Marie de France, ‘Milun’ in The Lais of Marie de France, ed. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby, 2nd edition (Penguin, 2011) Dr Naomi Howell, University of Exeter
Accuracy A story in which a beloved pet swan acts as a messenger for two lovers in a clandestine affair might not seem the most likely candidate in looking for realism –or even maternity. Yet ‘Milun’, a 12th century lai, or short romance, surprises its readers in this respect. The meeting and initial courtship of the knight Milun and his beloved is dealt with very briefly. On hearing about his knightly deeds, the unnamed-but-nevertheless-enterprising lady ‘conceives a deep love for him’. She writes him a letter, they arrange meetings in her garden, and there, ‘Milun visited the damsel so often and loved her so much that she became pregnant’. Terrified of the consequences for herself and her unborn child, the girl comes up with a plan.
The lovers’ tribulations intensify when the girl is married off to another man, but ultimately, the reunion of the lovers and their son is as joyous as it is improbable. Though the lovers have kept in contact over the years with the help of their swan-messenger, Father and Son do not at first recognise each other when they meet as combatants—the two most renowned knights—in a tournament at Mont Saint Michel. At length they speak and recognise each other, and when the lady’s husband conveniently dies, the three are joyfully reunited.
The author, Marie de France, makes realistic details of motherhood (details often omitted or disregarded as unnecessary in similar contemporary stories) central to the coherence of her tale, for instance in her description of how the heroine negotiates the perilous transition from pregnancy to married woman, safely getting her child into the world and into the loving care of her sister.
Empathy Details such as the helpfulness of an experienced and sympathetic confidante suggest the author’s insight and empathy. The young lady confides in an old woman, who ‘concealed her and shielded her so well that neither by word or by outward sign was her condition discovered.’ When the baby boy is born, they lay him in a cradle with identifying tokens and a letter. Cushioned on an expensive pillow and wrapped in a white linen sheet and a coverlet hemmed with marten fur, they place him into the care of several servants and a wet nurse, who care for him on his journey to his aunt. Travelling by the most direct route possible, they stop seven times a day – which seems like an accurate estimate! – to feed and wash him, and to get him back to sleep. They succeed in getting him safely into the loving care of his aunt, who raises him.
Style Eventful and exciting, with love, battles, impossible reunions and a happy ending! Available in various modern translations.
The Pregnancy Test: Positive. Accurate and sympathetic descriptions of pregnancy and childcare in medieval romance literature have received little critical attention until recently, but ‘Milun’ provides an excellent example, as does Marie’s ‘Le Fresne’. Whether or not she ever personally experienced pregnancy, Marie surely belonged to a community of women who shared these intimate, yet practical, details.