Marie de France

Marie de France
(ca. late 12th–early 13th centuries)
   The author known as Marie de France was one of the first highly educated women writers; she lived and wrote in England in the late 12th century. The royal court at the time was Anglo-Norman, as was the language of literature and the nobility, and Marie’s connections with the court are demonstrated both in her use of Anglo-Norman and in her dedications (one of her works seems to be dedicated to King HENRY II). Although there is no reliable record to testify to Marie’s identity and her life, three extant works are attributed to her, including a collection of LAIS, short romances that focus on emotion, rather than action (see Lanval); a collection of fables after Aesop (Isopet), short tales where animals are used to exemplify moral lessons for humans; and St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a translation of a Latin hagiography into Norman French. In a fairly unconventional gesture, particularly for women writers at this time, Marie signs each of her works to assert her authorship. The most famous example of this occurs in the epilogue of her collection of Fables where she writes: “I’ll give my name, for memory:/I am from France, my name’s Marie” (Marie de France 1987, ll. 3–4). Marie’s claim to be “from France” (or, more accurately, “of France” [“si sui de France”]), may mean that she was born in France or that she was of the French royal family. The latter supposition, suggested by some scholars, is probably incorrect and Marie only intends “of France” to indicate her place of birth. This would make sense, especially if she were writing in England, for the Anglo-Norman aristocracy.
   Scholars have long speculated concerning her identity and have suggested figures as various as MARIE DE CHAMPAGNE, the daughter of ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE; Marie of Boulogne, King Stephen’s daughter; or the Abbess of Shaftesbury, sister to King Henry II. Unfortunately, we will probably never know who she was, and what we do know is limited to what we can glean from her writings. That Marie moved in aristocratic circles, including the royal court of Henry II and Eleanor, seems clear. Equally clear is Marie’s status as a noblewoman: Her education, the people she knew, and the subject matter of much of her writings testify to her nobility. Marie’s education naturally included the Bible and the classics, French and Anglo-Norman literature, and most probably an assortment of moral or didactic treatises. In addition to French,Marie knew Latin and English, and was able to translate from these languages for her Purgatory and the Fables.
   Marie de France is often considered one of the finest writers of short fiction before CHAUCER, and her Lais and Fables reflect the milieu in which they were produced: secular, sophisticated, aristocratic, didactic, and, at times, political. In the Lais, Marie draws on Breton tales either read or heard, although few of the 12 lais have direct literary antecedents. And while Marie’s Lais enjoy wide popularity today, the number of extant manuscripts (23 of the Fables and 5 of the Lais), suggests that her collection of Fables was more widely disseminated and probably the more popular of the two collections in the Middle Ages. The Lais are concerned with love, particularly COURTLY LOVE, and are filled with passions and potions, magic and symbolism. Attuned to courtly tastes in literature, Marie’s Lais celebrate love (and adultery) in all their guises, but most especially love that is impassioned and outside social boundaries. Thus, the Lais are fantastic, entertaining, and secular in focus and theme. Nonetheless the Lais, for all their entertainment value, do contain lessons or didactic elements. The morality of adultery may not be questioned, but the immorality of cruelty or lovelessness certainly finds full expression. And notwithstanding the secular nature of the Lais, spiritual or Christian readings are possible, especially in lais such as Yonec, where eucharistic imagery, Christian ritual, and allusions to the Trinity give complex meaning to a tragic and adulterous affair.
   While political concerns are sometimes an allusive element in the Lais, politics and the critique of court and aristocratic life are easily found in the Fables. Indeed, some of the Fables are overt in their political commentary, and it may be this aspect of their composition that accounts for their popularity. Marie’s Fables are particularly critical of abuses of power engaged in by the Norman aristocracy against the feudal underclass, and if the Lais were popular with the courtly inner circles, the Fables possibly attracted a wider and more diverse readership. Unlike the Lais, the Fables have well-developed realistic aspects and unlike fables in general, whose moralism is often abstract, Marie’s works are moral and didactic in specific and often satiric ways. Unfortunately, without a fuller knowledge of Marie’s identity and life, scholars can only speculate about the pointed observations in her critical and political Fables.
   The works of Marie de France draw on conventions of genre and translation, but manage to transcend the limitations of both. If the author is unconventional in the assertions of authorship we find in all of her works, she is similarly unconventional in her treatment of familiar materials.Marie de France is aware of the moral responsibilities inherent in authorship and her works reflect her idea of the ideal rhetorical balance between entertainment and enlightenment.
   ■ Burgess, Glyn S. TheLaisof Marie de France: Text and Context. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
   ■ ———. Marie de France: An Analytical Bibliography. London: Grant and Cutler, 1977.
   ■ Finke, Laurie A.Women’s Writing in English: Medieval England. London: Longman, 1999.
   ■ Marie de France. Fables. Edited and translated by Harriet Spiegel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.
   ■ ———. The Lais of Marie de France. Translated by Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. Michigan: Baker Books, 1978.
   ■ Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. The Writings of Medieval Women: An Anthology. 2nd edition. New York: Garland, 1994.
   Elisa Narin van Court

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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