Storytelling in the Middle Ages

Storytelling in the Middle Ages: An Evening of Tall Tales, Music and Werewolves

 “Once upon a time there was a lady spy, Ingenue Bond of Venice, who led twelve priests into temptation…” So began one of the modern adaptations of a medieval tale created by a group of storytelling workshop participants, who were challenged to retell a Breton lai in the style of a Bond film. In their hands, the Old French tale of Ignaure, a knight who wooed twelve ladies simultaneously until he was discovered by their twelve husbands, was shaken and stirred to become a dashing, Martini-quaffing adventure featuring an audacious female secret agent, twelve unfortunate priests, and a moonlit chase through the catacombs and piazzas of Venice.


As a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at UCL, working on a project about Breton lais and story transmission, I greatly enjoyed taking part in the Medieval Storytelling workshop, and learned a good deal about story performance. Returning to London, I decided to organise an evening of storytelling in connection with UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS), along with my colleague Erin Goeres, who teaches in the Department of Scandinavian Studies, and my sister Tamsin Dearnley, a professional harpist based in Edinburgh.

Erin and I both work on Breton lais, and we wanted to introduce some of these stories to a new audience, and also encourage participants to retell some of these medieval stories themselves. Staged as part of SELCS’ Café Culture Series, informal talks by academics open to the general public, the result was ‘Storytelling in the Middle Ages: An Evening of Tall Tales, Music and Werewolves’, held in the cosy upstairs bar of the Betsey Trotwood pub in Clerkenwell.


Erin and I opened the evening by briefly introducing the Breton lai and its historical background, before performing two lais ourselves. I recounted the Old French werewolf lai Bisclavret, whilst Erin retold the Old Norse version of Doun, in which the knightly hero survives a series of ordeals, including death by murderous bedclothes, to win the hand of a lady. Both lais were accompanied by harp music from Tamsin, who punctuated key moments in the stories with a dramatic chord, a jaunty hunting ballad, or playfully anachronistic sound effects. Whilst we weren’t attempting to provide an authentic recreation of Breton lai performance in the Middle Ages – medieval sources are frustratingly silent about the details of such performances, and no original lai music has survived – we wanted to show some of the ways in which music and narrative could be combined to create an entertaining, memorable story.

After this, it was time for the audience members to try their hand at storytelling. Participants were divided into small groups, handed a summary of a lai, and asked to retell it in the style of a different modern genre, such as a western, a news bulletin or science-fiction. Everyone rose to the challenge with enthusiasm, creating a series of ingenious, surreal, and frequently hilarious tales, which they then performed to the rest of the audience.


Bisclavret was transported from the forests of Brittany to a dust-stained frontier town in Nevada, where a whisky-sodden, disgraced sheriff could only be restored to his former glory by finding his stolen sheriff’s badge; Tyolet, the story of a knight who charms animals by whistling, was transformed into a crisp, BBC-style series of news reports about a talented local youth marrying into the royal family; the young lovers of Espine became two teenagers sucked into an 80s computer game; the amorous hero of Ignaure morphed into a glamorously seductive international superspy; finally, the tragic love story of Yonec was reinterpreted as a Maori folk tale by a group from New Zealand. Tamsin, who had worked with the various groups during the preparation time, provided improvised – and increasingly inventive – musical accompaniments throughout, from the Greenwich pips to the Tetris theme music.

The lais created in the workshop were enormously entertaining, and Erin and I were delighted to hear the participants’ reimaginings of the medieval tales (a Monty Pythonesque sports commentary on a Lancelot-versus-Tyolet stand-off was a particular highlight). They were also illuminating from a more academic perspective; given that translation plays such a large part in the history of the lais, with the Middle English and Old Norse versions of the French tales frequently incorporating local twists to appeal to their new audiences, and gathering up new details, snowball-like, with each retelling, it was fascinating to see how well the basic lai narratives could be ‘translated’ into modern contexts, and which aspects of the stories each group chose to keep the same, discard, or amplify.


In considering how music might have been used as an accompaniment during performances of lais in the Middle Ages, working alongside a harpist also provided some valuable practical insights; how much musical accompaniment is necessary for the retelling of a lai, and does it ever become a distraction from the story? How might a storyteller and musician work together to create a dialogue?

Both in terms of bringing Breton lais to a broader audience, and in seeing new versions of the tales being generated, ‘Storytelling in the Middle Ages’ was hugely enjoyable to run. Many thanks are due to Hannah and Gareth for starting the medieval storytelling ball rolling in Oxford; I hope to be able to organise more London-based events of this kind in the future!

LD4Elizabeth Dearnley

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