The Lais of Marie de France

by

Marie de France

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The Lais of Marie de France: X. Chaitivel Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Now Marie will recount a lay that’s usually called Le Chaitivel (“The Unhappy One”) but is also called Les Quatre Deuls (“The Four Sorrows”). In Brittany, in the city of Nantes, there lived a beautiful, well-educated lady. Any knight who sees her instantly falls in love with her and starts wooing her. She can’t love them all, but she doesn’t want to reject all of them, either. Marie observes that it would be “less dangerous” for a knight to court all the ladies in the land than for a lady to reject a single lover, because a rejected lover “will immediately attempt to strike back.”
Marie’s commentary is particularly interesting here for its insight on women’s roles within the norms of the courtly love tradition. On one hand, it will become clear that the lady’s indecisiveness isn’t considered a virtue, and that it serves her poorly in the end. On the other hand, Marie suggests that it’s more “dangerous” for a lady than for a knight, because a lady who rejects a man is vulnerable to the man’s revenge, whereas a knight can court as many ladies as he likes.
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In Brittany there also lived four men whose names Marie doesn’t know—handsome, brave, and courtly knights. All four of these men love the indecisive lady and try to outdo one another in wooing her. The lady considers these suitors carefully, wanting to choose the best—yet she knows that if she chooses one, she’ll lose the other three. So, she’s friendly to all four of them, sending each of them love tokens. Each of the four men thinks he is the lady’s only beloved, wears her love token (like a ring, sleeve, or pennant), and uses her name as a rallying cry. Each of them tries to perform brave deeds to please her.
None of the characters in this lay get distinct names, and the men especially don’t have distinguishing characteristics, suggesting that they’re meant to be generalized examples. Because the lady doesn’t want to reject anyone, she basically encourages all her potential suits, driving them to ever more daring feats in hopes of impressing her. Marie implies that none of the knights is superior to the others, and that the lady would do just as well to pick any of them.
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One year, after Easter, there’s a tournament at Nantes. In addition to the four lovers, knights travel from all over in order to compete—French, Norman, Flemish, and other knights. On the day before the tournament, though, fierce fighting breaks out, and the four lovers eagerly charge into combat. The fighting is so violent that all four men are unhorsed. Undaunted, they keep fighting. The indecisive lady watches all this from her tower and, impressed with them all, she doesn’t know who to cheer for the most.
In contrast to the fighting that took place in “Milun,” which seemed more orderly, this fighting is basically a free-for-all with no clear objective. There’s an ominous note here, as being knocked off their horses and fighting on foot makes the knights much more vulnerable. But they’re all so focused on impressing the lady that they don’t care.
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As the tournament goes on, all four men distinguish themselves, but by nightfall, each of them has foolishly wandered away from his entourage of knights. This has terrible consequences: during a lateral attack, three of the men are killed, and the fourth receives a severe wound in the thigh. The attackers are grief-stricken, since they hadn’t meant to kill anyone. The local townspeople stream onto the field, lamenting, and thousands of knights fling off their visors, tearing out their hair and beards in sorrow.
Without fellow knights to defend them, the four knights are even more vulnerable, and sure enough, the results are catastrophic. This is basically just playful fighting that escalated until it got out of hand, which makes the deaths all the more tragic: they died for nothing. It’s implied that the killed and injured knights took unnecessarily foolish risks under the circumstances, disregarding chivalrous virtue.
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The slain knights are placed on their shields and carried into the city to the lady who loves them. When the indecisive lady sees what’s happened, she swoons from grief. When she revives, she mourns the fallen men, both dead and wounded, and laments that she forced them to compete with one another for her love because she couldn’t choose just one. She can never be happy again. She will bury the dead knights and provide a doctor for the wounded one, doing whatever she can to help him heal.
The devastated lady blames herself for putting the knights in this situation. Whereas she began in an enviable position—having many competing suitors—she finds herself in the opposite position, having lost all but one of them.
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One summer day, the indecisive lady is talking with the wounded knight, whom she visits often while he’s convalescing in her chamber. The knight notices she looks downcast and asks her what’s the matter. She replies that she’s thinking of his former companions—never again will a lady love four such men and lose all but one of them in a single day. To commemorate her grief and her love, she decides to compose a lay called The Four Sorrows. The knight objects that the lay should be titled The Unhappy One instead. It should be called The Unhappy One because even though he escaped death, he suffers terrible heartache because he can enjoy nothing more than conversation with the woman he loves. The lady agrees. The lay is composed, and it circulates under two titles—both, Marie notes, “supported by the subject matter.”
Marie seems ambivalent about the indecisive lady. On one hand, the moral seems to be that the lady’s indecisiveness and reluctance to commit have led to sorrow all around. It would have been better for her to just choose a knight, since, Marie suggests, one knight is about as good as another. On the other hand, Marie could be making a subtle comment about the thankless position in which a lady could find herself when she’s afraid to reject a suitor. Though the wording is subtle, the source of the wounded knight’s grief is that he’s not able to consummate their affair. The fact that he was wounded in the thigh implies that his injury has probably rendered him impotent. So, both he and the lady are essentially stuck in unrelieved lovesickness for the rest of their lives—an unenviable position.
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