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 - Jasmijn Groot -


“Marie ai num, si sui de France.” “My name is Marie and I am from France”. That is all the biographical information that is left to us about the first woman who wrote in the francophone verse. And as she ended her most famous work with these words, we have called her Marie de France. She was active in the second half of the twelfth century and was probably aligned to the court of queen Eleonora of Aquitaine. The scarcity of information, as well as its ambiguity, about this historical woman, has not warried academics and artists alike to delve further into her life. Quite the contrary! People all over the world are still entranced by her. So, what is it about this anonymous woman that inspires us still?  


Marie is assumed by historians to have been a lady writing under her own name and that she was indeed from France. It is most likely that she was from a high social class, as she was clearly educated: she was able to write and compose, but her writing also displays knowledge of academia. Women in the time of Marie were only able to get an education if they were from wealthy families or if they were nuns.  


Scholars generally agree that Marie was the author of The lais of Marie de France, a series of narrative twelve poems that glorify courtly love, written in the late 12th century. The concept of courtly love was all about the admiration of a nobleman for a lady, but without the possibility of putting the physical aspect of that admiration into practice. Courtly love was a popular theme in early medieval literature. However, Marie’s poetry stands out because of her individuality and vividness, a forebode of the type of literature that was about to come. Marie was also consistent in writing the lais from a female perspective.


What is also interesting about The lais of Marie de France, is that the lai probably originated as an oral tradition in Breton, the language spoken in present-day Brittany. The lais are thought to have been performed in public to audiences, accompanied by song and music. Marie de France may have brought the lai to the written tradition, putting them onto paper instead and translating them from Breton to French. Marie also wrote a prologue, in which she places herself in a literary tradition and imagines her work will be read and altered after her death. And there is evidence in the works of authors after her that this indeed happened. 


Marie is also possibly the author of ‘Legend of St. Patrick's Purgatory’, a poem about an Irish knight who visits the St. Patrick's Purgatory pilgrimage site to atone for his sins. There is still debate going on whether Marie was also the author of the hagiography ‘The Life of Saint Audrey’, about the miracles performed by 6th century East Anglican princess Saint Audrey. Marie may also have been the translator of ‘Aesop’s Fables’, a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a 6th century BCE ancient Greek slave, but this cannot be said with certainty.  


Of Marie’s life outside her books, nothing can be said with certainty. That leaves her as something of a blank canvas to do with whatever anybody wants. Only in 2021, Marie was de subject of American author Lauren Groff’s succesfull novel Matrix, which gives us a highly fictionalized account of Marie’s life. It seems that this combination of mystery surrounding Marie de France’s identity and the optimism that we may yet find out who she was exactly, is what draws people’s fascination towards her, even more than eight centuries after her death.


Image: Master of Jean de Papeleu, ‘Recueil de pièces versifiées en ancien français comprenant les Fables de Marie de France’ (1285-1292) Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, France. 



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