Marie de France

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Marie de France

Marie de France (fl. ca. 1175-ca. 1190) Anglo-Norman poet and fabulist

In the chivalric era, the semilegendary poet Marie de France (Mary of France), a well-read NormanFrench storyteller, satisfied medieval Europeans’ obsessions with tales of power and violence. Little is known of Marie’s life. She appears to have been an unwed bilingual intellectual probably residing in England at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, ruler of the Angevin Empire from Ireland to the Pyrenees. Influenced by Indian exotica in the PANCHATANTRA (ca. 200 B.c.), she wrote 15 elegant lais (lays)—verse romances and feudal tales—and, around 1189, 103 FABLES on timely topics related to the Crusades and roman courtois (courtly romance). In the Anglo-Norman dialect of northwestern France, Marie also translated Latin poems about St. Patrick and St. Audrey and wrote metrical love contes (stories). The lai narratives flow witty and light, reflective of AESOP’S animal lore and intensely romantic in the style of OVID’S love lyrics and of Arthurian lore detailing the doomed pairing of lovers resembling Tristan and Iseult.

Themes common to Marie’s chansons de geste (French heroic epics) stereotype the male-female relationship through masculine deeds that Breton knights perform to impress women. Gendered motifs cover issues of sexual fidelity and the powerlessness of the mal mariee (mismated) woman to avoid a loveless union with an older man who wants a trophy wife or a fertile mate of noble lineage to build up a dynasty. Taking the woman’s side in matters of passion, the poet tells of their resourceful responses to crises and suffering for love. Although some literary historians think Marie was a convent dweller, she offers keen insights into marital frustrations. In the fable “A Woman and Her Lover” and in the miniature romances in “Chevrefoil” (“Honeysuckle”), “Laustic” (“The Nightingale”), and “Yonec,” Marie exonerates lovers for illicit coupling. She rewards a HERO with union with his lady in Lanval while damning Queen Guinevere for being spiteful. The poet views the choices of the “other woman” in “Le Fresne” (“The Ash Tree”) and in “Eliduc,” which features the beautiful Guilliadun bidding for the affections of a knight married to Crown Princess Guildeluec. The dual tragedy that befalls a couple in “Les Deus Amanz” (“The Two Lovers”) results from the ruthlessness of the king of the Pistrians in Normandy. To his grief, he demands a show of strength that kills a potential son-in-law and causes the king’s daughter to die of sorrow, a genteel end for a thwarted female.

A highly skilled narrator, Marie de France contrasted courtesy and wooing with the negative side of medieval patriarchy and predicted in the epilogue of her fables that some male scribe would likely plagiarize her work. Her stories mocked the rigid social order. The fable “The Frogs in Search of a King” places a goddess in charge of animal destiny; “The Sun Who Wished to Wed” warns that the more powerful the lord, the more calamitous his downfall. A masculine perspective in the lais “Chaitivel” (“The Unfortunate”), “Eliduc,” “Laustic,” and “Milun” emphasizes male exploits—a warrior’s reputation, ambush, vengeance, tournament competition, hand-to-hand combat, sieges, the chastity belt, and abduction of damsels. In “Guigemar,” the bonding of males in combat incurs dire consequences for disloyalty: “Each one pledged his support: they would accompany [Guigemar] wherever he went: the man who failed him now would be disgraced” (Marie 1999, 54). In a contrasting scene, Venus, the goddess of passion, tosses into the fire a copy of OVID’S Remedia Amoris (Love remedies, ca. A.D. 2), which advocates that males control females. Marie repudiates macho stereotypes by stressing to readers that men like Guigemar are susceptible to love and willingly sacrifice themselves for the women of their choice.

Marie’s canon reflects the callous traits of the Middle Ages. In her biography of Saint Audrey, the text opens on the conversion of Britannia to Christianity and the invasions of the aboriginal Celts by Germanic tribes of Angles, Jutes, and Saxons, the eventual conquerors of the British Isles. More chilling are the tragic, even savage conclusions in the lais—the ripping off of a nose in “Bisclavret” (“The Werewolf”), a beheading in “Yonec,” and dual deaths in “Equitan,” which retells the biblical account of David, the adulterous king of the Israelites, who disposed of Uriah the Hittite in battle to free Uriah’s wife Bathsheba for marriage to himself. The latter lai ends a love triangle with the scalding to death of the title figure and the adulterous wife of his seneschal (steward). Supernatural details, such as magic flowers and potions in “Eliduc,” shapes-shifting in “Bisclavret” and “Laustic,” and a lover’s knot, tower immurement, and unhealed wound in “Guigemar” develop representations of romantic attachment that dominated the era’s dance, drama, and STORYTELLING, as well as subsequent writings of Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer. The film romances Lovespell (1981) and Tristan & Isolde (2006) reflect Marie’s classic tales and fables.


Larsen, Anne R., and Colette H. Winn. Writings by PreRevolutionary French Women. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Marie de France. Fables. Translated by Harriet Spiegel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

------- . The Lais of Marie de France. Translated by Glyn

S. Burgess and Keith Busby. London: Penguin, 1999.