Like other editions of various Old French narrative lais that have recently appeared in the Liverpool Online Series, this edition fills an important lacuna, being the first since that of Albert Barth, whose version was published in Romanische Forschungen in 1912. The editors make the methodology guiding their editorial choices clear: "Our translation is, broadly speaking source-oriented rather than target-oriented. It aims principally, that is, at helping a non-expert reader understand the Old French text," rather than producing a stand-alone English translation. The translation, as the editors admit, is not always elegant, but aims for transparency and accuracy.
Indeed, these words serve to describe the edition as a whole: the critical apparatus begins with an account of the seven known manuscripts of the lai, only five of which have survived down to the present. The editors provide brief notes on authorship and dating, relying on previous studies (with which we may presume they agree). The editors outline their methods of edition, which are easy to follow and clear within the text of the lai itself. There follows a chapter-length summary of the poem's contents and an analysis of its themes, along with a short bibliography.
Belonging to what John Beston has termed the "second flowering" of the narrative lai, the "Lai du Conseil" was likely composed in the first quarter of the thirteenth century, inspired by but in some ways distant from the lais of Marie de France, other anonymous courtly lais such as "Graelent" and "Trot," and the Ovidian lais like "Philomena."  The "Lai du Conseil" centers on a conversation between a wealthy married woman and, it turns out, a landless and poor knight. Their encounter takes place at a party during the Christmas season, and, since the lady finds herself to be courted by several potential lovers, the discussion concerns the best manner of choosing among them. The opening lines state that listening can lead to learning, suggesting that the poem adopts a didactic form, if only in order to play with and transform it. The editors delineate several stages to the couple's discussion: why should one love? and whom? how many lovers? and in what way? (13-16). Finally, the conversation arrives at a resolution: namely, that the poor knight himself is eminently suitable to be the lady's lover. The two agree to join in reciprocal affection, and the poem notes that the pair met happily and often for many years, ultimately marrying after the death of the lady's first husband.
The meaning of this resolution, and the strategies that lead to it, have been debated in the small number of critical studies dedicated to the "Lai du Conseil." Beston suggests that "Conseil," along with the "Lai de l'Ombre" and the "Lai d'Amours," privilege the lady's agency in choosing a lover, and are interested in contemporary attitudes towards sexual and romantic engagement, jettisoning the Breton materials and "aventures" of earlier lais. He suggests that the lady's innocence, and her inability to choose between her lovers, is feigned, a strategy to lead her chosen lover to choose her. Moreover, he affirms the lai's elevation of romantic love. Donald Maddox suggests that the story is an "aemulatio"--a rewritten, highly modified version, rather than an imitation – of Marie's "Chaitivel" that plays extensively on the didactic form of the "chastoiment."  The lady's innocence here is not insincere: instead, she is manipulated by the rhetorical strategies of her interlocutor.
The editors suggest that the question of manipulation arises directly in the text in a "meta-discursive" moment, showing that the lady wants to make her own choice in the matter (19). Both the knight and the lady feign naïveté in order to navigate the complicated social strictures required of potential lovers: the "face-work" that protects one's reputation and assures a good, and safe, choice of lover (23-24). Following Leslie Brook, the editors suggest that "love is based on convenience rather than passion": the lover is chosen through a process of reasoning (24-25).  The conversation itself is an allegorical veil, drawn over a scene of wooing in which the "three 'suitors' […] seem ultimately to be simply a ruse, a rhetorical locus" (37).
The editors' analysis of the lai's themes is strongly grounded in historical studies of social structures, drawn particularly from Georges Duby's work on the rise of the "juvenis"--the "jeune" or youth--in thirteenth-century aristocratic spheres, as well as from studies of marriage and the composition of aristocratic households.  (It should be noted that the myth of "juvenis" is also a touchstone for Maddox.) The lai itself, as the editors' and Maddox's interpretations suggest, invites analyses that situate the poem within the norms of thirteenth-century courtly society, since this is the poem's primary interest. Theoretical and comparative approaches are left to those scholars and students who will consult and cite this edition of the text for future studies.
One complaint that I would make is that the bibliography that accompanies the editors' study of the poem is not separated from what would be a short list of editions and critical works on the lai alone. This leaves the question of whether the account of works on the lai included in this bibliography is complete, and requires the researcher to look through the general bibliography for works of particular interest. Nonetheless, this volume makes a valuable text available and accessible to scholars of the Old French lais.
1. John Beston, "A Second Flowering of the Old French Lais," Journal of Language, Literature and Culture 60 (2013): 67-77.
2. Donald Maddox, "Rewriting Marie De France: The Anonymous 'Lai du conseil'," Speculum 80 (2005): 417-18.
3. Leslie C. Brook, "Omnia vincit rhetorica: The Lai du conseil," Studi francesi 44 (2000): 69-76.
4. Georges Duby, "Youth in aristocratic society," in Duby, The Chivalrous Society, trans. Cynthia Postan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).