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Marie de France

Marie de FranceBorn: c. 1175
Died: 1190
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Female
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Poet

Nationality: France
Executive summary: Lais

Marie de France, a French poet and fabulist of the 12th century. In the introduction (c. 1240) to his Vie Seint Edmund le Rey, Denis Pyramus says she was one of the most popular of authors with counts, barons and knights, but especially with ladies. She is also mentioned by the anonymous author of the Couronnement Renart. Her lays were translated into Norwegian by order of Haakon IV; and Thomas Chestre, who is generally supposed to have lived in the reign of Henry VI, gave a version of Lanval. Very little is known about her history, and until comparatively recently the very century in which she lived remained a matter of dispute. In spite of her own statement in the epilogue to her fables: "Marie ai num, si suis de France", generally interpreted to mean that Marie was a native of the Île de France, she seems to have been of Norman origin, and certainly spent most of her life in England. Her language, however, shows little trace of Anglo-Norman provincialism. Like Wace, she used a literary dialect which probably differed very widely from common Norman speech. The manuscripts in which Marie's poems are preserved date from the late 13th or even the 14th century, but the language fixes the date of the poems in the second half of the 12th century. The Lais are dedicated to an unknown king, who is identified as King Henry II of England; and the fables, her Ysopet, were written according to the Epilogus for a Count William, generally recognized to be William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury. The author of Couronnement Renart, says that Marie had dedicated her poem to the count William to whom the unknown poet addresses himself. This is William of Dampierre (d. 1251), the husband of the countess Margaret of Flanders, and his identification with Marie's count William is almost certainly an error. Marie lived and wrote at the court of Henry II, which was very literary and purely French. Queen Eleanor was a Provençal, and belonged to a family in which the patronage of poetry was a tradition. There is no evidence to show whether Marie was of noble origin or simply pursued the profession of a trouvère for her living.

The origin of the lais has been the subject of much discussion. Marie herself says that she had heard them sung by Breton minstrels. It seems probable that it is the lesser or French Brittany from which the stories were derived, though something may be due to Welsh and Cornish sources. Gaston Paris (Romania, vol. xv.) maintained that Marie had heard the stories from English minstrels, who had assimilated the Celtic legends. In any case the Breton lays offer abundant evidence of traditions from Scandinavian and oriental sources. The Guigemar of Marie de France presents marked analogies with the ordinary oriental romance of escape from a harem, for instance, with details superadded from classical mythology. Marie seems to have contented herself with giving new literary form to the stories she heard by turning them into Norman octosyllabic verse, and apparently made few radical changes from her originals. Joseph Bédier thinks that the lays of the Breton minstrels were prose recitals interspersed with short lyrics something after the manner of the cante-fable of Aucassin et Nicolette. Marie's task was to give these cante-fables a narrative form destined to be read rather than sung or recited.

The Lais which may be definitely attributed to Marie are: Guigemar, Equitan, Le Frêne, Le Bisclavret (the werewolf), Les Deux amants, Laustic, Chaitivel, Lanval, Le Chèvrefeuille, Milon, Yonec and Eliduc. The other similar lays are anonymous except the Lai d'Ignaure by Renant and the Lai du cor of Robert Biket, two authors otherwise unknown. They vary in length from some twelve thousand lines to about a hundred. Le Chèvrefeuille, a short episode of the Tristan story, telling how Tristan makes known his presence in the wood to Iseult, is the best known of them all. Laustic (Le Rossignol) is almost as short and simple. In Yonec a mysterious bird visits the lady kept in durance by an old husband, and is turned into a valiant knight. The lover is killed by the husband, but in due time is avenged by his son. The scene of the story is partly laid in Chester, but the fable in slightly different forms occurs in the folklore of many countries. Lanval is a fairy story, and the hero vanishes eventually with his fairy princess to the island of Avallon or Avilion. Eliduc is more elaborately planned than any of these, and the action is divided between Exeter and Brittany. Here again the story of the man with two brides is not new, but the three characters of the story are so dealt with that each wins the reader's sympathy. The resignation of the wife of Eliduc and her reception of the new bride find a parallel in another of the lays, Le Frêne. The story in both cases is more human and less repugnant than the (in some respects) similar story of Griselda.

Marie's Ysopet is translated from an English original which she erroneously attributed to Alfred the Great, who had, she said, translated it from Latin. The collection includes many fables that have come down from Phaedrus, some oriental stories derived from Jewish sources, with many popular apologues that belong to the Renard cycle, and differ from those of older origin in that they are intended to amuse rather than to instruct. Marie describes the misery of the poor under the feudal regime, but she preaches resignation rather than revolt. The popularity of this collection is attested by the twenty-three manuscripts of it that have been preserved.

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