Readers accustomed to the tightly constructed plots of modern novels and narrative poems may find the plethora of action, the wandering story line, the frequent digressions, and the disregard for verisimilitude that characterize Bevis of Hampton strange, and even disturbing. The hero of this thirteenth century metrical narrative is able to slay men and monsters alike with virtual impunity; a one-man army, he appears invincible against forces considerably larger and often better armed. He engages frequently in adventures that can only be classified as fantastic. His unswerving devotion to his beloved Josyan and to his Christian faith survive every test. There seems to be nothing he cannot accomplish to rectify the wrongs done to him and to his family.
Such are the elements of the medieval romance, and Bevis of Hampton is typical of the genre. Its appearance in numerous manuscript versions and in a number of languages, as well as its presence among the first printed texts in England in the late fifteenth century, attest to its popularity among audiences for over three centuries. The poem is one of the most important of those that celebrate Britain in describing the exploits of heroes such as King Horn, Guy of Warwick, and King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table. While most versions treat Bevis as an English hero, some scholars have noted parallels between his story and that of a number of Continental figures; it may be that earlier stories were recast by an Anglo-Norman scribe to create a heroic story that would satisfy audiences in the land conquered by French invaders little more than a century before Bevis of Hampton was composed. Such an explanation would be consistent with the pattern followed by many authors of medieval works, who placed less value on invention than on pleasing audiences with variations on well-known stories about characters with whom they could identify.
The adventures Bevis experiences are typical of those described in romances of the period: He is wrongfully denied his patronage and inheritance, he is exiled from his homeland, he overcomes monumental odds in battle, he falls in love with a beautiful maiden from whom he is separated and whom he must win by force of deeds. Like so many of the knights celebrated in romances of the period, Bevis is engaged, throughout his many adventures, on a quest—here, the quest to regain his rightful place as head of his family and lands, and to claim as his bride the woman he loves. Thirteenth century audiences seem to have been less concerned about unity of plot than they were in hearing about the adventures of individuals engaged in exploits of personal daring.
One of the principal distinguishing characteristics of Bevis of Hampton is the hero’s devotion to his Christian faith. It is not uncommon for heroes in romances to struggle against pagan infidels; the real-life exploits of European knights in the various Crusades provided an abundance of material for the fertile imagination of scribes and storytellers wishing to please audiences made up of the nobility by creating an ancestry for them that included heroic figures both real and fictional. Unfortunately, many modern readers may find the attitude expressed in the poem disturbing,...
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