Mapping the European Breton Lai
By Elizabeth C Dearnley, 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!