Marie’s Views on Love in The Lais of Marie de France
In the compiled work The Lais of Marie de France, Marie’s view on love is one contaminated with a pessimistic tone and the idea that love is inevitably bound to fail. Within the stories; Equitan, Bisclavret, Le Fresne and Guigemar, it is clear that the common theme in all of them is love, yet they are all riddled with overlapping undertones consisting of selfishness, violence, suffering, and envy, in one way or another. This suggests that the kind of love that Marie de France is trying to depict for her readers is one of total suffering, one that can never truly work out in the end.
This theory can be shown in all the works listed above in varying ways, so let’s start with the clearest examples of this, Equitan. In this story, there is a king whose name was Equitan he is described as being courtly, brave, a good knight, as well as noble. His reputation was one that preceded him for he was loved all throughout the land. Equitan had hobbies such as game hunting and river sports, yet regardless of how much he enjoyed these activities, it was hard for him to not dwell on the thoughts of the wife of one of his seneschal, whom he’s heard so much about. “The king, having often heard of her praised, frequently sent her greetings and gifts” (Marie de France 56). Thoughts of her plagued his mind night and day, so much so that he longed to have her for himself, so he planned a trip to hunt in the forests around his seneschals’ property so that he could talk to this woman he was so enamoured with. It is painfully apparent how inappropriate not to mention selfish Equitan’s behaviour is at this point in the story, even so, it is not just the reader who realizes how terrible a choice he has made thus far, Equitan himself knows that what he is doing is wrong. “If I did love her, I should be acting wrongly, as she is the seneschal’s wife. […]
If he managed somehow to find out about the love, I know full well it would grieve him” (Marie de France 57). Yet the king reasons it out based around his own selfish desires, banishing his own guilt by believing that not only would he benefit from her love, but also how sad it would be “If such a beautiful woman were not in love or had no lover! How could she be a true courtly lady, if she had no true love?” (Marie de France 57). This statement suggests that the king only sees himself as the man fit to love and be loved by this woman, and when confronting the woman about his feelings he manipulates her, by suggesting that she would have the power in their relationship. “Do not regard me as your king, but as your vassal and lover. […] You can be the mistress and I the servant; you the haughty one and I the suppliant” (Marie de France 58).
He uses ploys such as delusion to convince her not only of his love but the love that she should have for him. He blames her for his falling in love and says that he would surely die if his advances were denied “Do not let me die because of you” (Marie de France 58), he even goes so far as making their arrangement seem more like transaction of sex “This sort of deal struck between merchants who, to acquire wealth or a large fief, expand much effort for some unseemly purpose” (Marie de France 58), rather than a relationship built around a mutual love for one another. It is through his selfish desires that he convinces her to be his secret lover behind the backs of everyone, including his seneschal. It isn’t until the king is told that he has to take a bride that the lady and his plot to kill her husband “Lord, please come hunting in the forest in the region where I live. Stay in my husband’s castle, be bled there and bathe on the third day […] I shall have the baths heated and two tubs brought in. The water in his bath will be so boiling hot that no mortal man could escape scalding […] When he has been scalded to death, summon your vassals and his. Show them how he suddenly died in the bath” (Marie de France 59), so that they could continue their affair. It is the air of selfishness on both the kings and now the lady’s side, not to mention the self-delusion surrounding them both when they believe they can get away with their crime.
This story ends with the death of both the king and the lady at the hands of her husband after seeing them together in the king’s chamber “The king looked up and saw him approaching. To conceal his wickedness he jumped feet first into the tub […] He paid no heed to the danger involved and was scalded to death. […] He saw just what happened to the king. Seizing his wife immediately, he tossed her head first into the bath. Thus they died together” (Marie de France 60). It is in this story that Marie shows the reader the selfish, not to mention the manipulative side of love and how regardless of how innocent the lady was in the beginning, she had just as much to do with their death as the king. The death in the story of Equitan is similar to that of another story written by Marie de France called Bisclavret. In this story there is a husband and wife who are depicted as being the picture perfect couple apart from one small detail, the husband, Bisclavret “was absent for three full days without her knowing what became of him or where he went” (Marie de France 68). His absence was unsettling for his wife, so one day she confronts her husband and tells him of her fears “Please tell me where you go, what becomes of you and where you stay. I think you must have a lover” (Marie de France 68). Bisclavret quickly shuts down this thought of hers but tells her that it would be in her best interest to remain ignorant to where he goes and for what reason, stating that “Great harm will come to me, for as a result I shall lose your love and destroy myself” (Marie de France 69). Regardless the wife is persistent and Bisclavret caves and entrusts her with his secret “Lady, I become a werewolf: I enter the vast forest and live in the deepest part of the wood where I feed off the pray I capture” (Marie de France 69). In this conversation, the reader learns that without Bisclavret returning to his clothes at the end of those three days he will stay a wolf forever, for it is his clothes that allow him to transition back into his human form.
After the wife learns of his secret Bisclavret’s fears are confirmed when she no longer wishes to be with him. Bisclavret’s wife is a woman whose primary concern is a physical one both in regards to herself [her vanity] and Bisclavret physically turning into a wolf, and not his mental/emotional state or well-being. This is clear when she enlists the help of a knight who had loved her for quite a while “She had never loved him or promised him her affection but now she told him what was on her mind. […] I grant you that which has tormented you; never again will you encounter any refusal. I offer you my love and my body; make me your mistress” (Marie de France 69). Both the knight and the wife are willing to exploit their shared physical desires, at the expense of Bisclavret and him living his life as he saw fit. She offers the knight her love in exchange for him to carry out her dirty work for her, which consists of stealing Bisclavret clothes so that he is to wander the woods a wolf forever. About a year later when the king was out hunting in the forest he discovered a beast that possessed abilities that match that of humans “Lords, come forward! See the marvellous way this beast humbles itself before me! It has the intelligence of a human and is pleading for mercy” (Marie de France 70). The king was delighted by this wolf and brought it back to his castle where it lived under the king’s protection. During the wolf’s stay, it remained completely docile towards all the king, his staff and his people, except for two. One day that particular knight came around and when the wolf “Caught sight of the knight [the wolf] sped towards him, sinking his teeth into him and dragging him down towards him” (Marie de France 70). The same could be said for the wife, for when she heard of the attack on her lover, she took it upon herself to go speak to the king. But “When Bisclavert saw her approach, no one could restrain him, He dashed towards her like a madman. […] He tore the nose right off her face” (Marie de France 71).
The wife’s vindictive plot of using her body as a tool to rid her life of her husband is short-lived, for it becomes clear to a wise man who was at the castle, that she and her lover had something to do with the disappearance of the knight the king loved so much. Soon after she was questioned the king restored Bisclavret with his human form and status, while his former wife along with her lover was banned from ever entering the land again. Within this story, Marie de France paints a contrasting image of the beastly side that resided in both Bisclavret and his wife. Bisclavret was a beast on the outside yet was still a noble and loyal man on the inside, yet on the inside, his wife was vain, selfish and driven by her innate sexual desires that resembled those of an animal. But on the outside, she was described in physical terms such as having an “attractive appearance” (Marie de France 68). Selfishness, deceitfulness and vanity are present all throughout this story, if it were not for the wife’s narcissism, lack of greater compassion, and empathy for her husband, she and the knight would still be living a happy life within the kingdom, but as pointed out before Marie de France does a remarkable job of showing us the unrealistic expectations we the reader pose in regards to love. However love is a vast and complicated topic, it does not relate solely to lovers seeing as love can be shared between family members as well. In the previous two stories, the theme was love among couples but in the tale of Le Fresne, it is the love surrounding the family that is the primary issue. In the land of Brittany, there lived 2 neighbouring families both consisting of a noble lady and her Knightley husband, one of the woman was pregnant and gave birth to twins.
Delighted with the new additions to their family the husband told his fellow knight and friend the news. His friend joined in the joyful celebration yet his wife who was a spiteful and jealous woman, slighted the other lady saying that “It has never occurred that a woman gave birth to two sons at once, nor ever will, unless two men are the cause of it” (Marie de France 61). Her husband was ashamed and disheartened by her comments which spread resulting in the woman to be hated by both the rich and the poor. It is not until the woman becomes the mother to twin girls that she realizes how wrong her actions were, However, the reason she regrets her words is a selfish one she fears for how it will reflect on her and her status. So she decides to “Murder one of the children: I would rather make amends with God than shame and dishonour myself” (Marie de France 62). With much convincing, the wife ends up giving one of her children to a maid who promised to leave the baby in a good home. The mother sent the child with a valuable broach and ruby-set gold ring to show wealth and nobility, the maid winds up leaving the baby outside of an abby for the people there to care for and raise her like their own. The young girl who the people of the abby named; Le Frensne, grows up to be a very intelligent and wise young woman, not to mention very beautiful, it is when the king hears of the girl he decides to take a visit to the abby and is immediately taken with her. He convinces the girl to leave by declaring that “Should your aunt notice she would be most aggrieved and extremely angry if you became pregnant in her house” (Marie de France 64). This comment made by the knight puts forward the idea that regardless of what the young woman said, he was going to take her as his own and she didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.
This is exhibited when “He went there often to talk to the girl, and begged her and promised her so much that she granted what he sought” (Marie de France 64). It is made explicitly clear that prior to the king’s begging the woman was not interested in his previous advances, yet because of her upbringing and values that accompanied that she is portrayed as having a rather submissive personality which makes her very susceptible to a more dominant and powerful personality such as the king. Soon after their relationship started to blossom the king was to take a wife or “They [his knights] would never more consider him their lord, nor serve him willingly, if he did not do their bidding” (Marie de France 65). The king’s men find a noble lady from a neighbouring kingdom named; Le Codre who unbeknown to her was Le Fransne’s twin sister.
Le Fransne was unaffected by this marriage of her lover to this new woman, she wanted to remain loyal him because he was her king before the man she loved after all. However, the mother of Le Codre was very “Afraid of the girl whom he loved so much, lest she try to cause ill-will between her daughter and her husband. She planned to cast her out of her own house and advise her son-in-law to marry her to a worthy man, for in this way she could be rid of her” (Marie de France 65). It is not until the king’s mother-in-law goes into the bedroom to inspect the wedding bed, that she stumbles the broach that she had placed with the child that she gave away all those years ago. Panicked she calls for Le Franse who told her the story of how she came to have the broach and the ruby plated gold ring, her mother connects the pieces and is overcome with joy for she is finally reunited with her lost daughter.
The ending of this story while seemingly satisfying never would have happened if it were not for the mothers, selfish, envious and spiteful nature that she carried with her from the beginning all the way to the meeting of Le Fransne. Regardless of how happy she was to be reunited with her daughter after all that time, her reasoning for giving her away was one that came from a very egotistical place which makes her reunion with Le Fransne appear pathetic. While all the stories discussed thus far, all have similar narratives; selfishness, violence, suffering, and envy, it is the story of Guigemar that contains them all. Guigemar is a knight that is greatly loved by his family and all the people of the kingdom, the only catch is that Guigemar never craved the love of another person “Women frequently made advances towards him, but he was indifferent to them. He showed no visible interest in love and was thus considered a lost cause by stranger and friend alike” (Marie de France 44). Nevertheless, when Guigemar was hunting in the woods one day he came upon a deer/stag which he shot and fatally wounded with an arrow.
As the creature was dying it cursed Guigemar “Alas! I am mortally wounded. Vassal, you who have wounded me, let this be your fate. May you never find a cure, nor may any herb, root, or doctor or potion ever heal the wound you have in your thigh until you are cured by a woman who will suffer for your love more pain and anguish than any other woman has ever known, and you will suffer likewise for her” (Marie de France 44). It is thanks to this curse, Guigemar finds a woman who is being held captive by her possessive husband in a tower that was surrounded by large walls of green marble. “The walls of the chamber were covered in paintings in which Venus, the goddess of love, was skillfully depicted […] In this room the lady was imprisoned. To serve her lord” (Marie de France 46). The only other person that her husband let up there was an old man who had lost his genitals “An old priest with hoary-hair guarded the key to the gate; he had lost his lower members, otherwise, he would not have been trusted” (Marie de France 46). But thanks to the lady’s maiden who accompanied her out of the tower one day she was able to meet Guigemar who she took back up to her tower and nursed back to health. “Guigemar was with her for a year and a half” (Marie de France 50), before they were discovered.
When the lady’s husband found out about them, he banished Guigemar from his land and sent him adrift on the ship he arrived on, and then subjected the lady to “Great pain, agony, anguish and grief” (Marie de France 52) for over two years. Eventually, when the woman escapes and sails to Brittany she is greeted by the king there who asks her for her hand in marriage immediately upon meeting her, to which she denies. By the end of the story, the lady is reunited with Guigemar and all is well, yet there is still this aftertaste he story leaves you with. The selfishness of Guigemar who only opens himself to love only when he is cursed and needs to be cured, the selfishness and possessiveness of the king of Brittany who upon meeting the lady believes he has this unspoken authority and overall rule over her, and lastly her husband who was jealous and envious by nature so he kept her as a pet and enabled her from living her life. All of these narratives combined make for a disturbing chain of events for the reader to follow in regards to the treatment of the lady.
Within the compiled work The Lais of Marie de France, you can see how terribly love plays out for the characters in the stories; Equitan, Bisclavret, Le Fresne and Guigemar. Between the manipulation of Equitan, the deceitfulness and selfishness on behalf of Bisctavret’s wife, the envy and spitefulness shown by the mother in Le Fresne, and the seemingly never-ending suffering on behalf of the lady in Guigemar. All of the writings composed by Marie propose the idea that love is inevitably bound to fail, and does not work out in the end.
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