If someone has received the gift of knowledge and eloquence from God, it’s that person’s duty to not keep quiet; they should willingly share their talents. A beneficial thing doesn’t fully flower until many people know about it and praise it. For example, the “ancients” used to write obscure books so that later generations would have to interpret their meanings.
It was customary for medieval authors to offer an apology, or defense, for their writing. As a woman author, which was rare at this time, Marie may have deemed this especially necessary. Marie justifies her writing by arguing that those with God-given talents are obligated to share them instead of selfishly hoarding them. Writing allows knowledge to be more widely disseminated and understood, even in generations yet to come. By the “ancients,” Marie refers to classical Roman authors—a bold move, since she implicitly puts herself on the same level as these literary giants. The allusion also signals that Marie is unusually educated for a 12th-century woman, bolstering her authority to write.
In order to “guard against vice,” Marie decided to undertake a demanding project—to put “lays” she has heard into verse form. She has worked on these poems late into the night. She dedicates them to the king, begging him not to find this gift presumptuous.
Marie further defends her writing by suggesting that she wrote her Lais in order to occupy herself with something useful instead of drifting into idleness and other “vices.” Again, the defense is formulaic, but it shows that as a writer—especially a woman writer—Marie felt it necessary to offer a positive case for her work. She didn’t assume it would be regarded as self-evidently valuable. Lays were short, rhyming tales that were typically recited or sung. Marie says that she collected the lays she’s heard and wrote them down in narrative verse form. In doing this, she essentially pioneered a literary genre. Marie closes her prologue by appealing to the king—often, a king or noble would commission a written work, but Marie offers this one on her own initiative. It’s unknown which king she addresses here, but it could have been England’s King Henry II, who reigned in the late 12th century.