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The King of Tars: Introduction


1 Solomon, Beyond Formula, p. 2.

2 The reference to Shakespeare is, of course, where Polonius is speaking to Hamlet about the players. He praises them as “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, / comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, his-/torical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-/historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem un-/limited” (Hamlet, II.ii.392–96). Regardless of what they do, there must be a genre somewhere.

3 Crane, Insular Romance, p. 10. Mehl argues, “The fact that [The King of Tars] is always classed with the romances again reveals how inadequate some of our definitions of medieval genre are” (Middle English Romances, p. 124).

4 Stanzaic Guy of Warwick, ed. Wiggins, p. 8.

5 Herzman, Drake, and Salisbury, eds., Four Romances of England, p. 2.

6 Harriet Hudson, ed., Four Middle English Romances, p. 2.

7 Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 1.

8 Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 1.

9 Hudson, ed., Four Middle English Romances, p. 2.

10 “The King of Tars” is the title given in the Auchinleck; in the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts, the poem is titled “The King of Tars and the Soudan of Damas,” naming both of the male leads, but not the female protagonist around which the narrative is structured.

11 Trevet, Les Cronicles, ed. Correale and Hamel, pp. 298–300. It is worth remembering that The King of Tars was written before Trevet’s chronicle, and the differences noted here in Trevet, Gower, and Chaucer are later additions to the tale as presented here.

12 Chaucer, Man of Law’s Tale, The Canterbury Tales II [B1]285–87, ed. Benson. It is worth noting that in both Gower and Chaucer, the sultan agrees to convert to Christianity as a prerequisite of the marriage, while in The King of Tars, the sultan demands the princess convert to Islam before they are wed, though he becomes a Christian in the end.

13 Of particular resonance here is St. Catherine of Alexandria, a very popular saint, who was the daughter of a king; her legend appears in the Auchinleck manuscript, shortly after Tars.

14 Winstead claims, “The King of Tars applauds a ‘saint’ who stops at nothing to protect her family, obey her husband, and safeguard her people. The only time she opposes her parents is when, for their own good, she insists on marrying the sultan” (“Saints, Wives, and Other ‘Hooly Thynges,’ ” p. 145). Cordery suggests, “The actions of the princess bring about miraculous physical changes. . .  Thus the princess is the catalyst not only in saving Christendom but also in spreading the faith (“Medieval Interpretation of Risk,” p. 183). As Gilbert argues, both the Vernon and Auchinleck manuscripts suggest “that the Princess would have been morally and generically wrong to have demanded the path of virgin martyrdom at her people’s expense, while the greater Christian community within the text is shown ultimately to profit from her marriage just as in hagiography it does from a virgin martyr’s death or from a married saint’s refusal of worldliness” (“Putting the Pulp into Fiction,” p. 116).

15 The poem also names three saints: Helen (line 155), John (line 730), and Martin (line 802). See the explanatory notes to those lines for more information on their significance.

16 Indeed, the Vernon scribe had some trouble keeping the lines of action clear, despite the names. In that manuscript, the sultan kills King Carmele twice, and the fate of King Clamadas is omitted because of scribal error. See the appendix for more variants between the Auchinleck and Vernon manuscripts.

17 The child is named in line 767, the priest in line 919, and the sultan in lines 920–21. See the explanatory notes for more information on the biblical referents for their names.

18 It is worth considering the fact that Chaucer and Gower are important exceptions because of their investment in the presentation of their tales within the frame narratives of The Canterbury Tales and Confessio Amantis. Both authors carefully prepared their tales within a frame narrative to offer specific context to guide reading. Although the compilers of the manuscripts similarly offer some context for the stories they include, that context is a scribal decision, not an authorial one, and does not specifically affect the composition of the tales, which existed independently of the manuscript compilation.

19 See Purdie, Anglicising Romance, chapter 2 (pp. 32–65).

20 Indeed, this seems to be one of the organizing principles of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; as each pilgrim finishes a story, the next pilgrim responds to the tale, creating groups and highlighting certain themes, such as the marriage group. While some manuscripts were the products of opportunity, where texts were copied as they became available, others were clearly carefully organized.

21 The foliation of the items is “The Legend of Pope Gregory,” fols. 1r–6v; The King of Tars, fols. 7ra–13vb; “The Life of Adam and Eve,” E fols. 1ra–2vb and 14ra–16rb (the first folios were removed from the Auchinleck manuscript and reside in another library); “Seynt Mergrete,” fols. 16rb–21ra; and “Seynt Katerine,” fols. 21ra–24vb.

22 Blake, “Vernon MS: Contents and Organisation,” p. 58.

23 The foliation of these items is the expanded Northern Homily Cycle, fols. 167r–227v; The Prick of Conscience, fols. 265rc–284ra; “The Golden Trental,” fols. 303vc–304rc; “The Sayings of St. Bernard,” fols. 304rc–304vb; The King of Tars, fols. 304vb–307rb; “The Proverbs of the Prophets,” fols. 307rb–309va; Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, fols. 343ra–353va; and Ancrene Riwle, fols. 371vb–392rb.

24 The romances included in the Vernon manuscript are The King of Tars (fols. 304vb–307rb), “Robert of Sicily” (fols. 300rc–301rc), “Ypotis” (fols. 296va–297vc), and “Joseph of Arimathea” (fols. 403ra–404vb).

25 The foliation of these items is “The Stacions of Rome,” fols. 123r–124v; "A Lamentacion that Ure Lady," fols. 124v–125v; “A Pistel of Susan,” fols. 125v–126r; The King of Tars, fols. 126rc–128va; and hymns, fols. 128v–134v.

26 Both Gower (Confessio Amantis 2.688–92, ed. Peck) and Chaucer (The Man of Law’s Tale, The Canterbury Tales II[B1] 428–30, ed. Benson) immediately turn their attention to Constance’s exile after the feasting people are slain.

27 Hilton, Scale of Perfection, ed. Bestul, Book II, chapter 6, line 230 (p. 143); the gloss is mine.

28 Bestul, introduction to Hilton, Scale of Perfection, p. 3.

29 Hilton, Scale of Perfection, ed. Bestul, Book II, chapter 6, lines 236–41 (p. 143).

30 Hilton, Scale of Perfection, ed. Bestul, Book II, chapter 6, line 241–44 (pp. 143–44).

31 Czarnowus, “‘Stille as Ston,’” p. 472.

32 Czarnowus, “‘Stille as Ston,’” p. 473.

33 Czarnowus, “‘Stille as Ston,’” p. 473.

34 Hahn, “Difference the Middle Ages Makes,” p. 6.

35 The child’s transformation from lump to well-formed child occurs in lines 769–77; the sultan’s transformation, quoted here, occurs in lines 922–24.

36 In this regard, she is similar to the Old Testament figure Judith, who agrees to conjoin with Holofernes, but until he wins the victory over the Jews in Bethulia, she will continue to practice her Jewish rites.

37 Hahn, “Difference the Middle Ages Makes,” p. 11.

38 Hahn, “Difference the Middle Ages Makes,” p. 14. The edition Hahn cites is Cursor Mundi, ed. Morris, lines 8071–8122 (pp. 466–68).

39 Quoted by Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” p. 10.

40 The marginal placement of the strange races has been noted by numerous scholars, often referring back to John Block Friedman’s Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, especially chapter 3. Many medieval world maps offer visual analogs, placing most of the strangest races on the edge of the African continent, far from Jerusalem, the spiritual center of the world.

41 Czarnowus, “‘Stille as Ston,’” pp. 469–70.

42 Czarnowus, “‘Stille as Ston,’” p. 465.

43 Gilbert, “Putting the Pulp into Fiction,” p. 102.

44 The analogues are described in Hornstein’s work, especially her dissertation, “Study of Historical and Folk-lore Sources,” and her “New Analogues” article. Hornstein’s findings were summarized by Shores, “The King of Tars: A New Edition,” pp. 38–42. Briefly, Hornstein sorts monstrous births into three categories: hairy births; half-and-half births (itself subdivided into three types: half-hairy; half-human, half-animal; and half-black, half-white [“New Analogues,” p. 434]), and formless lumps. Only The King of Tars and Giovanni Villani’s Istorie Fiorentine, an Italian chronicle, present the child as a formless lump.

45 Gilbert, “Putting the Pulp into Fiction,” p. 105.

46 Gilbert wrote an article considering paternity in both The King of Tars and Sir Gowther (“Unnatural Mothers and Monstrous Children”), and later focused her comments on The King of Tars in another article (“Putting the Pulp into Fiction”) which forms the basis for the following discussion. This description of the child is from Gilbert, “Putting the Pulp into Fiction,” p. 102.

47 In this German text, Fierfiz is the half-brother of Parzival. They share the same Christian father, but Feirefiz’s mother is Belacane, a heathen queen. When he was born, Wolfram describes him as “of two colors and in whom God had wrought a marvel, for he was both black and white. Immediately the queen kissed him over and over again on his white spots. . . . Like a magpie was the color of his hair and of his skin” (Parzival, pp. 32–33).

48 Gilbert, “Putting the Pulp into Fiction,” p. 106.

49 For one description of the bear, see Bestiary, trans. Barber, p. 59. On the poem’s allusion to the bear, see, e.g., “The King of Tars: A New Edition,” ed. Shores, pp. 82–84 and 208n577a, 538v; Gilbert, “Putting the Pulp into Fiction,” p. 104; and Czarnowus, “‘Stille as Ston,’” p. 472.

50 Czarnowus, “‘Stille as Ston,’” p. 472.

51 Czarnowus, “‘Stille as Ston,’” p. 469.

52 Czarnowus, “‘Stille as Ston,’” p. 469.

53 Czarnowus, “‘Stille as Ston,’” p. 472.

54 Gilbert, “Putting the Pulp into Fiction,” p. 108.

55 For a list of the variants between Vernon and Simeon manuscripts, see “The King of Tars: A New Edition,” ed. Shores, where she presents them in footnotes, along with an appendix correcting Krause’s errors in representing Simeon (p. 216).

56 The King of Tars, ed. Perryman, p. 31.

57 Gilbert also offers a summary discussion of the differences in “Putting the Pulp into Fiction,” pp. 112–19.

58 Turville-Petre, England the Nation, p. 108.

59 Loomis, “Chaucer and the Auchinleck MS.”

60 Wiggins, “Auchinleck Manuscript: Importance.”

61 Wiggins, “Auchinleck Manuscript: Importance.”

62 Pickering, “Stanzaic Verse,” p. 287. The other manuscript he describes in this phrase is London, British Library, MS Harley 2253.

63 Hanna, “Reconsidering the Auchinleck Manuscript,” p. 92; he calls the manuscript “the one early London English book one cannot escape (although I had long hoped I would).”

64 Hanna, “Reconsidering the Auchinleck Manuscript,” briefly reviews the major positions on pp. 93–94, before putting forth his own speculation that the book was a “special order” created for a client who requested various pieces, which were copied primarily by one scribe (p. 94).

65 Loomis, “Auchinleck Manuscript and a Possible London Bookshop.”

66 Shonk, “Study of the Auchinleck Manuscript: Bookmen and Bookmaking.”

67 Hanna, “Reconsidering the Auchinleck Manuscript, p. 94.

68 Turville-Petre, England the Nation, pp. 109 and 112.

69 Calkin, Saracens and the Making of English Identity, p. 4.

70 Wiggins, “Auchinleck Manuscript: Importance.”

71 Doyle, “Shaping of the Vernon and Simeon Manuscripts,” p. 328. He describes his division of Vernon into five parts, identifying them “by the points at which the items end and begin at quire-changes” (p. 329).

72 Though many leaves of the Simeon manuscript have been lost, its structure and contents strongly parallel Vernon, though it is not an exact copy. Interested readers should consult the facsimile of Vernon, which discusses the parallels between the two in detail.

73 Doyle, “Introduction,” p. 1.

74 Doyle, “Introduction,” pp. 14–15.

75 Doyle, “Introduction,” p. 5. He suggests the main scribe of the Vernon manuscript, scribe B, is the same hand who is identified as scribe 2 of the Simeon manuscript (“Shaping of the Vernon and Simeon Manuscripts,” p. 329), which may help explain the similarities of the two manuscripts, and further relegates the Simeon to a position of secondary importance as a witness.

76The King of Tars: A New Edition,” ed. Shores, p. 19.

77 The King of Tars, ed. Perryman, p. 27.

78 Hibbard, Mediæval Romance in England, p. 45.

79 It is also possible that both the Auchinleck and Vernon manuscripts were copied from an exemplar that itself lacked an ending, leading the Vernon scribe to quickly generate a conclusion to the narrative, the way some scribes did for Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale.

80 “The King of Tars: A New Edition,” ed. Shores, pp. 88–135, esp. pp. 94–97.

81 The King of Tars, ed. Perryman, p. 30. The two textual problems she discusses occur in lines 1160–76, where, during the final battle scene, the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts omit lines 1160–66, “which means that here the king of Tars goes to the defence of the sultan without cause, and he strikes down for a second time the sultan’s already vanquished opponent.” She also refers to lines 655–58, where the sultan beats his gods, observing that “Jove appears twice in one list, and Tirmagaunt is apparently his own brother” in Vernon and Simeon (p. 30).

82 The King of Tars, ed. Perryman, p. 31. The standard rhyme pattern for the text is aabaabccbddb; the Auchinleck’s lines 694–705 rhyme aabaabccbccb. According to Perryman, there are five variants from this scheme present in the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts.

83 The King of Tars, ed. Perryman, p. 29. See the appendix for a presentation of the lines missing from the Auchinleck manuscript.

84The King of Tars: A New Edition,” ed. Shores, pp. 1–2; she also notes that “they have historical interest, but are of limited usefulness today” (p. 2).

85 Krause was the first editor to include variants from the Simeon manuscript in his apparatus. In fairness to Warton and Ritson, the Simeon manuscript did not come to the British Library until after their publications.

86 “The King of Tars: A New Edition,” ed. Shores, pp. 2–8.

87 Geist related his opinion to Shores in private correspondence; see “The King of Tars: A New Edition,” ed. Shores, pp. 6–7.

The King of Tars is a short poem whose purpose is to highlight and celebrate the power of Christianity. For centuries the poem’s merits have slipped by outside the radar screen of medieval scholars because of its peculiar defiance of the usual categories of classification. It is neither a saint’s life or a romance, nor a political drama or a miracle tale; rather it is a story inseminated by all of these genres. As a hagiographic work, its focus on temporal situations, especially political stability and inheritance, distracts the audience from the dream-vision and miracles on which the plot relies; as a romance, its focus on a female protagonist, rather than a male, seems oddly out of place. It is only when the various generic categories are layered together that the poem is best understood. Its role as entertainment is undeniable, but that entertainment thinly veils didactic intent. Many of the effects and plot developments — the transformations, namelessness of the principal characters, and exotic setting in the East — should be read through the lens of religious instruction. This early romance (c. 1330 or earlier) addresses religious interests through rhetorical trappings that parse, reinforce, educate, and entertain simultaneously.


An early variant of the Constance tale, whose most famous English versions are told by Gower’s Genius in the Confessio Amantis and Chaucer’s Man of Law, The King of Tars carefully constructs its narrative to emphasize a broad array of ideas about race, gender, and religion. The Christian king of an eastern land named Tars has a beautiful wife and an even more beautiful daughter. The sultan of nearby Damas hears tales of the princess’s beauty and demands her hand in marriage. The king of Tars refuses, as the sultan is not Christian, and a war ensues. The king of Tars quickly finds himself losing the war, and the princess offers to wed the sultan to end the bloodshed. After some convincing, the king and queen accede to her request, and the sultan takes the princess to Damas. Despite the princess’s beauty, the sultan refuses to wed her until she converts to Islam. That night, the princess has a dream reassuring her that everything will turn out for the best if she does not stop believing in her heart in the power of Christianity. The princess pretends to convert and is wed to the sultan. She quickly becomes pregnant, and when the child is born, it is a formless lump of flesh. Recognizing the misshapen child as a sign of spiritual or religious conflict, the sultan rightly accuses the princess of false conversion, and she responds by proposing a test of faith. Each of the parents is to prove the power of his or her religion by praying that the lump-child be given form. The sultan places the lump on his altar and prays but to no avail. The princess asks that a priest be freed from the sultan’s prison and bids him baptize the lump. Upon baptism, the lump-child gains human form, and the sultan recognizes the power of Christianity: he himself converts. When the sultan is baptized, the power of his new faith is made apparent by a change of his skin from black to white. The sultan then joins forces with the king of Tars; he asks his people to convert to Christianity, and if they do not, he executes them. The poem ends with another battle, wherein the Christian sultan of Damas and king of Tars fight five Saracen kings. The Christians are victorious, and the principals, we are told, live a happy life and are accepted into Heaven.


Stanley J. Solomon writes that “the problem of defining film genre does not seem very great until one reads the critics. Then what appears to be a genre to one writer becomes a subgenre to another, and what to one is merely a technique or a style becomes to another an identifiable manner of grouping.”1 Though Solomon was opening a discussion of film, his remark is equally applicable to medieval literature, especially Middle English romances, which tend to draw upon the conventions of multiple genres in order to pursue diverse objectives. Such is the case with The King of Tars, where the combination of hagiography, romance, and straightforward didacticism celebrate the power of Christianity. At the risk of sounding like Shakespeare’s Polonius describing theatrical genre, when approaching The King of Tars, we are perpetually confronted by the pedantry of generic classification: is the poem a romantic hagiography or a hagiographical romance?2

In her discussion of romance, Susan Crane writes, “Genre was not an important concept for medieval theorists, nor did poets restrict the term roman/romaunce to one set of characteristics.”3 While there has been a recent surge of controversy in defining romance as a genre, the basic structure of a romance is largely agreed upon. One key feature is, as Alison Wiggins notes, that “romance involves a journey or quest of some kind. This may be an exile, banishment, separation, seeking of fortune, abduction, abandonment, or a crusade.”4 This quest is often resolved, at least in part, on the battlefield, and it is here that the romance and epic share common themes. However, while the epic is generally content to remain in the masculine world of comitatus and warfare, the romance is primarily interested in the private life of the hero, often in his love life or family relationships. As Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury observe, romances combine “the masculine, battlefield world of the chanson de geste with the increasing upper-class interest in what we would now call ‘romantic love.’”5 It is in that new focus on romantic love and family that two major threads of The King of Tars are spun: a new importance for women, especially the princess in relation to her father and her husband, combined with a greater emphasis on the personal journey and the individual’s role in social and political events. The princess is the focus of the poem, in that it is her beauty that spurs the sultan to make war; she is the one to conceive of and implement a means to peace; she, not the sultan, correctly reads the monstrous birth; she is the driving force behind the conversion miracles, though she does not officiate in either baptism; and she brings about the happy ending through the challenges that face her. Though the poem opens and closes on the battlefield and is named for the king of Tars, his daughter’s journey — both physical, as she travels to Damas, and religious, as she passes through a false conversion and leads the sultan of Damas to Christianity — perpetually marks the pulse of the poem.

Other romance components within the story include its verse form and repeated invocations of oral recitation. The poem is written in tail-rhyme, “an indigenous English verse form . . . used almost exclusively for romances.”6 Rhiannon Purdie has examined it in Anglicising Romance: Tail-rhyme and Genre in Medieval English Literature, where she notes that “tail-rhyme romance is, as far as we know, unique to Middle English.”7 She further notes that thirty-six poems, approximately one-third of the extant corpus of verse romances, are wholly or partially written in tail-rhyme stanzas.8 Most of these, including The King of Tars, are early compositions. The signature form of tail-rhyme stanzas is a rhyme scheme of aabccbddbeeb or the more demanding aabaabccbddb formula used by The King of Tars. Such a scheme readily adapted to written vernacular romances, and it would certainly have been helpful as an aid to memory, both for the raconteur and the audience at an oral presentation.

One recurrent feature of The King of Tars is the invocation characteristic of minstrelsy, an oral technique invoking memory that reaches as far back as Homer and the epic tradition. Though earlier scholars argued “that the romances were composed by minstrels, or by others writing for minstrel performance,” Harriet Hudson suggests that the invocation of oral narration in Middle English romances may be mainly “a nostalgic feature of genre validation.”9 The current poem certainly uses these rhetorical features to engage an audience accustomed to listening to an oral recitation, though the fact that the earliest witness, the Auchinleck manuscript, is not the original version of the narrative further supports the earlier scholars’ theory that, in some cases at least, the written texts were the result of recitation that was simply committed to writing. While oral performance is not limited to romances — homilies, for example, were mainly written to be heard, rather than read — the frequency with which romances invoke tropes of oral or minstrel presentation is striking and from the outset is a common feature of the genre. It is absolutely one on which the current poem draws, given its early date.

In all these respects it is fairly clear that The King of Tars fits comfortably into the general parameters of the romance. Its formal features — including the tail-rhyme and reliance on oral recitation tropes, as well as its motifs including romantic love, family expectations, and its focus on social and political concerns — suggest that genre. However, romances almost always feature strong, martial male protagonists; though such a hero is suggested by the title, the eponymous king of the poem is, in fact, a marginal character, important for the framing battles, but not present for the bulk of the narrative. Instead, the principal protagonist is his daughter.10 There is no knightly adventure, and though the physical journey of the princess and, to a certain extent, the spiritual journey of the sultan take center stage, neither journey defines the focus of the whole narrative. Travel adventure heroines often have to go outside their home, religion, and culture, and adapt as circumstances require. This trope is at the heart of the Constance story and its analogues, where the heroine survives within a hostile pagan world.

Though Tars’s daughter is the central figure of the poem, her agency is quite different from that of a knight in a typical romance. While most romances linger on social concerns, especially the establishment of the protagonist within society, The King of Tars is too interested in spiritual concerns, mainly defined by the woman, that culminate in a mass conversion, to be categorized solely as a typical travel romance narrative.

Given its multiple settings, particularly the juxtaposition of the Saracen and Christian worlds, it fits well enough into the most characteristic of romance travel narratives, the chanson d’aventure. As I have noted, Tars ties in somewhat with the Constance tales, in that an emperor’s daughter leaves her home culture to be married to a sultan, though the differences between Tars and the Constance tales are considerably greater than the likenesses. In Tars there are no hints of the woman’s fleeing her father for fear of incest, as there are in early versions of the story and in the Middle English romance Emaré, nor are there any affiliations with the most central feature of the Constance stories, namely, the calumniated queen motif. In Tars the sultan’s bride seems to be the model of the good queen until it is made apparent that she has not been strictly obedient to the sultan’s demands. One result of her disobedience is that she does give birth to a monster, such as Donegild invented in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, though not for reasons of adultery but rather for Christian fidelity. There are no wicked mothers-in-law, only the sultan himself to charge her, and she readily acknowledges the charge of breach of faith with the Saracen idols. By asking her husband to put their respective gods to the test, which he agrees to do, she ultimately acts according to their mutual benefit, as she watches over their general welfare.

This brings up another crucial difference between Tars and other Constance tales. In Trevet, the Emperor’s daughter Constance is sent against her wishes by her father into the pagan world, with the pope’s approval and the sultan’s agreement to bring about peace and to give the Christians Jerusalem and free passage “to visit the holy places of the Sepulchre, Mount Calvary, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and all other holy places”; she is “ordered” to leave Rome “with great grief, tears, outcry, noise and lament from the whole city.”11 This denial of choice, agency, and voice to the woman is also apparent in the English versions: in Gower, when the sultan, eager to marry Constance, promises to convert to Christianity and sends hostages (“princes sones tuelve,” Confessio Amantis 2.633, ed. Peck) as guarantee of his faith, her father, with the blessing of the pope, sends her, despite her objections, as bride to the sultan, along with two cardinals, to make sure that the sultan is properly converted. In Chaucer, her objection is even stronger, as Custance weeps and is overcome with sorrow that she, “wrecche womman,” must agree to the marriage. As Chaucer’s Man of Law puts the matter: “no fors though I spille! / Wommen are born to thraldom and penance, / And to been under mannes governance.”12 But in Tars, the emperor’s daughter is given full voice, a requirement of the protagonist of both romances and saint’s lives. The daughter of Tars takes control of a situation that is rapidly destroying their people and way of life. She acts not for herself but for her whole community and the sake of humanity. But she does act, and her decision, at first appearance “selfless,” is in fact both self-fulfilling and culturally salvific in a peculiarly gendered way. Heroines who go outside their home, religion, and culture, perhaps even under “thraldom” (marriage, slavery, etc.), as the Man of Law puts it, have to maintain their integrity — a lonely task in an alien world. This loneliness lies at the heart of the Constance stories, saints’ lives like those of Katherine, Margaret, etc. (daughters endangered by headstrong fathers), or Psyche in her wanderings under the persecution of the gods and goddesses in Apuleius’s tale, or the stories about Persephone and Alceste in their sojourns in Hades. The true identities of such women often remain hidden through much of the tale, until the appropriate moment when their full power and the society’s need for it may be revealed. In The King of Tars, the revelation of the princess’s Christian identity and the power she has over the sultan lead to the conversion of not only her family, but also her newly-adopted land.

Since religion is of such importance to the poem, hagiography is one model for the narrative. Unlike romances, saints’ lives are not distinguished by gender; hagiography is equally comfortable with presenting female and male saints. Many female saints are featured in positions of temporal and spiritual power, and mass conversion is often the result of hagiographic narratives featuring royalty.13 In Tars, the princess’s faith is tested, but never found wanting; indeed, her dream vision reassures her, and that reassurance is made flesh in the lump-child. Transformation miracles are at the core of the narrative, separated by a brief didactic description of the basic tenets of Christianity. Though many saints’ lives end in martyrdom, happy endings are not necessarily at odds with a religious narrative. In Tars, this entails the princess converting the entire sultanate of Damas to Christianity, initially through a demonstration of the power of her religion, then through force of law, and, ultimately, by strength of arms.

However important hagiography is as a source for certain tropes or the audience’s generic expectations of the poem, The King of Tars is no more a saint’s life than it is a romance. The princess is not a saint, though many critics have treated her as one.14 She agrees to marry a non-Christian, which no saint would be likely to do. Indeed, to pursue her happy ending, she has to convert falsely and participate in heathen rituals, even though she has not renounced Christ in her heart. The marriage is arranged in order to relieve the political and social suffering of warfare, a war caused by rumor of the princess’s beauty and the sultan’s lust. There are few Christian values evident here, and yet the sultan has a great victory, rather than a defeat, as befits a pagan villain.

The narrative itself, unlike most saints’ lives, features numerous anonymous characters. The poem identifies eight central figures, whose names are necessary for understanding the poem’s events.15 Five of the names come at the end, when the king of Tars and the newly converted sultan of Damas fight five heathen kings; were these five unnamed, it would be difficult to track their actions in the battle.16 The remaining three characters are named as a necessary feature of baptism, when the baptized are named as part of the ceremony: the child is named for Saint John, on whose day he is brought into Christianity and given human form, and the sultan is named for the priest, Cleophas, who officiates both rites.17 Unlike saints’ lives, where the naming of pious women is crucial, all of the Christian characters in The King of Tars are anonymous; this technique increases the resonance with listeners, who can rely on their own imaginations and experiences, rather than thinking of icons or reliquaries. It also distances the narrative from hagiography, which is specifically interested in relating a saint’s biography and celebrating that saint’s name and devotion. The anonymity of the princess, who is not otherwise named in the text, prevents her from becoming an object of devotion or subject of prayers for intercession. It also removes the tale from the realm of history, and allows a more comfortable discussion of religious doctrine, since it can take place at any time, and is not tied to a specific person, period, or religious movement.

Finally, in attempting to establish the genre of The King of Tars, it is worth keeping in mind the fundamentally variable nature of medieval literature. Middle English poems, especially, were usually composed with the end, not the means, in mind.18 The King of Tars is best approached as entertainment, with religious doctrine as an important component of understanding. The poem is far from unique in its combination of romance, religion, and didacticism. After an examination of potential sources for tail-rhyme verse, Purdie concludes that the tail-rhyme draws most directly on pious materials and suggests that the form adds spiritual connotations, to the tales, especially in early romances such as The King of Tars.19 This combination of a religious form with secular materials, of the form of romance with didactic intent, would likely appeal to an audience that was not yet comfortable with straightforward romance or which had specific uses for the poem.

The placement of the poem in the witnesses further illustrates its mixed reception. Medieval readers must have been influenced by the location of texts within a collection, just as modern readers approach texts based on their context.20 The earliest of the three witnesses, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 19.2.1 (the Auchinleck manuscript), places the poem early in the manuscript, following “The Legend of Pope Gregory, the Holy Sinner” and preceding “The Life of Adam and Eve” and lives of Saint Margaret and Saint Katherine.21 The first item that is not specifically religious is the “Speculum Gy de Warewyke,” beginning on folio 39r. Although the Auchinleck manuscript contains many romances and is well known in part because of the large number and high quality of those works, Tars is explicitly surrounded by religious texts, unlike the other romances, which appear later and are accompanied by non-religious content, primarily other romances.

The other two witnesses, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng.poet.a.1 (the Vernon manuscript) and London, British Library, Additional 22283 (the Simeon manuscript), are much later productions. The Vernon manuscript’s interest in religious and didactic texts is clear, leading N. F. Blake to say “the intended audience was a house of nuns or of women who had banded together to establish a small community of a semi-religious nature.”22 Surrounding The King of Tars itself are “The Golden Trental,” “The Sayings of St. Bernard,” and “The Proverbs of the Prophets”; also included in the manuscript are the expanded Northern Homily Cycle, The Prick of Conscience, the first version of Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, and the Ancrene Riwle.23 Despite its length and large collection of texts, the Vernon manuscript has very few romances, and those tend to be of a religious or didactic nature.24 The texts in the Simeon manuscript were copied from the Vernon, though they are rearranged for a new, if similar, readership. The Simeon manuscript’s “The Kyng of Tars and the Soudan of Damas” follows “The Stacions of Rome,” an account of the churches at Rome, where pardons and indulgences were granted to pilgrims, “A Lamentacion that Ure Lady Made to the Cros of hir Soone,” and “A Pistel of Susan”; it precedes a collection of twenty-nine hymns and religious songs.25

As this brief description of the immediate contents of the manuscripts shows, medieval scribes embedded The King of Tars in collections of primarily religious content. Although that context is lost in a single-text edition, it is worth keeping these original frameworks in mind as we read, to heighten our sensitivity to religious motives and motifs in the text. Indeed, using religion as a guide will help clarify some of the more shocking events and illustrate the importance of ritual, especially of baptism.

One key topic that bridges romance and saints' lives is the idea of conversion. The King of Tars is definitely a conversion narrative. In some of the Constance stories, the sultan is the one converted, but Tars is distinctly different from these tales. In Gower’s and Chaucer’s Constance stories, no mention is made of what happens to the soul of the converted sultan after his mother murders him.26 It is worth noting, however, that in both tales, the sultan converts at the promptings of lust; that is, he adopts Christianity solely to wed the Christian princess without guilt. There is a stark difference between the sultan here and Alla, in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, who converts because he sincerely believes in the truth of Christianity. After Alla is converted in Northumbria, the fate of his adoption of Christianity becomes a powerful component of the narrative, as he undergoes penance and travels to Rome for absolution, by which means he is ultimately reconciled with his God and family. That recovery experience ends in an affirmation of faith. Unlike these later tales, The King of Tars expressly focuses on the conversion of the sultan, offering a false conversion in the person of the princess, and bringing all the principal figures to Christianity in the end.


The King of Tars features two baptisms, and the role they play is more than simply inducting two more souls into the faith; they physically reform the baptized in stunning shows of the empowerment of Christianity. The first baptism concerns the miraculous lump-child (lines 760–68). Upon its christening, the lump-child
. . . hadde liif and lim and fas
       And crid with gret deray,
And hadde hide and flesche and fel     
And alle that ever therto bifel
       (lines 770–73)
life; limb; face
cried; great commotion
to this happened
The baptismal waters induct the lump of flesh into the faith, and in so doing, the lump gains a father, the Father, to replace the sultan’s failed paternity. The child is quickly inspired, and he cries loudly, a sign of his new life. Moreover, as befits a true child of God, the baby is a beautiful boy: “Feirer child might non be bore — / It no hadde never [had never] a lime forlore [lost] / Wele schapen it was” (lines 775–77). This miracle demonstrates the vitality of Christianity: the sultan’s gods could not endow the child with form, but Christianity has endowed it with perfect form. This leads to the second, equally astonishing baptism, that of the sultan.

When he sees the lump-child’s new beauty, the sultan, true to his word, agrees to accept Christianity. It is through the miracle of the child’s fleshy conversion that the sultan acknowledges the power of Christ, and this religious conversion could be read as a reverse-birth, that is, the sultan is spiritually the son of his own child. To prepare for his formal conversion, the sultan hears a brief description of the tenets of Christianity (lines 836–67), receives some further instruction from a priest, and is baptized himself, leading to another significant metamorphosis:
His hide that blac and lothely was
Al white bicom thurth Godes gras
      And clere withouten blame.
And when the soudan seye that sight,     
Than leved he wele on God almight;
      His care went to game.
      (lines 922–27)
through; grace

turned into mirth
This baptism cleanses the sultan of sin, and, in so doing, it removes his “blac and lothely” hide. He now sees himself as white, cleaned of sin and the shame it implies. This is not a simple statement of race as we understand it today; instead, it is a fairly well-developed conception of the overriding blessing of Christianity, and it also reflects a specific understanding of baptism that was current in the fourteenth century.

Walter Hilton describes the power of baptism as one that restores shape. In The Scale of Perfection, he says that sins “maken a soule to lese [lose] the schap and the liknesse of God.”27 For Hilton, a conservative Augustinian, contemplation was a means to “assist in the recovery in the individual of the image of God that has been distorted by sin.”28 Baptism was the first step in restoring the divine image, and that image is on full display in this text. The child, who was truly fatherless, is given form; as Hilton notes,
the soule of a childe that is born and is uncristened, bicause of the origynal synne hath no liknesse of God; he is not but an image of the feend and a brond [firebrand] of helle. But as soone as it is cristened, it is reformed to the ymage of God, and thorugh vertu of feith of Holi Chirche sodeynli is turned fro the liknes of the feend and maad like to an angel ofhevene.29
Hilton’s description of monstrosity is spiritual, not physical, although The King of Tars literalizes this philosophical point. The lump-child is not specifically demonic in its appearance, but the lack of defining characteristics is foul enough to disturb all who look upon it. It is certainly not physically or spiritually formed in the image of God until its baptism, at which point it becomes a beautiful boy.

The sultan is similarly disturbing in appearance. His skin is not just black, it is a loathly hide, physically likening him to an animal. He is sinful and has willfully dwelt apart from God. Through baptism, he is cleansed of his sins and made a shining example of the power of Christian belief, and thus, for a medieval English audience, well-formed and white, like themselves. Again, Hilton sums up the philosophy behind the sultan’s sudden transformation:
Also the same falleth [happens] to a Jewe or in a Sarceyn, whiche or [before] thei be cristened aren not but manciples [stewards] of helle, but whanne thei forsaken ther [their] errour and fallen mekeli to the trouthe in Crist, and receyven the baptym of water in the Holi Goost, soothli withouten ony taryyinge thei aren reformed to the liknesse of God.”30
The sultan explicitly accepts Christianity “with gode wille” (line 916), and it is the good intention of that willingness that orthodox thinkers like Hilton celebrated. The sultan is under no coercion, but he recognizes the power of Christianity as displayed through his child’s transformation, and his new belief is reinforced by his own physical and spiritual transformation. The orthodox belief in the authority of the spirit to transform the flesh is made literal, and that literalization is a crucial feature of the narrative.

Ultimately, the key to understanding these transformations rather than being repulsed by the simplicity of their racial overtone is to remember that baptism “affects not only the soul,” as Anna Czarnowus argues, “but also the bodies of newly baptized Christians, while here it didactically produces an infant as beautiful as its non-heathen mother.”31 Indeed, the lump-child’s religion is written on its body, and this inscription later affects the sultan in a similarly breathtaking transformation. The monstrous child indicates “its father’s sinfulness” and leads, through the body, “to reconciliation between Islam and Christianity. . . . The formless body symbolizes the uselessness of Muslim beliefs, or perhaps even their harmfulness for the health of one’s body and spirit.”32 The importance of race is not in its biological immutability, but in its presentation of the inner belief writ on the body itself. In The King of Tars, baptism is able to wash away the stain of sin from anyone. The monstrous lump-child serves as a warning to the sultan of Damas that all is not right in his household, and its transformation “constitutes . . . an encouragement to subject oneself to baptism.”33 As a result of the child’s baptism, miraculous transformations occur that lead to the wholesale conversion of a people and the expansion of Christian power in the Middle East.


Perhaps the most striking events of the poem occur as a result of baptism: the transformation of lump-child to beautiful boy and the purification of the sultan written on his skin. Although both events directly portray the authority of Christianity, the transformations are predicated on ideas more complicated than they appear on the surface. Both the child and the sultan are monsters indicative of improper belief, but neither should be read as simply a statement of Caucasian or Christian superiority. It is important to recognize the religious lens of these transformations in order to understand the spiritual tensions present in the work.

In an article on race in the Middle Ages, Thomas Hahn notes that for a medieval audience, race was not the ultimate trope of difference between people.34 The King of Tars certainly goes beyond race; Christianity is able to overcome all physical difference, giving form to the shapeless lump-child and transforming the sultan from “blac and lothely” to “Al white . . . and clere.”35 Clearly, race here is not an immutable characteristic, but an external signifier of internal being and belief. When the princess pretends to convert to Islam in lines 463–501, she undergoes no physical change, remaining the beauty that caused the poem’s initial conflict. Indeed, the next stanza (lines 502–13) notes that, though she knew the heathen law and performed its rites, she never abandoned Christianity,36 and the poem never describes any physical change because neither her faith nor her spirit have changed. However, when the sultan is baptized, his skin miraculously changes color and condition, marking his new perception of himself. Following this, his people never remark upon his transformation; they seem to be unaware of his conversion, despite this physical alteration that marks his spiritual change. Even when the conversion is made clear, and the sultan demands his people convert or die, there is no indication that the people of Damas recognize the sultan’s transformation:
Mani Sarrazin stout and bold
       That in his court were,
Mani seyd that thai wold,
And mani seyd that thai nold     
       Be cristned in non maner.
       (lines 1040–44)

would not
no way
The poem does not mention the sultan’s physical change here; it only says that many Saracens converted, implicitly because they implicitly recognize the power of Christianity through the sultan’s transformation and because they value their vows of fealty and respect the sultan’s commandment. Conversely, many said they would not convert, and they were summarily executed. But the poem offers no further remarks on the sultan’s appearance, instead shifting its focus from the religiously driven miracle of transformation to a romance-style war of conversion.

Two philosophical threads come together to help explain the silence of both characters and story. First, as Hahn notes, color was not the default for “race” in the Middle Ages; indeed, one aspect of the Constance tale, of which The King of Tars is a fairly early version, is the understanding that a black man can fall in love with a white woman based solely on physical descriptions. This being the case, color might not have a strong influence on interactions with different people, and therefore it would not be considered as important a factor as modern readers might expect. The other factor worth considering is the medieval scientific theory of skin color. Hahn summarizes the theory of skin color as it was applied to Ethiopians in medieval encyclopedias by noting that Isidore of Seville and Bartholomew the Englishman both ascribe dark skin to the influence of climate.37 This leads to a theory that skin color is mutable, a theory that is not entirely without scientific precedent: skin can darken or lighten, becoming tan or pale in response to the effect of exposure to sunlight. The current poem goes much further along this trajectory, however, ascribing the change not to melanin production but instead to religion, complementing scientific observation with religious application. Nor is The King of Tars unique in this racial shift.

Just before he briefly discusses the conversion of the sultan in The King of Tars, Hahn notes that skin color changes in Cursor Mundi, where King David “converts monstrous blacks to flawless whites.”38 This change is possible in part because of a spiritual understanding of the difference in skin color. While discussing the monstrous difference of Ethiopians, Paulinus of Nola “explained that the Ethiopians had been scorched by sin and vice rather than by the sun,” as in the myth of Phaeton.39 Such a belief would easily lead to a conflation of the theoretical and the physical, explaining the sultan’s change from black to white as a cleansing of sin in the baptismal waters. Tales brought back from the Crusades could also have contributed to the strength or spread of this theory. The English audience for whom the poem was written would have believed their faith to be the only completely true one. Tales of Greek Orthodox rites and belief would have seemed to be sinful, in that the religion was mistaken about some details, but true to the essential character of Christianity. Accordingly, Mediterranean skin tones are generally darker than British ones. Another step away is the Holy Land, populated with people of a decidedly different religion, and darker skin tones yet. Finally, the people of Africa have the darkest skin tones, and the least connection to or interest in Christianity. And they are also the most deformed people in the world, according to the encyclopedists and cartographers of the Middle Ages, who place them in the marginal areas of the world.40

However, just as the English, who are also placed on the edge of Europe, are beautiful and, most importantly, Christian, so too can these distant, strange people become beautiful through abandoning their false, sinful beliefs and converting to Christianity. The conventional beauty of the princess of Tars, an enclave of Christianity in the East, attests to this possibility, and it is demonstrated in the baptisms of both sultan and child. Indeed, as Czarnowus notes, the sultan’s undesirability is not strictly or even primarily physical — the problem is his actions and his beliefs are repugnant, almost bestial.41 The sultan’s outbursts are very physical, and he is at first described as wild as a boar (line 98); further, he, along with all other Saracens, is repeatedly likened to a hound. With his baptism, not only is his corporeal form changed, but also his personality; rather than being a rough, violent heathen, the sultan becomes much more calm and deliberate in his actions, relying on reason and patience instead of sudden, violent action to convert his people. Nonetheless, although the newly baptized sultan relies initially on reason and patience, he shows no mercy to those who will not convert, and he beheads them swiftly. This is not the passionate action of a raging mind, but the controlled action of a calculating ruler. This psychological change parallels the physical change that resulted from his conversion, further distancing the transformation from the surface reading of racism.

Although race is not an insurmountable sign of difference, the sultan and princess are of radically different religious backgrounds, and miscegenation is the result. Czarnowus argues that the monstrosity of the lump-child “exposes the dire consequences of violating the taboo against marriages between whites and non-whites,” and thus “miscegenation” is the best term for the coupling, despite its anachronism.42 However, the sultan’s skin color is not described until the child has been baptized, at which time his blackness is mentioned, and that perhaps for rhyme: “Than cam the soudan that was blac, / And sche schewed him the child and spac” (lines 793–94). After a brief discussion of Christian doctrine, the sultan is baptized, and his skin color emphasizes the miracle and truth of the his conversion:
His hide that blac and lothely was
Al white bicom thurth Godes gras
       And clere withouten blame.
And when the soudan seye that sight,     
Than leved he wele on God almight;
       His care went to game.
       (lines 922–27)
through; grace

turned into mirth
The sultan’s blackness is simply not an issue until the narrative has come to the conversion miracle. Were this poem interested in highlighting racial difference, the sultan’s skin color would have been described long before the lump-child’s beauty had been realized through the agency of religion. Instead, the sultan’s skin is only important as an outward sign of his inner being, and, for the poet and his intended audience, that being has been purified and beautified by Christianity. However, the sultan’s purification is the second miracle in the text, and it pales in comparison to the child’s transformation, which establishes the correctness of Christianity and initiates the sultan’s conversion.


An “outrageously sensational”43 character in the tale, the child who is born “a rond of flesche yschore” (line 577) exceeds the monstrosity of its analogues.44 Jane Gilbert observes that “the analogues present the lump primarily as its father’s child,” but The King of Tars, especially as presented in the Auchinleck manuscript, “draws on Aristotelian conception theory” to deprive the child of his father’s role.45 Aristotelian theory describes conception as one “in which the mother contributes only the basic matter, the material, fleshy substance” and “the father, through his seed, supplies the ‘life or spirit or form,’ the vital principle which transforms the matter into a human child and animates it.”46 When the parents are somehow incompatible, the child born is monstrous; quite often, it is physically mixed, such as Fierfiz in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, who is black with white spots.47 Drawing on both Aristotle and Lacan, Gilbert describes the science behind the lump-child’s form in an effort to explain the child’s transformation through the establishment of a religious paternity. The lump-child further complicates the racial charge of the poem, and like the transformation of the sultan, the child’s ugliness, that is, its formlessness, reflects its parents’ religious, not biological, difference.

In this poem, the child has substance or matter, supplied by the mother, but no form or life, which is supplied by the father. The application of Aristotelian conception theory is clear: the child is born a lump of flesh, without any organizing principle and without life; that is, the father’s role in this pregnancy has been deformed. However, as Gilbert points out, even if the lump has “no paternal input at all,” the sultan’s parenthood is never in question.48 Despite this certainty, the sultan insistently chides his wife — the formless child is not his fault, but hers, as his is the dominant culture. Further, she is deceptive, he argues, because she keeps her true faith from her husband and merely performs Saracen rites without imbuing them with any true sentiment. Thus, the princess is the party at fault.

But his denial of fault in the paternity is complicated by two factors: religion and character. Critics often compare the lump-child to a bear, whose offspring, according to bestiaries, were born as lumps of flesh that the mother bear would lick into shape.49 Although the lump’s mother, the princess, does give the lump a proper form, her means is Christianity, not licking. And though the sultan is never described as a bear, he is explicitly likened to a boar (line 98), and all Saracens are likened to hounds. Thus, the sultan’s animal characteristics may lead to an animal-like child. Despite these resonances with animals as they were understood through bestiaries, the overriding concern of the poem is religious, and that is more important for the interpretation of the poem because the formlessness is not grounded in physical mixing but in spiritual incompatibility.

Czarnowus implicitly identifies this role for religion, though she presents it in terms of race, observing that for the sultan, “the lump-like infant exposes its mother’s false conversion rather than his own ethnic difference.”50 As discussed above, race is less important as a sign of difference than is religion, since race can be changed with conversion. Returning to the matter of fault, Czarnowus points out that the princess “cannot, however, be the cause of her offspring’s possible monstrosity due to her impeccability.”51 Indeed, for a Christian audience, the princess is hard to fault. Her actions are not only reasonable for self-preservation, they have divine approval through the dream. Despite the sultan’s correct accusation of falsity, the princess is never presented in a negative light: she decides to end the war, she reasons with her parents to allow her to marry the sultan, she has a dream in which Christ Himself speaks to her; indeed, her only fault is her subterfuge in pretending to convert to Islam, but even that sin is minimized in the narrative, as it has divine approval and a positive conclusion. And the child born to the true, almost saintly princess is purely hers; the faulty party in the birth is the father, who is unable to offer spiritual shape, rather than the mother, who properly produces the fleshy matter. That is, “it is the father’s religious and racial alterity” that results “in disturbing the natural growth of the child in its the princess’s [sic] womb.”52 The power of Christianity is paramount, and the princess is faithful, so the fault must lie with the heathen sultan.

The sultan’s inability to imbue his child with form ultimately leads to his own conversion. As Czarnowus notes, “the shapeless child thus demonstrates deficiency on the part of the sultan.”53 His inability initially seems to be biological; that is, he cannot naturally give form to his child because of a fundamental incompatibility with the princess. But more importantly, his inability is religious: although he prays to his gods, in whom he has no lack of faith, they are unable to imbue the lump-child with form; that is, the Saracen gods are unable to step in and become fathers to this child of miscegenation. That role is reserved for the Father, that is, the Christian God, whose spiritual paternity is established through baptism. The sultan has no right to fatherhood, be it physical or spiritual, because he does not acknowledge Christianity, the most important criterion in the poem. As Gilbert states, “the paternity lacking pertains not to the Sultan’s acknowledged physical fatherhood but to his right to be named as the child’s father.”54 The text gives us no reason to think that the sultan is not part of this child: his paternity, his role as father, is not questioned. Indeed, the plot develops in line with his paternity: the princess is wed, and three months later, she is impregnated; forty weeks after that, she gives birth. Biologically, the sultan is the only candidate to be the child’s father. However, according to this text, the physical act of childbirth is not enough to bring the mixed family together; they must all be born into Christianity through baptism, and it is that sacrament that introduces the miracles that lead the poem to its conclusion. The sultan’s inability to give his child form, through either biology or religion, leads him to recognize the incompatibility of his family, and he takes steps to unify them through his own conversion to Christianity.

This hybrid family, especially the child, is an excellent metaphor for the poem itself. A formless mass, a union of two distinct parents, is unified by religion, and this union brings form and function. The poem, a hybrid of hagiography and romance, is given clear form and purpose when read through a religious lens, making its ugliness, if not beautiful, then at least meaningful and pointed.


Three manuscripts contain copies of The King of Tars: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 19.2.1 (fols. 7ra–13vb), better known as the Auchinleck manuscript; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng.poet.a.1 (fols. 304vb–307ra), the Vernon manuscript; and London, British Library, Additional 22283 (fols. 126rc–128va), the Simeon manuscript. The Auchinleck manuscript is the oldest of the three witnesses, but based on lacunae in the text and the vast differences between it and the other witnesses, scholarly consensus holds that it does not contain the original version of the poem. The Simeon manuscript has been described as a fairly straightforward copy of the Vernon, with scribal errors but little if any conscious scribal modification of the text.55

I have chosen the Auchinleck manuscript as the base-text for this edition. The variants present in the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts, while inherently interesting, are often inferior, and reflect a variety of scribal changes, from simple dialectical differences and scribal errors to large-scale textual revision. Judith Perryman, in her 1980 edition, defends the priority of the Auchinleck “on the basis of the small amount of omission, absence of confused sense, and the uniformity of stanza form.”56 The Auchinleck is also the oldest of the three manuscripts. To help illustrate the more significant changes made to the text copied into Vernon, see the appendix.57


This manuscript was compiled in the 1330s and is “best known for its early and often unique texts of the metrical romances, though its contents range widely, to include lives of saints, doctrinal exposition, a collection of tales, works of social comment, and a chronicle.”58 Eugen Kölbing brought the manuscript to the attention of critics in 1884, and F. Krause edited a series of texts from the Auchinleck manuscript, including The King of Tars, after the publication of Kölbing’s article. One of the most influential articles on the manuscript came in 1940, when Laura Hibbard Loomis put forth a theory that Chaucer himself read the manuscript, and that the texts contained therein were directly influential on his Tale of Sir Thopas in The Canterbury Tales.59 Alison Wiggins, fairly skeptical of this argument, summarizes it as “a theory based partly on circumstantial evidence (the Auchinleck was produced in London c.1331–40 and Chaucer was born in the city at about this time, c.1340)” and partly on a “claim for verbal similarities between The Tale of Sir Thopas and the Auchinleck stanzaic Guy of Warwick.”60 Loomis’s article inspired a great deal of romantic interest in the manuscript as a physical link with a foundational poet, and increased interest in the manuscript as an object and potential source for Chaucer. Wiggins does, however, allow the specter of Chaucer to bolster the Auchinleck’s reputation, writing “Auchinleck is especially valuable for understanding the development of English literature because it offers an insight into an English vernacular literary culture which preceded and was influential upon Chaucer and his generation.”61 Much like The Canterbury Tales, the Auchinleck manuscript is an important miscellany of texts. While it is likely impossible to prove any direct influence on Chaucer, the manuscript presents the kind of literary background he expected of his audience, and with which he himself was working.

So even if we abandon Loomis’s powerfully attractive myth of direct influence, the Auchinleck manuscript remains vitally important to Middle English literature. Oliver Pickering identifies it as one of “the two major anthologies of Middle English writing compiled in the first half of the fourteenth century,”62 and Ralph Hanna, a champion of manuscript study, acknowledges the manuscript’s unavoidable place in discussions of London literary production before Chaucer.63 Many theories have circulated regarding its production, most in support or in opposition of Loomis’s “bookshop theory.”64 Loomis opened this discussion by arguing the Auchinleck manuscript was produced in a bookshop modeled on a monastic scriptorium, relying on a team of scribes copying the texts to produce the manuscript.65 This was the generally held position until Timothy A. Shonk’s work in the 1980s.66 He used the manuscript’s organizational features to argue that the primary scribe was the editor of the volume, copying much of the text and overseeing its assembly, acting as liaison between the scribes and the purchaser. Most recently, Hanna suggests the manuscript was primarily the work of one scribe who called in friends to help out as needed.67 Given the early date for the manuscript, all of these are viable theories, but they all avoid the question of patronage and ownership.

Setting aside the debates over the manuscript’s creation and early ownership, the texts themselves, as individual pieces and as a collected volume, are worth renewed attention. In England the Nation, Thorlac Turville-Petre argues that the Auchinleck is a highly themed manuscript intended to help establish an English identity through patriotic expression, and he describes the Auchinleck as a “carefully organized manuscript” for which “there was an editor who took responsibility not only for selecting and organizing the material, but also for reworking and adapting some texts.”68 Similarly, Siobhain Bly Calkin, in a monograph centered on studying the manuscript’s creation of “Englishness,” notes the Auchinleck “has long been recognized as one of the most important vernacular English manuscripts” before Chaucer.69 Wiggins describes the manuscript as “perhaps the first example of a collection specifically designed for enthusiasts of literary and historical texts in the English language.”70 But perhaps the most compelling reason for my choice of base text is that, in addition to the general interest in the manuscript, its version of The King of Tars is well-written and lacks many of the difficulties the other witnesses introduce.


In an article on the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts, “the two largest Middle English anthologies of verse and prose,” A. I. Doyle compares the contents of the two in general, theoretical categories in an effort to consider the specific relationship between them.71 Though the article is brief, Doyle raises many issues which have not yet been carefully investigated. Doyle concludes that the Simeon is a defective copy of the Vernon, with changes and omissions resulting from scribal alteration and error and the vicissitudes of time.72 The majority of editors of The King of Tars have long observed this characteristic of Simeon’s text, and some have focused on Vernon as their base text when presenting the tradition witnessed by these two manuscripts, using the Simeon solely in the apparatus.

Like the Auchinleck, the Vernon manuscript is a remarkable work. It is, “both in physical size and by the number of its contents, the biggest surviving volume of Middle English writings (with a small amount of Anglo-Norman and Latin), for many of which it has the earliest and for some the sole known copy.”73 Despite its size, Doyle suggests the manuscript is too carefully constructed to be a miscellany of texts copied as they became available, though he allows that the collection of texts is too broad to strongly support a single intended readership.74 As mentioned above, the text of The King of Tars present in the Vernon manuscript follows “The Sayings of St. Bernard” and precedes “The Proverbs of Prophets,” placing the work in a clearly religious context, a context that is largely supported by the rest of the manuscript, which opens with the South English Legendary and includes an A-text of Langland’s Piers Plowman, The Prick of Conscience, the first book of Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, and the Ancrene Riwle. It is remarkably light on romances, including only Ypotis, Robert of Sicily, and a partial text of Joseph of Arimathea in addition to The King of Tars.

Doyle notes that events of 1384 are included in the text, though he is careful not to date the manuscript more precisely than to suggest the late 1380s as the earliest date for completion of the manuscript. Unlike the Auchinleck manuscript, which includes at least six distinct hands, only two scribes worked on the Vernon manuscript: scribe A supplied rubrics and a table of contents after scribe B had completed copying the texts contained in the manuscript.75 The Simeon manuscript is generally dated to a period shortly after the Vernon; Shores suggests the manuscript “dates from the period between 1380 and 1400.”76 Although the texts of Tars are very similar, Perryman notes fifty-five textual variants between the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts, “all of which are trivial,” primarily minor orthographic differences.77


Though the text of The King of Tars preserved in the Auchinleck is the oldest of the three written copies, it is not the earliest rendition of the narrative. However, as Laura A. Hibbard notes, it “is probably not much later than the original version.”78 Although the story itself is incomplete, as some lines have been lost at the end of the text, a comparison to the versions in the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts suggests that there is little missing. However, it is possible that the Auchinleck manuscript originally had a more complex ending than that in the Vernon and the Simeon, which abruptly finish the tale in two stanzas after the last of the heathen kings is killed.79 Unfortunately, there is no way to know for certain how much has been lost from the end of the Auchinleck manuscript’s Tars, though it is probably not much.

Past editors of this text have chosen to use both the Auchinleck and Vernon manuscripts as base texts for various reasons. Shores argues for the importance of the Vernon on the grounds that it offers a more difficult, and therefore more literary, reading;80 conversely, Perryman argues against using the Vernon or the Simeon as a base text. After discussing some of the most egregious textual problems, she concludes that the Auchinleck manuscript “has no such glaring errors of sense, and it omits only eight lines of text” present in the Vernon and the Simeon.81 Further, the Auchinleck has a more consistent rhyme scheme, deviating from the pattern only once, whereas in the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts, “sixteen of the ninety-four stanzas” have different rhyme patterns.82 Although the two versions agree on all the major plot elements and the basic structure of the narrative, they “differ too much to permit a reconstruction of the textual tradition”; of the 1122 lines of the text in the Vernon and Simeon manuscripts, only 191 are identical and parallel to the Auchinleck’s; of the remaining 890 similar lines, the variations are often minor. The Vernon and Simeon versions omit a number of lines, including nine complete stanzas and parts of five others; these changes introduce some logical problems, as the plot is no longer complete.83 Given the earlier witness, the superior prosody, and the more consistent narrative, the Auchinleck text is the best text for a modern edition.


The King of Tars has been edited seven times before the current work. The two earliest editors, Thomas Warton and Joseph Ritson, read the poem through an antiquarian’s lens. Warton’s edition is based on the Vernon manuscript, and offers extracts woven together with a somewhat convoluted summary. Ritson offers a full edition of the Vernon, though he adds some lines from the Auchinleck to fill in narrative gaps. Neither edition is particularly scholarly by modern standards; though both editors produced competent transcriptions, they took some liberties with spelling, and despite including some notes, neither offers anything “approaching a full critical apparatus.”84 Ritson’s text was the only complete printed edition until the end of the nineteenth century, when F. Krause published an edition of the Auchinleck and Vernon texts in parallel as part of his series publishing works from the Auchinleck manuscript.85 Doris Shores politely but firmly lists the problems with Krause’s edition; in brief, Krause’s readings are occasionally wrong, and his editorial method is inconsistent throughout.86 Despite these deficiencies, Krause’s edition remained the standard for nearly a century.

During that time, three students produced dissertations editing the text. The first, by Robert J. Geist, is modeled on Krause’s work, offering an edition of both the Auchinleck and Vernon texts; “his reading follows Krause’s almost to the letter,” as Shores notes, and she reports his opinion that the dissertation and two articles on the poem “constitute his contribution to the subject.”87 Shores herself produced an edition in response to the deficiencies of the prior editions, though she never published it. Like Krause, her text offers a parallel edition of the Auchinleck and Vernon manuscripts, with the Simeon variants in footnotes. The same year, Judith Perryman submitted an edition based on the Auchinleck alone, using the Vernon to expand the short stanzas and clarify difficult readings. This text was published in 1980, and remains the latest full edition of the poem, despite its being long out of print. In 2003, David Burnley and Alison Wiggins posted a transcription of the Auchinleck text as part of the National Library of Scotland’s digital facsimile of the manuscript. Their text of Tars follows Perryman’s practice of inserting extra lines to complete defective stanzas, but is otherwise a fairly conservative transcription without an apparatus or introduction. This edition follows the policies of the Middle English Texts Series in offering an introduction, a full scholarly apparatus, and explanatory notes to help place the poem in its cultural and historical context for a modern audience.


In keeping with the Middle English Texts Series, this edition uses the modern alphabet: thorn (þ) has been expanded to th and yogh (3) has been expanded to its closest modern equivalent, usually y, g, or gh. To ease readability, abbreviations are silently expanded, i/j and u/v have been normalized according to modern use, an accent has been added to final -e when it carries full syllabic value, and the has been silently emended to thee to distinguish the second person pronoun from the article. Double ff’s have been silently emended to single f, except for words such as off. Capitalization and punctuation are, of course, editorial. There are a few places where the Auchinleck manuscript’s text is defective; missing lines have been supplied from the Vernon and are identified in the notes.


Indexed as item 1108 in Boffey and Edwards, eds., New Index of Middle English Verse:

• A: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 19.2.1, fols. 7ra–13vb. [Base-text for this edition.]

• V: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng.poet.a.1, fols. 304vb–307ra.

• S: London, British Library, Additional 22283, fols. 126rc–128va.


Ed. Thomas Warton. In The History of English Poetry, from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century. 3 vols. London: J. Dodsley; J. Walter; T. Becket; J. Robson; G. Robinson, and J. Bew, 1774. 1.190–97. [Excerpts only]

Ed. Joseph Ritson as “The Kyng of Tars; and the Soudan of Dammas.” In Ancient Engleish Metrical Romanceës. 2 vols. London: W. Bulmer and Company, 1802. 2.156–203.

Ed. F. Krause as “Kleine publicationen aus der Auchinleck-hs, IX: The King of Tars.” Englische Studien 11 (1888), 1–62.

Ed. Robert J. Geist as “The King of Tars: A Medieval Romance.” Ph.D. dissertation. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 1940

Ed. Doris Shores as “The King of Tars: A New Edition.” Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1969.

Ed. Judith Perryman as The King of Tars: Ed. from the Auchinleck MS, Advocates 19.2.1. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1980.

Ed. David Burnley and Alison Wiggins. National Library of Scotland. 5 July 2003. 5 June 2012. Online at [A transcription of the Auchinleck manuscript, the text corrects some obvious errors and follows Perryman’s practice of supplying extra lines not in the Auchinleck to repair faults in the meter.]

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