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Erle of Tolous: Introduction


1 The several versions of the narrative have compelled scholars to group them into categories which differ from scholar to scholar. Laura A. Hibbard [Loomis] in Medieval Romance in England (New York: Oxford University Press; rpt. Burt Franklin, 1960), for instance, separates them into groups related by similar plot motifs. The first grouping is in Catalan and Spanish and contains the oldest chronicle versions, e.g., the late thirteenth-century Cronica del Rey En Pere by Bernat Desclot, the late fifteenth-century Croniques de Espanya by Pere Miguel Carbonell, and a sixteenth century version by Pedro Anton Beuter. Loomis groups with these a fifteenth-century romance, El Conde de Barcelona, and two seventeenth-century French chronicles, one by Cesar de Nostredame and the other, La Royalle Couronne des Roys d'Arles. In the second major grouping she places the four extant Middle English versions listed in the four manuscripts above; into the third group, the French play Miracle de la Marquise de la Gaudine. The fourth grouping is somewhat eclectic; it contains a fifteenth-century Danish poem, Den Kydske Dronning by Jeppe Jensen, a Latin prose narrative, Philopertus et Eugenia, a sixteenth-century French prose romance, L'Histoire de Palanus, Comte de Lyon, a German "Volksbuch," and an Italian tale by Bandello, Amore di Don Giovanni di Mendozza e della Duchessa di Savoia. Edwin Greenlaw and Paul Christophersen designate the Middle English poem a type which has influenced the development of works such as Shakespeare's Cymbeline and the anonymous Ballad of Sir Aldingar.

2 For an interesting and comprehensive study of the motif in folktale and literature see Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens (New York: Gordian Press, 1927).

3 See Paul Christophersen, The Ballad of Sir Aldingar: Its Origin and Analogues (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), pp. 137-42.

4 Russell A. Peck, Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse. Medieval Institute Publications (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan Press, 1991), pp. 73-108. The audience of Pistel of Swete Susan "was that newly literate group, composed in part of women, among whom the Wycliffite movement flourished" (p. 73).

5 Allen Cabaniss, "Judith Augusta and Her Time," University of Mississippi Studies in English 10 (1969), 67-109.

6 Laura Hibbard Loomis, Medieval Romance in England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1924), p. 37. For further discussion of the "Judith affair," see Pauline Stafford, Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983), pp. 93-114.

7 See Paul Christophersen, The Ballad of Sir Aldingar: Its Origin and Analogues (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), pp. 137-42.

8 See The Book of the Order of Chivalry, trans. Robert Adams (Huntsville: Sam Houston State University Press, 1991), p. 28.

9 George Neilson, Trial by Combat (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1891), p. 48.
Although probably composed in the last half of the fourteenth century, the Erle of Tolous is found in four fifteenth- and sixteenth-century MSS: Bodleian 6922 (Ashmole 61), Bodleian 6926 (Ashmole 45), Cambridge Ff.2.38, and Lincoln Cathedral 91 (Thornton). The poem is written in the dialect of the Northeast Midlands in tail-rhyme stanzas, a form that places it among a distinctive group of tail-rhyme lays, including Emaré, Sir Launfal, and Sir Gowther. As with many of the Middle English Breton lays, the Erle of Tolous boasts a complex intertextuality that enriches its interpretive potential; it appears in numerous analogues in several different languages (Dutch, Latin, French, Catalan, Spanish, Italian, German) in several genres (folktale, legend, chronicle, Scripture, romance, and Breton lay) and incorporates folkloric and literary motifs that extend beyond the boundaries of medieval Europe. [1] Such an extensive intertextual web and widespread dissemination over time suggest a popularity and a cultural adaptability few other poems can claim.

One popular motif around which the narrative revolves has been identified by several scholars variously as that of the Woman Accused of Adultery, the Calumniated Queen, or the Innocent Wife Persecuted Unjustly. In this motif, an innocent woman - often the wife or daughter of a king or emperor - is falsely accused of an adulterous liaison by one or more malicious people - jealous mothers-in-law, spurned suitors, and evil courtiers. The motive of the villainous accusers is to discredit, embarrass, or tarnish the reputation of the exemplary heroine in order to enhance their own status at court or to save them from their own injudicious actions. When the allegations are made public the heroine is frequently condemned to death or exile by the king or emperor (usually her husband or father), an action that necessitates exoneration and rescue by a champion. Found in popular folktales of various cultures and in several literary works throughout the Middle Ages, the motif is both prolific and popular. [2] A Scriptural version, which at least one scholar claims to be the oft-neglected source for the motif, appears in the apocryphal narrative of Susanna and the Elders in which an innocent Susanna, accused of adultery by two lecherous "elders," is tried and eventually rescued by the prophet Daniel. [3] The late fourteenth-century Middle English retelling of the tale, The Pistel of Swete Susan, which circulated in the fifteenth century with Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, suggests the motif's currency in England at the time. [4] But folktale, romance, and Scripture are not the only venues for the motif; frequently it finds expression in chronicle and legend.

Several scholars subscribe to the notion that the basic plot of the Erle of Tolous originates in history. They point to an event of the ninth century during the reign of Louis the Pious when Judith, his second wife, was accused of committing adultery with Bernard, Count of Barcelona and son of William of Toulouse. In this incident Judith was banished to a convent, charged with conspiracy to overthrow the French king's edict to divide the kingdom among the sons of his first marriage, in favor of her son Charles the Bald. She was later brought back to court, having lived an exemplary life in the convent, and exonerated when no accuser appeared at her trial in 831. The centrality of the motif of the accused queen, the close association between the names Bernard and Barnard, his place of origin (i.e., Toulous), the identification of two accusers (Hugo, Count of Tours, and Matfrid, Count of Orleans), and the resolution of the incident by judicial combat (though the actual combat never took place), make the correlation between this historical event and its poetic representation compelling. [5] Some scholars argue that a direct line can be drawn from the earliest chronicle treatment of the event in Bernat Declot's late thirteenth-century Cronica del Rey en Pere to the Middle English Erle. Yet there are several similar historical incidents which suggest a more complex network of influence and exchange. Laura Hibbard Loomis, for instance, cites plot similarities in the legend of Gundeberg, wife of the Lombard king Arioald in the seventh century, and an eleventh-century legend associated with Gunhild, daughter of Canute and future wife of Emperor Henry III. [6] Paul Christophersen enlarges the list to include two wives of Charlemagne, Sibilla and Hildegard, in addition to other luminous medieval women. [7] The motif of the accused queen is hence not exclusively the provenance of romantic imagination, but rather an apparently recurrent historical event.

The importance of the accused queen motif in the Erle of Tolous is evident when the poet points almost immediately to the poem's heroine, introducing her as his subject directly after the conventional exhortation to the audience. This poem is, he says, about "How a lady had grete myschefe / And how sche covyrd [recovered] of hur grefe" (lines 10-11). Her narrative, in fact, formulates the nexus for the stories of the two male protagonists - the Emperor Dyoclysyan and Syr Barnard. A laudatory description of her virtues follows their introduction so that she is immediately intertwined with them. Just as the Emperor is "a bolde man and a stowte" (line 16), and Syr Barnard, the Erle of Tolous, is "an hardy man and a stronge" (line 31), so too the heroine is described, though not by name at first, in equally exemplary terms:

Thys Emperour had a wyfe,
The fayrest oon that evyr bare lyfe,
   Save Mary mekyll of myght
And therto gode in all thynge,
Of almesdede and gode berynge,
   Be day and eke be nyght;
Of hyr body sche was trewe
As evyr was lady that men knewe.
    (lines 37-44)

fairest one; ever lived
almsdeeds; proper behavior
By; also
true, i.e., faithful

Like many other medieval heroines, Dame Beulybon, whose name is a combination of belle [beautiful] and bon [good], is exemplary both in physical appearance and in personal conduct. Not only is she the most beautiful woman "that evyr bare lyfe," she is perhaps more significantly, charitable, of "gode berynge," and faithful to her husband, a fact which necessitates her early description as "wyfe" and sets up the circumstance essential for the dramatic calumniation that occurs later in the plot. Short of being the Virgin Mary herself, Beulybon embodies the attributes associated with the Mother of God, sterling qualities both of body and soul. Her exemplary characterization is, in fiction as in fact, crucial to a chivalric ideology that places women at its center.

Chivalry provided a standard of conduct for knights that required rigorous mental and physical training. Knights were expected to perform as well on the battlefield as in courtly society and to serve God as ardently as they serve their earthly lords. Because chivalric requirements demanded physical and moral acuity, a strict and often austere military regimen was accompanied by an equally demanding fitness program for the soul. In Ramón Lull's Book of the Order of Chivalry, for example, "justice, wisdom, charity, loyalty, truth, humility, strength, hope, promptness and all other similar virtues" provide a paradigm of values the knight was expected to cultivate and execute by his deeds. [8] Ideally, knights honored their feudal obligations, protected the interests of their lords, and guarded against criminal activities; they were required to protect women, particularly those in distress, widows and orphans, weak or disabled men, and various disempowered others. Throughout the poem Dame Beulybon is placed in situations that expose the strengths and weaknesses of the knights around her. Because she embodies virtues similar to those of the ideal knight, she functions as a standard by which the knights in the poem may be measured.

In the initial situation Dame Beulybon becomes embroiled in a territorial dispute between her husband, the Emperor, and the Earl whose territory the Emperor has unjustly seized. Her position is one of mediation as she attempts to counsel her husband to do the right thing and return the Earl's land to him. The Emperor's action constitutes a violation of chivalric codes of justice as he, in effect, commits a theft of property, an action that marks a fault in the Emperor's virtue, exposing the chink in his moral armor. His unchivalrous theft throws into question his ability to provide his knights with an example for appropriate chivalric behavior, and seems to activate a trickle-down effect as his knights later demonstrate their interpretations of the code. Beulybon's attempts at mediation allow us to perceive the fault of the Emperor; her implicit sympathy for the wronged Barnard fosters our judgment of the Earl as a paragon of chivalric virtue. Syr Barnard has clearly been wronged and just as clearly needs to rectify the injustice done to him. His overwhelming victory in battle - the slaying of sixty thousand of the Emperor's knights and the taking of many captives, including the Emperor's favorite retainer, Syr Trylabas - establishes his chivalric prowess and anticipates his impending heroism.

In the scene that follows Trylabas's capture, Beulybon's mediatrix position shifts as she becomes the object of the Earl's desire and the proctor for Trylabas's test of virtue. In exchange for his freedom, Sir Trylabas agrees to conduct Barnard to the beautiful Empress and arrange an audience with her. The importance of Trylabas's oath to the Earl should not be underestimated because it functions as the means by which Trylabas's chivalric integrity is tested:

   My trowthe y plyght thee;
Y schall holde thy forward gode
To brynge the, wyth mylde mode,
   In syght hur for to see;
And therto wyll y kepe counsayle
And nevyr more, wythowte fayle,
   Agayne yow to bee;
Y schall be trewe, be Goddys ore,
To lose myn own lyfe therfore;
   Hardely tryste to mee!"
   (lines 219-28)
oath; promise you

by God's grace

Heartily trust me
Because the Earl is chivalrous, he immediately, though somewhat naively, subscribes to Trylabas's seemingly sincere pledge to desist opposition, nevermore "agayne yow to bee." Trylabas seems to make a choice of allegiance to Syr Barnard that implicitly negates his previous feudal obligation to the Emperor. Chivalric manuals make it clear that a knight cannot serve two masters simultaneously, but rather must make a choice if necessity arises. A knight's obligation to perfect his soul as well as his body compels him to speak truthfully and subsequently fulfill his word by his deeds. If a "true" knight gives his word, then it must be understood to be an expression of truth. Trylabas pledges his word, swearing "be Goddys ore" that it is true. Barnard believes Trylabas to be truthful not only because they have taken the same "fraternal" vows, but because Trylabas's pledge is witnessed by the highest of medieval authorities, the Lord to whom all knights pledge themselves above all others.

As in the territorial dispute between the Earl and the Emperor at the beginning of the poem, Dame Beulybon again attempts to mediate opposing sides; she counsels Trylabas to fulfill his promise to the Earl, to maintain his personal integrity, and to recognize the jeopardy to which he has subjected his soul. In this way, she attempts to rectify the wrong done to Barnard by attempting to save his life. She also functions to reveal latent treachery as it exists hidden in the hearts of her husband's retainers; a trusted knight, like Trylabas, willing to violate a chivalric code of conduct, to break an oath even when extended to a perceived enemy, is suspect to Beulybon:

Certys, yf thou hym beglye,
Thy soule ys in grete paryle,
Syn thou haste made hym othe;
Certys, hyt were a traytory
For to wayte hym velany;
Me thynkyth hyt were rowthe!
(lines 292-97)
Certainly if you; beguile
Your; peril
Since; oath
i.e., an act of treason
lie in wait; treachery

Just as the Emperor before him, Trylabas ignores the counsel of the virtuous Empress and makes a choice that perpetuates the trickle-down effect initiated by the Emperor's theft of Barnard's land. Trylabas enlists two thugs, Kaunters and Kaym, to ambush and slay the unsuspecting Earl after his disguised meeting with Beulybon. Trylabas foolishly underestimates his opponent's capabilities, never suspecting that the lovesick Syr Barnard might be the vanquisher rather than the vanquished. Again Barnard proves his mettle in battle as he single-handedly slays all three.

In the crucial scenario leading up to the calumniation of the Empress, two knights assigned to guard the Empress by the Emperor in his absence make an attempt on her virtue. In competition with each other the knights take turns propositioning her. Taken aback by their breach of decorum - "What woman holdyst thou me? . . . Os y were a hore or a scolde?" - she promptly reminds them of the gravity of their actions. Chivalry requires the protection of women and demands that their honor be upheld at all times. These knights have invalidated the high honor of chivalry, an act that in Lull's view constitutes theft.
A Knight who is a thief steals more from the high honor of chivalry by taking away the reputation of knighthood than does he who steals money or other things. For to steal honor is to impute ill fame and slander and to blame that very thing which is worthy to have recognition and praise (p. 44).
To cover their initial errors, the dishonorable knights attempt to slander and blame the lady who should be worthy of their loyalty and service. Their intent to silence the Empress' voice compounds their crimes; their enlistment of the young carver is symptomatic of how far from the chivalric ideal they have strayed. The position of carver, often assigned to young men attaining to knighthood to teach them the responsibilities of service to another, in a sense, represents the order of chivalry itself. The two knights not only steal the carver's future, but betray the ideological system to which they have vowed their allegiance. Their words are lies as they cleverly disguise their deadly "play" as amusement for the lady's benefit. Just as the chivalrous Earl believed Trylabas's word earlier, so too does the apprentice knight believe the two knights to be speaking truthfully. Eager to please his lady, Sir Antore agrees to enter the sleeping Empress' bedroom, disrobe, and hide behind a curtain awaiting his cue to jump out and make the lady laugh. This is no laughing matter, however, as Antore begins to suspect when the knights of the castle, bidden immediately to the scene, confront him in the Empress' bedroom. Before he can speak out in his own defense Antore is murdered, his life stolen by "That oon thefe wyth a swerde of were." Beulybon's subsequent screams of protest are overridden by the knights' accusations of adultery substantiated by the incriminating evidence of the half-naked corpse lying on her bedroom floor. The slandered Empress is then promptly thrown into prison to await the return of the Emperor.

At this point the narrative abruptly shifts to the Emperor himself as we are offered a brief glimpse into his psyche. But again his character is thrown into question as we wonder why he would leave his wife under the protection of two such untrustworthy knights. As Ramón Lull suggests: "He who commends his sheep to the care of the wolf is a fool - as is he who puts his fair wife in the care of a deceitful Knight" (p. 46). How could such a man protect others if he can't protect his own loved ones Lull asks. The Emperor's subconscious perception of the great danger Beulybon faces manifests itself in a dream he has at the moment of her persecution. In the Emperor's dream her body is being torn apart by two wild boars. The dream proves true: Beulybon's bodily integrity is torn asunder as the two knights conduct their rapacious verbal assault and defile her impeccable reputation. Their allegations point to a serious moral and political crime, treason both private and public. The charges against Beulybon must be addressed directly by the Emperor himself. Just as several of his historical counterparts, the Emperor is bound by his public duty to administer and carry out the laws of the land even if it means punishing his beloved wife. Beulybon, like Judith and so many other notable queens and empresses, seems doomed to be burned at the stake unless a champion can be found to exonerate her from the false charges.

The call for a champion resounds throughout the land and not surprisingly the Earl responds. This time, however, he is cautious and wary, stealthily entering the kingdom in the company of a horsedealer. Syr Barnard is no fool; he wants to be sure of the Empress' innocence before taking up the gauntlet on her behalf. Custom, in fact, required a would-be champion to be a witness to his sponsor's claim. [9] Thus the Earl's subsequent meeting with the abbot of the local monastery, Beulybon's uncle, is not enough to prove her innocence. Rather, he disguises himself as a monk and receives the confession of the Empress directly. To his great satisfaction he discovers that, except for the ring she gave to him as a token of her regard, her conscience is clear. Convinced of her innocence the Earl then openly declares his intent to champion her cause by agreeing to participate in a trial by combat, a chivalric custom that required the accusers to battle the champion of the accused. If the champion won, the case was decided in his favor; the loser suffered the consequences. If the champion lost, he and those he championed were subject to whatever punishment was assigned by the court. Having proven himself formidable in battle before, the Earl wins the day and saves the Empress from a dire fate. The two knights are punished accordingly - burned at the stake - and truth and justice prevail. But that is not the end of the story. Though the Emperor returns the illegally seized land and makes Sir Barnard his steward, the Emperor remains a tainted character; his own actions and the actions of his knights reflect upon his capabilities as a ruler. As if the poet were recognizing the need for complete exculpation he allows the Emperor to live only for three more years, and because there are no heirs, Barnard is unanimously elected Emperor. Having held his love for Beulybon in check for so long Barnard is finally permitted to marry her. Their union is fruitful; they produce fifteen children, "doghty knyghts all bedene" (line 1212), and live in familial bliss for twenty-three years.

Go To Erle of Tolous
Select Bibliography


Oxford University Library Bodleian 6922 (Ashmole 61). Fols. 28a-38a.

Oxford University Library Bodleian 6926 (Ashmole 45). Fols. 3a-31b.

Lincoln Cathedral 91 (Thornton). Fols. 114b-122a.

Cambridge Ff. 2.38 provides the version presented here. Fols. 63a-70b.

Critical Editions

Clark, J. H. "A Critical Edition of The Earl of Toulouse." Index to Theses for Higher Degrees 20 (1969-70), 312. M. Phil., London University.

Hulsmann, F. Erle of Toulous: Eine new Edition mit Einleitung und Glossar. Ph. D. dissertation, Munster. Cited in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 86 (1985), 127.

Lüdtke, Gustav. The Erle of Tolous and the Emperes of Almayne. Sammlung englischer Denkmaler 3. Berlin, 1881. [Contains texts from all MSS with extensive introduction, but without textual notes. In German.]


Fellows, Jennifer, ed. Of Love and Chivalry: An Anthology of Middle English Romance. London: Everyman, 1992. Pp. 231-65. [Uses Cambridge Ff.2.38.]

French, Walter Hoyt and Charles B. Hale, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. I, 381-419. [Uses Cambridge Ff.2.38.]

Ritson, Joseph. Ancient Engleish Metrical Romanceës. London: Bulmer and Co., 1802.
III, 93-144. [Uses Cambridge Ff.2.38.]

Rumble, Thomas, ed. Breton Lays in Middle English. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965. Pp. 135-77. [Uses Cambridge Ff.2.38.]

Rickert, Edith, ed. Early English Romances in Verse: Done into Modern English. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1967. Pp. 80-105. [Illustrated prose translation.]

Related Studies

Cabaniss, Allen. "Judith Augusta and Her Time." University of Mississippi Studies in English 10 (1969), 67-109. [Study of chronicle accounts of Judith, concluding that she deserves better representation.]

Christophersen, Paul. The Ballad of Sir Aldingar: Its Origin and Analogues. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952. [Study of the patterns of influence and cross-influence of this particular ballad, including its relation to Erle of Tolous.]

Greenlaw, Edwin A. "The Vows of Baldwin: A Study in Medieval Diction." PMLA 21 (1906), 575-636. [Discusses three knightly vows as tests of character. Includes a discussion of the Woman Falsely Accused.]

Hulsmann, Friedrich. "The Watermarks of Four Late Medieval Manuscripts Containing The Erle of Toulous." Notes and Queries n.s. 32 (1985), 11-12. [Argues that all watermarks point to date of 1470-1490.]

Reilly, Robert. "The Earl of Toulouse: A Structure of Honor." Mediaeval Studies 37 (1975), 515-23. [Relates the structure of contrast and comparison to an underlying system of honor.]