The Travels of Sir Bevis of Hampton

Lynn Forest-Hill

This is a transcript of the talk given by me on 28th November 2015 at the Central Library, Southampton

This talk came about as a result of additional interest in my brief introduction to my translation Bevis of Hampton. It is a sketch of the reasons why I believe the Bevis story is too important to be ignored. This version is rather longer than the original talk.
The translation came about when I wanted to include Sir Bevis in a short course on medieval English Romances. Although it was easy enough to access the Middle English version online, when I investigated local access to translations it quickly became apparent that there were none of a suitable standard. So I set to work on one. The particular orientation of the Introduction came about when it was suggested that I should prepare it for publication at the SO: To Speak festival of words in Southampton. This will be rewritten as I develop the next incarnation of the translation. But for now, the concept of ‘Travels’ in the title needs a little explanation.
At first sight, the title of the talk is bound to prompt thoughts of the hero’s own travels from Southampton as slave to Armenia. This is Little Armenia in what is today eastern Turkey, not Greater Armenia in the region of the Caucuses. As a result of invasions and threats of invasions during the early and high Middle Ages many Armenians migrated south to the region of Cilicia in what was then the eastern region of the Byzantine Empire. Eventually the Empire recognised this as the kingdom of Little or Lesser Armenia in its own right. It was also recognised by the Holy Roman Empire. Armenia’s ancient Christianity which was carried south, accounts for Little Armenia’s recognition by both Empires.
The appearance of the reference to Armenia in the Bevis story is due this tradition of Christianity and to the influence of the Crusades, because Little Armenia facilitated the passage of western Crusaders towards the Holy Land, although it may equally have enabled the passage of pilgrims. Bevis himself travels from ‘Armenia’ to Jerusalem taking the guise of a pilgrim. He also travels to Germany and back to the lands he has inherited in Southampton and Isle of Wight. Having been deprived of his lands by the king, he then travels to London to demand them back. He does not, though, end his life in England, but in the fictional land of Mombraunt, having established his sons in kingdoms of their own.
However, this essay takes ‘Travels’ in a wide sense. It is not primarily concerned with the journeys of characters, although many others beside Bevis travel widely. Instead, it will look at the travels of the story and the text through time and location. Originally the story was French. At some time after the Norman Conquest the earliest version travelled out of France into England, carried by the Norman barons’ minstrels. By the thirteenth century a version written in Anglo-Norman (the language that developed in England out of Norman French) had the name Boeve de Haumtone.
In the early fourteenth century the Anglo-Norman version was translated into Middle English, the vernacular English of the Middle Ages that was considered a language limited in its lexical scope and therefore of lower status than French, Anglo-Norman, and of course, Latin. During the translation the Bevis story was greatly expanded, and in this process Englishness travels into the Anglo-Norman story which itself developed from the Old French form of the chanson de geste and possibly showed crusader influence in its original form. The main adaptations in the Middle English translation emerge in the many English references – the most extensive of these is the reference to the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar. But there are many smaller changes, such as the inclusion of characteristically English irony, colloquialisms, attitudes, insults, humour. A further part of the ‘Englishing’ takes place in the conscious differentiation through frequent references to ‘the book’, and ‘as it is found in the French book’. These narratorial comments occur especially at moments of spectacular violence.
The most significant aspect of the ‘Englishing’ of Bevis is the place it claims in Matter of England. The early Middle English verse romances that pre-date Bevis – King Horn (1250) and Havelok (c. 1300) – open in identifiable English geographical locations. All three also include the narrative motif known as the ‘male Cinderella’ in which a disinherited noble youth suffers exile from the lands that belong to him, but eventually returns with the skills that enable him to reclaim his land. Early dispossession introduces the theme of travel, exile and return to ensure legitimate ownership is restored. The theme of these romances is the restoration of land rights, not just conquest. For Bevis the reclamation of lost lands leads to his visit to London where many places are named: Putney, Westminster, Cheapside, and Leadenhall.
Bevis’s travels as part of Matter of England begin in Southampton, and include Isle of Wight, London and Nottingham. Named locations further afield are Germany, especially Cologne (where baptisms and the dragon fight take place), but some journeys between named places are highly unlikely, and some views are impossible, while the realms of evil Saracen characters are in, some important instances, fantasy.
Bevis’s most significant journey is as a slave to Little Armenia, which unmistakably indicates the crusader-tale influence, as is his trip to Jerusalem and his defeat of armies from Damascus. A reference to the Sultan of Babylon continues this theme and this is a reference that also appears in the Chanson de Roland. In both stories Babylon is not signifying the Mesopotamian city but Cairo in Egypt. Nevertheless, in the English story Babylon inevitably carries biblical connotations of pagan wickedness. But travel in medieval texts always has the potential to imply pilgrimage and faith, as well as life as a journey, and the journey as a process of personal development. Bevis does indeed journey at times in the guise of a pilgrim. He also travels in faith when he is imprisoned in a pit, and scarred by a serpent lurking there. The scarring, with other aspects of Bevis’s suffering in the pit, imply his rather unsuccessful confrontation with sin. This episode is not found in the Anglo-Norman version of the story in as much detail as in the Middle English, showing how the Englishing included enhancing the Christian aspect of the hero. The testing and exposing of the hero’s compromised virtue is exposed again when he later confronts the dragon and plunges into the ‘well of life’ after being ‘infected’ by dragon venom. In both episodes the Christian hero is tested, found to be flawed. He is then purified, and finally reborn in baptism.

Although the Middle English Bevis is both a translation from and adaptation of the Anglo-Norman story, we may observe some comparisons between the ME and other French literature:
1. The crusader influence – the French chanson de geste had been influenced by crusader tales, but Bevis not just fighting Saracens, he finds among them ‘righteous pagans’ who illuminate the evil Christians.
2. It is possible to compare some of the Anglo-Norman Lais written by the outstanding French female author of the late twelfth century, Marie de France. In her story of Yonec the hero slays his stepfather to restore old order. Analogously, Bevis kills wicked mother’s lover to regain lands.
3. Bevis has slight links with Marie’s Milun, which includes Milun’s son travelling from Southampton to France in search of his father.
4. So too slight, but more complex analogies exist with Guigemar in which the knight’s beloved wears a girdle to protect her chastity. In Anglo-Norman too, Bevis’s beloved is protected by a girdle, but in Middle English she is protected by a golden ring with precious stone. Guigemar also reveals the Celtic influence in Marie’s work. The appearance of Celtic motifs in Bevis is more complex. In the Anglo-Norman story a dream is interpreted as Bevis losing his wife or horse. The lack of differentiation between wife and horse echoes the Celtic mythic identification between women (particularly queens and goddesses) and horses, in which the symbol of the mother goddess Matrona was a horse. Celtic kings were also thought to marry their lands symbolised by their queens, while their horses symbolised their strength. In the dream in the Middle English version Bevis is said to have lost his wife or child, but still retains the mythic linking of the hero, his horse, his lady, and his land. At the end of the Middle English story Bevis’s queen, Josian lies dying and as she take her leave of her loved ones, Bevis goes to the stable where he finds his faithful horse Arondel dead. He returns to Josian in time to die with her. The hero, queen and horse are inextricably linked throughout the story.
5. One further Celtic echo in Bevis is the ‘Well of life’ motif, which appears to derive ultimately from the ‘cauldron of life’ famous in Welsh and Irish mythology.
6. The one motif in Bevis that looks distinctly Welsh but does not have clear connections with Celtic mythology is the dragon which is a wicked man who has been transformed into a dragon in hell. In Germanic myth and legend especially the Volsunga saga the avaricious giant Fafnir is transformed into a dragon.

The story of Bevis in Middle English is part of a large compilation of material known briefly as the Auchinleck MS. (Its full designation is Nat. Libr. Scot. Adv. MS 19.2.1). The name derived from from Lord Auchinleck who discovered the MS in 1740 and in 1744gave it to the Advocates Library in Edinburgh, which would later become the National Library of Scotland.
The compilation was, however, created in a London workshop and written in the London dialect of c. 1330-40. The high quality of the manuscript (MS) implies a rich patron – a merchant, a wealthy lady, or a crusader family. All the possibilities have been put forward. As obscure as its intended readership is the matter of its history after it left the workshop, and how it got to Scotland is not known, but almost all later versions of the Bevis story derive ultimately from this MS which still resides in Edinburgh.
Although the transmission of the Auchinleck MS from London to Edinburgh remains obscure, after the MS was created the story itself then travelled through Europe, and through time. Manuscript versions and translations of the story from the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries include those held in libraries in Cambridge, Naples, Manchester, Copenhagen, Dublin and Oxford. From the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries printed copies still exist, including that by Richard Pynson in 1503 which was printed in Fleet Street ‘at the sign of the George’. This is now in Oxford. Pynson may have been William Caxton’s assistant at one time. Fragments of Wynkyn de Worde’s 1533 printing also remain, and in England some printed copies were illustrated with woodcuts. The number of remaining MSS and printed copies testifies to the very large original number that must have existed.
The Bevis story was indeed so popular that it went on to be widely translated. A fragment only remains from c.1350 of the Icelandic Bevers saga which, from its date, seems to have derived from a French version. From the Auchinleck MS derived the Welsh Ystoria Bown o Hamtwn which is part of both medieval books that also contain the Mabinogion tales. Likewise, from the Auchinleck MS derived the fifteenth century Irish Bibhus and the later Italian and Sicilian versions; the Yiddish Bovo buch, of 1507, and later the Russian, and finally the Romanian version of 1881. Most obscure are perhaps two Faroese ballads dealing with Bevis. All were translations adapted to their new cultural surroundings.
The story falls into the ‘romance’ genre, basically meaning a medieval adventure, but in fact the ‘romance’ genre was far more complex than a simple story of the hero’s adventures. The genre appeared in the twelfth century, and the name designates a text in romans, the vernacular language of French feudal nobility, distinguishing these from texts in Latin – the language of learning and classical literature.
Apart from its wide Continental travels, Bevis travelled through English literature. Its most famous apprearance is in Chaucer’s own Tale of Sir Thopas, in his Canterbury Tales, where he makes fun of verse form and style. The narrator, Chaucer as pilgrim, says ‘Yet listeth, lordes, to my tale /Murier than the nightyngale’, and he praises Thopas saying: ‘Men speken of Romances of prys…. Of Beves and Sir Gy…. But Sir Thopas, he bereth the flour / Of roial chivalry!’
Chaucer was writing some fifty years after the Auchinleck MS was written, so the Englishing of Bevis that takes place in that MS and the political agenda behind it pre-dates Chaucer’s agenda which was to show the flexibility of the English vernacular. The Auchinleck MS also pre-dates John Wyclif’s demands for a Bible in English, so its insistent expansion of the distinctively English content of the romance, including its reference to Anglo-Saxon history, also pre-dates, but belongs to the fourteenth-century promotion of the English vernacular as a sign of distinctive national identity. However, the Middle English (Auchinleck) Bevis’s pre-plague social cohesion differs importantly from Chaucer’s depiction of post-plague social mobility.
About two hundred and fifty years after the Middle English Bevis, Edmund Spenser appropriated Bevis’s dragon fight, including the ‘well of life’ for the fight between his Red Crosse knight and a dragon in The Faerie Queene (1590). Richard Johnson in 1596-7 in Seven Champions of Christendom also includes Bevis as a national hero. Shakespeare too cites the Bevis story in King Henry VIII. (1613) Although this was a collaborative play, the scene in which the Bevis citation occurs has been identified as one of Shakespeare’s. Duke of Norfolk describes being present at the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520):
‘When these suns
for so they phrase ‘em by their heralds challenged
the noble spirits to arms, they did perform
beyond thought’s compass, that former fabulous story
being now seen possible enough, got credit
that Bevis was believed.’
Other Dukes think he’s exaggerating, so that Bevis is the fantasy against which extravagant reality can be compared.
There were many unflattering references to the Bevis story in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Besides noting that Bevis’s sword in Arundel castle John Selden the antiquarian commented on Michael Drayton’s celebration of English landscape and legend called Poly-Olbion (1612) disapproving of the way the ‘poeticall Monkes’ created what he considered a fantastic legend of Bevis (and of King Arthur). Selden of course refers to monks writing romances, and a pre-Dissolution record of St Mary’s monastery Leicester includes Bevis of Hampton in French, among other French romances. Since monasteries had libraries and trained men to write it may be reasonable to conjecture that the Bevis redactor had received his training in rhetoric and poetry and gained access to his Bevis original in such an environment.
In 1627 a complaint was made (recorded in 1871 in A History of English Poetry) that ‘stationers’ shops were selling nothing but ‘Beavis of Hampton or such trumpery’, but in 1630 William Stansby included a woodcut in his edition of Bevis, and John Bunyan in 1658 deplored his own youthful delight in romances like Bevis, which he probably read in cheap, popular chapbooks. In 1775, in Southampton, a book was published recalling the fame of Bevis. It is tempting to think this part of the rise local interest, after a gap of perhaps two centuries, after the panels Bargate panels had been created. These also may have been influenced by the rise of antiquarian interest in English geography, history and legend. It is noticeable that the lands now known as Bevois Valley were not so called when the Middle English version was written down in the fourteenth century. Only perhaps under the influence of later antiquarianism did Paylond and its surrounding lands receive the name it still bears. Nevertheless, Bevis was significant for many centuries. From Middle English entertaining propaganda promoting the value of the vernacular it became a tradition against which later attitudes and events were compared until it again became a marker of identity at the most local level.
The question remains – in a story of French origin: Why Southampton? This is not part of the fourteenth-century Englishing. Hampton has always meant the same place. The port was always well-known. In Anglo-Saxon times, as Hamwih on the shore of the Itchen river, it was a centre of international trade. After the Norman Conquest it became a royal port and the most convenient port for the importation of wine and spices. But the Middle English story also shows influences of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings Britain. Geoffrey’s political mission to establish the legitimacy of Norman rule through his History, and as part of this he mentions Southampton as the place where King Cymbeline’s son Aviragus kills the Roman commander Lelius Hamo, and states that Hampton takes its name from Hamo, and ‘from that day to this the haven has been called Southampton.’
The motif of pilgrimage in Bevis introduces a significant narrative, echo. When Bevis’s uncle dreams that Bevis is not on pilgrimage but wounded, he equips 12 knight as pilgrims carrying staves with steel spikes. With these they journey to kill the treacherous giant Ascupart. In Geoffrey’s ‘history’ Hoel king of Britanny landed at Southampton with 15,000 men in support of his cousin King Arthur against the Saxons. Some generations after Arthur’s death, a British and a Saxon king ruled their own parts of the land in peace and friendship but the Saxon rejected his wife and took another woman. His wife fled to the British king, where she gave birth to the son she was carrying. Shortly after, the wife of the British king also gave birth. The boys Edwin (the Saxon) and Cadwallo (the Briton) were brought up as companions. When Cadwallo succeeded his father, Edwin asked if he could have a crown of his own so he could celebrate the customs of his own father’s Northumbrian lands.
Cadwallo’s favourite nephew Brian persuaded his uncle against this. Slighted, Edwin went to war against Cadwall and drove him out of England. Eventually he sailed to Brittany for help and there plotted with Brian. Intent on killing Edwin, Brian landed at Southampton where, disguised as a poor beggar, he forged a pointed iron rod as a weapon and went to find Edwin who was in York. He entered the city and found a throng of beggars seeking alms outside the King’s door. A girl came out for water. She was Brian’s sister who had been captured by Edwin. After brief greetings, she told Brian the layout of the court. This closely resembles the meeting of Bevis and Josian in Mombraunt after she had been married by her father to King Yvor.
In Geoffrey’s story, Brian followed the beggars to where the king’s magician stood. Then he raised his pilgrim’s staff and stabbed the magician in the chest, killing him, to stop him foreseeing Cadwallo’s invasion. In the story of Bevis and Josian, King Yvor has a necromancer who watches people magically, but it is Ascupart who is later killed.
Are these direct influences? Or are we witnessing the integration of cultural change? The unifying agenda of the Middle English Bevis version fits Geoffrey’s earlier political mission to establish the legitimacy of Norman rule through his History, but Bevis offers what seems to be a wider scope of integration. The story is Englished in the Auchinleck MS at almost the same time as the two insular founding myths of England (Albina) and Scotland (Scota) were written down, 10-15 yrs after the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath claimed Scotland’s independence. The timing of Bevis seems significant for a text that engages in the establishment of nationhood and identity through claims to land, and significantly through the promotion of the vernacular language. Furthermore Bevis’s ‘historical’ borrowing of the Anglo-Saxon Edgar elides the Norman Conquest asserts legitimate nationhood through continuation and integration as Bevis’s son Miles weds Edgar’s daughter in a peacemaking marriage. Perhaps this is unifying theme is also why Bevis leaves England – having regained his lands, which he had subinfeudinated to his uncle and cousin, he has fulfilled his duty as a feudal lord but does not wish to usurp Edgar’s rule. Legitimate rule continues.
But the story of Bevis in Middle English has a further dimension. In the second half of the fourteenth century named writers, John Trevisa 1387, Chaucer, 1390s, and perhaps William Langland, were demonstrating the value, range and flexibility of vernacular English in high-status works. Other anonymous writes such as the Gawain-poet, and the composer of Sir Orfeo were similarly writing for high status audiences and readers. The Middle English Bevis is earlier, and anonymous. It takes the form of popular storytelling but is no less important in its promotion of a distinctive English identity through its language.

For a story that travelled from France to England, then from England to the rest of Europe, as well as travelling through time, and for one with perceivable themes of integration, and the alignment of good and evil at a personal rather than at racial or religious levels, it is strange that the Bevis story has been fpr sp long largely disregarded, especially when the Middle English version has so much to say about the relationship between language and national identity.