Marie de France (c. 1140–1200)

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Marie de France (c. 1140–1200)

French writer who lived and worked in England and is most famous for her short tales dealing with romantic love and court life . Name variations: Marie of France. Specifics of Marie's life are not known with certainty. She was born around 1140 and died around 1200; she was French but lived in England in the late 12th century, at, or associated with, the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine; she may have been an abbess; wrote fables, a religious tract, and courtly short stories (called lais ).

Selected writings:

Fables; Lais: "Bisclavret," "Chaitivel," "Chevrefoil," "Eliduc," "Equitan," "Guigemar," "Lanval," "Laüstic," "Le Fresne," "Les Deus Amanz," "Milun," "Yonec"; The Purgatory of Saint Patrick.

The exact identity of Marie de France is a mystery. We know from her writings that she was French; however, she spent her life in England. Marie's birth and death dates are not known, but we deduce that she wrote between approximately 1155 and 1199. She might have lived in the Angevin (Anglo-French) court of Henry II of England to whom the lais were probably dedicated. Some theorize that Marie was Emma de Gatinais , the illegitimate daughter of Geoffrey of Anjou (which would make her a half-sister to Henry II), and that she later became abbess of Shaftesbury where early manuscript copies of her lais were found. Others have speculated that she was a nun at Reading, or Isabel of Beaumont , or one of the daughters of Stephen of Blois. Marie's contemporary, Denis Pyramus, referred to her simply as Dame Marie. Emil Winkler has suggested that Marie de France and Marie de Champagne (daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France) were one and the same person. Much of the speculation as to Marie's identity is based on the tone of her works. Emanuel Mickel argues that the lais which are predominately worldly in style and theme, were written early, in a secular, courtly setting, and that the more pietistic Purgatory of Saint Patrick and Fables were written at a later point when Marie had retired to religious life. This hypothesis is questionable, however, because in the literary climate of the 12th century, profane, sacred, allegorical, satirical, and didactic works were produced alike in and out of monastic circles.

Whatever her exact identity, Marie was well educated, and, therefore, has been assumed to be high born. If, in fact, she was raised in the court of Henry II, Marie would have been acquainted with noted intelligentsia and literati of the period as Henry and his wife Eleanor were famed patrons of the literary arts. Marie knew Latin, French, English, Welsh, and the dialect of the Bretons. In the prologue to the Fables, the first lai, and The Purgatory of Saint Patrick, Marie indicates that she is intimate with, and jealously competitive within, contemporary literary circles. The prologue to the Fables states, "It may be that many clerks will take my labor on themselves. I don't want any of them to claim it."

Marie de France composed her works at a time when Western Europe was the scene of a confluence of cultural trends which had been developing for several centuries. Many factors favored an acceleration of societal change in what has been called the 12th-century Renaissance. The demands of and opportunities for commerce, stimulated, in part, by the crusades, made city living a possibility for increasing numbers of people. Urban centers provided the environment in which cathedral schools and, by the end of the century, universities developed.

The monastic population also changed in the 12th century. The Cistercian order drew part of its membership from adult converts who had known the world—men and women who had married, parented children, been to war. This resulted in a changed intellectual and literary emphasis in some monasteries. A secular or courtly literary style was developed and romance themes and sources, originating in the lay world from which the converts had come, were allegorized. The ubiquitous love theme was also expanded in works such as those by Bernard of Clairvaux, where love is expressed in various ways—for instance, by the love of Christ for the Church.

The distinctiveness of the century lies in the manner in which various trends and views were reorganized, reevaluated and codified. Marie de France was in the forefront of this process of cultural introspection and redefinition. The particular element of 12th-century culture which Marie engaged was the subject of romantic love, which is the dominant theme in the most important of her works, the Lais.

Marie's position as an innovator in the genre of the courtly lai is generally agreed upon. The word lai comes from a Celtic root meaning song. The lai was originally a musical composition commemorating an important historical event. It is organized for maximum intensity and based around symbols which parallel the plot of the lai and give a hint to its meaning. It was Marie who first retold the Celtic stories in French and changed the form of the material into narrative, rhyming, octosyllabic couplets which de-emphasize the lyric content and are not intended to be sung. Marie's style is distinctive in its use of unifying motifs, deceptively simple language, repetition, and economy of expression.

Isabel of Beaumont (fl. 1150)

English royal . Name variations: Isabel Beaumont; Isabel de Beaumont. Flourished around 1150; daughter of Waleran of Meulan also known as Waleran de Beaumont (1104–1166), earl of Worcester; married Maurice de Craon.

Marie de France also influenced the literature of the period by her contribution to the vogue of retelling Celtic legends, the most famous of which are stories of King Arthur and his court. An important element of this Celtic literary tradition which Marie manipulates masterfully is the use of magic as a plot device. The lai called "Lanval," set in Arthur's court, is about a knight who attains the love of a fairy princess and the conflict he experiences in moving between the imperfect world of Camelot and the ideal sphere created by love. In "Guigemar," a talking fawn reveals the hero's destiny, and a mysterious, un-manned, exotic ship transports him across the ocean to a strange land. At the end of this lai, quasi-magical knots reveal the lovers' identities to each other after a long separation. "Yonec" is about a clairvoyant knight from another world who can shape-shift into the form of a bird and, from afar, discern the wishes of his lady as soon as she expresses them. The protagonist periodically, and involuntarily, transmutes into a werewolf and, at one point, is unable to resume his human shape because his clothes are stolen. However, though Marie frequently relies on magic as a narrative device, her major interest is in the forms and varieties of human love, and her lais provides an extensive examination of the subject.

For Marie, love is more than just a passion, it is a process of discovery—of the self and of the world in which the self-aware person must live. Love is appraised by Marie based on the manner in which her characters manipulate the emotion. In most of the lais, the lovers are in conflict with a world which does not understand them, but the best love is one which is enduring enough to mold the public environment of the character so that the new individual, whom love has created, can exist comfortably within his or her society. In order for a character to maintain the integrity of love and to live in the world, he or she must generally be long suffering, loyal, charitable and ingenious. When characters are too indulgent, concupiscent or anti-social, the world ruins them. Love forms an individual who must, to be successful, recreate the world. A lover who ignores social roles in order to insulate private passions will probably be destroyed by them. At the other extreme, the happiness of a character who ignores private needs in deference to public demands will atrophy. He or she will actualize neither those needs, nor any possibilities for personal growth.

Love is not univocally defined by Marie nor is it morally evaluated in absolute terms, but there is an internal ethical system established in the lais by which the author's judgment of her characters is based more on motivation than it is on behavior. Marie (speaking through the lais) is clearly a champion of love, even when it is adulterous or premarital; however, she does not value all love relationships equally. For example, in "Equitan," the king and his mistress are ultimately boiled to death when they are caught in a trap set for the lady's husband. They are destroyed because they are guilty of demesure (lack of moderation) and flagrant, unjustified disloyalty. By contrast, the love relationship in "Laüstic" dissolves, leaving the couple lonely and unfulfilled, because the lovers are not willing enough to impose their will on external impediments, to exercise engin (ingenuity), in the service of love. The affair is quickly terminated when it is discovered by the lady's husband. In short, love will not prosper and grow when it is expressed either too rashly or too cautiously.

I shall name myself so that it will be remembered; Marie is my name, I am of France.

—Epilogue, Fables

Strength of will, persistence, and personal engin must be balanced with passive qualities, such as loyalty and patience, to test and transform love from an enslaving passion to a virtue. To Marie, love and the anguish it brings are natural, but each individual defines himself by the manner in which he responds to this passion. The lady in "Milun" waits 20 years for her valorous knight to return and acknowledge their love and the son who is a product of it. The protagonist of "Yonec" suffers a lifetime in a loveless marriage with an abusive husband before her sufferings are avenged by the son conceived with her hawk lover. The heroine in "Le Fresne" is finally able to marry the king, because through her selfless forbearance, her aristocratic identity is revealed. Relationships suffer when the participants are not able to endure hardship—sometimes humiliation—in the service of love. The young knight in "Les Deus Amanz" is willing to suffer physical asperity to win his lady, but ultimately fails in his task because he can not endure a more difficult trial—the loss of face in the presence of the townspeople. In short, in Marie's lais, love demands moral rectitude, forbearance, and restraint, but the rewards to those who endure are a fulfilling relationship and a self made wiser and more complete.

Whether or not Marie should be considered a proponent of courtly love is not clear. There has been a great deal of discussion over the last century about the concept of courtly love and courtly love literature. A particular mode of behavior which operates in medieval literature was identified and labeled courtois (courtly) by Gaston Paris in 1883. Since then, scholars have disagreed over whether representations of courtly love reflect an aristocratic code of conduct which was practiced in the courts of Europe or whether it was simply a short-lived literary convention produced for the amusement of a small, elite leisure class. Definitions of courtly love are frustrated by the fact that the precepts of the code vary among courtly authors. Even within the body of work of one writer, the "rules" of the game can be inconsistent. Generally speaking, courtly love is a highly stylized romance between an aristocratic man and woman who are not married to each other, although the woman is usually married to someone else. The man in a courtly love relationship must submit himself to his lady (domina) in complete obedience. His service to love parallels the service a feudal vassal owes his lord and is accompanied by a great deal of conventionalized flattery, cajoling, sophistic argumentation and secrecy. The appearance, social standing, and character traits of courtly lovers are also strictly standardized: the ladies are beautiful and wise, the knights are handsome and brave, both are sophisticated in the ways of the court and high-born, although the woman often has a higher social status than the man.

Romance literature and the courtly love topos provide a frame of reference for the lais of Marie de France; however, her work does not fit simply into either model. Marie often uses the romance motif of "the quest" (aventure) to test her characters, and some of the lais such as "Equitan," "Chaitivel," and "Laüstic" follow courtly formulas. Other lais show only superficial evidence of courtliness. So though Marie often uses courtly terminology and situations, she is not ultimately in sympathy with courtly love as a model of behavior. She frequently associates courtly conduct with characters who do not love "properly" or sincerely. Also, the marital status of her characters is not determinate of their ability to participate in a fin'amor (ideal love). For example, the couples in "Le Fresne," "Guigemar," "Milun," and "Eliduc" experience romantic love within their marriages. A few of the stories actually mock chivalric love ideals. In "Guigemar," Marie interjects a telling condemnation of courtly lovers "who have affairs everywhere they go/ then boast about their conquests/ that's not love but folly,/ evil and lechery."

Some historians consider Marie's religious sensibilities important as a clue to her identity: if she was a nun, as suggested by some evidence, why would she compose the lais, which are secular, even a-religious, in content and tone? It is difficult, however, to determine Marie's views from the lais, especially in regard to sexuality. In some stories, Marie places a Christian veneer on her borrowed material, which is, in many cases, pagan and so inherently non-Christian (in "Yonec" the lady insists that her bird lover take the Eucharist before she will accept him). Some characters specifically articulate that love and sex outside of marriage are wrong. Yet for the most part, violations of Catholic teachings regarding adultery and fornication do not cause a serious moral dilemma for any of Marie's characters. At certain points, Marie herself interrupts the story to make an authorial comment championing the extramarital affairs of her characters. She says of Guigemar and his mistress, "They lie down together and converse,/ kissing and embracing often./ I hope they also enjoy whatever else others do on such occasions."

In many ways, however, Marie's thinking on male-female relationships is compatible with 12th-century religious thought on the subject. Writes Georges Duby: "The Church too was fighting to give free reign to affection and showed the greatest indulgence for extramarital sexuality." Ecclesiastics, such as Peter Lombard, held that games of love were deployed as a lead-in to marriage. Hugh of St. Victor articulated the importance which the period placed on consent and affections by saying that marriage involved both wife and husband "in a unique and special way by the love they share" (De amore sponsi ad sponsam, PL 192.920). Bernard of Clairvaux deferred to St. Paul by insisting that the law of marriage required that neither party be captive to the other and that equality of lovers rests in conformity of will. The language of Marie and numerous churchmen indicates that there were many common expectations regarding love relationships. For example, in the Lais, taken as a whole, there is a sense of equality between the two lovers, once two people have loved there is a bond or commitment to continue the relationship (stronger in some lais than in others), and personal attraction and devotion are essential to a fin'amor. In short, Marie's views on romantic love are not, over all, at odds with religious thinking of the late 12th century.

"Eliduc" makes a religious statement different from the other 11 lais. In this story, Eliduc, although married and specifically pledged to marital fidelity, loves and successfully woos the young daughter of his overlord. The hero is torn between a sense of responsibility towards his wife and passion for his mistress Guilliadun. After a series of aventures, Eliduc's dilemma is solved when his wife agrees to retire to a convent leaving him free to remarry. Ultimately, however, both Eliduc and Guilliadun themselves enter monasteries. The protagonists in "Eliduc" reject the game of courtly love, and come to recognize that any love of another human being, even when ennobling and heartfelt, is ultimately inferior to Christian charity and pales before the value of a life dedicated to God.

Most historians who investigate the work of Marie de France deal with the question of the order of the lais. We do not have Marie's original manuscript. The earliest and most complete copy of the works was produced in the 13th century. The order of the tales found in most translations of the Lais is the same as that of the 13th-century manuscript which ends with the story of "Eliduc." The reason the sequence of the stories is important is that many scholars have tried to deduce Marie's meaning (and identity) based on her ordering. Robert Hanning, Joan Ferrante , and Emanuel Mickel see in the collection of lais a hierarchy of love from the carnal (human and less worthy) to the divine (love of God). If, in fact, "Eliduc" is the final story, one can ask whether this lai is a type of apology for the frivolous nature of the first 11 tales. Perhaps Marie was following a pattern discernible in some of her sources (Ovid's Ars amatoria and Remedia amoris and Andreas Capellanus' De amore) where a final statement of orthodoxy softens the flagrant "turpitude" of the first part of the work.

The other works of Marie de France are the Fables and The Purgatory of Saint Patrick. Marie's collection of 102 fables was very popular in the later Middle Ages. This is attested to by the fact that they survive in 23 manuscripts and were incorporated into the fable collections of many writers in the centuries after her death. Marie claims that her fables were adapted from Aesopic tales translated into English by King Alfred. An analysis of her work, however, suggests that the source of the fables was more likely a combination of Latin texts, which reveal Arabic influences, and a sprinkling of oral tradition. In many cases Marie tells a well-known story but gives it a unique twist. The fables are short, didactic episodes teaching moral lessons and involving, for the most part, personified animals with stereotypical characteristics: the lion is regal, the fox deceitful, the lamb meek. The morals of Marie's fables are often surprising. Fable 44, for example, is a story of a husband who finds his wife with another man. The woman uses an imaginative ploy to convince her husband that she is innocent. Her deception is successful, and, rather than faulting her, the epimythium of the story praises her ingenuity. The collection as a whole emphasizes the importance of personal and feudal loyalty, the immutability of social class (the Affectionate Ass who tries to imitate his master's pet dog is nearly beaten to death for his presumption), the necessity of compassion for the under-privileged, and a critique of political, legal, and familial institutions. As in the Lais, many of the fables deal with the challenges of the individual functioning in society.

The Purgatory is a poem based on a Latin work entitled Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patrici by the English Cistercian Henry of Saltrey. It is a moralizing, mystical tale about a knight called Owen and his journey through Purgatory, the entrance of which was revealed to Ireland's Saint Patrick. Marie's poem differs from the Latin model in two important ways. Her characters use direct and vivid discourse, and Marie designed the work to speak to a lay audience: "I, Marie, have put/ the Book of Purgatory into French,/ as a record, so that it might be intelligible/ and suited to lay folk." In Marie's hands the story becomes an aventure undertaken by a knight who bravely passes every test put to him by the devils of the underworld. When Owen emerges from his geste, he rejects the temptation to join a religious order, rather he uses his experience in Purgatory to guide him to a more virtuous lay life. The concept of love so central to the lais motivates Owen to become a crusader "out of love/ and honor for God his Creator."

An important feature of Marie's work, which is perhaps appreciated more by modern readers than it was in the 12th century, is her portrayal of female characters. The women in the lais are active; they, just as much as the men, must endure hardship, explore their own interiority, and successfully surmount obstacles to love. Marie is as concerned with the development of the lady as with the knight. This is an unusual feature in romance literature where the female often plays a passive role as the vehicle for bringing about moral growth in the hero. The women in "Yonec" and "Guigemar" are not rescued from their towers; they escape. The heroine in "Yonec" is the real protagonist in the lai. She undertakes aventures in order to realize her individual needs in a hostile environment. Le Fresne is saved because she makes sound ethical choices. In "Les Deus Amanz," the tragic figure is the princess. She, although loyal, patient, and resourceful, is ultimately a casualty of the young knight's pride.

Marie de France had a marked influence on medieval literature. The genre of the narrative lai and her fable collection inspired the admiration of subsequent generations of writers and led to a number of English imitations. She developed a distinctive stylistic technique and was innovative in her use of Celtic plots and motifs woven together with Classical imagery. Finally, Marie, herself a woman struggling in a field dominated by men, created memorable female characters who relied on their intellectual, moral and physical faculties to create a world receptive to their interior needs.


Clifford, Paula. Marie de France: Lais. London, 1982.

Duby, Georges. Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth Century France. Translated by Elborg Forster. Baltimore, 1978.

The Fables of Marie de France. Translated by Mary Lou Martin. Birmingham, Alabama, 1984.

The Lais of Marie de France. Translated by Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. Durham, 1982.

Marie de France. Saint Patrick's Purgatory: A Poem. Translated by Michael J. Curley. Binghamton, NY, 1993.

Mickel, Emanuel J. Marie de France. New York, 1974.

suggested reading:

Burgess, Glyn S. Marie de France: An Analytical Bibliography: Supplement 1. London, 1986.

Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Translated by John Jay Parry. New York, 1941.

Ferrante, Joan M. Woman as Image in Medieval Literature. New York, 1975.

Gold, Penny S. The Lady and the Virgin: Image, Attitude and Experience in Twelfth-Century France. Chicago, 1985.


Four redactions of the Lais are found in the British Library, London and the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. The Purgatory survives in a unique manuscript at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. The oldest and most complete manuscript containing the Fables is held at the British Library, London.

Martha Rampton , Assistant Professor of History, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon

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Marie de France (c. 1140–1200)

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