Lycanthropes trapped in their werewolf form, potions that give superhuman strength, and weasels that can bring their fellows back from the dead, all these appear in The Lais of Marie de France:
Unable to rouse its partner, it seemed distressed and left the chapel, going into the woods in search of herbs. With its teeth the weasel picked a flower, bright red in colour, and then quickly returned, placing it in the mouth of its companion, whom the servant had killed, with the result that it quickly recovered.
Lais are short lyric ballads composed in the Middle Ages. Twelve of these tales of chivalry and daring have come down to us today from the pen of Marie de France. Marie composed her works during the twelfth century, drawing on popular stories from Brittany.
Her stories lurch from heroism to romance, from triumph to tragedy as they hurtle along to their conclusion. Brainwashed as we are by Victorian ideas of the past, it comes as quite a surprise to find that Marie was blasé about adultery. The majority of her heroes and heroines are wrapped up in an extra-marital affair, of which the only bad side is the risk of getting caught:
she had forfeited her honour and good name by allowing such a thing to befall her [falling pregnant out of wedlock]. She would be severely punished: tortured, or sold as a slave in another country.
In Marie’s eyes, the only requirement of a good and wholesome relationship is that the hero treats his lady with courtesy and respect. Whether she happens to be married to another man or not is by the by.
Good manners and noble treatment of the ladies is a major preoccupation of Marie’s. Her stories have a constant subtext urging her male listeners (for these verses would probably have been read aloud to an audience) to comport themselves with honour at all times.
Alas, the public itself was clearly not so honourable. She had rather a rough time of it with the equivalent of our own Twitter trolls today, and just like J.K.Rowling, she was not one to stand idly by and soak up the abuse:
when there exists in a country a man or a woman of great reknown, people who are envious of their abilities frequently speak insultingly of them in order to damage this reputation. Thus they start acting like a vicious, cowardly treacherous dog which will bite others out of malice. But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up.
As is clear from that paragraph, Marie’s modern translators, Glyn Burgess and Keith Busby do not possess her gift for language. The translation of this edition, while it’s clearly faithful to the original, lacks the jaunty rhythm of Marie’s verse. In the defence of these academics, they do include one lay in its original Medieval French, which gives an insight into her talent as a poet and balladeer.
Nevertheless, these stories provide a peephole into the Medieval imagination. It’s always fascinating to compare the deep knowledge of the natural world that the Medievals had with the rather shallow attempts of their modern imitators. Take the arrival of the knight Yonec when he secretly arrives to woo his lover in the form of a raptor:
Having lamented thus, she noticed the shadow of a large bird through a narrow window, but did not know what it could be. The bird flew into the room: it had straps on its feet and looked like a hawk of five or six moultings.
On the other hand, so much of the Medieval world view was based on fantasy and hearsay, that it is impossible tell whether or not her claims regarding the natural world are true:
The two of them resembled the honeysuckle which clings to the hazel branch: when it has wound itself round and attached itself to the hazel, the two can survive together: but if anyone should attempt to separate them, the hazel quickly dies, as does the honeysuckle.
Though ill-served by a ponderous translation, Marie de France remains a mischievous, lively read. She always keeps her audience guessing as to how much of the tales she herself believes, which is a true sign of a master storyteller.