Study of medieval English romances and other
works often begins with their Old French antecedents written by
poets like Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes.
Marie’s lais “codify as a literary genre” and
“immortalize” the storytelling tradition that forms
the basis of Middle English Breton lays (Laskaya and Salisbury 1),
and her Lanval and La
Friene were translated and/or adapted in the fourteenth century
by English poets.1
In her lais, Marie explores not only issues of courtly behavior
and love relationships, but the individual’s struggle to fulfill
personal desires and cultural expectations, which are often in conflict.
Her fables, of which Del cok e del gupil (The Cock and the Fox)
is one of Chaucer’s sources for The Nun’s
Priest’s Tale, criticize contemporary social and political
conditions, with particular concern for the lower classes and the
poor, and the stability of the commonweal. Therefore, identification
of Marie’s cultural context is instrumental in interpreting
her works and their influence on later adaptors, a difficult task
since there is no factual data about her. Although I do not
pretend to solve the riddle of Marie, I reexamine traditional assumptions,
several of which have become so inculcated in the scholarship that
they are no longer seriously questioned and cloud the search for
The cornerstone assumption is that Marie
was a French native writing in England, and that she was a resident
of, and wrote for, the court of Henry II. Although I believe
that Lanval comments on Henry's court, I challenge the assertion
of Marie's long-term residency in his English court; rather, she
may have visited or been associated with his court at some point,
and/or she may have lived in continental France and held allegiance
to the Capetian monarchs. This repositions the historical/cultural
context in which her works were created, frees the dating of her
works2 and assessment
of her career from accepted strictures, and offers an enriched understanding
of Marie's poems.3
The primary bases for placement of Marie
in Henry's English court are: her self-identification in the
Epilog of the Fables as being
from France; linguistic evidence, including the Anglo-Norman dialect
in which the major manuscript containing the Lais
is written, and the presence of Middle English words in her poetry;
her use of a source attributed to an English monk for her translation
of the Espurgatoire;4 the
geographical descriptions contained in her works; and the dedication
of the Lais to a "nobles reis" [noble king] (Prolog 43)
and of the Fables to "cunte Willame" (Epilog
9). These elements are interlaced, so a potentially fallacious
construction results if one if them fails.
The central argument that Marie was from
France and writing in another country, since to identify herself
as "from France"5
within that country would be unnecessary,6
is one of the most assailable arguments. The famous line,
"Marie ai num, si sui de France" (Fables Epilog
4) is translated by Kibler and others to read "My name is Marie,
and I am from (of) France." The crucial question is:
What did it mean to be "from France" in the late twelfth
century? Did the identification relate to political, geographical,
cultural or other referents? One of the least probable answers
is that "France" refers to what is now perceived as the
nation of France. Although the idea of a nation-state was
developing during the period,7
that perspective was not yet established in the culture and was
perhaps most relevant to the king and those involved in creating
political unity in the fractious feudal state. Individuals
remained strongly chauvinistic, identifying themselves with the
territory in which they lived or were associated, such as Chrétien
de Troyes. One would probably have identified oneself by region
wherever one traveled, within France and elsewhere on the continent,
or in England. Therefore, identifying oneself as "from
France" does not necessarily signify residency outside of France.
The Occitan, a region geographically located
in present-day southern France but culturally and linguistically
divided from medieval northern France, is an excellent example of
French chauvinism. Although nominally vassals of the French
and/or English king depending on location and political vicissitudes,
the southern region was viewed by its residents and those outside
it as a separate society.8
This identity was based largely on the troubadour culture, and many
scholars envision the courts at Poitou, the Limosin and other southern
areas, in which many of the "new" literary forms and expressions
were born and nurtured, as the heart of the "courtly love"
or immigrants from the north might have identified their place of
origin as "France," in reaction to the separation between
the northern and southern regions.
A strong theory is that "France"
indicates not the nation we now know as France, but the Ile de France
and its surrounding areas. Thus, regardless of where Marie
might have been when she wrote the Fables, she would have
identified herself as a native and/or resident of that area, which
centered around Paris as it became the principal city of the royal
domain and a locus of the twelfth-century French "Renaissance."
This accords well with Marie's observation of social conditions
discussed in her works, particularly the Fables, which a
courtier from an insulated environment might not have witnessed.
As a resident of the Ile area, she might have written anywhere,
including within what we now perceive as the nation of France, and
identified herself regionally. Several scholars have suggested
the Vexin, the beleaguered buffer zone between the Ile de France
and Normandy, as Marie's residence. For example, Ewert cites
Suchier's inclination to "identify Marie's language as that
of the Vexin" and his notation of her reference in Les Deus Amanz
to Pitres, which lies in the Norman part of the Vexin, in terms
that suggest she knew the area personally (Ewert, Lais
vii). Mickel notes that "it is widely accepted that Marie
was probably a native of the Ile-de-France area or of Norman territory
in close proximity" (17), but still places her residency while
writing the Lais in England. However, domicile in the
Vexin would place her in an ideal position to observe the Norman
court and culture of Henry II while benefiting from proximity to
Paris and the heart of the French kingdom, as well as in the path
of political, social and intellectual cross-currents.
The association between Marie and England
is bolstered by the preservation of her works in manuscripts in
the Anglo-Norman dialect, particularly the mid-thirteenth century
British Museum Harley 978 ff 40a-67b, and the prominence given to
that manuscript by modern translators due to its completeness,
relative freedom from scribal error, and its presumed closeness
to the original.10
That superior position was conferred by Warnke, whose grouping of
the fable manuscripts has served as the basis for scholarship since
the late nineteenth century. Identifying Marie’s language
has challenged scholars, since manuscript evidence survives in several
dialects from both Britain and the Continent. Of the five
extant manuscripts that contain Marie's Lais, two are in
the Anglo-Norman dialect, spoken primarily in England, two are in
Francien, or Central French, and one is in Picard, from the northeast
While some scholars, like Micha, believe that Marie “écrit
en anglo-normand" [she wrote in Anglo-Norman] (Lais
9), the weight falls on the side of Continental French. Kibler
theorizes that Marie wrote in Francien with Norman influences (Introduction, 1), a theory also held by Warnke and Ewert (Ewert,
and McCash asserts that Marie’s language was “essentially
Continental, with Anglo-Norman characteristics attributed, to some
extent at least, to scribal emendations” (748) and that Marie’s
self-identification as “de France” reflects pride in
her Continental French language (756).
As Kibler explains, the determination of
authorial language based on manuscript evidence is highly complex
and involves a close examination of the rhymes and rhythms of the
work which "betray underlying dialectal characteristics"
(Kibler 1/11/98). His theory of Marie's language is supported
by the status of the Francien dialect at the end of the twelfth
century. The adoption of Francien as the standard language
was well under way, and its use as a literary language for "those
who wished to gain the ear of a wider public" (Ewert, Language
9) was increasing. Some regional linguistic traits
were frequently retained by writers who chose Francien, and the
Norman influences in Marie's language could have resulted from a
residency in the Vexin, Normandy, or travels to areas in which that
dialect was spoken, but Ewert points out that Marie maintained her
"sound ear for the rhythm of her native tongue" (xxi),
presumably Francien. Ewert explains that "standard literary
French" during the subject period showed Norman influence,which was "maintained for a time and appears
even in the work of writers who had no Norman connection" (Lais
But the existence of Anglo-Norman manuscripts
does not prove that Marie wrote in that language or in England.
Henry's court was held in England and Normandy, and many of the
nobles in his entourage (and army, during times of conflict) held
land on both continents. The scribe of the Harley manuscript,
who wished to preserve and perhaps present Marie's works to an Anglo-Norman
speaking audience, recorded and/or translated her poems for a patron
The manuscript is dated to the mid-thirteenth century, after Henry
and Eleanor's death (1189 and 1204 respectively), at a time when
the political criticism contained in Lanval
and the social commentary of the Fables
may have lost its sting and the poems could be enjoyed as entertainment,
or during a period when criticism of a previous regime would have
Good fortune may have presented an Anglo-Norman
scribe who was particularly enthusiastic and literate; but it is
possible that the recording of Marie's and other poets' works in
the Anglo-Norman dialect may have more to do with the Anglo-Norman
scribal tradition than the works themselves. The large number
of Old French works preserved in Anglo-Norman suggests that there
was a keen interest in collecting, translating and recording literature
in and for that culture.15
Owen notes that "it is remarkable . . . that some of the oldest
and most significant works in the French vernacular survived in
their earliest form in Anglo-Norman manuscripts" (37) such
as the Chanson de Roland
and other chansons de geste.
Assigning language and date to an author
through manuscript evidence can be risky, since other manuscripts,
now lost, could alter conclusions reached based on extant manuscripts.
Further, focus on a single manuscript may skew assessment.
For example, the Harley manuscript contains the Lais and Fables,
but it is notable that until recently, modern criticism and scholarship
has focused on the Lais rather than Marie's other
works. This trend dates to the nineteenth century; prior to
that time, the Fables were the center of attention.
This may have been true in the medieval period as well, judging
from the number of existing manuscripts: five of the Lais compared to twenty-three manuscripts of the Fables
(or twenty-five, depending on the scholar consulted), which
date from the early thirteenth to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Of the Fable manuscripts, fourteen are preserved in the Bibliothèque
Nationale (nine of which are dated to the thirteenth century), a
provenance that suggests Old French dialects other than Anglo-Norman.16
While the York manuscript, written in Anglo-Norman, is the oldest,
it is incomplete; two other thirteenth-century manuscripts, the
BN fr 2168, in Picard, and the Arsenal contain all 102 fables but
are still incomplete. The BN fr 1593 is written in Continental
French and is used by Brucker as the main comparison codex in his
translation of the Fables. Still, association between
Marie and Henry’s English court clings from the eminence of
the Harley manuscript.
Did Marie Know English?
Another argument for Marie's placement in
England is the presence of English words in her works.
The Anglo-Norman dialect of Old French predominated in the
upper classes in Henry's England, although English remained the
language of the greater population (Baugh 121).
It is reasonable to theorize that people like merchants,
civil servants and clergy who had dealings with folks who spoke
only French or English had a knowledge of both languages.17 While it is supposed
that Henry understood but could not speak or read English and Eleanor
needed an interpreter (Baugh 122), English was known by a percentage
of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy in England.
Therefore it is possible that Marie knew English, although
this reasoning presupposes her presence in England and is again
driven by a questionable assumption.
However, even if Marie knew English, oral
and/or written, her claim to be translating Aesop's Fables
from King Alfred's English text,18
which dates to the ninth century, is unlikely given the differences
between his language and hers due to the evolution of English over
the three hundred intervening years.
If Marie's source was English, it is more likely that it
was a more recent version written in contemporary English that she
obtained while in England or which, like other literature, may have
been created in or transported to the continent.
Warnke concludes from a comparison of certain English words19
in the Fables with
Anglo-Saxon that Marie's source was not from the time of King Alfred,
but that it was probably written in the Midlands dialect and dated
to the beginning of the twelfth century.
While Spiegel finds Warnke’s theory “highly speculative”
since there is no external evidence of a middle English version
of the Fables (18), several scholars have noted that there are no
surviving manuscripts of Old English fables and no historical references
to any such works, which strengthens the theory of a lost intermediary
manuscript, possibly in Middle English.
Spiegel notes that if Marie were living
in England she might have wished to become connected with the English
literary tradition through Alfred the Great, a noted patron of the
arts (8). However,
Martin cites scholarly theory that Marie erroneously attributed
her source to King Alfred rather than to Alfred, a known twelfth-century
English translator who translated a version of fables into Latin
rather than English (22). Because Marie supposedly translated the
Espurgatoire from Latin,
her working with fables from a Latin text is not unimaginable.20 It is also possible
that Marie compiled the fables contained in her work, using no single
(English or otherwise) source, since hers is the first known collection
of its type, and that she invented a "Pseudo-Alfred" source
to validate her work (Martin 24).
The possibility of an appeal to authority through King Alfred
or the English language itself, with little or no actual basis,
cannot be discounted; such a practice was well-established in medieval
literary production. Martin notes that framing the Fables with reference to King Alfred in the Prolog and Cunte
Willame in the Epilog “assures [the work’s] identity
as a literary form” and that a similar framing device is used
in almost all of the individual fables to remind the reader of her
source material and its contemporary application (18), thus authenticating
her work’s literary form and cultural relevance.
Logic falters on the evidence of English
words in Marie's poetry as proof of her knowledge of English.
She also uses Celtic/Breton words such as bisclavret,
aüstic, Guigemar, but scholars doubt she knew the Breton or Celtic language
(Ewert, Lais xiii).21 Why, then, would the
appearance of English words prove a knowledge of English? If she were working with an English text, the words she retained
in the French version may have been beyond her translating powers;
however, this suggests a French rather than English venue, since
it is likely that she would have been able to find assistance among
the many English-speaking residents of Henry's court and its environs. Although Spiegel argues that the few number of words of English
origin may have been known to Marie from her residency in England
and that her later scribes could not translate them into French
(18), the English words might just as well prove she did not know
the language; they may have been included in her received material,
and she was unable to translate them due to an ignorance of English
and the absence of an English speaker/translator.
Marie retained or added some English words
to define Old French words, as found in Laüstic, in which she presents the title in three languages:
Breton (laüstic), French (russignol), and English (nihtegale), and in Chievrefoil, for which she also gives the English word gotelef. But
the motive and value to this is puzzling. Mickel cites Foulet's "wry" observation on the theory
that Marie's occasional use of a word in more than one language
reflects the bilingual nature of British-French audiences: "Anyone
not understanding French would scarcely be helped by the explanation
of one word in his native English tongue" (157 n. 25).
Scholarly efforts to identify the language
of Marie's source materials remain frustrated.
If Marie's claims are accepted and combined with manuscript
evidence, she knew Breton, Old English, Middle English, Latin, and
Anglo-Norman and a number of other Old French dialects, which stretches
credulity. It is more
reasonable to imagine her Lais and Fables as a compilation
and adaptation of material at hand in a known language, transformed
through her considerable poetic talent.
Ewert posits that she probably received the Breton lais in
a "French form, though doubtless crude and unpolished"
(Lais xiii); the same theory may hold true for the Fables, while she may have received and understood the Espurgatoire in Latin. The
fact that the Espurgatoire was written by an English monk holds little strength in proving Marie's
presence in England; the saint's life, like other literature, could
have traveled to her region, especially to Paris, from England or
another source of origin, possibly by a circuitous route.
The appearance of English locales in Marie's
poetry does not demonstrate a long-term residency in England, any
more than the appearance of English words.
She also uses continental sites, and the accuracy of her
geographic descriptions is uneven; based on her use of Breton and
other settings, it could be argued that she resided on the continent.
English locations that appear in Marie's poetry may also
have been retained from her source material, or she may have taken
them from other works; scholars note that her geography follows
that of Wace (Mickel 18).22 Also, Marie may have traveled and been familiar
with locations outside her home territory, but that does not support
an argument for her residence in, and allegiance to, Henry's English
Once the need for Marie's presence in another
country to explain her identity as "from France" has been
challenged, other possibilities present themselves: for example,
that it was not Marie who traveled, but her works.
Having adapted material from a highly mobile genre, Marie
would have had the expectation that her poems would also circulate.
Marie was particularly concerned that her authorship not
be appropriated or obscured in the process. In Guigemar,
she defends her craft (and herself) against her critics:
Ki de bone mateire traite,
Mult li peise si bien n'est faite.
Oëz, seignurs, ke dit Marie,
Ki en sun tens pas ne s'oblie.
Celui deivent la gent loër
Ki en bien fait de sei parler.
Mais quant il ad en un païs
Hummë u femme de grant pris,
Cil ki de sun bien unt envie
Sovent en dïent vileinie:
Sun pris li volent abeissier;
Pur ceo comencent le mestier
Del malveis chien coart, felun,
Ki mort la gent par traïsun.
Nel voil mie pur ceo leissier,
Si gangleür u losengier
Le me volent a mal turner:
Ceo est lur dreit de mesparler!
Whoever deals with good material feels pain if it's treated
Listen, my lords, to the words of Marie,
who does not forget her responsibilities when her turn comes.
People should praise anyone
who wins admiring comments for herself.
But anywhere there is
a man or a woman of great worth,
people who envy their good fortune
often say evil things about them;
they want to ruin their reputations.
Thus they act like
vicious, cowardly dogs
who bite people treacherously.
I don't propose to give up because of that;
if spiteful critics or slanderers
wish to turn my accomplishments against me,
they have a right to their evil talk.
And in the epilogue
of the Fables she expresses
a wish to be remembered:
Al finement de cest escrit,
Que en romanz ai treité e dit,
Me numerai pur remembrance:
Marie ai num, si sui de France.
Put cel estre que clerc plusur
Prendreient sur eus mun labur.
No voil que nul sur li le die!
E il fet que fol ki sei ublie!
To end these tales I've here narrated
And into Romance tongue translate,
I'll give my name, for memory:
I am from France, my name's Marie.
And it may hap that many a clerk
Will claim as his what is my work.
But such pronouncements I want not!
It's folly to become forgot!
Marie identifies herself
by name and place of origin to her geographically diverse audience,
rather than a critically reconstructed Anglo-Norman audience in
England to whom she identifies herself as a foreigner.
Rather than viewing the poet as a transplanted
French native in Norman England, she may be envisioned as moving
between England and the continent in the heavy stream of travelers
who maintained "dual citizenship" for political, economic
and cultural reasons. Or
she may have remained on the Continent, perhaps traveling amongst
the provinces. Envisioning
Marie on the Continent rather than, or in addition to, England and
as a resident of the Ile de France/Vexin region does not create
a provincial or insulated character.
On the contrary, it places her at the heart of French and
Anglo-Norman political and cultural activity.
To imagine her traveling between the Vexin, Paris, Normandy,
and England is not unreasonable; but even if she did not, she would
have had plentiful opportunity to gather material for her works
from Breton jongleurs, southern troubadours, and other travelers
who disseminated poetry and literature as they went. Also, the influence of Paris as a growing educational center
during the "Renaissance" would have offered exposure to
international ideas and literary influences.25
Letting go of the insistent idea of an "English"
Marie opens inquiry into other assumptions such as the dedication
of the Lais to Henry II and, consequently, the dating of the work
before his death in 1189.
Rather than viewing the Lais
as having been conceived and created as a whole, which springs from
a twentieth-century view of literary production, we may assert that
Marie compiled and adapted the poems over a period of time, perhaps
years, collecting a tale or tales, perhaps in different locations
reworking, recording if received in oral form, and circulating them
as she went; she would have then organized them into a body and
added the epilog and prolog.
Such a process may also help explain why viewing the individual
lais in the context of an integrated piece leads to strained critical
attempts to find or create thematic unity (frequently based on her
treatment of love). Similarly, dating the Fables by attempting to identify "cunte Willame"
is not reliable, as there was a plethora of Williams and Guillames
who might have been the recipient of her dedication, and trying
to single out one of them based on scanty literary and historical
evidence is fruitless.
Opinion has centered on Henry II or his
son Henry III as the “nobles reis” to whom she dedicates
the Lais, and the
"English" theory hampers the proposal of alternative candidates.27 Scholars have settled on Henry II somewhat
uncomfortably; they must overlook the Becket tragedy and the king's
"domestic infelicity" (Ewert, Lais
viii) in order to force him to conform to the dedication of one
"Ki tant estes purz e curteis, / A ki tute joie s'encline /
E en ki quoer tuz biens racine" [who is so brave and courteous,
to whom all joy inclines, and in whose heart all goodness takes
root] (Prolog 43). However, there was another "noble king" who would
have been obvious from a "French" perspective: Philip
II (Augustus). Philip
(1165-1223) and his father, Louis VII (c.1120-1180), are seldom
proposed, perhaps due to the ingrained image of Marie’s connection
with Henry's court. Louis was failing in the late twelfth
century, and his achievements were continued and eclipsed by his
son, Philip, who was well-regarded by peers and populace, at least
according to modern historical re-creation.
Years of political intrigue and shifting
alliances between the Plantagenets and Capetians during the twelfth
century resulted in fluid political and feudal allegiances and loyalties,
so the French kings should not be discarded as potential recipients
of Marie's admiration and dedication, even if she had spent some
time in Henry's court.28 A familiarity and association with Henry's
court, English or Norman, as a traveler or resident, would not detract
from or preclude loyalty to Philip, particularly during times of
open conflict between the two kings.
If Marie were a resident of the Vexin, she would probably
have had knowledge of Henry's court and administration through proximity
to Normandy and from a keen socio-political awareness.
But such familiarity does not negate the possibility of her
allegiance to and admiration of Philip Augustus, king and feudal
lord of the territory in which she lived.
If the dedication of the Lais
is identified with Philip, dating is freed from the 1189 terminus
ad quem based on Henry's death. Although the Lais
may have been written over a period of time, their composition,
compilation and dedication as a group may have occurred after 1189,
in the last years of the twelfth century and into the beginning
of the thirteenth. This would allow the shortening of Marie's
literary career from a rather improbable period—1155 to 1215,
using the extreme estimations—to a more reasonable span and
invites a reconsideration of her development.
Instead of viewing her works as a record of personal progression
from "entertainment through moralization to edification"
(Ewert, Lais vii), corresponding to life stages from a youthful
focus on love reflected in the Lais,
to mature social concern seen in the Fables, to spiritual interest during her later years such
as the Espurgatoire,
her works may be seen as expressions, perhaps in process simultaneously,
of varied interests and experimentation with literary forms.
Envisioning Philip Augustus as Marie's "nobles
reis" has interpretive consequences for her works, particularly
Lanval. Were it dedicated to Henry
II, serious problems arise reconciling patron to content. While it was not unusual for medieval
courtly authors to voice criticism of the current reign, it is seldom
as pointed as seen in Lanval
and many of Marie's Fables. Unless a ruler is greatly unpopular and
disliked by the audience, criticism is generally softened; much
of the sharper, direct criticism found in "non-courtly"
works is written by authors not dependent on royal support.
Marie's audience was probably aristocratic, judging from
her level of education and sophistication, as well as an oft-quoted
reference to her by a fellow poet, Denis Piramus, who recounts her
popularity among "counts, barons, and knights" (Mickel
15).29 This courtly audience would have recognized
the target of Marie's attack.
Lanval is her only Arthurian lai, and Arthurian literature
is often used as a vehicle for examination of the contemporary monarchy
and culture. The Arthurian
setting of Lanval is one of the strongest arguments in favor of identifying
it as written about, not for, Henry II.30
As a Norman ruler, Henry evidently wished to become identified
with King Arthur in order to validate his reign in that country
and on the continent, and to glorify his identity as an "Anglo-Angevin"
king in opposition to the Capetian kings' legitimization through
Charlemagne (Kelly 55). To destroy the myth of Arthur's return
and to allow himself to take Arthur's place as national hero, Henry
sponsored an archaeological excavation at Glastonbury Abbey and
staged an "elaborate 'discovery'" of the tombs of Arthur
and Guinevere (Duby 198).
Furthermore, the kernel of Marie's attack
on Arthur in Lanval is his failure as feudal lord and administrator of justice.31 One of Henry's areas
of concentration during his reign was the improvement of the judicial
system. Spiegel's suggestion that Marie shared
the concern for "judicial reform and equity" which "the
Normans brought to England" (10) may suffer from a supposition
of the poet's residence in England and create a false connection
between Marie and Henry's court.
Marie certainly displays great concern over this problem
in Lanval and some of the Fables,
but it must be wondered why Marie would "frequently point to
the urgent need for a system of justice that treats everyone fairly"
(Spiegel 6) if Henry were successfully alleviating that need.
Although Henry made many improvements and
innovations in the judicial system, there was contemporary criticism
of his judicial administration. His judicial representatives, often incompetent,
depended on local opinion rather than standardized law and were
biased by socio-economic interests.
This problem was compounded by Henry's failure as a role
model for his agents; he was known for tolerating the "notorious
corruption of his judges," which is reflected in the eagerness
of Arthur's barons at Lanval's trial to retain their position by
delivering a verdict dictated by the king.
And he was criticized by contemporaries for "deliberate
dilatoriness in settling lawsuits" (Clanchy 151).
In his Policraticus, John of Salisbury criticizes Henry II's court for
its avarice and prejudice.
Henry's judges are seen as extortioners who "wandered
from the path of equity in order to plunder the people" (Clanchy
151). Ralph Niger accused Henry of inventing new laws as needed,
an action echoed in Arthur's attitude of mastery over Lanval's accusation
and trial, which he submits to his judges as a pro forma exercise. Although
Salisbury and Niger were hostile towards Henry, others, who were
favorable to the king, also accused the judges of oppression (Clanchy
Burgess places Marie in England at some point in her life,
possibly associated with Henry and Eleanor's Anglo-Norman court,
and notes the poet's knowledge of English legal proceedings, but
theorizes that during the writing of Lanval, Marie had "some personal experience" that
"produced a feeling of disillusionment" (20) which is
reflected in the lai. Perhaps,
like Walter of Châtillon, who wrote during approximately the
same period and who had been in Henry's service but left, probably
due to the king's dispute with Becket (Morris 126), Marie had been
associated with the Norman English court but returned to her French
home and allegiances because of her disapproval over Henry's policies
and actions. This would
point towards a critical perspective and once again raises the question
of whether such an assault would be borne with patience by Henry
from someone in his courtly environment.
If the attack in Lanval
is directed at a Capetian ruler, the vehicle of Arthurian literature
is puzzling, considering Henry's association with the mythical hero.
Another clue that Lanval
is a commentary on Henry's reign is Marie's depiction of Arthur's
nameless queen. Eleanor was suspected of committing adultery
with her uncle Raymond in Antioch during her marriage to Louis VII,
and although no conclusive decision has been reached by historians
about the truth of the rumors, they circulated during her lifetime
and beyond. This image of Eleanor as an adulteress
intersects with Guinevere, whose reputation rose and fell during
the centuries of Arthuriana.
In the early years she was frequently depicted as morally
flawed, and Marie may have chosen her source for Lanval
because it presented the queen in a negative light and thus fit
the poet's opinion of the contemporary queen.
Owen is one of the few who wonders how Marie
might have presented such a critical view of Henry and Eleanor within
their court and patronage. His theory that it was dismissed by Eleanor
as a "traditional" motif while she allowed courtiers to
"wink" in "other quarters" (165) is untenable. Surely the medieval audience understood
the choice of traditional material as a vehicle for commentary on
contemporary issues and persons, and Eleanor would not have missed
the point. The likelihood of the image of Henry as
a self-interested and rash administrator of justice, a cuckolded
husband and graceless feudal lord being tolerated or considered
as entertainment is unimaginable, not to mention the depiction of
Eleanor as an adulterous, prideful queen, willing to pervert justice
and the court to serve her ends.33 The solution to this
conflict between dedication and content is either that the poem
is not about Henry and Eleanor, or that it was not dedicated to
My approach is to identify the characters
in Lanval with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Using the king as a target, Marie measures his failure against
the ideal ruler; by exposing his weaknesses through a mirror image
of negative/positive contrast, she presents strengths to be emulated
by other kings such as Philip.
Thus she presents praise and, concomitantly, guidance for
her own society through criticism of the other.
The context within which Marie's works are studied is prismatic: the observation of and commentary on Henry's
reign from a French perspective, with a socially and politically
aware view of both cultures.
The journey to this interpretation began in the fourteenth century
with Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal, clearly a critique of
the contemporary English royal administration, and traveled backward
through Sir Landevale to Lanval. A study of that lai,
its author and cultural context sparked the "rethinking"
articulated in this essay, which is presented to encourage a refreshed
investigative and interpretive approach to Marie's works, and a
reconsideration leading to affirmation or skepticism of standard
theories in general.
1 See William Calin’s discussion of
the relationship between twelfth-century French and fourteenth-century
English literature in his tome, The French Tradition and the
Literature of Medieval England (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994).
2 Scholarly dating of Marie’s
work is tentative and conjectural, based mainly on historical, textual
and intertextual references.
Broadly, the Laisare estimated anywhere between 1160
and 1199; the Fables between 1160 and 1190; and the Espurgatoire
after 1189 and as late as 1208-15. Return.
3 The attribution and canon of Marie’s
works is not absolute. There is scholarly debate whether the “Marie”
identified in the three works attributed to Marie de France is the
same person, and other works by her may have been lost or are unattributed,
perhaps because they do not fit into the assumed pattern. For example,
see McCash, “La vie seinte Audree: A Fourth Text by
Marie de France?” I agree with the theory that the Lais,
Fables, and Espurgatoire were written by the same
person, and that she is Marie de France. Return.
4 It is assumed that Marie used the
[Tractatus] De Purgatorio Sancti Patricii, dated in the twelfth
century and attributed to a Cistercian monk in the abbey at Saltrey.
5 The appellation "Marie de France"
is a sixteenth-century construction. Return.
6 For a concise, balanced discussion
of Marie de France's identity, see Mickel, Chapter 1. Return.
7 See Duby, France in the Middle
Ages 987-1460, the focus of which is the development of the
French state. Return.
8 See Linda M. Paterson, The World
of the Troubadours (Cambridge UP, 1993) for an in-depth discussion
of medieval Occitan society, especially Chapter One for an understanding
of the relationship of southern to northern France.
9 Although these "courts of love"
are often associated with Marie de Champagne and her mother, Eleanor
of Aquitaine, based mainly on Andreas' De Arte Honeste Amandi,
recent scholars challenge the estimation of Eleanor's literary and
cultural influence. See Mickel (150 n.8) for a summary. Return.
10 See Richard Trachsler, “Les
Fables de Marie de France. Manuscrits et éditions”
(Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 44, 2001,
p. 45-63) for a discussion of the manuscripts and translations of
the Fables, particularly the Harley manuscript. Return.
11 See Rychner (xix-xx) and Ewert
(Lais xviii-xix) for manuscript details. Return.
12 Similarly, Kibler identifies Chrétien's
literary language as Champenois (293), a dialect close to Francien
which was spoken in Champagne, the province in which Troyes was
located and with which Chrétien associated himself. Scholars
like Foerster and Frappier agree that his language was close to
that of the Ile de France, with influences of Champenois.
Again, this identification of dialect is made in the face
of varied scribal evidence. Of the twenty manuscripts dated to the
thirteenth century written in identifiable dialects (based on data
contained in Micha, Tradition), seven are in Picard, four
in Champenois, three in Francien, two in Norman-related dialects,
one in Burgundian, and three are identified with general regions.
In the beginning of the century, presumably closest to the original
writing, two are in Picard, two in Norman-related, and one each
in Champenois, Burgundian and regional. An attempt to reconstruct
Chrétien's life and language based on this scribal evidence
would suggest a different portrait than that created by Kibler and
others, which illustrates the potential danger of identifying authorial
language based on scribal dialect alone. Return.
13 Taylor notes the close connection
between northern French and Anglo-Norman clergy, and that “Norman
scribes provided England with a steady flow of books during the
century after the conquest” (50). Return.
14 Due to the brevity of this essay,
I present an oversimplification of the scribal tradition, which
was motivated by complex
socioeconomic and political factors. See Taylor’s “Was
There a Song of Roland?” for an intriguing discussion of the
Anglo-Norman manuscript and the oral, textual and scribal history
of the Chanson. Return.
15 This extends to writers as well
as scribes. In his discussion of hagiography, Calin notes that there
was a “presence in Anglo-Norman England of vernacular writers
of higher social class than on the Continent” including lay
and clerical nobility. Taylor notes Calin’s observation and
continues to explain that this may be “one reason for the
strong Anglo-Norman hagiographic tradition” (45).
16 Dialect information on the Fable
manuscripts is frustratingly elusive. Identification and analysis
of the dialectical data for the entire corpus of Marie’s works,
including the Fables, might well broaden the study of her
language and culture. Return.
17 See Baugh 114-125 for a discussion
of the interaction between the French and English languages during
the period. Return.
18 “Li reis Alfrez, que mut
l’ama, / Le translata puis en engleis, / E jeo l’ai
rimee en franceis” [King Alfred, who was fond of it, / Translated
it to English hence, / And I have rhymed it now in French] Epilog16-18.
19 Those words are: wibet,
wasp; widecoc, woodcock; welke, and la spenade,the
creator (Spiegel 18). Return.
20 The fable tradition is complex,
involving source materials from a number of different cultures.
For detailed discussions, see Martin (18-28) and Spiegel (6-7).
Or the German reader may refer to the introduction to Warnke's edition,
still considered a seminal work. Return.
21 The source and path of Celtic lore
such as the Matter of Britain are highly debated. There is little
agreement whether Celtic/Breton poetry and language came from Britain
or Brittany, and a lack of consensus about the Breton jongleurs'
language, art form and performance. Thus even if Marie's source
was Breton lais, this does not help in placing her either on the
Continent or in England, since either locale might have provided
access to the material. Return.
22 Wace's work is dated at 1155, which
would set a terminus a quofor the Lais; however, it
is unknown how long after 1155 she wrote them (Mickel 18). Return.
23 All Old French quotations from
the Lais are from the Micha edition, and all modern English
translations are from the Hanning and Ferrante edition. Return.
24 All quotations from the Fables,in
Old French and modern English, are from the Spiegel edition. Return.
25 Despite her occasionally "extravagantly
imaginative" (Owen 155) accounts of twelfth-century France,
Amy Kelly's description of Paris during Eleanor of Aquitaine's domicile
in the Ile conjures the spectre of an exciting, stimulating atmosphere
of intellectual and international social activity. See Amy Kelly,
Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (Cambridge: Harvard
UP, 1978), Chapter Two. Return.
26 See Burgess' Chapter One on the
"Internal Chronology" of the Lais, which concludes
with the possibility that Marie's Laiswere written in both
England and France. Return.
27 The focus on Henry II was established
by Gaston Paris in 1879. Previously, Henry III, Stephen of Blois,
Louis VIII and Louis IX were also considered candidates (Maréchal,
28 This suggestion accepts Marie's
dedications as non-ironic, a not altogether safe assumption but
one which has not been generally challenged by scholars. If the
dedication to the Laiswere ironic, calling Henry "purz
e curteis" in contrast to his character depicted as Arthur
in Lanval, it lessens the likelihood of its being written
in and for his court. Return.
29 The application of this reference
to Marie de France by Piramus is conjectural and is based on the
argument that the mention of a "Marie" without any further
identification denotes fame; there were few women poets (by any
name) during the period, let alone an abundance of Maries, so it
is likely that the same Marie wrote the Laisand Fables.
Also,the dating of Piramus' work is tentative. Return.
30 It is possible that Marie's attack
on the much glorified English mythical hero was intended to lessen
his status and thereby strengthen the Norman regime and rulers.
The argument against this theory is her choice of contemporary issues,
such as administration of justice, feudal favoritism, and adultery
which resonate with Henry's court. It is also possible that her
criticism of those elements in the world of Arthur praises Henry's
success in those areas through contrast with the fictive king’s
failings; but this seems oblique, especially considering Marie's
more direct approach of addressing social ills in the Fables.
31 The harsh criticism of the justiciary
may be one of the reasons for the choice of Lanval by fourteenth-century
English adaptors who wished to comment on similar contemporary conditions.
32 It should be noted that the judicial
arm of government is perennially susceptible to criticism, and that
the administration of the French monarchy in the late twelfth century
is evaluated in the Roman de Renart, contemporary with Marie’s
works; see Patricia Terry, trans., Renard the Fox (Berkeley,
U of California P, 1983) pages 7-14. Although Noble the Lion fares
better than Henry as Arthur, the French king is still criticized
for his favoritism towards undeserving courtiers; however, Henry’s
vulnerability to attack seems greater due to his concentration on
improving the justiciary. Return.
33 A negative depiction of Eleanor
might have been acceptable to an English audience during one of
the periods when she was in conflict with Henry. However, while
he and his court might have welcomed a swipe at Eleanor, it is difficult
to accept that they would have allowed the critical depiction of
Arthur, with whom Henry so closely identified himself. Return.
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