Medieval and Renaissance: Storytelling and Multiple Voices
The Lais of Marie de France is a compilation of courtly love poems written by a woman known as Marie in the twelfth century. The female characters in this collection play significant characters in stories of courtly romance by directing the behavior of the male characters. However, the views and their character are restricted to their roles as objects of male perfection. In this collection of stories, rarely do women take active roles. They serve as a submissive reward for the challenges and accomplishments of the male characters. Marie de France’s literature has a strong emphasis on the hopes and aspirations of the female characters. During her writing, women were mainly underestimated and overlooked; however, her insistence on the female characters proves that her work has qualities and characteristics of feminism. Even though Marie’s work is romantic, the secret language shows a switch of established gender roles. It offers a reader an opportunity to re-evaluate the idea of women in the story. On the surface of Marie’s work, she seemed to stand by gender roles; however, by taking a closer look, the gender roles begin to change into what many individuals would believe could never happen. Instead of following the characteristics of the poem for heroic knights and the code of chivalry, the poem is given a tone of ridicule when describing the customs of court and society.
The female characters are described as charismatic, capable, and strong, while their male counterparts are described as typical knights and generic. According to Marie, “One [knight] had married a woman wise, courtly, and handsome; she set a wonderfully high value on herself, within the bounds of custom and usage” (Marie 155). The lady sets value ‘on herself’ within the conventional space allotted her through marriage, while the husband’s identity is built upon the quality of her gender performance.” From the poem, it is clear that the identity of the husband is connected to the lady; the woman serves as a support system to her husband’s decency, reflecting her importance from her otherwise removed position as other. Moreover, the role of this position in a conventional marriage involves the man dreaming of the other, not only to seize the lady but also to be approved. Furthermore, “Man dreams of an Other not only to possess her but also to be ratified by her . . . he wishes consideration from outside to confer an absolute value upon his life, his enterprises, and himself”(Marie 312). The poem focuses on the social function of a wife within the marriage by illustrating the emotional distance set between bounds of custom as well as the usage that are arranged to the woman due to their gender. Marie presents the role of a lady as a signifier of a husband’s masculinity.
Moreover, she represents another vibrant of sex connections by showing the close character of the relationship of the woman with the spinster knight. From the poem, ladies are described as beings who love not because the gentleman is close but because of emotional proximity (Marie, 156). While Marie shows the emotional closeness between the man and the lady, the reader discovers the contrasting nature of the emotionally deprived affiliation between the husband and the lady. The women in the poem are depicted as individuals who conceal their authentic voice for their husbands, hence resulting in emotional distance. In doing so, the woman declares all her needs, and her body is therefore finding comfort in the temporary distance they create between them and their husbands. However, the effort of the lady to lead a double life is clearly unsustainable within her subdued setting, and the inability of the husband to identify the emotional space between them seems to regain control of the physical closeness of their connection. “When her lord heard what she said he laughed in anger and ill will. He set his mind on one thing: to trap the nightingale” (Marie 157). Men, on the other hand, are depicted as overly masculine. For instance, the husband from the poem hears his wife’s voice, but he rejects everything she says.
Furthermore, man only accepts woman in the masculine world to make her his servant and frustrate her transcendence. Men are also portrayed as beings that only get satisfied by the dissolution of a woman’s desires by possessing her and applying total authority over her body and her voice. Therefore the subsequent actions of a man strengthen the emotional distance that separates the man from a lady (Marie, 158). In the end, violence becomes the only men can uphold their ego as a way to cover up their inability to understand a woman’s voice. A woman loses control of her own body. “Lady,” he said, “where are you?” Come here! Speak to us! I have trapped the nightingale that kept you awake so much. From now on you can lie in peace: he will never again awaken you” (158). As I would describe it, a lady without a body, blind and dumb, cannot be a competent fighter. Instead, the lady is reduced to being a shadow and servant for the man.
Furthermore, according to the poem, by violating a lady’s body and eliminating himself physically from her company, he limits her body and voice within a subdued situation and recovers the emotional and physical space between him and the lady. In most cases, women are left alone to go through pain, loss, and grieve alone and are required to acknowledge the conditions of their social position as insignificant “He broke its neck in his hands too vicious an act and threw the body on the lady; her shift was stained with blood, a little, on her breast.
“Then he left the room. The lady took the little body; she wept hard and cursed / those who betrayed the nightingale” (Marie 158). As a result, women tend to adjust their emotional state by choosing to distance themselves from the association as a means to preserve themselves. It is clear that Marie de France illustrates the interiority of the opinions of women. However, she stills explains the probable challenges that might be encountered in such a position like some of her other characters, female characters who feel they want to take control of their own lives. As seen in the poem, women end up being the ones to take action and choose to communicate with their husbands. This act enables them to regain the access to emotional proximity that they once shared with their loved ones. As they do so, they transpose their bodies and voices through the symbolic imagery of the bird.
Conclusively, it is clear that Marie de France’s Lais and 1001 Nights are texts that could be interpreted as conforming to social class and gender stereotypes of their day. Women serve as a submissive reward for the challenges and accomplishments of the male characters. However, Marie de France’s literature strongly emphasizes the hopes and aspirations of the female characters. On the surface of Marie’s work, she seemed to stand by gender roles; however, by taking a closer look, the gender roles begin to change the role of this position in a conventional marriage involves the man dreaming of others, not only to possess the lady but also to be approved by her. Moreover, from the poem, it is clear that women are depicted as individuals who conceal their authentic voice for their husbands, hence resulting in emotional distance.
Marie de France. Marie de France’s Lais and 1001 Nights.