Castles as Perilous Female Space in Sir Bevis of Hampton

This is a further version of the paper originally given in January 2017 at the ‘Castles’ Study Day at the University of Southapton.

Castles as Perilous Female Space in Sir Bevis of Hampton

 The architecture of castles has been analysed by archaeologists and historians in terms of gendered space in which, given the purpose of castles, male space predominated.[1] In medieval romances, as in archaeology, separate female space in castles is typically defined by privacy and seclusion away from martial, administrative and ceremonial spaces, and is equated with high-status domesticity. It included tower rooms and chambers for receiving visitors, and was located where the ladies of the castle could see and be seen at a status-defining distance. But this binary gendering of physical space was never, in reality, absolute, as female seclusion deferred to the ceremonial obligations of social rank and gender.[2]

Almost from the outset, the fourteenth-century English verse romance Sir Bevis of Hampton reflects social and literary conventions by assigning female characters their own space in castles. Much has been written about the famous testing of Gawain, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the lady of Bertilak’s castle, which imperils his reputation as the paragon of courtesy and chivalry. The testing of Bevis, some half century earlier than the Gawain poem is more complex, wider ranging in its attack on the hero’s identity, and in its choice of female spaces, but this is only one aspect of the peril those spaces represent as the story problematises female space by constantly making it the site of the imperilling of dominant male characters, not only Bevis the hero.

As the story starts the daughter of the king of Scotland is married against her will to the aging Earl of Southampton. After Bevis’s birth, she conceives a plan within the seclusion of her tower to have his father murdered, [þe leuedi hire mis-be-þou3te/And meche a3en þe ri3t she wro3te/In hire tour (56-7)]. From the tower she sends her messenger to her lover arranging the assassination. Although the Bevis story derives from an Anglo-Norman original, given the date of this English version – the 1330-40s – the characterisation of this treacherous Scottish princess may have been understood at the time as a satirical political response to the Declaration of Arbroath and the emergence of the ‘founding mothers’ motif. But regardless of political implications, this marriage fantasises personal consequences resulting from unions of unequal age and status,[3] by reconstructing the conventional, status-defining seclusion of noble women as potentially perilous to their husbands, and to their legitimate heirs.

When archaeologists reject simple binary gendering of castle architecture, they point out the ‘permeability’ of spaces according to status and ceremony. The Bevis story reflects this permeability as active female characters go on to wield power in public as well as private spaces, and outside as well as inside castles. It reconstructs female space inside castles as locations which enable this extension of the perilous subversion of stereotypical masculinity and male domination. In the process, the story creates environments in which the hero can be tested in ways that illuminate his emotional and spiritual progress, as distinct from, but in tandem with, his progress as warrior, knight, and champion of justice.

The perils Bevis faces begin during childhood in his father’s castle. They include his widowed mother’s vicious slap, delivered publicly in the hall, then her order to kill him, and failing this, to sell him into slavery. Their confrontations not only begin the process of defining him as precocious in strength, determination, moral rectitude and sense of justice, but initiate the first of a number of alterations to his identity defined by the actions of females in castle spaces they dominate.

Bevis’s enslavement in Armenia, designated a Saracen realm, challenges his evolving identity as a warrior, but he ably withstands open confrontation with males in all situations. His most perplexing challenge results from the affection of the Armenian princess Josian. She first intercedes[4] on his behalf after he has killed some of her father’s knights who have mocked him for forgetting the meaning of Christmas. Badly injured, Bevis lies in his chamber while Josian urges her father not to execute him. She sends two men to bring him before the King in order to reconcile them, but Bevis refuses, insulting them, and Josian, as ‘heathens’. So she goes to his chamber, where she kisses and comforts him. He addresses her as ‘Lemman’ (sweetheart), and asks for her help to heal his wounds.

The martial testing of Bevis resumes as he faces a man-eating boar in a forest. Alone in a tower, [þar she stod in þe tour al on], Josian declares her love for him in soliloquy as she witnesses his courage, his victory against the boar, and a subsequent armed ambush. She then urges her father to knight Bevis as protection against a violent suitor. In the ensuing battle Bevis is again victorious but badly injured. This time Josian heals him in her own chamber [þer she lai hire selve ani3t], where she declares her love and willingness to take him – [þe bodi in þe sherte naked (1107)]. He rejects her, and she insults him as a ‘ditch-cleaner’, using a Saracen curse: [Mahoun þe 3eue tene and wrake! / Beter be-come þe iliche, / For to fowen an old diche, / þanne for to be dobbed kni3t, / Te gon among maidens bri3t (1118-22)]. In response he leaves the castle to lodge in the town. Josian sends a messenger to beg him to return. When he refuses she goes herself, but he pretends to be asleep, making snoring noises when she calls through the door. Finally Bevis tells her ‘Icham weri of-fou3te sore /Ich fau3t for þe, i nel namore’ (1187), restating his martial identity but rejecting its courtly aspect.

This ‘wooing lady’ motif occurs in other romances, notably the later Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but Josian’s wooing of Bevis does more than merely test his response to one chivalric paradox. Having previously armed him as a knight, her readiness now to take him in just his shirt subverts his chivalric status, while her reference to nakedness implies vulnerability. Her assault on the gendered identity conferred by his armour is explicit in her insult.[5]

Bevis’s responses to Josian are not courtly, but they are human. His first was governed by pain. Then his embarrassed avoidance is comic as dismay temporarily overwhelms his heroic martial identity. He is no safer from the Saracen princess’s undesired love outside the castle than inside, because she has the power to make his private space the arena in which she continues the assault on his identity initiated by her innocent declaration of love.

The challenge Josian presents actually turns on a misperception: the Christian Bevis fought as her father’s knight to protect her and the realm, not to win her. Only when she vows to convert to Christianity does he kiss her, but here the narrator intervenes, ominously commenting: ‘þar fore he was ne3 after shent’ (1200). The love which will further imperil him has been initiated within the permeable confines of her father’s castle where Josian’s presence in the ceremonial space of Bevis’s dubbing, as well as in the domestic spaces of his chamber, then her own, begins her intervention in his identity which is resolved outside its walls.

In spite of the narrator’s prediction, Josian is, in most respects, the positive opposite of Bevis’s mother. Loving and loyal, she is, however, just as self-determining when confronted with undesired husbands. When, in Bevis’s absence, and at her father’s command she marries King Yvor of Mombraunt she uses magic to preserve her chastity, but fulfils the public ceremonial role of queen by dispensing charity to pilgrims waiting at the gate of her husband’s castle,[6] thereby creating the opportunity for her reunion with Bevis after his imprisonment.

The configuration of female space within castles and the perils connected with it are not limited in the story to the towers and chambers of noble and royal ladies. Having saved Armenia from invasion, Bevis is betrayed by its king, who has him imprisoned in his enemy’s dungeon. This pit is infested with toads and reptiles, which Bevis kills with a heavy staff. He is then attacked by a ‘flying adder’, insistently referred to as female,[7] which wounds his brow so badly that, without medical care, it festers, healing in a disfiguring scar.

This female adder is black with age and echoes but inverts visual representations of the serpent in Eden as a beautiful woman.[8] Although Bevis kills this monster too, the effect of the wound she delivers is to confront him with the temptation to despair as he remains trapped in the pit, wounded and starving. In the delirium resulting from the wound he prays aloud for death or freedom declaring he does not care what kind of death it is. [‘Me rou3te neuer, what deþ to me comes, / Wiþ þat ich were hennes nome’ (1589-90)] This prayer provokes his jailers, but begins the process of his escape.

The dungeon is a very different kind of female space inside a castle and this time the female changes Bevis’s bodily appearance in an outward manifestation of an unperfected inner state in which his descent towards despair potentially imperils his soul as his imprisonment echoes the testing of some saints, questioning before confirming the hero’s spiritual strength as part of his identity.[9]

As archaeologists and historians point out, female space in castles was not in all cases delimited by domesticity, or seclusion. It was also understood in terms of its relationship to female status and function. The pit befits the demonic female adder. Likewise, the public and ceremonial space of the castle could be female space when noble ladies fulfilled their expected role there. Josian does this when she dispenses charity at the castle gate, but there she asks each pilgrim, including the newly arrived Bevis, ‘Herde euer eni of 3ow telle … Of a kni3t, Beues of Hamptoun? (l. 2129; 2132)’. She does not know him because of his scar. He merely asks after his horse, Arondel, which he knows had been given to Yvor with Josian. She leads Bevis to the stable, where the horse recognises him, revealing his identity to her.

Josian escapes with Bevis[10] but the lovers are separated again as he returns to England to defend his lands, leaving the newly baptised Josian in Cologne, where she is forced into marriage by the evil Earl Miles. Ironically, his order to take her to her ‘bower’ renders it perilous. Alluding to the medieval marriage custom of households and guests ceremonially accompanying newlyweds to their bedchamber, Josian begs Miles to lock the door and preserve their privacy. ‘Be-lok hem þar oute … / þat noman se our priuite!’ When Miles then sits on the bed she hangs him with a towel thrown over the bed-rail.[11]

Although Josian now faces execution she rejoices that no other woman will be forced into marriage by Miles, so it is possible that this dramatic episode addresses the contemporary problem of abduction and forced marriage.[12] It is also possible that this example again hints misogynistically at the potential for noblewomen to exploit the convention of their seclusion,[13] even though it has been suggested that the English MS was created for a woman.[14] The story is not, however, insistently didactic,[15] but entertainingly balances fantasy and reality.

There are, then, two aspects to the function of female space in the story. Firstly, as part of the fantasy, space within castles is entertainingly configured as permeable, becoming perilous to specific kinds of male dominance as well as to the hero’s social, moral and spiritual identity, through the presence of active females. Entertainment takes on a didactic edge when the fantasy is contextualised by reality, and the episodic structure of the romance contrasts major elements against one another.[16] Secondly, female space symbolises the emotional and spiritual ‘interiority’ of the chivalric identity, which develops by contact with it, showing that the perils facing knights were not limited to martial challenges to prowess or heroic persona, but included emotional and spiritual tests essential to establishing chivalric virtue.

The fourteenth-century English Bevis poem is not a masterpiece of poetic technique, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which focussed later on one function of female space within castles, but the Bevis poem had already explored a broader range of challenges represented in and through a more imaginative range of perilous female spaces, of which castles in fact make up only one aspect.

[1] Roberta Gilchrist follows the medieval theorist A.C. Spearing in her argument.


[3] Compare charivari.

[4] Intercession is not a problem.

[5] M. D. Amey, Clothes make the man: Parzival dressed and undressed’, Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 13(1) Mar 2004, 63-75, p. 61.

[6] ‘For [royal women], acts of piety and charity were logical and self-conscious forms of royal work that offset the militant side of kingship. Theresa Earenfight, Queenship in Medieval Europe (2013), p. 37.

[7] five times in seventeen lines.

[8] See also Margaret Hallissey, Venomous Woman ‘Throughout the OT the venomous animal is a surrogate demon … and the ultimate hope for a righteous order on earth is symbolised by immunity to serpents.

[9] St Margaret; and St George in some versions is resurrected to fight his dragon.

[10] and in further adventures her presence in extramural female spaces occasions other assaults on Bevis’s martial identity

[11] The story of Judith and Holofernes underpins this episode

[12] See Caroline Dunn, Stolen Women in Medieval England: Rape, Abduction and Adultery, 1100-1500, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 82.  Also Stephen Knight ‘Social function of ME Roms’ dealt with some aspects of romance and feudalism.

[13] Caroline Bynum in Mother’s Mark ‘little evidence that female imagery changed social reality.

[14] Christine de Pisan was ‘aware of the portraits of women promulgated by medieval romance and worried about their effects on female readers’. Karen Pratt, ‘The Image of the Queen in Medieval Europe’, in Anne J. Duggan, Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe, 1997.

[15] Elaine Treharne on didacticism and romance.

[16] such as in the handling of marriage