Lais, c. 1167 (English translation, 1911)
Ysopet, after 1170 (Medieval Fables, 1983; also known as Fables)
Espurgatoire Saint Patriz, 1208-1215 (translation of Tractatus de purgatorio Sancti Patricii, attributed to Henry of Saltrey)
Although very little is truly known of the life of Marie de France (mah-ree duh frahns), modern scholars are in agreement that she wrote during the latter half of the twelfth century. Because of the accuracy of her description of Pitre, an ancient town about three miles from Rouen, some scholars have speculated that Marie might have been a native of that Norman town. Her Lais, dedicated to “a noble king,” seems to indicate that she was at the English court during the reign of Henry II and that the narrative poems of the Lais were dedicated to him. Although she lived at the English court, she used Norman French, which was typical of her class. Marie de France’s writings show that she knew not only English and French but also Latin, a remarkable achievement for a woman of her time.
The Lais of Marie de France is among the highlights of Old French literature. Her material, not original, has analogues in many literatures, as do many of the writings from the medieval period. The narrative poems collected in the Lais cover a variety of subjects: “Lanval” is a story of a human knight beloved of a fairy; “Les Deux Amants” tells of a young man who dies carrying his beloved up a high, steep hill; “Bisclavret” is a story about a werewolf; and “Le Chèvre-feuille” is a retelling of part of the Tristan-Isolde story. Many modern scholars have remarked on her distinctive narrative voice, which offers insight into the socio-literary conventions of her day. Marie de France is usually credited with writing the first Old French Ysopet, or collection of fables similar to Aesop’s. Her title, which came to be applied generally to such collections, is the Old French diminutive form of Aesop’s name.
Marie de France evidently found both personal favor and popularity as an author at the English court. She is credited with influencing the later use of the lai by medieval authors; in addition, her works are invaluable to modern feminist scholars.