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Marie de France: Biography, Fables & Poems

Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

Magical knights, tragic ladies, bawdy wives--these are some of the key characters in the writings of medieval author Marie de France. Marie's stories give us a rare female perspective on the chivalry tales of the Middle Ages.

Who Was Marie de France?

We don't know much about the actual person writing under the name of Marie de France; that may not even be her real name! Everything we know about her has to be gleaned from her work since no other historical information has been found. We know that she was a French poet writing in England in the 12th century, and we know that she was highly educated (rather unusual for a woman of her time), speaking and reading English, French, and Latin. We know that she published three main works: a collection of fables, a book of lais, and a poem on the life of a saint. Different scholars have proposed that Marie was a nun, a member of the aristocracy, or even the half-sister of King Henry II. Her education and the fact that she brought her work to court support these possibilities, but again, unless further information is brought to light, we can't be sure.

Marie de France
Marie de France

Why Is Her Work Important?

Compared with later centuries, very little written work survives from the medieval period. The printing press had not been invented yet, so books had to be copied painstakingly by hand, making them very rare--and very expensive. This meant that not many people knew how to read, and fewer owned books. Most stories, songs, and poems were passed on orally, told and retold by troubadours, or courtly poets and songwriters. So Marie's work is important since it gives us some insight into what medieval Europeans were thinking about, how they spoke, and how their traditional legends changed over time.

Since books were usually copied by hand by monks, a lot of what survives from the Middle Ages are theological works. It's especially useful to find written accounts of non-secular, or non-religious writing from that time period. The romance, a prototype of the novel usually involving knights and ladies, was just about to blossom. Marie's stories help us understand the historical development of chivalry, courtly love, and fiction in general.

Finally, as you've probably already surmised, it was extremely unusual for a woman of the Middle Ages to publish and distribute her work. Up until the 19th century, most female authors were still taking male pseudonyms in order to protect their identities (writing was not considered a lady-like pursuit) and to have their work taken seriously. Throughout most of history, women have not had the same access to education and to public life as men, so a female author like Marie is a real find for scholars who want to understand more of what life was like for women in the Middle Ages. While her works may not seem explicitly feminist to our modern sensibilities, they do tend to portray the women's perspective much more than other contemporary writers did, giving us some insight into how the ideals of chivalry and courtly love affected women.

What Did She Write?

Fables

You're probably familiar with Aesop's Fables, the animal stories told by the ancient Greek writer Aesop. In these clever tales, animals take on the character traits of people, illustrating the rewards of good behavior and the perils of bad. ''The Tortoise and the Hare'' is a classic example: the plodding but determined tortoise wins the race after the sprightly but cocky hare falls asleep. The moral, or lesson, comes at the end: 'Slow and steady wins the race.'

Marie de France wrote a collection of 102 fables, many of them translations of Aesop's. In addition, she copied down some of the local French and English morality stories she likely heard growing up and at court. Some of Marie's additions are surprisingly bawdy. In the fable ''A Woman and Her Paramour,'' a cheating wife and her lover are caught in the act. Leading her outraged husband to a rain barrel, the wife asks him if the reflection he sees is real. When he says no, she forces him to conclude that although he thought he saw her cheating, his vision is no more real than his reflection in water. Her quick wit (and her husband's slowness) preserve her marriage and her honor. Notice the emphasis on female sexuality, intelligence, and the institution of marriage.

Lais

Marie wrote a collection of 12 lais, or short stories in verse, usually dealing with knights and ladies and the concept of courtly love. Marie says that she heard these lais in the Brittany region of France, where they had been passed down for generations. Scholars have found remnants of traditional Breton lais in other written sources, but Marie was probably the first to write them down in such detail, adding her own twists and making them into an art form of her own. As we've already noted, Marie's writing is especially important to us because she tends to emphasize the female perspective in her retellings of traditional tales.

A primary theme in Marie's 12 lais is chivalry, or the honor code of courtly love. Courtly love takes place between a knight and a lady who is most often already married. The lovers must suffer separation, years of longing, and great danger. In the lai of Yonec, a beautiful young woman is imprisoned by a wicked old lord who keeps her in a tower. After many years of misery, she prays for a lover, and magically, a hawk flying in at her window is transformed into a handsome knight. The jealous husband kills the knight, but before he dies he reveals to the lady that she is pregnant with his son, who will grow up to revenge him. The boy, named Yonec, does indeed grow up to fulfill his father's prophecy, freeing his mother and becoming a great lord himself.

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