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Item 19, The Erle of Tolous: Introduction


1 For a full account of the Empress Judith and her trial in 831, see Cabaniss, “Judith Augusta and Her Time.”

2 For a brief introduction to the tail-rhyme form, see the introduction to Sir Isumbras (item 5).

3 See the definition offered by Finlayson, “Form of the Middle English Lay.”

Origin, Genre, and Themes

No direct source for The Erle of Tolous has been identified, but a great many analogues in both historical record and literature may lie behind its composition. Stories of noblewomen wrongly accused were popular in nearly every medieval vernacular (including Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale in Middle English). Since chastity formed the essential basis of female honor, slanderous accusations of promiscuity were dangerous weapons in court intrigues. In the ninth century, Judith, the wife of Emperor Louis the Pious, was accused of having committed adultery with Bernard of Barcelona, son of William of Tolouse, and her story may provide a historical source for the events of The Erle of Tolous. Judith was sent to a convent, only to be restored to her former status after her accusers failed to appear at her trial.1

In some of the stories of accused women, including Chaucer’s tale, the woman receives miraculous vindication at her trial, but in The Erle of Tolous she is vindicated by a decisive judicial combat befitting this swashbuckling romance. The hero of the title, himself the victim of a wrongful expulsion from the court of the Emperor Diocletian, returns to verify the empress’s chastity, first in secret and then publicly in combat. His victory restores the empress’s honor and earns the Earl the recovery of his land and status.

Besides restoring the Earl’s rights, the judicial combat at the close of this story restores a code of chivalric behavior that has been violated repeatedly. The story opens with the Emperor’s seizure of the Earl’s land, a violation of one of the key principles of feudal law: a vassal receives his property by doing homage to his lord, but that property cannot be revoked without just cause. This legal breach leads to several others, including the deceitful Tralabas’s renunciation of his oath to the Earl upon his release from captivity. The Emperor himself manages to recover something of his dignity at the close of the story, but the treachery of Tralabas and the Emperor’s chamber knights who accuse the Empress Beulybon suggests the turpitude at the heart of the Emperor’s court.

The Earl exposes the corruption of chivalric ideals and restores them to their rightful importance by fleeing to the margins of this damaged world. He first becomes an outlaw at war with his former lord. When Tralabas, whom he has captured in battle, tells him of the Empress’s beauty and purity, the Earl disguises himself as a hermit to verify this report. Hermits were by nature marginal figures, having rejected most ties to the world, and the Earl’s guise as a hermit only deepens the sense of him as an outlaw, a renegade at the edge of the respectable world who is nevertheless more honorable than the Emperor at its center.

Perhaps this paradox explains some of the more sensational moments in the story, as when the Empress gives a ring to the hermit she knows to be the Earl in disguise. Tralabas had promised the Earl the sight of Beulybon, and she upholds his oath, but the gift of the ring exceeds the terms of the agreement between Tralabas and the Earl. Though this act comes scandalously close to the adultery she is later accused of, it also resembles the marriage vow and may even evoke the oaths of fealty between subjects and their lords. Beulybon’s gift of the ring and her insistence on keeping promises — including promises others have made — thus emphasize the perfidy of the story’s villains. Nevertheless, the scene in which Beulybon consciously displays herself for the Earl’s viewing is charged with a dangerous eroticism. That the Earl must wait for the Emperor’s death before he can finally marry Beulybon further emphasizes the illicit status of the desire they share.

The Erle of Tolous follows one of the driving forces of romance, wish fulfillment. A desire that seems socially wrong but in every other sense profoundly right is finally granted social acceptance by the end of the story. Justice prevails over injustice, the honorable consistently defeat the treacherous, and strength in battle reveals the truth. Though the hero takes some questionable risks, including disguising himself as a monk in order to hear Beulybon’s confession, the plot rewards them all. Where Diocletian ruled tyrannically, Barnard becomes emperor by election; where one marriage was marked by suspicion and the absence of heirs, the other is based on true love and results in a marvelous abundance of children.

With its serious consideration of the underpinnings of feudal justice and its playful expression of unbounded desire, The Erle of Tolous exemplifies the genre of chivalric romance, and it must be considered one of the most well-constructed Middle English romances on account of its coherence and craft. The author has used the tail-rhyme stanza well, balancing action with dialogue and description, creating a sequence of well-defined narrative moments rather than an unconnected series of events.2

Though I have called the poem a romance, the poet calls it a “ley of Brytene” (line 1207). The Breton lay (or lai) is perhaps best considered a subgenre of romance defined primarily by moderate length and a passing resemblance to the Lais of Marie de France, a twelfth-century poet.3 Lays attribute their origins to Brittany, the Celtic region in western France, though the reasons for these attributions are not always clear. The best (and perhaps the only) reason for considering The Erle of Tolous a lay is that it calls itself one, but it certainly does resemble another self-identified lay in Middle English, Emaré — another tail-rhyme story of a suffering woman.

Manuscript Context

The Erle of Tolous seems closely connected with the items that immediately precede and follow it. The Knight Who Forgave His Father’s Slayer (item 18) resembles the larger story of The Erle of Tolous in its narrative of war and reconciliation. Lybeaus Desconus (item 20) is another romance, though the two may be best compared as representing very different varieties of the Middle English popular romance. The Erle of Tolous shares its identity as a Breton lay with Sir Cleges and Sir Orfeo (items 24 and 39).


Rate has bracketed the lines in groups of three, but they are rendered in 12-line stanzas here, as is common practice with tail-rhyme romances. On occasion, as in the first stanza, Rate’s emendations (or possibly those of his copy) have rendered the rhyme scheme defective. Generally, the text is without major defects or omissions, though in several stanzas Rate’s characteristic abridgment has cropped off three lines. Of the three other surviving copies, Rate’s most closely resembles that of the Lincoln Thornton manuscript (Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91); the text also appears in the Leicestershire miscellany C.

Printed Editions

French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. 1:383–419. [Based on C.]
Lüdtke, Gustav, ed. The Erle of Tolous and the Emperes of Almayne. Berlin: Weidmannsche, 1881. [Collates all MSS.]
Laskaya, Anne, and Eve Salisbury, eds. The Middle English Breton Lays. Pp. 309–65. [Based on C.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1681
MWME–43, 297
Rice, Joanne A. Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955–1985. Pp. 249–50.

See also Barron, Diamond, Greenlaw, Hopkins (2002), Mehl, and Reilly in the bibliography.

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