The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton

1689, and all that…

Fairly early last year I exasperated myself by stumbling across another work from the year I thought done and dusted: I was exasperated most of all because I couldn’t convince myself that it could legitimately be ignored.

The full title of this work is:

The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton: giving an account of his birth, education, heroick exploits, and enterprises, his fights with giants, monsters, wild-beasts, and armies, his conquering kings and kingdoms, his love and marriage, fortunes and misfortunes, and many other famous and memorable things and actions, worthy of wonder: with the adventures of other knights, kings and princes, exceeding pleasant and delightful to read

There are two copies of The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton accessible electronically, via the Early English Books Online project, the indirect source of most of my 17th century material. Ordinarily I download these early works in PDF form and read them on my eReader, but it soon became apparent that I would not be able to do so in this instance.

To my dismay, both copies of Sir Bevis exhibited a deadly combination of bleed-through and fade-out:

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The fact that the entire book was printed in an almost-indecipherable Gothic font was merely the punchline to a bad joke.

However—by reading online, with the image blown up so as to give me some chance of dealing with the font, and by toggling between Copy A and Copy B as their individual idiosyncrasies demanded, I was finally able to decipher the text—and all for the low, low price of a splitting headache!

Imagine my “exceeding pleasure and delight”, then, when Sir Bevis turned out to be a Crusade-y sort of story, wherein Muslims who trick and deceive Christians are an evil scourge, while Christians who trick and deceive Muslims are pure and immaculate heroes; and Muslims who kill Christians are the tool of the devil, while Christians who kill Muslims are glorifying their God.

And let’s just say there was a whole lotta glorifying God going on.

After pondering the question, I’ve decided that I don’t want or need to go any further into the content of Sir Bevis: there’s nothing at all remarkable about it in a literary sense. It’s the bigger picture, the existence of Sir Bevis in this format in the first place, that is the important point, and the reason I couldn’t bring myself to just skip over it.

The story of Bevis of Hampton is much, much older than its 1689 rendering. For once, I think it’s easiest just to quote Wikipedia:

Bevis of Hampton (Old French: Beuve(s) or Bueve or Beavis de Hanton(n)e; Anglo-Norman: Boeve de Haumtone; Italian: Buovo d’Antona) or Sir Bevois, is a legendary English hero and the subject of Anglo-Norman, Dutch, French, English, Venetian and other medieval metrical romances that bear his name. The tale also exists in medieval prose versions, was transmitted to Romania and Russia, and was adapted into Dutch, Irish, Welsh, Old Norse and Yiddish… The oldest extant version, Boeve de Haumtone, an Anglo-Norman text, dates from the first half of the 13th century. It comprises 3,850 verses written in alexandrines.

(3,850 verses!? Apparently I should be counting my blessings…)

The story of this story is remarkable, and worth a read in full – here – particularly the assertion, one hard to argue with, that some version of this story was influential in the creation of Hamlet. (Long story short, Bevis’s mother conspires with her lover to murder her husband and son; the husband is killed but Bevis is saved and hidden by his maternal uncle, and later comes back for revenge—he’s a lot less indecisive about it than his descendent.)

Historically, the tale of Sir Bevis was astonishingly popular (which makes me feel a little bad for hating the 1689 version so very much). However, the aspect of it that I want to focus on is the shifting formats of the re-telling of the legend. As noted, this story was most often told in the form of an epic poem, either the English metrical romance or the French chanson de geste; with translations and adaptations toggling back and forth between the two nations before spreading to other countries and languages. Remarkably, the story of Sir Bevis became the first non-religious work to be printed in Yiddish, albeit in a somewhat de-Christianised version. (I’m curious how that might have worked, given the traditional plot…)

In England, meanwhile, version after version of Sir Bevis appeared in Middle English, all apparently descended from a single, earlier, now-lost work, but all of them telling the story in their own way and each varying significantly from the other. Modern scholars, attempting to reissue “the” story of Bevis in Middle English, were confronted with six manuscripts telling four or five different stories. That most commonly reprinted now is that taken from the so-called “Auchinleck manuscript” held by the National Library of Scotland, a codex dating from the 14th century. However, modern editors are at pains to acknowledge that this choice was made purely on the relative completeness of the available text, and should not be taken as privileging one version of the story over the others.

Versions of Bevis continued to appear in England over the following centuries: that by William Copland, which first appeared around 1560, is the oldest surviving complete edition; and this eventually became the “standard” version, being reissued regularly well into the 17th century. In fact, as the Spanish romances grew enormously in popularity in England, the story of Sir Bevis was the only local production to keep its audience; although it did eventually fall out of favour in the late 17th century, at least as a poem.

And THIS, my friends, is the real significance of The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton. Other countries had gone in the same direction literally centuries before (Russia seems to have gotten there first), but in England, where the Puritan resistance to fiction was a significant factor in the late emergence of the novel, it was not until 1689 that someone – we don’t know who – had the bright idea of taking William Copland’s epic poem and re-telling the legend in prose.

This, to me, is further evidence that during the closing years of the 17th century, the novel was becoming the dominant form of literary entertainment in England. It was no longer necessary to pretend to be telling a true story; it was no longer necessary to say “history” when you really meant “novel”. And it was perfectly okay to take a 350-year-old poem and turn it into a work of fiction, because that is what the English people wanted to read.

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7 Comments to “The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton”

  1. I wonder if Shakespeare’s audience was generally aware of the tale, and if he expected them to be react to the clear contrast between Hamlet and his action-hero predecessor.

  2. I think they call that “protagonist-centred morality” – this is a good action because it’s done by a good guy – and it’s alive and well in soap operas and apocalyptic Christian literature.

    There were certainly Hamlet-style legends floating around (the Vita Amlethic from C13 for example) so I don’t think we need to reach for this. Mind you, I haven’t read that, so I don’t know how much it plays up Hamlet’s problems in between his outbursts of violence.

    • You can imagine a meta sort of situation, with audiences reacting to Hamlet the way Claudius reacts to The Mouse Trap—“Hey, I know this story…!”

      Bevis has none of Hamlet’s issues: he’d like nothing better than to get back to England and sort things out with his mother and step-father, it’s just that he has to slaughter / convert the Middle East first.

  3. >>>The tale also exists in medieval prose versions, was transmitted to Romania and Russia

    For three seconds I wondered whether it means I’m supposed to know who Sir Butthead is, then noticed “Boeve” as a name variant and realised that *of course* I *do* know. Yep. Bova Korolevich. Why am I keep forgetting so many things, yet still remember the details of the story I’ve never actually read, only read *about*?

    • Because your brain is constructed just like mine, you poor thing: it absorbs useless details like a sponge while resisting all efforts at entry by useful information.

      Yes, the spreading and multiplicity of the Sir Bevis legend is a much more interesting story than the story itself.

  4. I must commend you on trying to read this. My eyes crossed just trying to get through the title.

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