Not much is known about Marie de France. Scholars speculate that she was born in Normandy, France in the 12th century. Although her exact birthday and birthplace is unknown, many believe she lived most of her life in England, because that is where her best manuscripts were found. Marie de France is well known for her contribution to literature, particularly her poems in The Lais of Marie de France and her translation of Aesop’s Fables which were written in the Anglo-Norman dialect of Old France. She also wrote a short retelling of the narrative, Espurgatoire seint Partiz (Legend of the Purgatory of Saint Patrick). Her lineage, parents, and siblings, if she had any, are unknown. It is also not known whether she was married or not. (Marie de France–Wikipedia)
- Thought to be one of the first women to write in the French vernacular
- Influenced the Romance genre
- Assumed to be a woman of noble birth
- Assumed to have been associated with noble patrons such as Eleanor of Aquitaine
- Dedicated her book of poems to a noble king
- Suspected to be the illegitimate sister of King Henry II of England
- She may or may not have been a nun
The Lais of Marie de France
Marie wrote a series of romantic poems that were combined into a book entitled The Lais of Marie de France. The twelve-verse narratives are short-rhymed and musical in form with octosyllabic couplets. The subjects of the poems range between:
- courtly love (pictured on the right)
- erotic desires
- women’s power
- elements of the supernatural
- classical mythology
In the prologue of the book, Marie dedicates her poems to King Henry the II who was speculated to be her half brother. The epilogue contains the only confirmation, from Marie herself, that she was from France, hence her name Marie de France. Her last name was never given and remains to be unknown. (Faculty.Winthrop.edu)
Marie ai num, si sui de France. = My name is Marie, and I am from France.
What is a Lai?
“A lai (or lay lyrique, “lyric lay”, to distinguish it from a lai breton) is a lyrical, narrative poem written in octosyllabic couplets that often deals with tales of adventure and romance,” (Lai–Wikipedia).
Love is the essential theme in most of the poems. The poems typically involve characters who indulge in adulterous relationships, extramarital affairs, and sexual freedom, particularly for women.
The lais were very controversial at the time they were published, mostly because they endorse the idea that women could have a stronger female role in society and were capable of power. The poems also defied the Church’s ideas and traditions of love, especially the concept of virginal love and marriage. (Marie de France–Wikipedia)
Click here for a brief summary of each lai
Marie de France was also widely known for her Fables. Some of the stories she wrote were her translation of Aesop’s fables, and the rest were her original works. She wrote of morally sound tales with beasts, chickens, lambs etc. The majority of the tales are about animals rather than humans, and tend to be quite short. For example, the Wolf and the Lamb, page 34-35 on the sample book, is a story about a naive lamb who becomes a wolf’s dinner.
However, the few fables that are about humans are particularly lengthy compared to the tales about animals. For example, About a Woman and Her Paramour, which is a story about adultery, is 36 lines long, and a similar fable, Another Story of a Woman and her Paramour, is 56 lines long.
Each fable has an underlying moral message for the reader about life, friendships, relationships, etc. The animals presented in the fables act as a symbol of human personalities and characteristics.
(Andrew V, Sara V.–enloehs.wcpss.net)
Le Mulot de Marie de France: a short fable