Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia



The written records from Arthur’s era primarily focus on historical events, religious texts, and legal matters. As a result, our knowledge of secular literature, including lays, from this specific time period is quite limited. However, it is important to note that oral storytelling and poetic traditions were prevalent during this time, especially within the various Germanic and Celtic cultures that existed in Europe. The transmission of stories and legends through oral means was a common practice, and lays might have been recited or sung by bards or minstrels, even though they were not extensively recorded in writing.

In medieval times, a lay referred to a form of narrative poetry that was popularized in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Lays were typically composed in the vernacular language (such as Old French or Middle English) and were known for their captivating storytelling and lyrical qualities.

Origin and structure

Lays are believed to have originated from the oral tradition of storytelling, where they were recited or sung by traveling minstrels or troubadours. They were characterized by their brevity and often consisted of several hundred lines, making them shorter than epic poems. Lays typically followed a structured form, employing rhyme and meter to create a rhythmic and musical quality.

Themes and content

Lays often focused on themes of chivalry, romance, adventure, and supernatural elements, reflecting the ideals and cultural values of the medieval period. Many lays drew inspiration from Celtic mythology and folklore, incorporating tales of knights, damsels in distress, enchanted forests, magical creatures, and quests.

Prominent lays

Marie de France, a twelfth-century poet, is particularly associated with the genre of lays. She wrote a collection of twelve lays, known as Lais, which are some of the most well-known examples of medieval lays. They include stories of love, magic, shape-shifting, and adventure. Some of her lays feature Arthurian legends and characters.

Two lays of Marie de France are: Lanval is a lay that tells the story of Lanval who falls in love with a beautiful fairy lady and embarks on a romantic and magical adventure. Bisclavret or The Werewolf, is a lay that revolves around a knight who transforms into a werewolf and is betrayed by his wife. It includes elements of romance, loyalty, and the consequences of betrayal.

In the twelfth-century romance Tristan or Le Roman de Tristan, by the French poet Thomas de Bretagne, there is a scene where Dinadan, one of the Knights of the Round Table and a close companion of Tristan, composes a satirical lay about King Mark of Cornwall, who is Tristan’s uncle. According to the narrative, Dinadan teaches the lay to a harper and minstrel named Eliot, who then performs it in the court of King Mark. The satirical lay mocks and criticizes the king, often employing humorous and biting verses. This scene serves as a playful and humorous interlude within the larger narrative of the Tristan romance.

Influence and legacy

Lays had a significant impact on the development of later literary forms, such as romances and ballads, as well as on the emergence of medieval courtly literature. The storytelling techniques and themes found in lays continued to influence subsequent generations of poets and writers.

See also
Lay of Joy | The Legend of King Arthur
Lay of Tears | The Legend of King Arthur
Lay of the Love Potion | The Legend of King Arthur