In medieval English literary culture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the number of really well-known women, certainly if we define ‘well-known’ as ‘taught on undergraduate courses’, is, perhaps, two: Christina of Markyate, a religious leader, and Marie de France, acclaimed as the first woman writer in French vernacular literature. This essay looks at the recovery, or better, the creation of Marie de France, and some of its implications. There are several aspects to this examination: although presented in its full detail at the end of the essay, the most original and important is the phonological evidence of Professor Ian Short concerning the texts currently ascribed to Marie de France. My own contribution is less original: I want to reprise some arguments for thinking that looking for authorship and authorial canons is not the only way of seeing medieval women's literary and intellectual engagement, and to argue that the canonical impulse obscures the literary culture in which the works now ascribed to Marie de France were created. Such arguments have quite a long genealogy in work on Marie de France, but still seem to need restating in each generation. Given that it is still possible for scholars to celebrate Marie de France as a lusus naturae, bravely inserting herself into “an exclusively male literary system,” it seems pertinent to invoke these arguments in the context of a volume dealing with medieval women's intellectual contributions.
As is well known, the name “Marie de France” is noticed in the sixteenth century in the collection of Aesopic Fables ascribed to her, but the canon attributed to Marie “de France” is an eighteenth-century creation. The first scholar to assign both Lais and Fables to her is Thomas Tyrwhitt in his 1775 edition of Chaucer, as part of a wider conversation about Armorican lays and the primacy – or not – of Arthurian materials in Geoffrey of Monmouth versus stories from Brittany. (It is significant that the manuscript known to both Tyrwhitt and his predecessor, Warton, is London, British Library MS Harley 978, the only extant medieval manuscript, as discussed below, to contain both Lais and Fables with each of them having text-internal ascriptions to “Marie”).