Marie de France Invents Courtly Love; Or, Why We Have Chivalry All Wrong

by E.J. Lawrence

I love history. My favorite part is learning about historical events, especially ones which occurred out of pure selfishness, or happenstance, that affected people or places hundreds of years later. Henry VIII’s desire to get divorced, which later caused intense strife between the Catholic and Protestant churches, for instance. Or Russia’s Pauline Laws in 1797 that said only male heirs could rule, and thus caused a young czarina to seek out the help of a devilish monk named Rasputin to save her only son. Her attempt to salvage the Romanov line, of course, ended tragically.

Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire, 6th Century

So, when K.P. suggested our May theme be about women in their “purple” (from the Empress Theodora quote), I interpreted this as a question about influence. Not just influencing a decision now and again, but influencing a long-lasting decision–one that affects our world even now.

I’m sure I could look to find women commanding armies (Boudica) or kingdoms (Empress Theodora), but that’s not really where my expertise lies. My expertise lies in literature. Arthurian literature, specifically. At first glance, you might not think women had much influence over the King Arthur stories. After all, the canonical works about King Arthur are all by men.

Perhaps. But they were enjoyed by men and women alike. And one of the most enduring facets of Arthurian legend would not even exist if it weren’t for one very influential woman: Marie de Champagne, also known as Marie de France.

Marie de France was the daughter of another highly influential woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Yes, the same Eleanor who married Henry II (the one who killed Thomas a Beckett) and conspired with her son, Henry the Young, to overthrow his father. Also, this is the same Eleanor who gave birth to Richard the Lionhearted (Marie de France’s half-brother) and John (also Marie’s half-brother, and the same man who signed the Magna Carta).

Let me re-cap that for you: If it weren’t for Eleanor of Aquitaine and her crazy family, we would likely have no Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, no T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, no Robin Hood, no Magna Carta either!the influence that this one family had on literature is immeasurable.

But we’re here to discuss Marie de France.

Marie de France by Richard of Verdun

Yes. Without Marie de France, there might not be a Lancelot, and there certainly wouldn’t be a salacious love triangle between him, King Arthur, and the beauteous Queen Guinevere.

You see, back in the day, authors used to have patrons. The patron would allow the author (or painter, or musician, etc.) to work on their art, as long as they could commission a piece from time to time for themselves. Marie de France patronized the writings of one Chrétien de Troyes. We know almost nothing about Chrétien, except that he was a writer, possibly from Troyes (in Champagne), he had an extensive education, and he was fascinated by the King Arthur tales. Anything beyond this is mostly speculation.

But we do know Marie de France asked him to write “a romance.” “Romance” for this time period is a type of work that dealt with chivalry and noble quests, not necessarily a love story. However, in this case, it was a love story. Chrétien says that “The Countess presents [me] with the matter and the meaning, and [I] undertake to shape the work, adding little to it except effort and careful attention.”1 This means, of course, that the story was all her idea, and Chrétien claims he did not change anything. Whether he says this as a dutiful artist to his patron, or to ensure everyone knows this story was not his idea, we don’t know. Yet, we are certain this story is hers.

The story is “The Knight of the Cart,” and it introduces Lancelot as he goes to rescue Guinevere from Meleagant. It is in this tale, we see Lancelot as being wholly in love, devoted to his queen…but more than a “I really hope no harm comes to my best friend’s wife” kind of way. Or even more than a “She’s the queen, it’s my duty to help her” kind of way. Rather, we get scenes such as when Lancelot is forced to lie with a woman overnight (a common trope in Arthurian literature), he keeps his shirt on, and lays as far from her as humanly possible. The Lady recognizes that “The knight had only one heart, and it was no longer his; he had entrusted it to another[…]Love, who governs all hearts, made it stay in one place.”2 It’s at this moment the Lady excuses herself, telling Lancelot she knows her company isn’t pleasing to him. Lancelot “gladly” lets her go. He is so committed to his love that he refuses the advances of another.

His passion is later compared to Pyramus when, as he fights Meleagant, Guinevere wills him to stop, and Lancelot obeys, for “A lover is obedient; when he is completely in love, he performs his beloved’s pleasure eagerly and promptly. Thus Lancelot, who loved more than Pyramus–if love more any man could–was compelled to obey.”3

But, of course, these vignettes could perhaps be brushed aside as “Courtly Love”–a name often given to the “duties” a knight owes his “lady” in such romances. Despite the title of this post, I’m not here to debate Courtly Love. However, the story makes it perfectly clear this is more than Courtly Love, for later, Lancelot breaks the bars off the queen’s prison and “had all he desired. The queen eagerly sought his company and his pleasure as he held her in his arms and she held him in hers. In the pleasure of loving, he tasted such rapturous happiness by kissing and caressing her that theirs was, without word of lie, a wondrous joy, whose equal has never yet been heard or known. But on this matter I shall always be silent. Every tale should pass over it in silence. The choicest and most pleasurable joys are those the tale keeps from us.”4

But on this matter I shall always be silent. Every tale should pass over it in silence. The choicest and most pleasurable joys are those the tale keeps from us.4

As he leaves her room the next morning, before he is discovered, he is described as leaving like a suppliant before an altar.4 I mean, that’s a romance, right? Kissing, holding, cut scene, idol worship of the lover? Well, it’s an Arthurian Romance, in any case.

Lancelot and Guinevere’s Last Night Together by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

Though Chrétien’s tale ends well, without the downfall of the kingdom, we know the impact the story has on the legend moving forward. The Lancelot/Guenevere affair sets off the chain reaction for the what will ultimately be the demise of Camelot. It’s because of this affair that Lancelot is barred from the Grail quest. Without this element of the story, Malory, Tennyson, and T.H. White would probably never written their versions. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to write their versions with the same sense of gravitas. For the fall of Arthur’s kingdom is a tragedy…but Malory’s story doesn’t end there. Rather, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur actually ends with Lancelot’s death, as he’s spirited away by “more men than he had ever seen angels.”5 In the end, Lancelot finds redemption for his betrayal. In Lancelot, there’s a picture of Malory himself, a man with overwhelming potential who gave it all up for “love.” Lancelot finds forgiveness in ways one can only imagine Malory hoped to. So many end the story with Camelot’s destruction, but the ending of Malory’s tale is a beautiful representation of redemption. The “romances” often get lumped in with ideas about “Courtly Love” and damsels in distress, and while some of them are that simple, they expanded to be tales about so much more. Stories about love and betrayal and loss and faith.

For all this (or a good bit of it, at least), we can thank Marie de France and her patronage of the arts. So keep sharing your stories! Who can say what resounding influence they might also have on future generations?

If you’re interested in more about Lancelot and Grail lore, I also have a piece you can read here:

Transposing the Planes: Supernatural vs. Natural Elements in Le Morte D’Arthur

1 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 170

2 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 185

3 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 216

4 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 227

5 Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. Modern Library, 1999.