Chretien de Troyes' Le Chevalier au Lion (The Knight of the Lion) tells the story of the lovelorn Arthurian knight Yvain, rather than Arthur and Guievere themselves. Thus, the tale of Yvain acts a powerful challenge to contemporary assumptions of about what constitutes a Middle Age Arthurian Romance. First of all, the tale does not revolve around the knightly, courtly conventions of Arthurian honor or loyalty to the king and his code of ethics at all, but around the personal struggles of one of Arthur's knights. Arthur's own tale is peripheral to the story and merely provides a 'frame' to the tale. Rather, Yvain's love for a woman, rather than his service to Arthur is the focus of the narration.
Pining for a love of his wife, the hero loses his mind and throws away his knightly life, taking to the woods. A woman, a countess and her serving maid save Yvain. He is discovered, unconscious and starved in a nearby cave. Also against the chivalric grain, rather than saving a woman, a woman saves the man. In the rehabilitation of Yvain, there are echoes of the tales of the end of Arthur, as the saving lady countess reveals to the reader that she possesses ointment from the witch Morgan le Fay that can heal Yvain of his love-madness. The woman takes pity on the man and helps him, despite his frightening condition. The countess instructs one of her damsels to use a little ointment on the madman's forehead and temples, because of its expense -- but the woman falls in love with the knight, and uses the whole bottle upon his body.
Thus, the tale of the Knight of the Lion shows that women as well as men can experience mad, disobedient, sensuous desire -- and even common women in this romance. Love can make men mad and cause polite women to transgress class boundaries, ad even gender barriers. In fact, gender barriers are undone yet again as the plot thickens. As Yvain heals, he wakes one day, an army surrounded the countess' castle. The countess tells Yvain, how she lost much of her land and her other castles to one of her neighbors after she refused to marry the Count Alier. Now Alier wants to take all of her land. Yvain and Alier fight until the count promises to leave the lady alone. Again, female choice is upheld, as the countess is allowed to keep her lands and remain free -- and as Yvain's own original desires for his wife were initially unsatisfied, the desires that caused his madness, until he could prove himself worthy of his wife.
A further transgressing gender bound, the countess proposes to the knight, but he refuses. While wandering in the woods, his sanity now restored to him by a woman with a woman's charms, Yvain saves a white lion. The lion helps Yvain overcome the giant who threatens his beloved, and results in his winning the woman back. But his lessons from women and from nature have taught Yvain humility. When Yvain fights for his wife he fights not for himself and as her husband, but refuses to reveal his identity. When asked, he says he will not say who he is until he is reconciled with the lady he loved. Laudine, his lady, does not recognize Yvain with his helmet, and when pressed for his name, Yvain calls himself the Knight of the Lion.
Eventually, at the end of the tale the two are reconciled, but only after it is revealed that Countess Laudine is concerned the fountain near her castle has been left defenseless for so long since her husband Yvain had left her side. Like the countess Yvain protected earlier, Laudine was concerned that without a strong knight to protect her fountain, any enemy can destroy her castle by simply causing a fierce storm. Women are thus both powerful enough to exert command over castles, in the tale, but the threat posed to female leadership by men is still real, and women are seen as more vulnerable in positions of power. Still, the tale is a challenge to the typical Arthur-Guinevere saga, where women function solely as romantic actors in the narrative, rather than political actors -- women are both powerful, yet demanding and fallible, and men can become ensnared by romance, rescued by women, and experience difficulties in marriage that can eventually be reconciled outside of the courtly conventions of adultery.
The Lais of Marie De France
If Chretien de Troyes' Le Chevalier au Lion is a powerful challenge to assumptions about female choice and assertion in medieval life, the very act of authorship evident tin The Lais of Marie De France is a challenge to notions of female literary silence during this period. Almost all of the poems, short and long, feature narratives with some form of female choice and activism at their nexus. Marie is sympathetic to young wife's adulterous desires when they are married to older men, for example. She also, even beyond gender often turns medieval imagery and conventions upon their heads -- for Marie, fortune and love are both subject to abrupt and unexpected turns, as in "Guigemar," where the young wife finds herself in a loveless marriage with an old man because of parental pressure and economic needs -- much like the countess was nearly impressed into marriage in de Troyes.
In "Guigemar," as in many of Marie's tales, the husband and wife are estranged, not for the reasons as they are much as they are in many courtly love sagas, because of mere love for another man, but because of the age gap. When love is compelled by economic rather than romantic necessity, the two partners cannot truly become 'one.' Marie validates female choice and the female will, even outside of marriage -- but not simply because of courtly conventions, but because of female, sensuous needs. However, not all of Marie's romantic transgressions are quite as justified as in "Guigemar." In the poetic language of "Equitan" the love is motivated between a wife and a wandering troubadour with more mixed motives of desire. In this poem, Marie renders love as personified as the feudal mistress of the king. The king is admitted into love's service. Thus, there is a gender reversal in romance again, as the presumably lower woman gains power and becomes high, as she overcomes the importuning man's initial resistance towards his desire for the lady. But this more static and idealized version of courtly love ends less happily, as it is less justified in the situation of the two protagonists.
This is also true in "Lanval," where the tale of Guinevere and Lancelot is explicitly re-told. Also, in this re-telling Guinevere is equally guilty of desiring the male as is the knight -- the transgression is mutual and not blamed upon Eve's sin or upon the knight's failure to honor his lord. Rather as in all of Marie's tales, the motivation of the protagonists is emotional, and due to reasons both good and bad within themselves and within society, to varying degrees. Courtly love is not merely a convention. It is also located in a particular situation of two people in 'real' economic, political, and social life.
Marie often uses fantastic narratives to clarify certain mundane aspects of marriage many medieval women may have faced. For instance, in "Bisclavet," a woman discovers that she has married a werewolf. Unknown to her before the marriage, the wife is actually wedded to a beast. This highlights the lack of choice many women had in whom they were able to marry, much as the persistence of the theme of the young woman compelled to marry the elderly, more settled wealthy man, despite her sensual and youthful passion and impulses, another theme evidenced in the tale of "Yonec."
In Marie's version of love, there is often a lack of choice, but no lack of emotion that transgresses love, both for men and women. But perhaps the most poignant example of this is seen not between men and women, but in the example of the cast off twins in "Le Frense." While tales of twins separated at birth are common, in the difficult times of the Middle Ages, children were often doorsteps of churches, as in "Le Frense," despite the desires of their mothers.
The Romance of the Rose
Love, faith, and the practical needs of the castle and future children were all intertwined in the moral conventions middle ages. Pure love outside of these could only exist in a courtly and symbolic nature. It is in this vein that the 13th century the writer Guillaume de Lorris wrote his allegorical epic Roman de la Rose or the "Romance of the Rose." Through pure love, unlike the carnal love enjoyed by Marie de France's lovers, the author takes on the persona of a man who is neither old, nor young, but who at "the…