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A Companion to Marie de France (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 22, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 100-102 | 10.1353/art.2012.0035

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This new Companion to Marie de France is cause for celebration. Edited by Logan Whalen, author of Marie de France and the Poetics of Memory (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), it has an Introduction by Whalen, and eleven self-contained chapters. Whalen writes on Marie's 'Prologues and Epilogues'; Emanuel Mickel on 'Marie de France and the Learned Tradition'; Roberta Krueger on 'Marie de France and Literary Traditions of Love in the Lais' (which is also where the Lais are summarized for the non-specialist reader, something we might have been told more clearly in the Introduction); Judith Rice Rothschild on 'Literary and Socio-Cultural Aspects' of the Lais; Glyn Burgess on 'Marie de France and the Anonymous Lais'; Matilda Bruckner on 'Speaking through Animals in [the] Lais and Fables'; Charles Brucker on both 'Marie de France and the Fable Tradition' and 'The Fables of Marie de France and the Mirror of Princes'; June Hall McCash on 'Gendered Sanctity in [...] L'Espurgatoire seint Patriz and La Vie seinte Audree'; Rupert Pickens on 'Marie de France Translatrix II: La Vie seinte Audree'; and Keith Busby on 'The Manuscripts of Marie de France.' These are first-rate scholars, and most are at the top of their game.

This kind of companion should be both an authoritative record of what scholars can agree upon so far, and a launchpad for the future study of the subject. This one does well on both counts. The chapters by Whalen, Krueger, and Rothschild (and later, Bruckner) form a splendid discussion of Marie's Lais. I was especially delighted to see the additional chapter by Burgess, which is a beautifully structured comparison of the Lais and the anonymous Old French lays in the genre we like to think Marie invented, the way Chrétien de Troyes invented Arthurian romance. Many scholars who know only Marie will learn from this. (A valuable complement to Burgess's chapter is the detailed discussion by Patrick Sims-Williams of the fascinating title-list of Breton lays in Shrewsbury School ms. 7, in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 60 [Winter 2010], pp. 39-80; see also Carolynne Larrington's chapter on 'The Translated Lais' in The Arthur of the North [Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011] on the fate of Marie's works in Old Norse.)

Bruckner's chapter on animals is both original and topical (the field of Animal Studies is thriving, and Marie is a fascinating case study). The Fables get a thorough treatment by Bruckner, and by Brucker in the next two chapters; this definitely forestalls thinking of Marie as synonymous with the Lais. Marie's most recently attributed work, La Vie seinte Audree, not only receives an exemplary discussion by Pickens in relation to its Latin source, but is thematically linked to Marie's other works in various ways by McCash, to whom we owe its acceptance as part of Marie's oeuvre. Busby's chapter, along the same lines as his Codex and Context (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), demonstrates the value of reading Marie in her manuscript context. No one is as good as Busby at this sort of thing, but he makes us all want to try.

The only place the book falls short is in the part of Mickel's article that deals with the Breton or more diffusely 'Celtic' sources of Marie's Lais (a discussion which I think his title should have hinted at; it's one that many readers will want to look up). The question of Breton sources is important because Marie's integrity, at least by modern standards, is at stake. (Note that her term li Bretun does not distinguish between the Brittonic Celts of Brittany, Wales, and Cornwall, but that all these were distinct from the Gaelic Celts of Ireland in ways that Mickel does not fully acknowledge.) In the Prologue to the Lais Marie describes her method as 'glossing the letter' of the ancients. She praises the ancient Bretons (e.g. in Equitan, vv. 1-8) and repeatedly tells us that they composed their lays in order to memorialize events that really happened, and that she shares their belief in the truth of these lays, which she...

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