Bevis of Hampton c. Fourteenth century
(Also known as Sir Beves of Hampton and Beuve of Hamtoun.) Medieval English romance.
Among the many Middle English romances still in existence, Bevis of Hampton is one of the best known. Originally a French chanson de geste, or epic poem, it was enlarged and transformed into a celebrated romance by an unknown English poet in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. Orally composed and transmitted, Bevis comprises 4,620 lines, of which the first 474 are in tail-rhymed, six-line stanzas and the remainder in short rhyming couplets. It combines exotic settings and familiar ones as the action moves from England to Albania, from Arabia to Germany, and its final section is set in London. The tone is generally serious, though there are a number of scenes featuring grim and sometimes indelicate humor. The narrative is complex, building on repetitions and amplifications of traditional epic elements, including battles, betrayals, and imprisonments.
Commentators frequently assert that Bevis of Hampton was undoubtedly one of the most popular of all Medieval romances. Evidence of its popularity lies in the unusually large number of manuscript versions and copies of early printing that have survived. The most famous of these is the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh), usually dated around 1330-1340; though it is the oldest English manuscript, and its lineation is the one most critics use in their citations, scholars do not believe the Auchinleck version is as close to the original as some others. Two fourteenth-century manuscripts are also extant, at Caius College, Cambridge, and the British Museum, but significant portions of the poem are missing from both of these. The complete text of Bevis survives in two fifteenth-century manuscripts, one in University College, Cambridge, and the other in the Royal Library of Naples. One leaf is lost from the Bevis manuscript in the Chetham Library, Manchester, but some scholars believe this version—also from the fifteenth century—is the most authentic. The only modern edition of Bevis is Eugen Kölbing's, prepared for the Early English Text Society and published over the period from 1885 to 1894.
The earliest form of the Bevis saga, Beuve de Hantone (also cited as Beuves de Hanstone), appeared in France during the twelfth century, and from there the story spread throughout Europe and the British Isles. At least six versions of the tale are extant in Italy, where the hero is called Bovo. It was also refashioned for audiences in Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland, and Wales. Scholars generally agree that the English Bevis is based on the Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone, probably composed around 1200. To his original source, the English poet added three important episodes: the hero's clash with a group of Saracen warriors on Christmas Day, his struggle against the dragon of Cologne, and the pitched battle between Bevis and the citizens of London.
Many of the narrative elements in Bevis of Hampton are based on motifs found in folk tales, legends, and other romances, particularly the commonplace fable of the young hero who, driven into exile, wins fame in foreign lands and returns home to reclaim his patrimony and carry on the noble name of his family. Bevis is the son of the earl of Southampton, who late in life marries a woman who despises him. She has him murdered, marries the man who killed him, and sells their son into slavery. Bevis becomes part of the pagan household of the King of Armenia, whose daughter Josian falls deeply in love with him—though Bevis will have nothing to do with her until she converts to Christianity. Over the following years, Bevis engages in a series of perilous adventures, including conflicts with Saracens, giants, lions, and a dragon; he is also imprisoned for an extended period, returns to England to kill his father's murderer and witness his mother's death, and repeatedly endures the treachery of trusted aides and allies. Eventually, after Josian has been forced into two hateful marriages, she and Bevis are wed, and she gives birth to twin boys. In the concluding portion of the poem, Bevis and his sons become involved in a bitter civil dispute in England, narrowly winning a stunning victory over a mob of misguided London citizens.
Twentieth-century commentators have compared Bevis with other Middle English romances, analyzed its structure and principal characters, and evaluated its treatment of political issues. Scholars judge that Bevis is more fully developed in terms of literary form than some other romances of the period—for example, King Horn and Havelok the Dane. Many critics have pointed out that Bevis has some noteworthy parallels with Guy of Warwick, another extremely popular medieval saga, though several of them have also remarked that Guy is much closer than Bevis to the genre known as courtly or chivalric romance. Recently commentators have begun to challenge the traditional opinion that Bevis is a loosely constructed series of disparate episodes. Both Dieter Mehl and Sheila Spector have asserted that it has a unified design and was composed by a self-conscious artist who understood how to link together diverse narrative strands. But whereas Mehl has argued that the poem's dramatic unity stems from the actions of Bevis, Spector has maintained that it is Josian's development as a character that determines the formal order of the poem. Modern critics have generally viewed Bevis as both an epic hero and a defender of Christianity, though they have disagreed about whether he is more of a courtly knight or a popular hero. The only other character who has drawn close attention is Josian. In 1993 Geraldine Barnes evaluated the poem's portrayal of this sorely tried heroine, emphasizing her ingenuity as well as her moral strength, and noting that she continually devises clever strategies—both to gain the love of Bevis and to subvert the plans of villains who threaten her. Barnes has also assessed the significance of political issues in the final section of the romance, as has Susan Crane in her 1986 essay on Bevis. In Crane's estimation, Bevis of Hampton is deeply concerned with the political tensions that marked the late middle ages, when feudalism was in decline and a nationalist ideology was emerging to challenge the old order. This conflict, she has noted, reaches full expression when Bevis and his sons are assailed by the citizens of London acting in defense of the principle of monarchy.