Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Ash Tree: Romanesque harp accompaniment

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About the scene and clip:
The performer tells the Lay of the Ash Tree (Fresne), one of Marie de France’s Lais. He alternates between reading aloud from the lai and playing a Romanesque harp. The harp he uses is a copy of an early medieval harp; it was built by Catherine Campbell, incorporating results of Cook’s research into the form of the harp in the 12th and 13th centuries. The pieces of music he uses are: “De moi dolereus vos chant,” attributed to Gillebert de Berneville (fl. c1250-80); “C’est la fins,” by Guillaume d’Amiens (fl. late 13th century); and “Souvent souspire,” an anonymous French piece from the 13th 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-NormanVie seinte Audree (Life of Saint Audrey).

The Lay of the Ash Tree (Fresne) tells of a young woman of heroic self-abnegation, who in the end is able to marry the man she loves, and who finds the noble parents from whom she had been separated at birth. (The story is a prototype for “Patient Griselda.”)

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 created for the Medieval Conference at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in May 2008. It was videoed by Beverly Rawles at Ron Cook’s home in Columbus, Ohio, in June 2008.