“I should probably start by giving you some information about Marie de France,” my English professor began our seminar. It was my junior year of college, and we had just transitioned to a section on medieval literature. “For one, she goes by Marie,” he added. “She is probably from France during the late 12th century. She mostly wrote translations, but also wrote a few original works, among them poems that discuss courtly love.”
Then he went silent. He spent the next few minutes looking back over the reading while we waited quietly, holding our pens aloft for note-taking. After a while, he looked up and then, seeing our expectant faces, laughed. “Oh, that’s about all we know. To be honest, her name is probably not even Marie,” he said.
My professor was not joking. Broadly speaking, Marie de France is a mysterious figure lost in history. But what little is known of her is fascinating. For some context, she is the earliest known French female writer and poet. She only identifies as Marie from France in her prologues, meaning that it’s probably a pseudonym rather than her real name. And since her writings discuss courtly love and are mostly dedicated to court members, it is believed that Marie may have been a member of the court as well. Not only was she one of the great poets of the early Middle Ages, but she is also one of the few female voices in the development of stories about King Arthur.
Among other medieval Arthurian writers, Marie holds a unique position. If you watched the 2008 TV show Merlin, you might be familiar with Geoffrey of Monmouth—a background character who was included as an a-nudge-and-a wink to the real Geoffrey, who is attributed to popularizing the legend of King Arthur in the medieval period. Shortly after him, there was Chretien de Troyes, another writer who established some of the major plot points for Arthurian stories such as Lancelot’s scandalous affair with Guinevere and the quest for the Holy Grail. Keep in mind that Marie lived and wrote at the same time as Chretien, forcing him to share the spotlight. Furthermore, her identity as a woman provides an alternative view on a major subject found across many Arthurian legends: courtly love.
Let’s take a moment and ask ourselves, should we really be concerned about what medieval male authors had to say about relationships and love? Remember that this was a time when women had little to no say in their marriages to these men. Admittedly, it might be an interesting take, but… Marie is the real MVP here. Throughout her writings, Marie’s portrayal of relationships actually subverts typical expectations of courtly love, causing many scholars to regard Marie as a feminist author.
Marie’s largest collection of work is her translation of Aesop’s Fables. In her translations, Marie praises female characters for shrewdness and cunning. But Marie is best known for her original work, The Lais of Marie de France. The lais are 12 narrative poems about lovers who are kept apart—typically by the woman’s marriage to another man. Since most women in the medieval period did not get a lot of choice in who they married, Marie’s lais portray a culture where women are trapped by their marital relationships. Marie also tends to take the side of the woman or the woman’s lover over the husband. In some of her lais, the women also must save themselves before being saved by a knight. In fact, in Marie’s Lanval, the lady saves the knight.
As a French poet, most of her works are written in a type of continental French that has been translated over time. Even though there is less of her original work in comparison to other male writers of the time, her writings have had equally long-lasting influences. Her work went on to influence Geoffrey Chaucer, who is typically considered the father of the English language. It also influenced Dante Alighieri and Thomas Malory, another writer of Arthurian legends.
So although there is little to know about Marie as a person, her work as a female poet has been majorly influential—rightfully gaining her place in college English seminars. Throughout that English seminar, our professor kept telling us to go back to the text and ground our arguments in the language that was in front of us.
It reminds us that although Marie’s background remains mysterious and unknown, her historical presence and work truly speaks for themselves.
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