Women in “Lanval”

Upon reading the criticisms for my previous paper on women’s roles in challenging the court in Lanval, I came across the interesting notion that perhaps this female challenge to the male world could be not exactly as it might first be seen in the previous paper. If Guinevere and the Lady of Avalon, through their actions and offers, do pose a challenge, what does it actually mean, and how is it answered? Women played a large role in court structure and an important part of the workings of courtly love, since without women there could be no cult of love appropriate to the time. One of the ideas to come out of writing the paper, in reading some of the criticisms, was the idea of courtly love and courtly behavior of women, and the way women were situated in relationships with and between men. In Lanval, both the Queen and the Fairy lady approach Lanval, yet one is gladly accepted while the other is somewhat rudely rebuffed, and (one might say) punished (she was fairly insulted, after all). If this behavior is acceptable for one woman, why is it not acceptable for another? What is the difference, and what is actually being rejected or accepted? What is making this decision of acceptable and unacceptable bahaviors?

Women play a key role in courtly behavior, and therefore both their inclusion and exclusion are important to look at when it comes to these relationships. Men in court have a hierarchy, and plenty of male to male relationships. Women are constructs included in order to make relationships that are acceptable… heterosexual… and in this way they are responsible for the proper workings of affections of men… they are given as gifts, used in romance, and restricted in voice. I would say that in Lanval the role of women is two-fold, as their behavior and their wealth both challenge a kind of interaction, a presentation of both the “normal” way of doing things as well as a contrasting situation in which the woman takes up the male role in a relationship, one personal the other financial. In this way they are a challenge while still fitting intricately into the structure of the court as they are supposed to, allowing a comparison of appropriateness of behavior both in men’s relationships to them and in men’s relationships to other men. However, in this way they could be construed as not all that challenging challenges. The feminine may be challenging the masculine, but is it really, and who really wins?

Jerry Root’s article “Courtly Love and the Representation of women in the ‘Lais’ of Marie de France and the ‘Coutumes de Beauvaisis’ of Philippe de Beaumanior” is an examination of what women were represented in literature as being able to say and think and imagine, and how they seem to have been limited in such things. As Root puts it “what were the limits, in social practice, of what one could say about women and what women themselves had the space to say?” is the prime topic of the paper (7-8). Discussing how women who overstep the bounds and constraints of what they are allowed to say and do leads to punishment, and Root pulls out examples in Marie de France’s lais, including in Lanval. While pointing out that our only idea of what these boundaries of what a woman was allowed to think or talk about is what is written, Root does explain that this isn’t necessarily the exact constraints upon women at the time in reality, but that it’s likely fairly decent representation somewhat based on what women were allowed to say – in legal matters through the investigation of Philippe de Beaumanior, and in a more literally scope in the investigation into the lais. This can be used as a look into what was potentially a number of ways in Lanval which women played key roles, and to be able to see whether an action was a challenge to the established behaviors of the court or perfectly in line with them; whether a woman was doing something she was “allowed” to do or no. Root’s investigation into the Philippe piece finds that women are not allowed to speak of much, but are expected to speak up about matters on which they are an authority and men are not: mainly childbirth, virginity and related issues. Woman certainly “cannot be brought forth to testify if their testimony is in conflict with the person against whom they have been called” (9-10). Root investigates this topic in relation to courtly love because this is a discourse which does require a woman, and in fact the woman is the most necessary component in this idealized romantic notion.

In the text of Lanval we have a knight who is approached by two ladies: the fairy queen of Avalon while he is out for a walk, and Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, some time later when Lanval is has come into better fortune after meeting the fairy queen. In the ideal situation of courtly love, it would be the man who would approach the woman for the most part, and in fact Lanval is the only one of Marie de France’s lais in which a woman actively seeks out the man (17). While both advances seem to be initiated by women, thereby challenging the normally acceptable custom of the male initiator, Root explains the differences in the advances which prove to be cause for different reactions and treatments to this challenge. The fairy queen “clearly acknowledges Lanval as the motivating force for her action” (Root 17). The reference in the text would be “Lanval, fair friend, for you I’ve come, / For you I’ve traveled far from home” (l 109-10). While she is technically initiating the courtship by pursuing Lanval, it seems to be understood she is still responding to him. She’s not responding to his overtures, but she is responding to his presence, his personage. Guinevere, however, “seems to think it unnecessary to flatter Lanval with anything more than her own availability.” She “moves too fast and expects too much gratitude” (Root 17). As the Queen says to Lanval:

I’ve honored you sincerely,
Have cherished you and loved you dearly.
All my love is at your disposal.
What do you say to my proposal?
Your mistress I consent to be;
You should receive much joy from me.” (261-66)

Because of Guinevere’s forwardness she’s later humiliated in front of the court when Lanval’s fairy queen comes to claim him. I’d also postulate here that a portion of Guinevere’s humiliation comes from the rule Root quoted, that a woman can’t testify to something in conflict with the person she’s testifying against. Since Lanval denies Guinevere’s accusation, she would be, with the addition of this rule, in the wrong on two accounts: propositioning Lanval in the first place, and speaking out of turn against him after his rejection.

Root also explains how the fairy queen is from the “dream-like fantasy world that [is] associated with courtly love.” And that as such, “less as the establishment of a female subject and her authority than as a fantasy that is acted out for the pleasure of the attendant make spectators of Arthur’s court” (17). In effect, everything about the fairy queen and her overture is still a response to the male desire of the ideal. Therefore, she is not necessarily a challenge to the court when seen in this light, but more as a played out fantasy or an instruction manual of how to be modestly bold. On the other hand, “Guinevere’s more forthright demand on Lanval illustrates the extent to which the ‘prise de parole’ by a woman in even the highest and most ideal courtly setting can be considered a transgression” (17). I don’t necessarily entirely see this as the case, for I do see the fact that the fairy queen’s approach of Lanval and her leading him away in the end as a still a fairly powerful statement of the feminine and the power woman can have over men, but it does indeed point to the ideal. Only the ideal woman is perhaps capable of bringing about the sort of challenge to the norm of what women are and are not allowed to do and say with regards to men and courtly relationships. Root’s point is to see Guinevere’s treatment as rejection and humiliation in front of the court for being more forceful and less flattering in her advances, and the fairy queen’s treatment as reward for her flattery in wooing Lanval as proof that “courtly discourse empowers women only to the extent that they try to correspond to an ideal created by this (mainly male) discourse” (20). I think if one looks at the attempts to woo Lanval as the conflict between the ideal of Avalon and its feminine world with the masculine world of reality, the women aren’t just women, they’re concrete representatives of these worlds. The Lady from Avalon is an ideal feminine way; forward a bit but not too much, helpful and supportive. She comes to Lanval because he wanted her to, because she was responding to him. She helped him out, supported him financially, and kept a back seat and stayed out of notice. Guinevere is a more masculine representation; she is forward the way a man would be, initiating contact rather than responding, demanding a certain respect and attention, and confrontational and insulting upon rejection, insisting on the fixing of her hurt pride. In this way while it could well simply be a statement of which behavior is acceptable for a woman as Root discusses, it could also be a matter of women being used to represent male ideals of what world they would live in. In this way we have the women challenging the court as really a device of an ideal challenging the status quo, perhaps a bit disguised as a challenge of behavior of forwardness of a woman in a male dominated society. We can see this situation presented in a different way, however, to help broaden our perspective of what’s going on with these women.

Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman’s article “Magical Mistress Tour: Patronage, Intellectual Property, and the Dissemination of wealth in the ‘Lais’ of Marie de France” is a discussion of the roles and relationships of men, especially bachelor knights, in the medieval court and how women fit into the patronage, friendship, and wealth ties of such relationships. Since wealth was either inherited or acquired based on birth order, with the eldest son inheriting his wealth but his brothers having to go out and acquire them, usually in patronage relationships with wealthier aristocracy, there were large numbers of bachelor knights with strong ties to each other (camaraderie) and to those who would be their patrons. As it needed to be maintained (from a moral viewpoint) that these relationships between men were purely social, women provided the ability to “[recast] the essentially homosocial relationships of patronage within the erotic fictions of heterosexuality” and the aristocracy “fashioned new political and economic roles for women., … that Marie explores in the lai ‘Lanval’” (Finke 486). Women could provide inducement for men to go out and forge these patronage relationships to acquire wealth (because the men would want to be able to own land to marry and produce heirs). Women also provided lines of communications and ways to curry favor of a patron, by being in favor with his wife. This, of course, then ties into the concepts of courtly love and women’s role in relationship to the court as our normal setup for courtly love is often a married woman with a bachelor knight. As Finke and Shichtman put it, the “elaborate fictions of erotic love for the wives of their overlords” could lead to “anxieties about women’s necessary but dangerous participation in the networks of the patron-client relationship that governed the distribution of wealth” (487). Normally in this way a woman is a conduit for patronage by virtue of her husband. Guinevere’s proposition of Lanval falls along these lines. By promising that Lanval “should receive much joy” from her (l 266), she’s also indicating that her affection for him will also bring about affection from her husband – as the charge against Lanval “is not attempted rape or seduction … [but] of insulting the queen” (Finke 494) – and therefore more patronage from him. In this position we see the women in her usual role in patronage situations. As Finke and Shichtman say, in Lanval there are “two paradigms of the woman as a patron, one rooted in the erotic fictions of patronage … represented by Arthur’s queen” (489).

If women normally act as “ ‘surrogate’ patrons” and that “one way … knights veiled their appeals for patronage to their lord was through erotic appeals to his wife” since “women were required to mediate male-male intercourse” so as the relationship of men to not become too close and perhaps fall into the realm of homoeroticism (486). So while normally women are simply the path to patronage and wealth, the Lady from Avalon, however, is a different story. She offers patronage too:

This gift she afterward bestowed:
Whatsoever thing he wanted
She promised him that she would grant it –
Money, as fast as he can spend it,
No matter how much, she will send it. (132-36)

but she does not offer this through a man, but in her own right. “The love that Lanval would owe Arthur – if the king were a reliable patron – is transferred to a mysterious fairy mistress, and issues of economics become issues of courtly love” (Finke 489). We know this is a challenge to normal courtly workings because the fairy queen must remain hidden and must not be known as “the fairy mistress’s magic and the secrecy required of Lanval as an initiate into her supernatural world may provide some insight into the anxieties of Marie and her audience about the competition for patronage … within the Anglo-Norman court” (Finke 495). Lanval is somewhat punished for his transgression when he lets slip about his mistress, but he is forgiven in the end with the choice of exogamy “as an opportunity for enrichment” (Finke 495) that he can’t necessarily find within his group without his Lady’s help (remember Guinevere wasn’t interested in helping him out until he no longer needed it). His choice of leaving, therefore further points to this challenge the fairy queen brings to the table, for in order to openly have the patronage of a woman unfettered by father or brother or husband, he needs to leave his current society. Challenge brings about choice, therefore a selection of choice highlights the challenge therein. However, his choice is again a matter of masculine ideal – not necessarily of a female patron so much as of the most wealthy patron possible.

Root’s discussion of women’s behaviors and what they were allowed to think and do, and Marie’s presentation of this difference in the way the ladies of Lanval present their offers to Lanval presents an idea of how to think about these behaviors. Finke and Shichtman, meanwhile, put these behaviors into more perspective by including them into the terms of patronage and its relationship to courtly love. Both articles see women as a means to an end and both present alternatives to the norm in which women are far more forward and powerful then women are usually thought or allowed to be. Root sees punishment of Guinevere for her forwardness toward Lanval, Finke and Shichtman see the boldness of the fairy queen’s power with her own money rewarded as Lanval chooses her over Guinevere to be his patron.

So while we do see some challenges posed here by the women of the story, two, in fact, we must look at not just the challenges, but the outcomes as well. Both are in areas in which women are allowed to conduct themselves, but usually to specific rules. Both of these challenges are to how these realms should be handled with regard to women, and in both women overstep what is normally allowed of them: they are forward in their affections (one more than the other) and they offer patronage (one not backed by a man). The most important factor in all of this, however, is in the outcomes of these two challenges. The decision that is made regarding that behavior which is rewarded or punished is made by a man (Lanval), and the choices that are “right” are the ones which are ideal and favor him best. Therefore, we see these challenges mean that the masculine always seems to win these challenges in Lanval, or at least benefit from them, but the feminine is not necessarily worse for the wear and we can see how the feminine can flourish in this environment as the woman makes her own way through the discourses of relationships, patronage, and courtly love.

Works Cited
Finke, Laurie A. and Martin B. Shichtman. “Magical Mistress Tour: Patronage, Intellectual Property, and the Dissemination of Wealth in the ‘Lais’ of Marie de France.” Signs. 25.2 (2000): 479-503.

Marie de France. “Lanval.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Alfred David and James Simpson. New York: Norton, 2006. 142-55.

Root, Jerry. “Courtly Love and the Representation of Women in the ‘Lais’ of Marie de France and the ‘Coutumes de Beauvaisis’ of Philippe de Beaumanoir.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature. 57.2 (2003): 7-24.

(c) Aoife Hammersmith
This is a student’s paper, it is not recommended for citing, only for interesting (not really) reading and ideas of where to get references.