Marie de France (fl. 1160 to 1215) was a medieval poet who was probably born in France and lived in England during the late 12th century. She lived and wrote at an unknown court, but she and her work were almost certainly known at the royal court of King Henry II of England. Virtually nothing is known of her life; both her given name and its geographical specification come from her manuscripts. However, one written description of her work and popularity from her own era still exists.
Marie de France wrote in Francien with some Anglo-Norman influence. She was evidently proficient in Latin, as were most authors and scholars, as well as English, and possibly Breton. At a time when most people were illiterate, and educated scholars or clerics were usually men, Marie was one of very few women to have achieved such an education.
She is the author of the Lais of Marie de France. She translated Aesop's Fables from Middle English into Anglo-Norman French and wrote Espurgatoire seint Partiz, Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick, based upon a Latin text. Recently, she has been (tentatively) identified as the author of a saint's life, The Life of Saint Audrey. Her Lais, in particular, were and still are widely read and influenced the subsequent development of the romance/heroic literature genre.
Life and works
The actual name of the author now known as Marie de France is unknown; she has acquired this nom de plume from a line in one of her published works: "Marie ai num, si sui de France," which translates as "My name is Marie, and I am from France." Some of the most commonly proposed suggestions for the identity of this twelfth-century poet are Marie, Abbess of Shaftesbury and half-sister to Henry II, King of England; Marie, Abbess of Reading; Marie I of Boulogne; Marie, Abbess of Barking; and Marie de Meulan, wife of Hugh Talbot.
Four works, or collections of works, have been attributed to Marie de France. She is principally known for her authorship of The Lais of Marie de France, a collection of twelve narrative poems, mostly of a few hundred lines each. She claims in the preambles to most of these Breton lais that she has heard the stories they contain from Breton minstrels, and it is in the opening lines of the poem Guigemar that she first reveals her name to be Marie.
There are 102 "Ysopet" fables that have also been attributed to her besides a retelling of the Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick and, recently, a saint's life called La Vie seinte Audree about Saint Audrey of Ely.
Scholars have dated Marie's works to between about 1160 and 1215, the earliest and latest possible dates respectively. It is probable that the Lais were written in the late twelfth century; they are dedicated to a "noble king", usually assumed to be Henry II of England or possibly his eldest son, Henry the Young King. Another of her works, the Fables, is dedicated to a "Count William", who may have been either William of Mandeville or William Marshall. However, it has also been suggested that Count William may refer to William Longsword. Longsword was a recognized illegitimate son of Henry II. If Marie was actually Henry II's half-sister, a dedication to his son (who would be her nephew), might be understandable.
It is likely that Marie de France was known at the court of King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. A contemporary of Marie, the English poet Denis Piramus, mentions in his Life of Saint Edmund the King, written in around 1180, the lais of a Marie, andwhich were popular in aristocratic circles.
During this time it was common for married women to have their work claimed by their husbands but Marie De France made a strong effort to identify herself in all of her writing implying to historians that she was not married. It is clear from her writing that Marie De France was highly educated and multilingual, this level of education was not available to the common or poor at this time so we can gather that Marie De France was of noble birth but because of her marital status probably had no wealth.
She was first given the name Marie de France by the French scholar Claude Fauchet in 1551, in his Recueil de l'origine de la langue et poesie françoise, and this name has been used ever since. She wrote in Francien, a dialect localized around Paris and Île-de-France, but there is presence of an Anglo-Norman dialect in her writings. Hence scholars generally deduce she lived in the parts Île-de-France close to Normandy, or alternatively in an area in-between such as Brittany or Vexin. But Anglo-Norman influence may be due to her living in England during her adult life, which is also suggested by the fact that so many of her texts were found in England. The signification of the phrase "si sui de France", however, is ambiguous and equivocal. Marie may possibly not have stated that she was from France if she was originally from a region governed by Henry II such as Brittany, Normandy, Anjou or Aquitaine unless she had been thoroughly anglicized.
Three of the five surviving manuscript copies of the Lais are written in continental French and British Library MS Harley 978, written in Anglo-Norman French in the mid-thirteenth century, may reflect the dialect of the copyist.
Breton lais were certainly in existence before Marie de France chose to recast the themes that she heard from Breton minstrels into poetic narratives in Anglo-Norman verse, but she may have been the first to present a "new genre of the lai in narrative form." Her lays, are a collection of 12 short narrative poems written in eight-syllable verse that were based on Breton or Celtic legends, which were part of the oral literature of the Bretons. The lais of Marie de France had a huge impact on the literary world. They were considered a new type of literary technique derived from classical rhetoric and imbued with such detail that they became a new form of art. Marie may have filled her detailed poems with imagery so that her audience would easily remember them. Her lais range in length from 118 (Chevrefoil) to 1,184 lines (Eliduc), frequently describe courtly love entangled in love triangles involving loss and adventure, and "often take up aspects of the merveilleux, and at times intrusions from the fairy world."
Unlike the heroes of medieval romances, the characters in Marie’s stories do not seek out adventure. Instead, adventures happen to them. While the settings are true to life, the lais often contain elements of folklore or of the supernatural, such as Bisclavret. While the setting is described in realistic detail, the subject is a werewolf, sympathetically portrayed. Marie moves back and forth between the real and the supernatural, skillfully expressing delicate shades of emotion. The setting for Marie's lais is the Celtic world, embracing England, Wales, Ireland, Brittany and Normandy
Only five manuscripts containing some or all of Marie’s lais exist now, and the only one to include the general prologue and all twelve lais is British Library MS Harley 978. That may be contrasted with the 25 manuscripts with Marie's Fables and perhaps reflects their relative popularity in the late Middle Ages. In these Fables, she reveals a generally aristocratic point of view with a concern for justice, a sense of outrage against the mistreatment of the poor, and a respect for the social hierarchy. Nevertheless, Marie's lais have received much more critical attention in recent times.
Along with her lais, Marie de France also published a vast collection of fables. Many of the fables she wrote were translations of Aesop’s fables into English and others can be traced to more regional sources, fables Marie de France would have been exposed to at a young age. Between the 102 fables of Marie de France, there are no concrete guidelines for morality and men, women, and animals receive varying treatments and punishments.
Marie de France introduces her fables in the form of a prologue, where she explains the importance of moral instruction in society. In the first section of the prologue, Marie de France discusses the medieval ideal of “clergie”. Clergie is the notion that people have a duty to understand, learn, and preserve works of the past for future peoples. Here, in the prologue, she is referencing the duty of scholars to preserve moral philosophy and proverbs. The rest of Marie de France’s prologue outlines how Aesop took up this duty for his society and how she must now preserve his fables and others for her present culture.
Structurally, each of the fables begins with the recanting of a tale and at the end Marie de France includes a short moral. Some of these morals, like those translated from Aesop’s fables, are expected and socially congruous. For instance, the fable of The Wolf and the Lamb, also known as Fable 2 in Marie de France’s collection, follows a well-known and established storyline. Just as in Aesop’s original fable, Marie de France’s translation describes a lamb and a wolf drinking from the same stream, the wolf unjustly condemning the lamb to death for drinking inoffensively down-stream from him. Marie de France repeats the established moral at the end, “But these are things rich nobles do…destroy folk with false evidence”.
However, in the new fables, featuring human female characters, Marie de France asserts female power and cunning, disparaging men who are ignorant or behave foolishly. One character in particular, a peasant woman, makes multiple appearances in the fables of Marie de France and is praised for her shrewd and sly ways. Fables 44, The Woman Who Tricked Her Husband and 45, A Second Time, a Woman Tricks Her Husband, both recant tales of the same peasant woman successfully carrying out an affair despite her husband having caught her with her lover both times. In the first fable, the peasant woman convinces her husband that her lover was merely a trick of the eye and in the second, persuades her husband that he has had a vision of her and a man, foreshadowing her death. Marie de France lauds the woman for her crafty ways and faults the peasant husband with idiocy. The morality, or lack thereof, in these two female-centered fables is interesting and takes root in the tradition of “wife tricking her husband” stories, such as The Merchant’s Tale and Scots-Irish tradition.
In most of Marie de France’s Lais, love is associated with suffering, and over half of them involve an adulterous relationship. In Bisclavret and Equitan, the adulterous lovers are severely condemned, but there is evidence that Marie approved of extramarital affairs under certain circumstances: "When the deceived partner has been cruel and merits deception and when the lovers are loyal to one another.” In Marie's Lais, "love always involves suffering and frequently ends in grief, even when the love itself is approved.”
Marie's lovers are usually isolated and relatively unconcerned with anything outside the immediate cause of their distress, whether a jealous husband or an envious society. However, "the means of overcoming this suffering is beautifully and subtly illustrated.” "Marie concentrates on the individuality of her characters and is not very concerned with their integration into society. If society does not appreciate the lovers, then the lovers die or abandon society, and society is the poorer for it.”
Defying Church traditions
Marie de France’s lais not only portray a gloomy outlook on love but also defied the traditions of love within the Church at the time. She wrote about adulterous affairs, women of high stature who seduce other men, and women seeking escape from a loveless marriage, often to an older man, which gave the idea that women can have sexual freedom. She wrote lais, many of which seemed to endorse sentiments that were contrary to the traditions of the Church, especially the idea of virginal love and marriage.
The lais also exhibit the idea of a stronger female role and power. In this, she may have inherited ideas and norms from the troubadour love songs that were common at the Angevin courts of England, Aquitaine, Anjou and Brittany; songs in which the heroine "is a contradictory symbol of power and inarticulacy; she is at once acutely vulnerable and emotionally overwhelming, irrelevant and central." Marie's heroines are often the instigators of events, but events that often end in suffering.
The heroines in Marie's Lais are often imprisoned. This imprisonment may take the form of actual incarceration by elderly husbands, as in Yonec, and in Guigemar, where the lady who becomes Guigemar's lover is kept behind the walls of a castle which faces the sea, or "merely of close surveillance, as in Laustic, where the husband, who keeps a close watch on his wife when he is present, has her watched equally closely when he is away from home.” Perhaps it reflects some experience within her own life. The willingness to endorse such thoughts as adultery in the twelfth century is perhaps remarkable. “It certainly reminds us that people in the Middle Ages were aware of social injustices and did not just accept oppressive conditions as inevitable by the will of God.”
In addition to her defying the construct of love exhibited by the contemporary Church, Marie also influenced a genre that continued to be popular for another 300 years, the medieval romance. By the time Marie was writing her lais, France already had a deep-rooted tradition of the love-lyric, specifically in Provence. Marie's Lais represent, in many ways, a transitional genre between Provençal love lyrics from an earlier time and the romance tradition that developed these themes.
Love within the lais
Guigemar stands first in the collection of the 12 Lays and contains her general prologue for the Lays. Guigemar is an exceptional young knight, excepting the fact that he shows no interest in love. While hunting, he encounters a white hind (doe) with stag's antlers, (the androgynous nature of this creature symbolizing perhaps the fulfilling sexual relationship, which he has yet to experience). The arrow that he uses to shoot the hind rebounds and wounds him in the thigh. The hind then speaks to him, saying that he will only be cured by a woman who will suffer for love of him, as he will likewise suffer for her love. Setting forth, Guigemar boards a boat that carries him to a tower where a fair and noble young woman lives, who is imprisoned by her old and jealous husband. The lady tends the knight's wound, while at the same time “smiting him with the wound of love.” The pair’s feelings are mutual and soon, passion runs its course. Guigemar and the lady live in blissful communion for a year and a half, but she fears that they will be discovered. As tokens of their faithfulness to each other, the lady ties a knot in Guigemar's shirt, which no other woman will be able to undo, while Guigemar fastens a belt around her that cannot be unbuckled. That day, the lady's husband breaks in on them, and Guigemar is sent back to Brittany.
At the end of two years of grieving, the lady decides to drown herself but instead finds the same ship waiting to take her to Brittany. On arrival, a lord named Meriadus finds her, who wishes to make her his, but he cannot undo the belt.
Meriadus schemes to invite Guigemar to participate in a tournament, as he suspects Guigemar to be the lady's love. At the tournament, Guigemar and the lady recognize each other, and as they meet, they each undo the other’s token. Although Guigemar offers his knightly services to Meriadus, in exchange for the release of his love, Meriadus refuses to give up the lady, and Guigemar must battle for her. When he is victorious, the lovers' tribulations are over.
The central theme in Guigemar is the awakening of love, the growth of said love in two people, and its ability to withstand separation as well as to inspire deeds of prowess. Through their experiences, the knight and his lady progress towards personal maturity and fulfillment.
The lai of Lanval typifies the form of the lai, which relates only a (relatively) small period in the life of the hero or heroine, usually a time of crisis, unlike a true medieval romance, which is in effect a biography, spanning the hero's entire life. Lanval is a poor knight at King Arthur's court – demonstrating, incidentally, that King Arthur's world was one that Marie was willing to embrace. Relaxing in a meadow one day, reflecting upon his destitution, Lanval is approached by two maidens who lead him to their mistress, who declares her love for him. Her otherworldly nature is revealed not only by his passage to the Isle of Avalon with her in the closing phrases of the law but also in the magically limitless riches she showers him with although no one can see her when she is with him and he must never reveal her existence. Queen Guinevere tries to seduce Lanval one day, but when she is rebuffed, she hurls spiteful accusations back at Lanval which cause him to mention his lady and, unsurprisingly, the fairy queen fails to appear. He is left to face trial alone once more, until his final rescue.
Marie may pose the question whether Lanval is guilty or not, but although she does not provide explicit answers, Guinevere's desires are placed in a very unfavourable light: “Good girls are the ones who have submerged their own desire in order to create socially effective simulacra of the desires of men.” The Queen is vilified because she went after the love that she desired, but it is not only she who suffers. The lai is also concerned with female power, in the form of the fairy queen who saves Lanval. However, even the fairy queen does not play a completely feminist role. The fairy queen gives Lanval the means of “satisfying not only his needs for erotic satisfaction and sustenance appropriate to a nobleman, but allowing him to fulfill his chivalric spirit in generosity of a public, indeed kingly sort, giving hospitality, patronage, and rich gifts to all”
In Chevrefoil, we are shown a forbidden, passionate love. In this lai, "the choice of a Tristanian subject and the explicit statement at the beginning of the poem make the symbol of the intertwining plants one of the inevitable union of the lovers in death." The lai is reminiscent of the Old French legend of Tristan and Iseult. (With this in mind, even though the queen is never named in Chevrefoil, one can assume that she is indeed Iseult).
A man named Tristan has been banished from the kingdom for loving the king's wife. After a year in exile he returns to the kingdom and learns that the King will soon hold a Pentecost celebration at Tintagel. Tristan hides by the forest path the queen will take and carves his name into a hazelnut branch and leaves it as a secret message for the queen to find. She sees it on her way through the wood, and the two meet and enjoy each other's company. When the time of parting comes, both Tristan and the queen weep. Once he returns to exile Tristan writes the lai Chevrefoil (which is then retold by Marie de France).
The lai describes the relationship between Tristan and the queen (Iseult) with the analogy of the hazelnut tree and the honeysuckle plant: when the two are paired together, both plants thrive; when they are separated, they die. The whole story is infused with a feeling of sadness and longing for love which is impossible to obtain. This seems to imply that even though it is an adulterous relationship, the love they have for each other is true and it is tragic that they cannot be together.
Yonec is another story of secret, passionate and even rebellious love. It draws heavily on the iconic Celtic literary trend of otherworldly characters with strange magical powers, who are often from an otherworldly land. Lanval is another example of how Marie included such Celtic elements in her lais.
At the start of the story, an old, decrepit and powerful lord seeks a young wife to bear his children. He takes a young lady who so beautiful that the lord jealously locks her up in a tower where she is guarded vigilantly by the lord's aged sister. After seven miserable years of being imprisoned in the tower, the young lady prays for a lover, and in answer to her prayer a goshawk flies into her tower room and transforms into a handsome knight named Muldamarec. The two fall in love and have a secret relationship but are soon discovered by the lord's spying sister. A trap is laid for Muldamarec which mortally wounds him, but before he dies he tells the young lady (who is pregnant with his child) that her son (who will be named Yonec) will grow up to take vengeance on the old lord and eventually become a great lord himself. All of this comes true years later, when the lady tells Yonec of his true father and he beheads the old lord. The lady dies by the tomb of Muldamarec and is buried with her lover.
In Yonec, Marie uses the motif of an unhappily married wife secretly having an adulterous relationship with a lover. As with most of Marie's other lais, the lovers' relationship is met with tragedy, suffering and a certain degree of irony, since the young lady was only trying to escape the misery of her current marital situation. However, apparently the sacrifice was worthwhile, as can be seen in the last line of the law, which reads: "Those who heard this adventure a long time afterward made a lay about it, and about the pain and sadness that this couple suffered for love."
Laustic, like many other lais by Marie de France, tells of a woman who is heavily monitored by her husband (or some other oppressive authority figure) and has a secret love life which consumes all of her attention. And, like in the other stories, the malicious husband attempts to destroy her happiness. (In some lais such as Laustic, it is unclear whether the oppressive authority forces the woman to have a secret affair or her secret affair causes her to be oppressed.)
Laustic (or 'Nightingale' in English) takes place in an unnamed town with two barons. One baron has married a wise, refined and elegant woman, and the other baron falls in love with her. Since the latter baron has such a good reputation and lives so conveniently close, the wife falls for him as well and they spend as much time as possible standing by their respective windows, talking and tossing little presents to each other. One night, as the wife rises from bed to go to the window, her husband asks why she often gets up in the middle of the night. She responds that she cannot resist listening to the nightingale's song, which is more beautiful than any other sound. The jealous husband then sets a trap for the bird, kills it violently in front of his wife and throws it at her. Saddened by the nightingale's death and afraid that by no longer appearing at the window her lover will think less of her, she sends the dead bird to him with an explanation of what happened. The baron then puts the body in a casket made of gold and keeps it with him forever.
The nightingale represents the beauty of love and also its fragility. (The same metaphor is used in Yonec when Muldamarec is mortally wounded in his bird form by the jealous husband.) When the second baron preserves the bird's body in a casket of gold and always keeps it with him, he is only representing his devotion and love with a physical reminder.
"Chevrefoil, Yonec and Laustic all deal with the subject of extra-marital love and a repressed desire for personal well-being and happiness. These lais incorporate one of Marie's recurring themes, that of an unmarried lover and an unhappily married lady, and in none of the three does Marie give an indication of disapproving of this state of affairs." Deeply rooted within the philosophy of courtly love, these lais reflect upon the gender allotted roles within the conventions of marriage in a patriarchal society. Each demonstrates the value of writing, and the importance of being heard and remembered.
In Equitan, Bisclavret and Chevrefoil, greed is the cause of suffering. In Laustic and Chevrefoil, love ultimately fails to reach its goal. In Guigemar and Lanval, strength of love wins out in the end and a happy outcome is achieved. In Deus Amanz, Yonec, and Milun, the suffering is rewarded, though not happily. Eliduc sees the wife of the lover overcome by the sight of her rival lying on a slab and renounces her marriage, becomes a nun and Eliduc marries his sweetheart, miraculously revived but he then becomes a monk himself and sends his new wife to become a nun with the old. Marie de France gives no universal answers but determines the outcome of each lai on its merits.
Influence on literature
Her stories exhibit a form of lyrical poetry that influenced the way that narrative poetry was subsequently composed, adding another dimension to the narration through her prologues and the epilogues, for example. She also developed three parts to a narrative lai: aventure (the ancient Breton deed or story); lai (Breton melodies); conte (recounting the story narrated by the lai). Additionally, Marie de France set off the beginning of a new genre of literature known as chivalric literature.
In the late 14th century, at broadly the same time that Geoffrey Chaucer included The Franklin's Tale, itself a Breton lai, in his Canterbury Tales, a poet named Thomas Chestre composed a Middle English romance based directly upon Marie de France's Lanval, which, perhaps predictably, spanned much more now than a few weeks of the hero's life, a knight named Sir Launfal.
In 1816, the English poet Matilda Betham wrote a long poem about Marie de France in octosyllabic couplets, The Lay of Marie.