Sir Isumbras is a medieval metrical romance written in Middle English and found in no fewer than nine manuscripts dating to the fifteenth century. This popular romance must have been circulating in England before 1320, because William of Nassington, in his work Speculum Vitae, which dates from this time, mentions feats of arms and other 'vanities', such as those found in stories of Sir Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hampton, Octavian and Sir Isumbras. Unlike the other three stories, the Middle English Sir Isumbras is not a translation of an Old French original.
The tale of Sir Isumbras bears many similarities to the legend of Saint Eustace, a popular saint in medieval England. Some sources have classified it categorically as an adaptation of this legend, and point to the fact that Sir Isumbras has been grouped in manuscripts with saints' legends and other religious materials. Others have drawn attention to close parallels in the story of Sir Isumbras, and in other medieval hagiographic works, with tales from Iran and northern India.
Sir Isumbras is an over-proud knight who is offered the choice of happiness in his youth or his old age. He chooses the latter, and 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 he trains as a blacksmith, learning to forge anew his armour, and he rides into battle against a sultan. Later, he arrives at the court of the sultan's queen, who proves to be his long-lost wife. He attempts to Christianise the Islamic lands over which he now rules, provoking a rebellion which is then defeated when his children miraculously return to turn the tide of battle.
A popular tail-rhyme romance
Sir Isumbras is a relatively short Middle English romance, less than eight hundred lines in length, in twelve-line tail-rhyme stanzas. This is the form of romance parodied by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tale of Sir Thopas. Tail-rhyme verse, however, was very popular in late-medieval English for recording tales of adventure and romance, and used in many Middle English romances, such as Emaré, Sir Amadace, Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle, Ipomadon and Sir Gowther. A typical verse begins with a group of three lines, such as this one describing the scene as Sir Isumbras arrives at his burnt-out manor, during his long slide into penuary and loss:
- ”A doleful syghte thenne ganne he se,
- His wife and his chylderen thre
- Owte of the fyre were fled.”
These lines are then expanded into a single stanza by stacking four similar triplets together, to rhyme aabccbddbeeb.
The story of Sir Isumbras is found in 9 manuscript versions, mostly dating to the fifteenth century or earlier, as well as five sixteenth century printed versions (at least one was estimated to have been published perhaps as early as 1530—see 1530 in poetry). In three of the manuscripts, only a fragment of the story survives:
- Oxford, University College MS 14
- Naples MS 13 B 9 (dated to 1457)
- Gray’s Inn MS 20 (dated to 1350)
A complete or nearly complete version of Sir Isumbras is found in these manuscripts:
- Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College MS 175 (mid-fifteenth century)
- Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, the Lincoln Thornton Manuscript (c. 1440)
- British Library MS Cotton Caligula A ii (second half of the fifteenth century)
- British Library MS Douce 261 (1564)
- National Library of Scotland Advocates MS 19.3.1 (late-fifteenth century)
- Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61 (late-fifteenth century)
(This plot summary is based upon the version of the poem found in Gonville and Caius College Cambridge MS 175, a missing folio supplied by British Library Cotton Caligula A ii.)
Sir Isumbras lives a comfortable life; he is a generous nobleman with a young family, a beautiful, loving wife and enjoys a respected position in society. One day, however, God decides that Sir Isumbras is too proud and sends him a message telling him so.
The message is delivered, curiously, by a speaking bird; in much the same way that Sigurd is warned by the birds to kill Regin in the Saga of the Volsungs when he is splashed by the juice from the dragon's heart as it cooks and can immediately understand their language, and when Canace is able to understand the lament of a lady-falcon in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale from the Squire. Sir Isumbras is riding in his forest early one morning when a bird in the branches above him begins to talk. It tells him that one of two things must happen, and that he can choose which it is to be: either he can be wealthy in his youth and impoverished in his old age, or the other way around. Sir Isumbras, with no hesitation, chooses to have wealth in his old age, since:
- “In yowthe I may ryde and go,
- I elde I may noght do so,
- My lymes wyll wex unwelde.”
‘In youth I can run about and ride a horse, but in old age I won’t be able to do any of these things because my limbs will be crippled.’ Immediately, Sir Isumbras’s horse falls down dead beneath him, his hawks and hounds flee away in startled fright and a boy comes running up to tell him that his manor house has just burnt to the ground. On the way to see for himself, he learns that all his cattle and sheep have been stolen during the night.
But at least his wife and his children are safe. Sir Isumbras arrives at a scene of devastation to see them standing charred and naked before him, having run from their beds to escape the flames. He has lost everything except his wife and his three sons. But fate has not finished with him yet. He quickly decides that he and his family must go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They set out with nothing except the torn clothes they are wearing, begging for food along the way. Soon they come to a great river and try to cross it. Quickly, Sir Isumbras loses two of his sons to wild animals. A lion and a leopard make off with the boys as he leaves each of them in turn on the far bank in order to return for the others.
When the depleted group arrives at last at the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, intending to find a ship to take them to the Holy Land, an invading sultan takes a liking to Sir Isumbras’s wife and buys her from him, much to the knight’s distress. She is packed away into a ship to sail to the sultan’s kingdom to be made the sultan's queen. Before they part, Sir Isumbras’s wife urges her husband to try to find her by any means he can, and gives him a ring by which she might know him. Very shortly afterwards, Sir Isumbras’s remaining son is carried off by a unicorn.
Sir Isumbras finds himself alone and destitute in a foreign land. The wheel of fortune has carried him to its lowest depths.
But like the hero of the romance Sir Gowther, who may similarly have been punished for excessive pride, having reached this low point halfway through the tale, Sir Isumbras’s climb now begins. He arrives at a working smithy, asks for food and is told in no uncertain terms that everybody there has to work for their food and why should he be any different? So he labours for his meals and after a while they take him on as an apprentice. For seven years he works in this smithy, and at the end of this time he is so proficient at metalwork that he is able to make himself a suit of armour. But all this while, the sultan has been campaigning throughout Europe and only now do the forces of Christendom feel able to commit an army to battle. The two sides face one another across a field of conflict.
Sir Isumbras, keen to avenge himself on the sultan who stole his wife, rides into battle on a horse used by the smithy for carrying coal, armed in his own armour (perhaps conjuring an image like that of Florent riding out against a giant wearing his father’s rusty armour in the medieval romance Octavian). Sir Isumbras performs magnificent deeds of valour and when his sorry horse is killed from under him, an earl rescues him from the battlefield, gives him a new horse and new arms and Sir Isumbras rides once again into the melee, managing at last to kill the sultan himself, winning the battle.
When the Christian king wishes to congratulate him, however, Sir Isumbras acknowledges himself simply as a blacksmith, much to the monarch’s incredulity. He is sent to a convent to receive medical attention and convalescence and when he is fit again, rather than going to the king to claim the honours promised him, he makes his way once more towards the Holy Land as a beggar.
For many years Sir Isumbras lives in desperate poverty in the city of Acre, which was the last Christian stronghold to fall to the Muslims, in the late-thirteenth century. Then he makes his way to Jerusalem, and outside the walls of this city an angel appears one night to tell Sir Isumbras that God has at last forgiven him his sins. Destitute still, however, Sir Isumbras wanders the eastern lands until he comes to a city that once belonged to a great sultan before he was killed on the battlefield. Now it is ruled by his former queen. This lady is accustomed to distributing alms to wandering paupers and to taking in the most needy to feed and to ask them about their travels; as though keen to hear news of somebody. But Sir Isumbras cannot guess who she is. He is brought into the castle, meets with her, tells her his news and is invited to live there and to serve at the table, which he does. But, like Sir Eglamour of Artois after his travels, he does not recognise his own wife. Like Sir Yvain’s wife, the Lady of the Fountain, and the wife of the eponymous hero of the romance Guy of Warwick, she does not recognise him.
One day, as he is outdoors pursuing the sports he used to love, he climbs a crag up to an eagle’s nest and finds within it the distinctive red cloak which an eagle had stolen from him just after he had been parted from his wife, and before his youngest son had been abducted by the unicorn. The cloak had contained some food, all those years ago, and all the gold that the sultan had given to him in payment for his wife. In a sudden agony of memory, Sir Isumbras takes this cloak with the gold, carries it to his room and puts in under his bed. Then he goes about the castle grief-stricken and in tears, remembering the family he had once had.
This change in his behaviour is noticed by everybody and is brought to the queen’s attention. One day, some noblemen break down the door to Sir Isumbras’ room and find the gold lying beneath the bed. They bring it to the queen. She recognises it immediately as the gold that her husband was once given for her. That evening, she confronts Sir Isumbras with the discovery and he tells her what happened. She asks him to produce the ring that she gave to him; it matches hers and they at last recognise each other. There is a tearful scene of reunion.
Sir Isumbras remarries his wife, is made king and soon decrees that everybody should become Christian. The population rebels and an army is raised against him, commanded by the kings of two neighbouring countries. Sir Isumbras and his wife – for she has armed herself as a knight – face the forces alone. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, three mysterious knights suddenly arrive on the battlefield, one riding a lion, another riding a leopard and the third a unicorn. Sir Isumbras' lost sons aid their parents in battle. After defeating the opposing forces, Sir Isumbras appoints his sons to rule over the three kingdoms he now possesses.
‘And when they had established their rule they caused all the people to be christened, as the book relates. And they upheld justice and the rule of God's law and their souls went to heaven when they died.’
Eight medieval versions of the Man Tested By Fate are known; except for an exemplum in Gesta Romanorum and the legend of Saint Eustace, all such tales are highly developed romances, such as Sir Isumbras.
Sir Isumbras is noteworthy among them for a blunt realism of language; while most have the hero performing menial labor, Isumbras is described in detail laboring at a smithy.
In Sir Isumbras, the wife suffers no particular hardships when separated from her husband; this is the romantic practice, but differentiates it from Saint Eustace, where the heroine lives a life of humble self-support, similar to the legends of Helena, mother of Constantine, and such romances as Emaré.
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- Hudson, Harriet. 1996. Octavian, lines 983 to 994. Florent, the hero of the romance, although the son of an emperor, lives as the son of a merchant in Paris. When a giant comes to besiege the city, he insists upon riding out in his father's old, rusty armour in order to challenge the fiend, and is met with howls of nervous laughter when he asks for the city gates to be opened to let him out.
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- Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p3 New York Burt Franklin,1963
- Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p4 New York Burt Franklin,1963
- Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p9 New York Burt Franklin,1963
- Sir Isumbras, TEAMS Middle English Texts