short narrative poem, often performed aloud to music (e.g., the strumming of a harp). Although a few of the surviving texts draw from the classical tradition— such as the 14th-century Sir Orfeo—the genre typically includes subjects of Celtic origin (the "matter of Britain").
The Anglo-Norman poet Marie de France composed the earliest surviving lais ca. 1165. Her collection includes 12 stories, composed in rhyming octosyllabic couplets, and which she claims to have heard sung by storytellers in Britain and in Brittany. In the general prologue, Marie explains that she wrote her lais down because they are worthy of remembrance and must not be forgotten (ll. 35-40). Women occupy a central role in all of the narratives, which portray the complexities of human love and often focus on an illicit love affair.
In the 14th century, the lay—which became known in England as the Breton lai—gained popularity among authors writing in Middle English language. The explicit insistence on the Breton origin of these stories is due to the widespread belief, corroborated by Marie de France, that the professional storytellers of ancient Brittany performed such pieces in front of courtly audiences. None of the ancient Breton sources have survived, probably because they belonged to the oral tradition.
Throughout the later Middle Ages, the Breton lai enjoyed ongoing popularity among English audiences. Thus, the anonymous authors of the Erie of Tolous and Emaré identify their own narratives as "lays" in order to emphasize their authority. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer's Franklin also narrates a Breton lai (ll. 709-714); and in many ways, "The Clerk's Tale" recalls the tradition, too. Other well-known English lays include Sir Dégaré, Sir Gowther, and Sir Cleges, all
Allusions to music, which constitutes an integral part of the genre, appear frequently in medieval lais. Hence, in Marie's "Chevrefoil," Tristan composes a lai on his harp to commemorate his forbidden love for Queen Iseult (ll. 111-113). The Middle English Freine refers to similar performances of "layes that ben in harping" (l. 3). Nowhere, however, is the theme of music more central than in Sir Orfeo, which recasts the classical legend of Orpheus and Euridyce within a Celtic setting. Such allusions are not limited, however, to French and English literature. In his German romance Tristan, Gottfried von Strassburg describes how the eponymous hero performs a "Breton lai" (l. 3557) in front of King Mark.
See also "Franklin's Tale, The."
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