Working Within an Imperfect System

British Literature – The Lais of Marie de France

Fine silk draped the ceilings of the court hall, announcing the entrance of a lady of which none could compare. Riding on the back of a white palfrey, the town watched her pass with gaping mouths. Here, now, a lady has come of which “there is none more beautiful in the world” (Marie de France 550). No stitch of clothing nor inch of skin on her body was left unperfected or unmentioned in her description. From a neck “whiter than snow on a branch” (Marie de France 564) to her “beautiful mouth, well-set nose, / dark eyebrows and elegant forehead,” (Marie de France 566-567) Marie de France, author of Lanval, devotes much of the romantic poem to the description of her heroine’s appearance with explicit exactness. As the plot of Lanval revolves entirely about the bodies and appearance of women, many would describe the work as dehumanizing, written to scrutinize the female body so as to objectify the female. Because all importance was placed on the town looking upon her, the lady may be seen as an object of the sentence, incapable of enabling action or influencing the plot. However, the importance placed on her body gave the lady a power to command the attention of the King’s court, of an entire town, to save the life of her loved one. In harnessing the power given to her body, the lady of Lanval finds a means to execute her own agenda within Camelot’s imperfect, gendered system, becoming an enabler of the plot. Marie de France’s Lanval is a progressive text, sending a message to her work’s audience, the court, and women of her society that, in working within an imperfect system, women have the capability and drive to become heroes in their own right.

Marie de France’s Anglo-Norman society was a militaristic one, a place in which those of a newly-instated “military élite totally focussed on war” (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2011). Men held the forefront as warriors while women of the court were left in the home, not to deal with war, but of love and literature. Despite their utter lack of power in society’s militaristic sphere, it is thought that women held governance of these gentler topics and are cited within known works of the time, namely Andreas Capellanus’s Latin treatise, as a supreme court rendering decisions on difficult questions of this field (Greenblatt 2012, 12). It is today thought that their literary taste “had a significant role in fostering the rise of romance in France and Anglo-Norman England” (Greenblatt 2012, 12). While the societal popularization of romance and the subject of love may be seen as an establishment of female power, the effect of this popularization was quite the opposite. Romances were written by men in which they wrote about other men’s “knightly adventures (as) a means of exploring psychological and ethical dilemmas that the knights must solve, in addition to displaying martial prowess in saving ladies” (Greenblatt 2012, 11).  Robbing women of their power over literature and love, romances were brought to a sphere of military insight, a place of which men held authority. Men were the enablers of the plot, both hero and villain, while ladies were objects which the plot acted upon, damsels in distress to be rescued. As the only founding female poet of romance, Marie de France instead turned this literary trope on its head.

From the beginning of the work, Marie de France expresses the brokenness of her work’s society, Lanval’s Camelot. The Round Table is described as a group in which kings gave some of their household nothing, disrespecting the symbiotic tradition of lord and thane, and knights lacked camaraderie, envying others around them and “feign(ing) the appearance of love” (Marie de France 24). Towards Lanval the knights of the Table felt that, “if something unpleasant happened to him, / (the others) would not have been at all disturbed” (Marie de France 25-26).  Most markedly, however, both Camelot and the Round Table were entirely devoid of female presence. Women are not mentioned until after Lanval had left the city, had “mounted on his horse / and went off,” searching for better (Marie de France 41-42). This is a society in which women held no power other than that given to them by their bodies, by childbirth and sexual appeal. Just as Marie de France wrote within and of an imperfect system, the lady of Lanval used the system as it was, commanding it on her own terms to achieve her own ends. The attention created by the entrance of lady of Lanval and her followers was not accidental; it was demanded. As the lady walked among them, “she proceeded at a slow pace,” allowing all the chance to look upon her, her beauty, the jewels she wore, the elegance of her apparel and steed. Once before the king, “she let her cloak fall / so that they could see her better” (Marie de France 605-606). No longer the object of the plot or others’ actions, the people of the town did not merely look at her. She made them look, stating that, “if he (Lanval) can be acquitted through me, / let him be set free” (Marie de France 623-634). Here the lady is shown not as an object, but as a knight would be: facing the enemy in all her glory to save her love from harm.

The lady of Lanval did not merely share similar traits with her author, but represents all women of Anglo-Norman culture, her image a reflection of woman’s image should society change its views and limitations on women’s power. The plot of Lanval culminates in two contrasting images of women, all of society attempting to decide which is better: the queen’s image or the lady of Lanval. Already integrated into society and given the maximum amount of power allowed to a woman at the time, the queen stands as an image of womanly power as it existed within society, or more precisely, the existing fear of this power when given to women. The queen led not by her mind, but her sexual desires, lying and using her position beneath the king to the destruction of good men.The lady of Lanval, her beauty, her will and moral direction, could not have been imagined by the palace before her entrance for “no one so beautiful had ever been there” (Marie de France 602). With the revelation of what could be, the stunning entrance of the lady of which all the town “marveled at the sight” (Marie de France 582) and were “warmed with joy,” the epitomical standard of women was altered (Marie de France 584). Just as the standard of beauty changed when the lady of Lanval was judged more ravishing than the queen, the revelation of what women could be also changed the womanly ideal to one in which they are heroes and enablers of their stories. This progressive phenomenon, extended from the pages of Camelot to Anglo-Norman England, fought against the message of other “chivalric” romantic works, empowering women in stating that their empowerment is beautiful (Greenblatt 2012, 11).

As the two women, lady and queen, stand beside one another in court, the audience is moved to compare the women as the townspeople do in the courtroom. While the difference in each woman’s role within the plot is evident, whether hero or villain, the similar agency seen among them cannot help but be noticed. Both use their bodies to influence those around them in order to exact their desires on the world. While the queen’s purpose is destruction and deceit, giving her “satisfaction / for the offense against her,” and the lady uses her beauty to save the reputation and life of the one she loves, this only demonstrates that the message of the text was not merely to claim that women are morally superior and men weak, requiring rescue from their mistresses (Marie de France 310). In the same way that men of Camelot could be knights either virtuous or wicked, so too could women participate in the roles of both good and evil. Marie de France’s Lanval breaks away from the stereotypic roles of women as objects to be rescued that had been formed within other works of the romance genre. Both women did what they had to do in an imperfect world in order to achieve what they wanted. Without them, the plot would not have developed past Lanval lost and wandering through the woods, without purpose or identity, searching for more.

Marie de France used the traditional means of viewing women as objects of beauty in order to display them as capable of great action, to save lives or destroy them. She used the setting of Camelot, a setting with foundations in brokenness and inequality, in order to reverse gender roles so that women quite literally took the reins and men the backseat. In taking imperfect constructions to turn society and its literary tropes on their head, Marie de France reclaimed the genre of romance as an establishment of female power, rebuilding its messages from the inside out. While men had in the past been able to live vicariously through the chivalric knights of Camelot, battling monsters, rescuing damsels, women could now envision themselves as hero and rescuer, the lady of Lanval carrying her lover away on horseback to their beautiful island and happily ever after. Despite its focus on appearance, tale of Lanval is not an objectifying work, but a progressive one, in which Marie de France expresses herself not merely as a founding romantic poet, but an empowering one.

Bibliography

Marie de France. “Lanval.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2012.

“The Middle Ages to ca. 1485.” Period Introduction Overview. The Norton

Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. A. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt.

Norton, 2012.

Ibeji, Mike. “English and Norman Society.” British Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/normans/society_01.shtml (accessed October 15, 2017).

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