This post is dedicated to Devon, who, at the end of reading Wolfram’s Parzifal, tossed her book on the table in frustration and asked, “Why do the women always have to be given away like property?”
Marie de France, as depicted in a medieval manuscript. (Source)
Name: Marie de France
Birthplace/Dates: France–possibly the Vexin region (between the Ile de France and Normandy), roughly 1140-1215?
Occupation/Claim to Fame: The first person to write poetry of courtly love. She was author of several texts (including one translation): most famously, a collection of 12 Lais, brief poetic tales that were forerunners to works like Wolfram’s Parzifal and the Roman de la Rose. Marie also produced a collection of Fables (based on Aesop and other classical sources), and a religious text called The Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick (based on a Latin document of the same name). She has also tentatively been identified as the author of a (previously unattributed) saint’s life as well.
Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers: Marie de France is one of the earliest authors who wrote about courtly love, standing at the root of a lineage that leads directly to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal. Given the central role Parzifal plays in the Waldorf curriculum, it’s important to understand how courtly love was understood (and experienced) by women, and Marie is a wonderful way into that question.
Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum: HS 11th grade Medieval History; 11th grade Parzival block (her Lais); 6th grade Medieval History; 2nd grade Fables (her Fables).
If you read only one thing by Marie de France, read: Her Lais. (1) Many translations of Marie’s work try to preserve some semblance of the original rhyme scheme, but this can lead to a slightly stilted, archaic feeling in English. If you want an easy-to-read prose version with an excellent introduction, I’d recommend the Penguin edition of the Lais. As far as which particular lais to read: if you’re thinking of using them alongside Parzifal, I’d recommend “Guigemar” or “Yonec.” If you’re using them in a history unit on courtly love, then you may want to read “Lanval” or “Chaitivel.” (My next post will focus on these four lais, including suggestions for how to use them in class.)
Marie de France and Her Place in History
Celtic bards like the legendary Merlin were the source of the stories behind Marie’s lais. (Source)
Marie de France is most famous for her Lais, which are among the earliest examples of chivalric writing we have. In fact, as far as we can tell, they are the oldest written chivalric poetry. (2) Marie drew on the earlier oral poetry (also called “lais”) sung by Celtic bards as a source for her own work, though she writes that she adjusted these oral lais, “putting them into verse, making poems from them, and working on them late into the night.” (3) I just love that last bit–”working late into the night”–can’t you just see her sitting there, candle burning low, waiting for her kids to finally get to sleep already so she can get down to work?
But to get back to business: As the first written chivalric poetry we have on record, Marie’s work therefore stands at the beginning of a long line of important medieval works–Chretien de Troyes’ early Arthurian tales, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, the Roman de la Rose–the list goes on and on. Of course, her Lais are worthy of study in their own right–not only as the first productions in an incredibly important genre (chivalric literature), but as complex and beautiful literary works in and of themselves. And if that weren’t enough to recommend them, they have the distinct advantage of giving us a glimpse into the world of chivalric love as experienced and written by a woman. For all those students of courtly love who may have wondered what the women in the stories felt like (or what a tale of courtly love would look like if written from a female point of view), Marie’s Lais offer us a wonderful “window” in. There are just so many good reasons to study Marie–and best of all (from the perspective of a busy teacher trying to fit just one more thing into limited class time), each lai is only 3-8 pages long (the longest is about 16): the perfect length for a one-night reading assignment.
The few depictions we have of Marie de France (none of which are contemporary) always show her writing at a desk, which is how she probably would have wanted it. (Source)
But before we jump into her work, let’s back up for a moment. Who was Marie de France, anyway?
How do you Solve a Problem like Marie?
We must face the facts squarely: we don’t actually know that much about Marie’s identity, which is frustrating, given how important and popular her works were during the 12th and 13th centuries. (But it’s not surprising, given the fate of many other early female authors.) Aside from her self-description in the Fables, where she writes, “My name is Marie, and I am from France,” we have only a few other clues–none of them definitive. She dedicates her Lais to a “noble king” (which many have thought might be King Henry II of England), and her Fables to “count William” (which has been attributed to a whole variety of Williams). (4) Based on these references (and an analysis of her language, which includes many loan-words from English), most scholars have assumed that while she was born in France, she spent time at the court of Henry II, where she probably composed her works.
The palace of Poitiers, where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne are reputed to have first held their famous “courts of love.” (Source)
This working assumption makes a good deal of sense, since Henry II’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (and her daughter Marie de Champagne) were instrumental in bringing the southern French culture of courtly love to more northern climes. It also places Marie at the beginning of a courtly lineage that stretches from the Islamic courts of Al-Andalus (the Moorish kingdoms of Spain), to Eleanor of Aquitaine (who popularized courtly ideals in the Christian south and then brought them north when she married Henry II), to Marie de Champagne (Eleanor’s daughter), to Chretien de Troyes (whose patroness was Marie de Champagne), to Wolfram von Eschenbach, author of Parzifal (and who used Chretien de Troyes as one of his main sources). (5) How’s that for some Waldorf credentials? I’d argue that anyone who stands at the root of a lineage leading to Parzifal needs to be included in the curriculum.
And if Marie’s connection to later courtly literature weren’t enough to recommend her to us, her connection to the earlier oral traditions of the Celts should be–it’s through Marie that European literature comes to enfold the tales of the Welsh and Breton bards (including stories of fairies and King Arthur) into Islamic-influenced poetry of courtly love. In Marie, the two hitherto separate streams combined, eventually forming the mightly confluence we know as medieval romance. (6)
Marie wasn’t about to let some man steal her work. (Source)
What else do we know about Marie beyond her importance to the courtly lineage? We know that she stayed up late to write, indicating that she probably had other duties (either courtly, or domestic, or both) that kept her busy during the day. We know that she was fluent in several languages: she says she considered translating Latin works into French before taking up the task of relating Breton lais. (7) We also know that she thought highly of her own authorial abilities, and had a defiant attitude towards critics who disparaged her as a female writer. She writes,
Whoever has good material for a story is grieved if the tale is not well told. Hear, my lords, the words of Marie, who, when she has the opportunity, does not squander her talents. Those who gain a good reputation should be commended, but when there exists in a country a man or woman of great renown, people who are envious of their abilities frequently speak insultingly of them in order to damage this reputation….But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up. They have a right to make slanderous remarks. (8)
Marie’s cleverness was much like that of the Cock in her fable, whose well-timed crowing outwits the rather dim Fox who has stolen him. (Source)
And later, in the epilogue of the Fables, in the same passage where she names herself, she worries that credit for her work will be stolen by a man:
To end these tales I’ve narrated
And into Romance tongue translated,
I’ll give my name, for memory:
I am from France, my name’s Marie.
And it may hap that many a clerk
Will claim as his what is my work
But such pronouncements I want not!
It’s folly to become forgot! (9)
All in all, the picture that emerges is one that, though hazy on the details of time and location, is actually fairly clear in certain regards. Marie was a well-born, well-educated writer who worked hard at her craft, was proud of her work, was recognized by kings and courtiers for her efforts, and who, nonetheless, was worried that because of her gender, her stories might be mis-attributed to a man for all of posterity. Clever to the end, she therefore embedded her name in several of her texts so that any excision would result in a distortion of the poetic meter. Would that all the women writers of history had had such foresight and crafty wiles!
So, having established Marie’s basic authorial persona and the importance of her work in the lineage of courtly literature, we can move on. What do her Lais tell us about women of the period in general, and about her own “take” on courtly culture in particular?
Getting “Lai”d: Women, Marriage, and Adultery in Marie de France
(Forgive the terrible pun, but that heading title was too good to resist!)
“La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John William Waterhouse (1893). The Victorians found much to love in medieval courtly depictions of women: passive, beautiful, inspirational, but often entangling or treacherous.
Seriously, now…Marie’s work provides us with an interesting counterpoint to the later male writers’ portrayals of women, love, and marriage. First, many scholars have noted that the female characters in her stories are, on the whole, stronger than the men. In other courtly stories, written for the most part by men, women are certainly prominently featured, but they are often idealized and held up as (rather passive) “inspiration” for men’s heroic deeds. Or worse still, denigrated as faithless and the source of perpetual strife, as in the case of the Roman de la Rose. So while women are definitely front and center in most courtly texts, it’s sometimes tough to find a positive female character who is not just an inspiration for manly deeds, but a protagonist in her own right. If you share my frustration as a reader, Marie delivers the goods. Her women are real. (10)
On the whole, Marie’s female characters are deeply drawn, and more often than not, they take center stage in the story. This is not to say that Marie’s women live in some feminist paradise. The basic mise en scène of courtly love remains the same: beautiful young ladies locked in towers by jealous husbands (more on that below), men who love these ladies and wear their colors into tournaments, mysterious fairy lovers (male and female) who can change shape at will, equally mysterious exotic creatures (hermaphroditic deer, for example) who lead knights on unexpected quests–all the tropes of medieval romance we know and love. (And really, what’s not to love about albino, intersex deer?) But in Marie’s hands, these basic literary themes (which we should remember, she’s the first to write down in poetry) are given a subtle woman-centered twist. Marie shows us how women struggled with and sometimes found ways around the constrictions of upper-class medieval life.
Marie empathized with the proverbial damsel in distress, but she preferred birds to mice when it came to animal liberators. (Source)
A good example is the aforementioned “damsel in distress” scenario. In two lais (“Guigemar” and “Yonec”) a young woman has been married off by her family to a man over twice her age, who keeps her imprisoned and comes to visit only long enough to subject her to what we would call marital rape. Marie’s own opinion of the situation seems to be much in accord with contemporary views, for she makes it abundantly clear that the young woman in question is miserable to the point of contemplating suicide. And she depicts this despair as a perfectly reasonable response to the character’s terrible predicament, rejoicing with the reader when a young, handsome, tender man unexpectedly appears at the lady’s tower to offer her comfort and the possibility of escape. Unlike many other courtly authors who seem to take the “lady locked in a tower” scenario for granted, Marie stops long enough to ponder the situation from the woman’s point of view.
Unlike Lynne Cheney (yes, that Lynne Cheney), Marie does not have her heroine leave her possessive husband and run off to join a lesbian free-love commune. (Source)
Indeed, Marie seems interested in much the same question as my teenage friend Devon: What happens to the poor girls traded among men like so many pieces of property? The lady in Marie’s lai “Yonec,” gives voice to the countless damsels in distress whose fate is passed over mutely in so many medieval tales:
Alas…that ever I was born! My destiny is hard indeed. I am a prisoner in this tower and death alone will free me. What is this jealous old man afraid of, to keep me so securely imprisoned? He is extremely stupid and foolish, always fearing that he will be betrayed.
Marie here not only depicts her protagonist’s plight empathetically, but also questions the misogynist assumptions underlying the whole “damsel in distress” predicament. However, ultimately, Marie is not a radical feminist. (For that, you’ll have to wait for my post on another medieval female writer, the fabulous Christine de Pizan.) None of Marie’s heroines, for instance, escapes from her tower to join an all-”womyn” commune in the woods. For both Marie and her characters, a complete break with the system was impossible. However, Marie’s contribution to women’s history is the way in which, while keeping more or less within the confines of the courtly system, she opened up a space for women’s self-expression and personal fulfilment. Where did she carve out this space? In the realm of adulterous courtly love.
In many of Marie’s Lais, the protagonists enjoy extra-marital affairs without blame.
Marie is certainly not the only medieval author to portray adultery as an opportunity for personal fulfillment. Indeed, intense, often long-lasting extra-marital affairs are a running theme throughout later courtly literature. But Marie is the first person to draw out this theme in writing. In fact, it makes me wonder whether Marie’s rather laissez-faire stance towards extra-marital liaisons is something she inherited from the Celtic oral tradition, or if, rather, she gave the whole subsequent genre of courtly poetry a twist by her early empathetic “take” on the plight of women in forced marriages. (10) In other words: was Marie’s clear sympathy for love outside marriage “picked up” by later authors, thereby becoming one of the staples of courtly literature? I think it’s fair to say that even if Marie herself was not the originator of this relatively woman-friendly trope, she was certainly one of its most important popularizers. (11) For that reason alone, it’s worth reading her in any class dealing with courtly love, Arthurian romance, or medieval social history. We might not have our later stories of Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Iseult in the particular forms that we know them without Marie’s first, wildly popular tales of adulterous love. (12)
Personal or Political? The question still resonates today. The college students who created this banner have posted a song that I think Marie might like. Click here for a link.
For modern readers, including high school students, her tales raise interesting moral questions: if you are trapped within a fundamentally unjust system, what is your duty to uphold the ethical norm as defined by the dominant class? Would we, for instance, condemn a woman in Taliban-held Afghanistan who searched for love outside her arranged marriage to a man twice her age? Marie clearly wouldn’t. But she does judge women and men who go the next step, towards violence, quite harshly. (As in her lais “Equitan” or “Bisclavret.”) Where do we draw the line in modern times? When does “civil disobedience” become insurrection? When is the personal political? And is there a clear line between the two? The possibilities for classroom debate seem fruitful indeed.
And that, dear readers, is where we’ll leave Marie for today, having given you a tiny taste of the sorts of pedagogical questions I’ll raise in Part 2 of my consideration of her work. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at a few of her Lais, including brief summaries of the four I mentioned back towards the beginning of this post (in the “Notable Woman Stats” section). I’ll also provide suggestions for how to use these four lais in class, either alongside Parzifal or in a block on medieval history. Till then, worthy gentlewomen and -men, adieu!
(1) There are several versions of Marie’s Lais available online, though not all of these sites include all the lais. The Gutenberg site contains a prose translation of all the lais, there’s a rhyming translation by Judith Shoaf that’s good, but not all the lais are included. The Penguin print edition also contains the original Old French for one lai in the back of the book; for anyone with a background in modern French, it’s easy to follow the rhyme scheme and get the gist, so it might be fun to use if some of your students take French. (Here’s a link to an online edition of the French originals.)
(2) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (which contains chapters on King Arthur) is about 30 years older than Marie’s work, but it’s a prose history, albeit a fanciful one. And there were earlier oral poetic compositions–legends and poetry told by bards in Wales and Brittany–circulating in Marie’s day, but nothing written until Marie. There is a much-later manuscript (the Book of Taliesin) that claims to preserve the poems of the early Welsh bard Taliesin, who dates to the 6th c. CE. However, it is not at all clear that the poems in question actually do belong to Taliesin, and it’s certainly highly questionable whether they date to as early as the 6th c. CE. (Most recent scholars put them somewhere in the 10th-12th centuries.) Still, there’s no question that Marie drew heavily on Celtic oral sources, as she herself attests.
(3) Marie de France, “Prologue.” The Lais of Marie de France, London: Penguin Books, 1999. Trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby. p. 41.
(4) An incredible diversity of opinions circulate about Marie’s true identity. Some scholars place her squarely in the court of King Henry II, or possibly his son, Henry III. However, others have suggested Philip II of France as a possibility, though this is definitely a minority view. As far as Marie’s relationship with other courtly writers, there’s no proof that Marie and Chretien de Troyes knew of each other, but most scholars are agreed that Chretien’s sources included Breton lais like the ones Marie recorded, so we can’t rule it out either. (Another suggestive piece of evidence is Chretien’s mention of Guigemar, a character from one of Marie’s Lais, in his tale “Erec et Enide.”) Even Marie’s self-identity as “from France” is contested–some scholars arguing that it doesn’t mean “France as opposed to England,” but rather, “Ile de France as opposed to Brittany or Normandy.” All these competing theories, including one that places her in France (as opposed to England) during her period of authorship, are well-represented in Dinah Hazell’s online paper: “Rethinking Marie.” Medieval Forum, Vol 2, 2003. There’s also an interesting connection between Marie and Chaucer–her fable of the cock and the fox is not found in Aesop, and is the only written source that pre-dates Chaucer’s version of the same tale. Here’s a nice one-page translation of Marie’s version.
(5) It’s potentially a pretty tight connection, but there’s no way to be absolutely sure of Marie’s position at Henry’s court, so it has to remain at the level of conjecture. At the very least, though, we can say that if the “noble king” to which Marie refers was someone other than Henry II, we can still be sure that said king was part of the rapidly spreading courtly culture of northern Europe, and that Marie was an important early link in bringing this courtly tradition into written literary form. The more I read about her and the other early courtly authors, the more I feel that she was the central node point from which the other literature sprang. (Her only true competitor to the position, the Norman poet Béroul, did not write what most scholars describe as “courtly” literature.) That her importance should be often overlooked is sad, but not surprising. See notes 6 and 12 for more on the difficulties of reconstructing the lineage.
(6) A little more on Marie’s relation to other early courtly writers: Chretien de Troyes, the most famous early chivalric writer, is roughly contemporary with Marie, but he appears to have written about 15-25 years after her (depending on how early you date Marie). Marie even predates the earliest written compositions by troubadours, the first of whom was Duke William IX of Aquitaine (1071–1126). This is not to say, of course, that there wasn’t an oral form of courtly poetry that circulated in the courts of Provence and Aquitaine before Marie–but it does appear that Marie was the first to have composed courtly poems in written form.
Another question is the possibility of an Islamic influence: did an earlier 9th c. form of courtesie exist in the Islamic courts of Al-Andalus? It appears that in Spain, both Muslim and Jewish poets composed Sufi-inspired love poetry during the 9th-11th centuries. One of the main theories of courtly love traces this poetry as it travels from Al-Andalus to Aquitaine via captured Muslim singers/dancers (male and female) as a result of the early reconquista. While there’s no evidence that Marie read Islamic poetry per se, she clearly was familiar with the tenets of courtly love as defined and propagated by the courts of the Christian southwest. As far as I can tell, Marie seems to be the first to wed the early form of courtesie found in Aquitaine with the Celtic oral tradition–a combination that gave rise to the distinctive features of medieval courtly love as we know it.
(7) Marie de France, “Prologue.” Lais. We know this is not a vain boast because she did, in fact, translate another work from the Latin–The Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick. Her texts are also sprinkled with English words, and it is possible when she mentions “lais that I heard,” she is referring to hearing them in the original Breton, which she may have understood. (Elsewhere she refers explicitly to Breton lais.) All in all, she seems to have been well-educated and multi-lingual–not unusual traits for women in court society at this time.
(8) Marie de France, “Guigemar.” The Lais of Marie de France. London: Penguin Books, 1999. p. 43.
(9) Marie de France, “Epilogue.” Fables. Quoted in Dinah Hazell, who took the passage from Harriet Spiegel’s edition of the Fables. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
(10) Because Marie stands at the beginning of the literary courtly tradition, it’s difficult to tell if she is simply representing in print a widespread attitude of the bardic oral tradition (or nascent oral poetry of courtly love), or if indeed, Marie initiated this more female-friendly stance towards adultery. My inclination is to think that while there may, indeed, have been an oral tradition of tales of extra-marital love, Marie’s emphasis on the plight of young women in forced marriages is specific to her own perspective as a woman. After all, she does take pains to make it clear that she hasn’t simply transcribed the tales as she heard them, but rather has made them her own. In the introduction to the lai “Milun,” she writes, “Anyone who intends to present a new story must approach the problem in a new way and speak so persuasively that the tale brings pleasure to people.” I’d suggest that Marie’s “new way” included a more female-centered “take” on the stories. Of course, it’s important to note that not all of her characters’ extra-marital affairs end well. However, the few times in her tales when adulterers are given their comeuppance, it’s because they’ve moved from simply enjoying their adulterous love (which Marie seems to condone) to plotting to kill or otherwise endanger the cuckolded spouse.
(9) I should point out that I do think Parzifal offers some instances of strong female characters. However, I think that you have to read a little more deeply to get at them, and that some of the most obvious examples (Sigune, whose love causes her to literally waste away on her lover’s tomb, or Orgeluse, who comes off at least at first as a bitch) are initially hard for students to relate to. That’s not to say that with good teaching and close reading, we can’t tease out positive messages about gender from the text; but you certainly have to work harder to find female characters to relate to, I think. Perhaps that’s because the women in Parizifal tend to be so completely invested in the gender/courtly system–something that contemporary readers might find difficult to fully embrace. Marie’s characters tend to stand at one remove from the system–girls who are married off but are deeply unhappy; knights who are approached by the queen for sex and turn her down, thus imperiling their career, etc.
(11) It’s interesting that the most likely “originators” of the idea of adultery as a perfectly acceptable pastime for women were themselves women–Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne, who were the two main “early adopters” and promoters of courtly discourse. So it may not be that Marie de France’s view was particularly unique among mid-twelfth-century noblewomen; but she was the first to make it into a literary trope, as far as I can tell.
(12) Tristan and Iseult is a particularly fascinating example of how difficult it is to trace the origins of a story. A Norman poet, Béroul, writing at approximately the same time as Marie, wrote down a version of the Tristan and Iseult tale. It’s unclear whether his version, which was quite lengthy, or Marie’s Tristan tale, “Chevrefoil” (which covers only one episode from the longer Tristan tale) was first. Interestingly, both he and Marie may have been writing in Henry II’s court at the same time, for his patron is believed to be Eleanor of Aquitaine. It’s also presumed he was drawing on the same sort of Celtic sources as Marie. Shortly after he and Marie wrote their versions, the tale was picked up by the German Eilhart von Oberge, who may or may not have read Béroul and Marie’s works. From there, the story enters the canon of German medieval literature through the work of Gottfried von Strassburgh. However, both whereas modern scholars consider von Strassburgh’s tale “courtly” (in the sense of framing the story in terms of courtly ideals), Béroul and von Oberge’s versions are described by scholars are “vulgar” (meaning that the courtly elements are lacking). Marie’s version, on the other hand, is squarely within the courtly tradition, so could be said to be the first courtly rendition of the Tristan tale. But in this, as in so many things, it depends on how you define your terms.