Ripe for Love
by Elmer G. Wiens
In her poem "Lanval," Marie de France shares a fantasy with her readers, telling the tale of a mysterious woman who journeys from a distant land to be with Lanval, a dishonored knight of King Arthur's Round Table. Marie's portrayal sets Lanval's mistress apart from the maidens and ladies in waiting at King Arthur's court, as she eclipses even Queen Guenever. Much like an editor of a modern woman's fashion magazine, Marie targets her audience of mostly aristocratic twelfth-century women. She describes a mysterious lady whose retinue, meadow pavilion, clothing, figure, cultured sentiments, deportment, and conduct depict her as a superior being. Lanval's mistress is a model Marie's readers should emulate, a woman who imparts to her readers hints on fashion, grooming, how to please one's lover, and most importantly, how to keep him. She is a woman with whom Marie's readers can identify in their wildest sexual fantasies.
With the love of Lanval's mistress, Marie puts forward to her readers the prospect of love freely given, as part of the fantasy of courtly love that is conditioned on the libidinal needs of women in a society that allocates wives as property. She wraps her female sexual fantasy of Guenever's humiliation around a woman's perception of a male masturbatory fantasy. A handsome, dejected knight withdraws to a forest meadow next to a stream to reflect on his ill fortune. When he wakes from a nap, two lovely maidens take him to a fabulous pavilion where he spends the afternoon making love to the most beautiful woman on earth who loves him "more than anything" (116). Moreover, his generous lover provides him with "a dowry" of inexhaustible means and the opportunity to have her whenever he wishes, knowing he will circumscribe his pleasures to discrete circumstances. Marie's lai reflects twelfth-century feminine tastes.
The supernatural lady's love for Lanval transcends the romantic love of Marie's 12th century, the courtly love of a bachelor knight and his patron's wife, ascending above Queen Guenever's communal desire for the "generous and courtly" (232) Lanval. In typical romantic chivalric fashion, Guenever falls for Lanval, much like she fell in love with Arthur when he helped her father defeat the King of Ireland. With three of her ladies, she admires from the "sculpted window" (237) of a tower a group of thirty knights taking their pastime in the garden below. Admiration turns to desire, a contagious romantic emotion. She and thirty maidens, "the loveliest and most refined," (244) descend into the garden to take their delight with the knights. Breaking the rules of courtly love, Guenever freely pursues Lanval and declares her love, risking Lanval's allegiance and her relationship with King Arthur. Marie exposes Guenever as lacking restraint, unable to discreetly channel her lust for the noble, popular Lanval.
As queen, Guenever refuses to accept her status as Arthur's property. When Lanval deflects her proposition by referring to their fealty to Arthur, Guenever goads him furiously, suggesting he prefers "fine-looking boys," and referring to him as a "base coward, lousy cripple" (280-83). Her hot pursuit of Lanval tricks him into revealing his true love's existence, flouting his lover's caution to "not let any man know" (145) about their trysting. In revenge, Guenever choses the dubious strategy of seeking the succour of Arthur, forcing the hand of Lanval's mistress at his trial. To sustain her love, she must openly proclaim to be in love with Lanval, a love based on individual libidinal needs. Abandoning his knighthood, Lanval and his mistress escape the medieval society of Marie's lai. Eventually, the love of women as portrayed by Marie de France contributes to destroy the foundation of Europe's medieval institutions.
Works Cited and Consulted
Marie de France. "Lanval." Trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Volume One. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Addison-Wesley, 2003. (179-192).