After nearly eight centuries and much research and writing on Marie de France, the only biographical information we know about her, with any degree of certainty, is that she was from France and wrote for the Anglo-Angevin court of Henry II. Yet Marie de France remains today one of the most prominent literary voices of the end of the twelfth century and was the first woman of letters to write in French. The chapters in this book are composed by scholars who have specialized in Marie de France studies, in most cases for many years. Offering traditional views alongside new critical perspectives, the authors discuss many different aspects of her poetics.
Logan E. Whalen, Ph.D. (2000) in French, University of Oklahoma, is Associate Professor of French at the University of Oklahoma. His publications include Marie de France and the Poetics of Memory (Catholic University of America Press, 2008).
‘’These provocative articles add a rich new fare to the ongoing debate as to what can be known about Marie de France and her writings’’
James H. Dahlinger, Le Moyne College. In:
Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 43, No. 4, 201, p. 1150.
Table of contents
Frequently Cited Works
Chapter 1. The Prologues and the Epilogues of Marie de France
Logan E. Whalen
Chapter 2. Marie de France and the Learned Tradition
Emanuel J. Mickel, Jr.
Chapter 3. The Wound, the Knot, and the Book:
Marie de France and Literary Traditions of Love in the Lais
Roberta L. Krueger
Chapter 4. Literary and Socio-Cultural Aspects of the Lais of Marie de France
Judith Rice Rothschild
Chapter 5. Marie de France and the Anonymous Lays
Glyn S. Burgess
Chapter 6. Speaking Through Animals in Marie de France’s Lais and Fables
Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner
Chapter 7. Marie de France and the Fable Tradition
Chapter 8. The Fables of Marie de France and the Mirror of Princes
Chapter 9. Gendered Sanctity in Marie de France’s
L’Epurgatoire seint Patriz and La Vie seinte Audree
June Hall McCash
Chapter 10. Marie de France Translatrix II: La Vie seinte Audree
Rupert T. Pickens
Chapter 11. The Manuscripts of Marie de France
In his Recueil de la langue et poesie françoise in 1581 Claude Fauchet catalogues 127 French authors living before the year 1300. Item 84 of Book II, “Marie de France,” records the following entry:
Marie de France, ne porte ce surnom pour ce qu’elle fust du sang des Rois: mais pource qu’elle estoit natifve de France, car elle dit,
Au finement de cet escrit,
Me nommerai par remembrance,
Marie ai nom, si sui de France.
Elle a mis en vers François les fables d’Esope moralisees, qu’elle dit avoir translatees d’Anglois en François. Pour l’amour au Conte Guilleaume,
Le plus vaillant de ce Roiaume.
[Marie de France does not carry this surname because she is of royal blood, but because she is a native of France, for she states,
At the end of this work,
I will name myself for posterity,
My name is Marie, I am from France.
She put into French verse the moralized fables of Aesop, which she claims to have translated from English into French. For love of Count William,
The most valiant of this realm. (my translation)]
Fauchet was the first “literary critic” to assign this title to Marie de France, and today we still refer to her by that name. However, after nearly five full centuries and much research and writing on Marie, this simple reference remains the only biographical information we know for certain about this poet. Yet Marie de France embodies one of the most prominent literary voices of the 12th century and was, to the best of our knowledge, the first woman of letters to write in French. In addition to the collection of Aesopic fables mentioned by Fauchet, she is most likely the author whose name appears simply as “Marie” in three other works: the Lais, L’Espurgatoire seint Patriz, and La Vie seinte Audree, all of which will be discussed in this book. The fact that these works bear authorial reference is significant in and of itself during a time in which many authors of literary texts remain anonymous.
The lack of firm biographical details has not prevented critics from speculating over the years, to varying degrees of accomplishment, about the identity and literary career of Marie de France. However, scholarship has generally agreed that she wrote for the Anglo-Angevin court of Henry II sometime during the last third of the 12th century. A poet by the name of Marie captured the attention of Denis Piramus around 1180, and he mentions her at the beginning of his Vie seint Edmund le rei:
E dame Marie autresi,
Ki en rime fist e basti
E compassa les vers de lais,
Ke ne sunt pas del tut verais;
E si en est ele mult loée
E la rime par tut amée,
Kar mult l’aiment, si l’unt mult cher
Cunte, barun e chivaler ... (vv. 35–42)
[And likewise lady Marie, who put into rhyme, constructed, and arranged verses of lais, which are not true at all; and she is much praised for it and her rhymes appreciated everywhere, for many people like them, and counts, barons, and knights appreciate them.]
Could Piramus be referring to the same Marie to whom we now confidently attribute the Lais? Most critics believe this to be the case. The texts that he mentions appear to have been circulating in the same English courtly circles with which Piramus himself was associated.
There have been numerous attempts to identify Marie de France as having been associated with religious orders and with royal houses. These associations would explain her familiarity with courtly life and the source of her education, possibly in a convent (she knew Latin well and most likely English). Various efforts have recognized her as abbess of Shaftesbury in Dorset (half-sister to Henry II), abbess of Reading, Marie de Meulan, and Marie de Bourgogne. Despite these scholarly endeavors, there seems to be no convincing evidence to establish firmly her identity, and her life remains a mystery.
One of the defining moments in the growth of Marie de France studies came in 1977 when Glyn S. Burgess published his Marie de France: An Analytical Bibliography. The influence of Burgess’s work cannot be overemphasized. Even with the advent and rapid development of the Internet, and the ease with which it now allows online searches in databases such as the MLA and WorldCat, there can be no substitute for the careful annotations for each bibliographical entry. In fact, Burgess’s bibliography is in large part responsible for the sudden increase in publications on Marie de France from 1980 onwards by greatly facilitating research on the subject. For example, in his first annotated bibliography, he records 77 editions, translations, anthologies, and adaptations of Marie’s works, as well as 425 books and articles and 26 dissertations and theses written in whole or in part on the author from a period that spans the end of the 16th century (Fauchet) until the late 1970s (he also lists the medieval manuscripts that contain her works). Since the appearance of the original bibliography, Burgess has published three Supplements (1986, 1997, and 2007) in which he lists a total of 11 bibliographies, one concordance, one journal (Le Cygne), 110 editions and translations, 902 books and articles, and 44 dissertations and theses. These numbers are impressive in representing a mere 30 years of scholarship as opposed to the nearly 400 years of critical work recorded in the original bibliography of 1977. Readers who may be interested in further studies on Marie de France are encouraged to begin their research with these valuable bibliographies.
The chapters in this book are composed by scholars who have specialized in Marie de France studies, in most cases for many years. They have each chosen an area of expertise in which they offer traditional critical views alongside new approaches to their respective subjects. Their contributions are rich in bibliographical references to the most relevant research on their topics, including many items that have appeared since Burgess’s last Supplement (2007). Some of the most recent research on Marie de France has focused on her possible authorship of a late 12th-century hagiographical work, La Vie seinte Audree, a text whose author identifies herself simply as “Marie” in the penultimate verse of the epilogue. The need for further research on the possibility that Marie de France composed the Audree was suggested at least as early as 1968 by Richard Baum and again in 1974 by Emanuel J. Mickel, Jr. In 2002 June Hall McCash answered this call with a convincing article in Speculum. Several of the chapters here address this issue to some extent, especially those by McCash and Rupert T. Pickens. Recent conversations at conferences suggest that not all scholars are prepared to attribute the Audree to Marie de France’s corpus, but a growing number embrace the idea, particularly as new research emerges. It is nonetheless a bit premature to use the word debate in reference to Marie de France’s authorship of the Audree, since no one, to the best of my knowledge, has yet responded to the evidence proposed by McCash in 2002 by publishing reasons to believe that Marie was not the author of the work in question. In all fairness, though, one must recognize that we are fairly early in the discussion of the attribution of this work to Marie de France, and there will surely be those who publish contrary views in the future.
All of the works traditionally attributed Marie de France open with formal prologues: the Lais, the Fables (or Isopet), L’Espurgatoire seint Patriz, and most recently La Vie seinte Audree. While the Fables, the Audree, and the Espurgatoire also close with proper epilogues, Marie’s first work, the Lais, does not. In the first chapter I discuss these prologues and epilogues, as well as some of the opening and closing remarks to individual lais, to demonstrate how they frame the work and serve rhetorical functions such as captatio benevolentiae, auctoritas, and causa scribendi. Her prologues and epilogues often reflect themes found in the texts that they open and close, such as the theme of adventure that structures the Lais and the faculty of memory to which she often appeals in all her works. Marie’s comments at the beginning and end of her works reveal that she recognized the power of rhetoric within the creative process of medieval literary inventio as she strove to assure the survival of her stories and her name for future generations.
Marie de France’s lais are embedded in old traditions whether they come through Breton storytellers, as she often says, or whether they are stories that come from Greco-Roman antiquity, a tradition with which she is clearly conversant from her reference to Priscian in the General Prologue. She acknowledges the great tradition that the ancients deliberately wrote obscurely and demonstrates a closeness to Ovid. In Chapter 2 Emanuel J. Mickel, Jr., brings Marie’s use of the ancient classical tradition up to date in the light of past and current scholarship. He also explores how in her General Prologue Marie follows the great ethical tradition of the ancients and the learning that comes from Martianus Capella, one of the favorite texts in the 12th-century schools. In this prologue she tells us how to read these many stories reshaped and clothed in the storytelling of the Bretons, but often from the ancient tradition of the Greeks and Romans.
From diverse perspectives, each of Marie de France’s tales in her collection of Lais presents love as a central, ineluctable, and problematic force in the lives of medieval noble men and women. Beginning with Marie’s complex presentation of love in Guigemar, Roberta L. Krueger examines in Chapter 3 the literary contexts and poetic manifestations of love in Marie’s Lais. Although no single doctrine of amors predominates, the collection weaves together recurring themes and motifs as Marie’s female narrator alternately scrutinizes, praises, condemns, laments, and celebrates love and its practitioners. Topics analyzed include Ovidian love, drawn from the Remedia amoris and the Metamorphoses; the discourse of fin’ amors; the Lais’s complex treatment of courtship, marriage, and adultery; Marie’s valorization of suffering, reciprocity, and mesure; love and its relation to the “merveilleux”; sexuality and the body; the Lais’s recasting of the Tristan legend; Marie’s evocation of the bonds of filial and religious devotion; and, finally, desire and writing.
In Chapter 4 Judith Rice Rothschild discusses an ongoing renaissance in Marie de France studies, with particular attention being given to the collection of the 12 narrative poems known as the Lais. All 12 of these texts are found together in only one extant manuscript, the famous London, British Library, Harley 978. Considering a variety of literary and socio-cultural topics in relation to the author and her tales, Rothschild includes an overview of the history of Marie’s Lais and her identity; a presentation of many elements composing the complexity of the tales (e.g. the criss-crossing of multiple themes, principal and ancillary, and motifs across the 12 stories); a review of the principal character types in love triangles in their repetition and variations; and a selective presentation of approaches, perspectives, and methods of 20th- and 21st-century scholars of the Lais.
The 12 lais in MS Harley 978 constitute, in spite of their disparate length, a coherent body of material and are normally attributed to a single author: Marie de France. The remaining 24 or so narratives which are generally classified as lais are less coherent as a group; a few have named authors, but most are anonymous. However, the 11 lais published in 1976 by Prudence Mary O’Hara Tobin (Les Lais anonymes des XIIe et XIIIe siècles, Geneva) and by Glyn S. Burgess and Leslie C. Brook in 2007 (Eleven Old French Narrative Lays, Cambridge) have sufficient links among them to be considered a corpus of material. Over the years, studies of the relationship between the anonymous lais and the lais of Marie de France have been conducted, but their principal aim has been to see whether Marie could have been the author of a particular lai or whether the anonymous lais were influenced by Marie’s lais, textually or thematically. Marie’s lais have invariably been considered as superior works of art. In Chapter 5 Glyn S. Burgess looks at the two series of narratives, without prejudice to the respective quality of the compositions, and compares and contrasts them from the point of view of characters, themes (chivalry, love, the merveilleux), structure, and literary techniques (such as description).
Marie de France often uses animals to make us ask questions about when they are or are not themselves, how they figure multiple relations linking the human to the sub-human or the supernatural, and what those assorted foxes, weasels, werewolves, and birds might represent. Through selected examples, Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner compares and contrasts in Chapter 6 the role of animals in the Lais and the Fables in order to explore how Marie links her animal figures to diverse literary traditions (e.g. Aesopic fables, bestiaries, beast epic, the merveilleux breton of oral tales, and romance), while freely manipulating them to produce her own translatio.
In Chapter 7 Charles Brucker shows how Marie’s fable is very deeply rooted in the history of the so-called bestiary, which was already linked with the Aesopic fable in Antiquity. He gives special attention to the Physiologus and the bestiary of Philippe de Thaon. Through examining several versions of the Romulus, he reveals how Aesopic fables took rise and developed from Antiquity to the 12th century. In Chapter 8 Brucker develops the notion that Marie’s poetic imagination serves a minor literary genre that supports her collection of fables, i.e. the mirror for princes; in the middle of the 13th century the mirror for princes is exceptionally exemplified by the Policraticus of John of Salisbury, an Englishman, who, like Marie de France, lived in the entourage of King Henry II. He explores Marie’s originality in the ways she individualizes, concretizes, and dramatizes the conventional matter of fables.
June Hall McCash examines in Chapter 9 the two religious works, L’Espurgatoire seint Patriz, long accepted to be one of Marie de France’s poems, and La Vie seinte Audree, written, as she has previously suggested (Speculum, 2002), by the same author. Despite remarkable similarities of style, vocabulary, and phraseology in the two texts, McCash explains that the ways in which the protagonists relate to Christological implications, demands, and choices underscores the gender differences between the two main characters in question and leads to the creation of significantly divergent literary creations.
Like the Lais, Fables, and Espurgatoire seint Patriz traditionally ascribed to Marie de France, La Vie seinte Audree was written during the last decades of the 12th century
All those interested in Marie de France studies, 12th-century French literature, manuscript studies, short narrative, Saints’ Lives, philology, courtly love, the Latin literary tradition, and women writers