" is one of the Lais
The Lais of Marie de France are a series of twelve short narrative Breton lais by the poet Marie de France. They are written in the Anglo-Norman and were probably composed in the late 12th century. The short, narrative poems generally focus on glorifying the concept of courtly love through the...
of Marie de France
Marie de France was a medieval poet who was probably born in France and lived in England during the late 12th century. She lived and wrote at an undisclosed court, but was almost certainly at least known about at the royal court of King Henry II of England...
. It was likely written in the late 12th century. As a Breton lai
A Breton lai, also known as a narrative lay or simply a lay, is a form of medieval French and English romance literature. Lais are short , rhymed tales of love and chivalry, often involving supernatural and fairy-world Celtic motifs...
, it is an example of Anglo-Norman literature
Anglo-Norman literature is literature composed in the Anglo-Norman language developed during the period 1066–1204 when the Duchy of Normandy and England were united in the Anglo-Norman realm.-Introduction:...
begins with two wedded knights. The wife of one knight gives birth to twins, and upon hearing a message to that effect, the other wife declares that in order to have two children at one time, a woman must have slept with two men. Many consider this comment to be slanderous, and the husband of the woman who gave birth to twins shuts her away. Appropriately, the wife who made the comment about twins being a mark of adultery gives birth, in turn, to twin daughters.
More willing to make amends with God than shame herself, the wife plans to secretly kill the extra child and deny its existence. A handmaiden offers to hide it instead. After an ornate brocade is tied to the baby's arm signifying its noble birth, the handmaiden leaves it under an ash tree outside of an abbey. A porter finds the girl and names her Le Fresne (modern French
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...
, "ash tree"), and gives her to a gentle abbess to raise.
Le Fresne grows into an exceedingly beautiful woman, and a respected lord named Gurun becomes enamored with her. Gurun makes a great donation to the abbey as an excuse for his constant visits, and secretly gains the love of Le Fresne. Fearing the wrath of the abbess if Le Fresne would become pregnant in her house, Gurun convinces her to run away with him, making her his concubine.
Gurun's knights become concerned that if he does not marry a noblewoman for the sake of a legitimate heir, his lands and lineage will be lost upon his death. They find a noble and beautiful woman named La Codre (modern French coudrier
, "hazel tree"). Gurun's knights convince him that for the sake of carrying on his noble lineage, he should marry La Codre instead of Le Fresne, creating a metaphor of the fertile hazel tree and the barren ash. The marriage is planned. While La Codre's mother originally plans to move Le Fresne as far away from Gurun as possible, she discovers upon meeting her that Le Fresne is very kind and then wishes her no harm. The night of the wedding, Le Fresne helps to prepare the wedding bed, for she knows how Gurun likes things. Not finding it sufficiently beautiful, she adds her brocade to the wedding bed. This is discovered by the mother of La Codre, who recognizes that the brocade is her own, and that Le Fresne is the twin sister of La Codre whom they had abandoned at birth. The family welcomes Le Fresne. Though the marriage of La Codre and Gurun is finished, they have it annulled the next day. Le Fresne and Gurun marry, a husband is found for La Codre, and all characters are happy.
The motifs of Le Fresne
are found in popular ballads, both in English and Scandavian form, such as Fair Annie
-Synopsis:A lord tells Fair Annie to prepare a welcome for his bride, and to look like a maiden. Annie laments that she has borne him seven sons and is pregnant with the eighth; she can not look like a maiden. She welcomes the bride but laments her fate, even wishing her sons evil, that they...
. The popular tales more often feature a heroine who was kidnapped by pirates when young and ransomed by the hero, thus ending as ignorant of her birth as this heroine.
The child is abandoned immediately after birth, as is the practice in medieval literature, such as Sir Degaré
; this may reflect pre-Christian practices, both Scandavian and Roman, that the newborn would not be raised without the father's decision to do so.
It shows no influence of courtly love
Courtly love was a medieval European conception of nobly and chivalrously expressing love and admiration. Generally, courtly love was secret and between members of the nobility. It was also generally not practiced between husband and wife....
; so far from regarding his love as important, Gurun shows no remorse about adandoning it for a lawful marriage. Le Fresne, also, shows no signs of conflict, gently yielding her place and even serving her successor.
The idea equating twins with infidelity was a common folkloric belief at the time. It also appears in other chivalric romances, such as the Swan-Children of the Knight of the Swan
The story of the Knight of the Swan, or Swan Knight, is a medieval tale about a mysterious rescuer who comes in a swan-drawn boat to defend a damsel, his only condition being that he must never be asked his name...
, in the variant Beatrix. But as in those romances, it is treated as the result of envy and slander and so denounced.
The hazel tree also makes an appearance in both Laüstic
"Laüstic", also known as "Le Rossignol", Le Laustic", "Laostic", and "Aüstic", is a Breton lai by the medieval poet Marie de France. The title comes from the Breton language word for "nightingale", a symbolic figure in the poem...
"Chevrefoil" is a Breton lai by the medieval poet Marie de France. The eleventh poem in the collection called The Lais of Marie de France, its subject is an episode from the romance of Tristan and Iseult. The title means "honeysuckle," a symbol of love in the poem...
, two of Marie's other Lais.
One English romance, Lay le Freine
, is a quite faithful translation of Le Fresne