Lay le Freine (anon.)

The Text: Lay le Freine (lit. the ash-tree lay) survives in only one manuscript, the same one which contains one of the six Degaré versions and one of the two Orfeo versions. This is a sign that the manuscript’s patron had a taste for these strange little romances, since almost all books were made to order during this period. The tale closely tracks Marie’s version ("Le Fresne") until line 120, when the poor condition of the manuscript deprives us of the Middle English version for 13 lines, and the last 68 lines are likewise lost in the Middle English version and reconstructed from Marie based a modern (well, 1810) scholar’s work.  The manuscript which preserved le Freine is Auchinleck MS. Advocates 19.2.1, a famous compilation of romances which you can access online at the National Library of Scotland website (co-edited by David Burnley and Alison Wiggins).  Visit this site and click on the "Contents" link on the upper left corner of the page.  That will give you an idea of the context in which a medieval reader might have encountered this tale of the lost twin sister.  Rather than a "book" about a single person, or containing a collection thematically unified by the topic "Breton lais" (e.g., Thomas Rumble's print edition), this manuscript resembles a specialized library.  It mingles secular chivalric romances ("Of Artour and Merlyn") with religious narratives like saints' legends, a short chronicle, and the "Battle Abbey Roll," a list of last names of important landowners near this famous East Sussex monastery (See line 127 for a name we will become familiar with.)

Interpretive Notes--

1)  The Middle English poet begins by offering his audience a generic survey of the Breton lai, in effect, getting them ready to interpret the narrative which follows.  This is a nice illustration of the importance of shared interpretive assumptions to the successful performance of literature by poet and by audiences.  Having cast himself as a student of what "clerkes" write, and hence a literate man, the narrator launches his tale by shifting the setting to Brittany in ancient times when kings took marvels they heard of and set them to harp music so they could be sung.  This evocation of oral tradition performance is seconded by the Middle English poet's next move, which is to ask his audience of "lordynges" to "herkeneth" to what he will tell them, i.e., to listen to a public performance.  This sets up the work for both kinds of audiences, those who read it for themselves and those who hear it read at court.  Keep looking for evidence of the literacy of characters in the tale, including the sending of messengers vs. letters, the use of letters as "icons" vs. signs that characters read for their meaning, etc.  In what kind of linguistic universe does "le Freyne" occur?

2)  Middle English narrators, including Chaucer, sometimes use two types of episode transition to signal whether readers should take the events as evidence of human will or as acts of Fate or Divine Providence.  The former usually is cast as a "turning and leaving" of the form "now let us leave the knight on his quest and turn to the lady in the tower," and it implicitly asks for a comparison between the decisions the two characters make in their differing circumstances.  The latter, usually in the form "Hit befil that the Saracens attacked the kingdom," marks the inevitable process of events that are beyond our characters' control.  Some narratives use only one of the forms (e.g., "Emare" uses "Leve we . . . and speke we," ll. 742-3), but more complex narratives use both.  "le Freyne" uses only the fated or Providential transition.  Note which events "bifel" characters in "le Freyne."   Does the force motivating these events seem to be secular or divine?

3)  The courtly setting of the lai always is established in the first episode.  After the place, which usually is a real geographic location, the one of the next things to be told to the audience is the protagonist's family estate (class + status + quality + wealth + history).  Why?  What similar information would determine a modern short story's protagonist's character in a Marxist sense?

4)  The two-courts plot of the Middle English lay is a common narrative strategy to encourage comparison and contrast between the courts.  What rules for propriety can you derive from the way this lay sets up the courts' opposition?

5) One of the first dramatic additions the Middle English poet makes to Marie's plot is the addition of a formal curse placed upon the slanderous wife by all the other ladies at her court, who bisought God in heven, / For His holy name seven, / That yif hye ever ani child schuld abide, / A wers aventour [than what she did to the other lady] hir schuld bitide" (ll. 79-82).  Think about this as a strategy associated with what Roland Barthes called "inscribed audiences," characters to pre-interpret other characters' deeds or speech, and also as a way to control the motivation of the marvel that immediately thereafter "bifel" (ll. 83-90).

6)  Students of anthropology know that the birth of daughters in a patriarchal society often is treated as a sad occasion.  Most cultures which pass inheritances to the eldest male, like the English, also require that males who wed females must be compensated with a "dowry" for taking the female into their household (a practice called "patrilocal marriage," vs. "matrilocal" where he goes to live with her family).  The alternative is the male's payment of a "bride price" to her father, which sometimes may be accompanied by matrilocal marriage, and may confer on the bride some control of the household and hereditable property.  The dowry, by contrast, usually goes to the husband's family outright, except in cases where some specific portion is reserved to maintain the bride's estate, especially in the event of her widowhood (e.g., a "dowerhouse" might be set aside for her to live in when her son and his new wife take over the family household and eject her--see Henry James' The Spoils of Poynton).  How does the birth of twin daughters seem in such a culture, and how does that compound the lady's problem?  If you have access to the library's JSTOR subscription via their web site, you can see an interesting and feisty exchange between two anthropologists about the effects of the dowry custom on cultures, including the observation that it delays marriage for all but the elites, and it led to abandonment of female infants in the late-classical period, and even into the medieval era.  How would that affect our reading of "Lay le Freyne"?  See Alice Schlegel, "Dowry: Who Competes for What?," American Anthropologist, New Series, 95:1 (March 1993) 155-57, and the reply by Mildred Dickemann, "Dowry Disputes: A Reply to Schlegel," American Anthropologist, New Series, 95:1 (March 1993) 159-60.  See also the Teams edition introduction by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, which summarizes John Boswell's research on child abandonment from The Kindness of Strangers (N.Y.: Pantheon, 1988), which is available in the library collection.

7)  The Middle English poem dramatically expands the wife's view of her three choices (falsely admitting to adultery, truthfully admitting to slander and lying, and infanticide).  How could you explain her preference for private sin over public shame when she decides to kill the child to save her reputation?

8)  The maid's reply in the Middle English version once occupied 13 lines on the side of the manuscript leaf opposite the decorated initial capital on the other side.  When some early collector of pretty illuminated medieval calligraphy cut the initial from the page, the maid's speech went with it and scholars have had to content themselves with Henry Weber's 1810 attempt to reconstruct them by imitating Marie's text.  One might compare Weber's words with Marie's French to see whether he has introduced any new significance into the text, or eliminated any of what Marie's text contains.  I'd start with her concluding oath, and I would compare it with the Middle English maid's prayer before she deposits the baby at the nunnery.

9)  The "tokens of identity" motif in the lais' foundling tales is a rich vein of evidence to study comparatively.  They all are answering the question, "how do you communicate an infant's protected, privileged, noble estate?"  Today, grieving mothers do it by pinning a note to the infant's blanket.  What says "protected, privileged, noble" in medieval French and English culture?  Note what has dropped out of the Middle English orphan's tokens?

10)  Sir Guroun plays the same kind of morally ambiguous (or not!) role as his French counterpart, "Gurun," but he goes even further to win the chance to become intimate with le Freyne.  What does the poet appear to be saying about the religious?

11)  Guroun's knights bring him the same message that Gurun's vassals deliver--get a proper bride and an heir.  What happened to the idealized court relations with high and low, alike, which both Le Fresne and le Freyne construct with their equable treatment of all?  Two codes of conduct are in conflict here, and we are being asked to pick a winner.

12)  The Middle English text's conclusion was cut from the Auchinleck manuscript by some unknown vandal, perhaps someone in search of reusable vellum.  It could have been worse--Burnell and Wiggins, the editors of the National Library of Scotland's online edition, estimate that about 1/4 of the total separate texts in the original MS have been lost entirely.  As with the maid's first speech, modern scholars generally use Henry Weber's reconstruction of what the Middle English might have been from Marie's text.  This aspect of "Lay le Freyne" scholarship is one of the most peculiar and little studied.  A New Critic would have been astounded at the substitution of a modern critic's guess as to the poet's intentions for the poem, itself.  A Post-Modernist critic would recognize that Weber's authority is no greater than that of any other competent reader, and that this physically deconstructed text now begs to be allowed to disseminate new meanings.  If you are looking for a challenge, take reread "le Freyne" without any of Weber's hypothetical reconstructions, and prepare your own edition of what Marie says.  Given the changes the Middle English poet made elsewhere in Marie's tale, how do you think he might have adapted Marie to produce the missing text?

13)  When you have read both "le Freyne" and "Sir Launfal," based on your close reading of the "Lanval"/"Sir Launfaul" comparison and the first 120 lines of this version with Marie’s, would you say the Middle English version arises directly from Marie's, or could it come from a third text, either French or Middle English, which stands between Marie's and "le Freyne"?  See, for example, ll. 97-104 compared with Marie’s wife’s reaction to the birth of twins. What other kinds of changes would you expect to find in the Middle English version that survives between 133 and 341?