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Item 20, Lybeaus Desconus: Introduction


1 Le Bel Inconnu (sometimes known by the alternate title Li Biaus Descouneüs) was formerly attrib­uted to a Renaut (or Renauld) de Beaujeu, but recent scholarship has argued that this author’s family name was de Bâgé (see Renaut, Le Bel Inconnu, pp. ix–xii).

2 Knight, "Social Function of Middle English Romances," p. 105.

3 M. Mills, "Composition and Style," p. 89.

4 For further discussion of the style of tail-rhyme romances, see the General Introduction and the introduction to Sir Isumbras (item 5).

5 M. Mills, "Medieval Reviser at Work."

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Lybeaus Desconus was written sometime in the middle of the fourteenth century, possibly by a minor poet named Thomas Chestre. Another Arthurian romance, Sir Launfal, is securely ascribed to Chestre, but the attribution of Lybeaus Desconus to him can only be made on the basis of lexical and formal similarities; a third romance, the Southern Octavian, is ascribed to him on similar grounds. Little else is known about Chestre, so the attribution is more a matter of convenience than a crucial contextualization. Hereafter (and in the notes) Chestre is referred to as the author, though interested readers should see the relevant works in the bibliography below for opinions on this attribution.

The story begins by introducing a character familiar from various romances, "the Fair Unknown." Such characters arrive at cultured courts, without apparent family or wealth, and demand to be knighted. Often, as is the case with Gyngeleyne in Lybeaus Desconus, the Fair Unknown is a rustic, rough around the edges from a wild country upbringing, and does not fully know his own paternity. Several continental romances feature similar heroes, as do the Middle English romances of Sir Perceval of Galles, Sir Degaré, Malory's Tale of Sir Gareth, and book 1 of Spenser's Faerie Queene. The Fair Unknown may be quickly knighted, but must earn his reputation through repeated trials before finally acquiring maturity, property, and (as in the case of Gyngeleyne, Perceval, and Gareth) a wife. In Ashmole 61's version of Lybeaus Desconus, as in the case of Spenser's Redcrosse Knight, Gyngeleyne also learns his true name and his paternity at the close of the poem, thus completing his acquisition of a social identity.

A thirteenth-century romance by Renaut de Bâgé, Le Bel Inconnu, closely resembles Chestre's Lybeaus Desconus, but various crucial differences suggest that the Middle English poem either draws from additional sources or is based on a lost French text that bears an unknown relationship to Renaut's Bel Inconnu.1 In both Le Bel Inconnu and Lybeaus Desconus, Gyngeleyne sets out from Arthur's court in order to rescue the Lady of Synadone and engages in various adventures on the way: a fight with a guardian of a ford or bridge, William Dolebraunce, and a later encounter with William's avenging family; the rescue of a maiden from two giants; a competition for a hawk; a battle with a hunter (Sir Otys de Lyle); a battle with Magus, the guardian of the Yl d'Ore, followed by a stay with the sorceress of the Yl d'Ore; and victory over the necromancers, Mabon and Irain, who hold the Lady of Synadone captive. The order of these adventures is not the same in the two romances, and Lybeaus Desconus also borrows motifs and themes present in other romance material.

The most crucial changes Chestre seems to have brought to his material are the kind that often mark Middle English adaptations of French romances: abridgment, simplification of "courtly" eros, and a more insistent emphasis on action. In the case of Lybeaus Desconus, these changes diminish the importance of Gyngeleyne's passage from rude rustic to courtly hero. As Lybeaus Desconus, Gyngeleyne is headstrong and unafraid of combat, but his rashness is not consistently emphasized. He ignores the warnings of his travel companions, but does not generally offend his antagonists with rude speech, as Percival does in many of the romances that describe his maturation. One exception is Gyngeleyne/Lybeaus's rude behavior with Sir Otys over a disputed hunting dog, but even that encounter ends with an eventual (and surprising) reconciliation.

Despite this diminished emphasis on the hero's rusticity, the narrative retains its basic shape as a story of Gyngeleyne's ascent into social prominence. Stephen Knight argues that Lybeaus Desconus "develops a series of problems associated with a knight's rise to power and maintenance of that position, exploring the fourteenth-century specifics of title, exclusion, devolution and competitive assertiveness."2 In this competitive and demanding world, Gyngeleyne's fearless aggressiveness becomes a social asset rather than a liability. Whether he initiates a fight to win a captured maiden, a falcon, a hound, or simply to demonstrate his willingness to fight, the romance consistently rewards his instincts, even when the initial motivations seem foolhardy or even self-destructive.

Lybeaus Desconus has received little critical praise from modern scholars, who cite its lack of psychological depth, its failure to reproduce the subtlety of its sources, and its general inattention to detail as examples of Middle English romance's tendency toward mediocrity. Even the editor of the standard modern edition has called Chestre's composition "consistently inept and careless."3 This disparagement got an early start by Chaucer's inclusion of "sir Lybeux" in the heroes he compares to Sir Thopas (CT VII[B2]900). Since the Tale of Sir Thopas is a mercilessly funny burlesque of tail-rhyme romance, inclusion in this dubious pantheon has tended to color subsequent views of the poem.

A more informed understanding of the virtues of the tail-rhyme romances can help qualify this judgment.4 And while Lybeaus Desconus may always suffer in comparison to its French analogues, its original audience would have been unlikely to make such comparisons and might have appreciated it on its own merits. The text survives in six manuscripts, all from the fifteenth century or later, which suggests some popularity. Various scenes might have been particularly compelling when read aloud to an audience, such as the final combat in the enchanted hall of Mabon and Irain, with its mysterious minstrels and shaking walls. Just as his father Gawain earned a reputation for impeccable courtesy in other Arthurian romances, Gyngeleyne retains his pluck and composure in demanding circumstances, whether he is being struck by a sizzling boar on a spit or finding clothes for a naked woman who appeared only moments before in the form of a serpent. The poetry rarely goes beyond the common formulas of the tail-rhyme romances, but these formulas are chosen for their excitement and efficiency.

Manuscript Context

Rate seems to have chosen this and other texts on the basis of their value for entertainment, but the audience of Ashmole 61 may have also appreciated Lybeaus Desconus for his industriousness and service; Arthur never regrets knighting him, and he becomes a model vassal, sending back to Arthur's court a steady stream of conquered knights for the greater glory of the Round Table. Though Stans Puer ad Mensam (item 7) never mentions tributes of giants' heads, it does advise zealous service of one's lord. Lybeaus Desconus is not notable for its piety or its exemplication of Christian virtues, but it does resemble some of the more spectacular tales of Christian heroism in Ashmole 61, including Saint Margaret (item 37). Its closest connections, however, are to the other chivalric romances, including The Erle of Tolous (item 19) and Sir Orfeo (item 39); the latter involves another rescue of a lady held captive in an enchanted landscape. Though Sir Corneus (item 21) proceeds along very different generic lines, it shares an Arthurian setting, and the juxtaposition of these two items may be one of Rate's more inspired choices.


Of the five other manuscript copies, the text of Lybeaus Desconus presented in Ashmole 61 most closely resembles that of Naples, Bibliotheca Nazionale MS XIII B.29. Both manuscripts probably derive from the work of a reviser who attempted to rationalize some of the inconsistencies in Chestre's original text.5 Rate's copying of his text seems to have been reasonably close until approximately line 1510, at which point he engaged in some of his characteristic abridgment or his exemplar became defective. The 12-line stanzas, reproduced fairly consistently up to that point, become nine lines or six lines with some frequency thereafter; Rate has bracketed rhyming lines in groups of three.

Printed Editions

Hales, John W., and F. J. Furnivall, eds. Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript, Ballads and Romances. 3 vols. London: N. Trübner and Co., 1866–68. 2:415–97. [The text of London, British Library MS Additional 27879, Percy's transcription of an early print.]
Libeaus Desconus: Die Mittelenglische Romanze. Ed. Max Kaluza. Leipzig: Reisland, 1890. [Collates most of the surviving manuscripts, including Ashmole 61.]
Lybeaus Desconus. Ed. Maldwyn Mills. EETS o.s. 261. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. [Collates all manuscripts. Variants from Ashmole 61 printed in appendix.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1690
MWME–70, 248–49
Rice, Joanne A. Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955–1985. Pp. 325–27.

See also M. Braswell, Broadus, Everett, Hahn, Knight, Laskaya and Salisbury, M. Mills (1962, 1963, and 1966), Renaut de Bâgé, Schofield, and Zaerr in the bibliography.

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