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Mapping the European Breton Lai



Film review: Sir Lanval

By uclfecd, on 31 January 2014

Sir Lanval (2010) - Tryamour's maidens

Some time ago now, I wrote about Lanval, a knight-meets-fairy-mistress lai first recorded by Marie de France that has survived in Old French, Middle English and Old Norse versions. Somewhat more recently, it was made into a rather charming film by the Chagford Filmmaking Group, a Devon-based organisation specialising in films of British fairy tales. Made in 2010 in collaboration with the Centre de l’Imaginaire Arthurien, and directed by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry (who also composed the film’s score), Sir Lanval is the group’s first full-length film, and a delightful, whimsical retelling of the medieval lai.

Based on Marie de France’s twelfth-century version of the tale, Sir Lanval follows the same essential plot: Lanval, a young knight of King Arthur’s court, meets a fairy (named here as Tryamour) who grants him her love and unlimited wealth, on condition that he keep their relationship secret. However, goaded by Queen Guinevere, who attempts to seduce him and then sneers that he evidently prefers vallez…bien afeitiez, ‘well-trained young men’, when he refuses her advances, Lanval rashly declares that he already has a lover far more beautiful than the queen. At this, the spell is broken and Tryamour disappears, leaving Lanval to be put on trial for his life after Guinevere successfully convinces her husband that the knight had first propositioned and then insulted her. On the day of the trial, Tryamour rides into Camelot and vindicates Lanval, before the lovers leave the court forever en Avalun,/Ceo nus recuntent li Bretun, ‘to Avalon, or so the Bretons tell us’.

In adapting Lanval for the screen, Baldry and her team have created a gorgeous-looking film, shot in idyllic, bluebell-suffused woodlands in Dartmoor and Brittany, with the Château de Comper in Paimpont Forest (thought to be the legendary Brocéliande, in which many Arthurian legends are set) used for Arthur’s castle. The vivid, saturated greens and blues of the early summer landscape, along with the brightly-coloured costumes (the purple gowns of Tryamour’s handmaidens, pictured above, work particularly well), give the whole film the hectic, bejewelled palette of an illuminated manuscript. There are some lovely pieces of set design, too – the gaudy fantasy of Tryamour’s fairy banquet, where roast dragon is served alongside Eden-red apples and flying fish skewers, is a particular highlight.

Ian Hensher’s Lanval is a coltish, gawkily uncertain youth, civilised and ennobled by the love of the beautiful, accomplished Tryamour (played with sultry grace by Lori Macfadyen), but unable to control his temper when rebuffing the queen. Guinevere herself (played teetering on the edge of pantomime villainess by Maxine Fone) is expanded as a character, becoming more morally complex; though she is shown to be vain and vindictive, imperiously banishing any woman she suspects of winning Lanval’s favour, she is also given an additional motivation for seducing Lanval when it is revealed that Arthur (a bluff Mark Freestone) is more interested in meeting with his counsellors than producing an heir.

Another effective expansion is the emphasis placed on the role of gossip and rumour. The losangers – flatters, tattle-tales and liars – are shown to be the enemies of true lovers in many Old French romances, bringing covert trysts to the ears of wrathful husbands and unsympathetic outsiders, and Baldry’s Sir Lanval presents loose talk as a catalyst for the story’s events from the very beginning, with Tryamour’s maidens lamenting Lanval’s inability to keep a secret in the opening scene. After Lanval is accused by the queen, Arthur is initially shown attempting to keep the scandal contained, until the rising volume of whispers in Camelot means that he has no choice but to put him on public trial.

Overall, Sir Lanval is a spirited interpretation of Marie de France’s lai, capturing the playful – and sometimes menacing – atmosphere of the medieval poem. Whether you’re  familiar with the original texts or new to the Lanval story, this version of the tale is well-worth watching.


‘Does smell make you nostalgic?’ Nostalgias exhibition, Margate Pie Factory

By uclfecd, on 13 November 2013

Kate McLean, 'Summer Aromas of Newport, RI'

Following on from my previous post about Kate McLean’s wonderful smell maps, on Friday I went down to Margate to see one of them for myself! Her map ‘Summer Aromas of Newport, RI’ was one of the exhibits at Margate Pie Factory’s Nostalgias exhibition (1-12 November), held in conjunction with Canterbury Christ Church University and The University of the Arts London’s Nostalgias: Visualising Longing conference, and offered a delightfully (and sometimes stinkily) aromatic tour of the New England harbour town.

So, what does Newport, Rhode Island, smell like? According to Kate McLean, it’s a mixture of the sea, juniper bushes, lobster bait, ice-cream, freshly-cut timber and beach roses, amongst other things. But visitors to the exhibition didn’t have to take her word for it. The various scents of the seaside town were arrayed on a table in tiny medicinal, Bristol-blue glass bottles, like eccentric phials of perfume; visitors were invited to sniff each bottle, decide what it smelled like, write it on a Post-It note and stick it on the wall. Responses ranged from precise attempts to pinpoint the scent to the highly idiosyncratic: smell no. 3, for example, which had a fresh, fishy tang of the ocean, was variously described as ‘Margate today’, ‘the harbour’, ‘school science lab test tubes’, and even ‘at school, pencil sharpenings’. In the middle of the sea of mint, teal and powder-blue Post-It notes was Kate’s own ‘smell map’ of Newport. This showed the sources, range and intensity of the different scents, illustrated by colour-coded circles (for the sources) and wavy contour lines (for the range) on a parchment-cream background, like some dreamlike oceanographer’s chart. The whole exhibit was extremely visually (and nasally) appealing, mapping – and literally bottling – an aspect of landscape which is often both almost imperceptible and wordlessly accepted without further analysis.

Sniffing the bottles

Post-It notes of smells

Although Nostalgias didn’t focus explicitly on maps, in their different ways all the artists in the show used mapping as a way of exploring nostalgia for places, constructing their own private maps of different geographical areas. For instance, Chu YinHua’s Encoding Memories: Tainan traced the streets of the Taiwanese town by collecting stories about the different foods for sale there, recording these in a beautiful, woodcut-precise book of mingled street maps and stories. Meanwhile, A Collected History of Light by Michaela French was a luminous curiosity cabinet of a sculpture, capturing the precise colours of daylight from various locations and storing each one, fixed and unblinking, in the lightbulb-lined drawers of an old-fashioned wooden card catalogue.

Taiwan food box

Chu YinHua, Encoding Memories: Tainan

Michaela French, A Collected History of Light

Michaela French, A Collected History of Light

From specimen drawers of light to bottled lobster bait, Nostalgias explored ways of distilling, fixing and categorising memories of places, whilst recognising the flickering subjectivity of these nostalgic reflections. As exercises in mapping, the guided routes into real or imagined pasts offered by the various exhibits were frequently beautiful, occasionally whiffy, and invariably intriguing.

New map: Breton lai motifs

By uclfecd, on 30 October 2013

Map of motifs and themes in the lais of Marie de France(Click on the map for full-sized version)

 I’ve been continuing to experiment with ways of visualising the Breton lai metadata I’ve been collecting, and the latest visualisation I’ve created is a map of Breton lai motifs.

One of the types of metadata I’ve been adding to my database of lais and lai manuscripts (which will eventually become an online catalogue) is the themes and motifs included in the stories. The prologue shared by the Middle English lais Sir Orfeo and Lay le Freine (both c. 1330) provides a lengthy catalogue of the sorts of things one might expect to find in lais:

Layes that ben in harping
Ben y-founde of ferli thing:
Sum bethe of wer and sum of wo,
And sum of joie and mirthe also,
And sum of trecherie and of gile,
Of old aventours that fel while;
And sum of bourdes and ribaudy,
And mani ther beth of fairy.
Of al thinges that men seth,
Mest o love, forsothe, they beth.

[Lays performed on the harp are about composed about marvellous things: some are about war and sadness, and some about joy and happiness; and some are about treachery and deceit, about old adventures from the past; and some contain jokes and bawdiness, and many are about the Otherworld. However, most of all they’re about love.]

I wanted a way of showing all these topics – as well as more specific motifs – which would allow the viewer to see which lais they appear in, and also to highlight instances where a motif or theme appears in more than one lai. Essentially, I’ve gone back to the Tube map idea of lines and stations, where each lai is a line, each motif is a station, and motifs shared by more than one lai are interchange stations. However, this is a much freer version of the design than my Middle English genres map, with curved lines, a different colour scheme, and ‘interchange stations’ made of increasing numbers of concentric circles according to the number of lais containing the motif. For this map I’ve just included the twelve lais by Marie de France; anything more would have made the page far too busy.

The map certainly bears out the observations made in the Orfeo/Freine prologue – ‘Mest o love, forsothe, they beth’ – with ‘love’ featuring as a major theme in all but one lai (only Bisclavret, with its focus on lycanthropy and human nature, doesn’t really spend much time on love). ‘Fairy’ is also shown to feature in two of Marie’s lais, Lanval and Yonec (where a woman falls in love with a fairy knight who can turn into a hawk), as does ‘trecherie and…gile’ in the shape of the faithless wives in Equitan and Bisclavret.

Some more specific motifs also appear in several lais. ‘Birds’ feature in three tales: Yonec, Laüstic (where a nightingale’s song provides cover for a lovers’ meeting) and Milun (where lovers communicate by letters tied to a swan). ‘Cloth and clothing’ also form key parts of the plot in three lais: Fresne (where recognising a piece of brocade leads to a reunion between mother and daughter), Bisclavret (in which the hero is unable to turn back into a human without his clothes) and Guigemar (where Guigemar and his lady exchange a shirt and belt just before they are separated). ‘Trees’, meanwhile, appear both in Frene (where the infant heroine is discovered in an ash tree) and Chevrefoil (in which Tristram places a signal for Iseult on a hazel branch).

To an extent, of course, this map is subjective in what it includes, and is by no means an exhaustive summary of lai contents. The shape of the curves also meant that it was difficult to zig-zag back and forth with individual lais to create all the possible connections. For instance, both Guigemar, Chevrefoil and Yonec also contain unfaithful wives, although in this case the wives are the heroines (only the ‘bad unfaithful’ are included on my map). However, hopefully it provides a helpful and accessible overview of the ‘ferli thing’ found in Marie’s lais!

Lai in focus: Lanval

By uclfecd, on 22 October 2013

The opening of Lanval, British Library MS Harley 978, fol. 133v.

The final lines of Bisclavret and the beginning of Lanval, British Library MS Harley 978, fol. 133v. The last two lines read ‘Laventure dun autre lai/cum ele avient vus cunterai’ (Just as it happened, I will tell you the story of another lai’).


Lanval, a young knight far from home and overlooked by King Arthur, rides out alone from court. Reaching a meadow next to a stream, he dismounts to ponder his situation. Two beautiful girls dressed in purple approach and lead him to a sumptuously decorated tent, inside which lies la pucele/flur de lis e rose nuvele […] trespassot ele de beauté, ‘the maiden who surpassed in beauty the lily and the new rose’, wearing only her shift and a white ermine cloak. The maiden explains that she has travelled from her own country to find him, and that she will grant him her love, the ability to summon her whenever he chooses, and a magic purse which will never become empty, so long as he never reveals her existence. As Marie de France’s narrative dryly puts it, Ore est Lanval bien herbergez!, ‘Now Lanval was well-lodged!’

This happy state of affairs lasts until Lanval, angered by an insult from Queen Guinevere after he has turned down her advances, boasts that jo aim e si sui amis/Cele ki deit aver le pris/Sur tutes celes que jeo sai…Une de celes ki la sert/Tute la plus povre meschine/Vaut mieuz de vus, ‘I love and am loved by one who is more worthy than any other I know…Her lowest servant girl is better than you’. Not only does this break the spell, but the incensed queen demands that Lanval be killed unless he can provide proof of his boast. Arthur’s court now becomes a court of law, where Lanval is on trial for his life. Believing that he will never see his beloved again, Lanval is in despair. However, on the day of the trial, his lady rides into court on a white palfrey, le chef cresp e aukes blunt, ‘her hair curling and very blonde’, proving to all that Lanval was speaking the truth. Lanval then leaps onto the horse behind his beloved, and they both ride away to the enchanted Isle of Avalon, after which nul hum n’en oï plus parler, ‘no man has heard any more about them’.

Lanval is another lai first recorded by Marie de France. Her version appears in four manuscripts (MSS British Library, Harley 978; British Library, Cotton Vespasian B X IV; Bibliotheque Nationale de France nouv. acq. fr. 1104; Bibliotheque Nationale de France fr. 2168), the highest number of any of her  lais other than Yonec, suggesting the popularity of this Arthurian tale. It was also translated into Old Norse as Janual, and twice into Middle English; firstly as the fourteenth-century Sir Landevale, which appears both in manuscripts and early printed editions as late as the seventeenth century, and secondly as the late fourteenth-century Sir Launfal, a jaunty tail-rhyme adaptation of the earlier Middle English translation. This second translation, which brings a more popular, mercantile tone to the aristocratic French original, also appears to provide us with the name of its creator, declaring in its closing lines that ‘Thomas Chestre made thys tale/Of the noble knyght Syr Lanvale’.

Much more recently, the story of Lanval has been adapted twice in the early twentieth century: as part of stage show Kissing the Wind by storyteller Cat Wetherill, which reworks three of Marie’s lais, and as a full-length film, Sir Lanval (2010), produced with the Brittany-based Centre de l’imaginaire Arthurien by the Chagford Filmmaking Group, who have made some beautiful films of a number of British fairytales.

With its outsider hero and fairy-mistress heroine, suspense-filled trial, and last-minute escape, it is easy to see why Lanval has appealed to so many adapters, translators and audiences over the centuries. You can read the entire French tale online in Judith Shoaf’s excellent English verse translation, and the Middle English version is available here.


More maps: From mapping the Brut to smellscapes

By uclfecd, on 2 October 2013

Following my last post, I’ve just come across three fantastic mapping projects which I had to share:

On the medieval side of things, the Imagining History project, which ran a few years ago at Queen’s University Belfast,  have done some ingenious Tube-style maps of manuscripts of the Middle English prose Brut. This was one of the most widely-disseminated texts of the English Middle Ages, with 183 manuscripts having survived (to put this into perspective, there are 83 surviving manuscripts containing at least part of the Canterbury Tales), and mapping the connections between these is a complex task. However, as the project team suggest, the ‘information architecture’ provided by the Tube map is a very useful way of showing the various types of connections. With these maps, the ‘interchange stations’ are given different symbols to indicate manuscripts, the types of places owning or producing manuscripts, and people and places connected with manuscripts.

Moving to the present day, Victoria Henshaw of the University of Sheffield works on an entirely different kind of mapping: smellscapes! Her work traces the connections between cities and the smells associated with them, considering how scents such as grass, breweries, street food and drainage systems all influence our sense of place. As well as recently publishing a fascinating-looking book, Urban Smellscapes, she also leads ‘smellwalks’ through cities around the world, encouraging participants to think about the way in which smells contribute to our perception and memories of streets, squares and other public areas. Victoria is going to be running a smellwalk in London next month at UCL’s Institute of Making, so I’ll see if I can book a place!

Looking at Victoria’s work led me to researcher and designer Kate McLean, whose amazing maps on her website Sensory Maps chart the smellscapes, tastescapes and even touchscapes of Edinburgh, Paris and other cities. Beautiful works of art in their own right – have a look at the delicate paper-white tactile maps of Edinburgh, or the crayon-colourful contour lines of her smell maps – Kate’s maps bring a whole new range of sensory experience to the idea of the city map. Kate has also created several exhibitions related to her smell maps, where viewers are invited to sniff samples of the various scents, from fish and chips to penguins at the zoo. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next one on her engaging blog, where she discusses her work on smells, smell-mapping, and even an experiment in bottling the scent of a horse.

Kate McLean, smell map of Edinburgh

Kate McLean, smell map of Edinburgh (reproduced by kind permission).
The coloured dots indicate the origins of scents; the contour lines show where the scents blow in the wind.

Kate McLean, key to smell map

Kate McLean, key to smell map

From mapping the Brut to the scents and reeks of Edinburgh, I hope you enjoy these maps!

Tube-mapping the Breton lai?

By uclfecd, on 28 September 2013

I’ve been thinking more about data visualisation and mapping, this time in terms of how to illustrate relationships between different medieval texts. In particular, I’ve been wondering how to show ways in which different medieval genres relate to each other.

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS nouv. acq. fr. 1104, fol. 79r. This manuscript is filled entirely with lais, clearly labelled as such. The text at the bottom of the image reads 'Explicit les lays de breteigne' (The Breton lais end here).

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS nouv. acq. fr. 1104, fol. 79r.
This manuscript is filled entirely with lais, clearly labelled as such. The text at the bottom of the image reads ‘Explicit les lays de breteigne’ (The Breton lais end here).

As a genre, the lai is simultaneously strongly-defined and very ‘open’. On the one hand, lais have a strong sense of their own identity, usually expressed in their prologues and epilogues. Here they generally declare themselves to be lais, and  contain several items from a fairly fixed list of lai characteristics (e.g. revealing the title of the lai, revealing that it is a tale of the ancient Bretons, declaring that the story is a true one). On the other hand, the types of texts calling themselves lais are so varied that it is difficult to come up with a satisfactory, stable definition; indeed, one of the best ways of deciding whether a text is a lai or not is if it declares itself to be one.

In the Middle Ages, short verse narratives such as the Breton lai were very flexible from a generic standpoint; shorter poems could be used as filler items in manuscript miscellanies, and could be adapted to suit a variety of different manuscript contexts. Within a manuscript culture, where texts had to be copied out each time rather than printed in bulk, there was no one set version of a text. Each copy had the potential to be slightly different, and lines of a poem – or entire sections – could be added or removed by the scribe of a new manuscript if the existing copy wasn’t to his taste (Paul Zumthor has called this phenomenon mouvance; the Wessex Parallel WebTexts project based at the University of Southampton has a very helpful discussion of this here). The way in which short verse narratives move between manuscripts has recently been the focus of a major cross-European research project, The Dynamics of the Medieval Manuscript, whose website also has a wonderful virtual exhibition about the manuscripts from the project.

In addition to their intrinsic flexibility, there is also a good deal of overlap between lais, fables, fabliaux and other short verse narrative genres, which often draw on a common pool of subject matter, style and imagery (for instance, both lais and fabliaux feature wandering knights who are granted wishes by fairies, although in the case of the fabliaux the wishes are somewhat more salacious). Even medieval texts themselves suggest that one type of story can develop from another. As the bawdy fabliau La Vielle Truande (The Old Woman) puts it in a semi-spurious etymology, ‘Fabliaux are made from fables, just as new music is made from notes […] and stockings and leggings from cloth.’ Occasionally, a text labelled as a lai in one manuscript will be called something else in another; for example, Oiselet (The Little Bird), describing a battle of wits between a bird and a peasant, is called a ‘lai’ in Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS nouv. acq. fr. 1104, and a ‘dit’ in Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS fr. 24432.

So, how to illustrate the relationships between different, but interrelated, genres of texts, where some of these could be classified as belonging to two, three or more genres? Well, one way in which several people have done this before is by creating new versions of the iconic London Underground map, created in 1931 by Harry Beck (click on the images to get larger versions):

Original 1931 tube map by Harry Beck

The original 1931 design by Harry Beck

2013 tube map

The 2013 Underground map

Adopted by subway systems all around the world from Lisbon to Shanghai, the abstract geography of Beck’s design is also a simple and elegant way of showing ways in which different categories of people, genres or ideas are interconnected. Since Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear, which replaced station names with those of actors, philosophers and other well-known figures, versions have been created exploring musical genres, Shakespearean characters, languages of the worldthe human body, and even the structure of the Milky Way.

I’ve been playing around with the Tube map in relation to medieval texts, and have designed a test version showing the relationships between genres of Middle English texts. It follows roughly the same shape and colour scheme as the London Underground map (click on the image to get a larger version):

The yellow Circle Line has become the Canterbury Tales Line, with the various tales told by Chaucer’s pilgrims jostling promiscuously into almost every genre; the scarlet Central Line, which intersects with almost as many, has become the Romance Line (romance is even harder to define generically than the lai, and in Middle English the term can simply mean ‘a text translated from French’). The formica-pink Hammersmith and City Line, which runs alongside the Circle Line for several stops, translates nicely into the Fabliau Line, a well-represented genre in the Canterbury Tales. Breton lais follow the route of the green District Line; again, there is some overlap with the Canterbury Tales, with the linked stations of Wife of Bath’s Tale and Wife of Bath’s Prologue providing a speedy route from fabliau to lai.

The black Northern Line has become the Dream-Vision Line, intersecting twice with the Canterbury Tales (the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Monk’s Tale, both of which contain dream episodes), once with the Romance Line (in the Romaunt of the Rose, a translation of the most influential of all medieval dream poems), and sharing several stops with the orange Debate Line and the dark blue Social Commentary Line. The light blue Fable Line also connects with two Canterbury Tales, and intersects with both the Canterbury Tales Line and the Dream-Vision Line at Nun’s Priest’s Tale interchange.

Three-way interchanges can also be found at Joeseph’s Trouble About Mary and the Wakefield Second Shepherd’s Pageant, two plays from the York and Wakefield mystery cycles which both retell episodes from Saints’ Lives and share elements of their comedy with the fabliau, with Joseph suspicious that ‘som man in aungellis liknesse/With somkyn gawde has hir begiled’ (some man disguised as an angel has deceived her with some trick) when confronted with Mary’s pregnancy. Indeed, the Miller’s Tale, twinned here with JTAM, knowingly burlesques the Annunciation in its tale of carpenter John, his enticing young wife Alison, and her romance with the student lodger Nicholas.

Finally, the silver-grey Jubilee Line has become the Saints’ Lives and Miracles Line, intersecting with Romance with the Arthurian Tale of the Sankgreal, Canterbury Tales with the Prioress’ Tale (a miracle of the Virgin) and Dream-Vision with the revelations of St Bridget of Sweden.

To be sure, Middle English genres don’t translate perfectly into tube map form; the Canterbury Tales isn’t really a genre (although story collections are), and it’s slightly cheating to count the Wife of Bath’s Prologue as a separate tale for the purposes of linking lai with fabliau. If you have any suggestions or additions, I’d be happy to hear them!

Nevertheless, this has been a really fun exercise, and has helped me to think about medieval genres from a very different perspective. The tube map form would also work well for looking at the ways in which short verse narratives interact; another version, containing only those short texts, may be on the cards. It might also be interesting to draw up tube maps for story elements and character types (along the lines of the Greater Shakespeare map), both for Breton lais and also for later fantastical stories such as fairy tales. Watch this space for possible further tube mappery…


Further reading:

Keith Busby, Codex and Context: Reading Old French Verse Narrative in Manuscript, 2 vols (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002)

Paul Zumthor, Essai de poétique médiévale (Paris: Éditions de Seuil, 1972), trans. by Philip Bennett as Toward a Medieval Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992)


‘Celtic mystique’: The geographical settings of lais

By uclfecd, on 10 September 2013

The real-life places named as settings in French-language lais: click here for link to a full-size map with further information about each place.


A sense of place is an essential part of Breton lais. A quick glance through the opening lines of several tales suggests that the storytellers felt it important to reveal not only what happened in their chosen aventure, but where it happened. The fairy-mistress story Guingamor, for instance, opens by declaring that En Bretaingne oi .I. roi jadis, ‘there once lived a king in Brittany’; the delicately macabre Laüstic sets itself En Seint Mallo en la cuntree, ‘in the region of St Malo’, where Ot une vile renumee, ‘there was a famous town’; the tragic Deus Amanz, meanwhile, begins by telling its audience that Verité est ke en Neustrie,/Que nus apelum Normendie,/Ad un haut munt merveilles grant, ‘The truth is that in Neustria, which we call Normandy, there is a marvellously high mountain’. Very often, the warp and weft of landscape and story are closely woven together into the lai narratives.

Coast of Brittany

Coast of Brittany

A large number of lais are set in the Celtic areas of Britain and northern France: Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, and, above all, in Brittany, where (as Marie de France and other lai writers declare) stories of adventures and marvels were transformed into lais for posterity by the ancient Bretons. Whether or not all stories credited as ‘Breton lais‘ were truly taken from old Breton tales, a Celtic background was adaptable for a variety of storytelling purposes, imbuing any stories set in such places with what medievalist Christopher Page has called ‘Celtic mystique’. When told in French by the Anglo-Norman speakers of post-Conquest England, or the courtiers of continental France,  beginning a story with ‘In Breteyne bi hold [old] time’ (the word ‘Breteyne’ could stand either for Britain or Brittany) could immediately evoke an atmosphere of a semi-mythical, just-out-of-reach past, set in a northern European landscape of forests, mountains and rocky coasts which was both familiar and – when viewed through the sea-misted lens of Breton stories originally told in ‘hir firste Briton tonge’ – enticingly exotic.

La Cote des Deux Amants

La Cote des Deux Amants

However, the majority of lais are also set in real places within these Celtic realms, lending them a concrete geographical specificity alongside the fantastical events they describe. Three lais (Chaitivel, Equitan and Tyolet) take place in Nantes, one of the major cities of the historic province of Brittany. Meanwhile, a Normandy-based tale, Marie de France’s Deus Amanz, is set in the city of Pîtres on the Seine. The events of this tale are reflected today in place-names of the area; a hill overlooking the river is named the Côte des Deux Amants, and is said to be the one climbed by the lai‘s unfortunate hero, and a nearby lake (and campsite) takes the same name.

Carlisle Castle

Carlisle Castle

Of the British locations, a handful are set in Scotland (Doon, Trot, Desiré), with a couple in the northern borderlands of Northumbria and Carlisle. As the story of Lanval opens, King Arthur is holding his court in Carlisle, ‘pur les Escoz e pur les Pis/Ki destruient le païs’ (because of the Scots and Picts who were destroying the country). Founded by the Romans to serve the forts on Hadrian’s Wall, Carlisle’s proximity to the Scottish border made it a strategically important English base throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Reflecting this, Carlisle was a popular location for Arthur’s court of Camelot in medieval tradition, and is used as a setting in several Arthurian romances. The largest number of Britain-based lais, however, are associated with South Wales (Chevrefoil, Cor, Milun, Yonec). The knightly heroes Milun and Tristram are described in the lais as coming from that region. Linguistically and politically separate from England in post-Conquest Britain, Welsh material found its way into French-language works, possibly in part through Welsh-speaking ‘latimers’, or professional interpreters working for the Anglo-Norman government. Medieval scholar Constance Bullock-Davies has raised the possibility that one source of Celtic material for Marie de France may have been from a latimer attached to a noble household.

However, as the map shows, a scattering of other locations are referred to, all from the Mediterranean and Middle East. In Les Deus Amanz, the Italian city of Salerno is named as the home of the heroine’s aunt. Wishing to give her beloved the necessary stamina to carry her up a steep hill (the challenge set by her father before they can marry), she urges him to visit her aunt, a skilled practitioner of medicine, for a strengthening potion. Salerno had a strong association with medicine in the Middle Ages, being the site of a famous medical school, and was particularly associated with women healers; the popular compendium of women’s medicine, the Trotula, was traditionally attributed to a woman from this area. Lais with Classical rather than Celtic themes, meanwhile, are set in the locations of their original tales, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Thebes (Narcisus et Dané) and Babylon (Piramus et Tisbé).

The map I’ve created of lai settings allows you to see all the real-world places named in Breton lais. Clicking on each place name will give you more information about each place and the story associated with it. So far, I’ve just added the places named in French-language lais; in time, I’ll make separate maps giving the places named in the lais of different language traditions. The English and Norse translators sometimes altered the settings to suit their audiences (the English version of Fresne, for instance, moves the action from Dol-de-Bretagne to ‘the west cuntré’ of Britain, and the Norse translator of Bisclavret adds a touch of local verisimilitude with the detail that ‘He who translated this book into Norse saw in his childhood a wealthy farmer who shifted his shape’).

I hope you enjoy the map – it’s still a work in progress, as I think about different ways of mapping Breton lais, and about the relationship between landscape, the lais themselves, and the journeys made by lais and similar stories across Europe both orally and in manuscripts, so I’d be happy to hear any suggestions or comments!

Further reading:

Constance Bullock-Davies, Professional Interpreters and the Matter of Britain: A Lecture delivered at a Colloquium of the Departments of Welsh in the University of Wales at Greg ynog, 26 June, 1965 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1966)

Christopher Page, Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages: Instrumental Practice and Songs in France 1100-1300 (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987)

Lai in focus: Bisclavret

By uclfecd, on 16 August 2013

Bestiary image of wolf

Detail from Bestiary. London, British Library, MS Royal, 12 F. xiii, fol. 29r.


Bisclavret is one of the twelve lais in Marie de France’s collection, and there are also two closely-related versions amongst the other Breton lais which have survived: Biclarel and Melion (it was also translated into Old Norse as Bisclaretz lioð). Clearly, this was a popular narrative, and it’s easy to see why; telling the tale of the shapeshifting werewolf Bisclavret, who is forced to remain in wolf form after his unfaithful wife hides the clothes which allow him to turn back into a man, this lai contains love, betrayal, dark tangled forests, and a gruesomely specific revenge in which wolf-Bisclavret bites off his former wife’s nose (incidentally cursing her female descendants with noselessness). It’s also a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human; do outward accoutrements of civilisation, such as clothing, make the difference between humanity and beastliness? Or should inner virtues, such as good manners, self-control and clear-headed thinking, be seen as more significant?

A Beauty-and-the-Beast tale with a difference, the characters in Bisclavret keep switching roles; the wife’s fear of her husband’s wolfish nature leads her to become monstrous in her turn, tricking him into permanent wolfhood whilst she marries a new lover. After a year in the woods, Bisclavret escapes death at the jaws of the royal hunting dogs by licking the king’s foot and begging for mercy, which allows his inner intelligence to be seen. Becoming a lupine royal lapdog, sleeping by the king’s side and loved by all his companions, Bisclavret remains at court until chance brings his wife and her new husband into the king’s orbit. Bisclavret attacks them ferociously, saving the most savage punishment for his wife:

Oiez cum il est bien vengiez:
Le neis li esracha del vis.

(Just hear how successfully he took his revenge. He tore the nose right off her face.)

Subjected to torture by the king – suggesting that even the most courtly of monarchs has a bestial side – his wife confesses, and produces Bisclavret’s clothes. These, it is explained by the king’s wise counsellor, must be donned observing the rules of human propriety in order for the transformation to be successful:

‘Cist nel fereit pur nule rien,
Que devant vus ses dras reveste
Ne mut la semblance de beste […]
Mut durement en ad grant hunte!

(Nothing would induce him to put on his clothing in front of you or change his animal form […] it is most humiliating for him!)

Bisclaret and its analogues is one of several werewolf tales circulating in the Middle Ages – others include the French romance Guillaume de Palerne (c. 1200) and the Latin Arthur and Gorlagon (13th/14th century) – and the notion of shapeshifting wolf-men clearly resonated with medieval audiences. Many encounters with werewolves are presented as historical fact, such as that of the historian Gerald of Wales, whose treatise on the geography and folklore of Ireland, Topographica Hibernica (c. 1188) includes an account of a young boy and a priest who meet an elderly couple turned into wolves by a curse. Meanwhile, bestiaries of the period credited wolves with various unsettling qualities, including the ability to rob a man of his voice by looking at him (should this happen, the only way for him to save himself is to remove his clothes and bang two rocks together, according to authorities such as the Aberdeen Bestiary – the image above, from a British Library manuscript, illustrates this situation).

In the twenty-first century, the story of Bisclavret, with its moral as well as physical shapeshifting, has been explored in a lovely short animated film by Emilie Mercier (France, 2011), which offers a more sympathetic portrait of Bisclavret’s wife. Some clips of this are available on YouTube:

Bisclavret, dir. Emilie Mercier (France, 2011)

Bisclavret's wife (Emilie Mercier)

Bisclavret’s wife (Emilie Mercier)


Washington-based group Grendel Babies also have a song called ‘Wife of Bisclavret’, which retells the story from the wife’s perspective to a smokily jangling accompaniment of piano and screeching rock violin, adding a honky-tonk yowl to the multiplicity of voices which have retold the story from the twelfth century onwards.

Meanwhile, the figure of the sympathetic werewolf continues to prowl through popular culture, appearing in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels and the hit HBO series True Blood they inspired, and – in perhaps the most pervasive sympathetic werewolf image of the past few years – Twilight, in which the relationship between a werewolf and his clothes is also given attention (happily, werewolves are revealed to have higher-than-average body temperatures when in human form, meaning that fewer clothes can be worn for convenient removal when shape-shifting; this also allows werewolves to carry their clothing with them, an innovation which would have saved Bisclavret a lot of trouble).

What other latter-day Bisclavret figures are there?


Further reading:

Marie de France, Bisclavret, in The Lais of Marie de France, 2nd edn, trans. by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996)

Melion and Biclarel: Two Old French Werewolf Lays, ed. and trans. by Amanda Hopkins (Liverpool Online Series: Critical Editions of French Texts, 2005) (pdf)

Leslie A. Sconduto, Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008)

What is a lai? The Franklin explains…

By uclfecd, on 15 August 2013

Opening lines of the Franklin's Tale

The Franklin’s Prologue in the Ellesmere Manuscript.
San Marino, California, Huntington Library, MS EL 27 C 9, fol. 123v (early fifteenth century).

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s fictionalised account of a storytelling competition between a group of pilgrims written in the late fourteenth century, the Franklin begins his tale with a few lines which leave his listeners in no doubt as to the type of story they are about to hear:

Thise olde gentil Britouns in hir dayes
Of diverse aventures maden layes,
Rymeyed in hir firste Briton tonge,
Whiche layes with hir instrumentz they songe

[The noble Bretons of long-ago times composed lais about many different adventures, putting them into rhyme in their own Breton language; they sang these lais accompanied by their instruments]

Here the Franklin quickly name-checks the essential features he feels one might expect lais to have: they were composed in a mistily obscure far-off past by the ancient Bretons, in the Breton language; they recount stories of adventures; and they are set to music. These four lines neatly encapsulate the popular perception of the Breton lai in Chaucer’s day, and suggest that the genre must have been a familiar one; with just a few formulaic phrases, the Franklin can clearly evoke the type of fictional universe in which his tale is set (similar to beginning a fairy tale with ‘Once upon a time’). He then launches into his story proper, that of the Breton lady Dorigen and the rash promise she makes to a suitor, secure in the knowledge that his audience will be in the proper frame of mind.

How did the tales of the ‘olde gentil Britouns’, composed in ‘hir firste Briton tonge’, end up in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? To find out, continue reading…

Mapping the European Breton Lai

By uclfecd, on 12 August 2013

Welcome to the blog of Mapping the European Breton Lai, a three-year research project based in the Department of French run by me, Elizabeth Dearnley. The project aims to map the journeys across medieval Europe made by Breton lais, short, rhymed stories about love, chivalry and the supernatural which became popular in the later Middle Ages. Supposedly based on the tales of the ancient Bretons, lais were first recorded in twelfth-century England, in French, by a woman known as Marie de France. However, over the next 200 years many more lais were written down, initially in French and subsequently in other European languages.

My project aims to examine all known surviving lais, focusing on the way in which they were disseminated in manuscripts. In a pre-print manuscript culture, there is the potential for each copy of a text to be slightly different (a scribe might add or omit a few lines – or even a whole section of a story – if he, or his patron, preferred it that way, or simply make a transcription error), so I’ll be investigating some of the differences between versions of the same lai. I’ll also be looking at the sorts of manuscripts which contain lais, which are often miscellanies containing several different types of text, from religious manuals to bawdy fabliaux (short comic tales, usually involving some sort of sexual escapade), investigating whether any sorts of  patterns can be found – do lais travel mostly with other lais, for instance? Or with other types of short narrative? What relationship is there between collections of lais and other story collections (either other medieval ones such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or much later collections of tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm)?

The second part of my project involves creating an online catalogue of lais, which will contain information relating both to the actual lai stories themselves and the manuscripts in which they are contained. At the moment this is still under construction; however, in the coming months I will be making this freely available via the project website.  This will allow anyone wishing to research lais explore them in greater detail, from as many angles as possible (for instance, a user might want to look up all the manuscripts containing a certain lai and see their lists of contents, or to bring up all the lais which contain magical horses!). I will also be writing a more traditional book-length study of lais. Both website and book can be read as stand-alone works; however, they will also be designed to complement each other.

In this blog I’ll be posting updates to the project, exploring some of the different lais and the manuscripts in which they are contained, and also discussing various other things relating to lais, manuscripts or the Middle Ages I find along the way.

I hope you enjoy the blog – please get in touch with any questions or comments!