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13.02.08, Kinoshita and McCracken, Marie de France: A Critical Companion

13.02.08, Kinoshita and McCracken, Marie de France: A Critical Companion

Sharon Kinoshita and Peggy McCracken clearly outline their approach in the Preface of their new book on Marie de France: "to rethink standard questions such as those of origins, context, plot, character, structure, and influence through categories (such as authorship and translation)...central to the consideration of medieval literature in general, as well as those (such as space/movement and embodiment) that have special resonance with the texts of Marie de France in particular" (vii). They realize their project through a close critical analysis of all the works of this late-twelfth-century poet, France's first woman of letters: the Lais, the Fables, the Espurgatoire seint Patriz, and, to some extent, the Vie seinte Audree (a text that has not been confidently attributed to Marie through scholarly consensus, but that has been the center of recent critical attention).

The authors briefly examine in Chapter 1, Introduction: The World of Marie de France, the various attempts of scholars over the years to associate Marie, the literary figure, with any of the historical Maries in England and France during her lifetime. These theories have found no critical consensus and the definitive identity of Marie de France remains a mystery. Kinoshita and McCracken then turn their attention to situating Marie de France within the literary and cultural milieu of late-twelfth-century France and England, particularly positioning her in relation to other well-known writers who preceded her, who were her contemporaries, and who came after her. Furthermore, they stress the importance of political concerns in Marie's world to an understanding of her works, noting that recent scholarship has "called attention to the complexity of borders of all kinds, reminding us that beneath master narratives of conquest, colonialism, and assimilation, we are likely to find an array of shifting political, linguistic, and socio-cultural affinities in which relations of power are negotiated in various, sometimes unpredictable, ways" (6). In fact, the authors' social and political considerations quickly emerge as the strongest critical aspect of their book as they address the importance of studying a literary work against the cultural context in which it was composed.

Moreover, the authors propose a "complex interplay of indigenous and imported languages" (7) as they evaluate the developing linguistic world in which Marie de France lived and wrote. They point out that post-Conquest Britain may be seen as a "linguistic apartheid, with speakers of Old French, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian constituting relatively separate speech communities reflecting 'ethnic' and political divisions" (6-7). For them, "the idea of a culture as a monoglot entity proceeding in organic linearity through time and within the territories of the modern nation state cannot adequately represent medieval textual production and linguistic and cultural contacts" (7).

The authors do not analyze Marie's texts in separate chapters, rather each chapter is organized around a general category (literary history, characters, narrative technique, etc.) as they examine her works in their literary and historical context. Chapter 2, Communication, Transmission, and Interpretation: Literary History, situates Marie's literary production within the textual tradition and socio-linguistic conditions in late-twelfth-century England after the Norman Conquest. While they explore the Lais, the Fables, and the Espurgatoire in this chapter, special attention is given to the so-called General Prologue of the Lais as it calls to mind the complexities of literary composition. The lais that follow the General Prologue in the collection are "self-conscious" and "themselves evoke acts of composition and transmission" (29).

Chapter 3, Courtly Love and Feudal Society: Historical Context, is the most tightly argued chapter of the book. Most of the chapter focuses on close readings of the Lais, with brief discussions of the Fables and the Espurgatoire. Kinoshita and McCracken demonstrate how characters in Marie's works interact with the feudal society in which they live. This interaction may lead to an affirmation or a subversion of societal values.

In Chapter 4, Movement and Mobility: Plot, the authors concentrate on the Lais, with some commentary as well on the Fables and the Espurgatoire. They study the way in which characters move between places in England and Northern France and suggest that Marie de France is the "master of episodic form" (113) and that she structures her texts around movement more than around temporality.

Like the narrative technique of movement and place examined in Chapter 4, the authors look closely at the "poetics of embodiment" (143) in Chapter 5, Bodies and Embodiment: Characters. Noting that bodies often change in Marie's narratives, the authors engage the question of embodiment as it informs the development of values and characters in the Lais, the Fables, and the Espurgatoire.

Chapter 6, Repetition and the Art of Variation: Narrative Techniques, treats almost exclusively the Lais, with a few paragraphs at the end of the chapter on the Espurgatoire and the Audree. Here, the authors show that "Marie uses similar motifs and plot developments to different ends in different works," and that "attention to the similarities and differences among the elements of plot and style further suggests the play of coherence and dissonance that characterizes her œuvre" (15).

In the last chapter, Posterity: The Afterlives of Marie's Works, Kinoshita and McCracken conclude their study by discussing the posterity of Marie's texts. They begin this chapter by reminding the reader that one of Marie's primary concerns as author appears to have been her desire to be remembered; this sentiment is expressed in one way or another in all the prologues and epilogues to her works. They also give a very brief description (two and a half pages) of the manuscript tradition of the Lais, the Fables, the Espurgatoire, and the Audree. Although their comments at this point were certainly not designed to be exhaustive (there are 25 manuscripts of the Fables), the reader would be much better served to consult the authorities they cite in the footnotes to this discussion.

A few aspects of the book may be bothersome to some Marie de France scholars: the puzzling absence of certain secondary sources in the notes and bibliography (and the presence of others), the spelling of Ysopet (Ysopë, a form found in some manuscripts), and the paucity of discussion on the manuscript tradition in the last chapter. However, these minor details, mostly the opinion of this reviewer, do not detract from the value of this volume to Marie de France Studies. Kinoshita and McCracken challenge readers to rethink their understanding of Marie de France and her works based on cultural, social, and political concerns of the period in which she lived and it is for this reason that their book should be read not only by students, but also by specialists in the field. I am glad to have it on my shelf.