Marie de France Questions and Answers

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Do you think courtly love in any way elevated the status of women in the works of Marie de France?

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This is actually a very complex question, because in some ways the traditions of courtly love were used and subverted by Marie de France to challenge the position of women at the time, however in other ways, courtly love was something that objectified women and kept them in a position of powerlessness and entrapment. It is important to recognise the way that so many of Marie de France's heroines engage in relationships that were either adulterous or out of wedlock, or even polygamous. These clearly were not kinds of relationships that were sanctioned by the church at the time. In addition, the heroines are often instigators of such relationships, suggesting that women can attain sexual freedom. The presentation of her female characters also hints at stronger female characters who are more dominant than other texts based on the conventions of courtly love. 

However, having said this, in some ways the tradition of courtly love did not elevate the status of women. Whilst there are examples of women who certainly defy convention and are more dominant characters, the end result of seeking unorthodox and unsanctioned relationships, whatever the author might say or think about them, is suffering and/or death. Note for example the fate of both the King and his mistress in "Equitane":

Thus they both died, the king first and she with him.

The punishment for trying to become queen is death. The message is loud and clear: in trying to rise above her status as a mistress and become queen, Equitane is reaching above her natural position, and she is punished as a result, alongside her royal consort for trying to bring a relationship to the centre of everybody's attention when it should have remained well and truly secret. Whilst it is hinted that women are given more freedom through Marie de France's works and the presentation of courtly love within them, it is clear that such freedom always is shown to have its cost, and this normally involves immense suffering or death. 

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