Marie de France

views updated Jun 11 2018

Marie de France

Mid-twelfth century–Early thirteenth century


An Anglo-Norman Female Poet.

The poet known as Marie de France, who apparently wrote between 1160 and 1210, is unusual both for being the earliest known woman writer in French and for the fact that she identifies herself by name. In the epilogue to her Fables (a collection of 102 moralized stories about animals in the tradition of Aesop), she states that she is giving her name because she wishes to be remembered, and then she says, "Marie is my name" ("Marie ai num"), adding the final comment "and I am from France" ("si sui de France"). This last phrase has been taken to mean that she had settled in Britain, where the court spoke Anglo-Norman French, since it would be unnecessary for her to indicate that she was from France unless she was living elsewhere. She had perhaps come to England because of marriage or because she wished somehow to further her literary career, and her list of literary patrons and dedications (including one to the "noble king") suggests that she was well connected. Nonetheless, attempts to identify her with any known person have failed. She is believed to have written three surviving works, most likely composed in the following order: the Lais, the Fables, and the Espurgatoire saint Patrice (St. Patrick's Purgatory), a 2,300-line translation of the story of a knight's descent into the Underworld. Of these, her masterpiece is considered to be the Lais, a collection of twelve short story-poems based on traditional Breton tales but involving sophisticated crises in love relationships that allow her to explore both contemporary ideas of refined love (so-called "courtly love") and the social complexity of the lives of her often resourceful female characters.

Education and Background.

What is known of Marie's life comes in part from the testimony of Denis Piramus, who, around 1180, mentions her in an Anglo-Norman poem called The Life of King Edmund, where he indicates that she is admired in the English court. She was obviously an educated lady of good background who knew Latin well enough to translate the Purgatory from Latin to French, perhaps an indication that she had been trained in a convent. References in her texts show that she was also familiar with several of the most popular French and Anglo-Norman works of her day, including Wace's Brut (1155) and the Roman d'Enéas (1160), but not the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote between 1165 and 1191.

Fables and Lays.

In modern times, until the later eighteenth century, Marie was known only for her fables, which had been so popular in their day that they can still be found, in whole or in part, in 23 extant manuscripts. In these entertaining moral poems, she reveals a generally aristocratic point of view, with a concern for justice, a sense of outrage against the mistreatment of the poor, and a respect for the social hierarchy, which must be maintained for the sake of harmony. It is to the Lais, however, that Denis Piramus was referring when he said that Marie's poetry had garnered great praise and that both lords and ladies loved to have it read out loud again and again. It is important to understand that even though she drew on the "authority" of the Breton source and retained Breton words like "Laüstic" (nightingale) and "Bisclavret" (werewolf), she was not merely writing down a story she had heard, but rather was composing a carefully crafted poem in rhymed octosyllables where the broad outlines of each tale were reshaped to allow her to create individualized heroes and heroines who must deal with the difficulties of enforced separations, love triangles, and even magical transformations. Events in the lays lead to fundamental changes in the lives of the protagonists, in contrast to the slower pattern of development and fulfillment characteristic of romances. Although the lais survive in only five manuscripts, their influence established Marie as the initiator of a narrative genre that lasted into the late fourteenth century.


Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby, trans., The Lais of Marie de France (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1986).

Paula Clifford, Marie de France: Lais (London: Grant and Cutler, 1982).

Michael J. Curley, St. Patrick's Purgatory: A Poem by Marie de France (Tempe, Ariz.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1997).

Philippe Ménard, Les Lais de Marie de France: contes d'amour et d'aventure au moyen âge (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1979).

Emmanuel J. Mickel, Jr., Marie de France (New York: Twayne, 1974).

Marie de France

views updated May 29 2018

Marie de France

The French poet Marie de France (active late 12th century) was an accomplished writer of lais and was probably the originator of that form.

Marie de France is one of those authors whose work is well known but whose life is largely conjectural. Her status as a trouvère, her education in both Latin and French, and her vocabulary and style identify her as a member of an aristocratic circle, possibly of noble birth. Her assumption of "de France" indicates no title but merely her connection with the Île-de-France. The themes of her lais reveal her close association with the amour courtois movement and strongly suggest that if, as a number of literary historians claim, she is the illegitimate half sister of Henry II, she was one of the young women who came under the direct influence of Marie de Champagne at the Poitevin court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. This would account for her romantic inspiration.

Marie wrote in a dialect that indicates Normandy on the border of the Île-de-France. This would explain her use of Breton contes and fabliaux as the source of her stories, stories she said she had heard, not read. Breton entertainers were ubiquitous in Normandy and in Poitiers during the period Eleanor was in residence. They had to be bilingual, for otherwise their patrons and audiences would have been very small. The strange tales were seized upon and synthesized with the love code of Poitou to create the lais which Marie dedicated to Henry II.

The lais are done skillfully in octosyllabic rhymed couplets extending to 100 lines or less. This is a most satisfying length for a reading with a circle of ladies, and a handsome little page could hold their attention with his clear young voice. Also, in beautiful manuscripts the lais were entertaining private reading. They never were intended for public gatherings; they were too tenuous and dreamy. Of the dozen or so lais acknowledged as Marie's, only one, Sir Lanval, belongs specifically to the Arthurian legend.

Later work (ca. 1180) includes the didactic Ysopet, based on the fables of shrewd Reynart the Fox. Though the title refers her fables to Aesop, Marie claims that the collection she used was produced by "Alfred," presumably Alfred the Great. This has strengthened the contention that Marie de France lived many years in England, where she was at her death the abbess of Shaftesbury.

Marie's last known work is her La Espurgatoire de Saint Patrice. Basically this is a translation of a Latin source which proved so popular that several French poets produced "purgatories" at about the same time.

Further Reading

Urban Tigner Holmes, A History of Old French Literature, from the Origins to 1300 (1937; rev. ed. 1962), is a satisfactory substitute for the many fine surveys written in French. Holmes's treatment of Marie de France sets her in relationship to the poets of her time. A remarkably complete look into the lives of the courts in various parts of France and England where Eleanor, Henry II, and their sons presided is in Amy R. Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (1950), which provides a brilliant introduction to the workings of the Poitevin courts of love. E.K. Chambers, Arthur of Britain (1927), gives careful attention to Marie's place in the Arthurian legend. □

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