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.


  1. "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"

    Are you referring to sumptuary laws?

    1. Hi Laura,

      Yes, in part, and also to regulations which dictated particular dress for those of different religions. These were mainly centred in the Holy Land, where European settlement in the Levant had made contact between Christians, Jews and Muslims more common.

      For example, the Council of Nablus (1120), which took place in Jerusalem, decreed that Muslims were not permitted to wear the Frankish dress of western Europeans and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), called in response to the defeats of the Fourth Crusade, declared that Muslims were required to wear beards and have specific haircuts and dress.

      As far as I am aware there is no evidence that similar regulations were in place in England (in contrast to evidence of sumptuary legislation) but I think that the idea that dress can display religious and ethnic affiliation is something explored in the romance of Emaré.

    2. I had a quick look and according to Mark R. Cohen:

      The wearing of distinctive garb was first enforced in England, beginning with the reign of King Henry III. The sign was to consist of "two white tables made of white linen or parchment" worn "upon the fore part of their upper garments." (42)

      Regulations of that sort existed in Castile, too:

      The Ordinance on the Enclosure of the Jews and Moors, promulgated by Catalina de Lancaster at Valladolid in 1412, was designed specifically to restrict Jews' and Muslims' relationships with Christians. Among other things, the ordinance required Jews to wear a distinctive yellow garb and to live in ghettos that were locked at night. Restrictions placed on Muslims similarly took personal appearance and dress into account. Mid-thirteenth-century legislation required Muslim men to cut their hair short and to wear long beards. Muslims, moreover, were not permitted to dress in bright-colored clothing or to have white or gold shoes. (Mirrer 9)

    3. Of course, after 1290 there were no Jews living in England, so actual contact between Jews and the English population would have to had happened abroad, perhaps via pilgrimage, trade or crusade.

      You are absolutely right, however, that in medieval Spain, where such cross-religious contact occurred, there were similar rules on dress; James Brundage has argued (convincingly, I think) that such rules were all about preventing sexual contact between those of different religions (Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe) and David Hanlon, Bruce Rosenstock and Sharon Kinoshita have also written about cross-religious sexual contact and miscegenation in medieval Spain.

  2. "such rules were all about preventing sexual contact between those of different religions"

    That would support what you're thinking about the importance of clothing with regards to the future mother-in-law's response to Emaré, wouldn't it?

    1. Yes! Or, at least, I think so. If she really thinks Emaré is a Saracen, then of course she would try to prevent the wedding.

      A later detail in the romance has the mother-in-law accusing Emaré of giving birth to a monstrous child (which she doesn't); another association with religious (usually Saracen) alterity.