Bevis of Hampton Bevis of Hampton

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(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 53,589 words.)