Marie de France Additional Biography


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 as Storyteller

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.


(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 the conventions of “courtly” romance of her time, although her connections with and influence of and by her contemporaries are unclear.


(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 French but also Latin, a remarkable achievement for a woman of her time.

The Lais of Marie de France is among the highlights of Old French literature. Her material, not original, has analogues in many literatures, as do many of the writings from the medieval period. The narrative poems collected in the Lais cover a variety of subjects: “Lanval” is a story of a human knight beloved of a fairy; “Les Deux Amants” tells of a young man who dies carrying his beloved up a high, steep hill; “Bisclavret” is a story about a werewolf; and “Le Chèvre-feuille” is a retelling of part of the Tristan-Isolde story. Many modern scholars have remarked on her distinctive narrative voice, which offers insight into the socio-literary conventions of her day. Marie de France is usually credited with writing the first Old French Ysopet, or collection of fables similar to Aesop’s. Her title, which came to be applied generally to such collections, is the Old French diminutive form of Aesop’s name.

Marie de France evidently found both personal favor and popularity as an author at the English court. She is credited with influencing the later use of the lai by medieval authors; in addition, her works are invaluable to modern feminist scholars.