Marie De France was a bad ass! Here’s why:
During the Middle Ages in England, there was a heavy emphasis on knights and chivalry in much of the works of the time. While there are elements of each of these aspects in Marie de France’s works, many of her poems have a strong focus on the desires of her female characters and differ slightly from the works of romance written by her [male] contemporaries. The male writers of her time were largely interested in chivalry and courtly responsibilities of knights, yet, Marie went in a different direction and focused more on her female characters. The fact that Marie de France is a female writer in a patriarchal society and her emphasis on the female characters in her stories is evidence that her works show features and aspects of modern feminism. While the poems of Marie de France are romantic in nature, the underlying language in the Breton lai,“Lanval,” demonstrates the reversal of traditional gender roles and forces the reader to re-evaluate the view of women in the Middle Ages.
[Side note: if you are not familiar with this poem, you can find a version here and give it a read!] http://users.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/marie/lanval.pdf
Although the works of Marie de France seem to abide by gender roles on the surface, a certain amount of depth can be understood when the reader takes a closer look at the text. Indeed, aspects of heroic knights and chivalric code appear in her works but there is a tone of mockery in the description of the conventions of society and court. She writes about dynamic female characters while males are average and generic knights. These elements can be observed clearly in her poem, “Lanval.” The male protagonist, Lanval, is indeed praised for his “valor, generosity, beauty, and prowess.” However, he is also described as unmemorable and unpopular. When giving out wives and land to the other knights, king Arthur forgets about Lanval. Contrastingly, Lanval describes the faerie woman, he uses bold, beautiful language which makes her unforgettable to Lanval and the reader: “This is of all who exist, the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Furthermore, in several of the works of Marie de France, women are actually the subjects of the stories and are not simply viewed as property or objects in the background. By introducing this wild, beautiful, and independent faerie queen, Marie de France makes the knight Lanval dependent upon her. An example of this dependence is seen in lines 135-143. The woman gave him unimagined wealth, which he shared with the king and the other knights who praised him for his generosity. This is one example of how Marie De France said “screw you” to traditional gender roles in “Lanval.” During the Middle Ages, women usually did not own or handle money, it was the patriarch of the family who would earn and handle the money for the household. A woman giving money to Lanval identifies him as the feminine entity in their relationship; this act also demonstrates the faerie woman as the male persona in the relationship.
Another example of a shift in gender roles in the poem is the faerie’s assumption of the dominant role in the relationship between Lanval and herself. In other works dealing with courtly love, it is the knight who attempts to court a lovely maiden, however, the opposite is true in “Lanval.” The faerie woman says she has left her land to look for him. By stating that she came looking to proposition him, she takes on the traditional male role of being the first to confront him instead of him asking to court her. In this way, the female is taking her sexuality in her own hands and owning it instead of being ashamed of it, which was the norm for females of this time. This dynamic is also seen in today’s society; more women are taking on the assertive role by asking men out on dates. In addition to being the one courting him, the faerie queen also asserts her dominance by commanding Lanval to keep their relationship a secret. By swearing a vow to do what she commands, Lanval is signifying his submission to her and therefore, taking on the historical submissive female role in their relationship.
Not only does Lanval rely on the faerie queen for money but at the end of the story she ends up saving him from being found guilty at the trial. While most works of the time portrayed women as “damsels in distress,” Marie de France turns the tables and makes the female the hero, which is seen in many characteristics of modern feminism. The faerie heroine plays both parts of a lovely lady and heroic knight. “She openly displays the stunning beauty and refined behavior of the classic commodified courtly lady while riding heroically to defend her helpless lover in a legal suit.” Marie de France uses obvious imagery at the end of the story to further demonstrate this role-reversal when Lanval jumps on the horse “and sits behind her on the saddle” in the manner a damsel in distress would and they ride away. The effect of this woman’s heroic and uncharacteristic participation in the legal system at king Arthur’s court is to defy our preconceived notions of gender in the courtly world.
The [slutty] actions of Guinevere are more examples of gender roles being reversed. Similar to the faerie queen, Guinevere is the one to approach Lanval about an affair which gives her the role of the traditional assertive male and Lanval the role of the female (again). Likewise, this adulterous proposition gives Guinevere control of her sexuality which was taboo for females of the time. Guinevere is represented much differently than the faerie queen. She attempts to use her position of power to seduce Lanval and is, therefore, perceived as evil. Guinevere’s villainous nature can be viewed as yet another gender role reversal thrown in by bad ass Marie. Throughout history, women have been portrayed as innocent and pure, characteristics which are widely equated with femininity. Usually, women in stories are the damsel’s in distress, not the hero or in Guinevere’s case, the villain. Though the faerie woman’s sexuality could be seen as manipulative, she does not use it in that way because her love for Lanval is true and she does not have another purpose behind ‘seducing’ him. Guinevere, on the other hand, is attempting to seduce Lanval simply because she finds him sexually attractive. This is further evidence of a woman owning her sexuality instead of shying away from it.
In the Breton lai “Lanval,” by Marie de France, there are similarities to characteristics of modern feminism and switches in traditional gender roles. She uses the chivalric code in the story to ridicule the patriarchal social rules that rule court life. Marie also demonstrates evidence of feminism by depicting the faerie queen as independent and heroic. In addition, she portrays Lanval as the feminine persona in the relationship between himself and the faerie queen by his reliance on her for money and his vow of submission to her. All of these points prove how much of a bad ass Marie de France was.