The Lais of Marie de France

by

Marie de France

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The Lais of Marie de France Study Guide

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Brief Biography of Marie de France

Marie’s real name isn’t known for sure. In one of her works, she refers to herself as “Marie […] from France,” and that’s how scholars and readers have identified her ever since. Besides calling herself “Marie” in her manuscripts, the author reveals nothing else about herself. Though apparently born in France, she lived in England and probably lived and wrote in a royal court, but which one is uncertain—possibly King Henry II’s and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s (reigning in the late 12th and early 13th centuries). (In fact, some have speculated that she was King Henry’s sister—but given that the name “Marie” was so common, it’s almost impossible to know for sure. Others have speculated that she was an abbess somewhere in England.) Scholars have also identified her as the first woman to author verse in French. She was educated: she wrote in Anglo-Norman and was apparently familiar with Latin, Middle English, and Breton (a Celtic language spoken in France’s northwest peninsula), because Breton lais, or lays (short, rhyming tales), were the basis for the Anglo-Norman verse narratives that became known as The Lais of Marie de France. Besides authoring the Lais and some saints’ lives, Marie also translated Aesop’s Fables from Middle English to Anglo-Norman.
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Historical Context of The Lais of Marie de France

Marie de France was likely influenced by a collection of medieval literary and legendary material known as the Matter of Britain. A key text in the Matter of Britain was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae, which drew on many ancient British writings. King Arthur, the possibly ahistorical King of Britain in the fifth or sixth century, is the story collection’s central figure. Some stories focus on King Arthur’s court, Camelot, and his fellowship of knights known as the Round Table, while others focus on his knights’ quests, most famously the quest for the Holy Grail. The Arthurian legendary tradition overlapped with the genre of chivalric romance and its popular courtly love themes. As the term suggests, courtly love tales were popular in noble and royal courts across medieval Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain. Courtly love tales often featured Christian religious imagery; fairy tale elements like supernatural marvels; and standard romantic tropes like a knight’s devotion to a lady from afar, dramatic manifestations of lovesickness, heroism, and affairs carried out in secret (all details that are present in the Lais). The story of Tristan and Iseult, which Marie adapts an episode from in her lay “Chevrefoil,” is also part of the courtly love tradition, with Tristan counted as a Knight of Arthur’s Round Table in some strands of the tradition.

Other Books Related to The Lais of Marie de France

The Lais consist of a series of 12 narrative poems written in eight-syllable verse. Marie based the poems on Breton lais or lays—short, rhyming tales that were common in medieval English and French literature, often containing romantic and fairy tale elements. Such tales circulated between continental Europe (especially Brittany in what’s now northwestern France) and Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, and other parts of the British Isles. As the first to write down these stories in narrative verse, Marie is regarded as the pioneer of a new genre. In this new form, Marie’s Lais influenced the emerging genre of chivalric romance. Chrétien de Troyes, who lived around the same time Marie did, was likely also influenced by Breton lays in writing well-known Arthurian romances such as Lancelot, Perceval, and Yvain. The Nibelungenlied, written by an anonymous courtly author in Middle High German around the same time as the Lais, includes elements of chivalric romance between the knight Siegfried and the princess Kriemhild. In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales; one of them, The Franklin’s Tale, was itself a Breton lay originally. Also in the 14th century, the Middle English poet Thomas Chestre based his romance Sir Launfal on Marie’s lai, Lanval, and an anonymous writer’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight touched on themes of chivalry and the supernatural in the life of King Arthur’s companion Gawain. In the 15th century, Sir Thomas Malory compiled stories of King Arthur’s court into the Middle English prose collection Le Morte d’Arthur, the most familiar Arthurian work up through the modern period. As for Marie de France’s other works, she also wrote the poem L’Espurgatoire Seint Patriz, or The Legend of the Purgatory of Saint Patrick—an Old French translation of a Latin work by the monk Henry of Saltrey. Some scholars also attribute the 12th- or 13th-century hagiography The Life of Saint Audrey to Marie. Other educated women authors of this period include Héloïse, writer and abbess famed for her correspondence with theologian Peter Abelard, and the German writer and abbess Hildegard von Bingen, known for such mystical writings as Scivias.
Key Facts about The Lais of Marie de France
  • Full Title: The Lais of Marie de France
  • When Written: 1170s or later
  • Where Written: England
  • Literary Period: High Medieval
  • Genre: Chivalric Romance, Narrative Verse
  • Setting: Brittany, France and Britain
  • Antagonist: Various
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Lais of Marie de France

Medieval Manuscript. There’s just one surviving manuscript of The Lais of Marie de France that contains all 12 lais plus the Prologue. In this 13th-century manuscript housed in the British Library, the arrangement of the 12 lais (preserved in modern editions today) alternates between tales of love for others and selfish love.

Known in Norway. The Lais were one of the earliest works to be translated into Old Norse. The Old Norse version is called Strengleikar (“Stringed Instruments”), and it was commissioned by Norway’s King Haakon IV in the 13th century.