As mentioned in a previous post, there seems to have been a standard formula available to medieval would-be seductresses. Elements of the formula included tents, hot afternoons and distressed knights, all of which were necessary for a lusty lustful lady or damsel to be successful in satisfying her desires. Of course, even the most though-through plans could go awry, if the knight was as conscientious as Sir Perceval (in some versions of Arthurian romance) or the lady/damsel not crafty enough to mask the fact that all sexual activity, extra-marital one especially, was essentially sinful, the work of the devil.
Naturally some damsels were more successful than others – and some knights were, apparently, more prone to be seduced than others. One such knight is the protagonist of the Old French lai of lanval. The original lai was written by Mari de France in the late twelfth century and was so popular that it gave rise to at least two Middle English versions: the poems Sir Landevale and Sir Launfal. The former is closer to the French original, while the latter includes episodes shared with other Middle English romances. All three texts – the Old French and the Middle English – share the episode of the knight’s seduction, but Sir Launfal includes certain details about the gifts given by the fairy mistress to the knight that are not found in the Old French source. Launfal’s fairy seems to be the most generous – or the most scheming – in that, in addition to money, she presents a warhorse and a very useful and crafty servant to her paramour.
Basically, Lanval is a very generous knight who spends all his money on gifts to his followers, well-wishers, etc., and, when the gold runs out and friends abandon him, he leaves Arthur’s court. One day, he goes out and falls asleep under a tree, for the weather is very hot: these are all preconditions for a fairy or supernatural visit, also found in such Arthurian romances as Sir Orfeo and The Awntyrs of Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne. Waking up, he sees two beautiful, richly dressed damsels, who intend to conduct Lanval to their mistress. A courteous knight, he agrees.
Lanval comes to a rich pavilion, where he meets Dame Tryamour. The hot weather comes in handy, for the lady, unable to bear the heat, has removed some clothes from her upper body and awaits her guest half-naked: ‘For hete her clothes down sche dede Almest to her gerdylstede (waist).’
She confesses her love of Lanval and gives him three gifts: a purse where the gold never runs out (Lanval needs this badly), a good warhorse named Blaunchard (Lanval only has a good-for-nothing courser and no tack of his own) and Gyfré, the lady’s servant who has a few magical tricks in his pocket.
In return, Lanval agrees to become her lover. And who would refuse a lady, ‘whyt as a lylye yn May Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day’. Before committing himself, however, Lanval consumes a hearty meal, washed down with plenty of wine: ‘Mete and drynk they hadde afyn (in plenty), Pyement, claré, and Reynysch wyn’. The fairy seems well supplied: Pyement and claré are both spiced wines. Did she put lots of cinnamon in the drinks? Cinnamon was – and still is – reputed to be an aphrodisiac… No wonder then that ‘For play lytyll they slepte that nyght’.
In all, Lanval does not seem to come off badly from this deal. He gains a beautiful, rich and generous fairy mistress, always at his beck and call to continue with the ‘play’, and all he has to do in return is to keep her existence secret. She is a fairy, of course – though suspicious clerics might be inclined to question her nature and call her a succubus. Does Lanval lose his immortal soul? Not at all, for at the end of his story, he goes to the realm of his fairy mistress, apparently located on the island of Oléron off the Breton coast. There he dwells still, and, if you have the guts to challenge him for a joust, he shall prove on your skull that he has not aged a bit over the past few centuries – or so the story goes.
Too good to be true? It may well have appeared too good or too scandalous for the more piously minded, as there is at least one account of seduction which went al wrong. But this is for another time…
Note: All text references are to “Sir Launfal,” in Middle English Romances, ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York, London: Norton & Company, 1995),