Medieval Blog Part 3: The Medieval Romance Emarè and the Significance of Female Agency

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The world of medieval romance frequently maintains contextual motifs that operate in a wider trajectory of the romance genre, such that Emarè from the fourteenth century highlights the significance of female protagonists as a means of juxtaposing real world social constraints of the time. At the beginning of the text, Emarè’s father attempts to force her to marry him, but to no avail. However, the medieval romance Emarè demonstrates the significance of female agency during a time in which freewill is diminished through social constraints and expectations. In relation to the text as a whole, the character Emarè serves as a basis for the feminist movement while proving that women and men are equal despite preconceived ideas from a medieval society. Furthermore, Emarè refuses to marry her father while simultaneously committing an act of defiance against her father as an individual. From a medieval perspective, the issue of women holding opposition against men is not considered acceptable. Instead, characters such as Emarè play a significant role in the progression of real world women and female characters during times of oppression of the medieval period.

Throughout the course of the text, Emarè faces exile on two separate occasions. However, Emarè’s first exile serves larger importance regarding the representation of female agency during the middle ages. Furthermore, Emarè’s first exile occurs because of her deliberate acts of defiance against her father and society as a whole. During the medieval period, women are perceived as less significant than men from a societal perspective. In respect to the social placement of women, the issue of women following social expectations was viewed as mandatory action. Despite preconceived ideas from medieval society, romance narratives such as Emarè prove that women are capable of independence and leading successful lives. Following her refusal to marry her own father, Emarè’s father casts her out to sea without food and water due to his embarrassment from her defiance. The following passage depicts the result of Emarè’s actions as well as her arrival in Gallus at the beginning of the text, (in Old English):

She was dryven into a lond

That hyghth Galys, y unthurstond,

That was a fayr countré.

The kyngus steward dwelled ther bysyde,

In a kastell of mykyll pryde;

Syr Kadore hyght he.

Every day wolde he go,

And take wyth hym a sqwyer or two,

And play hym by the see.

On a tyme he toke the eyr

Wyth two knyghtus gode and fayr;

The wedur was lythe of le.

A boot he fond by the brym,

And a glysteryng thyng theryn,

Therof they hadde ferly.

They went forth on the sond

To the boot, y unthurstond,

And fond theryn that lady.

She hadde so longe meteles be

That hym thowht gret dele to se;

She was yn poynt to dye.

They askede her what was her name:

She chaunged hyt ther anone,

And sayde she hette Egaré. (Lines 335-360)

As a result of her refusal to marry her own father, her father the emperor exiles her from their homeland due to frustration and embarrassment. Furthermore, the Emperor places his daughter Emarè on a boat without food or water. However, a strong gust of wind serves as the ultimate force that casts Emarè out to sea. In relation to this meteorological factor, the issue of the strong gust of wind serves as a parallel punishment for the Emperor due to his attempt of forcing his daughter to conform to his demands. Emarè’s boat reaches the kingdom of Gallus, such that she is discovered by a steward for the King. In respect to Emarè’s arrival in Gallus, she is discovered by the King’s steward while being close to death. Emarè’s first journey lasts over seven days, such that she is deprived food and water for a significant amount of time. The character of Emarè portrays significant agency, considering that the punishment she faces is a result of failing to conform to her father’s demands. However, Emarè’s deliberate defiance against her father plays a significant role in the progression of female placement within society through its importance in the narrative world.

Consequently, Emarè’s refusal to follow her father’s orders proves that women are quite capable of independence. During the middle ages, female agency is often obstructed by social constraints. However, Emarè refuses to follow social expectations and continues to make the best decisions for herself instead of those around her. Within the final lines of the aforementioned passage, representatives of the King of Gallus ask Emarè what her name is. The issue of the name change holds significance, such that referring to herself as Egarè encourages female acts of independence while maintaining personal strength. During the medieval period, female characters are often not the leading character. However, Emarè serves as an essential factor in the construction of the female lead within medieval romance and the narrative world as a whole. Although Emarè is not the first female-central narrative, its narrative content and structure plays a significant role in changing society’s perspective of women throughout the middle ages. The composition of Emarè occurs during the timeframe in which women achieved seldom success within society, due to lack of opportunity. Instead, the narrative of Emarè deliberately juxtaposes the constraints that exist within society as a means of proving that men and women are of equal importance.

In respect to the portrayal of female agency within the narrative world, Angela Jane Weisl’s article “How to be a Man, Though Female” draws from the issue of female characters achieving success as well as portraying chivalric characteristics through experience. From the medieval perspective, the issue of female agency is presented as either temporary or a permanent and complete state according to Weisl. As a means of comparison to Emarè’s agency and independence, Weisl’s article states:

Gender participates in a series of taxonomies that structure the social order and it therefore participates in prowess beyond itself, about identity within the world of chivalric romance. Therefore, the inscription of one often helps to define the other. (110)

Weisl argues that social order and prowess often serve as a means of defining one another, within the medieval context. Within the medieval romance Emarè, the titular character constantly operates as a means of demonstrating prowess while living in a world that is consumed by oppression for women. In respect of the passage in which Emarè faces her first exile and reaches the kingdom of Gallus, she does not hesitate in referring to herself as Egarè when questioned by the King’s representatives.

Emarè’s willingness to commit to a name change, and conceal her identity serves as a representation of female independence during the medieval period. Furthermore, within the context of the narrative the character of Emarè reaches Gallus while close to death. Instead of allowing herself to be consumed by the punishment of her actions, Emarè changes her name to Egarè and deliberately begins a new life as a means of juxtaposing social boundaries. The purpose of medieval romance often relies on entertainment value, as well as the depiction of moral lessons. However, the narrative context of Emarè informs readers that women possess the ability to defy social expectations. In the context of resonating with reality, the character of Emarè consistently chooses freewill rather than conform to those around her. From a real world perspective, the inherent message contained within this narrative is motivation for women’s refusal to yield to the pressures of the world around them.

The representation of the female heroine and protagonist is a common place motif, especially during the latter half of the medieval period. Prior to the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, female characters are seldom given voices within romance literature. However, epic narratives such as Emarè provide a voice to those previously lacking perspective within literary discourse. Characters such as Emarè prove the significance of female agency within society, as well as the narrative world. Therefore, the narrative content of Emarè serves as a means of motivating women of the medieval world to surpass boundaries constructed by the men of society.

(c) The Modernist Son, 2020

Further Reading:

Emarè, from The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, MI: MIP, 1995). (335-360).

Weisl, Angela J. “How to be a Man, Though Female: Changing Sex in Medieval Romance.” Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality. 45, no. 2. (2009) (110).

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