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Amis and Amiloun: A Middle English Romance

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Amis and Amiloun is the Middle English version of an old legend of enduring friendship: known as Amis et Amiles in French, and Amicus et Amelius in Latin. Apparently the English version has its own peculiarities, but I’m unable to compare it to other versions, as I’ve only read this one.

Sir Amis and Sir Amiloun are both sons of noble barons, of exactly the same age, and though they aren’t related they look so much alike that other people can’t tell them apart. They are such handsome and virtuous boys that the great Duke takes a liking to them both, and they grow up in the Duke’s household, in his service. As a young man, Amiloun leaves the Duke’s household to take possession of his estates and to marry. He and Amis part in great sorrow, but Amiloun buys two golden cups for both of them as emblems of their eternal friendship, and they swear to be forever loyal to each other. Amiloun, the wiser of the two, advises Amis to keep out of trouble… but of course he won’t, or there would be no story.

The rest of this review will contain spoilers, so if you’d prefer to avoid them, you can download the original Middle English version of the poem from Google Books, or read this excellent modern prose translation by Edith Rickert. (I’ll be quoting from the prose translation, for the sake of clarity.)

Predictably, Amis’ troubles are caused by a woman. The Duke’s daughter Belisaunt falls in love with him, and the first WTF moment comes when this girl, described as a fair and virtuous maiden, blackmails Amis to sleep with her:

“Unless thou grant me thy will, my love shall be dearly avenged with hard and fierce pains. I will tear my clothes and my kerchief and say thou didst use thy strength to wrong me; and by the law of the land thou shalt be taken and doomed to hang on high!”

Oh, well. I suppose it comes as no surprise to misogynists worldwide that fair and virtuous maidens are in the habit of making false rape accusations when they’re feeling cross.

But when it comes to WTF moments, this is only the beginning. Amis, quite naturally, has no choice but to sleep with the beautiful Belisaunt (poor man!) and they’re caught by the Duke’s steward, described by the narrator as a malicious, meddlesome, jealous sort of man. The steward tells the Duke what’s going on, and the latter is furious. Amis and Belisaunt – honest and virtuous as they are – deny all such charges, and as this is a chivalric romance, the truth of the matter can only be settled in one way: battle unto death! But Amis is in big trouble, as God has a tendency to favour the ones who have justice on their side; so, quite naturally once again, he sneaks out to ask Amiloun to take his place in battle.

I couldn’t help but wonder, would God really fall for such a trick? But apparently He does, as the one who is telling the truth – the steward – loses the battle. Should we take from this that God values Amiloun’s virtues of self-sacrifice and ‘trewthe’ more than the steward’s mechanical concept of duty? There’s a catch, however: an angel warns Amiloun before the battle that if he takes part in it, he shall ‘have a dread adventure within these three years’ and be ‘as foul leper as ever was born in this world!’ and ‘so foul a wretch with sorrow and care and poverty, as was never any man in worse estate!’

Poor Sir Amiloun cannot betray his dear friend, so he goes into battle with these words weighing heavily on his mind, and wins. Thanks to him, Sir Amis marries the fair Belisaunt, and eventually becomes the Duke himself. (This romance has a curious approach to social mobility, by the way, compared with others of its kind, in which the lovers are usually equals. Here, a mere knight and a baron’s son not only marries the Duke’s daughter, but succeeds him as the ruler of his realm.)

But as Amis leads a happy life, the angel’s dire warning comes true for Amiloun. He becomes a ‘foul leper’, and is ostracised by his friends and family – especially by his terribly cruel wife. He is reduced to a beggar and a vagabond, and is helped only by his loyal young man Amoraunt, who conveys him in a cart to Amis’ dukedom. To add insult to injury (or perhaps the other way round), Amis the Duke beats up Amiloun, whom he doesn’t recognise, as he suspects the beggar of having stealen Amiloun’s golden cup. When Amis realises his mistake and hears that he is the cause of his friend’s sufferings, he is as horrified and repentant as a man can be, and he and Belisaunt – with very biblical over- and undertones – wash and treat the poor leper by themselves.

Then comes the final piece of WTFery in a story full of many minor WTF moments.

It befell one night, as Sir Amis lay asleep, that he thought a bright angel from heaven stood before his bed, and said to him that if he would arise on Christmas morning, such time as Jesus was born, and slay his two children, and with the blood anoint his brother, by God’s grace Amiloun’s sickness would be taken away. Thus for three nights he thought an angel warned him that if he would do this thing, his brother would be as fair a man as ever he was before.

Amis’ struggle with his conscience is beautifully described, but kill his children he does, and with great sorrow he bathes Amiloun in their blood – and so Amiloun is miraculously cured.

However, God being good and merciful, it also turns out that the children are miraculously restored to life, and are found sleeping peacefully in their beds.

So what to make of this strange story? (To which, by the way, my summary does absolutely no justice: you really must read it to appreciate its full complexity and strangeness.)

Amis and Amiloun spend a lot of time kissing, hugging, and declaring their undying love for each other; they get their happily ever after, and eventually end up buried side by side in the same tomb, like a married couple. But I’m not going to focus on the obvious homoerotic aspects of this romance because I find it a bit reductive. There is something terribly compelling about their friendship as friendship; and especially the concept of ‘trewthe’, which seems to be something between ‘troth’ and ‘being true’.

The tale of Amiloun’s sufferings resembles hagiographical writings, but this is surrounded by moral ambiguity that makes Amis and Amiloun a very unsettling read. The narrator’s emphatic moral pronouncements almost seem as if they’re overcompensating for this sense of ambiguity. We are told over and again that the steward is evil and malicious, and this is emphasized with an aside: ‘accursed may he be!’ But the steward is only doing his duty, and dies trying to prove that he’s not lying. Amis and Amiloun are constantly described as paragons of virtue, but Amis in particular comes across as a rather spineless fellow, until he redeems himself in the end.

The intriguing question is whether the leprosy comes as a punishment or not, or whether it is simply God’s way to test the strength of Amiloun’s friendship and ‘trewthe’. All in all the story presents a strange negotiation of what were, after all, very basic tenets of Christianity: Amiloun commits perjury and what basically amounts to murder, all for the sake of his friend. He puts his friendship above God’s laws, and it’s reasonable to suppose that his sufferings happen to punish him for these sins. But, bizarrely, as I read on, these sufferings seemed less like a punishment and more like a gift from God – something that purges him and allows him to prove the nobility of his character.

Amis and Belisaunt are guilty of several sins; most egregiously towards the ‘evil’ steward and Amiloun himself. But they grow as characters, and the (temporary) loss of their children seems to be another gift from God, a kind of transcendental self-sacrifice that makes them humbler, better people. Belisaunt’s growth as a character is the most striking of all. Selfish and shrewd in the beginning (what with the threats of false rape accusations and all), she finally atones for her sins by meekly accepting the slaying of her beloved children as a necessary act of redemption. She’s a sinner with the goodness of heart and capacity to understand and appreciate Amiloun’s saintliness; in stark contrast to Amiloun’s wife, who totally lacks Belisaunt’s warmth. Amiloun’s wife is first presented as a honourable noblewoman, but she turns out to be a proud, monstrous woman who turns Amiloun out of his own home when he falls ill. Interestingly, though, she’s another character – like the steward – who speaks the truth only to be condemned for it. When Amiloun tells her about the battle he fought on Amis’ behalf:

The lady was very wroth, and often missaid her lord that night while they talked together: “With grievous wrong didst thou slay that gentle knight! Verily it was an ill deed!”

Like the steward, she is also accompanied by a harsh aside: ‘curses upon her!’

In Amis and Amiloun, hard, uncompromising virtues are associated with characters who are wicked at heart. The ‘good’ characters make mistakes, but they are motivated by love and friendship, which is shown to be divine in origin. But it’s also interesting to ponder: where do these angels come from? They turn out to be right, so presumably they are mystical visions sent by God himself; but in the context of a different story, they might just as well come from Satan driving Amis to the desperate act of murdering his own children.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this is the strangest but most gripping chivalric romance I’ve read so far. It’s a unique effort to combine mediaeval Christianity and chivalric virtues; and with its gruesome scenes, it somehow manages to negotiate between the most brutal aspects of mediaeval life, and the softer virtues of humility, love and mercy.

3 comments on “Amis and Amiloun: A Middle English Romance

  1. Jackie
    May 24, 2013

    Having never heard of this story before, I was looking forward to your review today. It does sound very strange, but also very Middle Ages, with priorities that are quite different than today, at least in part. I wonder if it was a story that was added to as time or tellings went on? It seems to have some Biblical echoes as well: the leprosy, the sacrifice of children, the false attack accusation, etc. Even the friendship of the 2 young men are similar to David and Jonathan.
    I know the Bible saturated many aspects of Medieval society, so I wonder if this was a way to make some of the lessons more understandable? Or maybe it was just a tribute to knightly friendship? In any case, thanks for introducing me to this strange story & making the twists & turns easy to follow, not to mention your amusing comments about it all.

  2. Kate
    May 28, 2013

    I’d never heard of this poem, what a discovery! Very, very strange indeed. I assume that the pathology of leprosy was not known in this period, so its mysterious arrival and disappearance (though I’m not sure that it was curable, but perhaps the virus went dormant) would have been perfectly logical as a punishment from God. You’ve raised some excellent questions about the moral ambiguity of the story, the narrative voice, and the actions of the characters: really fascinating.

  3. elizabethashworth
    May 30, 2013

    What a fascinating story. I hadn’t heard it before so after having my appetite whetted by your review I’ve downloaded the translation to read it all.

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This entry was posted on May 24, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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