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Merry Married Brothers: Wedded Friendship, Lovers’ Language and Male Matrimonials in Two Middle English Romances

Merry Married Brothers: Wedded Friendship, Lovers’ Language and Male Matrimonials in Two Middle English Romances

Ford, John C.

Medieval Forum, vol. 3 (2003)

Abstract

Both Athelston and Amis and Amiloun show idealized same-sex friendship through similar guises. In each, friendships are cemented through troth-plights that approach marriage vows in complexity and wording. In each, some character’s downfall is conceived due to jealousy of love or friendship with another. In each, that character’s doomed fate is overcome by the honesty of a loyal friend. There is a constant parallel in these tales between the politics of marriage and friendship. Friendship is ceremoniously consecrated, requires exclusive fidelity, and is destroyed by violation of its strictures. Here it is friendship, as opposed to warfare, religion or love, that leads to crisis and resolution. Through such a portrayal, these romances exemplify the courtly idealization of same-sex friendship.

Both Athelston and Amis and Amiloun show idealized same-sex friendships through various guises. In each, the bonds of friendship are cemented through troth-plights, which approach marriage vows in their complexity and wording. In each, the downfall of one character is sought by another due to jealousy of strong bonds of love or friendship between the beloved and another. In each, some character’s apparently doomed fate is overcome by the honesty of a loyal friend who acts in that companion’s best interests, though against his apparent wishes. In both romances, then, it is the complexities of the politics of friendship that lead to both the conflict the characters must endure and their resolutions.

In Athelston, it is told that he and three companions swear in their youths to hold each other as “wedded companions” when they meet before a cross in the forest. When Æthelstan later becomes king, he ennobles these boyhood friends, creating Egeland the Earl of Stane, Wymound the Earl of Dover, and Alryke the Archbishop of Canterbury. To a modern reader, one of the most striking details concerning the friendship pacts sworn by these characters is the use of language today reserved exclusively for marriage. The first stanza of Athelston announces that it will be the tales of “foure weddyd bretheryn . . . that sybbe were nought off kyn” (“Four wedded brothers . . . that were not related as kin”; 10-12). The second stanza then reveals how these four youths meet before a cross in a forest, and for love of their meeting, “They swoor hem weddyd bretheryn for evermare / In trewthe trewely dede hem bynde” (“They swore themselves wedded brethren forevermore / Truly did they bind themselves in loyalty”; 23-4). The parallels with a Christian marriage ceremony are obvious. Gathered before a (roadside) shrine dominated by a cross, the unrelated men make oaths of perpetual loyalty and fidelity to one another before God, much as an unrelated man and woman might kneel before an altar overhung with a cross for their nuptial vows.

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