Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Anglo-Norman Influences II: The Lais of Marie de France


These readings are meant as a break from the heavy-duty historical context we dealt with last week. Enjoy them! Don't sweat the details, but consider the following issues as you read. Be aware of the continued emphasis upon love as a central component of the plot (as opposed to the emphasis on fighting and warfare in epics such as Beowulf and Virgil's Aeneid). Note the importance of women characters and the freedom with which they conduct their emotional and erotic lives. And consider how the Church must have regarded this new, vernacular literature which, unlike Latin writings, could be heard and enjoyed by large audiences regardless of ability to read and write. Although this new vernacular literature was written down, it was transmitted orally, read or recited aloud to its largely illiterate audience. Its potential to reach a broad lay audience, bypassing the Church's control of (written, Latin) literature, inspired considerable alarm in Church circles. It is therefore not astonishing that the Church regarded vernacular romances as dangerous, seductive fictions -- immoral "lies" with the potential to lead unwary readers astray. 

The Lais of Marie de France

ENGL 203 students, read carefully the headnote in Norton, and, if you purchased the recommended text of the Lais, the introductory material pp.1-27; ENGL 252 students, you are responsible for background information on this study guide and/or listed as "text info" on course calendar; the introduction in our textbook is also highly recommended. In these introductions, note in particular the discussion of Marie's identity, questions surrounding the date when she lived and worked, the patrons for whom she composed, and discussion of her statements about her writing (in the Prologues and Epilogues to her works which we read last week: ENGL 203 and ENGL 252, click on your respective course number to be taken to the study guides for these readings). Note how little actual knowledge we have of the presumed author of both the Lais and the Fables. For our purposes, we can consider her a near-contemporary of Chrétien de Troyes (who was active ca. 1170-1190); she was probably active ca. 1160s-1190s (i.e. in the last half and probably the last third of the twelfth century) at the Anglo-Norman court of King Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (see Translatio). Recall that while Marie de France lived and wrote in England, her language was the French dialect spoken at the Anglo-Norman court (rather than English, the Germanic language spoken by the peasantry). Note that a lai is a short narrative form written in octo-syllabic rhyming couplets (the form typical of French vernacular romances). If you read the recommended introduction in the textbook, you can skim parts which deal with lays have not been assigned, but note what sort of stories and plotlines were chosen by Marie (and by all means, feel free to dip into any you find intriguing!) Pay close attention to any reference to or discussion of the assigned Lais: for ENGL 203, "Lanval" (NA 126-40), "Guigemar" (e-reserve reading pp. 30-59), and "Chevrefoil" (e-reserve reading pp. 190-5); for ENGL 252, "Chevrefoil" (Marie's Tristan poem, pp. 190-95); as well as her "Guigemar" (pp. 30-59); "Bisclavret" (pp. 92-104); "Lanval" (pp. 105-25); and "Yonec" (pp. 137-54).


Read carefully through the Prologue to "Guigemar," noting passages in which Marie expresses her pride in her literary work; her comments on the "truth" of fiction; and her statements about "slanderers." Consider at whom or what she could be aiming these words. Note the fairy-tale aspect of the plot line. What is the treatment of love? of sexuality? With whom does one sympathize, and for whom does one "root," in reading of Guigemar's and his lover's efforts to be reunited with one another? Guigemar's unnamed lady represents a certain literary "type": the Mal Mariée, or unhappily married wife who is mistreated by her husband.  Would the Church be likely to approve of the way in which Marie handles this plot element? Whom do you imagine was the target audience of this story? (ENGL 203: Compare/contrast with Beowulf.)

(not read in ENGL 203)

In "Guigemar," the audience is clearly invited to sympathize with Guigemar's lady, a mistreated married woman who ultimately finds happiness with her true love, Guigemar (and not with her jealous older husband).  One might be tempted to assume that Marie automatically takes the part of her female characters.  "Bisclavret" proves otherwise: in it a sympathetic husband is wronged by an unloving wife, while the "happy ending" involves the rehabilitation of the husband and the punishment of the wife and her lover. What does this discrepancy between the two plots suggest about Marie's attitude towards love?  towards marriage? Note the use of animal imagery in this lai. Which character(s) act in a civilized and "courtly" manner?  Which behave in fierce or bestial ways?  For another example of a lay which takes the part of the wronged husband against his wife and her lover, see "Equitan," pp. 60-72, which immediately follows "Guigemar" in the collection; this juxtaposition suggests that Marie's intent is not to take the part of women against men or vice-versa, but to explore the effects which love relationships can have on the individual.


Compare the plotline of "Lanval" with those of "Guigemar" (and "Bisclavret" for ENGL 252).  How do the basic plots differ? In what ways are they similar? What is the treatment of love in each? Does the lai represent conventional, Church-sanctioned morality? If not, what values does it represent? Note the Arthurian elements present in this story (the only one of the lais with an Arthurian setting). How are Guenevere and Arthur portrayed? What are their shortcomings? Who or what is Lanval's sweetheart? How does the story end? Are you surprised by this ending? Is it justified? What are the implications for the target audience? Is there a more serious message here? More importantly, are there "serious messages" that are clearly not intended by this sort of fairy-tale like fantasy?

(not read in ENGL 203)

In "Yonec," we return to the theme of the mal-mariée, the unhappily married wife who is mistreated by her husband.  Note that in this particular lai, Marie takes pains to suggest that the lady's relationship with her lover is sanctioned by God:  he appears in her chamber in answer to a prayer, takes communion to reassure her that he is not a diabolical being, dies for her love in an episode with quasi-christological overtones, and is buried in a rich tomb in an "abbey of very religious people."  Note again the use of animal imagery in this lay. What might it symbolize?  How is it similar to Marie's use of animal imagery in "Bisclavret"? How does it differ? What is the symbolism of the lady's visit to her lover's underground kingdom?  What happens at the end of the lai?  In what sense is it a happy ending?  Who is the title character, and why might Marie have made that choice?  What are the implications of the lai's final lines: "those who heard this adventure/ composed a lay about it,/ about the pain and the grief/ that they suffered for love."  Does this statement help us better to understand what Marie is trying to do in her story collection? 


This short narrative is part of the larger body of Tristan materials (like Béroul's Romance of Tristan, already covered in ENGL 252 and an optional reading in ENGL 203; 203 students will be reading through the Tristan guide as an online background reading and hearing about the influence of the Tristan stories in several lectures). "Chevrefoil" relates one incident in which Tristan and Isolde (Isolt, Yseult, Yseut, etc.) manage to meet in secret during the course of their long-term adulterous affair (she is married to his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall). Read the lai carefully, noting the references to writing (the message or sign recognized by Isolde; the writing of the lai itself) as well as to the multiple languages which are involved in the translatio that produced this vernacular narrative.  Note the attitude (or perhaps lack of an attitude?) toward the adulterous situation at the heart of the Tristan stories.  With whom does Marie appear to feel sympathy?  What attitude seems to be expected of the audience?

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