Marie de France, “Le Fresne”

            The plot of the two sisters separated at birth is a variant on an old romance trope that involves the discovery of noble birth by means of the child’s unconsciously “noble” actions.  The mother’s infanticidal character might be a throwback to fairy tale step-mothers, but it also may reflect known historical events.  Gurun, the lord who donates money to the nunnery so as to be nearer the target of his seduction, also sounds like a typical romance figure, but also again his practices are documented historically and serve to unite the tale’s interest in marvelous motivation with the real world of its hearers.

            Marie's version of the lai is typical for her work because of its economy and the frequency with which she interrupts her narrative to comment on the events or to offer advice to the "lords" of the court.  However, it can strike us as odd because modern fiction tends to erase the traces of the author's presence.  Joyce described the author's modern fictional situation as being like God after creation, absent now and "filing His nails," removed completely from our direct observation.  Marie's all over her story--do you see any patterns in the things that bring about her comments? 


Interpretive issues:

  1.       Marie’s prologue sets up some expectations about hidden meanings of a social or philosophical nature.  What lessons does this tale overtly teach and how could we read it for signs of Marie’s culture’s preoccupations with legitimacy, identity, and making good matrimonial choices?

  2.       The style of the lais suggets they’re court poetry designed to be quickly told, leading inevitably to a debate among the audience about the situations in the tale.  The “debate” we saw in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules is a good model for such an event.  How does Marie’s tale negotiate its way between overly-simple versions of reality to present situations in which real disagreements are possible?

  3.        The character types arise from both romance and from the New Comedy of stock or type characters like the jealous mother, the virtuous servant, the libidinous nobleman, and the charitable nun.  How do the inherently comic possibilities of these characters work within the moral expectations  of the lai?

  4.       The supernatural coincidence works both as a metaphor and as an aesthetic element, sort of “cool special effects” for a medieval audience.  What does its acceptance tell you about its readers’ tastes in beauty?

  5.       The language of slander has been a preoccupation of Marie in her prologue and in the beginning of the lai “Guigemar.”  Why is it so hazardous and inevitable in court culture?  See also “Sir Launfal”’s theme of “los” or fame/reputation.

  6.       The “birth tokens” motif from romance is handled interestingly here in that the articles are described with great detail.  What are they and what do their attributes tell you about how “nobility” could be communicated to possibly illiterate strangers?  You will also see "birth tokens" in "Degaré" and "Emare."  Notice any patterns?

  7.       The convent is a crucial support system for women in the medieval period.  Consider its function as a community of women, run by a woman, and dedicated to pursuits removed from the exterior world’s material interests.  How does this affect the plot, and how might the convent be a pointed contrast to the two households (Le Fresne’s parents’ and Gurun’s) depicted in the plot?

  8.       Gurun’s relationship to Le Fresne is called “concubinage,” and was common in the period.  It allowed the ruler to satisfy his erotic desires without endangering the line of succession.  The motif of the people murmuring against the concubine and urging her expulsion in favor of a legitimate wife is a common one.  What would you expect to be the other common plot type involving women in this position?  For an example, see Marie’s “Equitan.”  What does it tell you about the married woman’s position?

  9.         “In the fabliaux, very few children result from the widespread fornication, and in the romances, fertility is often linked to the question of lineage and politics; the most attention paid to children in vernacular literature is to be found in the work of the one woman author, Marie de France.”  --Keith Busby, in a review of Baldwin, John W., The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994.  Why does she care?  Does Marie's treatment of children's characters seem particularly insightful, as a result of personal experience, or does she use them for purposes other than what modern readers would call "realism"?