Animal educators and Marie de France

Weasels, deer, nightingales – these are some of the most important characters in the leave, a collection of narrative poems written in the 12th century by Marie de France. In his tales, animals are often responsible for teaching humans how to best live. This conceit fits into the larger literary tradition of fables, which were immensely popular in the Middle Ages. Marie, who translated Aesop into Anglo-Norman French, would have been intimately familiar with the genre. According to literature professor Logan E. Whalen – who called Marie “France’s first woman of letters” – her depiction of animals particularly stands out in the lay“Guigemar”.

The eponymous protagonist, Guigemar, seems like a perfect knight: he is brave, generous and wise. Despite this, he has a fatal flaw, and Marie points it out very early on. “Nature had wronged him so badly that he never showed the slightest interest in love.” Although the women “frequently made advances to him”, he was absolutely “indifferent” to them.

An illustration of Fables by Aesop and others (1863) via Commons Wikimedia

Late medieval romance literature dictated that knights participated in the “game of courtly love”. Guigemar could not be an exception. During a morning hunt one morning, he sees a doe (female deer) in a large bush. “The beast”, writes Marie, “was completely white with deer antlers on its head.” In other words, this white doe was some kind of androgynous creature. Guigemar, ignorant or indifferent to the special status of the deer, shoots it and mortally wounds it. His arrow, however, rebounds and hits his own thigh, before lodging in his horse’s side.

“If up to now… the hero has shown no emotional interest in love,” observes Whalen, “he is now also unable to show it physically, a condition evidenced by the well-known medieval euphemism of a thigh injury.” The Fisher King, an enigmatic figure in Arthurian legend, had a pierced thigh.For centuries, scholars and lay readers have interpreted the location of this wound as being in the groin, as the Fisher King had no of children and could not stand. Surely Marie’s audience would have recognized the true meaning of the word “thigh” in Guigemar’s story.

Either way, the real and complete lesson comes when the doe – “the only character in the leave who possesses the capacity for human speech when in animal form” – addresses Guigemar.

“Alas! I am mortally wounded. Vassal, you who have wounded me, let it be your fate. May you never find a remedy, nor any herb, root, doctor or potion ever cure the wound of your thigh until that you will be healed by a woman who will suffer for your love more pain and anguish than any other woman has ever known, and you will also suffer for her, so that all who are in love, who have known love or who have yet to experience it, will marvel at it.

Thus, to heal both physically and emotionally, Guigemar is condemned either to learn to love or to remain compromised for life.

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By: Logan E. Whalen

“The Swan”, Vol. 2 (Fall 2015), p. 41-52 (12 pages)

International Society of Mary of France

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