This week we’re going to look at three lais: courtly Medieval short tales of love and adventure. Their author is a mysterious and engaging figure, and their contents are perfect for the gaming table: secret twins, secret parents, schemes, adultery, murder, and werewolves!
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Marie de France was a 12th century Anglo-French author who wrote in the genre called the ‘lai’ or ‘lay’. Lais are short, standalone tales dealing with a particular incident in the lives of its characters, usually involving love and some sort of danger or adventure. It bridges the gap between earlier poems of courtly love and the long-form chivalric romance/adventure. Like the other two genres, lais were written in rhyming verse. The lais of Marie de France draw especially from the lyrical tradition of Brittany, at the time a semi-autonomous English possession in northwest France.
Marie was famous in her own day for her writings, which were popular with the warrior aristocracy both in her native France and in England, where she lived. We know she was an educated member of the aristocracy. She might have been married off to an English nobleman; many of her heroines are married off to much older men in foreign lands. Of the lais ascribed to her, it’s unclear how many are actually her own compositions. Perhaps as many as twelve have come down to us. For Marie herself, many specific Maries have been nominated for her identity, none convincingly.
The first lai we turn to is that of Le Fresne. It begins with slander! Upon the occasion of her neighbor giving birth to twins, a noblewoman remarked publicly that her neighbor must have been unfaithful: two children born at once must mean two fathers. Naturally, this noblewoman herself soon gave birth to twin girls. She was so ashamed of her own hypocrisy that she had one daughter sent away in secret to an abbey as an anonymous foundling. The only clue she left to her daughter’s parentage was a strip of fine cloth and a ring so all would know the infant was of noble birth.
The child grew to be beautiful and everyone called her Le Fresne. A lord named Gurun saw her and fell in love with her. She loved him too, and they lived together in his castle. They had a lot of sex but they couldn’t get married. Gurun, a warrior-aristocrat, could only marry for politics, not for love. But he knew no wife would want Le Fresne around, so for years he put off finding a bride. His vassals grew angry. If Gurun died without a legitimate heir, there would be chaos. They presented Gurun with a worthy damsel named La Codre – a beautiful woman and heir to much land – and said if he didn’t wed her, they’d revolt. Gurun reluctantly acquiesced.
Unknown to either, Le Fresne and La Codre were twin sisters. La Codre was the daughter their mother kept. At the wedding, their mother was there overseeing events. Le Fresne, giving no sign of the torment she felt, made up the marriage bed. To honor Gurun, she covered it with the fine cloth she’d been found with as an infant. After the ceremony, Le Fresne’s mother inspected the bedchamber, recognized the cloth, and all was revealed! She asked Le Fresne if there was a ring to go with the cloth she’d placed on the bed, thereby proving to Le Fresne she was her mother. The mother confessed all to the wedding party. The officiant annulled the marriage of Gurun and La Codre and married Gurun and Le Fresne. Le Fresne’s mother lived with her shame and La Codre later made a rich marriage of her own.
Our second lai is that of Bisclavert. Bisclavert was a respected baron with a beautiful wife. There was only one thing wrong with him: every month, he disappeared for three days to no one knew where. His wife feared he was having an affair. She begged him to tell her. She wore him down until he revealed the truth, each detail pulled from his lips by endless successive pleas. Bisclavert was a werewolf. Every month he went into the deep forest to transform so that no one would see his shame. He was naked in wolf form, but kept his clothes in a hollow stone by a ruined chapel. If someone were to steal his clothes, he would be unable to transform back.
Bisclavert’s wife was so scared by this revelation she approached a knight who had wooed her ardently for many years. She’d always refused his advances in the past, but now told him he could have all he wanted, if only he would rid her of her husband. So this knight found the ruined chapel, stole Bisclavert’s clothes, and married Bisclavert’s wife.
A year later, the king went hunting in Bisclavert’s forest. His hounds pursued a wolf, but when the wolf saw the king, it rushed to his side, grasped the royal stirrup, and kissed the royal boot. The king was so amazed to see an animal beg for mercy like a man that he called off his hounds. From then on, Bisclavert-as-wolf was the king’s companion. He slept at the king’s side and never once caused any trouble for anyone. The whole court loved this marvelous wolf that seemed to be fully as intelligent as any baron.
One time the knight who had stolen Bisclavert’s clothes and married his wife came to court to wait upon the king. On seeing the knight, Bisclavert leapt upon him and had to be pulled off before he could do serious harm. Twice during the knight’s stay Bisclavert sought to bite the knight. Everyone remarked how out of character this was for the mild, clever wolf. Once the king stayed as a guest at the castle of Bisclavert’s wife and her new husband. When he saw his wife, Bisclavert attacked her and bit off her nose. The king’s retainers were about to tear the wolf limb from limb when the king ordered a halt. He suspected that the lady of the house and her husband had somehow wronged this wolf. He imprisoned the knight and tortured the lady, who confessed all.
The king had the lady bring Bisclavert’s clothes to him and locked the wolf in a room with the clothes. After a few minutes, the king entered to see his long-lost baron lying on the bed! The king restored Bisclavert’s house and lands. He exiled the lady and the false knight. The two went into a far country and had many children, some of whom were born without noses.
Our third and final lai is that of Equitan. Equitan was the king of Nantes. He was a frivolous man, more concerned with hunting and boating than ruling. Fortunately he had an excellent seneschal: a baron he trusted to handle his affairs of state. The seneschal had a wife who was a beauty without peer. Once Equitan was a guest at his seneschal’s castle during a hunting trip. He met the seneschal’s wife and fell hopelessly in love with her. He stayed up all night convincing himself that to woo her wouldn’t be terrible and might even be right and proper.
The next day Equitan feigned illness during the hunt, retired to the castle, and had the lady come and tend to him. He confessed his love for her and begged her to have sex with him. Her response was to point out the inequality of their respective positions. Her husband was the king’s vassal; would Equitan not then expect her to be the vassal in the bedroom as well? Love grounded in inequality is shameful and wrong. How could the two of them ever be equals? Yet he wore her down with his begging. She had sex with him and they exchanged secret rings. (As an aside, I did not expect to encounter in a 12th-century text a fully-modern perspective on the conflict between power and sexual consent. What might other antique texts have looked like had they been written by women?)
For a long time Equitan and the lady found opportunities to sneak off and screw. Because of his love for his lady, Equitan refused to marry. As in the Le Fresne story, his subordinates began to grumble. The lady confessed to the king she feared he’d soon be forced to wed and she’d lose him. Equitan assured her that she was the only one for him and made an offhand remark about how he’d marry her in a heartbeat if only her husband, the seneschal, were dead. So the lady conspired with the king to murder their friend.
On the appointed day, Equitan invited the seneschal to bathe with him. The lady had two tubs placed in the seneschal’s bedroom. One was filled with hot water for the king. The other was filled with scalding, boiling water that would kill the seneschal when he got in. While they waited for the seneschal, Equitan and the lady had sex. But the seneschal arrived early and surprised them in flagrante delicto! In his panic at being discovered, the king leapt into the nearest tub to hide. But it was the tub with the boiling water and he died instantly. The outraged seneschal picked up his wife and hurled her in after Equitan. She died atop the boiled corpse of the man who ground her down into ignoring her own good sense.
Each of these stories makes a great complication. Maybe you’ve been assigned to guard a fancy wedding. In doing the straightforward stuff (checking the guest list, sweeping for bombs, etc.) you learn that one of the guests is the groom’s former concubine. That spells trouble! When you investigate her, she seems fine. And right as the inevitable gate-crashing party arrives from a rival house, the mother of the bride starts demanding to know where this weird bedspread came from. Can you handle both problems at once?
Or maybe you need to plead your case to the king. Oh cool, he’s got a wolf friend. You’re in the middle of making your argument when somebody comes in, the wolf bites her nose off, and everyone freaks out! The king’s no longer paying attention to you. If you can figure out what’s going on and handle it, he’ll be impressed and you’ll earn brownie points. If you muck the situation up and make it worse, he throws you out without listening to the rest of what you have to say.
Or maybe you’re working with a seneschal to deal with some bandits. You’re walking past his bedroom door and you hear giggling and moaning on the other side – even though you just left him in the planning room, so that can’t be him in there. How do you handle the situation? If you do nothing, in a few minutes he’ll find his wife and king together, commit regicide, and be immediately arrested, leaving you to deal with the bandits yourself.
But I think all three work best when combined. Some important person (Gurun) is getting married and you’re invited. The king (Equitan) is going to be there. So will his famous pet wolf (Bisclavert), his seneschal, his seneschal’s beautiful wife, and the groom’s former lover (Le Fresne). To make these stories interconnect, have Bisclavert’s treacherous wife also be the mother who abandoned Le Fresne. At a party the night before, have the party meet the seneschal, who introduces them to his wife. He also points out Le Fresne and tells them the juicy gossip about how the groom set her aside in favor of the bride (La Codre, who in this version is a fraternal twin, not an identical one). The PCs also have the opportunity to see the king and his famously well-behaved wolf companion.
The next day, while the guests are gathering for the ceremony, the wolf leaps upon the mother of the bride and her new husband. Everyone is very confused and the wolf is caged. Maybe the seneschal tasks the party with solving the mystery of the suddenly-angry wolf or maybe they might take it up on their own. In the course of their investigations, the PCs observe the king and the seneschal’s wife fooling around. The now-noseless mother of the bride is acting real cagey too, like she knows something and doesn’t know what to do with the information. If they follow up on that, she’ll reveal that Le Fresne is her daughter and maybe the groom’s marriage should be annulled so he can marry his former lover instead? But that doesn’t explain why the wolf leapt upon her – further investigation will reveal that the wolf is Bisclavert, father of both Le Fresne and La Codre. The king sleeping with the seneschal’s wife would be a red herring, save that if the king is killed as a result of that story playing out, it will have grave consequences. In general I’m not a fan of intentional red herrings in RPGs (players generate red herrings on their own), but if the distraction actually matters for some other reason, it’s not really a red herring, is it?
While I presented this scenario in a Medieval fantasy format, it’s not limited to that genre. As long as forced shapeshifting can happen in your setting (which is totally the case in sci-fi, superhero, and horror games), you can change a few people’s titles and use this scenario as-is.
Rather get content like this in podcast form? Every two months I appear on the Dicegeeks podcast to talk about three recent posts. Here’s a link to my most recent episode!