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.