The Lais of Marie de France

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.

marie-de-franceSo 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. 

She was also an apparently French-born writer working in French at the time of the troubadours, but was living in England… in other words, what we might today call an “expatriate” author, working far from the cultural centers of the Burgundian and Occitanian courts and living on the periphery of cultured Europe. She was also an important influence on vernacular writers who followed, and while she wasn’t alone in writing vernacular poetry at the time, she was something of a pioneer, and among the earliest of female authors on record in Western Europe.

marie de france
An image of Marie de France in an illuminated manuscript.


By the way, despite the fact we know nothing about her, we do know she was a she. There are various reasons, but again, it’s pretty obvious from the texts themselves. She writes with a sensitivity to the motivations and concerns—and inner lives—of female characters that is deeper than one sees in fiction by a lot of men of the time. Her women are passive receptacles, not just marble goddesses on pedestals: they cheat on their husbands, they make sacrifices, they change their minds and regret things they have done; they are capable of being of two minds about things, and contradicting themselves in a way other than the one a man would hold up as evidence of fickleness. Marie de France writes of women who fall in love against their better judgment, and of women who just wanna get with a guy because he’s hot; she writes of women who betray their faithful husbands, and women who release their unfaithful husbands on discovering they’ve fallen for another.

Three stories stuck out in my mind as particularly interesting:

“Bisclavret” is a straight-up werewolf/adultery story, and a brilliant one. If you discovered your spouse was a werewolf, how would you react? On some level, the tale reminded me of the way the werewolf theme was treated in the first couple of seasons of Being Human: werewolfism, as  Loki points out in this video, is something that leads to social isolation and exclusion. It’s a story that reads as astonishingly fresh today, and in the right hands, it can be a wonderful fifteen minutes well spent, as with this retelling by John Edgar which is, in general (and excepting the bit about silver bullets and the odd joke) quite faithful to the original:

“Yonec” is also quite interesting: imagine Rapunzel wishing on a star and getting a visit from her fairy godmother, except the fairy godmother is actually a sexy knight who shapeshifts into hawk form so that he can fly up to her room in the tower in which she’s imprisoned by her mean old husband. Hijinks, tragedy, and hardcore patricide ensue. Fairy lovers’ bastard offspring can be really bloodthirsty badasses. Also, this story rather reminded me of Boyoung Kim’s “An Evolutionary Myth,” in that it features that bizarre Medieval proto-Lamarckian idea where acquired characteristics (like having a stump where an important body got part bitten off by an angry werewolf) is a trait that is passed on to your children. Well, that plus it has a human-animal hybrid character fleeing human society by hiding in the woods, plus that scene where the king, with all his hunting dog and troupe, runs across the poor fellow.

And finally, there’s “Le Fresne,” which a friend of mine today described as hokey. It is, on one level: it’s one of those stories where you can see the resolution because it’s right there at the beginning… but, on another level, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on in the story. There’s bizarre theories about how twins get born, there’s the pressures of social expectation, there’s the incredible callousness of Medieval parents toward their children, and there’s a ridiculous coincidence (that you will see a mile away) to tie it all up in a knot. But there’s also a mother who is a strange, complex character: she is doting to one child, and horrible to the other, despite both of them being born from the same womb within her. There’s a funny reversal of fortunes, one that is actually a bit bittersweet for a minor character whose response we barely see, if at all. We cannot mistake the story for an essay on maternity, much less Medieval notions of maternity, but even so, it’s a tantalizing glimpse of what made enough sense to be included in narrative.

(Then again, human shapeshifters made enough sense to be included in narratives, so…)

One thing’s for sure: there’s something in her work that was potent, probably in part because she stole from a great source: the lais are all what we would today call “remixes” of folk stories/songs from Brittany, which Marie de France described as having been heard personally in the region. While much of the material you’ll see about her online (say, on Youtube) is just homework assignments, there’s also plenty that is authentic response to something compelling and fascinating in her work, like the John Edgar video above. Go and search her name online, and you’ll find a bewildering array of projects related to her work, some academic, some artistic, and some just plain retelling the stories she versified in her lays. The vitality is such that people are still responding to it now, almost a millennium later. Look at this snippet of Emilie Mercier’s 2011 animation Bisclavret:

(If only it were available online somehow, for something less than almost twenty euros!)

Note, the version I read was in prose translation—the 1986 Penguin edition with the cover shown above. It was fine if you’d just like to get the gist of the stories, though I personally would’ve preferred a verse translation. If you’re like me, Judy Shoaf’s translation of eight out of the twelve lais is available in PDF form online for free. I’ll be checking them out this fall, when I can print them off at work to read them at my leisure.

(…unless some fairy maiden prances up to my door and drops off the iPad I’d been to read them sooner. Hamadryads and gumiho of the Jochiwon wilds, take note!)

  1. 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.

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