12.04.16, Whalen, A Companion to Marie de France

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Joan Grimbert

The Medieval Review 12.04.16

Whalen, Logan E.. A Companion to Marie de France. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, NV, 2011. Pp. xiv, 335. ISBN: 978-90-04-20217-7.

Reviewed by:
Joan Grimbert
Catholic University of America

It is fitting that Logan Whalen, author of the excellent Marie de France and the Poetics of Memory (2008), should have taken the initiative to memorialize Marie by putting together this impressive collection of essays. Many of the contributors have been associated with Marie's œuvre for decades. For example, Judith Rice Rothschild was one of the first to examine Marie's narrative technique, and a defining moment in the evolution of Marie studies was the publication of Glyn S. Burgess's Marie de France: An Analytic Bibliography (1977), an important resource (periodically updated) that has provided a major impetus for the study of various aspects of Marie's work. While giving earlier scholars their due, Whalen is focused on the future as well. By including two essays on La Vie seinte Audree, he emphasizes one of the most exciting developments in recent scholarship, namely, the argument advanced by June Hall McCash a decade ago in Speculum to prove Marie's authorship of that work. One of Marie's most admirable qualities is her ability to explore various genres. For readers who may think that the only one of Marie's works worthy of study is her Lais, Whalen's choice of essays (and contributors) is a salutary reminder of her diverse talents and interests. She is the undisputed author of an Isopet (collection of fables) and a hagiographical piece known as L'Espurgatoire seint Patriz, and it seems increasingly likely that she also penned the Audree.

Following a short introduction by Whalen, the volume opens with his chapter on prologues and epilogues in all four of Marie's works. His learned and nuanced discussion, which gives voice to the views of many scholars (especially regarding the General Prologue) compares rhetorical techniques across Marie's entire œuvre, her participation in the enterprise of translatio studii, her care to cite sources giving credibility to her endeavor, her concern with remembrance, and her duty to use her God-given talents. Particularly important for arguing Marie's authorship of Audree is the similarity between the prologue and epilogue of that work and those of L'Espurgatoire.

In Chapter 2, "Marie de France and the Learned Tradition," Emanuel J. Mickel, Jr., argues that Marie owed much less to Celtic "sources" than to learned ones. In fact, the names of characters and geographical settings are about all that tie Marie's work to Celtic folklore, for many themes and motifs can be found in the larger European or Indo- European folklore. Moreover, while the lays reflect contemporary social practice and law, some give evidence of older practices that were part of the original tale or added to give the appearance of a remote time and place. Since Marie's lays have traditionally been associated with Celtic folklore, the "long view" that Mickel takes is most welcome: he summarizes the ongoing discussion about the Celtic "origins" of these narratives and, to account for the attitude of earlier French scholars, describes their determination to discover the Celtic "roots" of their nation and their fascination with the marvelous. Mickel concludes by tracing the trends in scholarship on the question of Celtic origins from the nineteenth century, up through the nineteen-fifties and sixties, and then the decisive turn in the seventies and eighties toward Marie's debt to the learned traditions.

All readers of the Lais have recognized Marie's interest in depicting various situations involving love. In Chapter 3, "The Wound, the Knot, and the Book: Marie de France and Literary Traditions of Love in the Lais," Roberta L. Krueger demonstrates how Marie draws on all traditions in vogue at the time, even as she asserts a critical difference from each. Krueger divides her discussion into ten different sections: (1) Guigemar and the malady of love, (2) Smart woman, foolish choice: Equitan and Ovidian seduction, (3) Arthurian fantasies: Lanval, (4) Ovidian transformations: Deux Amanz and Lastic, (5) Portrait of a marriage: Bisclavret, (6) The skeleton in the family: Fresne, (7) Desiring heroines and their love children: Yonec and Milun, (8) Courtly competition, a dangerous game: Chaitivel, (9) The enigma of desire and death: Chievrefoil, and (10) Eliduc, multiple and final perspectives on love.

Since each of these evocatively titled sections is a learned mini- essay on one or two lays, it would be counter-productive to reduce them here to generalizing summaries. However, a few observations that Krueger makes regarding the first and last lays are of particular interest, especially since, like other contributors to this collection, Krueger gives evidence that the order of the lays found in the celebrated Harley manuscript (London, British Library, MS Harley 978) may well have been the one chosen by Marie herself. For both its motifs and its narrative strategies, the first lay, Guigemar, "serves as mise en abyme of Marie's literary methods." Marie "portrays love as physical suffering, as a complex linguistic and cultural encounter, and as a fiction wrought by her own creative transformation--as wound, knot, and book--throughout the Lais" (64). As for the final lay, Eliduc, it recasts the earlier themes and moves toward a concluding synthesis, with the lay ending on an exchange between two women who articulate two different feminine perspectives on love that run through the collection. Krueger also advances the novel view that the wife in the lai may actually have gotten what she wanted--the chance to determine her own life in a female religious community. This speculation is particularly suggestive in light of research regarding the Vie seinte Audree, which tells how a woman "resists the sexual advances of husbands in two arranged marriages before earning the right to live on her own in religious orders" (87).

In Chapter 4, "Literary and Socio-Cultural Aspects of the Lais of Marie de France," Judith Rice Rothschild, arguably the grande dame of Marie studies, covers a great deal of ground, which she herself summarizes in her conclusion as "an overview of the history of Marie's Lais and her identity; an examination of the General Prologue and the prologue to Guigemar; a presentation of many elements composing the complexity of the tales (e.g. the criss- crossing of multiple themes, principal and ancillary, and motifs across the twelve stories); a review of the principal character types in the love triangles in their repetition and variations; a selective presentation of approaches, perspectives, and methods of twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholars of the Lais; an enumeration of the recurring key words in the individual prologues and epilogues; a discussion of selected objects, individually and grouped in triads; word-plays and puns; a brief mention of several other distinctive features of Marie's narrative technique; and a short review of socio- cultural and socio-political realities in the narratives" (115-16). Readers will find in this wide array of topics many points that are taken up and explored in more detail by other contributors--and by the many scholars cited in her footnotes.

Following this cluster of three chapters devoted to Marie's Lais, we move into a series of essays that explore the relation of that work to others. In Chapter 5, "Marie de France and the Anonymous Lays," Glyn S. Burgess considers similarities between Marie's lays and eleven anonymous Old French lays. Author of an analytic bibliography not only of Marie's Lais but of the anonymous lays as well, he has, with Leslie Brook, recently re-edited and translated into English the same eleven anonymous lays examined here: Desiré, Doon, Espine, Graelent, Guingamor, Lecheor, Melion, Nabaret, Trot, Tydorel, and Tyolet. To ascertain if there are marked differences between these lays and Marie's, Burgess examines all twenty-three poems from five different points of view: (1) Prologues and epilogues, (2) Male characters and the theme of chivalry, (3) Female characters and the theme of love, (4) The supernatural or merveilleux elements, and (5) Objects and symbols they contain. As it turns out, there are few clear-cut distinctions between the two groups of tales, although the anonymous lays have more supernatural content and Marie seems more interested in the "psychology" of love. Burgess also explores the complex relations that link some of the lays of the two groups and the vexed question of influences.

With Chapter 6, "Speaking Through Animals in Marie de France's Lais and Fables," we transition to a consideration of both of Marie's collections. In a wide-ranging analysis that draws on various learned traditions that seek to differentiate the bestial from the human, Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner "listens" to what animals say in these two works. Noting the tension between narrative and moral in the fables, Bruckner finds that the animals are true to their bestial nature in some cases and in others not. The fables' placement, like that of the lays, in Harley 978, allows the individual pieces to play off of each other in suggestive ways. This is true as well of the lays in which animals play a starring role. Bruckner provides an illuminating analysis of the interplay among six lays in which beasts predominate, especially the trio of birds that link the sixth, seventh, and eighth tales, where there is an intense focus on successive avian incarnations. The depth and complexity of Bruckner's analysis, a characteristic of her scholarship as a whole, makes it difficult to summarize this extremely stimulating and original chapter. Her discussion of how Marie's audience may have reacted to Marie's skilful blend of allusions to marvelous and Christian elements in Yonec is particularly astute. Returning at the end of her essay to the issue of truth claims with which she had begun, Bruckner concludes, "In search of the figurative truths of fable and fiction or the literal truth of lived human experience, we can be sure that Marie invites her readers to seek meaning in the rich obscurities of her lais, as in the tensions between narrative and morality staged in her Fables. Speaking or speechless, her animals have many a tale to tell us" (185).

In Chapters 7 and 8, both by Charles Bruckner, who has produced a critical edition/translation of the Fables, we delve more deeply into that collection. In the first chapter, "Marie de France and the Fable Tradition," Brucker covers: (1) Exempla and fables: A problem of genre, (2) Biographical, historical, and codicological context, (3) Marie's fables in the tradition of the Aesop, (4) Fables derived from Phaedrus, and (5) Direct sources of Marie's fables.

In the second chapter, "The Fables of Marie de France and the Mirror of Princes," Bruckner focuses on the didactic aspects of the fables. He picks out certain fables that contain "advice" to rulers and compares them to a contemporary work, John of Salisbury's Policraticus. He concludes that Marie "wants the subjects of the prince to submit resignedly to the laws of society and at the same time she wants to limit the power of the ruler within the framework of equity and justice" (235).

As the next two chapters focus on Marie's hagiographical works, they may well justify the--initially surprising--inclusion of this volume in Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition series. In Chapter 9, "Gendered Sanctity in Marie de France's L'Espurgatoire seint Patriz and La Vie seinte Audree," June Hall McCash examines elements found in both of these works (similar styles, approaches, concerns, and actual phrasing) that in her mind demonstrate conclusively Marie's authorship of both. As to why Marie would choose to adapt these two religious texts so different from her Lais and her Fables, McCash points to Marie's interest in gender issues in her earlier works, where both male and female perspectives are represented, and finds it logical that she would continue exploring these perspectives in her last two "spiritual companion pieces" (256). McCash notes many similarities in the challenges faced by Owein and Audrey (and their goals) and attributes to the protagonists' genders the differences in narrative and character portrayals. Regarding the order of composition of the two pieces, McCash surmises that the Espurgatoire was written first, in part because it was requested, and that Marie then decided to complete her "sanctity cycle" with the Audree. McCash's detailed demonstration extends quite persuasively her argument, first proposed in a 2002 article in Speculum, concerning Marie's authorship of the Audree.

In Chapter 10, "Marie de France Translatrix II: La Vie seinte Audree," Rupert T. Pickens begins by noting that the importance of translation in all four of Marie's works is such that they embody a virtual "poetics of translatio." He identifies Marie's Latin source of the Audree, as being close to London British Library, MS Cotton Domitian A XV (the B manuscript) rather than the Liber Eliensis, as had been thought. He then focuses on one section of her exemplar, its collection of miracles, and some of the salient features of these brief narratives in order to explain their appeal for Marie and demonstrate the work she did to make them her own. Pickens believes that Marie would have been drawn to her exemplar because it privileges St. Audrey's compelling biography and the miracula. He points out that the miraculum, like the lay or fable, is a discrete narrative and forms part of a collection.

In the concluding essay, Chapter 11, "The Manuscripts of Marie de France," Keith Busby describes the codices that preserve Marie's first three works, reminding us of what this kind of context can teach us. Concentrating largely on the Lais, Busby describes the "rich untidiness" of the collection's manuscript transmission, one that has been "obscured" by the "lure" of Harley 978 which, however, he believes may be "the earliest manuscript containing any of the Lais" and "may preserve the final arrangement, perhaps even authorial, of the twelve individual tales," an assertion that seems borne out by the analyses of contributors like Krueger and Bruckner (304-5). Busby goes on to study the manuscript transmission of the fables, where Marie's authorship seems widely accepted, in contrast to the "de-authorization" of the Lais in the course of their transmission. Busby devotes a paragraph to the Espurgatoire, but ignores the Audree, an odd omission in view of the emphasis of the two preceding chapters, but perhaps a reminder that not all scholars subscribe to McCash's view (cf. n. 6). In any case, Busby ends with a salutary reminder: "The canonization of Marie's texts, the orderly circumscription of her perceived œuvre into neatly structured works of unchallenged attribution, not to mention codicological decontextualization effected by the modern critical edition, are all questioned, if not entirely belied, by a varied and untidy corpus of manuscripts" (317).

This volume brings together an excellent roster of contributors who speak authoritatively to each other through their essays as they gloss Marie's words, but the question of target audience is somewhat unclear. Whereas most of the essays would be accessible to students, some seem aimed at a rather more specialized audience. The price of the volume also puts it out of reach for most readers interested in acquiring it, although the Brill website appears to offer it as an e- book. In any case, this Marie Companion deserves a wide audience.

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Joan Grimbert

Catholic University of America