previous section
next chapter


Only your kisses
Can restore my heart to life.
Oh Amon, let me keep what I’ve found
For all eternity.[1]

Poets have always evoked the gods, gods appropriate to the prevailing human needs. When there is leisure and prosperity enough, poems begin to express personal rather than communal encounters with the forces beyond our control, such as fear and desire. So, in the troubadour poems of southern France, love itself becomes a deity, ennobling the lover and turning his frustrated passions into gratifying songs. The troubadour tradition died out as a result of the Albigensian Crusade, but not before it had convinced the northern French writers that love was a subject at least as compelling as war.

The earliest extant troubadour poems are the work of Guillaume, who in 1086 became the ninth duke of Aquitaine. In one of his songs he complains that Love will never reward him because he desires what he cannot have.[2] And yet he is not without hope: the heart will gain power from patience. To be acceptable to Love, the lover must be humble. He must also behave properly at court and take care that his speech be decorous. In the next stanza, identical in its complex form to the others, Guillaume abruptly turns to praise of his own skills as a literary craftsman and musician. Then, in the envoi, he sends the poem to represent him to the lady he dare not seek out himself.

What the troubadour poems add to the vast literature of love is the connection between the lover and aristocratic society. The practitioner of what the poets refer to as fin’ amor must have “a gentle heart,” must be, in the sense of the word that persists in our own times, a gentleman.[3] Private experience—the sudden, magical, encounter with the beloved—transforms the lover not only inwardly but also in his relationship to others.[4] His courtesy is in that sense natural and sincere.

So too is his praise of the lady. In Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose, the Lover looks into the Pool of Narcissus and sees the Rose. Maurice Valency writes, “In the superlative worth of his lady, the lover finds the surest guarantee of his own preeminence, more particularly if his love is returned. The lover’s compliments, like all self-flattery, are therefore utterly sincere. The lady, while he loves her, is for him really the loveliest and best of women, for it is in terms of his own self-love that he sees her, and we know what power to transform is residual in that.”[5] When the troubadour Guillaume calls attention to the elegance of his song, he puts the lover’s humility in its place.

The lover suffers from his lady’s absence, or her rejection, and is terrified in her presence, but the key word in the troubadour’s description of love is joy. Guillaume IX wrote an entire poem around joy, saying that it cannot be found “in will or desire, in thought or in meditation,”[6] and that nothing compares to it. Joy refers also to courteous social behavior; the lover, even in anguish, does not impose his mournfulness on others. Joy expresses his gratitude to Love, who may yet allow him that other joy, when the lady grants him her drudari and his hands reach under her cloak.[7]

Neither the art of Guillaume IX nor the concept of fin’ amor could have arisen without antecedents. Various suggestions have been made about possible sources, one of which is Arabic poetry. There are clear resemblances between the strophic meters of Latin religious poems and the forms used by Guillaume and later troubadours.[8] Guillaume calls his lady mi dons, “my lord,” and Gilbert Highet points out that Latin poets, beginning with Catullus, “call their mistresses dominae, and practice or advise complete subjection to the will of the beloved.”[9]

Whatever gave rise to the troubadour poems had little effect on the literature of northern France. There, during the first half of the twelfth century, poetry was mainly devoted to warriors, whose love was all for the emperor or their comrades or even for God, but certainly not for women. Count Roland, dying on the battlefield and remembering his life, had no thought for Aude, the woman he was to marry and who would die when she heard of his death.

By the mid-twelfth century, northern poets called trouvères were creating their own version of the troubadour tradition, and the warriors of the chansons de geste were beginning to fall in love. The roman, or romance—a long narrative poem in octosyllabic couplets—became the dominant literary genre. The word roman referred to the vernacular language, which was increasingly used in place of Latin in literature. Because the subjects of the earliest romances were drawn from classical antiquity, the roman is “Roman” as well. The medieval authors’ adaptation of their sources made romance in the sense of “love interest” central to the European narrative tradition. In Homer’s Iliad, Briseis is simply a prize of war. Benoît de Ste-Maure, in The Romance of Troy (ca. 1165), causes the Trojan hero Troilus to fall in love with her. When she is to be returned to her Greek father, Troilus and Briseida swear undying love, but Briseida succumbs to the eloquence of Diomedes, and Troilus dies in despair.[10] In Virgil’s Aeneid, Lavinia is “a quiet dutiful passive little girl.”[11] In The Romance of Aeneas (anonymous, ca. 1160), she initiates a passionate love affair.

In lyric poetry the lady’s role is passive: she is the source of a man’s aspiration. But in a romance the characters have to interact, even if the story is primarily the knight’s. There had of course been lyric poems in the woman’s voice, including the earliest fragments of medieval vernacular poetry.[12] In Provence there were some twenty known women troubadours, trobairitz, their poems similar in theme to those of the men but considerably more personal in expression.[13] In Old French dances and weaving songs, whose authors and even their approximate dates remain unknown, women joyfully proclaim their ability to triumph over loveless and brutal marriages. But the romances introduced elaborate analyses of young people overcome by unfamiliar emotions. These are the tentative first steps toward the French psychological novel.

The enhanced status of women in literature had little equivalence in real life.[14] Recent studies have shown that women in the twelfth century were more disenfranchised than they had been during the Roman Empire and under Germanic law.[15] The marriage laws to which they were subject were more constricting; wives were valued simply as property. It is a basic principle of fin’ amor that love cannot exist without freedom. But this is, for the most part, the freedom of men. Courtly love, says Georges Duby, is a man’s game,[16] although few could have been as aggressive as Guillaume IX, who said to a bald papal prelate, “The comb will curl the hair on your head before I put aside the vicomtesse.”[17]

The performance of courtly song was part of the fabric of courtly society. Literature, at least, deferred to women, as well as to their aesthetic preferences, especially when reinforced by their patronage. Southern attitudes traveled north with Eleanor of Aquitaine, granddaughter of Guillaume IX. She married Louis VII of France, and later Henry Plantagenet, king of England. Her opinions and those of her daughter, Marie de Champagne, were evoked (or invented) by Marie’s chaplain Andreas, whose De Arte Honeste Amandi (Art of Courtly Love) imitates the style, and perhaps the irony, of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (Art of Love). But the courtly literature written by men reflects their interests rather than those of women, however influential these may have been.[18]

Marie de Champagne was the patroness of Chrétien de Troyes, who made King Arthur’s court the ideal of twelfth-century aristocracy, displacing its earlier models derived from ancient Greece and Rome. Before Chrétien, Geoffroy of Monmouth had described Arthur’s court in his fictional History of the Kings of Britain and briefly expressed what would be the new connection between women and warriors: “Nor would they deign have the love of none save he had thrice approved him in the wars…[and the knights were] the nobler for their love.”[19]

In Chrétien’s romances, the Celtic magic of Arthurian legend gives a compelling charm to contemporary problems that remain relevant today. Chrétien wrote most often of conjugal love, attempting to reconcile fin’ amor and the facts of marriage. In Erec and Enide, Enide is given to her future husband by her father, who certainly doesn’t request her opinion. He essentially says to Erec, an advantageous match, “Here! She’s yours.” But Chrétien goes on to describe the passionate relationship of the young couple, whose difficulties in adjusting stem precisely from Erec’s failure to distinguish between a lover and a wife. A period of estrangement allows their reconciliation to be not only romantic in feeling but also propitious for the continued harmony of their marriage. As John Stevens says, “They are renewed with all the freshness of new love.”[20] The trials they have passed through have also brought them awareness of the place of that love in relation to social responsibility. Similarly in Yvain, a man’s obligations to his work—doing knightly deeds and maintaining his reputation—conflict with obligations to wife and home. Chrétien’s Philomena (included in the present volume), explores the dark side of love. In this non-Arthurian work, derived from Ovid, the treatment of the female characters is remarkably sympathetic compared to that of Chrétien’s source.

Almost nothing is really known about Marie de France. The name we give her comes from the epilogue to her Fables,[21] where she calls herself Marie and says that she is “de France” (from France). She was probably living in England at the time, and the king to whom she dedicates the Lais may have been Henry II, the husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was clearly at ease in courtly society, whether or not she lived “in the world,” and was well educated. In the first lai in her collection, she addresses herself with confidence to an audience of noble lords: “Oez, seigneurs, ke dit Marie” (Hear, my lords, what Marie has to say).[22]

Marie seems to have begun writing the lais, which Stevens aptly calls “short story romances,”[23] somewhat before the first of Chrétien’s romans. Her influence was certainly less extensive than his, and the scope of her works is narrower, but few writers have been her equal in quality. She does not invent stories but retells them in a style that seems transparent in its simplicity, yet her versions escape restrictive interpretation. She asserts the value of love for women as well as for men. As Joan Ferrante writes, love in the lais “is more than a force that inspires the lover and gives him a new sense of himself; it is also a means of overcoming the pains of the world. It frees the lover’s imagination from the bonds that society imposes on it, and it is a gift that women can partake of as fully as men.”[24]

Toward the end of the twelfth century, Jean Renart introduced a new kind of romance, one with a much greater emphasis on details of everyday life. In his earliest known work, L’Escoufle (The Kite), a pair of very young lovers are separated and make their way in the world without the help of money or their aristocratic families. The young woman supports herself by doing embroidery and by giving shampoos to noblemen.[25] The hero of Guillaume de Dole fights in ordinary tournaments, distinguishing himself, of course, but not without bruises. His sister emerges from a sheltered life to defend herself in court, recovering her threatened honor by a bold and ingenious ruse.

The latter work’s inclusion of lyric poems was widely imitated, but otherwise Jean Renart was not taken as a model. His audience may have missed the distancing quality of an Arthurian setting. His irony, often aggressive and hard to evaluate, may also have been negatively perceived. Judging from the number of extant manuscripts, Jean Renart’s shorter work, Le Lai de l’ombre (here translated as The Reflection), was more successful. It is an unidealized representation of courtship in refined society—or, more exactly, seduction.

In all the works mentioned above, the author’s voice suggests multiple points of view; even when the narrative ends unhappily, there is a sense that things could have been otherwise. Writing of Tristan and Iseut, Marie selects a nontragic aspect of their story. But in La Chastelaine de Vergi, for which Stuip gives 1240 as a probable date,[26] alternative endings are totally excluded, notwithstanding authorial comment. Misfortune, as predicted in the prologue, is the inevitable consequence of the failure to keep love secret. La Chastelaine de Vergi was enormously successful, surviving in a variety of forms in several languages until the original text was rediscovered in the early nineteenth century. It might be said to participate in the evolution of the idea of “romance” toward the more somber beauty that Rousseau called romantique.

In the introduction to his Cligès, Chrétien lists “The Metamorphosis of the Hoopoe, the Swallow, and the Nightingale” among his works. The poem to which he refers is Philomena. This text came to light only in 1885, when Gaston Paris found it embedded in a fourteenth-century work called L’Ovide moralisé, with an allegorical interpretation attached.

Jean Frappier’s Chrétien de Troyes devotes to Philomena only a very few pages.[27] These, however, emphatically attribute the work to Chrétien, despite the doubts of other critics. The question of authorship was the topic of most interest in studies of the poem until the 1980s, when feminist readers began to examine the importance of the legend itself, from its earliest literary expressions in ancient Greece.

Book 6 of the Metamorphoses begins with Arachne and ends with Philomela. Ovid writes of Arachne with considerable sympathy. She was foolish to enter into a weaving competition with Athena, but in fact she won the contest. Dante includes Arachne among his symbols of pride,[28] and indeed it is her presumptuousness that is said to have evoked the goddess’s rage. But Athena’s violence seems entirely out of proportion. She destroys Arachne’s weaving, beats her until she hangs herself—or is lynched[29]—and finally turns her into a spider. Ovid tells us without comment what was depicted on Arachne’s loom: women being raped by gods disguised as beasts. Feminist critics have been more inclined to speculate on the connection between Arachne’s subject and the goddess’s wrath, Athena being, as Patricia Joplin reminds us, “an extension of Zeus.” As Joplin puts it, “For Arachne to tell the most famous tales of women raped by the gods is for her to begin to demystify the gods (the sacred) as the beasts (the violent).”[30] But the subject matter of the weaving was presumably Ovid’s contribution. Arachne had assumed that the standards of craftsmanship applied equally to gods and to humans; what she depicts would suggest that her standards of morality should also apply to the acts of divinities. Europa and the other victims do not appear to be flattered by the attentions of the rapists—another cause, perhaps, of Athena’s wrath.

Weaving in the story of Philomela is much more obviously a means of communication;[31] nevertheless, Ovid gives the weaver only the plainest materials and does not elaborate on the pictorial representation of her rape and mutilation. When Chrétien rewrites Ovid’s text, taking full advantage of the freedom given translators in his day, he makes us aware of Philomena’s extraordinary skill, both in his initial description of her and later on, when her weaving involves many colors and an intricate design.

The critic Geoffrey Hartman understands Philomena’s victory as “a triumph of Art itself.” Joplin would reclaim for “the voice of the shuttle” its own specific occasion:[32] the woman reduced to silence when she would most desire to speak, and finding in her art a source of power. We can only speculate about why Chrétien was attracted to this story, but considering the changes he made in Ovid’s text and the treatment of women in his subsequent works, it would seem that both these views of Philomena were part of his intention. He may also have been interested in the story as a corrective to the contemporary enthusiasm for Love.

In Ovid’s version, Philomela is simply a beautiful girl—like a naiad, but much better dressed. Chrétien describes her beauty in a long formal portrait, omitting Ovid’s humorous remark, and gives equal space to an enumeration of all that Philomena knew. Her savoir includes games and amusements, falconry, embroidery, the literary arts—reading and writing both verse and prose—music, and effective speech.[33] Her conversations with Tereus, which similarly have no equivalent in Ovid, show her as self-possessed and intelligent. Pandion’s speeches in praise of his daughter are certainly to her honor, although he himself may appear self-indulgent and even improper in his attachment to her.[34]

Tereus sees Philomena as an object of desire; for him her savoir has not the slightest importance. But he selects as a guard an old woman whose savoir will be the tyrant’s undoing. Not only is she skilled in embroidery, thus providing both incentive and materials, she is also compassionate, obeying the letter of Tereus’s requirements but increasingly sympathetic to his prisoner, about whom she had asked many questions.[35] Tereus, says the author, had foolishly answered them, no doubt assuming the old woman would be indifferent. To include this conversation, Chrétien had to sacrifice plausibility: if Tereus had indeed told her the truth, the old woman should have recognized what was pictured in Philomena’s weaving.

Tereus becomes obsessed with Philomena the instant he sees her. Ovid explains that Tereus is a barbarian from Thrace, and therefore passionate by nature. Several of Chrétien’s additions to Ovid’s text seem similarly intended to make Tereus appear less reprehensible. When Philomena first appears, Chrétien tells us that she did not look like a “veiled nun,” which seems to suggest that she would have done better to make herself less attractive, more inclined toward piety. Even more striking is the passage that evokes an imaginary pagan law, not found in Ovid: Tereus’s seduction of his sister-in-law would have been within his rights had she been his sister instead (219–33). His transgression, then, is only a kind of technicality.[36] The irresistible power of love, lengthily described in Ovidian terms, sweeps Tereus away into madness; he is, from that point of view, a victim.[37]

But one has the impression that in the very act of articulating this doctrine, Chrétien loses faith. He contradicts himself, complaining that there is in love itself a lack of wisdom (419–48) and then stating that love is not insanity (491–92).[38] Tereus shows that he can still listen to Reason by giving up his plan to abduct Philomena. When she is entirely in his power, he tries, briefly, to persuade her to grant him her love freely. But once the rape occurs, and the subsequent mutilation, both Love and Reason vanish from Chrétien’s story.

Ovid tells us that Tereus had intervened to save Athens at a time when Pandion had no other allies, having failed to offer help to the neighboring kingdoms in their time of need. Procne was a kind of return gift, and no one, of course, asked whether she was pleased to marry a barbarian. Ovid has her flirting with her husband, but Chrétien shows her as simply deferential, and concerned lest he be distressed by her desire to visit her sister. Chrétien gives us no indication that Procne has a capacity for violence. She says nothing whatsoever when Tereus insists, without explanation, on going to Greece himself. We might, of course, imagine that her silence conceals many thoughts.

But when Tereus returns without Philomena, Procne turns his lying words to Pandion (530–536) into a self-fulfilling prophecy: she will indeed have nothing further to do with him, and he will indeed lose his son. The funeral rites she performs strangely combine Christian and pagan beliefs, but her intensity in observing them does not hint at the murderous rage she later displays. Chrétien rejects Ovid’s portrayal of Procne disguised as a bacchante, a scene that connects her subsequent acts with ritual frenzy. Ovid’s Procne is concerned only with revenge, debating the choice of means. In Chrétien’s version she realizes that she has no means and prays that God will provide some (1288–91). It is at this instant that Itis, looking so much like his father, comes into the room. Even the act of murder is less gruesome than in Ovid; Procne is not compared to a tigress with a fawn, and Philomena does not wield a knife herself, although she does share in the preparation of the meat.

The transformation of Tereus and the sisters into birds comes from the Greek tradition. Ovid’s Tereus becomes a warlike hoopoe; the other two birds are identified only by their habitat and united in a lurid description: “Such birds have stains of murder on their breasts / In flickering drops of blood among their feathers.”[39] Chrétien states without comment that Procne became a swallow, but he gives to Philomena fifteen lines that restore her voice and define her particular way of bearing witness, of seeking revenge. Like the artfully woven tapestry that reveals a hidden wrong but is not in itself an instrument of justice, the nightingale sings that traitors deserve shame and death. She grieves for the betrayal of innocent women but sings as sweetly (doucemant) as she can, luring us closer to unbearable truths.

In Greek legend it is Procne who becomes the nightingale, and her song is “Itys, Itys.”[40] “Oci, oci,” which became the traditional cry of the nightingale in Old French, seems to have originated with Chrétien.[41]Oci has been uniformly understood as the imperative “kill,” but it also may be a past participle, suggesting Philomena’s cry of regret or lamentation.

In Marie de France’sThe Nightingale, the bird is itself a fiction within the fiction, but it is trapped in surrounding realities and slain. In the prologue to the Lais, Marie says that she often stayed awake at night writing her stories. Readers have noticed a resemblance to the lady of The Nightingale, who stayed awake to commune with her lover and who may or may not have been listening to the bird’s song. The beginning of the lai praises both husband and lover, whose bunté (goodness, benevolence) “gave the city its good name” (11). But the husband is not otherwise commended, and his relationship with his wife is noticeably formal. The bacelers—a young, unmarried man of the knightly class—is said to be valiant and generous. “He loved his neighbor’s wife” (23), and she fell in love with him because of his reputation and the eloquence of his courtship, and because he lived next door. Marie’s practicality makes one smile—and at the same time remember that for a wife imprisoned in her marriage, happiness would have to be “next door,” if at all.

Similarly, they are said to love sagement, which could be either “wisely” or “without taking any chances.” But this story takes place in the real world, where nothing magical will come to the rescue. The lady is closely watched, and her husband, as we are shown, can be violent. So the young man, when he isn’t at tournaments, is content to talk with his love at her window; and she takes such delight in his presence that she goes to her window too often. There are no ironic overtones when Marie describes their meetings, which resemble those of Eliduc and Guilliadun: . . . Never wild
Or frivolous, they kept to mild
Pleasures of courtship, talked and sent
Gifts to each other, well content
To be together when they could.

It is the lady in The Nightingale who distinguishes the nightingale from springtime birds in general, perhaps without thinking of the Metamorphoses.Guigemar, the first story in Marie de France’s collection, also features a lady whose husband has enclosed her in a strong house, and a more precise reference to Ovid. On the walls of the lady’s bedroom a mural depicts Venus throwing Ovid’s books into a fire and “excommunicating” those who would follow his teachings. Scholars have given these lines, and also Marie’s opinion of ancient authors as expressed in the prologue, conflicting interpretations, but as Nancy Vine Durling writes, it does seem “appropriate that in this passage a powerful female figure replace Ovid.”[42] In Marie’s nightingale story, the violence comes entirely from the husband and is, although distressing, primarily symbolic. It does not lead to further violence. The silenced nightingale, wrapped in a cloth on which something has been written or embroidered, tells its story.

Interpretations of The Nightingale vary widely. At one extreme is John Fowles: “We have all known of the not very daring affaire between two overromantic egos that ends up as a dead bird in a precious casket, more treasured for its failure than lamented for its lack of courage.” Glyn S. Burgess takes an intermediate view: “Her ephemeral relationship provides her with a happiness spiced with risk, but she is finally left with nothing but her memories and her embroidery.” Jacques Ribard understands what is seen from the lady’s window as a glimpse of the unknown—another world, the object of a spiritual quest, never abandoned and never to be accomplished.[43]

Marie teaches that the story transcends the conflicting views it may engender. One may say that The Nightingale’s lovers lack courage, but one could equally well argue that resignation is, in the real world, their only possible response. To put the dead bird in a reliquary is a pathetic sacrilege; yet the gesture in itself is a commitment to the value of shared love, as opposed to the brutal emotions of the husband. Either way, the glittering casket preserves and evokes the story, not as it would have been told by the lover himself, but made treasurable by literary art.

In The Two Lovers, the dominating male figure is a father rather than a husband, and the feelings of the daughter include a reluctance to hurt him. The test he devised for her suitors is neither glamorous nor heroic, and when the princess falls in love she finds a practical means of enabling her lover to succeed. Some readers admire her good sense. Others think she should have been more adventurous: the boy had tried to persuade her to elope. Nevertheless, he accepts her more moderate solution, and when he starts his climb is fully resolved to use the strengthening potion. Marie tells us it will be of no use to him, because “he has no sense of moderation (mesure) at all.” In fact, the reasonableness he did have is lost in the joy of holding the maiden in his arms and of reaching the halfway point. But that joy kills them both.

Like The Nightingale, this lai has often seemed to be making a moral statement. Paula Clifford, for example, says that “the tragic outcome, due to his rejecting the magic potion, is made quite clear by Marie…, who relates it specifically to the lack of mesure.”[44] Other critics admire the youthful spirit, the heroic self-confidence, and the desire to succeed without help, or perhaps a sense that otherwise it would be cheating. The lai makes grandiose allusions to Roland and to Iseut; some see this as mocking, while for others it gives the children heroic stature. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante believe that Marie deliberately overloads the slender tale in order to “urge the fragility of the literary tradition of ennobling, tragic love.”[45]

Yet it seems to me that balance is the essence of Marie’s art. When she writes of the boy that “To become the best knight anywhere / Was what he wanted most to do” (52–53), the statement carries a positive and negative charge at once. Similarly, there would have to be both timidity and affection in a young girl’s choice not to run away from home. Hanning and Ferrante, who admire the lai as self-parody, nevertheless conclude: “The refusal of the potion is at once the triumph and the death of childhood’s exalted vision—but the acceptance of the potion would spell the end of the illusion from another point of view.”[46] Marie’s synthesis of lucidity—the spirit of comedy—and tenderness for the humans so clearly observed is dominant in her work and is a rare literary accomplishment.

Within the story of Tristan and Iseut, Honeysuckle, Marie’s shortest lai, shows the lovers in separation and then briefly together, thanks to Tristan’s inscription on a branch from a hazel tree or, in other readings, on the tree itself. What Tristan wrote, says the text, was sun nun—“his name,” unless it is “her name.”[47] Lovers usually inscribe the name of the beloved. It would be dangerous to reveal the presence of “Tristan”; indiscreet to write “Iseut.” Critics have put forth a number of ingenious speculations, but the ambiguity of sun nun corresponds to the fused identity of the lovers, as does our uncertainty about which of them the vine represents and which the tree. What the text makes clear is that the message was meant for Iseut alone.

Reference to the twining vine and the tree is included in “la summe” (the contents, or a summary) of a different message, a written one that Tristan had earlier sent to the queen (61–76). Michelle Freeman observes that as Marie gives us this version of Tristan’s words, her “voice blends, or interlaces, with Tristan’s.”[48] The couplet that follows, in Tristan’s words (77–78), gives us a hint of what his own lai would have been like, presumably composed in Wales after this secret meeting (107–13). Called Gotelef or Chevrefoil, its words and music gave expression to Tristan’s remembered joy and recorded the paroles—the words of the lovers—that Marie’s lai alludes to but does not reveal.

Lanval and Eliducare less elusive on the subject of love; their culminating mystery is instead a form of Grace. Although different in scope and milieu, they have similar plots. Both portray a great lord who mistreats an exemplary vassal. Isolated then from society—Eliduc leaves his home and goes into exile, while Lanval is already abroad and lacking friends—each is offered a gift of love. Each commits an unpardonable transgression and finds a seemingly impossible forgiveness. There is no explanation of that mercy.

Among Marie’s lais, only Lanval takes place at King Arthur’s court, which traditionally represents the best the human world can offer. The son of a foreign king, Lanval has entered the service of King Arthur and distinguished himself in his wars, only to be forgotten when the knights are rewarded. Lanval, who has been generous, finds himself without resources.

Alone in a meadow, disconsolate, he is approached by two maidens who invite him to their mistress’s opulent tent. The boundary of the Other World of Celtic legend is indicated by a nearby stream and by the trembling of Lanval’s horse. The lady’s beauty, unearthly in its perfection, shows her to be a fée, as does her prior knowledge of Lanval. She has come from her distant country to seek him, and asks only that he return her love and promise to keep it secret. There is no courtship, no period of testing. Lanval needs only a moment in her presence to love absolutely. She is perfectly responsive to his sexual desires, and her gifts solve all the practical problems of his life, but wonders such as these could possibly be found in the human realm. What truly matters to Lanval is something in the quality of his experience, through the fée, of the Other World, an experience that Marie’s text surrounds with evocative silence.[49]

Arthur’s wife, unnamed in the lai, is attracted by Lanval’s new prominence at court, and she too offers her love. No doubt the shock of the difference between the fée and the queen, in manner as well as in beauty, can account for Lanval’s hasty reply when the queen, in her fury at being rejected, insults him. He boasts of his lady, betraying the secret. It seems clear that the fée will never reappear. What follows shows Lanval’s total commitment to his love. The trial that will condemn him has no importance; all that matters is what he has lost.

Eliduc, also a foreigner in service to a king, is similarly offered a love he did not seek, by a princess he loves in return. Unlike Lanval, who seems entirely worthy of the fée, Eliduc is weak at best. He cannot bring himself to tell the princess he has a wife; he neither rejects nor really responds to her advances. Having been falsely accused of treachery by his first lord, he now behaves dishonorably to another.[50] A list of his evasions and misdeeds would make it seem impossible that the reader could feel any sympathy for him at all. He refrains only from physical adultery. But Marie leads him so slowly from one, fairly excusable, fault to another that he seems to be trapped with-out any decent way out, as the princess continues to trust him and his wife waits at home. Finally eloping with the maiden, who has said that otherwise she would die, he has no plan beyond some kind of hope for the best. Because his desperation is so close to madness, the murder of a sailor, who in revealing Eliduc’s marriage caused Guilliadun’s apparent death, can be made to seem only a detail.

The title of this lai, as Marie tells us at the beginning, is really Guildelüec and Guilliadun, the similar names of the women. Like those who realized that the beauty of Lanval’s fée justified his presumed insult to the queen, Guildelüec, looking at the dead girl, understands her husband’s inexplicable grief and shares it. Thanks to a strange little miracle with its own components of violence and love, Guildelüec revives the maiden, who then tells her story, reproaching men for their betrayals.

When Arthur’s court is about to condemn Lanval, the fée, in an act of truly royal generosity, makes herself visible to all. Even more than in her own white and gold, there is magic in the extremely slow pace of her pure white horse, in the presence of sparrowhawk and hound. The king and his vassals are eager to do her honor, but nothing they can offer is relevant. She exonerates Lanval as far as the king’s justice is concerned, but of his real betrayal she says nothing, nor does she look at him. The omission points to what is involved when Lanval leaps on the back of the fée’s horse. This gesture, which some readers have found awkward, perfectly represents an act of faith, a crossing of the boundary to the Other World, where Lanval’s own skills and knowledge cannot take him. With no guarantees, even of forgiveness, Lanval rejects Arthur’s court and goes with the fée to Avalon, from which no one ever returns. The similarity of that name to his suggests that it is Lanval’s true homeland.

As Guilliadun resembles the fée in her beauty, Guildelüec is like her in generosity, bestowing her gifts as if that were perfectly natural and required no comment. She restores Guilliadun to life and happiness, allowing her husband to make a marriage of love. Her benevolence shows the way toward a spiritual domain beyond the pleasures of the world. Eliduc and Guilliadun will follow her; they live in “perfect love,” devoting themselves increasingly to good works, and finally renounce secular life.[51]

The protagonist of Jean Renart’s The Reflection is the very definition of a man-of-the-world: handsome, generous, skilled in tournament fighting, sophisticated in manner, successful with women; With many he was wont to make
Division of his heart, true lover
To none…
Now he sees a woman he truly desires, and finds that his charm, his looks, his elegance are working against him. Courtly love requires a courtly facade, a stylized expression of devotion, which might or might not have its source in the real thing.

The lady, who has been living an irreproachable life for a long time, is not averse to the idea of taking a lover but naturally wants to be sure that the candidate is worthy.[52] Knowing the knight’s reputation, she is pleased when he calls on her, yet wary. He tells her the truth: that no other woman matters to him anymore, and he hopes that she will save him from the cruel torments of love. She replies: My lord, I would be most surprised
If it could in fact be true
That any man who looked like you
Was pining for love…
He reacts to the implied compliment by suggesting that the welcoming expression in her eyes is a truer indication of her feelings than her words, at which she rejects him utterly as a boor.

To recover from his blunder the knight uses a great many words of his own, but nothing he can say or promise has any effect. What does impress the lady, however, is the sight of his blush and the tears mingling red and white on his face. This strikes her as such a proof of sincerity that she resorts to evoking her duty to her husband. And although the knight argues that taking pity on him would be as much to her spiritual credit as a pilgrimage overseas, she still refuses, and refuses also a ring he offers her.

The inner debate between the lady’s inclination and Reason grows so intense that she falls into a kind of distraction. The knight slips the ring on her finger unobserved and hastily takes his leave. Jean Renart does not give names to this knight and lady, the better for them to represent the generalized human problem of evaluating appearances. Underneath the advances and retreats of the conversation, Jean Renart lets us perceive real emotions. The lady is not as indifferent as she appears. When the knight leaves abruptly, she thinks his words must after all have been false. The sight of the ring on her finger is a relief, but then she worries that acceptance of it might make him believe she was easily won. She decides to throw the ring in the well if the knight won’t take it back.

He, summoned by the lady’s messenger, is sure that his ring has had the desired effect. When, despite his long pleas and protestations, he finds it in his hand again, he is inspired to say he will give it instead to “next to you the one / I love best” (888–89). Here again the lady’s reaction tells us her real feelings: she imagines for an instant that she has already been replaced. Such credulity can be explained by intensity of interest; she fears to lose something she really values. When the knight gives the ring to her reflection, she perceives him as a model of graciousness and acknowledges her own feeling of love.

John Stevens writes that the knight’s response “seems to crystallize for all time an exquisite moment of courtliness;…a gesture of almost quixotic courtesy [that] claims the lady’s surrender.”[53] It certainly creates a crisis in their elegant, stylized conversation, to which she has to respond. But Jean Renart tells us in the beginning of the lai that what the knight suffered because of love was worse than having teeth pulled by a barber. The image strikes us as incongruous because it is so physical, inappropriate to the knight’s words but not, in fact, to the nature of his quest. The lady herself has no illusions about this. The knight had boasted that a year and a half would be enough for her to make him worthy of her love. But they are still sitting beside the well, which Jean Renart has told us was not very deep, when, without further talk of “service,” he takes her in his arms.

All the elements of a love relationship that are cheerfully omitted from The Reflection are the substance of The Chatelaine of Vergi. Here courtship is in the past, a mutual trust having been long since established, and the couple’s physical relationship reflects their real commitment to each other. The lai has obvious affinities with Lanval and may have been written in response to it. But the chatelaine is a human being, and we can participate in her emotions, whereas we really have no access to those of the fée.[54]

Although Lanval, in a moment of inattention, broke his promise, he was ultimately allowed to determine his own fate. The author of The Chatelaine of Vergi turns the same biblical plot of Potiphar’s wife into an inexorable trap. The commonsensical ways out—the knight could have found a way to tell the lady his dilemma, she could have had enough confidence in him to wait and ask questions—simply do not apply. As soon ask why Othello trusted Iago more than Desdemona. Tragic art gives a sense that things could not be otherwise.[55]

An analysis of the plot shows a series of interconnected betrayals, a formal structure in which two peripheral figures serve as innocent messengers: the little dog, whose presence was a signal for the knight, and the serving girl. The latter was in the room, unseen, when the chatelaine died, crouching beside the bed as if she too were a kind of household pet, unable to intervene. The betrayals are not spontaneous, like Lanval’s, but always the result of a decision: the duchess decides to revenge herself on the knight by lying to her husband, the nature of her accusation being such that the knight then decides his best response is to tell his secret to the duke, who in turn decides he should entrust it to his wife, because she tells him that true love (even in marriage) requires perfect faith. Finally, the chatelaine decides she has nothing left to live for, since her lover revealed their secret—and did so, as she believes, for love of the duchess.

The chatelaine’s monologue—an invocation to death, a Liebestod— seems to break free of this sequence of events. Like Aude, Iseut, and the young princess in The Two Lovers, she dies, without violence, for love. But the chatelaine dies because her lover betrayed her. The emphasis is on love, past and present, rather than grief. Lost happiness is evoked without bitterness; the chatelaine forgives the unfaithful knight and asks God to bless him. But in fact, in the temporal world of narrative, she does her lover an injustice. We might ad-mire the chatelaine less, if we did not know she was wrong. As it is, most readers are moved by her words, melodic even within the rigid couplets. They make the cruel mistakes of life inexplicably beautiful.


1. Raymond A. Mc Coy, The Golden Goddess: Ancient Egyptian Love Lyrics (Menomonie, Wisconsin: Enchiridion Publications, 1972), 20. [BACK]

2. “Pus vezem de novel florir,” in Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères, ed. and trans. Frederick Goldin (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1973), 36–40. [BACK]

3. Fin’ amor literally means “refined love.” William Calin suggests that the term “courtly love,” first used by Gaston Paris in 1881, was intended as a “kind of translation of the expression fin’ amor as used in Provençal and in Old French.” “Defense and Illustration of Fin’ Amor,” in The Expansions and Transformations of Courtly Literature (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 34. Peter Dronke gives a more generalized definition of fin’ amor in his discussion of the troubadour Marcabru: “Fin’ Amors is all that is true, truly loved or truly loving, in whatever mode, earthly or heavenly, it finds expression; all that is genuinely felt, devoid of treachery or dissembling, calculation or greed or fear.” The Medieval Lyric (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1968), 210. [BACK]

4. In his Medieval Romance (New York: Norton, 1973), John Stevens calls attention to this phenomenon in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, quoting 1:1076–78 to illustrate “the ennoblement of Troilus, his social improvement (to put it no higher): ‘And in the town his manere tho forth ay / Soo goodly was, and gat hym so in grace, / That ecch hym loved that loked on his face’ ” (40). [BACK]

5. Maurice Valency, In Praise of Love (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 26. [BACK]

6. “Mout jauzens me prenc en amar,” lines 14–15, translated by Goldin, Lyrics of the Troubadours, 43. [BACK]

7. “Ab la dolchor del temps nouvel,” lines 22–24, ibid., 46. [BACK]

8. Goldin, Lyrics of the Troubadours, 14–15. [BACK]

9. Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 578n. 34. Meg Bogin notes that “the Arab poets had used a similar form of address, variously given as sidi or sayidd—‘my lord’—in their love poems to women.” The Women Troubadours (New York: Paddington Press Ltd., 1976), 50n. [BACK]

10. W. T. H. Jackson, Medieval Literature (New York: Collier Books, 1966), 97. Highet, Classical Tradition, 576n. 12, agrees that this story was invented by Benoît. [BACK]

11. Highet, Classical Tradition, 56. [BACK]

12. Dronke, Medieval Lyric, 86–90. [BACK]

13. In Bogin’s analysis, “The women, unlike the men, do not idealize the relationships they write about, nor do they use the lover and the lady as allegorical figures. The women write about relationships that are immediately recognizable to us; they do not worship men, nor do they seem to want to be adored themselves.” Women Troubadours, 13.

She notes that the trobairitz were a local phenomenon of one generation only: “Certain key factors—their legal heritage, the effect of the Crusades, and their aristocratic birth—converged during their lifetime in a way that set them apart from their mothers and grandmothers and from their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe.…Marie de France…was virtually alone [among women poets in northern France]” (36). [BACK]

14. Shulamith Shahar’s statement is representative: “It should be recalled that even if this literature reflected a social reality, it was the reality of only a narrow stratum of the female population.…And even where noblewomen were concerned, the courtly literature had hardly any social effect. It brought no changes in their standing, either de jure or de facto.” The Fourth Estate (London: Methuen, 1983), 163. [BACK]

15. Suzanne Wemple’s study of Frankish society concludes that “compared to women in antiquity and primitive Germanic societies, early medieval women had achieved considerable legal and social rights.…The mutual influence of Germanic and Roman customs in family law and matrimonial arrangements resulted in the amelioration of women’s status. Women in families of Roman descent were no longer treated as perpetual minors.” Women in Frankish Society (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 189.

By contrast, “a woman under feudalism spent most of her life under the guardianship of a man—of her father until she married, of her father’s lord if her father died, and of her husband until she was widowed. The lord pocketed the money of his ward’s estate, and she had to marry a man of his choice or lose her inheritance.” Frances and Joseph Gies, Women in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper Perennial, 1978), 27. [BACK]

16. Mâle moyen âge (Paris: Flammarion, 1988), 93. Duby sees this “man’s game” as being played by the husband, who reinforces his power over the young men of his household by offering his wife as the object of their admiration. Their instructress in the civilizing arts by which she might be won, she is nonetheless inviolable, as the seigneur’s wife; hence the intensification and frustration of desire. “By exhibiting his largesse to the point of letting his lady pretend that she was gradually giving herself, he was able to gain an ever stronger hold over the young men of his household, to domesticate them in the proper sense of that term.” Medieval Marriage (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 14. Meg Bogin also believes that the poet’s praise of his lady may have been intended primarily to please her husband (Women Troubadours, 50–51).

This hidden motivation would not, of course, apply in lyric poems written by a seigneur, like Guillaume IX or Thibaut de Champagne, nor is it reflected in courtly romances. Duby understands the romances as primarily expressing the aspirations of the juvenes, younger sons who sought not a mistress but a wife, that is, property (The Chivalrous Society [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977], chapter 7). The protagonists of Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain and Renaud de Beaujeu’s Le Bel Inconnu offer examples of such young men. Of those represented in this collection, Lanval would be closest to the type.

17. Quoted by Goldin, Lyrics of the Troubadours, 5. [BACK]

18. Shahar writes, “According to many historians this body of work, more than anything which came before, typified literature written on the inspiration of women, elevating their image and answering their psychological needs. Recent interpretation of courtly literature, on the other hand, emphasizes the inner needs of man to which this literature answered.…Love in courtly literature is the center of man’s life. In order to win the love of his adored lady he must endure all the trials she imposes on him. This conduct was in complete contrast both to the marriage customs of the nobility,…and to the status of the married woman, who was subject by law to the authority of her husband.…But most important for the image of woman is the fact that in courtly literature she is not seen as a destructive force; in most of the works, love for a woman is a source of inspiration for heroic action and a factor enhancing all the moral traits of the lover.” Fourth Estate, 161–62. [BACK]

19. Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Sebastian Evans and Charles Dunn (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 202. [BACK]

20. Stevens, Medieval Romance, 38. [BACK]

21. A verse translation is Harriet Spiegel, ed. and trans., Fables (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987). [BACK]

22. Guigemar, line 3, as quoted by Glyn S. Burgess, Marie de France: Text and Context (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1987), 74. [BACK]

23. Stevens, Medieval Romance, 239. It is uncertain whether Marie considered herself to be writing lais or whether in using this word she refers to her sources. In any event, her own form of narrative verse has come to be called a lai. [BACK]

24. Joan Ferrante, Woman as Image in Medieval Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 97. [BACK]

25. Jean Renart, L’Escoufle (Paris: Droz, 1974), line 5509. [BACK]

26. René Ernst Victor Stuip, ed., La Chastelaine de Vergi (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), 65. A chastelaine was the wife of the lord of a castle. [BACK]

27. Jean Frappier, Chrétien de Troyes (Paris: Hatier, 1968), 62–68. [BACK]

28. Highet, Classical Tradition, 78. [BACK]

29. René Girard suggests that she was lynched, in Violence and the Sacred, quoted by Patricia KlindienstJoplin, “The Voice of the Shuttle Is Ours,” Stanford Literary Review 1 (spring 1984): 44n. 34. [BACK]

30. Ibid., 50. [BACK]

31. In the Old French the heroine’s name is Philomena, a spelling already found in the Ovid manuscripts that Chrétien would have used. [BACK]

Nancy A. Jones analyzes the elements of the name in Old French, showing how it “encapsulates an action”: fil (thread; son), fille (daughter), phil (Greek philia, or love), and mena, from mener (to lead)—a verb that “virtually guides the plot,” as Philomena guides the thread. Jones cites numerous examples to show the predominance of this verb, noting also the extraordinary rhyme: “. . . Philomena /…menee l’an a” (Old French lines 729–30). “The Daughter’s Text and the Thread of Lineage in the Old French Philomena,” unpublished article, 17–25. [BACK]

32. Geoffrey Hartman, “The Voice of the Shuttle: Language from the Point of View of Literature,” in Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays 1958–70 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 337; quoted by Joplin, “Voice of the Shuttle,” 25. “The voice of the shuttle,” Joplin notes, is a phrase from Sophocles’ lost play, apparently called Tereus, quoted by Aristotle (Poetics 16.4). [BACK]

33. E. Jane Burns points out that the list of Philomena’s accomplishments “ends, significantly, with a reference to her accomplished speech.” Bodytalk (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 123. [BACK]

34. Burns refers to Philomena’s father as “the ogling Pandion” (Bodytalk, 26–27). [BACK]

35. Burns comments on this undervaluing of women’s savoir and on the crucial part played by the old woman’s skill in Philomena’s self-liberation (Bodytalk, 132). [BACK]

36. In Kathryn Gravdal’s view, “The fictional law Chrétien invents, invokes, and then ‘puts aside’ actually deals with incestuous adultery. But the medieval poet quickly shifts our attention away from that fact. Repeat-ing the word loi four times, and dwelling on the lexicon of pleasure…, Chrétien allows the audience to infer that Tereus’ rape of Philomena was justifiable.” Ravishing Maidens (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 63. It is also possible, and fully compatible with his understated style, that Chrétien invented this “law” to produce just the opposite effect. [BACK]

37. Raymond Cormier argues that “on peut déceler une douleur sincère derrière les larmes de Térée” (one can detect a sincere sadness behind Tereus’s tears). “Térée, le pécheur fatal dans Philomena,Dalhousie French Studies 24 (spring–summer 1993): 1–9; my translation. [BACK]

38. Frappier comments on this statement, “N’est pas amors de forsener” (Old French line 486): “Cette maxime s’accorde au mieux avec la doctrine que les romans de Chrétien ne cesseront de défendre” (This maxim is in total agreement with the doctrine that will be argued in all of Chrétien’s romances). Chrétien de Troyes, 68; my translation. [BACK]

39. Ovid, The Metamorphoses, trans. Horace Gregory (New York: Viking, 1958), 169. Robert Cargo may well be right when he suggests that Ovid’s earlier connection between Philomela and the woodlands, “ ‘If I am shut up in these woods, I will fill the woods with my story and move the very rocks to pity’ [lines 546–47],…establishes the specific Philomena-nightingale metamorphosis.” “Marie de France Le Laüstic and Ovid’s Metamorphoses,Comparative Literature 18 (1966): 163n. 2; Cargo’s translation. In turning Philomena into a nightingale Chrétien may have been responding to this passage, or he may have had an additional source. [BACK]

40. As Nicole Loraux observes, “She [Procne] weeps both for her loss and for having committed the act which caused that loss.” “The Mourning of the Nightingale,” Pequod 35 (1993): 34. [BACK]

41. Wendy Pfeffer indicates, based on the use of oci for the nightingale’s cry in the work of a later poet, a date for Philomena before 1245. The Change of Philomel: The Nightingale in Medieval Literature (New York: Peter Lang, 1985), 137. [BACK]

42. Nancy Vine Durling, “The Knot, the Belt, and the Making of Guigemar,Assays 6 (1991): 34. Durling interprets the verb estreindre in line 240 as “embrace” and convincingly argues that the reference is to Ovid’s Ars amatoria (ibid., 50n. 13). [BACK]

43. Fowles’s foreword to Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante’s translation, The Lais of Marie de France (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), xi; Burgess, Marie de France, 109–10; Jacques Ribard, “Le Lai du Laüstic: structure et signification,” Moyen âge 76 (1970): 273–74. [BACK]

44. Paula Clifford, Marie de France: Lais (London: Grant and Cutler Ltd., 1982), 71. [BACK]

45. Hanning and Ferrante, trans., Lais, 136. [BACK]

46. Ibid., 133–36. [BACK]

47. See Michelle A. Freeman, “Marie de France’s Poetics of Silence: The Implications for a Feminine Translatio,PMLA 99 (1984): 871. Along with most critics, Freeman assumes the meaning is “his name,” agreeing with Frappier that what was written was only that (872). Her article gives a summary of the varying opinions regarding the “message” (872–74). Freeman’s sensitive analysis of the lais interprets the lack of clarity on such matters as part of Marie’s “poetics of silence.” [BACK]

48. Ibid., 874. [BACK]

49. In Jean-Claude Aubailly’s Jungian analysis of Lanval, the Other World is understood as the unconscious. The young knight does not pass over the boundary but abandons himself instead to a kind of dream. The resulting confrontation with the fée, the archetypal Anima, enriches his life in society, but he finds no way to unite the source of his joy and the world of reality. La Fée et le chevalier (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1986), 81–82, 88–89. [BACK]

50. Hanning and Ferrante remark that “perhaps, in some way, his behavior to the second [lord] justifies the way the first behaved toward him” (Lais, 232). By contrast Philippe Ménard, summing up his view of Eliduc’s character, calls him “notre semblable” (so much like us) and asks, “Comment en vouloir au sympathique Eliduc, si humain, trop humain?” (How can we hold this against our dear Eliduc, so human, too human?). Les Lais de Marie de France (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1979), 121. [BACK]

51. Marie obviously does not agree with the “famous decision” recorded by Andreas, chaplain to Marie de Champagne, to the effect that if a woman marries her lover, their love is at an end (Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, trans. John Jay Parry [New York: Norton, 1969], 175). Her Milun also ends with a marriage of love, and Guigemar does (presumably) as well. [BACK]

52. Patricia Terry, “Hearing and Seeing in the Works of Jean Renart: What Is Believing?” Romance Languages Annual 4 (1993): 157 et passim. [BACK]

53. Stevens, Medieval Romance, 192. [BACK]

54. A. Maraud, “Le Lai de Lanval et La Chastelaine de Vergi: la structure narrative,” Romania 93 (1972): 433–59 passim. Maraud points out this distinction on p. 457; the observations that follow owe much to his article. [BACK]

55. Paul Zumthor sees this inevitability as a feature of the lyric poetry of love, like the song quoted in lines 295–302 of the text, in which the sentiments and acts of the lovers exist in a universe apart. Langue, texte, énigme (Paris: Seuil, 1975), 229. [BACK]

previous section
next chapter