In the Lais of Marie de France, a collection of 12 short tales from the 11th century, the idea of courtly love is everywhere. Courtly love is a medieval literary motif in which a knight undertakes chivalrous quests in pursuit of a noble lady whom he loves from afar. But in Marie de France’s stories, love isn’t always particularly romantic—it’s a source of profound joy, but it also brings about peril and misery for the characters. For instance, in a scenario that recurs in several tales, the knight Guigemar and his desired young lady are so “wounded” by love that until they admit their feelings for each other, they are despondent, each believing the other could never love them back. Yet throughout the Lais, characters continue to pursue love in spite of emotional or physical suffering, suggesting that courtly love is nonetheless a noble and worthwhile pursuit. And indeed, there are stories in which true love prevails in the end and seems to genuinely fulfill the characters, such as in “Eliduc,” when Eliduc and Guilliadun finally get married even though they’re from different countries, Eliduc is married to someone else at first, and Guilliadun temporarily falls into a coma. Though the Lais offer various perspectives on love, they present courtly love as a delicate balance between longing and fulfillment, grief and joy, and ardor and restraint. Beyond that, the Lais demonstrate that true love is generally worth enduring the suffering it causes—and that love can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Love and Suffering ThemeTracker
Love and Suffering Quotes in The Lais of Marie de France
The animal, wounded and in great pain, lamented in these words: ‘Alas! I am mortally wounded. Vassal, you who have wounded me, let this be your fate. May you never find a cure, nor may any herb, root, doctor or potion ever heal the wound you have in your thigh until you are cured by a woman who will suffer for your love more pain and anguish than any other woman has ever known, and you will suffer likewise for her, so much so that all those who are in love, who have known love or are yet to experience it, will marvel at it.
But love had now pierced him to the quick and his heart was greatly disturbed. For the lady had wounded him so deeply that he had completely forgotten his homeland. He felt no pain from the wound in his thigh, yet he sighed in great anguish and asked the maiden serving him to let him sleep. As he had dismissed her, she returned to her mistress, who was, like Guigemar, affected by the ardour which had kindled within her heart.
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.
His evil plan rebounded on him, whereas the seneschal was safe and sound. […] Seizing his wife immediately, [the seneschal] tossed her head first into the bath. Thus they died together, the king first, then the woman with him. Anyone willing to listen to reason could profit from this cautionary tale. Evil can easily rebound on him who seeks another’s misfortune.
She brought her the ring and the lady looked at it carefully, easily recognizing it and the brocade. She had no doubt, for she now knew for sure that this was indeed her daughter, and, for all to hear, she said openly: “You are my daughter, fair friend!”
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.
The king led his daughter into the meadow towards the Seine, where a great crowd gathered. She wore nothing but her shift, and the young man took her in his arms. The little phial containing the potion (he well knew that she had no wish to let him down) was given to her to carry, but I fear it will be of little avail to him, because he knew no moderation.
“Fair son, you have heard how God has brought us here! It is your father who lies here, whom this old man unjustly killed. Now I commend and hand over to you his sword, for I have kept it long enough.” For all to hear, she revealed to him that this was his father and he his son, how he used to come to her and how her husband had betrayed him. She told him the truth, fell into a faint on the tomb, and, while unconscious, died. She never spoke again, but when her son saw she was dead, he struck off his stepfather’s head, and thus with his father’s sword avenged his mother’s grief.
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.
When Milun heard the news, it seemed quite wonderful to him. He explained this to his son. There was nothing to hinder or delay them. They travelled until they reached the castle where the lady was. She was delighted by her son who was so valiant and noble. They summoned no kinsmen and without the advice of anyone else their son united them and gave his mother to his father. Thereafter they lived night and day in happiness and tenderness.
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[.]
“I have behaved badly! […] Here I have deeply loved a girl, Guilliadun, the king’s daughter, and she has loved me. If I must leave her thus, one of us will have to die, or perhaps even both. But nevertheless I must go, for my lord has summoned me in a letter and required me by my oath, and my wife as well. […] If I were to marry my beloved, the Christian religion would not accept it. Things are going badly in all respects.”
Eliduc heard what he said and almost went demented with anger. “Son of a whore,” he said, “wicked and evil traitor, say no more!” […] But he held her in his arms and comforted her as best he could […] She fell face down, quite pale and wan, in a swoon in which she remained, for she did not come round or breathe. He who was taking her away with him truly believed that she was dead.
With its teeth the weasel picked a flower, bright red in colour, and then quickly returned, placing it in the mouth of its companion, whom the servant had killed, with the result that it quickly recovered. The lady noticed this and shouted to the servant: “Catch it! Throw your stick, good man, do not let it escape!”
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.