lai Conseil elevated Latin rhetoric of De nuntio sagaci into French

The Old French lai Advice {Conseil}, probably written in the second decade of the thirteen century, emphasizes in its meta-comments that it’s a translation into French. That probably isn’t literally true. That claim instead functions as sophisticated rhetoric. With learned speech like that in medieval Latin schools, Conseil elevated the learned, exploitative speech of the twelfth-century Latin seduction epic About the Shrewd Envoy {De nuntio sagaci} to provide more courtly love instruction in French.

Introductory and concluding meta-comments in Conseil play across French and implicitly Latin. The first verses of Conseil self-confidently declare:

Anyone who wishes to listen to fine words
in French can learn a great deal from them,
providing they are willing to retain them.

{ Cil qui velt a biaus dis entendre
De romanz molt i puet aprendre,
Por qu’il les veille retenir. }[1]

Listening, learning, and retention were central concerns of students studying in Latin in medieval schools. In Conseil, the schooling is explicitly in French. Concluding meta-comments further explain:

A knight who did not want
this adventure to be at its end
has put this lai into French for us
in order to teach true lovers.
He has done this as best as he could,
translating it word for word.

{ Uns chevaliers qui ne volt mie
Que l’aventure fust fenie,
Nos a cest lai mis en romanz
Por ensaignier veraiz amanz.
Le plus bel que il sot l’a fet,
L’un mot aprés l’autre retret }[2]

Perhaps alluding to low-status Jews translating Hebrew scripture into Greek, the classical Roman author Horace complained about what he regarded as poor translators: “you take care to render word for word as a faithful translator {verbo verbum curabis reddere fidus interpres}.”[3] While Christian reverence for sacred scripture supported the ideal of word for word translation, such translation isn’t sensible in most contexts. Word for word translation is an impossible origin for Conseil, a long secular poem of rhymed octosyllabic couplets in French. Conseil’s audience surely knew that it wasn’t literally translated word for word into French. They, however, would have relished the conceit of teaching true lovers in French. Conseil presents French as more courtly than Latin for schooling in love.

Socrates thinking

Conseil’s rhetorically sophisticated schooling in French has particular merit as a response to the closely related early twelfth-century Latin poem De nuntio sagaci. Both poems concern heterosexual seduction and love. Both are structured mainly as dialogue between a woman and a rhetorically sophisticated man. However, De nuntio sagaci includes vicious acts and apparently ends in a fist-fight between the woman and the man. Conseil includes men’s self-abasement to women and cuckolding a husband. Within gynocentric society, such behavior carries little moral opprobrium. Moreover, the woman and man in Conseil rejoice in their love for a long time. They also happily marry after the woman’s husband dies. The love advice of Conseil leads to a much happier ending than does the love shrewdness of De nuntio sagaci.

De nuntio sagaci is patently outrageous. A shrewd envoy helps a young man who has already been extraordinarily successful in love. That young man boasts:

My pleasing appearance actually drew all to love.
Behold, Love, a mob of your girls follows me:
Daphnis and Europa, Deianira with Phyllis, and
the fleeing Io stops fleeing. Juno and Pallas Athena desire me.
Ready with arrows, lustful Diana follows me —
she threatens death if she doesn’t conquer love through me.
Even Venus herself insists on joining herself with me in a union.
Helen doesn’t care for Paris when she sees me so great-looking.
Consider how Proserpina is carried away upon the Stygian waves.
She doesn’t wish to be saved, unless she joins herself to me in love.
I conquered all of them and made them, Love, your subjects.

{ Nam mea forma placens ad amorem traxerat omnes.
Ecce puellarum sequitur me turba tuarum:
Daphnis et Europa, cum Philide Deianira;
Profuga cessat Io, me vult cum Pallade Iuno,
Telis succincta sequitur lasciva Diana
Promittens mortem, per me nisi vincat amorem,
Instat et ipsa Venus sibi mecum iungere foedus,
Nec curat Paridem, quia me videt Helena talem.
Respice quod Stigiis Proserpina fertur in undis
Nec vult salva fore, nisi me sibi iungat amore.
Has omnes vici subiectas et tibi feci. }[4]

Despite his love affairs with all these classical beauties, the young man is inflamed with love when he sees an extremely beautiful young woman:

I once saw a young woman more splendid than a star.
She was noble and distinguished such as has never been in our time.
Her body was graceful, her flesh whiter than milk,
her face shining and wonderfully cultivated in every way.
Her eyebrows were black and her eyes were full of light.
You would regard her mouth as having the kisses that you desire,
and when she laughed, her teeth then appeared milky white.
Long blond hair hovers along her ivory neck.
Dressed in gold, she was more beautiful than gold itself.
The beauty of her hand exceeded that of an elegant gem.
Why should I say more? She was very cultivated in every way.
She walked softly, in all ways she carried herself sufficiently aptly.

{ Splendidior stella fuerat michi visa puella,
Nobilis et talis, non hoc in tempore qualis:
Corpus ei gracile, sua candidior caro lacte,
Purpureus vultus, mirabilis undique cultus,
Nigra supercilia fuerant sibi, lumina clara.
Oscula quae cuperes, os eius habere putares.
Et cum ridebat, tunc dentes lactis habebat.
Caesaries flava volitat per eburnea colla;
Auro vestita fuit auro pulchrior ipsa,
Pulchra manus superat quod gemma decoris habebat.
Quid referam multa? Multum fuit undique culta.
Molliter incessit, apte satis omnia gessit. }

The young man pleads with Athena, Venus, and Juno — the three goddesses of the classical beauty contest — that he longs for this woman’s love. Then he takes action himself. He sends to the young woman a shrewd envoy “offering all my goods and me myself, if pleasing, and my gifts {mandans quaeque bona, me, si placet, et mea dona}.”[5] As always, men feel that they have to pay for women’s love even while offering themselves as a gift in love to women.

The man’s love envoy and the young woman engage in rhetorically sophisticated banter. The envoy presents the young man as the medieval ideal of a man for a woman to love:

He who sent me here lives without any sin.
He lives, he blooms with a young body, he has strength for everything,
and his beautiful face is sufficient for him to be a young woman.
Noble and humble, prudent and very faithful,
he is rich, generous, truthful, and careful in everything.
What more can I say? This young man seeks you as a lover.
He seeks, he desires to have you. Thus he ordered me to tell you.

{ Hue me qui misit, omni sine crimine vivit,
Vivit, ad omne valet, iuvenili corpore floret,
Et facie pulchra posset satis esse puella,
Nobilis ac humilis, prudens multumque fidelis,
Est dives, largus, verax et ad omnia cautus.
Ultra quid dicam? Puer hic te quaerit amicam,
Quaerit, habere cupit; sic me tibi dicere iussit. }[6]

The woman pretends to be uncertain about what the young man seeks to do in love with her. The envoy urges the young woman to stay calm and at least be willing to talk with the young man. If she judges him worthy, she might give him her pledge of love. She in turn accuses the envoy of being sophisticated, and she feigns simplicity:

Ah, too cunning one, all your replies to me are careful.
Tell me now: where he is who gives his gifts to a young woman?
Let me at least see him so that afterwards I can speak his praises.
What? Did I say “let me see him”? If I said so, it’s repented forever.

{ Ah, nimis astute, michi reddis singula caute!
Dic ubi nunc ille qui dat sua dona puelle;
Fac saltem videam quod laudem postea dicam.
Quid? dixi ‘videam’? Si dixi, paenitet, unquam. }

While the young woman earlier recognized that the young man desired to have her in bed, she pretends not to understand “the deed {factum}” that he seeks to do. In fact, “the deed {factum}” is a Latin term for sexual intercourse.[7] The envoy describes his proposition as offering the woman benefit:

Listen to what I say: I desire for you to live in good health,
and if you believe me, you will see what happens to please you.

Take me as your teacher. Come, put aside your fear.
You are ignorant of him who offers himself as your lover.
If you knew him well, you would touch him as if he were a lamb.
He doesn’t know what love is. He’s modest when a women touches him.

{ Audi quid dicam: cupio te vivere sanam,
Et michi si credis, fit quod placuisse videbis.
Me cape ductorem; venias, postpone timorem.
Ignoras ilium qui se promittit amicum;
Si bene cognosses, velut agnum tangere posses.
Quid sit amor, nescit. Pudor est ubi femina tangit. }

This mendacious envoy / love-teacher prevails. He convinces the young woman to visit the young man who ardently desires her.

The young woman’s meeting with the young man goes badly. He kisses her sweetly at the door. She then wants to talk with him at length. But the young man takes the young woman into a bedroom. The envoy leaves, and the young man rapes her. Like women raping men, men raping women is a terrible crime.[8] The woman mainly blames the envoy for her being raped:

That perjurer willingly made a thousand promises
and wickedly deceived me. If I live, it won’t go well for him.
Where has that lying dog fled, that worthless lecher?
If he were here, I would quickly kill him.

{ Sponte fides mille periurus fecerat ille.
Me male decepit; si vixero, non bene fecit.
Quo fugit ille canis mendax, lecator inanis?
Si presens esset, a me cito mortuus esset. }

Murder as punishment for perjury, like social-media lynching, is uncivilized social justice and morally wrong. When the envoy returns, the young woman openly declares his deception to be unjust:

I was wickedly deceived, received into the young man’s custody,
and wickedly handled. Your deception called me to this.
Was I deaf in that I didn’t understand your words?
I acted sufficiently wary. Why wasn’t I myself then afraid?
If you had forewarned me, crafty Odysseus would have spoken through me.
You surely are the worst. I testify to this openly before all.
You have no fidelity. In no way was this just,
for a vile servant never loves a just deed.

{ Sum male decepta puero custode recepta,
Et male tractata, te deceptore vocata.
Numquid eram surda, quod non sensi tua verba?
Cauta satis fueram; Cur tunc non ipsa timebam?
Si praedixisses, pro me recitasset Ulixes.
Pessimus es certe, cunctis hec testor aperte.
Nulla fides tecum; non hoc etiam foret aequum.
Nam servus nequam numquam rem diligit aequam. }

The shrewd envoy responds with more duplicitous words to the distraught woman. It’s time for you to marry. Everyone does such things. This young man is noble and wise, a favorite of other women for good reason. The envoy concludes:

The custom is ancient that a male lover should seek a female lover.
Who wouldn’t commend that a beautiful man love a beautiful woman?

{ Mos est antiquus, ut amicam quaerat amicus.
Quis non laudabit, si pulchram pulcher amabit?” }

The envoy’s despicable reasoning supports gender inequality. Men historically being burdened with soliciting amorous relationships doesn’t justify that custom in the present or future. Why shouldn’t a beautiful woman love a beautiful man? Love should be women’s work as well as men’s work.

The young woman foolishly accepts the envoy’s teaching. She listens and believes, and thus declares:

You speak truth. What’s the benefit of a big complaint?
So I’ll tell you the matter: this young man seeks me as his lover.
Not all women who do such things will thus be ruined.
Many are saved who are proven to have sinned more.
I’m not the only one who would be called cursed.
Jupiter and Juno are joined in one bed,
Mars wed Venus, and Vulcan also loved her.
Who can speak against it? Nothing is evil, all is lawful.
I don’t care if bitter words are spoken to me.
I’m happy to have tried what I often wanted — those very things.
Now that young men himself, whether he wishes or not, will keep me.
If he agrees, I’ll keep him; if not, I myself will still keep him.
It’s destiny that I should arise and embrace his neck in my arms.

{ Tu dicis vera. Quid prodest magna querela?
Ut res est dicam: puer hic me quaerit amicam.
Talia qui faciunt non omnes inde peribunt;
Multi salvantur, qui plus peccasse probantur.
Non ego sum sola quae sit maledicta vocanda.
Iupiter et Iuno lecto sociantur in uno,
Mars duxit Venerem, Vulcanus amavit eandem.
Quis dicit contra? Nusquam scelus, omnia iusta.
Non curo verba michi si dicuntur acerba;
Saepe quod optavi feliciter ipsa probavi.
Nunc velit aut nolit, sibi me puer ipse tenebit.
Si placet, hunc teneo, si non, tamen ipsa tenebo.
Fas est ut surgam, sibi collo brachia iungam. }

The young woman then gets up and, without seeking prior affirmative consent, embraces the young man and kisses him. She then praises the envoy:

If I were queen, I would order that he have honor,
and rightly so order, for I don’t know anyone alive so great.
He is well-raised, very crafty, and clever in everything.
He is noble, capable, and stands worthy of my reward.

{ Si regina forem, facerem quod haberet honorem,
Et merito facerem, quia nescio vivere talem.
Est bene nutritus, bene cautus, ad omne peritus.
Nobilis est, aptus, nostro stat munere dignus. }

The young woman’s praise for the envoy’s learned sophistication can’t be taken seriously. It’s learned folly.

In fact, with more false words the envoy later betrays the young women to her parents. A strong, combative young woman, she in turn begs her parents to torture him. She also strikes the envoy with her fist and so starts a physical fight with him. For all the clever rhetoric of De nuntio sagaci, it ends in a public brawl between the love envoy and the young woman he sought to entice.

Socrates tears Alcibiades from woman's bed

Conseil transformed the rhetoric of De nuntio sagaci to be more consistent with Christian moral teaching. The beloved woman in Conseil, rather than being young and at least innocent-acting, is a “wealthy and powerful lady {une dame riche et poissanz}.” At a Christmas Eve feast, she sees a knight sitting alone. He is a courtly knight, properly subservient to women:

She called him immediately.
The knight jumped to his feet
when the lady had called him,
then came and sat beside her.

{ Ele l’apele maintenant.
Li chevaliers em piez sailli,
Si vint seoir delez li
Quant la dame l’ot apelé. }

The lady is pondering a transformed version of the judgment of Paris. Three knights love her. She asks the knight she had summoned which of those three he thinks to be most deserving of her love. That’s an apparently selfish question for a lady to pose to a lonely knight. However, her question might have been merely a pretext for engaging him in talk about love.

The knight, now engaged as the lady’s advisor, doesn’t tell that wealthy, powerful lady to check her female privilege. He instead prepares to provide informed advice for her. He asks about the characteristics of the three knights who love her. She explains that the first knight is rich, bold, and brave, but badly educated and a dull wooer. The second knight is rich and handsome, but lacking in valor in violence against men. He is also a braggart. The third knight is neither rich nor handsome, but he is courtly and learned. He woos her with lais, letters, and romances. The knight-advisor condemns the characteristics of the first two knights. He praises the third knight as having been “well-educated {bien apris}.” Nonetheless, the knight-advisor urges the lady to make her own choice:

I make no judgment for you.
But just as you desire,
choose a lover, because that is right.

For certainly, he commits great folly
who thinks that he is wise in all matters.

{ Je ne vos faz nul jugement,
Mes trestout a vostre talent
Fetes ami, que ce est drois.

Car certes, grant folie embrace
Cil qui de tout cuide estre sages. }

Perhaps the knight-advisor is actually the third knight who loves the lady. He wouldn’t want to make a prideful choice of himself. In any case, he takes a humble position. Humility was a central Christian value in medieval Europe.

The lady then makes a rhetorically sophisticated request for her knight-advisor to teach her about love. She politely requests of him:

But now teach me how to love,
and how I can keep it secret,
if you please, correctly and properly,
because I wish above all things
to follow your advice in all,
and we have much good leisure
to make love bear fruit.

{ Mes or m’aprenez a amer,
Et comment je me puis celer,
S’il vos plet, si bel et si bien,
Car je me voil sor toute rien
Du tout a vo conseil tenir
Et nos avons molt bon loisir
De fruitoier envers amors }

This married lady also modestly explains that she is fearful of the pain that she hears that one suffers from love. The knight-advisor in response condemns those who deride love:

From good love no harm comes,
but rather it comes from false and disloyal wretches
who wish to deride love
and are constantly more prepared to lie
than a sparrowhawk is to fly.
About these people I cannot tell you a tale
with a good beginning or a good end,
for they all are always on the route
of bringing into the world suffering.

{ De bone amor ne vient nus maus,
Mes des felons, faus desloiaus
Qui amors veulent escharnir
Et tot jors sont prest de mentir
Plus qu’esprevier n’est de voler.
De ceus ne vos sa[i] ge conter
Bon commencier ne bone fin,
Qu’il sont tot adés au chemin
Du siecle mener a dolor. }

In De nuntio sagaci, the envoy begs for love that lasts for only a day. In medieval Europe, De nuntio sagaci probably would be interpreted as deriding love, or at least making it ridiculous.

With learned rhetoric, Conseil praises courtly love leading to erotic intimacy. The knight-advisor declares that such courtly love provides more joy and pleasure than the most extensive landholdings:

No joy can be compared
to the heart that maintains courtly love.
My lady, I will be severely reprimanded
by slanderers when they hear this,
but I am not afraid of those who understand,
those who know what beloved means,
thus I call upon them as supporters,
for all of them to be my witnesses
that love conquers all and always will,
as long as the world lasts.

{ Nule joie ne s’apartient
Au cuer qui fine amor maintient.
Dame, assez me reprenderont
Li mesdisant, quant il l’orront,
Mes les entendanz ne dout mie,
Ceus qui sevent qu’espiaut amie,
Ainz les en trai bien a garant,
Que tuit m’en seront tesmoingnant
Qu’amors vaint tot et vaintera,
Tant con li siecles durera. }

The influential Roman love poet Gallus, as recorded by Virgil, declared: “Love conquers all {omnia vincit Amor}.”[9] Jesus, love incarnate in Christian understanding, promises to be with his disciples as long as the world lasts. The knight-advisor in Conseil conflates these two eminent teachers.

Not like a child, the knight-advisor treats Christian teaching with rationalizing sophistication. The Hebrew Bible depicts Adam and Even uniting in one flesh as powers like one another. The Gospels depict women and men as equally sinners in need of a doctor and equally beloved children of God. But in accordance with courtly gynocentrism and perhaps in part responding to medieval literature of men’s sexed protest, the knight-advisor privileges women:

The woman must be the bridge
for the whole world’s joy
since all good things abound in her.
We should not speak badly of her,
but we all have need of a doctor
to cure us of the ill that holds us,
that is the willingness that comes over us
to say outrageous and wicked things.

I say to you that I don’t know of anything,
surely, other than good in women.

{ La fame doit estre li pons
De toute la joie du monde,
Quar toz li biens nos en abonde.
Nos n’en devrions pas mesdire,
Mes tuit avons mestier de mire
Por garir du mal qui nos tient,
C’est de volenté qui nos vient
De dire outrage et felonnie.

Je vos di que je ne sai point,
Certes, en fames se bien non. }

That’s a tendentious re-interpretation of Christian understanding of Jesus born of Mary and of love for neighbor. According to the knight-advisor, a young woman who rejected all lovers endured hellish suffering as an old woman. In addition, after describing a woman pleasuring her body in a lovely garden with her arms around her beloved man, the knight-advisor declares:

You should do what pleases you
with your lover, when you have him,
if you find sufficient sense in him.
just like the others do
who have wise and courtly lovers.
All the men and women who likewise
do, my lady, pray for mercy
from Jesus, our creator,
when by old age or by sickness
they must leave this world.
Their misdeeds make them repent
entirely from such a good heart
that Jesus Christ generously
pardons them of all their sins,
Jesus who is worthy and just
and provides us well with an example.

{ Qu’a vo plesir en fetes fere
A vostre ami, quant vos l’avrez,
Se tant de sens en lui trovez,
Ausi comme les autres font
Qui sages et cortois les ont.
Cil et celes qui tout ainsi
Font, dame, si prient merci
Jhesu, le nostre creator,
Quant par viellece ou par langor
Les covient du siecle partir.
Lor mesfez les fet repentir
De si bon cuer entierement
Que Jhesu Criz generaument
Lor pardonne toz lor pechiez,
Qui est dignes et droituriers,
Et bien nos mostre la semblance }

That’s similar to medieval clerics rationalizing their desire for women against a requirement of clerical celibacy. The knight-advisor’s rhetorical rationalizations, however, are in French, not Latin.

The lady is deeply impressed with her knight-advisor’s fine words. His learned rhetoric, expressed in French, prompts love:

She saw that he was so wise and courtly
and well-spoken and well-learned
that she fixed her heart completely
on loving him without any regrets.
She was kind and noble.
For some time she had heard it said
that he knew how to speak eloquently about love.
Now she wished to reveal to him
the great wish and desire
that she had to give him her love.

{ Tant le voit et sage et cortois
Et bien parlant et bien apris
Qu’ele a du tout son cuer mis
En lui amer sanz repentance.
Ele estoit debonere et franche.
S’ot bien pieç’a oï parler
Qu’il savoit biau d’amors conter.
Or se velt a lui descouvrir
Le grant talent et le desir
Qu’ele a de lui s’amor donner. }

She awards him her belt made of silk and silver. She tells him to make a present of it as he desires. She says that whomever receives her belt will have her love. Her knight-advisor takes it from around her waist. He doesn’t forego the opportunity he feels:

He was wise and clever,
worthy, courtly, and perceptive.

{ Il estoit sages et adroiz,
Preuz, cortois et aparcevans. }

He wraps her belt around himself and, “happy and delighted and joyful {biaus et liez et joianz},” declares that he will be her lover. Since her husband is wealthy, the lady is able to give this impecunious knight many horses and much sports equipment. He thus gains a beautiful women’s love and freedom from having to work to earn money. For a man, the only woman better than a beautiful, learned, and warmly receptive woman is one that is also wealthy, or at least has high income from her work.

Medieval Latin, rather than Old French, is typically associated with the most sophisticated rhetoric for teaching and learning. Within its broad freedom of expression, medieval Latin instructed men on how to avoid sexual harassment, described frankly men’s sexual desires, and protested against gender injustices and gynocentrism in society at large. Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale tells of how the cock Chauntecleer was nearly devoured for lack of Latin learning. In medieval Europe, Ovid was regarded as the great teacher of love. Ovid, of course, wrote in Latin.

Jean Renart’s early thirteenth century Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole {Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole} indicates rivalry between Old French and Latin. The lovely young heroine Lienor, arriving for her vindication before the Emperor and assembled nobles in Mainz, speaks to her knights “in French, without Latin {en romanz sanz Latin}.”[10] That’s apparently meant to characterize her as plain-speaking and without guile. In the introductory verses of this romance, Jean Renart explicitly refers to writing in French:

The one who put this tale into French
and had beautiful lyrics written in it
for remembrance of those songs
wants his praise and renown
to go to Rheims in Champagne
and for the fair Milon de Nanteuil,
one of the nobles of the realm, to learn of it.

{ Cil qui mist cest [con]teen roma[n]s
ouil a fet noter biaus cha[n]s
por ramenbrance des cha[n]cons
veut q[ue] ses pris et se renons
voist en rainciens en cha[m]paigne
et q[ue] libiaus miles lapregne
De nantuel uns des preus del regne }

Jean Renart boasted of his romance:

You may be very sure that
this surpasses the others by far,
No one will ever tire of hearing it.

{ce sachiez de fi et devoir
bien a cist les autres passez
Ianuls niert deloir lassez }

His romance tells “of arms and of love {darmes et damors.}” It seems to be audaciously challenging Virgil’s revered Aeneid. That Latin epic begins, “Of arms and the man I sing {Arma virumque cano}.” Jean Renart tells of love that goes beyond only men.

Challenging men-dominated medieval Latin learning in a similar way, the Old French lai Conseil engages in highly sophisticated rhetoric concerning love. Conseil replaces the learned, exploitative speech of De nuntio sagaci with learned, rhetorical play between a wealthy, powerful woman and an impecunious, socially isolated knight.[11] The wealthy woman and the impecunious knight realize a worldly form of courtly love more mutually beneficial than just a self-abasing man serving an idealized beloved woman. That’s certainly a lesson, taught in Old French, that would be more appealing to medieval women and men than the debacle of De nuntio sagaci.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Conseil, vv. 1-3, Old French text (MS S, also called MS C; BnF nouv. acq. fr. 1104) from Brook (2016), English translation (modified) from Burgess & Brook (2016) p. 257. All Conseil verse numbers in this post refer to MS S, unless otherwise noted.

The anonymous lai Tyolet describes explicitly stories being recorded in Latin and then translated into the vernacular. At court, King Arthur’s knights would recount adventures:

Worthy clerics of that time
had them all written down.
They were put into Latin
and written down on parchment,
so that when the time was right,
they would be heard with pleasure.
Now they are told and recounted,
translated from Latin into the vernacular.
The Bretons composed a number of lays about them,
as our ancestors tell us.

{ Li preude clerc qui donc estoient
Totes escrire les fesoient.
Mises estoient en latin
Et en escrit em parchemin,
Por ce qu’encor tel tens seroit
Que l’en volentiers les orroit.
Or sont dites et racontees,
De latin en romanz trovees;
Bretons en firent lais plusors,
Si con dïent nos ancessors. }

Tyolet, vv. 27-36, Old French text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Burgess & Brook (2007) pp. 108-9. Tyolet, which was probably composed at the beginning of the thirteenth century, survives only in MS S: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouvelles acquisitions françaises, 1104, folios 15va-20ra. Scholars are sceptical of Tyolet’s account of the origin of Breton lais. Id. p. 87.

Conseil is written in rhymed octosyllabic couplets. The Old French word romanz can mean either the French language or a long, narrative poem in rhymed octosyllabic couplets. Grigoriu, Peersman & Rider (2013) p. 51, n. 1. Both in v. 2 and v. 859, “French” seems to be the most sensible meaning of romanz.

Conseil survives in five manuscripts. For a list of the manuscripts and brief description of each, Grigoriu, Peersman & Rider (2013) pp. 7-8. Id. uses MS A (BnF fr. 837, formerly 7218) as the base text for its critical edition. That’s also the text translated into English. Some verse numbers in MS A differ slightly from those in MS S.

Conseil is generally thought to have been written in the first decades of the thirteenth century. Id. p. 9. Beston (2013) dates it to the second decade of the thirteenth century. Maddox (2005) argues that Conseil is a rewriting of Marie de France’s Le Chaitivel. At least one leading scholar of lais finds Maddox’s argument unconvincing.

Subsequent quotes from Conseil are sourced as above. They are vv. 857-62 (A knight who did not want…), 18 (wealthy and powerful lady), 30-3 (She called him…), 212 (well-educated), 185-7, 190-1 (I make no judgment for you…), 221-7 (But now teach me…), 231-9 (From good love no harm comes…), 661-70 (No joy can be compared…), 306-13, 348-9 (The woman must be the bridge…), 526-41 (You should do what pleases you…), 750-9 (She saw that he was so wise and courtly…), 770-1 (He was wise and clever…), 787 (happy and delighted and joyful).

[2] With respect to v. 862, L’un mot aprés l’autre retret, Grigoriu, Peersman & Rider (2013), p. 133, translates the same verse in MS A (v. 854) as “Adding one word after the other.” That’s a less accurate translation that apparently misinterprets retret.

[3] Horace, Art of Poetry {Ars Poetica} vv. 133-4, Latin text from Rushton Fairclough (1926), my English translation. Horace was a highly regarded and widely quoted author in medieval Europe.

[4] About the Shrewd Envoy {De nuntio sagaci}, vv. 15-25, Latin text from Rossetti (1980) via Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. In medieval Latin orthography, -ti- before a vowel is commonly written as -ci-. Hence in medieval Latin, De nuntio sagaci is written as De nuncio sagaci.

Incorrectly attributed to Ovid in medieval Europe, De nuntio sagaci is also called The Young Women’s Ovid {Ovidius puellarum}. For other editions, Lieberz (1980), Alton (1931), and Jahnke (1891) pp. 69-87. On medieval European Ovidian love poetry, Kretschmer (2013). De nuntio sagaci has complications in its textual transmision. It may not have survived in its entirety.

In De nuntio sagaci v. 16, Daphnis, a male name, was a Sicilian shepherd in Greco-Roman myth. Daphnis might be a mistake for Daphne, a woman whom the god Apollo loved. Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) p. 463, note. Europa was a Phoenician princess that the god Zeus seduced. Io was turned into a cow as a result of Zeus seducing her. Juno, Athena, and Venus were goddess in the beauty contest that Paris judged. The Roman goddess Diana (who absorbed much of the Greek mythology of Artemis) was a fiercely chaste huntress. Given the general ridiculousness of the man’s claims in vv. 15-25, having the first named person be the male Sicilian shepherd Daphnis might be intended to contribute to the over-all effect.

De nuntio sagaci is cited in the Tegernsee love-letters and Letters of Two Lovers {Epistolae duorum amantium}. Dronke (1979) p. 229, n. 26, and Newman (2016) p. 254. Based on its leonine hexameter verse form (unusual for what’s conventionally called medieval elegiac comedy), Dronke dates De nuntio sagaci to c. 1080, prior to Pamphilus (c. 1100). Dronke (1979) p. 230. Newman is less certain. Newman (2016) p. 334, n. 135. Lieberz (1980) regards De nuntio sagaci as having been written in the twelfth century.

Subsequent quotes from De nuntio sagaci are similarly sourced. They are vv. 37-48 (I once saw a young woman…), 55 (offering all my goods…), 90-6 (He who sent me here…), 114-7 (Ah, too cunning one…), 139-40, 144-7 (Listen to what I say…), 198-201 (That perjurer willingly…), 224-31 (I was wickedly deceived…), 255-6 (The custom is ancient…), 257-69 (You speak truth…), 279-82 (If I were queen…).

[5] For medieval instruction on how a man is to employ a love envoy (go-between), see About Love {De amore} vv. 4-71, available in Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 350-3. De amore is an extract from the twelfth-century poem Courtly living: Manners and life {Facetus: Moribus et vita} / Facetus of Aurigena.

[6] The love envoy’s name is revealed in v. 383 (of 386) to be Davus. That’s a typical name for a crafty servant or comic slave in Plautus, Terence, Horace, and Persius. Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) p. 464, note.

[7] Medieval European love thought distinguished five stages of love: “seeing {visus},” “talking {colloquium},” “touching {contactus},” “kissing {basia},” and sexual intercourse, called “the deed {factum / actum}.” Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 463-4, notes.

[8] After the envoy left and the young woman found herself alone with the young man, she fearfully exclaimed (v. 191), “This young man seeks to love me {Puer hic me quaerit amare}.” Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020), p. 121, wrongly translates this as, “The boy wants to rape me here.” Cf. v. 258, which repeats exactly the same text. Specifying rape among fictional characters in an outrageous medieval Latin poem is much less important than combating ignorance and indifference about women raping men today.

[9] Virgil, Eclogues 10.69. Gallus influentially associated love and war. On Jesus being with his disciples to the end of the age, Matthew 28:20.

[10] Jean Renart, Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole {Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole} v. 4195, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Psaki (1995). The subsequent three quotes are similarly from vv. 1-7 (The one who put this tale into French…), 16-8 (You may be very sure that…), and 24 (of arms and of love). With respect to v. 1, Psaki noted:

“en romans” can mean “in French” (as in “en romans sans latin” [4195]), in which case Jean Renart refers to translating it out of a “conte” in another language; it can also mean “into a romance,” in which case refers to expanding it from a shorter narrative.

Psaki (1995) p. 262, note to v. 1.

[11] On the rhetorical and psychological sophistication of Conseil, Brook (2000) and Beston (2012). On the relationship between twelfth-century Latin comedy and Old French romance, Hunt (1978).

[images] (1) Socrates thinking. Statue of Socrates at the Academy of Athens. By Leonidas Drosis, made in the ninteenth century. Source image thanks to C messier and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Socrates tears Alcibiades from a woman’s bed. Painting (excerpt) by Jean-Baptiste Regnault. Painted c. 1791. Preserved as accession # RF 1976-9 in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Via the Louvre website and Wikimedia Commons.


Alton, E. H. 1931. “De nuntio sagaci.” Hermathena 21 (46): 61-79.

Beston John. 2012. “The Psychological Art of the Lai du conseil.” French Studies Bulletin. 33 (123): 26-28.

Beston, John. 2013. “A Second Flowering of the Old French Lais.” Journal of Language, Literature and Culture. 60 (2): 67-77.

Brook, Leslie C. 2000. “Omnia vincit rhetorica: the Lai du conseil.” Studi Francesi. 44: 69-76.

Brook, Leslie C. 2016. “The Lai du Conseil in MS S (Paris, BNF, nouv. acq. fr. 1104).” Le Cygne. 3: 53-76.

Burgess, Glyn S., Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2007. French Arthurian Literature. Volume IV: Eleven Old French Narrative Lays. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 2016. Twenty-Four Lays from the French Middle Ages. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1979. “A Note on Pamphilus.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 42: 225-230.

Grigoriu, Brînduşa Elena, Catharina Peersman, and Jeff Rider, eds. and trans. 2013. Le lai du Conseil. Liverpool Online Series, 18. Liverpool, UK: University of Liverpool, Department of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies (French). (review by Kathy M. Krause)

Hexter, Ralph J., Laura Pfuntner, and Justin Haynes, ed. and trans. 2020. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hunt, Tony. 1978. “Chrestien and the Comediae.” (title in table of contents: “Chrestien and the Latin comediae.”) Mediaeval Studies. 40: 120-156.

Jahnke, Richard, ed. 1891. Comoediae horatianae tres. Lipsiae: In aedibus B.G. Teubneri.

Kretschmer, Marek Thue. 2013. “The love elegy in medieval Latin literature (pseudo-Ovidiana and Ovidian imitations).” Ch. 17 (pp. 271-289) in Thorsen, Thea S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Latin Love Elegy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberz, Gregor, ed. and trans. (German). 1980. Ovidius puellarum: vel, De nuncio sagaci: anonymi carmen mediaevale quod inscribitur. Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang.

Maddox, Donald. 2005. “Rewriting Marie de France: The Anonymous Lai du conseil.” Speculum. 80 (2): 399-436.

Newman, Barbara. 2016. Making Love in the Twelfth Century: Letters of two lovers in context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Psaki, Regina, ed. and trans. 1995. The Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole (Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole). New York: Garland Publishing.

Rossetti, Gabriella, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1980. “De nuntio sagaci.” Pp. 11-128 in Ferrucio Bertini, ed. Commedie Latine del XII e XIII Secolo. Vol. 2. Pubblicazioni dell’Istituto di Filologia Classica e Medioevale, 61. Genova, Italy: Istituto di Filologia Classica e Medioevale.

Rushton Fairclough, Henry, ed. and trans. 1926. Horace. Satires. Epistles. The Art of Poetry. Loeb Classical Library 194. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3 thoughts on “lai Conseil elevated Latin rhetoric of De nuntio sagaci into French”

  1. An interesting reflection on Latin rhetoric in the Lai du Conseil, and comparison to De nuntio sagaci, or how Latin models are emulated and transformed into a vernacular oeuvre befitting different times and a different conception of love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *