides that he needs to produce an heir for his estate. For this purpose he requests marriage to the beautiful young daughter of the King of Scotland, who agrees to the suit without his daughter's consent. Thus arranged, the marriage commences and soon Bevis is born. By the time Bevis is seven years old, however, his mother has become discontent with marriage to a man who spends more time in church than in her boudoir, and she plots his murder. To accomplish the deed she sends a messenger to her former lover, the Emperor of Germany, with an invitation to invade England and murder Sir Guy. Bevis' mother then feigns an illness which requires, as remedy, the blood of a boar that resides at the agreed-upon battle site; persuaded by her imploring rhetoric and her convincing theatrical skill, Sir Guy is duped into combat. Caught by surprise and hopelessly outnumbered by the emperor's army, the hapless earl must beg for mercy; the request is honored by immediate decapitation. Sir Guy's head is then sent to Bevis' mother, who invites the emperor to her bedchamber that very night. Soon the conspirators are married.

This places Bevis in a difficult position, since he is the rightful heir to his father's earldom; for this reason alone the conspirators would kill him. Yet when Bevis, a precocious seven-year-old, calls his mother a "vile whore" and voices his wish to have her executed in the most horrible manner, he unwittingly provides his mother with additional incentive to destroy him. She commands Saber, his teacher, to kill the boy and provide proof of his death. Reluctant to do the deed, however, Saber kills a swine, sprinkles its blood upon the boy's clothes, and vows to send him from harm's way. Bevis takes matters into his own hands; he gains entry into the castle by killing the porter and vehemently attacks his stepfather. Outraged, Bevis' mother requisitions four knights to sell the boy to merchants, and soon Bevis finds himself on a ship headed for the Near East.

Bevis, who seems doomed, finds solace in the Armenian court of King Ermin. When the king hears the boy's woeful story, he welcomes him with the hope that one day he will become a devotee to Mohammed and carry the king's banner in battle. Even when Bevis refuses to convert, the king admires him and arranges that the boy be trained in the manner of all young Armenian warriors. When Bevis turns fifteen, his training has been completed and it is time for his first test of prowess in the field. But before an appropriate venue can be found, Bevis is goaded into a defensive attack by an insult made by one of the king's men. The king is not pleased when he learns that Bevis has annihilated some of his best men; he would hang him for treason but his beautiful daughter, Josian, intercedes, arguing that the novice warrior acted only in self-defense. Showing his grievous wounds Bevis again elicits the king's admiration, and when he reverses his judgment, Josian provides medical aid. This marks the beginning of her love for Bevis.

The episode ends with a battle between Bevis and a vicious, man-eating boar. In a contest that takes all day, Bevis finally makes the kill by inserting his sword in the beast's open mouth and carving its heart in two. He then cuts off the boar's head which he initially plans to present to Josian. Those plans change, however, when Bevis is attacked by an envious steward and several of the king's men. In protecting himself, Bevis slays his attackers and cuts off the steward's head. But rather than take the steward's head to the king to expose the steward's treachery, Bevis delivers the boar's head in its place. Meanwhile, Josian has witnessed the entire event from her tower and falls ever more deeply in love with this amazing young man.

Episode Two:

King Brademond requests Josian's hand in marriage, threatening to destroy Ermin's kingdom should he refuse. The act provokes hostilities and provides Bevis an opportunity to demonstrate his martial prowess which by this time is fully endorsed by Josian. The king agrees to dub the young man and presents him with a special sword named Morgelai and an extraordinary horse named Arondel, both of which prove invaluable during the course of Bevis' career. Thus armed and mobilized, Bevis leads a host of thirty thousand into battle against King Redefoun, Brademond's ally; sixty thousand Saracens are slain. When Brademond witnesses the carnage he flees, only to be caught and challenged to hand-to-hand combat with Bevis himself. When Brademond realizes that this battle could be his last, he cries for mercy. But rather than cut off his head, as the Emperor of Germany had done to his father, Bevis extracts, instead, Brademond's promise of homage to King Ermin.

When Bevis returns to the victory celebration, Josian declares her love for him. But Bevis is taken aback by her assertive behavior and declines her willingness to submit to him in any way. Angry and frustrated at his rejection, she calls him a churl, an insult to which he responds by retreating to the nearest inn. Not easily dissuaded, however, Josian sends her messenger, Bonefas, with an apology. In acknowledgment Bevis sends her a white silk mantle, the extravagance of which compels Josian to seek him out herself. Reluctant to talk with her, however, Bevis feigns sleep, but Josian persists and in a desperate plea for his love, pledges conversion to Christianity. At this magnanimous gesture, Bevis acquiesces and they seal their reconciliation and future together with a kiss. Meanwhile, smoldering with anger and envy, Brademond starts a rumor that Bevis has deflowered Josian; when her father hears it, he orders Bevis to take a letter to Brademond demanding Bevis' death; the newly dubbed knight is ordered to leave his sword and horse at home. Meanwhile, back in England, Saber sends his son, Terri, to find Bevis.

Terri's search takes him all over Europe and the Middle East where he soon meets Bevis while both are seeking repose under a tree one day. Terri, who has never met the man he has been sent to find, does not recognize Bevis. But when he asks this stranger whether he has heard about a child sold to the Saracens, Bevis reveals his identity and a nostalgic scene ensues; it is followed by a brief discussion of the letter Bevis is delivering to Brademond. Bevis knows nothing of its contents and suspects neither the king's betrayal nor Brademond's treacherous motives. Before they part, Bevis requests Terri to take a message to Saber to spread a rumor in England that he is dead. Terri agrees and they separate, going in opposite directions. When Bevis reaches Damascus he commits an impious act against the Saracen gods (throws them in the dirt) before presenting himself to Brademond. When Brademond reads King Ermin's letter of betrayal, he personally restrains the young man while his men subdue him and cast him into a pit twenty fathoms deep. In this deep, dark prison Bevis is bound to a great stone and fed only bread and water.

The scene then switches to Josian who does not know what her father has done. When she asks Bevis' whereabouts, he tells her that her beloved has married an English princess; Josian is grief stricken. This is the point at which King Yvor enters the narrative by proposing a marriage suit that is almost immediately granted by Josian's father. Yvor not only acquires Josian in this deal, but also Arondel, Bevis' wonder horse which Yvor soon discovers can be ridden only by one man. When he is unceremoniously thrown, Yvor commands that Arondel be fettered and chained in a manner reminiscent of Bevis' punishment. Meanwhile, back in his pit, Bevis is attacked by a venomous snake that scars his forehead for life. Now in his seventh year of imprisonment, Bevis is so overwhelmed by despair that in desperation he prays for help; shortly thereafter there appears an opportunity to dispatch his wardens. Another prayer frees him from the great stone and he climbs out of the prison, rearms himself, and finds a horse to make his escape. He dupes the porter into opening the castle gates and rides until he can ride no farther. Then in a state of utter fatigue he falls asleep and dreams that Brademond and seven kings are about to kill him. Startled into wakefulness he rides like a madman until inevitably Brademond's search party catches up with him. One of the kings in the group, King Grander, challenges Bevis to combat and soon loses his life. Bevis quickly confiscates Grander's horse, Trenchefis, and with Brademond's men in hot pursuit, horse and rider leap into the sea and swim for their lives.

Episode Three:

What would seem to be a trivial event launches the third episode - when Trenchefis arises from the sea, shaking himself dry, he inadvertently throws the enervated Bevis to the ground which jars the knight's memory of the horse he left behind. This remembrance spurs him to continue riding until he finds a town that he soon discovers is under siege by a giant, the brother of King Grander. When the giant recognizes Bevis' steed as his brother's, he attacks and accidentally kills his brother's horse. Horseless and wounded, Bevis prevails nonetheless, liberating the townspeople by defeating their oppressor. Grateful, they tend to his wounds until he is ready to continue his journey. On the way he stops off in Jerusalem to visit with a patriarch who tells him to marry no woman unless she is a virgin. This reminds Bevis that he has also left Josian in Armenia, a memory that triggers an adjustment to the purpose of his journey.

When he arrives at the Armenian court he learns that Josian has been married off to King Yvor, who has also acquired Morgelai and Arondel. This triple affront prompts Bevis to press on to Mombraunt, Yvor's stronghold, with intent to recuperate his losses. When he arrives, Yvor is out hunting whereupon Bevis disguises himself as a beggar to gain an audience with Josian, who has already acquired a reputation for generosity toward the needy. When she asks the homeless and transient group before her whether anyone has heard about a man named Bevis, Bevis, in disguise, replies in the affirmative. But before revealing his identity he arranges to see the imprisoned wonder horse. When Arondel shows signs of immediate recognition, Josian realizes who the pilgrim is and reminds Bevis of their tacit betrothal. But since she is already married and presumably not a virgin anymore, Bevis rescinds his commitment. Josian persists in her claim that she has remained a virgin despite her marriage to Yvor and dares him to find anyone to prove otherwise. Meanwhile, her servant Bonefas strongly urges escape since the king is expected back at any moment. Yvor soon arrives but when he is told that his brother, the King of Dabilent, is under siege, he bequeaths guardianship of the city to Garcy, an elderly king, and departs. Bevis and his cohorts drug Garcy in order to escape. But because Garcy is a necromancer he can see in his magic ring where they have gone and instructs a formidable giant named Ascopard to track them and kill Bevis.

Meanwhile, Bevis and company hide in a cave where they soon grow very hungry. When Bevis goes out to hunt, leaving Bonefas and Josian alone, they are attacked by two ferocious lions. The beasts kill Bonefas and his horse, but leave Josian, who is protected by her virginity, unharmed. When Bevis returns, he too is attacked and when Josian offers to help him fight, Bevis refuses for the insult to his masculine pride. He gets wounded in a prolonged fight but finally defeats both lions. Bevis sets Josian upon a mule, and they ride forth. Soon they meet Ascopard whose ambush provokes angry retaliation from Bevis. Josian intercedes successfully this time and recruits Ascopard as Bevis' page before either is killed. Together the three find a ship filled with Saracens whom Ascopard quickly dispatches; he then carries Bevis, Josian and her mule, and Arondel to the ship and they sail away to Cologne. There they meet with Bevis' uncle Saber (not to be confused with his teacher back in England) who is a Florentine bishop. Bevis requests that Josian and Ascopard be baptized into the Christian faith. Josian willingly accepts, but Ascopard rejects the offer, saying that he is too large to fit into the baptismal font.

In Cologne there is a dragon whose origin prompts a minor digression. The dragon is one of two kings magically transformed after a twenty-four-year battle, until a hermit prays for their demise. One then flies to Tuscany where it takes up residence under a cliff at Cologne; the other flies to Rome where every seven years it raises a stench that makes the local folks sick. Before his battle with the beast of Cologne commences, Bevis dreams that he is attacked and covered with its venom. Shaken by the premonition, he asks Ascopard whether they should fight the beast together. At first Ascopard agrees, but when he realizes the dangers of such an endeavor he declines the invitation.

Episode Four:

Bevis' battle with the dragon carries on for days, wearing down the hero's strength. Nearby, however, there is a well made holy, legend says, by the bathing of a virgin. The weary and desperate Bevis drinks from the well and calls on St. George for help. Miraculously, he regains his strength to continue the fight until the dragon spews forth its venom, rendering Bevis' premonitory dream true. His armor bursts; his skin becomes leprous; he cries for divine aid. The third time he is thrown into the well, he recovers his courage, his leprous skin is healed, and as a whole man he assails the dragon again. The hero soon prevails, cuts the dragon's tongue out, and displays it for the liberated townspeople to see. Then in a quiet moment, Bevis seeks counsel from Saber Florentine about his patrimony in England; the bishop advises him to go back and fight. Bevis arranges to leave and assigns Ascopard the task of protecting Josian.

The scene then switches to Josian who has been admired from afar by an earl named Miles. In order to entice Ascopard away from her, the earl sends him a false letter from Bevis and when Ascopard is safely removed, Miles forces Josian into wedlock. Josian, whose will is not to be taken lightly, murders him on their wedding night before the marriage is consummated. The next day her deed is discovered, however, and she is condemned to death. By the time Ascopard breaks away from his imprisonment and gets to Josian, Bevis is already there; he berates the giant for neglecting his guard duties, but after Ascopard offers a rational explanation of events, Bevis' anger is assuaged; together they rescue Josian and sail back to the Isle of Wight.

Bevis enters Hampton disguised as a Frenchman named Gerard and consults with the emperor about procuring military support in a fight against Saber, who by this time has become the emperor's sworn enemy. The cover story works, and a poignant reunion between Bevis and his beloved teacher ensues on the Isle of Wight. Bevis then orders a messenger to return to the emperor to disclose his deception. The emperor is so enraged by the duping that he flings his knife at the messenger and accidentally kills his own son. The messenger then insults the emperor - too much sex has distorted your vision!

During the culminating battle against the emperor, Bevis soon finds himself face to face with his stepfather who is rescued before Bevis can kill him. However, where Bevis fails Ascopard succeeds, and he soon delivers the emperor to Saber's castle where he is thrown into a kettle of molten lead. When Bevis' mother witnesses her husband's gruesome demise, she falls from her tower and breaks her neck. Bevis thus regains his patrimony and sends for Josian and his uncle the bishop to officiate at their wedding. Shortly thereafter, Josian is pregnant with twins.

Bevis requests an audience with the English monarch, King Edgar, in order to gain proper recognition of his reacquired estates. The king, impressed with the courageous man before him, not only renders approbation but also makes Bevis his marshal. The king's son admires Bevis' horse, but Arondel kicks him and the prince dies. King Edgar is very angry and condemns Bevis to death until his barons convince him that only the horse should be put to death. But Bevis would rather relinquish his estates than lose Arondel again. So Bevis, the pregnant Josian, Terri, Ascopard, and Arondel leave for Armenia. When Terri is made Bevis' page, Ascopard begins to plot his betrayal.

Episode Five:

King Yvor receives Ascopard and demands that he abduct Josian. Ascopard, now a traitor, kidnaps Josian immediately after she has given birth to twin sons - Miles and Guy - while Bevis and Terri are off building a hut for her. Her abductors beat her with their swords, bind her hands, and carry her away, leaving her infants unattended. When Bevis and Terri return, they find the boys alone and soon foster them - one to a forester and the other to a fisherman - with instructions to baptize them. Meanwhile, Josian makes herself appear leprous so that the king might be more likely to reject her. The strategy works: he sends her away into the wilderness with Ascopard as her guard.

Bevis and Terri have no idea where Josian has been taken, but come across a tournament being fought for the hand of the princess of Aumbeforce. Bevis and Terri enter and when Bevis demonstrates his prowess the princess wants to marry him. He objects, citing a wife as an impediment to such a marriage, but the persistent princess makes him a deal he cannot refuse. They will live in marital chastity for seven years after which time consummation would occur. Should Josian return before that time, however, the princess agrees to separate from Bevis and wed Terri in his place.

Back in Hampton, Saber dreams that Bevis is on his way to the shrines of St. James and St. Giles. When Saber's wife interprets the dream - i.e., Bevis has lost either his wife or child - the concerned Saber, with twelve of his knights, initiates another search. They discover the castle in which Ascopard has imprisoned Josian; when she calls to them from the tower they attack. Saber kills Ascopard in battle, then he and Josian alone resume the search for Bevis and Terri. During their wanderings, Saber falls ill and Josian supports them both through her minstrelsy. She prays that Saber will be healed, and finally he is. They continue on their way and eventually find Bevis and Terri. Another poignant reunion takes place.

Josian and Bevis are soon reunited with their children, and Terri is wedded to the princess of Aumbeforce. Together they help King Ermin battle Yvor. Bevis beats Yvor in combat and sends him to Ermin for judgment only to have him ransomed rather than executed. King Ermin dies shortly thereafter making Bevis' son Guy his heir. Together Bevis and Guy convert all of Armenia to Christianity, and Saber goes home to England. A thief from Yvor's court steals Arondel, which prompts another of Saber's premonitory dreams, and compels his return to Armenia to retrieve the horse with several of Yvor's knights in pursuit. Bevis' sons prove themselves in battle and rescue Saber from certain death. A confrontation between Bevis and Yvor takes place on a small nearby island. Inevitably, Yvor is defeated and Bevis is crowned king of Mombraunt in his place. At this point a messenger arrives from England to report that King Edgar has confiscated Saber's son's land, and Bevis promises to aid Saber in a war against the English king. When they arrive, Bevis leaves his army at Hampton, rides to London to make a courteous appeal for restoration of the land. The king receives him and is about to comply with his request when suddenly dissent erupts from his steward. Proclaiming Bevis an outlaw and a traitor, a provocative action indeed, the steward is pursued to Cheapside where an intense street battle commences. News that Bevis has been killed reaches Josian back in Hampton, and she sends her two sons to avenge his death. Instead, Guy rescues his father with his brother's help and victory is proclaimed. Josian is then brought to London for the celebration.

King Edgar offers his only daughter to Miles in marriage. Bevis bequeaths his property and earldom to Saber, and, together, Bevis, Josian, and Guy go back to Armenia where Guy is king. Bevis and Josian continue on to Mombraunt where they live and rule for twenty years until Josian becomes ill. At about the same time Bevis finds Arondel dead in his stall. Soon afterward, Josian and Bevis die together in a poignant embrace. Guy orders that his parents be interred in a newly constructed chapel dedicated to St. Lawrence. He also founds a religious house where songs for their souls and for the soul of the great horse Arondel are to be sung every day.

Realism and the Exotic in Bevis

The Anglo-Norman version of Bevis is, as Barron suggests, rooted in the need to establish a native ancestry for a new set of rulers.8 While this dynastic impulse is still surely present in the Middle English versions, with a pre-conquest hero dressed in the garb and the virtues of present-day England, the poem's most characteristic virtues have at least as much to do with adventure as with ideology. The incredible geographic sweep - which gets more and more misty and impressionistic the farther we go from England - is perhaps a way of placing England within the larger rhythms of world history, but it is also a way to have adventure on the grandest possible scale. As in the other romances in this volume, especially Havelok, there is an intriguing combination of the exotic and supernatural combined with very realistic detail, local color, and homey touches. In Bevis, miraculous escapes from prison are juxtaposed with the naming and the description of actual streets in Cheapside. The final set of battles is one particularly impressive example of using local scenes to energize the story.

Bevis of Hampton was one of the best known and most popular of the Middle English romances (Mehl, p. 211). Yet critical response has not always been kind to our hero, whose story seems in part to be a victim of its own popularity. In the conclusion to English Medieval Romances, W. R. J. Barron comes close to damning the poem with only the slightest touch of accompanying faint praise, writing that "[t]he English versions of Bevis and Guy [of Warwick] are competent but somewhat vulgarized, given to the reduplication of striking effects, paying lip-service to the hero's values while almost wholly preoccupied by their adventures" (p. 233). This characterization of Bevis is probably both accurate and at the same time unfair. Bevis is first and foremost an adventure story. But if the values of the hero are not particularly deep, they are nonetheless heartfelt, and expressed with admirable verve. And we should be reluctant to underestimate the value of a good adventure story or the difficulty of producing one. Its energy and its variety, perhaps more than anything, are what enable modern readers to understand its earlier popularity and also to respond to it in the present.

Go To Bevis of Hampton
Select Bibliography


Auchinleck MS, fols. 176-201.
University Library, Cambridge Ff. 2.38.
Caius College, Cambridge, Gonville and Caius 175.
Royal Library, Naples, XIII, B 29.
Duke of Sutherland (now Egerton 2862).
Chetham Library, no. 8009, Manchester.
Douce fragments, No. 19.
Early printed text by Wynkyn de Worde.


Kölbing, Eugen, ed. The Romance of Sir Beves of Hamtoun. EETS e.s. 46, 48, 65. London: Kegan Paul, Trench Trübner & Co., 1885-94, rpt. as 1 vol., 1973.

Related Studies

Baldwin, Charles Sears. Three Medieval Centuries of Literature in England 1100-1400. New York: Phaeton Press, 1968. Pp. 109-12, 255-56. [Study of several genres in their historical contexts.]

Barron, W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. London: Longman, 1987. [Though the analysis of Bevis is by no means extensive, references are useful in that they place the work in the larger context of a Middle English romance tradition.]

Baugh, A. C. "The Making of Beves of Hampton." Bibliographical Studies in Honor of Rudolf Hirsch. Ed. William E. Miller and Thomas G. Waldman. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974. Pp. 15-37. [This study is important not only for the textual tradition of Bevis, but for its insights with respect to a Middle English romance tradition generally.]

Bennett, J. A. W. Middle English Literature. Ed. Douglas Gray. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. Pp. 91, 125-26, 194. [General information.]

Brownrigg, Linda. "The Taymouth Hours and the Romance of Beves of Hampton." English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700 1 (1989), 222-41. [Looks for stylistic similarities between Bevis and one of the outstanding contemporary examples of English MS illumi-nation.]

Burrow, J. A. Essays on Medieval Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. Pp. 63, 68, 107. [Argues Chaucer's use of Bevis in Sir Thopas.]

Jacobs, Nicolas. "Sir Degarré, Lay le Freine, Beves of Hamtoun, and the 'Auchinleck Bookshop."' Notes and Queries 227 (Aug. 1982), 294-301. [Demonstrates the inter-relatedness of these Auchinleck romances. Draws parallels between the dragon fight in Degaré and that in Bevis.]

Kane, George. Middle English Literature: A Critical Study of the Romances, the Religious Lyrics, Piers Plowman. London: Methuen, 1951. Pp. 10, 27, 46, 50-51, 58. [Situates Bevis in the romance tradition.]

Kinghorn, A. M. The Chorus of History: Literary-Historical Relations in Renaissance Britain. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1971. Pp. 146-47. [Shows the popularity of Bevis in MS and printed editions in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.]

Loomis, Laura A. [Hibbard]. Mediæval Romance in England. London: Oxford University Press, 1924; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1960. [A comprehensive study of sources and analogues.]

Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968. Pp. 211-21. [A good treatment of the structure of Bevis, despite a disconcerting and misleading tendency to call the work a novel.]

Weiss, Judith. "The Major Interpolation in Sir Beues of Hamtoun." Medium Aevum 48 (1979), 71-76. [Changes made to the Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone have the effect of "stamping the ineradicable basic Englishness of its hero firmly on our minds at the close of the romance" (p. 76).]