Source: The Lays of Marie de France. London: Penguin.

The introduction to this volume discusses mostly scholarly matters which will be of little interest to first-time readers, but pp. 23-34 provide much useful information. Beginning on p. 126 there are very scanty notes to three stories, having to do with issues of translation. The most important point to note is that the medieval French lai bore roughly the same relationship to the longer, multi-episode romance as the modern short story does to the novel. They often incorporate magic and other marvels, and usually aim at entertaining rather than edifying their audience. Keep in mind that these lais were originally told in verse (see the sample original, p. 136), but that it is so much more difficult to write short rhyming lines in English than in the Breton dialect of Old French that prose is almost necessary.


The opening is a rather vague rebuttal to some critics of Marie about whom we know nothing. The word “Breton” could be equally applied to the inhabitants of Brittany in northwestern France or to Britons of England. Marie makes no clear distinction between the two, and authorities on both sides of the channel have claimed her. The lais are generally known as “Breton lais.” Her most likely source was Anglo-Saxon, still spoken by many commoners in the 12th Century, with many of the tales probably having even earlier sources in Old Welsh, the language in which the earliest Arthurian legends were told. Medieval lords often placed their sons in other lords’ homes to be educated. It was considered that natural parents were prone to be too indulgent of their children, and that a childhood spent in service at a noble home would induce the proper respect and manners expected of a nobleman. What different kinds of wounds are combined in the hind’s curse [89-122]? Solomon, as the richest king depicted in the Bible, was often used as an example in discussing riches [161-86]. What evidence is there that this a magic ship? In a society dominated by arranged marriages, especially in the upper classes, spouses were not necessarily expected to love each other. The combination of elderly husband and young wife was common enough, but much lamented and satirized in literature. How does Marie prepare you to be sympathetic with the wife’s adulterous desires [209-32]? What book is Venus casting into the fire in the painting [233-60]? Here’s an open question: why do you suppose this chamber has paintings of such an unlikely subject? How is the standard course of lovesickness played out in this part of the story [393-438]? Note how the lady’s virtue is illustrated by her faithful attendance at mass, even as her love for Guigemar develops. Toward the end of [464-95] Marie distinguishes between two kinds of attitudes toward love. What are the differences between them? What argument does Guigemar use against long courtship? The phrases “granted him her love” means that the couple made love, as the following sentences make clear. In Medieval imagery, Fortune was pictured as a woman who could abruptly and unexpectedly turn her wheel so that those on the bottom (with ill fortune) could suddenly find themselves spun to the top (with good fortune) and vice versa. Pledges made of pieces of clothing, etc. are commonplaces, but chastity belts are not. The youth Guigemar had raised is not his son: remember that nobles raised each others’ children. What evidence is there that magic is working on the side of the lovers in [655-90]? Fans of The Hobbit may recognize “Meriaduc” as the source of the name “Meriadoc,” or Merry. Tolkien was a distinguished Medievalist who worked many themes from literature into his fantasies. What do you think the symbolism of the two knots conveys about the nature of love [691-742]? How does Guigemar try to earn his lady? What important relationship remains unresolved at the end of this story? Note that it is expected that lays will be sung, rather than recited, in their original language.


Note that this lay is definitely set Brittany (now part of modern France), in the city of Nantes. What two seemingly conflicting attitudes toward love are expressed in the third and fourth sentences of the second paragraph of this story? Seneschals are routinely depicted as villains in romances and lays because they were the gatekeepers to the courts who decided which entertainers would be employed in the courts. They were the natural enemies of writers, singers, etc., who took their vengeance in story after story. The one is this story, however, is unusual in being a good seneschal who ends badly. Perhaps the reason is that Marie, as a noble herself, did not share the prejudices of wandering jongleurs and such. Note how closely beauty and nobility are linked in describing the woman. There is no need to take literally the statement that “she had no equal in the kingdom.” It is routine in the Middle Ages to describe any attractive woman as the most beautiful in the land, or even the most beautiful who ever lived. Love is here personified as the feudal mistress of the King: he is “admitted into her service.” What causes him to resist his desire for the lady? What reasoning does he follow to argue that it will be good for the woman take him as her lover? What does his reasoning tell you about courtly love ideals? The lady uses some standard courtly love arguments against his suit. On what principle are they based? What do they tell us about Medieval society? How does the king use her own arguments against her? How does he seek to equalize the relationship? What is remarkable about this story is that after all this “high love” courtly conversation the affair takes a distinctly “low” turn, reminiscent of the plot of a fabliau (a bawdy tale of trickery, deceit, and raw sex, usually with a humorous point). Bleeding was a routine medical treatment used for all manner of diseases. People had themselves bled regularly as a preventative measure, and it was even done as a social event, with music and refreshments being provided. Why is this affair disapproved of by the courtiers? How does this story illustrate the traditional folklore pattern of “the trickster tricked?” With whom do you think we are expected to sympathize in this story?

Le Fresne

Superstitions about twins have been common in many cultures, though the one expressed by the knight’s wife in this story is uncommon. Tales of twins separated at birth are a staple of all kinds of marvelous tales. In the absence of safe abortion techniques, unwanted children were frequently killed in the Middle Ages. Others were abandoned on the doorsteps of churches, where it was hoped that they would be rescued and adopted. The motif of the piece of clothing or jewelry which identifies an abandoned child goes back at least to the story of Moses in the Bible and was common in Greek mythology. Although Western Europeans knew little of Constantinople, it was famed as a wealthy and luxurious city. The porter was the gatekeeper, the one who guarded the door (French porte ). How does Gurun come to love Le Fresne? Rich people who gave or left large sums or property to the Church were usually motivated by the hope that by doing so they would receive “remission of sins” by paying in this life for wickednesses that would not have to be paid for again in Purgatory after death. The aim was to hasten their movement into Heaven. Why doesn’t Gurun marry Le Fresne? La Codre’s name means “hazelnut tree.” Note how the mother is unwittingly drawn to her own abandoned daughter. This sort of instinctive tie between blood relatives was firmly believed in during the Middle Ages. The reason that La Codre’s marriage can be invalidated is that the Church did not recognize the marriage ceremony in itself to be binding until the couple had had intercourse with each other. Presumably they abstain, so the marriage is null and void. Why is Gurun able to marry Le Fresne now when he couldn’t before? How is a happy ending provided for all?


Garwaf is obviously related etymologically to werewolf. Belief in such creatures was widespread in the Middle Ages. Note that they are prone to dwell in forests, routinely considered dangerous and frightening places. The insatiably curious wife who worms out her husband’s secret only to use it against him may be modeled on the Biblical example of Delilah and Samson. Why is tearing the wife’s nose off considered a particularly terrible punishment? Torture was used routinely in criminal investigations. In fact, the testimony of witnesses was often considered untrustworthy unless it was confirmed under torture; but its use against a nobleman’s wife would be most unusual unless there were grounds for suspecting her of a crime. Medieval Europeans, like many of the world’s people, believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Few women can be expected to marry werewolves, but what lessons might this story have been trying to convey to its female readers?


The story of the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere was known to almost every upper-class person in the Middle Ages. Eventually it brought about the ruin of Camelot, the court of King Arthur (Guinevere’s husband). After being retold for generations, Guinevere’s reputation became rather soiled, as this lay reflects. Arthur was originally Cornish, from the area immediately across the channel from Cornwall. He is portrayed as having conquered all of England, which bordered the still-barbaric lands of Scotland where dwelt the savage Scots and Picts. A very high percentage of Arthurian tales are set at Pentecost because it was associated with the miraculous. See Acts 2:1-13 for an account of the first Pentecost. See p. 2 of the Ovid guide for an explanation of the reference to Semiramis. Octavian was the original name of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus. Both are examples of extreme wealth. A “shift” is an undergarment somewhat like a slip. Note how Lanval pledges his exclusive love to the lady, quite spontaneously and voluntarily. “She granted him her body” means that they made love. A “boon” is a favor of some kind, in this case a magic one. Even in ordinary love affairs secrecy was crucial, but here it has a magical quality. “He was neither foolish nor ill-mannered”: this sort of understated complement by negation is common in Medieval narratives. What is the “one dish” that Lanval has in abundance [153-88]? Note that among other generous deeds, Lanval gave clothes to the jongleurs (reciters of poems and tales). As a writer herself Marie takes this as a sign of high virtue. [St. John’s Day] In early Arthurian stories, Gawain is the greatest of all knights, renowned for his courtesy and prowess. Later Lancelot tends to supplant him. When Lanval refuses Guenevere’s proposition, what reason does he give her? How does she react? Stories like this are common: a shameless woman propositions a man and is rebuffed and takes her revenge by accusing him of trying to seduce her. Such tales are obviously popular among men who want to blame women for all sexual aggression. The direct address to the reader/listener at the end of section [311-51] is another typical Medieval narrative device. The king’s use of the term “vassal” is meant to be insulting here. There is great irony, of course, in the king defending the queen’s honor when she in fact has attempted to betray him; but what does the king seem to be most worried about? The “pledges” are hostages to guarantee his return. A palfrey is a small horse, often used for carrying loaded packs, suitable for women to ride. Why is the beauty of the damsel so important in [509-46]? Why do you think it is important that the maiden be wearing clothing which partly reveals her body? Her description reveals her to be an absolutely stereotyped Medieval beauty. Avalon is the magical island where the fairies dwell. Medieval fairies were normal-sized and indistinguishable from human beings except by their extraordinary beauty and magical powers. They were often mischievous or even cruel; but this one seems to take compassion on Lanval. What do you think is the lesson taught in this story, and how effectively is it conveyed?

Les Deux Amanz

Jealous fathers who wish to prevent their daughter’s marriage are commonplace in fairy tales, of course; but only rarely is it suggested that the father’s motivation may be incestuous desire, though that probably lurks in the background of many of these stories. Women were often reputed to be skilled in the brewing of magic potions. This earned some of them a comfortable living, but also got some of them burned as witches. The young woman wearing nothing but her shift would give the young man a definite advantage, since the clothes of the wealthy were often extremely heavy. What would you say is the moral of this story? What is your reaction to it?


Another variation on the old man/young wife theme. It is routinely assumed in fiction that any elderly man foolish enough to wed a beautiful young woman deserves whatever he gets. If he is foolish enough to be jealous, he is then asking for trouble. Do you see any inconsistency in this reasoning? The lady’s curses show that she knows her Ovid and is aware that Achilles gained virtual immortality by being dipped into the River Styx in Hades (though his mother absent-mindedly failed to note that his heel, by which she was holding him, remained dry). Note how the lady’s wishes have been influenced by stories she has read–like Marie’s. Why do you think the lady makes the hawk-knight say that he believes in God? Corpus domini means “body of the lord,” in this case the sanctified bread, the host of the eucharist. “Sported” means “made love.” What does this story seem to be saying about how beauty is maintained in women? Note the authorial interjection at the end of [257-96]. According to the lover, what has betrayed their secret? The marvelous castle where the lady finds her dying lover is described in a stereotypical way that makes it obviously magical. [St. Aaron] How does religion seem to function in this story? How does it relate to love?


St. Malo is a remarkably well-preserved (actually largely reconstructed) Medieval seaport in Brittany which is a major tourist destination today. What are the two motives which lead the lady to love the knight? Note that prudent (secretive) love is good love. What stereotyped image of Spring familiar from earlier works is repeated here? How does Marie attempt to make the reader sympathize with the lovers instead of the husband?


This story takes place on both sides of the English Channel. Note once more that a person can fall in love with the mere reputation of another, without ever physically meeting him or her. This story is unusual in that it tells of a illicit premarital affair. It is wise not to overgeneralize about the patterns of Medieval courtly love. Given what happens in the rest of the story, why do you think it begins with this unusual illicit relationship? Medieval women might get by with concealing a pregnancy because their clothes were voluminous and swollen bellies were considered attractive. Many “maidens” in Medieval illuminations look distinctly pregnant to us. Mont St. Michel is a famous seaside fortress/monastery, formerly an island, on the coast of Brittany. The theme of the unknown adversary is a common one. Often there is a special relationship between the combatants. A frequent case is that two lovers find themselves fighting each other. Why do you suppose the son does not kill his stepfather as in Yonec?


What is said in the second paragraph about the comparative attitudes of women and men? The melee, or wild, unstructured group combat which kills the four men was so dangerous that it was eventually banned, to be replaced with the more structured tournament events such as jousting. The ending is somewhat ambiguous. Normally any woman who took more than one lover was severely condemned. What do you think the ending means?


The love of Tristan (Tristrem, Tristran, Tristram) and Iseult (Yseult, Ysolt, Isolde) was told all over Europe, from Iceland to Italy. Tristan and Iseult had fallen in love when he was bringing her back from Ireland to be the bride of his king and uncle, Mark. They mistakenly drank a magic potion which plunged them into an irresistible passion for each other which they nevertheless managed to keep hidden, though it was often suspected, and ultimately revealed, resulting in Tristan’s banishment. This is a small episode from that extremely well-known tale. Explain the symbolism of the hazel and the honeysuckle.


This story begins most unusually, with a married couple actually in love, but it soon takes a typically Medieval turn. Note the recurrence of the possessive father motif. Remember that a palfrey is not a war-horse. A “girdle” is a ribbon worn around the waist as an ornament, not a piece of constricting underwear. According to the chamberlain, what are Eliduc’s good qualities as a potential lover? In what ways does Marie try to solicit our sympathy for Eliduc? Note that he is fully aware that Christianity forbids bigamy. In the Middle Ages divorce was also illegal. The incident of the storm is probably inspired by that in Jonah 1. Similar stories occur elsewhere in Medieval narratives. What is the function of the weasels in this story? Women could indeed take up a life of celibacy, with the permission of their husbands; but the notion that the husband would then be free to remarry is pure fantasy. How does Marie try to cast a positive light on this story? Judging by this and the other stories, what seem to be her highest values?

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Last revised May 17, 2001.