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The Middle English Breton Lays: General Introduction


1 The French lais include: Desiré, Melion, Graelent, Doon, Guingamor, Tydorel, Tyolet, Haveloc, L'Espine, Le Cor, Nabaret, Le Trot, L'Ombre, Le Conseil, L'Amours, Aristote, Le Vair Palefroi, L'Oiselet, L'Espervier, Narcisse, Le Lecheor, Ignauré, and the twelve lays of Marie de France.

2 See Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante, translators, The Lais of Marie de France (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978). Marie's lays include: Guigemar, Equitan, LeFresne, Bisclavret, Lanval, Deus Amanz, Yonec, Laüstic, Milun, Chaitivel, Chevrefoil, Eliduc. There are translations or other versions in Old Norse, Middle High German, Italian, French, and Latin (Laüstic may be found in Alexander of Neckham's De naturis rerum).

3 There are several examples of translation from Old French into Breton and English, which suggest the multilingual, cosmopolitan nature of Marie's audience.

4 See Mortimer J. Donovan, The Breton Lay, pp. 65–120. The acknowledged source for Sir Orfeo, Lai d'Orfée, is not extant.

5 See A. C. Spearing, "Marie de France and Her Middle English Adapters."

6 See A. C. Baugh, ed., A Literary History, p. 196.

7 See John B. Beston, "How Much Was Known of the Breton Lai?" See also Paul Strohm, "The Origin and Meaning of Middle English Romaunce," Genre 10 (1977), 1–28.

8 See John Finlayson, "The Form of the Middle English Lay."

9 See Northrop Frye, Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).

10 See Kathryn Hume, "The Formal Nature of Middle English Romance." Hume argues that there are two types of romance: Type A comprises the armor-clad folk tales, a most attractive group which celebrates achievement, joy, and order. Type B displays their heroes against a significant background, usually a specific swatch of history or pseudo-history. See also Susan Wittig, Stylistic and Narrative Structure and G. V. Smithers, "Story-patterns in Some Breton Lays." Smithers distinguishes between three types of recurring story patterns: Type I include those in which there is contact between a mortal and a supernatural being; Type II include those in which a mortal and a supernatural being have a child; Type III include a father/son combat. In Chivalric Romances: Popular Literature in Medieval England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), Lee C. Ramsey subsumes the lays into a study of chivalric romances and classifies them by themes such as child exile, superman, fairy princess, and "gentils and vilains."

11 See Finlayson, pp. 366–67.

12 See Donovan's comparison of the two forms in The Breton Lay. Chaucer's Franklin's Tale and Wife of Bath's Tale, written in decasyllabic couplets, require a third formal category.

13 See Constance Bullock-Davies, "The Form of the Breton Lay." See also Rachel Bromwich, "A Note on the Breton Lays."

14 See A. C. Baugh, A Literary History, p. 196.

15 See Kevin Brownlee and Marina Scordilis Brownlee, Romance: Generic Transformation from Chrétien de Troyes to Cervantes (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1985).

16 For discussions of audience interaction with Chaucer's work, see Paul Strohm, Social Chaucer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); R. W. Hanning, "The Audience as Co-Creator of the First Chivalric Romances," Yearbook of English Studies 11 (1981), 1–28.

17 See Aron Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception, translated by János M. Bak and Paul A. Hollingsworth (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 176.

18 Sir Launfal "marries," is separated from the fay, and then reunited after a year.

19 See Wittig, Stylistic and Narrative Structures, p. 179. Wittig posits a "common model" for romance, composed of "two major linking structures (separation-restoration, love-marriage)." The Middle English Breton lays, because of their brevity, emphasize the latter of these formations.

20 See Laura A. Hibbard [Loomis], "Chaucer and the Breton Lays."

21 Kathryn Hume, "Why Chaucer Calls the Franklin's Tale a Breton Lai," Philological Quarterly 51.1 (1972), 365–79. Hume argues that there are three typical features of the lay which Chaucer knew and used: (1) "a concern with love and with what the Franklin calls 'gentilesse,' (2) the frequent use of magic (both fairie and other) as a plot device, and (3) an a-Christian ethic" (p. 366).

22 See Emily K. Yoder, "Chaucer and the 'Breton' Lay."

23 See Desmond Seward, The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337–1453 (New York: Atheneum, 1978), p. 79. Although Brittany remained neutral during the war, there were claims to her sovereignty made by both England and France. Many English garrisons were stationed there and, according to Seward, Brittany was the site of one of the most memorable events of the war. Called the "Combat of the Thirty" it was a staged event, a chivalric tournament between thirty English soldiers and thirty French soldiers. Suggested by the English garrison commander, the idea was to come to some determination of military superiority without a fullblown battle. The French won, killing nine English soldiers including the garrison commander and taking the rest prisoner.

24 For a thorough discussion of the complexities of linguistic displacement in England, which also included Latin, see M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979). See also John H. Fisher, "A Language Policy for Lancastrian England," PMLA 107 (1992), 1168–80.

25 See A. C. Spearing, "Marie de France and her Middle English Adapters."

26 See Susan Crane, Insular Romance, p. 12.

27 Donovan's suggestion that a shift in emphasis of the Middle English lays from courtesie to aventure signals "retrogression and tends to reduce the lay to a folktale" is a significant if rather negative recognition of the relation of the lays to folktale. See The Breton Lay, p. 122.

28 See Jack Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell, p. 5.

29 See Carol Fewster, Traditionality and Genre in Middle English Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987), p. 30.

30 The issue of origin is still under contention. Variations occur even among versions of the same poem.

31 See Derek Pearsall, "Development of Middle English Romance." See also Harriet Hudson, "Middle English Popular Romances." Hudson uses the term "fallen gentry" as defined by K. B. McFarlane in The Nobility of Later Medieval England: The Ford Lectures for 1953 and Related Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973).

32 See John B. Beston, "How Much Was Known?"

33 See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400–c. 1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 68. For further discussion of literacy in England see JoAnn Moran, The Growth of English Schooling 1340–1548 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); James Westfall Thompson, The Literacy of the Laity in the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California, 1938; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1963). See also Carol M. Meale, ed., Women and Literature in Britain, 1150–1500(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

34 See Laura A. Hibbard Loomis, "The Auchinleck Manuscript and a Possible London Bookshop."

35 Cambridge Ff. 2.38 (Erle of Tolous); Cotton Caligula (Sir Launfal and Emaré); Advocates 19.3.1 (Sir Gowther); Bodleian Ashmole 61 (Sir Cleges).

36 See Derek Pearsall, "Middle English Romance." Pearsall notes that the Auchinleck MS is the medieval equivalent of a "coffee-table" book, probably intended for private household use.

37 See Janet Coleman, Medieval Readers and Writers, 1350–1400 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981). Coleman argues that the extension of the "middle class" marked a corresponding increase in manuscript patronage. The newly literate were interested in "what concerned pious men of commerce, eager to establish law and order, principles of morality and peace" (p. 71).

38 See Derek Pearsall, "Middle English Romance" p. 42.

39 See Harriet Hudson, "Middle English Popular Romances," p. 77.
What is a Breton lay and why is its designation in Middle English important? Without the identification of "Middle English," the Breton lay may refer to any of the poems produced between approximately 1150 and 1450 which claim to be literary versions of lays sung by ancient Bretons to the accompaniment of the harp.1 The subsequent codification of the literary genre is attributed to the Anglo-Norman writer Marie de France whose twelve lays immortalize this tradition of Breton storytelling in the twelfth century.2 Set in Brittany, Wales, or Normandy, Marie's lays address matters of courtesy, chivalry, and courtly love, concerns of interest to her multi-lingual, aristocratic audience.3 Old French imitations of her lays followed in the thirteenth century with varying degrees of success; many of them are now lost.4 The Middle English lays — Sir Orfeo, Sir Degaré, Lay le Freine, Erle of Tolous, Emaré, Sir Gowther, Sir Launfal — were composed sometime between the late thirteenth or early fourteenth and the early fifteenth century. Of them only Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal and the anonymous Lay le Freine may be considered translations or adaptations of Marie's poems.5

Defining the Middle English Breton lay as a distinct genre has been a nagging concern of modern scholars. In an early attempt, A. C. Baugh offers the following:
whether a given short romance is called a Breton lay or not depends mainly on whether it says it is one, has its scene laid in Brittany, contains a passing reference to Brittany, or tells a story found among the lais of Marie de France.6
The lays themselves support this definition: Sir Degaré is set in Brittany, Lay le Freine and Sir Launfal are "found among the lais of Marie de France," while the others make some "passing reference" to Brittany or a lost Breton source. But the poems also call themselves contes, stories, gestes, and romances, a tendency that suggests that the Middle Ages felt no clear need for generic types. Needless to say, this has created confusion among scholars about the validity of calling Middle English Breton lay a genre at all.

Most scholars see the lays as a shortened form of romance.7 John Finlayson, for instance, looks to length as a means of differentiating these poems from other romances in Middle English. For Finlayson, the poems constitute a "sub-genre of romance" equivalent in their relation to the longer romances as short story is to novel.8 This is certainly a valid distinction since these poems all run between eight hundred to twelve hundred lines, a mere third the length of romances such as Bevis of Hampton, Havelok the Dane, and King Horn. They also follow the general pattern of romance — separation and reunion — or, as Northrop Frye views it, a journey of descent followed by ascent and a corresponding resolution of the hero or heroine's identity, purpose, and place in the world.9 The poems often fall into some pattern based on story type or linguistic model depending on the particular critic's criteria for evaluation.10 Yet the attempt to impose a single formulaic pattern on these texts in order to determine a genre has been thwarted by their resistance to conform to any single cohesive system. As Finlayson concludes, "the lay in Middle English is not a uniform sub-type of romance distinguishable by a manner of treatment and by particular combinations of motifs."11

Since the composition period of the Middle English lays spans approximately one hundred years, even within the group there are distinctions to be made. While the earlier lays — Sir Orfeo, Sir Degaré, Lay le Freine — may be identified by octosyllabic couplets, the later — Erle of Tolous, Sir Launfal, Emaré, Sir Gowther — may be identified by their tail-rhyme stanzas.12 The first group, in imitation of Marie's octosyllabic poems, is more suggestive of the Breton minstrel tradition she codified in her lais; the second group reflects a native English stanzaic practice used in several other Middle English romances. Both varieties are emphatically metrical with rhythmic features undeniably musical, perhaps, as some scholars reckon, something analogous to folk music intended to be performed in public places by minstrels.13 Certainly the relationship of these English poems to music and minstrelsy is important. In Sir Orfeo, for instance, Orfeo finds pleasure and solace in his harp as he grieves the loss of his bride, while in Sir Cleges, the hero's identity is revealed in a memorable scene of minstrelsy. None of the other poems contain such overt references to music, though in some cases they provide a courtly ethos against which the drama is played out. But since these are literary texts undoubtedly intended to be read aloud, the verbal repetitions, rhyming patterns, and exhortations to "listen," all capture the vibrant cadences of oral performance.

With much critical attention turned to matters of "form," it is not surprising that other crucial generic features have been overlooked or even subtly discounted. Subject matter and its treatment, for instance, has been cast aside as having "nothing distinctive" to offer.14 Neither has there been much attention paid to the extraliterary environment in which these poems were produced. To define the genre then we must not only take into consideration the formal nature of these narratives, i.e., stylistic and structural features, but their discursive nature, the social and ideological contexts which contribute to their generic identity.15 Furthermore, a genre as elusive as Middle English Breton Lay demands consideration of its interaction with an actual audience whose interests and concerns are their subjects.16

The Prologue to Lay le Freine is a good place to begin an examination of internal generic attributes because it characterizes the subject matter that is shared by many of the English lays:
We redeth oft and findeth ywrite —    
And this clerkes wele it wite —
Layes that ben in harping
Ben yfounde of ferli thing.
Sum bethe of wer and sum of wo,
And sum of joie and mirth 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, for sothe thai beth.
       (lines 1–12)



jokes; ribaldry


The Prologue's beginning posits an audience of readers who share in a particular tradition of storytelling — "layes that ben in harping" — that addresses a number of marvelous happenings: war, woe, joy, happiness, treachery, guile, adventure, bawdiness, ribaldry, the fairy world, and most of all, love. These subjects are familiar to a medieval audience not only from literary narratives "they redeth oft," but from the realities of medieval life. Difficult social problems especially within the family — incest, rape, abandonment, illegitimacy — as well as issues of the larger community — inheritance, exile, orphanage, poverty, violence, social mobility, punishment, rehabilitation, territorial disputes — are subjected to analysis and transformation. "Treachery and guile," which in life may go unpunished, are punished in the lays according to exacting standards of justice. "Adventures" provide the narrative impetus, spelled with occasional humor and comic relief. Plausible social contexts lend the poems an air of realism, while, at the same time, infusions of the marvelous and strange cast an aura of enchantment about them. In some poems — Sir Orfeo, Sir Launfal, Lay le Freine, Sir Degaré — the enchantments are of the Celtic fairy world; in others — Erle of Tolous, Emaré, Sir Gowther, Sir Cleges — they are predominantly miraculous and Christian. In the paradoxes of medieval metaphysics, when death could be life and life, death; when madness could be holiness and criminality the sign of a saint; when supernatural spirits could mate with mortals and transformation could be a possibility of everyday life, the unexpected and magical becomes the norm.17 The Otherworld, Celtic or Christian, could exist in a subterranean realm or in the heavens, or even just beyond the reach of a hand. When two spheres of reality are perceived to co-exist so intimately, the boundaries between them are often indistinguishable.

But the subject matter of most concern, as the Prologue to Lay le Freine suggests, is love. This may not be particularly surprising, considering the importance of love to romance, but there are subtle distinctions to be made between love in these poems, the longer Middle English romances, and Marie's lais for that matter. These Middle English lays are not the courtly love stories of Marie de France — stories of arranged marriages, and subsequent longing for happiness and fulfillment outside its parameters — but rather stories of lovers whose happy ending resides in marriage. Five of these poems end in marriages — Sir Gowther, Sir Degaré, Erle of Tolous, Lay le Freine, and Sir Launfal,18 while the others — Sir Orfeo, Emaré, and Sir Cleges — end in marital reunion. Because of their shorter length they intensify and emphasize the importance of truth in love, both for its stabilizing influence on the family unit and its concommitant stabilization of a larger community.19 They address both the personal and social in ways different from Marie de France's Norman, aristocratic orientation.

Since many of these poems "beth of fairy," the positing of another time and place, the employment of what might be called a psychology of displacement is a necessary component of their storytelling strategy. The fairytale beginnings disrupt ordinary perceptions of time and allow the audience to reperceive the present by removing it from the events of the moment. The "once upon a time," so familiar to us in our own fairytales, signals imminent entry into an otherworldly environment, where trouble invariably accompanies enchantment, where actual reality is subject to transformation by magic as well as merit.

In the late Middle Ages, Brittany provided fertile soil for the English imagination. The legendary forest of Brocéliande, the open plains and big sky, its rocky coasts and otherworldly remoteness were features that inspired writers like Chaucer whose own version of a Breton lay, the Franklin's Tale, features the rocks of Brittany's coast in a test of marital fidelity. Chaucer's invocation of the Breton tradition at the beginning of the tale effectively removes his audience from their place in the present to sometime in a distant past:
Thise olde gentil Britouns in hir dayes
Of diverse aventures maden layes,
Rymeyed in hir firste Briton tonge;
Whiche layes with hir instrumentz they songe,       
Or elles redden hem for hir plesaunce.
And oon of hem have I in remembraunce.
       (F 709–14)


read them; their

It is generally agreed that Chaucer knew and made use of the Auchinleck manuscript containing three of the early lays: Lay le Freine, Sir Orfeo, and Sir Degaré.20 Some scholars suggest that he was making the most of a current vogue, capitalizing on the appeal of the "old-fashioned," sentimental nostalgia invoked by the genre. Kathryn Hume more definitively asserts that he was capitalizing on the magical ethos associated with the Breton tradition.21 Both perspectives address a process of poetic appropriation not uncommon in medieval literature. But there is more going on here than a sentimental journey into an enchanted pagan past. Rather, Chaucer seems to be reclaiming a tradition that had migrated with the ancient Celts from Britain to Brittany in the fifth century. As Emily Yoder suggests, Breton lays "were considered to be ancient stories of the British people who inhabited the main island of Britain" and are not to be confused with stories told by contemporary late medieval Bretons, inhabitants of Brittany located across the English Channel.22 Yet the "olde gentil Britons" to whom Chaucer refers are the progenitors of the Breton tradition. The two seemingly separate groups — Britons and Bretons — share the same genealogy and cultural heritage. The very interchangeability of the terms "Briton" and "Breton" underscores that kinship relation as does the dual connotation of Bretaigne (both Britain and Brittany or Little Britain as it came to be known). The facts of rivalry between France and Britain for Brittany, the claims of both on its sovereignty, and its strategic importance in the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), infuse a seemingly innocuous poetic act with political motive.23 The "matter of Britain" (i.e., Arthurian legend), dominated by French writers such as Chrétien de Troyes, Robert de Boron, Wace, Marie de France, and others since the twelfth century, was ripe for English reclamation in the fourteenth century. The Middle English Breton lays are part of an agenda for reinstating a cultural heritage.

Both French culture and its aristocratic language, brought to England in the eleventh century by the invading Normans, were, by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, systematically displaced by the cultural forces of England. After the deposition of Richard II, whose love of French culture and language was well-known and ridiculed by his detractors, his successor, Henry IV, made English the official language of Britain.24 After 1362, with the opening of Parliament in English, rather than French, the dominance of French in England rapidly diminished. English poets could no longer presuppose a bilingual or multilingual audience, but rather they focused on an English-speaking audience:
Bifel a cas in Breteyne,
Whereof was made Lay le Frain;
In Ingliche for to tellen ywis
of an asche for sothe it is. . .
       (Lay le Freine prologue, lines 23–26)
Once upon a time; Brittany

i.e., I will tell you in English

The anonymous poet of Lay le Freine does not presume that his audience knows the heroine's French name means "asche" in English, but rather explicitly defines it.

One minor geographic change that the poet of Lay le Freine makes from Marie's version — where Brittany becomes the "west cuntre" of England — accrues added significance in view of the processes of reclaiming the heritage. Orfeo's removal from a mythical place in ancient Greece to Winchester, the ancient Anglo-Saxon capital, Emaré's bringing a tale "out of Brittany," and the changes that render Sir Launfal more "public" and "concrete" within a fourteenth-century English context, all suggest an agenda very unlike Marie's. These discernible changes in orientation, as A. C. Spearing suggests, imply a process of adapting Marie's lais to an English "lay" audience in order to speak to their concerns.25 What Susan Crane suggests about insular romance holds true for the English lays: "[they] are attuned to the realities of English life," with voices shaped to answer England's questions.26

Because of the social and political events of the period, some of those questions have to do with issues such as class identity, personal identity, and positioning within society. Perhaps that is one reason there are so many identifiable folktale motifs that figure significantly in the reconstructed action of these poems — the Calumniated Queen or Persecuted Wife of Erle of Tolous and Emaré; the Wish Child or Devil's Contract of Sir Gowther and Sir Orfeo; the Spendthrift Knight and Strokes Shared of Sir Cleges; the Father/Son Combat of Sir Degaré, for example.27 Folktales bring with them the tensions inherent within a particular social environment; they constitute the venue by which, according to Jack Zipes, "common people perceived nature and their social order."28 Drawing much of their social energia from folktale, these poems reflect a perception of nature and the social order as seen through the eyes of the "common people." But rather than consistently upholding traditionality, as Carol Fewster claims for Middle English romance,29 they affirm the dominant values of a dynamic society and an urgent necessity to redefine its norms.

The regional differences among the lays, differences determined by dialect, have fueled speculation about the composition of the actual audience for whom these poems were intended. Lay le Freine, whose dialect is similar to Chaucer's, is placed near London or Middlesex, as is Sir Orfeo. Sir Launfal and Sir Degaré are thought to derive from somewhere in the South Midlands, and Erle of Tolous, Emaré, and Sir Gowther are thought to have originated in the Northeast Midlands.30 These regional and dialectical differences, as some scholars suggest, probably identify corresponding differences in audience. While some posit an audience derived from the new mercantile class of wealthy, semi-aristocratic wool merchant houses of East Anglia, others would define the audience in terms of what K. B. McFarlane calls the "fallen gentry."31 John B. Beston posits two separate groups: for the earlier couplet lays a "rather sophisticated audience, familiar with the courtly tradition," and for the tail-rhyme lays "a somewhat crude but robust audience."32 Eamon Duffy claims that the audience, at least by the late fifteenth century, is composed of a wider segment of society accounted for by "the spread of literacy down the social scale, even to many women."33 It is not surprising then that the production of these manuscripts corresponded with a growing demand for reading materials — reading materials congruent with the concerns of an increasingly diverse audience.

The poems that we have chosen to present derive from five manuscript anthologies. Beginning with the Auchinleck MS, compiled possibly in 1330 in a London bookshop,34 we derive Sir Orfeo, Lay le Freine, and Sir Degaré; later manuscripts — Cambridge University Library Ff. 2.38, British Library Cotton Caligula A.ii, National Library of Scotland Advocates 19.3.1, and Oxford's Bodleian Library 6922 (Ashmole 61) — supply the others.35 Of the group, Auchinleck reigns first and foremost both in content and presentation. Although thirteen items have been lost, this manuscript contains 334 leaves (voluminous by medieval standards) and a total of forty-four narratives which Laura Hibbard Loomis categorizes as follows: eighteen romances, one chronicle and a list of Norman barons, two pious tales of the miracle type, eight legends of saints and other holy legends, one visit to the Otherworld, one humorous tale, two debates, one homily, two monitory pieces, three works of religious instruction, and three of satire and complaint. As her summary suggests, the romances, a genre in which she includes Sir Orfeo and Lay le Freine, dominate the manuscript and point to the popularity of such narratives for its fourteenth-century audience.36 Cambridge Ff. 2.38, compiled in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, is equally voluminous, containing forty-three items including Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwick, Eglamour of Artois, Octavian, Le Bone Florence of Rome, Robert of Sicely, Syr Tryamoure, Sir Degaré, saints' lives such as those of Margaret, Thomas, Edmund, Mirk's Festial, a collection of homilies, devotional works such as The Assumption of the Virgin; The Seven Sages of Rome, which is a collection of didactic narratives; and other miscellaneous items. Cotton Caligula A.ii, compiled from 1451–60, contains thirty-eight items including Chevaliere Assigne, The Siege of Jerusalem, Octavian, Libeaus Desconus, Isumbras, Eglamour of Artois, Emaré, Launfal Miles (Sir Launfal), Susannah and the Two Elders, Lydgate's Stans Puer ad Mensam, his piece on table manners, and The Chorle and the Bird, medical remedies, saints' lives, seventeen devotional works, and several didactic items. Advocates 19.3.1, compiled in the late fifteenth century, more modestly contains Lydgate's Stans Puer ad Mensam and The Life of Our Lady, Sir Isumbras, Sir Gowther, and Amadace of Gaul, though its length (432 leaves) might suggest greater diversity. The late fifteenth century Bodleian 6922 (Ashmole 61) boasts thirty-nine items in 162 leaves and includes Sir Cleges (found between Tale of an Incestuous Daughter and The Founding of the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls), Erle of Tolous, Kyng Orfew (Sir Orfeo), Lybeaus Desconus, Isumbras, didactic works such as A Father's Instruction to His Son, A Good Wife Instructs Her Daughter, Twelve Points for Purchasers of Land, three of Lydgate's works (Stans Puer ad Mensam, Rammeshorne, and The Governans of Man [dietary advice]), and fourteen devotional items including personal morning and evening prayers. What we are witnessing when we examine the contents of these manuscripts, compiled over the course of more than a century, is not only evidence of increased demand, but also a diversification of literary tastes. From the "highly literary" Auchinleck to the more pious and devotional materials in the later manuscripts there seems to be a marked change in the concerns of a newly literate English audience. Though the new demands may be more pious and practical, the Middle English Breton lays, as well as the instructive romances, remain a part of the new directions.

These manuscript anthologies stand as important indicators both of England's burgeoning literacy and of an increasing privatization of reading for an audience interested in redefining social norms.37 Frances McSparran and P. R. Robinson posit an audience of "devout and literate layfolk" and conclude that the Cambridge MS functioned as "family reading in a pious middle-class household." Derek Pearsall notes evidence of "more attention to the needs of private readers in the presentation and lay-out of the texts."38 Whatever reading audience the compilers of these manuscripts had in mind, it is clear that these voluminous collections served many functions: the romance narratives could be read aloud for entertainment and instruction in familial matters; the didactic items could be used for the instruction of children; and the devotional works could address the need for private reading and meditation in the edification of one's own soul. What the diverse contents of these manuscripts seem to indicate is the beginning of a new kind of reading — one more private than public, more family oriented than not.39 If a genre can finally be determined by its interaction with an audience then these poems are "English" Breton lays largely because they point to a renewed interest in the nuclear English family and the shaping of distinctly English family values.

Go To Sir Orfeo, Introduction
Select Bibliography

Baugh, A. C., ed. A Literary History of England, vol. 1. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948.

Beston, John B. "How Much Was Known of the Breton Lai in Fourteenth-Century England?" In The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature . Ed. Larry D. Benson. Harvard English Studies 5. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974. Pp. 319–36. [Claims that the Breton lay was not as well-known in fourteenth-century England as many have claimed.]

Bromwich, Rachel. "A Note on the Breton Lays." Medium Aevum 26 (1957), 36–38. [Notes the relationship of Marie's lais to Welsh sagas told in the ninth and tenth centuries.]

Bullock-Davies, Constance. "The Form of the Breton Lay." Medium Aevum 42 (1973), 18–31. [Discusses structure and stylistic elements of the genre and includes an analysis of the Briton/Breton manner of musical performance.]

Crane, Susan. Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. [Delineates distinguishing features of English romance.]

———. Gender and Romance in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. [Discusses The Franklin's Tale and Breton lay genre.]

Donovan, Mortimer J. The Breton Lay: A Guide to Varieties. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969. [Comparative study with emphasis on the French lais.]

Finlayson, John. "The Form of the Middle English Lay." Chaucer Review 19 (1984–85), 352–68. [Locates the genre within romance.]

Harrington, David V. "Redefining the Middle English Breton Lay." Medievalia et Humanistica 16 (1988), 73–95. [Social and ethical values distinguish these narratives from the larger category of medieval romances.]

Hudson, Harriet. "Middle English Popular Romances: The Manuscript Evidence." Manuscripta 28 (1984), 67–78. [Discusses the provenance of romance manuscripts and their probable audience.]

Hume, Kathryn. "Why Chaucer Calls the Franklin's Tale a Breton Lai." Philological Quarterly 52 (1972), 365–79. [Offers reasons for Chaucer's use of Breton lay that go beyond those generally accepted.]

———. "The Formal Nature of Middle English Romance." Philological Quarterly 53 (1974), 158–80. [Distinguishes three types of romance based upon the hero's ability to fulfill his destiny.]

Johnston, Grahame. "The Breton Lays in Middle English." In Iceland and the Mediaeval World: Studies in Honour of Ian Maxwell. Ed. Gabriel Turville-Petre and John Stanley Martin. Victoria: Wilke, 1974. Pp. 151–61. [Argues that the differences among the English lays discourages study of the English lays as a group.]

Loomis, Laura A. Hibbard. "Chaucer and the Breton Lays of the Auchinleck MS." Studies in Philology 38 (1941), 14–33. [Discusses evidence of the influence of the Auchinleck MS particularly on The Franklin's Tale and Wife of Bath's Tale.]

———. "The Auchinleck Manuscript and a Possible London Bookshop of 1330–1340." PMLA 57 (1942), 595–627. [Study of internal evidence to date and locate the manuscript's production in a commercial scriptorium in London.]

Pearsall, Derek. "The Development of Middle English Romance." Mediaeval Studies 27 (1965), 91–116. [Follows the growth and development of the genre from 1240 to 1400.]

———. "Middle English Romance and Its Audience." In Historical and Editorial Studies in Medieval and Early Modern English for Johan Gerritsen. Ed. Mary-Jo Arn and Hanneke Wirtjes, with Hans Jansen. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1985. Pp. 37–47. [Discusses a range of possible audiences from urban to provincial.]

Shippey, T. A. "Breton Lais and Modern Fantasies." In Studies in Medieval English Romances: Some New Approaches. Ed. Derek Brewer. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988. Pp. 69–91. [Relates Marie's lais to a small group of fantasy novels recently written for children.]

Smithers, G. V. "Story-Patterns in Some Breton Lays." Medium Aevum 22 (1953), 61–92. [Distinguishes three types of recurring patterns.]

Spearing, A. C. "Marie de France and Her Middle English Adapters." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 12 (1990), 117–56. [Comparative study of Marie's Le Fresne and Lanval with their Middle English adaptations.]

Strohm, Paul. "Storie, Spelle, Geste, Romaunce, Tragedie: Generic Distinctions in the Middle English Troy Narratives." Speculum 46 (1971), 348–59. [A useful study of genre as perceived by medieval writers.]

———. "The Origin and Meaning of Middle English Romaunce." Genre 10 (1977), 1–28. [Discusses the use of the term from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries and addresses such related terms as storie, geste, and lay .]

Wittig, Susan. Stylistic and Narrative Structure in Middle English Romances. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.

Yoder, Emily K. "Chaucer and the 'Breton' Lay." Chaucer Review 12 (1977–78), 74–77. [Discusses the distinctions between the terms Briton and Breton and Chaucer's use of the former in The Franklin's Tale.]

Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979; rpt. New York: Methuen, 1984. [Breaks away from conventionally accepted psychoanalytical theories, offering instead a socio-politically oriented (i.e., Marxist) theory for the interpretation of folk narratives.]