Knights in every kingdom during the middle ages were expected to adhere to a basic set of rules set forth by the code of chivalry. If they showed classic chivalric characteristics such as loyalty, courage, nobility, justice and so on then they were said to be a good a knight, this code of chivalry also meant that women would be held as less important than men and would be traded between courts. Within the Lais of Marie de France the term “chevalier” is used quite often in reference to certain male protagonists and most of the characters in Marie’s Lais were of a high social class status meaning that this ‘chivalric code’ was applied to them all. This does not necessarily mean to say that Marie de France was in favour of this and it is important to consider Lanval when addressing the topic of feminism where the protagonist’s ultimate rejection of chivalric society can be seen as way Marie de France expresses her feminism. While some of the male characters in Marie de France’s Lais abide by the chivalric code, Lanval rejects it and is rewarded for it.
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It has been argued that Marie de France’s “femininity” was obvious in her Lais and that Marie de France reveals herself to be a true woman in many of the most interesting passages of the Lais for example the way in which some of the women’s sexual endeavours result in pregnancy. I agree with this argument and believe that many of Marie’s Lais can be construed as feminist, by focusing on the male characters as opposed to the female ones you can find a great deal of feminist implications.
As mentioned before, many of the men in Lanval go against the code of chivalry. Despite the fact the Kingdom of Logres needs to be defended against the Scots and Picts, the knights of the courts and Arthur himself are consumed by jealousy neglecting a worthy knight. Lanval, who shows many honourable characteristics is rejected and loathed by the very men who are expected to uphold these chivalric qualities.
Although Lanval is described in the text to be “the soul of courtesy,” Lanval is defying the court as well. The faerie queen approaches Lanval while he is away from the court. Marie de France makes it appear as if Lanval is being rewarded for going against the chivalric code, she represents for Lanval the temptation to abandon the degraded feudal world of the Arthurian court”. She shows feminism in Lanval by having the male protagonist go against the code of chivalry. Conversely, Lanval later abides by the code and rejects the queen and in this instance he adheres to the code of chivalry, but he is punished by being put on trial. Marie makes it seem more beneficial to go against the feudal system. In creating this idea, Marie de France’s feminism is evident. In the end Lanval is set free and leaves the court with the faerie queen. He and the faery queen once again appear to be rewarded for leaving the court by being able to live together in paradise. Marie uses Lanval’s escape to show her dislike for the code of chivalry, and in turn to create a feminist attitude.
However you could argue the contrary and that even in Lanval Marie shows support for the code of chivalry as there is more than one type of chevalier such as King Equitan and the husband in Laustic, who both go against the code and are not shown to be as noble as the other men in the Lais. “Equitan was much admired, and much beloved in his own land”. Nowhere in this description does Marie mention how the king complies with the code of chivalry, nor refer to him as a chevalier. Similarly, in Laustic, the baron is described as one who’s “fame gave their village goodness’s own name” . Although Marie de France describes these characters as famous and well-liked she neglects, however, to mention their chivalric qualities. The other types of chevalier are characters who are depicted to be knights who uphold the code of chivalry. Marie describes the seneschal in Equitan in a positive light and portrays the lover in a similar way in Laustic. To an extent almost all the male characters whose attitudes and activities Marie clearly supports are described as chevaliers. The men who follow the code are often mistreated by those who go against the code. But in many of Marie de France’s Lais, those who do mistreat the favoured chevalier are often subject to vengeance for example Equitan who is scalded to death. The way that the “chevalier” who shows chivalric qualities overcomes the powerful chevalier, is Marie’s way of showing her support for the code of chivalry and therefore in turn not her feminist attitude.
Unlike in Lanval, the characters in other Lais that disobey the code are eventually defeated by those who obey it. Perhaps it is not the code that Marie is supporting, but the bond between a man and wife. Those who break this bond eventually face ill fate. By creating an unfortunate outcome for all characters who commit adultery, despite their adherence to the code or lack thereof, Marie de France shows her support for strong marital faithfulness rather than revealing her feminist or anti-feminist voice.
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The outcome of these Lais could lead you to question the accusations of Marie’s feminism. If Marie was opposed to the code of chivalry, she would not favour the characters that abide by it, such as the seneschal in Equitan. On the other hand, if she supported the code she would not favor those who disobey it; such as Lanval. In her Lais she does neither one of these consistently. However what she does unfailingly do is punish the men who break the bonds of marriage for example when King Equitan decides to disobey the code and have an affair with the seneschal’s wife. Marie not only punishes the King, who goes against the code, but also the wife who also dies at the end of the lai. This shows how rather than making a statement about breaking the bonds of the code, Marie is instead advocating punishment for committing adultery a strong belief in the sanctity of marriage is revealed in this passage and similarly in Laustic.
Initially, the lover is the only character breaking the code of chivalry. If Marie’s intention is to penalize those who go against the chivalric code, the bachelor would be the only one who suffers. On the contrary, in the end, both the lover and the wife are reprimanded. The bachelor spends the rest of his life being tortured by the memory of the love that could have been. When her husband kills the nightingale, the wife claims how she will never be able to go to her window again. Not only has the affair ended, but she must spend the rest of her life with the husband she does not love. Marie penalizes the lover for committing adultery. The noble man’s wife is also punished for being unfaithful. Marie de France is promoting being faithful to one’s spouse more than she is advocating devotion to the code of chivalry. Similar to Equitan, the ending of Laustic does not show Marie de France as a feminist or an anti-feminist. Instead it reveals Marie’s emphasis on the importance of a faithful marriage.
Knights in the middle ages were expected to adhere to the code of chivalry. By doing so, these men promoted the idea of viewing women as objects rather than as people. Marie de France favours characters that devote themselves to this code of chivalry. By having these men defeat the men who defy the code she exposes her anti-feminism yet at the same time Marie praises male characters that disobey the code, proving she is a feminist. . Therefore we cannot conclude whether or not Marie de France is a feminist or not, however what we can conclude is that she has a strong emphasis on marital bonds in all her Lais as seen through the treatment of adulterers.
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