23 February 2011
Diamond, Arlyn. “The Erle of Tolous: The Price of Virtue.” Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation. Ed. Judith Weiss, Jennifer Fellows, and Morgan Dickson. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000. 83-92. Print.
Diamond discusses in his essay the way “The Erle of Tolous” incorporates familiar notions of courtly love and other such ideals with an “ostensibly timeless moral lesson”. Prudence, Diamond maintains, is the means by which the characters can achieve their happy ending (this concept he cites from Christine de Pizan’s The Treasure of the City of Ladies). He also focuses on the Empress Beulybon and her purpose in the text in terms of her sex; he points out how despite being one of the rare female protagonists in Middle English romances, she is still ineffectual. Her weakness in terms of social action, however, is not the purpose, Diamond argues, of this story—rather, it is her commitment to her word that characterizes her as a woman of trowthe and creates stability in her community.
A. Beulybon’s character indicates a dual nature of the world (and indeed a rather dark one):
-While she is faithful to her lord and her word, she is unable to achieve her own salvation
-She keeps her word and her promises, but almost every other character lies and acts treasonously
B. Beulybon does not stand for social reform, but for religious reform:
-Her “powerlessness” confirms her purity and is “more admirable than success because it does not require the imposition of female will” (2)
-Although she is ineffectual and serves as the “object”(3) of the treaty between Trylabas and the Erle of Tolous, she does not concern herself with being used in that way; rather, she focuses on keeping Trylabas true to his word
C. Women are expected to operate within a conflicting system:
-Beulybon must be both “the incarnation of virtue” and able to survive a “world where feminine virtue alone is no protection” (6)
-This poem demonstrates the author’s difficulty in representing both “virtue and practical … strength joined in a female figure” and instead chooses to equate “female virtue and female vulnerability” since the belief system in which the characters operate holds female power to be “suspect, even dangerous” (7)
D. The solution is, as cited from Christine de Pizan, prudence (or jugement):
-Prudence is a “social virtue” and as such it “implies judgment and choice on the basis of worldly experience, as opposed to truth, which is absolute and independent of circumstances” (7)
-If Beulybon had acted prudently, she would have learnt from being fooled by the first knight and would not have made promises with the second
-This notion is somewhat antithetical, since it promotes a slight retreat from the Christian belief in an “unwavering commitment to [one’s] ideals” (8). It is, however, validated in the poem, since the Erle “in the end endorses prudence over love” (8)
-In a world where there is a lack of faith in those around you, and the socially weak (such as the Empress) are unable to stand up for themselves, a combination of trowthe and prudence is the way to create “human happiness and social stability” (10)
1. In terms of what we have read and discussed recently (especially Riddy’s essay), would you agree with Diamond (and Christine de Pizan) that prudence enables those of weaker social stature (such as women) to protect themselves and create a happier, more stable community?
2. Do you agree with Diamond that the author of “The Erle of Tolous” is focused more on religious reform rather than social reform? If so, what point is he trying to make? If not, are the social issues more important than the religious ones?
3. We have talked about the portrayal of women in many of the texts we have read thus far. Indeed, even Diamond discusses Beulybon’s sex in relation to her societal agency. Yet this story portrays very different sorts of male characters. What do you think of their actions, and how do they connect to the men in other didactic texts such as “How the Wise Man Taught His Son”?