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Mapping the European Breton Lai



‘Does smell make you nostalgic?’ Nostalgias exhibition, Margate Pie Factory

uclfecd13 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.

Mapping the European Breton Lai

uclfecd12 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!