"Sir Cleges" (2 MSS, ca. 1400 and 1425-30)


Genre: Breton lai, or possibly “exemplary romance” (idealized protagonist, flat antagonist).


Characters; Sir Cleges (an extraordinarily generous knight), his wife Clarys, two children (extremely unusual in romance, though not unheard of in Breton lais), numerous feast guests, especially minstrels, King Uter and his queen, Uter’s porter, usher, and steward, and a harper who knows the “news.”


Plot: three common plot motifs are woven together to create a two-stage illustration of prodigious generosity that is rewarded by supernatural means, and by successful functioning of the feudal society’s ideal norms in spite of their violation elsewhere.  Cleges, a “Spendthrift Knight,”  is so generous that he gives everything away but his family (and their smallest estate—noble poverty is not like yours or mine).  While wandering in disgrace, the family makes due with simple pleasures until Cleges encounters the “Unseasonal Fruit,” namely a cherry tree in winter that magically bears green leaves and ripe fruit when he touches it.  Clarys tells him to take it to the king, but on his way into the court he must yield promised bribes to a porter, usher, and steward, each of whom demand a third of the king’s eventual reward.  Imagine their surprise when Cleges asks for the “Strokes Shared” motif to enter the plot!


Themes: Christian charity fused with noble (secular) largesse as signs of great character; marital relations in times of wealth and want; proper interpretation of marvels; court vices common to servants of the powerful; the inevitable working of Providential aid for the devout.


Some discussion issues:

1)  Laskaya and Salisbury, as usual, have created an excellent survey of the issues and previous scholarship.  See their discussion of the plot’s extraordinary ordinariness: “[Sir Cleges] is literally uncommon in its degree of commonality” (368).  In any modern popular genre, can you find an example of a single work that seems to contain all the genre’s most common features without seeming to strain in order to pack them in?  They also note interesting ways to look at medieval feasting which you could investigate by comparing actual surviving records of historical feasts (369).  The silent presence of the children also produces a striking effect at lines 158-62), in addition to preparing his eldest son’s function in Uter’s rebuilding Cleges’ estate.


2)  L & S are the only recent editors to include “Sir Cleges” as a Breton lai, and they admit there are other genres to which other critics would say the work belongs.  This is not an idle speculation because genre tells us whether the work does what it should do, or whether it is badly made.  With what other BL can you compare it in this collection, both in larger plot elements and in smaller characterizations and actions?  Can you use that network of comparisons to argue for its inclusion in the BL universe?


3)  In line 15, Cleges’ best characteristics are described: “He was so gentyll and fre.”  L & S unfortunately gloss “fre” with a faus ami as “freeborn,” rather than as “generous,” which is the meaning of the word’s Norman French root, and a far better adjective to describe a man who, in the lines immediately following “gaff [squires in war] gold and fe,” specifically gold for their immediate needs and the feudal lands (“fee,” “fief,” “feud”) that would insure the squires’ future survival (16-18).  One way to understand this work’s economy is to look for the patterns of gift giving by which characters demonstrate their “freedom” or “largesse” and by which they create obligations of service and loyalty among those given the gifts.  The pattern is not without flaw because imperfect persons sometimes take without giving, or demand gifts from those who cannot afford to give them.  Forced gifts, bribes, and the like, are a peculiarly dangerous form of bad behavior in this culture.  Too much giving also might have its dangers, but does this poem recognize them or celebrate them?


4)  Cleges’ loss of status is dramatized by a sequence of departures in lines 61-96.  Think of this as a socio-economic “X-ray” of the poem’s construction of noble identity.  So completely does this series of removals erase Cleges’ identity that Uter cannot even recognize the knight who served him until the harper helps him remember (481-504).  Then, the poem rebuilds Cleges (and his family) by restoring the attributes the culture uses to know what nobles look and act like.  What are the rules of this game?


5)  Minstrels play important roles at several points in this poem.  What is the function music in the court and Cleges’ world?  What do musicians know and do, and how does this enable them to move from court to court rather than being bound to a single court, like all the other servants and nobles?  You might want to compare this with “Sir Orfeo,” which displays a similar view of the minstrel’s social role.


6)  Prayer and reward are a common Christian narrative pattern, and in “Sir Cleges,” both the protagonist and his wife participate.  Especially in lines 109-192, the prayers are intertwined with family activities that become sacralized by the prayers’ moral speech.  Could you use these passages to reconstruct a medieval vision of the family as a moral unit?  What functions does each member perform, and how do they complement each other?