Over the last couple of weeks my research into the origins of the Boeve/Bevis story has been coming into closer focus as I worked my way towards saying what I believe about the connection between the material in the various sources. Prompted by the return for revision of my submission to Notes and Queries it has been necessary to think more boldly and state more clearly what I believe to be the connection between the story, the medieval town, and the unexpected saint.
If the revisions are accepted, then I can move on to the next stage, which is to understand the significance of the geography. I am grateful to my colleages in the CMRC for recent conversations about this as part of our ‘pilgrimage’ discussion, and for the prompt to research further into pilgrimage. It has a tangential bearing on my wider research, not least because the pilgrimage hub of St Gilles is used as a location for part of the action in the story.
The biggest problem, as always, is untangling the strands of research!
It was also interesting to see a major post on Facebook concerning Bevis – it was only the 14th century story retold in modern English, but it was so much better than many versions I have seen.
And the lions are back! After a long period of refurbishment, the lions guarding the Bargate in Southampton are back on their plinths and painted to look as they did when first placed there in the 18th century. They are the colour of lions, and their vexillae are painted to show up the cross of St George. All rather splendid and not at all like the black beasts we all grew up with.
After a long period of uncertainty, I have taken another leap of faith and submitted my research paper on female space in Sir Bevis to an online journal and await a decision. This is a fully developed version of the paper I gave at the Castles Conference, held a few years ago under the auspices of the CMRC and the Art Gallery, Southampton, which was hosting an exhibition of images of castles. The paper might be considered to engage with Foucault’s theory of ‘heterotopia’, but that seemed to impose modern theoretical approaches too heavily onto the medieval social contexts.
The year so far has been busy with research which is consolidating my theories about the origins of Boeve/Bevis. Currently, work on pilgrimage through Southampton and beyond is offering a breadth of information that relates to my original ideas, and and I hope to be in the position quite soon to begin work on synthesising the new research with the old paper that was unsuccessfully submitted to Medium Aevum. From this perspective, I am hopeful of being able to argue more assertively for a solid connection with Southampton itself, right from the start, without needing to contest the long-established historical contexts. My work will simply extend the perception of origins to take account of those aspects of history and text that have remained unexplained or contentious. Pilgrimage is one of those new contexts.
In view of my work on historicising the story, it was so provocative to see someone on Facebook asserting that Bevis was a Saxon warrior. This is another of the fondly (and I mean that in the medieval sense!) held local beliefs concerning Bevis. There are so many, mostly dating back to the antiquarians Leland and Camden, with accretions from later fantasies, and these are deeply ingrained as solid fact. I am beginning to think that I must take this on as another research project, to write it all up and publish it. There is certainly a significant strand of local belief that is legitimate in its own right as a sign of the value placed upon the story along the south coast. But the elements of this strand, though deriving its major names, at least, from the literary tradition, have a separate existence and should be acknowledged for what they are, so that the literary tradition is not muddied or muddled with the fantasies of those who wished to claim Bevis for their own ends.
2020 was not a year many people will want to remember, but it will not be easy to forget. In spite of feeling that I made no progress with my Bevis research last year, a little distance and an innate determination that I’m not going to give up on my own ideas, has prompted to me move on to new ways of dealing with all the research I have done.
My current work on pilgrimage may seem unrelated, but it is clarifying my perception of why the composer of the Anglo-Norman work may have chosen the places he seems to specify. There was a great deal of political significance bound up with the landscape between (South)Hampton and Arundel in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The composition of a poem, for whatever reason, by a poet/minstrel at this time may have been no more than an evening’s entertainment, but if that was the case, why was it considered worth recording? The fact of its transmission implies its significance. It names no patron, however, and to date its only historical associations have been with the d’Albini earls of Arundel. Why then, if we take Guy of Warwick as a model. is the hero ‘of Hampton’, not ‘of Arundel’?
There are more questions than answers remaining from previous studies, and my intention is to go back to my earlier theories and tighten them up, adding in my new research. In addition, I am currently working again on the piece I wrote for the Castles colloquium, when I looked at ‘Perilous Spaces’ in the 14thC version of the poem, having had my interest re-awakened when I was introduced to Foucault’s theory of hetertopia by colleagues at the CMRC. I am most grateful to all concerned for reawakening my love of research!
After all the work I got through during last summer, it has been rather crushing to find that only two colleagues found the proposed collection of essays for Cambridge Scholar Press stimulating enough to respond to the cfp. This means that my own work on Bevis is languishing on an editor’s computer, getting nowhere.
I shall refocus the cfp for CSP in the New Year to see if it can attract more interest. Meanwhile I await judgement from N&Q on my short piece relating Boeve de Haumtone to the hagiographical account of Beuve de Noyers (St. Bovo) in the Acta Sanctorum. The work I have done on these matters so far has now led to thoughts about how the hagiography and the Anglo-Norman verse narrative relate to the strange occurrance of the name Bovo as that of an historical person connected with Southampton. This will, of course, require consideration of Hampton as a generic name, as well as some major rewriting of an older (unsuccessful) essay on the matter. In fact, I can hardly wait to get started on it, but other matters intervene. Once they are out of the way, I hope to have something more to say on Boeve.
It was a relief to hit my submission deadline for the third of the book chapters, and after a short pause for breath, I completed the revision of ‘The Name of the Hero’ and submitted it again to N&Q. A decision could be a long time away, and positive or not, at least the piece was properly up to date as far as research was concerned – when I submitted it.
With that done, and after another short pause, I have begun to consider the next part of the research which will be on the connection between Boeve and the putative geography. This will take some work because I believe it involves Harold Godwinson and Thomas Becket. It will be more than usually tricky to do this research because current circumstances will mean that I’ll have to rely for now on what I can get access to online. It will be a while before poking about in the dark recesses of Special Collections in the Hartley Library becomes possible again, but that’s no reason why I shouldn’t continue to plot out the main shape of the paper. It’s a shame I missed the deadline for submitting proposals to the CMRC Romances strands at the Leeds IMC next year, but I have a feeling now that this new research paper will be too big for the 20 minute slot of any conference session. But we shall see.
My attention to Bevis seems to have wandered somewhat, but understanding the background may help explain more about the Middle English story and its popularity.
The whole of August, fair weather an foul, has been taken up with work on ‘Perilous Female Spaces’ in Bevis, the third and last of the chapters promised for The Rise and Rise of Heroic Romance. I have always enjoyed this topic, ever since I wrote the original conference paper on it for the Castles conference run jointly by the University of Southampton and the Art Gallery. It has only been since staring the new research for the topic that I have discovered how much more the text had to offer, and some of it has been a surprise. Female space has always been dangerous to the men in the text, but a more detailed reading shows up the extent to which it is all located in the part of the text that derives from the Anglo-Norman Boeve and there it all lies in the first part. The spaces in the ‘Continuation’, i.e. after the unfulfilled castle promise are simple and largely unthreatening echoes of earlier motifs, replete with ideological enculturation. This is not part of the current work, being too extended for the word count, but it bears further scrutiny.
Once this chapter is complete and submitted I hope to have a little time reconsider The Name of the Hero, the piece I withdrew from N&Q after reading Damen Carraz’s book. It will require a good deal of quiet thinking and may end up too long for N&Q, but will hopefully contribute to the debate about the poem.
Having withdrawn the piece on Boeve’s name from N&Q on account of the new reading I had done in the book that came out as I submitted the piece, I still have contributed nothing yet to scholarship on the romance, but I have been writing like a thing demented. Apart from the major consideration of the continually liminal state of the romance up to the point at which it got lost like a river in a desert when popular versions diluted it, it has been much in my mind while writing up my latest piece of research. Although it was unknown (as far as we know) to Tolkien, nevertheless, LotR and Bevis have so much in common that the original romance makes a useful comparator when looking at Tolkien’s work.
Bevis will come more into focus in its own right as I pick up the next piece of work on ‘Perilous Spaces in Medieval Romances’. This will revisit and extend some earlier work on the way space controlled by females becomes a serious danger to the men who enter into it.
Hopefully, after this I’ll be able to revisit the Name of the Hero again.
Almost all the research I have planned is associated with Bevis in some way, until at least Spring next year. The monograph I had hoped to work on will not to happen, but Bevis remains part of my work for the foreseeable future.
The developments in my reading round the historical and political contexts relevant to the story of Boeve in the twelfth century have made me realise that I need to get on and withdraw the item I submitted to N&Q earlier this year. The most important book for this was only published around the time I submitted the piece, and it should be referenced.
My work on the crucial sixteenth-century reception of the story in its calqued form of Sir Bevis of Hampton also means that I need to revise my ideas about its relationship to the real Bovo of St Laurence. There is likely to be a more nuanced relationship based on the relevance of the name of St Beuve/Bovo in twelfth-century (southern) England. Even that needs caution! I am working on why versions of the name appear in a high-status antiquarian text as ‘historical’ evidence of a legend or story relating the story of an Insular hero and blaming monkish intervention for warping their reality.
Much food for thought at present.
The work on the new project is really painful now. I know better what I have to say about the liminal state of the story and its reflections of history and politics. It’s so complex that teasing out the different layers is grindingly hard work, proceeding slowly, and falling apart on a regular basis. Seeing the liminality is the only way to make sense of a story whose elements don’t make sense. How does it slide from something that looks like a fabliau into a crusading theme all enveloped in domestic injustice? But it does, and I am determined to treat it as a literary text and not fragment it to provide a series of examples to set alongside a lot of other examples. The problem may be that it needs a larger space. Meanwhile, I have great difficulty maintaining the long view which is needed to see the transitions from one exegetical dimension to another. But there are a few things I am convinced about now. Initially, it is trying to make the point that the warrior estate should be crusading against the infidel and not fighting one another, including princes of the Church. And therein lies a whole other essay, on the poem’s engagement with the Becket controversy. But that is not something I want to think about until Liminality is finished.