A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature

By Laura Cooner Lambdin; Robert Thomas Lambdin | Go to book overview

6

Breton Lay

Shearle Furnish

The Breton lay in the form known to modern readers originated in twelfth-century French courtly writing. The most famous examples are the twelve lays of Marie de France as collected in the British Museum manuscript Harley 978. However, a body of anonymous French lays is also extant from the period and influenced perhaps equally with Marie the later tradition in Middle English. The term lay may have meant for Marie not so much her own brief romantic narratives in octosyllabic couplets, but rather the tradition of oral performance from Celtic Brittany to which her work pays memorial homage. Thus Marie–s poems might represent no more than the narrative verse residue of a body of work that also once incorporated song and instrumental accompaniment. Nonetheless, the literary genre that she and other French writers created has survived its antecedents and enjoyed a wide influence, including that exerted on a small body of Middle English poetry of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Some of this English poetry is loosely translated from the French, and literary historians have typically viewed the entire tradition as derivative and, with just a couple of exceptions, generally inferior to its French models.

The Breton lay in Middle English is a brief, romantic narrative in octosyllabic couplets or tail-rhyme stanzas, its plot taking the shape of a turn of Fortune–s wheel rather than the quest. It invariably possesses or claims affinities of some sort with Celtic tradition: fairy lore, setting in Brittany, or simply the author–s confession of influence. Unlike courtly romance, the Breton lay concerns family drama more than martial prowess, but like Marie–s lays and chivalric romances such as Chreétien–s Conte del graal, the Breton lay in Middle English frequently concerns the nurture, maturation, and social integration of its hero or heroine.

The extant Middle English Breton lays appear earliest in an influential manuscript of the middle fourteenth century, the Auchinleck Manuscript (Advocates–

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A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • 1 - Old English and Anglo-Norman Literature 1
  • Selected Bibliography 23
  • 2 - Religious and Allegorical Verse 26
  • 3 - Alliterative Poetry in Old and Middle English 37
  • Selected Bibliography 48
  • 4 - Balladry 50
  • Selected Bibliography 66
  • 5 - The Beast Fable 69
  • Selected Bibliography 84
  • 6 - Breton Lay 86
  • 7 - Chronicle 98
  • 8 - Debate Poetry 118
  • Selected Bibliography 152
  • 9 - Medieval English Drama 154
  • 10 - Dream Vision 178
  • Selected Bibliography 196
  • 11 - Epic and Heroic Poetry 210
  • 12 - The Epic Genre and Medieval Epics 230
  • Selected Bibliography 253
  • 13 - The Fabliau 255
  • 14 - Hagiographic, Homiletic, and Didactic Literature 277
  • Selected Bibliography 294
  • 15 - Lyric Poetry 299
  • 16 - The Middle English Parody/ Burlesque 315
  • Selected Bibliography 333
  • 17 - Riddles 336
  • 18 - Romance 352
  • Selected Bibliography 373
  • 19 - Visions of the Afterlife 376
  • Selected Bibliography 394
  • Selected Bibliography 399
  • Index 425
  • About the Editors and Contributors 431
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