Marie de France Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

In addition to the two collections of short narrative poems named above (one of which, the Fables, is a translation), Marie de France translated a long poem, the Espurgatoire Saint Patriz (1208-1215; Saint Patrick’s Purgatory). The Latin original, Tractatus de purgatorio Sancti Patricii (1208; Treatise on Saint Patrick’s Purgatory), has been attributed to Henry of Saltrey. Although the particular version Marie translated is no longer extant, virtually all of its lines are to be found in surviving manuscripts. The translation is a faithful one, to which a brief prologue and epilogue (and only a few “asides” or editorial comments) have been added. Because it is a translation and not an original work, its chief interest—if it is properly attributed to Marie de France—is in the testimony it bears to the poet’s thorough knowledge of Latin and to her concern, expressed in the epilogue, that the treatise be accessible to the layperson. The narrative also bears some resemblance in form to the genre of the roman (romance), which was becoming increasingly popular in this period. St. Patrick’s “purgatory” is a cave on an island in Lough Derg, Donegal, which to this day still draws pilgrims; it was said to have been revealed to St. Patrick in answer to a prayer, and those who enter it hope to witness or experience the sufferings of the souls in purgatory. The treatise translated by Marie describes the...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Marie de France was probably not the first woman to write poetry in the French vernacular. She is, however, the earliest whose name has been recorded. In fact, she is one of the few twelfth century poets, male or female, whose names are known. This is partly because she wished to be remembered; thus, she “signed” her works by naming herself in their opening or closing lines. It is almost certain that she is also the Marie mentioned by a contemporary, Denis Piramus; if so, she was already well-known and “much praised” in the aristocratic circles of her day, where her lays were often read aloud. (Piramus’s further observation that her stories were “not at all true” may even indicate some jealousy of her popularity.)

Marie’s originality is harder to gauge, for although she claims to retell “Breton lays,” there are no direct parallels to her tales in extant Celtic literature. She gives Celtic names to most characters and places and uses recognizable Celtic motifs (such as the fairy lover, the magic boat, and the hunt for a white animal), but her plots hinge on affairs of the heart, and her characters bear a closer resemblance to those of twelfth century romances than to the heroes and heroines of Celtic folk literature. One critic, Lucien Foulet, has gone so far as to argue that Marie herself invented the genre of the narrative lay. Though scholarly debate in this area is still lively, most would reject Foulet’s hypothesis as too...

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Marie’s Concept of Love

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

She also puts forward a conception of love that has at least something in common with the courtly love celebrated by her contemporaries the troubadours and trouvères. (Here it may be helpful to recall that Marie may have spent some time at the court of Henry II, whose wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was herself a Frenchwoman and the granddaughter of a troubadour.) As Emanuel Mickel has observed, Marie approves of love when it is elevated above concupiscence and self-seeking by a freely given pledge of loyalty. She differs from those courtly authors who celebrate one-sided love; in nearly every lay, the love portrayed is mutual. Though she often depicts such love as triumphing over obstacles, she also acknowledges that it may result in great suffering for the lovers. Her appeals to explicitly Christian values can be unorthodox, and she combines romantic love with Christian charity in unexpected ways, but she does not hesitate to condemn those who betray trusting spouses—or feudal lords or vassals—out of calculated self-interest. The concluding lay of the collection also suggests that romantic love can serve as a bridge to the more complete love of God. Marie’s chief interest, however, is unquestionably in the depiction of mutual romantic attachment and its various outcomes.

If there is still disagreement about Marie’s thematic focus, her stylistic gifts are scarcely in doubt. In a reversal of earlier assessments, later critics have seen in her an accomplished storyteller and poet, suiting the length of each tale to its content, using dialogue to great effect, and endowing key objects with symbolic value so that they epitomize the themes of individual tales. The shortest of the tales—“Laüstic” (“The Nightingale”) and “Chèvrefeuille” (“The Honeysuckle”)—have even been seen as essentially lyric poems, so dominated are they by the central symbols of the nightingale and the honeysuckle entwined with the hazel. Yet even these lays have plots, as Sienaert does well to recall. Though Marie translated her Fables from an English original that has been lost, these, too, display poetic and narrative skill (especially in the phrasing of dialogue) that must be attributed, at least in part, to the translator.

The Lay as Genre

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Edgar Sienaert’s description of the lay as a mixed or intermediary genre is based on the work of folklorists, notably Vladimir Propp and Max Lüthi, who have identified (independently of one another) the basic structure of the European folktale. One of the most striking features of the folktale, or fairy tale (Sienaert’s term for the genre is conte merveilleux: a tale with a happy ending, in which the “marvelous” is paramount) is that the identities and motivations of characters may be freely altered from one version to another, whereas the plot sequence, and the roles characters may fill in it, are rigidly maintained. The mainspring of the fairy-tale plot is not the motivated action of its characters but rather the intrusion of the marvelous, and although the working out of the plot satisfies deep human desires, its conclusion is not attained by human effort but by magic (a potion, a ring) or by a deus ex machina (a fairy, a speaking animal). It has long been recognized that there were affinities between the fairy tale and Marie’s Lais, but these affinities had remained somewhat vague, limited to the happy ending (which does not apply to a number of lays) and an ill-defined “charm.” As Sienaert has shown, however, the lays sometimes follow the fairy-tale pattern in which motivation is not linked to plot. Thus, the knight Eliduc, for example, scarcely earns his happiness; it comes to him in spite of the bad faith he has shown his wife and his young lover. At the same time, though, and in the same tales, the motivation of Marie’s characters can be essential to the outcome; thus, Eliduc’s wife, by her unexampled generosity, makes possible for her husband the happy ending he had deserved to forfeit. Sometimes it even happens that a realistically motivated character forestalls the expected happy ending, as does the young man in “Les Dues Amanz” (“The Two Loves”), who refuses to drink the magic potion that would restore his strength. Finally, there are a few stories from which the fairy-tale plot is completely missing. “Equitan” has been compared to a fabliau (a more consistently realistic, generally coarse and cynical, short narrative genre contemporary to the lay) because of its realistic and cautionary plot of betrayal, attempted crime, and punishment; while falling within the scope of the medieval exemplum, or tale with a moral, it resembles the modern short story in linking the outcome to the character and actions of the central figures. Sienaert argues that Marie deliberately placed it second in her collection, after a tale that has many affinities with the fairy tale, to mark the two poles between which her pieces would move.

As will become apparent from a closer look at several lays, this approach to the genre question can be extremely useful. Its chief drawback is its degree of abstraction—it cannot account for the thematic content of the collection.


“Lanval” is a good example of a lay using a straightforward fairy-tale plot. Lanval, a “foreign” knight at King Arthur’s court, is slighted by the King until a beautiful fairy maiden approaches him, offering both her love and riches if he will keep her existence secret. This he does, until one day the Queen likewise offers him her love, and he reveals the fact that he already loves another, whose least handmaiden surpasses the Queen in beauty and accomplishments. At this, the Queen denounces him to the King as having accosted her, nor will the fairy-lover come at his call, since he has revealed her existence. When he is put on trial, however—more for insulting the Queen’s beauty than for allegedly accosting her—the fairy relents, first sending her handmaidens and then arriving in person so that all can see the truth of Lanval’s boast. The tale ends as Lanval rides off with her to the otherworldly Avalon, to live happily ever after.

This lay epitomizes a tendency of many of Marie’s tales to fuse Celtic folk motifs with the courtly love theme. As Jean Frappier has observed, there is an analogy between the “otherworld” of Celtic mythology, to which the “marvelous” properly belongs, and the privileged condition of courtly lovers, whose experience of love (open only to a small, elect group), gives them a taste of paradise on earth. Avalon thus becomes an allegory for the state of mutual love, where the “foreigner” Lanval finds his true home after rejecting, and being rejected by, the flawed world of Arthur’s court (where the king has slighted him and the queen accused him of her own infidelity). As Sienaert would add, however, the motivations of the characters—even of the fairy, who relents in her punishment of Lanval—are fully humanized and linked to the outcome. The lay is thus emotionally satisfying, not only for its fairy-tale ending but also for its vindication of mutual love—though it should also be noted that the “real world” is seen as hostile to that love, which can flourish only in a land of its own. In this respect, “Lanval” is perhaps the most frankly escapist of the lays.

“The Two Lovers”

“The Two Lovers,” by contrast, creates the expectation of a fairy-tale ending only to reverse it at the last moment. A widowed king, unwilling to part with his sole daughter, invents a trial in which he thinks no suitor can succeed: To win her hand in marriage, the suitor must carry her to the top of a mountain without pausing to rest. To help a young man whom she favors, the girl sends him to her aunt in Salerno, who provides him with a potion that can restore strength. During the trial, however, the young man feels strong enough to do without the potion; he resists the girl’s repeated pleas that he drink it and reaches the summit only to collapse—his heart has given out. The distraught girl spills the potion, which causes medicinal herbs to spring up on the mountainside, and herself dies of grief on the spot, where the two are buried together.

Of all the lays, this one has perhaps evoked the greatest diversity of interpretation. It has been seen as a tragedy, a cautionary tale, even a satire. Here, Sienaert’s insights are especially helpful, accounting for the diversity of critical (and emotional) response without explaining it away. The story is indeed tragic insofar as it reverses the carefully created expectation of a happy ending, and it is cautionary insofar as Marie stresses the démesure (lack of moderation) that leads to the boy’s death. Yet there is also something positive about the ending: After rejecting the magical means to success, the boy accomplishes the feat (though none of his predecessors had come close), and the girl’s love, because it equals his, unites them in death. The boy’s decision is flawed, as Marie herself observes: “I fear [the potion] will do him little good/ For he had in him no moderation.” As Emanuel Mickel points...

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Imagery and Symbolism

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The other specifically poetic skill Marie displays is in the use of controlling images, which in her narrative context are usually symbolic objects (although she can also use metaphor, as in the tale of Equitan, “the hunter hunted”). Such objects loom especially large in two of the shortest lays, “The Nightingale” and “The Honeysuckle”; in both cases, they are related to the love theme central to the collection. Though the nightingale is on one level a pretext that the woman uses to see her lover, it also symbolizes mutual love as something alive and beautiful. Though the husband can kill it and thus prevent the lovers from seeing each other, he cannot obliterate its memory; thus, the lover, to whom the woman sends the bird’s body, has it encased in a jeweled box, which he carries about with him always.

The honeysuckle, which twines itself about the hazel until neither can stand alone, is a related symbol of love as a beautiful living thing. Though the bird and the plant are themselves vulnerable, the fidelity of the lovers in each case holds out a hope that human love may be more durable. In “The Honeysuckle,” which describes a meeting between Tristan and Iseult, Tristan himself uses the symbol in this sense. In a passage that is a true lyric fragment (and that may be the message, inscribed on a hazel stick, alerting Iseult to her lover’s presence), he exclaims, “Fair love, so it is with us:/ Neither you without me, nor I without you.” Deservedly one of Marie’s most famous couplets, it captures both her spare, direct style and the ideal of mutual fidelity embodied in so many of her lays.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In addition to the Lais, Marie de France is also known for the Ysopet (after 1170; Medieval Fables, 1983), a translation of a Latin text by Aesop. Besides being a demonstration of Marie’s poetic skill, the lively and witty Medieval Fables is historically important as the earliest existing collection in the vernacular of Western Europe of this material. She is also known for Espurgatoire Saint Patriz (1208-1215; the purgatory of St. Patrick), a translation of a Latin text attributed to a twelfth century Cisterian monk, to which she added a prologue and an epilogue.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although her identity remains unclear, France’s first woman poet, known as Marie de France, emerges from the twelfth century as an important literary figure. As a writer of vernacular literature, she ranks, along with Chrétien de Troyes, among the best-known medieval writers of the period. Her ability as a writer has been noted by critics, who cite her mastery of irony and understatement, her creation of suspense and description, and her use of material from folktales. A product of her times, her work is a reflection of medieval attitudes and society.

Her best-known and most representative work, the Lais, is characterized by a view of the problems of a love that finds itself in confrontation with social conventions. In form, they are brief works in rhymed octosyllabic couplets. The Lais have been much imitated, and there are several others attributed to Marie beyond the twelve that scholars are reasonably sure are her work.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Betham, Matilda. The Lay of Marie. New York: Woodstock Books, 1996. Betham’s interpretation of the Lais originally published in 1816. Includes the text of two of the Lais and abstracts of the whole collection.

Bloch, R. Howard. The Anonymous Marie de France. Chicago, 2003. A strong argument for Marie's elevation within the canon. Bloch conducts a thorough and detailed examination of the lais and fables.

Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn. “Marie de France.” In French Women Writers, edited by Eva Martin Sartori and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. Biographical data include parameters by which Marie’s dates and her possible...

(The entire section is 1048 words.)