Lay le Freine

General Information

(N)IMEV: 3869
Form: Short couplets
Date of Composition: Early fourteenth century
Place of Composition: South East
Keywords: Bedchamber, Education, Familial Discord, Foundlings, Incest, Marriage, Mistaken Identity, Multiple Births, Penance, Religious Figures, Religious Spaces, Secular Spaces, Sexual Encounters

Plot Summary

Plot summary image

After a prologue describing Breton Lays, the poem introduces two knights who live in the West Country. When the wife of the first knight gives birth to twins, the wife of the other maliciously suggests that this is proof of adultery. She is rebuked, and the women of the court pray that a worse fate will befall her. When she duly gives birth to two baby girls, she reluctantly decides to kill one and do penance. [But at her maid’s suggestion] she agrees to take the baby to a convent instead. The child is wrapped in an embroidered cloth with a gold ring and left in the crook of an ash tree outside a convent’s church. She is discovered by the porter, who leaves her with his daughter and informs the abbess. The baby is christened Le Freine and brought up as the abbess’ niece. When she is twelve the abbess tells her about how she was found.

News of Le Freine’s beauty spreads, and a wealthy knight called Sir Guroun comes to the abbey to see her. He falls in love and decides to become a ‘brother’ or benefactor of the house as an excuse to visit her more often. He donates money and lands and (after consummating the relationship) persuades Le Freine to elope with him. They leave the abbey, taking only her cloth and ring. Though they are not married, she lives as if she is his wife, and is loved by his courtiers. But his knights object to her foundling status, demanding that he marry the daughter of a knight in order to produce a legitimate heir. They unwittingly suggest Le Freine’s sister, [who is called Le Coudre, and the bride, her family and the bishop assemble for the marriage ceremony. Le Freine acts as a servant at the wedding feast, and her humbleness attracts the attention of her mother. When she uses her cloth to decorate the marital bed, her mother realises who she is and admits to abandoning one of her twins. Le Freine’s father is delighted, and the bishop undoes the first marriage, before marrying le Freine and Guroun. Le Coudre is married to another knight.]

From: A. Lasakaya and E. Salisbury eds. The Middle English Breton Lays. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999.
Manuscript: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1 (Auchinleck)


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Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1 (Auchinleck) (folio: 261r-262v)c. 1330, London. Unique copy. Missing lines 121-33 and 340 - end.

Modern Editions

Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, eds., The Middle English Breton Lays (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995)Pp. 61-87. Edited from Auchinleck manuscript.Available online at:
D. B. Sands, ed., Middle English Verse Romances (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1986)Pp. 233-245. Edited from Auchinleck manuscript.
George Ellis, ed., Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances. Rev. ed. By J. O. Halliwell (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848)Pp. 538-48. Edited from the Auchinleck Manuscript.
H. Varnhagen, Zu Mittelenglischen Gedichten: VIII, Lay le Freine, Anglia, 3 (1880): 415-425.Edited from Auchinleck manuscript.
Henry Weber, ed., Metrical Romances of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Centuries, 3 vols (Edinburgh: George Ramsay and Company, 1810)Edited from Auchinleck manuscript. Includes a reconstruction of missing lines, adopted by most later editions.
M. Wattie, ed., The Middle English Lai le Freine, Smith College Studies in Modern Languages, vol. 10, no. 3 (Northampton, Mass.: Smithe College, 1928)Edited from Auchinleck manuscript.
Thomas C. Rumble, ed., Breton Lays in Middle English (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965)Pp. 80-94. Edited from the Auchinleck Manuscript.


Marie de France, Lai le Fresne, late 12th century *