Bevis of Hampton: From Medieval to Early Modern (25th October)

Images taken from The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (London: A.M., 1691)

Next Meeting: 25th October, Room 1.19 of the John Percival Building, 2:30-4:30pm 

Bevis of Hampton was one of the most successful medieval romances; it has survived in six manuscripts, each of which are different enough that A.C. Baugh declared there to be ‘at least five versions [of Bevis of Hampton], each of which is entitled to be considered a separate romance’.[1] The medieval extracts we are reading are taken from the Bevis contained within the Auchenleck Manuscript, as it is the most complete and generally considered to be the best. As well as these extracts we are reading The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (1691), and the ‘Epistle to the Reader’ from The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (1689). As late seventeenth texts, these versions of the Bevis story were published towards the end of the period of almost continuous publication enjoyed by the Bevis tradition.

Bevis of Hampton is often classified as a dynastic romance, because it concerns the reclamation of lost, familial estates by the rightful heir.  It is a romance that ‘has it all: a hero whose exploits take him from callow youth to hard-won maturity to a serene and almost sanctified death; a resourceful and appealing heroine; faithful servants and dynastic intrigue; a parade of interesting villains, foreign and domestic, exotic and local; a geographical sweep which moves back and forth from England to the Near East and through most of Western Europe; battles with dragons and giants; forced marriages and episodes of domestic violence; a myriad of disguises and mistaken identities; harsh imprisonments with dramatic escapes, harrowing rescues, violent urban warfare; and, last but not least, a horse of such valour that his death at the end of the poem is at least as tragic as that of the heroine, and almost as tragic as that of Bevis himself’. [2]

The earliest extant version of Bevis of Hampton is the Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone, generally dated to the latter half of the thirteenth century, and from there it became one of the most successful and enduring romances, with the last metrical edition appearing in 1711. Once Wynkyn de Word, Richard Pynson, and William Copland published editions of Bevis the story solidified and showed remarkable consistency, with all further editions seemingly relying on either the Pynson or the Copland edition.[3] Jennifer Fellows has suggested that both Pynson’s and Copland’s editions probably derived from a de Worde print; unfortunately, only fragments of de Worde’s Bevis prints now survive.

There were over ten editions of the Bevis story, both metrical and prose, published over the course of the seventeenth century, which represents a much more prominent position in the literary landscape than is held by any other medieval romance.  Only two metrical English romances managed to survive the influx of continental, primarily Spanish, romances that flooded the market, the other being Guy of Warwick, Bevis’ closest rival. Even the King Arthur legend cannot boast such a consistent publication history – at least in terms of narrative – as the Bevis tradition.

While the basic narrative elements of Bevis texts remained broadly consistent, the seventeenth century readers of Bevis would not have brought the same experiences or worldviews to the narrative as the thirteenth century readers of Boeve de Haumtone. Helen Cooper argued, in The English Romance in Time, that ‘the familiarity of the memes of romance, its standard episodes and motifs and phrasing, make possible a much greater and more concise subtlety of response than could be achieved by invention from scratch. The originality lies in an author’s handling of his materials, his (on very rare occasions, her) ability to disrupt, to startle, to shock. The shock may come from upset expectations, but it may also come from the recognition of something long known but in circumstances that defamiliarise it, that makes you recognise it for the first time. Such defamiliarisation can come even from an unchanged text if it is read in new conditions’.[4] Those who wrote Bevis of Hampton texts in the seventeenth century would have had to infuse them with a meaning that was readable to early modern readers, while maintaining the original memes that makes the story recognisable.

The Gallant History was published three years after The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw William and Mary replace James II as monarchs of Britain, while The Famous and Renowned History was published in 1689, just one year after William and Mary took the throne. The Bevis story was resilient to the turbulent politics that characterised the seventeenth century, continuing to be published through the death of Elizabeth I, the reigns of James I, Charles I, the English Civil War, the Interregnum, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, and into the eighteenth century.

Images taken from The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (London: W. Thackery, 1689)

The Texts

Anonymous, ‘Bevis of Hampton’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston, ed. Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999), pp. 200-322, pp. 274-77, pp.   294-5.

Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, ‘Bevis of Hampton: Introduction’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston, ed. Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999), pp. 187-97.

S.J., The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (London: W. Thackery, 1689).

Anonymous, The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (London: A.M., 1691).

Topics for Discussion

  1. Why do you think the Bevis story managed to survive into the Early Modern period so effectively, while other medieval romances died out? How big a role did Bevis’ part as a key component of ‘The Matter of England’ play in its longevity?
  2. What does the ‘Epistle’ tell us about the reasons for writing and publishing Bevis narratives?
  3. Does the Gallant History assume existing knowledge of the Bevis story in its reader?
  4. Helen Cooper has written that, after the Reformation, romances became ‘socially dangerous. The romances were condemned for not conforming to the new theology, to the new requirements for pious and Protestant reading […]. They were condemned for having been written by those all-purpose Reformation villains, monks’.[5] Is there any discernible attempt at protestantisation in the seventeenth century versions of Bevis?
  5. Does the text care that it is part of a tradition that stretches back to the 1300s? Are the recognisably romance memes performing the same job in 1688 as they were in 1324, or do they mean something different by the end of the seventeenth century?
  6. Who do we think was reading The Gallant History in 1691? Has Bevis’ readership changed over the course of three and a half centuries?
  7. Are the seventeenth century texts invested in the Bevis story as history?
  8. How do the texts deal with betrayal?
  9. Consider the above description of Bevis of Hampton (from the introduction to to the TEAMS edition). Does The Gallant History live up to this billing, or is it too abridged?
  10. Do the various woodcuts tell us anything? Are they meant to be read, or are they simply decorative?
  11. In the end, is Bevis of Hampton just a good adventure story?

 

 

[1] A. C. Baugh, ‘The Making of Beves of Hampton’, in Bibliographic Studies in Honour of Rudolf Hirsch, ed. William E. Miller and Thomas G. Waldman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), p. 34

[2] Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, ‘Bevis of Hampton: Introduction’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelstan’, ed. Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 187-97, p. 187.

[3] Jennifer Fellows, ‘Bevis Redivivus: The Printed Editions of Sir Bevis of Hampton‘, in Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills, ed. Jennifer Fellows, Rosalind Field, Gillain Rogers, and Judith Weiss (Cardff: University of Wales Press, 1996), pp. 251-68, pp. 251-2.

[4] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p 21.

[5] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p 38.

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