No Path Marked


No Path Marked
Visual Art / Literary Art (Blackout Poetry)
An Interpretation of Inferno
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Artist’s Remarks

In the process of researching and re-imagining this canto, I hoped to draw insight into how this Canto fit into the entire text, particularly with regards to immortalization and memory. This is one of the many instances where Dante tempts the sinner into sharing their story through the promise of glorious immortalization, where the sinner’s real ‘truth’ is revealed. With this in mind, I am interested in Dante’s text as a strategy of liberation – not only is the sinner liberated from being merely identified by his sin through Dante’s recording of his story, but his soul is also emancipated from its roots in the tree. On another level, Dante himself is liberated from the despair of hell by writing and recording this story. Due to these complex intersecting layers of memory, history and stories, I saw a need to combine multiple art and aesthetic forms for this creative re-interpretation.

In Inferno, Dante appears to be a master of re-constitution and intertextuality as he draws inspiration from a variety of sources from Greek and Roman classics to his contemporaries. Similarly, black out poetry is an aesthetic form that draws heavily on similar ideas of reconstitution. In particular, I was drawn to Austin Kleon’s work Newspaper Blackout, which used the newspaper as a source material to create new and interesting work. When creating the blackout poem, I focused on both words that illustrated the scene as well as its shape. For example, I transformed ‘not’ (line 1, 4 & 7) into 3 Nos which linguistically and spatially mirrors the lamentation of the sinners. Surrounding the 3 Nos, I also grouped words together which not only described the scene but also came together in a shape that signified chaos and confusion. 

Moreover, I was also intrigued by the medieval practice of creating palimpsests where one would recycle a piece of papyrus by washing off the original text. Inspired by this practice, I etched an illustration of the scene inspired by Gustave Dore’s illustration of Canto 13 over the blackout poem to create my own palimpsest. With Dore’s work as reference, I have used a similar composition of images, but I have changed the style of drawing, most significantly in my interpretation of the harpies and the shape of the trees. Compared to Dore’s illustration which is more realistic, I have decided to focus on shape and textures to create an atmosphere of chaos.

The title of my creative interpretation, no path marked, was largely inspired by the start of the poem “we entered a wood that no path marked. / Not green leaves, but dark in color, not smooth / branches, but knotted and twisted, no fruit was there, / but thorns with poison” (Dante 6.1 – 3). Even as Dante enters the forest where no discernible path forward is presented, the use of the negative “not” and the corruption of nature seen through the physical contortions of being “twisted” and the deathly “poisoned” nature of the branches underscores the unwelcoming, dangerous nature of the path ahead. I wanted to convey this sense of peril and precariousness through the misshapen lines and twisted shapes that the tree branches form surrounding the small figures of Dante and Virgil in the distance. A second central image in my drawing is the illustration of the harpies which are described as ugly creatures with human necks and faces intertwined with bird-like features. The Harpie at the bottom left of my drawing has the most distinct features, with a human face and textured wings, emphasizing the grotesque hybridity of the harpies watching over the sinners for eternity. 

In his final encounter with Dante, Piero, the sinner who Dante speaks to, asks Dante to “strengthen my memory, languishing still beneath the blow that envy dealt it” (Inferno 6.76), a final attempt to forge his story into collective memory and break free from the prison of anonymity. Just as Dante re-inscribes Piero’s story by retelling the reason for his sin in hopes of emancipating his soul which was originally “uprooted” by Piero himself and sent to “[fall] into the wood” (Inferno 6.99) for eternal damnation, I hope that my additional layer of re-interpretation and re-constitution is able to further liberate the souls that remain on the seventh circle of hell, both from the pages of the text and also from the suffering in the literary hell of Dante’s Inferno


Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno. Translated by Robert M. Durling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.


Austin Kleon’s blog can be found here:

Deviance and the Medieval Woman



The project, which we entitled “Deviance and the Medieval Woman,” seeks to explore the incidence of female defiance in Medieval Literature in the historic and the literary landscapes of the Middle Ages. The project specifically focused on the theme of defiance by analyzing how female authors seek to challenge dominant ideological, cultural, and religious discourses about gender through their engagement with courtly romance, lyric, and mysticism. We explored subtopics such as witchcraft and sorcery, marriage and sexuality, literary authority, to name a few. We wanted to explore female authorship and compare the Medieval woman as written by women with the Medieval woman as written by men. This helped us understand the effect of the male gaze in authorship and question the authenticity of different portrayals. Through this project, we aimed to identify feminine identities through the lens of intersectionality in both the narrative as well as authorship. Overall, we explored how female deviance and defiance is interpreted, explored, and received through medieval literature. We worked with a range of sources – primary and secondary (literary and critical theory essays) – that helped us delve deeper into the relevant themes. These included recordings of poetry, visual representations, and other primary works. 

The theme of defiance manifested in various characters and narratives we studied in YHU2309: Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (Spring, 2019-2020). We saw this as both a refute to male centric social structures as well as resisting literary representations of women. However, female characters were often represented through the perspective of male narrators and authors. This piqued our interest in instances of female defiance – where it was only explored for a few instances, in comparison to the mainstream narratives of male camaraderie purported in conventional medieval literature. We explored one sub-topic every two weeks and met with our professor at the end of the week to discuss our findings and questions. By the end of the project, we produced a creative assignment that encapsulated our understanding and perspectives of female defiance. This took shape of a rewriting of Morgan Le Fay in the Arthurian legend, as a reimagination of her vengeance and anger. This is found at the end of the document. 

Topics we engaged with over the semester were: 

  1. Marriage and Sexuality
  2. Humanism, Education, and the Professional Writer
  3. Women and Courtly Love
  4. Mysticism and Visionary Experience
  5. Troubadours and the female voice
  6. The Sacred and the Secular: Women write Courtly Mysticism

Some texts we read as part of the project: 

  • Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
  • Christine de Pizan, Book of the City of Ladies
  • The Book of Margery Kempe
  • Castelloza, la Comtessa de Dia
  • Le Roman de Silence
  • Anna Comnena, Alexiad, excerpts, in Writings of Medieval Women, ed. Thiebaux, pp. 225-239

The Anatomy of Lucifer and the Universe


The Anatomy of Lucifer and the Universe
Visual Art (Drawing)
An Interpretation of Inferno
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Artist’s Remarks

My creative interpretation for Dante’s Inferno is inspired primarily by Canto 34 (with elements of Canto 1 as well). Overall, I think what it illuminates about the text and Canto 34 especially is the general perspective of the world according to Dante’s theology, of how the journey through Inferno was possible in the first place (and why it was necessary), and it gives more insight into Lucifer, who was quite grossly diminished in the text.

The interpretation takes the form of a medieval manuscript page imitation, completed on paper entirely with pencil and ink, in black-and-white monochrome colour scheme. The imitation, done to pay homage to the Middle Ages and evoke its sense of history, is immediately visible with the black frame and labelling of the text’s title and author’s name in an olden-style typography. Choosing to imitate the artistry of a manuscript page also helps convey the grandeur befitting Dante’s tale, its genre, and its thematic / theological concerns. Meanwhile, the colour scheme is chosen to exude the solemn and serious mood of the text, and to play on the notion of “black and white” being indicative of good and evil, or morality in general. After all, morality (as determined by religion) is the core concern of the text. The monochrome scheme also makes the contrasts in shadings and gradients more visible, thereby allowing the art to seem more realistic.

The circle represents the boundaries of the mortal realm. Four quotes from Cantos 1 and 34 are written in accompaniment along the circle’s boundary, organised in clockwise direction, which forces the reader to flip the page upside down. This creates a dynamic in the page where two perspectives are possible, making the visual experience more interactive. The original Italian version of the quotes are chosen instead of the English version in order to remain faithful to the text’s origin and culture. For this very reason, the Cantos from which the quotes are picked are also indicated in Roman numerals instead of Arabic numerals. In addition, the use of Italian and Roman numerals points to Italy in general, the seat of the Catholic Church, and the Roman Empire, in doing so highlights their importance to Dante’s politics and his theology. The first quote comes from the opening of the text, the second from lines 34 to 36 (Canto 34) where the pilgrim exclaims the duality in Lucifer’s appearance (once beautiful but now ugly), the third from lines 121 to 124 (Canto 34) where Virgil explains the ingenious inversion of their perspective after passing Lucifer, and the fourth from the closing lines of the text where the duo climbed out of Hell and saw the skies once more.

At the top of the circle lies the moon, a human city, the dark wood which the pilgrim became lost in Canto 1, and the concentric landscape of Hell. These indicate where the pilgrim has come from in terms of both time and place. On the other side of the circle lies Purgatory, isolated from land (in accordance to then-contemporary belief that the southern hemisphere is covered in water, as mentioned by Virgil in Canto 34), and Heaven / Paradise, as hinted by the hole in the sky where light comes from (which also implies that the sun is somewhere there) and where the clouds appear gradually brighter.

The main subject, Lucifer, is enclosed within the circle. His size is exaggerated to a large scale to emphasise his being the heart of Hell and the pilgrim’s encounter with him as the climatic moment in Inferno. A second circle is drawn around his thighs to indicate the plane where he is trapped with sinners in wretched positions, as mentioned in Canto 34. Together, the circles and horizontal line separating the hemispheres puts Lucifer in a position as though he is being examined and his anatomy analysed for the reader of the manuscript page, an idea inspired by Da Vinci’s renowned Vitruvian Man drawing. Lucifer himself is depicted with a degree of artistic license. His possession of six wings is inferred from his being a former archangel; they now resemble (as indicated in Canto 34) those of a bat’s and they look like sails as well. If examined closer, there are thin hairs which are faintly visible all over his body (especially on his arms). His body’s hairy nature is downplayed to give more emphasis to the unnatural body posture and its bulging veins and muscles that seem almost painful. This is done to draw attention to his suffering (contrary to the image of him being a glorious ruler of Hell), as highlighted in Canto 34. The punishment of Lucifer is further enhanced with his heads lowered, as though he was weeping (noted by the pilgrim) and in shame. The lack of facial depiction also helps bring out the anticlimactic silence and lack of interaction in Canto 34, since without faces, no direct encounter is possible. The greatest human sinners as alleged by the pilgrim, are included, gnawed upon by Lucifer. The lack of visible mouths for Lucifer make the sinners appear almost like tongues, which evokes the imagery of the serpent, painting Lucifer as the greatest deceiver. The dark shading of Lucifer paints him as the embodiment of evil, yet the white space around him contrasts and brings out his paradoxical nature—that his existence serves to strengthen and reinforce the moral legitimacy and authority of the Christian God and His doctrines—aside from simply depicting the icy landscape of the deepest level of Hell.

When the manuscript is flipped upside down, the answer to Lucifer’s seemingly unnatural body posture is clearer. Paired with the superimposed drifting feathers, the motion of his fall from Heaven and grace is captured. This is something that I desired to flesh out the most from Canto 34, such that Lucifer appears to still be falling, and this motion is effectively immortalised. The feathers are those from his former archangel wings, drawn as such to indicate Lucifer’s past. The ray of light extended to Lucifer’s abdomen is the stairway to Purgatory and Heaven climbed by the pilgrim and Virgil. I chose to depict it as a ray of light so that the contrast between the darkness of Lucifer, Hell, and what was on the other side, could be made much starker and more evident. The sketchy pencil strokes that mark out the ladder conveys the uncertainty and fear about the journey that the pilgrim must undertake. The ray of light is drawn in a way such that the areas which it touches are somewhat whitened, and the sketchy pencil markings help to enhance its glow and allow it to shimmer, all to highlight the ethereal and strange nature of the pilgrim’s journey thus far from Hell, and beckons to what lies ahead.

The Book of the Duchess

GenreDream Vision
AuthorGeoffrey Chaucer
TimeMid 14th Century
LanguageMiddle English
Featured In
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Written in 1368, Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess commemorates the death of Blanche of Lancester from the plague and offers consolation to her widowed husband, John of Gaunt, son of Edward III. Though less metrically sophisticated than some of his later works, The Book of Duchess is  Chaucer’s earliest significant narrative poem, entrancing readers in its emotionally powerful and awe-inspiring meditation on the death of one’s beloved.


The poem begins with the poet lamenting his lack of sleep due to a siknesse which he leaves unaddressed. One night, seeing his suffering from another bout of insomnia, someone fetches him a book that tells of Alcyone’s mourning over the absence of her husband, Ceyx. Alcyone prays to the goddess Juno for a dream vision to ascertain Ceyx’s fate, and Juno, answering Alcyone’s prayers, sends a messenger to Morpheus to bring Ceyx’s body to Alcyone. After the deceased Ceyx instructs Alcyone to bury him and to cease her sorrow, Alcyone wakes up to find Ceyx gone. Breaking off from the tale, the poet interjects his wish for a god like Morpheus to grant him sleep, and – as if the gods did hear his plea – falls asleep and begins dreaming. 

He finds himself waking up in a chamber with stained glass depicting the tale of Troy and the walls scenes from The Romance of the Rose (a medieval French poem that takes the form of a long allegorical dream vision). He hears a hunt, and leaves the chamber to seek out the hunter(s), who is revealed to be the first Roman emperor, Octavian. While the hunt begins, the poet follows a small dog into the forest and stumbles upon a clearing where a knight, dressed in black, is composing a song for the death of his lady. Upon the poet’s inquiry, the black knight metaphorically explains that he lost his queen and was checkmated when playing a game of chess with Fortune. The poet takes the message literally, and begs the black knight to cease his sorrow over a game. Remaining oblivious to the poet’s misunderstanding, the knight goes on to explain that he met his Love after waiting his entire life, and praises his love – “goode  faire Whyte she hete” (good fair White she was called) – at length (line 948). Only when the poet asks for White’s whereabouts did the knight finally say that “she is deed” (line 1309). The poet, aghast at his misunderstanding and at the knight’s loss, wakes up with his book still in his hands. Upon reflection, he decides to set his dream in rhyme – the very one that he has just narrated. 


The Book of the Duchess is, as the condensed summary above may have suggested, an embedded prosimetrical work that is highly intertextual. In fact, the opening of Chaucer’s poem (that is, the poet’s melancholia and the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone) is a translation of Guillaume de Machaut’s Dit de la Fonteine Amoureuse, or, “Story of the Amorous Fountain” published in 1361, while the poem’s very form – the embedded philosophical dream vision – is informed by Guillaume de Machuat’s Fountain of Love and Boethius’s prosimetrical text The Consolation of Philosophy1. Other literary references include Guillaume de Mchaut’s Judgement of the King of Bohemia, Fortune’s Remedy and the Fountain of Love, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Virgil’s Aeneid, as well as references from other fields such as Aristotelian epistemology, medieval dream theory, and the rules of chess. Where the poet wakes up in his dream to the stained glass images of Troy and Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose, the poem’s philosophical dream vision form is literally recast and refracted through the canonical works of Latin past and the popular European works during the Middle Ages. 

Chaucer’s engagement with this double literary lens to construct his narrative is precisely what demonstrates an independent use of form and originality in thought. By introducing his poet’s psychological state with the translation of the “Story of the Amorous Fountain” (which includes the retelling of Ovid’s tale of Ceyx), Chaucer extracts from Machaut’s tale the classical theme of love-sickness, melancholy, and death. Following the medieval belief that the imagination makes use of images processed by the mind that it later translates to “phantasms” in dreams, the poet’s melancholic imagination that is “alway hoolly in [his] minde” (line 15) translates to his dream, in which his melancholia (his having “lost al lustihede” (line 27)) parallels the knight’s pale complexion (“the blood was fled, for pure drede”  (line 490)). While Boethius is consoled by personified philosophical guides in the discourse of natural philosophy, Chaucer instead has the melancholic knight narrate metaphorical references to Love and Fortune that are lost upon the likewise melancholic poet. In this sense, Chaucer’s poet’s somnium, an enigmatic dream considered to express a truth veiled in fiction, escapes Boethius’s humanist philosophical engagement with Nature – that is, death is unveiled as entirely inconsolable. 

Manuscript of The Book of Duchess, also known as The Dreame of Chaucer or The Deth of Blaunche. University of Glagow Library.

Chaucer’s sophisticated interweaving of references to tell of a dream, of another time and space, perhaps did fulfill the poet’s cryptic promise to address the cause for his sickness “eft” (that is, another time) (lines 41-43). By perceiving the dream as part of the poet’s furtive expression of loss on a narrative level, the plot’s metonymic movement from one deathly narrative to another  may be understood as the poet’s intentional prolonging of our understanding of his sickness to give him space to suggest the loss of his beloved as the cause of his illness. Just as the prolonged misunderstanding over the knight’s metaphorical reference allowed the knight time and space to reconstruct his beloved through words, both men can only resort to furtively expressing their loss in face of their beloved’s death. Moreover, the parallel between the poet’s cryptic “that wil nat be, mot nede be lefte;” (that is, “that which will never be must be left behind” (line 42)) and the accelerated collapse of words – “al was doon” (line 1312) – upon the confession of White’s death in the somnium abruptly silences any further consolations. The Book of the Duchess, then, seems to demonstrate mourning as a furtive expression of loss, which the mourners deflect when confronted by inexpressible grief, for death’s finality is such that “will never be [again and] must be left behind.” 

Indeed, despite his youth, Chaucer’s exploration of this difficult and ambitious topic provides insights that are not only humanist, but human. Through the poet’s dream-like fluidity in his narration, Chaucer is able to situate us in the literary space opened up by the protagonists’ furtive narration and thus, by extension, situate us in the experience of being unhinged by death. Where the poet’s deliberate circling back to the beginning at the end of the poem prompts re-readings, The Book of the Duchess compels us to be reminded and reflexive of our mortal condition.  


1 Chaucer provided the very first Middle English translation from the original Latin, and Boethius’s thought became foundational to many authors.


Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Book of Duchess.” Dream Visions and Other Poems, W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.

Weaver, Erica and A. Joseph McMullan. “Reading Boethius in Medieval England: The Consolation of Philosophy from Alfred to Ashby.” The Legacy of Boethius in Medieval England: The Consolation and its Afterlives, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018.


[Featured Image & Fig. 1]

[Fig. 2]


The Lais of Marie de France

FormPoetry (Lai)
AuthorMarie de France
TimeLate 12th Century
LanguageAnglo-Norman French
Featured In

Literature and Humanities 1 (YCC1111);
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309);
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)

The Lais of Marie de France are a series of twelve lai poems written by Marie de France that are primarily concerned with the ideas of courtly love and chivalric romance. They are highly notable for influencing the development of the medieval romance genre, including the renowned Arthurian romance.


Marie’s lais frequently feature two “destined” lovers. True to the chivalric romance conventions, the lais typically depict a nobleman (often a king, or knight) and a beautiful noblewoman (often a queen or an aristocrat’s daughter) who fall in love with each other upon knowing each other’s existence. It is common for one of these lovers to have already been married to another, usually not out of mutual affection but through arrangement. From such a premise, Marie’s lais will go on to focus on the quest for fulfillment of their love, which tends to take the form of illicit affairs and illegitimate children, with the involvement of supernatural and otherworldly elements. One or both lovers may die, and if so, this usually occurs directly or indirectly because of a third party’s jealousy and anger. In these cases, the narrative may shift toward their illegitimate child, who will then seek vengeance and restore the honour of their parents’ love.

The illicit affairs are almost never depicted negatively by Marie, in fact they seem to be deemed righteous when the love between two parties is mutual and purely stemming from affection. This gives Marie’s lais a rather unique brand of morality that can drive unexpected developments in the narrative, with the possibility for both ideal and tragic endings that provide closures without the modern concept of “poetic justice”.


Marie’s lais are written in eight-syllable lines with rhyming couplets. The length of the lais vary greatly, ranging from as brief as 118 lines (“Chevrefoil”) to as long as 1184 lines (“Eliduc”).

The twelve lais are ordered in the following manner:

  1. Guigemar
  2. Equitan
  3. Le Fresne
  4. Bisclavret
  5. Lanval
  6. Les Deus Amanz
  7. Yönec
  8. Laüstic
  9. Milun
  10. Le Chaitivel
  11. Chevrefoil
  12. Eliduc

The Harley 978 manuscript is the only manuscript that contains all twelve of the lais, along with Marie’s prologue. While it cannot be said for certain if the order of the lais is of any significance, there has been speculation that they alternate between positive and negative actions (and consequences) that can arise from love, such that the odd lais tend to conclude with good endings while the even ones tend to conclude with bad endings (Ferrante 53).

Manuscript of Marie’s Lais.

Nonetheless, due to the lack of sufficient information, the abovementioned conjectures remain open to debate. More importantly, such structural concerns about the arrangement of Marie’s lais constitute more of a problem for the modern reader than her audience in the Middle Ages. It is also noteworthy that while Marie’s lais could be read as secular, there had yet to be any real distinction between secular and religious cultures in the late 12th century. Neither are Marie’s works in any way truly against the religious establishment. While the lais may present some form of critique or deviation, they also show a keen interest in exploring the possibilities of fiction, the joy and relief of escapism, and alternate realities. Therefore, Marie’s writing could be seen more as a thought experiment that allows her to assume different vantage points to examine themes that were of interest to her.

“Eliduc” does not seem to fit within this theory, however, though it is possible that Marie wished to end the collection on a good note and with a religious acclamation – a common trend in poetry during that period of time. However, this appears to contradict the world of Marie’s lais, which has been argued to be consistently and firmly secular (Kinoshita and McCracken 51). The case of the uncharacteristically devout ending of “Eliduc” has thus been seen as palinode for the collection’s various radical propositions (Kinoshita and McCracken 91), perhaps to avoid persecution from authorities. Others have read the range of attitudes toward dominant feudal and patriarchal structures across individual lais—some submissive, others subtly subversive or overtly resistant—as ideally suited to twelfth-century reading culture, in which subsequent discussion and debate was a crucial element of the reception of texts (Fisher 209).


Prior to the time of Marie’s writing, literary narratives tended to focus either on the quest for martial glory or on the spiritual experience of devotion. By contrast, Marie’s Lais represent a radical transformation of subject matter: while Marie retains some elements of adventure, quest, and journey from epics, she shifts much of the focus to the experience of an idealised, refined, courtly love. The emphasis on inner feeling and self-fulfilment through secular love, to which earlier texts had given little importance, would fundamentally reshape literary representations of human experience.

In addition, Marie’s lais are notable for being written in the vernacular instead of Latin, which would have been the formal language of writing in many areas during that period. In Marie’s prologue to the lais, she claims that she is translating Breton lais that she has heard. In order to keep these stories from being forgotten, she will set them in writing and in verse, at the same time translating them into Old French. The lais thus occupy a liminal position between orality and writing and at the intersection of multiple languages: derived originally from Welsh narratives, preserved in Brittany, then rewritten in England by a French-speaking author for an audience that primarily spoke Anglo-Norman.

Preserving the tone of the Breton lais and making these tales accessible to a wider readership could have been reasons for the use of vernacular French, although whether Marie was merely engaging in translation work remains debatable. It was not uncommon for writers of the time to state that they were translating tales from other sources to claim some form of authority and legitimacy for their work. While none of the “original” lais that Marie claimed to have referenced survived to modern day, it should be noted that the medieval literary culture was at its core, a culture of translation (Kinoshita and McCracken 19). This, alongside the clear artfulness in Marie’s writing, suggest that the lais likely contained much original input from Marie; in fact, she may even have made up the stories herself and invented a fictional origin for them.


Marie’s lais were written in England around a century after the Norman Conquest of 1066, which resulted in significant social, political, and cultural change. Important implications brought about by the occupation of England include the shift in the language of the elite and an unprecedented contact with the European continent, especially France.

The Norman Conquest

Anglo-Norman French became the dominant language in literature, law, administration, and more, so much so that English nearly disappeared as a distinct language. It did not fully resurface until at least another century later in the form of Middle English, which came to resemble French more than the English of 200 years ago, thus rendering Old English practically unrecognisable to speakers and writers of Middle English.

It is plausible that Marie was based at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and this was the kind of French-speaking English aristocracy whom Marie wrote for. Being a French writer situated in England would have allowed her greater access to the highly mobile exchange of cultures and tales incited by the Norman Conquest, more so than her alleged contemporaries such as Chrétien de Troyes who wrote in France. This may explain how Marie could have personally come across the Breton lais and other Celtic sources that inspired her translation and writing. Although Marie was geographically closer to Wales than Brittany, where the mostly oral language of Breton was spoken, the movement of peoples and cultures then was not limited to between the British Isles and continental France, but also within Britain itself. Thus, this is perhaps how Marie’s lais could claim to be of Breton origin yet contain Welsh motifs and settings, and be told through the Anglo-Norman courtly register and perspective, all at the same time.

The question of linguistic and cultural origins is also complicated by the ambiguity of the word “Breton.” While the term now refers specifically to the inhabitants of Brittany in north-western France, in Marie’s time it could also designate the people of ancient Britain now known as the Welsh. (In eliding these related but distinct languages and cultures, the term is perhaps closer to the modern word “Celtic.”) Writing in England, Marie would have been in much closer geographic proximity to Welsh culture, and this is likely what she means by “Breton”. Marie’s relationship to Welsh culture is informed by both the political reality of conquest and the exoticisation of Celtic culture (especially ideas of magic and the Otherworld) by the politically dominant Anglo-Normans.


A depiction of chivalric romance. Edmund Leighton, “God Speed”, 1900, Oil on canvas.

It is evident that love is the key focus in Marie’s lais. Every lai presents a certain situation that a pair of lovers, a parent and child, or lord and vassal, must overcome. True and mutual love is akin to virtue, which is rewarded with happiness. Whereas love that is selfish often yields misfortune. Additionally, love in Marie’s lais comes with implicit rules of polite, courtly interaction; indeed, the true lovers of each lai are always identified as “courteous”, which comes from the Old French word corteis, meaning “courtly”. It is a condition that must be fulfilled before their love can be further strengthened through trials and suffering, which is distinct from classical and other romance depictions of love as an affliction of irrationality that brings about havoc and tragedy (Ashe 246, 261).

In Marie’s lais, love seems almost whimsical. Unlike the classical concept of “fate”, there is no divine will guiding the narrative and love between two people, and their encounter often occurs by chance. The same can be said about the tokens of love in many of the lais. These tokens usually do not possess any distinctive qualities at all. However, once they are recognised by a character, often entirely coincidentally, they allow separated lovers or kin to rendezvous or reunite with each other. Such ambiguous yet miraculous fulfilment of love in the lais thus make the tokens seem super-charged in significance, as though they are magical.

Loyalty and Justice
Loyalty, or the lack thereof, tends to drive conflict in the narrative, whether it be romantic or non-romantic in nature. For romantic relations, loyalty takes the form of fidelity. Most interestingly, illicit affairs are not considered infidelity within Marie’s lais so long as the love is true. In fact, if a character’s preexisting marital commitment was established not out of love but other agendas, said marriage is not considered the true marriage in the narrative (Ashe 248). Breaking away from such unhappy unions to pursue a true lover is thus encouraged and justified, as seen in lais such as “Yönec” and “Milun”. For non-romantic relations, Marie frequently examines the loyalty between lord and vassal, drawing sympathy for those who are not reciprocated despite being loyal, seen in lais such as “Lanval” and “Eliduc”.

Beauty and Desire
While courage, generosity, and worthiness tend to be the indicators of good character for men in the lais, outward beauty seems to be the indicator and reflection of good character and interiority in women. It is beauty that signals to the men their supposed lover, where the more unparalleled the beauty, the more desirable the woman. In “Lanval”, this idea is taken to the extreme with the fae-like lady from Avalon, as beauty becomes the basis of the legal system that tries Lanval, and the bedrock whereupon the honour of King Arthur and his court rests. Marie does not, however, reduce the women in her lais to mere beautiful objects; rather, they are empowered by their beauty, possessing a degree of agency to influence others and even challenge rigid societal structures.

Origins and Names
Although most characters in the lais are not given names, Marie pays a great deal of attention to the names of each lai, some of which are named after characters in the narrative. Nearly every lai comes with an introduction or closing about the various ways it is referred to across different cultures and different languages, such that at times Marie even steers away from the main narrative, devoting a considerable number of lines solely to discuss its naming and what each name identifies. Lais such as “Bisclavret” show the instability and difficulty of precise designation in naming because the same word (“bisclavret”) could refer to a supernatural creature (the werewolf), the name of the character who turns into said creature, the text itself, the concept of turning into such a creature, a story originating from a certain culture, or even the genre of such tales in general. This is further complicated in translation when an alternative title in a different language is presented, for it inevitably carries its own set of connotations that may or may not differ greatly from the original. Marie’s consideration of names and their implications thus undermines the certainty of any definitive categorisation into singular identities, reflecting the shifting and complex nature of linguistic and cultural identity in the setting in which she was writing.

Human / Animal
Marie invites contemplation of what truly constitutes human identity through human / animal transformations in the lais of “Bisclavret” and “Yönec”. Just like the instability of name designation, the characters resist being identified as either properly human or animal. Rather, the lais depict the external form in a state of flux, suggesting humanity to be more of a process and an ongoing transformation, than something intrinsic (Campbell 106). Conditions of humanity include courtly behaviour, belief in God, and in some ways, social inclusion. However, this treatment is notably less applicable to Marie’s female characters, who often undergo a parallel transformation that is less controllable, more exposed, visible, and closer to the classical tradition of depicting physical appearances as manifestations of a character’s inner state (106).

Marie’s focus on love, an emotional experience, naturally places more weight in her narrative towards interiority. This is seen from how the lais centre on small, select groups of characters often in settings away from society, from their concerns about privacy and being discreet, and from the amount of detail dedicated to the courtly exchanges between lovers, which stands in stark contrast to the brief and anticlimactic descriptions of martial exploits. By shifting the traditional emphasis of the quest for glory to obtaining the lady’s love and self-fulfilment, Marie promotes celebration of the personal qualities, skills, and nobility of characters without them always having to be kings or saintly martyrs. This is in line with developments in theology and knighthood during the 12th century, which enabled writers (including Marie) to be recognised by their individual artistry instead of solely by the authority of their sources or religious truths (Ashe 243-244). Although the lais do not engage as extensively in the characters’ emotional states as some other romances, their concern with inner human experiences may offer insights on early ideas about individuality.


Ashe, Laura. “It Is Different with Us: Love, Individuality, and Fiction.” 1000-1350: Conquest and Transformation, special issue of The Oxford English Literary History, vol. 1, no. 5, 2017, pp. 241-291. Oxford Scholarship Online, doi:10.1093/oso/9780199575381.003.0006.

Ferrante, Joan M. “Marie de France.” A New History of French Literature, edited by Denis Hollier, Harvard University Press, 1994, pp. 50-55.

Fisher, Marianne. “Culture, Ethnicity, and Assimilation in Anglo-Norman Britain: The Evidence from Marie de France’s Lais,” Exemplaria 24.3: 195-213.

Gilbert, Dorothy, translator. Marie de France: Poetry. By Marie de France, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Kinoshita, Sharon, and McCracken, Peggy. Marie de France: A Critical Companion, Boydell & Brewer, 2012.


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