Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 7. Ipomedon, Amis and Amiloun, Sir Cleges, Sir Isumbras, The Squire of Low Degree

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIV. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: II

§ 7. Ipomedon, Amis and Amiloun, Sir Cleges, Sir Isumbras, The Squire of Low Degree

In addition to the romances already mentioned as representative in some measure of definite influences at work, there yet remain certain others which call for notice. We have, in the first place, a group of some five romances which may be considered together as studies of knightly character. They are works which may be said to deal, incidentally perhaps, with the building up of the perfect knight and Christian hero, though anything like psychological treatment is, of course, entirely absent. In I pomedon, we see the knight as a gallant if capricious lover. Marriage having been proposed between young Ipomedon, prince of Apulia, and the beautiful queen of Calabria, the former determines to woo for himself. He arrives incognito at the court of the queen, wins her favour by manly exploits, and then departs somewhat capriciously. He is, however, induced to return on hearing that a tournament is to be held of which the queen herself is to be the prize. But, again, his conduct is strange. He loudly proclaims his dislike for boisterous tournaments, and ostentatiously sets out on hunting expeditions on the days of the contests. But he actually goes to a neighbouring hermitage, whence he issues to the tournament, clad, on successive days in red, white and, black armour, a favourite medieval method of disguise adopted by Sir Gowther and others. He carries all before him and then vanishes as mysteriously as ever, without claiming his prize nor revealing his identity. Soon afterwards, the queen is hard pressed by a neighbouring duke, and the hero appears once more to fight her battles, this time disguised as a fool. It is only after further adventures, when he feels he has fooled to the top of his bent, that he declares his love with a happy result. In this stirring romance we see the knight-errant in quest of love. The assumed slothfulness and fondness for disguise were frequent attributes of the medieval hero: the one added interest to actual exploits, the other was an assurance that the love of the well-born was accepted on his own individual merits.

In the beautiful romance of Amis and Amiloun we have friendship set forth as a knightly virtue. It is depicted as an all-absorbing quality which involves, if neccessary, the sacrifice of the both family and conscience. Amis and Amiloun are two noble foster-brothers, the medieval counterparts of Orestes and Pylades, much alike in appearance, whose lives are indissolubly linked together. Amiloun generously, but surreptitiously, takes the places of Amis in a trial by combat, for which piece of unselfishness, with the deception involved in it, he is, subsequently, visited with the scourge of leprosy. Some time afterwards, Amis finds his friend in pitiable plight, but fails, at first, to grasp his identity. It is only after a dramatic scene that the discovery is made, and then Amis, grief-stricken, proceeds to remove his friend’s leprosy by the sacrifice of his own children. But such a sacrifice is not permitted to be irrevocable. When Amis and his wife Belisante go to view their slaughtered children, they are found to be merely sleeping. The sacrifice had been one upon which the gods themselves threw incense. The romance, as it stands, is one of the most pathetic and elevating of the whole series.

Knightly love and valour were eloquent themes of the medieval romance: in Amis and Amiloun, the beauty of friendship is no less nobly treated. In Sir Cleges, the knightly character is further developed by the inculcation of charity, wit and shrewdness. The story is simply, but picturesquely, told. The hero is a knight who is reduced to poverty by reckless charity. When his fortunes are at their lowest ebb he finds a cherry-tree in his garden laden with fruit, though snow is on the ground and the season is yuletide. With this goodly find he sets out to king Uther at Cardiff, in the hope of restoring his fallen fortunes; but court officials bar his way until he has promised to divide amongst them all his reward. The king is gratified, and Cleges is asked to name his reward. He asks for twelve strokes, which the officials, in accordance with the bargain, duly receive, to the unbounded delight of an appreciative court. The identity of the knight then becomes known and his former charity is suitably recognised.

The theme of Sir Isumbras is that of Christian humility, the story itself being an adaptation of the legend of St. Eustace. Sir Isumbras is a knight who, through pride, falls from his high estate by the will of Providence. He is severely stricken; his possessions, his children and, lastly, his wife, are taken away; and he himself becomes a wanderer. After much privation nobly endured, he has learnt his lesson and arrives at the court of a queen, who proves to be his long-lost wife. His children are then miraculously restored and he resumes once more his exalted rank.

The Squire of Low Degree is a pleasant romance which does not belie an attractive title. Its theme suggests the idea of the existence of knightly character in those of low estate, a sentiment which had appealed to a conquered English people in the earlier Havelok. The humble squire in the story wins the affection of “the king’s daughter of Hungary,” as well as her promise to wed when he shall have become a distinguished knight. An interfering and treacherous steward is righteously slain by the squire, who then suffers imprisonment, and the king’s daughter, who supposes her lover dead, is thereby reduced to the direst straits. She refuses consolation, though the king categorically reminds her of much that is pleasant in life and draws up, in fact, an interesting list of medieval delights, its feasts, its finery, its sports and its music. Persuasion failing, the king is obliged to relent. The squire is released and ventures abroad on knightly quest. He returns, in due course, to claim his own, and a pleasant romance ends on a pleasant note. The story loses nothing from the manner of its telling; it is, above all, “mercifully brief.” Its English origin and sentiment, no less than its pictures of medieval life, continue to make this romance one of the most readable of its kind.