Middle English Breton Lais

The Middle English (Arthurian) Breton Lai of Sir Cleges

15th century, Middle English: National Library of Scotland, Bodleian Library Oxford.

'This can’t be dear Sir Cleges, he died a long time ago.'

'It is a very simple story,' said Miranda. 'Found in two manuscripts written in the early 1400s. It’s often included with the Middle English Breton lays.'

'But it's Arthurian,' said Quintin.

'Medieval Breton lays can be Arthurian,' she replied. 'Quite a few of them are set in the world of King Arthur. Marie de France wrote a short tale in the twelfth century called Chevrefoil recounting an episode in the story of Tristan and Isolde, showing that this was all part of the tradition. And in her tale of the knight Lanval, the climax of her story takes place in King Arthur's court before Lanval is taken off to the Isle of Avalon. Even the werewolf Biclarel seeks refuge with King Arthur in a Medieval Breton lai that is not one of those that Marie de France wrote down. And in this fifteenth century English tale, Sir Cleges is a splendid knight at the court of King Uther Pendragon, King Arthur’s father. As Uther Pendragon says near the end of this tale: I had hym lever than knyghtes thre - he was worth more than three knights to me, he was so good in battle.

'Sir Cleges fell on hard times though, and after many years of entertaining generously and giving sumptuous Yule banquets, he fell into penury and destitution and faced a Christmas in poverty at his last-remaining manor near Cardiff. Then on Christmas Day he discovered some ripe cherries miraculously growing on a tree in his orchard. He tried some of them, found that they were lovely to eat, and brought a bushel-load to the king who was, very conveniently, staying at Cardiff Castle nearby. But in order to see the king he has to promise away a third of any reward he might receive for bringing these cherries, and promise a third in turn to each of three people he has to get past to get to the throne. So when the king asks Sir Cleges what he would like in return for these cherries, he asks for twelve beatings with a stick! – which he then shares between the porter, the usher and the steward. The king, however, seems to have no idea who he is.'

'Despite being once his best knight?'

'Despite once being his best knight – yes. The king has to ask his harpist who the man is and on being told he replies: This is not he in dede, it is long gon that he was dede, that I lovyd paramour - this can’t be dear Sir Cleges, he died a long time ago!'

'Spooky,' said Quintin.

'But step back from the story a little,' replied Miranda. 'A person riding high on the Wheel of Fortune then plunges to its lowest point where eating some magic fruit, apples in some stories, cherries in this one – pomegranate seeds in a revealing myth from the eight century BC – returns them back into the world and to the high point of the wheel once again. An allegory for a grander cycle. The man who was thought by the king to be dead is now found to be very much alive again, because of this fruit. The king restores to him all of his possessions, along with Cardiff Castle, and makes him his steward.'

Story recounted from: Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Eds), 1995. The Middle English Breton Lays. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University for TEAMS. The Middle English text of SIR CLEGES from Bodleian Library MS 6922 (Ashmole 61).


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Sir Cleges – TEAMS Medieval text, Middle English with an introduction.

Sir Cleges – Wikipedia

Breton lai – Wikipedia

Medieval Institute Publications – Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Eds), 1995. The Middle English Breton Lays. TEAMS Middle English texts