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Mapping the European Breton Lai



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!

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!

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)