Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Parable of the Sower and Obscurity in the Prologue to Marie De France's Lais

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Parable of the Sower and Obscurity in the Prologue to Marie De France's Lais

Article excerpt

The twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poet known as Marie de France is usually credited with the authorship of three works: the religious adventure St. Patrick's Purgatory, a collection of beast Fables; and what is considered her masterwork, the Lais, a group of twelve lapidary romances. (1) The Lais at least have recently achieved a mark of canonical status, with selections appearing in the anthologies of British literature published by W.W. Norton, Longman, and Broadview. Readers who encounter the Lais in two of these commonly used texts, however, do so without the benefit of reading their Prologue, where Marie sketches the sources of the Lais, her purposes in composing them, and her hopes for their success. (2) A compact and sophisticated example of medieval literary theory, the Prologue is generally understood by critics as Marie's declaration of the poetic according to which she wrote the Lais and through which she wishes readers to interpret them. The Prologue thus provides a crucial lens for viewing the narratives that follow it.

The Prologue, however, is hardly straightforward. Its notoriously paratactic and ambiguous style raises as many questions about Marie's literary theory as it answers. Perhaps the chief curiosity of the Prologue is a passage that misattributes to the Latin grammarian Priscian, whose works served as standard textbooks in the medieval curriculum, the idea that ancient writers willfully contrived enigmatic texts so that later scholars would write commentaries clarifying their obscurities. Using the conventional critical vocabulary of her day, Marie calls the act of composing a textual commentary gloser la lettre, "glossing the letter":

      Custume fu as anciens,
      Ceo testimoine Preciens,
      Es livres ke jadis feseient,
      Assez oscurement diseient
      Pur ceus ki a venir esteient

      E ki aprendre les deveient,
      K'i peussent gloser la lettre
      E de lur sen le surplus mettre.
      Li philesophe le saveient,
      Par eus meismes entendeient,
      Cum plus trespassereit li tens,
      Plus serreient sutil de sens
      E plus se savreient garder
      De ceo k'i ert a trespasser. (lines 9-22)

   It was customary for the ancients, in the books which they wrote
   (Priscian testifies to this), to express themselves very obscurely
   so that those in later generations, who had to learn them, could
   provide a gloss for the text and put the finishing touches to their
   meaning. Men of learning were aware of this and their experience
   had taught them that the more time they spent studying texts the
   more subtle would be their understanding of them and they would be
   better able to avoid future mistakes.

I quote from the Prologue as edited by Jean Rychner and as translated into prose by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (p. 41). Yet the edition, and even more so the translation, conceal a host of textual and semantic problems that occur in the single manuscript witness to the Prologue, British Library MS Harley 978. These problems have been thoroughly and usefully catalogued by Sally L. Burch, who also analyzes resolutions to these difficulties advanced by generations of editors, translators, and literary scholars. Some of the difficulties Burch discusses are local, generated by ambiguous grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. What, for instance, are the implied subjects of the verbs in lines 18-20? How should one render lur sen (literally "their sense") of line 16, which is said to furnish the content of readers' glosses? Does the phrase refer to later scholars' understanding, their intellect (from Latin sensus); or does it refer to the bits of wisdom that the ancients concealed in their texts (Latin sententia)? How should one translate the verb trespasser of lines 19 and 22 (and should it in line 19 be plural, as the manuscript indicates?), a verb whose semantic range includes meanings such as to transgress, neglect, surpass, spare, penetrate, overlook, happen, pass through, and die? …

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