An Ancient Breton Festival

This text copyright ©1988, 1999 Professor Helen Nicholson




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From Les lais anonymes des XIIe et XIIIe siècles, ed. P. M. O'Hara Tobin (Geneva, 1976). Translated Helen Nicholson, 1988. Copyright Helen Nicholson, 1988, 1999.


The text

The Bretons tell us that in the old days a great crowd of the most noble and most lovely ladies and young women of the land who were then in the country used to gather on St Pantelon's Day to honour the feast of the saint. There was no lady of any importance who did not come on that day. Each put all her skill into dressing and presenting herself, so that they were very richly turned-out. At that festival pleas of love were heard and there were recounted deeds and matters of love and noble deeds of knighthood - everything that had happened that year was heard and brought to mind. They recounted their adventures while the others listened to them. They kept a record of the best story, so that it could be told and recounted often until it was praised by all. In fact, the custom was that they would compose a lay between themselves, and this lay would be named after the man whose deed it recounted. Then the lay was repeatedly sung until it was known everywhere, for those who knew how to play the viol, harp and rote, carried it out of that land and into the kingdoms where they went.

At the festival that I'm describing to you, where the Bretons assembled in this way, they gathered on a great hill so as to hear better. There were many clerks and knights and people of other professions there. There were noble and lovely ladies and young women and maidens. First they attended church; then afterwards they all gathered at the place they had established and each one recounted their deed. They came preparing what they would present, and then each came forward one after the other and told their adventure.

Eight ladies sat on one side, giving their judgements. They were wise and educated, noble, courteous and worthy; they represented the flower of prowess and worth of Brittany. One spoke first. 'Ladies', she said very firmly, 'give me advice about something which greatly amazes me. I have heard knights talk a lot about tourneying and jousting, of adventure, of love-talking, and of begging their girlfriends to give them their love, but they don't say a thing about the one for whom these great feats are all done. For whom are they knights? Why do they love to tourney? For whom do the young men dress themselves up in their armour? For whom do they wear new clothes? For whom do they send their jewels, their ribbons and their rings? For whom are they noble and gracious? Why do they hold themselves back from doing wrong? Why do they adore love-talk and hugging and kissing? Do you know any reason except for one thing alone? Never will any man talk so much about love, talk so fair, beg so sweetly, but before he tears himself away he does not wish to return to this one thing. From this thing comes the great sweetness for which these honours are made; many men have been so improved and come to renown and to courage who would not be worth a button, if it were not that they are intent on the cunt. I pledge you my faith, no matter how lovely a woman may be in the face, if she has lost her cunt she will never have a sweetheart or a lover. Because all the good deeds are done for it, we should not give the prize to any other. Let's make a new 'Lay of the Cunt', then those who hear it will appreciate it greatly. Command him who best knows how to play an instrument: then you'll see all the verses composed for us.'

The other seven agreed with her, and said that she had spoken very well. Immediately they began to compose the lay. Each put sound and song to it, and sweet notes in high tone, and they made a courteous, fine lay. When they had heard the good subject, all those who were at the festival left the lays which they had composed and turned towards the ladies, greatly admiring what they had done, and composed the lay with them. The lay was kept and valued by the clerks and knights, much loved, much enjoyed, and even today it's not at all disliked. Most call this 'The Lay of the Lecher' - they don't want to say the true name in case someone should be offended by it. I have composed this lay for you according to the tale I heard.

The End

Translator's note:
This is Le Lai du Lecheor. A 'lay' is a short story in verse. This one survives in 1 manuscript and in a fragment.

This text copyright ©1988, 1999 Prof. Helen Nicholson

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