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The Anonymous Marie de France

The Anonymous Marie de France

by R. Howard Bloch

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This book by one of our most admired and influential medievalists offers a fundamental reconception of the person generally assumed to be the first woman writer in French, the author known as Marie de France. The Anonymous Marie de France is the first work to consider all of the writing ascribed to Marie, including her famous Lais, her 103 animal


This book by one of our most admired and influential medievalists offers a fundamental reconception of the person generally assumed to be the first woman writer in French, the author known as Marie de France. The Anonymous Marie de France is the first work to consider all of the writing ascribed to Marie, including her famous Lais, her 103 animal fables, and the earliest vernacular Saint Patrick's Purgatory.

Evidence about Marie de France's life is so meager that we know next to nothing about her-not where she was born and to what rank, who her parents were, whether she was married or single, where she lived and might have traveled, whether she dwelled in cloister or at court, nor whether in England or France. In the face of this great writer's near anonymity, scholars have assumed her to be a simple, naive, and modest Christian figure. Bloch's claim, in contrast, is that Marie is among the most self-conscious, sophisticated, complicated, and disturbing figures of her time-the Joyce of the twelfth century. At a moment of great historical turning, the so-called Renaissance of the twelfth century, Marie was both a disrupter of prevailing cultural values and a founder of new ones. Her works, Bloch argues, reveal an author obsessed by writing, by memory, and by translation, and acutely aware not only of her role in the preservation of cultural memory, but of the transforming psychological, social, and political effects of writing within an oral tradition.

Marie's intervention lies in her obsession with the performative capacities of literature and in her acute awareness of the role of the subject in interpreting his or her own world. According to Bloch, Marie develops a theology of language in the Lais, which emphasize the impossibility of living in the flesh along with a social vision of feudalism in decline. She elaborates an ethics of language in the Fables, which, within the context of the court of Henry II, frame and form the urban values and legal institutions of the Anglo-Norman world. And in her Espurgatoire, she produces a startling examination of the afterlife which Bloch links to the English conquest and occupation of medieval Ireland.

With a penetrating glimpse into works such as these, The Anonymous Marie de France recovers the central achievements of one of the most pivotal figures in French literature. It is a study that will be of enormous value to medievalists, literary scholars, historians of France, and anyone interested in the advent of female authorship.

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University of Chicago Press
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The Anonymous Marie de France

By R. Howard Bloch

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 R. Howard Bloch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780226059846

The Word Adventure and the Adventure of Words

In the prologue to the Lais, which is as close to a vernacular art poétique as the High Middle Ages produced, Marie begins with the question of beginnings. She is anxious about origins, about the genesis and genealogy of the tales that she, at the nodal point between past and future, will preserve in memory for generations to come. Having considered the possibility of translating from a Latin, that is to say, a written, source, she thinks instead of “that which she has heard” among the tales told by those “who first sent them into the world”:

Des lais pensai, k’oï aveie;

Ne dutai pas, bien le saveie,

Ke pur remembrance les firent

Des aventures k’il oïrent

Cil ki primes les comencierent

E ki avant les enveierent.

I thought of lais that I had heard and did not doubt, for I knew it full well, that they were composed, by those who first began them and put them into circulation, to perpetuate the memory of adventures they had heard.
As the point of entry to the world of literature, as what Stephen Nichols identifies as “the first explicit canonrevision in European history,” the prologue raises from the start issues that will dominate not only the Lais but the Fables and the Espurgatoire Seint Patriz as well—issues of memory and transmission; of orality versus writing; of the reception of a work in the mind of others; of the uses to which wisdom from the past will be put; and, finally, of what lies behind the text, the “lais” that in Old French can connote “that which is left behind,” here subsumed in the little word aventure.


The word aventure is one of the richly plurivalent signifiers of the Lais and constitutes a liminal key to the whole. Referring to the brute material out of which the Lais are made, the word aventure designates that which exists before and beyond the text in the fantasy of an unrecounted, unremembered, chaotic realm of unarticulated consciousness, the very opposite of the assemblage—the form and structure—that literature represents. This is why so many of the tales are literally framed by the word aventure, which, appearing at either the beginning or the end or both, marks the bounds of where literature begins and ends, sets in relief that which it contains. “Just as it happened, I shall relate to you the story of another lai” (“L’aventure d’un autre lai,/Cum ele avient, vus cunterai” [v. 1])—thus begins “Lanval,” in what amounts to a mini-prologue to the lai, whose epilogue reminds the reader that adventure ends when Marie has no more to say: “No one has heard any more about him, nor can I relate any more” (“Nul humme n’en oï plus parler,/Ne jeo n’en sai avant cunter” [v. 645]). “Deus Amanz” commences with a “celebrated adventure” that “once took place in Normandy” (“Jadis avint en Normendie /Une aventure mut oïe” and concludes with attention drawn to the composition of the lai:

Pur l’aventure des enfaunz

Ad nun li munz des Deus Amanz.

Issi avint cum dit vus ai.

Li Bretun en firent un lai.

Because of what happened to these two young people, the mountain is called the Mountain of the Two Lovers. The events took place just as I have told you, and the Bretons composed a lai about them.
“Now that I have begun to compose lais, I shall not cease my effort but shall relate fully in rhyme the adventures that I know,” Marie affirms at the beginning of “Yonec,” which ends, like “Deus Amanz,” with an explanation of how the lai came into being: “Those who heard this story long afterward composed a lai from it.”Finally, in what now seems like somewhat of a formula for beginnings, Marie launches “Laüstic” with the promise that “I shall relate an adventure to you from which the Bretons composed a lai” (“Une aventure vus dirai,/ Dunt li Bretun firent un lai,” and closes no less conventionally:

Cele aventure fut cuntee,

Ne pot estre lunges celee.

Un lai en firent li Bretun:

Le Laüstic l’apelent hum.

This adventure was related and could not long be concealed. The Bretons composed a lai about it that is called Laüstic.
As that which lies outside of the lai, but of which the lai is made, “aventure” refers to an event, an eventure, that supposedly happened, a lived experience rooted in the body, the fantasy of the body present to itself, at its outer limits, the imagined wholeness of voice and body joined. “Aventure” refers to the material of the tale, that which lies outside of its formal telling, and also carries the unmistakable resonance of orality. In the beginning of “Equitan” we learn that the Bretons made lais out of the “adventures that they had heard”:

li Bretun.

Jadis suleient par prüesce,

Par curteisie e par noblesce,

Des aventures que oiëent,

Ki a plusur gent aveneient,

Fere les lais pur remembrance,

Que [hum] nes meïst en ubliance.

In days gone by the valiant, courtly, and noble Bretons composed lais for posterity and thus preserved them from oblivion. These lais were based on adventures they had heard and which had befallen many a person.
Marie hints, moreover, that she has heard one such tale in a manner that leaves little doubt about the fact of oral transmission: “Un ent firent, ceo oi cunter,/Ki ne fet mie a ublïer.” “I am minded to recall a lai of which I have heard and shall recount what happened,” she states in her own voice in the first line of “Chaitivel,” thus revealing, if not an oral source, at least an oral means of transmission of the “aventure”—hearsay (“Un lai dunt jo oï parler”) of an adventure to be passed on by means of speech (“L’aventure vus en dirai”). Here we arrive at a second meaning of the term, that is, the “story of an experience,” a “tale of adventure,” as in Chrétien de Troyes’s prologue to Erec where he speaks of joining “contes d’aventure” into a “bele conjointure.”An “adventure” here constitutes one episode in a larger narrative whole with the specific resonance of orality, of an oral account of an adventure of the type told by Chrétien’s itinerant oral poets— jongleurs—as opposed to his own written version that will last, he maintains, as “long as Christianity itself ” (“aussi longtemps que la Chrétienté”), the very name “Chrétien” being associated with the permanent preservation of the more fluid, dispersed, oral aventures in written form.

“Aventure” not only refers to the source of a tale, to the past from which the tale comes, and to the tale itself in its present form; “aventure”—from the Latin ad + venire—also relates prospectively to that which will come or happen. It carries the valence of an advent. Within such a future-oriented semantic range, an “aventure” contains its own genealogy, its own expectation for a meaning that is prescribed, predetermined, predestined. It is the equivalent of destiny, as, for example, in the case of Yonec, whose dying father tells his mother of the fate that awaits their unborn son:

Quant il serat creüz e grant

E chevalier pruz e vaillant,

A une feste u ele irra,

Sun seigneur e lui amerra.

En une abbeïe vendrunt;

Par une tumbe k’il verrunt

Orrunt renoveler sa mort

E cum il fu ocis a tort.

Ileoc li baillerat s’espeie.

L’aventure li seit cuntee

Cum il fu nez, ki le engendra;

Asez verrunt k’il en fera.

When he will have grown up and become a worthy and valiant knight, he will go to a feast with her and her husband. They will come to an abbey, and at a tomb they will visit, they will again hear about his death and how he was unjustly killed. There she will give the sword to his son to whom the adventure will be told, how he was born and who his father was. Then they will see what he will do.

Finally, as Erich Koehler observed, “aventure” connotes chance, fortune, risk, and here is where we encounter the other side of the semantic coin: “Beloved,” Guigemar exclaims at the end of the tale that bears his name, “how fortunate that I have discovered you like this!” (“Bele,” fet il, “queile aventure /Que jo vus ai issi trovee!”). The multiple meanings of “aventure,” which on the one hand concretizes, fixes, immobilizes that which is imagined to be beyond language, experience, and the body, also serves as a reminder that no matter how much one tries to pin meaning down, it remains, even in fixed form, uncontrollable, risky, undisciplined, excessive—an intractable “surplus of sense” in Marie’s own phrase. And nowhere more uncontrollable, it turns out, than where the word lai itself is concerned.


As in most etymologies, the absolute origin of the word lai—its “first roots” (primogenia), to use the term of the great medieval source of etymologies, Isidore of Seville—is covered so completely by the mists of time as to remind us that the history of a word never leads to the rooting of language in reality but to a series of attestations of its use, of which the first takes on the burden of an origin sometimes so dissimilar to the present term as to pose the delicate issue of recognition. Indeed, how do we recognize two words as being the same word at different points in time—and sometimes at intervals of several hundred years—if they do not resemble each other?

The first mention of that which is taken to be the word lai is from the ninth century, where it appears in the marginalia of a religious text from the county of Ulster:

Domfarcai fidbaidae fal

fomchain loîd lain luad nadcel

huas mo lebran indlinech

fomchain trîrech inna nhen.

In this citation “loîd” designates the song of the blackbird, while “trîrech” refers to the song of birds in general. The early editor of medieval texts Achille d’Arbois de Jubainville affirms an Irish origin for lai (via loîd and laîd), positing that from “song” the word came to mean a poetic genre specifically associated with such songs.D’Arbois de Jubainville adds in a note that that the Irish laîd derives in fact from the Latin laudis (praise), in contrast to P. A. Levesque de la Ravallière who over a century earlier had maintained that lai derived from the Latin lessus (lamentation) and for this reason was associated with the genre of the plaint or lament.Jean Maillard, who has written extensively on the musical lai and who seeks to demonstrate that the French word originates in Latin popular poetry via Celtic bards, maintains that the word lai is a deformation of the late Latin term leodus (leudus), designating Latin metrical rhythms adapted to vernacular tongues, leodus itself being a deformation of laus-laudis. Indeed, a capitulary of Charlemagne dated March enjoins nuns “ut nullatenus ibi uuinileodos scribere vel mittere praesumant,” the word uuinileodos here representing a work song.

Another entire etymological chain for the French lai provides for passage from Latin not through Irish or Breton but through a variety of potential Germanic terms. According to such a thesis, lai derives from leodos, a latinized Germanic term parallel to the word lessus, which in texts from the fifth century designates the chants executed by young girls before the tent of Attila. Indeed, the range of Germanic analogues is rich, for we find a Germanic leich from the Gothic laikan, which later gives Old High German leichi, leicha which are the equivalent of the Latin modos or carmina; Old Norse lek and leikin; Anglo-Saxon lacan, lêc, lâcen; Middle High German leichen, liechen, leichete, which also have the resonance of “to play,” “to joke,” or “to mock”; Swedish leka, lekte; Norwegian lege, legede; and Icelandic leikari, which is used to designate a “jongleur.”

In spite of the etymological murkiness surrounding the origin of the word lai, of this there can be no doubt: the lai is linked to sound, to music, to song, and to poetry, words with song. In an article on the lyric lai among the troubadours, Richard Baum maintains that, though the word lai after the fourteenth century is resolutely dedicated to “song,” in Old Provençal it covers a range running from the aural sensation of noise, to language or discourse, though for the most part it is concentrated on the concept of music and song. Thus, lai can be the equivalent simply of a sound, such as the sound of a bell or of birds, or of language itself, words, and even discourse. But most of all the word lai in Old Provençal designates some equivalent of song, poetic genre, or performance: a melody or a musical air, a melody played upon a string instrument and accompanied by sung words, a sung melody, a type of lyric composition distinct from the canso, descort, vers, dansa, or sirventes. According to Baum, the Provençal lai covers “a lyric genre with irregular structure characterized by the frequent repetition of certain metrical and musical formulas,” a “chant with isomorphic strophes inspired by a pious or moral theme,” a “lyrico-epic composition,” a “narrative poem in the vernacular,” or simply “poetry,” “poetic activity” in general.

If the etymology of the word lai is opaque, that is to say, if certainty concerning the Celtic, Latin, or Germanic origins of the term attached loosely to a wide spectrum of meanings having to do with the voice, with song, and with poetic performance remains elusive, in this it resembles the word aventure, the supposed lived experience beyond articulation. Both etymologies attest to the impossibility of words, for words, to move beyond words to anything on the order of reality or presence. The closest we get in the case of aventure is to something like the body and in the case of lai to the voice. When, however, we close the etymological dictionary and open the Old French lexicon, the meaning of the term lai appears to be even further dispersed, its very opacity enabling a plethora of sense. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find any other single syllable that casts greater doubt upon the imagined possibility of reading Old French literature with the aid of dictionary definitions, and no single syllable whose “surplus of sense” in Marie’s phrase is more plentiful. In volume 4, page 694 of Godefroy we find that the word lai and its variants lay, laye, laie, laiz, laes, lais can be used as an adjective to connote the secular realm, or as a substantive to designate a lay person. By extension, it can refer to anyone not belonging to the university community or, as a corollary, to someone considered ignorant. The word lai and its homonyms laid and lait are used variously as a synonym for “staddle” (MF baliveau), for that which is ugly, or, as in the Miracles de Notre Dame, as the word for another Marie’s milk. The adjectival homonyms , ley, lay, let, lait, leit, laé, le summon the idea of lightness, happiness, joy (possibly from the Latin laetus), just as las, lax, lais are used to connote sadness, misery, misfortune (Latin lassus). Where the syllable lai becomes more interesting, however, is in its power to signify that which is left, an excess, or testament (legs), which suggests not only a connection between the notion of residue, mark, or trace and the Lais as the written traces of the preexisting Breton lai, but also a place or locus from which to speak, or from which poetry becomes possible. “La, lai, lay, adv. se dit d’un lieu qu’on désigne d’une manière précise,” specifies Godefroy on p. 685 of the same volume. Nor in this vein would it be an exaggeration to link the Lais with the principle of poetic construction or binding subsumed under the rubric of the laisse and elaborated in Old Provençal as the process of linking verses (lassar). Finally, the word lai is used in its OF forms loi, lei, ley, lo, lays to designate custom, usage, justice, or the law.


Excerpted from The Anonymous Marie de France by R. Howard Bloch Copyright © 2006 by R. Howard Bloch. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

R. Howard Bloch is the Augustus R. Street Professor of French at Yale University. He is the author or editor of nine previous books, most recently Medievalism and the Modernist Temper and God's Plagiarist: Being an Account of the Fabulous Industry and Irregular Commerce of the Abbé Migne, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press

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