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Mapping the European Breton Lai



‘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.

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)