Archives for category: Breton Lays

There’s this guy on my connecting bus who usually tells me stories about UFO cover-up conspiracies and sci-fi violence. His name is Marvin and he looks kind of like Barack Obama but he can’t stand Barack Obama’s administration – particularly its policy on drone strikes. He loves talking about how our life on earth will end: space aliens will suddenly appear one day and blow our planet to smithereens. Resistance is futile.

I’m never sure if he shares his actual beliefs, his sense of humor, or some combination of the two. He’s a hard worker who prefers to work alone and he loves to talk your ear off either about sports or space aliens – and since I’m useless with sports talk, space aliens it is.

My usual contributions to Marvin’s one-way conversations are smiles and nods and the occasional “is that so?” – I gave up trying to challenge his beliefs when he got really fired up one day trying to convince me that all Muslims are evil. So now I just listen to his stories which are usually his descriptions of violent scenes from the latest DVD he’s borrowed from the library.

Yesterday he was on about werewolves so he told me about an actual account of a werewolf the size of a cow who terrorized rural France in the 1700’s, devouring somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 men, women, and children until a hunter shot him dead with a silver bullet: La Bête du Gévaudan.

La Bete du Gevaudan ravages a women

An 18th century print of the Beast of Gévaudan ravaging a woman. I love old drawings of vicious creatures. (source: wikipedia)

There’s a film about it called Brotherhood of the Wolf. I vaguely remember this film coming out but I never saw it. Marvin says it’s good, but the story focuses mainly on the political challenges of gathering support to hunt the beast. He also warned me that the beast part is corny – some dumb robot or something – so it’s not the best place to see the beast. If you want to see the beast, you should check your local library. Marvin claimed to have borrowed a very rare book from the Free Library of Philadelphia once that had photographs of its carcass.

La Bête du Gévaudan reminded me of Bisclavret, a Breton story told by Marie de France. I didn’t have much time to tell the story, but I shared the gist of it:

There’s a werewolf tale from 12th century France set in a region in the Northwest called Brittany. It all starts with a noble named Bisclavret. Now, Bisclavret spends several nights away from home each week. No one knows for sure where he goes – not even his wife. This bothers his wife as you can well imagine, so one day she finally asks her husband to tell her where he goes. He confesses that he has been keeping a terrible secret from her for years that he cannot bear to tell her. She assures him that she loves him so dearly and that whatever it is, no matter how terrible, knowing it will only make their love stronger. So moved is Bisclavret by his wife’s display of her undying devotion to him that he finally decides to share his terrible secret with her: Each week he goes deep into the woods until he reaches an abandoned chapel. There, he takes off his clothes, and shortly after he hides them nearby, he turns into a werewolf and goes out terrorizing the countryside.

After a few days, he returns to the chapel and retrieves his clothes. He puts them back on and returns to his normal life as a man. He does this each week. The wife is horrified by Bisclavret’s terrible secret. It wasn’t at all the secret she was expecting to hear. Not knowing how to respond, she asks her husband which abandoned chapel he uses. Bisclavret pleads with her, promising that if she lets him keep just this one secret, he will never keep anything else secret from her as long as they live. She presses him for it though, so he finally gives it up.

Well, it turns out the wife had a paramour and since they had been trying to figure out a way to get it together for years, she plots with her lover to have him fetch her husband’s clothes. The lusty bachelor goes out and takes the noble husband’s clothes and brings them back to the wife, who hides them among her things.

A couple days later Bisclavret returns to the chapel but his clothes are nowhere to be found. You can imagine how he howled when he discovered he would be trapped in wolf form for the rest of his days.

Just then, Marvin has an epiphany, “I’ll bet it’s that same sucker and they finally got him!”

Bisclavret befriends the king

Bisclavret befriends the king (source: wikipedia)

Well, there’s another whole half of the story! Here’s how it ends according to Marie de France: Bisclavret manages to befriend a king and they devise a way to get his clothes back. The unfaithful wife and her paramour are then cursed with a deformity that will stay in their bloodline, afflicting their offspring for all eternity… but today I’ll go with Marvin’s ending of this tale – unless, of course, he’s since found a way to tie it to drone strikes and the space alien apocalypse.

Westvleteren XII

Westvleteren XII – a Trappist beer that scored a perfect 100 on Beer Advocate last year. Six-packs sold for as much as $85 US (image: www.beercrank.ca)

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois has been making headlines during the last few months for sharing his predictable stance on the issue of gay marriage. He has an interesting surname. I was hoping that Vingt-Trois (twenty-three in English) was descended from a long line of Trappist monks, his ancestor named after a famous batch of beer that fetched such a nice price at market that they were able to buy back their monastery from the bank – but it’s actually a little more interesting than that: One of the Cardinal’s ancestors was, as the story goes, left on a doorstep on the 23rd day of the month.

A baby being named after how, where, or when it is found is a Christian tradition dating back to a story from the Old Testament when the children of Israel lived in Egypt as Pharaoh’s slaves:

Slaves
Hebrews born to serve, to the pharaoh
Heed
To his every word, live in fear[1]

Each time some invaders showed up to conquer Egypt, the children of Israel fought against Pharaoh. So, in an attempt to assimilate them, he offered them the hardest and most important jobs in the service of the Sun God: farming and brick and mortar. They helped Egypt exceed its luxurious food security goals and even solved Pharaoh’s treasure storage problems. The children of Israel planned and dug an irrigation system so that when the Nile flooded according to the stars, they made efficient use of its water and grew healthy crops in great abundance. Pharaoh used the ingenuity of the children of Israel to devise ways to haul massive, good quality stones from remote quarries. They built structures so large and sturdy that they can still be seen today from space. In fact, there are still some people around who believe the work was done by aliens!

When the treasure cities of Pithom and Ramsees were finally built for Pharaoh, he was very pleased, but the children of Israel did not take pride and glory in their work or embrace the Egyptian way of life. They wouldn’t walk like an Egyptian, talk like an Egyptian, or even wear Egyptian clothing. They wouldn’t pray to cats and jackals or even people with crocodile heads. They didn’t even eat Egyptian food even though they helped grow it. Well, since they weren’t interested in becoming Egyptian, Pharaoh tried oppressing them in hopes that they would leave, but the more he oppressed them, the more their numbers grew. In a final attempt to rid Egypt of the children of Israel once and for all, Pharaoh made a new law for the Hebrews:  “Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.”[2]

Shortly after this unusually cruel and utterly uncivilized law came into effect, a Hebrew woman from the house of Levi gave birth to a son. Now, it doesn’t take an alchemist to know that if a baby is thrown into a river it will drown. This woman didn’t want her neighbors to think she was stupid – or worse, a bad mother – so, to avoid bringing shame to the house of Levi, she cast him into the river her own way: “she got a rush basket for him, made it watertight with pitch and tar, laid him in it, and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. The child’s sister stood some distance away to see what would happen to him.”[3]

Moses Breviary of Chertsey Abbey

14th century illustration in an illuminated ‘S’ from Breviary of Chertsey Abbey (Bodlein MS. Lat. Liturgy. d. 42, fol. 006r) (image: LUNA)

Well, as it turned out, Pharaoh’s daughter was taking a walk with her maids that day and she noticed the basket by the riverbank. She ordered one of her maids to go down and get the baby and bring it back to her. When it was opened, Pharaoh’s daughter saw the baby crying and “she was moved with pity for it.”[4] She realized it was a Hebrew baby. At this moment, the baby’s sister stepped up and asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and fetch you one of the Hebrew women to act as a wet-nurse for the child?”[5] Pharaoh’s daughter told her to do so and she brought the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter agreed to pay the woman to nurse the baby for her as long as she brought the child to her when the nursing was done. Now, it was against the law to let a Hebrew baby boy live, but we all know that a father (even if he is Pharaoh) can never tell his daughter no. When the baby was brought to Pharaoh’s daughter, she decided to raise the child as her own. Pharaoh’s daughter called the baby Moses[6] because she “drew him out of the river.”[7]

In Marie de France’s Breton lay Le Fraisne (Le Frêne), the heroine received her name in a very similar way as Moses. She was called Fraisne because she was found as a baby in an ash tree outside an abbey.

Though Marie de France’s Lays were written in the 12th century, they may have been quite popular for a couple hundred years, because a 14th century version in Middle English survives in the Aunchinleck Manuscript.[8]  Here is the scene from this Middle English telling where Le Fraisne is named:

And for it was in an asche yfounde,
Sche cleped it Frain in that stounde.
(The Freyns of the “asche” is a freyn   
After the language of Breteyn;
Forthe Le Frein men clepeth this lay   
More than Asche in ich cuntray). (v.229-234)[9]

The reasons why these babies were left out and found are a little different in these two stories but also strikingly similar. In Le Fraisne’s case, it all starts with two rich, noble, and courteous knights who were neighbors. They married around the same time and when the first knight’s wife gave birth to twins, he sent a messenger to tell his friend the good news. Now, the knight who received the message had a wife who was envious, arrogant, and prone to lying. When she heard the news she laughed out loud in a mocking tone and said, “I can’t believe your friend would announce embarrassing news in such a proud way! You know what they say about twins, right? It means two men were involved! Your friend is announcing to the entire land that he is a cuckold!”

Needless to say, the knight was embarrassed and instantly rebuked his wife, “I can’t believe you would say such a thing about my fellow knight and his wife. They are the most respectable people we know!”

The messenger and the servants heard what the knight’s wife said and told everyone they knew what happened. The story spread like wildfire through the entire Breton countryside and before a week had even passed, she was the most hated and despised noble in Brittany.

Well, the same year, the knight’s wife got pregnant and wouldn’t you know it, she gave birth to twins. Now the knight’s neighbor gets his revenge! As you can imagine, the knight’s wife is devastated. She resolves to kill one of the babies. She would prefer to ask for God’s forgiveness than to suffer the humiliation of everyone hearing that poetic justice had been served. The lady’s maid begs not to kill the baby. She promises her lady that she will take the baby to a monastery, leave it anonymously, and never speak of it again to anyone for as long as she lives. The lady agrees and wraps the baby in fine linen and drapes a fine piece of brocaded fabric her husband brought back from Constantinople over the baby. She also ties a golden ring that held a large precious stone to the baby’s arm with a piece of ribbon:

Le Fraisne v121-134 from Harley 978

Detail of Le Fraisne lines 121-134 (transcribed below) from Harley 978 (13th century) f. 128v (image: British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)

En un chief de mult bon cheinsilenvolupent l’enfant gentil

e desus un paile roe

sis sire li ot aporté

de Constentinoble u il fu

unques si bon n’orent veü

a une piece d’un suen laz

un gros anel li lie al braz

de fin or I aveit une unce

el chasten out une jagunce

la verge en tur esteit letree

la u la meschine iert trovee

bien sacent tuit veraiement

qu’ele est nee de bone gent. (v.121-134)[10]

Elles enveloppent l’enfant de noble naissance dans une fine toile de linet la recouvrent d’une soierie ornée de rosacesque le seigneur avait rapportée à sa femme d’un séjour de Constantinople:on n’avait jamais vu si belle étoffe!La mere attaché au bras de l’enfant,avec un de ses lacets, un gros anneaud’or pur d’une once:Le chaton portrait une hyacintheet une inscription courait autour de l’anneau.Ainsi quand on trouvera la petite fille,Tout le monde pourra être sure

qu’elle est de bonne famille.[11] (v.121-134)

They wrapped the noble child in a cloth of fine linen and then placed over her the finest piece of striped brocade which her husband brought from Constantinople, where he had been. With a piece of her ribbon, the lady attached to the child’s arm a large ring made from an ounce of pure gold, with a ruby set in it and lettering on the band. Wherever she was found, people would then truly know that she was of noble birth.[12]

I love that, a minute ago she was prepared to kill the baby but now she wants whoever finds the baby to know that she comes from a rich and noble family and should be treated with the respect and given the resources rich and noble people are accustomed to receiving.

Anyway, the maid rides out into the night, finds a monastery and places the baby in the branches of an ash tree. When the porter wakes up early the next morning, he sees the brocaded fabric dangling from the tree and when he goes to investigate it, he finds the baby. It’s a baby girl. He brings it to his wife and she nurses the baby. When the baby is done nursing, the porter brings her to the Prioress and tells her all about how he came to find the baby. The Prioress decides to adopt the girl as her niece and she names her Le Fraisne (the ash tree).

Moses and Fraisne are similar in that their births were kept secret, they were found by someone, nursed, adopted by a strong woman (in Moses’ case, Pharaoh’s daughter and in Fraisne’s case, the Prioress), and named based on how they were found.

Moses was in danger of being killed because of Pharaoh’s law and Fraisne was in danger of being killed because her mother was afraid of being humiliated – which is ironic because she’d probably already endured the worst of the public’s ridicule by insulting the knight whose wife had twins.

Elora Danan's birthmark

Elora Danan’s mark from Willow (copyright 1988 Lucasfilm, Imagine Entertainment, MGM. image: rottentomatoes.com)

In George Lucas’ Willow, the evil queen Bavmorda imprisons all of the pregnant women in her realm so she can find and kill a baby girl who is prophesied to end her rule. When the newborn is found with the mark (curiously on the arm which is the same place the ring was fastened to Fraisne), a woman escapes with the baby before the evil queen can kill the her. The woman sends the baby down a river in an ark of rushes. The baby is found by an unlikely hero and the evil queen’s dominion falls. Lucas uses the famous ark of rushes from the Moses story for his tale of a female savior. Now, Fraisne didn’t turn out to be a savior or a great prophetess in Marie de France’s lay, but she does get the chance to be reunited with her mother and she marries the best knight in the land. Marie, though, may have been the first poet to give a girl the chance to play the part of the foundling.


[1] Metallica, “Creeping Death,” Ride the Lightning (Elektra, 1984).

[2] Exodus 1:22, KJV

[3] The Oxford Study Bible Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha, Ed. M. Jack Suggs. Katharine Doob Sakenfield, James R. Mueller (New York, 1992), Exodus 2:3-4.

[4] Exodus 2:6

[5] Exodus 2:7

[6] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of The Bible, James Strong, Hebrew word 4872   מֹשֶׁה Môsheh drawing out (of the water), i.e. rescued. (KJV Exodus 2:10, “And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.”)

[7] Exodus 2:10

[8] “Lay Le Freine: Introduction”, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, 1995). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/freiint.htm

[9] “Lay Le Freine”, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, 1995). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/freine.htm

[10] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[11] References to Marie de France in Modern French translation are taken from Lais de Marie de France, trans. Laurence Harf-Lancner (Paris, 1990).

[12] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999), p.62.

Sequitur pars secunda.

Last time, we left the Roman Emperor’s daughter Constance in the safe hands of the constable and his wife Hermengyld in Northumberland. The Man of Law made a point to tell us that Constance is speaking a “Latyn corrupt” to communicate with the constable. Now, if Marie de France were telling this story during the 12th century, she probably would’ve used romance convention to deal with the issue of language barriers. Her Breton lay Guigemar is the story of a knight who is sent on a quest to discover love.

Scenes of courtly love

Scenes of Courtly love on ivory mirror case (late 14th century) Musée du Louvre (Photo: Wikipedia)

Guigemar is the son of a baron. His father sends him as young boy to live in a nearby king’s court. There, Guigemar learns the ways of chivalry and when he comes of age the king dubs him a noble and presents him with arms. Guigemar goes to Flanders and fights in many battles. He soon becomes a very famous knight and his name comes to be known throughout all of France. There is, however, one peculiar thing about Guigemar: he has no romantic interest in women. Guigemar returns to Brittany and visits his parents. They are pleased to see that their son has such great success in his professional life. After hanging around his family’s castle for about a month, he feels the urge to go hunting so he summons his knights, hunters, dogs, and beaters and leaves early the next morning to chase game in the forest. When they spot the first stag, his men unleash the dogs and rapidly they run ahead in pursuit of the beast. Guigemar, meanwhile, stays behind with his squire. Soon after the sounds of the dogs fade into the distance, Guigemar and his squire notice in a thicket a white hind with antlers like a buck.

white hind

Detail from The Wilton Diptych (c.1395-1399) National Gallery, London (Photo: Wikipedia)

The squire quickly hands Guigemar his bow and arrows. Guigemar shoots the deer in the head only to have his arrow rebound, hitting his own thigh. Guigemar falls off his horse onto a thick patch of grass in such a way that he is face to face with the dying animal. The deer speaks to Guigemar telling him his destiny:

Ja mais n’aies tu medecine!Ne par herbe ne par racine,Ne par mire ne par poisunN’avras tu ja mes guarisunDe la plaie qu’as en la quisse,

De si que cele te guarisse,

Ki suferra pur tue amur

Si grant peine e si grant dolur,

Qu’unkes femme tant ne sufri;

E tu referas tant pur li,

Dunt tuit cil s’esmerveillerunt,

Ki aiment e améavrunt

U ki puis amerunt après.

Va t’en de ci! Lai m’aveir pes! (v.109-122)[1]

Puisses-tu ne jamais trouver de remède!Nulle herbe, nulle racine,Nul médecin, nulle potionNe guériront jamaisLa plaie de ta cuisse

Tant qu’une femme ne viendra par la guérir,

Une femme qui souffrira pour l’amour de toi

Plus de peines et de douleurs

Que nulle autre amoureuse.

Et toi, tu souffrirais tout autant pour elle.

Et votre amour émerveillera

Tous ceux qui aiment, qui ont aimé

Et qui aimeront

Maintenant va-t’en, laisse-moi en paix!

(v.109-122)[2]

May you never find a cure,nor may any herb,root,or doctor or potionever heal the woundyou have in your thigh

until you are cured by a woman

who will suffer likewise for her,

so much so that

all those who are in love,

who have known love

or are yet to experience it,

will marvel at it.

Be gone from here and leave me in peace.

(44)[3]

white hind's speech to guigemar

White hind’s speech to Guigemar from a manuscript (c.1201-1300) Bibliothèque national de France (Photo: gallica) (Quoted text above begins on the 4th line of this detail)

So begins Guigemar’s quest. He bades his squire go find the others and bring help. Now alone, Guigemar soon finds a magical and mysterious boat that is superbly constructed and lavishly decorated. Inside this boat there is a bed quilted with silk woven with gold. Guigemar rests on the bed, waking later to discover that this magical boat has unfurled its silk sail and is taking him on a voyage. He prays to God just as Constance does and is safely brought to port. He lands “below an ancient city, capital of its realm” (46) (desuz une antive cité / esteit chiés de cel regné Au pied d’une vielle cite) (v.206-07). There, Guigemar meets a noble woman who is made by her jealous husband to live in a tall marble structure. The only human contact she has besides her husband is a maiden servant and a eunuch. This structure has only two entrances: a guarded door and a garden which connects to the sea. The woman and her maiden notice the mysterious ship during one of their strolls in the garden and inside they found Guigemar sleeping. As you probably guessed, Guigemar and the lady discover that they are star-crossed lovers. A confrontation with the jealous husband occurs, they are tragically separated but reunited involving the magic boat, a knot, and a chastity belt, their romance is once again threatened by another jealous lord, Guigemar fights in a tournament, razes a castle, and the two lovers ride off into the sunset together. I can’t give you a proper telling but in Marie’s lays you can find the story of Guigemar. Her telling is much fresher in mind than mine.

Marie’s story starts and ends in Brittany during the reign of Hoël so it is in the realm of Arthurian Legend. She has her knight travel to Flanders before the episode with the deer and the story’s events return to Brittany, but the place the magical boat takes Guigemar is not in Brittany. This strange, ancient land is not properly identified. Which language does Guigemar use to communicate with the noble woman and which language does she use to communicate with everyone in Brittany when the magical boat takes her there later in the story? These are details that Marie doesn’t bother herself with in this or any of her lays. You’ll be much more likely to find details of how lavish a magical boat looks than which languages characters from foreign lands are using to converse with each other in Marie’s lays. Marie relies on romance convention to do the translating for her characters. There are so many magical elements in this story already with a talking deer and an unattended magical boat that transports our protagonists to and from Brittany and some unidentified place and time that the audience is in such suspension of disbelief that they don’t question things like which language the characters are using to speak with each other or how is it a knight can talk with a deer!

Chaucer is no stranger to using romance convention to solve language barrier issues between man and bird. Chaucer’s Squire uses it in his tale with the king’s daughter Canace’s magic decoder ring:

That on hir finger baar the queynte ryngThurgh which she understood wel every thvngThat any fowel may in his leden synAnd koude answeren hym in his ledene ageyn(II 433-36) That on her finger bore the curious ringBy which she understood whatever thingBirds in their language said, and which could teachHer how to answer in natural speech (400

Next time I’ll get back to Constance and the Man of Law’s Tale – I promise!

Explicit sequitur pars.


[1] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[2] References to Marie de France in Modern French translation are taken from Lais de Marie de France, trans. Laurence Harf-Lancner (Paris, 1990).

[3] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999).

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