“Hende,” A Handy Adjective

This semester has been brutal, and consequently I haven’t been blogging. But as on campus academia is winding down, all the peripheral academic thoughts I have been strategically suppressing over the last month are finding their way to the surface. Currently, I am exploring the various meanings of a rather ubiquitous adjective in Middle English, hende. While my research is still at the beginning stages, I am quite excited where this is going.

N.B. This blog does not allow for actual footnotes, so [#] is a reference to a corresponding number at the bottom serving as a footnote.

A favorite adjective within the medieval romance genre, “hende,” generally appears in conjunction with knights and ladies in courtly atmospheres, such as the descriptor of “hendy Elyn” (line 121) in Lybeaus Desconus, “Arthur þe hendest (line 26) in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and ’Horn,’ quoþ he, ‘þou hende’” (line 375) in King Horn, among numerous other examples. However, “hende” occasionally functions contrary to expectations in instances such as “hende Nicholas(line 3199) in the Miller’s Tale. While this could be read ironically considering Chaucer’s propensity for wit, when editors gloss the term as “handy [1],” it signals the need for a larger philological conversation that I hope will bring to light etymological roots, bridging the gap between the seemingly disparate meanings of the word. 

hende nicholas

(“hende Nicholas” Ellesmere Chaucer f. 34v)

The first three entries for “hende” in the Oxford English Dictionary are “near, at hand,” “handy,” and “skillful with the hand,” respectively. Of the examples given for each it seems surprising that “hende Nicholas,” perhaps one of the best known medieval uses for the word, is not included, bringing into question whether “handy” is in fact a proper gloss for “hende” in this instance. The only one of Chaucer’s works cited for this word in the OED is found in a later citation for “pleasant in dealing with others; courteous” in the Friar’s Prologue – interestingly, it is also one of the least ambiguous uses of the term within his oeuvre. 

3e sholde ben heende

(“3e sholde ben heende” in the Friar’s Prologue Corpus Christi College, MS 198 f. 115bv)

Nicholas does make an appearance in the Middle English Dictionary where “hende” is defined as first “having the approved courtly or knightly qualities, noble, courtly, well-bred, refined, sportsmanlike,” then “Of God, Christ, the Virgin” referring to virtuousness, followed by the entry for “hende Nicholas” under “skilled, clever, crafty.” “Handy” is also an option, following the aforementioned ones, but not, according to the MED related to Nicholas. Yet, despite the discrepancies between the OED, MED, and numerous editorial choices, the reliability of these sources remains above question. “Hende” therefore bears multiple connotations, but also denotations, and as this paper will demonstrate, all of these meanings are split from the same root while elucidating another layer of meaning for an already complicated word. 

Arthur þe hendest

( very faint “Arthur þe hendest” in Cotton Nero A.x. f. 91r)

The romance and fabliau share their origin as having become insular adaptations of previously French genres [2]. However, many of the plots and even characters ricocheted between  the hands of early writers, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth on one side of the Channel, and Chrétien de Troyes on the other. Similarly, vocabulary and literary concepts underwent an interchangeable borrowing. One trait in common among the multiple versions of chivalric adventures is the combination between courteous behavior and a pleasing appearance. The societal rationale behind this affiliation are beyond the scope of this paper, but philologically the connection can be demonstrated through examples such as when Bertilak’s wife in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight refers to Gawain during the first bed test as “hendelake” (line 1228) to encompass both his pleasing appearance as well as his courteous demeanor. In modern times we would refer to someone in his position as “handsome,” that according to the OED carriers nearly identical meanings to “hende.” The former, if broken down to the sum of its parts, becomes “some hand,” echoing a reference to hands in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur in which Kay nicknames Gareth “Bewmaynes” punning on the common moniker within the Fair Unknown genre, “Beuys.” However, the direct reference to Gareth’s hands draws attention to another meaning that much like “handsome” is best understood when breaking down the elements of  “Bewmaynes [3],” a garbled respelling of “beaus mains,” that is literally translated to fair hands. Fairhandedness depends upon a marriage between the physicality implied by the word and the generally accepted use to mean “courtly or knightly” justice, an intangible concept. 

One of the earliest manifestations of the connection between the tangible and intangible is forged in Erec’s eloquent farewell speech to Enide that relies on the language of love to describe combat:

Douce dame, ancor ne savez
que ce sera, ne ge nel sai;
de neant estes an esmai,
car bien sachiez seüremant,
s’an moi n’avoit de hardemant
fors tant con vostre amors m’an baille,
ne crienbroie je an bataille,
cors a cors, nul home vivant (lines 5802-5808, emphasis and translation are mine)

[Sweet lady, at last you know not
what will be, and neither do I;
You are worried for nothing,
But know well with certainty,
If in me I had no more courage
Than your love gives leave to exist
I would have no fear of battle
Hand to hand, with any living man.]

Hand to hand combat is engendered by Enide’s love. More interestingly, however, is the choice of such an intimate and specific form of combat, as opposed to more traditional methods employed by knights. The hand to hand confrontation parallels the intimacy between Erec and Enide and becomes translated into the violence Erec is about to commit. Moreoever, the literal translation for “cors a cors” is not the idiomatic “hand to hand” but rather “body to body.” This bears implications for reading the specificity of the locution as not just an even greater degree of physical involvement between two people, but a means of extrapolating the motif into other contexts. While this is the most striking example of a courtly encounter that trespasses into martial territory, it is by no means the only instance [4]

In Estoire de Merlin Arthur challenges the emperor of Rome to a “cors a cors” over the right to lands (Sommer 432), in an inversion of Erec’s assertion. Where Erec used his intimate location with Enide as a locus for public overtures to potential adversaries, here Arthur publicly proclaims war on his rival, but turns it into a highly intimate affair. Both of these instances serve to depict a forging of identity in which integrity is highly dependent upon physical acumen. Erec cannot simply state his love for Enide, but must demonstrate it through words reserved for combat, expressing his emotions in terms of their impetus for violence and action. Arthur’s rights to the land are dependent upon his proving himself physically, equating justice with martial excellence. In both instances fairness and truth are intricately tied to hands which metonymically stand in for the physical display of the self.  The OEDs second definition for “hand,” directly following the physical apparatus attached to a body, lists it as “something regarded as comparable in function to the human hand as an agent of a specified authority, principle, or abstract entity.” Thus the handiness of a character is a clear reflection of their inward character and integrity, displayed through their bodies and physical comport.

However, when chivalric courtesy and physical prowess are misaligned, close or intimate combat fails to provide a resolution. In The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain, at the end of the bloody battle as Gologras and Gawain engage in hand to hand combat, Gawain overtakes Gologras. However, despite Gawain’s personal integrity, as he fights at the behest of Arthur who in this particular instance has irrationally laid claim to land that does not belong to him, Gawain’s cause is unworthy of victory. He cannot take Gologras’s life, or land, and further acquiesces to the “devis” (line 1095) in which he accepts the appearance of defeat in the eyes of all those concerned. As Gologras parades Gawain back to his castle, the true conclusion to the battle is seen; Arthur’s lack of integrity here does not allow his right hand man to metonymically right his cause, and thus Gawain’s hands are not allowed to overcome Gologras. True integrity is demonstrated when the optimal denouement is enacted, even if it is only as a charade, as clearly evinced by heynd” (line 1103) Gawain in his union of action and courtesy.  

Nevertheless, despite clearly establishing this connection via the aforementioned examples, the disparity between “courtly” and “clever,” a third contender for “hende Nicholas,” remains seemingly unaccounted for. Yet, Nicholas is perhaps the best suited to clarify this association. Satire is rampant in Chaucer’s works, and generally used to point out discrepancies between an ideal state of being, and social reality. Thus, a character’s outer appearance or function is not always reflective of their inside, as is the case with Nicholas. He is a clerk, well schooled in many activities, including the language of courtly love with which he assails Alisoun. His gentlemanlike and “hende” words, contradict his intentions and actions. As he grabs Alisoun he indeed becomes handy, rooting “hende” squarely within the purview of the physical. Returning to Gareth’s nickname that focuses on his hands as a means to establish positive qualities, Nicholas’s hands operate in opposition to courteous behavior as typically understood. Alisoun overtly draws attention to the distinction as she tells him to “Do wey youre handes, for youre curteisye” (line 3287). For Nicholas there is a disconnect between the tangible and intangible, and unlike Erec or Arthur he is unable to weave them into a single understanding.  

The disparity between Nicholas’s inner and outer self can be better understood in conjunction with another Middle English participant in the fabliau genre who also lacks the crucial link connecting language and action, Dame Sirith. Both her and Nicholas are described as “hende” in their introductions, giving the audience no reason to immediately disvalue the adjective. As Wilekin approaches Sirith with his troubles in love she consoles him and they speak in the registrar of courtly love where Sirth is expected to act on Wilekin’s behalf in matters of love. Even as she beguiles Margery, Wilekin’s love interest, her actions remain excusable as long as they serve a higher purpose. Once Wilekin’s intentions are unmasked, Dame Sirith’s continued support reveals her own lack of integrity, and the “hende” used to introduce her becomes tainted by the later understanding of her character. 

Whereas the body and the hands were used to demonstrate the truth of Erec’s devotion to Enide, or the justice (or injustice) of Arthur’s claim to territory, in the world of Dame Sirith and Nicholas words only function as constructions to cloak their own emptiness. These crafted constructions clarify the negative connotations associated with “hende” as “crafty.” The lack of integrity and baseness of intention strip the word of further association beyond the physical, serving as the basis for those references to Nicholas as no more than “handy.” In short, “hende” does not carry multiple definitions, but levels of meaning ranging from bodily roles to higher orders of existence concerned with the outward reflection of a person’s inner workings; its intensity exists in degrees, which are reflected by the word’s numerous seemingly disparate definitions. The different glosses provided for the word reflect the various editorial choices made when deciding to what degree “hende” would be used along the continuum of meaning. Due to its versatility, “hende” is indeed a handy adjective.  

[1] Different versions of “hende” appear throughout editions of the Norton that either use “handy” as a gloss by itself, or in conjunction with other words: Abrams and Greenblatt Gen Eds. with David and Donaldson, Editing the Middle Ages. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition; Fisher, John H.  The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer; Kolve, V. A. and Glending Olson, Eds. The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue; Mann, Jill, Ed. The Canterbury Tales; Benson, Larry, Ed. The Riverside Chaucer.  

[2]  “Fabliau,” as received from the French was first used in conjunction with Marie de France’s Isopet, lending to it a specifically French flavor (despite that Marie de France wrote in England, and claims to have received her original stories from the works of King Alfred which were English translations from Latin). Further, “fabliau” is itself the French diminutive of “fable,” from which it stems, further highlighting the degree of borrowing, and interconnectedness between concepts.  

[3] See Eugene Vinaver for other meanings of Gareth’s hands. 

[4] See Katheryn Lynch, The High Medieval Dream Vision for different uses of hands; R. B. Onians, in The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World,  discusses hands as physical manifestations of power, justice, and truth; regard the presence of hands , along with their virtue throughout the fourteenth century alliterative Morte Arthure


Abrams, M. H. and Stephen Greenblatt, Eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Benson, Larry D., Ed. The Riverside Chaucer.

Fein, Susanna Greer, Ed. The Geste of King Horn. The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript.

Fisher, John H. The Miller’s Tale. The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Hahn, Thomas. The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain. Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales

handsome, adj., adv., and n.” OED Online.

hand, n.” OED Online.

“† hend | hende, adj. and adv.”OED Online.

hend(e)” adj. Middle English Dictionary.

Kolve, V. A. and Glending Olson, Eds. The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue.

Lynch, Katherine. The High Medieval Dream Vision: Poetry, Philosophy, and Literary Form.

Mann, Jill. The Canterbury Tales.

Onians, R.B. The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate.

Salisbury, Eve, Ed. Dame Sirith. The Trials and Joys of Marriage.

Shepard, Stephen H. A., Ed. Le Morte Darthur.

Shuffelton, George, Ed. Lybeaus Desconus. Codex Ahsmole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse.

Sommer, H. O., Ed. L’estoire de Merlin. The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romance.

Tolkien J.R.R.  and E.V. Gordon, Eds. Sir Gawain and the Greek Knight.

Vinaver, Eugene, Ed. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory.


  1. Thank you for writing this. During the Great Covid Teaching Year, I have been relying heavily on online sources to prepare my lectures and your blog was a gift. My books, files, and notes are all in the office of my shut-down campus, and I don’t have much time to recreate my thoughts on Chaucer. Your blog captured perfectly how I was teaching “hende Nicholas,” but never wrote down coherently. Please get in touch. I’d like to credit you properly in my lecture notes.

    Thanks again.

    1. Hi Pearl! I just saw your comment (for whatever reason it went into the spam folder that I check quite infrequently). Thank you for your kind words, and I am glad the post resonated with you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.