Marie de France is widely considered to be the first woman to write in French. If any woman preceded her, the works have been lost.
Nothing is known of Marie’s life. We do not even know if Marie was actually her name. Both name and title come from a single line “Marie ai num, si sui de France”. It translates as “Marie is my name and I am from France”.
What we do know about Marie is that she was well-educated and multilingual. Therefore, in all likelihood, she was of noble birth.She was literate in French and Anglo-Norman French as well as Latin. It is also likely that she knew Breton as many of her lais are based on Breton fables. They were written in eight-syllable verses and are set in the Celtic lands: Brittany, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland.
Marie is considered unique not only because she was a female author. In her works, she subverts the paradigm of male poets of the time. Her women are described subtly but with a depth not usually shown in the courtly love poems of the troubadours.
In the tradition of courtly love, women were lauded in terms that set them on a pedestal. The images set an impossible standard that no woman could reach in real life. By praising such an idealised image, the male poets confined women within a very narrow sphere of behaviour.
At the same time, women were depicted in ecclesiastical literature as duplicitous, dishonourable, crafty, weak and seductive. Women were described as being lustful and using feminine wiles to lead men astray.
Marierepeatedly upends accepted notions of femininity and love inmale-written romances, both secular and ecclesiastical. She gives her women a far more positive role. She lauds feminine cunning and disparages men’s weakness and acts of foolishness or ignorance.
At the time, the Church was attempting to establish a concept of marriage as indissoluble and based on consent. This was in opposition to the aristocratic practise where a man could set aside a wife and marriages were arranged with the prospective husband and wife having little or no say in the matter.
In Marie’s works, adulterous relationships are condemned but, in some instances, are acceptable. Such circumstances are when the wife is treated cruelly and when the lovers are true to each other. However, her women want to control as little as they want to be controlled. What is important to Marie’s women is that they can make choices and exercise some control over their own lives. In making those choices, they are portrayed not as being lustful or greedy but as being sensitive and confident.