Though I don’t read it often enough, writing from the Middle Ages almost always gets me… at least, when I can get myself to read it, and, of course, when it’s actually accessible to me. 1 There’s something truly fascinating about Medieval literature, something fresh about it—probably, I think, because it operates along such different lines from modern fiction.
So the other day I read a book that I’ve been meaning to get around to for almost two decades, ever since reading a small part of it for a course—The Lais of Marie de France.
Who was she? Well, as with all authors of the time, it’s hard to separate biographical fact from fancy. The biographies (vidas) of most significant poets of her time were written quite some time after their deaths, and usually were highly speculative, based on inference from each poet’s oeuvre. In the case of Marie de France, the facts are profoundly obscure: as Judy Shoaf writes,
We know nothing about Marie de France. For various reasons, it’s thought that her twelve Lais date from around 1170, that their author was a woman named Marie who also wrote a rhymed collection of Aesop’s Fables (or rather of an expanded medieval version of these fables) and one longer poem, the Purgatory of St. Patrick. She may have been an aristocratic woman, perhaps a nun, living in England but “from France,” as she tells us in the Fables. She claims to have been translating the Lais from Breton or possibly Welsh (“British”), the Fables from English, and she knew Latin as well. The only one of her sources that survived is the Latin one for the Purgatory.
Marie’s Lais were read in her own time; her French is “easy” (a widely-read Anglo-Norman literary language) and the poems are relatively short (the longest is only about a sixth as long as the verse romances being written at the same time by Chrétien de Troyes); readers usually seem to have read them in the original, though they were translated, for example, into Old Norse and read in Iceland.
Her long-ago international popularity—something I hadn’t realized was possible for a writer at that time—is only one reason she’s interesting. Continue reading
Chaucer’s Middle English is just comprehensible enough for me to read in the original, but anything older or from another region stumps me. Beowulf in the original, forget about it. Even the Pearl Poet is kind of a slog for me, though I managed it, years ago.↩