What makes Breton lays ‘Breton’? Bretons, Britons and Celtic ‘otherness’ in medieval romance
By Leo Carruthers
Études Épistémè, Vol.25 (2014)
Abstract: An exploration of the semantic and cultural fields behind the term ‘Breton’ suggests that the modern word ‘Celtic’ corresponds better to what is implied by the expression ‘Breton lay’. It is commonly supposed that the Breton lays, in both Old French of the 12th century and Middle English of the 14th century, were based on songs originally sung by Breton minstrels. But the word ‘Breton’ is misleading ; while it now refers to the inhabitants of Brittany, in medieval literature ‘Breton’ and ‘Briton’ were undifferentiated, applying to the early, non-Germanic inhabitants of Britain and Armorica, whose language was Old Welsh. For the English and French, these people were ‘other’, their culture a source of mystery.
Being neither English, Norman or French, the language of the Bretons, Britons, or British appeared exotic to the dominant political groups. Their poetry, often associated with the Otherworld and a belief in fairy magic, would be labelled ‘Celtic’ later in history, but that term was not available when the ‘Breton lays’ first appeared. The Anglo-Norman poet ‘Marie de France’, writing for the Plantagenet royal court in the 12th century, had at her doorstep the well-attested riches of Welsh literature as a model and inspiration, whereas no evidence exists for any independent songs or tales from Brittany at this time. It would thus be more apt to speak of ‘Celtic lays’ in Old French and Middle English, since the word ‘Celtic’ now conveys to us what medieval French and English poets meant by the word ‘Breton’.
Top Image: Marie de France from an illuminated manuscript