In Normandy there’s a famous story of a young couple who met their demise because of love. Their remains lie on a high mountain in that country. Here’s how it happened: near Normandy, in the city of Pitres, the lord of the Pistrians has a beautiful, courtly daughter. She has been a great consolation to the king ever since his wife’s death. However, the people have begun pressuring the king to marry her off, so he comes up with a plan: whoever wants to win his daughter must carry her up the nearby mountain without stopping to rest. Many men try, but nobody makes it farther than halfway. As a result, the girl stays single for a long time.
Taken at face value, the story is moving: the widowed king and his daughter are mutually attached, and the father dreads parting with her when she marries. However, the implication here is actually that the father has an inappropriate desire for his daughter. Even if these disturbing overtones aren’t intended, the lord of the Pistrians is the villain, because he plots to keep his daughter all to himself and stop her from marrying and leaving him.
A noble young man, a count’s son, lives in that country and often visits the lord of the Pistrians’ court. He and the king’s daughter fall in love, concealing the fact as best they can. Unable to stand it any longer, the young man begs her to elope, but she points out that if she ran away, her father would be crushed. Instead, she suggests that her lover visit her aunt, who lives in Salerno and knows all about herbs, roots, and medicines. Surely this relative could give him a strengthening potion. He readily agrees, and when the girl’s aunt hears the story, she mixes the young man a potion that will restore all his strength the moment he drinks it.
Salerno, in south Italy, was the home of Europe’s most famous medical school, which would have been near the peak of its influence when Marie wrote. The young woman’s aunt is probably placed in Salerno because of the city’s association with medicine and healing. Though the lord of the Pistrians’ challenge appears to be totally unreasonable and unattainable, the young man and the lord’s daughter figure out a clever way—or so they think—to circumvent his demands.
Excitedly, the young man returns to Normandy and quickly approaches the lord of the Pistrians, ready to carry his daughter up the mountain. The king says yes, but he thinks the youth is being foolish, since so many have failed at the task. On the day of the attempt, an audience gathers from far and wide. The maiden has been fasting in hopes of losing weight, and she arrives wearing nothing but her shift. She also carries the little phial containing the potion, but Marie fears it will do no good, since the young man “knew no moderation.”
Suspense builds as the entire kingdom gathers to watch the young man’s attempt. So far, Marie has been sympathetic toward the young couple, but here she hints that things aren’t going to turn out well for them. Moderation was an important courtly virtue. Lacking moderation was not just considered unseemly, but could compromise a couple’s secrecy or safety. Here, Marie suggests that if someone lacks virtue, then it doesn’t matter what other measures they take—their love is doomed.
The young man carries her halfway up the mountain, so happy that he doesn’t think about the potion. When she sees that he’s tiring, the lord’s daughter urges him to drink, but he insists that his heart is strong; he doesn’t want to stir up the crowd by hesitating a moment. Two-thirds of the way up the mountain, he nearly collapses, but he continues to ignore the girl’s pleas to drink. When he reaches the top, he falls down, his heart failing him. The maiden offers him the potion again, then realizes he’s dead. She throws the phial aside, the potion sprinkling across the mountain.
The young man is so absorbed in his passion that he sabotages himself: he disregards the potion he went to such trouble to get, and he deludes himself about his strength. This is a good illustration of what Marie means by “[knowing] no moderation.” While Marie generally portrays love as worth the suffering it incurs, she also suggests here that it’s possible to bring needless suffering on oneself by being unreasonable.
After embracing and kissing her dead lover, the lord’s daughter dies. When the lord of the Pistrians finds them, he swoons, and the people lament. A few days later, the two young people’s bodies are placed in a marble coffin which is buried on the top of the mountain. From that time forward, the place is called The Mountain of the Two Lovers.
Nobody has a happy ending in this story. Marie is still ultimately sympathetic to the ill-fated young couple, even though she points to the young man’s lack of moderation as decisive in this death. The lord of the Pistrians is ultimately responsible, though, because of his cruel possessiveness of his daughter. The couple’s fate suggests that there was never hope for them to be together under the circumstances.