The French poet Marie de France (active late 12th century) was an accomplished writer of lais and was probably the originator of that form.
Marie de France is one of those authors whose work is well known but whose life is largely conjectural. Her status as a trouvère, her education in both Latin and French, and her vocabulary and style identify her as a member of an aristocratic circle, possibly of noble birth. Her assumption of "de France" indicates no title but merely her connection with the Île-de-France. The themes of her lais reveal her close association with the amour courtois movement and strongly suggest that if, as a number of literary historians claim, she is the illegitimate half sister of Henry II, she was one of the young women who came under the direct influence of Marie de Champagne at the Poitevin court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. This would account for her romantic inspiration.
Marie wrote in a dialect that indicates Normandy on the border of the Île-de-France. This would explain her use of Breton contes and fabliaux as the source of her stories, stories she said she had heard, not read. Breton entertainers were ubiquitous in Normandy and in Poitiers during the period Eleanor was in residence. They had to be bilingual, for otherwise their patrons and audiences would have been very small. The strange tales were seized upon and synthesized with the love code of Poitou to create the lais which Marie dedicated to Henry II.
The lais are done skillfully in octosyllabic rhymed couplets extending to 100 lines or less. This is a most satisfying length for a reading with a circle of ladies, and a handsome little page could hold their attention with his clear young voice. Also, in beautiful manuscripts the lais were entertaining private reading. They never were intended for public gatherings; they were too tenuous and dreamy. Of the dozen or so lais acknowledged as Marie's, only one, Sir Lanval, belongs specifically to the Arthurian legend.
Later work (ca. 1180) includes the didactic Ysopet, based on the fables of shrewd Reynart the Fox. Though the title refers her fables to Aesop, Marie claims that the collection she used was produced by "Alfred," presumably Alfred the Great. This has strengthened the contention that Marie de France lived many years in England, where she was at her death the abbess of Shaftesbury.
Marie's last known work is her La Espurgatoire de Saint Patrice. Basically this is a translation of a Latin source which proved so popular that several French poets produced "purgatories" at about the same time.
Further Reading on Marie de France
Urban Tigner Holmes, A History of Old French Literature, from the Origins to 1300 (1937; rev. ed. 1962), is a satisfactory substitute for the many fine surveys written in French. Holmes's treatment of Marie de France sets her in relationship to the poets of her time. A remarkably complete look into the lives of the courts in various parts of France and England where Eleanor, Henry II, and their sons presided is in Amy R. Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (1950), which provides a brilliant introduction to the workings of the Poitevin courts of love. E.K. Chambers, Arthur of Britain (1927), gives careful attention to Marie's place in the Arthurian legend.