Emare: Introduction


1 Rickert, in her critical edition of the poem, claims a Northeast Midlands dialect; Trounce declares it East Anglian. See Edith Rickert, The Romance of Emare, EETS e.s. 99 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1908); A. McI. Trounce, "The English Tail-rhyme Romances," Medium Aevum 1 (1932), 87-108, 168-82; 2 (1933), 34-57; 3 (1934), 30-50.

2 The Vita Offae Primi, edited and translated, is available in Originals and Analogues of Some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, ed. F. J. Furnivall, Edmund Brock, and W. A. Clouston (London: N. Trübner for The Chaucer Society, 1872-87), pp. 73-84. Trivet's narrative is also in Originals and Analogues, pp. 2-70. This volume also contains other analogues for the Man of Law's Tale, many of which share similarities with Emaré. See pp. 221-50; 367-414. For Chaucer, see The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987) or F. N. Robinson, ed., The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957). For Gower, see G. C. Macauley's Confessio Amantis, The English Works of John Gower, EETS e.s. 81, 82 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1900-01; rpt. Oxford University Press, 1957).

3 For the relationship between Emaré and analogues, see Hermann Suchier, Oeuvres poetiques de Philippe de Remi, sire de Beaumanoir, Société des Anciens Textes Francais (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1884/85), vol. 1, xxiii-xcvi; clix-clx; A. B. Gough, The Constance Saga, Palaestra 23 (Berlin: Mayer & Muller, 1902); and most especially, Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens (New York: New York University Press, 1927), esp. pp. 62-114.

4 J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories," in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Grand Rapids: William R. Eerdmans, 1966), p. 81.

5 Hanspeter Schelp, Exemplarische Romanzen im Mittelenglischen, Palaestra 246 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), p. 113.

6 Dieter Mehl, The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969), p. 139.

7 Lee C. Ramsey, Chivalric Romances: Popular Literature in Medieval England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), pp. 176-77.

8 Joan Ferrante, "Public Postures and Private Maneuvers: Roles Medieval Women Play," in Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski, eds. Women and Power in the Middle Ages (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988), p. 213.

9 Mortimer J. Donovan, "Middle English Emare and the Cloth Worthily Wrought," in Larry D. Benson, ed., The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature, Harvard English Studies 5 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 339. See also Hanspeter Schelp, pp. 105-16.

10 Maldwyn Mills, Six Middle English Romances (London: Dent, 1973), pp. xxv-xxvi.

11 Walter Hoyt French and Charles B. Hale, eds. The Middle English Metrical Romances (New York: Russell & Russell, 1964), p. 428, note.

12 Ross G. Arthur, "Emaré's Cloak and Audience Response," in Julian N. Wasserman and Lois Roney, eds. Sign, Sentence, Discourse: Language in Medieval Thought and Literature (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1989), p. 90.
Print Copyright Info Purchase

Emare: Introduction

The Middle English Emaré is extant in only one manuscript, Cotton Caligula A. ii, which dates from the early fifteenth-century. The manuscript also contains Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal (a lay included in this volume) as well as eight other metrical narratives. Although the MS dates from the early fifteenth century, the dialect features in Emaré indicate a late fourteenth-century Northeast Midlands or East Anglian dialect. [1] The song-like qualities of the Breton lay genre are quite noticeable in Emaré where phrases and whole lines are frequently repeated. The poem consists of eighty-six twelve-line stanzas in tail-rhyme. The rhythm is somewhat bumpy, and the iambic pattern is frequently broken. The anonymous author's repetitions, word choices, rhymes, and rhythms attest to the popular origin of the lay. Edith Rickert notes "the limitations of the author's vocabulary are best shown by a comparison with Gower's and Chaucer's versions of the same story. Emaré in 1035 lines uses 802 words; Gower in 1014 lines, 945 words; Chaucer in 1029 lines, 1265 words - showing half again as large a vocabulary" (p. xxii). Rickert concludes from this, and from numerous other textual features, that Emaré is a "popular poem by a market-place minstrel" (p. xxvii). Though it is doubtful that such a poem was ever recited in the "market-place," certainly its bourgeoise origins seem likely, perhaps among the great wool merchant houses of East Anglia.

This lay preserves a version of what is known as the "Constance-saga," a narrative which was quite popular in late medieval literature. The story appears in a twelfth-century English document written in Latin, the Vita Offae Primi, as well as in several fourteenth-century English texts: Nicholas Trivet's Anglo-Norman Chronicle (c. 1335), the Gesta Romanorum (c. 1350), Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale (c. 1385-92), and John Gower's Confessio Amantis (prior to 1390). [2] The tale enjoyed popularity well beyond England, occurring in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic, Persian, and Latin renditions in genres as diverse as chronicle, romance, gest cycles, and drama. The Old French La Belle Helene de Constantinople and La Manekine by Phillipe de Beaumanoir, as well as the German romance, Mai und Beaflor, and a large number of other non-English texts bear striking resemblance to the Middle English Emaré. Additionally, elements of the tale can be found in the Middle English Sir Degaré, Lay le Freine, Octavian, Torrent of Portyngale, Eglamour of Artois, Le Bone Florence of Rome, Generides, the Chevalere Assigne, and others. [3] The folklore motifs in Emaré are shared with folktales from throughout the world. Here we find an accused queen, the monstrous birth (in this case, alleged), magic clothes, exchanged letters, an incestuous father, a persecuting mother-in-law, and a child who redeems its parents.

In the "Constance-Saga," an innocent girl is accosted by her own father, is exiled or flees from him, travels incognito across the sea (or into a forest), and eventually marries a prince of another land in accordance with one of the basic Cinderella tropes. While her husband is away, she is accused of a crime connected to the birth of her child: infanticide, birthing a monster, adultery, or birthing an animal. The accuser is often a relative, in this case, the mother-in-law. The story frequently features an exchange of letters which harm the protagonist. Exiled, imprisoned, or mutilated, the Constance figure is eventually redeemed from her persecution, often by her own child. Stemming from the Eros of folktale rather than from the Thanatos of mythic tragedy, the conclusion of the Constance narrative is usually an affirmation of love, a reunion of the family, and a reaffirmation of community. The suffering in the narrative does not go unrewarded; it is what Tolkien has called the "good catastrophe." [4]

The tale is constructed within a simple moral matrix: there are good characters and bad characters, good actions and evil actions. Moral complexity or confusion only exists in relation to an object: the elegant robe that Emaré wears. Characters are two dimensional, character development nearly non-existent. The lengthy prayer which introduces the narrative suggests that the poem's purpose is primarily religious or, at least, didactic. The tale denies the finality of evil, reminding us that the realm of magic is still accessible, that the ugly may be transformed, the lonely be found, the victimized, redeemed. Furthermore, the happy ending is achieved "thorow grace of God in Trinité" (line 944), and it depends, as endings do in many other English lays, on faith or persistence, on the protagonist's restraint, on his or her willingness to wait for the propitious moment, and on his or her willingness to be helped or to help someone else.

Here - as in Le Freine, also included in this volume - the narrative focuses on a female protagonist. Emaré offers what Hanspeter Schelp calls, "ein modell christlich-beispielhafte," a model of Christ-like virtues: she suffers for her allegiance to divine law in the face of pressures from human powers. [5] In its emphasis on "passio" (suffering and acceptance stemming from faith and its consequences in a fallen world), Emaré shares qualities with legends of women's saints' lives. As Dieter Mehl notes, "the significance of her pitiable fate depends on its being completely unmerited," and "she comes very near to being a kind of secularized Saint." [6] As a tale of extreme female sacrifice, Emaré also shares a common theme with classical tales such as the legend of Alceste, who was willing to die in her husband's place, and who, in classical legends bequeathed to the Middle Ages, descended into Hades in exchange for her husband's life. The link between suffering women and weaving or embroidery which is established in Emaré can also be found in a number of classical figures: Penelope, who suffers silently as a hostage on Ithaca, weaving and unweaving a shroud, trying to hold off the suitors until Odysseus returns; Ariadne, who helps Theseus escape from the labyrinth by giving him a ball of thread to unroll and then follow back out; and Philomela, raped and mutilated, left speechless, who weaves her story into a tapestry to communicate the crime. Stories like these which feature suffering women were quite popular and can be found in hagiography and in secular texts like Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, Christine de Pizan's Le Livre de la Cité des Dames, and in various tales by Ovid, and Gower.

Like many medieval tales which feature a female protagonist, Emaré reinscribes the tradition of domestic romance with its focus on the family and on the heroine's personal relationships. Within the domestic romance, her role is to suffer adversity relatively passively. Typically, her only departure from passivity is resisting rape, in this case, incest. Actively refusing her father's advances also marks the beginning of Emaré's trials. Her extreme suffering and her endurance of that suffering form the plot. Even when she is exiled on the sea, left to die in an open boat, she does not curse those who mistreat her; instead, she speaks harshly to the sea: "Wele owth y to warye the, see, / I have myche shame yn the!" (lines 667-68). In his book, Chivalric Romances, Lee Ramsey notes that "in the romances peril and distress come increasingly to stand as central images of the woman's relationship to her society." [7] The lay of Emaré represents the threats against the heroine as almost always sexual: the initial threat is of incest; the subsequent threat on her life occurs after she marries and bears a child. Emaré's extreme suffering takes the form of exile, of isolation from society. Whereas the wilderness certainly offers hardships for male protagonists in medieval romance, it can also offer the arena for heroism, usually in the form of combat even if linked to religious faith. For the female protagonist in this English lay, the wilderness offers an arena only for acts of faith; in her second sojourn on the sea, she suffers through her trial with her face hidden in her cloak, lying face down on the keel of the boat. Her journeys are not actively chosen; instead, she is the object set to sea by others' active choices. Ramsey suggests that this kind of punishment (ostracism) "perhaps represent[s] the life to which the medieval woman saw herself condemned: emotional but inactive, accepting what happened because there was no other choice, isolated from the . . . centers of society" (p. 177). And yet, Emaré, weaving her words together, weaves people and different worlds together as well, and finds ways, albeit restricted ways, to influence her world. As Joan Ferrante comments, "With limited opportunities to exercise real power over their own or others' lives, women in medieval literature and sometimes in real life find subtle or hidden ways to exercise such power, to manipulate people and situations, and to spin out fictions which suit them better than their reality, fictions by which they can, or hope to, control reality." [8] Emaré's disguises, her adoption of lower class status, and her off-stage directions which create the reunion scenes between Segramour and his father and Segramour and his grandfather, are all, then, efforts Emaré makes to control her world. Besides her direct resistance to her father's incestuous advances, she demonstrates throughout the text that she is not completely helpless in the face of adversity. Her words take on considerable power. She refuses her father's sexual advances successfully; she shames the ocean into calming; she prays to God and Mary to preserve her on the open sea, and they do; she keeps her infant son alive; she makes her way in foreign lands by teaching, sewing, and embroidering; and she successfully reunites the fragments of her family, thereby insuring that her son will assume the imperial throne.

Although the text generally builds itself around a simple morality, some elements in the tale are left ambiguous, particularly the nature of Emaré's robe. Like Le Freine's fine cloth or Orfeo's harp, the robe is the one object which accompanies Emaré as she moves from one country to another, from one identity to another. The "glysteryng" garment receives a description of ninety-eight lines (lines 82-180) in a poem that is, itself, only 1035 lines, so that the lengthy description calls attention to the importance of the object. It is exotic, enchanting, and foreign. Consisting of four embroidered and bejeweled panels which depict lovers, the cloth was sewn by the Amerayle's daughter for her beloved, the Sultan's son. It is, then, woven by a woman as a wedding gift to be worn by a man, an interesting detail which is duplicated in the narrative itself when Emaré steps into the garment and, thereby, simultaneously steps into the protagonist's role. She assumes the man's garment just as she takes on the subject position within the narrative. But if wearing the robe marks Emaré's assumption of the hero's role, it simultaneously marks her subjugation as a beautiful female creature within a patriarchal social order. The cloth, originally given in love, is taken by force from the Sultan by Sir Tergaunte's father who, in an act of love, gives it to his son, who, in turn, in an act of devotion gives it to his lord, the emperor Syr Artyus. The emperor, in an act of love which turns sexually coercive, then has a robe made of it for Emaré. Thus, the link between the cloth and Emaré, established throughout the narrative, may also reinforce her status as more like an object exchanged than as an active subject. The history of the robe interweaves love and violence, again echoing the plot surrounding Emaré herself.

In examining the robe, scholars have interpreted its meaning in various ways. Mortimer Donovan finds its images of true lovers to represent a "gallery of ideals." [9] For Deiter Mehl, the cloth emphasizes Emaré's beauty "because her robe is always mentioned whenever her beauty impresses the beholders" (p. 139). Maldwyn Mills calls attention to the secular nature of the lovers depicted on the garment and argues that the robe reflects the king's sexual attraction to Emaré or her sexual attractiveness any time she puts it on. [10] Indeed, many have noticed these images of love embroidered on the cloth and have interpreted the garment as a symbol for the power of female puberty and the temptations of the flesh, especially since the cloth's presence in the narrative can be read as connected in some way with Artyus's incestuous desires for his pubescent daughter. The text records the Emperor's initial reaction to the cloth: "Sertes, thys ys a fayry, / Or ellys a vanyté!" (lines 104-05), suggesting that the robe may be enchanted (a judgment which still remains ambiguous). French and Hale read the cloth as "a love-charm - originally given to the fairy Emaré by supernatural well-wishers." [11] Like Mills, they assume that the Emperor's attraction to Emaré and later the King of Galys are charmed reactions, solicited magically by the cloth itself. Indeed, in the text, Emaré appears to be "non erthely wommon" when she dons the robe (lines 245, 396, 439-450, 697-702). Ramsey suggests that the robe's dual function, highlighting romantic love and spawning incestuous and murderous violence, illustrates ways "Emaré . . . seems to be almost an antilove romance, accepting the major conventions of the genre but portraying the love advocated in romances as potentially a shocking evil" (p. 184). Yet another reading of the enchanted robe is possible: the cloth begins as an unformed potentiality and is made into a robe, an image of order, a symbol of civilization. Reading the garment this way connects it with the incest taboo which, likewise, has been identified as a cornerstone for the development of civilization and order. Ross Arthur adds another reading: "the poet directs us toward considering the cloak . . . as a sign." The challenge of the poem and of the gem-cloak in particular is the problem of interpretation: "There are no thieves who wish to possess it. . . ; no one who gives an authoritative explication of its meaning; . . . it stays with [Emaré] throughout the poem without any rational reflective choice on her part . . . . Without knowing [the robe's] 'meaning' all [the characters] 'interpret' the cloak as a sign." [12] The gem-cloak is, for Arthur, "a touchstone for determining the spiritual state and charting the spiritual progress of those who behold and respond to it" (p. 91).

Go To Emaré
Select Bibliography


British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii, fols. 71-76. [The early fifteenth-century manuscript consists of two paper quartos, the first of which contains Emaré and other English verse texts as well as a treatise on pestilence, a prose treatise on the rite of confession, a short Latin chronicle and a few prescriptions. The second quarto contains statutes of the Carthusian order dating from 1411 to 1504.]

Critical Editions

Gough, A. B., ed., Emaré. In Old and Middle English Texts, L. Morsbach and F. Holthausen, eds., vol. II, London: Sampson Low Marston; New York: G. E. Stechert; Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1901.

Rickert, Edith, ed. The Romance of Emare. EETS e.s. 99. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1908; rpt. 1958.


French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. The Middle English Metrical Romances. 2 vols. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. I, 423-55.

Mills, Maldwyn, ed. Six Middle English Romances. London: Dent, 1973. Pp. 46-74.

Ritson, Joseph, ed. Ancient Engleish Metrical Romanceë. 3 vols. Rev. ed. Edinburgh: E. Goldsmid, 1802. II, 204-47.

Rumble, Thomas C., ed. The Breton Lays in Middle English. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965. Pp. 97-133.

Related Studies

Arthur, Ross G. "Emaré's Cloak and Audience Response." In Julian N. Wasserman and Lois Roney, eds., Sign, Sentence, Discourse: Language in Medieval Thought and Culture. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1989. Pp. 80-92. [Uses Augustine's discussion of signs in De doctrina Christiana to read character's names, character's reactions to Emaré and her cloak, as well as the gemmed cloak itself in connection with interpretation and spirituality.]

Donovan, Mortimer J. "Middle English Emare and the Cloth Worthily Wrought." In Larry D. Benson, ed., The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature. Harvard English Studies 5. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974. Pp. 337-42. [Notes the tendency of Breton lays to highlight one central object which carries symbolic meaning - here, the cloth robe. Donovan briefly discusses the function and symbolism of the cloth and the robe made out of it.]

Gough, A. B. The Constance Saga, Palaestra 23. Berlin: Mayer and Müller, 1902.

Isaacs, Neil D. "Constance in Fourteenth-Century England." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 59 (1958), 260-77. [Provides descriptions and compares Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, Gower's version of the Constance story in his Confessio Amantis, and the Middle English Emaré.]

Rickert, Edith. "The Old English Offa Saga." Modern Philology 2 (1904-05), 29-76; 321-76. [Examines the Vitae Duorum Offarum (MS Cotton Nero D I, folios 2-25) for the purposes of identifying separate threads and sources of the Offa narrative and its relationship to history and legend. Compares this version of the Offa narrative with both Emaré and Trivet's Constance. Examines sources and variations on the Offa legend pointing to Emaré's participation in a powerful and recurring cultural narrative which focused on the plight and sorrow of besieged queens.]

Schelp, Hanspeter. Exemplarische Romanzen im Mittelenglischen, Palaestra 246. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967. Pp. 97-113. [Explores Christian symbols and themes in Emaré, focusing particularly on those themes which arise out of characterization, narrative structures, and the symbol of the cloth robe. In German.]

Schlauch, Margaret. Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens. New York: New York University Press, 1927. [Examines figures of innocent queens who are besieged or exiled in medieval literature. Includes discussion of folktale elements common tothese narratives, including themes of infanticide, animal birth, various persecutions meted out to heroines, and typical plot endings. Identifies numerous analogues for Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale analogues which include and are useful for a study of Emaré.]