The Tale of Gamelyn

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A woodcut from William Caxton's second edition of The Canterbury Tales printed in 1483

The Tale of Gamelyn is a romance written in c. 1350 in a dialect of Middle English, considered part of the Matter of England.[1] It is presented in a style of rhymed couplets and described by Skeat as "the older and longer kind of ballad" and by Ramsey as a "rough and ready romance."[2]The Tale of Gamelyn is one of 25 stories within Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in which it follows the unfinished Cook's Tale. This 900 line romance takes place during the reign of King Edward I and tells the story of Gamelyn, and the various obstacles he must overcome in order to retrieve his rightful inheritance from his older brother. The tale confronts the corruption of the law, illuminating a lack of moral and political consistency. There is no indication as to where exactly this story takes place, given that the text itself has no place names, and Gamelyn's family name of Boundys most likely just signifies a type of boundary.

Though there is no known author, Geoffrey Chaucer had included the character of Gamelyn among his papers, with the intention of rewriting it for a suitable character. It is thought to have been possible that he wanted to construct a version of it for use as the Cook's tale.[2]

The Tale of Gamelyn shares similarities with other stories from English literary and folk traditions. It is of particular interest for its similarities with the English ballad of the legendary outlaw Robin Hood. It was also a source for Thomas Lodge’s prose romance Rosalynde (1590), on which William Shakespeare based his As You Like It.[3] The Tale of Gamelyn is thought to provide a transition between the mid 14th century and the late 15th century world of early romances and Robin Hood ballads .[3]


The tale begins with Sir John of Boundys on his death bed. Knowing the end is near, Sir John calls upon wise knights to assist him in dividing his land among his three sons. He specifically mentions to give an equal amount of land to his son Gamelyn, the youngest of the three. However, the knights ignore his wishes and decide to offer all his estate to the two elder sons, excluding Gamelyn on the premise that he is too young. When the knights disclose their decision to Sir John, he is outraged, reiterating that he wants the three sons to have equal inheritance. Yet Sir John dies shortly after, and the eldest son, Johan, proceeds to charm Gamelyn into a new deal: since Gamelyn is a minor, Johan will be in ownership of Gamelyn’s inheritance, and in return Gamelyn will be clothed and fed. As time passes, Gamelyn realizes he’s fallen victim to foolery and that this deal with his brother is unbearably unfair. When Gamelyn confronts Johan about his injustice, A fight breaks out, resulting in a wrestling match between Gamelyn and an unknown competitor. This is Gamelyn’s opportunity to show his worth; for the winner will receive a ram and a ring of gold.

Gamelyn overcomes this challenge and accepts his winnings. A surprised Johan panics, bolting the castle doors and locking Gamelyn out. Gamelyn proceeds to knock the door down and tell the servants that he has an abundance of wine and will now be in charge of the castle. He enjoys this high rank for eight days, then Johan finally retaliates. He commands the servants to bind Gamelyn in chains and have him stand for two days without any food or drink; Gamelyn grows quite weak and sickly.

A servant in the house, Adam Spencer, becomes aware of Gamelyn's struggling and decides to help him. He brings him into a private room, feeds him, and assists in devising a plan. He tells Gamelyn that Johan is holding a feast on Sunday and numerous churchmen will be there. He purposes that Gamelyn should stand before them, while still bound in chains, and beg them to release him.

The day of the feast comes and Gamelyn executes this plan: he cries out dramatically while the churchmen are feasting. However, no one complies with his desperate request to be released. Gamelyn grows angry and violent, ripping off his chains and rushing into the hall in search of a weapon. He grabs a staff and begins viciously attacking the churchmen, beating and battering them significantly.

Soon, a nearby Sheriff hears news of this disturbance. Since Gamelyn and Adam have broken the king's peace, the Sheriff is determined to arrest them both. To detain Gamelyn and Adam before the arrival of the Sheriff, twenty four men come to collect them. Yet, the two evade the law by escaping into the forest.

While hiding in the woods, the pair encounters a group of outlaws and immediately partake in their devious actions, which consists primarily of robbing churchmen. However, Gamelyn's unlawful activities soon draw attention to himself and he is discovered and arrested. When Otho, Gamelyn's other older brother, hears the news of Gamlyn's arrest and his past altercations with Johan, he attempts to set his younger brother free. First he goes to Johan and beseeches him not to imprison Gamelyn, for he is family. However, Johan obstinately refuses, insisting that Gamelyn must stay imprisoned until there is a trial. Not satisfied with this answer, Otho offers himself as bail, and Johan accepts—on the condition that if Gamelyn fails to show up for court, Otho will be held responsible. Otho agrees, and Gamelyn is subsequently set free after which he and Otho ride to Otho's house. The next morning Gamelyn asks Otho's permission to go into the forest to see how his cronies are doing. Otho says yes, but only if he promises not to stir up any trouble and is back in time for his trial. Gamelyn ventures into the forest, ends up staying there for much longer than anticipated, and slips back into his old ways.

As time passes, Gamelyn realizes that he has completely forgotten his promise to Otho, and the day of the trial is coming near. So, he gathers his men and they venture to where the trial is being held. Gamelyn presents his case before King Edward, and the king forgives him, in consideration of all the injustices Gamelyn has endured. All of his friends are pardoned as well. As the story comes to a close, Gamelyn is named Otho's heir (since Otho has no son) and the two enjoy new titles appointed by the king. Otho becomes sheriff of the county and Gamelyn chief forester of all the free forests. Gamelyn then marries a beautiful woman and he and his brother live the rest of their lives in peace and happiness.


  • Sir John of Boundys: father of Gamelyn, Otho and Johan. His death in the beginning of the tale incites conflict of the ownership of his estate.
  • The Three Knights: the men Sir John of Boundys trusts to divide out his land justly between his three sons. However, they go against his wishes and give land to the two eldest sons, excluding Gamelyn.
  • Gamelyn: the youngest son of Sir John of Boundys, the protagonist. The name Gamelyn is held to mean son of the old man, from OE gamol, old man. According to line 356 Gamelyn has been oppressed by his brother for sixteen years before he comes to manhood.[4]
  • Johan: the oldest son; the antagonist.
  • Otho: the middle son; helps Gamelyn in his time of need.
  • Adam Spencer: servant in the household who helps Gamelyn escape and ventures with him into the forest.
  • The Sheriff: the character whom Gamelyn evades for fear of arrest. He serves as the driving force behind why Gamelyn enters the forest and becomes a robber.
  • King Edward: pardons Gamelyn and his friends at the end of the tale, allowing Gamelyn and his brother the live out the rest of their lives in peace.


There were various expansions of the Cook's Tale which Chaucer never finished – The Plowman's Tale, The Tale of Gamelyn, the Siege of Thebes, and The Tale of Beryn.

It is argued[by whom?] that The Tale of Gamelyn was not, in fact, composed by Chaucer. Instead, it is thought to be merely a setup for future works. Though Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales and The Tale of Gamelyn is supposed to be included, it has been officially noted[clarification needed] as an anonymous work.

In addition, The Tale of Gamelyn is included in two early manuscript versions of the Tales, British Library, MS Harley 7334 and Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 198, both once notorious for being one of the lower-quality early manuscripts in terms of editor error and alteration. It is now widely rejected by scholars as an authentic Chaucerian tale, although some scholars think he may have intended to rewrite the story as a tale for the Yeoman.

Skeat edited the poem separately in 1884 and included it in an appendix to his The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, relying on what he thought was the best manuscript.[5]

It was almost certainly intended by Geoffrey Chaucer to form the basis of his (unfinished) “Cook’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales.[citation needed]


  • "But may they always prosper, who cause you much grief" (478).
  • "All who give you security, may evil befall them" (481). This is the reverse of the prior quote.
  • "For I am as light of foot as you, even if you swore it to the contrary".
  • "If you brought five with you, you would be twelve" (647). They are foolishly mocking numbers.
  • "I will venture so I might have food" (661). Adam is being ironic since this is an understatement to the scene.
  • "Hearken and listen and hold your tongue, And you shall hear talking of Gamelyn the Young".


  1. ^ Boundaries in medieval romance, Neil Cartlidge, DS Brewer, 2008, ISBN 1-84384-155-X, 9781843841555. pp. 29–42
  2. ^ a b Knight, Stephen, and Thomas H. Ohlgren. “The Tale of Gamelyn: Introduction.” Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (1997). Print.
  3. ^ a b Ohlgren, Thomas H. Medieval Outlaws: Twelve Tales in Modern English Translation. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor, 2005. Print.
  4. ^ Skeat, Walter W. The Tale of Gamelyn: from the Harleian Ms. No. 7334, Collated with Six Other Mss. Oxford: Clarendon, 1884. Print.
  5. ^ Knight, Stephen, and Thomas H. Ohlgren. “The Tale of Gamelyn: Introduction.” Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (1997). Print.

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