By Jerry Root
Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 57:2 (2003)
Abstract: This interdisciplinary, cultural perspective on the relation of courtly love and the representation of women in Marie de France’s Lais puts the discourse of courtly love and its image of women in the Lais into a dialogue with the historical representation of women in the Coutumes de Beauvaisis in order to understand better the discursive space available for the representation of women. Despite of the valorization of women in the courtly love discourse, the space to speak of women is very similar and very limited in both the Lais and the Coutumes. Marie de France nonetheless leverages this limited space to authorize her own poetic production.
Introduction: The relation of courtly love and the representation of women in Marie de France’s Lais, taken in an interdisciplinary and cultural perspective, puts the literary representation of women from the Lais (ca 1165), particularly within the courtly love discourse, into a dialogue with the legal and historical representation of women in the Coutumes de Beauvaisis of Philippe de Beaumanoir (1283) in order that we may understand better the discursive space available for the representation of women. In other words, the dialogue between these two works produces a sense of the cultural constraints surrounding the representation of women. A narratological study of these texts provides evidence that despite the valorization of women in the courtly love discourse, the space to speak of women is very similar and very limited in both the Lais and the Coutumes. Despite these limitations, or perhaps through them, Marie authorizes herself and her representation of women by adapting to poetic reproduction women’s legal authority to testify about biological reproduction.
The purpose of a cross-reading of literary and non-literary texts, or what Brian Stock has called a “parallel mode of interpretation”, is to situate the literary representation of women in the Lais within a wider cultural and historical horizon. Beaumanoir’s Coutumes provide us with a legal representation of women that is clearly linked to historical practice. Although Beaumanoir’s compilation of custom law is a full century later than Marie’s Lais, the laws clearly represent accumulated practice and therefore do give a sense of what it was possible to say about women even for Marie in the twelfth century. This legal representation of women delineates one of the spaces in which thirteenth-century women from Beauvais spoke and acted. A juxtaposition of this trace of historical women and social practice with the literary representation of women in Marie de France brings a cultural perspective to the literary representation of women and to the role of “courtly love” in that representation. What were the limits, in social practice, of what one could say about women and what women themselves had the space to say? Were these similar in literary discourse? Did the discourse of courtly love affect these limits? Did it somehow give women more space to speak? This cultural approach should also be seen as a continuation of John Benton’s discussion of courtly love and history. While Benton addressed real historical conditions, the concern here is with a history of representational practices, with, in other words, what was speakable and imaginable rather than what was really practiced. Since structuralism, it seems safe to think of these representational practices as having a powerful historical role. Indeed, they are discourses that constitute and transform the objects of which they speak.