Sir Orfeo

Sir Orfeo: Introduction

The following information comes from Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury of the University of Rochester. 

Here you will find:

The Auchinleck manuscript

The Auchinleck manuscript, an important anthology dating from about 1330-40, contains the earliest known Middle English version of Sir Orfeo. The manuscript was apparently compiled for affluent but non-aristocratic readers. It includes a wide variety of materials, many of which are extant only in this MS; all the texts of the Auchinleck are in English. The manuscript provides considerable information on literacy and book-production in the early fourteenth century, and it has received particular attention because there is some evidence which suggests that Chaucer may have owned it. 

The Auchinleck Manuscript, the National Library of Scotland.

Opheus and Eurydice

The author of Sir Orfeo is unknown. The language of the text suggests that it was composed in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries within the Westminster-Middlesex area. No immediate source for the poem is known. Most scholars assume that an Old French source existed at one time. References to a musical lay of Orpheus can be found in several Old French texts. Some scholarly efforts have been made to find connections between Sir Orfeo and a number of other texts, including Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae, King Alfred's Old English translation of Boethius, and more. None of these is conclusive. What is certain is that Sir Orfeo presents a Breton Lay on a classical theme. The Orpheus myth is, of course, well known throughout the Western world. Whether as lover, musician, or priestly wisdom figure, Orpheus can be found represented in ancient Greek art and literature from as early as the sixth century B.C., and the narrative can be found in a number of different ancient cultures.  Orpheus is also well-represented by authors known to the medieval world, including Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Boethius,  just to name a few. The power of the Orpheus myth to resonate through time and within both classical and medieval literatures has led to a number of divergent interpretations of the lay of Sir Orfeo; it has been read within Christian contexts, Celtic-folktale contexts, as well as within historical, philosophical, psychological, intertextual, and poetic contexts.


Sir Orfeo situates the action not in classical Greece but in medieval England. Heurodis is not actually killed (as she is in most classical and medieval versions); she is, instead, abducted by the fairy king so that she resembles "the taken" mortals common in Irish narratives. Once Heurodis is taken, Orfeo (anachronistically a ruler of a medieval kingdom) appoints his loyal steward to rule in his stead. Additionally, he instructs the people to elect a parliament and name a new king if they ever learn of his death. Donning the pilgrim's cloak, he renounces his kingdom and all his wealth and retreats into self-imposed poverty and exile. The only object he carries with him from his courtly life into his new life is his harp. When he plays his harp, "whereon was al his gle" (line 267), he comforts himself and charms the beasts of nature. After ten years, he happens to spy Heurodis riding a palfrey with the fairy king's hunting party and follows after her. Here we do not travel to Hades or Hell but to the Celtic Otherworld "in at a roche" (line 347). Knocking at the gate of the Otherworld palace, Orfeo, dressed as a begging minstrel, gets past the porter, past the tableau of the dead, and offers to sing for the fairy king. When the fairy king offers the "rash boon" found so frequently in folklore narratives, Orfeo sees his chance and asks for Heurodis. With a bit of hesitation, the fairy king relents and the two mortals are reunited. The fairy king places no taboo about looking back on Orfeo as he does in the classical version. Instead of the traditional backward glance which loses Eurydice forever, the fourteenth-century Breton lay hero leads his Heurodis back home. Disguising himself once more as a beggar, he tests his steward's loyalty and regains his throne.

Breton Lay

What is a Breton lay and why is its designation in Middle English important? Without the identification of "Middle English," the Breton lay may refer to any of the poems produced between approximately 1150 and 1450 which claim to be literary versions of lays sung by ancient Bretons to the accompaniment of the harp. 

Defining the Middle English Breton lay as a distinct genre has been a nagging concern of modern scholars. In an early attempt, A. C. Baugh offers the following: "whether a given short romance is called a Breton lay or not depends mainly on whether it says it is one, has its scene laid in Brittany, contains a passing reference to Brittany, or tells a story found among the lais of Marie de France." Most scholars see the lays as a shortened form of romance. hey also follow the general pattern of romance — separation and reunion — or, as Northrop Frye views it, a journey of descent followed by ascent and a corresponding resolution of the hero or heroine's identity, purpose, and place in the world.

Sir Orfeo Audio: The Tolkien Professor:

More Background Information

Breton Lays 

Sir Orfeo