Marie de France is one of the most intriguing figures in medieval European literature. She is one of the first recorded female authors in Europe and yet her identity is a mystery. All we know about her is an elusive statement which she makes in the epilogue to one of her works, the Fables: ‘Marie ai nun, si sui de France’ [Marie is my name and I am from France] (f. 67r, digitised image 2).
The only contemporary reference to her comes from Denis Piramus, a monk from Bury St Edmund’s Abbey in Suffolk, in his c. 1180 La Vie Seint Edmund le rei (The Life of Saint Edmund, the King). In this text, Piramus refers to a ‘Dame Marie’ who composed popular ‘lays in verse’, beloved of both men and women, but he noted that their content was ‘not all true’.
This manuscript is an important one because it is the only manuscript to contain both the Lays (also known as the Lais) and the Fables.
The Fables are short tales based on the fables of the Greek story-teller Aesop (c. 620–564 BCE), supposedly translated from English. In the epilogue, Marie writes that she translated the work for ‘le cunte Willame’ [Count William], ‘en romanz’ [in French vernacular], from the English translation made by ‘li reis Alvrez’ [King Alfred], although this version by ‘King Alfred’ does not survive, if indeed it ever existed (f. 67v, digitised image 3).
The Lays are short romances, often about women and men who suffer in love. In the prologue, Marie says that she was looking for a work in Latin or French to translate and could not find anything, so she decided to write down some lays (short narrative poems, intended to be sung) which she had heard performed.
What marks Marie’s works out is that her female characters play a more central role than we usually find in chivalric literature of the period, where women are often marginal figures or passive objects. In Marie’s works, a story will often begin with a woman’s speech, which launches the action.
Marie lived in the 12th century and was well educated: she was fluent in Latin, French and probably English. She very probably understood Breton and Norman. She wrote in Anglo-Norman – a dialect of medieval French that was spoken in England. She dedicated the Lays (Lais), to a ‘noble king’, who is sometimes assumed to be Henry II of England (1133–1189). So although she says she is ‘of France’, she may have actually lived in England. It is ironic that we know so little about her given a statement which she makes in the prologue to the Lays:
Ki Deu ad dune escïence
E de parler bon’ eloquence
Ne s’en deit taisir ne celer
Ainz se deit volunteers mustrer (f. 118r, digitised image 4)
[He to whom God has given knowledge
And the gift of speaking eloquently
Must not keep silent or conceal the gift
But he must willingly display it]
Although she ‘willingly displayed’ her ‘gift for poetry, she kept her identity silent. Several historical figures have been suggested as the woman who wrote Marie’s works, but we will probably never know who she was. What is clear, however, is that her verse is playful and complex.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.