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Judith P. Shoaf

copyright 1991-96

Gainesville, Florida


We know nothing about Marie de France. For various reasons, it's thought that her twelve Lais date from around 1170, that their author was a woman named Marie who also wrote a rhymed collection of Aesop's Fables (or rather of an expanded medieval version of these fables) and one longer poem tralsted from Latin, the Purgatory of St. Patrick. She may have been an aristocratic woman, perhaps a nun, living in England.

Marie de France's Lais were read in her own time; her French is "easy" (a widely-read Anglo-Norman literary language) and the poems are relatively short (the longest is only about a sixth as long as the verse romances being written at the same time by Chrétien de Troyes); readers usually seem to have read them in French, though they were translated, for example, into Old Norse and read in Iceland.

Marie's language is Anglo-Norman, the dialect spoken among the aristocracy of England and large parts of Northern France; she was part of a generation of writers (notable among them Chretien de Troyes) who were in the process of inventing the French verse romance. Her verse form is the octosyllabic couplet: eight-syllable lines in rhyming pairs:

Ki Deus ad doné escïence
E de parler bon' eloquence
Ne s'en deit taisir ne celer,
Ainz se deit volunters mustrer.
Quant uns granz biens est mult oïz,
Dunc a primes est il fluriz,
E quant loëz est de plusurs,
Dunc ad espandues ses flurs.

Her rhyme-words are not technically surprising or showy; abstract nouns (escience, eloquence), infinitives (celer, mustrer), past participles (oïz, fluriz) rhyme easily in a language whose accents all fall on the last syllable. At the same time, she is obviously making a point by demonstrating that "science" and "eloquence" rhyme, or "hide" and "show" (celer, mustrer). Her wit is in her teasing rationality, rather than in clever verbal pyrotechnics.

The English verse form I've used to translate the lais might best be characterized as doggerel. I've tried to keep to rhyming octosyllables where that seemed easy, but plenty of lines are too short and many of them tend towards the more dignified pentameter; and the rhyme scheme varies sometimes, especially in Lanval, to abab or abba or even abbcca. The rhymes can't achieve the limpid effect of Marie's; often they are either aggressively clever or aggressively bad in a way hers are not. I've translated her poems line for line, though occasionally the rhyme or the rhythm has required me to fill out a line by adding some banal phrase. I've tried to leave nothing out and to introduce few new images. My verse also uses enjambement (ending a line in mid-phrase) much more than Marie's; her tendency is to make each line a grammatically complete unit.

Marie uses an "historical present" tense often, switching from past to present and back again in a way that is much commoner in French than in English. I've followed this practice in most of my translations, partly because it gave me the option of choosing, for example, between "stands" and "stood" as a rhyme- word. The shifts in tense do not always come in exactly the same place in Marie's text as in mine.

Why have I bothered? It seems to me that the pleasure of reading Old French verse romance can't be guessed at by readers of unrhymed translations; the unrhymed version seems repetitive and a little dull, where the original sparkles. I've had fun trying to catch the sparkles here. And, oddly enough, I think that a rhymed translation may end up being more faithful to the literal sense of the original; in focusing desperately on every word, looking for a way to twist the sense into an appropriate sound, one becomes intimately familiar with all the possible senses. There is no room for careless neglect of a line, a phrase, or a shade of meaning.

The twelve Lais and their prologue, along with a copy of the Fables, are preserved in a mid-13th century manuscript (BN MS Harley 978), and various lais also appear in other manuscripts.  I have worked from Alfred Ewert’s edition of the Lais (Oxford: Blackwell). The definitive edition is by Jean Rychner (Paris: Champion, 1966). Among the translations of the Lais available are the vaguely free-verse one by  Joan Ferrante and Robert Hanning (Durham, N. C.: Labyrinth Press, 1982), a prose translation by Glyn Burgess and Keith Busby (Newy York: Viking Penguin, 1986), and a verse translation of five of the lais and some other short romances by Patricia A. Terry, The Honeysuckle and the Hazel Tree (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). I have here only 8 of the twelve lais, so those who are interested in the other three (The Two Lovers, Milun, Guigemar, and the magnificent Eliduc) should use one of these. Eliduc was also translated in prose by John Fowles as part of his novel The Ebony Tower.

I want to thank various members of Arthurnet who have encouraged and criticized my translation and notes, especially Antonio Furtado (himself a translator of Marie's Lais into Portuguese), Peter Kardon, Ken Waldron, and Patrick Roper. I was also helped with a footnote to Laustic by a delightful discussion on Medtextl email list.
Istanpitta is a mmusical group that has produced a CD of Chevrefoil (in Old French!)
Be sure to look at the Internatiional  Marie de Fance Society webpage for more information.

To send me comments, which I welcome, click here.

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