Marie De France: Christian Metaphors
As a medieval abbess Marie de France condemns adultery in all her Lais, except Yonec. In Yonec she uses adultery as a metaphor for humanities relationship with a loving diety.
Marie de France begins her Lais by giving free reign to the reader to "gloss the letter / and supply its significance from their own wisdom." The following interpretation of her text makes use of the Burgess and Busby translation printed by Penguin USA in 1999. The following interpretation of this text is not the only one I see, but it is complete and coherent.
The Lais are curious because if looked at on a surface level, they seem to take an almost schizophrenic moral view of adultery: in some stories it is acceptable and in others it is abhorrent. All of the stories about adultery openly condemn it, with the exception of Yonec, which seems to condone it. A reader of the Lais might try to use Yonec to argue that Marie does not entirely disapprove of adultery, but what separates Yonec from the stories in which adultery is unacceptable are the very nature and telling of the story.
First, there can be no doubt that Marie disapproves of adultery. Abbess and part of a monastic order, both the times she lived in and the space she occupied within her religious society, make it highly unlikely that she could approve of an outright forbidden act. In Equítan, Marie comes down hard on the adulterous king and seneschal's wife: their love begets an evil plot to murder the seneschal, but it backfires and they both end up the victims of their trap. She states that he who plans evil for another can expect to have the evil double back on him. To take that a level further, let us assume that whoever actually does evil against another can also have that rebound on him, and will suffer Marie's strict censure.
Likewise, in Laüstic, Marie attacks the pair of adulterous lovers exchanging longing looks through the bedroom window. Having been caught at the window, the lady makes an excuse to her husband as to why she is at the window. She says nothing in the world gives her more joy than to listen to nightingales. (83-84) In repines, her husband catches the nightingale and viciously kills it when the lady asks him not to, saying "he will never again awaken you." (110). Marie punishes this pair of secretive lovers with the husband's discovery. Though he has only killed the bird, he makes it clear to his lady that he knows what "the nightingale" really meant, and it must end now.
In the final lay, Eliduc, Eliduc's initial adultery causes Gualadun to almost die, and everyone great grief. Eventually, all this is forgiven by Eliduc's first wife who takes the veil to allow his marriage to Gualadun, and entirely reverses when both Gualadun and Eliduc renounce their marriage and join the monastic system themselves. However, before their renunciation, all three are punished. Gualadun on the way back to Eliduc's country, when a storm brews up and almost kills everyone going back. One of the sailors shouts out that Eliduc's adultery is causing the storm, and going to get them all killed. He announced that Eliduc already has one faithful wife and is still trying to have another, "in defiance of God and the law / of right and of faith" (832-838) As a voice of the author, the sailor could not be more disapproving of the relationship Eliduc has begun with this woman. Nature acts as the hand of God, rising up because Eliduc has done something violating His law. Gualadun effectively dies as a result of both the storm and the revelation.
All of this shows that Marie never approves of adultery, and considers it, as would be expected in her time, unnatural and in violation of the laws of God and humanity. This fits perfectly with a general view of a heavily religious catholic society: adultery stands in violation of one of the ten commandments, and the ten commandments are the words of God to His people.
In Yonec, Marie takes an entirely different stand on the matter of adultery. The initial husband-wife relationship is deficient in many ways that Marie tacitly and thematically condemns throughout her Lais: the husband will not allow his wife to go to Church, or have contact with other people, even women, and there are no children. An argument could be made that Marie approves of adultery in Yonec because the marriage itself is deficient and unnatural or perhaps because the lady asks God himself to send her a lover, and does not choose one for herself or find one on the street.
However, Marie has made no bones about condemning other adulterous relationships born from unnatural marriages, such as the marriage of the unnamed lady to the old man in the castle by the sea in Guigemar. This marriage shares many characteristics with Yonec: the husband is extremely jealous, and old, and keeps his lady locked away from the world in a tower, watched over by a female relative of her husband day and night. The husband in Guigemar is so jealous that he has a man who is not only a priest, but also ancient and castrated keep the key to his wife's chamber. (255-258) The husband in this story is so pathological as to make sure that the people guarding his wife are completely loyal to him and unable to aid his wife in any kind of adultery. His niece is not only female and thus unable to cuckold him, but also a blood relative of his, who he can thus depend on to make sure no one else cuckolds him either. Despite all of this bizarre treatment of the wife, Marie still condemns the adulterous relationship between her and Guigemar.
Marie interjects into the story of the two lovers that, "Fortune, who never forgets her duty" (538) caused them to be discovered suddenly. She uses the word "duty" here, implying that Fortune does not bring the lovers down on a whim, but because she is obligated to do so. Her obligation stems from the fact that she gave Guigemar and his lover their time together, but because their love is adulterous and a secret, the time must come when they are found out and the illusion of peace is shattered.
In Yonec, Muldamarec and his lover suffer the same fate as Guigemar and his: they are discovered. However, their discovery is not put in terms of fortune remembering her "duty." To the contrary of tolerating their love as a momentary mistake on the part of the wheel of life, Marie throws words of encouragement at this pair: "God, let their joy endure!" (224) and when the husband and his sister are setting the stage to catch the lovers at play, Marie throws in remarks of sympathy for the them. (254-265)
Finally, as the husband and sister prepare the trap for Muldamarec, Marie asides to the reader: "God, he [Muldamarec] doesn't know what treachery / the villains are preparing." (295-296)
In these three asides, the issue of what is going on in Yonec is thoroughly confused. On it's surface, the premise of Yonec seems to be the story of a woman, who doesn't like her jealous husband, cheating on him with her young magical lover. Marie's very language undermines this: firstly she asks God to help the adulterous couple make their affair last, and in the second two passages above, she sets up the husband and sister as "villains," though they are trying to do what is within the husband's right (both legal and moral, one would suppose) to stop the wife in her adultery. Thus, through her language, Marie communicates to the reader that the people doing wrong in Yonec are not the lovers, but the husband.
Marie's attitude toward adultery in the other stories cannot just be made to vanish, it is too solid and firm: yet Yonec is exempt from their order and judgment. The only explanation to make sense of this is that Yonec cannot be about adultery, or even feature adultery as one of its themes. The husband and wife cannot be a husband and wife, and the hawk-lover cannot be a lover.
The husband, like the husband in Guigemar, locks his wife in a tower where she sees no one and is alone, and waits for death. He allows no one alive near her except his own sister, as ancient as he is, and he has no children with her. The wife says: "He'll never die" (86) He has no name, and neither does his wife. The young wife, "would have preferred death to take her quickly" (49-50) to the fate she suffers locked in the tower with the husband. Their marriage is not a normal human marriage -- normal husbands, even the most jealous, do not lock their wives away even from the church and mass (75-76) and all human company.
During her marriage, the beautiful young wife bears no children despite spending nights with her husband, and her beauty fades to the point of nonexistence. A suicidal urge looms up on her, and she ignored the care of her own body, wishing it would rot away. (47-50) The loss of beauty is set as a metaphor for a slow death, by the arrangement of Marie's words. If the loss of beauty and death are the same thing, the young wife has been slowly dying in her husband's tower, and her husband can be construed as death itself: the old man who keeps a young woman locked in a tower as she slowly dies. The relationship between this husband and wife models the relationship any single human has with their own death: from the moment a person is born (or a story begins, in this case), they are doomed to a die slowly over the course of their life, and to do it alone, without hope of being able to escape.
If the lady is a representative member of humanity, meant to stand for the whole, and the husband is death, who has entrapped her from the beginning, the bird-lover is her rescuer. The lady directly asks God to send her a lover (104), and immediately, a lover appears in the form of a bird. This construction of a lover appearing as a bird has a parallel construction to the story of the Annunciation, in which the Holy Spirit comes to the Virgin Mary as a dove, and thus already has a quality of goodness.
Muldamarec's appearance in hawk form already sets this story in juxtaposition with the story of the conception of Christ, but his opening speech cements his alignment with the Christian God (particularly in the form of Christ), who loves all people but cannot make them love him. He says to his lady that he has loved her a long time and never any woman but her, but that he could not come join her and be her lover without her permission, without her desire for him. (127-133)
Since the lady already represents the human race in her relation with death, she can also represent it in her relations with God: Marie believes that God has loved humanity always, and never any other creature in the same way, but cannot make humanity choose him.
The lady and knight are eventually caught because the knight's love for her has brought her beauty back (215-216). Since the fading beauty was set up as a metaphor for a slow death earlier, the return of beauty here can be read as a return of life. The old man notices that the lady has suddenly come back to life and frantically goes about trying to find out why and how. Discovering that Muldamarec comes in the form of the hawk, the old man sets a trap of death (his specialty) for him, and the trap does its work, killing Muldamarec.
To this point, Muldamarec has acted out the roll of a God who saves from death (e.g., Christ), and at this point he finishes enacting this role by actually dying. However, unlike Christ, he does not come back. Instead before leaving he tells his lover that grief is useless but that she is pregnant with his child who she should name Yonec, and who would someday avenge both of them on their enemy, her husband (325-332).
Muldamarec gives the lady a son who eventually beheads his stepfather -- killing Death. The role of Christ transfers from father to son, also mirroring the natural cycle of life, in which individuals do not live forever, but people have children who account for the continued existence of the human race. Not Muldamarec and the lady, who both die, but their child overcomes death. When his mother and father are both dead, Yonec must become representative of both the lover-God and the human race in the same body. By combining these two aspects, as well as by having the role of the child, Yonec overcomes death and literally slays him.
Based on the moralism of her other stories, Marie would not have written any story that condoned adultery. However, based on her strong faith and unique view of the human relationship with death and how God intervenes and fits in with it, she could write a story phrased in terms of an adulterous relationship that was, for once, good.