Introduction – French Medieaval Romances from the Lais of Marie de France

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The tales included in this little book of translations are derived mainly from the “Lays” of Marie de France. I do not profess them to be a complete collection of her stories in verse. The ascription varies. Poems which were included in her work but yesterday are withdrawn to-day, and new matter suggested by scholars to take the place of the old. I believe it to be, however, a far fuller version of Marie’s “Lays” than has yet appeared, to my knowledge, in English. Marie’s poems are concerned chiefly with love. To complete my book I have added two famous mediaeval stories on the same excellent theme. This, then, may be regarded as a volume of French romances, dealing, generally, with one aspect of mediaeval life.

An age so feminist in its sympathies as ours should be attracted the more easily to Marie de France, because she was both an artist and a woman. To deliver oneself through any medium is always difficult. For a woman of the Middle Ages to express herself publicly by any means whatever was almost impossible. A great lady, a great Saint or church-woman, might do so very occasionally. But the individuality of the ordinary wife was merged in that of her husband, and for one Abbess of Shrewsbury or Whitby, for one St. Clare or St. Hilda, there were how many thousand obscure sisters, who were buried in the daily routine of a life hidden with Christ in God! Doubtless the artistic temperament burst out now and again in woman, and would take no denial. It blew where it listed, appearing in the most unexpected places. A young nun in a Saxon convent, for instance, would write little dramas in Latin for the amusement and edification of the noble maidens under her charge. These comedies, written in the days of the Emperor Otho, can be read with pleasure in the reign of King George, by those who find fragrant the perfumes of the past. They deal with the pious legends of the Saints, and are regarded with wistful admiration by the most modern of Parisian playwrights. In their combination of audacity and simplicity they could only be performed by Saxon religious in the times of Otho, or by marionettes in the more self-conscious life of to-day. Or, again, an Abbess, the protagonist of one of the great love stories of the world, by sheer force of personality, would compose letters to one—how immeasurably her moral inferior, in spite of his genius—expressing with an unexampled poignancy the most passionate emotions of the heart. Or, to take my third illustration, here are a woman’s poems written in an age when literature was almost entirely in the hands of men. Consider the strength of character which alone induced these three ladies to stray from the beaten paths of their sex. To the average woman it was enough to be an object of art herself, or to be the inspiration of masterpieces by man. But these three women of the Middle Ages—and such as they—shunned the easier way, and, in their several spheres, were by deliberate effort, self-conscious artists.

The place and date of birth of Marie de France are unknown—indeed the very century in which she lived has been a matter of dispute. Her poems are written in the French of northern France; but that does not prove her necessarily to be a Frenchwoman. French was the tongue of the English Court, and many Englishmen have written in the same language. Indeed, it is a very excellent vehicle for expression. Occasionally, Marie would insert English words in her French text, the better to convey her meaning; but it does not follow therefrom that the romances were composed in England. It seems strange that so few positive indications of her race and home are given in her poems—nothing is contained beyond her Christian name and the bare statement that she was of France. She took great pride in her work, which she wrought to the best of her ability, and was extremely jealous of that bubble-reputation. Yet whilst this work was an excellent piece of self-portraiture, it reveals not one single fact or date on which to go. A consensus of critical opinion presumes that Marie was a subject of the English Crown, born in an ancient town called Pitre, some three miles above Rouen, in the Duchy of Normandy. This speculation is based largely on the unwonted topographical accuracy of her description of Pitre, given in “The Lay of the Two Lovers.” Such evidence, perhaps, is insufficient to obtain a judgment in a Court of Law. The date when Marie lived was long a matter of dispute. The Prologue to her “Lays” contains a dedication to some unnamed King; whilst her “Fables” is dedicated to a certain Count William. These facts prove her to have been a person of position and repute. The King was long supposed to be Henry the Third of England, and this would suggest that she lived in the thirteenth century. An early scholar, the Abbé de La Rue, in fact, said that this was “undoubtedly” the case, giving cogent reasons in support of his contention. But modern scholarship, in the person of Gaston Paris, has decided that the King was Henry the Second, of pious memory; the Count, William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, his natural son by Fair Rosamund; and that Marie must be placed in the second half of the twelfth century. This shows that scholarship is not an exact science, and that such words as “doubtless” should not be employed more than necessary. A certain Eastern philosopher, when engaged in instructing the youth of his country, used always to conclude his lectures with the unvarying formula, “But, gentlemen, all that I have told you is probably wrong.” This sage was a wise man (not always the same thing), and his example should be had in remembrance. It seems possible (and one hesitates to use a stronger word) that the “Lays” of Marie were actually written at the Court of Henry of England. From political ambition the King was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, a lady of literary tastes, who came from a family in which the patronage of singers was a tradition. Her husband, too, had a pronounced liking for literature. He was fond of books, and once paid a visit to Glastonbury to visit King Arthur’s tomb. These, perhaps, are limited virtues, but Henry the Second had need of every rag. It is somewhat difficult to recognise in that King of the Prologue, “in whose heart all gracious things are rooted,” the actual King who murdered Becket; who turned over picture-books at Mass, and never confessed or communicated. It is yet more difficult to perceive “joy as his handmaid” who, because of the loss of a favourite city, threatened to revenge himself on God, by robbing Him of that thing—i.e., the soul—He desired most in him; and whose very last words were an echo of Job’s curse upon the day that he was born. Marie’s phrases may be regarded, perhaps, as a courtly flourish, rather than as conveying truth with mathematical precision. If not, we should be driven to suggest an alternative to the favourite simile of lying like an epitaph. But I think it unlikely that Marie suffered with a morbidly sensitive conscience. There is little enough real devotion to be met with in her “Lays”; and if her last book—a translation from the Latin of the Purgatory of St. Patrick—is on a subject she avoids in her earlier work, it was written under the influence of some high prelate, and may be regarded as a sign that she watched the shadows cast by the western sun lengthening on the grass.

Gaston Paris suggests 1175 as an approximate date for the composition of the “Lays” of Marie de France. Their success was immediate and unequivocal, as indeed was to be expected in the case of a lady situated so fortunately at Court. We have proof of this in the testimony of Denis Pyramus, the author who wrote a Life of St. Edmund the King, early in the following century. He says, in that poem, “And also Dame Marie, who turned into rhyme and made verses of ‘Lays’ which are not in the least true. For these she is much praised, and her rhyme is loved everywhere; for counts, barons, and knights greatly admire it, and hold it dear. And they love her writing so much, and take such pleasure in it, that they have it read, and often copied. These Lays are wont to please ladies, who listen to them with delight, for they are after their own hearts.” It is no wonder that the lords and ladies of her century were so enthralled by Marie’s romances, for her success was thoroughly well deserved. Even after seven hundred years her colours remain surprisingly vivid, and if the tapestry is now a little worn and faded in places, we still follow with interest the movements of the figures wrought so graciously upon the arras. Of course her stories are not original; but was any plot original at any period of the earth’s history? This is not only an old, but an iterative world. The source of Marie’s inspiration is perfectly clear, for she states it emphatically in quite a number of her Lays. This adventure chanced in Brittany, and in remembrance thereof the Bretons made a Lay, which I heard sung by the minstrel to the music of his rote. Marie’s part consisted in reshaping this ancient material in her own rhythmic and coloured words. Scholars tell us that the essence of her stories is of Celtic rather than of Breton origin. It may be so; though to the lay mind this is not a matter of great importance one way or the other; but it seems better to accept a person’s definite statement until it is proved to be false. The Breton or Celtic imagination had peculiar qualities of dreaminess, and magic and mystery. Marie’s mind was not cast in a precisely similar mould. Occasionally she is successful enough; but generally she gives the effect of building with a substance the significance of which she does not completely realise. She may be likened to a child playing with symbols which, in the hand of the enchanter, would be of tremendous import. Her treatment of Isoude, for example, in “The Lay of the Honeysuckle,” is quite perfect in tone, and, indeed, is a little masterpiece in its own fashion. But her sketch of Guenevere in “The Lay of Sir Launfal” is of a character that one does not recall with pleasure. To see how Arthur’s Queen might be treated, we have but to turn to the pages of a contemporary, and learn from Chrestien de Troyes’ “Knight of the Cart,” how an even more considerable poet than Marie could deal with a Celtic legend. The fact is that Marie’s romances derive farther back than any Breton or Celtic dream. They were so old that they had blown like thistledown about the four quarters of the world. Her princesses came really neither from Wales nor Brittany. They were of that stuff from which romance is shaped. “Her face was bright as the day of union; her hair dark as the night of separation; and her mouth was magical as Solomon’s seal.” You can parallel her “Lays” from folklore, from classical story and antiquity. Father and son fight together unwittingly in “The Lay of Milon”; but Rustum had striven with Sohrab long before in far Persia, and Cuchulain with his child in Ireland. Such stories are common property. The writer takes his own where he finds it. Marie is none the less admirable because her stories were narrated by the first man in Eden; neither are Boccaccio and the Countess D’Aulnoy blameworthy since they told again what she already had related so well. Marie, indeed, was an admirable narrator. That was one of her shining virtues. As a piece of artful tale telling, a specimen of the craft of keeping a situation in suspense, the arrival of the lady before Arthur’s Court, in “The Lay of Sir Launfal,” requires a deal of beating. The justness and fineness of her sentiment in all that concerns the delicacies of the human heart are also remarkable. But her true business was that of the storyteller. In that trade she was almost unapproachable in her day. There may have been—indeed, there was—a more considerable poet living; but a more excellent writer of romances, than the author of “Eliduc,” it would have been difficult to find.

The ladies who found the “Lays” of Marie after their own hearts were not only admirers of beautiful stories; they had the delicate privilege also of admiring themselves in their habit as they lived—perhaps even lovelier than in reality—amidst their accustomed surroundings. The pleasure of a modern reader in such tales as these is enhanced by the light they throw on the household arrangements and customs of the gentlefolk of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It may be of interest to consider some of these domestic arrangements, as illustrated by stories included in the present volume.

The corporate life of a mediaeval household centered in the hall. It was office and dining and billiard room, and was common to gentle and simple alike. The hall was by far the largest room in the house. It was lighted by windows, and warmed by an open fire of logs. The smoke drifted about the roof, escaping finally by the simple means of a lantern placed immediately above the hearth. A beaten floor was covered by rushes and fresh hay, or with rugs in that part affected by the more important members of the household. The lord himself and his wife sat in chairs upon a raised daïs. The retainers were seated on benches around the wall, and before them was spread the dining table—a mere board upon trestles—which was removed when once the meal was done. After supper, chess and draughts were played, or (as we may see in “The Lay of the Thorn”) minstrels sang ballads and the guest contributed to the general entertainment by the recital of such jests and adventures as commended themselves to his taste. If the hall may be considered as the dining room of the mediaeval home, the garden might almost be looked upon as the drawing room. You would probably get more real privacy in the garden than in any other part of the crowded castle, including the lady’s chamber. It is no wonder that we read of Guenevere taking Launfal aside for a little private conversation in her pleasaunce. It was not only the most private, but also the most delightful room in the house—ceiled with blue and carpeted with green. The garden was laid out elaborately with a perron and many raised seats. Trees stood about the lawn in tubs, and there was generally a fountain playing in the centre, or possibly a pond, stocked with fish. Fruit trees and flower beds grew thickly about the garden, and a pleasanter place of perfume and colour and shade it would be difficult to imagine in the summer heat. The third room of which we hear continually in these romances is the lady’s chamber. It served the purpose of a boudoir as well as that of a sleeping room, and consequently had little real privacy. It contained the marriage chest with its store of linen, and also the bed. This bed recurs eternally in mediæval tales. It was used as a seat during the day, and as a resting-place of nights. It was a magnificent erection, carved and gilded, and inlaid with ivory. Upon it was placed a mattress of feathers, and a soft pillow. The sheets were of linen or silk, and over all was spread a coverlet of some precious material. An excellent description of such a couch is given in “The Lay of Gugemar.” This chamber served also as a bath room, and there the bath was taken, piping hot, in the strange vessel, fashioned somewhat like a churn, that we see in pictures of the Middle Ages.

Of the dress of the ladies who moved about the castle, seeing themselves reflected from Marie’s pages as in a polished mirror, I am not competent to speak. The type of beauty preferred by the old romancers was that of a child’s princess of fairy tale—blue-eyed, golden-haired, and ruddy of cheek. The lady would wear a shift of linen, “white as meadow flower.” Over this was worn a garment of fur or silk, according to the season; and, above all, a vividly coloured gown, all in one line from neck to feet, shapen closely to the figure, or else the more loosely fitting bliaut. Her girdle clipped her closely about the waist, falling to the hem of her skirt, and her feet were shod in soundless shoes, without heels. The hair was arranged in two long braids, brought forward over her shoulders; as worn by those smiling Queens wrought upon the western porch of Chartres Cathedral. Out of doors, and, indeed, frequently within, as may be proved by a reference to “The Lay of the Ash Tree,” the lady was clad in a mantle and a hood. It must have taken a great deal of time and travail to appear so dainty a production. But to become poetry for others, it is necessary for a woman first to be prose to herself.

I am afraid the raw material of this radiant divinity had much to endure before she suffered her sea change. In mediaeval illustrations we see the maiden sitting demurely in company, with downcast eyes, and hands folded modestly in her lap. This unnatural restraint was induced by the lavish compulsion of the rod. If there was one text, above all others, approved and acted upon by fathers and mothers of the Middle Ages, it was that exhorting parents not to cocker their child, neither to wink at his follies, but to beat him on the sides with a stick. Turn to “The Lay of the Thorn,” and mark the gusto with which a mother disciplines her maid. Parents trained their children with blows. Husbands (ah, the audacity of the mediaeval husband) scattered the like seeds of kindness on their wives. In a book written for the edification of his unmarried daughters, Chaucer’s contemporary, the Knight of La Tour Landry, tells the following interesting anecdote. A man had a scolding wife, who railed ungovernably upon him before strangers, “and he that was angry of her governance smote her with his first down to the earth; and then with his foot he struck her on the visage, and broke her nose; and all her life after that she had her nose crooked, the which shent and disfigured her visage after, that she might not for shame show her visage, it was so foul blemished. And this she had for her evil and great language that she was wont to say to her husband. And therefore the wife ought to suffer, and let the husband have the words, and to be master.” May I give yet another illustration before we pass from the subject. This time it is taken not from a French knight, but from a sermon of the great Italian preacher, St. Bernardino of Siena. “There are men who can bear more patiently with a hen that lays a fresh egg every day than with their own wives; and sometimes when the hen breaks a pipkin or a cup he will spare it a beating, simply for love of the fresh egg which he is unwilling to lose. Oh, raving madmen! who cannot bear a word from their own wives, though they bear them such fair fruit; but when the woman speaks a word more than they like, then they catch up a stick, and begin to cudgel her; while the hen that cackles all day, and gives you no rest, you take patience with her for the sake of her miserable egg—and sometimes she will break more in your house than she herself is worth, yet you bear it in patience for the egg’s sake. Many fidgetty fellows, who sometimes see their wives turn out less neat and dainty than they would like, smite them forthwith; and meanwhile the hen may make a mess on the table, and you suffer her. Have patience; it is not right to beat your wife for every cause, no!”

At the commencement of this Introduction I stated that Marie’s romances are concerned mainly with love. Her talent was not very wide nor rich, and I have no doubt that there were facets of her personality which she was unable to get upon paper. The prettiest girl in the world can only give what she has to give. By the time any reader reaches the end of this volume he will be assured that the stories are stories of love. Probably he will have noticed also that, in many cases, the lady who inspires the most delicate of sentiments is, incidentally, a married woman. He may ask why this was so; and in answer I propose to conclude my paper with a few observations upon the subject of mediaeval love.

I doubt in my own mind whether romance writers do not exaggerate what was certainly a characteristic of the Middle Ages. To be ordinary is to be uninteresting; and it is obvious that the stranger the experience, the more likely is it to attract the interest and attention of the hearer. Blessed is the person—as well as the country—who has no history. But it was really very difficult for the twelfth century poet to write a love story, with a maiden as the central figure. The noble maiden seldom had a love story. It is true enough that she was sometimes referred to in the choice of her husband: two young ladies in “A Story of Beyond the Sea” are both consulted in the matter. As a rule, however, her inclination was not permitted to stand in the way of the interests of her parents or guardians. She was betrothed in childhood, and married very young, for mercenary or political reasons, to a husband much older than herself. We read of a girl of twelve being married to a man of fifty. There was no great opportunity for a love story here; and the strange entreaty, on the part of the nameless French poet, to love the maidens for the sake of Christ’s love, passed over the heads of the romance writers. Not that the mediæval maidens showed any shrinking from matrimony. “Fair daughter, I have given you a husband.” “Blessed be God,” said the damsel. There spoke a contented spirit. Things have changed, and we can but sigh after the good old times.

But the maiden inevitably became the wife, and the whirligig of Time brought in his revenges. The lady now found herself the most important member of her sex, in a dwelling filled with men. She had few women about her person, and the confidant of a great dame in old romance is, frequently enough, her chamberlain. These young men had no chance of marriage, and naturally strove to gain the attention of a lady, whose favour was to them so important a matter. A mediæval knight was the sworn champion of God and the ladies—but more especially the latter. The chatelaine, herself, found time hang heavily on her hands. Amusements were few; books limited in number; a husband not of absorbing interest; so she turned to such distractions as presented themselves. The prettier a lady, the sweeter the incense and flattery swung beneath her nose; for this was one of the disadvantages of marrying an attractive woman. “It is hard to keep a wife whom everyone admires; and if no one admires her it is hard to have to live with her yourself.” One of these distractions took the shape of Courts of Love, where the bored but literary chatelaine discussed delicate problems of conduct pertaining to the heart. The minstrel about the lady’s castle, for his part, sought her favourable notice not only by his songs but also by giving an object lesson of his melancholy condition. One would imagine that his proceedings were not always calculated to further their purpose. A famous singer, for instance, in honour of a lady who was named Lupa, caused himself to be sewn in a wolf’s skin, and ran before the hounds till he was pulled down, half dead. Another great minstrel and lover bought a leper’s gown and bowl and clapper from some afflicted wretch. He mutilated his forefinger, and sat before his lady’s door, in the company of a piteous crowd of sick and maimed, to await her alms. No doubt he trusted that his devotion would procure him a different kind of charity. From such discussions as these, and from conduct such as this, a type of love came into being which was peculiar to the period. Since the lovers were not bound in the sweet and common union of children and home, since on the side of the lady all was of grace and nought of debt, they searched out other bands to unite them together. These they found in a system of devotion, silence and faithfulness, which added a dignity to their relations. These virtues they took so seriously that we find the Chatelaine of Vergi dying because she believed her lover to have betrayed her trust. The mediaeval romancer contemplated such unions with joy and pity; but for all their virtues we must not deceive ourselves with words. Such honour was rooted in dishonour, and the measure of their guilt was that they debased the moral currency. Presently the greatest of all the poets of the Middle Ages would arise, to teach a different fashion of devotion. His was a love that sought no communion with its object, neither speech nor embrace. It was sufficient for Dante to contemplate Beatrice from afar, as one might kneel before the picture of a saint. I do not say that a love like this—so spiritual and so aloof—will ever be possible to men. It did not suffice even to Dante, for all his tremendous moral muscle. Human love must always and inevitably be founded on a physical basis. But the burning drop of idealism that Dante contributed to the passion of the Middle Ages has made possible the love of which we now and again catch a glimpse in the union of select natures. And that the seed of such flowering may be carried about the world is one of the fairest hopes and possibilities of the human race.


The originals of these narratives are to be found in Roquefort’s edition of the Poésies de Marie de France; in a volume of the Nouvelles Françoises en Prose, edited by Moland and D’Héricault; and in M. Gaston Raynaud’s text of La Chatelaine de Vergi.

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