"Gode in all thynge": The Erle of Tolous, Susanna and the Elders, and other narratives of righteous women on trial

Jonathan Stavsky*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


The fourteenth-century romance The Erle of Tolous stands out among the corpus of tried-heroine narratives from medieval England, best known to modern readers in the form of Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale. In nearly all cases, the protagonist of these stories is an emblem of purity and piety. By contrast, the married heroine of The Erle grants an audience and one of her rings to the nobleman who loves her. After she is framed with adultery, he undertakes an ordeal to vindicate her and the two are finally wed upon the death of her husband, the Emperor of Almayn. Weaving together the account of this tender affection with the drama of the Empress' false accusation and, furthermore, the territorial disputes between the Earl and the Emperor, the romance continually shifts its perspective on these characters, their mutual dealings, and the values that inform them. By analyzing the twists and turns of its plot and comparing it with analogous narratives of calumny, in particular Susanna and the Elders (Daniel 13 in the Vulgate numbering), I argue that The Erle replaces their conception of virtue as God-sanctioned righteousness with a pragmatic ethics that stresses the importance of fostering benevolent relations among human beings in changing circumstances. Whereas this romance departs significantly from the worldview of the biblical story, their close thematic and structural parallels suggest deliberate revision. The Erle is therefore a chapter in the largely uncharted reception history of Susanna and the Elders in the late Middle Ages.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)538-561
Number of pages24
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2013
Externally publishedYes


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