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.