(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Principal English Editions

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

The Romance of Sir Beues of Hamtoun (edited by Eugen Kölbing) 1885-94

Eugen Kölbing (essay date 1885-94)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Contents of the Romance" in The Romance of Sir Beues of Hamptoun, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1885, pp. xlv-lxvi, vii-xliii.

[In the following excerpt, Kölbing provides a detailed summary of the narrative of Bevis of Hampton, generally following the plot line in the Auchinleck manuscript but drawing upon other texts as well.]

… The story [of Sir Beues of Hamtoun] begins with our hero's father, Guy, Earl of South-Hampton, a most strong and valiant man, who unfortunately does not marry till he is old, exhausted and worn out by his battles and warlike expeditions. Then he makes up his mind to marry the daughter of the King of...

(The entire section is 6135 words.)

Prentiss C. Hoyt (essay date 1902)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Home of the Beves Saga," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA), Vol. XVII, No. 2, 1902, pp. 237-46.

[In the essay reprinted below, Hoyt contends that the Bevis saga is of Anglo-Saxon derivation, not French or German. To support his argument, he calls attention to important parallels between the Bevis story and the tale of King Horn—an early-thirteenth-century English romance of indigenous origin.]

The question of the original home of the Beves saga has often been discussed, but no satisfactory conclusion has been reached. The conjectures regarding it have been various, but as yet unconvincing....

(The entire section is 3341 words.)

Herbert L. Creek (essay date 1911)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Character in the 'Matter of England' Romances," The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. X, 1911, pp. 429-609.

[Here, Creek evaluates the relationship between characterization, plot, and setting in four Middle English romances: Havelok the Dane, King Horn, Bevis of Hampton, and Guy of Warwick. In terms of characterization, the critic claims, Bevis is closer to the simpler, more primitive forms of the genre—Havelok and Horn—but with respect to structural development, it is more akin to Guy.]

For the student of medieval life and literature the dramatis personce of the romances—conventional as they are,...

(The entire section is 17136 words.)

Laura A. Hibbard (essay date 1911)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction in Three Middle English Romances, David Nutt, 1911, pp. 1-2.

[In the following excerpt, Hibbard alludes briefly to Bevis's genre classification, possible origins, metrical schemes, and wide popularity.]

Beves of Hampton differs materially from both Horn and Havelok. Although originally, perhaps, a viking tale of the tenth century,16 in its extant forms it is a typical romance of adventure. There is no notably English feature in it save a few place-names and the obviously late addition telling of Beves's fight with the London citizens.17 It would seem, rather, that Beves was an international...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

Laura A. Hibbard (essay date 1924)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beves of Hampton" in Medieval Romance in England, Oxford University Press, 1924, pp. 115-26, 321-26.

[In the essay below, Hibbard offers an overview of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scholarship regarding the oldest versions, the sources, and the composition date of Bevis of Hampton.]

Versions. The hero who bears the name of Beves of Hampton (Boeve de Hamptone, Hanstone) might well be described as an international character. The wide wandering of his story was like his own fabled adventuring from Hampton to Damascus. Versions in English, Welsh, Irish, French, Dutch, Scandinavian, Italian, attest the popularity of him who became even in...

(The entire section is 4596 words.)

Dieter Mehl (essay date 1967)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sir Beues of Hamtoun" in Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967, pp. 211-20.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in German in 1967, Mehl analyzes the episodic structure of Bevis, describing it as consciously contrived to increase suspense and keep the audience's attention focused on the title character. The critic also maintains that the poem is a popular chroniclechiefly concerned with the origins of a noteworthy familynot a courtly romance.]

Sir Beues of Hamtoun was probably one of the best known of the Middle...

(The entire section is 4602 words.)

Sheila A. Spector (essay date 1976)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Interlacing in Bevis of Hampton" in Studies in "The Bovo Buch" and "Bevis of Hampton," 1976, pp. 22-49, 229-30.

[In the excerpt below, Spector identifies a structural principle in Bevis known as interlacing, in which seemingly unrelated narrative threads are woven togetheras in a silken tapestry or an illuminated letter in a medieval book of psalmsto achieve a unified whole. The poem begins with chaos and ends with the restoration of order, the critic argues, paralleling Josian's development from an unworthy pagan to an ideal Christian woman.]

The fourteenth century romance, Bevis of Hampton, though certainly not a...

(The entire section is 6803 words.)

Susan Crane (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Land, Lineage, and Nation" in Insular Romance, University of California Press, 1986, pp. 53-91, 225-51.

[In the following excerpt, Crane examines the competing principles of feudalism and nationalism in Bevis of Hampton as well as in the Anglo-Norman version of the poem and other Middle English romances. She contends that Bevis merely pays lip service to the notion that national ideology is more important than the interests of noble families; in reality, she asserts, it celebrates ancestral heriage, opposition to royal authority, and aristocratic autonomy.]

The conventional notion of what constitutes medieval English romance—much bloodshed,...

(The entire section is 4188 words.)

Geraldine Barnes (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beves of Hamtoun" in Counsel and Strategy in Middle English Romance, D. S. Brewer, 1993, pp. 60-90, 139-58.

[In the excerpt below from an essay that emphasizes the significance of good counsel in several medieval romances, Barnes traces Bevis's growing maturity, linking it to his willingness to accept the judgment or advice of others. She also discusses the issues of kingship and tyranny raised in the final section of the poem.]

An adaptation, with some emendations and interpolations,44 of the Anglo-Norman Boeve d 'Hamtoune,45Beves of Hamtoun shares certain superficial similarities of theme and structure...

(The entire section is 4572 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Brownrigg, Linda. "The Taymouth Hours and the Romance of Beves of Hampton." In English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700, edited by Peter Beal and Jeremy Griffiths, Vol. I, pp. 222-41. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Focuses on the illustrations that accompany an excerpt from Bevis of Hampton which appears in the fourteenth-century manuscript known as the Taymouth Hours.

De Vries, F. C. "A Note on The Owl and the Nightingale 951, 1297." Notes and Queries n.s. 16, No. 12 (December 1969): 442-44.

Points out that although the reflexive form of the verb "to understand" is rarely found in fourteenth-century English texts, this...

(The entire section is 354 words.)