The Lais of Marie de France

by

Marie de France

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The Lais of Marie de France: III. Le Fresne Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Once upon a time in Brittany, there were two rich, valiant knights who were neighbors. The wife of one of the knights conceives and gives birth to twin sons. Her husband, elated, sends an announcement to his neighbor, promising that the knight can be godfather to one of the babies, who will be named after him. When the knight receives the message, he’s delighted, but his arrogant, slanderous wife reacts differently. In front of the whole household, she declares that the other knight and his wife should be ashamed—everyone knows that when a woman gives birth to two sons at once, it’s because two men are the cause of it. Her husband rebukes her for attacking her neighbor’s reputation this way.
The association of conceiving twins with infidelity might have been a medieval folk belief, and it shows up in other literature from the period, though Marie clearly shows here that she thinks this old wives’ tale is nonsense. In this case, such slander would be especially troublesome because, in addition to the implied adultery, it would mean that it would be difficult to determine which twin was a man’s rightful heir. At this point, though, it’s not clear what effect the neighbor wife’s slander will have.
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When the messenger returns to the other knight, he reports the slanderous wife’s claim. Disturbed, the knight becomes mistrustful of his wife and starts keeping a close watch on her, though she doesn’t deserve it.
Even though the slanderous wife’s accusation sounds silly, Marie suggests that it would’ve been legitimately concerning to an audience in her day. In any case, it helps undermine the neighbors’ marriage.
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That same year, however, the slandered lady is avenged: her accuser also gets pregnant with twins. When the slanderous wife gives birth to twin girls, she’s greatly distressed, knowing her husband and relatives will never believe her innocence now—she is paying the price for slandering all women. She decides that the only solution is to murder one of the children. She would rather face God’s judgment for this act in the future than face shame before her peers now.
The slanderous wife’s accusation comes back to bite her, and Marie interprets this as the wife’s punishment for speaking against other women in general. Panicked, the wife can’t bear to be accused of adultery in her turn and believes she has no alternative but to dispose of one of the children before the second baby’s existence becomes known. As happened to her neighbor, she knows the shame for the supposed adultery would fall on her alone.
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The slanderous wife’s faithful maid hears her crying and comforts her, promising to take one of the baby girls away and abandon her at a church, where some virtuous person may find and raise her. The lady agrees, so they wrap the baby in fine blankets, including a brocade from Constantinople, and also attach a ring to her arm. The ring is pure gold with a ruby setting, so whoever finds the baby will know she’s of noble birth. That night, under cover of darkness, the maid carries the baby out of town and through a forest. She follows the sound of a dog’s barking to another town, which houses a wealthy abbey. When the maid sees the beautiful abbey, she drops to her knees and prays for God’s protection over the baby. Then she places the baby in the boughs of a nearby ash-tree and returns home.
Though child abandonment was an accepted way of dealing with unwanted children in many ancient societies, it was frowned upon in medieval Europe—hence the maid’s secrecy in hiding the infant at night. Constantinople was quite far from Northern Europe, but it basically stands for any incredibly far off, wealthy, luxurious city. Only a wealthy nobleman could afford a brocade from such a mythically rich place. And even though the wife never wants the baby to be traced back to her, she still wants to be sure the child is recognized as possessing noble status—suggesting that if this is known, her baby will be treated much better than if she were regarded as a poor orphan.
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Very early in the morning, the abbey’s porter gets up to light the church candles for services. He spots the luxurious garments in the ash-tree and finds the baby wrapped inside. Thanking God, he takes the baby home to his widowed daughter, who’s currently nursing her own baby. His daughter immediately warms the baby, bathes her, and nurses her. When they notice the ring attached to the baby’s arm and the expensive cloths in which she is wrapped, they realize she’s of noble birth. Later that day, however, the porter shows the infant to the abbess, and the abbess insists on raising the child as her own niece. Because she was found in an ash-tree, the baby is called Le Fresne.
The motif of an identifying ring may have been something Marie picked up from a medieval French version of Virgil’s Aeneid, again showing her familiarity with classical writings and her creativity in weaving allusions into her own work. As the slanderous wife had hoped, the abandoned baby is quickly found. Furthermore, the signs of her noble status mean that she’s quickly moved from a mere porter’s household to the much more privileged atmosphere of a rich abbey. “Le Fresne” comes from the French le frêne, which means “ash.”
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Le Fresne grows up in the abbey. By the time she comes of age, Le Fresne is both beautiful and cultivated in her speech, and everyone loves her. Meanwhile, an excellent lord names Gurun is living in Dol. When Gurun hears about Le Fresne, he immediately begins to love her. On his way home from a tournament, he detours to the abbey and asks to see the girl. He is delighted with her beauty, education, and courtliness, but he knows that if he drops by the abbey too often to visit her, the abbess will grow suspicious. So Gurun thinks of a solution: he will enrich the abbey with much of his wealth and land, becoming its lord. That will give him an excuse to visit as much as he wants.
Here is another instance of a couple falling in love without ever having seen each other first. In this case, Gurun’s lordly wealth provides the means to secure Le Fresne for himself—even to the extent of becoming the abbey’s patron just so he has a pretext for seeing her as often as he wants. This could also be Marie’s veiled remark on the fact that worldly wealth could easily infiltrate even an abbey (a point that wouldn’t have been disputed much in her day).
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Gurun talks to Le Fresne often, and once he’s assured of her love, he persuades her to go away with him—after all, if she gets pregnant while living at the abbey, her aunt the abbess will be furious. Le Fresne agrees to join Gurun at his castle, taking her fancy brocade and ring along with her, storing them in a casket. Everyone at Gurun’s castle loves Le Fresne. However, his knights criticize him for not taking a noble wife instead; Le Fresne can’t give him a legitimate heir, after all.
Gurun’s argument clearly implies that he and Le Fresne are having sex regularly—Marie seems to take it for granted that this is what happens when people fall in love, even if one of them lives in a convent. But going to live with Gurun doesn’t solve Le Fresne’s problem; since she’s a penniless orphan as far as anyone knows, she isn’t viewed as a suitable wife for a lord. But it seems like Le Fresne’s treasures, like the brocade, will end up being significant somehow.
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Eventually, Gurun is persuaded to seek a wife. On his knights’ advice, he approaches a wealthy maiden named La Codre on a nearby estate. The knights point out that “On the hazel there are nuts to be enjoyed, but the ash never bears fruit.” Unfortunately, nobody realizes that the two young women are twins. Le Fresne is kept hidden from Gurun’s bride, and though unhappy about his marriage, she continues to serve him and his people as before.
Gurun’s attitude is an interesting contrast with other examples of courtly love in the lais—unlike, say, Equitan, he thinks his beloved’s social status is a sufficient reason to break off their relationship and pursue marriage with a noblewoman instead. La Codre means “hazelnut tree,” and Le Fresne means “ash,” so the knights’ quip basically means that La Codre will bear good offspring for Gurun, while a relationship with Le Fresne is a dead end. The irony, as the audience knows, is that Le Fresne’s social status is the same as La Codre’s due to their noble birth.
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On the day of Gurun’s wedding, all his friends show up, as well as the Archbishop of Dol. La Codre’s mother, the slanderous wife, comes, too, but she’s worried that Gurun’s lover will get between him and her daughter. But after the festivities, when La Codre and her mother are in the bedchamber, the mother marvels that Le Fresne (who’s there serving the bride, and whom the mother doesn’t recognize) seems like such a lovely person; she almost wishes that Gurun hadn’t been taken away from Le Fresne.
Gurun’s wedding is a big event, as indicated by the fact that the Archbishop presides over it. At this point, the slanderous wife reenters the story. Even with her jealous character, Le Fresne’s mother finds it difficult to resent Le Fresne, seeming to recognize that if status weren’t an issue, Le Fresne would make a better wife for Gurun. But at this point, it seems to be too late.
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That night, when the marriage bed is being prepared, Le Fresne shows the chamberlains how Gurun likes the bed to be made, since she’s seen it done many times. She doesn’t think the sheet is nice enough, so she pulls out her old brocade and covers the bed with it. Later, when it’s time for bed, the slanderous wife brings La Codre into the bedchamber and notices the brocade. She’s never seen another one like it. Trembling, she asks Le Fresne where it came from, and Le Fresne tells her it was given to her by her aunt, the abbess. She also shows her the ring that was left with her as an abandoned baby. The mother declares, “You are my daughter, fair friend!” and faints.
This passage is rather poignant, since Le Fresne is giving up her place as Gurun’s lover without complaint and even goes out of her way to make things nice for the newlyweds. Then her old baby blanket, the fancy brocade from Constantinople, resurfaces. Like the love tokens in “Guigemar,” the brocade helps Le Fresne’s mother recognize Le Fresne as her daughter. The reunion is a great shock, since Le Fresne’s mother presumably hasn’t seen or received word of her for all this time.
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When she revives, Le Fresne’s mother sends for her husband and tells him the whole story, since he’d played no part in baby Le Fresne’s abandonment. Instead of blaming his wife, he rejoices and greets Le Fresne as his daughter. Then he and the archbishop go to Gurun and explain everything to him. They all agree that the archbishop should separate Gurun and La Codre the next day, so that Gurun can marry his beloved Le Fresne. Their marriage is duly celebrated the next day, and La Codre goes home with her parents. She later makes a rich marriage of her own.
The implication here is that Gurun and La Codre do not consummate their marriage on the wedding night, so the archbishop can, by church law, easily annul their marriage (declare that it was never valid) the next day. This story has a happy ending for most of the characters: the loving couple gets to marry after all. (And the story implies that rank really is important after all, since if Le Fresne’s noble identity hadn’t been found out, nothing would have changed.) With this joyful reunion, even Le Fresne’s mother isn’t harshly judged for her terrible behavior back when Le Fresne was born. La Codre’s ending is a bit ambiguous, however—it seems her feelings are never consulted, either about her initial marriage or the immediate annulment.
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