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Love Definition in The Lais of Marie de France


The subject of Marie’s lais has led analysts of medieval history to conclude that Marie was a woman in court with a noble heritage. However, she was probably unmarried and with no property. If the estimation of the later part of the twelfth century is to be taken for truth as the time of her existence, it is more probable that she may have been on the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England. This theory is further supported by the fact that Eleanor’s profile would perfectly support the kind of literature that Marie produced and/or gave the audience for it on her courts, as Eleanor herself was a revolutionary woman. She married Louis VII of France at 15, which was only three months after she had become Duchess of Aquitaine with vast holdings in Normandy and beyond (Kinoshita and McCracken 34). At 19, she offered the church the service of her 1000 vassals and 300 ladies-in-waiting to care for the sick and the injured. It is no wonder where she derived her inspiration of women who had the ability to do their own will whereas the primary theme in that day and age was for women to submit without question first to the will of their parents or guardians and then to that of their husbands (Mason 6).

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It was in fact a common practice for husbands of this age to strike an opinionated woman into submission. Consequently, those women who could truly become what they wished were very few and often viewed as heretics (Kinoshita 17). Evidence of such outlandish conduct in an age where most modernists expect chivalry to have been in its prime indicates that it is more than likely that chivalry was not yet born. Maybe it was just being conceived as it can be deduced from the lecture presented by the famous Italian reverend, St. Bernardino from Siena.

“There are men who can bear more patiently with a hen that lays a fresh egg every day than with their own wives. Sometimes when the hen breaks a pipkin or a cup, he will spare it a beating, simply for love of the fresh egg, which he is unwilling to lose. Oh, raving lunatics who cannot bear a word from their own wives, though they bear them such fair fruit. Nevertheless, when the woman speaks a word more than they like, then they catch up a stick. They begin to cudgel her; while the hen that cackles all day, and gives you no rest, you take patience with her for the sake of her miserable egg—and sometimes she will break more in your house than she herself is worth, yet you bear it in patience for the egg’s sake. Many fidgety fellows, who sometimes see their wives turn out less neat and dainty than they would like, smite them forthwith; and meanwhile the hen may make a mess on the table, and you suffer her. Have patience; it is not right to beat your wife for every cause, no!” (Mason 13)

Synopsis of Lanval

Sir Launfal is a knight at the court of King Arthur. Although he is from a distant place, perhaps from Ireland, he hails from a noble parentage as he is the son of a king. However, he has been in the service of King Arthur for many years. He has discharged his duty loyally. King Arthur holds court and rewards all his knights, but forgets sir Launfal as the rest of the knights get gifts of land, wives, and glory. This forgetfulness of the king upsets Launfal who has spent all that he had carried with him from his far land. He decides to get on his horse to wander into the forest to seek peace of mind. Then settles for a clearing where he releases his horse and lies on the ground in his despondence. Soon, he sees two fair ladies approaching him, who in his estimation were the fairest ladies he had ever seen. They are richly dressed, with one carrying a bowl while the other is carrying a towel. They tell him that they have been sent to fetch him by their mistress.

Launfal abides by their wishes and goes with them. Soon enough, they see an expensive tent that no king can afford for himself even if he sold all of his domains. Gawain offers himself up as a guarantee that Launfal will appear at his trial and several other nights too. So Launfal is released to his lodgings where he retires in despair since his love has deserted him. He is so engrossed in mourning his loss, self flagellation and pity, crying, and praying, but she is deaf to his pleas and prayers. His friends worry that he may go insane or die. Therefore, they check on him to make sure he eats and drinks water. Marie indicates that Queen Guinevere had never been as beautiful nor was she as beautiful then. Launfal was acquitted. In the end, Launfal jumps onto the back of her horse where she rides away to Avalon, which in many tales of King Arthur is the magical place believed to be the home of Morgana his half sister and the antagonist of Guinevere.

Use of ‘lay’ form of Literature

The twelfth century is earmarked in history as the turning point in literal composition from the traditional use of ‘epics’ to the use of double couplets that are identified as lais. This change was heralded by the increased presence of educated women in the noble courts. As indicated by the illustrious life and legacy of Eleanor of Aquitaine and perhaps sponsored by female leaders such as Eleanor, such educated women thrived on the courts of the noble. Soon, the simpler lay form was found to be preferable to the more complex ‘epic’ form. Lays require a simpler composition matrix. They are more effective if the composer’s goal is to tell a story as opposed to exhibiting poetic genius by applying poetic styles to the letter. Moreover, traditional poems are too short to have encapsulated the short stories that Marie told in her lays. Epics were too long to fit the bill. Consequently, lais, which lie between epics and poems, seemed the most appropriate vehicle for delivering her message.

Courtly Love

There seems to be a theme of courtly love on most of Marie’s lais. Several scholars of medieval literature have indicated that this was quite the sensation in the twelfth century because of the concept of troubadours. Courtly love is a notion that took root in the eleventh century as was advanced by troubadours such as the Duke of Aquitaine. It was spread among several regions including Aquitaine, Normandy, Burgundy, and Champagne. The influence in Aquitaine and Champagne can be attributed to the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie, who was the Countess of Champagne. It was not exercised between husband and wife. However, it was usually experienced between a noble woman of a higher status and her male lover in a lesser station, but still in nobility. In courtly love, confidentiality was critical, with the identity of the female lover being protected to the level of death. The knights desired the powerful wives of the court’s lords in attendance at court. In the absence of her husband, she would hold all the reins at social and political events on court.

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Sometimes this shift in gender role paradigms occurred even when the husband was present especially if he married her for her wealth. As a result, attitudes about nobility shifted from the traditional determinants that included wealth and family background to actions of valor. Several scholars of medieval literature have indicated that courtly love was quite the sensation up to the twelfth century because of the concept of troubadours.Troubadours were usually artistically inclined court entertainers who received patronage from the reigning kings and queens especially if they had an artistic inclination to music, literature, or art. These troubadours often fell in love with their mistresses. They went to great, often astounding feats to be noticed, or seek for some minimal reciprocation (De France ‘The Lays of Marie de France’ 182).

All of them composed songs and poems praising the beauty and charm of their mistresses. Others who were truly love-struck went a step further to physically demonstrate this love. An account is given of one such troubadour who purchased an outfit plagued with leprosy and cut off his finger who continuously sat outside his mistress’ bed chamber so that he could receive alms from her. Marie de France is clearly among the first literal agents to publicly declare eroticism and enjoyment of sexual paradigms by a woman. In lanval, the Faerie Queen offers to give herself to Sir Launfal if he accepts the conditions of her proposal. Consequently, these are two elements of feminism being manifested. The first is that women, just like men, could take pleasure in their bodies and their lovers’ bodies as opposed to being vessels of male pleasure as evidenced by the text below.

When the girl hears what he has to say,

This man so filled with love for her,

She gives him her love, and what’s more, her (De France 125 -127).

This stance sharply differentiates the Faerie Queen from the women who are given as gifts to the King’s knights and subjects because it is presumed by the reader that there was no love wasted in these latter liaisons. Moreover, the same notion, albeit a coarse version of it is ensconced in Guinevere’s adulterous ways of taking lovers to her bed that is apparently known by the knights. This scenario provides the reasons why Launfal’s side of the story is more feasible to the judges. Upon setting the motif of morality aside, both Guinevere and the Faerie Queen are women in powerful echelons of society.

“…of the Faerie Queen’s wealth:

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“No King under heaven, with all his wealth,

Could ever buy any of this for himself” (V.91 -92)


“She lay upon so rich a bed,

You’d pay a castle for the sheet” (De France 97-98).

Guinevere is the queen to the King of the land. This position makes her the most powerful woman on the land. Another interesting element is that she indicates that she has travelled a long distance to find him, meaning that it is not a liaison of convenience but one with personal attachments. It is not simply an arranged relationship as were most marriages back in the day:

“I left my lands to come where you are;

To find you I have come so far” (De France 111 – 112).

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In the case of Guinevere, she also goes out of her way to orchestrate a meeting with Launfal to solicit for sexual favors. Guinevere’s seduction of Sir Launfal is characteristic of courtly love especially where the royal women took lovers that were lesser in the station than they were. The relationship was usually on the women’s terms (Kinoshita and McCracken 12). Consequently, as much as Marie is bringing out the issue of a woman’s power over a man, her case is not a trait that can be generalised because it only applied to courtly love. Looking back at literature that was apparently meant to advise men on how to seduce women of other classes other than nobility, one author stated that what men had to do when they wanted to seduce other classes of women was to shower them with flowers and other thoughtful gifts. When they encountered an appropriately clandestine location, it pressed them to the wall by taking what they sought.

Female Perspective

Marie de France is presumed to be a woman by most of the medieval history scholars partly because her name is Marie. The discovered texts describing Dame Marie and her captivating lais captured the attention of barons, lords, and knights alike so that they listened carefully and even copied the wording. Looking at most of her lais, this female aspect becomes apparent in most cases when she metes out justice and empathises with respective characters (De France ‘The Medieval Period’ 47). This perspective is based on the psychological description attributed to most women by psychologists from as far back as Hippocrates. In the division of temperament into eight variables represented by the four temperaments, of particular relevance to this concept is the Feeling / Thinking variable (Krueger 93).

This variable is the only one with a sexual derivative as 80% of the time where women are found to be more feeling than thinking, with the reverse applying to men. However, it is important to note at this point that the case of women having a stronger sense of empathy than their male counterparts does not mean that men do not feel or women do not think. However, for most women, emotions often get in the way of being logical. As such, most men are more logical than emotional. An important factor to grasp in this case is that ‘emotional’ in this instance does not denote having emotions, which are common for both men and women, but refers to expressing the emotion. Consequently, Jung indicates that women are more expressive than men although both men and women have emotions and hence the common portrayal of men as unfeeling stones.

The application of this claim to this context is that 20% of men who are very expressive of their emotions make up for the majority of artists including musicians and poets. Consequently, this factor is one of the considerations this study takes in carrying out a comparison between Marie de France and her male contemporaries. However, it becomes interesting to note that given the social and cultural inclinations of the populace that dominated medieval history, a woman such as Marie de France who flaunted the obviously gender discriminative rules of society and did not get married then went ahead to publish romantic lais on heroines. Ethical adultery comes from rather distinct cattle of fish. She depicts both emotion and logical thoughts in her lais. What makes her even more contradictory is her idealist inclination that is evidenced by the Celtic motifs of magical creatures as contrasted by the very practical relativism of the ethics she applies to reward and/or punish her various characters.

Marie de France is a sensational author of lais. A remarkable feature in most of her lais is the reference to Breton, which is a Celtic language that is mostly associated with Brittany or Little Britain. In the lay of Eliduc, she actually makes specific reference to “Lesser Britain” as it is believed to have been referred. Moreover, the motifs in most of her lais include a fairy mistress whose terms of loving a mortal man were an oath of silence as in ‘Lanval’ or a prohibition of some sort. Clearly, she was influenced by Celtic sources although it is difficult and unsound to seem too sure given the time and cultural changes that separate the 21st century and the 12th century when she is believed to have lived.


Marie is a woman who boldly depicts herself as a woman in the introduction of the collection of the lais where there is the automatic background that this knowledge sets in the minds of her readers and her audience who know they are reading the works of a woman. This finding is an important distinction because audiences and readers alike approach any work of art with their own perceptions, ideologies, and even misconceptions (Burgess 4). Consequently, depending on the various schools of thought that they may ascribe to, the audience will take the information regarding Marie’s gender differently.

Since the wave of feminism only became fully recognised and acknowledged by society in the late twentieth century, it is interesting to try to postulate the exact basis of the sentiments of the critics of her lais over the centuries. Were they completely unbiased in their conception of her work or did they actually review her work with a lens they believed should be administered to the work of a woman? It could also be possible that the basis of the lack of comprehensive study of the individual elements of her lais is due to the possibility that most analysts see the magical element depicted in most of them as a veritable enigma as Mickel put it (Mickel 39). Since magic is difficult to analyze, this aspect puts off most critics.

As much as this study would prefer to grant answers to the ambiguities and mysteries that surround Marie de France, to promise such results would be foolish and dishonest. The fact is that any facts surrounding her existence, her motivations, or her thinking have long since been lost. What is available for the twenty first century scholar to use as the basis of his or her conclusion is the work itself and volumes of other critics based on deductive opinion through the centuries. This leaves room for a shaky establishment of the facts, as they would have appeared in the twelfth century at best. Consequently, this study does not purport to determine the author’s gender or identity, but instead seeks to understand her work, specifically Lanval.

Feminist Implications

Whereas men were known to be the Knights in shining armour that always magically appeared and saved a wilting damsel in distress, in Launfal, Launfal is the damsel in agony. The rapid anger and malice that closely follow Launfal’s rejection of her offer indicates that she did not love him. Rather, she just wanted intimacy. As such, it is still the woman who sought after the man and hence a depiction of a feminist aspect. His beautiful, powerful, and confident Faerie mistress saves him by appearing in time to save his life, thus putting the queen in her place. In other versions of Lanval such as Thomas Chester’s ‘Sir Launfal’, Guinevere is made to appear meaner, with Sir Launfal even becoming weaker.

The Faerie Mistress blinds Guinevere for her lie in that version and Sir Launfal defeats and kills a giant by the name Sir Valentine (Mason 5). Most of the critics of this latter version have indicated that Chester was attempting to raise the estimation of Sir Launfal in comparison with the Faerie mistress. In Lanval, the Faerie mistress is wealthier and more powerful relative to her male lover. She summons him to her in the first instance where then sends him away after their lovemaking. She dictates the terms of their relationship. Moreover, each woman has the option of taking a lover to satisfy her personal sexual desires. The act is not subject to the unwanted attentions of any man and hence a feminist approach to storytelling. Sir Launfal would be playing the role of mistress to a rich nobleman:

“Beauty,” he says, “If it please you,

And this great joy should befall

Me, that you grant your love,

I’ll be at your beck and call,

To fulfill whatever needs you

Have, wise or foolish–you are above

Me, my only commandant.

All others for you I abandon.

From you I never want to part:

That hope is strongest in my heart” (de France 121 -130).

These lines also depict a theme of helplessness as opposed to heroism or machoism that is the traditional depiction of men in society. They tend to be the ones in control in most popular lore. However, in this instance, Sir Launfal sounds like a vassal to the Faerie Queen.

As arbitrary as this claim may sound, such was the understanding that men had of women in this age. It is not clear how they sought to explain or justify a possible separate treatment of a woman with a noble heritage as opposed to a woman with no strings to nobility. However, generally, women were viewed as a means to an end. This “end” usually ranged from pleasure to fortune and power in case of marriages for alliance. This applied across the classes. Consequently, many people would enjoy Marie’s writing in her lais because they provided a vehicle to fantasise for most women in this period. Men too were ensnared by the prospect of real love, which inspired passion and intimacy that was borne of natural inclination, as opposed to duty and obligation.

For a clearer picture, arranged marriages at that time were common. Therefore, a girl of twelve could be married off to a man of fifty when the political climate called for it. In most cases, parents would compromise their daughters’ happiness for the wealth or power she was marrying. The husband then proceeded to make out of her the custom wife he desired. She grew this way. However, as time lapsed, it would become apparent to her that something or other was lacking in her marriage. In seeking for this elusive object, she would stumble into a passionate affair or into literature that bespoke it (Whalen 18).

Another unique stance that Marie’s lay Lanval takes is in the exposure of Guinevere as an adulterous woman (Carter Para. 2). This way of writing is common in Marie’s lais as it is evident in the theme in Eliduc, Guigemar, and Equitan. However, an interesting theme throughout these lais is that of subjective ethics. Marie does not treat all the adulterous couples in her lais equally. Each of them suffers a different fate based on the characterisation of the lais and the circumstances surrounding the sin. A brief description of the situation in these various lais is prudent at this point. In Eliduc, the knight serves his king loyally for an extended period. However, he is jilted by his lord over some misunderstanding that he is not let into and neither does his master receive his pleas for justice. Having been cast out, he returns to his holdings where he stays awhile before deciding to leave on an adventure to cross over the ocean. He bids his family and friends goodbye and promises his wife that he will remain faithful. He sets out and finds himself on a land where the king would need his help.

He helps and soon finds favour with the king and then with his daughter who falls in love with Eliduc. Eliduc has promised to stay for a year during which he falls in love with the King’s daughter although he does not break his word to his wife by consummating this new love. Soon enough, his old master seeks him out asking him to return to help her. His departure is painful because he is leaving his new love behind. However, he promises to return on a day she is to appoint to him. Hence, he leaves again. After settling his old king’s affairs, he returns and takes away the other king’s daughter clandestinely. He sets sail with her where they are caught in a tempest. The sailor asks him to forfeit his love, as she is the cause of the storm because he took her yet he still has a wife back home. The girl faints into unconsciousness at hearing he has a wife.

He kills the sailor and throws him at sea. He then proceeds with the girl to an old religious ground burial only to find the man of cloth had died. He sets his ‘dead’ lover on a slab at the church and decides to get religious advice on how to turn this place into an abbey for the order to pray for her mercy. His wife soon finds out about his grief and is instrumental in bringing back his love to life. Then she sets off to be a preacher, thus releasing him from his vows where Eliduc weds his love. However, after some years, he sets up another order on the other side of his estate and sends this new wife to his old wife. He becomes a monk. They live out the rest of their years in prayer and writing across the abbeys. In this case, Eliduc is somewhat naïve and ignorant. He does not tell the king’s daughter he is married, but neither does he actually sleep with her. When he takes her back with him, he does not seem to know what he is going to do with her. Consequently, Marie is more merciful in the outcome of the characters’ lives.

Guigemar’s own sword wounds him. He is led by a magical boat where he can find healing in the arms of those who love him. These arms turn out to belong to a woman married to an old man who is jealous of Guigemar. In effect, his wife is trapped in his insecurities. The marriage is loveless. Moreover, Guigemar does not set out to love her. However, he is led to her by powers beyond his control. He loves her for herself and not for her power or because she is married and she too loves him for himself, and not for prestige, because he cannot offer her anything. They stay loyal for eighteen months yet again signifying the enduring nature of their love. Therefore, by the time they end up finding happiness in marrying each other, the audience agrees with her that they deserve it, despite their adulterous means to happiness.

Finally, in Equitan, both characters are conniving and evil from the beginning. Equitan seeks his satchel’s wife for her renowned beauty. This indicates an intention to sin from the onset. When he woes her, she resists at first because of his power as a king. For this same reason, he consents to his suit. He indicates to her that he would make her his queen, were it not that her husband is still alive. She immediately begins to plot the death of her husband. In the end, their horrible demise is justified by their avarice. Marie de France’s set of lais requires an application of the art of interpretation as one reads. To glean the fact that she determines the reward and punishment of her characters based on their intentions is only possible after one carefully looks through all her lais. This revelation is a reflection of a relativist kind of ethics although it is customised into Marie’s own depiction of the same because staunch relativists such as Abelard believe that although one may do something bad with good intentions, he or she still deserves punishment for the sake of social order.


It is safe to conclude that Marie’s nature of love was indeed idiosyncratic. However, as to whether it was actual, a female definition of love can still be argued out. If one differs with Carl Jung’s psychological inclinations of females, it holds water with women being portrayed as more empathetic relative to their male counterparts. However, such an assumption would require a thorough comparison with her works and/or current circumstances of her male counterparts.

Works Cited

Burgess, Glyn. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Context. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1987. Print.

Carter, Jennifer. Ethics in Abelard and Marie de FranceThe Ethical Adulterer: The Ethics of Infidelity in Marie de France and Peter Abelard, 2012. Web.

De France, Marie. The Medieval Period. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Toronto, Canada: Broadview Press, 2009. Print.

De France, Marie. The Lays of Marie de France. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2010. Print.

Kinoshita, Sharon. Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.

Kinoshita, Sharon, and Peggy McCracken. Marie de France: A Critical Companion. Cambridge, England: DS Brewe, 2012. Print.

Krueger, Roberta. “The Wound, the Knot, and the Book – Marie de France and Literary Traditions of Love in the Lais.” A Companion to Marie de France. Ed. Logan Whalen. Danvers, MA: BRILL, 2011. 55-88. Print.

Mason, Eugene. French Mediaeval Romances. From the Lays of Marie de France, 2010. 

Mickel, Emanuel. A Reconsideration of the Lais of Marie de France. Speculum 46.1 (1971): 39-65. Print.

Whalen, Logan. Marie de France and the Poetics of Memory. Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2008. Print.

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