The Lais of Marie de France

by

Marie de France

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The Lais of Marie de France Summary

In her Prologue, the author, Marie de France, argues that a person who’s gifted with eloquence shouldn’t hide their talent but is obligated to share it. For this reason, and in order to resist vice, she has put lays she’s collected into verse form.

Marie begins with “Guigemar,” a story in which the knight Guigemar isn’t interested in romance. When Guigemar fatally shoots a hind on a hunting trip, the arrow ricochets and wounds him. The dying hind curses Guigemar, telling him that he’ll only be cured if he and a woman fall in love and suffer greatly for that love. Guigemar then wanders through the woods and finds a luxurious, empty ship sitting in a harbor. He gets aboard, falls asleep, and is quickly whisked off to an ancient city.

In the city, a beautiful young lady, married to a jealous elderly lord, lives in a guarded enclosure. When the lady and her maiden companion discover Guigemar aboard the ship, they promise to shelter him until he’s healed. Guigemar and the lady fall passionately in love and live together for the next year and a half, but the old lord discovers their affair and expels Guigemar from his city. After two years, the lady escapes to Brittany aboard the enchanted ship. She and Guigemar eventually cross paths in the lord Meriaduc’s castle and confirm their respective identities. In order to claim the lady for himself, Guigemar lays siege to Meriaduc’s castle, and at last, the couple is joyfully reunited.

Next, Marie tells the story of Equitan, a Breton king who falls in love with his seneschal’s beautiful wife. They try to resist each other before starting a secret affair. Worried about losing Equitan to a princess, the seneschal’s wife plots to kill her husband with Equitan’s help. A few weeks later, they arrange for two bathtubs to be brought into the seneschal’s chamber; the seneschal will be invited to join Equitan for a bath, unaware that his tub is filled with boiling water. However, the seneschal barges in on his wife and Equitan unexpectedly while they’re having sex. Panicked, Equitan jumps into the scalding tub and dies instantly. The seneschal tosses his wife into the same tub, and she, too, boils to death. Marie says this is a cautionary tale for anyone who seeks somebody else’s misfortune.

The story “Le Fresne” begins with a knight’s slanderous wife claiming that her neighbor gave birth to twins because she’d had sex with two different men. When the wife herself gives birth to twin girls, she panics and decides to abandon one of the babies so that she won’t be accused of adultery. After wrapping the baby in expensive blankets and attaching a ring to her arm (signs of her noble lineage), a maid leaves the baby at an abbey. The abbess names the baby “Le Fresne” after the ash tree in which she’s found. Le Fresne grows up in the abbey, and eventually, a lord named Gurun falls in love with her and convinces her to live at his castle. However, Gurun’s knights persuade him to marry a noblewoman named La Codre. (At this point, nobody realizes that Le Fresne and La Codre are twin sisters.)

On the wedding night, La Codre’s mother helps her daughter get ready for bed. Le Fresne is also there helping with the preparations, and she puts her old baby blanket on the bed. When La Codre’s mother recognizes the blanket and sees Le Fresne’s ring, she realizes, rejoicing, that Le Fresne is her long-lost daughter. Everyone agrees that Gurun and La Codre’s marriage must be annulled, and the next day, Gurun marries Le Fresne instead.

In “Bisclavret,” the titular Breton baron disappears three days a week and transforms into a werewolf. Bisclavret only reluctantly tells his wife about this. When he transforms, he leaves his clothes in a hollow stone, and if he can’t find the clothes, he has to remain a werewolf. The wife decides her husband’s secret identity is grounds for separation, and one day, she has her lover steal Bisclavret’s clothes. Then, she and her lover get married.

A year later, the king’s hounds track down Bisclavret in the forest. The king takes the werewolf under his protection, and Bisclavret goes to live at the castle. One day, when Bisclavret’s wife comes to visit the king, Bisclavret mauls her face, tearing off her nose. The king has the lady interrogated and learns the truth about Bisclavret. He also makes her bring Bisclavret’s clothes. Once Bisclavret is human again, the king banishes Bisclavret’s ex-wife and her lover. But the exiled couple has many children, and the girls are often recognizable: they’re born without noses.

“Lanval” is the story of a lonely, forgotten knight of King Arthur’s Round Table. One day, two mysterious damsels invite Lanval into an extravagant tent. Inside, he finds a gorgeous fairy lady to whom he instantly becomes devoted. The lady promises to give Lanval limitless gold and silver—as long as he keeps their love a secret. One day, however, at Arthur’s castle, Arthur’s Queen tries to tempt Lanval, and he rashly reveals his affair with his fairy lover, saying her beauty surpasses the queen’s. Later, when the queen vengefully claims that Lanval insulted her, King Arthur decides that Lanval must face trial, and unless this supposed lover comes forward, he’ll be executed. Just as the king’s barons are about to render a verdict, the fairy lady appears on horseback and defends Lanval. Awed by the woman’s beauty, the barons all agree that Lanval’s boast was justified and acquit him. Then, Lanval jumps on the lady’s horse, and they ride to Avalon. They’re never heard from again.

In “Les Deus Amanz,” The lord of the Pistrians decrees that his beloved daughter will only marry the man who can successfully carry her up a nearby mountain. For a long time, no one succeeds. Meanwhile, the daughter falls in love with a young man. They form a plan: the young man travels to Salerno to visit the girl’s aunt, an accomplished herbalist. The aunt sends the young man home with a strengthening potion to aid his quest. Soon, the lord grudgingly allows the young man to attempt the climb. Incapable of moderation, the youth neglects to drink the potion and staggers up the mountain with the girl in his arms. When he reaches the top, he dies, and the girl then dies of a broken heart. The couple is buried in a marble coffin atop the mountain.

In “Yonec,” the lady of Caerwent is married to the paranoid old lord of Caerwent, who keeps her locked away. One day, the woman wishes for a handsome rescuer, and suddenly, a hawk flies through her window and turns into an attractive knight. The knight, Muldumarec, says he’s loved her from afar for a long time but could only visit her in response to her wish. They enjoy a short-lived affair, but the lady is so happy that the lord grows suspicious. He sets spikes in the lady’s window, which kill Muldumarec the next time he visits. As he dies, Muldumarec tells his lover that she’s pregnant with their son, Yonec, who will someday avenge them both. Before he dies, he gives her a sword for Yonec. Years later, after Yonec grows up and becomes a knight, he beheads his stepfather with Muldumarec’s sword in revenge for his father’s death, and the people proclaim Yonec king.

“Laüstic” is the story of a courtly couple—a married lady and a bachelor knight—that live next door to each other and exchange words and gifts through their windows, often in the middle of the night. When the lady’s husband complains about her absence from bed, she claims she enjoys listening to the nightingale’s song so much that she can’t sleep. In response, her husband spitefully kills a nightingale in front of his wife. Grieving, she sends the nightingale’s corpse to the bachelor knight, who carries it around with him from that day forward.

In “Milun,” the knight Milun and his damsel in Wales conceive a son, whom they conceal and send to Northumbria to be raised by the damsel’s sister. Meanwhile, the damsel is forced to marry someone else. Over the next 20 years, the couple communicates by sending a swan back and forth with letters hidden in its feathers. Milun and his adult son reunite when they inadvertently end up jousting with each other. The son vows to kill his mother’s husband so that she and Milun can marry, but when the pair travels to Wales, they learn it’s unnecessary: the husband has just died. Then the widowed damsel is reunited with her son, and Milun and his beloved finally marry.

Next is a lay called “Chaitivel,” or “The Unhappy One.” In Nantes, there’s a lady who falls in love with four knights and refuses to settle on just one. Unaware that they’re rivals, the four men strive in tournaments to win the indecisive lady’s favor. One day, three of the men are killed in a fight, and the fourth is grievously wounded. The lady, horrified, realizes she is to blame for pushing the men to fight to impress her. She tends the wounded knight in her own chamber, deciding to compose a lay about the four fallen men called “The Four Sorrows.” But her lover objects that it should be called “The Unhappy One,” because though he survived, he is too badly injured to enjoy more than conversation with his beloved lady.

Next, in “Chevrefoil,” Tristram is banished from court by King Mark because of his love for Queen Iseult. Eventually, he travels from South Wales to Cornwall, hoping to intercept the queen’s procession on its way to a festival. While hiding in the woods, he whittles his name into a hazel branch—their special signal. Iseult sees the branch and finds Tristram in the woods, where they talk for a long time. Before a tearful parting, the queen tells Tristram how to reconcile with King Mark so that he can return to court. After she leaves, Tristram composes a lay about the joy of their reunion—calling it “Chevrefoil,” or “honeysuckle,” because honeysuckle and hazel depend on each other for survival.

In the last story, “Eliduc,” Eliduc is banished from his Breton court on the basis of a false rumor. He bids his beloved wife, Guildelüec, goodbye and travels to Britain, seeking work as a mercenary knight. He soon enters the service of a king and falls in love with the king’s daughter, Guilliadun. Guilliadun doesn’t know Eliduc is already married, and Eliduc avoids cheating on his wife. Eventually, though, he sneaks Guilliadun out of the country aboard a ship. During the voyage, Guilliadun learns that Eliduc is married, and she falls into a swoon. Believing she’s dead, Eliduc places her body inside a hermit’s chapel, where he visits and laments daily. When Guildelüec visits the chapel, she finds the dead girl. While there, she also sees a weasel retrieve a special flower that revives its dead companion. Guildelüec places the weasel’s flower into the girl’s mouth, and Guilliadun suddenly revives, too. When Guildelüec sees Eliduc’s love for the girl, she gladly releases Eliduc from their marriage and becomes a nun. Eliduc and Guilliadun get married, and all three spend the rest of their lives doing good deeds and serving God.