Since nearly the beginning of time, adultery has been thought of as morally wrong. Marriage, on the other hand, has been thought of as a sacred institution shared by most of the people and religions of the world. In the “Lai” written by Marie de France, we are given insight into the inner workings of five adulterous affairs, six pre-marital sexual encounters, and one instance of impure thoughts. Although Marie de France does not seem to condone adultery, she writes in a manner that allows the reader to feel possible sympathy with it, depending upon the situation.
In fact, she seems to separate her lays into two categories. The first category consists of extenuating circumstances in which the reader is made (allowed) to feel empathy and compassion for the couple such as in “Yonec” and “Lanval.” The second category however seems to combine the ideas of sympathy and disdain. In this category belong only the laid of “Bisclaveret” and “Equitan.” Although the laid focus entirely on sex outside of marriage, the affairs that take place in these poems were often rewarded with various prizes that included children, wealth, healing, and loving marriages. In the first lai, “Yonec” tells the seeming tragic tale of a beautiful who is kept locked away in a castle by her rich and old husband. The poem tells us that “he kept her there more than seven years” (37), and that she was never allowed to come down not even “for a relative, not for a friend” (40).
The young woman, who had no contact with anyone other than her husband’s sister, began to let herself go. “She lost her beauty, as a lady would” (48), when she no longer took care of herself. At this point in the lai, the readers feel ultimate sympathy for this unnamed woman. Although she is bound in a sacred marriage to a man, we look upon this situation as cruel and unjust.
Our heart goes out to this woman. We first begin to feel sympathy for her when we are told she is married to an older man who keeps her locked away, but our sympathy deepens when we realize she is beginning to lose all hope. When we are told her beauty fades, our hearts are filled with not only sadness, but also a desire to see her made whole again. The lai continues with the woman lamenting her sorrows when she says “God, who have power over all, Please hear, please answer now my call” (62-63). These two lines set this lai apart from all other laid in this collection. The young woman, who is married, prays that God will send her someone and shortly after a hawk appears.
Even though we as readers desired that she could meet someone to make her feel alive again, that fact that God steps in seems to make the situation much more acceptable. The adulterous affair becomes even more acceptable in our eyes when we realize that their affair is not about only sex, but that they share a deep and tender love. When the knight first sees the lady, he tells her, “I’ve loved you for a long time now… I never loved any woman but you” (81-84). The love and passion that these lovers share bring the woman back to life. Her beauty and zest for life returns as does her husband’s suspicion.
When he realizes his wife has taken a lover, he plots to kill the hawk with spears on the windows. Once the knight is fatally wounded, the woman feels immediately sad and heartbroken until she realizes she will give birth to a son who “Someday he will kill his and her enemy, be there avenger” (102). The woman goes on with her life, remembering the love she once shared and lives now for her son. The lai continues with the boy growing up and learning the truth about his father. His mother dies when revealing the truth to Yonec, her son, and in turn, Yonec cuts off his stepfather’s head with his true father’s sword. The poem concludes by saying “All they once suffered for their love” (158).
Although the poem perhaps does not turn out the way we would like it to, we are left with a sense of happiness in the end. The next lai, “Lanval”, tells much of the same type of story. In this poem, a young knight who serves in King Author’s court, is frequently overlooked and not rewarded for his service. Distraught, the knights is wandering around when he meets two women.
These very beautiful women take the knight to their maiden who is waiting for him. Again we hear of a tender love that the lady has for Lanval and that she has traveled very far to come to him. When Lanval hears this, “Love pricks him, strikes in him the spark” (49). He tells the lady “All others for you I abandon” (55), and so their love affair begins.
As we read this lai, our hearts are happy with this love match because it seems the couple shares a love that is deep and true. We do not even entertain the idea that what they are doing is wrong. They are not married and therefore should not be together in such an intimate way, but that thought does not seem to cross our minds until much later. The lai continues when we learn that the Lanval must never tell of his lady or she will leave him.
He promises this, but quickly forgets when he is accused by Queen Guinevere of being a homosexual after he refuses her advances. He quickly boasts of his lady and insults the queen’s beauty. When King Author hears of this altercation, he says that Lanval must face a trial and prove his claims. At this point in the poem, Lanval is terribly distraught. He had promised his lady that he would never speak of her and now he has lost her. He cries out for her to come to him but she does not.
As the trial nears its end, two of the woman’s servants appear. Lanval claim that “Her serving maids… Is better than you are, Lady Queen” (106-108), is proven and shortly after this, his lover appears. The crowd feels that she is “just the most beautiful girl, of all girls living in the world” (137-138). In the end, the beautiful woman comes to Lanval’s rescue and the two begin on a journey that will take them to the mystical Avalon. At the close of this poem, we feel that justice has been served and we are left feeling both happy and satisfied.
Even at the end of the story, the reader is not focused on the fact that the lovers are not married or that marriage is not even suggested. The way in which these laid are presented leaves room for the reader to twist and define their own rules and thoughts to better suit each situation that is set before them. Unlike the first two laid, the next two belong to an entirely different category. “Bisclaveret” is a lai in which an adulterous affair takes place which can not help but to be viewed in any other way than negative. In this poem, a seemingly happy couple “He loved her, she him” (24), end up apart and as enemies. Every week for three days, the man disappears and the unnamed lady has no idea when he goes.
After much prodding, the man shares his dark secret of being a werewolf with his wife. After she learns his secret, the lady tells him “It’s true, more than all the world I love you” (63). The man had confided in his wife his only secret, but instead of remaining true to her husband and loving him, she began to look else where. She refused to share his bed anymore, and in turn made herself the lover of a man who loved her for a long time. Because her husband had told her everything about him, the woman knew all she had to do was hide his clothes and he would be forever trapped as a werewolf. This lai is unlike the other laid in that we feel sympathy not for the woman who is having the affair, but for the husband.
The man had been completely honest with his wife, but she betrayed him. He loved her enough to open up and tell her his secret, but she instead began an adulterous affair with another man. We do not feel any sympathy for this woman because of the way she betrays her husband. Although the other affairs in the laid were morally wrong, the extenuating circumstance that surrounded the women and men made them more acceptable.
In this story, the wronged man gains revenge. The Bisclaveret is taken in by the King and is kept there until he comes in contact with his estranged wife and her husband. Though he had not ever hurt a human, he attacks both of them and bites the nose off of his wife. The king demands that she bring him his clothes and he is transformed into a man again.
As a result, the women’s children are born without noses and the former husband has the greatest revenge. The adultery that takes place in this story, although the wife and lover do get married, is never looked upon approvingly. The circumstances that surrounded this story never allowed for us to feel any kind of sympathy for the woman at all. As tragic as it might have been that her husband was a werewolf, it was when she plotted maliciously against her husband that we felt nothing but disdain for her. The final lai, “Equitan” is again much the same as Bisclaveret. In this lai, the King of Nuns desires his seneschal’s wife.
She is described as “beautiful in face and figure” (49), and the king says that he loves her. He tells the lady “For her, he is near his doom” (75). He tells the beautiful women that he would like for her to be his lover, but allows her to think about it. In this lai, the reader is perhaps allowed to feel that this adultery might be acceptable because there is much love involved and that the King would marry her if ever something happened to her husband. Because she is married, the King even goes as far as to say that he would marry no one else but her. Because of the talk of possible marriage, we do not judge this lai so harshly at first.
We begin to feel contempt for the couple when the woman begins to plot the death of her husband. She plans to have her husband and the king bathe together so that her husband will die in a tub of scalding water. The plan, however, back fires on them and the husband discovers the affair. As a result, both of the lovers die, the king by his own hand and his lover by her husband’s hand. Any sympathy we might have felt for this couple is immediately removed once ill will is plotted towards the husband. Overall, I believe that Marie de France does a wonderful job in creating the many poems in which the stories of true love and betrayal are told.
I do not feel that she condones adultery in any way, but rather presents a situation and allows the reader to decide their thoughts and opinions for themselves. Perhaps it is the idea that such powerful and pure love exists that allows us to put aside our moral and values if only for a minute to accept the affairs that occur in these poems. The reader is allowed to feel sympathy and understanding for the couples in some laid while they feel disdain and contempt in others. Sympathy arises in the situations in which there are cruel or unusual circumstances, while contempt develops when mischief and evil are plotted. Overall, these poems provide us with insight into fairytale and nightmare like situations. One moment as we read, we as readers are hoping the couples end up together, while the next moment we are hoping for revenge.
In the end, Marie de France’s laid take us on a wonderful journey that is filled with many exciting highs and disastrous lows. The laid were a pleasure to read and a joyous adventure to undertake.