Earl of Toulouse, The

Earl of Toulouse, The
(Erl of Tolous)
(ca. 1350–1400)
   The Earl of Toulouse is a late 14th-century verse ROMANCE written in the dialect of the northern East Midlands. The narrator identifies the text as a “Breton LAI,” though it has been suggested that the narrative has little in common with those MIDDLE ENGLISH texts typically thought of as Breton laisSIR LAUNFAL, SIR ORFEO, and CHAUCER’s WIFE OF BATH’S TALE and FRANKLIN’S TALE. Although nothing is known of the poem’s author, the moralistic tone and language of the romance have led some to suggest he was a cleric. The poem is written in 102 12-line stanzas rhyming aabccbddbeeb, in tetrameter (four-beat) lines, except for the b-rhyme lines, which are trimeter (three-beat)—a form known as the TAIL-RHYME stanza, parodied by Chaucer in his TALE OF SIR THOPAS.
   The poem tells the story of Sir Barnard, the earl of Toulouse, and his love for Dame Beulybon (her name combines belle and bon—“beautiful” and “good”), the wife of Emperor Dyoclysyan. The poem opens as the emperor unjustly seizes some of Sir Barnard’s lands. Dame Beulybon tries unsuccessfully to mediate the dispute, and in the ensuing battle, Sir Barnard kills 60,000 of the emperor’s troops and takes prisoner his favorite, Sir Trylabas. Sir Trylabas negotiates his freedom by agreeing to arrange a meeting between Sir Barnard and Dame Beulybon, with whom the earl has fallen in love. Disguised as a hermit, Sir Barnard meets with the lady and obtains a ring as a token of her regard. Returning from the tryst, Sir Barnard is ambushed by Trylabas and two other knights, but he is able to kill them.
   Now the tale moves toward its crisis. The emperor is away, and leaves Dame Beulybon under the protection of two of his knights, who attempt to seduce her.When they are rebuffed, they connive to dishonor the empress. They convince a young “carver” named Sir Antore, presumably a squire, to hide naked in the empress’s bedchamber. When they subsequently burst in and find him, they slay him immediately and accuse the empress of adultery.When the emperor returns, he is forced by the demands of justice to burn his wife at the stake unless a champion can be found to defend her in a trial by combat.
   Sir Barnard, of course, answers the call. But first, disguised as a monk, he visits the empress and hears her confession, to be assured that she is, in fact, not guilty of the charges.Convinced of her innocence, Barnard champions her in the lists, defeats her accusers, and the two wicked knights burn at the stake in her stead. The emperor, grateful for his wife’s reprieve, returns Barnard’s lands and makes him the royal steward.After three years, the emperor dies, Barnard is elected his successor, marries Dame Beulybon, and, over the next 23 years, has 15 children with her.
   More than simply an entertainment, The Earl of Toulouse also examines the chivalric code, showing the Emperor in particular as falling short of the ideal, and in so doing creating an atmosphere in which his knights’ corruption reflects that of their leader. But truth prevails, and ultimately the true chivalry of Barnard and the empress return the kingdom to righteousness.
   The story has analogues in several languages, and the folklore motif of the “accused Queen” has been shown to be widespread. Some scholars have suggested a relationship between this story and that of the apocryphal scriptural tale of Susanna and the Elders, of which there was a contemporary Middle English version. In addition a number of historical analogues have been cited as possible sources for the tale, the most convincing of which is the case of Empress Judith, second wife of Louis the Pious. In 831, Judith was accused of adultery with Bernard I, count of Barcelona and Toulouse. She was to be tried by combat, but no accuser appeared at her trial, and she was, therefore, acquitted. The names and circumstances of Judith’s story make it not unlikely that this historical incident provided the ultimate source for the romance.
   ■ Cabaniss, Allen. “Judith Augusta and Her Time,”University of Mississippi Studies in English 10 (1969): 67–109.
   ■ Fellows, Jennifer, ed. Of Love and Chivalry: An Anthology of Middle English Romance. London: Everyman, 1992.
   ■ Laskaya,Anne, and Eve Salisbury, eds. The Middle English Breton Lays. Kalamazoo: Published for TEAMS in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1995.
   ■ Reilly, Robert. “The Earl of Toulouse: A Structure of Honor,”Mediaeval Studies 37 (1975): 515–523.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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