Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



The Earl of Toulouse

 Jhesu Cryste yn Trynyté,
Oonly God and persons thre,
Graunt us wele to spede;
And gyf us grace so to do
That we may come Thy blys unto,
On rode as Thou can blede.
Leve lordys, Y schall you telle
Of a tale sometyme befelle
Farre yn unkowthe lede:
How a lady had grete myschefe,
And how sche covyrd of hur grefe;
Y pray you take hede. 
                                    The Erle of Tolous (1-12)

Jesus Christ in Trinity, one God in three persons, grant us success and give us grace to do as we should to come to Your bliss, for which You bled on the cross.

Dear Lords, I will tell you a tale that once happened in a strange land: how a lady had great trouble and how she recovered.  I pray you take heed.  There was once a mighty emperor in Germany named Sir Dyaclysyon.1  He was bold and strong, and feared by all of Christendom, for he disinherited many men and forcefully seized their lands unjustly.  One day a war began between the emperor and the Earl of Toulouse, Sir Barnard, whose lands worth three hundred pounds a year had been taken by the emperor.  Sir Barnard, a hardy and strong man, was angered at the wrong the emperor did to him and other men, so he prepared himself for battle in the emperor’s lands, without fail, and began to burn and slay there.

The emperor had a wife of great beauty and goodness.  She was charitable and virtuous, and of unsurpassed fidelity.  She asked her husband to return the earl’s land, but he refused:

“Madam, as I am a true knight, that will never happen; I would slay him first.  He is making war in my land, and I will be ready to meet him within a fortnight,” and he sent a call far and wide throughout his land in field and town for all men who were able to bear weapons to prepare for battle.  The earl did the same and had more than forty thousand men armed with spear and shield. The day for combat was set, and the emperor addressed his seven battalions with a stern voice:

“Be ready to fight and beat them down.  Leave no one alive, but slay them with sword and knife!  See that no one is ransomed, not for gold or property.  But his boast failed, as the earl met him with many good strokes.  The battalions fought as though they were mad; it was hideous to hear.  Shields and spears were shattered, hauberks tattered, and heads cracked through helmets.  The earl was so fierce that he slew a hundred men with his axe.  Many steeds were stabbed, and many bold barons lay in their own blood; so much blood was spilled that the field was flooded.  Many a body and head, many doughty knights were left lying who once were fierce; many wives who used to sleep safely would now sit and weep.

When the emperor saw that the earl had won the field, he quickly ran to a nearby castle to save his head, and took three earls with him.  No one else escaped; they were either slain or taken hostage.  The earl followed the chase until nightfall, then thanked God.  Sixty thousand of the emperor’s men were killed, and three hundred and fifty great lords were taken, grimly wounded. The earl’s men fought so well that only twenty were slain.  Such is the grace that God sends; false quarrels come to an evil end, no matter what.

The emperor was greatly grieved at losing men and lands, and swore that he would neither drink nor eat until he was avenged.  But the empress advised agreement: “As far as I can see, it is perilous to be on the wrong side of a quarrel.”  “Madam,” he replied, “I am greatly dishonored; my lords are taken or dead, and I nearly die for sorrow!”  Dame Beulybon said, “Sir, I advise by St John that you stop warring.  You have the wrong and he the right, as you can plainly see.”  He knew she was right, which displeased him, so he sighed and left silently in thought.  We will leave him now, so full of woe that no entertainment could cheer him.

We turn again to Barnard, the Earl of Toulouse, who thanked God with all his might for the grace He sent him.  He had many chivalrous men in his prison, worth a great ransom.  Among them was the greatest of all, renowned Sir Trylabas of Turkey, lord of many towns and loved by the emperor.  One day the earl and Trylabas went walking by the riverside, and the earl asked about the empress:

“It is widely said that she is the most beautiful woman alive.  If she is as fair as men say, the emperor must be very proud.”

The lord replied, “As I am a knight, I will tell you the truth.  Nowhere in the world, both Christian and heathen, is there one so lovely.  She is as white as snow, with a complexion redder than a rose.  A more beautiful woman cannot be imagined.”

The earl replied, “Your words make me sad.  I swear that if you take me safely to see her, I will forgive your ransom and give you my help and love as long as I live.  It is worth a hundred pounds to buy horses and rich armor, as I am a true knight!”

Trylabas agreed:  “I pledge to honor the covenant we make here and bring you peacefully to see the empress, and to keep it secret.  By God, I shall never again be against you and swear on my life to be true.  You may trust me firmly.”

The earl answered graciously, “I trust you to be my friend, without any strife.  We should prepare soon for our journey to see that woman.  By God and St Andrew, if you are true to me, you shall receive many riches.”  They would not be stopped by wind or storm, but went together straight to the city where the empress stayed.  The earl, though of noble lineage, was aware of his danger and dressed himself as a hermit so that he would not be recognized and rested in his lodgings for three days.

Trylabas devised a plan to betray the earl and went to see the empress. He knelt and greeted her courteously and informed her that he had their enemy, the Earl of Toulouse.  She asked him to explain how the earl came to be there, and the knight told her the story:

“Madam, I was in his prison, and for love of you he forgave my ransom and offered a reward of a hundred pounds for armor and a noble steed if I helped him have sight of you once.  So I have promised him that he shall see you.  But, lady, he is our foe, and I therefore recommend that we slay him; he has done us great harm.”

“Your soul will be lost if you do so,” answered the empress.  “You shall fulfill your promise.  Since he forgave your ransom and released you from prison, do away with your wicked will!  It is against courtesy to betray one who has trusted you.  When they ring the mass-bell tomorrow, bring him to my chapel; there he can see me and your promise will be fulfilled.  But do not plan any villainy, for your soul will be in peril since you have made an oath. It would be a pity to be treacherous.”

The knight went back to the earl, ashamed of his wicked thoughts, and told him, “Don’t be dismayed, for you will see her tomorrow.  When you hear the mass-bell, I will take you to the chapel where she will be brought.  Stand hidden, and you will see the one who is so worthily made.”

The earl said, “I hold you to be a true man, which you will never regret.”  Glad in heart, he ordered wine, then rested for the night. In the morning he dressed as a hermit, and they went to the chapel when the bell rang.  They waited but a short time until the lady arrived, led by two earls.  She was richly clad in gold and rich jewelry, and when the earl saw her, he thought her as bright as a blossom on the tree.  Of all the sights he had ever seen, none had ever raised his spirits so high as did her beauty.

She stood still and showed her face for the earl to see, and he swore he had never seen anyone so fair. Her eyes were grey as glass, and her mouth and nose were perfectly shaped.  From her forehead to her toes, none could be better formed or more lovely.  She turned around twice between the two earls to show her slender waist and fair shoulders and arms.  When she spoke with a soft voice, she  seemed like an angel from heaven, she was so lovely.  Her hands were white as whalebone, with long fingers adorned with rings, and her nails were bright.  When he had seen her well, she went to hear mass in the chapel.  The earl stood on the other side and couldn’t take his eyes  from her.  He prayed, “Lord, if only I were worthy enough to be her mate and she had no husband, it would be more valuable to me than all the gold God ever made!”

When mass was ended, the lady prepared to go, and the earl sighed, sad that she was leaving his sight.  He said, “By God, I will ask her for alms if she is willing, so that I will have something from the noble lady to see each day and be comforted.”  He knelt down and asked for alms in God’s name, and the empress told a knight to bring her forty bright florins, which she gave to the earl, along with a ring from her finger.  He thanked her many times and she left to return to her chamber, where she most wished to be.  When the earl returned to his lodgings, he was overjoyed to see the ring, which he kissed many times and said, “My dearest, this was on your finger.  If ever I have your grace, Queen, that there may be love between us, this will be our token!”

As soon as it was day, the earl took his leave and went his way toward his own country.  He thanked Trylabas and told him he would be well rewarded for his deed.  They kissed as good friends and Sir Trylabas went home, planning treachery if he could find the means.  May evil strike him!  He called two knights of his kinship and promised them great honor if they would do as he asked:

“Do you know the Earl of Toulouse?  He has done us great harm and must be stopped.  If you will follow my advice, he will be dead today, by God!”  The false knights, Kaunters and Kayme, needed no urging.  They went with Trylabas and met the earl on a bridge, and attacked him as though they were his foes.  But the earl was mighty and quickly killed two; the third fled but the earl overtook him and split his head in three.  The people of the country gathered and chased him—there were at least a hundred.  The earl was terrified and finally escaped into a wilderness and, weary, rested there all night.  At dawn he arose and thanked God he had escaped his foes.  He traveled many miles that day through great perils until he reached a fair castle of lime and stone, where he was most pleased to dwell.  His men were glad to see him, and he told them to be merry, for the emperor would leave them in peace, with no more war.  The earl stayed there with games, mirth and solace, just as he wished.

We must now speak of the empress, Dame Beulybon,2 and how she came to grief.  The emperor loved her as much as his own life, and more if he could.  He had two knights who were dear to him protect her day and night, whether he was far or near.  Both fell in love with her on account of her great beauty.  Neither knew of the other’s feelings, and they were near death from their secret love.  One said to the other:

“Sir, you are so pale that you seem to be fading away like a dead man.”  The other replied, “I swear, I think the same of you.  Tell me the cause, and I promise to tell you mine.”  The other agreed, as long as it was kept secret, to which his fellow swore and said, “I am in great distress and near death for love of my lady, the empress.”  The other said, “Surely, I fare the same for that bright lady.  Since our love is set on her, how might we best cure our suffering?  Have you any advice?”  The other replied, “By St John, the best counsel I can give is this: one of us should go to her secretly and ask for her bliss.  I shall go first and if I am successful you will not miss out, for you will catch us in the act and out of fear that you will betray her, she will submit to you also.”

They agreed and the false villain went to the lady’s chamber and knelt before her to fulfill his purpose.  She said, “Sir, I see that you are not well.  Tell me now the cause of your mourning.” 

“Lady,” he said, “I dare not for all the riches ever wrought by God, unless you will swear on the book that you will not expose me.”

The lady was shocked: “How can it be that you dare not to trust me?  That is horrible!  I promise to keep your secret day and night, as truly as sworn on book or bell!”

“Lady, I place all my trust in you.  I want you to know what pain I suffer for you night and day; my health and my wit are wasted away.  Believe me, I have loved you for many a day but never dared to tell you.  My life will be worthless and I shall surely die unless you do as I propose.”

The lovely woman answered, “Sir, you know I am a wife. My lord is emperor, and he chose you to protect me at all times.  If I agreed to do that deed, I would  be brought to great misery and deserve to be burned.  You are a traitor with these words, worthy to be hanged and drawn, by Mary!”

The knight answered, “Madam, for the love of God, pay no heed to this.  You may trust me; I did it only to frighten you, so help me God!  Remember you have promised secrecy, so have mercy.  If I speak of this again, may I be drawn apart by a steed!”

The lady said, “I forgive you and will keep your secret as long as I live.  Be sure to be loyal to my noble lord in every way you can.”

“Yes, Lady, otherwise I would be doing wrong, for I have served him long, and he has rewarded me well.”  He said no more but went to his fellow knight; may evil take them!  When asked how he fared, he replied that he had failed: “Dear friend, I have never been so afraid!  It is useless to approach her.”

But the other knight was sure he could succeed: “You lack wit.  I shall win her myself; I bet my head on it!”  On the third day, when he saw her in a happy mood, he went to her sighing and sad, and asked for her counsel, to which she courteously agreed: “Tell me your trouble.  When I know everything, if I can give advice to relieve your suffering, I surely shall.”  “Lady,” he said, “you must hold up your hand and swear to secrecy.”  “Yes,” said the noble lady, “I so pledge; to do otherwise would be amiss.”

“Lady,” he said, “I trust that you will never reveal what I tell you.  I am brought to sorrow with thoughts of you, I swear.  As you can see, I am pale and nearly dead from grief.  Dear lady, for God’s sake, grant me your love.”

“Sir, that is your wish?”  she said.  “What kind of woman do you think I am?  I have been in your keeping; what have you heard or seen me do that would make you so bold to treat me like a whore?  That will never be!  Had I not promised secrecy, you would  be hanged from a gallows tree, without fail!”

“Mercy, good Madam,” cried the terrified knight.  “I know I am to blame and am therefore heartsick.  Please forgive my guilt and let me live!”  The empress granted his request and told him she would keep his secret, but that he was not to do it again. He went back to his fellow and reported his lack of success and asked for advice:  “If she tells our lord, we are but dead, and a woman’s tongue cannot be trusted.  She must be killed before she betrays us!”

“How might that be done?” asked the other.  “It would please my heart well if we could do that deed.”

“Yes, sir, as I hope to have peace, I will see that she receives her reward.  Have no fear!  Before three days have passed, she shall have great sorrow.”  Thus the two men agreed to bring the gracious lady to grief; may the devil take them!

That night they went to supper with the empress and all the company and entertained the lady with their jests.  After dinner, those well-dressed knights hid their fear with revelry as they escorted their lady to her chamber.  May evil befall them!  One of them called a knight who was carver for the empress; an earl’s son, he was a noble young man aged twenty.  The traitorous knight asked him: “Sir, will you do as we tell you?  We shall arrange a play that my lady will see; you will make her laugh so much that even if she were your foe, she would become your friend.”

The youth answered immediately, “By the order I bear as knight, I would be glad  to please my lady, even if it would cause me discomfort running in wind and rain.”

He was told, “Sir, take off all your clothes except your breeches and creep behind that curtain, and do as I say; then you will see a jolly play.”  Thinking no ill, he undressed and went behind the curtain.  They said, “No matter what, don’t come out until we call,” and he agreed.  They made merry for a great while, and only they knew of their guile.  When they departed from the chamber, they left the child sitting alone, and the lady in the room.  As she lay in bed asleep, she had no suspicion of treason, and the young man wondered why the knights were taking so long.

“Lord, how can this be?  I believe they have forgotten me.  If I call them, the lady will be frightened.”  So he sat as still as a stone; he dared not move or make a sound.  The false knights went to their chamber and armed themselves, and called lords out of their beds to arms:

“Quickly prepare yourselves and help take a false traitor who has been playing with my lady in her chamber all night!”  Soon they went with the traitors to the empress’ chamber, armed with swords and carrying brightly burning torches. They went behind the curtain and found the naked young man, and the treacherous knight stabbed him through the body, so he would speak no more.  The lady awoke, frightened by the bright light at her bedside and cried loudly, asking who the men were.  Her enemies answered:

“We are here and have seen your deeds, you false whore!  You have betrayed our lord, and you will be cast out and dishonored far and wide.”  She protested her innocence, but they laid the corpse before her.  “You are a liar!  Look, here lies your lover, and your whoredom shall be punished.  You won’t escape from us!”  They tied her terribly tight and cast her into a deep prison, which was a great sorrow to see.

We will now leave this lady in her distress and turn to her lord, who was far away from her.  One night, as the story tells us, he had a dream that two wild bears tore his wife to pieces and broke her body in two.  A sharp-witted man, he knew by his dream that his lady was in trouble.  At daybreak he called all his men together and told them to hurry and get ready to leave.  He sent pack horses and carts ahead stuffed with provisions for twelve miles and more.  He knew in his heart his wife was in danger, and he was therefore worried.  He prepared without delay, and with earls, barons and many knights went homeward.

They traveled day and night without stopping until they reached the city where the lady was staying, and they were awaited outside by lords, many of whom wept. They knew that when the lord learned that his wife was in such harm, he would have no joy.  They led the steeds to the stable and the lord into the hall, to honor him happily.  He wanted to see his sweet lady and went to her chamber.  He called the knights who should be protecting her and asked, “Where is my wife?  Is she asleep?  How does she fare?”

The two traitors answered, “If you knew what she has done, she would be put to death.  We tell you no lie; while you were away, we took a man with her at night.”  “The devil!” said the emperor.  “Tell me why she deserves death.”  The knights told him that “Sir Antore, her carver, lay with her; we found them together and therefore have slain him.  She is in prison, and the law requires that she be burned, by God.”

“Alas,” said the emperor.  “Has the one I loved so well dishonored me?  For all the world’s riches, I would not have thought she would be unfaithful.  My happiness is gone!”  He grabbed a knife with all his might and would have slain the traitorous knight had another knight not stopped him.  He threw up his arms in grief and swooned upon his bed.

In the morning, by common consent they set a parliament to judge the empress according to custom, but they could find no law by which to save her from the death penalty.  Then an old knight spoke:

“I am surprised that Sir Antore was thus beset.  Although he was naked in the room, they slew him without allowing him to explain.  Those two knights were the only men to witness any wrongdoing, and the cause might be some hatred.  Therefore, for love of me, I pray you agree with me.  No one except those two offer proof, and although we cannot save her from her trouble, we might find a good man who would dare to fight against them.  Everyone thought he spoke by law and with reason, and the king thanked him for his advice.  He called noble knights and told them to prepare to cry throughout the land to find a man so mighty that he would dare to take on the fight in defense of the lady, which would bring him reward.  I understand that messengers cried throughout the land in many a rich city: “If any man dares to prove his might by fighting in just combat, he shall be well rewarded!”

The Earl of Toulouse heard of this and the empress’ distress, which he thought a great pity and decided that if she was in the right, he would risk his life to save the gracious lady.  He mourned day and night for her, and said to himself that he would risk his life: “If I may know that she is innocent, her accusers will regret it unless they withdraw their charges!  By St John, I will go into Germany where I have many foes.  I pray to Almighty God that I fight for the right and bring that wife out of evil!”

One day while he was out hunting, he met a merchant from Germany and asked about the empress’ situation: “For what reason is your empress put in such great distress?  Tell me, for God’s grace, whether she is guilty.” 

The merchant replied, “No, by Christ!” and told the earl sadly that she was to be burned in three weeks from that day.  The earl wanted to see that sight and said: ”I tell you, I have good horses to sell, and two or three steeds.3  Surely I can sell them there, so I will go with you.”

The merchant politely said, “If you go into that land it will be to your gain, for you may sell them there as you wish.”

The earl told him, “If you will make this journey with me, I promise to give you £20 reward,” to which the merchant enthusiastically agreed.

They set off with seven exceedingly fine steeds, and the earl appeared to be a worthy horse dealer.  The merchant, in whom the earl had placed his trust, proved a true guide; they rode together until they came to a rich abbey a mile from the emperor’s castle.  They wished to stay there and fatten their horses, which was fortunate as the abbot was the empress’s uncle and was in agony over her.

One day as the earl was going to church to hear mass, the abbot saw the fair, tall man and called him over and invited him to a meal after mass, which the earl gladly accepted. They washed and went to dine together, and took a walk in an orchard afterwards.  Sighing, the abbot told the earl, “Sir, I live in sorrow for a beautiful lady.  My heart is filled with woe, for she is accused and shall therefore be put to death unjustly.  Unless she has some help, she shall be burned a week from today.”  The earl thought it a great pity, if she were innocent.  “By St Paul,” said the abbot, “I would wager my soul that she was never guilty in deed or thought, save a ring she gave the Earl of Toulouse to comfort him, not in sin; she told me so in confession.”

The earl said, “Since it is so, may Christ avenge her woe.  If you will assure me of your absolute confidence, it may be for your good.”  The abbot swore to secrecy upon many books and by his profession, and the earl told him, “I am he to whom she gave the ring as our token.  Now keep this concealed by the cross!  I have come, dear sir, to take the battle for her and stand with right.  But first I will shrive her myself, and if I find she is free of guilt, my heart will be light.  Let me go in monk’s clothes to the place she will be taken to be prepared for death, and when I have shriven her, I will take the combat, as I am a true knight.”

The abbot was never so glad; he nearly went mad with joy and kissed the earl.  The earl stayed with the abbot all that week in mirth; both were merry, their grief relieved.  On the day the lady was to be burned, they went together and the earl, dressed as a monk, knelt before the emperor and requested permission to shrive the lady, which was granted.  He examined her and, as it says in the story, she was innocent.

She said, “By Him that died on the cross, I have never committed a sin for which I should be destroyed, save once: I gave a ring to the Earl of Toulouse.  Absolve me if you will, but my destiny is coming, to be burned in this fire and fulfill God’s will.”  The earl absolved her with his hand, then boldly stood up and spoke:

“Peace, lords!  You that have accused this noble lady deserve to be burned!”  One of the knights arose and said:

“You churlish monk, you will not save her with all your tricks, even though your abbot is one of her kin.  You would say the same if all your convent had lain with her, you are such a wicked liar!”

“Sir,” answered the earl, “I believe you are one of this lady’s accusers.  Although we are men of religion, we shall hold you accountable for the charges you have made, which are not in the right.  I undertake to prove her case in battle with you; here is my glove!4  I shall show that you are false men who should burn in the fire, God give me grace.”

Everyone there thanked God for His grace.  The two knights were furious and swore their opponent would be slain, but it did not avail.  The earl armed himself proudly to assail his enemies.  When they met in battle, they hewed through helmets and mail.  The earl smote one with his spear through his body, who fell to the ground.  The other ran away, and the earl overtook him under a tree; unable to escape, the traitor yielded defeat.  They went before the emperor and the knight was forced to tell the truth:

“We thought to destroy her because she would not submit to our will.”  The earl then took them to the fire and burned them, flesh, skin and bones.  He then went secretly to the abbey, while the lady was taken to the town with joyful procession and mirth.  The emperor was overjoyed and asked to see the monk:

“Why did he leave?  I will give him a bishopric and my help and love as long as I live, by God!”  The abbot knelt and said that the monk had gone home to Rome, and that the pope, with whom he lived, would be glad of his return.  “Sir,” said the emperor, “I advise you to stop such words.  I want to see him now, or I swear you shall lose my good will forever.”

“Lord,” replied the abbot, “since it is so, I must go after him.  But you must assure me that if he has ever been your foe, you will not harm him.  If you agree to be his friend, I will go after him.” 

“I agree gladly,” said the emperor.  “Even if he had killed all my kin, he is welcome to me.”

The abbot then revealed the earl’s identity: “Lord, I trust that you will do as you say.  It is Sir Barnard of Toulouse, a noble and chivalrous knight, who has done this deed.” 

“Certainly,” said the emperor, “this is a great dishonor for me.5  Sir, I pray you go after him immediately; we shall kiss and be good friends, by God!”

The abbot agreed and went after the earl, to whom he said, “Sir, go with me.  By St John, my lord and you shall be reconciled and be good friends,” which made the earl very glad. 

The emperor came to meet him and said, “My noble friend, I forgive you my wrath and will give you my help and my love while I live, by Him who died on the cross!”  The two kissed in friendship, which made all men happy, as the romance tells.  The emperor made the earl his steward and returned all the lands he had taken from him.

The emperor lived only three years more, and the lords elected the earl to be emperor because he was so strong in battle against his foes.  He wedded the empress, and they lived together happily for twenty-three years; all fifteen of their children became doughty knights.

This tale is chronicled in Rome, and called a Breton lay and always shall be.  May Christ bring us to heaven to have our home.  Amen, amen for charity.
                                    Here ends the Earl of Toulouse


The Earl of Toulouse recalls thematic elements from other poems in the collection, such as territorial disputes, treacherous court politics, false accusations, exemplary women, and less than exemplary rulers.  There is a touching tone that makes it appealing, and in the original language it is an engaging read.  The story was very popular in many languages, countries and centuries.

There are two topics raised by the poem that are fitting for our final discussion, since the reader now has sufficient background to make meaningful connections.  One, courtly love, is relevant to medieval romance in general, and the other, judicial combat, has recurred in the collection and elsewhere. Both involve the dynamics between history, culture, and literary convention.

Courtly love is so engrained in the study of medieval romance that even newcomers to the field find it familiar and authoritative, so a brief summary of the history, meaning and validity is in order in an introductory text.  Fin ‘amors was part of the literary and social ideology surrounding love as the romance emerged during the twelfth-century “Renaissance” in France.  It has been seen as part of the “civilizing” movement of the time, envisioned during the late nineteenth century as “the suppression of the primitive culture by an increasingly influential learned tradition fostered within the aristocracy and the clerical ranks” (Hult 207).  The development of courtly love poetry was also connected with the rise of women’s status, particularly in noble society.  Another impetus for the focus on love seems to have been concern over the state of love.  Chrétien’s Yvain opens with courtiers lamenting the degraded condition of love, and Jaeger cites a number of similar expressions that “indicate that the new paradigm of love was perceived as a response to a decline of good love and friendship in the twelfth century.”  While C. S. Lewis saw a “new” kind of love, Jaeger sees the poets “trying to breathe new life into a dying ideal” (Jaeger 185-86).

The term “courtly love” (amour courtois) was coined by Gaston Paris, a medieval scholar and philologist.  It first appeared in his 1881 article, one of two on the Round Table.  The  second article (1883) expanded the concept, though briefly (18 pages out of 75) (Hult 201), with his study of Lancelot and Guenevere in Chrétien de Troyes’ Chevalier de la charrette (Knight of the Cart or Lancelot).

Paris’ plan for a “système imposant” (“imposing  system”) was codified by C. S. Lewis in The Allegory of Love (1936).  Lewis’ model, based on twelfth-century Old French works, was initially influential and remains so for many.  However, a number of critics have since devalued it, and treatments vary widely.  For instance, Fries notes that “what used to be called ‘courtly love’” (23) has been so challenged that “one hardly knows what to call it any more” (42), and Saunders cites the preference for fin ‘amors over “courtly love,” which circumvents Lewis’ “fixity of definition” and allows the possibility of marriage (Saunders 189n).  At the same time, Diamond defines the formal vocabulary of courtly love as “a signifying system rooted in the complex idealization of the romance” (68).  Then again, according to Jaeger, “It has not been possible to define a ‘system’ of courtly love, or to reduce it to a definition or series of definitions.”  In his opinion, Gaston Paris’ presentation of Chrétien’s Lancelot “directed medieval studies into one of its oddest and longest detours” (Jaeger 186).

While Brewer concedes that Lewis’ theory is now mostly “left behind by modern criticism,” he feels it still has some truth and is “worth revisiting” (120).  And some are doing just that.  In her review of a recent study, Bruckner agrees with the approach of taking courtly love seriously while remaining sensitive to ironies (702).  In her opinion, “medieval poets and romancers take different positions on love that often require a double focus: irony is not necessarily incompatible with an idealizing impulse” (Bruckner 704).

There is some question whether the Old French romances represent “part of the body of floating ideas on the subject” of the times as suggested by Lewis (33), or are perceived through nineteenth century sensibilities, when they were a topic of study.  Robertson feels that “the study of courtly love, if it belongs anywhere, should be conducted only . . . as an aspect of nineteenth and twentieth century cultural history,” unrelated to Middle Age thought (272).  The modern scholar and reader cannot dismiss possible parodic elements in at least two of Lewis’ cornerstone examples, particularly Andreas Capellanus’ The Art of Courtly Love, and Chrétien’s Lancelot.  The latter, considered by Lewis as “the flower of the courtly tradition in France, as it was in its early maturity” (33), reduces the knightly lover to a buffoon, which is difficult to attribute to the influence of Chrétien’s patroness, as Lewis suggests (24), rather than the poet’s own ridicule of the convention.

Though assailed, courtly love has become institutionalized, and our concern is the influence and applicability of the codified concept on the literature under study: Middle English romance.  According to Lewis’ paradigm, the elements of the courtly love relationship are humility, courtesy, adultery and the religion of love.  The first two are attributes expected of knightly behavior, among many others, and are viewed by Lewis as an extension of feudal relationships.  Adultery is the consequence of loveless, contracted marriages, as well as an outlet for the passion considered inappropriate to marital sex by the Church; true love can only be found outside marriage.  According to Lewis, the religion of love reflects the “cleavage between Church and court” on the subject of sex in marriage (18).

In twelfth-century works, the religion of love involves the allegorical figure of the God of Love and other personifications, such as Hate, which are employed to express characters’ psychology and emotions, especially by Chrétien.  In the religion of love, the knight worships the unattainable lady, and even though Lewis finds Lancelot’s devotional actions towards Guenevere “revolting” and taking the “irreligion of the religion of love” to its furthest extreme (29), the adoration of the lady passed into medieval romance, generally without the allegory.

If we examine the separate elements of courtly love, we will recognize several in some, but not all, of the works we have studied, so we know that courtly love is not present in every romance.  Courtesy is part of courtly social grace and is therefore not an especially helpful indicator of courtly love.  Humility, too, is an admired virtue, but the excessive humbling of the knight to the beloved is part of the convention and contributes to the religion of love aspect: the adoration and intense love felt by a knight for a lady, often on account of her beauty, sometimes sight unseen.

The fullest example of courtly love in this collection is in Ywain and Gawain, where the knight adores Alundyne at first sight, suffers pangs of love, and swears service to his beloved, whom he marries. Alundyne is in the dominant position, and Ywain’s betrayal of trouthe leads to a series of testing experiences by which he proves himself worthy.  The Earl of Toulouse also has a courtly love element; the hero is also love-stricken by beauty, though the object of his desire is unattainable.  He eventually defends her in combat and later weds her.  Though the two knights who desire and betray the empress suffer conventional lovesickness, their love is hardly courtly.  Neither is the love in Lay le Freine; although the lord loves Freine and treats her well, he is willing to give her up for a social better, albeit reluctantly.  Their eventual marriage is enabled only by her status, a reminder that courtly love was bound to class.

As is obvious from these brief examples, the weakest point in Lewis’ paradigm is adultery.  In fact, courtly love relationships usually lead to marriage (and plenty of heirs).  There are attempted seductions and false accusations but seldom adulterous affairs.  Scholars fall back on the Tristan and Iseult and Lancelot and Guenevere stories because there are few, if any, other examples, even in the Old French romances.  This misleading doctrine of adultery can be damaging to study: “By stressing a phantom cult of sexual immorality in the Middle Ages, literary historians distract the reader from what is really morally significant in some of the greatest medieval writers” (Donaldson 163).

Thus one element of Lewis’ model is virtually eliminated: two if allegory is counted, which even he admits is missing in fourteenth-century love poetry (137).  Courtesy and humility are weakened from their original importance, and only the transformed religion of love remains viable.  It is therefore apparent that the paradigm in total does not have sufficient relevance to warrant its unquestioned application to Middle English romance.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from the debate over courtly love goes to the heart of theory itself.  To borrow a phrase from Spearing in another context, paradigms should be used to stimulate creative readings of literature but not to “imprison it in a rigid doctrine” (190).  As Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm ask, “Who would wish to impose limits upon poetry?” (488).

Now we shift from love to battle, although the former often motivates the latter.  Trial by combat occurs so frequently in romance that it is easily assumed to be part of medieval courtly life. However, in order to dispel the image of judicial combat as contemporary practice, it is best understood as history that has passed into literary convention, particularly Arthurian romance.

Trial by combat was known in England as “wager of battle.”  There was also “wager of law,” both dependent on the accused swearing to the truth of his statement and finding sureties for his oath.  This is seen in the “wajowr” (“wager” or “wage”) made by Launfal at his judicial trial, with Sir Perceval and Sir Gawain acting as his guarantors (Sir Launfal 811-16).  Actually, Gawain and Perceval are giving surety that Launfal will appear on the appointed day (a period of as long as a year might be granted the accused to prepare their defense).  There was also a system of compurgation, in which a number of people (oath-helpers) vouched for the good faith and ethical truthfulness of the defendant, but not factual knowledge of the truth of his oath.  The system was widely used but, as Green notes, ”judicial duels and even ordeals are scattered across the pages of romance, but in practice they were far less common than the compurgation for which we must search with a fine-tooth comb” (104).

Trial by combat was introduced into England by William the Conqueror, passed into common law, and went through stages of regulation and restriction.6  It was based on the premise that God would always judge for the right, which Lea sees as “the only excuse for the whole system” (137).  Originally defendants in trial by combat chose a champion who was also a witness and could swear to the truth of the defendant’s statements.  But the system was abused by false witnesses, and professional champions could be hired; though not legal in England, the practice continued and became customary in civil cases.  In serious criminal cases the defendant had to appear personally, and if either party was unable to engage in combat, trial was by jury.  There were, of course, those who acted as champions for those in need out of chivalrous or moral motives.  Should a champion acting as witness be defeated and thereby proven false, he was subject to fines and/or penalties (“infamy” in England) and prohibited from acting as a witness or champion in the future.

A bit of trivia: the “many serjant of mace” seen in The Awntyrs were officials-at-arms who led the combatants to the lists “as was the manere” (“according to the custom”; 498) that accompanied trial by combat.  The mace had originally been a fighting weapon but it eventually became symbolic to denote certain offices, such as sergeant-at-arms.  The role continues today in a variety of posts, such as the Sergeant at Mace for the Taunton Deane Borough Council, who attends the mayor at civic functions and bears the mace at formal events and processions.

While trial by combat came to England with the Normans, development  of judicial systems in both France and England in the eleventh and twelfth centuries provided venues for directing conflicts into the courts, although it took many years to completely replace trial by combat with judiciary action.7  In England, Henry II (r. 1154-89) reformed English civil procedure, and by the fourteenth century a complex judicial system was in place (see the Commentary to Sir Launfal), and most civil disputes were settled in the courts.  Trial by combat was practiced under common law by the aristocracy, usually over claims to property, or personal accusation of wrongdoing.  The disagreements were often, but not always, settled prior to combat.  Though the practice continued, it was a rarity beyond the fourteenth century.

There was also the Court of Chivalry, in which trial by combat was reserved mainly for accusations of treason.  It was strictly regulated, attended by ceremony, and overseen by the king, his marshal and/or constable.  It was a court for those in high position, and the combatants were outfitted like romance knights, with full armor, shield and spear.  By contrast, an example of trial by combat in the ordinary court in 1329 tells of champions in open coat with bare arms, legs and head, and armed only with a shield and horn-tipped baton.  The suit was settled without a battle, but the judge ordered combat to please the court, which was briefly performed without injury (Neilson 149).  Even less glamorous is the report by the mayor of London a hundred years later of combatants covered in sheep leather armed with wooden staffs with sharp iron tips, which broke on the first blow.  Fighting was reduced to fists, and victory was won by a bite to the nose and a thumb in the eye, which elicited the cry for mercy (Neilson 154-57).

These episodes are far from the spectacles of romance and the pomp of the Court of Chivalry, which was greatly restricted by Henry IV early in his reign.  In response to the Commons’ complaints that it impinged on common law, the king directed by statute that trials for treason be tried in court.  A few more battles occurred, but the Court of Chivalry eventually became obsolete,8 like all wagers of battle.

Nevertheless, trial by combat appears as routine in the literature of the period.  The two easy explanations are literary convention and anachronistic retention, but a look at the examples in our collection may reveal a bit more.  Ywain and Gawain is based on Chrétien’s Yvain, and the redactor, though having made changes, was probably not inclined to drastically alter the story line.  Both types of combat are represented: the steward’s personal accusation of Lunet for treachery, and the territorial dispute of the Black Thorn sisters. The former is a manorial matter, and the latter overseen by the king.

There is a hint in both Yvain and Ywain and Gawain that trial by combat was being viewed as undesirable and inefficacious.  Although the hero saves Lunet, it is only with the aid of his lion: otherwise he may well have been defeated in the uneven match against two devils.  The inability of either Gawain or Ywain to overcome his opponent stalls the battle and the case, and when the two knights each concede defeat and refuse to continue after their identities are revealed, they abandon their commitments to the maidens, placing a greater value on friendship than victory.  Both judicial combats in the poem undermine the concept that right will always be upheld in battle.

The combat between Galeron and Gawain in The Awntyrs follows similar lines.  The source for the episode is unknown, but manuscript evidence suggests a lost original.  Shepherd attributes the duel over rightful land claims to convention in Arthurian romance (365), but again, as in Ywain and Gawain, it may have couched social commentary.  In both poems, the combat involves territorial dispute; in Ywain and Gawain, everyone, including Arthur, sides with the younger sister.  In The Awntyrs, Arthur is accused of unlawfully seizing lands. In both battles, the opponents are evenly matched and the fighting brutally inconclusive, which leads spectators to beg for reconciliation and judicial action.  However, in neither case does Arthur agree until one or both champions concede.  Had they not, it is impossible to predict how long Arthur would have allowed the bloodshed to continue, or to explain his refusal to exercise his power and responsibility as supreme judge.  The “unreasonable nature of warfare dedicated only to possession” and the “folly and gratuitousness of the conflict” that costs lives over lands (Hanna 296) is acknowledged by everyone but the king.

The author of The Earl of Toulouse seems more indifferent to trial by combat than critical.  Laskaya and Salisbury cite the popular folk motif that involves an innocent woman unjustly accused of adultery.  Often, she is the daughter or wife of a king or emperor, a victim of court politics, and in need of a champion (309-10).  The plot bears resemblance to Susanna and the Elders, the scriptural story retold as A Pistel of Susan in the fourteenth century, although there innocence is proven though peaceful human rather than divine intervention.  The Earl of Toulouse has also been theorized to have an historical basis, with several sources suggested by scholars.

Whether derived from folklore, literary convention or history, the trial by combat in The Earl of Toulouse is almost anticlimactic, subordinated to the main plot.  In two short stanzas (24 lines), the earl disposes of one knight and captures the other.  The episodes in The Awntyrs (approximately 120 lines) and Ywain and Gawain (around 136 and 90 lines) feature graphic depiction of the battles, with bloody wounds, shattered bejeweled armor and gear, and the emotions and reactions of both spectators and combatants. All of this is missing from The Earl of Toulouse; the scene is pro forma, as though it held no currency for poet or audience.  While it could be explained by the swiftness of Breton lay narrative that sacrifices lengthy description, even then the episode is quite flat.

If the theory is correct that trial by combat was waning by the end of the thirteenth century, how is its appearance in poems written in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century explained?  In addition to literary convention, we may also consider the romancers’ penchant for including outmoded customs, perhaps to create a feeling of nostalgia and enhance the vision of the “hold time” (“old days”)in which many works are set, despite frequent anachronistic contemporary intrusions.  The time warp continues with punishments, which were often obsolete when the poem was written, such as castration, blinding or beheading for rape rather than the contemporary hanging, but they may have been appropriate to the fictive setting, or at least gave that impression.

Harsh corporal punishment and mutilation such as the blinding of Gwennere in Sir Launfal were reserved for treason, and their use for civil crimes was uncommon, especially in the fourteenth century (Bellamy 181).  In his discussion of flaying, which appears frequently in the literature (such as in Havelok) but for which there is little contemporary evidence, Barron theorizes that such images may have been intended to make an impression on the audience in association with the abhorrence of moral and social crimes committed (197).  Similarly, the gory descriptions and horrific consequences of trial by combat may have been aimed at underscoring the wantonness of the practice and the civility of court trials.  Of course, there may have been those in the audience who thrilled vicariously at the spectacle, at least as told by the poet, but the works seldom lacked a degree of sobering didacticism for those seeking moral edification along with entertainment.


The edition used for this translation is The Breton Lays in Middle English. Ed. Thomas C. Rumble. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1965.  There are four extant manuscripts, and the poem is dated to the last half of the fourteenth century. 


1  Modernized: “Diocletian.” Possibly a third-century Roman leader and ruler  (Laskaya and Salisbury 354).

2  Beulybon: ”belle” (beautiful), “bon” (good).

3  He has both steeds, which are used in battle, and riding horses.

4  In trial by combat, the champions threw down their gloves (gauntlets) in challenge.

5  This remark seems to refer to the earl’s identity and deed, but Rumble interprets it to mean that the emperor is dishonored because “it had to be my foe who revealed the treachery of my own knights” (175).

6  Regulation and practice of trial by combat differed in each European country.

7  Trial by combat in England was not abolished by Parliament until 1819 after a plea claiming wager of battle was presented to the King’s Bench but subsequently withdrawn. 

In 2002, a man attempted unsuccessfully to invoke trial by combat in Bury St Edmonds rather than pay a £25 fine for a motoring defense.  David Sapsted,  “Court Refuses Trial by Combat,”  The Telegraph (UK) 16 Dec. 2002.

8  The Court of Chivalry continues today; it has had jurisdiction over the misuse of heraldic arms since the fourteenth century.

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