Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, July 6, 2015

Marie de France: "Marie is my name. I am of France"

Marie de France (late twelfth century)


Why am I posting about Marie de France today? We know so little about her life--only her name--and certainly we have no dates. But we do know that she had some association with the court of Henry II of England, and since he died on 6 July 1189, I decided to use his death to write about Marie's life.

Marie de France, from a late 13th c. manuscript,
Bibliothèque nationale de France**
We know Marie's name because she makes sure to tell us. In the opening lines of her lai called "Guigemar," she writes that, when the material is good, an author feels pain if it is not treated properly.*

"Listen, then, my lords," she commands, "to the words of Marie." She will certainly not lose the opportunity to treat her material properly. 

In addition to her collection of lais, of which "Guigemar" is the first, she also names herself in two other works. "I, Marie," she asserts at the end of St. Patrick's Purgatory--again claiming her work, putting into French verse a Latin treatise so that it will be both accessible and "suitable," as she writes, for her audience. And then, at the end of her Fables:
I shall name myself so that it will be remembered;
Marie is my name, I am of France.
It may be that many clerks 
will take my labor on themselves.
I don't want any of them to claim it.***
Marie dedicates her Lais to a "noble king," and that seems most likely Henry II of England (who ruled from 1154 to 1189), thus giving something of a window for Marie's active life as a writer. From the sources she used in her work (about 6,000 lines of poetry), we know that she could read and write her native French, but also that she could read Latin (from which she translated St. Patrick's Purgatory) and English (her Fables are translations, into French, from a Middle English version of Aesop's fables). She may also be the author of La vie Seinte Audree, a verse life of St. Aethelthryth of Ely--certainly lines in this poem suggest so: "Ici escris mon non Marie / Pur ce ke sois remembree" ("Here I write my name, Marie / So that I will be remembered").

She also is familiar with the court, with knights and ladies, and with the conventions of courtly love. We know her lais were read and enjoyed in aristocratic circles, because a contemporary, the Benedictine monk Denis Piramus, refers to her in his own poem, The Life of St. Edmund the King. Probably written between 1170 and 1180, The Life of St. Edmund is a solemn, didactic work (in his prologue, Piramis tells his readers that writing the poem is an act of penitence for his early frivolous and sinful life)--the work is not only edifying, Piramus says, but it is true! Unlike, say, the work of a certain "Dame Marie," whose lays "are not at all true." (Though they "please the ladies," who listen to them "joyfully and willingly"--Marie's brief romances are "just what they desire"!)

There is a lot of speculation about just which late-twelfth-century Marie, living in Norman England, with some court associations, might be this Marie, the writer. And I like all these linguistic, textual, and documentary mysteries and arguments as well as the next medievalist. But, mostly, who cares? The important Marie is the one we know from the work.

And to get to know Marie, read a lai or two--they are short, filled with knights, ladies, love, longing, and magic. You will find selections at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, and there is a free Kindle edition. If you'd like to invest in a copy, I prefer the verse translation by Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante, The Lais of Marie De France. The Penguin edition of Marie's Lais is cheaper, but the translation is in prose. (And you can get used copies of the Hanning/Ferrante edition for pennies.)

If you've only got time to read one, may I suggest "Guigemar"? It's just 886 lines--it has a young knight who's perfect in every way, except that, oops, he doesn't love women (that, of course, will have to be fixed), a hideous old husband, who's insanely jealous, a beautiful young wife who's imprisoned by this jealous old husband, a beautiful white female deer who has antlers (?) and who talks, a magic ship that sails itself . . . Well, what are you waiting for? And if that doesn't appeal to you, "Bisclavret" has a werewolf, and "Lanval" has a beautiful fairy queen who saves poor Lanval from death!

*A lai is a short romance narrative. Marie's twelve lais are composed in octosyllabic couplets.

**If you'd like to see the entire manuscript page on which this image of Marie appears, click here. The manuscript was copied in Paris between 1285 and 1292, the illuminations by the painter known simply as "le Maître de Jean de Papeleu."

***This translation of Marie's French is from Hanning and Ferrante's edition.