Marie de France generally flatters her noble audience’s sense of social superiority while subtly critiquing the conventions of her time (the 12th or 13th century). In particular, Marie largely adheres to the gender expectations of the day while highlighting struggles faced by women in particular. For example, courtly men in the Lais tend to be insecure and suspicious: both the young lady in “Guigemar” and the Lady of Caerwent in “Yonec” are imprisoned in castles by their elderly husbands in order to prevent them from having affairs. Such scenarios hint that men saw marriage as a status indicator that had to be jealously guarded, even to a paranoid extent. Given such restrictions, women had to be more resourceful, like Milun’s damsel, who’s forced into an unwanted marriage and has to communicate with Milun by sending a swan back and forth with love letters hidden in its feathers. Though Marie portrays women as clever and capable of taking initiative, she also hints that they were forced to cultivate these qualities because they had less control over their destinies than men.
To a lesser extent, both men and women also struggle with the expectations their noble status brings with it. While high status brings privileges, it also limits options for marriage and thus tends to hinder romance (like when the nobleman Gurun rejects his beloved Le Fresne, an orphan of unknown status, as unmarriageable because he believes she couldn’t give him a legitimate heir). Overall, Marie de France portrays gender roles and social status as fixed, but she nevertheless suggests that occasionally, people—especially women—can use their ingenuity to make the best of their given roles.
Gender Roles and Class Status ThemeTracker
Gender Roles and Class Status Quotes in The Lais of Marie de France
Whoever has good material for a story is grieved if the tale is not well told. Hear, my lords, the words of Marie, who, when she has the opportunity, does not squander her talents. Those who gain a good reputation should be commended, but when there exists in a country a man or woman of great renown, people who are envious of their abilities frequently speak insultingly of them in order to damage this reputation. […] But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up. […]
I shall relate briefly to you stories which I know to be true and from which the Bretons have composed their lays.
Guigemar besieged the town and would not leave until it was captured. His friends and followers increased in number so much that he starved all those inside. He captured and destroyed the castle and killed the lord within. With great joy he took away his beloved. Now his tribulations were over.
Because you are a powerful king and my husband is your vassal, you would expect, as I see it, to be the lord and master in love as well. Love is not honourable, unless it is based on equality. A poor man, if he is loyal and possesses wisdom and merit, is of greater worth and his love more joyful than that of a prince or king who lacks loyalty. If anyone places his love higher than is appropriate for his own station in life, he must fear all manner of things.
I have been my own judge: I spoke ill of all women. Did I not say that it has never been the case and we had never seen it happen that a woman has had two children unless she has known two men? Now I have twins and it seems that I am paying the price. Whoever slanders and lies about others does not know what retribution awaits him. […] To ward off shame, I shall have to murder one of the children: I would rather make amends with God than shame and dishonour myself.
Arthur, the worthy and courtly king, was at Carlisle on account of the Scots and the Picts who were ravaging the country, penetrating into the land of Logres and frequently laying it waste.
The king was there during the summer, at Pentecost, and he gave many rich gifts to counts and barons and to those of the Round Table: there was no such company in the whole world. He apportioned wives and lands to all, save to one who had served him: this was Lanval, whom he did not remember, and for whom no one put in a good word.
When the lord heard what she said, he gave a spiteful, angry laugh and devised a plan to ensnare the nightingale. […] When they had taken the nightingale, it was handed over, still alive, to the lord […] She asked her husband for the bird, but he killed it out of spite, breaking its neck wickedly with his two hands. He threw the body at the lady, so that the front of her tunic was bespattered with blood[.]
But hear now what happened next. Using her ingenuity she got hold of ink and parchment. She was able to write whatever she pleased, and seal the letter with a ring. Having let the swan go without food, she hung the letter round its neck and released it. The bird was famished and eager for food: swiftly it returned home. In Milun’s town and in his dwelling it alighted before him. When he saw it, he was full of joy.
It would be less dangerous for a man to court every lady in an entire land than for a lady to remove a single besotted lover from her skirts, for he will immediately attempt to strike back. […] Yet, even if a lady has no wish to listen to their pleas, she should not speak insultingly to her suitors: rather should she honour and cherish them, serve them appropriately and be grateful to them.
“My lady, compose the new lay, but call it The Unhappy One. I shall explain why it should have this title. The others have long since ended their days and used up their span of life. What great anguish they suffered on account of the love they bore for you! But I who have escaped alive, bewildered and forlorn, constantly see the woman I love more than anything on earth, coming and going; she speaks to me morning and evening, yet I cannot experience the joy of a kiss or an embrace or of any pleasure other than conversation. You cause me to suffer a hundred such ills and death would be preferable for me.”
With gentle mien, honest expression and very noble demeanour, he spoke with much breeding and thanked the damsel, Guilliadun, who was very beautiful, for having sent for him to come and talk to her. She took him by the hand and they sat down on a bed and spoke of many things. […] Love dispatched its messenger who summoned her to love him. It made her go pale and sigh[.]
He often kissed the maiden and she him tenderly, for together they were very happy. When the lady saw how the looked, she spoke to her husband and asked him for permission to leave and to separate from him, for she wanted to be a nun and serve God.