refrain and refreit (also refreid), both nouns
Refrain in Middle French refers to the repeated chorus of a dance-song or carol. Hence it also refers to the repeated section of music and words which begins a virelai and to the repeated final line and section of melody at the end of a stanza in a ballade. The French poet Eustache Deschamps, in his 1392 L’Art de dictier, uses it interchangeably with rubrique (rubriche, rebriche) which he also uses to mean ‘refrain’. As poets begin to write non-musical lyrics, refrain comes to refer to the repeated line or lines of a lyric.
The Anglo-Norman Dictionary has the form refrait used to refer to repeated sections in liturgical singing. It is also used figuratively to refer to the burden of a discourse, the prevailing sentiment (i.e. the thing which is repeated over and again, like a musical refrain or a piece of repeated liturgy). Refrain doesn’t seem to be used widely in Middle English, with the form refreit being preferred. Charles d’Orleans, translating one of his French poems into English, uses ‘refrayt’ where the French original has ‘refrain’.
(1) In Middle English, refreit can mean simply ‘song’, either the whole song (especially one which repeats or celebrates a particular theme or topic) or a repeated section of a song. It is used in the Middle English Life of St Edith to refer to what we would now call the ‘burden’ of a carol.
(2) Refreit is used in Middle English to refer to the final repeated line of the stanza of a ballade or similar lyric. The refrain seems to have been a fashionable feature of the late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century lyric. Refrains appear in moral and religious lyrics (such as the Vernon manuscript refrain poems) and also in political poetry. The scribe John Shirley uses reference to a refrain to identify one of Lydgate’s poems in MS Ashmole 59: ‘Here begynneþe a Polletyke Balade […] with þe gode Refrayde “To fynde a freonde at neode”.’ Lydgate borrows the refrain of ‘A Thoroughfare of Woe’ from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, highlighting rather than concealing his borrowing: ‘I the refreyd tooke, / Of hym that was in makyng souerayne, / My mayster Chaucier.’
Charles d’Orleans, in the English version (B47) of one of his French ballades, calls attention to this fashionable feature. The final line of the first stanza of this ballade is what his lady said to him when they last met: ‘“Teys yow to whom I loue am no moo.”’ [It is you whose love I am and no one else’s]. In the second stanza it is again something she says to him (here becoming a thing repeated, a refrain). In the third stanza it is something he hopes she will say to him once again in the future, an anticipated refrain. In the envoi of the ballade, Charles says that he writes ‘This refrayt, which y loue right hertily’ in his heart, and the refrain is given once more as the final line of the poem. Including the technical term in the poem signals the meta-poetic playfulness of this lyric.
In The Craft of Lovers (1459), the lover tries to win the love of his lady whilst she responds cautiously to his attempts to persuade her with the language of courtly love. Each of their stanzas ends with a refrain, the lady’s is ‘I wil be ware for drede that I be shent’ (and variations) and the lover’s is ‘Ye registre my love in your remembraunce’ (and variations). It is as if they are speaking in two separate refrain poems, now interleaved so that they take turn in their refrains.
Somewhat peculiarly, Robert Thornton heads the alliterative debate poem Wynnere and Wastere ‘a tretys and god schorte refreyte’ when copying the poem in British Library MS Add. 31042. This is usually glossed as ‘debate’, though I can’t find other instances of this usage. Thornton seems attracted to literary terminology (e.g. passus, fitt), so he may have happened upon the term and misapplied it to this poem.
The distinct preference for refreit rather than refrain in Middle English makes Chaucer’s use of refrain in Troilus and Criseyde rather more interesting than it might appear at first sight. Here’s the passage in which it occurs:
But ever-more, ‘Allas!’ was his refreyn,
‘My goode brother Troilus, the syke,
Lyth yet’, and therwith-al he gan to syke;
And after that, he peyned him to glade
Hem as he mighte, and chere good he made.
Compleyned eek Eleyne of his syknesse
So feithfully, that pitee was to here […]
The narrator of Chaucer’s Troilus uses the term figuratively to characterize the exclamation of ‘allas!’ which Deiphebus repeatedly makes to his guests about Troilus’s feigned illness at the end of Book II: Deiphebus repeats himself like the repeated section of a song. Though in rhyme position, the word doesn’t seem to have been chosen for rhyme, as the first rhyme in the stanza is a tag, ‘certeyn’. By choosing this metaphor, Chaucer hints that Deiphebus’s lament is like a literary or musical performance. So too is Helen’s complaint, to some degree, as the verb compleinen can mean specifically a lyric complaint. All this, especially in the context of Troilus’s own feigning of illness, gives a sense of the Trojan royal family as full of courtly performance and artifice.