The Erle of Tolous

 The Text: The Erle of Tolous survives in four manuscripts: Cambridge University Library MS Ff.II.38; Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Ashmole 45; Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Ashmole 61; and Lincoln Cathedral Library Thornton MS A.5.2.  In Ashmole 61, the Earl is accompanied by one of the two MSS of Sir Orfew, perhaps due to the owner's taste in bittersweet romances in which the hero and heroine both must survive and escape a kind of imprisonment or mistreatment.

The Tale:  Like the other Breton lais, this one localizes the hero in a real French town, and establishes the narrative motivation within the "recovery of a stolen inheritance" plot common in Anglo-Norman romances. However, like Marie’s "Yonec," this tale uses Christian ceremonies and concepts in an unusual way to advance the Syr Barnard’s progress, and to demonstrate his superior moral quality vs. Dyaclysyon, the German emperor. Both are successful warriors, but Syr Barnard’s victory depends upon his good character. Does this provide evidence the tale is of late origins when compared with the battle-epics of the early Middle Ages ("Song of Roland") which identify "good" knights by their belonging to the right race and religion (ours), and by their ability to kill our enemies faster than our enemies kill them?

Study questions—

1) The tale begins with a legal issue, disinheritance by force, guile, or intimidation (in the Law French used by English courts, novel disseisin), with which the noble audience would have been intimately familiar. A special English court, the assise of novel disseisin, met to consider such cases, and the displacement of a rightful heir appears to have been as common as convenience store robbery in our era. Disseisin on a grand scale, methodically practiced, as in the case of the emperor of Almayn, would have been monstrous, like the usurpation of the duchy of Lancaster by Richard II after John of Gaunt's death.  That event led to the heir's return (Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, father to Prince Hal), and to Richard's rapid loss of any support among the other barons.  It also may have led to the curious lack of concern about Richard's death while he was in Henry's custody.  Disruption of inheritance customs clearly threatens something of supreme importance to the aristocracy, and also, perhaps, to the lowest commoners who still have something to leave to their descendants.  The earl, therefore, stands for a special kind of noble hero. How does this affect the target audience’s reading of his strategies for recovering his lands?

2) The battle that results also is a typical outcome of a disinheritance which cannot be settled by any one nation’s court, and its savagery is not exaggerated. However, the emperor’s cry of no ransom (73-84) is unusual. Think about your reasons for going to war as a vassal of either man. Injuries, even captivity, are a cost of doing business, but leaving aside the commoner pikemen who might die in droves, the aristocrats expected to survive to fight again. In fact, one of the great benefits of fulfilling your oaths and following your lord into battle was the chance you might capture an aristocrat from the other side and ransom him for the going market rate, which was proportional to his rank and wealth (like a Mafia kidnapping). How does the emperor’s denial of ransom affect the audience’s perception of his character? Conversely, how does the earl’s participation in this ransom game affect his reputation among his vassals? (For two splendid modern satires on "ransom," see O. Henry’s "The Ransom of Red Chief" and the "Tom Sawyer’s Pirates" section of Huckleberry Finn.)

3) The emperor’s wife, Beulybon (perhaps "beau+lybard," or "beautiful leopard"), is doing more than saying "I told you so" when she tells the emperor to give up his quarrel with the earl (151-56). She’s enunciating the medieval Christian Church’s doctrine of "just war," by which the moral correctness of the combatants’ causes was evaluated to determine which one should support. This clearly is a challenge to the old baronial oaths of loyalty which basically said "my lord’s war is my war" whatever the justice of "my lord’s cause." Though the Church was reluctant to allow people to request divine assistance in personal quarrels (e.g., trial by battle), God’s assistance was presumed to be on the side of justice in large-scale conflicts, especially when the papacy had expressed an interest (e.g., the crusades, most obviously). Can you compare this with Emaré in its use of moral power to motivate plot?

4) Syr Trylabas of Turky starts life as a "good pagan," much like the great Saladin who had won the crusaders’ respect for his courage and generosity in the midst of the crusades. However, his introduction prepares us for trouble (179), but the formal oath-taking that accompanies his release without ransom tends to mask the potential dangers the earl courts (181-240). How is the earl’s character revealed in this arrangement? Note this is the first of several oaths which will be crucial to the tale’s significance—can you see fundamental issues raised by this pattern of oath-taking (and betrayal)?

5) Trylabas’ betrayal of the earl to Beulybon sets up the next clash of values on the issue of oaths made to enemies—are they valid?; does breaking them bring one’s word into as much danger as breaking an oath to an ally? The same basic kind of issue underpins Chaucer’s "Franklin’s Tale," also nominally called a "Breton lai" and included in Rumble's print collection, though it is missing many of the formal attributes which bind the other tales to the genre. Clearly, though, oath-breaking is a crucial issue in this era. How does our author make this an instance worthy of debate? Especially note that Beulybon’s decision to invite her husband’s enemy into her chapel is not without complication for the moral equation.

6) The earl’s penchant for cross-dressing with the clergy has only just begun, and clearly has something to do with the tale’s moral economy. The "armyte"’s garb (probably a simple robe bound with a rope) would be less formal but still claiming religious exemption from battle, and soon he’ll be dressing up as a monk and hearing confession. What does that mean to the tale’s noble audience?

7) The second betrayal of the earl by Syr Trylabas and his two hapless allies, Kaunters and Kayme, begins with the Turkish knight bidding the earl farewell with an oath and a kiss. What event does this resemble and what does it make our earl?

8) The betrayal of the empress by her bodyguards doubles and reverses the false-oath pattern we saw with Trylabas and the earl, and it arranges the tale’s denouement. The true oath given to a false oath-taker raises an obvious interpretive question—should she be bound by it? Then, the earl’s insistence on hearing her confession before undertaking trial by battle in her defense raises and answers similar questions: should he fight without knowing her innocence, and what is the best way to guarantee that knowledge is truthful? This episode may indicate the author’s familiarity with Lancelot’s two famous battles for Guenivere when she’s accused of treason and condemned to be burned. The first time, we know she’s innocent but Lancelot does not, and the second time we may believe she’s guilty, even though Lancelot defends her by oath and by the sword. Given that the L-G story is far more well-known than this one, how does its presence in the background of this tale affect your reception of the earl’s behavior?

9) The emperor is one of the real ciphers in this tale. Note that, when he thinks his wife doomed by her guilt, he almost commits suicide (865-76). So he’s not incapable of passion, though this is still further evidence of his faulty character. How do you read his response to knowing the earl saved his wife?

10) Compare the conclusion of this tale to the other tales of disinherited sons. What did you expect to happen and how has it deceived you? How might it have ended and why doesn’t it end this way?

For some paper topic ideas involving the lais use of conflicting cultural codes, click here.