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Since nearly the beginning of time, adultery has been thought of as morally wrong. Marriage, on the other hand, has been thought of as a sacred institution shared by most of the people and religions of the world. In the “Lais” written by Marie de France, we are given insight into the inner workings of five adulterous affairs, six pre-marital sexual encounters, and one instance of impure thoughts. Although Marie de France does not seem to condone adultery, she writes in a manner that allows the reader to feel possible sympathy with it, depending upon the situation. In fact, she seems to separate her lays into two categories. The first category consists of extenuating circumstances in which the reader is made (allowed) to feel empathy and compassion for the couple such as in “Yonec” and “Lanval.” The second category however seems to combine the ideas of sympathy and disdain. In this category belong only the lais of “Bisclaveret” and “Equitan.” Although the lais focus entirely on sex outside of marriage, the affairs that take place in these poems were often rewarded with various prizes that included children, wealth, healing, and loving marriages.
In the first lai, “Yonec” tells the seeming tragic tale of a beautiful young woman who is kept locked away in a castle by her rich and old husband. The poem tells us that “he kept her there more than seven years” (37), and that she was never allowed to come down not even “for a relative, not for a friend” (40). The young woman, who had no contact with anyone other than her husband’s sister, began to let herself go. “She lost her beauty, as a lady would” (48), when she no longer took care of herself. At this point in the lai, the readers feel ultimate sympathy for this unnamed woman. Although she is bound in a sacred marriage to a man, we look upon this situation as cruel and unjust. Our heart goes out to this woman. We first begin to feel sympathy for her when we are told she is married to an older man who keeps her locked away, but our sympathy deepens when we realize she is beginning to lose all hope. When we are told her beauty fades, our hearts are filled with not only sadness, but also a desire to see her made whole again. The lai continues with the woman lamenting her sorrows when she says “God, who have power over all, Please hear, please answer now my call” (62-63). These two lines set this lai apart from all...
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...rds the husband.
Overall, I believe that Marie de France does a wonderful job in creating the many poems in which the stories of true love and betrayal are told. I do not feel that she condones adultery in any way, but rather presents a situation and allows the reader to decide their thoughts and opinions for themselves. Perhaps it is the idea that such powerful and pure love exists that allows us to put aside our moral and values if only for a minute to accept the affairs that occur in these poems. The reader is allowed to feel sympathy and understanding for the couples in some lais while they feel disdain and contempt in others. Sympathy arises in the situations in which there are cruel or unusual circumstances, while contempt develops when mischief and evil are plotted. Overall, these poems provide us with insight into fairytale and nightmare like situations. One moment as we read, we as readers are hoping the couples end up together, while the next moment we are hoping for revenge. In the end, Marie de France’s lais take us on a wonderful journey that is filled with many exciting highs and disastrous lows. The lais were a pleasure to read and a joyous adventure to undertake.
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