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Mapping the European Breton Lai



Who wrote lais?

Many of the lais which have come down to us – like the majority of medieval texts – are anonymous. The question of how they came to be written down, and how many people were involved in their creation, is a complex and often unanswerable one. Lais frequently declare in their prologues that they are taken from the tales of the ancient Bretons; for example, the prologue to Marie de France’s Equitan, one of the earliest lais to be recorded, begins in the following way:

Mut unt esté noble barun
Cil de Bretaine, li Bretun!
Jadis suleient par pruësce,
Par curteisie e par noblesce,
Des aventures qu’il oeient,
Ki a plusur gent aveneient,
Fere les lais pur remembrance,
Qu’um nes meïst en ubliance.

[The Bretons, who lived in Brittany, were fine and noble people. In days gone by these valiant, courtly and noble men composed lays for posterity and thus preserved them from oblivion. These lays were based on adventures they had heard and which had befallen many a person.]

Whilst no lais in the Breton language have survived in written form, and there are few, if any, clear indications as to how the stories were originally told or performed (and it should also be remembered that not all so-called ‘Breton lais’ were necessarily based on genuine Breton tales), it would seem that they were generally associated with pieces of music – lais – named after a certain person or event, with the narrative revealing the story behind the music. Another lai in Marie’s collection, Guigemar, for instance, ends by declaring that ‘De cest cunte ke oï avez/Fu Guigemar le lai trovez,/Que hum fait en harpe e en rote’ (The lay of Guigemar, which is performed on harp and rote, was composed from the tale you have heard).

‘Lais I had heard’: from oral tale to manuscript

Although some Breton lais were recorded by named authors, such as Marie de France, the question of who can be credited with composing the lais is not clear-cut. In the general prologue to her collection, Marie reveals that the stories she relates are taken from ‘lais […] k’oïz aveie’ (lais which I had heard), which she wishes to record for posterity:

 Rimé en a e fait ditié
Siventes fiez en ai veillié

[I have put them into verse, made poems from them and worked on them late into the night]

A two-step process is clearly being described, with a story already in oral circulation being further shaped in written form by Marie. A still more detailed genealogy for lais is suggested in the anonymous lai Tyolet, which probably dates from the beginning of the thirteenth century. The prologue declares that ‘jadis’ (in days gone by), knights from Arthur’s court would travel far and wide on quests, then return to court and recount their adventures; these were then written down in Latin by ‘li preude clerc’ (worthy clerics), ‘Por ce qu’encor tel tens seroit/Que l’en volentiers les orroit’ (So that when the time was right/They would be listened to with pleasure). In the present day, the narrator continues, ‘sont dites et racontees,/De latin en romanz trovees’ (they are told and recounted,/Translated from Latin into the vernacular), and he has selected one to share with his audience, that of Tyolet. Here three stages are posited, each with a shift in medium and language:

(i) the language used by Arthur and his court, which although unnamed, is presumably intended to be Breton (oral);
(ii) Latin (written);
(iii) the vernacular (here named as ‘romanz’, or Romance, i.e. French) (oral/written).

One of the features of the Breton lai genre is the creation of a mythology surrounding its own origins, and this particular origins narrative, with its references to Arthur and assurance that the lai of Tyolet is a true story, can obviously be taken with a sizeable pinch of salt; however, the idea that multiple people had a hand in creating lais, involving interplay both between oral and written traditions and between different languages, seems entirely plausible.

Questions of authorship become still more complex and multi-layered when the manuscript context of a text is taken into account. Unlike printed books, where there is generally one fixed version of a work, in a 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. The scholar Paul Zumthor has termed this phenomenon ‘mouvance’, suggesting that this instability is an essential characteristic of medieval texts. Surviving manuscript copies of medieval texts are usually several steps removed from the author’s original version, and those of the lais are no exception; the earliest known copy of Marie de France’s lais, in British Library MS Harley 978 (c. 1275-1300, possibly 1260s), may post-date her work by as many as 100 years, and so it cannot be taken for granted that this reflects her collection as it was originally circulated.

Lais and the court

The earliest French-language lais we have are strongly associated with the court. Marie de France dedicates her collection, which she declares to be based on lais she has heard, to the ‘nobles reis’ (noble king) – either Henry II of England (1154-1189) or, more probably, his son Henri au Court Mantel (crowned 1170), and although her identity is unknown, she was evidently of aristocratic, perhaps royal, background (see below). Lais are almost always set in a court – often that of King Arthur or a king of Brittany – and the adventures and dilemmas presented are those of noble knights and ladies; whilst the world in which they take place may be fictional, the situations often reflect contemporary aristocratic concerns.

When lais began to spread, sometimes they travelled to new courts. The most wholesale example of the travels of the written lai is that of the Old Norse lai collection known as Strengleikar (stringed instruments), which states in its prologue that it was translated from French for King Hákon IV (1217-1263) by one ‘brother Robert’. This work formed part of a larger translation project spearheaded by Hákon, who wished to enrich his own Norwegian court through the importing of French court culture in the form of great literary works (other texts translated included the Anglo-Norman Tristan, which became Tristrams Saga ok Isöndar, and the popular romance Floire et Blancheflor, translated as Flóres saga ok Blankiflúr).

Later lais

However, as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries progressed, both the subject matter and audiences of lais began to diversify, becoming less closely connected with the court and courtly values. In his major study Codex and Context: Reading Old French Verse Narrative in Manuscript (Rodopi, 2002), Keith Busby has convincingly suggested that by the end of the thirteenth century, the phrase ‘lais bretons’ may have broadened to include many types of short narrative. One of the best-known lai manuscripts, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, nouv. acq. fr. 1104, was clearly planned as a collection of lais, containing an incipit on its first folio stating ‘Ci commencent les lays de Breteigne’ (Here the Breton lais begin); however, the types of story it contains range from the Celtic-themed lais of Marie to tales containing no Breton references, or which are much more overtly comic or fable-like.

A shift in tone is particularly apparent in the Middle English corpus of lais, which were written long after their French counterparts (before this they had circulated in French, the dominant literary language in Britain until the fourteenth century). The earliest extant English-language lais date from the early fourteenth century, around 150 years after Marie de France, and there is a clear difference in literary style and manuscript context between these and their French counterparts. The three oldest English lais, Lay le Freine (translated from Marie’s Fresne), Sir Orfeo (possibly from the lost Lai d’Orfey) and Sir Degaré (no known source), are all found in the Auchinleck manuscript, one of the most important collections of English-language popular texts before Chaucer, which was produced in London in the 1330s in a commercial scriptorium, apparently for affluent but non-aristocratic readers. It is possible that at least some of the texts it contains were written or translated especially for this manuscript; however, even if this is not the case for its lais, this new manuscript context points to a quite different readership to the original audience of Marie de France’s twelfth-century tales.


Further reading

Primary texts cited:

Marie de France, Lais, ed. and trans. by Alexandre Micha (Paris: GF Flammarion, 1994)

__________, The Lais of Marie de France, 2nd edn, trans. by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999)

Tyolet, in French Arthurian Literature Volume IV: Eleven Old French Narrativr Lays, ed. and trans. by Glyn S. Burgess and Leslie C. Brook, with the collaboration of Amanda Hopkins (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2007)

Strengleikar: An Old Norse Translation of Twenty-one Old French Lais, ed. and trans. by Robert Cook and Mattias Tveitane (Oslo: Norsk historisk kjeldeskrift-institutt, 1979)

Secondary works:

Constance Bullock-Davies, Menestrellorum Multitudino: Minstrels at a Royal Feast (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978)

Keith Busby, Codex and Context: Reading Old French Verse Narrative in Manuscript, 2 vols (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002)

Ralph Hanna, ‘Reconsidering the Auchinleck Manuscript’ in D.Pearsall (ed.) New Directions in Later Medieval Manuscript Studies: Essays From the 1998 Harvard Conference (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2000)

Elspeth Kennedy, ‘The Scribe as Editor’, in Mélanges de langue et de littérature du Moyen Âge et de la Renaissance offerts à Jean Frappier, professeur à la Sorbonne, par ses collègues, ses élèves et ses amis, 2 vols (Geneva: Droz, 1970), vol. 1, pp. 523-31

Sif Rikhardsdottir, Medieval Translations and Cultural Discourse: The Movement of Texts in England, France and Scandinavia (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2012)

Paul Zumthor, Toward a Medieval Poetics, trans. by Philip Bennett (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992)