Marie de France Circa Twelfth Century
Marie de France is the earliest known female French writer and is regarded as one of the finest poets of the twelfth century. She wrote during a western European cultural renaissance marked by the expansion of urban life and the rise of a new class of intellectuals, which included women. As a member of this class, Marie was able to obtain an extensive education and pursue a writing career. Although most modern scholars attribute to Marie a collection of fables and a translation of the legend of Saint Patrick, she is best known for her Lais, a collection of twelve verse tales written in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. Historians speculate that Marie may have been the originator of this form, but they concede that the absence of extant Breton lays, upon which Marie claimed to have based her own Lais, makes it difficult to determine the extent of her originality. Whether or not Marie de France invented the genre, critics assert that her Lais form an important part of medieval literature.
Very little is known for certain about Marie's life; therefore, much of the information cited by biographers is conjectural. In each of her three works Marie names herself as author, providing a clue to her identity and implying a concern for protecting her authorship. Biographers generally agree that Marie was born in France in the last half of the twelfth century and that she lived for many years in England. Many critics point to her vocabulary, style, and knowledge of Latin, French, and English as proof that she was an aristocrat. It is possible that she was associated with the English court, which was French-speaking at the time. Marie in fact dedicated her Lais to a "noble King," who, critics note, may be either the English monarch Henry II or his son Henry, known as the Young King. A commonly asserted theory of Marie's identity is that she was the illegitimate daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet, thus the half-sister of Henry II, and that she later became the abbess of Shaftesbury. Alternatively, several critics have suggested that Marie was the daughter of Anglo-Norman nobles Galeran de Meulan and Agnes de Montfort. The name by which Marie is known today was coined by Claude Fauchet in 1581. While consulting a manuscript that included a collection of fables, Fauchet read in the epilogue, "Marie is my name and I am from France," and thereafter referred to the author as Marie de France.
Marie's Lais, a collection of twelve lays or narrative songs, is thought to be her first literary work. In her prologue to the Lais, Marie states her intention and her source: she had heard Breton lays and decided to document them for posterity and for her own fame. Scholars believe that Les Fables d'Ysopet, a collection of twenty-three fables she translated from English into French, constitutes Marie's second work. The title of this work cites "Ysopet," or Aesop, as Marie's model, but in the epilogue she acknowledges Alfred the Great, whose fables have been lost, as her source. As with the Lais, the lack of preserved literary antecedents for the Fables makes it difficult to determine the level of Marie's originality. L'Espurgatoire Saint Patriz, which is believed to be her third and final work, is a close translation into French of Henricus Salteriensis's Latin version of the legend of St. Patrick.
In the Lais, Marie places her characters in a variety of circumstances covering the fundamental issue of love in human relationships. As the narrator of events, she acts as a quiet observer, relating details of clothing, speech, and courtly lifestyles, as well as facets of social behavior. Although her Lais has a subtly didactic tone, Marie refrains from analysis or outright judgment, presenting an assortment of conflicts with unpredictable resolutions. Many of Marie's characters live in a hostile world, trapped literally by a jealous husband or figuratively by social or familial obligations, and they seek an ideal love as a means of escape. Some critics conclude that Marie presents marital love as the ideal, while others surmise that she treats adultery as a more dangerous and, therefore, stronger expression of passion. A love that is loyal, generous, and pure results in success for the lovers, regardless of marital ties, while a love that is selfish or impure ends in tragedy or punishment. Like the Lais, Marie's Fables shows her concern for individual growth and well-being. Many of the lessons taught by these stories affirm the injunction set forth in the epilogue to the collection: "one who neglects one's own interests acts foolishly." Through the actions of characters in the fables, Marie asserts her disdain both for manipulators and those careless enough to become victims. She also warns against corrupt and villainous officials. Didactic by nature, the fables instruct readers to fight the oppression of the weak, to root out corruption and greed, and to choose a simple and free life over a luxurious but enslaved existence.
The number of manuscripts of Marie's work that have survived through the centuries serves as evidence of her importance as a medieval writer. However, the bulk of English criticism of her works did not appear until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Scholars note one mention of her by a contemporary, Denis Piramus, who in his work La Vie Seint Edmund Le Rei (1190-1200) speaks of a "lady Marie who wrote in rhyme and composed the verses of lais." Critics today describe Marie de France as a storyteller of great charm and imagination who wrote with wit, intelligence, and economy. On the other hand, what certain critics refer to as charming simplicity in Marie's writing some view as a lack of sophistication. Her character depiction, for example, has been judged by some to be two-dimensional; others, however, have asserted that Marie intentionally established fixed types so that the slightest deviation would be noticeable, thereby contributing to the definition and differentiation of her characters. Some critics cite as a weakness her tendency to create absurd situations—as in the lai "Yonec" in which a pregnant woman jumps twenty feet from the tower where she is imprisoned, lands unhurt, and journeys to find her lover. But others argue that Marie's Lais is purposely absurd and thereby intent on conveying both humor and irony. Finally, scholars note that Marie's narratives depict not only the style of dress and manner of speech but also the behavioral codes and societal attitudes of the late twelfth century. Her vivid portrait of life in the medieval Anglo-Norman court has attracted the attention of critics and historians throughout the centuries, but it is her insightful treatment of love and human relationships that has secured her universal appeal.