The Lais of Marie de France: Was courtly love good for women?
The Lais of Marie de France chronicle the trials and tribulations of various women in love, as seen from a female perspective. Little is known about the life of Marie de France. However, one thing is clear: she was a poet with passionate feelings on the subject of male-female relationships. The primary convention structuring the tales of Marie is that of courtly love. In this emphasis, Marie de France was keeping with the dominant belief schemas of her era: courtly love was the most popular romantic philosophy of the middle ages. The concept of courtly love stressed the love of a subservient yet bold knight for his lord's lady. On one hand, the love of the lady inspired the knight to do great things. On the other hand, the love was futile, given that the knight could not consummate his love for the lady without dishonoring and besmirching his relationship with the lord.
The ideal of courtly love might seem quite stereotypical in its portrayal of the genders. The men in the relationship fight, the women simply 'exist' and are beautiful and inspirational in their simple presence. It is the activities of the lord that are the focus of the tale. Women merely act as placeholders, rather than as active agents in and of themselves. Also, the love of a woman (unlike the homosocial affections of men) can be fundamentally disruptive to male relationships in tales of courtly love. This is most famously seen in the relationship of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, in which the initially inspiring love of Lancelot for Guinevere ultimately brings down Arthur's kingdom when the passion between the knight and the beautiful queen is consummated.
This sense of the dangerous potential of affection for the feminine to kill men can be seen in Marie's "Les Deus Amanz" ("The Two Lovers"). In this story, a man literally dies of the love of a woman, specifically in his attempt to prove himself to be a manly knight. The female of the tale is the daughter of a tyrannical, loving king who does not want to see his daughter married. Instead of seeking to find a good man worthy of her hand, he sets an impossible challenge for her suitors: to carry her up a high mountain and back again. Many die in this attempt. Finally, the woman falls in love with a handsome young man. Desperate to marry and escape her father, the clever girl tells him of a magical potion that will enable him to perform this feat (this is an example of how courtly love inspires men to do great deeds and save damsels in distress, although in this case the damsel herself is providing the instruction). However, the suitor is too confident of his prowess. At first, he accepts the need to use the potion, but at the moment of action he suddenly changes his mind and thinks better of it, electing to do it of his own force of will. In attempting to realize the ideal of courtly chivalry unassisted, he too dies going up the mountain while carrying his lover. When he dies, the cruel king's daughter dies as well of a broken heart.
The desire to live the ideal of courtly love can be very dangerous for men (and women). However, unlike the Lancelot-Guinevere tale, Marie's story has man subtle and not-so-subtle feminist elements. Far from passive, the female lover takes an active role in attempting to free herself. It is the foolishness of the man that proves to be both of their undoing, as he is effectively unwilling to accept proactive assistance from a woman. It is also the tyrannical and short-sighted actions of the king that ultimately lead both lovers to their doom. Because the king is so protective of his daughter's chastity, he loses her rather than gaining a loyal son-in-law. This suggests that Marie's lais ultimately reinterpret and critique courtly love from a feminist slant.
But the evils of courtly love are seen even more explicitly in "Equitan." This story is a clear adoption of the popular courtly love themes of the Lancelot-Guinevere cycle; only in the case of this lais it is the king who is the adulator and violator of his agreement with one of his seneschal. Just as the bond between knight and lord was sacred and thus the lord who loved a queen could not consummate his affections without dishonor, it was likewise considered dishonorable for a king to take advantage of his position and violate his position of trust in relation to any of the men who served him. However, the king cannot help himself and after he and the seneschal's wife engage in a tryst, they plot to kill her husband by boiling the seneschal alive, only to have the plot turned against them and to lose their lives themselves. This clearly is a 'comeuppance' for both the king and the woman, an illustration of the dark side of courtly love, and the story clearly condemns the woman for urging on the king to plot to kill her husband. Rather than inspiring the king to do great deeds, the wife merely wants to be queen herself and instead encourages the besotted king to violate the sacred feudal agreement of trust between king and noble.
Of course, it is also possible to argue that there are elements of courtly love that are actually quite positive for women and pro-woman. For example, it is the love of a woman, not the love of and loyalty to a man that is seen as the primary motivation action behind all behavior, even within the feudal system. The woman is not necessarily a placeholder of affection in terms of her representation of love between men. She can also be a stand-in for the Virgin Mary, a conduit of higher-born behavior that honors the divine, not necessarily a man on earth. And the woman must be in control of the relationship for courtly love to be functional. As seen in "The Two Lovers," when a man takes too much control, peril is sure to follow.
The need for female affection and the dangers of not honoring the need for female fellowship can be seen in the lais entitled "Guigemar." The titular knight at the beginning of the tale is very physically adept in terms of his ability to serve his king and is a good and loyal fighter. However, he is chaste and unable to feel romantic love. Although he does not necessarily see this as a bad thing, this is clearly portrayed as a kind of missing piece in his quest to be a good and perfect knight and to have a compassionate heart. When he wounds an extraordinary, magical creature -- a white doe -- that he has no feeling for, the doe curses him that he can never be healed of his wound until he falls in love with a woman who is willing to sacrifice for him as much as he is willing to sacrifice for her. Yet again in this tale, there is an example of a tyrannical king, obsessed with female chastity -- Guigemar attempts to free the queen after she attempts to heal his wound, but is thwarted in his attempt. Eventually the queen escapes, only to be imprisoned again. Finally, the two are reunited, and until they are united both wear symbolic chastity belts (knotted clothing only the beloved can untie).
Thus, in this relationship, the love of a woman 'schools' the knight Guigemar in true, Christian humility. It is true that his relationship with a woman ultimately sunders rather than bolsters his relationship with men of power. However, given the jealousy and wickedness shown by these men in power (unlike the noble Arthur of Camelot, in stark contrast) in the story, it is difficult to mourn their demise and the reader's likely support is wholly behind the actions of Guigemar. The queen of the story clearly fulfills the stand-in role of the Virgin Mary, teaching Guigemar compassion and fidelity that he was unaware of before when he cruelly killed the white doe without appreciating its beauty. Courtly love is an educator, not a violator, of the knight's higher nature. Also, the woman of the tale is extremely active and proactive in terms of her desire to be reunited with her lover, bravely escaping from the castle where she is imprisoned, and heading far out into a strange land to seek him out.
Another argument in favor of the advantages of courtly love in a romantic relationship for women is that women are often portrayed as being in control of the relationship, much more so than men. In a world where women could be dominated by their fathers before marriage and rendered subservient in their marriages to the whims of their husband, this idea was extremely significant. But, unfortunately, sometimes this love…