Marie de France was a 12th Century author who wrote between roughly 1160 and 1215 and is consider the pinnacle of Anglo-Norman literature. We know so little about her life that scholars aren’t quite sure which Marie she is. We know she was French, as her most famous works were written in a dialect of French spoken in Paris at the time. As her works have been found most commonly scattered throughout England, we can assume she most likely lived there as an adult. She attained a high level of education, being both literate and multilingual; based on those facts we can presume she was a fairly prominent figure, potentially an abbess or Henry II’s half-sister. Her works were widely popular throughout England and well known at the court of Henry II.
Having a French author writing in French while living in England would have been a commonplace occurrence in 12th Century England. In 1066, a leader named William the Conqueror (the Duke of Normandy in what is now Northern France) led an army to England and conquered the realm. The invaders installed themselves as the new nobility, with William as King of England, and made the English their servants. French became the language of the nobility in England for centuries after.
Marie’s most famous work is a series of poems known as the “Lais of Marie de France.” Lais were a form of poetry often used by travelling Breton minstrels. Marie took the form and made it her own, being the first to use the lai for narrative poetry. Her stories are one of the best examples we have of the courtly love tradition, filled with love triangles, adultery, loss, adventure – even, at times, fairies. Marie skirts reality, with strong elements of Celtic folklore woven throughout. Her settings are fully realistic, but her characters are sometimes more supernatural. One lai, Bisclavret, even features a werewolf as a protagonist.
Courtly love is one of the biggest traditions in medieval European literature. The typical structure of a courtly love story involves a knight seeing a lady at court and then pursuing ever greater feats in an attempt to win her affections. In general, the love the knight feels is ennobling: it causes him to go on adventures, risk life and limb, and generally do what he can to improve his reputation, his position at court, and (usually) the kingdom. The lady typically acts as catalyst for the knight’s actions but has little else to do. The relationships themselves are typically unconsummated.
In Marie’s lais, however, courtly love is a bit more active. Women have a much stronger role. Women in some of her tales are adulterous, usually seeking to get some space from a forced marriage to an abuser or a much older man. Even in the best cases, however, love causes the lovers to suffer. There are very rarely any happy relationships in the way we would think of them today. In Marie’s world, lovers can be loyal to each other, but they will suffer, sometimes die, for that love.