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Sir Torrent of Portingale: Introduction


1 On the characteristic features of late medieval English romance see Cooper, English Romance in Time, and Field, “Romance in England.”

2 Harry Bailey, the host of the story-telling competition who often plays the role of literary critic in the Canterbury Tales (however ironic and subversive), calls the Tale of Sir Thopas “rym doggerel” (VII[B2] 925), and announces that the Chaucer-pilgrim’s “drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!” (VII [B2] 930).

3 The lone surviving manuscript witness of Torrent, Chetham’s Library MS 8009 (Mun.A.6.31), does not space the stanzas separately on the page, though this is not unusual in manuscripts preserving late medieval tail-rhyme romances. More unusually, the surviving text is so fragmentary and error-ridden at the level of both the individual line and the tail-rhyme tercet, that the text’s first editor, James Orchard Halliwell, mistook the structure for six-line stanzas. The subsequent editor, Erich Adam, had to frequently transpose words within lines to make the rhyme scheme work.

4 See the Explanatory Note for lines 7 and 10 for more on oral tags. Comparison might be drawn with Dame Sirith, where the sole surviving manuscript marks with a marginal T, for Testator, lines where that role might have been taken by a separate reader. Similarly, the Dublin, Trinity College, MS 432 witness of the Middle English romance Robert of Sicily is formatted to suggest a dramatic dialogue, as is the sole surviving copy of the fourteenth-century Latin prose romance Arthur and Gorlagon. See Radulescu, “Reading King Robert of Sicily’s Text(s) and Manuscript Context(s),” pp. 176–78; Day, ed. Narratio de Arthuro rege Britanniae et rege Gorlagon lycanthropo, pp. 208–35.

5 For a list of these echoes see Richardson, ed., Sir Eglamour of Artois, pp. 141–45.

6 See Adam, ed., Torrent of Portyngale, pp. xx–xxi.

7 For a further discussion of provenance, and relation to Sir Egalmour of Artois, see Purdie, Anglicising Romance, pp. 147, 229–33. See also Montgomery’s Introduction, pp. lx–lxix, for lexical and semantic evidence of Torrent’s predominantly Northern dialect, which he believes can be narrowed further to the Eastern North Midlands (p. lxiii).

8 For a survey of tail-rhyme provenance see Purdie, Anglicising Romance, pp. 153–242.

9 Mun.A.6.31 is the current shelfmark, though for the sake of continuity with past scholarship 8009 continues to be the preferred reference to the manuscript.

10 On the principal characteristics of late medieval English household books see Boffey and Thompson, “Anthologies and Miscellanies.” See also Boffey, “Bodleian Library, MS Arch. Selden B. 24.”

11 On the link between saints’ lives and romance see Wogan-Browne, Saints’ Lives and Women’s Literary Culture, pp. 91–122. On the connection within Chetham MS 8009 in particular, see Wade, “Romance, Affect, and Ethical Thinking,” pp. 265–79.

12 On the manuscript’s composition, see Sánchez-Martí, “Manchester, Chetham’s Library MS 8009 (Mun.A.6.31): A Codicological Description.”

13 Scribal assignations follow Ker’s description of the manuscript. See Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, pp. 361–64.

14 14.See Purdie, ed., Ipomadon, pp. xviii–xxiii.

15 Chetham’s MS 8009 is generally considered one of the more tightly knit miscellanies. Most recently, Sánchez-Martí has argued that the manuscript “is a clear example of careful organization, conceived as a family library in parvo” (“The Middle English Versions of Ipomedon,” p. 90). A more skeptical reader, however, might follow Pearsall, who has expressed suspicion at the idea that “late medieval English manuscripts of apparently miscellaneous content are somehow the product of unifying controlling intelligences”(“The Whole Book,” p. 17).

16 See Purdie, ed., Ipomadon, pp. xlviii–liv.

17 See Scammell and Rogers, “An Elegy on Henry VII,” p. 167.

18 See Montgomery, ed., pp. xxix–xxxii; Sánchez-Martí, “The Printed History of the Middle English Verse Romances,” pp. 7, 22–23.

19 See Kennedy, “Malory and His English Sources,” pp. 34–38.

20 See Kennedy, “Malory and His English Sources,” pp. 27–28.

21 See the “Introduction” to John Gower in England and Iberia, eds. Sáez-Hidalgo and Yeager, pp. 1–14, as well as Carlson’s “The English of Nájera,” and Galván’s “At the Nájera Crossroads” in the same volume. On Anglo-Iberian relations in the Middle Ages see also Bullón-Fernández, ed., England and Iberia in the Middle Ages. See also Montgomery, ed., p. lxxx.

22 See Purdie, ed., King Orphius, p. 218n4.

23 On “popular” romance see Putter and Gilbert, eds., Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance; McDonald, ed., Pulp Fictions of Medieval England; and Gray, Simple Forms, especially pp. 89–106. On “popular” literature in late medieval household books see Shuffelton, “Is There a Minstrel in the House?” For a study that considers the gentry manuscript contexts of Middle English romance see Radulescu, Romance and its Contexts.

24 See Hibbard, “Torrent of Portyngale,” (1960) pp. 270–82; Mehl, “Torrent of Portyngale,” (1968) pp. 83–85; Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 147; and Dalrymple, “Literary Giants,” pp. 159–70.

25 Adam’s introduction suggests the plenitude of correspondences in plot by enumerating the differences between Torrent and Eglamour, which Adam presumably took to be more efficient than listing their similarities. See pp. xxviii–xxx.

26 Well-known examples of “Constance-Saga” narratives include Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale and Gower’s Tale of Constance in his Confessio Amantis. A version of the story also survives in the Vita offae primi, a twelfth-century text of English origin. Hornstein discusses the principal narrative features of the story, along with Middle English examples, in “Eustace–Constance–Florence–Griselda Legends,” pp. 120–32.

27 Adam (pp. xxii–xxviii) highlights comparisons between Torrent and other texts that he ties to the Legend of St. Eustache, which first appears in the eighth century. These include texts in Old French and Middle High German, along with the English romances Sir Isumbras, Octavian, and Sir Eglamour.

28 “Eustace–Constance–Florence–Griselda Legends,” p. 127.

29 See Kennedy, “Malory and His English Sources,” pp. 34–38.

Sir Torrent of Portingale is a rollicking tale of love and adventure. Its action clips away at a full-tilt pace, taking its protagonists from their homes in Portugal to as far north as Norway, as far south as Jerusalem, and many other places in between. Driving the immense sweep of its action is the poem’s investment in grand dynastic ambition, though at various points in the narrative this interest in lineage and accession is integrated with many of the other characteristic concerns of late Middle English romance: pious devotion to Christian duty, the prodigious and often ostentatious display of chivalric prowess, and the world-shaping force of youthful erotic love. 1 Above all, though, Sir Torrent is a warrior knight, and his tale is primarily a romance of battles. Readers who come to this text from Middle English romances such as Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, Squire’s Tale, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will find relatively few comparisons by way of complex philosophical investigations or subtle psychological portraits, and to read Torrent with a mind to privilege such qualities is to miss the point. The author of this romance, like the authors of Octavian, Bevis of Hampton, Eglamour, Isumbras, and Ipomedon, serves up deeds of derring-do episode after episode, his staple aesthetic being fearless chivalric heroics in the face of fearsome and surely insurmountable odds. Audiences in the fifteenth century, no doubt, came to Torrent expecting a tale of bash-up physical adventure, and in this respect they found exactly what they were looking for.

In many ways, then, Sir Torrent of Portingale offers an exemplary expression of mature Middle English romance. In nearly all elements of the author’s craft — style, tone, characterization, and plot — Torrent shows itself to be very much aware of its status as genre fiction. The romance is also entirely uninterested in masking its abundant efforts to feed the expectations of late-medieval readers of popular literature. In terms of plot, for instance, the author seems to adopt a strategy of amplifying and multiplying established romance tropes. There are magic swords, magic horses, and token rings; lions, griffins, leopards, bears, and apes; two child abductions, three rudderless boats, three fights between father and sons; so many dragon fights that at one point Torrent loses count (line 2302), and so many giants that Torrent does not even bother keeping count (line 2303). Torrent, in other words, is a romance chock-full of what might be called generic accoutrement. By stuffing the tale with the furniture of romance, and that in abundance, the author anticipates an audience both well-versed in the conventions of adventure literature and hungry for something bigger and grander than anything they had seen before. If Sir Torrent of Portingale succeeds as a work of late-medieval vernacular fiction, it succeeds through sensational oversized patterns.

Perhaps as a consequence of the author’s ambitious scope, Torrent weighs in at 2,671 lines, making it one of the longer tail-rhyme romances to survive from the Middle English period and one that nearly doubles the length of its nearest analogue and partial source, Sir Eglamour of Artois. By the end of the fourteenth century, tail-rhyme had strong associations with both romance and popular minstrelsy in England, to the extent that the form itself triggered expectations of genre, just as it came to signal a distinctively English literary tradition. The link between tail-rhyme and a home-grown tradition of popular fiction was so strong that Chaucer could poke fun at Middle English popular romance by writing over-the-top “doggerel” tail-rhyme in his romance Tale of Sir Thopas, the Chaucer-pilgrim’s own contribution to the Canterbury Tales’ story-telling competition. 2 As with many other Middle English romances, the tail-rhyme in Torrent appears in twelve-line stanzas, rhyming aab ccb ddb eeb, with the couplets carrying four stresses and the tail lines only three. 3 The effect of this shorter tail line is a cantering rhythm which, when read aloud (as would have been the more common form of reception in the Middle Ages), has a tendency to quicken the reader’s pace and thus speed the narration along. While we have no concrete evidence that Torrent was ever publically performed in the fifteenth century, it is quite likely that it was, given that tail-rhyme was a favorite amongst minstrels, and that the text contains several oral tags, in which the narrator, a character in his own right, tells the audience to listen up or to stay put. 4 Of course, given the strong links between minstrelsy and tail-rhyme romance, such allusions to oral performance may have been included by the author as a matter of convention, rather than as a genuine measure to quiet a rowdy audience.

Of the author we know nothing beyond what scant suggestions the text offers. The romance contains close verbal echoes of Sir Eglamour of Artois, which suggests that the author may have been composing with a copy of Sir Eglamour at his elbow. 5 The author’s deep familiarity with, and extensive use of, romance traditions likewise suggests that he may have had access to many more volumes besides. Such a context for composition, however, does not get us very far in terms of pinning down the author’s identity, or even the author’s principal vocation. So while it remains possible that the author was a minstrel, or was commissioned by a minstrel, this is by no means assured. Erich Adam, the editor of the Early English Text Society’s 1887 edition, argued that the author was likely a monk, based on the benediction that opens the romance, the frequent prayers of the protagonists, and the poem’s general attention to Christian piety. 6 However, this attention to Christian duty and the emphasizing of God’s role in the narrative would no doubt have been expected by late-medieval audiences well-versed in romance, so it is not necessary to assume clerical authorship. In any case, Torrent exhibits little of the theological sophistication or overt moral engineering found in the Middle English romances often associated with men of the cloisters, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Regardless of the author’s professional status, his language suggests that he was alive in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, and that, given the text’s connections to other romances, namely Sir Eglamour of Artois, he probably composed Torrent very near the year 1400. As Rhiannon Purdie shows, dialectical evidence suggests an origin for the text in the northern Midlands, possibly near or around the area where the counties of Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and the West Riding of Yorkshire meet: roughly speaking, near Doncaster, which was a significant hub for trans-national traffic and commerce in the fourteenth century. 7 The northern Midlands in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was also a hotspot for the composition of tail-rhyme romance, with texts such as Le Bone Florence of Rome, Sir Eglamour, Sir Gowther, and The Turke and Sir Gawain all likely hailing from that time and place. This provenance hints at the possibility that Torrent was initially conceived to indulge local literary tastes, just as it suggests a context for composition in which the author may have had copies of several tail-rhyme romances to hand. 8 Complicating any firm convictions regarding authorship, date, and provenance is the fact that the only complete — or near-complete — copy of the text survives in a manuscript dating from roughly 75 to 100 years after Torrent was likely composed. This is Manchester, Chetham’s Library MS 8009 (Mun.A.6.31), 9 a late fifteenth-century miscellany manuscript containing texts written solely in English, with the exception of “Liber Catonis” (item 5), which alternates between English and Latin. The manuscript is now commonly referred to as a household book — that is, a book that catered to the diverse educational, devotional, and entertainment needs of a large household. 10 This book was professionally produced, most likely in London and most likely for a mercantile or gentry family. Its fourteen texts include three romances, Torrent (item 6), Bevis of Hampton (item 9), and Ipomadon (item 10), the latter being the longest tail-rhyme romance in Middle English, at 8,891 lines. It also contains several saints’ lives — the Life of St. Dorothy (item 1), “The Lyf of Seynt Katerin” (item 4), and “The Lyff of Seynt Anne” (item 3) — which in many ways are the ecclesiastical cousins of secular romance. 11 In addition to these longer narrative works, the book also includes instructional and courtesy treatises (items 5, 11), prayers and devotional texts (items 2, 7, 8), historical texts (items 12, 13), and even a satirical ballad, the comic “Ballad of a Tyrannical Husband” (item 14). 12 The text of Torrent was copied by two scribes: Hand 7, who copied the first 1049 lines, and Hand 5, who copied the remainder of the poem. 13 While Hand 7 worked on no other items in the manuscript, Hand 5 appears to be the book’s principal scribe, also copying “The Lyf of Seynt Katerin,” A Lamentation of Oure Lady (item 7), “A Prayar of Oure Lady” (item 8), Bevis of Hampton, Ipomadon, and The Book of the Duke and the Emperor (item 12). Purdie’s assessment of the paper-stock, in conjunction with the copying and worn pages, leads to the conclusion that the majority of the book was put together at the same time and place, with “The Life of St. Dorothy,” “Assvmptio Sancte Marie” (item 2), “Liber Catonis,” “The Namys of Wardeyns and Balyffys” (item 13), and “Ballad of a Tyrannical Husband” added later. 14 While the manuscript contains a unique combination of texts and sole survivals of individual texts such as Torrent, as an artifact of late-medieval reading habits and literary tastes it is fairly representative in its eclecticism and its mixture of secular and religious items. There has been considerable debate amongst scholars as to how such miscellanies were assembled and how they were consumed, but at the very least Chetham MS 8009 provides a witness to a milieu of vernacular literary consumption in fifteenth-century England — a milieu in which the knockabout adventurism of Torrent and its fellow romances find company with texts of educational merit and sacred import. 15

The surviving text of Torrent in Chetham MS 8009 presents several challenges to the reader, many of which stem from the conditions of its transmission. Purdie notes that Hand 5 and Hand 7 worked together, and therefore from the same copy-text, since there is no change of paper-stock across the two scribes’ copying stints. As the two scribes worked from the same exemplar, and as Hand 5 copied multiple texts in the manuscript, it is possible to say something about their copying habits. Purdie’s analysis shows that while Hand 7 appears to have been willing to alter linguistic forms to those that were familiar or preferred, Hand 5 was the more precise copyist, either because his linguistic range was of such a breadth that all the forms he encountered were familiar to him, or (more likely) because he was determined to reproduce his copy-text as precisely as possible. 16 However, the text of Torrent, as it exists in the manuscript, is very imperfect. The exemplar evidently bore the effects of multiple re-copying, or of having been initially written down from memory or transcribed from oral recitation. Several of the existing lines either deviate from the tail-rhyme form, offer nonsensical syntax, or give details that clearly do not fit with the surrounding context. Certainly, Hand 5 was a diligent copyist, but as with Hand 7 he was clearly not interested in attempting to tidy up what must have seemed an error-ridden and perhaps even messy copy-text. Nevertheless, both scribes show some investment in mise-en-page presentation, as both achieve a clean copy of Torrent over eighty-five neatly ruled pages, with an elegant title and several large rubricated capitals to signal divisions within the narrative.

That the manuscript offers a text at some remove from the original composition is also suggested by the fragments of two early prints of the romance, one by Richard Pynson (c. 1505, STC 24133) and another by Wynkyn de Worde (c. 1510, STC 24133.5). The fragments are proofs, printed on the reverse of a broadside print of John Skelton’s elegy on Henry VII. 17 Where the prints offer different readings from that of Chetham MS 8009, they are often more coherent or formally regular where the manuscript is not. One reason for this sense of coherence is that the printers appear to have edited the text by modernizing and replacing Northern forms, but it is also almost certain that the printers were working with a more coherent copy-text, as the fragments offer superior readings that are not likely the result of editorial intervention. The evidence suggests, then, that while these prints are close to the text in Chetham MS 8009, they were not based on the manuscript or any subsequent manuscripts in its line of transmission. Rather, these printers must have had access to a manuscript or manuscripts in a separate chain of copying, and one either closer in line to the original text, one that simply did not introduce as many deviations, or both. 18 The surviving prints hint at a rich history of the transmission and reception of Torrent in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and one that would have been imaginable but largely unsubstantiated if all that had survived from the Middle Ages had been the solitary witness of the romance in Chetham MS 8009.

Another hint of Torrent’s presence in the literary landscape of fifteenth-century England is that a copy of the text likely occupied a spot on the library shelf of Sir Thomas Malory. As Edward Kennedy has shown, the close echoes in Sir Marhalt’s fight with a giant in Le Morte Darthur, along with other minor narrative details and events in Malory’s work, point to the likelihood that either Malory had a copy to hand, or that he had precise details from Torrent clearly in his mind when composing. 19 Malory’s likely use of Torrent also points to the possibility that at least one well-read fifteenth-century gentry reader took the romance seriously, or rather that it did not seem too incongruous for Malory to use it as a source alongside other serious-minded English texts such as Hardyng’s Chronicle, the alliterative Morte Arthure, and the stanzaic Morte Arthur. 20 Beyond a gentry context, too, the Torrent-author may have had even more lofty pretensions for the romance’s possible readership. By making its principal locale Portugal, the author could have been attempting to tap into a current royal interest in the Iberian Peninsula. In 1386 England and Portugal strengthened already close ties by signing the Treaty of Windsor. In that year John of Gaunt brought his daughters, Philippa and Catherine of Lancaster, along with him during his invasion of Iberia. Catherine would later become the Queen of Castile, while Philippa, known to be well-educated and bookish, would marry João I to become Queen of Portugal. This “Portuguese connection” endured in England well into the fifteenth century, and it is entirely plausible that Torrent attempted to evoke a court setting that was at once foreign and familiar to English-speaking royalty. 21 In this context, Torrent is a romance that might particularly appeal to women like Philippa of Lancaster, women who were noble, literate, and faced the prospect of a political marriage. After all, the romance prominently features Desonell, the Princess of Portugal, as a fundamentally virtuous but remarkably feisty heroine.

At the same time, it is also possible that for the Torrent-author, or for certain audiences, Portugal would have appealed more for its foreignness than its familiarity. Chaucer’s mention of “greyn of Portyngale” in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (VII [B2] 3459) alludes to red dye, presumably an imported luxury of rare value and splendor. This sense of the exotic seems to have seeped over into romance as well. William of Palerne (c. 1350–61), the earliest surviving Middle English text to mention Portugal, is a romance that features a Portuguese stepmother who has the power to transform her stepson into a werewolf. One manuscript of the Scottish romance King Orphius, too, sets its tale of fairy abduction in Portugal, and adding further weight to the notion of Portugal as a land of marvels and adventures is the Older Scots Clariodus, in which Sir Porrus of Portingal takes the form of a lion until Clariodus breaks the spell by defeating him. 22 These texts suggest a vogue for Portugal’s exoticism in the cultural imagination of later medieval England and Scotland, which seems to have found particular expression in romances that rely on popular tropes, and which the Torrent-author employs and amplifies to novel effect.

Torrent’s place within the genre of popular romance is attested by the early sixteenth-century print editions of Pynson and de Worde; the early Tudor period saw a marked proliferation in the printing of Middle English romance, the pulp fictions of their age. Perhaps counterintuitively, then, the fragmentary state of these prints attests to their popularity. These books were not valuable objects to be preserved on library shelves; they were meant to be read, and as inexpensive paperbacks they were read until they literally fell apart. Sometimes, the books that survive intact from the Middle Ages are the ones that people only occasionally opened. While, however, the Pynson and de Worde prints suggest the popularity of Torrent in terms of the two printers’ perceived demand from their readers, “popular” is often considered a fraught adjective to describe a Middle English romance, and the case of Torrent is a good example why, as the most complete copy to survive does so in a mercantile or gentry manuscript. A lone manuscript witness, however, can tell us very little about the variety of possible contexts in which a text might have been consumed in the period, and the prints of Torrent point to the likelihood of proliferation amongst varying socioeconomic classes. Certainly, there were no clear-cut social divisions in terms of literary tastes in fifteenth-century England, as suggested by the possible audiences for Torrent, which encompassed the highest echelon of English and continental royalty, as well as London gentry and mercantile readers. However, there also seems to have been a broader and possibly more numerous audience for Torrent that may be thought of as popular in the sense of being in the market for cheap prints, and also popular in the sense of being vast enough to make the printing of these cheap texts economically viable for their printers. 23

Another way Torrent could be said to be popular is that it is fundamentally invested in the conventions of genre fiction. Certainly, no immediate source for the romance is known, and unlike many of the Middle English romances, it is doubtful that it was derived from any continental original. However, as many scholars have suggested, 24 Torrent is a brilliant amplification of the earlier fourteenth-century Sir Eglamour of Artois, which is itself a re-imagining of numerous popular tropes found in other Middle English romances. In addition to many verbal correspondences, several of the major plot points in Eglamour are made bigger and better in Torrent: the imposition of challenges by the princess’ father, the battles with exotic giants and dragons, the birth of the child while the hero is away, the child’s abduction by a beast, the rescue of the princess from marriage, and the father-versus-son combat. 25 But Torrent is not simply an imitation of Eglamour. Where the Torrent-author expands, he also diversifies, or at least he amplifies in a way that further taps into the romance traditions in which Eglamour also participates. As in Sir Isumbras, for instance, the protagonists nobly and pietistically suffer hardship; as in many romances, such as Lay le Freine, Emaré, and Generides, it presents a version of the “calumniated queen” trope, otherwise known as the “Constance-saga” narrative; 26 as in Bevis of Hampton, noble virgins cannot be harmed by lions; as in Octavian, a defeated beast accompanies the hero; as in Guy of Warwick, there is an island combat; and as in Ipomadon, two brothers unwittingly joust with each other. A list of comparable details, incidents, or motifs from other Middle English romances could be much expanded, but the point is that there is a shared currency of action across these romances, and that Torrent trades in this currency just as it attempts to out-sell its competitors. 27

This tactic of narrative appropriation has led some scholars to condemn Torrent as derivative: in Lillian Herland Hornstein’s view, for instance, it is merely “the work of a crude hack-writer.” 28 In fact, so far as current scholarship is concerned (excepting Roger Dalrymple and Edward Kennedy), its only contribution to literary history is its likely influence on Sir Thomas Malory. 29 To adopt such a critical position, however, would be to judge Torrent according to criteria of originality to which its author certainly did not aspire, and perhaps did not even recognize. What matters here is that the poem’s depiction of betrayal and treachery, evil and corruption, is brought to a happy ending only after many painful deferrals and shocking revelations. The Torrent-author revels in putting his protagonists in seemingly insurmountable situations and watching them somehow struggle out. This struggle, after all, and the eventual triumph of good over evil, is what romance is all about.


I have based my text on Chetham’s Library MS 8009 (Mun. A.6.31), the only surviving copy to preserve the romance in near-complete form. However, the manuscript frequently offers unsatisfactory readings, and I have therefore adopted readings from the print fragments when their assistance in restoring rhyme, meter, or line order is overwhelmingly persuasive. Otherwise I have offered emendations when it is obvious what has gone wrong in the process of transmission, or when the problems produce obstructions to sense. All of my emendations are described in the Textual Notes. Wherever the rhyme scheme or number of lines per stanza seem to indicate missing lines, I have marked them in the text by using ellipses; a three-point ellipsis indicates one missing line and a four-point ellipsis indicates multiple missing lines. Additional information on the content of the missing lines may be found in the Textual Notes. In keeping with the style guidelines of the Middle English Texts Series, I have expanded contractions, regularized word division, and modernized orthography, capitalization, punctuation, and i/j and u/v usage without comment.

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