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Marie de France ("Mary of France") was a poet probably born in France and living in England during the late 12th century. She lived and wrote at an undisclosed court. Virtually nothing is known of her life; both her given name and its geographical specification come from her manuscripts, though one contemporary reference to her work and popularity remains.

Marie de France wrote a form of Anglo-Norman French, and was evidently proficient in Latin and English as well. She is the author of the Lais of Marie de France. She also translated a copy of Aesop's Fables from Middle English into Anglo-Norman French and wrote Espurgatoire seint Partiz, Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick, based upon a Latin text. Recently she has been (tentatively) identified as the author of a saint's life, The Life of Saint Audrey. Her Lais in particular were and still are widely read, and influenced the subsequent development of the romance genre.

Life and works

The actual name of the author known to us as Marie de France is unknown; she has acquired this nom de plume after a line in one of her published works: "Marie ai num, si sui de France," which translates as "My name is Marie, and I am from France." Some of the most commonly-proposed suggestions for the identity of this twelfth century poet are: Marie, Abbess of Shaftesbury and half-sister to Henry II, King of England; Marie, Abbess of Reading; Marie de Boulogne; Marie, Abbess of Barking; and Marie de Meulan, wife of Hugh Talbot.

Four works, or collections of works, have been attributed to Marie de France. She is principally known for her authorship of The Lais of Marie de France, a collection of twelve narrative poems, mostly of a few hundred lines each. She claims in the preambles to most of these Breton lais that she has heard the stories they contain from Breton minstrels, and it is in the opening lines of the poem Guigemar that she first reveals her name to be Marie. One hundred and two "Ysopet" fables have also been attributed to her, in addition to a retelling of the Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick and recently, a saint's life called La Vie seinte Audree about Saint Audrey of Ely.

Scholars have dated Marie's works to between about 1160 and 1215, these being the earliest and latest possible dates respectively. It is probable that the Lais were written in the late twelfth century; they are dedicated to a "noble king", usually assumed to be Henry II of England, or possibly his eldest son, Henry the Young King. Another of her works, the Fables, is dedicated to a "Count William", who may have been either William of Mandeville or William Marshall. However, it has also been suggested that Count William may refer to William Longsword. Longsword was a recognized illigitimate son of Henry II. If Marie was actually Henry II's half-sister, a dedication to his son would be reasonable.

It is likely that Marie de France was known at the court of King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. A contemporary of Marie, the English poet Denis Piramus, mentions in his Life of Saint Edmund the King, written in around 1180, the lais of a Marie which were popular in aristocratic circles. She was first given the name Marie de France by the French scholar Claude Fauchet in 1551, in his Recueil de l'origine de la langue et poesie françoise, and this name has been used ever since.

The presence of an Anglo-Norman dialect in her writings and the survival of many of her texts in England "suggest that she lived in England during her adult life," but that she was born in France, possibly in Brittany. The signification of the phrase "si sui de France", however, is ambiguous and equivocal when applied to the 12th century. France was a word used to signify Paris and Île-de-France when used on the continent. Marie may possibly not have stated that she was from France if she was originally from a region governed by Henry II such as Brittany, Normandy, Anjou or Aquitaine, unless she had been thoroughly Anglicised.

Breton lais

Breton lais were certainly in existence before Marie de France chose to recast the themes she heard from Breton minstrels into poetic narratives in Anglo-Norman verse, but she may have been the first to present a "new genre of the lai in narrative form." The lais of Marie de France had a huge impact on the literary world. They were considered a new type of literary technique derived from classical rhetoric and imbued with such detail that they became a new form of art. Marie may have filled her detailed poems with imagery so that her audience would easily remember them. Her lais range in length from 118 (Chevrefoil) to 1,184 lines (Eliduc), frequently describe courtly love entangled in love triangles involving loss and adventure, and "often take up aspects of the merveilleux, and at times intrusions from the fairy world." The setting for Marie's lais is the Celtic world, embracing England, Wales, Ireland, Brittany and Normandy.

Only five manuscripts containing some or all of Marie’s lais now exist, and the only one to include the general prologue and all twelve lais is British Library MS Harley 978. This may be contrasted with the twenty-five manuscripts with Marie's Fables, perhaps reflecting their relative popularity in the late Middle Ages. Nevertheless, Marie's lais have received much more critical attention in recent times.


In most of Marie de France’s Lais, love is associated with suffering and over half of them involve an adulterous relationship. In Bisclavret and Equitan, the adulterous lovers are severely condemned but there is evidence that Marie approved of extramarital affairs under certain circumstances: "When the deceived partner has been cruel and merits deception and when the lovers are loyal to one another.” In Marie's Lais, "love always involves suffering and frequently ends in grief, even when the love itself is approved.”

Marie's lovers are usually isolated and relatively unconcerned with anything outside the immediate cause of their distress, whether it be a jealous husband or an envious society. However, "the means of overcoming this suffering is beautifully and subtly illustrated.” "Marie concentrates on the individuality of her characters and is not very concerned with their integration into society. If society does not appreciate the lovers, then the lovers die or abandon society, and society is the poorer for it.”

Defying Church traditions

Marie de France’s lais not only portray a gloomy outlook on love, they also defied the traditions of love within the Church at the time. She wrote about adulterous affairs, women of high stature who seduce other men, women seeking escape from a loveless marriage, often to an older man, which gave the idea that women can have sexual freedom. She wrote lais, many of which seemed to endorse sentiments that were contrary to the traditions of the Church, and especially the idea of virginal love and marriage. The lais also exhibit the idea of a stronger female role and power. In this, she may have inherited ideas and norms from the troubadour love songs that were common at the Angevin courts of England, Aquitaine, Anjou and Brittany; songs in which the heroine "is a contradictory symbol of power and inarticulacy; she is at once acutely vulnerable and emotionally overwhelming, irrelevant and central." Marie's heroines are often the instigators of events, but events that often end in suffering.

The heroines in Marie's Lais are often imprisoned. This imprisonment may take the form of actual incarceration by elderly husbands, as in Yonec, and in Guigemar where the lady who becomes Guigemar's lover is kept behind the walls of a castle which faces the sea, or "merely of close surveillance, as in Laustic, where the husband, who keeps a close watch on his wife when he is present, has her watched equally closely when he is away from home.”[20] Perhaps this reflects some experience within her own life. The willingness to endorse such thoughts as adultery in the twelfth century is perhaps remarkable. “It certainly reminds us that people in the Middle Ages were aware of social injustices and did not just accept oppressive conditions as inevitable by the will of God”.

In addition to her defying the construct of love exhibited by the contemporary Church, Marie also influenced a genre that continued to be popular for another three hundred years – the medieval romance. By the time Marie was writing her lais, France already had a deep-rooted tradition of the love-lyric, specifically in Provence. Marie's Lais represent, in many ways, a transitional genre between Provençal love-lyrics from an earlier time and the romance tradition that developed these themes.

Love within the lais


The lai of Lanval typifies the form of the lai, which relates only a (relatively) small period in the life of the hero or heroine, usually a time of crisis, unlike a true medieval romance, which is in effect a biography, spanning the hero's entire life. Lanval is a poor knight at King Arthur's court – demonstrating, incidentally, that King Arthur's world was one that Marie was willing to embrace. Relaxing in a meadow one day, reflecting upon his destitution, Lanval is approached by two maidens who lead him to their mistress, who declares her love for him. Her Otherworldly nature is revealed not only by his passage to the Isle of Avalon with her in the closing phrases of the lai, but in the magically limitless riches she showers him with, although no one can see her when she is with him and he must never reveal her existence. Queen Guinevere tries to seduce Lanval one day, but when she is rebuffed, she hurls spiteful accusations back at Lanval which cause him to mention his lady and – disaster! All gone. He is left to face trial alone once more, until his final rescue.

Marie may pose the question whether Lanval is guilty or not, but although she does not provide explicit answers, Guinevere's desires are placed in a very unfavourable light: “Good girls are the ones who have submerged their own desire in order to create socially effective simulacra of the desires of men.” The Queen is vilified because she went after the love that she desired, but it is not only she who suffers. The lai is also concerned with female power, in the form of the fairy queen who saves Lanval. However, even the fairy queen does not play a completely feminist role. The fairy queen gives Lanval the means of “satisfying not only his needs for erotic satisfaction and sustenance appropriate to a nobleman, but allowing him to fulfill his chivalric spirit in generosity of a public, indeed kingly sort, giving hospitality, patronage, and rich gifts to all”
Chevrefoil, Yonec and Laustric

In Chevrefoil, we are shown forbidden, passionate love, a love that leads ultimately to the death of the lovers. In this lai, "the choice of a Tristanian subject and the explicit statement at the beginning of the poem make the symbol of the intertwining plants one of the inevitable union of the lovers in death."

"Chevrefoil, Yonec and Laustic all deal with the subject of extra-marital love, and they all incorporate one of Marie's recurring themes, that of an unmarried lover and an unhappily married lady; and in none of the three does Marie give an indication of disapproving of this state of affairs."

Other lais

In Equitan, Bisclavret and Chevrefoil, greed is the cause of suffering. In Laustic and Chevrefoil, love ultimately fails to reach its goal. In Guigemar and Lanval, strength of love wins out in the end and a happy outcome is achieved. In Deus Amanz, Yonec, and Milun, the suffering is rewarded, though not happily. Eliduc sees the wife of the lover overcome by the sight of her rival lying on a slab and renounces her marriage, becomes a nun and Eliduc marries his sweetheart, miraculously revived; although he then becomes a monk himself and sends his new wife to becone a nun with the old. Marie de France gives no universal answers, but determines the outcome of each lai on its merits.

Influence on Literature

Marie’s stories exhibit a form of lyrical poetry that influenced the way that narrative poetry was subsequently composed, adding another dimension to the narration through her prologues and the epilogues, for example. She also developed three parts to a narrative lai: aventure (the ancient Breton deed or story); lai (Breton melodies); conte (recounting the story narrated by the lai).

In the late-fourteenth century, at broadly the same time that Geoffrey Chaucer included The Franklin's Tale, itself a Breton lai, in his Canterbury Tales, a poet named Thomas Chestre composed a Middle English romance based directly upon Marie de France's Lanval, a poem which, perhaps predictably, spanned much more now than a few weeks of the hero's life, a knight named Sir Launfal. In 1816, the English poet Matilda Betham wrote a long poem about Marie de France in octosyllabic couplets, The Lay of Marie.

(taken from Wikipedia)

Lais: (taken from Project Gutenberg)


Now will I tell you a story, whereof the Breton harper already has made a Lay. Laustic, I deem, men name it in that country, which, being interpreted, means rossignol in French, and nightingale in good plain English.

In the realm of Brittany stands a certain rich and mighty city, called Saint Malo. There were citizens of this township two knights, so well spoken and reputed of all, that the city drew therefrom great profit and fame. The houses of these lords were very near the one to the other. One of the two knights had to wife a passing fair lady, right gracious of manner and sweet of tongue. Wondrous pleasure found this dame to array herself richly, after the wont and fashion of her time. The other knight was yet a bachelor. He was well accounted of amongst his fellows as a hardy knight and as an honourable man. He gave hospitality gladly. Largely he gained, largely he spent, and willingly bestowed gifts of all that he had.

This bachelor set his love upon his neighbour's wife. By reason of his urgent prayers, his long suit and service, and by reason that all men spake naught of him but praise—perchance, also, for reason that he was never far from her eye—presently this lady came to set her heart on him again. Though these two friends loved right tenderly, yet were they so private and careful in their loves that none perceived what was in their hearts. No man pried on them, or disturbed their goings and comings. These were the more easy to devise since the bachelor and the lady were such near neighbours. Their two houses stood side by side, hall and cellar and combles. Only between the gardens was built a high and ancient wall, of worn gray stone. When the lady sat within her bower, by leaning from the casement she and her friend might speak together, he to her, and she to him. They could also throw messages in writing, and divers pretty gifts, the one to the other. Little enough had they to displease them, and greatly were they at their ease, save only that they might not take their pleasure together, so often as their hearts had wished. For the dame was guarded very straitly when her husband was abroad. Yet not so strictly but that they might have word and speech, the now by night and now by day. At least, however close the watch and ward, none might hinder that at times these fair lovers stood within their casements, and looked fondly on the other's face.

Now after these friends had loved for a great space it chanced that the season became warm and sweet. It was the time when meadow and copse are green; when orchards grow white with bloom, and birds break into song as thickly as the bush to flower. It is the season when he who loves would win to his desire. Truly I tell you that the knight would have done all in his power to attain his wish, and the lady, for her part, yearned for sight and speech of her friend. At night, when the moon shone clearly in the sky, and her lord lay sleeping at her side, often the dame slipped softly from her bed, and hastening to the casement, leaned forth to have sight of him who watched. The greater part of the dark they kept vigil together, for very pleasant it is to look upon your friend, when sweeter things are denied.

This chanced so often, and the lady rose so frequently from her bed, that her lord was altogether wrathful, and many a time inquired the reason of her unrest.

"Husband," replied the dame, "there is no dearer joy in this world, than to hear the nightingale sing. It is to hearken to the song that rises so sweetly on the night, that I lean forth from the casement. What tune of harp or viol is half so fair! Because of my delight in his song, and of my desire to hear, I may not shut my eyes till it be morn."

When the husband heard the lady's words he laughed within himself for wrath and malice. He purposed that very soon the nightingale should sing within a net. So he bade the servants of his house to devise fillets and snares, and to set their cunning traps about the orchard. Not a chestnut tree nor hazel within the garth but was limed and netted for the caging of this bird. It was not long therefore ere the nightingale was taken, and the servants made haste to give him to the pleasure of their lord. Wondrous merry was the knight when he held him living in his hand. He went straightway to the chamber of his dame, and entering, said,

"Wife, are you within? Come near, for I must speak with you. Here is the nightingale, all limed and taken, who made vigil of your sleeping hours. Take now your rest in peace, for he will never disturb you more."

When the lady understood these words she was marvellously sorrowful and heavy. She prayed her lord to grant her the nightingale for a gift. But for all answer he wrung his neck with both hands so fiercely that the head was torn from the body. Then, right foully, he flung the bird upon the knees of the dame, in such fashion that her breast was sprinkled with the blood. So he departed, incontinent, from the chamber in a rage.

The lady took the little body in her hands, and wept his evil fate. She railed on those who with nets and snares had betrayed the nightingale to his death; for anger and hate beyond measure had gained hold on her heart.

"Alas," cried she, "evil is come upon me. Never again may I rise from my bed in the night, and watch from the casement, so that I may see my friend. One thing I know full well, that he will deem my love is no more set upon him. Woe to her who has none to give her counsel. This I will do. I will bestow the nightingale upon him, and send him tidings of the chance that has befallen."

So this doleful lady took a fair piece of white samite, broidered with gold, and wrought thereon the whole story of this adventure. In this silken cloth she wrapped the body of the little bird, and calling to her a trusty servant of her house, charged him with the message, and bade him bear it to her friend. The varlet went his way to the knight, and having saluted him on the part of the lady, he told over to him the story, and bestowed the nightingale upon him. When all had been rehearsed and shown to him, and he had well considered the matter, the knight was very dolent; yet in no wise would he avenge himself wrongfully. So he caused a certain coffret to be fashioned, made not of iron or steel, but of fine gold and fair stones, most rich and precious, right strongly clasped and bound. In this little chest he set the body of the nightingale, and having sealed the shrine, carried it upon him whenever his business took him abroad.

This adventure could not long be hid. Very swiftly it was noised about the country, and the Breton folk made a Lay thereon, which they called the Lay of the Laustic, in their own tongue.



I will tell you the story of another Lay. It relates the adventures of a rich and mighty baron, and the Breton calls it, the Lay of Sir Launfal.

King Arthur—that fearless knight and courteous lord—removed to Wales, and lodged at Caerleon-on-Usk, since the Picts and Scots did much mischief in the land. For it was the wont of the wild people of the north to enter in the realm of Logres, and burn and damage at their will. At the time of Pentecost, the King cried a great feast. Thereat he gave many rich gifts to his counts and barons, and to the Knights of the Round Table. Never were such worship and bounty shown before at any feast, for Arthur bestowed honours and lands on all his servants—save only on one. This lord, who was forgotten and misliked of the King, was named Launfal. He was beloved by many of the Court, because of his beauty and prowess, for he was a worthy knight, open of heart and heavy of hand. These lords, to whom their comrade was dear, felt little joy to see so stout a knight misprized. Sir Launfal was son to a King of high descent, though his heritage was in a distant land. He was of the King's household, but since Arthur gave him naught, and he was of too proud a mind to pray for his due, he had spent all that he had. Right heavy was Sir Launfal, when he considered these things, for he knew himself taken in the toils. Gentles, marvel not overmuch hereat. Ever must the pilgrim go heavily in a strange land, where there is none to counsel and direct him in the path.

Now, on a day, Sir Launfal got him on his horse, that he might take his pleasure for a little. He came forth from the city, alone, attended by neither servant nor squire. He went his way through a green mead, till he stood by a river of clear running water. Sir Launfal would have crossed this stream, without thought of pass or ford, but he might not do so, for reason that his horse was all fearful and trembling. Seeing that he was hindered in this fashion, Launfal unbitted his steed, and let him pasture in that fair meadow, where they had come. Then he folded his cloak to serve him as a pillow, and lay upon the ground. Launfal lay in great misease, because of his heavy thoughts, and the discomfort of his bed. He turned from side to side, and might not sleep. Now as the knight looked towards the river he saw two damsels coming towards him; fairer maidens Launfal had never seen. These two maidens were richly dressed in kirtles closely laced and shapen to their persons and wore mantles of a goodly purple hue. Sweet and dainty were the damsels, alike in raiment and in face. The elder of these ladies carried in her hands a basin of pure gold, cunningly wrought by some crafty smith—very fair and precious was the cup; and the younger bore a towel of soft white linen. These maidens turned neither to the right hand nor to the left, but went directly to the place where Launfal lay. When Launfal saw that their business was with him, he stood upon his feet, like a discreet and courteous gentleman. After they had greeted the knight, one of the maidens delivered the message with which she was charged.

"Sir Launfal, my demoiselle, as gracious as she is fair, prays that you will follow us, her messengers, as she has a certain word to speak with you. We will lead you swiftly to her pavilion, for our lady is very near at hand. If you but lift your eyes you may see where her tent is spread."

Right glad was the knight to do the bidding of the maidens. He gave no heed to his horse, but left him at his provand in the meadow. All his desire was to go with the damsels, to that pavilion of silk and divers colours, pitched in so fair a place. Certainly neither Semiramis in the days of her most wanton power, nor Octavian, the Emperor of all the West, had so gracious a covering from sun and rain. Above the tent was set an eagle of gold, so rich and precious, that none might count the cost. The cords and fringes thereof were of silken thread, and the lances which bore aloft the pavilion were of refined gold. No King on earth might have so sweet a shelter, not though he gave in fee the value of his realm. Within this pavilion Launfal came upon the Maiden. Whiter she was than any altar lily, and more sweetly flushed than the new born rose in time of summer heat. She lay upon a bed with napery and coverlet of richer worth than could be furnished by a castle's spoil. Very fresh and slender showed the lady in her vesture of spotless linen. About her person she had drawn a mantle of ermine, edged with purple dye from the vats of Alexandria. By reason of the heat her raiment was unfastened for a little, and her throat and the rondure of her bosom showed whiter and more untouched than hawthorn in May. The knight came before the bed, and stood gazing on so sweet a sight. The Maiden beckoned him to draw near, and when he had seated himself at the foot of her couch, spoke her mind.

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