The Lais of Marie de France
Preserve and Pass It On: Comparing Tombs and Lais in Marie de France’s Laustic and Yonec
In both Yonec and Laustic, Marie de France describes tombs that house the unfulfilled love of her characters. The tombs function to preserve the physical bodies of a love that could not be fulfilled during the characters’ lives. In both lais, the tombs are overwhelmingly beautiful, ornate, and described in stunning detail, like a piece of art. However, the tombs are finite and conclusive, which makes them an incomplete version of the story that is insufficient in carrying it on in the future. Contrastingly, the lais are a dynamic form that constantly changes with every retelling. The transformational nature of the lay makes it an animate art form, as opposed to the tomb which is a fixed art form. While the tomb preserves the physical remnants of the characters’ love stories, the act of composing these stories into lais preserves the love between these characters forever. While tombs preserve the physical characters, they are finite and therefore cannot actively carry on their story. However, the lay as a form that is constantly changing and animate possesses the power to both preserve the past and continue to carry on the story.
Both the tomb and the lay are pieces of art, even though they are very different. The tombs in both lais are described as beautiful pieces of art. In Laustic the dead nightingale is wrapped “in a piece of samite, embroidered in gold and writing,” (135-136) at first, and then placed in “a small vessel fashioned with no iron or steel in it; it was all pure gold and good stones, very precious and very dear; the cover was very carefully attached” (149-153). In Yonec the tomb is “covered with a cloth of embroidered silk, a band of precious gold running from one side to the other. At the head, the feet, and at the sides burned twenty candles. The chandeliers were pure gold, the censers amethyst, which through the day perfumed that tomb, to its great honor” (499-506). Both tombs are described beautifully and are essentially pieces of art; they are beautifully decorated and adorned with stunning materials like gold and marble. The tomb, then, in and of itself is a piece of art. The lay is also an art form that “put[s] [adventures] into word and rhyme” (Prologue 41). In this way, the tomb and the lay are different. While the tomb is decorated beautifully with pure materials like gold and marble, the lay is simply words composed into a rhyming sequence. It is not primarily visually appealing, but rather auditory and thoughtful. The lay and tomb are also different from one another in terms of finality. The art of the tomb is finite and complete once the construction of it is done, while the lay is always changing and can be revised and transformed infinitely through transposition and retelling. The lais of Marie de France are translations from “from Latin to Romance” and then again from French to English (Prologue 30). These lais are constantly changing and not finite like the tomb, making the lay a more animate and dynamic art form.
The finite tomb and the dynamical lay function differently in preservation as a result of their contrasting natures. The tombs preserve the physical and encapsulate unfulfilled love in both lais. In Yonec when the lady is confronted with her lover’s tomb years after his death, she “faint[s] over the tomb, and in her faint, she die[s]… [then] they [take] the lady with great honour and [place] her in the coffin” (538-548). Even though she could not be with him during her life, the lady is ultimately buried with her lover – a sign of her “great honour” by the people in the city (547). In this way, the tomb will preserve both their physical bodies and the love between them. Similarly, the tomb described in Laustic preserves the body of the nightingale, which is a symbol of the forbidden relationship. The love represented in Laustic is different; it is never described as true love but rather a superficial love where “each took pleasure in the other’s sight since they could have nothing more” (77-78). When the lady realizes she “won’t be able to get up at night or and stand in the window where [she] used to see [her] love” she sends her lover the dead nightingale to relay the message. The knight is “very sad about the adventure but he [is not] mean or hesitant,” and he gives up on their relationship as easily as she does (147-148). Neither sacrifice for one another or even attempt to continue their relationship, and so the tomb created for their love story is simply the dead nightingale in a casket, as opposed to Yonec where the lovers are buried together. The knight “ha[s] the casket sealed and carrie[s] it with him always” as a small token of their relationship (155-156). The casket preserves the dead nightingale as a symbol of their love: a token of their affair and the only remnant of their relationship. Both of these tombs are finite and cannot be changed because of the nature of the tomb. As a result, their stories in this form are fixed and unchanging, and therefore incomplete. In Yonec, the lovers buried together might suggest that the two were married and spent their lives together. In Laustic, a dead nightingale wrapped in a casket does not express the entire story of the lovers. While the tomb preserves the physical remnants of the story, it is an incomplete version of the tales.
The lais suggest that while the tombs preserve the physical bodies, they are incomplete forms of the love story because of their fixed nature. However, the lais as a dynamic and animate form are able to both preserve the love story and continue to carry it on for generations. In Yonec as the lady, her husband, and her son approach the tomb of the knight they ask the people of the city about the knight that lies there. Without the living people of the city there to explain, the tomb is ineffective in communicating the knight’s story. Furthermore, as the knight predicted years ago to the lady, she would hear his story and explain the adventure to their son. After listening to the people of the city, the lady “call[s] aloud to her son” (526) and “reveal[s] for all to hear… the truth” (533-537). The story behind the tomb needed a living component to continue it and carry on. Not only this, but the son proceeds to avenge his father and kill his stepfather to “avenge his mother’s sorrow” (544). The living continuation of the story, the lady, alters the story, as well, because Yonec becomes the lord of the people of the city and changes his bloodline. The tomb, as a finite entity, is incapable of change and therefore insufficient as a means of carrying on the true story. While it may preserve the physical bodies, by its nature it is only a partial representation of the adventure. Similarly, the ending of Laustic suggests that a living component is necessary to pass on the story. As the knight has “the casket sealed” and “place[s] the nightingale inside” he conceals their story by shutting the nightingale in the vessel (154-155). However, “the adventure was told, [as] it could not be concealed for long,” which suggests that the act of living people retelling the story is what allows it to be passed on despite being enclosed in the finite casket (157-158). The lay as a dynamic form undergoing change constantly makes it an animate form, especially when contrasted with the fixed and final nature of a tomb. As a result, the lay is a more effective means of carrying on a story as it can change and remain living in a way. The composition of the lay allows the story to live on and gives the unfulfilled lovers a legacy; their love is able to thrive in the continuous retelling of the story.
In both lais, Marie de France describes beautifully detailed tombs that conserve the physical remnants of two relationships. The tomb in Yonec allows the lovers who could not be together during their lives to at least be buried together and rest together in death. The tomb in Laustic is the only physical remnant of the relationship between the lady and the knight, and is a token and symbol of their love affair. However, the tombs in these lais only serve to encapsulate physical remnants of the relationships and are therefore incomplete versions of the stories. Tombs as a finite and fixed form do not allow for change and transformation, and so they remain inanimate and insufficient accounts of the love affairs. In contrast, the lais are dynamic and animate art forms. They are able to both preserve and carry on the stories of the lovers in their retelling as a living component is necessary to complete and continue the story. While both the lais and the tombs are art forms that preserve, their contrasting natures make the lay a more effective means of continuing and carrying on the stories.
The Power Within Women: A Reading of “Lanval”
The story of Lanval is an uncommon one for its time. A helpless, outcast knight meets a beautiful, magical woman. The one term of their love, set down by the unnamed woman, is that Lanval can tell nobody about her. When he breaks that rule and offends Queen Guinevere, he must rely on his lover to save him, and she does. In this poem, the woman is the hero; the woman is in control of Lanval’s fate. Lanval is an example of courtly love, a term used to describe certain values within medieval European literature. With courtly love, the woman is traditionally in control of the affair; however, I believe that the woman’s control goes far beyond this subgenre. The woman’s power, in Lanval, is shown through more than just the plot. After all, the final scene of Marie de France’s Lanval utilizes common poetic conventions, such as word choice and imagery, to explore the power women held during a time when men were often the heroes.
Lanval’s fate is entirely in the magical woman’s control, an arrangement which shows her ultimate power. Lanval asks for her help when he says, “I care little who may kill me, / if she does not take pity on me” (599-600). Without this woman’s compassion, Lanval is doomed. What is even more surprising is the fact that Lanval does not care about his fate if it does not include this woman. This state of mind reverses the common damsel-in-distress theme that was seen in the literature of the time. Not only is the woman in charge of their love affair, but she is ultimately in charge of Lanval’s outcome. Instead of the woman needing Lanval, he needs her. By reversing the traditional roles and giving the woman immense power, Marie de France warns men not to underestimate the amount of power a woman can have; a man’s life might be in a woman’s hands one day.
Moreover, the woman’s initial entrance at King Arthur’s court demonstrates her power over the masses. Multiple lines point to the fact that the crowd is infatuated with her: “[S]uch a beauty had never come” to the palace before, a statement which speaks to the fact that this woman was far more beautiful than Queen Guinevere (602). Indeed, “All the [citizens] honored her / and offered themselves to serve her” (610). This woman’s beauty quite literally commanded the room; it is as though the citizens take their loyalty to King Arthur and shift it towards her, so that her stature overwhelms that of the royalty present. Through this aspect of the narrative, Marie de France is saying that a woman could be as powerful as a ruler, or as any man. What is so important, though, is that this woman is bound to no man. Even King Arthur “who was very well-bred, / got up to meet her” (607-8). The king goes to her instead of vice versa, thus indicating how commanding the magical woman is, since even someone as powerful and well-regarded as King Arthur “cannot detain her” (631). Needless to say, if King Arthur cannot hold this woman back, nor can Lanval. Indeed, she saves Lanval because she loves him, not because she is desperate for his love (615). Another important aspect of the woman’s power is shown when she requests Lanval’s release. Without any objection, King Arthur “grants that it should be so,” the “it” here being Lanval’s freedom (625). King Arthur does not even ask Queen Guinevere, who is in some ways at the root of the dilemma, to restate what has happened. He instantly takes this beautiful woman’s words as the sole truth and releases Lanval into her custody. This is the last that the reader sees of Lanval and the last that the story teller has to say.
In the final scene, turns of word choice are engineered to show the woman’s authority over Lanval. This tactic begins in the final few lines, when Lanval jumps onto the horse “behind her” (640). She is taking the lead in controlling the horse; Lanval is simply following her as he goes “with her” to Avalon (641). Lanval is the accessory in the way this sentence is constructed, again showing the role reversal. The final image we are left with is Lanval being “carried off,” and that is the last we ever hear of Lanval (644). These final lines of the poem depict Lanval as under this woman’s rule; he was saved by her. Marie de France chooses to leave the reader with these words and images, lending them additional emphasis. The final impression that the reader gleans from Lanval is that of a woman with power over her lover, something that was uncommon for the era of Marie de France.
Marie de France was clearly a feminist of her time. This flawless woman depicted in Lanval not only commands Lanval, but also the court of King Arthur. Her role in this story goes beyond the plot. This woman just as easily plays the role of the savior as any man could. Marie de France is making a statement by not naming this woman; this woman could be any woman, and any woman could thus hold this amount of power, not just the specific woman in this story. Moreover, Marie de France seamlessly reverses the expected gender roles. In playing this new role, the woman becomes a main character in Lanval, rather than simply an object the man is fighting for. Through her narrative subtleties, Marie de France proves that women have more power than many men think.
Bisclavret: Marie de France’s Manipulation and Why We Hate the Wife
Bisclavret is the only lai of Marie de France’s that deals with a couple falling out of love (Creamer 259). The lycanthropic theme is used by the poet as a test of love and respect for one’s husband, as the baron’s wife doesn’t approve of his lupine nature. The central issue seen throughout is the baron’s wife’s refusal to accept and understand. The wife’s situation and power is slowly degraded from the very beginning in the interrogation scene (he was honest, yet she didn’t respect that), and to the very end when she becomes a vanished criminal. Marie de France builds off this story with an aim in deteriorating the wife and defaming her presence by making her disloyal and not accepting of her husband’s nature. From the way she writes the verses, and the wife’s absence for the majority of the poem, it is clear that Marie de France’s goal is for the reader to dislike the wife. “Marie creates an insidious woman-hating universe in her text.” (Creamer 259). Betrayal is one of the first themes we encounter with Bisclavret, one that remains the reason for the baron’s misfortune. The wife’s first betrayal derives from simple trickery, she asks him whether he goes dressed or nude (when in werewolf form), also a form of foreshadowing for her ongoing query. The location of his clothing signifies her next betrayal. She now knows of the location. To the husband, the revealing doesn’t appear as dangerous, as it is coming from an honest place. “We readers are to understand that her husband’s revelation of his humiliating secret should have been sufficient” (Creamer 265). In addition to the context of the story, Marie de France’s stylistic choices reveal her disdain for the wife. In the entire story we can see that the baron is genuine and down to earth, while his wife is manipulative and even commits adultery. The description of the wife is one fifth the length of the werewolf and one third of that of the baron. This demonstrates the sneaky and unfaithful nature of the wife by the narrator (Creamer 264). The description of the wife is only two verses long (in the actual poem). This demonstrates that she isn’t very important in the story, not only that, but that she is negligible. Very slowly she starts becoming more and more disparaged by the narrator. Marie’s way of writing unveils the scenario for us, the way she writes the verses and the style in which she phrases the narrative. “All his love was set on her, and all her love was given again to him. One only grief had this lady”. We know something bad is in the surface, as both wife and baron are introduced as almost perfect for one another, and with her grief we can see what might occurred. This line indicates that things will no longer be as mentioned in the beginning. “Verse 62 ‘he hid nothing from her’ and again in verse 67 ‘he had told her everything’ (in the actual poem) -these two verses are another hint of the narrator abandoning objectivity by choosing the husband over the wife” (Creamer 264). From the commencement of the story we are aware that the werewolf is harmless. He goes out in the deep woods and does nothing but hunt (for animals, not man) and wander around in solitude. He cannot really hurt anyone. The wife should not have a reason to be wary around him. They have been married for some time and he has yet to frighten her. This makes the wife even more loathsome to the reader, as she knows that he will not harm her, as he has not done so, and when answering her questions he delivers humbling and sincere answers. “He is not a man eater and so is not a danger to his wife, especially when coupled with the baron’s claim that the creature does not venture out from the depths of the forest” (Creamer 265). This, however, doesn’t dictate the baron’s only example of his harmless nature. When lost in the depths of the woods for almost a year, the baron encounters a pack. The king and his men discover him when hunting in the woods. Very intimidated and afraid by this creature, the king wants him gone. The werewolf pleads for his life and reveals his clever side to the king. The king brings him along to his castle, as the men and himself noticed that the werewolf wasn’t harmful, but rather kind and frank. He shows no sings of violence and even sleeps alongside the kings royal entourage. We can see once more that the baron’s claims in the beginning are sincere. He does nothing but roam the woods and hunt for animals, a practice that even humans, not just werewolves, perform. The king and his men serve as a perfect illustration of how the baron would have been harmless to his wife. “That the men eagerly sleep alongside the werewolf is a tactic job from Marie at the intolerant wife, who categorically refuses to lie with her lycanthropic husband” (Creamer 166). This underscores the gentle nature of the werewolf. It is another way for Marie to abase the wife. Marie de France creates this woman hating universe, step by step in her stylistic choice of writing. We are allowed to see how she degrades the wife more and more throughout the story. The wife’s final betrayal is committed when she decides to marry another man after her husband leaves, a man whom she does not truly love. After almost a year of being out of the picture, the baron returns to his human form with the help of the king. He meets his wife again, only to confront her about her grand betrayal and ending with a violent note by tearing her nose off as a form of revenge. “Marie suggests that the violence committed in this lay is intellectual in nature: the wife refuses to rationalize or compartmentalize her husband’s condition” (Creamer 266). The last form in which the wife is degraded by Marie de France is when the king banishes her (along with her now husband), due to the corruptness she had caused her now ex-husband. The wife and her new husband end up having a few daughters, which are all born without noses. As Creamer concludes, “Bisclavret ends with forward looking glance at how one woman’s treachery would later impact the lives of several future generations of woman. Like Eve before her, this woman’s lack of obedience dooms her” (266). Works Cited Creamer, P. “Woman-Hating in Marie De France’s Bisclavret.” ROMANIC REVIEW 93 (2002): 259-74. Print.
The Inctricacies of the Court and Lanval’s Desire to Escape
The Intricacies of the Court and Lanval’s Desire to Escape In the Anglo- Norman lay Lanval, an eloquent and intricate account of the Arthurian courts, Marie de France develops an array of issues that include the hypocrisies and virtues of the court, the desire for escape, as well sex and gender. In this essay, I will investigate these topics by comparing the Queen, the fairy Princess and Gawain as they are examples of both the contemptible and noble qualities of the court system. I will also investigate the theme of escapism and how Lanval’s status as an ‘outsider’ from the courts causes him to desire to escape his situation of courtly abjection. These investigations will further my understanding of Marie’s views of the court system. Finally, by pursuing the issues of sex and gender, this essay will explore the lay’s fascinating portrayal of the role of women as active agents in the Arthurian courts. This series of investigations will lead to the conclusion that the events and occurrences are completely the imaginings of Lanval himself. His psychological exile results from his estrangement from reality. Marie’s own escapist fantasy; however, has been effectively manipulated to make for presentable courtly entertainment. Marie de France’s portrayals of the injustices and hypocrisies of the court are tactful, ensuring that she will be able to read this lay aloud to the court. For example, Lanval’s unhappiness at the beginning of the poem, while we are informed that he does not receive his due payment from King Arthur after the battles against the Picts and the Scots, is not fully explained. Descriptions of Lanval reveal that he is obviously not on an equal level with the other knights. Marie does not explicate the reasons for these exceptional conditions, however, careful consideration reveals the corruption and irony of Arthur’s round table. While the battles against Picts and Scots are grand endeavors whereby Arthur is able to simultaneously spread Christianity and his rule, this ironic power is viewed ironically due to failures to control his won wife and to fairly reward his knights. These are contradictions in Arthur’s abilities as a leader prompt and they the reader to question the virtue of his rule, as well as the just nature of his court. It also serves to incite greater pity for Lanval. Lanval is described as an outsider. The other knights “were envious of his handsomeness,/ His strength, his courage, his largesse” (Lines 20-21). They pretend to love Lanval, but are secretly jealous of him and would not be devastated if anything bad happened to him. Lanval has no true friend or camaraderie and this isolation causes his estrangement. He is a foreigner and therefore suffers from loneliness. The narrator implores the readers to place themselves in Lanval’s situation and to take pity on his suffering. “My lords, please do not think it rare:/ A foreigner is filled with care/ And sadness in a distant land,/ Finding no help at any hand” (Lines 33-36). Through the use of sympathy, Marie criticizes the prejudice against foreigners that characterizes Arthur’s court. Lanval reacts to the ill treatment by isolating himself, “For pleasure’s sake set on his way./ Outside the town he went to ride/ Alone into the countryside” (Lines39-41). This isolation from the town symbolizes self-removal from the difficult reality, attending all psychological experiences of personal exile. The subsequent occurrences that happen to the hero, including the coming of the fairy princess, may be construed as entirely fictitious. Marie displays great tact in portraying the weighty criticisms of Arthurian corruption and courtly prejudice against foreigners. She presents them in a short span of the text– all within the first fifty lines– and without any explicit explanations, although these criticisms arguably supply the motivations for Lanval’s suffering, psychological estrangement and escapist fantasy. Marie critiques the court system in an even more obvious way through the character of Arthur’s Queen. The Queen is highly corrupt and vile, as depicted by her attempt to seduce Lanval and condemn him for treason. His refusal of her sexual offers constructs a testament to his devotion and loyalty to his fairy mistress and his king. The conversation after his refusal of the queen depicts her narcissistic temperament and her grave misuse of courtly courtesy. The Queen is short, curt and cruel when talking to Lanval, accusing him of many things including that he sleeps with boys. It causes Lanval to become furious with her, the court she controls and, finally, to speak back to her.The criticism of the Queen is incredibly blunt, unlike the criticisms of Arthur’s court. She is heavily criticized, especially when she is compared to the fairy princess. This fictitious princess, read as Lanval’s amorous fantasy, offers companionship and adoration to Lanval and starkly contrasts the political reality of the Queen. While fairy’s love is pure, secretive, rewarding and sensitive, the Queen’s physical demands are sinful. The fairy princess’ beauty exceeds all bounds and she portrays perfect manners as an exemplary figure of courtly behavior. These figures can also be seen to represent binary examples of Lanval’s most and least ideal woman. These two characters can also be compared involves their restriction by the rules of court and society. The fairy princess is not restricted by the conventionalities of female modesty and courtly protocol, as she wears a revealing dress to Lanval’s trial. She is not restricted by the rules of reality either as he is able to take off his mantle and roll it into a pillow. The Queen, on the other hand, is governed completely by the social and legal conventions of the real world. Her only means of punishing Lanval involves an organized trial. The fairy princess’ supreme freedom from reality is portrayed in her brilliant beauty and purity. In essence, it is necessary that she leave the real world because she cannot be tainted by the influences of society. The Queen, in contrast, instantiates the social corruption and hypocrisy of the court. Marie does not suggest that the court is devoid of all virtue. On the contrary, the character of Gawain serves as the ultimate example of the court as sincere and decent. His righteousness bridges the gap between Lanval’s foreignness and the hegemonic unity of the other knights. As a well-respected knight, Gawain helps them to support Lanval during his trial. His character is a valorization of the worldly court; therefore it is less controversial to a courtly audience. Gawain also serves as an outstanding example of a worldly court member, whom Marie’s audience should follow. While the interpretation that Lanval’s fairy princess is fictitious may be debatable, the psychological model of fantasy and wish fulfillment are not. His desperate need for acceptance, and the instant gratification when he meets his mistress seems too great a coincidence for one to dismiss the possibility of her being a fantasy. First, Lanval is upset that he has not been rewarded by King Arthur, the fairy princess professes her love for him and then attends to his every need: “He should get whatever he wanted-/ Money, as fast as he can spend it,/ No matter how much, she will send it” (Lines 132-134). Furthermore, since many other of Marie’s lays contain elements of “magic and mystery” (Norton Anthology, 127), it is not surprising to assume that Lanval represents a version of psychological fantasy and the interaction between the magical and real worlds. Indeed, there are some explicit identifications of the author, Marie de France, with Lanval. Marie was a foreigner from France who lived in present-day England. She experienced the loss of community and identity living in this distant land, since it is commonly believed that she was a nun, she probably had very little tolerance for the injustices of the court. In light of this historical, generic and textual evidence, I believe that the story of Lanval is a modified account of Marie’s personal fantasy of escaping the English court, skillfully manipulated it to make it suitable for the gender and political standards of society. While Marie de France probably dreamed about returning to her French homeland, her lay seem more powerful and interesting because the destination of escape is of another world, therefore one free from all courtly regulations and perfect in every imaginable way. In essence, the other world of Avalon is desirable to all, including the court to which she is reading. This would not necessarily be true had Lanval simply dreamt of going to France. The lay is also modified from Marie’s personal fantasy in that the marginalized protagonist is a man. This gender conversion is necessary for the lay to have been taken seriously in court. The worthiness and valor of his character is the result of his noble status as one of Arthur’s knights, allowing him to venture into the inner dealings of the court system. Lanval as a male gives Marie the license to comment fully on the inner political dealings of the court. Also, it would have been scandalous for a woman’s fantasies to be described in such detail during Marie’s time. A proper reading of Marie’s Lanval, as an outsider, must include investigation into the court as a virtuous system of rule. This allows us to follow the driving factors which cause Lanval to desire escapism so greatly that he develops a fantasy to deal with his suffering. France, Marie De. “Lanval.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1962. 126-140. Moritz, William E. Guingamor, Guigemar, Graelentmor, Lanval and Desire: A Comparative Study of Five Breton Lays. Diss. Univ. of Southern California, 1968. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Mircrofilms, Inc., 1968.
Empowering Medieval Women: Aspects of Courtly Love in The Lais of Marie de France
During the Medieval time period, a woman would generally be forced to depend upon a man for her livelihood. However, in the fictional world of courtly love, a 12th century philosophical phenomenon believed by some to have originated as a form of goddess worship, a man is unable to survive without his beloved. As a result of this, her love causes him to aspire to complete noble deeds, and he becomes obedient and subservient to her in hopes of winning her affection. In The Lais of Marie de France, specifically “Chevrefoil,” “Laustic,” “Lanval,” and “Yonec,” the author by no means follows all of the rules of courtly love, yet she does model the relations between the man and his beloved after the aforementioned aspects of it. She bestows beauty, intelligence, and wisdom upon her heroines, giving them power over those men who love them. While Marie de France often constrains women to the oppressive realities of the Middle Ages, she allows her characters to unknowingly rebel against the societal norms of the time period through using the courtly love relationship as a way of empowering women.In his essay, “Women in Love,” Glyn S. Burgess states that “the cruel way in which [the husbands] treat [their wives] calls forth from Marie an outburst which she reserves for those who deny young women the chance to place their affections where they wish” (102). In the Middle Ages the majority of marriages were arranged. Given that the society at that point in time was largely patriarchal, men were often the ones given the privilege of choosing a spouse. Many times women were forced to marry men that they barely knew – men that they did not love. Through allowing the women in her lais to escape from their husbands and be with men whom they possess power over, Marie de France elevates women up onto pedestals. She glorifies their characteristics and allows them to be worshiped by men – those whom they traditionally must honor and obey.Within such a relationship, the time that a man spends separated from his beloved leads to nothing but heartache. Yet, according to Marie de France, it is not so for the woman. In “Chevrefoil,” Tristram becomes “distressed and downcast” when his uncle sends him away from his kingdom, and it is because of this separation from his beloved that he is said to have risked “death and destruction” (de France 109). However, the queen does not openly experience the same degree of emotion, making her appear to be the stronger individual; she is the one with the upper hand in the relationship, and thus the one with more power.A woman not only fails to express her sorrow during times of separation, but she also fails to verbally express her love and need for her beloved. This too gives her more power, leaving the man vulnerable and feeling as though he must fulfill her every desire in order to win her love. Throughout “Chevrefoil” the queen never proclaims her love for Tristram. Instead, the only time her love for him is declared is when Tristram himself declares it: “Sweet love, so it is with us: without me you cannot survive, nor I without you” (de France 110). One must then wonder if the queen actually loves him, or if she is just using the power she holds over him to get what she wants. After all, it is clear from the same declaration of love that Tristram is unable to survive without her. Thus, he would certainly stop at nothing to keep the queen at his side, for his livelihood depends on it.While the details differ a bit in “Laustic,” the idea remains the same. The woman does not actually proclaim her love for the knight, yet the narrator tells us that “she love[s] him above all things” (de France 94). However, the reasons given for her love trivialize it immensely. It is said that she loves the knight “for the good she [has] heard about him and because he live[s] close by” (de France 94). Chances are slim that one could truly love another for these reasons, and thus it suggests that the woman uses the knight’s love for her own desires – for example, the gifts that he throws to her window. The fact that one of the things she has heard about him is that he “spend[s] freely and giv[es] generously whatever he [has],” only further proves this point (de France 94). Burgess suggests that the relationship is merely a means of providing the lady with “a period of happiness spiked with risk” (109). The seemingly loving gesture of “smuggl[ing] the dead nightingale out of her house and into the hands of her beloved” can be seen as simply a way of “win[ning] a small victory over her [oppressive] husband” (Burgess 110). No matter what the true motive is, through misleading the knight and taking advantage of his love for her the woman gains power over him, allowing her to use him as she pleases.The same holds true in “Yonec,” yet the woman uses the man for things other than small gifts. After being locked in a tower for years, “the lady [is] in great distress” (de France 86). Burgess describes the man she was given to as “intensely jealous . . . The fact that he had himself ‘called’ lord suggests that he was intent on usurping power and influence.” At this point, the lady is yearning for a man, and thus when one appears in her chambers and professes his undying love for her, she is quick to take advantage of the situation. The power that the woman holds over the man is so strong that when she wishes his presence, he is “with [her] within the hour” (de France 88). This power causes the man to go to great lengths in order to please his beloved. For example, he does not simply profess his faith in the Lord, but he goes to the trouble of assuming his wife’s appearance so that he will have the chance to receive the body of Christ and “recite all of [his] credo for [her]” (de France 88). In addition to this, the man goes as far as risking his life so that he may love the woman. He knows all along that “for love of [his lady]” he will lose his life, yet he loves her just the same (de France 90). The woman has enough power over him that he risks his life on earth for her love. Yet, this comes as no surprise, seeing as, according to Robert R. Edwards and Stephen Spector, she possesses the sole power to escape a tyrannical marriage by wishing a lover “into existence through the power of her imagination” (9). It is she that creates her beloved. In his essay “Love and Power,” R.W. Hanning states that God is not the only creator in the lai, but the lady herself is one as well; she “has undertaken to make her own love story on the pattern of others she has heard, and thereby brings across her close encounter of the bird-kind” (de France 98). The woman possesses such a large amount of power that she is able to wish her beloved into existence and control everything he does.Not only does Marie de France display the philosophy of the courtly love relationship through the words and actions of her characters, but through symbolism as well. In “Chevrefoil,” she uses honeysuckle and a hazel branch as metaphors for Tristram and the Queen:The two of them resembled the honeysuckle which clings to the hazel branch: when it has wound itself round and attached itself to the hazel, the two can survive together: but if anyone should separate them, the hazel quickly dies, as does the honeysuckle. (de France 110)While either one is doomed without the other, it is clear that the hazel branch represents the Queen, for it is the more solid and stable of the two. The honeysuckle, on the other hand, represents Tristram, for he feeds off the Queen’s love as the honeysuckle feeds off the hazel branch.The symbolism in “Laustic,” however, is used to bring across a completely different message. While the women of these lais are empowered by the men who seek their love, they lose all of this power when they look beyond these relationships. This is expected, for one must remember that during the Middle Ages, women generally possessed little power. It is only in the fictional world of courtly love that they are lifted onto pedestals and worshiped by their beloveds. In this lai, the nightingale represents the love between the woman and the knight. Despite her control over the knight, the woman is unable to stop her husband from both symbolically and realistically destroying their love for one another. When he learns of it, her husband takes the nightingale and “[breaks] its neck wickedly with two hands,” despite her asking him to return it to her safely (de France 95). It is clear through this incident that, when faced with a man other than her beloved, the woman possesses no power whatsoever. Her husband refuses to allow her to have something that he believes means the world to her. After all, if he did not believe that she truly loved the knight, he would not have bothered to kill the nightingale.It is clear in “Yonec” as well that a woman does not possess any power outside of the boundaries of a courtly love relationship. When faced with her husband, the woman is found to be completely helpless. As in “Laustic,” the husband exercises his power over his wife through destroying the one thing that brings her great joy. The bird her lover takes the shape of represents the small amount of freedom that prevents her from wishing to die (de France 86). However, the oppressive actions of her husband do not stop here. Before the woman even meets her beloved, her husband holds her captive in a tower on account of her beauty, allowing only his old sister in the room to “keep [his wife] from going astray” (de France 86). The constraints that Medieval society places on women are seen once again near the end of the lai, when the woman is forced to depend upon her son to avenge her beloved’s untimely death. The fact that the woman has to wait until her son “grow[s] up and become[s] a worthy and valiant knight,” shows that Medieval society places men above women; this leaves women completely powerless outside of the fictional world of courtly love (de France 91).In “Lanval,” however, things prove to be different. In the three lais already discussed, each woman can be assumed to have been part of an arranged marriage. The men they are married to do not allow their wives to place their affections where they please, thus causing Marie to allow the women to rebel and possess power over their beloveds. However, as we see in Lanval, a woman need not be part of an arranged marriage to have the pleasure of being placed in a powerful position with a man. The woman in this lai is an unmarried fairy. However, her beauty gives her complete control over the man she wants. According to Burgess “the fairy has the power to impose of Lanval the taboo of secrecy and possesses the omniscience to know the circumstances in which he is forced to break the taboo” (104-105). She is an intelligent woman who has a clear idea of what she wants and knows how to go about getting it. Her beauty mesmerizes Lanval, and immediately after she professes her love for him, “love’s spark prick[s] him so that his heart [is] set alight” (de France 74). Lanval is instantly attracted to the fairy, and it is not hard to see why. Not only is she beautiful and intelligent, but there are many other appealing aspects to her as well. In Burgess’s opinion:She is inordinately rich and capable of offering Lanval limitless pocket-money and immediate sexual gratification . . . In short, she represents a fearsome combination of beauty, wealth, power and knowledge.” (104-105)It is because of these characteristics that the fairy has complete control over her beloved. When Lanval first meets her, he is in such awe of her beauty and love for him that he confesses to her that there is nothing he would not do to please her. He states:Fair lady, if it were to please you to grant me the joy of wanting to love me, you could ask nothing that I would not do as best I could, be it foolish or wise. I shall do as you bid and abandon all others for you.” (de France 74)However, the fairy does not hold power over anyone else in the society in which Lanval lives. After the queen unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Lanval, he is forced to reveal his love for the fairy. Because of this broken vow of secrecy, he “loses his ability to ‘see’ his lady in person and now suffers greatly, in that he has lost something he once had” (Mickel 110). When Lanval states that the beauty of his beloved exceeds that of the queen, he is forced to appear in court. To avoid punishment or death, he and his beloved must leave Lanval’s world for Avalon, the “very beautiful island” which the fairy is from (de France 81). The story may have a happy ending, and Lanval and his beloved may be able to love each other without enduring constant suffering, but “it is only ‘out of this world'” that this is possible (Mickel 110). The fairy does not possess any power over the court or the rest of society, and thus cannot find happiness within Lanval’s world.The power that Marie de France bestows upon the women in her lais comes from many different places. Glyn S. Burgess states that Marie de France’s ladies possess “outstanding characteristics,” similar to the courtly lady, who “possesses a thorough understanding of the needs of the court . . . can cope with a delicate or tricky situation, [and] demonstrates responsibility and subtlety in handling others” (114-115). Eleven of the female lovers in her lais are specifically described as beautiful, while eight of them are termed as sage. The women in “Lanval” and “Laustic” are described as curteise, a word which, according to Burgess, “has a strong cerebral element” (115). The fairy in Lanval is not only said to have a body that is “well formed and handsome,” but she is also described with the word cointise (de France 74). Burgess states that this word covers a wide range of meanings, including wisdom, sagacity, knowledge, skill, elegance, and refinement (115). And while the women of Marie’s lais always go after what they want, they do not do so in a rude or unbecoming manner. This can be seen by the fact that she uses the word franche to describe a few of her heroines. Franche “expresses nobility of outlook,” and can be interpreted as “a blend of politeness and sensitivity” (Burgess 115). Marie de France has once described her view of an ideal woman, and when one compares the adjectives she used to do so with those adjectives she uses to describe her heroines, they are often found to be identical (Burgess 115). In addition to possessing outstanding characteristics, Marie de France’s heroines are often of noble birth. Since in her mind “there is never any thought of presenting a relationship between a member of the nobility and a partner of markedly disparate social background,” the lovers of her heroines are also often of noble birth (Burgess 129). Not only are they able to exercise power over men, but they are able to exercise power over some of the best men that society has to offer. These men are often handsome, strong, and capable of doing nearly anything and everything for their women. It is because of the beauty, wisdom, and intelligence of the women in Marie de France’s lais that they are able to completely control such men.Works CitedBurgess, Glyn S. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Context. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1987.de France, Marie. The Lais of Marie de France. London: The Penguin Group, 1986.Edwards, Robert R. and Spector, Stephen. “Introduction.” The Olde Dance. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991.Hanning, R.W. “Love and Power in the Twelfth Century, with Special Reference to Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France.” The Olde Dance. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991.Mickel Jr., Emanuel J. Marie de France. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1974.
Analysis of The Lais of Marie de France
In Medieval times, women were usually forced to be dependent on a man for her safety, prosperity, and guidance. Yet, in Marie de France’s fictional tales of courtly love, men are in fact victims to women’s charm. Men are unable to live without their lovers, and their desire for love leads these men to be more noble and obedient. Marie de France does not follow conventional rules of courtly love, but she models relationships between men and women after certain characteristics of it. In fact, women in relationships often fall into one of three groups; those unpunished for adultery, those condemned for disloyalty, and “godlike” women flawless in body and spirit. Out of these fictional relationships come distinct symbolism of marriage, social hierarchies, and gender roles. The particular tales of Guigemar, Eliduc, and Lanval all are examples of relationships which exhibit men and women in questionable social roles.
The Lay of Guigemar, a poetic description of lovers separated by distance and circumstance. Guigemar, a noble knight doomed unable to have love, finds a deer in the woods and attempts to kill it. Upon the arrow rebounding and wounding Guigemar, he is told by the deer that he is cursed, and he will never heal his wound until he finds a woman who is worth suffering for. Guigemar finds solace aboard a ship, which sets sail while he is asleep, and propels him towards his future lovers’ kingdom. The Queen of the land he stumbles upon, as well as a maid, find him and offer comfort and a place to nurse his wound. Eventually, Guigemar is not bothered by his wound but is troubled by his love for the Queen. Both the Queen and Guigemar believe that their love for each other in unrequited, so Guigemar hopes to die. Yet, he is invited to join the Queen, where they begin a yearlong affair. To seal their affection for each other, the Queen ties Guigemar’s shirt into a knot only she can untie, and Guigemar wraps a belt around her. When the King finds out about their relationship, he lets Guigemar free, leaving the Queen behind who ponds if suicide is her only option for two years. She finds the boat Guigemar initially arrived on, sets sail to Brittany, but falls prey to Meriaduc’s advances. Meriaduc cannot untie her belt, but Guigemar does, after learning that she is in attendance of his jousting tournament. Guigemar starves the enemy town, kills Meriaduc, and is reunited with the Queen.
Immediate reactions to this poem is of the disregard of the Queen’s marriage. In the beginning of the Lay of Guigemar, Marie de France explains Guigemar’s lack of interest in any women, but only uses the word for “unwed”. She says in the beginning, “There was neither dame nor maiden beneath the sky, however dainty and kind, whom he gave thought our heed, though had he required her love of any damsel, very willingly would she have granted his desire” (P. 3). Marie de France uses a word commonly defined as unwed woman twice to explain Guigemar’s predicament, yet he faces no punishment later for sleeping with a married royal. Marie de France also has little issue in Guigemar’s territorial nature, as he places a chastity belt around his lover, to ensure she “would never grant her love, save to him only.” (P. 29). Marie de France shows little respect for promises made in marriage, because there would be little romantics in Guigemar immediately being executed for his actions. In addition, both of the perpetrators in this affair are left unpunished for their actions. Guigemar knew he had to leave due to the Queen’s dream, and the Queen was always locked in her tower before her lover’s arrival. This story sets a theme for the proceeding tales; all moral, ethical, and social boundaries are broken when love naturally presides over mortals.
The story of Eliduc is more normative for the time period Marie de France wrote in, exhibiting a male have unfaltering control over two women simultaneously. In this story, a knight named Eliduc was married to his wife Guildeluc, and lived happily serving the King of Brittany, until he is slandered by jealous enemies. The King bans him, and he leaves with ten knights. They promise to be faithful to each other. Eliduc arrives to a new land, where the lord has refused to give away his daughter. Eliduc wins the approval of the lord by defeating the enemies which come to this land, much to the delight of the daughter as well. Initially, Eliduc behaves respectfully due to being married, but finds it increasingly difficult to stay truthful to his wife. He is tested by Guilliadun, the daughter of the lord, to see if her love is accepted. After much torment, Guilliadun expresses her love for Eliduc, to which he denies by saying that he is only in her presence for a year. He leaves after rejecting Guilliadun’s advances multiple times, only to return to sadness once he is reunited with his true wife. Eliduc again returns to Guilliadun, and attempts to bring her back to his home. However, on the voyage back, a great storm emerges, and Eliduc is accused of causing the storm by his affair. Guilliadun faints at the thought of Eliduc being married, and is seemingly dead. Guildeleuc finds Guilliadun’s “dead” body in a chapel, and brings Guilliadun back to life. She allowed Eliduc to marry his new love, on the condition she can be granted a nunnery on the land where Guilliadun was resurrected.
This story portrays high amounts of social hierarchy when examined through close analysis and distant reading. First, when viewing the plot as a whole, there is an overbearing amount of male dominance. The man has a wife, he refuses a potential lovers’ advances, but eventually brings her to his homeland without telling either Guilliadun about Guildeluec, or vice versa. Marie de France presents this story with contrasting and distorted images of loyalty. Eliduc left the King of Brittany upon request, and served both dutifully when called, but could not remain true to his wife. He does not sleep with Guilladun, but he permits himself to be emotionally captivated by her. In this process, he leads on Guilladun, leaving her with two choices; Eliduc bringing her with him, or leaving her to commit suicide. Guilladun is so adamant in her demands as she says, “‘Since you cannot stay,’ said the maiden. ‘Take me with you, wherever you go. If not, my life is so joyless without you, that I would wish to end it with my knife’” (P. 42). Guildeluec shows similar desperation when she says “‘Seest thou,’ she said, ‘this woman, who for beauty shineth as a gem! This lady, in her life, was the lover of my lord. It was for her that all his days were spoiled by grief. By my faith I marvel little at his sorry, since I, who am a woman too, will – for pity’s sake or love- never know joy again, having seen so fair a lady in the dust’” (P. 58). Marie de France offered little mercy to be shown for Eliduc’s proper wife, one to which he promised not to betray. Yet, she is shown as frail and pitying Eliduc’s luck, standing above his lover’s deathbed. Women are viewed as completely submissive to men in this piece, and neither female characters make any choice which is not influenced by Eliduc. Marie de France gives women little power or control in this story, leaving both of the lovers at the mercy of Eliduc.
An excellent example of reversed gender roles is portrayed in Marie de France’s Lay of Sir Lanval. Lanval is described as loyal, handsome knight, yet he is lonely and sad. He decides to explore the forest to rid him of his misfortune, where he stumbles upon a stream. Two beautiful women approach him, who explain that their mistress has been awaiting him. This maiden tells him that she has been in search of deep love, and he would be rewarded for loving the “Fairy Queen” in exchange for his silence. Lanval agrees, and he is promised extravagant wishes. The consequence for disclosing their love to an outside is losing the Fairy Queen forever. Later, at a luncheon of sorts in King Arthur’s garden, Queen Guinevere attempts to persuade Lanval. She confesses her desire for him, and quickly offers herself to him for affection. When he rejects the Queen, she accuses of him of homosexuality, to which he explains that he is in love with another woman whom he cannot betray. Guinevere accuses Lanval of offending her to King Arthur, and he holds a trial to determine Lanval’s innocence. Though Lanval does not tell of his love for the Fairy Queen, he vehemently denies claims made by Guinevere, to which King Arthur does not believe. The jury is split in their decision, which angers the Queen, but Lanval’s love arrives to clear his name. She forgives him for breaking his promise, but acknowledges his attempts to hide her identity during the trial.
This story is very interesting in its depiction of gender roles. In the stories previously mentioned, the women were more bound to their word than the men. For example, in the story of Guigemar, the Queen has a chastity belt tied around her waist, while Guigemar simply has a knot in his shirt. Yet in this story, Lanval face sure execution without the help from an outside witness. Lanval is either at the mercy of King Arthur, which is normative, or the mercy of his lover, which is socially unusual. Descriptions of Lanval’s interactions with the Fairy Queen are very clearly submissive, as explained when Marie de France says “Lanval plighted faith, that right strictly he would observe this commandment.” Marie de France does not explain the Fairy Queen’s wishes as a request, but a commandment. She later describes this vow as a “covenant”, which also is a moderately strict word in place of “pact” or “bond”. Lanval is always at the mercy of others, though he is a knight with “beauty and valor”. He is first bound by his lover, then is threatened by Queen Guinevere, and is almost executed by King Arthur. In previous tales, such as Eliduc, both Kings offered great praise to their knight, and both women found themselves submissive to who Eliduc chose to be with. Even with sure death in his future, Lanval kept to his bond of not revealing his lover’s’ identity. When the maidens arrive to the trial to introduce the Fair Queen, Lanval “answered very simply that never before had he seen these damsels with his eyes, nor known and loved them in his heart” (P. 40). Lanval was not bound to keep the Fairy Queen’s maidens a secret, but Lanval was in such deference to his lover that he would not even acknowledge their existence. Lanval, a male in love, shows extreme submission to his lovers’ wishes, which is in contrast with other tales written by Marie de France.
The Lays of Marie de France are not at all consistent, nor do they carry a single, general theme about love. Each individual story provides different points of view which vary in the amount of control women and men have. In stories like The Lay of Eliduc, men exhibit unfaltering power over their lovers, which almost drive the women to suicide. Yet, stories such as The Lay of Lanval show women with complete control over men’s actions. Marriage, social hierarchies, and gender roles are all completely thrown in the air, as Marie de France attempts to highlight unusual social situations with her tales. Marie de France is successful in exhibiting the different power dynamics between males and females, because she manipulates marriage, social hierarchies, and gender roles to her liking.
Is ‘True Love’ Imaginary?: An Inspiring Delusion in “Guigemar” and “Yonec”
Among all other feelings, love proves to be one of the most complex emotions humans experience. Usually, people can pinpoint why they feel a certain way. For example, working people are happy when they get paid, but are often sad when they have to pay taxes. Love, however, is harder to comprehend. Merriman Webster dictionary defines love as “a strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties” (“Love”, Merriman-Webster Dictionary). Unfortunately, this definition does not begin to grasp the true meaning of love because love travels beyond family relationships. However, the definition of love provides one key aspect: Affection. ‘True love’ occurs when this “strong affection” creates a surreal, emotional link between two people. This connection happens randomly and almost instantaneously. Is this idea of “true love” even possible? Some people believe that the phenomenon is far too complex for today’s society and believe the idea is a product of imagination. Within The Lais of Marie de France, the author provides the reader with examples of scenarios where ‘true love’ is found. Ultimately, the tales show how the idea of ‘true love’ is the result of one’s imagination. The two “lais” that best describe ‘true love’ as a figment of imagination are “Guigemar” and “Yonec”. Both stories have characters that create the idea of ‘true love’ in their mind because they are in need of love, but neither case is relatable to real life.
Marie de France describes Guigemar as a handsome, brave knight who could have anylady he pleased. Unfortunately, for the many women that loved and adored Guigemar, he was notinterested in love. The story progresses, stating that when he arrived home after serving a lord ina distant land, Guigemar coordinated a hunting trip. During the hunt, Guigemar spotted amagnificent stag. The knight fired an arrow perfectly at the deer. Guigemar landed the kill shoton the animal, but the arrow deflected and pierced the knight in the thigh. The dying stag cursedGuigemar, saying “may you never get medicine for your wound! / Neither herb nor root, / neitherphysician nor potion, / will cure you / of that wound in your thigh, / until a woman heals you, /one who will suffer out of love for you” (“Guigemar”, 110-115). The brave knight that once hadno purpose for love now has to find his ‘true love’ or suffer from the wound until his death.
Although Guigemar is injured, the knight continues to move until he finds an abandonship in a cove. When Guigemar investigates the boat, he finds a bed and falls asleep. The knightwakes up several moments later to the ship steering itself. Guigemar, however, does not react tothis phenomenon and goes back to sleep. To summarize the rest of the tale, the boat travels to aland where Guigemar finds ‘true love’ in the king’s wife. Unfortunately, the two are notsupposed to love each other, but since the couple is willing to risk anything and suffer for oneanother, Guigemar is healed and ‘true love’ conquers the barriers between their love. Is this ‘truelove’ real? The story does not follow a realistic plot with the magnificent stag that can talk or theself-steering ship that leads the main character right to his ‘true love’. Possibly, the scenarios thatwere presented were created from the imagination of Guigemar after the trauma of getting shotwith an arrow in the thigh. Although “Guigemar” makes a tremendous story about maturity andthe power of love, Marie de France does not allow the reader to create a realistic scenario of ‘truelove’.
“Yonec” also describes a situation of ‘true love’ that is “too good to be true”. An old,wealthy king married a beautiful young lady but was jealous of anyone who would lay eyes onher. The king was afraid to lose her. The king decided to lock his wife in a tower and have hiselderly sister keep watch of her. The solitude in the tower made the young lady depressed untothe point of her losing her good looks and the young lady praying for death to come quickly. Oneday she cursed the old man for locking her up, her parents for giving her away to some old guy,and the fates that she will never have a knight come rescue her, like a fairytale. “When she’dfinished her lament, / she saw through a narrow window, / the shadow of a great bird … When ithad been there awhile, / and she’d stared hard at it, / it became a handsome and noble knight”(“Yonec”, 105-115). At that moment, a hawk flew into her room from the window andtransformed into a handsome knight. The knight explains how he could not come to the younglady until she wished for him. From the reader’s perspective, the young lady did not find ‘truelove’. Rather, true love, in the form of a hawk, found the young lady. This ‘true love’ story,although charming, cannot be related to real life because the idea of transformation (from bird tohuman) is implausible. Additionally, several years of solitude can drive a person insane and forcetheir imagination to run wild. It is possible that the knight was just an image of the young lady’simagination in order to make herself happy.
“Guigemar” and “Yonec” are two ‘true love’ stories found in The Lais of Marie deFrance. These two tales serve as a testament to the idea of ‘true love’ because ‘true love’ ispresented in an unrealistic setting. Guigemar had several extraordinary events, such as talking tothe stag and sailing on a self-steering ship, that led the knight to his ‘true love’. The young ladywished for her ‘true love’ and a knight flew through the window transformed as a hawk. The‘true love’ in both of these tales came at a time when both the main characters were in a need for love, whether it was to heal a wound or to instill happiness. Although Marie de France does notpresent the idea of finding ‘true love’ as a plausible event in real life, that was not her purpose.The author wanted to show that love is a powerful tool that should not be taken for granted. Lovecan heal and bring happiness, but it can also create despair and death if this emotion is abused.Although the idea of ‘true love’ can only be created in one’s imagination, the power of love livesthroughout the world today.
The Lais of Marie de France in Reference to the Patriarchy
I consider myself a recovering patriarchal woman. By patriarchal woman I mean, of course, a woman, who has internalized the norms and values of patriarchy, which can be defined, in short, as any culture that privileges men by promoting traditional gender roles. Traditional gender roles cast men as rational, strong, protective, decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive. (Lois Tyson, Critical Theory Today, 81, emphasis original)
For my argument, I have chosen to discuss the role of patriarchy in The Lais of Marie de France. Being a medieval text, it is predominantly patriarchal, with gender roles established not only through examples of what a man or a woman should do, but what their divergence from those roles can lead to. Marie de France, however, does not always embrace conventions, which is important to consider because she is a female writer within the patriarchal context.
Firstly, the ways in which the author reinforces gender roles should be discussed. To start more generally, Marie gives seven of her twelve lais names of their male protagonists, as the central character was traditionally expected to be male. Furthermore, lais like “Guigemar” and “Milun” not only demonstrate the qualities that were considered typical for male protagonists but their contribution to their status: Guigemar’s identity is defined by his martial abilities, since not only could ‘no one…find his equal as a knight’ (pg. 44) but his travel to foreign land is aimed at ‘search of renown’ (pg 43) through ‘war and strife’, thus establishing the importance of gaining glory through conflict; Milun, too, is ‘an exceedingly fine knight’ (pg. 97) who is ‘noble and bold, courtly and fierce’ and ‘loved for his prowess.’ Similarly, there are lais, where typical feminine qualities are celebrated. In fact, as Wood points out, ‘by spotlighting them in the narrative, it glorifies the station and roles of women in the household.’ (pg. 1) Women were associated with domesticity and thus, a lot of female characters feel in control when in their household. The treacherous wife in “Equitan” chooses to execute her husband with a method that has nothing to do with weapons or fighting but a hot bath tub that would usually offer domestic comfort to a man. In “La Fresne”, Fresne takes care of the bedclothes for the newly married and regains her status by exposing the expensive brocade she had received from her mother at birth. Another aspect of domesticity, motherhood, the nurturing side of a woman, is celebrated, too: for example, in “Milun”, there is a particular emphasis on the fact that a proper care of the child is taken as ‘they fed the child, put it…to sleep and bathed it” as well as taking “a wet nurse with them’ (pg.98).
When reinforcement of gender roles is being argued, however, there is also a place for some negative stereotypes about women. An important pattern that is maintained in at least nine of the lais is adultery that is always committed by a woman, not a man. While in some cases, like in “Equitan”, “Bisclavret” and “Lanval” it is condemned and in others like “Guigemar”, “Yonec” and “Milun” it is celebrated, it is always a married woman’s initiative to have a lover, not a married man’s, with an exception, perhaps, of La Fresne. Furthermore, in lais like “Equitan”, “Bisclavret”, and “Lanval” the archetype of a conniving, treacherous woman is presented. These women are clever but they do not use their intellect benevolently; rather, they deceive others into believing the “truth” convenient to them. In “Bisclavret”, for example, a wife can go as far as begging for an answer in ‘the name of God’ (pg.69), stating that she loves her husband ‘more than the whole world’ and yet still betraying him when he gives away his most precious secret. It may be a reference to the Old Testament subject of Samson and Delilah where a woman of great beauty deceives a man, only to use his weakness against him in order to dehumanise, emasculate him. Many feminist critics would argue that ‘it is not unreasonable for the lady [in Bisclavret] to…fear…and decide never again to lie with a man who regularly morphs into such a fearsome creature’ (Kinoshita & McCraken, pg. 69). The male characters in the text, however, not only accept Bisclavret’s harsh action of biting ‘the nose right off [his wife’s] face’ but also subject her to torture. It is only in Marie’s own commentary that it is suggested that Bisclavret acted like a “madman” and therefore, did not use human reasoning.
The same facts can be used as an argument against set patriarchal thinking because women use the concepts pitched against them in their favour. Marie, as a writer of her time, ‘display[s] her belief in a woman’s role and the beauty, skill, strength, and intelligence it requires.’ (Wood pg.1) In numerous lais, it is women who get to resolve problems with their wit that men cannot resolve with physical force. In “Lanval”, the eponymous character despite possessing virtues like ‘valour’ and ‘prowess’ needs his ‘beloved…to defend and protect him’ by speaking in front of the court, which she does and succeeds at liberating him. In “Guigemar”, it is the lady that comes up with the ‘pledge’ in a form of a knot in her beloved shirt and a chastity belt, which helps her reunite with Guigemar. Another important instance when women are shown to be autonomous is when they commit adultery: Marie does not portray their husbands as sympathetic and that seems to justify those women. In fact, most of these husbands are depicted as ‘jealous’, ‘rich old men’, who have subjected their wives to lengthy periods of imprisonment and found themselves cheated for mistreating them: it is thus a ‘rebellion [that is] simultaneously a rebirth and an affirmation of [a woman]’ (Guthrie, pg. 45). Since most women of the time were subjected to an arranged marriage, Marie does not condemn them for cuckolding their husbands; instead, she condemns women who have chosen a lover with their heart and cheated on him nevertheless. Thus, in lais where women have found true love and remained loyal to it such as “Guigemar”, “Yonec”, “Milun”, not only are they not ostracised but either reunited with their lovers or avenged.
In conclusion, while it cannot be denied that the text is imbued with patriarchal thinking that was prevalent for Medieval literature, it is also hard to deny that Marie’s perception of gender roles was not uniform or typical for her time. While some traditionally male and female qualities are present in the lais, there are moments when both men and women act out of character.
France, Marie De, Keith Busby, and Glyn S. Burgess. The Lais of Marie De France. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Wood, Valene. “The Humanisation of Women: Feminism in the Lais of Marie de France.” isuu.com, https://issuu.com/valenewood/docs/marie_de_france. Accessed 22 November 2016. Online
Guthrie, Jeri S., “Critical analysis of the roles of women in the Lais of Marie de France” Missoula: University of Montana, 1976 .Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers. faculty.mwsu.edu/foreignlanguages/stuart.mcclintock/mariedefrance.doc. Online
Kinoshita, Sharon, and Peggy McCracken. Marie De France: A Critical Companion. Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2012. Print.  The Humanisation of Women: Feminism in the Lais of Marie de France  Marie de France: A Critical Companion  The Humanisation of Women: Feminism in the Lais of Marie de France  Critical Analysis of the Roles of Women in the Lais of Marie de France
True love exists only in the imagination
The Lais of Marie de France give outstanding examples why true love cannot exist in the real world. “Lanval” and “Yonec” both focus on the theme of true love existing only in the imagination because it has no foundations in the human world. True love requires traits that are contradicting with the social norms, according to the author. Therefore, in “Lanval” imaginary love comes as refuge from being a social outcast, whereas in “Yonec” imaginary love is a way to escape from a very oppressive and destructive relationship. Marie de France aims to show the reader that true love is a way to escape from reality and it cannot exist in real world because it requires secrecy and moderation.
In “Yonec” and “Lanval”, both protagonists suffer from being isolated from society which pushes them to find solace in a world of their own. The story of Lanval begins with explanation at great length of how distant the protagonist is from society. Because he outshines his peers with his chivalrous values most of them “envied him” (De France 105). Although the knight is very talented, loyal, generous and brave, according to the author he is not accepted and he is forgotten even by the king who “distributed wives and lands, to all but one who had served him” (De France 105). All this disappointment and injustice pushes Lanval away from society and takes him on an adventure to find refuge from this ungrateful world. Such refuge, however, can be found only in the realm of imagination. Marie de France points out at the beginning of the lai that Lanval himself comes from another land “[h]e was a son of a king of high degree but he was far from his heritage” (De France 106). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that his love and joy will come from another world as well. The reader finds the same motif in the lai of “Yonec” in which a woman is a hostage of her exceptionally jealous husband who keeps her locked in a tower and deprives her not only of her social life and contact, but also of her beauty and youthfulness. Because the woman cannot find outcome from this tyrannical situation in reality, she seeks relief in the realm of imagination. Marie de France explains with a great attention to detail her “lament” (De France 140) to God, which in the end magically results in an instant granting of her wish. The choice of words by the author is very deliberate in the episode in which the bird becomes a knight. “When it had been there awhile and she had stared hard at it, it became a handsome and noble knight” (De France140). With this deliberate choice of vocabulary, Marie de France aims to clearly point out to the reader that the woman’s love is a product of her imagination. The lady stares at the bird long enough to start hallucinating and enter an imaginary world. The contrast between the cold and isolated tower in which the lady lives, and the splendid kingdom of the knight-bird, is an allegory which aims to show that an extraordinary love like theirs has no place in the ugly world of humans.
In both lais “Lanval” and “Yonec” there is only one condition under which true love can exist – if the protagonists can keep their relationship secret. The Lady of the Lake promises Lanval to give him all that he desires in return for only one thing – keeping their relationship in secrecy. “Love, […] I command and beg you do not let any man know about this” (De France 109). However, with this condition the lady sends their love to certain doom, because a relationship like this cannot exist for long apart from society. In his effort to keep his relationship, the protagonist becomes even more estranged from society, but his contact with it is inevitable and puts his love at risk. The conflict nature of this relationship determines the tragic course of the events. In his effort to stay loyal to his love, Lanval is forced to bring his relationship out of the darkness and make it known to the queen. However, this episode serves only to prove that in reality loyalty is not praised but rather it is punished, and since true love requires loyalty, it has no place in the human world.
The motif of secret love is further developed in the lai of “Yonec”, in which the magical knight-bird requires the same condition from his lady, as the Lady of the Lake requires from Lanval. “[I]f we are betrayed, I won’t be able to escape. I shall die.” (De France 142). In this story the consequences are even worse. A love like this will not be accepted and cannot survive in the human world. Therefore, it will die, unless it is kept in secret. However, the author underlines for a second time that a love which is kept a secret to such an extreme will inevitably be discovered. The lady’s abrupt change in appearance is what gives away her secret. “Because of the great joy she felt, […] her whole appearance changed. But her lord was clever” (De France 143) With these lines Marie de France wants to show the reader that true love has such a tremendous impact on people that is impossible to stay private. The two lais show that true love cannot exist in society because it requires secrecy, which has no place in real world, according to the author. Since humans cannot escape from society and its norms, true love is impossible to exist in the real world.
Both lais discuss the motif of moderation in love. Both relationships are discovered because the lovers do not show moderate behavior. Although it is true that the only reason that Lanval reveals his secret affair is in order to remain loyal to it, he reveals his relationship in a very immoderate way, and has to accept the consequences. When the queen explains to the king about the situation, the author deliberately uses the words “he boasted of a love” (De France 114) in order to emphasize the immoderate nature in which Lanval reveals his secret. The noble knight is taken to court, in which he has to prove the existence of his lover. This, however, does not serve a literal purpose. It is, rather, an allegory for the punishment for a lack of moderation. His lack of moderation may cost him his life and his love if his lover does not appear to prove her existence. The lack of moderation in the world of Marie de France is punished with death. This is a recurring motif which the readers find in the lai of “Yonec” as well. The lovers are discovered because of the lady’s lack of moderation. When her lover gives her directions how to maintain a secret relationship and not be discovered, he strongly emphasizes that she must be moderate in order not to attract her husband’s or servant’s attention, which will result in his inevitable death. Despite his instructions, however, she calls him “night and day, early or late, she had him all to her pleasure” (De France 143). She is punished for that because the lovers are quickly discovered. Again, Marie de France proves to the readers that an extraordinary and beautiful love has a place only in the realm of imagination, and once it is discovered by society it quickly comes to an end.
In the lais “Lanval” and “Yonec”, the author Marie de France aims to prove to the readers that true love cannot exist in society because society does not respect loyalty, privacy and moderation. Both protagonists are isolated from society because their search for true love makes them very different. Being social outcasts, the protagonists find joy in a world of their own in the realms of their imagination. Real love, according to the author, is achievable only if it is kept in secrecy and in moderation. However, this is impossible because every human is an inseparable part of society. Since being a part of society is inevitable and it contradicts with the norms of true love, true love is possible only in the imagination.