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In the Anglo-Norman court, many artistic genres are developed, and some of them take a dramatic form, such as the chansons de gestes and the mystery plays which are performed and not only read to an audience. So, the oral telling of a story still has an important part in the court, but reading becomes a fashionable pastime. This is in this perspective that Marie de France writes her Lais because they are too short for oral entertainment - only 118 verses for Chevrefoil for instance - so they are meant to be read in an intimate place.
This is in this perspective that Marie de France writes her Lais for a princely court in England, which is unknown. Although, there are some historical proofs that she might be part of Henri II's court, and that she might even be related to him. The only concrete element we have about this woman is her signature with which she signs her Lais: 'Marie de France'. It shows that she comes from France, and moved to England. In fact, the Norman Conquest has been tightening the bound between the two countries, so this is entirely possible that she has living in both countries at different times, and that she has been inspired by both cultures.
In Marie's Lais, one can question how far the representation of chivalry is accurate, or a mere invention twisted from the reality of the author. To prove that, we have to go back to the roots of her inspiration, which are principles from Antiquity and the Celts tales told for divertissements in courts by minstrels. From both sources of inspiration, Marie de France builds up characters illustrating the main theme of her lais: courtly love. This type of love is shared between a high ranked lady and a knight. To be able to consider Marie's representation of chivalry it is essential to keep in mind the theme of courtly love because knights are the main characters of it.
Before Marie de France and writers from her time, literature mainly consisted in copying the authors from Antiquity without any initiative of creation. This is mainly the job of the monks in monasteries who copied holy texts in Latin. However, in her lais, Marie de France introduces the idea of a mind of literary creation through an adaptation of Celtic oral stories and principles from Antiquity by writing it. It is the same with Chrétien de Troyes whose objective is to share his knowledge as a sign of wisdom. Thus, he diffuses the knowledge of intellectuals from Antiquity while adding sense to it. And so does Marie de France in a certain sense. In her Prologue, she explains that process of bringing sense to older works and the reason for doing so:
It was customary for the ancients, in the books which they wrote (Priscian testifies to this), to express themselves very obscurely so that those in later generations, who had to learn them, could provide a gloss to the text and put the finishing touches to their meaning.
To avoid 'mistakes', it is important to inspire oneself from the Antique works in Marie's opinion. For example, she
But the legacy from Antiquity does not stop here. In fact, in some of the Lais, parallels can be drawn between Marie's characters and people from the Antique era, or even characters from myths and literary works. In the ___ lay, Lanval has similarities with the emperor Octavian … ? In the same lay, the goddess of Love is also mentioned, which is an echo to Venus, or even Aphrodite, the two goddesses of Love in Roman and Greek mythology. Since love is one of the main themes of Marie's lays, this
In Marie's work, these principles from the Latin world are intertwined with Celtic oral stories: the Breton . She recognizes a certain form of value to them that is important to remember and a truth comparable to issues from Antiquity.
II/ Courtly love
Courtly love, gradually becoming a recurrent theme in secular literature in the twelfth century, is mainly about an unrequited love involving two characters, a knight and a lady.
One is entitled his/her role in society, and it is not interchangeable. For instance in 'The Lai of the Ash Tree', Fresne is stuck in a lower class than her lover and so he cannot marry her. She cannot improve her situation nor change what she is. However when it is revealed that she is indeed part of the aristocracy near the end of the lai,
With the arrival of the Norman aristocracy in the British court, the code of conduct changed a lot. The model of the Warrior is no longer celebrated like it was under the reign of the Anglo-Saxons kings. Although the knight still has to prove himself through his brave acts, he shall not overthrow his king to gain power. Even if a knight has proven himself braver than his king, he must stay loyal and humble, as it has been decided by the Anglo-Norman kings. The loyalty to the King is also linked to the loyalty to God which is as important. In fact in 'The Body Social', an extract from John Of Salisbury's Policraticus written in 1159, it is stated that God is superior to anyone, at the place of the soul and then come the governors. The society has a very fixed structure that influences the life at the court, and the relations people have toward each other. In the lai of Lanval Marie describes the position of a knight toward his king, it is written: '[…] for the king gave nothing and Lanval asked for nothing.' The selfishness of the king is unquestioned by the character, and he even stays loyal to him no matter what.