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Posts Tagged ‘Marie de France’

Marie gave those two archetypal medieval binders of women–forced marriage and jealous husbands–a kick in the pants.

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

It was only a matter of time before someone started a hipster Disney princess meme. I think Marie would approve. (Source)

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 Parzifalbut 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.”

Guigemar

In “Guigemar,” the lovers’ fidelity is symbolized by matching knots in their clothing. (Source)

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.

Love, marriage, and birds: three themes found in Wolfram’s Parzifal and Marie’s Lais. (Source)

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?

Yonec

A damsel in a tower is visited by an enchanted bird/lover, as in Marie’s Lanval. Marie would certainly agree with the motto, which reads, “Love is a rebellious bird.” (Source)

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.

Bird’s blood on snow is a turning point in both Parzifal and Yonec. (Source)

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):

A painting of Parzifal’s vision of Condwiramurs by the artist David Goodrich. (Source)

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

This is how medieval social structures are usually taught to younger children. We can help mix it up a bit by the time the students reach high school. (Source)

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):

Lanval and the fairy queen meet… (Source)

But their idyllic dalliance is interrupted by Guinevere’s scheming. (Source)

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.

Marie seems to have agreed with Monty Python on this one–Camelot is a silly place.

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?

Lanval: the first metrosexual knight? Perhaps the Disney princes could take a page out of his book.  (Source)

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)

A wounded knight and a bereft lady: who has suffered more? Painting by William Gale, 1853 (Source)

“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:

From one of my favorite websites, “Feminist Ryan Gosling.” (Source)

‘Nuff said.

——

NOTES

A medieval chastity belt with lock. (Source)

(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.”

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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 what we would now call “chivalric tales.”  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.

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 fulfillment.  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!

——-

NOTES

(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.

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