Marie de France: "Lanval" and "Bisclavet" -- the irreconcilable tensions of the public and private demands of marriage

Many of the lais of Marie de France seem like fairy tales because of their use of supernatural symbolism and metaphor. However, these narrative poems contain profound revelations of the tensions inherent to the marital bond because of the irreconcilable nature of the public and private aspects of marriage. Marriage is a private bond between two people, but it is also a public union with economic and social consequences. Marie's lais touch upon the common fears of marriage such as the difficulty harmonizing homosocial friendships and love, the unknowable nature of one's partner and his or her past, and the need for love to satisfy the personal and public demands of the individual. The tension between public and private was an especially great concern in Marie's day because arranged marriages were the norm. Courtly love idealized love outside of marriage and male bonding on the battlefield, although marriage between a man and a woman alone was the most sacred, indissoluble bond in the eyes of God.

In "Lanval" these tension-laden cultural concepts are expressed through the symbolic metaphor of invisibility of the title protagonist's wife. At first, overcome with beauty and desire, the knight Lanval make a foolish claim. He assumes that his wife's "beauty," will be enough to sustain a marriage, outside of visible social bonds. "If it please you, / and this great joy should befall/Me, that you grant your love, / I'll be at your beck and call, / to fulfill whatever needs you/Have, wise or foolish -- you are above/Me, my only commandant. / All others for you I abandon. / From you I never want to part:/That hope is strongest in my heart." He gives up all other women, as a man is supposed to in marriage, but also gives up all obligations of the wife to obey him, as he only vows to obey her, and even forswears his primary duty to obey his king, as he is now primarily a woman's beck and call.

Essentially, Lanval assumes he can enjoy the lady outside social constructions of visibility, for he thoughtlessly agrees to the woman's terms: "If this love is known, ever, / Never again of me you'll catch sight;/as for my body, you lose any right...No man but you will see me when / I'm with you, or hear my words then." (p.4) in short, according to this lady's bargain, physicality and intimacy are relegated to the private sphere of affection, not the public sphere. The story of "Lanval" raises the question -- can marriage be constructed outside of social ties, and does beauty even exist if a marriage is not validated by homosocial bonds, as well as by heterosexual intimacy? The lady's bargain creates the appearance of homosexual intimacy later in the poem, as explicitly versed by the queen, who hurt that Lanval has rejected her advances: "women offer you no pleasure -- /With a few well-schooled young men/You prefer to pass your leisure." (p.8)

Thus, the resounding answer the lais provides is no -- it is impossible to simply enjoy a private match, and ignore the demands of society that a marriage be publicly recognized and still dwell in society. "Lanval" takes place in the court of King Arthur, where relationships between male warriors and illicit affairs that motivate public conquest for courtly love are both equally important, if not more so, than the private ties between married men and women. In fact, the convention of courtly love and chivalry are based upon a bond that cannot be consummated, unlike a marriage, although it drives the knight Lanval on a quest in the name of his beloved lady and encourages him to prove his valor before the world and his fellows in a public fashion. The ethos of chivalry, to win glory for one's name by saving a woman other than one's wife, is what drove Lanval to help the two ladies at the beginning of the lais in the first place, despite his distress over his financial situation. Then, the riches of the woman attract him, as the lady's pavilion, is so ornate even the King of Babylon "couldn't have paid for one tent-flap," of the structure. (p.3)

This initial psychological insight into how Lanval sees the world (through the guise of money) clues the reader that although he might forget his horse in a moment of concern for the women who approach him seeking aid, economics and marriage are never entirely separated in the mind of the knight, or in the terms of marriage negotiation. Lanval takes impulsive delight in both the woman's physical and monetary beauty and generosity, thinking that he has found a lady who will satisfy the two apparent demands of a good marriage -- sexual and financial satisfaction. This is a marriage of love in the fullest sense, as Lanval loves both women and money above all things. However, the young, impulsive man temporarily forgets the need for the social approbation of his fellow knights in marriage. After leaving this invisible woman, Lanval is immediately filled with a sense of depression, and though he tries to cheer himself with revelry at his hotel, he cannot fully explain why he has had such a marvelous afternoon, which inhibits the joy he feels: "That night he holds a jolly feast, / but where it comes from, no-one has the least/Idea." (p.6) Being unable to talk about the source of his pleasure with others, specifically other males, curtails the experience of sexual and financial pleasure. The feast might as well not exist, as no one knows the source, and it give Lanval no additional social currency.

Of course, it might be argued that Lanval's fairy situation is fairly unique. Yet the supernatural metaphor of invisibility parallels in some ways his original starting societal position at the beginning of the tale. Lanval is known to be the son of a "wealthy king," but he has spent his father's money already, which creates a dissonance between his perceived social state and the reality. (p.7) Lanval is also a relative stranger to the court, hence the references to him dwelling in a hotel. Thus he cuts a particularly suspect figure. His true social status, just like his bride's existence, is invisible in his poverty and his identity. Without this public support and approbation given by a publicly recognized marriage Lanval becomes vulnerable to false accusations, like the ones made by the queen. Only after the invisible lady reveals herself to the court is Lanval freed, but the invisible couple cannot have a normal relationship that reconciles the public and the private, in a social world that sees them as incommensurate -- rather the lais ends with the two lovers being spirited away from the real world altogether.

Lanval" indicates the invisibility of all marriages not validated in the social realm, and possibly the inability of any marriage to reconcile public and private demands in a holistic way -- hence the need for out-of-wedlock courtly love as a social and physical release. In the poem, the parallel relationship of the king and queen is the opposite of the knight Lanval's -- the royal couple is publicly happy, but the queen is duplicitous. This tension between the public and private aspects of marriage is further underlined in the lais "Bisclavet," the tale of a werewolf. Although the couple's marriage initially seems happy on the surface, the woman is afraid because her husband periodically disappears for three days at a time, becoming invisible to her surveillance. (p.2) the lack of clarity of the public and private is then created by the woman's not unreasonable assumption that her husband is unfaithful: "You are in love -- that's it, I know -- /and you do wrong if this is so!" (p.2) Although the supernatural truth is different from the suspected truth, the inability of the woman to understand the man exposes a fundamental truth about marriage -- the male's public life is hidden to his wife, despite their mutual affection, and because the wife cannot know her husband's public life, infidelity in even the happiest of marriages is a constant perceived and real threat.

Unfortunately for the werewolf husband, the man's canny wife is not so happy or faithful as she seems on the surface. She hides her husband's clothes after bullying him to tell his/her secret, and uses his enforced disappearance to create a public ruse of his demise. She commits bigamy and weds another man, creating a public lie that hides the private truth of her still extant marriage. Thus, secrets and a falsely assumed identity of normalcy concealed before marriage breed more concealment. Denied of his clothes, the first husband's public standing in the world is murdered by the private partner of his wife. The man loses his human identity, much like Lanval lost his public standing because of his private, invisible wife -- or…