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Mapping the European Breton Lai



Archive for September, 2013

Tube-mapping the Breton lai?

uclfecd28 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

uclfecd10 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)