Depiction Of Female Empowerment In The Lais Of Marie De France
It is safe to say that in today’s society many pieces of literature have flipped the script, and what was once considered the ideal woman who confirmed to societies image, is now a woman who can vary well do as she pleases. Many times in the past and sadly sometimes even in present literary pieces and artistic media outlets present female characters with the role of someone who should be objectified and owned by a male companion. However, in contrast, today there are many literary genres such as young adult, dystopian, romance etc. which are now filled to the brim with female leads who are defying that social construct and are images of independence. It is possible that as early as the 12th century such independent women in literature have had already existed, and the signs of a modern female lead were written in the lais of Marie De France.
The lais of Marie de Frances has been translated, analyzed and deconstructed by scholars for years. Her poetry differs greatly from any other piece of literature in her time, some will attest it to her ability to construct three-dimensional characters with just a few lines of poetry, others will agree with that statement but in addition attest it to the powerhouses she has placed as her lead female roles. The two women that I will be discussing in this text will be characters that arrive from two of Marie’s poems Milun, and Lanval. Although each poem has a sprinkle of female empowerment and Marie de Frances somehow was able to bring such amazing traits to each character, the fair lady in Lanval encompass and embodies every trait that the “ideal” woman has in Maries De Frances poems. When speaking of femininity and Marie de Frances role in making pieces of literature that empower women, her most talked about piece of work is the Lais of Lanval. Lanval has been discussed in depth by several scholars all in which dove deep to gather a full understanding and analysis of the role of female empowerment, agency, and anger displayed in this text. It is debated that the female role in Lanval is not of a women who is brining feminist views to the forefront but much rather a construct of male fantasy. My stance on the argument differs completely to that thought and lies on the opposite side of the spectrum. Marie de France humanized femininity in a time period where objectifying women was prevalent.
The lais of Marie De France stars female protagonists who do not fit the long and tired “damsel in distress” narrative. In many ways and for many reasonings such plot lines comes as a shock. Marie De France composed these lais in the late 12th century and each poem held an air of feminine empowerment that is not only hard to match but also hard find in that era. One thing that is admirable about Marie De France is her ability to write such powerful woman without doing so overtly. At first glance nothing will seem off or different about her characters, instead when reading it one would think of her Lais as normal romantic poems. But this is a far stretch from the truth. The women Marie De France writes about do not follow the ideal standards of women of Medieval society. They were of their own individual and in more than one occasion had shown their own independence. These women in Marie de France poetry are the ones doing the courting, becoming a hero for their lover, providing financial backing and so much more.
Each of the poems were centered around several different themes of love. For example, there’s lais about forbidden love, destructive love, falling out of love and so on. And within each lais each female character embodies different traits, independence, bavery, nurturing, intelligence, wealth and beauty. In both the Lais of Lanval and the Lais of Milun both female characters exhibit the trait of indepence and chavairly. In Milun word of a honorable knight and his tales traveled far and wide and soon entranced a young lady. With the stories her interest in Milun began to grow and decidingly she sent a messenger to him with word of her infatuation for the knight. “She had heard of Milun, and began to love him. She sent a messenger to him.” This is one of the many times in Marie de Frances poetry in which the woman lead is the one doing the courting. The story continues and Milun and the women continues to see one another, but once she ends up pregnant things begin to spiral downward and she tells Milun the dangers she might face such as being killed or sold off into slavery. The young lady goes on off in a rant that begins with her saying that “she had lost her honor and good name.”
When she said this it came to me as a surprise. I didn’t think of the time era that this story was taking place nor did I think of how a woman who isn’t married but pregnant was looked down upon in that society. It wouldn’t matter if Milun was a man of honor and that him and the young lady loved each other and have a mutual want for one another, in the 12th century being unmarried, sleeping with men, and carrying a child could very well be the end all be all. I am reminded of the societal impact it may have on her and how many looked down upon women who get pregnant before marriage. One thing that Marie De France does is make sure that the love between the two characters she speak of is one of mutual desire, but she places such desire in a time period in which option is very far and between. After the secret birth the lady of Milun is handed in marriage to a man she doesn’t love. The courting in Lanval pretty much happened the same way as in Milun. The young fairy lady in Lanval had traveled from her home land to where Lanval had lived to meet him. “…sweet love, because of you I have come from my land; I came to seek you from far away.”.
The courting starts off with the fairy lady sending two women who are seemingly her servents to fetch a knightsman by the name of Lanval. In which they introduce themselves and state “ Sir Lanval, my lady who is worthy and wise and beautiful, sent us for you.” the first characteristic the servants had chosen to describe their lady did not attest to her looks but much rather her personality. This again is another sign of Marie humanfying the love interest instead of making the fair lady just someone with a pretty face. The poem goes on to describe the moment Lanval meets the her. Marie de France describes the wealth that the woman has. In fact this is the second most descriptive part of the lais, the fabric that the women are draped in, the material that made the cable for the tent, the golden eagle and so on was used to describe just how much wealth is in the possession of the fairy lady.
This intrigues Lanval because although he is in the kings circle he is often forgotten and left out from receiving any gift or prizes. It is around this part of the poem where Marie de France states that the fairy lady will provide Lanval with all that he needs“She would provide what he needed.” This statement ends up being true because she ends up gifting him with many riches that he, with a kind heart, decides to share with his friends and those who are in need. Once their mutual love for eachother was shared (which again goes to attest how the women in Marie de Frances text were not to be objectified and “owned” but much rather cared for and loved) Lanval tells the fairy lady with much pleasure that he will obey her. “There is nothing you might command within my power that I would not do… I shall obey your every command.” When trouble is introduced in the tale and Lanval boasts about the love he has for the lady to the queen he breaks that oath. The one thing Lanval’s love interest had asks for is for Lanval silence of their relationship.
This boasting that Lanval has done sparks a generic sense jealousy and anger in the queen. This anger the Queen now has for Lanval threatens his life and the only thing that could save him is proof of the relationship he shares with the fairy lady. And here is when the most descriptive portion of the lais begins. Marie de France goes through great detail to describe the beauty of not only Lanval’s lover but also the women that arrive with her. At this point many scholars question whether or not this is a stance of femininity or the “construct of male fantasy” since Lanval is in fact being saved by a woman who is so beautiful that the whole city decides to stop and stare. But it is at this moment that some will make the counter argument that beauty played the role of gaining an upper hand “… scenes in which female characters use their beauty and bodies to captivate men, communicate desires and ultimately wield power”, which helps a great deal because in the end the fairy lady was able to save him. In the closing scene they ride off on her horse with him seated behind her. “Lanval leapt, in one bound, onto the palfrey, behind her.” in this tale, even the ending shows the woman playing the role of the knight in shining armor.
The different scenes from both Lanval and Milun that I have addressed may seem miniscule and of no serious groundbreaking that is worth a mention especially in comparison to the progress that has been made in more recent times but these are remarkably large actions made by a women in the late 12th century. It is hard to imagine a women within that time period being the one who initiates a relationship that is of mutual interest on both sides, not only that but also the women is the one who is the provider the fairy lady is the one providing Lanval with all the riches and clothing him in the finest, and on top of that instead of the actual knight having the role of the knight in shining armor the one to save the damsel in distress it’s the women’s role and she is the one at the head of the horse while the male is riding shotgun. Nothing more screams female empowerment than a collection of poetry that is written by Marie de France.
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