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Item 24, Sir Cleges: Introduction


1 Sims-Williams makes an argument for a source in a lost Lai de Glygys, possibly mentioned in a thirteenth-century list of narratives (“Turkish-Celtic Problem,” pp. 226–30). Though his evidence bears consideration, his claims make very little difference for an understanding of Sir Cleges in its extant form.

2 See Roberts and Donaldson, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, p. 95.

3 See Play 15, “The Nativity,” in Spector’s N-Town Plays, 1­:152–53. See also Sugano’s N-Town Plays, pp. 133–42.

4 For “The Cherry Tree Carol,” see Kinsley, Oxford Book of Carols, p. 1. Putter also draws attention to various legendary flowerings that were believed to take place on Christmas Day (“In Search of Lost Time,” pp. 130–31). A more distant analogue is the fourth of the “love questions” in the fourth book of Boccaccio’s Il Filocolo (a source of Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale). There, a magician makes a garden bloom in midwinter on behalf of a young man seeking to earn a woman’s favor; see the English-Italian facing-page edition in Correale and Hamel, Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales (pp. 220–39).

5 For the connections between the events of Sir Cleges and the liturgical calendar around Christmas, see Putter, “In Search of Lost Time,” pp. 125–31.

6 Mehl goes on to call it “a particularly attractive combination of pious legend and popular fabliau” (Middle English Romances, p. 121).

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Sir Cleges stands alone in the surviving corpus of Middle English literature; efforts to identify its sources or to place it firmly within a recognizable genre only end up empha­sizing all that is unique about it. The tale’s elegant construction and colorful detail testify to the skill of the unknown author, who may have written the text in the late fourteenth century. The text survives in only one other manuscript besides Ashmole 61 (A), but its fortunate survival is reminder of how much remark­able Middle English poetry may have been lost in the centuries since.

Though no surviving texts can be cited as certain sources, the tale is built on a series of motifs or tropes familiar from medieval romance, biblical apocrypha, saints’ lives, and folk­tales.1 The opening stanzas, describing the extraordinary generosity and subsequent pover­ty of Sir Cleges and his wife Dame Clarys, resemble episodes in various romances, most notably the Middle English Sir Amadace and Sir Launfal. But while those prodigal knights give expensive gifts to knights and squires, Sir Cleges’s generosity revolves around his hospitality to the poor and those ruined by war, as well as his lavish feasts (attended by well-rewarded minstrels) open to everyone. Thus his eventual recovery from his self-induced poverty suggests a religious lesson about the importance of charity. But one of the remarkable aspects of the poem is its subtlety; the moral is never stated explicitly.

The miraculous cherries that appear on Christmas Day, as Sir Cleges offers a thankful prayer despite his poverty, recall miracles performed by saints that involve similar unseason­able fruits or flowers. A more direct source for Sir Cleges’s Christmas cherries is the apo­cryphal Pseudo-Matthew, one of several gospels that circulated from the times of early Church. In the Pseudo-Matthew, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus stop by a date palm during their flight to Egypt after the Nativity. Mary asks for fruit and the tree bends its branches so that she may pick the dates.2 This story was transformed into an episode in the N-Town Plays (also known as the Ludus Coventriae), one of the great Middle English drama cycles. The date palm, unfamiliar to English audiences, became a cherry tree, and the unseasonable nature of its bearing fruit in mid-winter became further proof of Mary’s holiness.3 Whether or not the author knew the N-Town Plays, a similar Middle English carol of Mary and the cherry tree, or some other adaptation of the Pseudo-Matthew episode, the transference of this miracle from the Virgin to a poor, devout knight seems to have been an entirely original idea.4

The third recognizable motif worked into the plot of Sir Cleges occupies the last half of the poem and is known as “the strokes shared.” Many folktale analogues, from Brit­tany to Russia, involve either a peasant or jester who travels to the court of a king to offer natur­al bounty (such as a giant fish) or entertainment. The visitor encounters either greedy house­hold officers or Jews, who later receive strokes as a recompense for their insistence on sharing the king’s reward. Here Sir Cleges marks its originality by its small touches, such as King Uther’s initial disgust at granting Sir Cleges twelve strokes with his staff, since this request seems to the king to be churlish and unwarranted hostility in the midst of joyous revelry. And since Cleges has already demonstrated his unremitting charity, the greed of the court officers appears in sharper contrast.

As in the case of Chaucer’s best tales, where familiar narrative tropes are linked in entirely new ways, the skillful combination of the three motifs of “the spendthrift knight,” “the unseasonable fruit,” and “the strokes shared” makes Sir Cleges more than the sum of its parts. Much of the tale’s charm derives from the crucial role played by Dame Clarys, Cleges’s patient, virtuous wife. She aids Cleges in his almsgiving and pulls Cleges out of his mourning once they have descended into poverty. When Sir Cleges morosely views the marvel­ous cherries as an ill omen, it is Dame Clarys who confidently (and correctly) inter­prets them as a token “Of more godnes that is comyng” (line 213). Yet even then she reminds him of their duty to be thankful, whether or not their for­tunes improve. But her clarity and patience always seem human; we are told she rejoices as a proud mother and wife when Sir Cleges and his son receive their final reward. The fundamental humanity of both Cleges and Clarys, a quality that makes them identifiable and a virtue that makes them exemplary, may be con­nected to the poem’s larger cele­bration of the Incarnation and Nativity, the arrival of a human Christ in the world.5

Though the story takes place in an Arthurian (or pre-Arthurian) setting and involves a cunning knight who endures difficulty and who punishes his enemies, Sir Cleges does not easily fit into most definitions of the romance genre. Dieter Mehl classifies it as an exemplary or pious romance, like Sir Isumbras (item 5), but such a categorization can never be fully satisfactory in the case of a text as idiosyncratic as this one, which uniquely combines elements of the burl­esque fabliau, the moral exemplum, and the short romance or lai.6

Manuscript Context

The context of Sir Cleges in Ashmole 61 suggests an emphasis on its morality rather than its trappings of romance. Sir Cleges follows two exemplary narratives, the stories of The Jealous Wife and The Incestuous Daughter (items 22 and 23). And as in The Knight Who For­gave His Father’s Slayer (item 18), miracles reward human virtue in Sir Cleges. Among the romances of Ashmole 61, Sir Isumbras (item 5) seems most closely related in its description of a family’s de­scent into poverty and subsequent recovery, and Saint Eustace (item 1) shares these same connections.

Just as Sir Cleges works well as a Christmas story, the text that follows it, The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls (item 25), also celebrates important days in the liturgical calendar, and the same could be said of The King and His Four Daughters (item 26) and The Northern Passion (item 28). But Sir Cleges works equally well as a comic text, and the audiences that might appreciate Sir Corneus and King Edward and the Hermit (items 21 and 41) might find the same pleasure in this story.


Aside from two groups of missing lines, the text in Ashmole 61 is very good, and where it differs from the Advocates manuscript the differences do not make the Ashmole text noticeably worse. The Ashmole text contains a more complete conclusion, which may pos­sibly be Rate’s composition. The 12-line tail-rhyme stanzas are (with the exception of the missing lines) preserved intact.

Printed Editions

French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. 2:877–95 [Based on the Advocates MS.]

Laskaya, Anne, and Eve Salisbury, eds. The Middle English Breton Lays. Pp. 367–407. [Based on Ashmole 61.]

McKnight, George H., ed. Middle English Humorous Tales in Verse. Boston: Heath, 1913. Rpt. New York: Gordian Press, 1971. Pp. 38–59, 171–80. [Based on Ashmole 61.]

Spearing, A. C., and J. E. Spearing, eds. Poetry of the Age of Chaucer. London: Arnold, 1974. Pp. 174–92. [Advocates MS.]

Speed, Diane, ed. Medieval English Romances. 3rd ed. 2 vols. Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1993. 1:169–92. [Advocates MS.]

Treichel, Adolf. “Sir Cleges: Eine mittelenglische Romanze.” Englische Studien 22 (1896), 345–89. [Collates both Advocates MS and Ashmole 61.]

Adaptations and Modernizations

Curry, Jane Louise. The Christmas Knight. Illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan. New York: Macmillan Books, 1993. [Adaptation for children.]

Darton, F. J. Harvey, and A. G. Walker, eds. A Wonder Book of Romance. New York: F. A. Stokes, 1907.

Hadow, Grace Eleanor, and W. Hadow, eds. The Oxford Treasury of English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906–08. Pp. 37–50.

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

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

Reference Works

NIMEV 1890
MWME–71, 330
Rice, Joanne A. Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955–1985. Pp. 407–08.

See also Carr, Ellzey, E. Foster (1997), R. Loomis, Putter, Reinhard, and Sims-Williams in the bibliography.

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