Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 16 (1999)
In medieval French literature, the conventional plot of courtly love focuses on the figure of the queen. As the highest ranking woman in the land, she is the natural feminine object of male heterosexual desire–a desire heightened by the social and symbolic distance that sets her apart as unapproachable and forbidding. In stories of an adulterous queen, the king often cuts a poor figure. Cuckolded by a member of his household, he remains inexplicably passive (like Arthur) or resorts to behavior unbecoming to his station (like Marc, crouching in a tree to spy on Iseut’s assignation with Tristan). Marie de France’s Equitan, on the other hand, tells the story of an adulterous king enmeshed in an affair with his seneschal’s wife. Though the lady initially resists the king’s advances, she eventually gives in; the two then plot to dispose of her husband so they may marry. In a turnabout of fair play, the seneschal discovers their disloyalty, and they are scalded to death in the hot bath intended for him. Now historically, men’s extramarital affairs were so routine that the very phrase “adulterous king” sounds nonsensical. Chroniclers show surprise not when a ruler took a mistress but rather when he did not. Why, then, does Marie de France imagine such a bad end for these particular lovers, when elsewhere in the Lais she shows sympathy for adulterous wives (as in Yonec) and for unmarried lovers (as in Lanval or Milun)? The simple answer is found in the moral Marie appends to the tale: “He who plans evil for another may have that evil rebound back on him” “Tels purcace le mal d’autrui / Dunt tuz li mals revert sur lui” (309-10). A more textured answer concerns the lai’s representation of the complex interplay between courtly forms and the responsibilities of kingship. Redistributing the roles of husband, wife, and unmarried lover, Equitan interrogates the function of kingship, situating it at the nexus of lord-vassal relations and the feudal politics of lineage.