Marie de France 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...

(The entire section is 2077 words.)