Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill is a medievalist and a writer whose research and publications range from Medieval Drama to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She extended her research into the famous 14th century romance Bevis of Hampton, publishing a translation of the earliest English version in 2015. It is Lynn’s translation which has been a vital source of information for our creative team when it came to writing Blood & Valour.
We welcome a guest blog by Lynn who, in this captivating post, examines the character of The Countess from the 14th Century text of which her book is translated from. Read on below to find out more about the medieval version of the character.
This is a short overview of this flawed and fascinating character. It is by no means a fully developed essay, but is intended to introduce some of the ways in which the character may be approached.
The story of Bevis includes two fascinating women, the Armenian princess Josian, and his mother. Attention focuses most often on Josian because her characterization and her part in the story are complex and a short overview of her is already posted separately on this blog. It is sufficient to say here that she is delightfully transgressive in her frank desire for Bevis, but also intelligent, faithful, and educated. Bevis’s mother, the Christian daughter of the King of Scotland, may be regarded as her exact opposite, and this is certainly how she should have been perceived by the medieval audience who listened to the story of Bevis. But this would be to ignore the allusive nuances of her characterization. These reveal that she may be read as a spokeswoman for a subversive female narrative that defies the ideals of womanhood promoted by the medieval misogynist patriarchy. In the medieval period she would have been read as an illustration of all the faults attributed to women by the patriarchy. Certainly a number of her actions and characteristics bear out misogynist opinions cited in medieval religious, and secular, literature. Nevertheless, the composer/redactor of the Auchinleck MS allows this unnamed woman a voice of her own, at a time pre-dating the later and more famous example of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.
It is most significant that the King of Scotland’s daughter is never given her own name. She is thus denied this mark of personal identity and only referred to in terms that relate her to male characters – daughter, wife/Countess, mother. She might then be seen as no more than her function in the text – by turns immoral, unnatural, vicious – but the composer/redactor creates a flawed character who, to a present-day reader, might be regarded as having reasons for her flaws, as opposed to being simply a type of the wicked medieval female of story.
Her story begins when Sir Guy, the bachelor earl of Southampton and the Isle of Wight, realizes in old age that he can no longer look after himself and wants to take a wife to look after him and give him an heir. Love is, of course, not mentioned.
Sir Guy eventually takes the hand of the King of Scotland’s daughter who is conventionally described as fair and lovely. We learn that she is bold as well as beautiful and nobly born. In the Middle Ages beauty could considered a sign of virtue, but could equally be a sign that a woman was likely to be sinful because her beauty would make her vain and proud as well as immoral. The Scots princess is not so easily categorized because she is the long-standing paramour of the Emperor of Germany who has often sent messages to her father, and visited him to ask to have her for his wife. Her father the King refused this match, giving her instead to Sir Guy in what appears to be an arbitrary decision, but one which fairly accurately depicts the authority of medieval fathers to decide the future of their children.
This marriage results in the birth of Bevis. The reality behind it – the marriage of a young woman to an old man – was the fate of many medieval noblewomen, and gave rise to the literary motif of the malmarieé – the badly married lady.
The Bevis story offers an unusual insight into female dissatisfaction as the Countess speaks her thoughts:
‘My lord is old and cannot exert himself in love; he would rather be in church all day than in my chamber. If I had taken on a young knight who wasn’t bruised in battle as he is, he would love me day and night, hold me and kiss me with all his might, and give me pleasure. Nothing will stop me until I cause his death with some kind of trick.’
For the original audience this is a lustful attitude which demonstrated the Countess’s immoral nature in contrast to her husband’s devout preparations for death as recommended in the ars moriendi, the medieval art of dying well. It may also imply a political slight on her Scottish origin, given the tensions between England and Scotland at the time, but from a more modern humanist perspective she is openly expressing the kind of sexual frustration that many young wives of old husbands may have understood.
The Countess hatches a plot with her German lover to get rid of her husband and sends a message to him once the murder has been committed, telling her messenger:
‘Blessed may he be! He shall have me as his wedded wife at the start of the day tomorrow. Tell him that he should in any case come to my chamber tonight.”
Any sympathy her unsatisfactory marriage may evoke is increasingly outweighed by her apparently callous immorality, but this does not go unchallenged.
Bevis is naturally grief-stricken, and the child speaks his mind to his mother, calling her:
‘Vile whore! …. Alas, mother for your beautiful face! Evil becomes you: to be a whore and keep a brothel and have all women whoring for you. But one thing, mother, I swear to you – if I ever bear arms and come of age, all those who have killed my father and taken from him his dear life – I shall repay them!’
Everything Bevis says here is consistent with medieval attitudes, but his mother is moved to further violence. We are told that she ‘struck the child under his ear. The boy fell down, and that was pitiful.’
The only person brave enough to withstand the will of this increasingly fearsome lady is Bevis’s tutor-in-arms and uncle, Saber, who picks Bevis up to protect him, but the Countess orders Saber to have her son killed. Saber sends Bevis away to be a shepherd but the boy’s innate nobility leads him to return to his father’s hall where he spoke boldly to the Emperor, asking:
‘Sir… ‘what are you doing here? Why are you embracing that lady around her neck? That is my mother that you are holding. What are you doing here on my land without permission? Take my mother and my wealth; unless you get out of here at once I shall make you regret it!’
The image of the Countess with her lover’s arm round her neck leaves the audience or reader in no doubt as to the physical nature of their relationship, which will be emphasized later in the story. She responds furiously to her son’s intervention, finally taking him by the ear and ordering four knights to take Bevis and sell him to Saracen slave-traders.
Although as a mother the Countess now reads like the wicked stepmother of later fairy tales, and although she has been suggested as the model for equally flawed Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, from a modern perspective we may interpret the Countess’s attitude towards her son as her rejection of her child as a result of being given in marriage unwillingly and expected to merely fulfill her reproductive function to produce an heir for her old husband. Furthermore, medieval noblewomen were frequently distanced from the natural bonding of motherhood through the practice of employing wet-nurses to care for their infants – a practice condemned by at least one writer around the time the Auchinleck MS was produced. In addition, Marjory Kempe’s fifteenth-century account of motherhood and post-partum psychosis shows how severely women could be affected by childbirth.
Easy as it is to consign the King of Scotland’s daughter to the long list of wicked wives of which the Wife of Bath would complain half a century later, the facets of her characterization and the circumstances of her life, as they are set before us, make her one of the female characters of medieval fiction who deserves further consideration, especially in comparison with the Saracen princess Josian.
Lynn’s blog explores the story, characters and history behind the tales of Sir Bevis of Hampton, read more of her work here.
Lynn and Matt Beames discuss the similarities and differences of the medieval Countess and Sir Guy in comparison to the graphic novel versions in this insightful ‘In Conversation’ video here.