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Lays of Ancient Rome, by Thomas Babington Macaulay.

A Lay (Norman French Lai) is a lyrical, narrative poem written in octosyllabic couplets that often deals with tales of adventure and romance. A lay was a song form composed in northern Europe, mainly France and Germany, from the 13th to the late 14th century. Lays often have great metrical variety and are designed to be sung to a popular melody.

Marie de France Edit

One well-known author of lays was Marie de France, whose collection of Lais (c. 1155-70) were twelve Celtic tales of romance that often involved elements of the fantastic. Lanval, one of her more popular narratives, is one such story. Marie de France’s lais came down to us in the same Norman dialect that was spoken in the court of Henry II (Angevin French king of England from 1154–89), to whom Marie dedicated her lais. For these reasons she is believed to have been a member of the court of Henry II.

Marie claims to have translated her lays from the Breton language, and she later translated them into French. Though the works of male romancers during Marie’s time often focused on the need to balance personal needs and social responsibilities, Marie’s works have a strong female focus—especially on the personal desires of those female characters. Lanval, for example, is about a knight who is able to escape an uncaring and arbitrary society though the love of an otherworldly fairy figure. Thus, this lay portrays both the fantastic and female focus.

Form Edit

The lay usually has several stanzas, none of which have the same form. As a result, the accompanying music consists of sections which do not repeat. This distinguishes the lai from other common types of musically important verse of the period (for example, the rondeau and the ballade). Towards the end of its development in the 14th century, some lais repeat stanzas, but usually only in the longer examples. There is one very late example of a lai, written to mourn the defeat of the French at the Battle of Agincourt (1415), (Lay de la guerre, by Pierre de Nesson) but no music for it survives.

There are four lais in the Roman de Fauvel, all of them anonymous. The lai reached its highest level of development as a musical and poetic form in the work of Guillaume de Machaut; 19 separate lais by this 14th-century ars nova composer survive, and they are among his most sophisticated and highly-developed secular compositions.

Other terms for the lai, or for forms which were very similar to the lai, include descort (Provençal), Leich (German), and Lay (English).

Composers of laysEdit

See alsoEdit

References Edit


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