MARIE DE FRANCE
of the few medieval secular woman writers, little is known about Marie de
France because, like many trouveres, she lacked a personal biographer.
What scholars do know about her life has been derived from her poetical
works. Her name, which merely denotes her nation of origin, was even
obtained from a verse of her poetry: "Marie ai nun, si sui de
France." Furthermore, her poetry also indicates she probably lived
in the northern part of France known as Brittany due to her use of a particular
Scholars are unable to determine exactly when she lived during the twelfth century, but most agree she lived in the latter third. She appears to have been a habitual guest of the court of Henry II of England and his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Evidence of this fact can be traced to her dedication of her lais to King Henry and her "Ysopet" to his son, William, Count of Salisbury. Sadly, other than these scraps of biographical information, the only information known about her concerns her literary style.
Certainly, scholars have established she was the first woman ever to write French poetry. Additionally, she was also part of a generation of writers who were attempting to invent the French verse romance. She composed three different types of verse: lais, visions of purgatory ("Purgatory of Saint Patrick"), and renditions of 103 of Aesop's fables. Her lais often receive the most attention and recognition today. In her lais she employs the octosyllabic couplet which has eight-syllable lines rhyming in pairs. Her fifteen lais were most likely originally written in Breton, the Celtic language of Brittany, but originals of her works have never been discovered. Moreover, her lais are also part of the Breton Cycle or "love group" which Marie may have actually started. These short poems tell of the brave deeds of the Breton knights who seek to sate their lady-love. Frequently, these tales also contain elements of the supernatural as the events often seem magical. In particular, her tales of love and adventure display a level of sensibility uncommon among her fellow trouveres. Additionally, her tales reveal she had a keen sense of wit. Thus, although she may not have been the first Breton Cycle writer, she definitely seems to be one of the most skilled.
Although much uncertainty surrounds the identity of this poet, there is little uncertainty that she was skilled at her trade.