The details of the concept of love presented in the literature change with references to different centuries and societies and Marie de France’s vision of love presented in her lais can be discussed as rather provocative for the Medieval society and literature because of the author’s use of the feminist perspective and Marie’s significant focus on the idea of gender equality about love. “Lanval” is one of Marie de France’s lais in which the idea of love is discussed from the specific perspective according to which women and men are equal in their love and sexual desires and according to which women can have the significant power over men because of their inner eroticism and extreme beauty, and even though the descriptions of women typical for the Medieval society are traditionally associated with the images of rather submissive persons.
In her lais, Marie de France refers to the discussion of the gender roles in love relations which can be described today as the aspects of the feminist approach. Thus, in “Lanval”, Marie de France presents her definition of love as the feeling according to which men and women are equal in their spiritual and sexual desires where the ideas of possession and power play an important role; furthermore, according to the author’s feminist perspective, women depicted in the lais are not submissive and can have even more significant power over men.
To discuss “Lanval” as the piece of the feminist literature in which the idea of love is presented depending on many controversies, it is necessary to analyze the connection of Marie de France with the feminist literature. Marie de France’s lais are often discussed and explained by critics as the examples of the feminist literature even though her writings do not belong to any wave of the feminist movement. The critics’ claims are based on the author’s approach to representing the female characters in the lais, as it can be observed with references to “Lanval” (Burgess 12). Moreover, referring to Marie’s lais, it is important to answer the question about the typicality of the author’s descriptions and discussions related to women in the context of love and intimate relations. Were the lais completely unbiased in their context of the author’s work and the context of the medieval society? The problem is in the fact that there is a lack of comprehensive study of Marie’s lais’ specific elements about the concept of love and gender equality.
Nevertheless, researchers agree that it is necessary to focus on Marie’s works as the vivid examples of the feminist tradition because Marie was one of the first female authors who oriented to the discussion of the equality issues (Kinoshita 14). However, it is almost impossible to refer to the personal background of the author to add to the discussion because many facts surrounding Marie’s life and her motivations are lost. To conclude about the reference of Marie de France to the feminist literature, modern scholars should use only Marie’s writings as the basis for their debates (Kinoshita and McCracken 120). The texts by Marie de France captured the attention of barons, lords, and knights so that they were listened carefully and even copied. Looking at most of Marie’s lais, it is possible to refer to the definite female aspect which becomes apparent in most cases when the author describes the idea of justice and love. This perspective can be discussed in the feminist context and within the context of female psychology. Many texts by Marie can be described as based on the psychological aspects attributed to many women.
While opposing the traditional concept of love represented in the medieval literature to Marie’s definition of love reflected in “Lanval”, it is necessary to refer to the idea of courtly love discussed in many Marie’s lais. The idea of courtly love had roots in the eleventh century when that theme was developed by troubadours. Confidentiality was a critical aspect of courtly love. Furthermore, the identity of the female lover was protected significantly. The knights desired the powerful wives of the court’s lords, and the absence of husbands could lead to love affairs between knights and females (Mickel 39).
The knights could even fight for the attention of mistresses, and Marie de France began to represent the aspects of the courtly love in her writings while declaring eroticism and sexual enjoyment associated with a female character in her lais. Thus, in “Lanval”, the female characters act not only according to the standards of the courtly love but also with references to their inner female power which can influence the men’s actions significantly. The fairy mistress represented in “Lanval” is the leader in relations with Lanval because she states the rules of their love. Moreover, this fairy mistress has the power to make the knight submissive in contrast to the traditional vision of women as submissive persons in relations (Mickel 39). Marie pays much attention to the description of the first meeting between the fairy mistress and the knight in “Lanval”:
He [Lanval] looked at her, and saw she was beautiful;
Love stung him with a spark
That lit and inflamed his heart.
He responded fittingly,
“Beautiful one,” he said, “if it pleased you
That such joy should come to me
As to have your consent to love me,
You could never command anything
That I would not do to the best of my power,
Be it folly or wisdom” (De France 117-126).
Following Marie’s words, it is possible to state that Lanval is ready to do anything commanded by the fairy mistress. From this point, this woman uses her power from the first seconds of their meeting, and the knight becomes ready to perform foolish or wise actions without references to his will, but referring to the will of the woman. The additional explanation of Lanval’s actions is provided by Sauer who states:
The lady (presumably a fairy) is the complete opposite of the ‘femmes’ Arthur gives to his men at the opening of the story. The fairy lady is clearly in control of her own life; she has decided to seek out Lanval, and it is she who has vast amounts of wealth to bestow upon him (Sauer 241).
According to Sauer’s statement, the fairy mistress differs significantly from the women who are given as gifts to the King’s knights because it is presumed that the idea of love is not hidden in these actions which are rather typical for the court. In this case, “Marie reverses the typical gender paradigm by having this extraordinary woman wield power over her own life” (Sauer 241). Having power over the personal life, this woman has the power over her lover because she states rules and asks Lanval to keep the secrecy of their love. Moreover, the submissiveness of Lanval is reflected in his readiness to keep the secret because he is afraid of losing his love. In this context, women and men are not equal, and women can have greater power over men. Furthermore, it is necessary to refer to Marie’s idea that the power of women is also in their eroticism. Thus, the fairy mistress is depicted in the text as the woman who does not hide her sexuality, and this openness contributes to her power over Lanval.
However, it is also necessary to pay attention to the depiction of the fairy mistress’s sexual nature presented in the text and to the knight’s desires which are presented as natural for men. Thus, Gallagher depicts the first meeting of Lanval with the fairy mistress, referring to the aspects of eroticism:
[Lanval] finds her [mistress] lying provocatively in semi-undress on a bed … Told that she has left her own faraway country to come to him to love him, he is stuck seemingly for the first time in his life by Love’s spark that inflames his heart. Not only will he have her love but whatever goods he may wish to possess. And so in this one moment, his life and status are utterly transformed; his depression, his isolation, and his penury are all at an end (Gallagher 96-97).
Referring to Marie’s depictions and Gallagher’s words, it is possible to note that the provocative nature of Marie’s lais is also in the fact that women and men are depicted as equally sexual and open to their inner desires. The fairy mistress intends to seduce the knight that is why she is “lying provocatively in semi-undress on a bed” (Gallagher 96). Thus, according to Marie’s, males and females have the same sexual desires, and the reference to this equality is the characteristic feature of the feminist literature. From this point, it is possible to discuss “Lanval” as the piece of the female literature where the idea of love is defined with references to the feminist perspective because Marie is inclined to accentuate the equality in males and females’ actions, behaviors, and desires.
Moreover, the nature of the male’s love is also described by Gallagher who states that Lanval is oriented to possessing the love and body of the fairy mistress. The effect of the situation of possessing the lady is remarkable because Lanval can forget about his depression and fall in love with the powerful woman. In this case, Marie’s definition of love significantly depends on the idea of possession, but the author develops this idea and uses it with references not only to men but also to women in the lais because women can also provide rules and conditions for developing their intimate relations with men (Gallagher 96).
The other powerful woman in “Lanval” is Guinevere, the queen. However, her power is her readiness to manipulate the feelings of men. If the fairy mistress is discussed as the embodiment of true love, Guinevere is the embodiment of the false love which can lead only to destructions. Discussing the role of the feudal society in the people’s intimate relations and reflecting on the impact of the society on the idea of love, Sauer states in the work:
Marie contrasts its [society’s] conventions and rules with the parameters of love set out by the fairy woman. The queen, as the fairy’s foil, is a sad example of the effects of such a society: She is manipulative, jealous, and seemingly unaware of the true meaning of love (Sauer 241).
Even though both the women are described as open in their desires and sexual nature, these women are different about the true concept of love. Providing the provocative discussion of the role of women in love, Marie returns to the discussion of love as the true feeling. From this point, “Marie brings the central message of “Lanval” to fulfillment: that true love cannot exist within the confines of feudal society” (Sauer 241). That provocative love described by Marie cannot be the result of love between the queen and the knight which is typical for the concept of the courtly love, but this love can be the result of true feelings experienced by Lanval and the fairy mistress.
That is why it is necessary to refer to the female character of Guinevere as the antagonist about the fairy mistress in detail. In “Lanval”, Marie pays much attention to the depiction of the situation when the queen asks the knight to become her lover:
When the queen sees him alone,
She goes right to the knight;
She sat by him and spoke to him,
She showed him all her feelings;
“Lanval, I have honored you greatly
And loved you and held you very dear.
You can have all my love;
Tell me about your desire!
I am willing to be your lover;
You should be delighted with me” (De France 259-270).
The power of Guinevere as a woman is in her extreme openness, she is not afraid of asking the knight about love. Thus, Guinevere is the queen of the land, and this position makes her be the most powerful woman in the lands. Another interesting aspect is that this woman indicates the reasons why she wants to choose Lanval as her lover. It is not simply an arranged relationship as many marriages were during those days. In the case of Guinevere, she also goes out of her way to orchestrate a meeting with Lanval to ask for some sexual favors. Guinevere proposes her love and body, as well as the fairy mistress, did, but Marie accentuates the character of the possible relations between the knight and the queen. From this perspective, the character of Guinevere is important to be described in the text because she acts as the antagonist about the fairy mistress and her real love and eroticism.
Guinevere’s seduction of Lanval can be discussed as characteristic for the society about the idea of the courtly love, especially with references to the situations when the royal women took lovers that were lesser about the status that these women had. These relationships were usually dependent on women’s terms and positions (Kinoshita and McCracken 12). From this perspective, Marie is bringing out the issue of the woman’s power over a man, and Guinevere’s case is not a trait that can be generalized because it is only applied to the idea of the courtly love. Looking back to the literature examples, it is possible to note that it was meant to advise men on how to seduce women of other classes and statuses (Gallagher 96). The authors described what men had to do when they wanted to seduce women belonging to the other classes. This experience was associated with many thoughtful gifts. That is why the behavior of Lanval about Guinevere can be discussed as atypical.
Nevertheless, the behavior demonstrated by Guinevere is also atypical because she chooses to reveal her true feelings to support the idea that Lanval cannot be accused. As a result, Guinevere claims:
“King, I have loved one of your vassals, Lanval.
You should know
That the queen was wrong:
He never asked for her love.
And concerning the boast he made,
If he can be acquitted by me,
Let your nobles set him free!” (De France 615-624).
Although Guinevere’s love is not so true as the fairy mistress’s one, the queen also demonstrates her power and the absence of fear about the King and the consequences of her actions.
The rapid anger and malice that closely follow Lanval’s rejection of the queen’s offer indicate that the queen did not love him. The queen just wanted intimacy. As such, it is still the woman who sought after the man and hence a depiction of the feminist aspect. Lanval’s beautiful, powerful, and confident fairy mistress saves him by appearing in time to save his life, thus putting the queen in her place. In other versions of Lanval such as Thomas Chester’s “Sir Launfal”, Guinevere is made to appear as the meaner, with Sir Launfal even becoming weaker. The Faerie Mistress blinds Guinevere for her lie in that version, and Sir Launfal defeats and kills a giant by the name Sir Valentine (Mason 5). Most of the critics of this latter version have indicated that Chester was attempting to raise the estimation of Sir Launfal in comparison with the Faerie mistress. In Lanval, the Faerie mistress is wealthier and more powerful about her male lover. She summons him to her in the first instance where then sends him away after their lovemaking. She dictates the terms of their relationship. Moreover, each woman has the option of taking a lover to satisfy her sexual desires. The act is not subject to the unwanted attentions of any man and hence a feminist approach to storytelling. Sir Launfal would be playing the role of mistress to a rich nobleman:
“Beauty,” he says, “If it please you,
And this great joy should befall
Me, that you grant your love,
I’ll be at your beck and call,
To fulfill whatever needs you
Have, wise or foolish – you are above
Me, my only commandant.
All others for you I abandon.
From you I never want to part:
That hope is strongest in my heart” (De France 121-130).
These lines also depict a theme of helplessness as opposed to heroism or machoism that is the traditional depiction of men in society. They tend to be the ones in control in most popular lore. However, in this instance, Sir Launfal sounds like a vassal to the Faerie Queen. As arbitrary as this claim may sound, this depiction was correlated with the understanding that men had of women during that age. It is not clear how they sought to explain or justify a possible separate treatment of a woman with a noble heritage as opposed to a woman with no strings to nobility. However, generally, women were viewed as a means to an end. This “end” usually ranged from the pleasure to fortune and power in case of marriages for the alliance. This applied across the classes. Consequently, many people would enjoy Marie’s feminist approach presented in her lais because the writings provided a vehicle to fantasize for many women during that period. Men too were ensnared by the prospect of the real love which inspired passion and intimacy that was borne of natural inclination, as opposed to duty and obligation.
The feminist approach of Marie to depicting the aspects of love as different about women and men can be explained with references to the psychological perspective. It is important to analyze the love felt by the queen and the fairy mistress from the point of the level of empathy experienced about Lanval. In the case when women have a stronger sense of empathy than their male counterparts, this situation does not mean that men do not feel extremely or women do not think logically. Thus, Lanval can assess his possibilities for possession along with demonstrating true feelings, and the fairy mistress can feel extremely along with demonstrating her power and logic representing in her rules for secrecy. However, for many women, emotions often get in the way of being logical. Many men are more logical than emotional. An important factor to grasp the attention, in this case, is that ’emotional’ in this case does not denote having emotions that are common for both men and women, but this aspect refers to the ability to expressing the emotion (Gallagher 96). The queen, the fairy mistress, and Lanval have strong emotions despite their ability to demonstrate the power of each other. From this point, Marie’s definition of love is closely associated with the idea of power.
Moreover, the importance of Marie de France’s feminist representation of the idea of love in the text is in the fact that her focus on eroticism is even more obvious than the approach of many her male contemporaries. It becomes interesting to note that given the social and cultural inclinations of the populace that dominated during the medieval history, a woman such as Marie de France, who flaunted the obvious gender discriminative rules of the society and did not marry, went ahead and focused on publishing the romantic lais where the concept of love was described provocatively, revealing a lot of controversies (Gallagher 98).
Analyzing Marie’s approach to reflecting on the idea of love and its definition, it is necessary to refer to ideas provided by Krueger who states that “As long as their [the characters’] love remains hidden, male fantasy and female erotic desires seem to correspond with perfect reciprocity” (Krueger 68). That is why the ethics and physical desires are correlated in the lais by Marie. The knight’s fantasy is satisfied completely with references to the actions of the fairy mistress. Also, the woman is represented as equal to men in “Lanval” because she also has the opportunity to satisfy her desire for love, sexual relations, and power over men. Thus, Krueger continues that:
A marginalized, spurned knight finds a lady who offers him all that he desires; attacked as a homosexual and calumniated as a traitor by a scheming woman, the knight then vindicates his honor and masculinity when his generous lady love displays her beautiful body before admiring men (Krueger 68).
The discussion of the text’s context provided by Krueger is rather provocative, but this explanation adds to the discussion of Marie’s work from the perspective of the idea of love because this concept is described as based on the elements of desire, sexuality, and possession. It is important to note that Marie depicts both the emotions and logical thoughts in her lais. What makes her discussions even more contradictory is the author’s idealist inclination to provide the detailed descriptions, and this approach is influenced by the Celtic motifs of using the magical creatures as contrasted to the ideas of practical relativism in the context of the ethics that the author applies to reward and punish her various characters. As a result, Lanval can be discussed as receiving the reward in the embodiment of his desires as it is depicted with references to the fairy mistress. The role of love as the magic gift should be analyzed with references to Lanval’s visions of this gift (Gallagher 96). Whereas men were known to be the knights in shining armor that always magically appeared and saved a wilting damsel in distress, in “Lanval”, the knight is depicted as being the damsel in agony.
To compare Marie’s definition of love presented in “Lanval” with the aspects of the other lais, it is necessary to refer to some of them. For instance, Marie lay presents the discussion of Guinevere as an adulterous woman. This way of writing is common in Marie’s lais as it is evident in the themes of “Eliduc”, “Guigemar”, and of “Equitan”. However, an interesting theme throughout these lais is also that of subjective ethics. Marie does not treat all the adulterous couples in her lais equally (De France). Each of them suffers a different fate based on the characterization presented in the lais and on the circumstances surrounding the sin.
A brief description of the situation in these various lais is necessary in this case. For instance, in “Eliduc”, the knight serves his king loyally for an extended period. However, he is jilted by his lord over some misunderstanding that he is not let into and neither does his master receive his pleas for justice. Having been cast out, he returns to his holdings where he stays awhile before deciding to leave on an adventure to cross over the ocean. He bids his family and friends goodbye and promises his wife that he will remain faithful. He sets out and finds himself on land where the king would need his help. He helps and soon finds favor with the king and then with his daughter who falls in love with Eliduc.
Eliduc has promised to stay for a year during which he falls in love with the King’s daughter although he does not break his word to his wife by consummating this new love. Soon enough, his old master seeks him out asking him to return to help her. His departure is painful because he is leaving his new love behind. However, he promises to return on a day she is to appoint to him. Hence, he leaves again. After settling his old king’s affairs, he returns and takes away the other king’s daughter clandestinely. He sets sail with her where they are caught in a tempest. The sailor asks him to forfeit his love, as she is the cause of the storm because he took her yet he still has a wife back home.
The girl faints into unconsciousness at hearing he has a wife. He kills the sailor and throws him at sea. He then proceeds with the girl to an old religious ground burial only to find the man of the cloth had died. He sets his ‘dead’ lover on a slab at the church and decides to get religious advice on how to turn this place into an abbey for the order to pray for her mercy (De France). His wife soon finds out about his grief and is instrumental in bringing back his love to life. Then she sets off to be a preacher, thus releasing him from his vows where Eliduc weds his love. However, after some years, he sets up another order on the other side of his estate and sends this new wife to his old wife. He becomes a monk. They live out the rest of their years in prayer and writing across the abbeys. In this case, Eliduc is somewhat naïve and ignorant. He does not tell the king’s daughter he is married, but neither does he sleep with her. When he takes her back with him, he does not seem to know what he is going to do with her. Consequently, Marie is more merciful in the outcome of the characters’ lives.
Guigemar’s sword wounds him. He is led by a magical boat where he can find healing in the arms of those who love him. These arms turn out to belong to a woman married to an old man who is jealous of Guigemar. In effect, his wife is trapped in his insecurities. The marriage is loveless. Moreover, Guigemar does not set out to love her. However, he is led to her by powers beyond his control. He loves her for herself and not for her power or because she is married and she too loves him for himself, and not for prestige because he cannot offer her anything. They stay loyal for eighteen months yet again signifying the enduring nature of their love (De France). Therefore, by the time they end up finding happiness in marrying each other, the audience agrees with her that they deserve it, despite their adulterous means to happiness.
Finally, in “Equitan”, both characters are conniving and evil from the beginning. Equitan seeks his satchel’s wife for her renowned beauty. This indicates an intention to sin from the onset. When he woes her, she resists at first because of his power as a king. For this same reason, he consents to his suit. He indicates to her that he would make her his queen, were it not that her husband is still alive. She immediately begins to plot the death of her husband. In the end, their horrible demise is justified by their avarice. Marie de France’s set of lais requires an application of the art of interpretation as one reads. To glean the fact that she determines the reward and punishment of her characters based on their intentions is only possible after one carefully looks through all her lais. This revelation is a reflection of a relativist kind of ethics although it is customized into Marie’s depiction of the same because staunch relativists such as Abelard believe that although one may do something bad with good intentions, he or she still deserves punishment for the sake of social order.
To add some details to the context, it is important to note that the arranged marriages at that time were common. Therefore, a girl of twelve could be married off to a man of fifty when the political climate called for it. In most cases, parents would compromise their daughters’ happiness for the wealth or power she was marrying. The husband then proceeded to make out of her the custom wife he desired. She grew this way. However, as time lapsed, it would become apparent to her that something or other was lacking in her marriage. In seeking this elusive object, she would stumble into a passionate affair or literature that bespoke it (Whalen 18). It was, in fact, a common practice for husbands of this age to strike an opinionated woman into submission. Consequently, those women who could truly become what they wished were very few and often viewed as heretics (Kinoshita 17). Evidence of such outlandish conduct in an age where most modernists expect chivalry to have been in its prime indicates that it is more than likely that chivalry was not yet born. Maybe it was just being conceived as it can be deduced from the lecture presented by the famous Italian reverend, St. Bernardino from Siena.
Some men can bear more patiently with a hen that lays a fresh egg every day than with their wives. Sometimes when the hen breaks a pipkin or a cup, he will spare it a beating, simply for the love of the fresh egg, which he is unwilling to lose. Oh, raving lunatics who cannot bear a word from their wives, though they bear them such fair fruit. Nevertheless, when the woman speaks a word more than they like, then they catch up with a stick. They begin to cudgel her; while the hen that cackles all day, and gives you no rest, you take patience with her for the sake of her miserable egg—and sometimes she will break more in your house than she is worth, yet you bear it in patience for the egg’s sake. Many fidgety fellows, who sometimes see their wives turn out less neat and dainty than they would like, smite them forthwith; and meanwhile, the hen may make a mess on the table, and you suffer her. Have patience; it is not right to beat your wife for every cause, no! (Mason 13).
To expand the discussion of the lais’ context, it is necessary to refer to Marie’s background. The subject of Marie’s lais has led analysts of medieval history to conclude that Marie was a woman in court with a noble heritage. However, she was probably unmarried and with no property. If the estimation of the later part of the twelfth century is to be taken for truth as the time of her existence, it is more probable that she may have been on the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England. This theory is further supported by the fact that Eleanor’s profile would perfectly support the kind of literature that Marie produced and/or gave the audience for it on her courts, as Eleanor herself was a revolutionary woman. She married Louis VII of France at 15, which was only three months after she had become Duchess of Aquitaine with vast holdings in Normandy and beyond (Kinoshita and McCracken 34). At 19, she offered the church the service of her 1000 vassals and 300 ladies-in-waiting to care for the sick and the injured. It is no wonder where she derived her inspiration from women who could do their own will whereas the primary theme in that day and age was for women to submit without question first to the will of their parents or guardians and then to that of their husbands (Mason 6).
The twelfth-century is earmarked in history as the turning point in literal composition from the traditional use of ‘epics’ to the use of double couplets that are identified as lais. This change was heralded by the increased presence of educated women in the noble courts. As indicated by the illustrious life and legacy of Eleanor of Aquitaine and perhaps sponsored by female leaders such as Eleanor, such educated women thrived on the courts of the noble. Soon, the simpler lay form was found to be preferable to the more complex ‘epic’ form. Lays require a simpler composition matrix. They are more effective if the composer’s goal is to tell a story as opposed to exhibiting poetic genius by applying poetic styles to the letter. Moreover, traditional poems are too short to have encapsulated the short stories that Marie told in her lays. Epics were too long to fit the bill. Consequently, lais, which lie between epics and poems, seemed the most appropriate vehicle for delivering her message.
Marie de France is a sensational author of lais. A remarkable feature in most of her lais is the reference to Breton, which is a Celtic language that is mostly associated with Brittany or Little Britain. In the lay of “Eliduc”, she makes specific reference to “Lesser Britain” as it is believed to have been referred. Moreover, the motifs in most of her lais include a fairy mistress whose terms of loving a mortal man were an oath of silence as in “Lanval” or a prohibition of some sort. She was influenced by Celtic sources although it is difficult and unsound to seem too sure given the time and cultural changes that separate the 21st century and the 12th century when she is believed to have lived. Marie’s nature of love was indeed idiosyncratic. However, as to whether it was actual, a female definition of love can still be argued out. If one differs from Carl Jung’s psychological inclinations of females, it holds water with women being portrayed as more empathetic relative to their male counterparts. However, such an assumption would require a thorough comparison with her works and/or current circumstances of her male counterparts.
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