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Marie de France is the earliest French woman poet whose name is known today. Her major work, The Lais of Marie de France , consists of twelve poems that range in length from 118 to 1,184 lines. Although these poems were composed over a number of years, Marie decided at...

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Marie de France is the earliest French woman poet whose name is known today. Her major work, The Lais of Marie de France, consists of twelve poems that range in length from 118 to 1,184 lines. Although these poems were composed over a number of years, Marie decided at some point to collect the lais into a single book. She added a fifty-six-line prologue dedicating the volume to a “noble king” whom she never names. For more than a century, scholars have attempted to determine this king’s identity—and even the land that he ruled—but the matter remains a mystery. One leading possibility is that Marie’s “noble king” was Henry II, the English ruler who came to the throne in 1154. Like Marie, Henry was of French descent but lived in England, where a large number of the Lais were set.

The word lai (plural lais) that Marie adopts for her poems is a French borrowing of the Provençal term for “ballad.” Originally, lais were short, lyric poems sung to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. By Marie’s time, however, the term lais had expanded to include nonmusical poems intended to be read, either privately or as part of a court entertainment. In Marie’s Lais, references to such figures as the Roman poet Ovid, the medieval grammarian Priscian, and the legendary Babylonian queen Semiramis make it clear that these works were intended for a highly educated audience. Marie herself appears to have been quite learned. She knew both Latin and English and attained a wide reputation for her poetry during her own lifetime.

The Lais of Marie de France were written in Old French with rhyming couplets of eight-syllable lines. Each of the poems presents a romantic crisis that leads the central characters to an adventure. Some stories, such as “Equitan,” attempt to teach a moral lesson; most are pure entertainment. A few of the lais, including “Chaitivel” and “The Two Lovers,” end tragically. The majority of the poems, however, represent love as ultimately triumphant over obstacles arising during the course of the story.

Context

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Marie de France was a pioneer in women’s literature not because she limited herself to issues of concern to women but because she achieved prominence in a genre that would long remain dominated by men. Throughout the entire Middle Ages, Marie was the only woman author of romantic tales to achieve a status equal to that of Chrétien de Troyes, Guillaume de Lorris, Jean (Clopinel) de Meung, Gottfried von Strassburg, and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

As a result of both the conventions of medieval romance and the culture of her time, Marie often gave more attention to the male characters in her poems than to the female characters. With the exception of Le Fresne (“Ash Tree”) and La Codre (“Hazel Tree”), whose names are central to the plot of the story, few women in Marie’s Lais are even named. Most women simply have titles, such as “Meriaduc’s sister” and “Eliduc’s wife,” that define their position in terms of their male relatives. Even Guinevere, who appears as a minor character in “Lanval,” is called simply “the queen.” Nevertheless, Marie’s success in her genre prepared the way for such later women authors as Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549), whose Heptaméron was based upon the structure of the Decameron (1348-1353; English translation, 1702), by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). Moreover, Marie’s aristocratic and intellectual poetry anticipated the later works of such authors as Anna, Comtesse de Noailles (1876-1933) and Catherine Pozzi (1882-1934).

Bibliography

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Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn. “Marie de France.” In French Women Writers, edited by Eva Sartori and Dorothy Zimmerman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. Discussions of the chronology and themes of the lais and a concise survey of critical writings, including the importance of the lais in feminist studies.

Burgess, Glyn Sheridan. “Chivalry and Prowess in the Lais of Marie de France.” French Studies 37 (April, 1983): 129-142. Burgess argues that the Lais are primarily an upper-class phenomenon presenting twelfth century knights in the context of their social superiors. This article also studies the vocabulary that Marie adopts for various courtly virtues.

Burgess, Glyn Sheridan. “The Lais of Marie de France”: Text and Context. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. The best general analysis of the Lais, this work deals with such matters as chronology, chivalry, character analysis, vocabulary, and the status of women in the poems. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Keith Busby. Introduction to The Lais of Marie de France. London: Penguin Books, 1986. Overview of the extant manuscripts, composition of The Lais of Marie de France, and the major themes and impact of the work. Includes a comparison of the lais with other medieval genres.

Chamberlain, David. “Marie de France’s Arthurian Lai: Subtle and Political.” In Culture and the King: The Social Implications of the Arthurian Legend, edited by Martin Shichtman and James Carley. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. An interpretation of the story of Lanval. Points out the importance of irony, iconography, and humor.

Clifford, Paula. Marie de France: Lais. London: Grant & Cutler, 1982. A succinct study of love and destiny in the lais, with background information on Marie de France and her contribution to twelfth century literature.

Damon, S. Foster. “Marie de France: Psychologist of Courtly Love.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 44 (1929): 968-996. This article argues that, since Marie was writing before the “laws” of courtly love were established, she was freer than later authors to develop the actions of her characters. Also includes a useful chart analyzing the hero, heroine, and villain of each lai, as well as the solutions to the romantic crises of the poems.

Ferrante, Joan M. “The French Courtly Poet: Marie de France.” In Medieval Women Writers, edited by Katharina M. Wilson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. Contains a brief résumé and an analysis of the stories from the perspective of love and personal relations. Provides information on Marie’s other works and includes Ferrante’s own English translation of the Yonec tale.

Jackson, W. T. H. “The Arthuricity of Marie de France.” Romanic Review 70 (1979): 1-18. Jackson suggests that Marie’s purpose was to question the assumptions of the courtly romance. As a result, she created almost a parody of that genre.

Mickel, Emanuel J. Marie de France. New York: Twayne, 1974. Intended for the general reader, this is a good introduction to many aspects of the Lais. Contains a discussion of Marie’s possible identity, the sources of her works, a historical background, and a concise discussion of each poem.

Rothschild, Judith Rice. “Sin, Charity and Punishment in Marie de France’s Lais.” Medieval Perspectives 2, no. 1 (Spring, 1987): 91-103. An examination of nontraditional morality expressed in the lais.

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