The Texture of Emare
Scala, Elizabeth, Philological Quarterly
The Middle English romances have profited from recent attention to a number of features: their popularity, their social discourse and varied audiences, and, most particularly, their manuscript context in important household anthologies and non-aristocratic collections. Attention to such features reveals that both merchant class readers and the texts they consumed are more self-conscious than their sometimes plain and inconspicuous textual format advertises. In particular, British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii's Emare figures its textual status through its centrally important object: a woven cloth depicting a number of famous literary lovers. Functioning as a romance text itself, this cloth offers a story of its own production as well as the value of the Middle English romance text that contains it. As we will see in a materially historicized reading of the texture and textuality of Emare, the manuscript book's merchant class audience may have been more aware of the ways its social status, woven into textiles and reproduced by its texts, is negotiated through its manuscript possessions than has been previously thought.
Such self-consciousness argues against the current understanding of Emare and Middle English romances more generally, which have not been considered particularly sophisticated productions. More so than other narratives, even, Emare has suffered from critical neglect, as well as a myopic focus on the cloth. As the poem's central object, the cloth has isolated Emare almost as much as the plot isolates the romance's eponymous heroine, who is set out to sea in a version of the "outcast wife" tale. As the almost exclusive focus of most critical accounts, the cloth has circumscribed Emare's significance and meaning, drawing attention away from the cultural and historical realms at issue in other texts. Recently, Ad Putter has framed the problem with Emare in terms of a kind of generic over-pliability--what amounts to a distinct lack of historical specificity. He admits to "the awkward position of having to say about the text things that might equally be said about countless other[s]" because, in effect, it is not "original, self-conscious, ironical, [or] historically specific." (1) As a result, we tend to read Emare like a folktale, with a very general and generalizing set of cultural assumptions and insights. Preoccupying the handful of studies devoted to the romance, the cloth's lengthy description prefaces the relatively brief narrative in which she is at first exiled for repulsing the incestuous advances of her father and later expelled from her husband's realm (with her newborn son) through the evil machinations of a jealous mother-in-law. With its elaborate, gem-encrusted surface depicting amorous literary figures, the cloth's description provides the longest non-narrative sequence in an otherwise economical story.
Because it persists as Emare's possession during her exile and because it is worn in the scenes of return and eventual reunification with husband and father, the cloth has been considered the romance's identifying marker, similar to Orfeo's harp. (2) Among shifting critical concerns in recent years about romance and the cultural work it can accomplish, Emare's cloth (and the cloak into which it is fashioned) has blocked similar interpretations of the poem. (3) One could even say that interpreting the cloth amounts to interpreting the poem itself and possibly the medieval culture that produced and consumed it. Its readings implicitly weave a different narrative out of the cloth to which the romance submits, while at the same time preventing the poem from participating in our larger historical or cultural narratives of the later Middle Ages.
The problem with criticism on Emare, however, is not its attention to the cloth bur its reluctance to take its insights about this object further. (4) Indeed, despite Putter's claim that Emare lacks a specific historical context, I will read the material texture of Emare's cloth--its inscription within late medieval manuscript culture. (5) Where other studies have suggested the way Emare and her cloth circulate as commodities, I argue that the cloth's material texture similarly makes a commodity of Emare, particularly when it eschews the status of the "lay," or verbal song, to suggest a written work. My argument here is that Emare's textile specifically and self-consciously figures the text, as well as offers an historical context that has otherwise been difficult to recover. (6) The cloth is the poem in the very material texture of its self-representations.
The poem's survival in a relatively late medieval manuscript, the early fifteenth-century Cotton Caligula A.ii, contrasts with the kind of textual environment we are led to expect from readings of Emare as a folktale barely evolved out of its original oral matrix and stymied by the tail-rhyme form in which it is versified. (7) Seen as markers of naivete, these features have contributed to the work's minimal anthologization, diminished reputation, and relative neglect. (8) Emare's position among other kinds of texts in the manuscript book has lead to few definitive generic categorizations. Some have used the religious contents of the manuscript to argue for Emare's homiletic character, asserting its position in what looks to be a moral entertainment. Others have looked to the numerous romances collected in it, and in similar miscellanies, to argue for the manuscript's focus upon secular interests. The hybrid nature of the manuscript, its combination of a number of romances with various didactic and religious materials, including prayers and medical remedies, has allowed for different accounts of Emare's textual environment and, mutatis mutandis, its generic status. The poem appears differently, more secular, less spiritual (and vice versa) depending upon the particular texts in the manuscript with which one aligns it. Outside its manuscript context as well, comparison with folktale and continental romance analogues detailed in the introduction to Edith Rickert's EETS edition of Emare, for example, posits a religious inflection for the Middle English lay at the same time that it renders the dearth of specifically religious reference in the poem most visible. While it shares the basic framework of the legend of St. Helena and the Constance saga, like Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, with which it is often compared, Emare does not explicitly invoke Christ as its hero.
By the same token, we cannot completely dismiss the comparisons with such stories as the Man of Law's for the contrasts, as well as similarities, they reveal. Much like its heroine, Emare is rescued by affiliation with Chaucer's tale, with which it shares a number of features and, likely, a prototype. Emare could provide a means of understanding the Man of Law's Tale, so the logic of comparison goes, because the tail-rhyme romance offers, despite Emare's later date, a simpler form of the story to which Chaucer's elegant handling of Constance can be contrasted. But Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale also shows what Emare lacks. As a "version"--primitive or later--of the Man of Law's Tale, we see the heroine's passive suffering and its seeming exaltation of her endurance without the clear moralizing of Chaucer's tale. This distinction is made by one reader who calls Emare "didactic" rather than moralizing in its articulation of the practical function of her passive endurance. (9) In focusing so exclusively on its female protagonist, Emare translates typical romance conflict into other narrative forms. Neither a standard romance with the requisite courtly combats nor a conventional religious narrative in which divine agency is credited with Emare's survival and success, the disfigured Emare resists generic categories by which we might know it better. (10) Because of the unusual mixture of features, even the lack of some we might expect, Emare has been called an "antilove romance." Accepting "the major conventions of the genre," it portrays "the love advocated in romances as potentially a shocking evil." (11) Little of the story is outwardly focused on Emare's marriage and courtship, stock features of the genre. Instead, it is a "family affair," a domestic romance of family relationships gone awry.
Domesticity also figures in Cotton Caligula, a typically hybrid household anthology. Indeed, Emare in itself replicates the varied character of these manuscript compilations, appearing neither clearly devotional nor completely secular. In its generic ambivalence Emare depicts the household anthology in miniature. Despite this intimate connection between Emare and its material matrix, the manuscript has stymied readers and prevented the kind of critical arguments from which such texts typically benefit. That is, while the manuscript's late date suggests a sophisticated and increasingly literate middle class clientele, the simplified story (using the tail-rhyme form mocked by Chaucer in the Tale of Sir Thopas) argues against a sense of sophistication, even inspiring notions of originary oral or minstrel performance. (12) But the development of the tail-rhyme lays, especially in light of their appearance in later manuscripts associated with the Northeast Midlands, suggests otherwise. The octosyllabic Middle English lays, largely in …
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Publication information: Article title: The Texture of Emare. Contributors: Scala, Elizabeth - Author. Journal title: Philological Quarterly. Volume: 85. Issue: 3-4 Publication date: Summer-Fall 2006. Page number: 223+. © 1998 University of Iowa. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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