Middle English Breton Lais
Lay le Freine
14th century, Middle English; unique manuscript copy in the National Library of Scotland, a faithful translation of the 12th century Old French poem Le Fresne, by Marie de France.
That evening, the maiden took the baby in her arms and stole away. She carried the infant over a wild and windswept heath, through woods and across fields.
The lady was pleased with what the maiden had said and agreed to it at once. She took a cloth embroidered with fine silk and yarn that her husband had brought back from Constantinople and wrapped the little girl in it, then took a ring of pure gold and fastened it onto the baby’s right arm plaited into a silk cord, so that whoever found the little girl would know that she came from a noble family.
That evening, the maiden took the baby in her arms and stole away. She carried the infant over a wild and windswept heath, through woods and across fields on that clear, moonlit, winter’s night until, near to dawn, she came to the edge of a forest and was so weary that she had to rest for a while. Shortly, she heard a cock crow and a dog bark, so she got up and pressed onwards and soon noticed walls and houses coming into sight, then a church with a tall steeple. But she didn’t find herself approaching a main road or a town but a house of religion, occupied by an order of nuns who were well enough provided for to serve God night and day.
The maiden didn’t pause but carried the baby straight to the church door and fell onto her knees in tears, and in prayer: ‘Oh Lord Jesus Christ, who hears the prayers of sinful folk, accept this gift and look after this helpless and innocent baby and let it be christened, for the love of Mary, your generous mother.’
When she had finished her prayer, she looked up and saw, towering over her, a lovely ash tree with many branches. It had a hollow trunk, as is often the case with old trees, and she laid the child inside this ash tree to protect it from the cold, wrapped in the cloth that its mother had given to it, and blessed the baby with all her might.
By now, it was beginning to get light, the birds were singing on the boughs of the trees and husbandmen were tramping towards the fields, so the maiden quickly turned for home.