Marie de France ("Mary of France") was a poet. Born in France, she lived in England and Normandy during the late twelfth century. Due to the fact that virtually nothing is known of her early life, it is hard to trace exactly when and where she resided. Her manuscripts were written in a form of continental French that was copied by Anglo-Norman scribes, and therefore most of the manuscripts of her work bear Anglo-Norman traits. Her most famous works are fables, which, of the hundreds which she authored, include twelve Breton lais (or lays), the Ysopet fables, and the Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick.
Her works are mostly dedicated to members of the French court at the time, and so, it is believed that she may have been a member of the court in France herself. It is not known how and when she died.
Marie de France was born in Normandy, France. The exact city of her birth is not known, but it is believed that the area of Normandy in which she lived is about fifty miles outside of Paris. After her childhood, she moved to England, although the year of this is unknown as well. Even though Marie's last name is still a mystery, she is thought by some to have been the half-sister of King Henry II, thus granting her the opportunity to move to England. After her move to England, she presumably began to work on her writing, and continued to create fables and myths until her death. Unfortunately, little is actually known about exactly where she lived or where and when she died.
The Lais of Marie de France are a series of twelve short narrative poems in Anglo-Norman, generally focused on glorifying the concepts of courtly love through the adventures of their main characters. A Breton lai, also known as a narrative lay or simply a lay, is a form of medieval French and English romance literature. Lais are short (typically 600-1000 lines), rhymed tales of love and chivalry, often involving supernatural and fairy-world Celtic motifs. The word "lay" or lai" is derived from the Celtic word laid, meaning "song".
The Lais of Marie de France are probably the earliest Breton lais to survive in writing. From descriptions in Marie's lais, and in several anonymous Old French lais of the thirteenth century, we know of earlier lais of Celtic origin, perhaps more lyrical in style, sung by Breton minstrels. It is believed that these Breton lyric lais, none of which has survived, were introduced by a summary narrative setting the scene for a song, and that these summaries became the basis for the narrative lais. 'The Lay of the Beach', one of around twenty Old French lais translated into Old Norwegian prose in the thirteenth century, gives a detailed description of William the Conqueror's commissioning of what appears to be a lyric lai to commemorate a period spent at Barfleur.
Marie de France's lais, told in octosyllabic, or eight syllable verse, are notable for their celebration of love, individuality of character, and vividness of description – hallmarks of the emerging literature of the times. Five different manuscripts contain one or more of the lais, but only one, Harley 978, a thirteenth century manuscript housed in the British Library, preserves all twelve. It has been suggested that if the author had indeed arranged the Lais as presented in Harley 978, that she may have chosen this overall structure to contrast the positive and negative actions that can result from love. In this manuscript, the odd lais—"Guigemar," "Le Fresne," etc.—praise the characters who express love for other people. By comparison, the even lais, such as "Equitan," "Bisclavret" and so on, warn how love that is limited to oneself can lead to misfortune.
The Harley 978 manuscript also includes a 56-line prologue in which Marie describes the impetus for her composition of the lais. In the prologue, Marie writes that she was inspired by the example of the ancient Greeks and Romans to create something that would be both entertaining and morally instructive. She also states her desire to preserve for posterity the tales that she has heard. Two of Marie's lais—"Lanval," a very popular work that was adapted several times over the years (including the Middle English Sir Launfal), and "Chevrefoil" ("The Honeysuckle"), a short composition about Tristan and Iseult—mention King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Marie's lais were precursors to later works on the subject, and Marie was probably a contemporary of Chrétien de Troyes, another writer of Arthurian tales.
(This list follows the sequence of texts found in Harley 978.)
Marie de France wrote in a number of styles, many of which she reformed. The lines of her work, which range from 118-1184 lines in length, were written in eight-syllable rhyming couplets. Marie authored over 103 short fables during her life time, complete with a prologue and epilogue. The fables are didactic, intended to instruct in morality, usually using animals as characters, like the fables of Aesop. In fact, of her fables, only sixty-three are believed to be original stories of Marie herself. The rest of her fables are said to be taken from the plot lines of Aesop’s fables.
In addition to the laies, Marie wrote the "Ysopet" fables, a retelling of the Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick, and, most recently discovered, a saint's life called La Vie seinte Audree or The Life of Saint Audrey. Scholars have dated Marie's works between about 1160 at the earliest, and about 1215 at the latest, though it is most probable that they were written between about 1170 and 1205. The Lais are dedicated to a "noble king," another to a "Count William." It is thought that the king referred to is either Henry II of England or his eldest son, "Henry the Young King," and that the Count William in question is, most likely, either William of Mandeville or William Marshall. Due to these dedications, it is believed that Marie herself held a place in either French or English Court, to be able to socialize which such aristocrats.
Marie de France's works display a satirical sense of humor. Many of her works deal with complicated situations, such as a cuckolded husband, a cheating wife, and a lover, much the same as Chaucer did in The Cantebury Tales, with which her work as often been compared. Thus, her work displays not only a sense of moral purpose, but also an ironic understanding of human nature, as can be seen in the excerpt below.
Although her actual name is now unknown, she is referred to as "Marie de France" after a line in one of her published works, which reads, "Marie ai nun, si sui de France." (Translated, this means, "My name is Marie, I am from France.") Therefore, she has become known simply as "Marie de France," as her own last name is unknown. However, this has not stopped people from speculating over time who this author could have been. Some of the most widely accepted candidates for the poet are Marie, the Abbess of Shaftesbury and half-sister to Henry II, King of England; or Marie, who was the Abbess of Reading; or Marie de Boulogne. But, perhaps the most compelling of all is Marie de Meulan, wife of Hugh Talbot, whom many believe to be the author.
Marie de France is the first known female author to write in French. Her English connections are suggested because of the Anglo-Norman spellings in her earliest manuscripts. Marie de France is known as one of the most revolutionary writers of her time, as it was not common practice for women to author any texts at all. Her fables are still studied as an example of what types of literature was being produced during the twelfth century.
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