Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1338
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, since the non-Christians are presented in a highly unfavorable light. The hero’s exploits in slaying Saracen warriors are treated with great relish and presumably were met with great approval by medieval audiences. The hatred with which Christian Europe looked upon the Islamic nations, which in the European view had transgressed on the most holy lands of Christendom, was a commonplace on which authors could count to evoke feelings of admiration and sympathy for knights who furthered the cause of Christianity and who remained constant to their faith. Unquestionably, the bounds of realism are strained in this poem, since the young Bevis is snatched away from his Christian home when he is only seven, yet he remains constant to the tenets of his faith while living among people who have only disdain for that creed. Even after he has committed himself to Josyan and demonstrated his determination to maintain his fidelity to her despite temptation and hardship, his commitment to his faith holds a higher place in his system of values, as he makes clear when he insists that she must convert to Christianity before he can marry her.
Like the young hero of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal (c. 1200-1210), a work contemporary with Bevis of Hampton, the title character of this romance is presented as a model of the Christian knight, fighting not only for himself but also for his Church, exhibiting the virtues one should emulate. The audiences of romance expected such instruction, and the entertainment they gained from hearing of the knight’s exploits simply reinforced the lesson they gained from seeing Christianity triumph over other religions. The ability of knights such as Bevis to overcome great odds in serving his faith simply gave evidence to them that God, who had come down to earth to establish the Christian faith, would always support those who fought for His cause. This theme explains both the action and motivation of heroes who were much beloved by audiences of centuries ago.
Bevis of Hampton is of special importance because it also contains typically English elements and thus serves as a fine example of the transition from the rude Anglo-Saxon tales to the more refined French romances that prevailed after 1066. This quality of the poem may be seen by the later additions of much foreign material to a typically English celebration of a local hero. Although early romances are seldom found to have great unity of plot, Bevis of Hampton probably violates this principle as much as such a form can. As a metrical romance, Bevis of Hampton is not a success, but it is historically significant and contains that most common charm of early tales: the exuberant force of great events told in a fast-moving, sometimes even humorous, fashion.
Bevis of Hampton is often spoken of and linked together with Guy of Warwick: both English heroes upholding the Christian faith in Saracen lands, valiant youths from a very early age. They are both Crusades knights, although the romance of Bevis of Hampton is far more Christian in theme and characterization.
The story of Bevis probably originated in France; there are three different versions in verse and one in prose. The poem was translated into Italian, Scandinavian prose, Dutch verse, and Celtic versions. Its popularity is further attested to by the numerous references in other medieval works.
From studies of the dialect, it appears that the work was composed in the south of England, probably near Southampton, where Bevis is supposed to have been born.
The narrative encompasses a longer period of time than many medieval romances; it begins when Bevis is sold into slavery at the age of seven, continues through the time when his grown sons fight alongside him, to the moment when both he and his faithful wife die within a few minutes of each other, presumably at a mature age.
Although there is little character differentiation, there are realistic touches such as detailed description of hand-to-hand combats, of weapons, and of military engines. The author also shows his knowledge of London in the passages where Bevis and his sons resist the inhabitants aroused by the king’s evil steward.
The author uses an entire arsenal of the material of romance: typical expressions of grief, pious benedictions, greetings, oaths, similes, transitional phrases, promises, character traits, methods of wounding and slaying enemies. Much of this repetition is necessitated by demands of the rhyme scheme of metrical romance. Bevis of Hampton begins with the oral formula of the typical metrical romance, probably used by traveling minstrels to gather crowds in a marketplace: “Lordinges, herkneth to me tale!” This tale moves rapidly, has a Christian theme carefully adhered to, and, not unlike other such romances, has comic touches in several scenes. It celebrates one of England’s earliest and most stalwart heroes.