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Lais of Marie de France Essay

Love and Marie de France

According to American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, “The greatest love was during the Medieval Ages, when noble hearts produced a romantic love that transcended lust” (Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers [2001]). The Lais of Marie de France are primarily concerned with this idea of love–specifically, courtly love–between a man and a woman. Courtly love, a union modeled after the feudal relationship between a knight and his liege lord, became a popular convention in the 12th century (“Backgrounds to Romance: ‘Courtly Love’”). Instead of proving loyalty to a lord, the man would have to prove his love to a woman. Marie de France, however, focuses not just on the idea of love, but also on the differing kinds of love that existed in medieval society. She recognizes love as a force that cannot be avoided and that can be executed correctly or incorrectly; not all love is equal. Marie begins her collection of lais with the story of Guigemar, a noble knight who is cursed with the task of finding true love to heal a physical injury.

This lay introduces two types of love: selfish and selfless. Selfish love is not courtly love. It lacks devotion and true loyalty. It lacks suffering and self-denial. Marie de France portrays this kind of love in the old husband of the woman whom Guigemar loves. The man locks his wife away in an enclosure guarded by a castrated man. By doing this, the husband shows a mean, limited devotion to his wife; perhaps even worse, he limits her ability to experience true love. This kind of love does not last; in fact, the husband is cuckolded when his wife has a year-long affair with Guigemar. He is made a fool, the dupe of love. Guigemar, however, in contrast to the old husband, practices selfless love. He is kind and noble, and, although he suffers from his physical wound, the pain of love is keener: “ Love had now pierced him to the quick…for the lady had wounded him so deeply…”(De France, Marie. The Lais of Marie de France. Trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby [London: Penguin Group, 1986.Print] p.48).” This type of love most closely resembles courtly love. Guigemar endures severe anguish to please his beloved, and his undying love inspires him to prove himself to her. This lay provides a good example of what Marie de France considers wrong and right in love. We see another selfish love in the story of Bisclavret, a man with a werewolf alter ego who is betrayed by his adulterous wife. Ironically, although her husband is physically a beast, the real beast, as portrayed by Marie de France, is the wife, who not only betrays him, but also marries another man. She is selfishly concerned with her physical desires, something Marie de France considers ignoble and far worse than the jealousy displayed in the story of Guigemar.

The selfish love in this story is inspired by sexual desire, a desire that Marie de France sees as a threat to selfless love. Selfish love is again shown in the lay of “Les Deux Amanz,” in which a young man has to carry his beloved to the top of a mountain without falling in order to prove his worthiness to her father. This seems to be an act of love, but, in fact, when the woman begs her lover to take a potion that will help him reach the top, he reveals another, vainer, motivation: “These people would shout at us and deafen me their noise…”(Burgess and Busby 84). In other words, his desire to reach the mountaintop is motivated at least in part by a need to prove himself to others, and less by the desire to faithfully perform a trial for his beloved. The noble purity of courtly love is not present. Characters demonstrating pure, selfless—even self-denying–devotion are portrayed throughout the lais as examples of true love. In the story of “Eliduc,” a brave, loyal knight is forced to find a new lord in another land and temporarily leave his wife, Guildeleuc. Although Eliduc meets a new love (Guilliadun), he remains faithful to his wife, demonstrating loyalty, suffering, and therefore a more pure kind of love.

He finally marries Guilliadun, but only after Guildeleuc decides to give herself up to God and leave Eliduc. By letting Eliduc marry his true love, Guildeleuc also shows love in its most giving form, but in this case it is a truly spiritual love. This story thus displays two types of selfless love represented by each of his wives: love of God and the love between a man and a woman. Significantly, at the end of the lay, “He placed his beloved lady with his former wife, by whom she was received honorably as a sister, . . . “ (Burgess and Busby 126). This suggests that pure love can take both a spiritual and worldly form. Central to the Lais of Marie de France, then, is courtly love. While her lais are idealistic in their portrayal of loyalty and romantic chivalry, historically, marriages among the nobility were dispassionate and practical (Joseph Campbell). Troubadours began to introduce stories of interpersonal relationships and the possibility of romantic love.

Although this kind of love directly contradicted the views of the church, it inspired people to take matters of love and relationships into their own hands (Joseph Campbell). This is what Marie de France wants to inspire–the universal knowledge of love and how imperative an aspect it remains in society. The idea is important enough to her to make her text more accessible to society. She begins her prologue by stating: “When a truly beneficial thing is heard by many people, it then enjoys its first blossom, but if it is widely praised its flowers are in full bloom”(Burgess and Busby 41). She wishes to share her insights about love to everyone, not simply to write inaccessible stories available only to philosophers or the learned.

Works Cited

“Backgrounds to Romance: ‘Courtly Love’”

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers [2001].

De France, Marie. The Lais of Marie De France. Trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby. London: Penguin Group, 1986. Print.

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