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The Tale of Gamelyn: Introduction

The Tale of Gamelyn survives in twenty-five early manuscripts, yet this is not a sign that it was popular. The poem was added to one version of The Canterbury Tales (known as the cd group of manuscripts) where it follows the unfinished Cook's Tale, often with a spurious link to make it his second tale. The cd connection with Gamelyn began very early (Manly and Rickert, 1940, II, 170-72), and it may have been generated at a stage when Chaucer himself had included Gamelyn among his papers, with the intention of rewriting it for a suitable character. Nevertheless, there is, as Laura Hibberd stated (1924, p. 156), no sign that Chaucer's own hand was involved in the transmission of the text.

Skeat edited the poem separately in 1884 and included it in an appendix to his The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, relying on what he thought was the best manuscript, Harley 7334. A more recent edition by N. Daniel (in a University of Chicago Ph.D. dissertation, 1967) was based on the Corpus MS. Editorial work on The Canterbury Tales has shown these two manuscripts to be unreliable. In the case of the Petworth manuscript of Gamelyn, collation shows it to offer the best readings in many instances and only rarely to be in need of emendation: in this version Gamelyn on a significant number of occasions seems a better poem: e.g., lines 2-4 which have shorter first half-lines and more attack, especially than Skeat's text; or lines 616-57 where, as Gamelyn and Adam meet the outlaws, the language is a little sharper and the prosody more authoritative than in the manuscripts previously used as a base for the published text.

If the source of the text itself is both intriguing and enigmatic, the origin of its content remains obscure. Skeat (1884, p. vii) favored an Anglo-French original as with Havelock, but no contender has emerged. Prideaux (1886) felt that the story of Fulk Fitzwarin was close to this text, but there is little or no identity of incident. Commentators have linked Gamelyn to other robust stories involving physical heroism: W. F. Schirmer felt there was a category of germanischen romanzen embracing this text, King Horn, Havelock, and Athelstan (Mehl, 1968, p. 269, n.17). But unlike these other heroes, Gamelyn has no royal status, and a more thematically oriented connection was made by Ramsey in identifying this poem, Athelstan, Raoul of Cambrai, Fouke le Fitz Waryn, and The Song of Lewes as "rebel romances" (1983, p. 93).

This concept has generic implications. Skeat called Gamelyn "the older and longer kind of ballad" (1884, p. vii), while others have, like Ramsey, preferred to think of it as a rough and ready romance. Kaeuper (1983, p. 51) refers approvingly to Schmidt and Jacobs' broad definition of the romance (1980, I, 1-7). Pearsall's influential essay on "The Development of Middle English Romance," while not referring to Gamelyn, did assert the existence of a category of "epic romance" (1965, p. 111). However, the lack of any kind of aristocratic connection or dealing with women does make Gamelyn a difficult member of even such a limited romantic category, and it is tempting to think of the poem, like the Gest, Adam Bell, and long battle ballads of the sixteenth century such as Chevy Chase or The Battle of Otterburn, as best described by the term used by Child of the Gest, "popular epic" (III, 49).

Some commentators have seen an originary force in historical reality, noting like Sands (1966, p. 155) or detailing like Kaeuper (1983) and Scattergood (1994) the many resemblances to medieval legal practices and conflicts. That might, however, better be seen as a strong contextual feature of a story which, as Dunn notes, is known in folklore as the maltreatment of the youngest child (1967, p. 32) and which appears in romance proper as the fair unknown, but in this version deals with inheritance problems of a distinctly fourteenth-century kind.

The date of the poem has not been reconsidered carefully in recent years. Though Lindner offered the thirteenth century (1879, pp. 112-13), Skeat placed it about 1340, feeling its events and legal structures were basically of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. That would be a very early date for a secular and satirical English poem of this kind, and later commentators have inched it forward -- about the middle of the fourteenth century for the historians Keen (1961, p. 78) and Holt (1989, p. 71), and for Dunn 1350-70 (1967, p. 32). Since the text may have been transmitted no more than once to the source of the surviving manuscripts (judging from the coherence of the existing versions), this period would seem likely, with a preference for the later part of it.

The dialect has always been identified as North Midlands, but Dunn was more precise, nominating the North East Midlands, even perhaps Nottinghamshire (1967, p. 32), which need not imply that the forest in which Gamelyn becomes an outlaw is Sherwood. In fact, the small but noticeable number of words of Scandinavian origin (including Litheth, the first word of the whole poem) suggests an origin in a more Danelaw-oriented part of the region, such as Lincolnshire or, perhaps better because less northerly in dialect, Leicestershire, the scene of the notorious outlaw activities of the Folvilles and others much cited in the context of the poem (see Kaeuper [1983, pp. 54-57] and Scattergood [1994, pp. 170-74]). The text itself has no place names, and Gamelyn's family name of Boundys just signifies a boundary of some kind.

Audience has, as with many poems of this kind, remained a problem. Dunn felt it was enough to speak of "the common people" (1967, p. 32) who liked this rough-hewn form, while Holt thought (1989, p. 72) that in this and other respects the text was "more sophisticated" than the Gest which he located among the lower gentry and their affiliates. Both views have some force and the error may be to seek one social level to which the text belongs. It appears to invoke a multiple social response in that it brings together the interests of dispossessed landholders in Gamelyn himself, the falsely accused, like the king of the outlaws, upper servitors like Adam who have to decide whom to serve, and the bondsmen who resist the pressures imposed by Gamelyn's vicious eldest brother. This range of interests and audience members spreads out from a composite focal audience described by Kaeuper as an amorphous social level of minor landowners, lesser knights and retainers -- those who might at most hobnob with the prior of a nearby religious house or know the sheriff, but whose horizons are essentially local (1983, p. 53).

Barron comments (1987, p. 84) that the text, not unlike fabliau, has a double form, offering Gamelyn both as a "strong arm champion of bourgeois values" and also, pleasing a higher social stratum, as a parody of the middle class as "strong, crude and inherently stupid"; the concept refers to and sophisticates a position suggested in Menkin's article on "Comic Irony and the Sense of Two Audiences in The Tale of Gamelyn" (1969). Kaeuper has seen these two elements as being connected: "No doubt the tale was meant to amuse and entertain (admittedly with a very dark variety of humor), but perhaps we can hear echoes of the 'fierce' mocking laughter which Owst detected in the literature of satire and complaint" (1988, p. 336).

The poem's style has been seen as direct rather than subtle, though it is often treated sympathetically. Skeat said the poem worked well if read slowly (1884, p. xxvi), and Sands recommended it be "read aloud" for best effect (1966, p. 156). Skeat noted "the variableness of the metre" (1884, p. xxiii), which is not as simple as Sands suggests in calling it a "seven stress affair" (1966, p. 156). That implies a line of four stresses before and three after the caesura which, as the poem is in couplets, could be taken as a version of ballad meter. But both the actual state of the meter and the frequency of four line syntax units (longer than a ballad stanza) refute this possibility. Skeat noted that many first half lines have three stresses, and this is more visible in the sparer, less scribally inflated, style of the Petworth manuscript, where three stresses before and two after the caesura is the norm, with a number of unstressed or half stressed syllables frequently added, and the occasional "heavy" line. This makes the meter not unlike that found in alliterative poetry, and there is a recurrence, though no regularity, of alliterative phrasing in the poem. In view of its early date and apparently uncourtly audience, this compromise between alliteration and rhyme is not a surprising metrical pattern.

The rhymes tend to be quite accurate, and there is less of the laisse-like continued rhyme than is to be seen in the Gest; when compared with other rhyming poems of the period it is notable how few of the rhymes fall on polysyllabic and French-derived words: only nine according to Lindner's statistics, with another five on the name Gamelyn (1879, pp. 101-06). Equally the "rhyme-breaking" characteristic of Chaucer, where syntax crosses rhyme units, is almost unknown in Gamelyn, which tends to march steadily on with two and four line statements, all squarely mapped onto rhyme.

A similarly plain effect is created by the unadorned diction of the poem, and the frequent use of fillers and semi-proverbial statements of the also mot I thryve and soth for to telle kind. Some thirty of these occur. They, like the quite common "awkward verbal repetitions" (Scattergood, 1994, p. 160), are elements of a style that most commentators have felt to be at least in part oral: clarity and communication are the central elements of the style.

Yet these features can have an effect capable of some subtlety in a context of dynamic meaning. In the opening sequence, as Sir Johan of Boundys lies on his death bed, the text keeps repeating how he lay increasingly stille and syke. At the same time the poem keeps returning, as he does, to the question of his lands. In performance the passage has considerable power: as the man grows weaker, his lands become mobile, more and more a matter of obsession for him and, as it transpires, others. The identity of landowner and land, the difficult dissolution of that bond and the crucial nature of its re-formation, these issues central to the period and the land-holding classes, lie behind the emphatic language of this highly effective opening passage.

If repetition of language can have such a marked effect, the use of imagery -- a rare feature -- can also strike deep. In general this effect is highly stylized and proverbial, of the as a wilde lyoun or stille as stoon kind. But in the central fight scene (lines 489-540), where Gamelyn and Adam wreak their revenge on the clerical visitors, a heavy irony frames their violent acts with a quasi-religious signification: Gamelyn sprays them with a spire, that is both a club and an asperge; he makes orders of them in new ways. As Bennett and Gray remark, the poem can have "a touch of the grimmer humour" (1986, p. 163) found in heroic poetry.

A third range of stylistic vigor is found in the text when a point is emphasized with a strongly colloquial image which also has the force of collective wisdom and so provides generalized support for the hero and his values. When four and twenty yonge men form a posse to arrest Gamelyn and Adam after their onslaught on the clergy (line 549), the heroes treat the threat lightly and Adam says they will so welcome the sheriff's men:
That some of hem shal make her beddes in the fenne. (line 584)
The yonge men are defeated and some flee. Adam invites them back for right good wyne drynk, but one refuses for fear of a specially physical kind of hangover:
It wolde make a mannys brayn to lyen on his hode. (line 594)
Hearing the sheriff is on his way, Gamelyn and Adam leave for the forest, and so the sheriff finds in the house nyst but non aye (line 606). The vigorous sequence of colloquial, folkloric images roots the resistance made by Gamelyn and Adam deep in popular discourse, linguistically sustaining the sense that the ordinary people and enduring values are very much on their side.

In terms of structure the poem has quite complex resources within an apparently plain and effective exterior: a "well-told story" (Dunn, 1967, p. 32) is a characteristic description. This, oddly, is not really the case, or not at least in terms of classic realism. The narrative is in fact shot through with incoherences and improbabilities. Why did Gamelyn take so many years to grasp his sorry position -- it appears to be sixteen (see line 356)? Why did his brother suddenly lock him out when he went to the wrestling; and how did his brother find safety in the solar (line 349 -- not the cellere as in other texts, including Harley 7334 and Corpus)? Why, on earth, did Adam not set Gamelyn free as soon as they became allies, rather than wait for a public brawl? What precisely makes Gamelyn at the end suddenly return to court to rescue Ote rather than remain free? And what, most of all, leads Gamelyn to give up his quest for his own lands and accept from Ote the position of heir which had been unacceptable when offered by his brother?

It is possible to imagine answers, or at least discussions, relating to these points, but the text does not consider them as important. Rather than a coherent novel-like sequence of action and reaction, the text in fact arranges a series of dramatic encounters, much like the melodramatic surges of action and rhetoric in romance. Adam does not free Gamelyn early simply to generate a splendid brawl with the clerics. Gamelyn returns to court so he can break the judge's arm and then hang the whole jury -- to dry in the wind, in another of the poem's brusquely colloquial images, grim irony again.

If the structure in this way prepares high moments of ethical melodrama, the theme is accordingly directed towards such highly flavored moments of violent frustration of the forces of evil. Most commentators have found the poem strong meat, along a scale ranging from Keen's identification of "simple rumbustious energy" (1961, p. 8) to Scattergood's sense of "barbarism" (1994, p. 160). But, as Bennett and Gray point out, there is a purpose to the violence. This is a poem of "rough justice" (1986, p. 163), and Crane remarks that "corruption runs deep in the world of Gamelyn, that, to resolve his claim, Gamelyn must move beyond his unsuccessful verbal pleas and the unsupportable local institutions to a direct physical attack on the suborned royal jury" (1986, p. 73).

But whereas most commentators have related Gamelyn's rugged sense of equity to the real processes of medieval law (Kaeuper provides the fullest account, 1983), there is a strong fictional and ideological structure of ethics at the heart of the poem. The disinherited younger son is a common figure in the Middle Ages, generated according to Georges Duby by changes of inheritance practice in the eleventh century (1977). In romance this figure will win both a lady and a land with his prowess and his courtesy. Gamelyn's social standing is less aristocratic, his trajectory less fantastic, and women play no part at all. And whereas the fair unknown will reveal his birth, like Sir Gareth or Lybeaus Desconus, and all will fall into his lap, Gamelyn's late birth, inscribed in his name ("old man's son") is the problem from the beginning. In this moderately realistic context, the author derives a resolution for this "male Cinderella" story (on this see Wittig, 1978, especially Chapter 5, "Speculations and Conclusions," pp. 179-90) not from the fantastic resources of romance but from another uncomfortable reality of medieval life, the outlaws who challenged settled law through the period. Nevertheless they too are romanticized, being as Keen notes (1961, pp. 92-93) somewhat genteel in their forest mode, and also having their leader conveniently removed for Gamelyn's benefit.

Though stripped of his true familial base, with this new meyné, Gamelyn is able to exercise lordship and rescue the true elder brother Sir Ote from the corrupt legal hands of the false elder brother Sir Johan. Family is reconstituted with outlaw help, just as the knight's world is rectified in the Gest. Then, however, follows a remarkable shift in the story, largely unnoticed by commentators. In this new familial context, both Gamelyn and the story go quietly. With good lordship in place, the younger son's problems are managed without the partition of inheritance that the wise men at the beginning tried to avoid. Old Sir Johan's wishes never come true. For all his heroism and violence, Gamelyn fits back into the family when it is purged of its "shrewed," that is diabolic, bad leader: primogeniture is recuperated and all in the family is again well.

Not only does the text arrive at this consoling conclusion by a series of melodramatic and violent events; these actions also reveal the sub-textual operations of a structure of social and ethical forces that in fact define the ideology of the text. Gamelyn is attended by four categories of value, and it is only at the end that all are benevolent to him and fully at his service: they are strength, family, honor, and law. Through the action he negotiates with these forces as one or the other is either taken from him or made hostile to him. At first a child without strength, having lost his familial role with the death of his father, Gamelyn has no honor and, through his elder brother, law is turned against him. Steadily he regains control over each component of value -- though some, like law, are highly elusive. It is only at the very end, when he and Ote reform their family, when he is honored by the king and made an agent of a true law, that his tremendous strength and strong support are no longer agents of social and narrative disruption but belong to and reinforce traditional society.

It is, as Keen noted with some disappointment (1961, p. 93), finally a quite conservative story. As Barron remarks of the author, "his remedy is a change of personnel, not system" (1987, p. 84). Only the church is resisted systematically -- or rather its religious orders. Here, as in Langland and Chaucer there is no hostility to parish priests. Hatred of regular clergy and deep knowledge of the ways of the law are the underpinning instrumentalities of Gamelyn as a poem, and resistance to wrongful authority is as fully realized here as anywhere in the turbulent literature of the period.

But there remains a distance between this text and those where the outlaw life is central to the theme rather than, as here, merely instrumental to the resolution. Of the gentry rather than a yeoman, seeking land rather than occupying the potent spaces of the forest, without trickster characteristics or being close to natural imagery, Gamelyn is very different from Robin Hood, and his text survives from a period when it seems that the Robin Hood ballads were still entirely oral in medium. There is something gentrified about Gamelyn, thuggish though he might be, whereas the more socially elusive medieval Robin is never clearly tied to a class faction and its ideology.

The power of the myth of the greenwood outlaw worked dialectically with the Gamelyn tradition. At two points, Gamelyn walks in the forest, as Robin does at the start of many a ballad (lines 767 and 783-84). The possibilities of connection were not missed. It seems that Gamelyn's character was attracted towards the Robin Hood saga; Robyn and Gandelyn may well be an early example of that process; Robin Hood and Will Scarlet certainly is, but at a much later date when such literary rationalization is commonplace. The two traditions interwove thoroughly in the undergrowth of the nineteenth century novel, when the Gamwells of Gamwell Hall provided ample subplot to fill out the three volumes required of a novel, and for which the spare suggestive encounters of the Robin Hood ballads were distinctly unaccommodating (Pierce Egan's Robin Hood and Little John, or The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest of 1840 is the classic example). And popular culture did not forget the link: in the Warner Brothers Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn (Curtiz, 1938), Robin's close friend, resplendent in scarlet, is named Will a Gamwell. A more elusive interface between the two traditions was in the hands of a more culturally elevated artist. The Robin Hood mini-craze of the 1590s theatre eventually produced in 1600 the ludicrous disguise comedy Looke Aboute You, notable mostly for the stage direction "Enter Robin Hood in Lady Faukenbridge's nightgown, a turban on his head." The Admiral's Men did good business with this nonsense, building on their triumph with Munday's two Robin Hood plays of 1598-99. The Chamberlain's Men's house writer, William Shakespeare, appears to have responded immediately with that Italianate outlaw play, As You Like It, relying on the elaborations Thomas Lodge had imposed on Gamelyn in his deeply gentrified and highly euphuized version entitled Rosalynde (1590).

Gamelyn has both original force and elusive interrelations with other outlaw texts, even acting as a ghostly link between the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Its survival depends on its presence, at some stage, among Chaucer's papers, and it is intriguing to think that he saw something worth his embellishing touch -- as he had in a raw fabliau for the Miller or in Boccaccio's cold amatorial enigma for the Franklin. Some have thought it would have been the Yeoman's tale for its forest connections (Skeat, 1884, p. xv, was firm on the point; see also de Lange, 1935, p. 36) and Dunn improbably suggested the Franklin because he was a rural magistrate (1967, p. 32), but Chaucer deals by displaced projections, and it may well be that the reference to Gamelyn refusing to cook for his brother and wielding the pestle as a weapon (lines 92 and 128) was the link through which he intended to develop the propertied dreams of Roger his tough London scullion.

Speculations aside, it was only that Chaucerian connection which preserved Gamelyn. It is, as Keen says "the first outlaw legend which has survived in the English language" (1961, p. 88), an important link in the chain that just survives between the early distressed gentleman sagas of Eustace and Fulk and the plainer English heroes of forest resistance like Robin Hood and Adam Bell. This is a poem whose robust and direct qualities have always been visible, and whose subtleties have largely been overlooked on behalf of its simpler status as historical and legal corroboration. But as the author says Lithes and listeneth and harkeneth aright, and in the allusions and elisions of the text there will be heard something more literary, more imaginative, more resonant through time and the outlaw tradition.

Go To The Tale of Gamelyn
Selected Bibliography Texts

Manuscripts: Gamelyn is found in twenty-five of the manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales, in the c and d families. It has been edited twice from the manuscript:

Daniel, Neil, ed. The Tale of Gamelyn: A New Edition. Indiana University Ph.D., 1967 [from the Corpus manuscript].

Manly, John M., and Edith Rickert. The Text of the Canterbury Tales Studied on the Basis of All Known Manuscripts. 8 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940.

Skeat, W. W., ed. The Tale of Gamelyn. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884 (from Harley 7334). [This edition uses as its basis the Petworth manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, kept at the Petworth House, Petworth, Sussex (administered by the National Trust). This is also the text used in the Appendix to The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 7 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1895. Vol. VI.]

Gamelyn also appears in two anthologies:

French, W. A., and C. B. Hales, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930. I, 207-35. [Text based on Harley 7334 as printed in Furnivall's edition in the Chaucer Society Publications, vol. 73.]

Sands, Donald B., ed. Middle English Verse Romances. New York: Holt Rinehart, 1966. Pp. 154-81. [Combines features of Skeat's and French and Hale's editions.]

Commentary and Criticism

Barron, W. R. J. Medieval English Romances. London: Longman, 1987.

Bennett, J. A. W., and D. Gray. Middle English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

Crane, Susan. Insular Romance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Duby, Georges. "Youth in Medieval Society." In The Chivalrous Society. Trans. C. Postan. London: Arnold, 1977. Pp. 112-22.

Dunn, C. W. "Romances Derived from English Legend." In Manual of Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500. Vol. 1. Romances. Ed. J. B. Severs. New Haven: The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967. Pp. 17-37.

Hibberd, Laura. Medieval Romance in England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1924.

Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. Second ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Kaeuper, Richard. "An Historian's Reading of The Tale of Gamelyn." Medium Ævum 52 (1983), 51-62.

------. War, Justice, and Public Order. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Keen, Maurice. The Outlaws of Medieval Legend. London: Routledge, 1961.

Lange, Joost de. The Relation and Development of English and Icelandic Outlaw Traditions. Haarlem: Willink, 1935.

Lindner, F. "The Tale of Gamelyn." Englische Studien 2 (1879), 94-114, 321-43.

Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. London: Routledge, 1968.

Menkin, Edward Z. "Comic Irony and the Sense of Two Audiences in The Tale of Gamelyn." Thoth 10 (1969), 41-53.

Pearsall, D. A. "The Development of Middle English Romance." Medieval Studies 27 (1965), 91-116.

Prideaux, W. F. "Who Was Robin Hood?" Notes and Queries, 7th Series, II (1886), 421-24.

Ramsey, Lee C. Chivalric Romances. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Scattergood, John. "The Tale of Gamelyn: The Noble Robber as Provincial Hero." In Readings in Medieval English Romance. Ed. Carol M. Meale. Cambridge: Brewer, 1994. Pp. 159-94.

Schmidt, A. V. C., and Nicolas Jacobs. Medieval English Romances. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980.

Shannon, Jr., Edgar F. "Mediaeval Law in The Tale of Gamelyn." Speculum 28 (1951), 458-64.

Wittig, Susan. Stylistic and Narrative Structures in the Middle English Romances. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.