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1When the possibility of publishing this volume initially appeared, the then editor-in-chief of Études Epistémè, Professor Line Cottegnies, as well as her successors, Professors Anne Dunan-Page and Christine Sukic, immediately offered to host the contributions, though the corpus under scrutiny belonged to an unusually early time period for a scientific journal specialized in seventeenth-century studies. ‘These are our roots,’ they argued – and I cannot be too thankful for their generosity. It may be natural enough for scholars specialised in Early Modern English Studies to cast a favourable backward glance to productions dating from the later part of the Middle Ages. In this particular case, however, looking back towards the past with a distinct feeling, if not of belonging, at least of clear continuity or affiliation, proved strangely topical. The small body of fourteenth-century texts in Middle English referred to as ‘Breton lays’ – both by modern critics and frequently by the authors of the narratives themselves – is itself involved in more than one movement of retrospection.

  • 1 Unless otherwise stated by the contributors, all references to the Breton lays in English in the pr (...)
  • 2 Virtually the only attempt at identifying the lay-making process from the technical, musical perspe (...)
  • 3 See also Claire Vial, ‘The Middle English Breton Lays and the Mists of Origin’, in Leo Carruthers, (...)

2Indeed, retrospection seems to be the cue that launches some of the best-known, earlier English lays, and was to inspire their late-fourteenth-century imitations.1 Right from the outset, the two narrative poems that begin with a similar, celebrated prologue – Sir Orfeo and Lay Le Freine – invite their audience to consider strata of the past that are not simply diluted into the long-ago (that would merely inscribe them within the folk-tale tradition). The listeners are asked to turn their mind’s eyes to a time and location that are at once well-placed, or so it seems, in Brittany at the time of the harper-kings, and irritatingly – or delightfully – elusive. What these textual thresholds claim to usher us in is neither strictly a time or a place, but a compositional process that may very well be itself a mere literary smokescreen, connecting an ‘adventure’ once reported to a Breton king, deemed of interest and turned into an artistic object that may have been a melody played on the harp but results, in the fictional arena of the lay as we can read it or hear it, in the story related by the narrator. If the initial ‘note’ may be lost, yet it is echoed by the musical, poetic and even dramatic qualities of the present narratives, that come to life again by the virtue of each renewed performance. The generic stamp of the Breton lays is therefore precisely coded and resolutely beyond proof.2 This vexing presence-in-absence certainly remains one of the surest sources of the attraction triggered by the texts, both for the serious critic and for the public expecting entertainment. Sometimes they can even be the same persons. The glamorous aura attached to the combination of the entrancing harp-music, the nobility of the harpers and the proclaimed singularity of the adventures remained the best advertisement for the authors of the later lays (Sir Gowther, Emaré, Erle of Tolous), who proved well-aware of the intrinsic charm of the ‘lay’ label, if not of the recurring features present in the earlier texts.3

  • 4 For a further exploration of this pattern of retrospective narration followed by assessment and cor (...)
  • 5 See Nathalie Koble and Mireille Séguy, Lais bretons, XIIe-XIIIe siècles: Marie de France et ses con (...)
  • 6 See Anne Mathieu, ‘Le Lanval de Marie de France et le Sir Landevale moyen-anglais’, Bulletin de l’A (...)

3The retrospective interplay is further developed when one enters the matter of the Breton lays narratives, whose plots engage in reconsidering a past that is either mythical (with the classical figure of Orpheus as appropriated in Sir Orfeo), historical (see the barely sketched crusading past of the fathers in Lay le Freine, or the pre-Christian past of the Franklin’s Tale), or historic and literary (see Launfal’s adventures, silhouetted against the backcloth of ‘doughty Arthur’s days’). Ultimately, the act of remembering a narrative is instrumentalised as a maieutic device by Chaucer’s Franklin, who endeavours to tell a Breton lay that he has ‘in remembraunce’ (42), in order to better conceal his source narrative – Boccaccio’s Il Filocolo – and allow his audience to listen first and then reconsider.4 Above all, the relation with the past developed in and by the Breton lays is primarily, one might say, tinged with indebtedness to and distancing from the aristocratic Breton lais recorded by Marie de France at the end of the twelfth century so that, she says in her own Prologue, they might not fall into oblivion.5 Two of her lays were transposed from the Anglo-Norman to the English cultural areas, the Lai de Lanval and Le Fresne, but these translations are, according to the usual medieval practice, adaptations and adoptions, that involve change of social and spatial arenas in Lay Le Freine and retranslations in the course of the Middle English period (and indeed, beyond it), as regards Marie’s Lanval.6 Retrospection in this case has to do with political as well as cultural appropriation, as the plurality of meanings attached to the qualifier ‘Breton’ testifies, an issue addressed later in this volume.

4Thus, past texts and (fictitious?) ancient practice resonate in fourteenth-century retellings in the form of a multi-layered impetus of renewed creation that involves constant awareness of pre-existing genres, motifs and themes, as well as the development of a specific musicality through native or imported poetic techniques. But the liminal nostalgic glance cast at the harper-kings of Brittany in the envelopes of some of the texts must not be mistaken for an elegiac introduction to the celebration of a lost world of unquestioned Celtic magic, truth and chivalry. Deliberately blurred mirror-images of past literary artefacts, alongside the careful construction of networks of echoes within the narratives, defamiliarise both popular and courtly literary topoi. Such a strategy proves instrumental to the exploration of generic conventions as well as of major social issues, an exploration that occasionally verges on parody and definitely delights in ambiguity and imperfect resolutions, leaving open to the audience the assessment of the outward and inward journeys of the characters.

5The first part of the volume logically addresses such fundamental issues as the seminal quality of the Breton lais, the ‘Bretonicity’ (or is it ‘Britonicity’?) of the English texts, and the choices and difficulties involved in configuring the original manuscripts into modern editions. Anne Laskaya, whose contribution provides an essential introduction to the Auchinleck manuscript, including its most tangible reality, investigates the latter question. The early-fourteenth-century manuscript, now hosted by the National Library for Scotland, contains three lays in Middle English: Sir Orfeo, Lay Le Freine and Sir Degaré. Laskaya notably discusses the widespread vision of the manuscript as evidence of a nascent English nationalism, while investigating the historicity of the modern-day editors and the interpretive implications of specific editorial choices. Leo Carruthers’s study offers a fascinating historical contextualisation, comparing the contemporary uses of the terms ‘Breton’ and ‘Briton,’ their overlapping connotations and denotations, as well as the resonances of the modern qualifier ‘Celtic,’ that was never in use in the Middle English period and is now taken for granted in our way of outlining texts. Carruthers also insists that the Breton lays did not appear unheralded on the medieval cultural horizon; the initial audience was familiar with Welsh or Irish tales that provided a ‘culture of the fringes’ that is vital for the understanding of the lays. Writing from the vantage point of the continental origin of the Breton lays, Mireille Séguy reassesses the values – or the virtues – of the past in the lays and of the lays. She emphasises the link between the complex relation of the central characters with their own family and social past and the equally problematic relation between the English lays, particularly the ‘true lays’ and the Franklin’s Tale, and their continental ancestors. In both cases, the relation is expressed in terms of deconstruction and reconstruction, expectation and distancing, while the lay-making process introduced in the common prologue of Le Freine and Orfeo perplexingly replaces the continental lais’ concern for memory and preservation.

6After this preliminary investigation into the cultural fundamentals of the corpus, the second part of this collection explores the poetic and thematic components of the lays, and reassesses both singularity and recurrence of motifs. On the one hand, the contributors demonstrate how the authors of the lays wove new associations into received features. Anne Mathieu deciphers the sophisticated handling of uncertainty in one of Degaré’s most mystifying adventures. Three successive motifs that are unhesitatingly associated with the threshold to the supernatural or the otherworld in French chivalric romances are here revisited ‘with a pinch of salt.’ Mathieu shows that the peculiar interest and indeed appeal of this English lay is rooted in a careful treading on the boundary between the rational and the supernatural worlds that maintains a very ‘modern’ interpretive tension for the audience. Martine Yvernault analyses Chaucer’s revisitation of magic in the late fourteenth-century Franklin’s Tale and anatomizes the irruption of Realpolitik into the world of wonders and adventures as sketched in the prologues and as often exemplified in the narratives of the earlier ‘true lays.’ As illustrated by the business-like encounter between the squire Aurelius and the Magician, magic has now more to do with mechanics and negotiation, and very little with the wonders of the otherworld; the shifting of paradigm proves both literary and historical.

7Then, Sharon Rowley and Marie-Françoise Alamichel provide altogether new interpretative perspectives. Sharon Rowley argues in favour of an integrative reading of motifs that are usually considered separately. Thus, for instance, the topics of rape – or raptus –, challengeand symbolic trees, found in Sir Degaré and Sir Orfeo, run parallel with Frazer’s depiction of the scenes taking place in the sancturary of Nemi in the Golden Bough when considered as forming one unified pattern. In particular, Rowley suggests a reappraisal of the physical violence at work in the lays, often baffling and not easily accounted for by modern critics, but much more effectively understood in the mythopoetic perspective she develops. Finally, Marie-Françoise Alamichel considers the settings depicted in the lays from the innovative standpoint of landscape painting, and examines the development of artistic perspective through the period of composition of the Breton lays and within them. The reader is thus guided from a ‘Roman,’ relatively static, monochromatic or bi-chromatic art of description, to an increasing concern for vivid details, variations in colours and movement that can be termed as ‘Gothic,’ while Alamichel simultaneously extends our perception, encompassing continental and Anglo-Norman narratives in addition to the closed circle of the Breton lays.

8The last part of the collection invites the reader to ponder over the essential virtue of trowthe, set against the background of the social institution of marriage and of the network of oaths, uttered and betrayed, in the corpus, that testify to the moral fortitude – or its lack – among the central and secondary characters. First, Joanny Moulin outlines the influential type of the ‘strong woman’ whose virtue can be traced back to Bernard de Clairvaux’s celebration of the fortis femina. This type, Moulin argues, ultimately proves a recurring feature of the Breton lays’ feminine figures, who turn out to be the roundest characters in this body of texts. Simultaneously, Moulin suggests the fertility of modern, post-colonial critical approaches of texts that undoubtedly belong to a ‘post-colonial’ era. Elizabeth Archibald demonstrates that, contrary to a horizon of expectation that might be influenced by the reading of continental romances and early French lais in particular, neither passionate love nor adulterous relations are offered as enticing options in the English lays, with the exotic exceptions, precisely, of the two lays that are indeed of French origin. Loyalty and happily-ending (?) family stories prevail. Agnès Blandeau very carefully scrutinises the practice and tenets of pledges in their multiple forms, from the chivalric to the conjugal or the amorous arenas. It is a well-established truth that oaths are only present in tales in order to be at least shaken, and Blandeau undertakes a wide-ranging comparison of all Breton lays, both ‘bogus’ and ‘true,’ and of the formulation of multiple pledges, whether rash or solemn. She shows that reneging bears consequences that go far beyond the private sphere of the individual who lacks fortitude and trowthe, and undermines the whole balance of the fictional society within the narratives. Fanny Moghaddassi provides a reading of Sir Launfal as a ‘chamber of echoes;’ this version of the tale partakes of a series of retellings of the Lanval story. Perfect and imperfect verbal repetitions assert or undermine the adequacy between saying and doing, as well as saying and thinking. While the fairy Tryamour appears as the restorer of truth and the guardian of promise-keeping, it appears that only she and Launfal embody this adequacy, which may well account for their ultimate departure from the Arthurian court, marked by the defectiveness of the royal couple, the permanent risk of speedy justice and the abundant use of lies and missegging. Eventually, Colette Stévanovitch undertakes to explore the resonance of the implicit in poetic writing. By means of a series of micro-analyses, her study demonstrates the subtle links between characterisation and the uses of stress in meter, vowel length and combinations of mono- and poly-syllabic words. She particularly outlines the expression of pathos as opposed to restraint in dialogue and description, often contrasting the emotional effects achieved in the ‘true’ lays with the more distanced tone of the Franklin’s Tale.

9As a final touch, Elizabeth Scala’s study opens up a new vista on the entire corpus by advocating a renewed comparison of the Franklin’s Tale, as engaged in a dialogue with the earlier lays, and the Wife of Bath’s Tale, which in many regards is considered as a more faithful ‘Breton lay’ than the Franklin’s. Itself echoing other studies that insist on the binding power of words in the corpus, Scala’s sheds new light on Chaucer’s indebtedness to and instrumentalisation of the Breton lay genre, and posits that the creative quality of language in the Franklin’s Tale (creative, that is, of illusion) supersedes the usual pairing of the two tales on the basis of marital issues.

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1 Unless otherwise stated by the contributors, all references to the Breton lays in English in the present volume originate from the following edition by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, The Middle English Breton Lays (1995), TEAMS, Middle English Series, Michigan, 2001. An online version of this edition can be found at the following URL: Quotations from the Franklin’s Tale refer to A. C. Spearing’s edition, Chaucer: The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale (1966), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994. French translations are drawn mainly from Colette Stévanovitch and Anne Mathieu (eds.), Les Lais bretons moyen-anglais, Turnhout, Brepols, ‘Textes vernaculaires du Moyen Âge’, volume 9, 2010. The commonly-accepted distinction between the earlier ‘true lays’ and their later counterparts, the ‘bogus lays,’ is drawn from Paul Strohm, ‘The Origin and Meaning of Middle English Romaunce’, Genre, 10, 1977, p. 1-28, here p. 28. See also John B. Beston, ‘How Much Was Known of the Breton Lai in Fourteenth-Century England?’, in Larry D. Benson, David Staines, and McKay Sundwall (eds.), The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature, Cambridge, Harvard Uinversity Press, 1974, p. 319-336, here p. 323-ff.

2 Virtually the only attempt at identifying the lay-making process from the technical, musical perspective, with informative inspiration drawn from the modern period, can be found in Constance Bullock-Davies, ‘The Form of the Breton Lai’, Medium Ævum, 42, 1973, p. 18-31.

3 See also Claire Vial, ‘The Middle English Breton Lays and the Mists of Origin’, in Leo Carruthers, Raeleen Chai-Elsholz, and Tatjana Silec (eds.), Palimpsests and the Literary Imagination of Medieval England, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 175-191.

4 For a further exploration of this pattern of retrospective narration followed by assessment and corrected action, see Steele Nowlin, ‘Between Precedent and Possibility: Liminality, Historicity, and Narrative in Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale’, Studies in Philology, 103.1, 2006, p. 47-67.

5 See Nathalie Koble and Mireille Séguy, Lais bretons, XIIe-XIIIe siècles: Marie de France et ses contemporains, Paris, Champion ‘Classiques’, 2011, here, p. 166-167.

6 See Anne Mathieu, ‘Le Lanval de Marie de France et le Sir Landevale moyen-anglais’, Bulletin de l’Association des Médiévistes Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur, 73, 2008, p. 65-84; Colette Stévanovitch, ‘Le(s) lai(s) de Lanval, Launfal, Landeval, Lambewell… et la notion d’œuvre dans la littérature moyen-anglaise’, in Nathalie Collé-Bak, Monica Latham, and David Ten Eyck (eds.), Left Out, Texts and Ur-Texts, Nancy, Presses universitaires de Nancy, 2009.

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Claire Vial, « Foreword – retrospections »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 25 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2014, consulté le 17 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Vial

Claire Vial, agrégée d’anglais, ancienne élève de l’École Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-Saint Cloud, est maître de conférences en littérature anglaise à l’université Sorbonne Nouvelle–Paris 3 et membre de l’équipe d’accueil PRISMES (EA 4398). Son corpus de recherche s’étend des romances en vers et en prose des XIVe et XVe siècles au théâtre médiéval et élisabéthain, aux lyrics et aux lais bretons en moyen-anglais, domaines auxquels elle a consacré de nombreux articles. Elle s’attache en particulier à l’imaginaire médiéval, aux représentations (notamment iconographiques), à l’écriture poétique. Ses publications récentes incluent une traduction commentée du Lay Le Freine (Lay Le Freine, in Anne Mathieu et Colette Stévanovitch (dir.), Les Lais bretons moyen-anglais, Brepols, 2010, p. 15-41), ainsi qu’une étude d’ensemble sur « The Middle English Breton Lays and the Mists of Origin », dans Palimpsests and the Literary Imagination of Medieval England, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 (p. 176-191). En octobre 2013, elle a publié l’ouvrage « There and back again » : The Middle English Breton Lays, a Journey through Uncertainties aux Presses universitaires de France, présentation détaillée des questions génériques et des formes poétiques à l’œuvre dans les lais, suivie d’une exploration interprétative de Sir Orfeo, Lay Le Freine, Sir Degaré, Sir Launfal et The Franklin’s Tale.

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