Thursday, April 5, 2018

Forays into the digital: mapping Bevis in London

What makes a man a hero? Specifically, what makes a man an English hero?

Southampton's Bargate, by Michael Coppins
from Wikimedia Commons
On the main High Street in Southampton stands the medieval Bargate, once the northern gateway to the city. Approaching the north entrance, passing a tattoo parlour on the left and a Burger King on the right, you pass two lion statues, which date from 1743. Most people walk straight past these lions without paying them much attention. However, these statues signify Southampton’s mythical founder, the English knight Sir Bevis or Bevois of Hampton. Celebrated as the city’s founder, Bevis and his story are marked locally in statuary, district and street names, and art work. All of this serves to construct Bevis as the ultimate English hero.

Yet, of course, Bevis is not a straightforward English hero. According to the medieval romances that outline Bevis' story, Bevis was exiled from England aged 7, raised by a Muslim king, married a Muslim woman and, on his return to England, was attacked as a foreign invader.

So what, therefore, makes Bevis an English hero? How is his identity tied to place?

This is the question I'm considering in a paper I'm giving at the Medieval Insular Romance conference in Cardiff next week. I'll be talking, in that paper, about Bevis and another English place that he visits in the earliest Middle English version of the romance - London.

I've been interested in Bevis' experiences in London for some time - my very first post on this blog was about Bevis and London - and I've recently made progress with a mapping project that overlays Bevis' travels in medieval London onto the modern-day City.

Eleven places associated with London geography are named in the Auchinleck version of Bevis, more than any of the other six Middle English versions of the romance that survive. Bevis of Hampton is highly unusual in its level of geographical accuracy and detail. This means that we can map, with some accuracy, Bevis’ movements in London.

To share Bevis' movements with modern audiences, I've developed a website that maps the London locations mentioned in Bevis of Hampton. I've also developed a walking tour, which can be enacted virtually and in person, that guides you around Bevis' London with recorded commentary that connects the history of London with literary analysis of the romance. You can find the tour and more at bevisinlondon.com.

The way Bevis interacts with London is revealing, I think, of medieval ways of thinking about Englishness, masculinity, and belonging. This tour, following in Bevis’ footsteps, encourages us to consider what it means to be English and what it means to be a hero in history and today.

Please do visit bevisinlondon.com if it's of interest and feel free to share it with any other Bevis fans out there!

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