Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Nightingale: Romanesque harp accompaniment

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About the scene and clip:
The performer tells the story of Laostic, 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 for this clip consists of nightingale song motifs taken from medieval songs, among them “Quand lo rossinhòls el folhós” (“When the nightingale in the leaves”) by Jaufre Rudel, a Troubadour of the mid 12th century. The performer is playing on a harp equipped with “bray pins,” resulting in a bright, unusual sound that was an important part of the sonority of the harp through the early 17th century.

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).

The Lai of the Nightingale (Laostic, also Laüstic or Aüstic) is one of Marie de France’s Lais. It tells of the love affair between a knight and a married woman. Her jealous husband catches and kills the nightingale which had been the pretext for her nightly visits to her window. The wife wraps the dead nightingale carefully in precious cloth and the lover enshrines it in a precious coffer, thus ensuring that their love will be remembered.

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 took place at the Medieval Conference at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in May 2006, and was filmed by Timmie Vitz.