Deadly letters: "Deus amanz," Marie's "prologue" to the 'Lais' and the dangerous nature of the gloss.
The idea of flourishing calls to mind one of the lads in particular--"Deus amanz" (henceforth DA). In this narrative, a young lover fails to achieve the feat of carrying his beloved to the top of a mountain so that he may win the permission of her father, the king, to marry her. The failure occurs specifically because he is so filled with the joy of carrying his lady that he falls prey to excess pride and emotion, with the result that he fails to drink the magic potion which has been prepared for him in secret to assure his success at his task. Seeing him dead, his lover pours the potion out onto the mountain and then dies herself:
Puis ad gete e espaundu
Le veissel u li beivre fu.
Li muns en fu bien arusez;
Mut en ad este amendez
Tuz li pais e la cuntree:
Meinte bone herbe i unt trovee
Ki del beivre vent racine. (223-29)
Then she threw and spread from the vessel containing the portion
The mountain was well watered by it; all the land and region were
greatly improved: Many good herbs are found there which took root
from the potion. (All translations are my own)
This passage reinforces the parallel with the Pro, since it can be read as a metaphor for the "sowing" of the text and its subsequent spread and transmission through the process of gloss. The same word "espandu"--spread, found in the Pro (8), recurs here, and "trovee"--found, composed--is of course used elsewhere in the lads to refer to the act of composing poetry.(2) Marie's lads also contain several of their own "herbes," including "le fresne," "le codre" ("Fresne" 338, "Chievrefoil" 75) and "le chievrefoil," all of which are fundamental symbolic elements of her texts. Thus DA enacts the physical and metaphorical sowing of the seed that will lead to the flourishing not only of the specific Breton lai which Marie points to as the source of her own narrative in DA, but also of the lads in general.
Not only is the act of the woman in the tale paralleled to that of Marie as she puts her own tales into circulation, but other characters of the lai also echo her authorial gestures of the Pro. Marie has been "dune"--given (1) eloquence, and it is essential that it be heard by "plusurs"--many (7). Furthermore, in order "de grant dolur [se] delivrer" (27) "pur ceo comencai a penser" (28) "a grevose ovre comencier" (25) she says ("to deliver herself from great sorrow she began to think of beginning a difficult task"). In DA, the king has been given a beautiful daughter, but he "ne la volt doner"--did not want to give her (27) in marriage, refusing to continue the cycle of reception and transmission. "Plusur" (33) criticize him for withholding (due to his incestuous desires) that which he should share. The king as a result is "dolenz" sorrowful (36), and "cumenca sei a purpenser/ cumment s'en purrat delivrer"--began to think how he could deliver himself from this sorrow (378).(3) His solution is to proclaim far and wide that his daughter's hand will be given only to the one who can successfully carry her up the nearby mountain without resting. The parallel in language between this lai and the Pro is striking,(4) though in this case Marie implicitly indicts the "author" for his evil intention, since the "narrative" which he announces to the world is intended only to obscure his own illicit desires. His text (the proclamation) is "espandu" (48) and heard by "plusur" (49), but the conditions of the narrative produce not flourishing but sterility, or a "sterile translatio" to borrow a term from Michelle Freeman,(5) as his daughter remains unmarried due to the impossibility of the task, and eventually ends up dead. Her fate in fact echoes that which Marie suggests she fears (figuratively) for herself, as a female author in a male literary tradition--a point to which I will return later.
The young couple are also in a dolorous situation from which they consider how to escape: "La suffrance mut lur greva,/ mes li vallez se purpensa"--their suffering caused them much grief, but the valet began to meditate [on a solution] (75-6). This situation, like that of the Pro, also eventually results in a text--in this case "lettres" (110), or alternately a "brief" (139), which reveals the couple's situation to one of the girl's relations in Salerno. The placing of their secret into the letter then results in the concoction of the potion which they hope will allow the consummation of their secret love. Instead, the letter and potion lead indirectly to the death of the couple. Thus a series of texts are produced by a series of authors, leading ultimately to the fruition of the tale which Marie claims to retell, but also to the deaths of either the authors or someone dear to the authors of these texts. For these authors at least, the results of their textual practices are dangerous in the extreme.
Certainly DA is not the only one of Marie's narratives which can be read as the story of the origin of her texts. Several other lads have been read as the metanarrative of her collection, particularly "Chievrefoil."(6) These readings have typically pointed to the autotelic character of the chosen text, which is seen as not only depicting its own origin, but functioning as a paradigm of the creative process evoked in the Pro.(7) This is really what is at stake in the numerous arguments regarding the exact contents of the stick which Tristan engraves in "Chievrefoil," for example. Yet, to a greater or lesser extent, virtually all of Marie's lads can be read in this manner, and this feature alone, while of fundamental importance, is insufficient for making claims about metanarratives. A number of additional elements especially privilege DA in this regard. It is the only lai not named either for a specific person or a specific symbolic element (or both) in the collection, with the possible exception of "Chaitivel," though this word is nevertheless applied as a specifying name and symbolic condition to a single individual. Unlike in most of the lads, none of the principles is named or symbolized--all the more surprising considering Marie's concern with naming throughout the lads, including this one to the extent that she talks of the name "Pistre" (16) and its variants for the mountain four times in vv. 14-20.(8) Finally, it lies at the center of the collection (the Pro and first five lai contain 2734 w, while the six lai after DA contain 2794 vv.), and its title is emblematic of the substance of virtually all of the lads in the collection: it could be applied to virtually any of the others. Marie's fundamental narrative concern in the lads is with two lovers and the context in which they act.
Furthermore, as my reading will illustrate, Marie is herself inscribed into this lai in a manner different from others in the collection. This is all the more important because Marie's central focus as suggested in the Pro is not simply to continually re-enact the origin of her texts. Nor is it only to enact this origin in terms of the encounter between lovers. Most fundamentally, it is to explore the ambiguous position of her feminine self as both writing subject and read object within the context of an overwhelmingly masculine literary tradition. Marie grants to the female lover of DA a privileged position as both source and desired object of the text, and through the use of a series of close textual parallels with the Pro, further underlines the special relation between herself and this female lover in the lad.
Among the most sensitive readings of Marie's texts in terms of metanarrative is that of Michelle Freeman.(9) Freeman illustrates particularly well Marie's concerns with her position as female author, analysing "Chievrefoil" and "Laustic" as examples of metanarrative commentaries on a uniquely feminine writing. Freeman reveals how each of these texts clearly explore variations on the relation of man and woman: in the first case, between Marie and Tristan as co-narrators ("the female grafted onto the male" in Freeman's words (876)), and in the second, between a female originally author comparable to Marie and a hostile male reader in the person of the woman's jealous husband (867-9). Freeman's emphasis on the "unbroken chain" of male and female alternation in reading and writing (877) closely replicates my interests here. However, the particular dangers for the woman as a feminine presence in this chain of exchanges needs further emphasis. While Freeman rightly locates in Marie's work a "feminine poetics of silence," I will discuss some of the gender-specific motivations for such a silence. Nowhere more than in DA is the simultaneous position of the woman as object of masculine physical and textual desires and as subject choosing to engage with those dangerous desires more forcefully illustrated.(10)
However, if DA seems emblematic both of Marie's texts as a whole, and also of the "revelatory" poetic process which she describes in her Pro, it is characteristic of the collection in a contrary sense as well. Specifically, it insistently thematizes a desire for silence, or at the very least for strictly guarded private communication, and its conclusion underlines the dangerous and even deadly nature of public revelation of private knowledge. This is in sharp contrast to the Pro's injunction against concealment, and its suggestion that revelatory eloquence leads to flourishing. The lai of DA thus points to a seeming fundamental contradiction between Marie's Pro and its use of the Parable of the Talents on the one hand, and the content of many of her tales on the other. Even more importantly, it highlights in its poetics and its explicit reference to the first eight lines of the Pro the ambiguous disjunction between these lines and those which follow (9-22). A binary reading of Marie's Pro, the DA and the exegetical tradition behind the Parable of the Talents which is referred to in vv. 1-8 will underline the importance of the ambiguities and disjunctions in the Pro and lads, and also resolve certain of these seeming contradictions in the context of medieval Christian theories of grammar, the sign and proper desire on the part of both reader and wrier. And finally, Marie's texts will reveal the extent to which these ambiguities could be imagined in terms of the female physical and textual body.
The ambiguity present in the Pro is well attested by the voluminous critical literature on these few short lines. Yet the irony of its content has received less attention, which perhaps itself explains some of the disagreement. For example, while Marie claims to be interested only in material from the Breton lads, not romance matter, the secret potion used in DA certainly recalls scenes from Tristan et Iseut, as does the death scene of the young couple, and more generally their secret love.(11) She writes explicitly of rejecting Latin material (Pro 30), but many readers have noted her use of classical material, especially from the "romans d'antiquite," themselves derived from Latin sources. The DA also contains many oblique references to Ovid's tale of Piramus and Thisbe.(12)
The particular theme of secrecy and silence just mentioned, far from merely evoking the romances of Tristan, dominates the DA. The lad, rather than being about the openness and revealing discussed in the Pro, concerns itself with silence and hiding. The young man and woman are secretly in love with each other ("celerent a lur poeir [lur amur]" (73)), and the woman arranges secretly for the man to obtain the potion which will allow them to be successfully married. We have already seen the king's desire to keep secret his illicit, incestuous desires, and to withhold his daughter from "the public" who might seek to marry her. In this, the tale is entirely typical of Marie's lads, which ironically reveal far more about the secret, the hidden, and the silent than about anything else. Though Marie often imbricates the poet into her texts, the tales which many of her characters produce seem to violate the sense of her Pro, being much at issue with its admonition to "mustrer," to not "taisir" or "celer."
Yet ironically, this poetics closely echoes Marie's remarks about the ancients and their practicing of textual and communicative "obscurity" (12). Marie implies in vv. 9-22 of the Pro both that she is herself a reader and glosser of previous texts, and furthermore that her own texts will be worthy of similar attention--a point to which I will return at the conclusion of the paper.(13) The secondary implication of this claim is that she engages in a practice of textual obscurity in her lads. Indeed, if it is the process of glossing which constitutes the gradual flourishing of the text, with "ceus ki a venir esteient"--those who were yet to come (13) being the "plusurs" (7) who contribute to the text "spreading its flowers," then an obscurity of "see"-sense (16) is a requirement for instigating the process of gloss and flourishing.(14)
Despite the emphasis on silence and concealment in the DA the word "mustrer" (Pro 4) does appear on several occasions. It occurs as part of a series of expanding revelations of the state of the young man and his love--expansions which lead to the couple's doom. His feelings are initially contained within him, but then "se plainte li mustrat"--he revealed to her his grief (83). This first revelation leads to the plan to attempt to trick the king by using the potion to accomplish the impossible task. The expansion continues when the young couple reveal their plan to the old woman of Salerno who must make the potion: "mustrer li votre aventure"--reveal to her your circumstances--the pucele tells the young man (111). The fateful potion is a direct product of this revelation. The third such revelation is that of the young man to the king, resulting in the king's publicizing of the situation:
"Ses hummes mande e ses amis
E tuz ceus k'il poeit aveir:
N'en i laissa nul remaneir" (166-8).
He sent for his vassals and relatives and all those whom he could
muster: not a one of them did he allow to be absent.
The expanding revelations conclude with the public display of the attempt on the mountain. And of course the king's initial text is a public proclamation that produces the context for the lovers' secrecy and ultimate doom.
The lai thus recounts the progressive publicizing of secrets. It is typical of Marie's collection not only in its obsession with the idea of secrecy, private knowledge, private signs, and hidden communicative exchanges, but in that the revelation of this secrecy quite often leads to catastrophe. While some of Marie's lads present secrecy happily "publicized" in the end, a significant number suggest that continued secrecy--at least for the characters within the tales--would have been or is the preferred result ("Bisclavret," "Laustic," "Chievrefoil"--where the secret is successfully kept, as well as "Equitan," "Yonec" and "Larval").
Such are the results of public revelation that many of Marie's characters seem to wish to take back or change their own public tale, or to be motivated by a horror of public perception.(15) Certainly this is the dominant force of action in DA. The king's formulation of the impossible task follows on his inability to tolerate the public "chorus" which comments upon him for incestuously keeping his daughter to himself:
Plusur a mal li aturnerent,
Li suen meisme le blamerent.
Quant il oi qu'hum en parla,
Mut fu dolenz, mut li pesa.
Cumenca sei a purpenser
Cument s'en purrat delivrer. (33-38)
Many criticized him, and even his own vassals reproached him.
When he heard that people were speaking of his behavior, he was
aggrieved, and it weighed upon him greatly. He began to consider
how he could relieve himself of such blame.
It is the tales that others tell of him rather than any internal sense of guilt which motivates his action. The young man likewise fails to drink the potion because:
Ceste genz nus escriereient,
De lur noise m'esturdireient;
Tost me purreient desturber.
Je ne voil pas ci arester. (203-206)
These spectators will accuse us of wrong, their cries will confuse
me; they could quickly disturb me. I do not wish to stop here.
Thus the king and the young man, as well as the girl implicitly, reveal a desire for silence in order to cloak their desires. This desire for silence is ironically realized in the successive deaths, themselves resulting from a broadening series of revelations, and each of which elicits a loud "pleinte" (222). Again, the tale is emblematic of Marie's lads, several of which can be read as a plainte on the death of certain characters ("Yonec," "Chaitivel"). The Breton story of the two lovers is merely a third "plainte," echoing those of the young woman and her father.
Thus in DA, the life of the mountain, and of the figural tale represented by that life, not to mention Marie's own actual tale, arise from death. In this and other lad, the life of the text seems to arise from a killing or a "mise en abyme" either of the characters (see above) or of their now-publicized emblematory signs--the weasel of "Eliduc," the nightingale of "Laustic." Revealing constitutes both a killing (within the text) and the production of the text, which is then revealed yet again in Marie's retelling. The ending of DA, with its rapid succession of death, silence and "pleinte," is thus again emblematic of the poetics of so many of the lads.
The concept of flourishing from death returns us again to vv. 1-8 of the Pro and the Parable of the Talents. Several recent readings of Marie have touched on the Parable.(16) They have noted that it was often glossed as a commentary on the necessity of the gloss,(17) and chat the money of the Parable was glossed as a metaphor for metaphor.(18) Thus the opening lines of the Pro obliquely refer to a specific gloss about glossing, and more generally to the necessity of glossing--an idea which is then explicitly stated by Marie in her reference to Priscian (9-22).
However, the implications of Marie's reference to this Parable are far more complex and ambivalent than has previously been suggested. For the medieval grammaticus, the most problematic lines of the parable,(19) and chose most obviously requiring a gloss, were those of the master to his servant upon returning from his pilgrimage, when he discovered that the servant had buried his coin in the ground: "Serve male et piger, sciebas quia meto ubi non semino, et congrego ubi non spars); oportuit ergo te dare pecuniam meam nummulariis, et ego veniens recepissem utique quod meum est cum usura" (Matthew 25:26-7).(20) The seeming endorsement of usury, the greatest of all medieval economic sins, was clearly unacceptable as such. Due to this reference, dhe parable is one of the clearest Biblical instances of a text whose literal sense is entirely transgressive, so that this sense must be negated in dhe act of glossing. Not only did this parable evoke much writing on the proper nature of the gloss in the Middle Ages, but its peculiar nature forced medieval writers to make explicit certain deep semiotic contradictions inherent in their conception of writing which otherwise often remain only implicit in medieval literature.
The authoritative medieval treatment of the Parable of the Talents is found in St. Gregory's ninth homily (1073-1080).(21) In line with St. Augustine's advice in the De doctrina christiana to read and interpret all passages such that they agree with the pre-established principles of the Christian faith,(22) Gregory redefines the word "usura."(23) His gloss establishes the concept of "spiritual usury," and also creates an explicit connection between this concept and that of "rhetorical" usury. He states that,
In usura quippe pecunia etiam non data recipitur. Cum enim hoc
redditur quod acceptum fuerat, illud etiam superimpenditur quod
acceptum non est. Pensate ergo, fratres charissimi . . . et curate ut ex eo
quod auditis etiam alla studeatis intelligere quae non auditis . . . etiam
illa diseatis vobismetipsis agere quae necdum ex praedicatoris ore
In usury moreover, money is given (back) which was not
received; when that which was received is returned, this
money therefore is superimposed having never been
received Consider therefore, dearest brothers . . . and take
heed that upon hearing things said, you devote yourselves
to understanding other things which you do not hear . ..
moreover, I urge you to desire to accomplish that which you
did not learn from the preacher's mouth.
Usury is defined as an amplification of the literal sense of Holy words, as the process of passing beyond the literal to the higher figural and tropological meanings of the text: "studeatis intelligere quae non auditis." Usury is thus equivalent to reading in the classic tradition of Biblical exegesis, becoming a process of understanding and interpretation. Yet the suggestion of action and production is present as well ("deseatis agere"), though without a specifically literary/rhetorical cast to it.
However, Gregory makes this injunction to action explicit, and does link it to letters, with the following words:
Habens artem qua regitur magnopere studeat ut usum atque utilitatem
illius cum proximo partiatur, habens loquendi locum apud divitem
damnationem pro retento talento timeat.
He who possesses the art whereby great works are accomplished, let
him take heed that the benefit and usefulness of this art be shared
with his fellows, and he who is rich in the art of eloquence, let him
fear damnation if he keeps this art to himself.
Here, he echoes the Jewish, Old Testament conception of humanity's role in the world as steward of God's resources, the agent for carrying out the plan of the creator, wherein any resource or talent not used hinders the full development of Christian teleology.(24) Marie's Pro vv. 1-4 is almost a direct paraphrase of Gregory's imprecation.
Ki Deus ad dune escience
E de parler bon eloquence
Ne s'en deit taisir ne celer,
Ainz se seit volunters mustrer.
Whomever God has given knowledge and graceful eloquence of
speech must not hide it or remain silent, rather he must willingly
She also echoes his use of the important verb of intention "studeat" with "estudier" in v. 24, where she speaks of her intention in undertaking her work.
Gregory thus fuses the idea of proper reading, with its explicit act of passing beyond the literal meaning of the text (and its/implicit re-writing of the text in the form of amplificatory exegesis or gloss) to the idea of human action as the elaboration of the Divine plan of history. In both cases the interest, or "usura," represents the component of individual cognition and subsequent interpretation, or will and subsequent action, added to the received text. The proper Christian hermeneutics, poetics and ethics are all expressed in the idea of usury or addition. Marie clearly addresses all three of these in her Pro. Her subsequent discussion of glossing in vv. 9-22 thus follows on, and is an elaboration of, the tradition fleetingly invoked in her opening lines.
Most importantly, reading, glossing and re-writing are all founded on a "usura" (of textual interpretation, exegetical amplification and ethical action) which is absent from the original text, and which is not simply added to the text, but must be produced via a negation of that text. While economic usury commodifies the monetary sign of value and reproduces it, proper rhetorical usury must negate the physical sign entirely while passing beyond it to divine referent. It is for this reason that the physical aspects of communication are literally "meaningless" for Gregory: the reader must understand that which he expressly did not "audire," and must do that which he specifically did not hear "ex ore" of the preacher. His words not only point to the carnal nature of signs, but evoke the famous lines from 2 Corinthians 3:6--"the written code kills, but the spirit gives life." It is the written (or spoken) code--the letter--which must itself be killed or "trespasse" in proper reading.
Thus Gregory uses the quintessential act of semiotic idolatry--producing signs from signs, money from money--to illustrate the medieval antipathy for the sign itself as an element of the carnal world. In so doing, he captures perfectly the tension inherent in the act of proper use of signs and language in a post-lapsarian world, for it is the task of the physical sign to lead the mind towards divine Truth and beyond mere concern with the physical world. Finally, through his exegesis, the parable becomes exemplary of a work which explicitly offers the key to its own correct mode of reading as well as the reading parables in general, just as the DA functions for the lads. Proper usury of reference must negate idolatrously usurious attention to the sign. This is both the message of the parable, and the way in which the parable must be read to obtain the message.
While the tension in the gloss of the Parable of the Talents is implicit to all medieval gloss, this tension comes to the forefront in Marie's lads. One of the merits of the Pro is that, unlike other texts which begin with the topos of "using one's talents,"(25) it brings out the dangers that lie behind this figure--the dangers of unmetaphorized usury proper. Such a tactic is all the more timely because the latter twelfth century witnessed a growing concern with usury, and a growing ecclesiastical backlash against it. The rise of commercial activity, the increasing money supply, and the subsequent growth in banking practices have been well-studied for the High Middle Ages, as has the rise in usury.(26) As mentioned above, the interest earned from usury could be seen as an illicit revalution of the monetary "sign," based on a commodification of that sign, as money produced more money.(27) In part due to these violations of the "semiotic" status of money, "the problem of interest was the central issue in economic investigation" in the Middle Ages.(28) And as a form of idolatry of the sign, usury is a perfect metaphor for the desire for the "dead letter." The connection of money to the letter is a constant of virtually all glosses of the Parable of the Talents after Gregory, with proper use of the coins glossed as proper preaching.(29) Improper usury is then the monetary metonym for a transgressive desire for the carnal--a desire whose other great metonym was the desire for the female body which plays such an important role in DA.
Marie's reference to the particular ethical and exegetical tradition of the Talents underlines the importance of the "death of the letter" in the medieval grammatical tradition of exegesis, a feature which finds its parallel in the multiple deaths in Marie's lads. In both cases, death begets life. It is in this light that we can read the difficult lines 19-22 of the Pro. Marie writes of the "philesophes":
Cum plus trespasserunt li tens,
Plus serreient sutil de sens E
plus se savreient garder De ceo
k'i ert a trespasser.
As more time passes, the more subtle in intelligence they would be
and they would be better able to keep themselves from that which
will need to be passed over.
I would propose that the meaning of the passage is that those who come later and are more "subtle of sense" will wisely pass beyond the deceptive, veiling signs of Marie's text in order to grasp the correct reference and "see" (16).(30) Such a reading underlines the irony of the word "trespasser" in v. 20, for it means both "to pass over" and also "to die" in Old French, as the letter must indeed die for the sense to be found. The reference uses the Parable as a touchstone to invite and even insist on the gloss as a fundamental necessity for approaching Marie's texts--as part of the ethical as well as interpretory duty of the reader. And by allying itself so closely to the Pro and especially its reference to the Parable of the Talents (vv. 1-8), the DA insists on its own status as a "Parable" of the lads, holding the key to their reading, provided of course that it is itself read in the proper fashion that the Pro (and the exegetical tradition of the Parable of the Talents) suggest.
As the conditional "provided that" suggests however, the gloss alone is not enough. The reference to the Parable serves to invoke not just the necessity of the gloss and the killing of the letter, but the question of intentionality and desire. The Parable is emblematic of the importance of reading and writing properly. As Gregory's gloss of the Parable suggests, the tension inherent in the medieval view of the sign, between carnality and divinity, opens the possibility of illicit gloss. Always the possibility exists of a "usura" of the sign--of amplifying words or money or actions in a self-referential, idolatrous fashion, such as in actual economic usury, or in language which seeks ultimately not to refer but to conceal.
In his influential Liber sententiarum, Peter Lombard states that "some think that usury involves simply money; but let it be understood that usury should be called superabundance, that is to say the part which is more than that which was given."(31) The superabundance of usury of course suggests a parallel with the "surplus" of Marie's text. The question then at stake is whether this superabundance will come in the form that Gregory (and implicitly, Marie) propose, or whether it will constitute an abuse of the sign for private gain, as the usurer in the Middle Ages was understood to use the monetary sign as a commodity to generate private profit at public expense.(32) Marie is after all in a tradition from which she "borrows" her texts, most often supposedly from Breton oral sources, then amplifies them and finally "returns" them to the larger literary tradition from which they came, in order that the same thing may be done over again. It is the precise nature of the gloss and "surplus" which is at stake.
The tension in the carnal letter is really that it both veils (in its physical nature) and reveals (in its referential function). In DA, we have seen that the king uses the letter (his initial proclamation of the conditions for marrying his daughter) not to reveal truth, but to veil his own illicit, incestuous desire. The concealing "spirit" of his words is unfaithful to the "letter" of his meaning, and indeed the king hopes only to be understood at the letter of his proclamation, which serves to veil the spirit which motivates and underlies it. On the other hand, the young lovers engage in an equivalent deception. In arranging to obtain a magic potion which will allow them to essentially cheat on the king's conditions for their marriage, they also show a desire to live by the "letter" of the king's words, rather than the spirit of the challenge, which foresaw no magical intervention. Interestingly, the letter of the king's words provokes two entirely different--and equally abusive--readings on the part of the different characters. Likewise, we have seen that both the king and young man wish to prevent the talking--the letter--that surrounds their questionable actions and intentions, but they have no equivalent desire to actually respond to the situation that people are talking about--the spirit of the situation. The authorial gestures of these "authors" are gestures which attempt to cloak illicit personal desires. They use the sign as a commodity to hide meaning and abuse public interpretation, much as the usurer abused the public "utilitarian" sign of money.(33) Their texts are "dead letters" which do not lead beyond the personal desires of the individuals, and cannot flourish. Within the tradition of the Talents, these authors are idolatrous devotees of the sign, reading and writing with illicit intention. As such, their texts fail to deliver them from the "dol" (243)--recalling the "dolur" (27) of the Pro again--which they suffered, and the "grevose ovre" (Pro 25) comes to naught, despite the fact that the young lover "tant se greva"--strove so mightily (DA 213). Yet another play on words which Marie uses to indicate the metaphorical status of the young lover as unsuccessful author is her description of previous men who had attempted his exploit but "ki n'en purent a nul chief traire"--who could not bring things to a conclusion (164). "Traire" is a common Old French term for translating or relating a tale, and is used by Marie in 30 of the Pro.(34)
The Pro, the DA and the Parable of the Talents constitute part of a complex consideration of the necessity of the gloss, the tension inherent in the carnal sign, the proper nature of glossing as a negation of the sign, the connections between money, signs and the female body, and the importance of intention in reading, writing and interpretation.(35) Clearly the Pro is greatly concerned with the intentions of Marie's writing. Yet what of the intention of the reader? By invoking in the very first lines of her text an exegetical tradition whose most important message is of the importance of correct intentionality for proper reading as well as writing, she suggests the necessity of a like attitude on the part of her readers towards her text. This invocation of the paradigm of intentionality has formed the basis for one major "school" of interpretation of Marie's Pro. Leo Spitzer argued in 1944 that her lads "have a Christian significance," and that this meaning is what is finally at stake for those readers who are to come. This argument is based most prominently on the Pro, and on the identification of "li philesophe" as simultaneously poets, philosophers and theologians.(36) Similarly, D.W. Robertson glosses "lettre" as "littera," "see" as "census" and "surplus" as "sententia," reading the Pro as a precise description of sacred techniques of exegesis.(37) Marie would thus be demanding for her "Christian" tales the same correct intention and respect accorded other "sacred" texts.
On the other hand, the DA presents just one example among several in Marie's lads of how different characters can construct a different spirit for a given letter, and indeed how the spirit of the text can dissolve at the mercy of competing intentions. Her texts, so far as they depict acts of reading, are hardly a model of the ideas of her Pro if taken as above. Although Marie certainly plays with Christian archetypes in the lads, especially in "Yonec,"(38) there is in my opinion little evidence in the texts themselves that the doctrinal framework which would allow correct intention--and interpretation of the lads--on the part of the reader is that of medieval Christianity. Where then is the locus of intention from which we can begin to properly read the lads?
The intertextual nexus of meaning which I have located in the dialogue between the Pro, the DA and the gloss of the Parable of the Talents seems one point of excursus. This dialogue constitutes both a meditation on and presentation of Marie's own artistic endeavor. It also suggests that the ethical duty of the reader is to respect the project and intention of Marie herself. Her emphasis on her poetic craft in the Pro and the lais, and her imposition of her artistic persona onto the collection, which have been widely recognized in recent readings,(39) point to Marie herself as the "auctoritas" of the collection. One aspect of this authority is a respect for the spirit of the sign. In DA as in other lais such as "Equitan" or "Bisclavret," death or dismemberment comes from the abuse of the letter to veil illicit private desires. On the other hand, private secrets may licitly be hidden to protect the individuals involved from wrongful abuse, as in "Milun," "Fresne" or "Larval." In these cases, the secret signs and the spirit of these signs are one, and all those of good intention are able to read correctly.
Such a reading poses an interesting dilemma in the case of "Chievrefoil" however, for Marie's attitude towards the lovers is not strictly moralistic in the Christian sense, since they are both successful readers and adulterers. This is also true in other cases, such as "Laustic," and is an important point to bear in mind when reading the lais. Thus, to reiterate, Marie's lais seem not to demand an ideologically Christian interpretation, though her ideas on the sign do draw on a fundamental medieval Christian exegetical tradition. Yet even in this instance, Marie plays on this tradition in order to establish her own authority, rather than directly claiming that of the Parable. She appropriates to her texts a mode of reading to which they do not actually have full claim, drawing on sacred authority for her own.
Given Marie's attitudes towards the use of the sign, what are we to make of the death of the young woman in DA, immediately after her authorial gesture of spreading the magic potion on the mountain? The death of her lover is followed immediately by her "pleint" (222), the "spreading" of the potion, and the flourishing of the herbs. She is thus a fundamentally important author of this textual tradition. Though the tradition's founding moment may be placed with the initial desire and proclamation of the king, the lai's full fruition is dependent on her death. Yet she seems the best-intentioned of all the characters. True, she engages in the subterfuge of the potion, but this is only a second alternative after she initially resists the young man's first suggestion of flight (96-102). She is unwilling to anger her father in this fashion. She also does her best to ease the lover's task within the bounds of the challenge, both losing weight (174-5) and wearing almost no clothes (183). She finally urges him to forget his excess joy and pride and drink the potion (194-7,210), but to no avail. Her final spreading of the potion on the ground is perhaps the expiation of any previous faults on her part. Yet even the best of intentions is unable to contain the events of the lai.
If Marie and the young woman may be compared in their similar authorial gestures, Marie nevertheless suggests that she herself, in at least one sense, is the more fortunate of the two. While the young woman is caught in an evolving textual cycle or "translatio" which was initiated by the desires of an incestuous king (and continued by an immoderate lover), Marie locates the initiation of her own project in a more proper royal figure:
En l'honur de vus, nobles reds,
Ki tent estes pruz e curteis,
A ki tute joie s'encline
E en ki quoer tuz biens racine,
M'entremis des lais assembler,
Par rime faire e reconter.
In honor of you, noble king, who are so valorous and courtly, and to
whom all joys give way, and in whose heart all good things find their
root, I have undertaken to assemble some lais, in order to make
rhymes and to tell tales.
Her lais take their "racine" in this noble figure of good intention, while she locates the roots of the metaphorical tales at the end of DA in the fateful magic potion whose concoction marks one among a series of abuses of the spirit of the text--"del beivre vent racine" she says of the "herbes" (229). The final lines of the Pro are far more than a commonplace; they are a grounding of the intention of the lais in an additional source of "auctoritas" which serves to augment that of Marie--the king. The Pro thus serves to locate two allied loci of intentionality and authority from which the reader may approach the dangerous task of glossing the text--a task which Marie, through her reference to the Parable of the Talents, insists must be done, and done properly.
Despite her invocation of proper intention for writer and reader, the DA suggests that Marie is aware of the final inadequacy of the authority which she has established. The nameless young woman, despite her best intentions, is trapped in a textual tradition of illicit writing and illicit reading, characterized by a tendency towards the "dead letter" rather than the spirit of the text. As such, she is doomed. The girl's death, like others in the lais, seems to represent not the properly sacred death ("trespas") of the letter, but rather an improper (male) trespassing against the spirit of the sign. Marie, as her Pro makes clear, is aware that she too is part of a tradition of which she is neither initiator nor terminator, and she and her texts may equally fall victim to improper use. The "Prologue" to "Guigemar," with its recognition of those who will abuse the author and her texts, is another example of this awareness.(40) While some readers have been surprised by the last line of this mini-prologue ("Ceo est lur dreit de mesparler"--it is their right to speak ill), it is simply Marie's recognition that no authority can fully protect her from the intentions and desires of those who will have access to her texts. She takes a dangerous step as she releases her own lais into tradition, especially, as DA suggests, into a tradition where male desires may threaten to abuse both the woman and her texts.
In this light, the ambiguity of the term "anciens" (Pro 9) which Tony Hunt, among others, has discussed, with its range of references from "authors of Greco-Latin Antiquity" to "the immediately preceding generation," takes on new significance.(41) In contrast to the Spitzer/Robertson tradition, he situates the Pro in the context of the twelfth-century question of the "anciens" and the "moderns," and more generally in the basically secular realm of the metaphorical techniques of the "modems," invoking Matthew of Vendome and the "integumenta" in connection with what I have called Marie's "veiling" language. The specific choice for the meaning of "anciens" largely determines the textual tradition into which Marie is placed. But in fact, distinctions between Christian exegesis and twelfth-century secular poetic practice need not be made: Marie herself refuses such distinctions.(42) Her ironic re-investment of Biblical exegetical techniques for her ideologically secular texts not only enmeshes the two traditions, but makes use of the full range of meaning of the "anciens" as well as the equally problematic "philesophe" of the future, for ultimately they are both--whether secular or religious--part of a masculine tradition. Marie could not have been blind to the fact that criticism and misreading of her texts might come from either source.(43)
In the end, despite her seeming awareness that she wants an authority that she can never have, Marie does take one form of ironic revenge on the tradition of which she is a part. She not only obliquely appropriates what must be considered male archetypes of authority--royal example, the "ancients" and Christian exegetical tradition--to establish her own authority as a woman writer,(44) but she also assigns the abuse of this authority specifically to masculine desires. Not only is the king in DA an instigator of a "sterile translatio," but Marie places the failure of the young lover in a clearly sexual light. "N'estes mie si vertuus"--you are not virtuous enough, he is told by the woman (95), to be able to carry her to the top of the mountain. Here of course the Latin root of virtue--"vir," meaning "man"--is all important. The potion will provide him with the needed "vertu" (116,149,197), but "n'ot en lui point de mesure"--there was no moderation in him (189) and he is unable to accomplish the deed.(45) Thus while male abuses of the letter have the potential to destroy the woman, they are finally denied any creative, productive potential, this being reserved to Marie's analogue in the tale. The young woman's final embrace of the young man in death perhaps best captures the essence of Marie's own ambivalent relation to the tradition within which she writes--a source both of textual creation and death on the part of writer and reader. (1.) All citations are from the edition of Jean Rychner (Paris: Champion, 1966) (Les Classiques francais du Moyen Age #93).
(2.) "Fresne" 517, "Guigemar" 884 and "Milun" 7.
(3.) Lines 23-30 of Rychner's text are absent from the Harley manuscript which is typically used as the basis for editions of Marie's texts. However, I agree with him (see his notes to this lai) that the additions he imports from the so called "S" manuscript are important, even vital additions for understanding the text at this point. This is why I have chosen to use his edition of the lads.
(4.) This parallel offers a powerful argument for the authenticity of the Pro, and for its intimate connection to the lads of the Harley manuscript, in contradistinction to suggestions that this is not the case, as in R. Baurn, Recherches sur les oeuvres attribuees a Marie de France (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1968) 32-41.
(5.) "Dual Natures and Subverted Glosses Marie de France's `Bisclavret'" Romance Notes 25,3 (1985) 288-301. In her emphasis on the abuse of the gloss for selfish reasons, and in her reading of this lai as an imbrication of the process of gloss in general, Freeman's reading is similar to my own. However, "Bisclavret" presents a process contrary to that found in "Deus amanz" since it is finally the publicized text and gloss which save the werewolf, whereas in the latter the opposite occurs.
(6.) One of the best and most recent readings of the autotelic character of this lai is that of Robert Sturges in Medieval Interpretation: Models of Reading in Literary Narrative 1100-1500 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1991) 84-6. The bibliography of Rychner's edition of the Lais cites several other articles on this lai which deal with the imbrication of the origin and transmission of the text into the text.
(7.) This is likewise the case with Michelle Freeman's reading of "Laustic" ("Marie de France's Poetics of Silence The Implications for a Feminine Translatio" PMLA 99,5  860-83) and also with R. Howard Bloch's reading of "Guigemar" ("The Medieval Text--"Guigemar"--as Provocation to the Discipline of Medieval Studies" Romanic Review 79,1  63-73).
(8.) Among ocher lads which do not name their characters, the generic appellation "Bisclavret" nevertheless functions grammatically as a proper name ar several points in the text. As mentioned already, "Chaitivel" is the appellation of a single character in the lai of that name. "Le Laustic"--the lai perhaps closest in spirit to the DA--is the only other one to lack named characters, though it does have a very specific named emblem.
I should also note that despite the unnamed characters of DA, the lai is geographically the best localized of the entire collection as Jeanne Wathelet-Willem has noted ("Un lai de Marie de France" in Melangers offerts a Rita Lejeune (Gembloux: Ed. Duculot, 1969) Vol. 11, 1143-58. This irony of geographic specificity and individual ambiguity could perhaps be compared to my general argument of this paper--that Marie's prologue simultaneously attempts to establish a very specific "authority" for the reading of the lads, yet also remains constantly aware of the impossibility of such specificity.
(9.) "Marie de France's Poetics of Silence."
(10.) See especially Jeanne Wathelet-Willem, "Un lai de Marie de France." In this lai in particular, Wathelet-Willem notes the much greater instigatory role of the young girl in comparison to the female role in Ovid's "Pyramus and Thisbe," which has often been noted as one important source for the DA.
(11.) See Jean-Charles Huchet, "Nom de femme et ecriture feminine au Moyen Age:Les Lais de Marie De France" Poetique 12,48 (1981) 407-30. He offers both an analysis of the death scene in "Deus amanz" in light of the Tristan legend, and more generally a reading of the Lais as a whole in conjunction with this legend. The bibliography to Rychner's edition of the Lais contains additional references to stud)" on the Tristan legend in Marie's texts.
(12.) For more on these connections, see Kristine Brightenback, "The Metamorphoses and Narrative Conjointure in "Deuz amanz," "Yonec" and "Le Laustic" Romanic Review, 72,1 (1981) 1-12. This connection is also discussed by Cesare Segre ("Piramo e Tisbe nei Lai de Maria de Francia" in Studi in onore de Vittorio Lugli e Diego Valeri, [Venezia, 1961] t.2, 845-53. Brightenback has also considered Marie's use of material from the Eneas ("Remarks on the `Prologue' to Matie de France's Lais" Romance Philology 30  168-77). The same paper contains references to important early studies by Edmond Faral and Ernst Hoepffner in a similar vein.
(13.) See especially Leo Spitzer, "The `Prologue' to the Lais of Marie de France and Medieval Poetics" Modern Philology 41 (1943-44) 96-102. He discusses the meaning of the term "philesophe" in the "Prologue" and shows its importance for linking Marie to a consecrated poetic tradition worthy of gloss. See also Jean-Claude Delclos, "Encore le prologue des lais de Marie de France" Le Moyen Age 90,2 (1984) 223-232 and Matilda Bruckner, Shaping Romance: Interpretation, Truth and Closure in Twelfth-Century French Fictions (Philadelphia: U. of Penn Press, 1993) 158-9.
(14.) For a similar reading of the necessity of obscurity, see Alexandre Leupin, "The Impossible Task of Manifesting `Literature': on Marie de France's Obscurity" Exemplaria 3,1 (1991) 221-42.
(15.) The lai of "Fresne" is one good example (49-53), but there are several places in the Lais where the vague outside murmur of "la gent" ("Equitan" 201) seems especially disquieting to certain characters, and initiates either crucial actions or decisive discoveries, as in "Equitan" 195-6, 201 or "Milun" 25-26. See also Guigemar 67-68 for its "chorus-like" commentary. (16.) Brewster E. Fitz, "The `Prologue' of Marie de France and the Parable of the Talents: Gloss and Monetary Metaphor" MLN 90 (1975) 558-64 and Leupin, "The Impossible Task."
(17.) Fitz, "The `Prologue'."
(18.) Leupin, "The Impossible Task."
(19.) Matthew 25: 14-29.
(20.) "Wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest." (Revised Standard Version)
(21.) Patrologiae Latinae, 76, 1106-1109.
(22.) Book III, section ii. R.W. Robertson Jr., ed. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958).
(23.) Wilifrid Strabo (ninth century) is actually the first to gloss usury in terms of usury itself. In his Glossa ordinaria (Patr. Lat. 113, 466-79), he glosses Deut. 15:6 "foenerabis" by the following: "Quasi: ditior eris omnibus gentibus. Ecclesia quoque abundat spiritalibus divitiis . . ." He is the first to dearly formulate a concept of spiritual "usury," as he explicitly compares the wealth gained from lending to "spiritalibus divitiis" ("spiritual wealth"). Then, on glossing Deut XXIII: 19, he invokes the Parable of the Talents: He notes that money must not be used for usury ("pecunia, quae ad usuram dari prohibetur"--"money, which it is prohibited to lend at interest"), but given freely to the poor ("Hanc Dominus habuit, et inde pauperibus erogandam tradidit"--"the money which the Lord had, he gave to the poor who requested it"). He then concludes, "Altera est quam ad usuram dare debemus"--"There are ocher things which we must lend at interest," and cites the key line of the Parable of the Talents (". . . ut ego veniens exigerem quod meum est cum usura.") Again, the reference to dhe parable is effectively a reference to "good works,--but once again, he explicitly allies these good works with the "altera" which properly should be considered usury. For the first time, the negation of economic usury (accomplished by the gloss) is itself expressed verbally in terms of that which is negated--usury.
(24.) For more of the differing attitudes in the Bible towards work, productivity, and humanity's relationship to the "resources" of God, see especially Barry Gordon, Economic Analysis Before Adam Smith (London: MacMillan, 1975) chapter 4.
(25.) For a partial series of references to this topos, see Tony Hunt, "Glossing Marie de France" Romanische Forschungen 86 (1974) 396-418, note no. 52.
(26.) See especially John Noonan, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge: Harvard, 1957); Gordon, Economic Analysis before Adam Smith; and Jacques Le Goff, Your Money or Your Life (New York: Zone Books, 1988).
(27.) See R.A. Shoaf, Dante, Chaucer and the Currency of the Word (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1983) for a discussion of the conceptual links between words and money in the Middle Ages.
(28.) Gordon, Economic Analysis before Adam Smith, 141.
(29.) See Patr. Lat. 171,779-783 and 186, 480-483 for example.
(30.) Here I follow Foulet and Uitti ("The `Prologue' to the Lais of Marie de France A Reconsideration" Romance Philology 35 (1981) 242-9) in reading "see" (v.16) as the meaning placed in the text by the original author, which is then unveiled by subsequent readers possessing the sufficient "sees" (v.20) to do so. "Lur sen" in v. 16 thus refers to that of the ancients.
(31.) "Putant aliqui usuram tantum esse in pecunia; sed intelligent usuram vocari superabundantiam, scilicet quidquid est si ab eo quod dederit plus est." Patr. Lat. 192 Liber sent. Book III, Dist 37, c.3.
(32.) Aquinas notes that money is fundamentally for the "measure" of things, and that its main use is for public "exchanges" (Summa Theologica II, II. q. 78, err. 1). For more on the concept of public utility, as it applied to both money and language, see Le Goff, Your Money or Your Life, esp. pp. 40-50. Hugh of St. Victor, in glossing the Parable of the Talents, stresses the importance that the usura ("multiplicatio" in his words) be accomplished "ad utilitatem alienam"--for the good of others). (Patr. Lat. 175, 800).
(33.) Having already mentioned the public, utilitarian view of the monetary sign (see note 31), it should be stressed that the equivalent linguistic sign was viewed in the same public, utilitarian fashion by many medieval moralists, and critiques of the jongleur are sometimes expressed in terms quite similar to those uses for the usurer. Peter Cantor writes of he jongleur: "There is no type of man in which some useful purpose is not found . . . except for this type of men, who are monsters, whom no virtue rescues from their vices." Patr. Lat. 205, 154.
(34.) She also describes him initially thusly: "De bien faire pur aveir pris/ sur tuz aurres s'est entremis"--to perform will in order to win honor he strove above all others (vv.59-60), which both captures his "demesure" and also echoes the authorial activity Marie evokes in the "Prologue," where she talks of "de aukune bone estoire faire"--making some good story (v.29) but states that this "ne me fust gaires de pris"--it was of little value to her/ would bring her little honor (v.31) because "altre"--others already "s'en sunt . . . entremis"--had taken up this task (v.32).
(35.) See Bloch, "The Medieval Text," for another discussion of the necessity of the gloss in Marie and especially the sexual and semiotic tensions which surround that act.
(36.) Spitzer, "The Prologue."
(37.) D.W. Robertson, Jr. "Marie de France, Lais, Prologue, 13-16" MLN 64 (1949) 336-38.
(38.) See especially Susan Johnson, "Christian Allusion and Divine Justice in `Yonec'" In Quest of Marie de France, Chantal A. Marechal, ed. (Lampeter, Wales Edwin Meller, 1992) 161-174 and in the same book Michelle Freeman's "The Changing Figure of the Male: the Revenge of the Female Storyteller" 243-261. (39.) See especially Bruckner, Shaping Romance, chapter 5.
(40.) "Guigemar" 1-18.
(41.) Tony Hunt, "Glossing Marie de France."
(42.) Tony Hunt suggests, rightly I believe, that at least part of the reference to obscurity in the Pro (v. 12) involves an evocation of Augustine's ideas on the intentional obscurity of the Bible, but labels the commingling of Augustine with Priscian a "lapse" (p. 418 of "Glossing Marie"). Rather, given the taste for enigma, ambiguity and obscurity which Hunt invokes for Marie early in his article, her conflation of the two seems likely to be anything but a mere lapse. For more on the general sexual and political stakes in Marie's conflation of sources and glosses, see Eva Rosenn, "The Sexual and Textual Politics of Marie's Poetics" in In Quest of Marie de France 225-242.
Another distinction which Marie refuses is the critical argument over whether vv. 9-16 invoke respect for her own endeavor, as is typically held recently (See Kristine Brightenback, "The Metamorphoses and Narrative Conjointure in Deux Amanz, Yonec and Le Laustic" Romantic Review 72,1 (1981) 1-12) or for Christian exegesis. The answer is both.
(43.) Denis Piramus, the author of a Life of St Edmund, and possibly a monk (See Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Joseph R. Strayer, ed. (New York: Scribners, 1989) Vol. 12, 415) wrote of a "Marie" who was most likely Marie de France that "lady Marie ... wrote in rhyme and composed the verses of the lais which are not at all true. And so is she much praised because of it and the rhyme loved everywhere; for all love it greatly and hold it dear--counts, barons, knights. And so they love the text ... and take pleasure in it." (Cited in Emanuel J. Mickel, Marie de France (New York: Twayne, 1974) 15.) Piramus' words reveal the heterogeneity of Marie's potential audience, and also stress tellingly the "love" of the "text" or "rhymes" which was so objectionable to medieval moralists. Such critiques tend to undermine the "optimistic" argument made by Hunt that Marie's reference to Priscian involved the evocation of the "essential continuity of cultural progress" ("Glossing Marie" 407).
(44.) For more on Marie's appropriation of other masculine discourses, se Eva Rosenn, "The Sexual and Textual Politics of Marie's Poetics."
(45.) The lack of "mesure" among the male characters of DA has been widely noted, but primarily as a question of emotional self-control. It seems rather that hermeneutic "mesure" is really more at issue. For a discussion of the "mesure" issue, se Wathelet-Willem, "Un lai de Marie de France."
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|Title Annotation:||Marie de France|
|Publication:||The Romanic Review|
|Date:||May 1, 1997|
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