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Item 18, The Knight Who Forgave His Father's Slayer: Introduction


1 Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry, p. 108.

2 On the custom of “creeping to the cross” barefoot on Good Friday, see Duffy, Strip­ping of the Altars, p. 29.

3 For the English tradition of “love-days” — settlements of disputes outside of law courts — see Bennett, “Mediaeval Loveday.”

4 See book 8, chapter 22 and book 10, chapters 19 and 20 of Caesarius of Heisterbach, Dialogus miraculorum, 2:99–100; 2:232–33.

5 See Herbert, Catalogue of Romances, 3:618.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Though many of the narratives in Ashmole 61 may be read as examples (positive or cautionary) of moral conduct, The Knight Who Forgave His Father’s Slayer is the first of several exempla, short narratives designed for the demonstration of a moral. Preachers cultivated this vast class of literature, and exempla form a category so large that it is not easily defined as a genre; historical record, natural lore, biblical episodes, and the kind of miraculous story pre­sented here all served as material for exempla. Though major col­lections of short narratives were actively compiled and circulated among preachers look­ing for assistance in writing sermons, a never-ending professional duty, the appre­ciation of exempla was not limited to the pulpit. Many of the stories told by Chaucer’s pilgrims and Boccaccio’s brigata in the Decameron trace their roots to these preachers’ collections, though it is not always possible to tell whether a preacher has adopted a popular story for use as an exemplum or whether an author has turned an exemplum into a literary enter­tainment.

The story here is from Robert Manning of Brunne’s Handlyng Synne, a loose transla­tion of the Anglo-Norman Manuel des péchés. The Anglo-Norman Manuel was meant as an aid for clergy hearing confessions and giving penance, but Robert Manning, who wrote his work between 1303 and 1317, intended Handlyng Synne as an aid to lay readers who wished to examine their consciences in preparation for confession. The story of the for­giving knight appears in his discussion of Anger, “the synne men calle Yre” (line 3703). By the time Manning translated this exemplum into Middle English verse, it had already gained wide circulation in Latin, and by the time Ashmole 61 was copied, the story ex­isted in several Middle English prose versions and one other verse rendition. In the prose versions that appear in both Latin and Middle English handbooks for preachers, the story is told tersely, presumably so that a preacher could tell it quickly and efficiently in the course of a longer sermon. Manning’s version stretches out a little; in the words of Derek Pearsall, “Mannyng loves a good story . . . and always embarks on them with the relish of a born story-teller.”1 Perhaps this explains why the story came to be detached from Manning’s larger work and presented independently in Ashmole 61.

At the climax of the story, a crucifix recognizes the triumph of mercy over anger by clasping the young knight who chooses to spare his father’s slayer. The miracle is en­tire­ly appropriate. The cycle of vengeance established at the beginning of the story seems dead­locked until Good Friday, when the older knight sees the faithful marching barefoot to church to honor the day on which Christ was crucified.2 The importance of the timing (not acknowledged in all surviving versions of the story, but emphasized strongly in Mirk’s Festial, which inserts this story in a sermon for Good Friday) is never fully stated, but it would not need to be for medieval readers. The Crucifixion represented Christ’s merciful assumption of the guilt imposed on mankind, and thus the release from God’s justifiable anger at Adam’s original sin. It was not only a traditional day for the forgiveness of dis­putes, but the anni­versary of the most important act of forgiveness celebrated by the Church.3

The miracle of a crucifix responding to exceptional instances of human sin or virtue appears in various stories; though not as venerated a holy object as the Eucharist and not the subject of as many legends, the crucifix and the sign of the cross have considerable miraculous powers in medieval literature. Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles, one of the most important repositories of exempla, includes accounts of a crucifix that il­luminated a dark chapel for a devout woman who spent the night there, and two in­stances of crucifixes bleeding after being pierced by warfaring knights.4 British Library Addi­tional MS 18364, a collection from a variety of sources, includes a tale in which a monk who has decided to aban­don his monastery sings a hymn to the cross, and then finds every exit barred by a crucifix.5 But in The Knight Who Forgave His Father’s Slayer, the miraculous power of the cross is not the subject of attention. Instead, the bending crucifix points to an even greater miracle, mercy.

Manuscript Context

This item shares connections of genre and style with two other exempla in Ashmole 61, The Jealous Wife and The Incestuous Daughter (items 22 and 23); the latter also reaches its climax on Good Friday. Though generically quite different, A Prayer at the Levation (item 17) shares a similar sense of Christ’s divine presence in the liturgy and liturgical objects of the Church, and seeks the kind of forgiveness touched upon in The Knight Who Forgave His Father’s Slayer.

Perhaps the most interesting connections are between this text and the romance that follows it, The Erle of Tolous (item 19), which also begins with a feud and ends with forgive­ness. The Crucifixion and the resulting Redemption are the subject of The Northern Passion and The Short Charter of Christ (items 28 and 29), and in a slightly more elliptical form The King and His Four Daughters (item 26) treats this doctrine as well.


Though this text appears in copies of Handlyng Synne, Ashmole 61 is the only manu­script to preserve it independently. Another very similar Middle English verse version ap­pears in The Northern Homily Cycle and independently in several manuscripts. Rate’s copy­ing, with the exception of some of his usual dropped word endings and one instance of confused pronouns, is not noticeably defective; his text follows the text of Handlyng Synne quite closely.

Printed Editions

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge mit Einleitung und Annerkungen. Pp. 339–41. [Prints the text of Ashmole 61.]

Manning, Robert. Robert of Brunne’s Handlyng Synne. Ed. F. J. Furnivall. 2 vols. EETS o.s. 119, 123. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1901, 1903. Rpt. Millwood, NY: Kraus Reprint, 1973. Pp. 130–33, lines 3797–3914.

———. Robert Manning of Brunne: Handlyng Synne. Ed. Idelle Sullens. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 14. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Ren­aissance Texts and Studies, 1983. [Collates Ashmole 61.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 516 (full entry under 778)
MWME, 3555 (for Handlyng Synne, see
Tubach, Frederic C. Index Exemplorum. Helsinki: Suomal­ainen Tiedeakatemia, 1969. [Lists various versions in exempla collections; see #1375]

See also Banks, Brandeis, Horstmann (1877), Lipton, Mirk (1905), Owst, and Rosen­wein in the bibliography.

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