8. How do lais fit into a larger historical context?
These lais were distributed via manuscripts. We know that people would read them aloud to usually another group of people assembled at court. Most of this literature also passed orally and in fact, its believed that Marie and others who were writing these poems were drawing upon a kind of oral stock of stories. In fact, she tells you that shes drawing upon Breton lais, and that shes retelling these stories.
Reading the manuscript would be very different than reading this version. The manuscripts all are in the poetic form that they were written in. These are octosyllabic couplets. Theres eight syllables in each line so they have a rhythm, and if youre reading it out loud, it would have a very steady rhythm.
The reproductions of and the images from manuscripts are written in nice ink on nice parchment and the page is laid out nicely with a lot of margin, which is a sign of wealth, since parchment is expensive.
Putting these stories in context is easy, which is one of the reasons that theyre so valuable to work with, both in terms of scholarship and in teaching. We have multiple renditions of these stories, and many of them can be firmly affixed in terms of authorship. We have lots of stories that were romantic stories about similar subject matter, like King Arthur and Queen Guinevere and his court, written by men. The number that we think are written by women are fewer, but you can compare different versions of the stories and say, whats a happy ending in a love story in a male author like Chrétien de Troyes? You can raise the same questions and put similar stories side by side. The matches may not be exact, but theyre within the same chronological period, and theyre within the same cultural milieu, and theyre within the same literary genre.
You can also contextualize these stories in relation to the changing political circumstances and kinds of historical sources about womensay, sources about Eleanor of Aquitaine and her career. Is she typical or not? Shes the type of woman that wouldve been listening to the stories. She was so heavily involved in the politics of the late 12th century. She was married to two different kings, the most powerful men in western Europe. How did the opportunities that she had compare to the opportunities generally that women had? What does this tell us about changing political circumstances?