The Extremity of Brotherhood in "Amis and "Amiloun"

Many scholars have commented upon the extremity of the final scene of the romance text Amis and Amiloun, in which Sir Amis finds himself with a terrible moral dilemma: in order to cure his friend of leprosy, he must sacrifice his children. A story of intense brotherhood, this text is “found throughout Europe during the late Middle Ages in various forms” (Robinson, 2016, pg. 1), and poses a series of moral dilemmas that test the strength of the knight’s brotherhood and sustainment of the homosocial bond, a signifier of true knighthood and chivalry. This article will explore the significance of this homosocial bond to medieval chivalric society, and the representation of brotherhood as a virtue in Amis and Amiloun.


A Summary of the Romance


Amis and Amiloun features the tale of two noble men who are highly esteemed in court. Born on the same day with almost identical features, they are represented as the epitome of brotherhood. Described as “two elevated and courteous children” (Robinson, 2016, pg. 2), they form a deep friendship that serves to represent the epitome of knightly brotherhood. As a testament to their bond, they swear an oath, in which they vow to never go against their “blood brother”, or they “are lost”, (pg. 3) and each keeps a golden cup from an identical pair, swearing to “never let it part from you” (pg. 3). The brothers face several trials as they progress into adulthood. Upon Amis’s return to the duke’s court, the duke's daughter finds herself betrothed by him, but upon declaring her undying love, Amis nobly rejects, telling her “it is not right for you to give your love to a mere knight” (pg. 5). Meanwhile, Amis rejects the friendship of a steward whom Amiloun had already warned against, and subsequently finds himself victim to the steward’s wrath, who plots to tell the duke of Amis and the duke’s daughter’s love, that they have “gone to bed”. (pg. 6) Forced to prove his innocence in combat, Amis calls upon the secure brotherhood of his friend Amiloun, who agrees to undertake the trial for Amis. Amiloun’s wife is disgusted by his dishonesty, and as punishment for his perjury, “God punishes him with leprosy for his dishonest impersonation” (Farrar, 2018, pg. 55). After a year, both knights are visited by an angel who informs them that Amiloun’s leprosy can be cured by the sacrifice of Amis’s children. Amis remembers his oath and completes the act, confessing to his wife his sin, who rejoices at the news of Amiloun’s recovery. The next morning, both children are found alive and the tale is concluded. The final section of the text recounts the death of Amis and Amiloun on the same day, in which they are buried in one grave.


Image 1: Two Knights Fighting in a Landscape. (1824). Eugene Delacroix.


The Significance of Homosocial Bonds


Whilst the infanticide ending of Amis and Amiloun is a particularly horrific tale, it ultimately serves to exemplify the significance of homosocial bonds to medieval society. The brother’s actions, taken in loyalty to their oath, are ultimately praised by the romance, signified as the heroes of the tale. It is, by contrast, the scheming of the steward, who acts falsely and dishonestly, against the brotherhood, which is definitively condemned. Maia Farrar (2018) investigates the fundamental role that allegiance to other knights played in medieval society, proposing that: the structure of the court “relied on the performance of shared masculine or homosocial bonds” (pg. 54). As such, the tale of Amis and Amiloun, and their oath of brotherhood, serves to represent the epitome of the homosocial bond: a pair of knights who swear complete loyalty to each other, and do whatever it takes to maintain this loyalty. This was a significant feat of chivalric virtue, for the “boundaries of knighthood and chivalry [depended on] the strength of these homosocial bonds” (Farrar, 2018, pg. 54). As such, as Leah Haught (2015) suggests, the extent to which the brothers go to uphold their vow of loyalty can be seen as a “heroic sacrifice” (pg. 241), an act of extreme devotion to the significance of the homosocial bond.


As Haught (2015) understands, the protagonists adhere to “their private conception of truth above not only their own other obligations but also the needs and responsibilities of other characters” (pg. 242). Whilst Haught recognises the problematics of this narrative, this extreme loyalty could be interpreted to represent the ultimate upholding of the homosocial bond, a heroic maintenance of a powerful courtly structure, despite all trials and consequences. It is significant to recall that the text ultimately condemns the traitorous steward as the antagonist of the narrative, whilst endowing the brothers a welcome to heaven for their truth and their goodness (Haught, 2015, pg. 242). Even though both the brothers and the steward committed dubious acts of deceit, Amis and Amiloun’s ultimate dedication to social responsibility to others seems to redeem them in a way that the steward, who neglects the significance of the homosocial bond, is not so rewarded. In this way, it is possible to perceive the miraculous ending of the text as a validation of the power of the homosocial bond, and the extent of the medieval need for social harmony founded on this “ethic … of social responsibility” (Haught, 2015, pg. 241). After all, the children of the text are revived, and the wife does not condemn Amis for his terrible action against their offspring but rather rejoices. In this strange ending, dubious actions taken in favour of loyalty to the homosocial oath are rewarded.

Image 2: Chivalry. Frank Dicksee. n.d.


An understanding of the appraisal of the brother’s actions might be better understood by a consideration of the medieval need for restrained violence. In medieval society, the state relied upon the violence of knights. Its power, stability, and control “rested on its ability to either conquer or defend territory” (Sposato and Claussen, 2019, pg. 103). As such, violence was an integral signifier of a knight’s identity, with there existing a “centrality of prowess … to chivalric mentality” which in turn “produced an identity and lifestyle centered on violence” (Sposato and Claussen, 2019, pg. 100). Simultaneously, the state needed to control the very violence it encouraged, resulting in mediation between “encouraging chivalric violence and attempting to encourage knightly restraint” (pg. 103).


As such, it was imperative for the state to ensure that violence was contained within well-established bounds and rules that secured acceptable violence within their terms. In this way, it might be possible to view the infanticide as an act of restrained violence within the state's boundaries. When it is considered that the act of aggression against the children is reversed, they are found “alive and well” (Robinson, 2016, pg. 31), and the actions of Amis are rewarded by this resurrection, it might be plausible that the violent actions of the brothers are considered acceptable precisely because they operate under the oath of a homosocial bond. The extreme significance of this bond to the structures of the court serves to verify the infanticide as a justifiable action, one that maintains social cooperation and bonds of brotherhood. Laurie Finke and Martin Schichtman (1998) attest to the fact that a defining feature of the genre was that it "deployed violence to structure masculine identity toward particular historic ends” (pg. 116).


Image 3: Vision of a Knight. 1504. Rafael.


Whilst the ambiguous heroism of the text might serve to destabilise this view of the significance of the homosocial bond, it is crucial to note that romances were fundamentally moral texts. As such, it was not uncommon for romance texts to feature tales of unstable courts, fratricides, and the dissolution of social order. Therefore, whilst the designation of traitor is endowed to both the steward and the knights in the text (Farrar, 2018, pg. 56), this ambiguity does not necessarily serve to destabilise the authority of the homosocial bond. Rather, it troubles the notion and asks the reader to question the limits of brotherhood, whilst simultaneously adhering to the chivalric necessity of the bond. As Haught (2015) argues, Amis and Amiloun “fuses a multiplicity of perspectives and desires into its exploration of chivalric illustriousness in order to confront simultaneously the aspirations for and complications of” (pg. 242) the ideal chivalric order. It is therefore possible for the tale to at once elevate the knights for their dedication to the oath, whilst also questioning whether the extremity of their actions may ultimately have harmed the ethics of the chivalric code, underpinning a potential flaw in the code of chivalry that elevates brotherhood and the homosocial bond to such a high status. It is as if the tale might say: the story is resolved, but at what cost?


It is crucial to examine the resolution of the tale in our understanding of the elevation of the homosocial bond. The significance of the maintenance of brotherhood to the chivalric order is exemplified by this text, and whilst its narrative might trouble this significance, the text ultimately adheres to it. The tale is resolved, and the knight’s actions are praised. Brotherhood, the text tells us, is a crucial part of medieval society, a bond that upholds and secures the stability of the social order. Whilst critics are still uncertain of the extent to which the text fully endorses the extreme maintenance of the social bond, it is without doubt that this romance seeks to represent the extent to which chivalric society endowed great honour to those who possessed traits of loyalty, prowess, and honour in virtue of the homosocial bond.



Bibliography

Farrar, M. (2018). "Stewarding Treason: Political Instability in Amis and Amiloun". Quidditas, 39(4), pp. 54 - 79.


Finke, L. and M. Schichtman. (1998). "No Pain, No Gain: Violence as Symbolic Capital in Malory's 'Morte d'Arthur'". Arthuriana, 8(2), pp. 115-34.


Haught, L. (2015). In Pursuit of “Trewth”: Ambiguity and Meaning in Amis and Amiloun. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 114(2), pp. 240–260.


Robinson, R. (2016). Amis and Amiloun. Original text: anon, early fourteenth century.


Sposato, P. and S. Claussen. (2019). "Chivalric Violence". A Companion to Chivalry, The Boydell Press, pp. 99-118.


Visual Sources

Image 1: Delacroix, E. (1824). Two Knights Fighting in a Landscape [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.wikiart.org/en/eugene-delacroix/two-knights-fighting-in-a-landscape


Image 2: Dicksee, F. (n.d.) Chivalry [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://victorianweb.org/painting/dickseef/paintings/8.html


Image 3: Rafael. (1504). Vision of a Knight [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/research/research-resources/studying-raphael/studying-raphael-iconography




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