X Close

Mapping the European Breton Lai



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!

‘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)