The Lais of Marie de France

by Marie de France

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The Lay of Guigemar. In the days of King Arthur, Guigemar, a knight who loves no lady, is injured by an arrow with which he has shot a white doe. In human speech, the doe tells Guigemar that he will have no relief from his hurt until he finds a woman who will suffer as never woman has before and for whom he will suffer as well. Binding his wound with the hem of his shirt, Guigemar boards an empty ship that he comes across in the harbor. He falls asleep and awakens in another land, where he is discovered by the queen, a young woman whom her old lord keeps as a prisoner. The queen takes him home, conceals him, and heals him, and the two become lovers. They live happily for a year and a half. As tokens of their love, the queen ties a knot in the hem of Guigemar’s shirt that only she can untie and Guigemar fastens a girdle about the queen’s waist that only he can unbuckle. They pledge that they will never take other lovers who are unable to unfasten the knot or the buckle.

When the king discovers Guigemar, he allows him to leave on the ship in the hope that it will perish at sea. He imprisons the queen in a tower, where she stays for two years. One day, finding the door unlocked, she goes to the harbor and boards an empty vessel; the ship carries her to the shore of a warlike prince, Meriadus, who lodges her with his unmarried sister and tries to win her love. Because he cannot loosen the buckle on the girdle she wears, Meriadus brings to her a knight who has a mysterious knot tied in his shirt. The knight is Guigemar. After the knot and the buckle have been loosed, Guigemar wants to take the queen away, but Meriadus will not let her go. Guigemar joins forces with Meriadus’s enemy to lay siege to the prince’s castle; they capture the castle when its defenders became weak with hunger, burn it, and kill Meriadus. The lovers then depart in triumph.

The Lay of Chaitivel. In Nantes in Brittany lives a beautiful lady who is loved by four knights. She is undecided which knight she likes best, and she sends presents and messages to all. Each carries her favor and cries her name in the lists. During an Easter tournament, three of the knights are slain and the fourth is severely wounded. All four of the knights are brought on their shields to the lady. Distressed, she has the three slain knights buried in an abbey and nurses the wounded knight back to health. Mourning for the three dead knights, she tells the fourth knight that she is going to make a lay about their deaths and his terrible wounds and call it “The Lay of the Four Sorrows.” The knight suggests that she instead call it “The Lay of the Dolorous Knight.” His three comrades are past suffering, he declares, but he receives every day only a few courteous, empty words from the lady and no love. The lady agrees that this is a good title. However, some still call it “The Lay of the Four Sorrows.”

The Lay of Eliduc . In Brittany, Eliduc, having lost favor with the king because of false rumors, is forced to leave the country. After he and Guideluec, his wife, pledge their faith to each other, Eliduc takes a ship to Totenois. There, he helps an aged king defeat a prince who wants to marry...

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the king’s daughter, Guilliadun. The king gives Eliduc reward and honor, and the princess gives him her love. Although Eliduc reminds himself of his wife at home, he neglects to mention his wife to the princess.

In time, Eliduc’s own king, needing help against an enemy, sends for his return. At home, Eliduc’s wife is delighted to see him, but Eliduc is sad. He then returns to the country of Totenois and sends word to the princess to meet him. They leave secretly on a ship. During a heavy storm at sea, one of the men cries that the princess is the cause of the storm because Eliduc has deserted his wife at home. When the man wants to throw the princess overboard, Eliduc hits him with an oar and casts him into the sea. The princess faints when she hears that Eliduc is married, and all aboard the ship believe her to be dead. Going ashore in Brittany, they carry her to a chapel, intending to give her burial rites. Eliduc leaves her at the altar and returns home to his wife.

Eliduc is in such a downcast mood that his wife decides to learn the cause. When Guideluec finds the princess, she is overcome at the sadness of her death, even though she realizes that Eliduc loves the maiden. When she sees a weasel revive its dead mate by putting a red flower in his mouth, she takes the flower, uses it to revive the girl, and tells her that she will release Eliduc from his marriage vows. She takes the princess to her home, releases Eliduc, and becomes an abbess.

Eliduc and the princess marry and live happily for a time, but finally they part, and each takes holy orders. The princess goes to the abbess, who receives her as a sister. Eliduc and the princess send messages back and forth between the convent and the monastery, each encouraging the other in the holy life. Their repentance is lasting.

The Lay of Laüstic. In the town of Saint Malo, in Brittany, a bachelor knight falls in love with his friend’s wife. Although they seldom meet, the two at last become lovers. Because their houses stand side by side, they are able to gaze at each other and to pass messages and gifts through the window casements. When the knight’s friend asks his wife why she spends her nights watching at the window, she says that she is listening to the nightingale. Her husband has his servants trap the bird, and then he wrings its neck and throws it in her lap. The wife, sad because she can no longer use the bird as an excuse to see her lover, embroiders the story of the nightingale’s fate on rich silk cloth, wraps the bird in the cloth, and sends it to her lover. The doleful knight has a little chest made of gold and precious stones for the body of the bird and carries it everywhere with him.

The Lay of Sir Lanval. Because of trouble with the Picts and Scots, King Arthur is lodging at Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales. There, at Pentecost, he bestows honors and lands on all except Sir Lanval, the son of a king in a distant country whom Arthur despises. Too proud to ask his lord for his due, Lanval remains poor.

Riding unattended in a meadow near a stream, Lanval dismounts because his horse is trembling. He lets the horse graze while he tries to sleep. Two maidens wearing purple mantles appear and tell Lanval that their mistress has summoned him. He finds a beautiful maiden lying on a richly covered bed in a silken pavilion with a golden eagle on top. She is dressed in white linen with a mantle of ermine trimmed in purple. When she offers Lanval her love, provided that he tell no one of her existence, he accepts. She gives him rich clothing and a purse that is never empty. Now wealthy, Lanval redeems captives, clothes poor minstrels, comforts strangers, and is completely happy. The beautiful maiden appears whenever he calls her.

At a party in the royal orchard, Lanval ignores the queen and thirty of her most beautiful maidens because they look like kitchen wenches to him. Calling Lanval to her, the queen offers him her love. Lanval refuses, saying that he will not betray his lord. Angrily, the queen retorts that Lanval must despise women, but Lanval tells her that his love is richer than any other and that the meanest of his love’s maidens excels the queen in goodness and beauty. The queen flees, weeping, to her chamber.

When Arthur returns, the queen tells him that Lanval had sought her love and that she had refused him. At her refusal, she declares, Lanval reviled her and said that his love is set on a lady whose meanest wench is fairer than the queen. Arthur swears that he will burn or hang Lanval if he cannot deny his boast before his peers.

Because he has revealed his lady’s existence, Lanval loses contact with her. He wants to die, but instead he is compelled to appear before the court of barons. The barons say that they will look at Lanval’s lady and decide if she is more beautiful than the queen. If she is, there will be no trial. Because Lanval cannot produce her, the barons prepare to pass judgment on him. At that moment, two beautiful maidens, followed by two even more beautiful maidens, appear and announce that their lady is approaching. They are so beautiful that many say the queen has already lost. Soon Lanval’s lady appears, riding a white horse and wearing white with a purple mantle. Every man marvels at her beauty and cares no more for mortal women. She says that Lanval has never craved the love of the queen but that he had spoken hastily. The barons are overcome by her beauty, and Arthur suggests that she stay a while at court. She declines and, together with Lanval, she rides away forever, perhaps to Avalon.

The Lay of the Two Lovers. A king in Normandy has a fair daughter whom he does not wish to give in marriage. He proclaims that no one shall wed her except he who carries her to the pinnacle of a great and perilous mountain. Many try and fail. The girl falls in love with a slender young man and obtains from her aunt a magic potion that will enable him to reach the mountaintop. Armed with this potion, the youth asks for and receives the king’s permission to carry the girl to the pinnacle. To lighten his load, the maiden fasts for several days beforehand, and on the journey she wears only her smock. The youth sets out bravely, refusing to drink the potion in the presence of the watchers. As he carries her higher, the maiden urges him to take the potion, but he refuses; he finally falls dead of exhaustion. Flinging away the flask of potion, the girl dies of grief, holding her lover in her arms. When a search party led by the king finds them dead, the king is distraught. The lovers are buried in a marble coffin on the mountain where they died. Wherever the magic potion has touched the barren ground, healing herbs spring up.

The Lay of Bisclavret. At the insistence of his wife, who demands an explanation of his absence from home three nights a week, Bisclavret, a baron in Brittany, reveals that he is a werewolf. He tells his wife that when he assumes the shape of a wolf he hides his clothing in a hollow stone near a chapel and that if he were to lose his clothing he would not be able to return to a man’s shape. The wife, who is afraid of her husband, sends for a knight who has long loved her unrewarded. She tells him that her husband is a werewolf and asks him to steal her husband’s clothing from its hiding place. He does so and marries the wife after Bisclavret seems to be lost forever from the world of men.

More than a year later, the king, hunting in the woods, is surprised by a wolf that fawns on him, and he takes the animal home as a pet. Bisclavret makes an admirable pet until his wife’s second husband comes to court, when he springs for his rival’s throat. The king calls the wolf off, but when Bisclavret’s wife comes to court, he bites off her nose. The king’s men beat the wolf, but they do not kill him, for a wise counselor points out that the wolf’s malice has been directed at only the woman and her husband. Questioned by the king, the woman reveals the truth. He makes her return her first husband’s clothing, but Bisclavret ignores the garments. The counselor then suggests putting the wolf alone in a room with the clothing, and when this is done Bisclavret returns to his human form. The king, delighted, restores Bisclavret’s fief, and the wife and her second husband leave the country.

The Lay of Le Fresne. When the wife of a knight in Brittany bears twin sons, the wife of another knight spreads the story that twin children always have two fathers. A year later, that woman has twin girls. Because she was the one who spread the word about the supposed double paternity of twins, she is afraid to reveal that she has given birth to twins herself. At first, she considers killing one of the infants. Later, she has a serving maid take one of the babies, wrapped in sanguine silk and with a rich ring tied to her wrist, and leave her in an ash tree near a church. The child is found and reared by an abbess, who calls her Le Fresne, which means “ash.”

When the beautiful Le Fresne is grown, a knight, Gurun, falls in love with her and persuades her to run away with him to his castle. There they live happily until the knights of the realm persuade Gurun to put Le Fresne away and take a wife. At last he agrees to marry another beautiful girl named La Codre, which means “hazel.” Although Gurun’s servants are angry with him, Le Fresne accepts this development with grace and decks her lord’s bed with the sanguine silk in which she was found as a child. After the wedding, La Codre’s mother brings her daughter to the bridal bed and recognizes the silk as that in which she wrapped her other twin daughter when she sent her away. She questions Le Fresne, who shows her the ring that was tied to her wrist when she was abandoned. The mother obtains her husband’s forgiveness, and the archbishop dissolves the marriage between Gurun and La Codre. Le Fresne marries her lord, and La Codre soon finds another husband.

The Lay of the Honeysuckle. King Marc banishes his nephew Tristan for having fallen in love with the queen, Isolde. Tristan goes to his native South Wales, but before long he returns to Cornwall to be near the queen. Living in the forest, he seeks shelter from friendly peasants. Hearing that King Marc plans to keep high court at Tintagel, Tristan enters a wood through which he knows Isolde will pass. He cuts a wand from a hazel tree, peels it, carves his name on it, and sets it in the road, where the queen finds it. To her alone, it is a message that Tristan is waiting and that, like the honeysuckle and the hazel tree, they are eternally inseparable. She sends her knights aside and enters the wood with her maiden, Brangwaine. Isolde finds Tristan and spends a joyful hour with him. She then tells him that she is trying to reconcile Marc to him. After they part, Tristan returns to Wales, where he makes a new lay.

The Lay of Equitan. King Equitan, a great but not wise lover, decides to win the love of his seneschal’s wife. Although she refuses at first, Equitan finally wins her and they exchange rings. When Equitan’s people urge him to marry, the wife hears the news and comes to him in tears. Equitan assures her that he will never marry unless her husband were to die and he might marry her. This declaration quickly brings a plan to mind. The wife asks Equitan to arrange it so that she will be bled with her husband at their castle; she will prepare a bath for both and make her husband’s so hot that he will die. The king agrees and rides to the chase with the seneschal, after which the surgeon bleeds them. Beside each bed, the wife places a bath, her husband’s boiling. When the husband delays his appearance, the wife and Equitan look tenderly at each other while they sit waiting on the seneschal’s bed by the steaming bath. The husband returns, brushes aside the maiden guarding the door, and finds his wife and the king in each other’s arms. The king, jumping up, springs into the fatally hot bath. Enraged, the seneschal throws his wife into the same bath, where they both die.

The Lay of Milun. Milun, a famous knight in South Wales, receives word from an unknown maiden that she will give him her love. Milun accepts, and she bears him a son. Fearing her father, the girl keeps the birth secret, and Milun’s servants carry the baby to his mother’s sister, who is married to a lord in Northumberland. With the child are sent letters and his father’s signet ring, to be given to him when he comes of age. Then Milun goes in search of reward in a foreign country, and the child’s mother is given in marriage to an old lord.

Returning to South Wales, Milun is sad to learn that his love is married, but he is happy to know that they are not far apart. He sends to her a swan with a letter concealed in a feather. She is instructed to answer the letter but to keep the bird unfed for three days before she wants the letter returned. She does as she is asked, although she is compelled to wait a month before she can get parchment and ink. The swan then flies home to be fed and delivers her letter. For twenty years, the swan serves as messenger between the lovers, who never see each other during that time.

In Northumberland, the son, now grown, is known as the Knight Peerless. His aunt tells him of his origin and gives him the signet ring. His fame spreads to Brittany, where Milun hears of the unknown young knight and determines to joust with him to preserve his own fame. Milun crosses the sea and meets the youth in tournament, where the boy unhorses him. When Milun’s helmet is knocked off, his white hair and beard are revealed, at which the Knight Peerless dismounts and apologizes to his elder. When Milun asks the young man’s name, the knight tells him his story and shows Milun the ring. Father and son are joyfully united, and the son promises to kill his mother’s husband. When they arrive in Brittany, a messenger meets Milun with the happy news that his love’s husband is dead. Milun and his son go to the mother, and the youth has the joy of seeing his parents wed.

The Lay of Yonec. In Britain, a rich old man marries a beautiful young woman whom he guards for seven years in a castle. One day, she cries out in despair that old tales about young wives married to old lords finding lovers cannot be true. In a few minutes, a falcon alights at her window, enters the room, and turns into a handsome knight. He says that his name is Eudemarec and that he has come at her call. The two immediately become lovers.

The husband becomes suspicious because his wife suddenly appears to be so happy. He pretends to leave and sets his older sister to watch his wife. When she learns the secret and tells her brother, the husband sets sharp blades in the window to kill the hawk. The next time Eudemarec alights there, he receives his death wound. He flutters, bleeding, to his love’s bed, tells her that he will die, and promises that she will bear a son, Yonec, who will avenge both his death and her suffering. The wife follows the hawk out the window and tracks him by the trail of blood until she finds him dying. He gives her a ring that he says will cause her husband to leave her alone. He also gives her a sword as a gift to his son. When the proper time comes, she is to go with her husband and son to an abbey, where they will see a tomb. There she is to tell her son of his father and give him the sword.

In time, these events come to be. At the abbey, the wife tells Yonec of his father and gives him the sword before she falls dead on Eudamarec’s tomb. The son then takes the sword and cuts off the old man’s head. Because Eudamarec was king of the land, the people proclaim Yonec their lord as he leaves the church.