The Ritual Plot in the Ipomedon Romances


This text copyright © 2008 Dr Anne Wilson

The romances using the Ipomedon plot1 are good examples of the problems created by the presence of a ritual plot in a text, and how these problems might be explained. The chief problems are those of motivation. The Ipomedon texts do not explain why Ipomedon fails to claim the lady on the two occasions when he wins her, or why he repeatedly conceals his identity and prowess throughout the plot. The plot ends in marriage only when Ipomedon performs what appears to be a prank, pretending to be the lady’s enemy celebrating victory and about to seize her, when in fact he has just defeated this enemy. The lady has to flee in terror until Ipomedon is identified as Ipomedon by his half-brother, who recognises a ring on his finger. The authors’ treatment has not made clear why their chivalric hero wins his lady in this unchivalrous way and after he has abandoned her on two occasions when he has won her.                                


The Authors’ Narrative   The Ritual Plot I Suggest



Ipomedon leaves his father’s court in Apulia for the court in Calabria of a proud beauty who has vowed that she will marry only the best knight in the world. There he is much admired, but he conceals his high rank, courage and knightly prowess, and spends his time hunting. He and the lady fall in love, but she makes it known that he has no hope without a distinguished reputation as a warrior, and, after a night of self-examination, he leaves the court.


Move 1


The hero leaves home and arrives at the sovereign lady’s court in a non-threatening guise. He wins her love while refusing to have anything to do with deeds of arms. But she tells him only deeds of arms will win her. He leaves the court.










Ipomedon returns home to attend on his dying mother, and she tells him she has a son by a previous marriage, about whom not even her husband knows. She gives him a ring as a token by which his half-brother will recognise him. He is knighted.


Move 2


The hero receives an identification token from his mother which takes its power from its being the queen’s gift to her son. It will proclaim his identity as the rightful winner of sovereignty.







The proud beauty is urged to marry for the sake of her country, and, with the help of her uncle, King Meleager of Sicely, it is agreed that she will marry the winner of a tournament. Ipomedon travels to Meleager’s court with all that he needs to take part, prepared to use a different disguise each day of the tournament, and he conceals his identity at court again. He is once more a hunter, not a warrior, and he makes an agreement with the surprised king that he will serve the queen as her ‘dru’. He wins the tournament and then leaves the court without claiming the lady, but arranges that his innkeeper will be his messenger, returning the horses he won in the tournament. The queen sends her steward after him to bring him back, and Ipomedon defeats him, sending him back to the queen, who regrets he never told her ‘dru’ she loved him.  

Move 3


With the safeguards of the identification token and the lady’s requirement that he win her by deeds of arms, the hero can now enter a move in which he wins the lady. Nevertheless, fresh safeguards are set up around this winning. The hero does nothing about preparing for the tournament; he is once more in a non- threatening guise, and, with the uncle’s agreement, is also the innocent lover of the uncle’s queen. He wins the tournament incognito and in the very time he is supposed to be hunting. Afterwards he leaves without claiming the lady, but sends the inn-keeper, who can confirm that he has left, to the court to make presentations of the horses involved in his triumph. He thereby makes it known that a single knight won each of the three days and defeated the king. As he leaves, he rejects the queen’s appeal that he returns to her.





Ipomedon succeeds his dead father as king, but sets out again at once to win further knightly honour, this time in war.



Move 4


The hero becomes king in his own country, and leaves without being crowned.






Ipomedon hears that the proud beauty is threatened by a giant knight and goes to Meleager’s court disguised as a comical fool. He asks for the next adventure and it is granted as part of the joke. Then the lady’s confidente arrives to ask for help, and only the fool has the courage to respond. She treats him with contempt, but he saves her from three attempts to seize her on the journey, made first by a cousin, then a nephew, then a brother of the invader. She falls in love with him, and he rejects her advances.


Move 5


The hero now enters the first of three moves to remove the idea that he is seeking to seize sovereignty. The sovereign lady is threatened by an invader, and the hero saves her servant from three attempts to seize her made by relatives of the invader. Then he rejects her love. This move uses a substitute location and surrogate characters.








At the proud beauty’s court, Ipomedon defeats the monstrous invader, with the help of the power of the ring. The combatants are indistinguishable in black armour.



Move 6


The hero saves the sovereign lady herself at her court by defeating the invader, and then leaves without claiming her.





Ipomedon proclaims that he is the invader, victorious over the lady’s champion, and that she is now his. The lady flees. Ipomedon prepares to depart secretly, but Cabanus, his half-brother seeks him out and they fight until Cabanus sees the ring. At last, Ipomedon is crowned in Apulia and marries the lady.

Move 7


The hero appears as the invader himself, claiming the sovereign lady as victor, so that it can be directly shown, through the use of the identification token, that the victor is not the invader but the champion against him.





The authors using the plot and the scholars have all given attention to the problems in the plot. Hue de Rotelande’s overlay, followed by those of the Middle English stanzaic and prose versions, has inserted the lady’s vow that she will only marry the best knight in the world, which helps to fill the gap in explanations. Ipomedon feels, even after his victories at the tournament, that he must withdraw because he still cannot measure up to his lady’s vow. But when he does not claim the lady a second time, after defeating the invader, and pretends instead to be the invader, claiming her after slaying her champion, his behaviour raises other questions about his treatment of her; audiences might lose sympathy with him. Critics find moral explanations for the extended separation of the lovers, for example that suffering is necessary to purify love and bring it to maturity, or that Ipomedon is testing his lady’s faith, but these explanations have too little connection with the action in the texts. It might be more useful to ask whether the hero of the plot, as opposed to the hero in the authors’ treatment of their plot, is interested at all in his lady’s suffering or in the maturity of his own love or hers: it seems that he can only marry the lady when he has pretended to be an invader and been proved not to be. The lady’s flight from a victorious invader can prove nothing about her faith. For a critic expecting a unified text, there can sometimes be no explanation. Ipomedon’s behaviour ‘est franchement insensé’, comments A.J. Holden in his edition of the Anglo-Norman text; his presenting himself to the lady as a victorious invader is ‘une dernière mystification’.2


It is my argument that the plot does have its own highly organised agenda, and makes perfect sense at its own level. It is simply a completely different kind of narrative from those we are used to thinking about. We are used to the idea of the borrowed plot modified by the author, but there are also plots, whether borrowed or not, which cannot be modified, because they come from somewhere else in the mind which we cannot reach. The result is a text created by two entirely separate narratives.


In the Ipomedon plot, the hero advances step by step towards winning the lady with the use of a repeated form of disguise. He presents himself to the sovereign lady and to the king in repeated meetings as a mere figure of fun and no warrior. In this way he appears to offer no threat to the status quo as he makes his advances. This is a narrative in which the hero’s departures from the lady will be renunciations enabling another step forward towards sovereignty, and a narrative in which the hero’s apparent prank, pretending to be the lady’s invader about to seize her, will be the vital step bringing about victory. The renunciations and the apparent prank will, in this kind of plot, remove all fear of wrong-doing in the achievement of sovereignty. During the apparent prank, the hero figure is set up as the victorious invader claiming the sovereign lady so that he can directly be shown not to be so: the identification token declares him to be the victorious champion against the invader and the rightful winner of sovereignty.


The effete character of King Meleager at the point in the narrative where his niece is threatened by a giant invader is one of the questions raised by the texts. But this failure of the king belongs to the first of the last three moves (Move 5) where the ritual plot works harder to bring about the desires of the plot and dispel the fear and guilt connected with taking sovereignty. The king is a figure, not a character, at the level of the plot, and he is placed in the postures required by any particular move that uses him. ‘Ipomedon’ is also a figure at the level of the plot, while ‘the hero’ represents anyone identified with the plot. There is no distance between the narrative and those identified with it.


The first four moves of the plot provide for the winning of the sovereign lady (at the tournament) and the inheritance of the father’s throne, but neither the lady nor the throne is claimed until the last three moves have been performed. The events of the last three moves are so extraordinary that they cannot be overlooked or rationalised. The pair of moves using the surrogate situation and then the exact one appear frequently in these plots and can be unobtrusive, but the Ipomedon plot has the addition of a third, Holden’s ‘dernière mystification’. The three moves work together as the plot seeks to expunge an unwanted idea, each step increased in intensity. I have sometimes called their devices ‘narrative exorcisms’, because – through an investment of power in the narrative – they can magically remove a sense of evil.


The overlays in the different texts give most space to the parts of the plot offering scope for their interests in courtly love, knightly exploits, and the development of character, so they concentrate particularly on the first scene at the lady’s court and on King Meleager’s tournament. Hue de Rotelande, in his Anglo-Norman text, takes opportunities for humour everywhere he finds them, and his enjoyment of the preposterous material in his hands gives us a brilliant text. The more concern an overlay shows with high moral standards in the characters, or with providing motives – two particular features of the Middle English stanzaic version – the more uneasy will be the overlay’s relationship with the chosen plot. It is often this kind of uneasiness – taking the form of contradictions, incongruities and gaps – that brings my attention to relevant texts.


1. A.J. Holden, ed. Ipomedon: poème de Hue de Rotelande (fin du XIIe siècle), Paris, 1979; Rhiannon Purdie, Ipomadon, EETS, Oxford, 2001; Tadahiro Ikegami, ed. The Lyfe of Ipomydon, Tokyo, 1983; E. Kölbing and E. Koschwitz, ed. Hue de Rotelande’s Ipomedon in drei englischen Bearbeitungen, Breslau, 1889.  


2. A.J. Holden, Ipomedon, 56-57, 15-16.




This text copyright © 2008 Dr Anne Wilson.


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