Le Fresne (lai)

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"Le Fresne" is one of the Lais of Marie de France. It was likely written in the late 12th century. Marie claims it to be a Breton lai, an example of Anglo-Norman literature.

Plot summary[edit]

Le Fresne begins with two wedded knights. The wife of one knight gives birth to twins, and upon hearing a message to that effect, the other wife declares that in order to have two children at one time, a woman must have slept with two men. Many consider this comment to be slanderous, and the husband of the woman who gave birth to twins shuts her away. Appropriately, the wife who made the comment about twins being a mark of adultery gives birth, in turn, to twin daughters.

More willing to make amends with God than shame herself, the wife plans to secretly kill the extra child and deny its existence. A handmaiden offers to hide it instead. After an ornate brocade is tied to the baby's arm signifying its noble birth, the handmaiden leaves it under an ash tree outside of an abbey. A porter finds the girl and names her Le Fresne (modern French frêne, "ash tree"), and gives her to a gentle abbess to raise.

Le Fresne grows into an exceedingly beautiful woman, and a respected lord named Gurun becomes enamored of her. Gurun makes a great donation to the abbey as an excuse for his constant visits, and secretly gains the love of Le Fresne. Fearing the wrath of the abbess if Le Fresne became pregnant in her house, Gurun convinces her to run away with him, making her his concubine.

Gurun's knights become concerned that if he does not marry a noblewoman for the sake of a legitimate heir, his lands and lineage will be lost upon his death. They find a noble and beautiful woman named La Codre (modern French coudrier, "hazel tree"). Gurun's knights convince him that for the sake of carrying on his noble lineage, he should marry La Codre instead of Le Fresne, creating a metaphor of the fertile hazel tree and the barren ash. The marriage is planned. While La Codre's mother originally plans to move Le Fresne as far away from Gurun as possible, she discovers upon meeting her that Le Fresne is very kind and then wishes her no harm. The night of the wedding, Le Fresne helps to prepare the wedding bed, for she knows how Gurun likes things. Not finding it sufficiently beautiful, she adds her brocade to the wedding bed. This is discovered by the mother of La Codre, who recognizes that the brocade is her own, and that Le Fresne is the twin sister of La Codre whom they had abandoned at birth. The family welcomes Le Fresne. Though the marriage of La Codre and Gurun is finished, it was annulled the next day. Le Fresne and Gurun marry, a husband is found for La Codre, and all characters end up happy.


The motifs of Le Fresne are found in popular ballads, both in English and Scandinavian form, such as Fair Annie. The popular tales more often feature a heroine who was kidnapped by pirates when young and ransomed by the hero, thus ending as ignorant of her birth as this heroine.[1] The ring which identifies Le Fresne as a particular person of high birth is a motif that, according to Michelle Freeman, Marie may have gotten from the Roman d'Enéas, the twelfth-century version of the Aeneas legend that Marie was very familiar with.[2]

The child is abandoned immediately after birth, as is the practice in medieval literature, such as Sir Degaré; this may reflect pre-Christian practices, both Scandinavian and Roman, that the newborn would not be raised without the father's decision to do so.[3]

It shows no influence of courtly love; so far from regarding his love as important, Gurun shows no remorse about abandoning it for a lawful marriage.[4] Le Fresne, also, shows no signs of conflict, gently yielding her place and even serving her successor.[5]

The idea equating twins with infidelity was a common folkloric belief at the time.[6] It also appears in other chivalric romances, such as the Swan-Children of the Knight of the Swan, in the variant Beatrix.[7] But as in those romances, it is treated as the result of envy and slander and so denounced.[8]

The hazel tree also makes an appearance in both Laüstic and Chevrefoil, two of Marie's other Lais.


One English romance, Lay le Freine, is a quite faithful translation of Le Fresne.[9]



  1. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 67-8, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  2. ^ Freeman, Michelle (1988). "The Power of Sisterhood: Marie de France's 'Le Fresne'". In Mary Erler. Women and Power in the Middle Ages. Maryanne Kowaleski. U of Georgia P. pp. 250–64. ISBN 9780820323817. 
  3. ^ Barbara A. Hanawalt, The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England p172 ISBN 0-19-504564-5
  4. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p298 New York Burt Franklin,1963
  5. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p298-9 New York Burt Franklin,1963
  6. ^ Marie de France, "Les Lais de Marie de France", p. 91, traduits et annotés par Harf-Lancner, L., Livre de Poche 1990.
  7. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p242 New York Burt Franklin,1963
  8. ^ Lay le Freine: Introduction, Edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, Originally Published in The Middle English Breton Lays Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995
  9. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p294 New York Burt Franklin,1963


  • Marie de France. The Lais of Marie de France. (Burgess and Busby translation) 1986, Penguin
  • Marie de France. Lais de Marie de France. (traduits, présentés et annotés par Laurence Harf-Lancner) 1990, Livre de Poche, Lettres gothiques