Marie de France and Identity
No one knows precisely who Marie de France was; as a pseudonym, it’s the equivalent of “Maria de Mexico” or something. Of course, most people didn’t have last names at that point, but, still….
What is known is that she was the author of a variety of texts, among them a translation of Aesop’s Fables and these Lais. She was fluent in Breton (a Celtic language related to Welsh), French (a particular dialect referred to by linguists as Old French), English, and Latin. She wrote in three languages, and she translated and adapted texts in to all these languages. She likely wrote while living in England, as calling herself “Marie de France” would make no sense while living in France.
The Prince she refers to in her Prologue is likely King Henry II of England, as the timeline of the manuscripts, the linguistics, and the references all line up with his reign.
Most importantly, she wrote. By doing so, she does what Sidney claimed poetry did, “move by delight to engage and teach” an audience. In an age when books were physically expensive – and I don’t mean “my calculus textbook is $300” expensive; I mean a very, very rich person might display his or her wealth with a vast library of 20 books expensive – being an author meant that you had the social position and wherewithal to support yourself, since writing wouldn’t earn you a living if you didn’t have a patron. Thus, her desire to impress her Prince was not just a narrative movement; it was a hope for patronage.
While I could fascinate you with a long lecture regarding the poetics of the texts, I’m going to stick to a few main ideas:
1. Old French, a langue d’oil, is a Romance language; thus, it works very differently than English did. Her poetry works with two kinds of rhyme – end rhyme and assonance (soft rhymes where vowels near to each other help create the rhythmic patterns). In French at this time, as with Romance languages generally, word order had become critical as case endings were obviated in the integration of Latin and Germanic languages; so Marie’s grammar, although in another language, is something you would recognize if you know Spanish or French. If you look at the box of Old French in the PDF of the Prologue, you will recognize a fair amount of the vocabulary; this Anglo-Norman subdialect of Old French is a major influence on English in this era.
2. Marie’s “Prologue” sets up the major issues of her Lais. She argues that old texts were written obscurely on purpose, so that later readers could “gloss” the text – attribute meanings, interpret language, and infer lessons. While her theory was not necessarily correct, she’s making an argument for the value of literature. You have all learned how to pick meaning out of text and to prove your hypothesis with the language of the text itself – learning to understand imagery, rhythm, rhyme, foreshadowing, themes, etc. Marie is not the first person who pointed out that is what one does with text, but she is someone who strategically raises the issue in her Prologue and seems to reject it. Think
about what that does; as with anything raised and dismissed, the raising of the issue remains. So, she’s saying that interpreting and analyzing her text isn’t what she’s setting up, effectively asking her reader to consider meaning and analysis as they read the Lais.
3. Setting her stories elsewhere and elsewhen allows her to both entertain her royal audience and to critique that same audience without being specifically critical of that audience in the particular.
a. In “Bisclavret,” the setting is Bretagne; the issue of loyalty is key. The lines of loyalty run from the wife to the husband and vice versa. They mimic the lines of loyalty between a vassal and a king. Loyalty is critical to a successful social order in a feudal society, as power flows theoretically from the top down, but it has to be mirrored from the vassal upwards in order for things to function rightly. Think about it: if you can’t trust someone, it doesn’t matter how sincere either of you are. Now add distance, physically and economically, to the mix. In an age when courtiers would be at the palace and their families would be back at the chateau, being able to rely on your spouse would have been crucial. When the knight confesses that he becomes a bisclavret / garwulf, he does so because he loves and trusts his wife, and she has argued that he’s not showing that to her by hiding what is going on with him three days each week. She uses issues of loyalty to demand reciprocity, but she rewards that reciprocity with betrayal on both a personal level – she has a knight courting her – and a societal level. After all, stealing his humanity from him gives her control of his estate and her person, something that was not possible for a woman in that era. However, that disloyalty to her husband undermines the social order on a larger scale. Her personal decision removes a vassal loyal to the king, effectively becoming treasonous. Thus, when the betrayal is revealed, she and her new husband are both punished for that betrayal by losing everything their trickery had gained them, and she and her descendants are marked forever, echoing Cain’s punishment.
b. In “Lanval,” the issue of loyalty is much more explicitly examined, as the failure of leadership is central to the story. Lanval, a foreign knight who serves King Arthur, is forgotten when the king is rewarding his knights, and he consequently has no source of income, no reputation for bravery, honor, chivalry, etc, and no hope for his future as a knight. At this nadir of his career, he goes off to mope, and that’s when he finds himself the object of a woman’s desire. As his loyalty to King Arthur has been betrayed, he gives it to the woman who fulfills all the needs of her loyal vassal – economic, emotional, and physical. All she demands in return is the same loyalty she shows. It’s when he’s forced to betray her demand for silence regarding their relationship that he loses everything.
i. However, the loyalty works both ways. It’s King Arthur who fails in his obligation to one of his posse commitatus, his loyal knights. If leadership is based on a mutually beneficial relationship, it is up to the leader to display the characteristics desired by the followers. Arthur, failing, shows that there is a problem with the kingdom.
ii. That the queen is not loyal to her king, as seen in her pursuit of Lanval, is another sign that something is wrong in the Kingdom of Kaerleon. Sexual loyalty of the spouse of the king was not just a personal issue; it was an issue of succession. After all, before DNA testing, you always knew who the mother was, but the father? And since the king’s heir was his first- born legitimate son, being sure of the queen’s loyalty was an issue not just personal, but an issue of treason. That Arthur did not inspire loyalty in his wife shows the underlying flaw in the system of kingship in a feudal society. If it’s rotten at the top, what hope is there for the regular(-ish) folks?
c. Ultimately, if Marie’s audience is her Prince, Henry II of England, can you see how this is a commentary on leadership? You learn by seeing when things go wrong, not when they go right (think about learning something like riding a bike – you learn how to stay on by falling off). If Marie is invested in the success of the kingdom in which she lives, and if she has the proverbial ear of the king (or hopes to have it), teaching a lesson about leadership and the consequences of its failure become potentially highly valuable not just for the king but for the courtiers who would read this entertaining set of Lais. Remember Sidney – poetry moves to delight and thus engage an audience. Do you think Marie used her platform effectively?