Saints and sinners in the works of Marie de France
MacKenzie, Francis Henri Maurice
Master of Arts, the University of British Columbia (1963)
The problem of this thesis may be briefly stated: What was Marie de France trying to say when she wrote the Espurgatoire, the Fables and the Lais? What exactly was she trying to tell her Twelfth Century audiences and how did she wish posterity to interpret her compositions? Were her books written to entertain or to edify? Or again, did she have in mind some moral or spiritual improvement yet wish to entertain simultaneously? With a view to discovering the answers to some of these questions, the writer decided to undertake an analysis of the themes of sin and saintliness in the works of Marie de France. Some of the terms frequently used in the course of the investigation (e.g. sin, saintliness, theology) were then defined. In the Espurgatoire, it was discovered that the main theme was the theme of sin. There were few specific sins mentioned in that work, however. In the Fables, on the other hand, the sins are always specific. An attempt to classify the Fables yielded six categories which revealed Marie’s wide range of interests and her deep concern with the problems of good and evil. This medieval ethic in the Fables is religious. A first group of seven Lais was examined. The content of each lay was discussed, the magic elements traced, the destiny motif and the theme of sin analysed. The aim of this procedure was to reveal the complexity of Marie de France’s compositions—a complexity to be found in the various themes of the Lais, their symbols, their structure, and on occasion, their language. In a second group of five Lais, the writer pursued his analysis of the themes of sin and of saintliness. In seven out of a total of twelve Lais, the sins revealed were clearly theological. In the Prologue to the Lais, the writer tried to show that there was no real break in the meaning of lines 1-27. The connecting link seemed to him to be the idea of a process of explanation. Marie’s message is that deep, important truths must be continually examined and interpreted afresh. This is hard work, but it may help to ward off sin. The poetess elaborates upon the theme of saintliness in the Espurgatoire,in those sections of the narrative dealing with the life of St. Patrick, the Terrestrial Paradise and the Celestial Paradise. She also provides further illustrations of the theme in the Lais of Fresne and Eliduc. The message in the Espurgatoire, the Fables and the Lais is an exhortation to avoid sin in this world and seek salvation in the life to come. (The Fables and the Lais are also entertainment of the highest order.) Marie’s interest in religion in the Espurgatoire is obvious. The medieval ethic in the Fables is religious. The preoccupation of the poetess with the problems of good and evil in the Lais shows the same deep moral concern. Marie’s audience for all three works was the same, i.e. the lay nobles, but there is evidence in her writings that she wished posterity to think about and expound her texts. Devotion, tenderness, trust and reason play an important role in Marie’s concept of love, which is closely allied to that of destiny. She accepted the knightly code of morals and was not unacquainted with the casuistry of courtly love, yet she rejected “l’amour courtois,” which she probably held to be contrary to Christian ethics. Marie de France’s thinking is, on the whole, typically medieval. Her conclusions are almost all orthodox. She shows in the Fables, however, that although she believes in
authority, she is not prepared to tolerate its abuse. Nor does Marie’s orthodoxy allow her to be complacent about the problem of “la mal-mariee.” The fact that she is even prepared, on occasion, to condone adultery would seem to suggest that her views on the role of women in the Twelfth Century were not quite orthodox. Were secular influences responsible for this independence of thought, or are both secular and religious influences accountable? What is certain is that Marie de France was interested in the Christian ideal of conduct, with its assumption on the one hand of human imperfection, and on the other, of an infinite perfectibility. Thus, it would be possible to look upon the combined works of Marie de France as a triptych, i.e. a set of three panels with pictures, designs or carvings, so hinged, that the two side panels may be folded over the central one. The Lais–the most complex of the three works— would be the central panel and the Fables and the Espurgatoire would be the two side panels. Such a triptych would certainly be used as an altar-piece for the greater glory of God.