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.