Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



Most medieval romances and other works were based on those by previous authors; there was no concept of plagiarism. Some borrowings were relatively faithful translations, like Lay le Freine, and others underwent additions, deletions, and changes such as plot, characterization, events, didacticism and others to suit the redactor’s purposes. A comparison of a work to its original source(s) often reveals differences in cultural contexts and concerns, some minor and some telling about the contemporary society.

Due to its brevity and straightforward narrative, Lay le Freine is a good poem to serve as an illustration. A few selected differences between the Middle English version and its source, Marie de France’s twelfth-century Old French lai Le Fresne have been noted.

Lay le Freine

We redeth oft, and findeth ywrite,
And this clerkes wele it wite,
Layes that ben in harping,
Ben yfounde of ferli thing:
Sum bethe of wer and sum of wo,
And sum of joie and mirthe also,
And sum of trecherie and of gile,
Of old aventours that fel while;
And sum of bourdes and ribaudy,
And many ther beth of fairy;
Of al thinges that men seth,
Mest of love, fortsothe, thai beth. (1-12)

We often read and find written, as known well by scholars, that lays are sung of marvelous things: some are of war and some of woe, and some of joy and mirth also, and some of treachery and guile, of old adventures that happened long ago; and some of jokes and ribaldry, and many of the land of Faërie. Of all things that men tell of, truly, most are about love. These lays were made in Brittany in olden times, so says the rhyme. When kings heard of marvels anywhere, they took a harp in minstrelsy and play, made a lay and gave it a name. Now, I can tell you some but not all of these adventures that happened. But listen, lords, and I will tell you Lay le Freine. The lay was made in Brittany, where the events of Lay le Freine took place. Told in English, it is of an ash tree, a fair example of what once befell.

Two knights who lived in the west country loved each other well in every way. They were rich men in their prime, and each had a wife. One of the ladies was great with child, and when she was delivered out of her woe, the lord thanked God Almighty and called his messenger: “Go quickly to my neighbor,” he said, “and say I greet him many times and pray that he will come to me, and say he shall be godfather.”1

The messenger found the knight dining in the hall with his wife and company. He knelt, greeted them all, and delivered his message to the lord: “My lord asks you to come to him and for love to be the godfather.” “Is his lady delivered safely?” asked the lord. “Yes, sir, thanks be to God!” “Is a maiden child or a knave?” “Two sons, sir, God save them!” The knight was glad and thanked God for his mercy. He granted the messenger’s requests and gave him a horse for bringing the news.

The lord’s wife, proud and envious, slanderous and scornful to all other women, maliciously said to the messenger:

“I wonder who advised your lord to send such shameful news everywhere, since everyone knows that a woman who bears two children has had two men in her bed. This brings dishonor to both husband and wife.” The messenger was sorely ashamed and the knight, fully grieved, rebuked his wife for speaking such slander. All the women who heard her cursed her and prayed to God in heaven that if she ever had a child, worse would happen to her.2

Soon thereafter she was with child and delivered two daughters, which caused her great woe. “Alas that this should happen; I have brought about my own doom. No woman should speak harmfully of another. The false accusation I made is now upon me. Alas that I was born! I am hopelessly lost! I must either affirm that I lay with two men, or admit that I lied about my neighbor’s wife. Or, God forbid, slay my own child. I must say or do one of three things. If I lie about myself and say I had a lover, I will be held worse than common. If I acknowledge that I lied about the lady, everyone will think me a liar. My best choice is to kill my child and do penance.”3She called her midwife and told her: “Slay this child immediately and always say, wherever you go, that I have one child and no more.” But the midwife answered that she would not.

The lady had a noble young maiden who had been nurtured and fostered in the lord’s house for many years. She saw the lady’s sad face and her weeping and sighing, and heard her cry “Alas!” and wanted to help her out of trouble. She said to the lady, “I would not weep over this; but I will take this one child and leave it in a convent. You will have no shame, and whoever finds this small child, by Mary, blissful queen above, may help it for God’s love.” The lady agreed immediately that it be done.4 She wrapped the baby in a rich embroidered silk cloth her husband had brought from Constantinople and fastened a fine gold ring to the child’s right arm with a silk lace so that whoever found her would know she came from a noble family.5

The maiden took the baby with her and stole away in the evening. She passed over a wild heath through field and wood all the long winter night. The weather was clear and the moon bright, and she came to the edge of a forest. Weary, she stayed there and soon heard a cock crow and dog bark. She arose and continued on, passing many walls and houses until she saw a church with a fair, high steeple. There were no streets or town, only a convent of nuns well prepared to serve God day and night.6 The maiden went to the church door, knelt, wept, and prayed:

“Oh lord, Jesus Christ, who hears sinful men’s prayers, receive this present and help this poor innocent that it may be christened, for the love of Mary, your noble mother.”7

She looked up and saw a fair, tall ash tree nearby with many worthy boughs; the body was hollow, as many are. She placed the baby, wrapped in its covering, in the tree to protect it against the cold and blessed it with all her might. Then dawn arrived, the birds started singing on the boughs, the husbandmen went to their plows, and the maiden returned home by the way she had come.

The porter arose, said his prayers, rang the bells, lighted the candles, laid out the books, and prepared for the day. He opened the church door and saw the cloth in the tree, and thought perhaps some thieves had stolen it somewhere and left it there. He unwound it and found the baby, took it between his hands and thanked Christ’s mercy, then took it to his home and asked his daughter to nurse it, since she was with milk. 8 But the child would not nurse, as she was nearly dead from the cold. The daughter quickly lighted a fire and warmed the baby, nursed it, and laid it to sleep. Right after mass, the porter told the abbess how he found the child in the tree, how it was wrapped in a cloth and about the gold ring, though he had no idea how this came about. Amazed, she told him to bring it to her quickly. She said, “It is welcome to God and to me. I will help it as I can and say it is my kinswoman.” The porter brought it right away, with the cloth and ring. She called a priest immediately, who christened the baby in the baptismal font, and the abbess named her Freine since she was found in an ash tree. Since “ash” is “freine” in French, the language of Brittany, this lay is called “Le Freine” more than “Ash” in every country.

Freine, who was believed to be the abbess’s niece, thrived each year, and the abbess raised and taught her. By the time she was twelve years old, she was the fairest maiden in England. When she knew about human relations, she asked the abbess who were her kin, father, mother, brother, and sister. The abbess told her the truth and gave her the cloth and ring to keep while she lived there, which she did.

A rich knight of great renown named Sir Guroun lived in that country. He was proud, young and jolly, and not yet married. He heard praise of the noble maiden Freine and wanted to see her, so he happily went to the abbey, and told his man to say that they were on their way to a tournament. He was welcomed by the abbess and nuns and taken to the guest hall, where gracious Freine greeted him sweetly, as she well could. Seeing her beauty and gentility, her lovely eyes and bright complexion, he fell in love with her and thought how he could have her for a lover.9

He thought, “If I come here too often, the abbess will become suspicious and keep Freine away from me.” So he devised another plan: to become a brother of the community. Professing love for the convent’s goodness, he told the abbess, “I will give lands and rents to become your brother, so that you will fare the better when I come to be received.” With the exchange of a few words, the arrangement was agreed upon, and the knight came often day and night to visit Freine and at last talked her into becoming his lover through promises and flattery, and she gave in to his desire whenever he liked. He wanted her to live with him in his castle:

“My love, you must leave your kinswoman the abbess and go with me, for I am so rich and powerful you will have better than you have here.”10Trustingly, Freine stole away secretly with him, taking only her ring and cloth. When the abbess found Freine gone, she mourned and lamented, all for nothing.

Freine was well loved by all in Sir Guroun’s company, noble and low, for she spoke with rich and poor. She lived with him as his wife, but his knights counseled him, and the Church commanded, that he marry a lord’s daughter and forsake his lover of unknown lineage so that he could have a legitimate heir.11 They knew of a nearby knight with a fair daughter who would bear his heritage; 12 though Sir Guroun was loathe to do so, he finally granted their request, and the agreement was made and the troth plighted. Unfortunately, he made the agreement without knowing that his intended bride and his lover were twin sisters born of the same father and mother. In fact, no one knew except God alone.

The new bride came to Sir Guroun’s hall with her mother, father, and many others. She was named Le Codre, which means “hazel.” The bishop came to perform the ceremony, and the guests, who were well entertained at a great feast, joyfully told Sir Guroun that the bride’s beauty surpassed Freine’s: “The hazel is better than the ash!” Although her heart was breaking, Freine spoke no word of pride or anger and acted as a servant, more energetically than all the others. The bride’s mother noticed her humility and began to love her; she could hardly feel more pity and pain for her if she were her own daughter.13

Freine sped to the wedding bed and found it poorly prepared for such a lovely bride. She quickly went to her coffer and took out the rich cloth she had received from the abbess. There was no cloth as fair, and she placed it on the bed to please her lord. Codre and her mother went to the chamber, but when the lady saw the cloth she nearly swooned away. She asked the chamberlain, but he knew nothing about it.14 Freine arrived and when asked by the lady, she told her the story of the cloth and ring, by which the astonished mother knew Freine was her daughter. She told the girl, “Fair child! My daughter! I gave birth to you! “ and fell onto the bed, nearly dead, sighing.

They brought her husband, and she told him the entire truth of how she had slandered her neighbor, and given birth to twins: “I sent one child to be raised in a convent, and this is she, our noble daughter. And this is the cloth and this the ring you gave me long ago as a love-token.” He kissed his daughter many times and had Sir Guroun’s marriage to Codre annulled by the bishop, who immediately wed the knight to Freine, so lovely and gracious.15 Codre was soon happily married to a noble knight of that country, and so ends the lay of those bright maidens, Le Freine and Le Codre.16


As reported in the poems, Old French Breton lais are founded on oral tradition, tales sung by minstrels accompanied by harp music. They were memorialized in writing by Marie de France, during what is called the twelfth-century “Renaissance,” when the flourishing of courtly literature developed amidst economic, social, political and intellectual growth. It was also the time of the longer romances, represented notably by Chrétien de Troyes.

Much is conjectured but virtually nothing is known about Marie; even her self-appellation “de France” cannot be defined with certainty. Similarly, the dating of her works, her background, provenance and even her language are cloudy. Scholarly reconstructions that place her in England associated with Henry II, credit her with knowledge of French, Latin and English, envision her as of noble birth, and date her works in the third quarter of the twelfth century create a seemingly familiar character. However, the profile could change appreciably upon reconsideration of assumptions, so it may be best to concentrate not on the author but the culture she examines.

Love is frequently the center of critical attention in studies of Marie’s lais. When the fourteenth-century adaptor prefaces his rendition of Marie’s Le Fresne by telling us that the audience was interested in hearing “mest of love” (“most about love”; 12), we must look beyond romantic love. Hanning and Ferrante perceive the theme in twelfth-century courtly literature as a symbol of the “quintessentially private sphere of existence and desire” that was in tension with personal social obligations, “the interaction of self and society, appearance and reality (5).”

While Marie depicts different facets and types of love relationships, it is clear from Le Fresne that her work is also informed by concern over moral and social issues, which the fourteenth-century translator found applicable to his own time. Though Middle English poets reached back to Old French sources, only two of Marie’s lais, Le Fresne and Lanval, are known to have been adapted in the fourteenth century. Both are infused with social commentary, particularly the latter, as will be seen. A handful of poets in the fourteenth century chose the Breton lay form, perhaps for theme and content, form, or nostalgia, though divining the reasons for an author’s choice is usually impossible.

There is debate whether the Middle English Breton lays comprise a separate genre or group, but opinion generally includes them in the romance mode. Compared to the number of poems encompassed (with some fluidity) in the romance corpus, there are few known Breton lays, perhaps less than ten depending on scholarly selection. The poet announces at the beginning that the work is a lay and/or associates it with Brittany, which would seem to make identification simple. But there is still some occasional critical questioning about works that don’t seem quite comfortable in the group, like Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, although it purports to be a Breton lay, and others that do fit but lack similar references.

Some confusion is not surprising considering the controversy over romances as a genre, but Breton lays share a number of characteristics, which Rumble outlines as he discusses their differences from romance in the introduction to his edition of Breton lays: they are simple and less ornate; shorter; less diffuse in their effects; more reliant on pure folk and fairy lore and motifs; and less concerned with “courtly” love. Their concentrated, dramatic form facilitated minstrel performance, although it is unknown whether the poems were sung, or recited with musical accompaniment (Rumble xxx). Despite their briskness, or perhaps because of it, the lays still accommodate the poet’s purposes, including addressing moral and cultural concerns directly.

One raised in Lay le Freine is the wealth of religious orders; targets of criticism were usually monks and friars, but nuns were not excluded. Historically, abbesses were usually aristocratic women who lived comfortably, occasionally to the point of extravagance. Many, though not all, convents were well endowed, like the one in Le Fresne, and required extensive administration. Like their male counterparts, abbesses (such as Chaucer’s Prioress) were often accused of worldliness by moralists, but the abbess in Lay le Freine appears to have retained her religious commitments and spirit, regardless of the environment. Sir Guroun’s offer to fund the abbey was not unusual. It was customary for aristocrats to support religious houses financially for various reasons which were often, but not always, strictly charitable. Here, Sir Guroun wants free access to the convent and to be accommodated according to his rank. Perhaps most frequently, aristocrats sent unmarriageable daughters to convents and funded the maintenance of a lifestyle appropriate for the elite. Substantial contributions to religious houses were also made for prestige, as well as spiritual security provided by religious who would pray for their benefactors’ souls.

There is some ambiguity as to the capacity in which Sir Guroun wishes to join the convent community. The lines “He compast another enchesoun: / to be brother of that religion” (“He devised another plan: to be a brother of that religion”; 277-78) might be interpreted to mean that Sir Guroun intends to become a monk of the religious order. However, there were many lay “brothers” who were affiliated with but not members of an order, and it is clear in Marie’s text that he intends to be connected through patronage:

He’d thus establish a patron’s right to live there,
so that he could come and stay whenever he chose.
To be a member of that community
he gave generously of his goods—
but he had a motive
other than receiving pardon for his sins. (Le Fresne 265-68)

Further, an abbess would not ordinarily be in a position to accept a man into holy orders, and if she did so for financial gain, it would be tantamount to simony, the selling of religious benefits, which would be out of character for this abbess.

Lay le Freine contains a number of folk tale motifs that segue into ethical and social issues. Perhaps the most striking is infanticide and child abandonment. The belief/superstition that twins were the result of two separate fathers was widely held and did cause the disposal of children. There were, however, many other reasons for abandonment and infanticide, both moral and economic. Motivation included the inability to support a child due to poverty, and the desire to control family size, especially by the poor. But abandonment was practiced by all classes; the child might be illegitimate, the result of adultery, or incest. Children with physical deformities, personality disorders or problem behavior could have an adverse effect on the family or, more irrationally, be considered a curse for parents’ sins, perhaps a demonic “changeling” exchanged for the real child or sired by the devil, as will be seen in Sir Gowther.

As Boswell observes, the abandonment of children was supported by the parents’ belief that the child would be given a better life than they could provide. In literature, the abandoned child, often of noble lineage, eventually attains success but must overcome adversity in the interim. Boswell extrapolates a sort of “abandoned child’s manifesto” which declares that “superiority of personal accomplishment and character over biological heritage” sustains the abandoned child through his trials prior to the happy denouement (376). But the theme has wider application, as will be seen later.

Literary optimism and parental hope were not always met. Exposed children left on roadways or hung on trees died if not found, while those left at church doors and other public places had a better chance. Some who were taken in by foster parents might become part of the family, while other children wound up as servants or laborers. Another fate for abandoned or unwanted children was adoption, for which there was no formal process, or sale to childless couples or those who needed an heir for inheritance security, an arrangement banned by the Church. Boswell is careful to balance “literary” and “historical” testimony to reveal cultural reality, concerns and necessities, such as abandonment themes in literature that may reflect the problem of younger sons and “surplus heirs,” and how authors perceived the protection of older heirs was being accomplished (367).

Assessment of infanticide is problematic, though most scholars believe it was far more rare than abandonment. Intentional killing could be hard to distinguish or prove compared to stillbirth, crib death, or accidents such as fire or smothering in the parents’ bed. Determining statistics for infanticide is nearly impossible, and secular and ecclesiastical penalties for both infanticide and abandonment appear to have ranged from penance to excommunication, though it seems that leniency was given in cases of extreme poverty.

Scholars analyze available records, which are generally incomplete, but some studies cover wide time spans and include the Continent, which does not always obtain to England, and Hanawalt’s study of England focuses on the peasantry. She concludes that infanticide was uncommon and that the mother’s penalty was penance, and she states that exposure and infanticide were forbidden by the Church, though she includes little discussion of abandonment (Hanawalt Ties 101-02). Church and state were concerned with practical as well as moral issues such as the lack of baptism and the avoidance of accidental incest, and the encouragement of the relief mechanisms for parents through the “beneficent intervention of strangers” (Boswell 400).

The Lay le Freine plot shares themes found in other contemporary poems. For example, the identity of the heroine of Emaré, like Freine’s, is bound up in a richly embroidered, exotic cloth that provides physical protection during times of abandonment, indicates high lineage, and serves as the instrument of recognition. However, Emaré is a more complex tale, and the heroine undergoes much more suffering than Freine. Medieval culture assigned moral value to women bearing misfortune and misery with patience. The virtuous woman withstood sickness, poverty, mistreatment and betrayal in silence, and usually was eventually rewarded for her forbearance, as is Freine. The most famous example is Chaucer’s Griselda of The Clerk’s Tale, though a careful reading may suggest the poet’s questioning of the validity of the ideology.

Freine is luckier than Emaré and Griselda; she is nurtured by the abbess, and treated as the lady of the manor and loved by Sir Guroun and his household. Her grief comes from being replaced by a woman of social rank and thus separated from her lover. The importance of marrying within proper lineage by aristocrats to ensure legitimate heirs and protect succession, as Sir Guroun is urged to do, was a pragmatic matter. It is central to the king in Sir Orfeo, who, lacking an heir, chooses his faithful steward to succeed him, based on the man’s ability and loyalty. The theme leads to a debate taken seriously by many over how one is judged “noble”: by heritage, status, wealth, or character. In “Gentilesse,” Chaucer suggests that one becomes noble not through inheritance, but through virtuous action as exemplified by the first fathers:

This firste stok was ful of rightwisnesse,
Trewe of his word, sobre, pitous, and free,
Clene of his gost, and loved besinesse,
Ayeinst the vyce of slouthe, in honestee;
And, but his heir love vertu as dide he,
He is noght gentil, thogh he riche seme,
Al were he mytre, croune, or diademe.
Vyce may wel be heir to old richesse,
But ther may no man, as men may wel see,
Bequethe his heir his vertuous noblesse. (8-17)
This first ancestor was full of righteousness, true to his word,
sober, compassionate and generous, free of sin, and
loved work to avoid the vice of sloth, in honesty. And
unless his heir loves virtue as he did, he is not noble,
although he seems rich, whether he be bishop, king or emperor.
Vice may well be heir to old wealth, but no man, as
may well be seen, can bequeath his heir virtuous nobility.

Freine possesses all the necessary qualities but is unsuitable for marriage to an aristocrat despite her gentility and virtue until her lineage is revealed. Similar situations are seen elsewhere, as in Havelok, although there it is the man who must prove his royal heritage.

But the dilemma of how to assess a person’s value extends beyond nobility to humanity. The consequences are far more serious than marriage in Lay le Freine when the children’s mother must choose between her reputation and the life of one of her daughters. In Sir Amadace, included in this collection, the hero can save his honor only by fulfilling an agreement and allowing his family to be slain. As in most poems in this anthology, trouthe runs through Lay le Freine, beginning with Freine’s mother’s lie about the birth, the knight’s wife’s slander, Sir Guroun’s duplicity and, on the positive side, the loyalty of the abbess and porter, and the final admission of truth by Freine’s mother. The concept of trouthe, which included not only truth but honesty, fidelity and the keeping of one’s word, is a recurrent theme in late Middle English literature. It was perceived as being endangered by the shift in feudal bonds from personal service to money-based relations. Chaucer looks back to a time when “mannes word was obligacioun,” but “now it is so fals and deceivable” that the world is turned “up-so-doun” by the desire for gain (“Lak of Stedfastnesse” 2-5).

The edition used for this translation is The Breton Lays in Middle English. Ed. Thomas C. Rumble. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1965. The poem is dated approximately 1330 and is found in one manuscript, the Auchinleck. Translation of Le Fresne is from The Lais of Marie de France. Trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1978.


1 In Marie, rather than asking his friend to be godfather, the father said he “would send one to him to raise / and name the child after him. (Le Fresne 17-18)

2 In Le Fresne, news of the woman’s slander spread throughout Brittany and all women hated but did not curse her. When the messenger returned home and repeated the accusation to the husband:

He hated his worthy wife because of it,
strongly suspected her,
and kept her under strict guard
even though she didn’t deserve it. (61-64)

3 In Marie, killing the child is the only solution considered:

Now, to keep from being disgraced,
I’ll have to kill one of my children!
I’d rather make that up to God
than live in shame and dishonor. (Le Fresne 91-94)

4 In Le Fresne:

The lady heard what she said;
she was delighted with the idea, and promised her
that if she did this service
she’d be well rewarded for it. (117-20)

5 The ring tied to Fresne’s arm with a ribbon “contained a full ounce of pure gold, / and had a ruby set in it, / with lettering around the rim of the setting.” (Le Fresne 128-31)

6 The sounds of dogs and cocks told the maiden carrying Fresne that she would find a town:

Quickly, she went in the direction
of the barking.
Soon she came
to a fine, prosperous town.
There was an abbey there,
a thriving, well-endowed one;
I believe it held a community of nuns
supervised by an abbess. (Le Fresne 147-54)

The setting of the Middle English version appears rural, specifically near no town. The walls and houses the maiden passes could be peasant homes. The cocks and dogs, husbandmen ploughing and birds singing in the trees paint a picture of a rustic community, possibly part of the abbey’s landholdings.

7 The christening, an important salvational act, is absent in Marie:

“O God,” she prayed, “by your holy name,
if it is your will,
protect this infant from death.” (Le Fresne 162-64)

8 In Le Fresne, it is explained that the porter’s daughter is a widow with a child “still in the cradle” (195).

9 Marie’s knight, Sir Gurun, “heard about the young girl and he fell in love with her” (247-48) sight unseen. He then goes to the abbey.

10 Sir Gurun’s reasons for the invitation are quite different:

“Beautiful one,” he said, “now that
you’ve made me your lover,
come away from here and live with me.
I’m sure you know
that if your aunt found out about us
she’d be upset,
especially if you become pregnant right under her roof.
In fact, she’d be furious.“ (Le Fresne 277-84)

11 Sir Gurun’s vassals are more forceful:

They’d be pleased if he had an heir
who could succeed to
his lord and inheritance;
it would be much to their disadvantage
if he was deterred by his concubine
from having a child born in wedlock.
They would no longer consider him their lord
or willingly serve him
if he didn’t do what they wanted. (Le Fresne 319-27)

12 In Marie, the vassals stress that the daughter, as the knight’s heiress, will bring Sir Gurun much land (Le Fresne 334).

13 In Le Fresne,

The mother wants her expelled from the house;
she’ll tell her son-in-law
that he should marry her off to some good man;
that way he’ll be rid of her, she thinks. (369-72)

Only after watching Fresne’s patience and courtesy towards the bride-to-be does the mother come to love Fresne. Had she known of Fresne’s character, she would not have let her suffer by separating her from her lord on account of Codre.

14 The chamberlain in Le Fresne tells the mother that Fresne had placed her own cloth on the bed, which leads her to question Fresne and find the truth.

15 Fresne’s father “was well disposed toward her; / he divided his inheritance with her.” (Le Fresne 507-08)

16 In Le Fresne:

When this adventure became known
just as it happened,
the lai of Fresne was made from it.
It was named after its heroine. (515-18)