Representation Of Women In Power In The Lais Of Marie De France

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“Lanval,” a short story in Marie de France’s “Lais,” is a journey of chivalry and knightship, with an unnatural representation of women in power. In the medieval era, women were objectified and often written to be underneath the influence of man. Marie de France sought to reverse the stereotype of women, while also attempting to escape it herself. Because Marie was a female writer in a predominantly male-lead society, her portrayal of women in her stories holds aspects of what we now call modern feminism. Although the roles of women in our society have drastically changed, during the time that “Lanval” was written, women were still generally seen as “beneath” men. In comparison to prior works that we have read in this class, the literature being presented in this essay shows a different version of a woman. “Lanval,” is written with women being equal to men, in a breakthrough tale of love, lust, and power. In order to comprehend how compelling the way, “Lanval” was written is, it’s important to examine other works of the era. Marie de France composed her works in the 12th century, of which was male dominated. Women were idealized, which led men to write about women being objects that were simply to lust after. Although Marie used the components of this genre, and some may even point out that she followed the principles of this genre, there’s clear validation that she is privy to her femininity and emphasized the importance of female roles and abilities. Marie’s works show her belief in the female’s role, and the intelligence and strength that it entails. Initial glance at “Lanval” shows traditional gender roles, but deeper analysis proves the role reversal. One example of the shift in gender roles is seen in the relationship between Lanval and the mysterious maiden that he is introduced to in the woods. She is presented inside of a lavishly adorned tent, which is the reader’s first clue into how Marie de France is going to portray her female characters. In the medieval times, women were generally not allowed to own property. Their initial interaction fits the genre’s stereotypical depiction of women at the time: The girl was inside the tent: the lily and the young rose when they appear in the summer are surpassed by her beauty. She lay on a beautiful bed – the bed clothes were worth a castle – dressed only in her shift. Her body was well shaped and elegant.

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She is described in great beauty solely based on the way she looks and the riches she displays. In contrast to other works of the medieval times, the knight courts the woman, but the alternative is presented in “Lanval.” The maiden explains how she traveled to find Lanval. “Because of you I have come from my land; I came to seek you from far away,” she explained, “for I love you more than anything.” Traditionally, the male takes on the task of seeking out a woman and showering her with affection and gifts to prove his love. The maiden is not only presenting as the polar opposite, but she is also taking control of her sexual desirability. Another dominant quality held by the maiden, is her ability to keep Lanval quiet concerning their love. Although only knowing each other for a short period of time, Lanval promises to keep their love a secret. Lanval is mesmerized by her beauty and insists that, “there is nothing she might command, within his power, that he would not do, whether foolish or wise”. Lanval becomes the submissive, a quality that was reserved for women at that time. At this point, the narrative of a woman being in control is definitely resolute, yet Marie de France adds even more to the story. Another traditional role of men is to be the breadwinner of the family or relationship. Marie challenges this by giving the maiden the means to be the one who provides for Lanval. She granted him her love and her body. Now Lanval was on the right road! Afterward she gave him a gift: He would never again want anything, He would receive as he desired. Lanval keeps his promises and completely follows her rules of hiding their love, while also giving and helping as many people as he could. Even though Marie has established a powerful woman character, readers are introduced to yet another woman with uncommon qualities of the era. Queen Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur, is written into many different stories about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Most famously, she is a character in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Chretien de Troyes’s Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. In Le Morte D’Arthur, Queen Guinevere falls in love with Sir Lancelot, and becomes unloyal to her husband, King Arthur. The theme of unloyalty in regards to Guinevere is also seen in, “Lanval”. Guinevere had noticed Lanvals’ newfound riches and generosity, and was determined to get him to notice her. She lusted after Lanval, and when she got him alone, she proclaimed her love. “Lanval, I have shown you much honor, / I have cherished you and loved you. / You may have all my love”.

The way the queen pursues Lanval, much like the maiden, is in direct contrast of societal norms of the time. Lanval, still in adoration of his maiden, turned down the queen’s advances. The queen, enraged at the thought of being refused, insulted Lanval and accused him of being gay. The entirety of the situation, and the insult, caused Lanval to spew his secrets and the queen to retreat to her home. Queen Guinevere was so upset that she created lies about Lanval to her husband, King Arthur. This created a downward spiral, which led to Lanval being accused of seducing the queen, and summoned to Arthur’s court. The part of the poem involving the trial is extremely essential to locking down the amount of power that a woman holds in this piece. In addition to Queen Guinevere’s accusing words going unopposed, Lanval’s mystery maiden comes in to save his fate. Although Lanval has betrayed his woman by telling people about their love, she still uses her power to save him. Readers recognize the power of the woman when Lanval recites, “‘By my faith,” he said, “that is my love. Now I don’t care if I’m killed, if only she forgives me’”. Again, Lanval is succumbing to the influence of a woman, extremely uncommon to his age. Lanval has decided that he’d rather die, a traitor to his king, than live without the acceptance from his love. One of the final reminders that women had the power in this text, is revealed when the maiden asks for Lanval to be released and deemed innocent. The court, after revelling after the beautiful woman, concurred immediately. “To the last man they agreed/ that Lanval had successfully answered the charge./ He was set free by their decision”. All in all, the way that Marie de France sets up her women’s roles is extremely controversial compared to other works of the era. The reversal of roles in the poem shows just how powerful a woman can be when given the chance.

01 February 2021

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