Marie de France Biography

Biography (History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: The earliest known French woman poet, Marie de France is still admired for her narrative and poetic skill and for her psychological insight.

Early Life

Marie de France’s identity is still a matter of conjecture. Her name is known because in an epilogue to Fables (after 1170; English translation, 1898) she said, “My name is Marie, and I come from France.” It has been pointed out that during the twelfth century “France” was actually the Île de France, the area within the rivers around Paris, as opposed, for example, to Normandy. The phrase “from France” and other evidence indicate that she was not living in France when she composed her works; it is fairly clear that she was in England, and that the king to whom she dedicated Lais (c. 1167; Lays of Marie de France and Other French Legends, 1911, better known as The Lais) was Henry II of England.

Marie de France was almost certainly a member of the nobility. She was well read and knew English and Latin as well as her native French. She was influenced by Ovid, and she claimed to have taken her fables from those of Alfred the Great; regardless of whether she actually did, she was familiar with earlier English literature. Beyond this, conjecture begins. Scholars have suggested that she might have been the abbess of Reading, a noble lady in Herefordshire, or a countess. Some evidence exists that she could be the abbess of Shaftesbury, King Henry’s illegitimate half sister, the daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet. There has been much speculation as to the identity of the “Count William” to whom Fables is dedicated, but because the name was so popular at Henry’s court that clue has not been helpful. At any rate, because her work does not include any borrowings from the influential Chrétien de Troyes, it is assumed that her first poems, the lais (lays), were composed in the latter part of the 1160’s.

Because so little is known about her life, her personality must be deduced from her work. She is a member of the privileged classes, compassionate toward her inferiors but impatient with their attempts to rise above their proper station. Highly intelligent and well read, she is gifted also with the common sense evident in Fables and with the insight into human nature which can be seen in The Lais.

Life’s Work

Marie de France’s first work was a group of twelve lais, or narrative poems retold from stories, many of Celtic origin, which she had probably heard sung by Breton bards. Generally they are either set in Brittany or attributed to a Breton source. Marie de France formulated her own structure for these poems: a prologue, the story, and an epilogue, all in octosyllabic couplets. The Lays vary in length from one hundred to one thousand lines. Their theme is the power of love, which sometimes shapes lives for good, sometimes for bad. The stories include temptation, infidelity, treachery, seduction, betrayal, frustration, imprisonment, suffering, and death, as well as fidelity, forgiveness, and reunion. In addition to the thematic unity, the stories are unified by the voice of the poet, a realist who reveals the subtle differences among her characters, despite the similarity of the intensity of their passions.

The Lays have been divided between those which are realistic and those which draw upon folklore or in some way include supernatural elements. Sometimes the realistic stories end sadly, sometimes happily. “La Fraisne,” for example, ends with a young girl’s reunion with the mother who had abandoned her; “Milun,” with the marriage of the lovers and their reunion with their son. “Chaitivel” and “Les Dous Amanz,” on the other hand, end in bitterness and death.

Interestingly, adulterous loves are treated sympathetically in some stories and unsympathetically in others. “Chievrefueil” is a touching story of a brief, idyllic tryst between the Queen of Cornwall and her banished Tristan. In “Laostic,” too, the sympathy is with the lovers, not with the old husband. The scheming lovers in “Équitan” on the other hand are scalded to death. In “Eliduc,” the faithful mate, in this case the wife, is the sympathetic character. Nobly desiring her husband’s happiness, she retires to a convent so that he can be with the princess he loves. Later, both Eliduc and his new wife follow the first wife’s lead and give up human love for divine.

Although the supernatural tales will support some interesting symbolic or allegorical analyses, on the surface they deal with the same problems and passions as the realistic lays. The hero of “Bisclavret” is a werewolf with a wife just as treacherous as the wife in “Équitan,” and as the faithful mate, he is rewarded. True love, however, is not necessarily marital love. In Marie de France’s other three lays, the supernatural forces are on the side of true love. In “Guigemar,” a magic boat brings a lover to a...

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Marie de France Biography (Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Of the life of Marie de France, nothing can be said with certainty; her name is known because she included it in her works, but her identity is otherwise obscure. It is probable that she was born in France, in Île de France (the region of which Paris was the capital), and that she lived much of her life in England. She wrote in the Anglo-Norman dialect of Old French, which was spoken by the ruling class in twelfth century England, and knew English as well (she translated her Fables from an English original, now lost). It is unlikely that she would have identified herself by her place of origin if she had still been living there; moreover, the best manuscripts of her Lais and Fables were found in England. It is also probable that she was a woman of noble birth, for she had noble patrons and even dedicated her Lais to a king; she may also have been a nun, for she knew Latin well (as can be seen from her translation of the Treatise on Saint Patrick’s Purgatory) and was better educated than most laywomen would have had occasion to be.

Beyond this, all is speculation, and as Philippe Ménard has observed, the very number of proposed identifications indicates the tenuous character of the evidence. An attractive possibility—but only a possibility—is that she was Mary, abbess of Shaftesbury, an illegitimate daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet and half sister to Henry II of England. This would account for her apparent familiarity with members of noble circles and with the courtly literature of which Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was an important patron.

Marie de France Marie as Storyteller (Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Because Marie is a narrative poet, her literary art is primarily that of the storyteller; thus, critical studies have emphasized her choice of significant detail, her use of dialogue, and, above all, her skill in the ordering and pacing of plots. It is important to remember, however, especially if one reads her in a prose translation (and there are no verse translations in English), that she is also a poet, writing in rhymed octosyllabic couplets. Far from interrupting the flow of her narrative, this form contributes to its spare and vigorous quality. In contrast to the romances being written by her contemporaries in the same meter, the lays are anything but digressive. This is especially striking in the shorter lays, where not a line is wasted. Fables, though not an original work, deserves to be mentioned in this context because it demonstrates the same skill of compression to an even greater degree: The longer of the fables are of the same length as the shorter of the lays. The moral with which each fable concludes is particularly compressed (between four and eight lines long), and the rhymes are carefully chosen to bring home the point with special force.

Marie de France Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Only two facts are certain about Marie: her name and her provenance. She names herself in each of her works, and in the Medieval Fables she says that she is “de France.” Although there are several Maries mentioned in this period, notably Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and patroness of Chrétien de Troyes, the most appealing identification of Marie de France is with Marie, abbess of Shaftesbury, the natural daughter of Geoffrey of Anjou and half sister of Henry II of England. The precise date of Marie’s birth is unknown but a floruit of 1155-1215 seems reasonably firm. From the allusions in her works, she was obviously well educated (she mentions Priscian and Ovid), and she was aware of...

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Marie de France Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although very little is truly known of the life of Marie de France (mah-ree duh frahns), modern scholars are in agreement that she wrote during the latter half of the twelfth century. Because of the accuracy of her description of Pitre, an ancient town about three miles from Rouen, some scholars have speculated that Marie might have been a native of that Norman town. Her Lais, dedicated to “a noble king,” seems to indicate that she was at the English court during the reign of Henry II and that the narrative poems of the Lais were dedicated to him. Although she lived at the English court, she used Norman French, which was typical of her class. Marie de France’s writings show that she knew not only English and...

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