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A Knighted Woman? Reading Marie de France’s Lais

Marie de France, from an illuminated manuscript now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France: BnF, Arsenal Library, Ms. 3142 fol. 256.
Marie de France, from an illuminated manuscript now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France: BnF, Arsenal Library, Ms. 3142 fol. 256.

Intriguing as it seems, the popularity of Marie de France as a poet in an era of unapologetic male dominance (in almost every sphere of existence) was undoubtedly a gargantuan development in gender relations.

At the time, imagining women in seats of power and possessing creative exuberance was not a popular construct, the aftermath of which can be seen to be reflected in literary evidence such as the German heroic epic, Kundrun, where the shared political and social authorities between the heroes and the heroines do not stand strong for long. The women are provided, merely, as a consolation to stretch, quite efficiently, what had already been designed by their heroes, “including the unquestioned patriarchal dominance over females” (Frakes).

Analysis of late twelfth-century courtly romances like Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, reveals the gravity of the patriarchal canopy over the Arthurian court of unity, civility, gratitude and perfection. However, scrutiny of literary sources does not yield any uniformity of opinion. Some contain records of amorphous women’s “freedom”, particularly of nuns in the many convents that existed throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, focusing on artistic production: weaving, painting, music, calligraphy and poetry.

Marie de France took a leap further. She, unfailingly, declared her own opinions on the unattainable political gestures of the court, which were garbed with superior notions of chivalry, romance, aristocracy and church binaries.

In her literary explorations - Lais being perhaps the loudest - Marie’s controversial views did not stand as a separate set of ideals, but her “masculine” approach towards her arguments, stood flamboyantly on a par with the pre-existing, highly biased social conditions. She explains that, “I received from God the gift of knowledge and true eloquence”.

These views, quite undaunted by the accomplishments of ancient thinkers and writers, necessarily male, demanded a “renaissance” from the orality of the English poetic tradition which, she, being of French origin, had heard herself, to a written and hence, a stronger version of poetic justification, forming Lais.

This verse was dedicated to the king himself (Henry II of England), thus making Marie directly affiliated to the strongest man in the society.

The Middle Ages saw a wide recognition of love and courtship based on the notion of reciprocity of affection between the two lovers, but it did not come without its troubles. There was always an uncertainty in the man, who was not sure if the intensity of his affection was congruently returned by his beloved, which found a gradual legacy in Petrarch's works in the 14th century.

Not until the late eleventh century was a man, with badges and stars on his uniform – a knight - compelled to consider a romantic fulfilment to prove the sanctity of his achievements. This became a necessary parameter to knighthood, enough to let their beloveds (regardless of their backgrounds) gain access to a livelihood that bestowed respect, recognition and identity.

As Lantz points out, “aristocratic women could no longer be treated like property”. Respect for knighthood included a category of showing considerable generosity towards love and commitment which, for the first time, eradicated the notion of an immediate marriage and hence, removed the simplistic objectification of women. More importantly, this new social status for women connected to knights provided enough scope for them to think, examine and take ultimate decisions for their own lives, and those of their lovers.

Like every other column of the court, this policy of a romantic justification of men’s chivalry possessed a number of pens that would write verses. Marie’s Lais is no exception.

Based on the research on Hildegard's poetry, the poet's 'vision' seems to be an important condiment of mystique in Medieval poetry. Vision for Marie in her Lais might not be mystical but it surely philosophises on the clash between manhood and romance, along with ambiguously judging and often justifying the “wrong” forms of love and wooing, such as adultery, where marriage stands as a weak gateway of moral obligations.

The power of romance can be seen in the Lay of Equitan where the knight has been pierced deep by Cupid’s arrow and while he experiences his lady’s indifference, he is drained of all his gallantry and stature: “from thenceforth he cared nothing for measure… He heard nothing, and nothing he could do”.

The woman’s impact is given enormous authority, capable of making her knight stop regarding all the other significant aspects of his courtly life. She becomes the focal point for the measurement of a man’s gallantry and ranking in the society.

The social pressure that chivalry placed on finding love, rather a reciprocated love, conditioned men to prioritize winning a woman’s heart, even at the loss of their own power or status, unknowingly empowering women and giving them the key to all their locks of perfecting knighthood.

Marie furthers this point when she describes Guigemar (in Lay of Guigemar) who is the perfection of civility, but is in love with a married woman who is a captive in her husband’s den. This construct allows the chivalric version of adultery, with the purpose of freeing the woman.

Marie's Lais successfully creates a binary in the Medieval notion of manhood, by making the male lover a vulnerable one, confused between clinging on to his affection for his beloved and letting go of it for the probable impediments on the way of its success. In most cases, the separation between the lovers stays inevitable, despite which the lovers choose to remain loyal to each other, attaching a magnificent feather of fulfilment to the man’s cap of knighthood.

Marie (A character in the text?) symbolizes the importance of the woman’s consent in the affair. The man-in-arms does not proceed with his proposal without his lady-love’s nod, determining respect, freedom and empowerment.

More fascinating gestures in romance can be observed when, for the first time, the woman takes charge of the romantic initiation between her and the man of her choice. Two shields are thus taken off the sword of orthodoxy, one being the woman’s right to make a choice of her own and secondly, authority to confess her love to her chosen man.

This usurped the common status, whereby women were commonly married off for the political benefit or security of their families, mostly their fathers.

In the Lays of Milon and Eliduc, as Lantz says, “individual rights and feelings in the mate selection process” are seen to be evolving when the ladies in question break free of their families, resonating the breakaway from societal norms. Lay of the Two Lovers, also strengthens this freedom of the lady who schemes with her lover, to escape her father’s refusal and marry in secrecy. This marriage gives more authority to her as she often rules territories in the absence of her husband and has considerable influence over him.

Marie also talks about the maturity of the women characters who are capable of running polities and governments more efficiently than their male-counterparts. Sharon Kinoshita notes astutely that, “married women would function quite independently, choosing to leave marriage for their own reasons.”

Peter Lombard’s commentary on the analysis of the twelfth century romances confirms that, “The efficient cause of matrimony is consent.” This is relevant, quite objectively, to not just a legal knot of ownership between the married couple in Middle Ages but also studies the intensity of this consent between unmarried lovers where it is always the women's consent that is the primary nod required for any form of fornication between them.

This empowerment did not ask for a movement, or a specific day to come into effect, neither was an initiation of this bombardment easy to formulate: It happened with instincts, a will to speak imperatively and a handful of ears who would pay a heed to such romantic rhetoric.

Marie’s deliberate attempt to put a woman character in dominance in each of the Lais can be critiqued for an unequal distribution of authority if seen from a feministic point of questioning, but her effort in opening such multiple perspectives gives us an image of how the romantic lives of women operated within courtly society, within marriage, in their relationships with their parents, and how they responded to men's erotic wooing.

Marie repudiates the venomously aggressive knightly endeavours of the society and deliberately makes an attempt to represent her male protagonists as weak, “luckless, landless soldiers of fortune, struggling against the actual hazards and miseries of the profession of arms” (Marcelle Thiebaux) and normalises the possibility of the other forms of behaviour and characteristics in the man-woman binary - with revolutionary promises.

Courtship is a carrier of this revolution. For taking the age-old construct of women’s commodification and the continuous normalisation of the same, Marie pricks on the most sensitive nerve of the society and its restricted definitions of knighthood.

She forces us to re-examine the protocols of a woman’s existence in the middle-ages when getting rid of regular diseases and paranoia of death was – alongside one’s obsession with the Divine truth - the main concern.

There were, as Membrives formulates, a definite policy of “mundos femininos emancipados”, latent and withered, exposing which, a masterpiece like Lais makes it easy for later revolutionaries to look at this issue with clearer and newer perspectives.

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