Marie de France, "Laustic"

    The second in Marie’s "bird" sequence, like "Yonec," also has a Christian subtext. The tale closely resembles the medieval genre called the "saint’s life" in which an exemplary being suffers faithfully and dies for the sake of faith. Here, of course, the nightingale incorporates the suffering and "love" is the faith it unwittingly serves. The bird’s enshrined body memorializes the love which its song had enabled, and its sacrifice strikingly symbolizes the effect of the forces which deny and destroy love. This all depends, of course, on Marie’s audience participating in a system of religious tradition which supplies the countless tales of saintly suffering and the rules for the saints’ sacrifice. How does the bird work for your modern notions of faith in love?

Study Questions—

1) Marie’s lovers, in this tale, for once love chastely and "prudently." They never physically betray her husband, nor do they ever satisfy their desires for each other. How does this chaste/prudent love relate to Marie’s other lais, and what does it do for your sympathies when reading the tale?

2) The lovers, whose delight is entirely in viewing and talking to each other without possession, might be said to represent a kind of cross between platonic relationships and voyeurism. The lady’s use of the nightingale’s song as the mask for their relationship suggests that other kinds of song, indeed other kinds of aesthetic appreciation, might be similar masks for the development of this chaste love. Could this extend to the young court nobles listening to Marie perform her poetry? If we made such a leap, what does she mean when she has the wife tell her jealous husband, "anyone who does not hear the song of the nightingale knows none of the joys of this world" (95)?

3) The bird’s "martyrdom" is, like the hawk-knight’s in "Yonec," spectacular, sudden, and involves the symbolic use of blood. Can you explain how this works, and does it mean anything special to Marie as a Christian, female poet?

For information on Marie, you might want to look at the International Marie de France Society web site at: it's loaded with relevant scholarly information as well as both French and English translations of her complete works. Near the bottom of the home page there are introductions to and some article-length "notes" on specific tales, including "Lanval" and "Sir Launfal."