Bevis of Hampton

Bevis of Hampton
(ca. 1324)
   Bevis of Hampton belongs to the category of MIDDLE ENGLISH verse ROMANCES referred to as “Matter of Britain,” because of its setting in Britain itself, unconnected with the French romances of CHARLEMAGNE or those utilizing classical material or legends of King ARTHUR. Thus it is usually men-tioned with romances like GUY OF WARWICK and HAVELOK. Like Guy, Bevis of Hampton survives in the famous early 14th-century Auchinleck manuscript, and its five other extant manuscripts and early printed edition attest to the story’s popularity, though the texts are different enough to be separate romances, perhaps based on separate MINSTREL versions of the story. The most accepted (Auchinleck) version of the text is a sprawling and episodic narrative of 4,320 lines, the first 474 of which are composed in six-line TAIL RHYME stanzas, and the remainder in octosyllabic (eight-syllable) couplets. The story itself is not unique to Bevis, but is popular throughout Europe in a variety of languages. The immediate source for Bevis was an Anglo-Norman French CHANSON DE GESTE from the 12th century called Boeuve de Haumton.
   The romance is chiefly an adventure story, structured into five sections, each of about 900 lines, perhaps reflecting portions of the story broken up for piecemeal recitation by a minstrel. In the first section of the poem, Bevis’s father, Guy, Earl of Hampton, is murdered by his wife’s lover, the emperor of Germany, whom she quickly marries. When the seven-year-old Bevis attacks his new stepfather, his mother sells him to merchants, who sell him as a slave to Ermin, the Saracen king of Armenia, under whom he is trained as a warrior. The king’s daughter Josian falls in love with Bevis, sparking the jealousy of others in the king’s court. In the second part of the poem, King Brademond threatens to destroy Ermin’s kingdom if he is not permitted to marry the king’s daughter. Ermin knights Bevis, giving him the sword Morgeli and the magnificent horse Arondel, and Bevis leads an army against Brademond, defeating him and forcing him to swear allegiance to King Ermin. Josian can no longer resist, and declares her love to Bevis, promising to convert to Christianity for him. But Ermin, convinced by Brademond that Bevis has deflowered his daughter, orders Brademond to destroy Bevis, and Brademond has Bevis thrown into a pit to be fed on bread and water. Meanwhile the king marries Josian to King Yvor. But Bevis, after seven years’ imprisonment, is able to escape, ultimately diving with his horse into the sea and swimming for his life.
   The third section of the romance begins as Bevis, en route to Armenia, finds time to defeat a giant who is besieging a town. When he gets to King Ermin’s court, he discovers that Josian has been married to King Yvor, and that Yvor has also been given his sword Morgeli and his steed Arondel. Bevis enters Yvor’s castle disguised as a beggar, but his horse Arondel immediately recognizes him, and Josian convinces him that she has remained a virgin for seven years. After drugging Yvor’s regent Garcy, they escape from the castle, but Garcy sends the giant Ascopard after them. Josian is able to reconcile Ascopard to Bevis and the giant becomes his page. The giant then transports Bevis and Josian to Cologne, where Bevis’s uncle is a bishop. Bevis asks both Josian and Ascopard to be baptized by his uncle, and while Josian accepts baptism, the giant refuses. While in Cologne, Bevis is faced with a dragon that is terrorizing the city, and agrees to do battle with the monster.
   In a battle that goes on for days beginning the fourth section of the romance, Bevis ultimately kills the dragon and saves the city. Afterward, he speaks with his uncle about his usurped patrimony, and the bishop advises him to return to England and fight for his inheritance. Bevis leaves, putting Josian under the protection of the giant Ascopard.An evil earl named Miles tricks Ascopard into leaving Josian unguarded, then forces her to marry him. Josian kills the earl on their wedding night, and is condemned to death, but is rescued at the last minute by Bevis and Ascopard. They all journey to England, and Bevis enters Hampton disguised as a French knight. He is secretly reunited with his old mentor, Saber, and a battle ensues with Bevis’s stepfather, the emperor of Germany.Ascopard captures the emperor, takes him to Saber’s castle, and throws him in a pot of molten lead. Seeing this, Bevis’s mother throws herself from a tower and dies, leaving Bevis in possession of Hampton. He sends for Josian and marries her, and visits England’s King Edgar to have his claim to his estates recognized. But when his horse Arondel kills the king’s son, Bevis is forced to forfeit his lands and leave England with a pregnant Josian and a small group of followers, including his old friend Terri, whom he makes his new page.
   As part five begins, Ascopard, angered at being displaced as page, abducts Josian for King Yvor, taking her from her infant sons Miles and Guy. Bevis and Terri go in search of Josian. She has convinced Yvor that she is a leper, and has been confined to a castle guarded by Ascopard. Meanwhile Saber, warned in a dream of Bevis’s misfortune, begins a search of his own, and kills Ascopard in battle, rescuing Josian. The two of them search and ultimately find Bevis and Terri. The couple reclaim their children, and they all make their way to Armenia, where they help King Ermin battle Yvor. Bevis defeats Yvor in combat and sends him to Ermin, who ransoms him.
   It would seem that the romance should end here, but more action postpones any closure. King Ermin names Bevis’s son Guy his heir before his death. Bevis helps Guy convert Armenia to Christianity. Bevis’s horse Arondel is stolen by members of Yvor’s court, and Saber, regaining the horse, is rescued from several of Yvor’s knights by Bevis’s sons. Bevis confronts Yvor again, defeats him, and gains his kingdom of Mombraunt. Saber gets word that King Edgar has taken his lands, and he and Bevis go back to England, where Bevis appeals to the king, but the king’s steward calls Bevis a traitor, and a street battle ensues, in which Bevis and six men must fight the entire population of London in the streets of Cheapside. Bevis is rescued by his sons and reconciled with the king. King Edgar gives his daughter to Bevis’s son Miles, and Bevis returns to Mombraunt with Josian, where he rules for 20 years. At that point Arondel dies, and Bevis and Josian follow shortly after. Guy has them buried in a new chapel, and founds a religious house where he commissions songs to be sung for the soul of the horse Arondel.
   While the plot of the poem seems lengthy and repetitious, it is easy to see how popular audiences were drawn to the adventure of the story, and its exotic as well as its realistic English settings. Perhaps the characters of the hero and heroine are the most appealing aspect of the poem: Bevis is rash and sometimes misguided, pious but flawed. Josian is assertive, resourceful, and bold. They are a refreshing change from the perfectly pious hero and his helpless, distant lady.
   ■ Barron,W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. London: Longman, 1987.
   ■ Baugh, A. C. “The Making of Beves of Hampton.” In Bibliographical Studies in Honor of Rudolf Hirsch, edited by William E.Miller and Thomas G.Waldman, 15–37. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974.
   ■ “Bevis of Hampton.” In Four Romances of England, edited by Ronald B.Herzman,Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999.
   ■ Brownrigg, Linda.“The Taymouth Hours and the Romance of Beves of Hampton,” English Manuscript Studies 11001700 1 (1989): 222–241.
   ■ Jacobs, Nicolas. “Sir Degarré, Lay le Freine, Beves of Hamtoun, and the ‘Auchinleck Bookshop,’ ” Notes and Queries 227 (Aug. 1982): 294–301.
   ■ Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.
   ■ Weiss, Judith. “The Major Interpolation in Sir Beues of Hamtoun,”Medium Aevum 48 (1979): 71–76.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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