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Mapping the European Breton Lai



Archive for October, 2013

New map: Breton lai motifs

uclfecd30 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

uclfecd22 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

uclfecd2 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!