Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Goatleaf: Romanesque harp accompaniment

video platform video management video solutions video player

Flash Logo Viewing our videos requires the free Adobe Flash player.
(No need for Flash on mobile devices.)

About the scene and clip:
The performer tells the story of Goatleaf, one of Marie de France’s Lais. He alternates between narrating and playing on a Romanesque harp. His instrument is based on images of medieval harps from this period. The music comes from the melody of a lai sung by Tristan in a French Prose Tristan manuscript in the National Library of Vienna, Austria.

About the work:
Marie de France, a major literary figure from the Middle Ages, is one of the few women writers of the period whose work has survived. Little is known of her, except that she was almost certainly of the nobility. She wrote in England apparently in the 1160s and ‘70s; her work is in French (or “Anglo-Norman”: the French language as spoken and written in medieval England). She wrote lais—a dozen short narrative poems with Breton roots, composed in octosyllabic rhymed couplets, and bearing on love in its many forms. The lais circulated separately, and also together in a volume that she dedicated to King Henry (probably English King Henry II). She also wrote Espurgatoire seint Patriz (St. Patrick’s Purgatory), about a pilgrimage down to the afterlife, based on Latin sources; and Fables, also based largely on Latin sources. She is now widely believed also to have been the author of the Anglo-Norman Vie seinte Audree (Life of Saint Audrey).

In this short lai, Tristan is in exile, but, unable to live without seeing Iseut, he returns home. Tristan arranges to intercept Iseut in the forest by leaving a specially-carved stick where she will see it and realize he is nearby. They meet briefly in the forest-and then he composes a lai to commemorate their meeting.

About the genre:
A narrative lai is a short poetic tale composed in verse, which claims to tell the story of how a musical lai from ancient Brittany came to be written. The 12th-century Anglo-Norman woman poet Marie de France is the best known author of narrative lais in French, and may be one of the creators of the genre.

About the edition/translation:
English verse by Ron Cook. Old French: Les Lais de Marie de France, ed. Jean Rychner, Paris, Champion, 1966.

About the performer/ensemble:
Ron Cook is a professional performer (and lawyer) in Columbus, Ohio. He plays medieval and Renaissance harps and recorder, and performs widely from medieval works.

About the production:
This performance was held at the Maison Française in September 2005. The gathering was sponsored by “Storytelling in Performance,” a workshop funded by the Humanities Council of New York University, and directed by Timmie Vitz, Nancy Freeman Regalado, and Martha Hodes. Videography by Gina Guadagnino.