Of Six Mediaeval Women (1913)/Marie de France


"Marie ai nom, si sui de France." Thus, more than seven centuries ago, wrote Marie de France. What an unpretentious autobiography! Yet these few simple words, which seem to tell so little, but in reality suggest so much, are the counterpart of her work, and form its fitting crown.

But who was this modest writer, and why does her work interest us to-day? Around Marie de France there must always remain an atmosphere of doubt and mystery, since she is only mentioned by an anonymous thirteenth-century poet, and by one of her contemporaries—an Anglo-Norman poet, Denys Pyramus by name—who speaks of her in the most flattering terms, and from whom we learn that her lays were much appreciated by the noblesse, especially the ladies. That these should take rare delight in them may well be, seeing how monotonous life must have been to many a woman shut up with her maidens and her needlework in a dismal castle or perhaps in but one tower of it, whilst her lord went forth to the chase or to war, his home-coming meaning merely the wine-cup and war-songs, or tedious epic. Many a one must have read or listened to Marie's love idylls, and longed, and perhaps even hoped, as in the story of "Yonec," that a fair and gentle knight, in the form of some beautiful bird, might fly in at her window and bring her some diversion from the outside world. With nothing before us but her own poems and the scant recognition of Denys Pyramus, she seems like some old portrait in which the delicate pigments that once glowed in the face and made it live have, owing to their very delicacy, long since faded away, leaving behind only the stronger and less volatile colours of the dark background from which we in vain try to wrest more than one or two fragments of the secret it holds.

Judging from internal evidence, it would seem that Marie was born in Normandy, about the middle of the twelfth century, but settled in England, where since the Conquest, and indeed since the time of Edward the Confessor, many Norman families had made their home. Not only does she make occasional use of English words, and translate from English into French the fables known as Æsop's, but in the prologue to her Lays, which she dedicates to "the noble King," generally considered to be Henry the Second, she expresses fear lest her work should not find favour in a foreign land. In this prologue she also gives her reason for abandoning classical translation, which, as a Latin scholar, she had contemplated making, not only for the use of the less learned, but also, as she tells us, for personal discipline, since "he who would keep himself from sin, should study and learn and undertake difficult tasks. In suchwise he may the more withdraw him and save himself from much sorrow." The twelfth century was a time of extraordinary intellectual activity, and Marie tells us that she suffered from what we are apt to regard as a special evil of our own day the—overcrowding of the literary market. So she wisely turned aside from the Classics and the crowd, and set herself to give literary expression to the old Celtic folk-lore, hitherto perhaps unrecorded save in song.

Of Marie's work that has come down to us we have The Fables, already mentioned, dedicated to Count William, surnamed Longsword, and son of Henry the Second and Fair Rosamond;[1] The Lays, dedicated to the king, Henry the Second, and doubtless read by Fair Rosamond in her retreat at Woodstock; and The Purgatory of St. Patrick, translated from the Latin at the request of an anonymous benefactor. Of these only The Lays need here concern us, as it is in them that our interest lies, since they are perhaps among the first stories, given literary form, which tell of love "for love's sake only,"—love unqualified and unquestioning. They form, perhaps, the only collection of lays now extant, and it is to them, therefore, that we must turn to get some idea of the style of narration that gradually replaced the taste for the epic as Norman influence grew and spread in England. Beside the sensualism of the Chansons de Geste, the sentiment expressed in them may seem naïve; beside the gallantry of the Provençal poetry, it may seem primitive; but nevertheless it is, in its very simplicity, the profoundest note that can be struck in this world of men and women. Marie makes no pretence to originality, but even if she did not possess the supreme gift of creating beauty, she at least possessed the lesser gift of perceiving it where it existed and of making it her own, and her stories glow with colour, and enchant by their simple yet dramatic appeal to the imagination. She declares that The Lays were made "for remembrance" by "Le ancien Bretun curteis," and that "Folks tell them to the harp and the rote, and the music is sweet to hear." Doubtless it was this sweet music which both soothed and thrilled even before the words were understood, for on sad and festive days alike, the sweet lays of Brittany were always to be heard.

La reine chante doucement,
La voiz acorde a l'estrument:
Les mains sont belles, li lais bons,
Douce la voiz et bas li tons.

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Photo. Macbeth.


Add. MS. 38117, Brit. Mus.

To face page 32.

Whether Marie was connected with the Court of Henry the Second and his brilliant and artistic queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, where learned men and poets congregated, we do not know, but it seems a very fair conjecture that she was. Not only does she dedicate her principal work to the king and his son, Count William, but her stories are coloured with the courtly life and ideas of her time, notwithstanding the simplicity of the fundamental theme. It is doubtful whether any one unacquainted with the teaching of the Courts of Love, such as they were in the twelfth century, would have made the compulsory quest of love the keynote of a story, as, for instance, Marie does in the "Lay of Guigemar." These Courts of Love, though not so elaborate, yet seemingly as imperious, as those of the fourteenth century, formed one of the semi-serious pastimes of the Middle Ages, and although it may be that they were often mere forms of entertainment, no self-respecting person could afford to disregard their rules or decisions. The cardinal doctrine was that love was necessary to a man's moral, social, and aesthetic training. Hence if it did not arise of itself, it must be sought for, and, like its counterpart in the spiritual world, come at, if needs be, through much tribulation.

Owing to Henry's possessions in France through inheritance, marriage, and the many ties of relationship which united the royal families of both countries, England and France were never more closely allied than they were at that time. French was established by them as the speech of the cultured and the high-born. The Norman Conquest had made us more cosmopolitan in both manners and ideas. May we not look on the victory at Hastings as a symbol as well as a reality? Did it not mean for us a spiritual as well as a material conquest, since, mingled with the clashing of battle-axes, was to be heard the chanting of the Chanson de Roland? Moreover, through a desire to bring about uniformity of sentiment and service, the Church, though perhaps unconsciously, aided this good work of general enlargement of outlook by appointing outsiders to control our abbeys and religious foundations. Thus, in the latter half of the twelfth century, the romantic movement which characterised late mediæval literature stirred in England and France alike, and Marie was one of its truest and daintiest exponents. Although what she relates may be fiction intermingled with myth and magic, she all the same pictures on her somewhat small canvases the ideas of her time, and so helps to make history.

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Photo. Macbeth.

Add. MS. 10293, Brit. Mus.

To face page 34.

Marie's readers and hearers were naturally to be found amongst castle-folk. That these were many we may conclude from the fact that the number of castles had already come to be regarded as a menace to the central government, and a royal command had gone forth for the demolition of many of them. That her stories were read and prized for at least a century and more is evident from the manuscripts—five in number, and all of the thirteenth, or the beginning of the fourteenth, century—which still exist. Her renown, too, had travelled even beyond the seas, for in about a.d. 1245 a translation of her lays into Norse was made by order of the king, Haakon the Fourth. The fact that their popularity began to wane after a hundred years or so is in no wise an adverse criticism of their intrinsic worth, for in the fourteenth century English was, in high places, beginning to take the place of French, and naturally the demand created a supply. But even if this had not been so, Marie's work had served its purpose, and of necessity passed into the crucible of human thought and expression, to be resolved into matter suited to other needs and conditions. As has been well said, "les siècles se succèdent, et chacun porte son fruit, qui n'est pas celui du siècle précédent: les livres sont les fruits des mœurs."

Of the five manuscripts still extant, two are in the British Museum. One of these is the most complete that has come down to us, seeing that, in addition to its including the largest number of lays—twelve in all,—it alone contains the prologue, in which for a moment the illusive Marie lifts, as it were, her all-enshrouding veil. It is a small manuscript, beautifully inscribed, and even after its seven hundred years of existence, as fresh as is the love enshrined in its parchment pages. How strange a feeling possesses us as we turn over its leaves, leaves across which the shadows of readers of bygone days still seem to flit! Could these pages speak, of what would they tell? Of desires that die not, of longings that are immortal, of love enthroned.

When first read, these stories, so simply are they told, may seem somewhat slight and superficial. But this is the general characteristic of mediaeval literature, which, for the most part, recognised things in outline only, and sought, and perhaps possessed, but little knowledge of the hidden springs of motive. The writers of those times troubled as little about moral, as the early painters did about physical, anatomy. Still, in spite of this indifference to what has become almost a craze in our own day, Marie's lays are so full of charming detail, deftly handled, that they give much the same sense of delight as do delicate ivories or dainty embroidery. Sometimes, it is true, she scarcely, despite all this outward charm, seems to touch the world of fact. Yet in this ideal atmosphere which she so essentially made her own, she contrives to convey such a sense of reality, that for the moment we are wholly possessed by it and carried away, without questioning, into her fairyland. And a beautiful fairyland it is, where love triumphs for the most part, not in heedless ecstasy along flower-bestrewn ways, but through self-sacrifice and suffering mutually accepted and mutually endured. Listen to the words spoken to the knight Guigemar, wounded by a chance arrow as he rides through a wood. "Never shalt thou be healed of thy wound, not even by herb, or root, or leach, or potion, until thou art healed by her who, for love of thee, shall suffer such great pain and sorrow as never woman has suffered before: and thou shalt bear as much for her." Equality in love! Such is the vital note struck amid the artificial and soul-enfeebling atmosphere of mediæval love-poetry! This is the note which Marie set ringing down the centuries whilst her manuscripts lay unused on library shelves. This is Marie's gift to the world, and this it is that gives her stories immortality. Not only do they possess this immortality in themselves, but they have also been immortalised by poets and writers both in days long past and in those more within our ken. All who know her stories will recall Chaucer's indebtedness to incidents and descriptions in them, and coming to our own time, we find Sir Walter Scott taking his ballad of "Lord Thomas and Fair Annie" from the lay of "The Ash Tree," although it is possible, as has been suggested,[2] that his ballad may have been founded on some Scotch folk-song having a common origin with Marie's lay. When her lays were first published in Germany in 1820, Goethe wrote thus: "The mist of years that mysteriously envelops Marie de France makes her poems more exquisite and precious to us." Yes, it is this all-pervading mystery which, though so tantalising, is yet so attractive. It is in vain that, in studying them, we try to penetrate somewhat beyond our normal atmosphere, for we only find ourselves lost in vague possibilities and hazy distances. Brittany has kept her secret concerning such of these lays as were hers just as jealously as she has kept her secret of the long avenues of great lichened stones which make Carnac look like the burial-place of some giant host. Marie's lays are stories of deep meaning, which each reader must interpret for himself.

It is impossible to do more here than just touch upon Marie's ideal conception of love, for to realise it fully it is necessary to read the stories themselves.[3] Allusion has been made to the wounded knight in the "Lay of Guigemar," who can only be healed through mutual love sanctified by mutual suffering. In the lay of "The Ash Tree" a maiden of noble birth, abandoned in infancy and brought up in a convent, is loved by a lord, and returns his love, and goes with him to his castle. After a time the knights who owe him fealty complain that as through his love for his mistress he has neither wife nor child, he does them wrong, and protest that if he does not wed some noble lady, they will no longer serve him or hold him for lord. The knight has to yield to their demands and to consent to accept in marriage the daughter of a neighbouring noble who had made it known that he desired him for son-in-law. Neither lover utters any complaint or reproach, and the needful sacrifice is about to be made. But fortune, sometimes kind, intervenes ere it is too late, and reveals the noble birth of the loved one. The knight weds her with great joy, and to complete this happy picture we read that the other lady returned with her parents to her own domain, and was there well bestowed in marriage.

This idea of mutual sympathy and sacrifice gives meaning also to the lay of "The Two Lovers," and to that of "Yonec," but perhaps it is most simply, yet forcibly, summed up in the lay of "The Honeysuckle," an episode taken from the Tristan story. Tristan, hearing that Isolde is to ride through a certain wood on her way to Tintagel to attend the Pentecostal Court held by the King, hides in the wood. Here he cuts a branch of hazel round which honeysuckle has twined, and carving his name and certain letters on it, he lays it in the way by which the Queen must pass, knowing that she will recognise it as a sign that her lover is near, since they have met before in suchwise. The import of the writing is that he has long been waiting to see her, since without her he cannot live, and that they two are like the hazel branch with the encircling honeysuckle, the which, as long as they are intertwined, thrive, but as soon as they are separated, both perish. Says Tristan, "Sweet Love, so is it with us—nor you without me, nor I without you."

But besides this conception of love which Marie had simply found awaiting expression, when we turn to examine the stories somewhat in detail, we find legend and poetry, Eastern magic and Christian symbolism, mingled with strange ingenuity. Whence came all these divers threads which Marie has so dexterously interwoven? It is very difficult to tell whether we are wholly in a world of romance, accepted by her without question, or whether she had some understanding of the divers matters she touches upon, and shaped them into a new form to suit new hearers. The answer to this question seems to depend on whether Marie recounted the lays from hearsay, or whether they had been already written down, and were merely retold by her, she colouring them with the atmosphere of her time, which was charged with strange incongruities of religion and magic. To this we can give no certain answer, since Marie herself gives no hint, and only tells us that the ancient Bretons made the lays. But whatever may have been her contribution, Christian or otherwise, to the original matter she worked upon, we cannot help feeling that we have before us the remains of some primitive mythology overlaid and interpenetrated with Eastern lore, especially that of India, which, in the Middle Ages, was spread broadcast in the West. This Indian thought, itself borrowed in a measure from Egypt, had also been tempered by the Hellenism which, after the conquests of Alexander the Great in Asia, had filtered through India, and had on the way become tinged with its colour and its mystery. It was from the matter of these Indian stories that so much was learnt, for whilst, in the West, the national epic and the chivalrous romance had been alone considered worthy of record, in the Indian stories all social conditions were revealed, and poets thus learnt little by little to observe and portray the manners and sentiments of the people generally, changing social conditions also acting in the same direction. All such influences must be taken into consideration in studying mediæval literature generally, but particularly the occult element in Oriental thought which presents such difficulties to the less meditative Western mind, and has in consequence given rise to much misconception.

In the "Lay of Guigemar," which we take first because it is the first in the manuscript, we find Marie making use of a subject, in gorgeous setting, of Christian symbolism, but using it apparently so unconsciously that it is only from one or two details that we realise what is really lurking in disguise. Guigemar, the wounded knight already referred to, to whom naught but love, and sorrow endured for love, can bring any alleviation, sets forth for his healing. He comes across a ship into which he enters, and which by unseen means carries him to the desired haven. As we read the description of the ship, our thoughts at once revert to the picture of the barge in which Cleopatra goes to meet Antony. Marie tells us that the fittings are of ebony, and the unfurled sail of silk. Amid the vessel is a bed on to which the wounded knight sinks in anguish. This is of cypress and white ivory inlaid with gold, the quilt of silk and gold tissue, and the coverlet of sable lined with Alexandrian purple.[4] All this we might regard as merely a poet's fancy were it not that we go on to read that there were set two candlesticks of fine gold with lighted tapers. Here we have the clue. Doubtless the ship, a favourite theme of Christian symbolism, and one which delighted poets and painters and workers in mosaic alike, represented the Church. It is not to be necessarily inferred that Marie, when giving her hero so rare a means of transit, had in her mind all the elaborate symbolism connected with it; but she had probably read or heard tell of it, and made use of it simply for the enhancement of her story. It is in such ways that we find mysteries embedded, the real significance of them being lost or misunderstood or unheeded, just as the Renaissance painters, without any knowledge of Arabic characters, and solely on account of the ornamental quality of the lettering, used texts from the Koran, and distorted into mere design the sayings of Mahomet.

In the lay of "The Two Lovers" we again find Christian symbolism in disguise. Here is the old theme of a difficult task to be accomplished by the lover before he can win his lady.[5] The undertaking imposed is the carrying of the loved one to the top of a hill, and our interest in it is enhanced by the fact that the trial was to be made near Pitres, a few miles from Rouen, where there is a green hill, still known as "La Côte des Deux Amans." In Rouen there lived a king who had an only daughter, very fair and beautiful, whose hand was sought in marriage of many. Loath to part with her, he bethought him how he could thwart her suitors. To this end he caused it to be proclaimed far and wide that he would have for son-in-law only him who could carry his daughter to the top of the hill without pausing to rest. Many came, but each in turn failed, greatly to the content of the princess, since secretly she loved, and was loved by, a young knight who frequented her father's Court. At last, constrained by love, the knight, though with much misgiving, determines to undertake the adventure. Before allowing him to do this, the maiden, in order to ensure his success, and herself fasting meanwhile, bids him go to Salerno,[6] near Naples, a school of medicine famous in the Middle Ages, and ask of her kinswoman there, who was well practised in medicine, a draught to give him the needful strength for his task. Returned with this potion, he makes the attempt, but so great is his desire to reach the goal quickly, that he will not slacken his speed to drink from the phial carried by his Love, but hastens forward, only to fall dead as he reaches the summit of the hill.

In this strength-giving potion we may perhaps see the expression of a Christian, and the survival of a pre-Christian belief, where the getting of strength and life is only possible through a direct act of communion, either material or spiritual, with the god. Such world-old beliefs, in which the supernatural intervenes to help the natural, are also intimately connected, even if they are not identical, with the magic of philtres and charms.

We pass from Christian symbolism to magic in the lay of "Yonec." The delightful ease with which mediæval folk turned from magic to religion, or vice versa, shows how simply they accepted what they did not understand. At the same time it proves how intermingled the two were, and that what some are inclined to separate now, were once regarded as one and the same thing, the eccentricities and impositions which have developed in both being of mere external growth, and to be treated accordingly. In the lay of "Yonec" a young wife, passing fair, is shut up by her jealous old husband in a great paved chamber in a tower of his castle, to which no one save an ancient dame and a priest has admittance. After seven years of this isolation and uncongenial company, the lady remembers that she has heard tell that means have been found to rescue the unhappy, and she wishes with all her heart that deliverance may come to her. Suddenly a shadow comes across the window, and into her chamber there flies a falcon, which forthwith changes into a knight. As soon as the lady has recovered from her surprise, the knight tells her that he has long loved her, but could not come until she wished for him. Here we have an incident, borrowed direct from Oriental magic, in which a modern believer in psychical phenomena might find an element of telepathy. The will, as in all magic, is the motive power which acts sympathetically on the object of desire, that object being in a receptive condition. Quickly we turn from magic, and the story goes on to tell that the lady, before accepting the knight as her lover, makes it a condition that he believes in God, and the knight offers to prove his belief by taking the Sacrament. This demand is evidently in the nature of a protective test. It was very usual to try some means of discovering whether a person was in league with the powers of evil or not; for if any one unworthy touched holy things, retribution came at once, either by death or some dire visitation. But how is the priest to administer the Sacrament without seeing the knight? The latter tells her that he will make himself like her in appearance; in other words, that he will hypnotise the priest, and make him see what he, the knight, wishes him to. The ruse succeeds, and for a time all goes well; then comes discovery, despair, and death. The whole story is a most extraordinary medley of fairy-lore, religion, and magic, and most characteristic of the mediæval mind.

The lay of "Eliduc," the last in the manuscript, is also the longest and most elaborate. Marie unfolds her story with so certain yet so subtle a hand, that the reading of it is like the unwinding of some finely illuminated parchment-roll where miniature follows miniature, each perfect in itself, yet all needful to the whole. To the charm of its pictures of mediæval life, with the fine scene between the two women, and their final reunion in the same convent, there is added an incident which gives special interest and importance to the story, since it brings us into touch with one of the oldest and most widespread of traditions—the restoration to life, from apparent death, by means of a flower. There are few pursuits more fascinating than the tracing of traditions, except, it may be, that of symbols, with which they have so much in common. We find the same traditions, just as we find the same symbolic figures, common to the most widely separated peoples, and the real interest in the case of each lies in trying to discover how and why in the course of their migrations their form and their significance have been varied or modified. But before considering the tradition, let us first hear the story.

Eliduc, a knight of Brittany, whose wife, Guildeluëc, was very dear to him, had for overlord one of the kings of Brittany, with whom, owing to faithful service, he had gained high favour. Being defamed on this account by envious tongues, he was banished from Court, and thereupon determined to quit his country for a while and seek service in the West of England. With many promises to his wife to be faithful to her, he set out for Totnes, where he found many kings ruling in the land, all at war with one another. One of them, a very old man, was ruler in the province of Exeter, and at war with a neighbouring king on account of his refusal to give to the latter his daughter, Guilliadun, in marriage. So Eliduc determined to offer his services to the old king, by whom they were accepted, and by his tact and prowess he soon proved himself worthy of the trust reposed in him. Through a skilful ambush, planned and conducted by him, he defeated the enemy. Guilliadun, hearing of his deeds, sought an interview with him, and at once fell in love with him, and after certain maidenly reserve and hesitation, made her love known to him. This Eliduc secretly returned, but, troubled at the remembrance of his wife and of his pledge to her, his courage failed him to confess that he was already wedded. In order to escape from his dilemma, he sought and obtained the permission of the old king to avail himself of the entreaty of his liege-lord to return to his own country to fight against the enemies who were desolating the kingdom. This permission was granted under his promise to come back if his services were again required. After pledging himself to Guilliadun to do this on such a day

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Photo. Macbeth.


Add. MS. 10294, Brit. Mus.

To face page 49.

as she should name, Eliduc, having exchanged rings with her, and she having named the day for his return, departed. Having speedily reduced the enemies of his liege-lord to submission, he came once more to England, and immediately sent to Guilliadun to apprise her of this, and to beg her to be ready to start on the morrow. Guilliadun secretly left the castle the next night and joined her lover, and together they hurried to Totnes, whence they at once set sail. But as they were nearing land, a violent storm arose. Finding that prayers were of no avail, one of the company cried out, "We shall never make the land, for you have a lawful wife, and you are taking with you another woman, setting at naught God, the law, and uprightness. Let us cast her into the sea, and anon we shall get to land." On hearing these words Guilliadun fell as one dead, whereupon Eliduc in anger struck the esquire on the head and hurled him into the sea. When the ship was brought to port Guilliadun showed no sign of life. So Eliduc, believing her to be dead, lifted her in his arms, carried her ashore, and, mounting his horse, sadly bore her to a small chapel in a forest adjoining his own lands. Here he laid her in front of the altar, and covered her with his cloak, and then returned to his home. Filled with sadness, he arose early each morning and went to the chapel to pray for her soul, marvelling nevertheless to find that the face of his Love suffered no change except to become a little paler. His wife, made anxious by his melancholy and silence, and wondering whither he went, had him watched, and soon discovered the truth. Taking a varlet with her, she went to the chapel, and there discovered the beautiful maiden, looking like a new-blown rose, and at once guessed the cause of her husband's sadness and gloom. As she sat watching and weeping out of sheer pity, a weasel ran from behind the altar and passed over the body of Guilliadun, and the varlet struck it with a stick and killed it. Then its mate came in and walked round it several times, and finding that it could not rouse it, made sign of great sorrow and ran out into the wood, and returning with a red flower between its teeth put it into the mouth of its dead companion, which within an hour came to life again. Guildeluëc, seeing this, seized the flower and laid it in the mouth of the maiden, who after a short time sighed and opened her eyes. Then she told Guildeluëc that she was a king's daughter, and had been deceived by a knight called Eliduc, whom she loved, and who returned her love, but who had hidden from her that he was already married. Guildeluëc thereupon made known to her who she was, and sent at once for her husband. When he came, she begged him to build a nunnery, and to allow her to retire from the world, as she would fain give herself to the service of God. When the nunnery was ready, Guildeluëc took the veil, with some thirty nuns, of whom she became the Superior. Then Eliduc wedded his love, and after some years of happiness they too resolved to retire from the world, Guilliadun joining Guildeluëc, who received her as a sister, and Eliduc going to a monastery which he had founded near by.[7]

In this charming romance, given here in epitome only, the two most interesting points, after noting the mutual suffering of the lovers for love's sake, are the episode of the sacrifice to the sea, and that of the weasel and the life-giving flower. Both these incidents point to the great antiquity of the fundamental theme of the story, which Marie, possibly like many another before her, merely reclothed in garments suited to the fancy of the time. In most stories where the sea has to be appeased by the sacrifice of some one, it is the guilty person who is thrown overboard, or if the offender is not known, lots are cast to determine who shall be the one to make expiation to the god. In the present instance Eliduc is clearly the wrong-doer, but he is the hero, and must be treated as such, and accordingly the hostile voice is the one to be silenced in the depths of the sea.

The other incident—the restoration to life by means of a flower or a herb—frequently occurs in classical stories and folk-lore.[8] Perhaps the most familiar example, and, owing to the recent excavations in Crete, the most interesting one, is that connected with Glaucos, son of Minos, king of Crete. In the story (Apollod. iii. 3) Glaucos when a boy fell into a cask of honey and was smothered. His father, ignorant of his fate, consulted the oracle to ascertain what had become of him, and the seer Polyeidos of Argos was named to discover him. When he had found him, Minos shut Polyeidos up in the tomb with the dead body of the boy until he should restore the latter to life. Whilst Polyeidos was watching the body, a serpent suddenly came towards it and touched it. Polyeidos killed the serpent, and immediately a second one came, which, seeing the other one lying dead, disappeared and soon returned with a certain herb in its mouth. This it laid on the mouth of the dead serpent, which immediately came to life again. Polyeidos seized the herb and placed it on the mouth of the dead boy, who was thereupon restored to life.

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Photo. Macbeth.


Greek Vase, Brit. Mus.

To face page 52.

This story is most graphically depicted on a fifth-century Greek vase in the British Museum, and, whatever its real interpretation may be, it has gained in significance since the life of the distant past of the island has been laid bare, and large jars, which in all probability were used for storing wine and honey and other necessaries, and from their size and contents might well have proved a snare to a venturesome and greedy boy, have been discovered in situ. After a lapse of many centuries we find this idea of the life-giving plant reappearing in mediæval garb, daintily fashioned by Marie de France.

Marie, in her story, tells us that the weasel brings a red flower. This was possibly the verbena, well known in folk-medicine as vervain, and much used in the Middle Ages. According to one writer, the weasel uses vervain as a preservative against snake-bites, and this idea of its effect might easily have been extended to include death. Even so great an authority as Aristotle mentions that the weasel understood the potent effects of certain herbs. The intervention of a weasel instead of the usual serpent opens up the further interesting question as to whether this weasel incident was not imported from India, where Greek stories had become alloyed with Indian lore. Even to-day, in India, a mongoose, a species of weasel, is sometimes taken on expeditions by any one fearful of snakes, and kept at night in the tent as a protection against them.

In addition to the choice of a weasel as medium, the unusual colour of the flower is also of interest. Giraldus Cambrensis, writing in the twelfth century on the subject of weasels, after remarking that they have more heart than body (plus cordis habens quam corporis), goes on to say that they restore their dead by means of a yellow flower, and in the still earlier record of the Lydian hero Tylon, where a serpent is the intermediary—and serpents are often credited with a knowledge of life-giving plants,—reference is made to a golden flower.[9] This may possibly be connected with the idea of the life-giving power of the god, since the golden flower is dedicated to Zeus. Professor J. G. Frazer thinks that a red flower may perhaps have been chosen to suggest a flow of blood—an infusion of fresh life into the veins of the dead. It is also possible that red and yellow may have been interchangeable terms, just as they are to-day amongst the Italian peasantry. The choice of colour may, however, have been derived from the red anemone, which is said to have sprung from the blood of Adonis, with whom love and life are traditionally associated. There are some, on the other hand, who ascribe to the story a deep spiritual meaning. With them it is not the flower itself which brings about resurrection from apparent death, but the spiritual truth of which the flower is but the outward symbol. It may be that the red blossom represents the joys of earth which Eliduc's wife voluntarily renounces, and which, surrendered to her rival, in time became like a burning thing whose fiery touch awakens to life the sleeping conscience. In a story such as this, which has evidently travelled far and wide before we find it in England in the eleventh century, it is possible that any or all of these surmises may be true. The whole of this incident of the weasel and the flower, read in the original, is of extraordinary interest and beauty. What a touching picture of animal sensibility is the account of the despair of the weasel on finding its dead mate, and its tender display of solicitude and sympathy, raising the lifeless head and trying to reanimate the small inert body! Only one who loved animals and knew their habits well could have told thus tenderly and graphically a story so simple, yet so suggestive, of the love of two sentient things, a love which runs like a thread of gold through all creation and makes it one.

The twelfth century was an age of humanism as well as feudalism. As often happens in times of comparative peace, a growth of interest in the individual was springing up and finding expression in lyric poetry and stories. The day of epics was waning. Those vast and involved poems, like to huge and complex frescoes, found little favour at a time when men and women, or at least women, had more leisure and inclination to try to get below the surface of things. Heroes had been glorified till they had almost become deified, and something more personal, more individual, was wanted. By the side of modern romance, where the most sacred and secret intricacies of human nature are, as it were, displayed under the microscope, Marie's narrations may seem somewhat artless. But in putting into words the dawning desires of her time she gave form and impetus to feeling and thought struggling for expression, and gained for her work a definite place in the development of human utterance. Evolution, whether of the spirit or of matter, is the supreme law of things. Marie struck a spark from the ideal which poets and writers down the ages have fanned into a flame.

  1. Marie thus refers to Count William:—

    "Pur amur le cumte Willaume,
    Le plus vaillant de cest royaume,
    M'entremis de cest livre feire,
    E de l'Angleiz en Roman treire."

  2. Warnke. Die lais der Marie de France, p. lxiii.
  3. Marie de France, Seven of her Lays, trans. E. Rickert, 1901; Warnke, Die lais der Marie de France, Halle, 1885; Hertz, Spielmannsbuch, 1905.
  4. Compare with this the bed of "King Fisherman" described in Holy Grail, vol. i. p. 137, trans. Sebastian Evans, 1898.
  5. Hertz, op. cit. p. 396.
  6. This mention of Salerno is of interest on account of the reference to women practising there as medical experts. The origin of the School remains in obscurity, and it is not until the ninth century, when the names of certain Salerno physicians appear in the archives, that we get any definite information with regard to it. It seems to have been a purely secular institution, but it is quite possible that its development was aided by the Benedictines, who became established there in the seventh century, and who made medical science one of their principal studies. Before the middle of the eleventh century there were many women there who either practised medicine or acted as professors of the science, and some of the latter even combined surgery with medicine in their teaching and treatises. These women doctors were much sought after by the sick, and were much esteemed by their brother-professionals, who cited them as authorities. That the sexes were on an equal footing we infer from the fact that the title of "master" (Magister) was applied to men and women alike, the term "doctor" not having come into use, apparently, before the thirteenth century. Besides the general practitioners and the professors, there were others who fitted themselves specially for military service, as well as priests who added medical knowledge to their holy calling. The teaching followed that of Hippocrates and Galen, and the Salerno school was world-renowned in the art of drug preparation. In the thirteenth century, however, Arab medical writings began to be known in Europe through Latin translations, and Arab practice in medicine, though based on Greek teaching, initiated a new departure. As a result of this, the glory of Salerno waned. Another cause of its decline in fame and popularity was the founding by the Emperor Frederick the Second of a school of medicine at Naples, which he richly endowed, and the rise, unencumbered by old traditions—for medicine, like scholasticism, could be hampered by dialectical subtlety—of the school of Montpelier.
  7. M. Gaston Paris (Poésie du Moyen Age, vol. ii.), in recalling various legends of "Le Mari aux deux femmes," suggests that the present story, borrowed by Marie from Celtic tradition, is probably of Occidental, and not Oriental, origin, since in the polygamous East the story of two wives would not have furnished a sufficient motive for a special narration.
  8. Warnke, op. cit. civ.; Hertz, op. cit. p. 409.
  9. J. G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, p. 98.