The Lais of Marie De France and the Fabliaux: Addressing Marriage and Gender Roles

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From the time of The Lais of Marie de France to The Fabliaux, a change is seen in the views on women and men and their roles in marriage, love, and physical interactions between the sexes. The altered ideas of courtly love in the Lais allow for women to be shown as strong, benevolent, and unselfish people who are willing or forced to sacrifice everything for those they love. In the exaggerated realism of The Fabliaux however, women are seen as selfish, evil, and in need of punishment if they do not obey their husbands. This critical change in the roles between men and women may be due to the shift from ideals of courtly love and aristocracy to more everyday life depictions of the middle class and negative views of women in the scholarly realm.

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With traditional ideas of courtly love, marriage and love were not compatible and love had to be found through extramarital affairs. In the stories of “Milun” and “Eliduc” by Marie de France, she changes the roles between love and marriage and between the husband and the wife. When a young woman falls in love with a noble knight, Milun, she is deeply upset when she has to marry another man. After twenty years, a child, and correspondence through a swan, Milun and his lady are brought back together and are united again in a marriage of “happiness and tenderness” (MdF, 104). In another pro love and marriage story, Eliduc is a successful knight who is married to a loving woman named Guildeluec, but after time spent in another country, he falls in love with a young maiden named Guilliadun. Guildeluec sacrifices her entire marriage for her husband’s happiness and tells him he should be with Guilliadun. There was love in both marriages of Eliduc, though there was a lack of loyalty on his part. Both these stories show women’s sacrifice in marriage, often times for their husband’s happiness, but in the end they reap the benefits. The woman in “Milun” lives happily ever after with the man she truly loved, and Guildeluec enters into a loving marriage with God for the rest of her days.

The marriages in The Fabliaux have a much different view on the sacrifices that women should make in a marriage and the role of the man as the enforcer. “Those of you who have wives who rebel against you…you should punish and admonish foolish ones,” are the opening phrases of The Lady Who Was Castrated (TLWWC, 24). In this story, women are punished for being prideful and taking on the role of a man in the marriage. Pride is a trait that is only acceptable for men to have and must be extracted from the woman, in this story it was by the violent removal of her “testicles.” In both the marriage of the mother and her husband and the daughter and the count, there is little love involved. The mother does not love or respect her husband enough to let his opinion rule, and the husband merely tolerates his wife’s overpowering personality. The count twistedly believes he is showing his new wife love by abusing her into submission and showing her how she should act in a marriage, and she only feels fear towards her new husband. The narrator’s commentary at the end of the story indicates the societal views on women at the time. “Blessed be he, and blessed are those who punish their evil wives. You should love, honor, and greatly cherish the good ones, and consider evil, contrary ones as quarrelsome whores,” (TLWWC, 35). The narrator, and the general public, felt as though it was hard to find a good wife or woman and the majority of other women were horribly evil and in need of punishment.

The shift in views on women can be attributed to societal pressures and restraints. The 13th century marked a time of urbanization in France and the rise and struggle of the middle class. It also marked the abolishment of the 12th century ideas of courtly love in southern France, which therefore lowered the pedestal upon women once stood. The rise of male only universities did not allow for women thinkers to be heard, and allowed for the rebirth of Aristotle’s ideas of women as a defective man. In the 12th century, the trobairitz and Marie de France brightened literature with their ideas about women’s roles and rulers like Eleanor of Aquitaine paved new paths for powerful women (Lecture, Romance of the Rose). The steps made for women in the 12th century were all thrown away in the 13th century with the new views of women. Because there weren’t women writing their stories, negative depictions of women written by men came to light and reinforced ideas of evil women. These more negatively realistic views of women also allowed for more violent actions between men and women, as seen in The Lady Who Was Castrated and in The Wife of Orleans.

In The Lady Who Was Castrated violence is used to keep women in line and under the rule of man. The count begins training his new wife into submission by different planned acts of violence, first against the dogs and horse that disobey him, and then against his wife. He brutally beats her to a point where she is bedridden for three months and she fears him greatly after this. He then mutilates the mother and makes her believe that he is removing her “prideful balls” and this act of violence forces her into submission to her husband. This story shows that violence and force must be used to keep peace between men and women and that bad wives are made good when they take a beating. In The Wife of Orleans, violence is shown in a different way and is towards the husband. After the husband finds his wife is having an affair, he follows her in an attempt to catch her in the act. She, however, outsmarts him and has him fooled by her games. She bribes her servants with wine into thinking that he was the scholar who had had the affair with the wife and that he must be beaten. The husband is brutally beaten to a pulp and ends up thinking that it was all a mistake after his servants tell him of what they did to the “scholar” who was after his wife. The husband is duped into believing that he has a faithful and loving wife. This violence towards the husband makes the wife out to be evil and conniving in her deception of her husband. She is not just portrayed as an unfaithful wife, but she is sadistic enough to have her husband beaten almost to death.

The stories of Marie de France, violence plays a very minor role in the interactions between men and women and is not anywhere near as graphic as the violence in The Fabliaux. In “Laüstic” the husband angrily wrings the neck of the nightingale after he believes it has kept his wife awake at night, though she is really at the window with her lover. He then throws the bird at his wife, splattering the blood on her chest as if it were coming from her heart (MdF, 95). The killing of the bird, though violent towards the bird, is an apt way to symbolize the emotional death of the wife without her physically dying. Unlike the manipulative, planned violence in The Lady Who Was Castrated, the husband in “Laüstic” only thinks he is helping his wife get some rest by killing the bird. Also unlike the tales in The Fabliaux, the violence towards the wife did not forever alter her spirit; she and her lover use the dead bird as a symbol to carry on their love for each other instead of letting it kill them.

The interactions between men and women in The Lais of Marie de France and in The Fabliaux indicate social changes in the representation and on the ideas about women. Women and men in the lais often operated on pro love beliefs even through adulterous situations and women were still in an exalted position from ideas of courtly love. Women were treated with respect and their sacrifices in the areas of marriage often made them nobler than their male counterparts. Contrastingly, in The Fabliaux, violence is used to keep peace with evil and conniving women who were only out to cause harm to their husbands. The drastic differences in these works of literature were due to a shift in society’s views of women, the abolition of ideas of courtly love, and the changing economic status between aristocracy and the middle class. These changes created a more negative and what was thought to be realistic view of women and altered the way in which women were treated in society as a whole.

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