THE ORIGINS OF THE BEVIS LEGEND
The origin of the story would seem to be a combination of the theme of the long-lost wife arriving just in time to prevent her husband’s wedding (as in Lord Bateman, Child 53), with the theme of the long-lost husband arriving just in time to prevent his wife’s wedding (as in Hind Horn, Child 17; the Noble Moringer; Count Dirlos, etc.) While the relationships within families are clear, it is uncertain whether the original form was the more compact Italian, which was expanded and loosened by the French, or whether the original form was the more sprawling French, which was tightened up by the Italians. Daurel et Beton is not a sequel to Bevis; although it does feature a Bevis of Antona, his story has nothing in common with our Bevis’.
From an structural standpoint, the Italian version clearly has the best plot of the three. But if one takes the view that a plot is of no use except to string pretty things on, I do not think it is mere prejudice that makes me plump for the English version, with little Sir Bevis striking down Sir Murdour, his defence of the Faith he barely knows against the mocking Pagans, his fight against the dragons in the dungeon, the comic baptism of Ascopart, the dreadful dragon of Cologne which Spencer thought good enough to copy in his Faerie Queene, the fighting in the streets of London, and the death and burial together of Bevis, Josiane, and Arundel, who was so like a human that the monks prayed for his soul.
LATER TREATMENTS OF THE BEVIS LEGEND
The Romanian version, O mie si una de zile, (A Thousand and One Days) sometimes mentioned, was a translation from the Yiddish made by M. Aziel in 1881, and thus falls outside our time period.
The English version of Bevis’ fight against the dragon was lifted by Spenser for his Fairie Queene, and by Richard Johnson for his Seven Champions of Christendom. Michael Drayton summarized the story as part of his Polyolbion, Song II lines 259-380. Drayton lamented in his notes that the monks had expanded the history of Bevis beyond all probability, so that his true deeds were lost. He also notes that Bevis’ sword [Murgley. Alondite is not mentioned by Drayton] is preserved in Arundel Castle, and that it is shorter than that of Edward III in Westminster.
Sir Bevis appears in Saint George for England, a catalogue of the heroes of chivalry, printed 1612, to be found in Percy’s Reliques, IX, 14.
“Bevis conquered Ascapart, and after slew the boare,
And then he crost beyond the seas to combat with the Moore;”
The reader will recall that Bevis actually conquered Ascopart well after the boar. This is not evidence of a divergent tradition; Saint George is merely a long list of names and half-remembered incidents.
Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick were two of the most popular stories of chivalry in England, probably because the two of them were English. They are frequently mentioned together by poets and sermonizers, as typical romances of chivalry.
Bevis continued to be printed, in rhyme, ever more modernized, up to the 1660’s, and in prose until 1780. There was also an expanded prose version, perhaps by John Shurley, titled The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Southampton, printed in 1689. This adds a further adventure of Bevis. Upon returning to Mambrant where the traditional version ends, he is not suffered to live in peace with Josiane, but must repel first Ambrant, the old king’s cousin, then Sultan Saracon of Babylon, whom he pursues to his city. As he besieges it, one of his knights, Sir Miles, slips in, wins the love of the Sultan’s daugher Rosalinda, and through her persuades the Sultan to convert and make peace. After this war, Bevis grows old and dies, and is buried with Josiane.
Shurley’s version was reprinted 1775, under the title of The history of the Famous and Extraordinary Sir Bevis of Southampton. This title is not on the internet, and I cannot say how closely it follows its source.
Nineteenth century retellers all went back to the manuscripts or the earliest printed editions, and so the chapbook tradition died out.
George Ellis included the story of Bevis in his Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances, in which he treated it with his usual snide remarks and insufferable Whiggish sense of superiority to all those who were foolish enough to live before the reign of Queen Anne or outside of London.
William Thoms, under the pen name of Ambrose Merton, retold Bevis and other tales in Gammer Gurton’s Famous Histories. Thoms’ Early Prose Romances, an accurate reprinting of chapbooks for non-scholarly adults, still makes good reading. His children’s retellings of them, however, leave something to be desired.
The version by John Ashton, in his Romances of Chivalry, is simply a summary of the English version, with a few extracts, much like Ellis, only without the snide comments.
Bevis of Hampton, in Andrew Lang’s The Red Romance Book, was a much better retelling, though, like Thoms he cuts the story short with Bevis’ return to Southampton, and (unlike Thoms) inexplicably omits the famous fight against the dragon in Cologne.
BEVIS AND KING ARTHUR
In the Italian I Reali di Francia, Buovo d’Antona receives, while he is in Armenia, the sword Chiarenza (Clarence), which once belonged to Sir Lancelot of the Lake, but was brought to Armenia by English knights. In the Second Italian Redaction, it was the sword of Galasso [Galahad, Lancelot’s son]. The Version of 1480 calls it Chiarente, but gives no backstory. The English version usually follows the French in calling Bevis’ sword Murgleys, but one manuscript claims (only in his fight against the dragon in Cologne. Elsewhere it’s still Murgleys) that his sword was Alondite, which used to belong to Lancelot of the Lake. This is the only place Alondite is mentioned in any surviving medieval text. Now Malory ends his Le Morte d’Arthur as follows:
“Then Sir Bors de Ganis, Sir Ector de Maris, Sir Gahalantine, Sir Galihud, Sir Galihodin, Sir Blamore, Sir Bleoberis, Sir Villiars le Valiant, Sir Clarrus of Clermont, all these knights drew them to their countries. Howbeit King Constantine would have had them with him, but they would not abide in this realm. And there they all lived in their countries as holy men. And some English books make mention that they went never out of England after the death of Sir Launcelot, but that was but favour of makers. For the French book maketh mention, and is authorised, that Sir Bors, Sir Ector, Sir Blamore, and Sir Bleoberis, went into the Holy Land thereas Jesu Christ was quick and dead, and anon as they had stablished their lands. For the book saith, so Sir Launcelot commanded them for to do, or ever he passed out of this world. And these four knights did many battles upon the miscreants or Turks. And there they died upon a Good Friday for God’s sake.”
This passage corresponds to nothing in the Vulgate Morte le Roi Artu, which was Malory’s main source for this part of the story, or in the Middle English Alliterative Mort Arthur or Stanzaic Morte Arthur, which were his secondary ones. Thus most commentators have assumed Malory invented this passage, but the Reali, written a good century before Malory, would suggest otherwise. Perhaps we have here the only surviving witnesses to an otherwise lost tradition? The only other reference to Arthur in the Reali is a slighting one, blaming him for not converting any countries to Christianity, suggesting that Andrea was not likely to pick a knight of the Round Table to glorify his hero. The name “Clarence” also has an Arthurian connection: it is King Arthur’s battle cry in the Vulgate Cycle. Was there a tradition before Malory that some Knights of the Round Table went to the Holy Land with Lancelot’s sword? Or is this all just a bizarre coincidence? We may never know.
OTHER NOTES ON SWORDS
Alondite, never mentioned outside of one part of one manuscript Bevis of Hampton, nonetheless found its way into standard reference works as the sword of Lancelot, and hence its name is used frequently in fantasy games. Morglay, Bevis’ actual sword, is not quite as popular, though it does appear from time to time. Other swords named Morgleis are wielded by Ganelon in the Song of Roland and in Father Konrad’s Rolandslied, (where it was made by the smith Madelger of Regensburg) by Elias the Swan Knight Le Beatrix, and by King Cornumarant of Jerusalem in La Chanson de Jerusalem, who loses it to Baudouin of Sebourc, who hands it down to the Bastard of Bouillon, in Baudoin de Sebourc and Le Batard de Bouillon. It is not clear whether any of these swords are meant to be identical.