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Structural parallel in the lais of Lanval and Graelent

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This examination of Lanval and Graelent presents telling evidence of the existence in twelfth century French literature of number systems involving the total of lines used in discrete segments of text. The fundamental similarity between the two poems allows a very precise comparison of the two narratives on the basis of the constituent narrative blocks, whose presence can be verified simply and accurately. Most important are the opening lines of sections which allow the reader to see exactly where the corresponding segments of the two poems begin. The status of these segments as discrete units is then confirmed by the narrative functions they perform, each with an inherent unity of time, place and action, like the scenes in a French classical drama, and sometimes stylistic features set up contrasts with neighbouring sections. Once the essential unity of each section is established underlying arithmetical patterns emerge: Lanval is composed in 17×38, Graelent in 9×84.Footnote 1 These numerical systems are moreover, applied with considerable sophistication, with halves, single and double units, and short-term excesses and shortfalls of two or three couplets are carefully balanced out over long spans of text. Structure and number can, therefore, be seen as tightly integrated and the techniques of medieval composition as circumscribed and disciplined, imposing upon the poet the need to express himself, like the craftsman, within a mould whose dimensions were known from the outset.

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  1. 1.

    In a D. Phil. thesis now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, (Studies in the Technique of Old French Couplet Verse, Oxford 1981), I have argued that the basis of Marie's lai is an old 72-line tripartite canto structure used in the Brendan (20\s+20\s+32), which has been made bipartite (36\s+36) and then overlaid with the 38-line signature. The Graelent poet, too, draws on the old canto structure, but this time that of 84 lines (20\s+32\s+32), which he has subdivided into three equal parts (28\s+28\s+28) and distributed asymmetrically into two scenes (often 28\s+56, or vice versa). Graelent is thus a systematic expansion of Lanval in the ratio of 6:7.

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Illingworth, R.N. Structural parallel in the lais of Lanval and Graelent . Neophilologus 71, 167–182 (1987). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00209167

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  • Number System
  • Systematic Expansion
  • Numerical System
  • Twelfth Century
  • Essential Unity