Marie de France

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Her Works


Lais of Marie de France (c. 1160), twelve verse narratives in French (Anglo-Norman) language; octosyllabic couplets; dedicated to the "noble" king (likely Henry II)

*Author of 103 fables, Ysopets, in the style of Aesop

*Morality tale, L'Espurgatoire Seint Patriz ("St Patrick's Purgatory")

Marie's works covered romantic and magical situations, themes, and imagery; variations on theme of lovers in hostile world, oppressive marriages and social conventions (conflicts between love, chivalry and marriage); emphasis on freedom of desire; personal, psychological, and affective issues; love as escape from oppressive world; problems of love (treachery, selfishness) also considered; ambiguous moral messages.

Summary of Three Fables

The Horse and the Hedge (c. 1170)

A horse saw grass growing in a meadow, but he didn't see the hedge that surrounded the meadow. When he jumped over it, he was impaled. Many men do the same... they are so anxious for what they want, they don't see what trouble

Yonec (c. 1170)

There once lived a rich man, old and ancient... he took a wife in order to have children... Because she was beautiful and noble he made every effort to guard her. He locked her inside his tower... He kept her more than seven years... she never left the tower, neither for family nor for friends... The lady lived in great sorrow, with tears and sighs and weeping; she lost her beauty, as one does who cares nothing for it.

The Nightingale (c. 1170)

At night when the moon shone and her husband lay sleeping, she would often steal from his side; with her cloak wrapped about her she would go to the window, for she knew her friend would be at his. This is how they lived, gazing at each other for most of the night... She stayed so often at the window, and would get up out of bed so often at night her husband lost his temper, and more than once demanded to know the reason she rose this way and where she went.
"My husband," replied the lady, "anyone who hasn't heard the nightingale sing has not experienced joy in the world. That is why I go to stand at the window... So much delight does it give me and so intensely do I long to hear it, that I cannot close my eyes to sleep."

When her husband heard what she said, he laughed with angry contempt. An idea occurred to him to trap the nightingale. He ordered the household servants to work on traps, nets, and snares and to set them in the orchard... Eventually they captured the nightingale. They took it alive to the lord, who was overjoyed when he saw it. He went to the lady's chambers. "Madam, where are you? Come now, let us talk. I've caught this nightingale, the cause of your night long vigils. But now you'll be able to sleep in peace, as it will never bother you again." She asked him to give her the nightingale, but he... broke its neck with his two hands. He threw the dead bird at his wife so that the front of her gown was covered in blood.

The lady took the little corpse, and softly wept over it... "Now I'll not be able to get up at night and stand by the window where I've been accustomed to see my friend."


Click on the player below to hear

"Marie de France, Prologue of the Lais"

Set to music by Lesl Harker. Credits: Arrangement/recording/newly translated sections: 2002 Lesl Harker all world rights reserved. Translation from the Norman French partly by Lesl, with help from many others. Please see further song information for complete credits. All mistakes Lesl Harker. Instrumentation: guitars, singing, flute, whistles, harmonium - Lesl. Music credits: adaptations of: the Breton hymn Meulomp Hirie A Vouez Uhel; Breton melody Me zo ganet kreiz er mor (original melody by Jef Le Penven); traditional Welsh dance tune Hafoty Dafydd Owen (thanks Ceri Matthews, also for production suggestions).

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