What is a lai?
The Breton lai was a popular and widespread genre of text in the European Middle Ages. Comprising short rhymed stories about fantastical adventures, the supernatural, magic, chivalry, and, above all, love, lais were presented as written versions of the tales of the old Bretons, and were first recorded, in French, in twelfth-century England by a woman now known only by her name and place of origin – Marie de France.
Over the next two hundred years, a corpus of similar poems defining themselves as ‘Breton lais‘ was written, initially in French and subsequently in other European languages. In thirteenth-century Norway, King Hákon Hákonarson had a collection of French lais translated into Old Norse; by the late fourteenth century, the Breton lai was a familiar genre in England, with the Franklin in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales nodding knowingly to the ‘olde gentil Britouns’ who ‘maden layes/Rymeyed in…Briton tonge’. A well-established genre in the Middle Ages, the engaging Breton lai remains a popular part of the medieval canon today.
In addition to being attractive to scholars and students of the Middle Ages, the obvious appeal of these fantastical tales has often resonated with wider audiences.Recent lai-inspired projects have included film Sir Lanval (UK, Chagford Filmmaking Group, 2010), a version of Marie’s Lanval; animation Bisclavret (France, Émilie Mercier, 2011), an adaptation of Marie’s lai of the same name, and stage show Kissing the Wind (2010), written and performed by Cat Weatherill, based on three of Marie’s lais.