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Lay le Freine: Introduction


1 The standard edition of Marie de France's Lais is Jean Rychner, ed., Les lais de Marie de France (Paris: Champion, 1969; rpt. 1983). See also Galeran de Bretagne; roman du XIIIe siècle, ed. Lucien Foulet (Paris: Champion, 1925; rpt., 1966).

2 See the similarities between this lay and the "Fair Annie" ballads (Child No. 62), Francis J. Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1883-86), II, 63-83.

3 See John C. Hirsh, "Providential Concern in the Lay le Freine," Notes and Queries n.s. 16 (1969), 85-86.

4 John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 322.

5 See also Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, John Gower's Tale of Constance in his Confessio Amantis, Boccaccio's tale of Griselda in the Decameron, and Alcuin Blamires's edition of medieval texts about women, entitled Woman Defamed and Woman Defended (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). Christine de Pisan also records a number of tales of virtuous and silent women in The Book of the City of Ladies (the tale of Griselda is found in Book II, ch. 50); her text also includes a defense of women's speech.
The Middle English Lay le Freine, dating from the early fourteenth century, exists in only one manuscript copy, National Library of Scotland Advocates 19.2.1, also called the Auchinleck MS. Le Freine is a relatively close translation of Marie de France's 518-line poem, Lai le Fresne, which was composed in the late twelfth century. The Middle English version is shorter than the Old French original, being only 408 lines. In the thirteenth century, Le Fresne was greatly amplified and transformed into a lengthy Old French romance, the Roman de Galeran de Bretagne.[1] The twenty-two line prologue to le Freine is also attached to two versions of Sir Orfeo, demonstrating the common medieval practice of borrowing material freely from text to text. Le Freine, like the Auchinleck Sir Orfeo, is damaged and consequently has been, in parts, reconstructed. The dialect features of Le Freine are Southern with some East Midland elements; it therefore reads much like Chaucer's writings. The author of the Middle English Lay le Freine is unknown.

This short Breton lay focuses on a female protagonist who is abandoned at birth, is raised as a foundling within a convent by a generous abbess, and then becomes the lover of a wealthy nobleman. When the nobleman, Guroun, is pressured to marry a legitimate wife, Le Freine accepts her fate with charitable resignation, even helping to prepare the castle for the wedding festivities. The woman Guroun marries happens to be none other than Le Freine's twin sister, Le Codre. Le Freine's true identity is revealed in the final moments of the narrative when her mother recognizes a beautiful cloth she had used to wrap around her baby daughter when she abandoned her. Guroun, discovering Le Freine's true class identity and lineage, annuls his unconsummated marriage to Le Codre and marries Le Freine. Le Codre, we are told, eventually marries another wealthy nobleman. The conclusion of this lay, like the conclusion of many Breton lays, reunites the protagonist with the family unit and affirms, in its fairytale ending, the triumph of the good. The protagonist's suffering is not as dramatic as that encountered by Emaré or Sir Orfeo, and although she is a foundling, she never suffers the poverty of a Sir Launfal. Still, the unattached, unclaimed, and potentially illegitimate status of Le Freine places her on the margins of her world, in vulnerable circumstances, and certainly in a position to suffer psychologically and socially. Her journey is, however, a nearly steady progression away from isolation and toward connection and legitimacy within the secular community. She moves from the infant carried on the night paths between villages to the infant resting safely within a tree, from the caretaker's home to the convent, and finally from the status of mistress in the nobleman's castle to the status of wife.

The text contains a number of folklore motifs: twin births, the abandoned or exposed child, the tokens which help with recognition and the establishment of identity, the degraded one who turns out to be noble, and the theme of patience rewarded.[2] Although the poem frequently mentions God, it lacks the religious opening and closing lines found in other romances and lays. It is not as secular as Launfal but not as religious as Emaré.[3] Neither Le Freine's liaison with Guroun within the convent nor Guroun's pretense to holiness for the purposes of a sexual affair receive the narrator's reproof. Still, the story is told as an "ensaumple," and it spins out a moral tale which condemns envy and slander while rewarding silence, patience, and generosity. Le Freine and her mother form the central opposition within the moral framework of the tale. The mother, jealous about the birth of her neighbor's twin sons, spreads rumors that twins can only result from two fathers. In this way, the tale incorporates the widespread superstition that virtuous women produce one healthy child at a time and that multiple births reflect multiple fathers. This superstition finds its way into folktales throughout the world, but its popularity in high and late medieval materials may also reflect the increased regulation of human sexuality which marked the late Middle Ages. In canon law, Gratian's Decretum assumed, as did some Synod documents, that sinful sexual unions were the cause of stillbirths, handicaps, deformities, and so on. It did not take much to step from Gratian's ideas to the idea that multiple births came from multiple partners. Obviously, shame, economic pressures, cultural biases, as well as other forces could work to encourage child abandonment. In his work, The Kindness of Strangers, John Boswell details the history of child abandonment in the Middle Ages; he writes, "between 1195 and 1295 at least thirteen different councils in England alone passed legislation directly or indirectly bearing on the abandonment of children." [4] Although the topos of the exposed child in Le Freine can be considered conventional since it is common throughout medieval romance materials, its widespread presence in medieval literature is not simply the function of tradition. Boswell notes, "the recurrence of a topos or even the repetition of narrative details cannot be taken as meaningless or ahistorical simply because they may be derivative. Marriage, murder, and the birth of children do not occur in twentieth-century literature simply in 'imitation' of classical antecedents" (p. 365). In his chapter 10, "Literary Witnesses," Boswell includes Le Freine in his discussion of the cultural resonance of child abandonment tales. The correspondence between the fantastic Breton lays and historical context is, of course, complex and subtle, a relationship common sense affirms and yet a difficult relationship to delineate. Still, "the single most characteristic feature of high medieval abandonment literature is its hopefulness . . . exposed children not only survive but flourish; not only overcome the difficulties of being abandoned but rise through them to greatness, becoming popes, . . . saints, kings, and most often [they] are joyfully reunited with their natal parents in the process" (p. 394). Although the codified cultural narrative is hopeful, its relationship to fact is speculation (and, obviously, doubtful). As Boswell notes, "To question the likelihood of these events is to overlook the real message they convey: the need of the societies that composed them, and of individuals within those societies, to believe that abandonment could result in a better life for their children, a need obviously created by an even more basic necessity - the necessity, in the absence of any other acceptable means of family limitation, of abandoning children" (p. 394).

If Le Freine participates in the cultural discourse surrounding children, it also functions culturally as one of many medieval narratives which condemn women's speech and laud women's silence. Thematically, Le Freine, like Emaré, admires "mesure," restraint, and patience. Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, the tale of Griselda, is perhaps the best known fourteenth-century English text on women's patience, but the motif is repeated in the Constance-saga materials, in sermons, tracts, and in many women's saints' lives [5] Le Freine's mother, providing the medieval stereotype of the jealous, gossiping woman is

A proude dame and an envieous,
Hokerfulliche missegging,
Squeymous and eke scorning.
To ich woman sche hadde envie;
Sche spac this wordes of felonie . . .
(lines 60-64)

Maliciously mis-saying (slandering)
Disdainful; also

Notably, her "missegging" and "wordes of felonie" evoke disdain from other women. They bring on the other women's curses (lines 77-82), her own husband's rebuke (lines 74-76), God's retribution (her own twins) (line 85), and her own extreme moral dilemma (lines 89-136). Her false words create very real consequences. Contrasting the jealous mother's slanderous speech about her neighbor's good fortune in the beginning of the lay is Le Freine's silent generosity toward Le Codre's good fortune at the end of the lay:
Albe her herte wel nigh tobroke,
No word of pride ne grame she spoke.
   (lines 353-54)
In fact, while she readies the wedding chamber, she decides it "yll besemed a may so bright" (line 362), so she takes "her riche baudekyn" and lays it across the bed. This quiet act of generosity, this gift from her little inheritance, is, of course, the silent move that opens up the possibility for everyone's redemption. As she gives up one of the only things that has protected her (the cloth), she unknowingly prepares the way for her mother to reclaim her. In the last thirty lines of the poem, Le Freine is called "hende" three times, echoing line 265 when Guroun first meets her at the convent, and she is described as "hende of mouth." Her "gentilesse" is, apparently, the legacy from her father, as her generosity is paralleled in her father's response when he hears of the birth of the twin boys:
The knight therof was glad and blithe,
And thonked Godes sond swithe,
And graunted his erand in al thing,
And gaf him a palfray for his tiding.
   (lines 55-58)
The textual crafting of Le Freine's silence is notable, given her role as the title character. Constructed to give voice to others such as the mother, the father, the neighbor's messenger, the maiden who carries Le Freine to the convent, the abbess, Guroun, and his barons, and long before Le Freine, herself, speaks, the text saves or silences her voice until the very end. Le Freine never speaks directly in the text until her mother addresses her in the wedding chamber (line 379), only twenty-nine lines from the end of the narrative. Le Freine's acquisition of a voice in the story and her reclamation of identity, heritage, and family (especially her mother) clearly coincide. She steps into language as she steps simultaneously into kinship, patrimony, and marriage. In other words, she has no voice outside of the established social order.

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Select Bibliography


National Library of Scotland Advocates 19.2.1 (The Auchinleck Manuscript).

The Auchinleck dates from the early-fourteenth century. Le Freine is found on folios 261-2 which have considerable damage. The MS is missing lines 121-33 and 341-408. I have followed other editors in supplying these lines from a Middle English re-creation done by Henry William Weber in 1810. Weber based his reconstructions on Marie de France's text. I am indebted to Wattie's critical edition in the preparation of this edition.

Critical Editions

Wattie, Margaret. "The Middle English Lai le Freine." Smith College Studies in Modern Languages 10.3 (April 1929), i-xxii and 1-27.

Varnhagen, Hermann. "Lai le Freine." Anglia 3 (1880), 415-23.


Ellis, George. Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances. Rev. ed. by J. O. Halliwell. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848. Pp. 538-46.

Weber, Henry W. Metrical Romances of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, 3 Vols. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1810. I, 357-71.

Rumble, Thomas C. The Breton Lays in Middle English. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965. Pp. 80-94.

Sands, Donald B. Middle English Verse Romances. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966. Pp. 233-45.

Related Studies

Burgess, Glyn S. Marie de France: Text and Context. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. [Offers a discussion and summary of the scholarly speculations about Marie de France's identity. Also discusses the Breton lay genre, the historical context, and provides readings of the lays of Marie de France, including Lai le Fresne and Lanval.]

---. Marie de France: An Analytical Bibliography. London: Grant & Cutler, 1977 and Supplement No. 1. London: Grant & Cutler, 1985. [Although keyed to Marie de France's versions of Le Fresne and Lanval, this bibliography contains entries which have bearing on some aspects of the Middle English version as well.]

Donovan, Mortimer J. "Le Freine." In The Breton Lay: A Guide to Varieties. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969. Pp. 126-39. [Examines the relationship of the Middle English Le Freine to Marie de France's Le Fresne. Also discusses versification, argues that the prologue belonged to Sir Orfeo first and was then borrowed for Le Freine, points to the poem's relationship with the "Fair Annie" ballad, and situates Le Freine within definitions of the Breton lay genre.]

Freeman, Michelle. "The Power of Sisterhood: Marie de France's Le Fresne." In Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski, eds. Women and Power in the Middle Ages. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. Pp. 250-64. [Offers a reading of the OF text, emphasizing the power of women characters to revise and transform text, speech, and the world of the lay. Examines "sisterhood" as it resonates between various characters, not simply between Le Fresne and Le Codre.]

Guillaume, Gabrielle. "The Prologues of the Lay le Freine and Sir Orfeo." Modern Language Notes 36 (1921), 458-64. [Argues that the prologue to Le Freine was composed by the English author (not borrowed from various French texts as has been argued by others) and that the author of Sir Orfeo subsequently borrowed the prologue from Le Freine.]

Maréchal, Chantal. "Le lai de Fresne et la littérature édifiante du xiie s." Cahiers de Civilisation Mediévale 35 (1992), 131-41. [Compares Marie de France's Fresne with sermons and other clerical writings to suggest ways the lay contains theological and moral significance. Considers historical documents to argue that the lay reflects authentic cases found in canon law and illustrates transformations of matrimonial institutions of the twelfth century.]

Zupitza, Julius. "Zum Lay le Freine," Englische Studien 10 (1887), 41-48.