The Lais of Marie de France

by

Marie de France

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Lais of Marie de France can help.

The Lais of Marie de France: II. Equitan Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Marie will now tell the story of Equitan—lord of Nantes, justiciary, and king—as preserved in one of the Breton lays. In the story, Equitan is beloved in Brittany and has a fine reputation. He’s also devoted to chivalry. Unless there’s a war going on, Equitan spends all his time hunting and pursuing other pleasures. A trusted seneschal governs his territory for him.
In this lay, Marie immediately establishes a conflict between the carefree King Equitan and his loyal seneschal. Seneschals were officials who managed practical matters for households, courts, or kingdoms. They sometimes appeared in lays as villains because, in their administrative role in royal households, they typically controlled the entertainment that would be permitted to take place in court—leading to conflict with writers and performers of lays. Marie, however, frames Equitan’s seneschal as comically oblivious rather than wicked. It’s unclear why she’s sympathetic to this seneschal, but it might be more that he serves as a foil for the misbehaving king and the seneschal’s wife.
Themes
Love and Suffering Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Class Status Theme Icon
The seneschal’s wife is beautiful but will one day bring misfortune on the kingdom. Hearing of her beauty, Equitan often sends the lady gifts, and even though they’ve never met, he develops strong feelings for her. Hoping to meet her, Equitan goes hunting near her castle and lodges with the seneschal that night. When he has the chance to speak with her, Equitan finds the lady as beautiful, noble, wise, and cheerful as he’d hoped.
Marie makes it clear from the beginning that this story isn’t going to end happily, though she doesn’t yet reveal how. It’s common in lays for couples to fall in love from a distance, without having laid eyes on each other. That’s what happens between Equitan and his seneschal’s wife, but Equitan immediately plays with fire by seizing on an opportunity to visit the wife in person.
Themes
Love and Suffering Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Class Status Theme Icon
At this point, Love “let[s] fly […] an arrow” which wounds Equitan deeply. Wisdom and logic are no longer of any effect. He is overcome with grief, staying up all night berating himself for falling in love with his faithful seneschal’s wife. Yet it seems to him that if the seneschal’s wife had no lover, that would be a worse fate than betraying his seneschal. After all, without a true love, she wouldn’t be a true courtly lady. Equitan figures that if the seneschal finds out, he won’t be too upset and will even be willing to share his wife.
As in “Guigemar,” love is personified as a force that “wounds” its objects, who can’t escape or resist its impact. Equitan’s rationalization for pursuing the seneschal’s wife as a lover is interesting for what it reveals about courtly love ideals. By this logic, a “courtly lady” should be pursued by a lover. It’s not clear whether Equitan really believes this (especially that the seneschal would happily go along with it); it’s possible that through Equitan’s foolishness, Marie is mocking the ideal. In any case, it’s clear to the audience that Equitan is talking himself into doing something he believes is wrong.
Themes
Love and Suffering Theme Icon
Virtue, Vice, and Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Class Status Theme Icon
Equitan lies awake all night and gets up to go hunting in the morning, but he soon returns to the castle, complaining of a fever. Not realizing that his wife is the cause of Equitan’s distress, the seneschal sends her to cheer up their ailing guest. Equitan takes this opportunity to confess his feelings to the seneschal’s wife and explain that he’s dying because of her. The lady replies that she needs time to think. She doesn’t consider herself wealthy enough to be worthy of such a noble king’s passion.
It’s not clear if Equitan is really sick, is making up an excuse, or—more plausibly, given the genre—is suffering the effects of lovesickness. The oblivious seneschal faithfully “helps” by sending his wife right into the king’s bedchamber. However, things don’t immediately go as Equitan hopes since, whether for appearance’s sake or from genuine concern, the seneschal’s wife voices some objections.
Themes
Love and Suffering Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Class Status Theme Icon
Get the entire The Lais of Marie de France LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Lais of Marie de France PDF
The seneschal’s wife thinks that if Equitan “had [his] way” with her, he’d soon abandon her—and even if she loved him in return, things wouldn’t be equal between them, since he’s a king and she’s his vassal’s wife. Inevitably, then, he’d expect “to be the lord and master in love” as well as in status. Love, she explains, can only be honorable if it’s based on equality. If anyone loves someone above their station, they’re just asking for trouble.
Equitan and the seneschal’s wife have an interesting exchange, almost a debate, about the ideals of courtly love. Typically, in a courtly love relationship, a knight would pursue a higher-status lady. But the opposite is happening here, and the seneschal’s wife suspects that no matter how sincere his feels at first, Equitan would inevitably assert his higher class status in the end.
Themes
Love and Suffering Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Class Status Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Equitan begs the lady not to talk this way. Men who behave that way, he argues, aren’t truly courtly. Any courtly lady who’s faithful in love deserves to be loved by a rich prince, even if she lacks material riches herself. Equitan offers himself to the seneschal’s wife, telling her to regard him as her vassal and promising to do whatever she wishes. Finally the lady relents, promises her love, and they have sex. They also exchange rings. Later, this union will result in both their deaths.
In his turn, Equitan turns the seneschal’s wife’s arguments back on her. He argues that a man who behaved the way the lady describes wouldn’t be a true courtly gentleman anyway, and that for the purposes of their love, he will be her “vassal,” or servant. This seems to satisfy the seneschal’s wife, and the couple fatefully consummates their love.
Themes
Love and Suffering Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Class Status Theme Icon
For a long time, the couple loves each other faithfully and in secret. Whenever they meet, Equitan tells everyone he is being bled and needs his privacy; nobody dares enter his bedchamber. The seneschal is oblivious, focused on carrying out court business, but other courtiers gossip about the king’s unwillingness to marry, and the seneschal’s wife worries that their affair is doomed. One day, while visiting the king, the lady weeps in fear that he will marry a princess and abandon her. The king promises that this will never happen, and that if the seneschal died, he would marry her and make her his queen.
For the time being, the couple successfully carries out their relationship in secret, aided by the busy seneschal’s comical oblivion. There are some similarities to “Guigemar” here: Equitan’s lack of interest in marriage arouses concern like Guigemar’s did. But because he’s a king, the concerns are even more pronounced: if he fails to marry, the kingdom won’t have an heir. The seneschal’s wife has different concerns—she fears that the kingdom’s expectations will wear Equitan down, and that he’ll leave her in the end.
Themes
Love and Suffering Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Class Status Theme Icon
Comforted by this, the seneschal’s wife says that if Equitan promises not to abandon her and will give her his aid, she will bring about the seneschal’s death. He agrees. The lady tells the king to be bled and then take a bath on a certain day; she will arrange for the seneschal to join him to keep him company. Two heated bathtubs will be brought in, and the water in the seneschal’s bath will be made boiling hot so that the seneschal will be scalded to death as soon as he steps into the tub. Then the king will be able to summon his vassals and show that the seneschal died accidentally.
Though Equitan and the lady’s relationship started out with a lofty discussion of courtly love, it takes an unexpectedly coarse turn here, undercutting genre expectations. The seneschal’s wife is so concerned about losing Equitan that she decides killing off her husband is the solution. Bleeding was a medical procedure that was used as a preventative measure; in fact, it was something like a modern spa treatment, with both a recreational and a wellness aspect. In this case, the boiling water might symbolize uncontrolled passion, a recurrent concern in the lays.
Themes
Love and Suffering Theme Icon
Virtue, Vice, and Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Class Status Theme Icon
Several weeks later, Equitan carries out the plan, arranging to be bled at the seneschal’s castle as a precaution against illness. The seneschal agrees to join the king for a bath. The seneschal’s wife has two tubs brought in, with boiling water for the seneschal’s bath. Before the seneschal arrives, the lady comes in to talk to the king, and they have sex. While they’re lying there together, the seneschal suddenly returns and bangs on the door so forcefully that it opens, revealing the guilty couple. Seeing the seneschal approaching, Equitan panics and jumps naked into the scalding tub, dying instantly. When the seneschal sees what’s happened, he grabs his wife and throws her head-first into the scalding tub, too, killing her. Any reasonable person, Marie says, should be able to learn a lesson from this tale: “Evil can easily rebound on him who seeks another’s misfortune.”
Marie follows the familiar folktale pattern of the trickster—in this case, both Equitan and the seneschal’s wife—getting tricked themselves in the end. And their plan is ultimately foiled because they can’t control themselves and start having sex just before the plan goes into action. The couple’s love is socially disruptive on multiple levels: the king betrays his seneschal’s loyalty; the seneschal’s wife betrays her marriage vows; and, by refusing to marry, Equitan will fail to produce an heir. Even though Marie portrays the seneschal as a bit of a laughingstock, she seems to want her audience to sympathize with him overall. Justice is served decisively, and yet Marie’s moral is pretty restrained: she doesn’t denounce love between people of different social classes, for example, but warns that if people do shifty things in pursuit of their love, they should be aware that bad things could happen to them as a result.
Themes
Love and Suffering Theme Icon
Virtue, Vice, and Justice Theme Icon
Related Quotes