Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


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

John C. Ford

Both Athelston and Amis and Amiloun1 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.

The similar vows between Amiloun and Amis are perhaps even more striking. Following allusion to an earlier "troth-plight," a term generally used in reference to a couple’s pledge to marry, the companions affirm their relationship with the following words:

Brother, as we ere trewthe-plight,
Bothe with word & dede,
Fro this day forward never mo,
To faily other for wele no wo,
To help him at his nede.
Brother, be now trewe to me,
& y schal ben as trewe to the,
Also god me spede! (293-300)

Brother, as we before pledged our troth,
Both with word and deed,
From this day forward nevermore
To fail the other in good times and in bad,
[But] to help each other in time of need.
Brother, be now true to me,
And I shall be as true to you,
Insofar as God allows me.

Even to modern ears these lines ring familiar; much the same could probably be said for the fourteenth-century audience, whose wedding liturgy is not so very different from that of today:

I .N. take the .N. to myn wedded wyf,
to have and to holde from this day forward,
for beter, for wers, for richer, for porere,
for fayrere, for fowlere, in seknes and in helthe,
til deth us departe, yif holy chirche it wil ordeyne:
and therto I plithe the myn trewthe. (Littlehales 5-6)

I (name) take thee (name) as my wedded wife,
To have and to hold from this day forward,
For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,
In good times and in bad, in sickness and in health,
Till death separates us, if Holy Church will ordain it:
And thereto I plight thee my troth.

They thereupon exchange symbolic gifts, in this case identical drinking goblets, as a token of their bond. Although today rings are most often exchanged as matrimonial remembrances, in the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for other objects such as hair combs, dishes and, not surprisingly given the thrust of this paper, drinking vessels to serve the purpose. Thus, in both romances, the terms which cement the bonds between (or among) sworn brothers are not so very different from those used between bride and groom, and it ought to be acknowledged that the parallels with a Christian wedding ceremony are particularly striking in Amis and Amiloun in these respects:

1. Two previously unrelated companions undertaking a troth-plight;

2. They follow it with formal vows utilizing familiar formulas; and

3. They finish their oaths with the exchange of tokens, which stand as a symbol of their union.

But if Amis and Amiloun has more evident parallels to a wedding in terms of the pledge sworn itself, then it could also be said that Athelston has more striking parallels in terms of how these vows are perceived by the community at large. Following a wedding, the bride and groom are henceforward considered "one flesh" according to Christian doctrine, and are accepted as husband and wife by the common consent of the community.2 Athelston provides many particulars indicating that the sworn brothers are generally recognized as "being of one blood" following their mutual oaths of loyalty.

The clearest indication of this new-found "consanguinity" comes when Alryke, raised to the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns King Æthelstan not to put their sworn brother Egeland to death for treason before fairly judging his case: "Goode weddyd brother, now turne thy rede; / Doo nought thyn owne blood to dede" ("Good wedded brother, now change your mind; / Do not put your own blood to death"; 441-42). The archbishop’s choice of words at once reconfirms his own status of brother with the king–importantly categorized as "wedded brother"–and in reference to Egeland shows that this status renders them brothers in the same degree as those born of the same parents: "do not put your own blood to death." The archbishop could not say this of these men born of different families unless the oath of wedded brother made it so.

An indication that this status is acknowledged more generally comes in the utterance of the queen who intercedes on behalf of Egeland and his wife. She too attempts to dissuade Æthelstan from executing them, pleading: "Graunte me my bone, / My brothir and sustyr that I may borwe" ("Grant me my wish, / That I may stand as surety for my brother and sister"; 261-62). Here we see that not only does the queen recognize the bond connecting her husband and Egeland, but by extension, she also considers herself the sister of her husband’s wedded brother because she is his wedded wife. Thus, even within the family, the status of wedded brother is accepted as a valid, formal kinship tie. Finally, there is evidence that the relationship is acknowledged even more widely by the general community. When Æthelstan refuses to listen to either his wife or Alryke, the latter (as archbishop) places England under interdict and rides off. He soon comes upon a band of noble lords in London who ask for his blessing, and when he refuses to give it, one of them beseeches him, "Bysschop, turne agayn; / Off thy body we are ful fayn; / Thy brothir yit schole we borwe" ("Bishop, change your mind; / We gladly rejoice in your person; / We shall yet save your brother"; 519-21). Here is obvious evidence that these knights recognize the fraternal kinship tie between Alryke and Egeland–calling them brothers–and there is even a hint in the mention of "being glad of his person," his body, that they consider Egeland flesh of the archbishop’s flesh.

With a few notable exceptions (discussed below), the sworn brothers almost invariably refer to each other as "brother" or "wedded brother." When discussing Æthelstan with a messenger from the queen, Alryke calls the king "my weddyd brother" (379), and as he returns to the court with this same messenger, he refers to the king in conversation as simply "brother" (399). When he approaches the king in "Westemynstyr kyrke" ("Westminster Abbey"; stanza 38-39), he twice addresses the monarch as "weddyd brother" (438, 441), and furthermore reminds him that Egeland shares this status when he refers to the Earl of Stane as simply "my brothir" (488). The wrathful king, feeling betrayed by Egeland, refuses the appellation, eventually delivering Egeland and his family into the archbishop’s hands for trial by fire, saying "Here I graunte the that knyght" ("Here I grant you that knight"; 556 emphasis added). However, once Egeland’s endurance of the ordeal proves his innocence, Alryke is once again able to re-establish the fraternal connection, referring to him in conversation with the king as "thy brother" (685). Even the narrator acknowledges the brotherly association, labeling Egeland the "weddyd brother" (586) of Alryke, and Wymound the "weddyd brother" (132) of Æthelstan.

This is not to say that such a relationship does not occur in Amis and Amiloun, just that it is perhaps less obvious due to the omission of the term "wedded." Amiloun and Amis do indeed address one another almost exclusively as "brother": twelve times for the former (239, 298, 301, 310, 319, 1066, 1081, 1117, 1136, 1435, 2237, 2329) and five times for the latter (1069, 1444, 2143, 2231, 2347). Even more convincingly, they are shown to actually think "mi brother" in their personal reflections about one another (1280, 2296, 2300). They also use the term when discussing each other with third persons. Amis calls Amiloun "mi brother" once when speaking to his lord (263), three times when speaking to his wife (954, 2167, 2386) and four times when speaking to other characters (2056, 2060, 2081, 2264). When speaking of Amiloun to Amis, other characters tend to refer to him as "thi brother" (lord: 274; wife: 967, 2396; courtiers: 353). Much the same situation exists for Amiloun, who also calls Amis his brother to his wife (1497) and instructs his companion to use the term when addressing his retinue (1136). The narrator uses the term freely, both in direct reference to the characters (1003, 1013, 1025, 1145, 1472, 1540, 2151, 2219, 2228, 2323, 2492) as well as in reported speech (1148, 1485, 1486, 2213, 2224, 2249, 2264). Once he uses it to suggest that Amis and Amiloun share a closer kinship tie than Amis and his own children (2219). Even the angels are reported to use the appellation, suggesting there is indeed a divine miracle that makes the two one flesh much as in a marriage (2213, 2224).

That such parallels between sworn brotherhoods and marriages are more than mere accidents is demonstrated by the similarities the fraternal bonds have with formal unions between husbands and wives in the texts. Between Amis and Amiloun there are, as we have seen, troth-plights; the same term is also used between Amis and his future wife, Belisaunt, when they formalize their relationship, "& plight hem trewthes bothe to" ("And both pledge their troth to the other"; 668). Between Æthelstan and Wymound, a similar exchange takes place, the latter ensuring that "thou hast thy trowthe me plyght" ("you have pledged me your troth"; 158) before betraying their companion Stane to the king. (See also 151, 155.) Furthermore, sworn companions also often use lovers’ language. The king calls Wymound "darling" (93) and Wymound calls Alryke "dere" ("dear"; 111). Amis pines that if he is not allowed to go away with Amiloun, "mine hert, it breketh of thre!" ("My heart, it breaks in three"; 264), and Belisaunt uses the same words to woo Amis, saying that if he refuses to become her lover, "Ywis, min hert breketh thre" ("Surely, my heart breaks in three"; 575). Finally, when Æthelstan gives his sister Edyff as "weddyd wife" to one of his companions, the use of the term "weddyd" for a wife after being used repeatedly for sworn brothers could hardly be coincidental. In both romances, then, terms of endearment and portrayal of relationships between or among pledged companions parallel terms of address and situations used to show loving couples.

It is a striking feature, however, that the actual marriages of the various companions in no way impinge on the sworn brotherhoods. Despite any matrimonial vows of loyalty, the relationships with a "wedded wife" are uniformly portrayed as secondary in importance to those with "wedded brethren." Amis is never bothered when Amiloun returns to his country and "spoused a leuedy bright" ("married a beautiful lady"; 335); indeed, the narrator makes this marriage appear as a simple formality to taking up power more than anything else. Egeland’s marriage to Æthelstan’s sister is primarily a means of further solidifying the bond between the men; consequently, Wymound does not become jealous of Egeland’s affection for Edyff, but rather for Æthelstan’s obvious great affection for Egeland. When this jealousy drives him to accuse Stane of treason, Æthelstan’s initial anger against Egeland, and then against Wymound when the accusations are proven false, do not prevent the king from affording the men formal proceedings; his wife, however, he savagely beats, killing their unborn child simply because she "broke my comaundement" ("disobeyed my command"; 280) and wept on behalf of the accused.3 Finally, despite an obvious distaste for Amis,4 Amiloun’s wife is never portrayed as a threat to the companions’ relationship, even when she upbraids her husband for battling on Amis’s behalf, saying "Ywis, it was ivel ydo!" ("Surely, that was evilly done!"; 1494). And despite the trickery Belisaunt uses to coerce Amis into becoming her lover, Amiloun never finds reason to criticize her, always being more wary of Hardret the steward, whom he blames for Amis’s downfall for revealing his companion’s misdeeds rather than leading him into them. So even though the ceremonial importance of these unions is emphasized by borrowing matrimonial language, any nuptial vows the men make to women are of negligible importance in comparison to those they make among themselves.

What can, however, jeopardize these homosocial, comitatus-like oaths is the usurpation or contravention of the vows by other men. Upon their departure, Amiloun warns his friend against their lord’s steward; "&, brother, yete y the forbede / The fals steward felawerede, / Certes, he wil the schende!" (And Brother, still I forbid you / To befriend the false steward/ Certainly, he wishes to destroy you!"; 310-12). There is no warning or concern over Belisaunt, who will also try to draw Amis into an illicit relationship, nor is Amis ever faulted for being had by her. Such would not be the case if he had accepted the steward’s offer of friendship. This is because the steward’s proposal comes as a direct challenge to Amis’s relationship with Amiloun. In his initial approach, the steward tells Amis to put Amiloun out of his mind, saying: "thou wil be to me kende, / Y schal the be a better frende / Than ever yete was he" ("You will be well disposed towards me, / [And] I shall be a better friend to you / Than he ever yet was"; 358-60). In the following stanza, he even appropriates words used earlier in Amiloun’s oath:

Swere ous bothe brotherhed,
& plight we our trewthes to;
Be trewe to me in word & dede,
& y schal, so god me spede,
Be trewe to the al so. (362-66)

Let us both swear our brotherhood,
And plight our troths to one another;
Be true to me in word and deed,
And I shall, insofar as God allows me,
Be true to you in return.

Amis, however, acts impeccably. He responds: "Mi treuthe y plight / To sir Amiloun" ("I have plighted my troth / To Sir Amiloun"; 367-68), and goes on to say that "For ones y plight him treuthe, that hende, / Where so he in warld wende, / Y schal be to him trewe" ("For once I plighted my troth to him, that gallant one, / Wherever he goes in the world / I shall be true to him"; 376-78). This response sends the steward into a rage, but it preserves the primacy of Amiloun above all other men in the heart of Amis, and therefore demonstrates him as a faithful wedded brother.

Another certain cause of rupture of the fraternal ties is deceitfulness within the fellowship. As already mentioned, Æthelstan refuses to call Egeland "brother" as long as he believes in his guilt. While any plot against the king is treasonous, the gravity of the crime is exponentially amplified when it comes from such close quarters. Without doubt, this is the cause of the king’s unquenchable anger. It is equally certain that the king only believes the accusation because, as he himself says to Alryke after Egeland proves his innocence, it came from "Wymound, oure weddyd brother" ("Wymound, our wedded brother"; 691). This is also the last time Wymound is so called. When the king summons him to walk across nine hot ploughshares, the ordeal so easily survived by Egeland, he is addressed simply as "Traytour" ("traitor"; 760). Even the narrator voices the opinion. Before Wymound attempts to cross, Alryke blesses the red-hot blades: "Nyne sythis the bysschop halewes the way, / That that traytour schole goo that day" ("Nine times the bishop blesses the way, / That that traitor was to pass that day"; 783-84 emphasis added). However, before Egeland’s crossing the words are different: "Nyne sythe the bysschop halewid the way, / That his weddyd brother scholde goo that day" ("Nine times the bishop blessed the way, / That his wedded brother was to pass that day"; 585-86 emphasis added). The narrator, seeing events more clearly than the king, knows that Egeland is ever a faithful "wedded brother" even while his innocence is in question; but Wymound, for his unpardonable crime, is divorced from the brethren even before he steps up to the fire.

It is also very much worthwhile to consider Wymound’s motives in betraying not one, but two of his sworn brothers. What drives him to incur the wrath of a generous and devoted king and the downfall of a close ally? Quite simply, jealousy. Jealousy in the original sense of the word: a state of being fiercely protective of what is one’s own and of being afraid, suspicious, or resentful of rivalry, especially in love or affection. This is not covetousness. Wymound does not hope for monetary gain or advancement as a result of Egeland’s ruin. He even displays a bit of remorse over the charges when the king resolves not to eat or drink until Egeland is dead: "‘Nay,’ says the traytour, ‘so moot I the, / Ded wole I nought my brother se’" ("‘No,’ says the traitor, ‘as I must hope to thrive, / I wish not to see my brother dead"; 175-76). He simply cannot stand seeing someone else above him in the king’s estimations, and even admits as much before (rather perplexingly) being drawn, quartered and then hanged: "He lovyed hym to mekyl and me to lyte" ("He loved him too much and me too little"; 799). It is love, then, not hatred, ambition or greed, that leads Wymound into his misdeed.

There are parallels with Amis and Amiloun in the person of the steward, who likewise betrays Amis for reasons of jealousy. Although, like Wymound, he is envious of the lord’s love of Amis (and, incidentally, Amiloun), this is not the primary motive for his treachery. He seeks not so much the elimination of a rival for his liege lord’s affections, but principally desires vengeance for having been scorned. If he cannot have Amis’s affections, neither shall anyone else: a medieval Fatal Attraction inasmuch as he would rather see the man destroyed than go on without him, especially while this object of his affections remained attached to someone else. Note also that the role Belisaunt plays in Amis’s life, complete with troth-plights and vows of loyalty, is as inconsequential to the steward as it is to Amiloun. Hardret is not actively trying to injure Belisaunt in revealing her relationship with Amis to her father, but is simply using their relationship as a pretext for bringing down Amis.5 That his disclosure might have disastrous results for the lord’s daughter as well is just an unfortunate detail. So although Belisaunt holds a privileged position in relation to Amis, as a female companion her relationship is in no way threatening; it arouses neither the envy caused by Amis’s relationship with Amiloun nor even the spark of envy caused by the lord’s affections.

A final figure that deserves mention is that of the loyal friend, who acts against his companion’s wishes but in his best interests.  As we have seen in Athelston, that figure is the archbishop, who draws the king’s wrath down upon him by interceding on behalf of Stane.  In Amis and Amiloun, the figure is represented by Amoraunt, Amiloun’s nephew, who repeatedly refuses to abandon his leprous uncle, and disobediently reveals his lord’s identity in order to save the latter’s life.  In both cases, the loyal friend knows that his actions go against his companion’s wishes, but are ultimately for the best. Amoraunt is a particularly interesting character for, as his name implies, he can be conceived of as a personification of the love between Amis and Amiloun. When Amiloun becomes a leper and is dispossessed of his realm, Amoraunt leads him to Amis much as love might metaphorically draw a friend to a beloved companion in time of need. Furthermore, it is only through Amoraunt that Amis recognizes the diseased beggar as his friend; when Amis first encounters the diseased Amiloun he takes him for a thief and would have beaten him to death if Amoraunt had not intervened, love thus permitting Amis to see beyond appearances and glimpse the true nature of his friend. Finally, when Amiloun’s health is restored and the two companions overthrow his usurpers and retire from the world, Amoraunt succeeds his master as lord of his domain. This turn of events is a metaphorical illustration of the adage that love conquers all. There can be little doubt that the Middle English adaptor intended such interpretations. The use of "Amoraunt" as the name for this character, known equally as "Uwein" in the Anglo-Norman, is more than just a clever witticism prompted by the similarity of the main characters’ names with "friend." It is certainly intended to show that love (amour) links one friend (ami) to the other. Thus, even when Amiloun and Amis no longer rule, their love remains as a symbol of the strength and power derived from their loyal friendship and continues to hold sway.

Although the physical role filled by Amoraunt in maintaining constancy of friendship in difficult times is filled by Alryke in Athelstan, that romance also has a character who represents the symbolic personification of love between friends. In the midst of her ordeal over the flaming ploughshares, Edyff, the Duchess of Stane, gives birth to Egeland’s son, Edmund.6 The overjoyed king names the child heir to his kingdom, thus uniting in him the patrimony of Æthelstan and Egeland. Edmund therefore represents a living embodiment of the bond between the two men, much as Amoraunt does between Amis and Amiloun. In both tales, then, the jealousy that causes the characters grief is overcome by a love which remains constant in the face of adversity and which is symbolically represented by a child who unites them and becomes the heir to one of the companions.

In both these romances, it is the love of friendship, as opposed to warfare, religion or erotic love, which leads to crisis and to resolution.7 The sanctity of same-sex friendship is raised to the level of a sacrament, put on par with oaths of fealty or of marriage. It is ceremoniously consecrated, it requires exclusive fidelity among the avowed, and can be irreparably adulterated by violation of its strictures.  Crisis arises when love turns to jealousy, posing difficulties for those whose love remains unadulterated, and ultimately leading to obliteration for those whose love turns sour. But faithful and loyal love ultimately leads to resolution for the pure of heart, who, despite the hardships endured, eventually see through the deception and emerge from the difficulties with even greater love than before. This selfless, constant love in the face of adversity is true "brotherly love," which surpasses all other types of love in its value and intensity. It is the ideal to be aspired to, and through portraying the rewards for the steadfast who achieve and maintain this level of love, these romances exemplify it as the courtly idealization of same-sex friendship.


1 All references to this work are from the Leach edition. In order to facilitate electronic distribution and to make the text more accessible to the journal’s wider readership, spelling has been normalised (e.g. "th" for thorn, "g" or "y" for yogh, and "u" or "v" redistributed according to vocalic or consonantal value). Return.

2 Genesis 2:23-24: "And Adam said: This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. . . . Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." Return.

3 This leads the queen to send a messenger to Alryke, saying: "He wole doo more for hym, I wene, / Thanne for me, though I be qwene" ("He will do more for him, I believe, / Than for me, though I be queen"; 306-7). Thus, the queen realizes that the sworn brother will have more influence over her husband than she has as his wife. As Trounce correctly notes, this indicates that sworn brotherhood was considered as being superior to the marriage tie. See Trounce’s Introduction to Athelston (13). Return.

4 This distaste is even more pronounced in the antecedents. In the Old French, she is represented as a direct threat to the companions’ friendship: "S’elle onques puet, el le cunchiera, / Les amistiés d’Amile li todlra" ("She will betray him if she ever can / And deprive him of Amiles’s loving friendship"; 494-95). In the following laisse (30), she even lies, accusing her husband’s companion of sending messengers inviting her to become his lover. Return.

5 Even though Belisaunt coerced Amis into the relationship–resorting to blackmail when seduction proved fruitless–the steward lays the blame squarely on Amis’s shoulders: "He is a traitour stong. . . .Thi douhter hath forlain!" ("He is mighty traitor . . . [and] has lain with your daughter"; 790-92). Note that in the Anglo-Norman version (Fukui edition) the king denounces his daughter as a "whore" (pute) to her mother (366). He thereby lets her share the blame, but it is never implied that this is the steward’s intent; it is simply an unfortunate necessity for bringing down the companion. Note also that the lord never sees fit to blame his daughter in the ME, always directing his ire towards Amis. That Belisaunt and her mother are later nearly burned at the stake is not a result of the maiden’s participation in an affair, but the consequences of standing as surety for Amis, who by not appearing punctually for trial by combat risks the lives of his hostages. Return.

6 The text identifies the child as the future "Seynte Edemound" ("St. Edmund"; 656). Return.

7 For a discussion of different types of love, see C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves. Briefly, "storge" is affection, "philia" is friendship, "eros" is erotic love, and "agape" is selfless love. Return.


Works Cited

Ami et Amile - Chanson de Geste. Ed. Peter F Dembowski. Classiques Françaises du Moyen Age 67. Paris: Libraire Honoré Champion, 1969.

Amis and Amiloun. Ed. MacEdward Leach. Early English Text Society, Original Series 203. London: Oxford University Press, 1937.

Amys e Amillyoun. Ed. Hideka Fukui. Anglo-Norman Text Society, Plain Text Series 7. London, 1990.

Athelston- A Middle English Romance. Ed. McI. A. Trounce. Early English Text Society, Original Series 224. London: Oxford University Press, 1951.

English Fragments from Latin Medieval Service-Books. Ed. H. Littlehales. Early English Text Society, Extra Series 90. London: Oxford University Press, 1903.

Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. Geoffrey Bles, 1960. Orlando: Harcourt, 1991.

The New Scofield Study Bible, New King James Version. Ed. C. I. Scofield, et al. Oxford University Press, 1967. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.













Updated 12/14/03