The 12th century poet Marie de France remains a mystery to us but her writing had a strong and lasting influence on the development of medieval literature. Adapted from traditional Breton folklore, her tales are recognised as a treasure of European culture.
One of the most intriguing figures in medieval literature, Marie de France is among the first recorded female authors in Europe but we know almost nothing about her despite her exhortation that: “Those to whom God has gifted eloquence of speech, should not hide their gift but display it willingly”. Sadly, for one so eloquent, she offers us very little clues beyond her name being Marie but this could even be a pseudonym; in another work attributed to her she tells us: “Marie is my name, I am of France”.
A few further clues about Marie can be gleaned from an examination of her known texts but they do not allow us to infer very much: she had connections at a royal court and was familiar with the chivalric code and notions of courtly love thus she was most likely a noble and possibly an abbess; she wrote in an Anglo-Norman dialect but also seems to have been conversant with Breton, English and Latin, having declared that she had translated from all three languages. So, possibly she was from Normandy or Brittany and had followed her family to England where many Breton and Norman lords had secured fiefdoms for services rendered to William the Conqueror and his house.
Not only are we unable to fully confirm the identity of the mysterious Marie but dating her work is also not without difficulties. We can be fairly confident that some of her work was known before circa 1180 as that is the approximate date of a manuscript that provides the only contemporary reference of her; a Life of Saint Edmund written by Denis Pyramus, a Benedictine monk from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, who talks in his prologue of “the Lady Marie who composed in rhyme, lines from lais, which are not in the least true, indeed she is highly praised for them and the rhyme is appreciated everywhere.”
These lais are fairly long narrative poems written in rhyming verse composed sometime between 1155 and 1175. Marie also produced a collection of the fables of Aesop and a long poem, the Purgatory of Saint Patrick, and it is generally believed that these were composed after the lais. Only one extant manuscript is known to contain all the twelve lais attributed to Marie although some scholars argue that another two, including one featuring King Gradlon, should rightfully be attributed to her.
In her prologue, Marie tells us that she had been looking for a work to translate into “the common tongue” and could find nothing suitable that had not already been done, so she decided to set down the stories that she had heard sung as lais by Breton minstrels. We know that the bards of Brittany and other Celtic nations performed narrative tales to music and the latter day Breton minstrels would have been heir to that ancient tradition. Sadly, no confirmed written examples have survived the years and it is therefore quite prescient of Marie to have committed the stories contained in the old lais to parchment, as she mentions in her prologue her earnest desire that they should “not perish and be forgotten”.
Marie herself notes that her compositions are not translations of the original lais; they are new works based on them, creating a new direction for a long established genre of story-telling. Marie effectively took the lai from the oral tradition and its delivery as a musical performance to a written poem designed to be narrated to an audience. The story at the heart of the old lai having been retold and recast in a world that her audience would find both seemingly exotic and ancient but also quite familiar. Marie weaves her tales of great heroes and marvellous beings from the Celtic tradition with the contemporary motifs of Christian virtue, marriage, courtly love and Anglo-Norman feudalism.
It was said that William the Conqueror had been passionately fond of Breton lais since his youth and this might help explain the continued popularity of the genre in the Anglo-Norman court at the time of Marie. Like the tales performed by the Celtic bards of old, these Breton lais were sang aloud, usually accompanied by a harp or hurdy-gurdy, as memorials of noteworthy men and events. In the romanticised, courtly world of the medieval minstrel, the ideal knight was both a gallant warrior and a talented poet and singer; as the knightly hero was described in Thomas of England’s poem, Tristan: “He sang the air of his lai so beautifully in Breton, Welsh, Latin, and French. So sweetly he sang that no one could tell which was sweeter or more praiseworthy; his harpistry or his singing.”
Whether we agree on twelve or fourteen, the lais of Marie de France, all focus, to one degree or another, on the trials and tribulations of men and women brought on by love. Today we are so used to seeing the idea of love, in all its guises from platonic romance to erotic desire, played out and presented to and for us in popular drama, literature and culture, that we barely register its presence. Indeed, we assume that it was always there, after all love is an intrinsic part of our human nature which all great literature shines a light on but this was not always so. For the most part, the literature of antiquity and the Dark Ages virtually ignored it; focusing instead on heroic deeds and quests, battles, glory and the Divine. The idea of friendship and loyalty was often present but not so love.
The lai’s of Marie de France are amongst the earliest written European literature where the notion of love is central; that love motivates and produces humanity’s best and basest behaviours. Her tales mix traces of Celtic beliefs and concepts of fate and fortune with themes of life and death, love and loss, fidelity and betrayal. Although her perspectives on these subjects would have been strongly influenced by her courtly upbringing, she presents her themes not as a moraliser but as a storyteller; the lais are peppered with asides to the listener but these serve to emphasise points of fact rather than highlight points of Christian morality. The world of Marie’s Breton lais is therefore a nuanced one and one where female characters play a more central role than typically found in the literature of the period where women were often peripheral figures.
As mentioned above, despite the lais being squarely set within the framework of the Anglo-Norman courtly worldview, Marie retains strong traces of the Celtic superstitions and belief in the marvellous that would have featured strongly in the lais sung for her in her youth. Her lais feature incredible creatures such as a fairy queen, a talking deer, a weasel who holds the flower of resurrection, a hawk that turns into a man and a man that turns into a wolf. It is this latter tale that I have chosen to illustrate below.
As you can appreciate, the lais of Marie de France have been translated and edited into modern English and French many times, particularly over the last two hundred years, some have even been produced in rhyming verse. However, the translation that I have chosen is drawn from Jessie Weston’s book Arthurian Romances Unrepresented in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1910) which presents lais rendered into English prose from the poems of Marie de France and others that might form the back-story to characters mentioned in Malory’s epic work.
The author notes that a single sentence in Morte d’Arthur suggested this story, namely: “Sir Marrok, the good knight that was betrayed with his wife, for she made him seven year a werewolf.” In Malory’s tale, Sir Marrok features in the roll of knights who attempted to heal the injured knight, Sir Urry. In combat, Sir Urry had suffered seven great wounds, three on the head and four on his body and upon his left hand but a sorceress cursed him so that his wounds would never heal until treated by the best knight in the world. Sir Urry travelled across Europe in search of one who might heal his suppurating wounds and, at length, arrived at the court of King Arthur where all the knights at court tried to help him. Their attempts were in vain until the appearance of that Breton “flower of the world’s knights”, Sir Lancelot.
The Lai of the Werewolf
Amongst the tales I tell you, I cannot forget the lai of the werewolf. Such beasts as he are known in every land; in Brittany he is named Bisclavaret whilst the Norman calls him Garwal.
It is certain and we all know it, that many a christened man has suffered this change and ran wild in woods as a werewolf. The werewolf is a fearsome beast; lurking within the forest, mad and horrible to see. All the evil that he may, he does. He hunts about the place, seeking man, in order to devour him. Listen now, to the adventure of the werewolf that I have to tell.
In the days of King Arthur, there lived in Brittany a valiant knight of noble birth and countenance; in high favour with his lord and much loved by all his fellows. This knight was wedded to a fair and gracious lady whom he loved tenderly and she too loved her lord but one thing vexed her sorely: three days in every week would her husband leave her and none knew where he went or what he did while absent.
And every time the lady vexed herself more and more, ‘till at last she could no longer keep silence and when her husband returned, joyful at heart after one of these journeys, she said to him: “My dear lord, there is something I would ask you and yet I scarce dare, for I fear lest you be angry with me.”
Then her lord drew her to him, and kissed her tenderly. “Lady,” he said, “fear not to ask me, there is nothing I would not gladly tell you, if it be in my power.”
“In faith,” she said, “now is my heart at rest. My lord, if you only knew how terrified I am in the days I am alone; I rise in the morning afraid and lie down at night in such dread of losing you that if I be not soon reassured I think I shall die of it. Tell me, I pray, where you go and on what errand, that I who love you may be at rest during your absence.”
“Lady,” he answered, “for the love of God ask me no more, for indeed if I told you evil would surely come of it; you would cease to love me and I should be lost.”
When the lady heard this she was ill-pleased, nor would she let her lord be at peace but day by day she besought him with prayers and caresses, till at length he yielded and told her all the truth. “Lady,” he said, “there is a spell upon me: three days in the week am I forced to become a werewolf; and when I feel the change coming upon me I hide myself in the thick of the forest and there I live on prey and roots till the time has expired.”
When he had told her this, his wife asked him what of his clothes? Did he still wear them in his wolf’s shape? “No,” he said, “I must set them aside.” His wife pressed him keenly and demanded to know what he did with his clothes. “That I may not tell you, for if I were to lose them, or they should be stolen from me, then must I remain a wolf all my days, nothing could aid me save that the garments be brought to me again. So for my own safety I must keep the matter secret.”
“My dear lord, why hide it from me? Surely thou has no fear of me who loves you above all else? Little love can you have for me! What have I done? What sin have I committed that you should withdraw your trust in me so? You must tell me.” Thus she wept and entreated until, at length, the knight yielded and told her all.
“Dear wife,” he said, “near the forest on the highway, at a cross road, is an old chapel wherein I have often found help and succour. Close to it, under a thick shrub, is a large stone with a hollow beneath it; under that stone I hide my clothes until the enchantment has lost its power and I may turn myself homewards.”
Now, when the lady had heard this story it fell out even as her husband had foretold, for her love was changed to loathing and she was seized with a great dread and fear of him. She was terrified to be in his presence and no longer wished to lie with him, yet he was her lord and she knew not how she might escape from him.
Then she remembered a certain knight of that country, who had loved her long and wooed her in vain before she wedded her lord; and one time when her husband went forth, she sent for him in secret and bade him come give her counsel on a matter that troubled her. When he came she bade him swear to keep secret what she might tell him and when he had sworn, she told him all and prayed him for the sake of the love he once bore her to free her from one who was neither beast nor man and yet both.
The knight, who loved her still, was ready to do all she might desire and she said, “It is but to steal his clothes, for then he can no more become a man but must dwell in the forest as a wolf all his days and someone will surely slay him.” So, he went forth and did after her bidding and brought her husband’s clothes. She hid them away saying, “Now am I safe and that monster can return to terrify me no more.”
When time went on and her husband came not, the lady feigned to be anxious for his welfare and sent his men forth to seek him; they went through all the land but could find no trace of their lord. At length, they gave up the search and all deemed he had been slain on one of his mysterious journeys. When a year had passed and the lady thought the wolf had surely been killed, she wedded the knight who had aided her and thought no more of the husband she had betrayed.
But the poor werewolf roamed the forest in suffering and sorrow, for though a beast outwardly yet he had the heart and brain of a man, and knew well what had happened and he grieved bitterly, for he had loved his wife truly and well.
Now it chanced one day that the king of that land was hunting in that very forest and the hounds came on the track of the werewolf and roused him from his lair and gave chase to him. All day he fled before them through the woodland and at last when they were close upon him and he was in peril of being caught and torn in pieces, the king came riding after the hounds, and the wolf swerved aside and ran to him, seizing him by the stirrup, and kissing his foot in sign of submission.
The king was much astonished and called to his companions to come swiftly. “See here, my lords,” he said, “what do you think of this marvel? See how this beast entreats mercy of me; he has the sense of a man! Drive off the dogs, for I will not have him injured. Turn we homewards, I take this beast in my peace and will hunt no more in this forest lest by chance he be slain.”
With that they turned their bridles and rode homewards but the wolf followed and would not be driven back, even when they came to the royal castle. The king was greatly pleased, for he thought the matter strange and marvellous; no such tale had he ever heard before and since he had taken a great liking for the beast he bade his knights not merely to do the wolf no harm but to treat him with all care and kindness, on pain of losing royal favour. So all day the wolf roamed the court, free among the knights and at night he slept in the king’s chamber. Wherever the king went, he would have his wolf go too and all the courtiers made much of the beast, seeing that it pleased their lord, and finding that he did no harm to any man among them.
Now when a long time had passed the king had occasion to hold a solemn court; he summoned all his barons from near and far and among them came the knight who had betrayed the werewolf and wedded his lady; he had little thought that his rival was yet in life, still less that he was so near at hand. But as soon as the wolf saw him he sprang upon him savagely, tearing him with his teeth and would have slain him if the king had not called him off and even then twice again he would have seized him.
Everyone in the castle was astonished at the rage shown by the beast, which had always been so gentle and a whisper went round that surely there must be something which no one knew against the knight, for the wolf would not have attacked him without cause. All the time the court lasted the wolf had to be kept in close guard. When at length it broke up, the knight who had been attacked was the first to leave and when the knight had gone the wolf was once more as tame and friendly as he had been from the first and all the courtiers made a pet of him as they had done before and forgot that he had ever shown himself so savage.
At length, the king decided that he would make a progress through his kingdom and at the same time hunt for a time in the forest where he had found the wolf. As was his custom, he took the beast with him. Now the lady, the werewolf’s treacherous wife, hearing that the king would abide some time in that part of the country, prayed for an audience that she might win the royal favour by presenting rich gifts, for she knew well that the king loved not her second husband as he had loved the first.
The king granted an appointment but when the lady entered the meeting hall the wolf suddenly flew upon her and before any could hinder had bitten the nose from off her face. The courtiers drew out their weapons and would have slain the beast, when a wise man, one of the king’s councillors, stayed them. “Sire,” he said, “listen to me, this wolf has long been with us, there is not one of us here who has not been near him and caressed him, over and over again; yet not a man of us has he ever touched or even shown ill-will. But two has he ever attacked, this lady here and the lord, her husband. Now, sire, consider, this lady was the wife of the knight that you once held dear and who was lost long ago, no man knowing what became to him. Take my counsel, put this lady in guard and question her closely as to whether she can give any reason why the wolf should hate her. Many a marvel has come to pass in Brittany and methinks there is something stranger than we know here.”
The king agreed the old lord’s counsel; he caused the lady and her husband to be put in prison and questioned separately with threats if they kept silence; till at length the lady confessed how she had betrayed her first husband by causing his clothes to be stolen from him when he was in a wolf’s form. Since that time he had disappeared; she knew not whether he was alive or dead but she thought that perhaps this wolf was he. When the king heard this he commanded them to fetch the clothes belonging to the lost knight, whether it were pleasing to the lady or not; and when they were brought he laid them before the wolf and waited to see what would happen.
However, the wolf made as if he saw them not and the wise councillor said, “Sire, if this beast is a werewolf he will not change shapes while there are any to behold him; since it is only with great pain and difficulty he can do so. Bid them take wolf and garments into your chamber and fasten the doors upon him; then leave him for a while, and we shall see if he becomes a man.”
The king thought this sound counsel and he himself took the beast into his chamber and closed the doors fast. Then they waited for a time that seemed long enough to the king, and when the old lord told him he might do so, he took two nobles and unlocked the doors, and entered, and lo, on the king’s bed lay the long lost knight in a deep slumber!
The king ran to him and embraced him warmly. When the first wonder had somewhat passed, he bade him take back all the lands of which he had been robbed, and over and above he bestowed upon him many rich gifts.
The treacherous wife and her husband were banished from the country; many years they lived in a foreign land and had children and grandchildren but all their descendants might be known by this, that the maidens were all born without noses.
The old books say that this adventure is verily true and that it was in order that the memory of it should be preserved for all time that the Bretons put it in verse and called it ‘The Lai of the Werewolf.’
I will make no attempt to analyse the tale but let you take from it what, if anything, you will. Some scholars have made much of the idea of transformation in the story and the notion of man as beast. Others have seen the key theme as one of innate nobility or the importance of courtly hierarchy. While some call it a protofeminist tale, others call it misogynistic and some declare that it is really about the struggle for homosexual acceptance. I will leave the last words to Marie herself, who wrote almost 800 years ago: “He performs his task poorly who lets himself be forgotten”.