Marie de France Circa Twelfth Century - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Marie de France Circa Twelfth Century

French poet.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal English Translations

(Poetry Criticism)

Guingamor, Lanval, Tyolet, Bisclaveret (translated by Jessie L. Weston) 1900

Marie de France: Seven of Her Lays Done into English (translated by Edith Rickert) 1901

French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France (translated by Eugene Mason) 1911

The Lays Gugemar, Lanval, and a Fragment of Yonec (translated by Julian Harris) 1930

Marie de France: Fables (translated by Alfred Ewert and R. C. Johnston) 1942

Marie de France: Lais (translated by Alfred Ewert) 1944

The Lais of Marie de France (translated by Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante) 1978

The Fables of Marie de France (translated by Mary Lou Martin) 1984

The Lais of Marie de France (translated by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby) 1986

Fables (translated by Harriet Spiegel) 1987

William S. Woods (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Marie de France's 'Laüstic'," in Romance Notes, Vol. XII, No. 1, Autumn, 1970, pp. 203-07.

[In the following essay, Woods examines the structure of the lai "Laüstic," demonstrating how Marie de France used concision, understatement, and powerful symbols to tell this brief tale effectively.]

The present discussion of the literary skill of Marie de France is a brief analysis of some of her poetic techniques in the lai, "Laustic" and is a demonstration of her ability at its best. A careful and sensitive reading of this story reveals the use of aesthetic devices which we value today as much as Marie evidently did.

An examination...

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Rupert T. Pickens (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Equitan': Anti-'Guigemar'," in Romance Notes, Vol. XV, No. 2, Winter, 1973, pp. 361-67.

[In the following excerpt, Pickens compares "Equitan" to the lai "Guigemar" and defends "Equitan" against those critics who call it an inferior lai.]

No other lai of Marie de France has suffered more at the hands of critics than "Equitan" To Hoepffner it is nothing more than "un médiocre fait-divers sans grandeur qui fournirait plutôt matière à un fabliau ou à un conte drôlatique qu'à un de ces contes sentimentaux qui sont dans la manière de notre poétesse" [Ernest Hoepffner, Les Lais de Marie de France, n.d.]. Without its love casuistry,...

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Frederick Hodgson (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alienation and the Otherworld in 'Lanval,' 'Yonec,' and 'Guigemar'," in Comitatus, Vol. V, 1974, pp. 19-31.

[In the following essay, Hodgson discusses Marie's use of the supernatural in her lais to highlight the conflict between society and love that her characters face.]

Much of the critical attention devoted to the lais of Marie de France has been directed toward tracing the origin of the motifs which constitute their framework. By determining the nature of the tradition which inspired Marie, source critics have hoped to measure her originality, her role in the creation of one of the richest of medieval genres. Since the results of such...

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Emanuel J. Mickel, Jr. (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Unity and Significance of Marie's 'Prologue'," in Romania, Vol. 96, No. 1, 1975, pp. 83-91.

[In the following essay, Mickel offers a line-by-line analysis and reinterpretation of the difficult "Prologue" to Marie de France's Lais.]

The importance of Marie's "Prologue" has been recognized by scholars since the earliest studies of the Lais. To early scholars, interested in the origin of the lai as a literary form and in establishing the sources which Marie used, the interpretation of lines 33 to 42 of the "Prologue" was crucial to an understanding of the literary history of the text. Because they did not relate to the problem of the origins of...

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Samuel T. Cowling (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Image of the Tournament in Marie de France's 'Le Chaitivel'," in Romance Notes, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Spring, 1975, pp. 686-91.

[In the following essay, Cowling refutes critical opinion that the lady in the lai "Chaitivel" is selfish and cruel.]

That the lais of Marie de France concentrate upon delicate feelings and exquisite emotions has long been recognized. Years ago J. D. Bruce wrote [in The Evolution of Arthurian Romance From the Beginnings Down to the Year 1300, 1928] of the romantic charm and grace of the lais, and Gaston Paris characterized the tone of Marie's work as "tendre et mélancolique" [La Litterature française au...

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Patrick John Ireland (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Narrative Unity of the 'Lanval' of Marie de France," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXIV, No. 2, April, 1977, pp. 130-45.

[In the following essay, Ireland divides the story line of "Lanval" into four "stages" while demonstrating the lai's connections with later Arthurian romances.]

In perhaps the best book to date on Marie de France, Emanuel Mickel, Jr. has done much to clarify for the more peripheral reader the complex issues surrounding the medieval lai [Marie de France, 1974]. According to Professor Mickel's résumé of the scholarship, not only does the relationship between Marie's narrative lais and earlier Breton sources...

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Brewster E. Fitz (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Desire and Interpretation: Marie de France's 'Chievrefoil'," in Yale French Studies, No. 58, 1979, pp. 182-89.

[In the following essay, Fitz uses deconstructionist theory to reveal the "truth" in the lai "Chievrefoil."]

The Lais of Marie de France are rimed narratives that tell how, why, where and by whom apparently obscure lyric poems, also called lais, were composed. In these narratives the personages themselves tell, sometimes write, read and in two instances ("Chaitivel" and "Chievrefoil") make lays of their own adventures. (In the ten other texts these lays are said to have been made by anonymous, ancient Bretons.) In other words,...

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Ann Tukey Harrison (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Marie de France As Naturalist," in Romance Notes, Vol. XXI, No. 2, Winter, 1980, pp. 248-53.

[In the following essay, Harrison suggests that in her lais and fables, Marie is not interested in plant and animal lore except insofar as it can be used to symbolize or reflect upon human behavior.]

Although Marie de France is certainly the author of courtly works infused with great sensitivity and perception about the human psyche, she frequently resorts to flora and fauna of diverse form and type to advance the intrigue, to instruct a character or the reader, to serve as symbol, and to amuse or ornament. Even the most casual reader must note that the...

(The entire section is 2039 words.)

Robert Sturges (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Text and Readers in Marie de France's Lais," in Romanic Review, Vol. LXXI, No. 3, May, 1980, pp. 244-64.

[In the following essay, Sturges contends that readers of Marie's Lais are obliged by the structure of the Lais themselves to interpret the words and to become immersed in the stories as attempts at meaning, not as depictions of reality.]

Although criticism in recent years of the Lais of Marie de France has done much to enhance the understanding of each of her individual tales, little attention has been devoted to the common themes and structures which unite them. Judith Rice Rothschild in her study Narrative Technique in the...

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Glyn Burgess (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Chivalry and Prowess in the Lais of Marie de France," in French Studies, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, April, 1983, pp. 129-42.

[In the following essay, Burgess observes that most of the characters in Marie's Lais belong to the upper classes, and thus issues of loyalty, service, and expertise in battle and hunting predominate.]

The world of Marie de France's Lais is fundamentally one of chevaliers and their ladies. There are 126 examples of the term cheval(i)er in the twelve poems and only seven of vassal, five of which occur in "Lanval." Almost all the male characters whose attitudes and activities Marie clearly supports are...

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Joan Brumlik (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thematic Irony in Marie France's 'Guigemar'," in French Forum, Vol. 13, No. 1, January, 1988, pp. 5-16.

[In the following essay, Brumlik shows how "Guigemar" is different from conventional love lais.]

The opening lines of Marie's "Guigemar" expand upon the hero's place in a serious "this-worldly" world of feudal and family solidarity and dependence (27-56). The links in the chain of dependence begin at the top with King Hoilas and move down, first to Oridial, a good and trusted knight and lord of Liun, and then to his wife and children, a son and a daughter, Guigemar and Noguent.

In a period intermittently troubled by wars in Brittany,...

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Sharon Coolidge (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Eliduc' and the Iconography of Love," in Mediaeval Studies, Vol. 54, 1992, pp. 274-85.

[In the following essay, Coolidge argues that through its use of such symbols as a weasel and a bed before an altar, "Eliduc" becomes Marie de France's ultimate assessment of sexual and charitable love.]

Although many early critics of Marie de France's Lais focused attention on her sources, her identity, and her handling of "courtly love," more recent critics have recognized the Lais' artistic integrity, narrative structure, and subtle handling of love. In two studies on the Lais, Emanuel Mickel argues persuasively that the progression of the first...

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SunHee Kim Gertz (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Transferral, Transformation, and the Act of Reading in Marie de France's 'Bisclavret'," in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4, November, 1992, pp. 399-410.

[In the following essay, Gertz uses reader response theory to explain the changes in our reactions that occur as we read "Bisclavret. "]

Marie de France's twelfth-century lai "Bisclavret" invites its audiences to become immersed in its world, as Marie's disarmingly simple narrative style conveys complex, fantastic matter. Her framing of supernatural material in the standard plot of the betrayed husband creates a sense of encountering the familiar long before reaching the conclusion, partly because so...

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Bonnie H. Leonard (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Inscription of a New Audience: Marie de France's Espurgatoire Saint Patriz," in Romance Languages Annual, Vol. V, 1993, pp. 57-62.

[In the following essay, Leonard argues that through her Espurgatoire Saint Patriz, Marie offered up the story of Saint Patrick to a wider audience, translating it as she did into French from Latin and embellishing upon the story to make it accessible to people living and working outside of monasteries.]

In her least-studied work, the Espurgatoire Saint Patriz, Marie de France is involved in the translation of one form of language into another. In the Lais, the poet transformed the orally transmitted...

(The entire section is 4179 words.)

John M. Bowers (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ordeals, Privacy, and the Lais of Marie de France," in The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 1-31.

[In the following essay, Bowers defines the medieval method of judgment by ordeal and asserts that Marie's Lais critiques the era's shift from trial by ordeal to "more efficient" ways of violating people's privacy and personal freedom.]

Marie de France wrote during the period c. 1170-90 when England was in transition from a feudal society toward a state-nation under Henry II. It was an era when the Church was also redefining its regulatory power over the laity under a series of strong popes culminating...

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Sharon Kinoshita (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cherchez la Femme: Feminist Criticism and Marie de France's 'Lai de Lanval'," in Romance Notes, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 263-73.

[In the following essay, Kinoshita argues that in the lai "Lanval," the title character's ultimate rejection of chivalric society is an expression of Marie de France's feminism.]

In any discussion of woman's voice in medieval French literature, the works of Marie de France are a natural point of departure. The putative author of a collection of fables, the hagiographic Espurgatoire Seint Patriz and the celebrated Lais, she is among the earliest attested female poets in the Romance vernacular; together...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)

Boland, Margaret. "Noses and Robes, Curses and Charms in Marie de France." Tamkang Journal 30 (January 1991): 267-76.

Examines the combined cultural role of folklore and organized religion in the interpretation of the lais of Marie de France.

Brightenback, Kristine. "Remarks on the 'Prologue' to Marie de France's Lais." Romance Philology XXX, No. 1 (August 1976): 168-77.

Asserts that the "Prologue" to the Lais provides important information concerning Marie's reliance on and adaptation of classical mythology.

Brook, Leslie C. "A Note on the Ending...

(The entire section is 1574 words.)