Outre-mer (see TLF) is a French term that can be used to refer to faraway countries, be it in Africa, the Orient or America. It is a direct translation of the Latin ultra mare, literally ‘across the sea’, which in its adjectival form ultramarinus (cf. DMLBS 3545a), also produced the English word ultramarine: the blue pigment derived from the mineral lapis lazuli which, in medieval times, was imported from Asia by sea. Within a medieval context, Outremer also became a word used to refer to the Crusaders’ Holy Land and more specifically to the French settlements in the conquered territories of the Near or Middle East: the lands ‘across the sea’. It is mainly with that latter sense that outremer was used in English (OED Outremer n.), albeit only from the first half of the nineteenth century, when it makes its first attested appearance, rather surprisingly, in the Longfellow’s travel book Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea:
‘I, too, in a certain sense, have been a pilgrim of Outre-Mer; for to my youthful imagination the old world was a kind of Holy Land (p.7)’
Louis IX sailing off on his second crusade,
from the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, 1332-50 (Royal 16 G. vi, f. 437v)
Dr. Laura Morreale of Fordham University currently runs a project under the title ‘The French of Outremer’, which uses the term (with the necessary caveats) with precisely that sense, to bring together studies of the French language as it must have circulated in Crusaders’ settlements.
The word or phrase outre mer – sometimes with a definite article outre le/la mer – was quite common in medieval French, and also in Anglo-Norman. For example, in the early thirteenth-century romance of Gui de Warewic, the word appears in Anglo-Norman with reference specifically to the ‘land of the Saracens’:
‘Les Sarazins de ultre mer En Romanie venu esteient’ (l. 4650)
(The Saracens from ‘outre mer’ had arrived in Romania)
Another example can be found in Brevia Placitata, a fourteenth-century collection of legal texts:
‘s’en ala outremer en pelerinage e lessa le maner saunz garde’ (p. 184)
(he went on pelgrimage ‘outre mer’ and left the manor without a ward)
Evidently, the sense of ‘Middle East’ or ‘Holy Land’ in these two examples is only circumstantial
the phrase outre mer itself barely
has more significance than ‘across the sea’.
In a thirteenth-century medical text, one of the ingredients of a medical preparation is urtie de outremer (i.e. ‘nettle from outremer’); see AND2 sub urtie. No further indication is given of the precise nature of this plant, but similar recipes suggests that this may refer to the Greek Nettle (see OED Greek a.) – the nettle from across the Mediterranean Sea, though not quite as far as the Holy Land.
Jehan de Mandevilles' Le Livre des merveilles (Paris, BN fr. 2810, fol.188v)
It turns out, however, that most Anglo-Norman attestations use the word without specific reference to any country or area and because of the geography of England, that is, surrounded by the sea, the term could simply mean ‘abroad’. For example, in the early-fifteenth-century Liber Albus, a compilation of earlier Guildhall records, we find:
‘Des avoirs qe veignent d'outre meer: ciere, argoil, quivere, estein [...]’ (p. 231)
(Goods that come from ‘outre mer’: wax, argol, copper, tin [...])
which are not necessarily the most exotic commodities.
Another citation, from a case account taken from the Exchequer Chamber, shows a usage of the term which is most likely deliberately unspecific:
‘si un apport bienz de ouster le mer en Engleterre par cause de merchandiser et les jett sur le terre nient customés [...]’ (Exchequer Chamber ii 34.14)
(if somebody brings goods into England from ‘outre mer’ with a view to selling them, and brings them on land without paying customs [...])
In some instances, the context makes it clear that outre mer does not go any further than across the Channel, for example in the fourteenth-century Anonimalle Chronicle:
‘En cel temps le roi ové simple compaignie des gentz passa outra mier au roi de Fraunce’ (p. 142)
(At that time, the king together with a simple train of people crossed ‘outre mer’ to the king of France)
Similarly, towards the end of the fourteenth century, Richard II wrote to Maud, countess of Oxford:
‘[...] considerantz les [...] disaises que nostre bien amé W[auter] H., nadgairs [...] cook a [...] nostre cousin le Duc d'Irlande vostre filz [...], avoit pur le temps q'il estoit demorant en le service de nostre dit cousin es parties outre la meer’ (Lett & Pet p. 64)
([...] taking into consideration [...] the inconveniences which our beloved Walter H., former cook of our cousin the Duke of Ireland your son, had during the time when he was staying in the service of our said cousin in those regions ‘outremer’)
In this instance, outremer is Ireland.
World map (BL Add. MS 28681, f.9)
It seems that from quite early on outremer also became a legal term in Anglo-Norman, taken over in seventeenth-century law English as oulter-le-mer n., which functioned as a type of essoin, i.e. an excuse for non-appearance in court:
‘Purceo qe mulz de genz se font fausement assoigner de utre meer, la ou il furent en Engletere le jour de la somonse [...]’ (Stats i 37 )
(As is the case that many people have themselves incorrectly essoined of ‘outremer’, while they were in England on the day of the summons [...])
‘[...] ke essoigne de utremer ne soit aluee en nul manere de plai jeté pur celi ke soit truvé a sumunse’ (Winchester 46.11)
([...] that the essoin of ‘outremer’ would not be allowed in any way in the case of a plea put forward for someone who is found present for the summons)
Although the same ambiguity may be at play in these examples, the essoin is ultimately one of not being in the country at the time of a court case.
Altogether (and perhaps not surprisingly), in Anglo-Norman (and the same can be demonstrated for Continental French, cf. DMF outre-mer) the mer in the expression outre (la) mer seems to have referred to any major expanse of water, from those that are the immediate borders of the country to the Mediterranean Sea and possibly beyond. Ultimately, outremer was anywhere but England.