The Texture of Emare

Article excerpt

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. …