Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages

By Jane Chance | Go to book overview

5

Marie de France and the Body Poetic

Rupert T. Pickens

The Lais of Marie de France1 are among the richest literary compositions from the French High Middle Ages.2 Superficially quite simple and straightforward, they reveal themselves to be extraordinarily complex narrative texts that are at the same time quintessentially medieval, of course, and surprisingly modern. Marie is deeply concerned with, and her lais bountifully exemplify, such matters of interest to modern literary criticism as narrativity, specularity, the nature of textuality, and the woman writer.3 In this study I propose to examine Marie's poetics in light of her preoccupation with the generation, transmission, and reception of discourse both in her exordial commentary and in her stories, where that commentary is reflected at every level.

Specific thematic strands are highlighted in Marie's narrative portrayals of discursive acts that reflect her poetics as exemplified in the theoretical matter of her exordia. In addition to the mechanics of discourse itself,4 Marie focuses most particularly on the human body, frequently a sexually ambiguous body, as both object and purveyor of fruitful, meaningful discourse.5 The discursive body can tell stories, write, sing, make love, engender offspring, and give birth; simultaneously, it is subject to metamorphosis and often suffers mutilation or other forms of agony and violent attack. Marie's characters and the circumstances in which they engage in communicative acts reflect her ideal narrator and that narrator's world of courtly discourse. Marie implicitly endows her narrator, as she does her characters, with a sexually ambiguous, indeed an androgynous poetic "body" that is the locus of productive textuality born in pain, and she risks humiliation and rejection as she courts an ideal interlocutor, likewise androgynous, in response to the imperative to communicate. Marie thus conjoins story and commentary as she discloses the nature of writing and in particular the nature of womanly writing.

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