The ‘Lais of Marie de France’ is an omnibus edition of works by a medieval female writer. The collection consists of twelve narrative poems, among which are Bisclavert, Cheverfoil, and Lanval. Glyn Burgess, who studied her works, notices, that ‘the theme of love is certainly the fundamental preoccupation’ of her lais (IX), and that is not surprising, as lais, according to their definition, are ‘Celtic tales of romance that often involved elements of fantastic’ (“Marie de France” 180).
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‘The critical literature on Marie de France is vast’, as Sharon Kinoshita and Peggy McCracken claim (VII), and has a long history. They explain, that such an interest in her oeuvre can be stipulated by the fact, that ‘Marie de France … is a rare example of a twelve century woman author’ (10). They continue and give the following characteristic to the majority of criticism works, considering her lais: ‘the question of gender has been an obsession of criticism on Marie de France, and Marie’s “feminism” has been much debated’ (10).
Contemplating on the background, in which she wrote her lais, many critics, together with Edward J. Gallagher, who wrote the introduction to ‘The Lays of Marie de France’ by Marie de France, note, that her imagination could be greatly influenced by the so called ‘religion of love’, wide-spread during that period. Gallagher in the introduction to Marie’s de France book writes, that ‘It is generally held belief that in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries there developed … a complex ideology of love propagated by troubadours – wandering poet-minstrels – which held that genuine love, because in that society marriage was often a loveless union, was possible only outside the legal constraints of marriage’ (XV). As Sharon Kinoshita notes, particularly ‘Illicit love’ was that kind of love, which was ‘central to medieval romance’ (105).
And in all fairness we should admit, that adulterous affairs take place in many of her lais (for example in Bisclavert and Cheverfoil). Another typical characteristic of any medieval lais, that can also be found in her works, is observed in an essay by Roberta Krueger, who writes, that ‘Marie portrays love as suffering’ (56) or a ‘malady of love’ (60).
One more note on typical character of her art, that is often mentioned, has to deal with her plots, which are often not innovative. Logan E. Whalen declares, that ‘one can imagine that these episodes may have existed somewhere in past works before they were discovered by Marie, tucked away in her memory, and later brought forth and adapted’ (2). Moreover, some of her contemporaries wrote opuses, using the same plots, like in the case of the popular storyline of Tristan and Iseult, depicted in ‘Cheverfoil’, which was also presented in romances by Thomas of Britain and Béroul and others’.
Though critics have provided a lot of materials on the lais by Marie de France, and almost all of them wrote on the topic of love, ‘few have attempted an analysis of the nature of the love presented’ in them (Mickel 39).
In spite of the fact, that her lais obtain many generic characteristics of the genre, as I have already demonstrated, in my research I will seek to argue that her lais give an idiosyncratic perspective on love. They ‘offer a certain contrast to romances of Maries contemporaries’, as they ‘have a strongly female focus’ in describing love and its place in feudal society (“Marie de France” 180), which was unusual to the literature of that time. Thus they became an insight into a woman’s soul.
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In this work I will present the evidences, showing how this female focus is set forth in her lais, and some other peculiar features in her descriptions of love, such as her style.
- Beginning with existing critical materials on her lais (especially those of Mickel, who suggested to make a reconsideration of the lais of Marie de France), I will first show the subtle hints of her female focus, occurring in the previous criticism works, that prompted me to collect and unscramble all distinctive features of her representation of love, and search for more by myself.
- Following this, I will show, how other medieval writers treated the theme of love. As I have already mentioned, the majority of writers of that time were men. Thus, their works had a male focus – they often underscored the collision between love and duty, and the necessity to offset them with an eye to fulfill both individual desires, and social responsibilities.
- From here, I will expose my arguments of Marie’s unique approach to the theme and unique style:
- Marie focuses more on personal desires of her characters, predominantly those of her female characters, and on representation of intimate love relationships. Love is an essential and independent power, and her characters are almost entirely motivated by love only.
- The men’s desires in her works are also usually focused on love – on love of a noble woman of a high position in feudal society.
- She often concentrates on the idea, that, having such courtly feudal codes of contact and traditions, as arranged marriages, for example, women are, as a rule, unable to control their own fate.
- Thus, in her imaginary she often addresses to a motif of bypassing these regulations by women, when they find various ways out and manage to get what they want, and sometimes they even win over men, in spite of the fact, that they were almost deprived of rights. The fairy from ‘Lanval’ is a female character, that is more allotted with independence than others, due to various possibilities to put into life her desires. She can be viewed as an impersonation of ‘freedom’, that could be achieved by a woman in the cultural boundaries of that time.
- Marie de France profoundly and vividly uncovers the attributes ofdepict ed women, such as: sage, quick wit, ability to make the best of opportunities, and sometimes vanity and ambitiousness.
- Dissecting her style, I could say, that due to the compressed space of such genre, as lais, Marie had to be to both concise and accurate, and that gives her romances a down-to-earth precision.
- Conclusion, in which I sum up all the evidences presented, proving that her lais are worth of special attention, as they appear to be a unique phenomenon of the medieval literature, that gives women’s perspective on courtly love, limited with various prescriptions, and a psychological insight into the souls of women of that time.
Burgess, Glyn Sheridan. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Context, Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1987. Print.
De France, Marie. The Lays of Marie de France, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2010. Print.
Kinoshita, Sharon. Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.
Kinoshita, Sharon, and P. McCracken. Marie de France: A Critical Companion, Cambridge, England: DS Brewer, 2012. Print.
Krueger, Roberta L.. “The Wound, the Knot, and the Book: Marie de France and Literary Traditions of Love in the Lais.” A Companion to Marie de France. Ed.
Logan Whalen. Danvers, MA: BRILL, 2011. 55-88. Print.
“Marie de France.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, second edition: Volume 1: The Medieval Period. Ed. Joseph Black. Toronto, Canada: Broadview Press, 2009. 180-209. Print.
Mickel, Emanuel J. Jr… “A Reconsideration of the Lais of Marie de France.” Speculum 46.1 (1971): 39-65. Print.
Whalen, Logan E.. Marie de France and the Poetics of Memory, Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 2008. Print.