|Text (Part of The Lais of Marie de France)
|Marie de France
|Late 12th Century
|Literature and Humanities 1 (YCC1111);
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309)
“Le Frene (or “Le Fresne”),” the third of Marie’s lais, is a story of twins that explores ideas of resemblance and likeness, showing how they can often manifest themselves in unexpected ways. It appears in Marie’s collection after “Equitan” and before “Bisclavret.”
The lai tells of two knights in Brittany, one of whom has a wife who gives birth to two sons. The other knight’s wife accuses this woman of adultery, claiming that no mother ever bore two children at once without their having two different fathers (a common belief in medieval Europe). Her accusation returns to haunt her when she herself gives birth to twin daughters several months later. Fearful of shame and ridicule, she decides she will kill one of the children, but is persuaded by a servant to have the child secreted away. After a long journey, the servant eventually leaves the child cradled in the branches of an ash tree, where she is soon discovered by the inhabitants of a nearby convent. The abbess of the convent decides to raise her as her niece, naming her “le Frene” (meaning “ash”) after the tree in which she was discovered.
Le Frene grows up and becomes the lover of a wealthy nobleman. She leaves the convent to live with him, but his barons begin to pressure him to instead marry a woman of legitimate birth. The woman he agrees to marry turns out to be Le Frene’s twin sister, La Coldre (whose name means “hazel tree”). Le Frene’s identity is revealed when her mother, present for the wedding, recognizes the linen which le Frene has laid out on the bed of the newlyweds as the very cloth in which she wrapped her infant child before abandoning her so many years ago. Her aristocratic origins thus revealed, le Frene is able to marry the man she loves, and her sister goes on to marry another wealthy nobleman in the land.
As in “Bisclavret,” the crisis of “Le Frene” is precipitated by a woman’s treacherous speech, in this case the slanderous words of the mother who, in maligning her neighbor, implicates all women in her statement and thus unwittingly accuses herself.
Chance and coincidence play a significant role in the lai, so much so that at times they verge on the marvelous: despite the fact that the narrative features two sets of twins, the scene of recognition at the end of the lai is sparked not by any physical resemblance between the sisters, but on account of le Frene’s chance impulse to replace an old bedspread with her luxurious brocade, an exotic object originally imported from Constantinople and given to her mother as a gift. At the same time, inexplicably and mysteriously, both sisters are named after trees, and other characters in the lai discuss the qualities each sister shares with the tree whose name she bears: le Frene, they suggest, should be replaced by la Coldre because the hazel tree bears fruit while the ash does not. These and other aporia show how the concepts of resemblance, relation, and inheritance are often oblique and elusive: even as le Frene is eventually restored to her proper inheritance and her innate nobility is recognized, this restoration takes place through circuitous and unexpected means.
Perhaps some of the elusiveness of these concepts arises from the lai’s contradictory notions about twinning and doubling. As one critic notes, “le Frene” appears torn between the concept of twins as duality (competing opposites) and dualism (complementary parts of a whole); “these two views suggest the mind at work making sense of twins as a puzzle or contradiction: they are two and yet a unit, the same and the other” (Bruckner, 946). It is this disorienting doubling that propels the narrative of “Le Frene,” which concludes somewhat uneasily when the protagonist’s hidden identity is revealed and the twins are finally recognized as a pair who take their complementary places within the family newly restored to harmony.
Marie de France. Marie de France: Poetry. Translated by Dorothy Gilbert, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, “Le Fresne’s Model for Twinning in the Lais of Marie de France,” MLN 121.4 (2006): 946-960.
[Featured Image & Fig. 1] https://worldhistorycommons.org/analyzing-literary-sources
CONTRIBUTED BY DR. EMILY DALTON