As anyone who read my first post about Marie de France knows by now, Marie was an incredibly important, totally unique 12th century author who basically kick-started the genre of medieval courtly literature as we know it.
In that post, I covered her identity (she was probably associated with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II’s English court), her personality (forceful), her place within the lineage of courtly literature (first in a line that leads directly to the later medieval romances of Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach), her importance to the genre (she’s the first to combine Celtic oral legends with courtly themes), and her generally laissez-faire attitude towards adulterous love (which I called “woman-friendly”). Phew! That’s a lot of review in one sentence. So if you want more details about any of those topics, you can go back and peruse my earlier post.
However, for all you teachers out there, I promised you that in this post I’d take a closer look at a few of her Lais I think are best-suited to the classroom, and provide brief synopses as well as some teaching suggestions. For those of you who aren’t teachers, I’d hope the summaries and questions below will spur you to track down a copy of Marie’s Lais and dive in. (Or perhaps they might serve as an ad-hoc book club guide.) So, without further ado:
Teaching Marie: So Many Lais, So Little Time
Teaching Marie alongside Parzifal
Since the 13th century German courtly romance Parzifal occupies such a central place in any Waldorf High School curriculum, let’s start by looking at what Marie’s work might bring to a reading of Wolfram’s text. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of reading Parzifal, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is without doubt the most complex, most beautiful rendition of the Arthurian legends that I know. I love, love, LOVE Parzifal. That said, as my teenage friend Devon pointed out so forcefully when she threw her copy of the book on the table, it can be a tad off-putting (especially to girls) when, in the last chapter, the remaining unmarried female characters are apportioned off like so many prizes to the gallant knights.
Reading Marie alongside Parzifal helps answer the questions, “What might the women characters have felt in this situation?” Or even, “What might this same story look like if it had been written by a woman?” Of course, Marie doesn’t write about the character Parzifal/Perceval per se, but two of her tales (“Guigemar” and “Yonec”) employ themes and images that resonate with those found in Parzifal. (Indeed, Marie may be a source for Wolfram’s versions.) This is not to say, of course, that you should read the Lais instead of Parzifal, but rather, that looking at them alongside Wolfram’s work offers readers a different “way into” the stories. So when a student like Devon wonders, “Why do the women always have to be given away like property at the end?” You can answer: “They weren’t always. And here’s the proof.”
First, a brief recap. In “Guigemar,” a young knight who “had never displayed the slightest interest in love” receives a corrective in the form of a talking hermaphrodite deer and an enchanted ship, the latter of which leads him to young woman who has been imprisoned by her elderly, jealous husband. The two fall in love and remain together for 18 months, sealing their promise to be faithful to each other with symbolic clothing knots that no one other than their beloved can undo. When the lovers are finally discovered, Guigemar is placed on his enchanted ship and borne back to his homeland, where he languishes for his lady for two years. Meanwhile, the lady suffers in her tower until the day when she finds the door to her tower magically unlocked. She goes down to the sea intending to drown herself, but instead finds another enchanted ship that bears her not to her beloved, but to a third castle. The lord of this place also falls in love with her, and when she resists him, calls for his knights to help him rape her. Luckily for the lady, none of them can undo her knotted belt, so their attempt is foiled. (1) Guessing that the lady’s knot is the twin of one he had seen on another knight, the lord then sets up a tournament to trick Guigemar into making an appearance. Guigemar does, and when he sees the lady, he offers service to the lord in exchange for her release. Instead of accepting, the lord insults Guigemar, who then successfully attacks and kills him. In the end, Guigemar and the lady are reunited and leave the castle for unknown parts.
Although very different than the story of Parzifal and Condwiramurs found in Book Four of Parzifal, to my mind, the story contains some remarkable parallels: two ladies in towers, two dashing knights who don’t know how to love, both couples separated by years of longing after their initial magical encounter. But when it comes to gender dynamics and ethics, the two tales are very different. Whereas Wolfram basically leaves Condwiramurs out of the subsequent storyline until the very end of the book (except insofar as she is conjured in Parzifal’s fevered imagination), Marie’s female character stays central to the action. She even gets her own enchanted ship, keeping the story structure evenly balanced between the knight’s and lady’s responses to the course of events. And then there’s the difference in the marital status of the two pairs: Parzifal and Condwiramurs represent the pinnacle of married bliss, while Guigemar and the unnamed lady of Marie’s tale find their happiness outside the married state. Even at the end when they’re finally reunited, it’s unclear if they ever marry. Looking at the two episodes side by side therefore offers some wonderful opportunities for reflection on love, marriage, and the role relationships play in forging our own destiny.
Some possible questions for students to explore:
- Compare and contrast the initial encounters of the two couples–what events lead up to their meeting? How much do we know about each character before they encounter each other?
- What obstacles, if any, do they have to overcome before they can love each other?
- Is it important or unimportant that they get married?
- What do you think each author might have been trying to say about marriage as an institution?
- What might he/she have been trying to convey about love?
- Compare and contrast the level of equality in each couple’s relationship. In each case, how does the author show the fundamental parity or disparity between the two lovers?
And if you want to relate “Guigemar” to the students’ own experiences:
- Are modern marriages on the whole equal or unequal? What about relationships other than marriage (friendships, romantic relationships)? In relationships where people value equality as a goal, what ways to they find to symbolize that equality, or to put it into action?
In her lai “Yonec,” Marie gives us yet another damsel in distress scenario. This time, the lady who is kept in a tower by her aging husband dreams of a fairy lover like those found in tales. We first encounter her pining away like some Disney princess: “Some day my prince will come….” And as in a typical tale, no sooner are the words out of her mouth than a large hawk flies into the room and is transformed into a “fair and noble knight.” After proving that he’s a Christian fairy (by shape-shifting into the form of the lady herself in order to receive communion), the knight wins the lady’s love.
At that point, the tale takes a decidedly un-Disney-like turn. First, Marie makes it abundantly clear that they consummated their love at that first meeting, and frequently thereafter. In fact, it’s the lady’s libido that drives the action; since she cannot resist summoning her lover to satisfy her desire as often as she wishes, her jealous husband eventually finds them out. The old man rigs sharp spikes on the windows so that on the hawk/lover’s next visit, the bird is mortally wounded. Dying, the fairy lover bewails his fate to his lady and then flies away, dripping blood onto the snow beneath the window. The lady literally leaps out of her tower, follows the blood trail through the snow (barefoot and in her shift), continuing through a long underground tunnel to a castle in a seemingly enchanted city. She eventually finds the fairy knight on a bed, and before dying, he gives her a ring, sword, and tunic, and tells her to give them to their son, who will avenge his death. She goes back to her husband, who takes her in. (It seems as though his memory of being cuckolded has been magically erased.) One day when the son is grown, a series of events leads the family to the tomb of an unknown knight. The young man and his parents listen to the story of the deceased, and the wife realizes it is the tomb of her lover. She hands her son the sword and falls dead from shock. Seeing his mother’s death, the son immediately cuts off his foster father’s head and becomes lord of his mother’s lover’s land.
Oh, how I love this story! There are so many twists and turns to follow, one could probably write a whole book on this lai alone. However, to keep to our goal of looking at it through the lens of Parzifal, I think the most obvious point of comparison between the two works is the evocative image of bird’s blood on snow, as found at the beginning of Book Six of Parzifal. In both stories, a bird’s blood is a key to remembering or following the beloved, a symbol of the realm of imagination, longing, and desire–in the case of “Yonec,” leading the lady to leap bravely out of her tower and follow her knight into his fairy realm; in the case of Parzifal, leading the knight into a trance-like reverie in which he contemplates the beauty of his lover. Neither protagonist emerges from this blood unchanged–in both cases, the blood trail leads to a shift in the narrative. In “Yonec,” the blood leads to the lady’s escape from the tower and her return there as a woman who can stand up to her husband and become author of her own destiny; in Parzifal, the blood, which reminds Parzifal of his earthly female love, ultimately smoothes the knight’s way into Arthur’s court and marks a turning point between his adventures in this world and his subsequent spiritual search for the divine love symbolized by the holy grail.
Here are some questions for consideration by the class (either in discussion or an essay):
In both Parzifal and “Yonec,” a trail of blood marks a turning point in the story. Choose one story and follow the changes that the trail of blood brings into the life of the protagonist (or alternatively, compare and contrast the two stories).
- What were the main character’s circumstances and inner condition before the violent event?
- What adventure did the blood bring about in his/her life?
- How was he/she different after “following” the trail?
- What do you think the blood symbolizes?
- What about the bird? Is it important what type of bird it is? Why or why not?
And, again, if you want to make it a little more personal for the students:
- Is violence or trauma (as symbolized by the blood) ever a turning point in a positive way? Why or why not? How does love play a role in “turning us around” when we are faced with a wound? Can you think of an example when a wound has led to greater love?
Teaching Marie’s Lais in a Medieval History Class
In a Waldorf school, many students will have had medieval history for the first time in 6th grade, when feudalism was presented as a relatively stable, perhaps even romanticized, pyramid structure. (Peasants on bottom, then landowners, knights, then higher nobles, then kings at the top–with clergy and bishops thrown in on the side, perhaps.) And this was as it probably should be for younger students, who need things presented in a clear, digestible way. However, as 11th graders (when medieval history is usually taught in Waldorf high schools), your students are ready to mix it up a little and begin to understand that social structures are not static, but are constantly negotiated and renegotiated by all the stake-holders involved. To put it another way, societies are not objects or “isms” (as in feudalism), but rather, a continually unfolding process–verbs instead of a nouns, if you will. Of course it’s natural to talk about social structures as “isms” as a kind of shorthand. But as Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, was forever pointing out, the temptation to make dynamic processes into material objects should be resisted whenever possible–in history as in life.
As I suggested in my first post on Marie de France, Marie’s Lais offer us a window into how people carved out spaces for personal action and transformation within what we might describe as fairly rigid social structures. This makes her tales perfect venues for exploring how seemingly entrenched social forms (such as feudalism) can be seen as ongoing dynamic processes. Through her stories, we see people negotiating their roles in the social order, sometimes complying with what is expected of them, and sometimes resisting it. I’d argue that her own somewhat anomalous position as a female author nudged her to imagine different possible viewpoints within stories. Her gender-bending lai “Lanval,” for instance, is a perfect example of this type of skewing of the expected narrative. I’d recommend looking at it whenever you discuss vassalage, gender roles in the middle ages, or the mutual responsibilities of royalty and subjects.
Lanval: A Fairy Queen?
The basic plot of “Lanval” is relatively simple. A knight (the eponymous Lanval), whose service is unappreciated by Arthur’s court, despairs until he encounters a fairy queen who not only showers him with love, but with untold wealth. Newly enriched, he returns to Arthur’s court only to be propositioned by Queen Guinevere, who, when she is spurned, accuses him of being gay. Now Lanval’s fairy lover (no pun intended) had warned him not to reveal her existence to the world or he would lose her forever. But in the face of Queen Guinevere’s accusation, he cannot resist bragging about his lover, comparing Guinevere (unfavorably) to his own lady. Lanval’s boast, is to say the least, unwise. Guinevere retaliates by accusing him of attempted rape, and Arthur puts Lanval on trial, with the redoubtable Gawain as his counsel. At the very last minute, the fairy queen, attended by two young maidens “dressed only in purple taffeta next to their bare skin,” shows up. (The knights of Arthur’s court, Marie reports, were “pleased to see the maidens.” Um…yeah, I guess so.) Gawain, Ywain, and all the other knights rejoice that Lanval is vindicated, for it is apparent to all that even the maidens, not to mention the fairy queen herself, are “more worthy than the queen [i.e. Guinevere] had ever been.” Then the fairy lady, rides off to Avalon with Lanval aback her horse, leaving everyone behind in the dust. (Take that, Disney princesses!)
John S. Troutman, a wickedly funny cartoonist who has drawn strips on numerous literary subjects, has rendered the whole lai into eight strips. Here are my two favorite (click on them to enlarge and read):
So, in case the strips didn’t make it perfectly clear, there are a few things about Marie’s lai that don’t quite jive with the usual knight in shining armor story we all know and love.
First, both Arthur and his queen are total tools. We begin the story with Arthur ignoring Lanval’s worthy service, only to joyfully receive him once the knight has accumulated vast amounts of wealth. Then Guinevere sends her maidens to seduce the other knights so that she can get it on with Lanval, only to accuse him of being gay and then of trying to rape her when she’s rejected. Meanwhile, Arthur, oblivious to Guinevere’s scheming, is wrapped around her little finger, and ultimately so passive that he just sort of stands there when the fairy queen shows up to save the day. Not exactly the Camelot we read about in other books.
Second (and this follows from the first point), Marie calls not just Camelot, but the whole chivalric code itself into question by the basic un-soundness of everyone involved. Knights are recognized for wealth rather than service; maidens and knights are only interested in sex and money; kings and queens exist in a little privileged bubble of infighting and intrigue. And, let’s face it, the “hero” of the tale himself is a knight whose riches, fame, and ultimate salvation depend on the graces of a fairy princess. No wonder he throws it all over to go spend eternity in Avalon. Who wouldn’t?
Of course, Marie wrote other lais, and not all of them are this critical of feudal relationships. However, “Lanval” offers us a fabulous trip through the looking glass to see how those towards the bottom of the vassalage system might have viewed the whole structure. (And by “bottom,” here, I’m still talking about relative positions within the noble class–Lanval, though unappreciated and poor at the start of the tale, is still a knight.)
With all this background in mind, then, here are some possible questions for discussion either in class or in an essay:
- Do you recognize any of these characters from other stories or legends? Is there anything surprising or different about them here? Were there any points in the story where you were surprised at the characters’ actions? When, and why?
- Describe the relationship between Lanval and the fairy queen? Who has the upper hand in their relationship? In what ways do their roles either challenge or support typical “knight in shining armor” tales? Why do you think the author chose to portray them this way?
- What is Lanval’s relationship to King Arthur and Queen Guinevere? Does the relationship between the three of them bear out the expectations of the chivalric code? Why or why not?
- In Lanval’s relationship with Queen Guinevere, who has the upper hand? Why? Do you think this is a realistic portrayal of how a knight and queen might relate to each other? Why or why not?
- What do you think the author was trying to say about: a) King Arthur’s court, b) chivalry in general, c) relationships between men and women?
- If you had to choose one “main message” that the author was trying to get across in this story, what would it be? Is there only one message in this story? Do you find her message(s) easy or difficult to “decode”? Why or why not?
Some more personal reflections might be:
- What myths or ideals about gender and/or relationships do we have in our culture? Do you think we usually fit them? Why or why not?
- What about people who don’t fit our culture’s gender or relationship “norms”? What place do they have in our culture?
- Assuming that running off to Avalon with a hot fairy lover isn’t a viable option for most of us, what can we do as a culture to open up a space for people to live outside our gender and relationship “ideals?” What can we do in our own lives?
Chaitivel: A Case for a Court of Love?
The fourth and final lai I’ll present here is “Chaitivel,” a story that ends with a question: Which of these characters has suffered the most for love? Some scholars believe that the lai was modeled on tales used in the “courts of love”–a popular pastime for nobles introduced by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne at just about the time Marie was writing. These “courts” assembled a jury of high-born ladies to adjudicate lovers’ disputes, cases of wronged spouses, and amorous quandaries, passing “sentences” on the men and women involved, who, in turn, were expected implement the court’s decision faithfully. Scholars disagree over whether or not the cases the courts judged were real or fictional; most believe it was a combination of the two. (2)
“Chaitivel” may therefore be an example of one such dilemma posed to a court of love: one woman is loved by (and truly loves) four champions, three of whom die in a tournament, while the fourth is terribly wounded in the groin. Who, Marie asks, is the most unfortunate? The women, who lost four lovers in one day, or the remaining man, who lives, but because of his injury, cannot pursue his love?
The lai itself is very brief–only 3 1/2 pages long. The work of the class, I’d suggest, would be to re-create an actual court of love with “Chaitivel” as it’s central conundrum. For instance, I could imagine splitting the class into three parts: the jury (you could decide whether it would be faithful to the original concept and be composed of all girls), the advocates for the woman’s side, and the advocates for the wounded knight. Give each of the “opponent” groups time to consult and construct their argument–this could be brief (15 minutes in class) or longer (overnight, or even with a few days’ advance notice). On the day of the court of love, each side presents its case to the jury, which then receives time (again, either in-class or as homework) to meet and make its decision (which it should be prepared to explain and defend). The jury might be guided in its decision by the “rules of love” as outlined by Andre Capellanus that I reference in note 2.
The great thing about this recreation is that it can be as simple or elaborate as you like. The whole thing could be done as a relatively quick, one-day, in-class exercise (the lai having been read the night before as homework). Or you could go whole-hog with costumes, assigned roles, and time to prepare formal arguments. You could even add a creative writing assignment at the end of the exercise:
- Write your own 2-3 page lai (rhymed or prose) that presents the reader with a dilemma similar to that of “Chaitivel.” The conundrum could involve judging who has suffered more for love, an ethical case (for instance, where a lover’s loyalties are torn and you are asking the reader to make a moral decision), or another such lovers’ dilemma. You may set your lai either in medieval or modern times.
- Alternatively, write a song, poem, or comic strip that re-presents one of Marie’s lais. For instance, here’s an example of a lovely Celtic-style song that a Brit named Giles Watson has written about “Chaitivel.”
Or, for a more formal writing assignment, have the kids write up a defense of the position they argued in class and turn it in as a position paper or persuasive essay.
Final thoughts on Teaching Marie
Whenever I’m teaching texts or periods of history where there are relatively limited or proscribed roles for women (or any other group for that matter), I like to ask the students: “How do these characters find ways of becoming heroes (or heroines) despite the restrictions placed upon them?” I often follow up with a question addressed to the students’ own lives: “Given that you, as teenagers, face a number of restrictions on your behavior or ability to do certain things, how do you make space to be a hero(ine) in your own life, or be the master/mistress of your own destiny?” That one always gets the class going–from eyeball rolling at the mention of teenage “restrictions” to often wonderful and creative reflections on the ways in which they (like the characters in the stories) find ways to work within or around the system to create change. Questions like these can be used with any one of Marie’s Lais, since all of them portray people “working the system” (as it were) in order to achieve a desired end.
Another point worth making: these questions about agency are just as relevant for boys as girls. Marie’s male protagonists, for instance, are bound by oaths of loyalty and distinctly hierarchical duties of vassalage that can put them in a distinct bind, as Lanval found out to his peril. Throughout our lives, most of us will continue to operate in circumstances that place restrictions on our behavior and options, whether at home (as teenagers), in the romantic arena (with commitments of fidelity or marriage), at work (bosses, organizational structures and rules), or a gazillion other situations. The beauty and flexibility of Marie’s work is that she inhabits a number of differing viewpoints, allowing us to examine big questions of hierarchy, gender roles, and reciprocal obligations–both in feudal times and our own.
For the final word on Marie’s oeuvre, though, I think we should turn to that eminent feminist scholar, Ryan Gosling:
(1) It’s worth mentioning here that many scholars have interpreted the lady’s knotted belt in “Guigemar” as the earliest mention of a chastity belt, because it foils her attempted rape by the evil king Meriaduc and his knights. The depiction of the belt in Marie’s work adds fuel to the debate over whether medieval chastity belts were intended by jealous husbands to prevent women from being unfaithful, or whether they were essentially anti-rape devices used for women’s protection (or both). There’s some evidence from contemporary cultures (Indonesia, for example, during the 2000 ethnic riots) that such belts are sometimes used by women for their own protection.
In any case, it’s worth noting two seemingly contradictory interpretations of the lovers’ knots. On the one hand, the knot on Guigemar’s clothing does not actually prevent him from having sex with other people, so it’s not really equivalent to the lady’s belt. One could therefore argue that the disparity in their respective knots underscores the essential gender difference with man being free to control his sexuality and the woman unfree. However, on the other hand, since the belt actually saves the lady from being raped, one could argue either a) that the belt-knot is simply a realistic acknowledgment of the dangers she, as a woman, might actually face at the hands of other men, or even b) that it is precisely the love of among equals as symbolized by the knot that protects her from the violence of men who do not view her as an equal, but as prey. Either interpretation of the knots, positive or negative, could be argued effectively, and one might ask about the knots in class and draw out both sides of the argument from the kids themselves. And you could certainly look at this whole question of the parity of the knots without talking about chastity belts per se.
(2) Scholars also dispute whether these courts were merely a pastime for nobles, or whether they actually were binding in some legal sense; however, they do generally agree that the courts were put into practice in some form (as opposed to being simply poetic metaphors), and on the basic court structure as being led by women. For a brief overview (from the perspective of someone who believes the courts had real juridical oversight), click here. Another fascinating resource is Andre Capellanus’ De Amore (written at the behest of Marie de Champagne)–a list of 31 rules that outline the basic tenets of courtly love. For an online translation, click here. These rules could be useful guidelines in the “court of love” exercise I suggest to go along with your students’ reading of “Chaitivel.”