Monday, October 28, 2013

Reading Emaré Through Fabric - Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I introduced the Middle English romance Emaré and the amazing cloth that pervades the narrative but which has long baffled (and continues to baffle) readers of this poem. My previous post argued that the transmission of the cloth from east to west indicates its hybridity. In this second post, I will develop this idea further, suggesting that by wearing this hybrid cloth Emaré’s identity is similarly hybridised, allowing her to be read as a ‘fabricated Saracen’. 

Emaré is unusually visual: Anne Laskaya has noted that she doesn’t speak until line 251, a quarter of the way into the romance, and suggests that the construction of scenes focused on male voices, actions and perspectives align Emaré with the ‘scopophilic’ (105). Such a focus on Emaré means that when she wears the robe made of hybrid cloth, her identity is mediated through the cloth. 

When she first puts on the dress ‘She seemed like an unearthly woman / That had been made out of clay [earth] [She semed non erthely wommon, / That marked was of molde]’ (245-246). This description is repeated at line 396 – ‘She seemed [like an] unearthly thing [She semed non erdly thing]’ – and lines 700-701 – ‘he thought directly / That was she was an unearthly creature [he thowghth right / That she was non edryly wyght]’.

The shift in appearance is compounded by Emaré’s change of name. Upon arrival in Galys, Emaré’s changes her name from Emaré to Egaré. Ad Putter has suggested that changes in self-understanding prompt name changes in Middle English romance, thus Emaré’s true identity is not only concealed by the robe, but also by her re-naming. 

When the king of Galys’ mother (Emaré’s new mother-in-law) sees Emaré for the first time, we are reminded that Emaré is wearing the cloth which ‘on her shone [shon] so bright’ (439). The word ‘see’ is deliberate here, as Emaré and her mother-in-law never speak to each other and the queen’s first impression of Emaré is resolutely visual. Emaré’s appearance prompts the queen to comment ‘I saw [sawe] never [a] woman [wommon] / Half as gay! [Halvendell so gay!]’ (443-444), and further establishes Emaré’s primary identity as visual and, therefore, as bound up in the cloth: Anne Savage notes ‘when people see her, they see it [the cloth]’ (353). Because Emaré’s identity throughout the romance is based on her appearance, it is possible that her identity could be radically altered just by wearing the hybrid cloth. 

The cloth also makes Emaré hybrid by fostering a connection between her and the Emir’s daughter who made it. Emaré’s craft skills are repeatedly emphasised: ‘She was skilful with her hands [Of her hondes she was slye]’ (67) and in Galys, Emaré ‘[taught them [those in the service of her host] to sew and embroider / All manner of silken works [tawghte hem to sewe and marke / All maner of sylky[n] werke]’ (376-377). 

She is so skilled that her host, Sir Kadore, remarks: ‘She is the most skilled woman / In embroidery that I have seen / I believe, in Christendom [She ys the konnyngest wommon / I trowe, that be yn Crystendom, / Of wek that Y have sene]’ (427-429). Her skill with ‘silk [sylke]’ (730) evokes parallels with the emir’s daughter who originally made the ‘glistening [glysteryng]’ (100) cloth. If Emaré is the best seamstress in ‘Christendom [Crystendom]’, could the emir’s daughter be the best in ‘heathenness [hethennes]’? 

Margaret Robson takes this further, arguing that the cloth is effectively a message from the emir’s daughter to Emaré: women weave their messages to one another (68). The idea of women weaving messages to one another through needlework might suggest that the love story of the emir’s daughter, woven into the cloth, but unresolved in the text, is continued by Emaré. 

E. Jane Burns has also identified, in her study of representations of silk production in French romance, what she describes as ‘a metaphorical network of fictive female protagonists who are represented as “working” silk […]’; she says that ‘it is through women’s silk work that the categories of the distant and foreign unknown, so often cast in terms of the feared “Saracen”, are brought closer to home’ (2). Although she doesn’t discuss Emaré, Burns’ argument is relevant here. 

What I want to suggest, perhaps provocatively, is that the use of fabric in Emaré blurs the distinctions between the Saracen and the Christian woman, allowing us to read Emaré, given her hybridity and connections with the emir’s daughter (she wears her cloth, shares her skills and might provide the continuation of her love story) as a fabricated projection of the Emir’s daughter.

Indeed the ‘old queen’s [Emaré’s mother-in-law] [olde qwene[‘s]]’ ‘ungracious words [wordus unhende]’ (445) seem to support reading Emaré as a fabricated Saracen. When he asks his mother whether he should marry Emaré, she tells the king of Galys:

Son, this is a fiend,
                In these noble clothes (lit. worthy weeds)!
                If you like my blessing,
                Do not go through with this wedding,
                Christ forbid it!

[Sone, thys ys a fende,
 In thys wordy wede!
                As thou lovest my blessynge,
                Make thou nevur thys weddynge,
                Cryst hyt de forbade!] (446-450).

Amanda Hopkins has cautioned against reading too much into the mother-in-law’s words here, claiming that the text is clear that her doubts are rooted in malice, not in her reaction to Emaré’s appearance (77). Yet I would not so easily deny any potential double meanings here. ‘Fende’ is widely used in romance to indicate Saracens, for example in The King of Tars, another popular romance of the period. 

Furthermore, the queen specifically associates Emaré’s appearance as a ‘fiend [fende]’ with the cloth: she is ‘a fiend / In these noble clothes [a fende / In thys wordy wede] (my italics). I think it is possible that Emaré is here visually positioned as a Saracen woman by her future mother-in-law; she either appears to be a Saracen ‘fiend [fende]’ or, alternatively, looks enough like a Saracen woman when she wears the cloth that the mother-in-law makes this specific insult.  

Yet Emaré’s hybridity seems, to a certain extent, superficial.  By wearing the cloth made by the emir’s daughter, she is simply trying on her identity: Emaré is always there underneath and the cloth does not permanently alter her personality. Although the cloth is foregrounded, the romance repeatedly reminds us that Emaré is underneath it, telling us that she is ‘dressed well [suitably] under cloth [godely unthur gare]’ (198; 938); ‘noble under clothing [wordy unthur wede]’ (250; 366; 612); ‘comely under cloak [comely unthur kelle]’ (303); and ‘seemly under smock [semely unthur serke]’ (501).

Additionally, it is clear that when Emaré is wearing the cloth, it is the cloth that is seen: ‘when she was dressed in that [cloth] (lit. put therein) [theryn y-dyghth] / She seemed like no earthly thing [She semed non erdly thing]’ (395-396). The reader is never allowed to forget that she is ‘in the brightly coloured robe [In the robe of nobull ble]’ (270). It seems, therefore, that the romance is at pains to point out the separateness of Emaré and the cloth: to indicate that the cloth is only a disguise and has not affected Emaré more deeply. Amanda Hopkins agrees:
The basic premise of the epithets [‘wordy unthur wede’; ‘semely unthur serke’] highlights the distinction between clothing and person, between outward appearance and inner nature […[ reminders of the disparity between interior and exterior, undermining any identification of the robe as a symbol of the heroine. […] Thus the cloth is defined by its exteriority, by its separateness from Emaré (80-81).

The change is not permanent. Indeed, by the end of the romance, Emaré reclaims her name, although she acknowledges its previous changes by having her son refer to her as ‘Emaré / That changed her name to Egaré’ (1006-1007). The robe becomes less foregrounded; instead of reuniting with her estranged father ‘in the robe bright and clear [shene]’ (933), at the moment the reader would expect this formulaic line to appear, the text substitutes ‘walking on her feet [Walkyng on her fote]’ (1017). 

The cloth has not permanently altered Emaré; she is not read as a fabricated Saracen by any other character, apart from her mother-in-law, and the cloth’s effect is muted as her family are reunited in one of the most holy Christian cities, Rome. The cloth can also be seen to act as a rapprochement – it is the cloth that prompts the emperor to notice his son and reunite the family.

It is, however, possible that the passing on of the cloth to her son might suggest that Emaré’s hybridity does survive. The only other person who is described as ‘worthy unthur wede’ in the romance is Emaré’s son (736; 988) and he is the last person in the romance to be described as such, potentially suggesting that the hybridity mediated by the hybrid cloth has now been passed on to him.

Yet, overall, I think that Emaré plays with the cloth’s meaning through its title heroine, suffusing the romance with subtle hints of what it might mean were Emaré a Saracen woman or if a Saracen woman was in her position. The romance thus poses interesting questions about identity, religion and disguise, showing us the power of the sartorial to mediate identity: in other words, what we wear goes a great way to defining who we are. While this echoes strongly with contemporary late medieval anxieties about visible identity, I think the connections between clothing and identity continue to resonate in our modern world.

The image is a fifteenth-century French miniature from the Mort de Tristan et Iseut, a couple embroidered on the cloth Emaré wears, by Tristan de Léonois (from Wikimedia Commons). 


Burns, E. Jane. Sea of Silk: A Textile Geography of Women’s Work in Medieval French Literature. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. 

Hopkins, Amanda. ‘Veiling the Text: The True Role of the Cloth in Emaré.Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation, ed. Judith Weiss, ‎Jennifer Fellows, ‎Morgan Dickson. Cambridge: Brewer, 2000. 71-82. 

Laskaya, Anne. ‘The Rhetoric of Incest in the Middle English Emaré.Violence against Women in Medieval Texts, ed. Anna Roberts. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998. 97-114. 

Robson, Margaret. ‘Cloaking desire: re-reading Emaré.Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills, ed. Jennifer Fellows et al. Cardiff: University of Wales, 1996. 64-76. 

Savage, Anne. ‘Clothing paternal incest in The Clerk's Tale, Emaré and the Life of St Dympna.’ Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain, ed. Jocelyn Wogan-Brown et al. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000. 345-361.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Reading Emaré Through Fabric – Part 1

The Middle English romance Emaré is a pleasant, rhythmic poem in the Breton Lay tradition, that presents an apparently straightforward story of family discord and reunion. While teaching last week, some students in my class presented on the role of fabric in this romance, specifically a fabulous cloth which is prominent in the romance. This reminded me of my own musings on this romance and the role fabric plays in it; musings which, ultimately, did not end up in my thesis. So, here are some of my thoughts on Emaré, presented in two parts. 

Part 1 will put forward that the transmission of the cloth from east to west indicates its hybridity. Part 2 will suggest that by wearing this hybrid cloth Emaré’s identity is similarly hybridised, allowing her to be read as a ‘fabricated Saracen’. 

Emaré, over twenty versions of which survive in various European languages, is extant in only one English manuscript: Cotton Caligula A.ii (c. 1450-1500) (Rickert ix, xxxii). Its plot is notably repetitive. It tells the story of Emaré, daughter of the emperor Sir Artyus who escapes her father’s incestuous desires through exile in a boat. Washed up on the shores of Galys, Emaré is rescued and eventually marries the king of Galys. However, due to the machinations of her mother-in-law, Emaré is once again exiled, this time with her infant son. They eventually beach in Rome, where Emaré and her son are finally reunited with her repentant father and husband. One of the most prominent aspects of Emaré is a luxurious cloth gifted near the beginning of the romance to Artyus by Sir Tergaunte, king of ‘Sicily [Cesyle]’ (80).

The description of the cloth takes up a significant portion of the text; Amanda Hopkins has calculated that approximately one-tenth of the poem’s 1035 lines are spent describing the cloth and its context. The cloth appears at significant moments in the text, namely Emaré’s refusal to marry her father (242-250), her rescue in Galys (350-351), the attraction of the king of Galys to Emaré (391-400), Emaré’s mother-in-law’s expression of hatred (438-450), her exile from Galys (590-591) and her arrival at Rome (697-702). 

Critics have recognised the significance of the cloth in the romance, but disagree as to its meaning. Ad Putter notes various interpretations of the cloth as representing Emaré’s inner perfections, and as an ‘indirect expression of her sexual allure’, whilst himself asserting that the text appears clueless of what the significance of the robe is, a conclusion shared by Amanda Hopkins who states that the cloth ‘seems to have no clear function’ (Putter 175; Hopkins 72). Margaret Robson identifies the cloak as a love-charm which represents explicitly sexual love and inspires it, a view shared by Anne Laskaya, who claim that the cloth as love-charm ‘suggests that blame for the father-daughter incest rests with chance, with heathen practices, with exotic Eastern magic, rather than with Artyus himself (Robson 67; Laskaya 107). The cloth can also function as a romance text itself, according to Elizabeth Scala. 

Edith Rickert has proffered a historically-specific reason for the text’s focus on the cloth, proposing that Emaré is here alluding to the visit of Richard I to Sicily in 1191, where he was presented, by king Tancred, with ‘many magnificent gifts, including pannis sericis: a silken cloth (xxxi). Rickert suggests that the confusion of Tergaunte from Tancred is possible due to occasional spellings of Tacred as Tangré in French, which, Rickert argues, might have become twisted into Tergaunte (xxxi).

The cloth is explicitly hybrid in its shared and multiple meanings and symbolism. The cloth is definitely a product of the east: Sir Tergaunte states: ‘So rich a jewel is there none / In all Christianity [So ryche a jwell ys the non / In all Crystyanté]’ (107-108). It was made by ‘the daughter of the heathen Emir [the amerayle dowghter of hethennes]’ (109) for the man she loved, the son of the sultan ‘of Babylone’(158), a well-known Saracen space, whose image is embroidered onto the fourth corner of the cloth: it is ‘for his [hys] sake the cloth was made [wrowght]’ (160). 

The materials with which it is constructed, including ‘topaze’, ‘rubyes’, ‘carbunkell’, ‘Chalcedony [kassydonys]’ and ‘onyx so clere’ (128), come from the east. It is embroidered on three corners in ‘gold and asure [asowr]’ (113), with representations of the lovers ‘Ydoyne and Amadas’ (122), ‘Tristan and Isolde [Trystam and Isowde]’ (134) and, in an intertextual nod to another popular Middle English romance, ‘Floris and Blancheflur [Florys and Dam Blawncheflour]’ (146). 

That this cloth was made for a non-Christian by another non-Christian suggests that it was never meant to leave the Saracen cultural and material world. Yet its embroidery displays both Christian and Saracen lovers and, in the case of Floris and Blancheflur, a cross-religious couple. the cloth also has a history in the west, amongst Christians. It is ‘won [wan]’ (173) from ‘the sultan [sowdan]’ (173) through the ‘force [maystrye] and […] might [myghth]’ (174) of the King of Sicily’s father, who gave it to his son ‘for great [gret] love’ (175) who, subsequently, gave it to the emperor. 

Sicily had been under Norman control since 1072 and was a strategic stronghold during the Crusades. Emaré thus alludes here to the plunder of Arabic wealth and possessions, which occurred during the Crusades and which was one of the main routes by which Saracen fabric entered western Europe. Another primary method of contact between east and west is trade and commerce, reflected in the detailed tracing of the cloth’s trajectory from Babylon through Sicily to Artyus’ court.

This is not the end of the cloth’s journey, as the emperor decides to ‘have a robe quickly made / From that cloth of gold [lette shape a robe swythe / Of that cloth of golde]’ (242-243) for Emaré to wear; to celebrate his papal dispensation to marry her, the eastern cloth is used anew to make a dress for a Christian woman. Once Emaré puts on the robe, it has a fundamental effect on her own identity, which will be the topic of Part 2. 


The image is Femme Cousant, ink on paper by Émile Bernard (c.1891) from Wikimedia Commons.


Hopkins, Amanda. ‘Veiling the Text: The True Role of the Cloth in Emaré.Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation, ed. Judith Weiss, Jennifer Fellows, Morgan Dickson. Cambridge: Brewer, 2000. 71-82.

Laskaya, Anne. ‘The Rhetoric of Incest in the Middle English Emaré.Violence against Women in Medieval Texts, ed. Anna Roberts. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998. 97-114. 

Mills, Maldwyn, ed. Emaré. Six Middle English Romances. London: Everyman, 1973. All quotations from Emaré are drawn from this edition. All translations into Modern English are my own. 

Putter, Ad. ‘The narrative logic of Emaré.The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance, ed. Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 2000. 157-180. 

Rickert, Edith, ed. The Romance of Emaré. EETS E.S. 99. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1908. 

Robson, Margaret. ‘Cloaking desire: re-reading Emaré.Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills, ed. Jennifer Fellows et al. Cardiff: University of Wales, 1996. 64-76. 

Scala, Elizabeth. ‘The Texture of Emaré.Philological Quarterly 85.3-4 (2006): 223-246.