CategoryLiterary Form
Featured In

Literature and Humanities 1 (YCC1111);
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309);
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)

Marie’s poems represent the earliest surviving lais, though several later examples of the form appear in Old French in the 13th century and in Middle English in the 13th and 14th centuries. Different etymologies have been proposed for the term “lai”: one possibility is that it derives from the Irish loîd or laid, meaning “song,” while another is that it comes from the German leodus (a type of chant) or leich (“song,” “melody,” or “play”). Early allusions to the lai in literature suggest that it was a form accompanied by music, possibly a technically virtuoso performance on the harp; however, no such music has survived (Bullock-Davies).

What exactly is a lai? In its broadest definition, a “lai” is any text that calls itself one. Indeed, the characteristics of the form are notoriously difficult to pin down. Most lais make some appeal to Breton origins: they are often set in Brittany or in the Celtic regions of Britain (like Wales), and claim to be based on the songs of Breton minstrels, although no Breton sources for these stories have been preserved (at the time, Breton literature remained completely oral). Later on, this connection with Celtic settings begins to fade and the idea of the “Breton lay” becomes conventional, evoking vague associations with romance and adventure rather than a specific geographical setting. Lais become more varied in subject matter and tone in the 14th century, but earlier lais tend to be short verse narratives concerning love and chivalry, and often featuring supernatural or otherworldly elements.


Constance Bullock-Davies, “The Form of the Breton Lay,” Medium Aevum 42.1 (1973): 18-31.


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