Guigemar narrates the adventures and twists of a well-rounded knight seeking for love. This lai was written by some Marie at the very end of the 12th century and expresses a female representation of the medieval era. It recounts one courtly relationship between the eponym character and his lady while it undertakes a criticism of Court’s society’s ways. De facto, the Lais of Marie de France provides the readers key elements for better understanding “social and psychological scripts” in effect at that time. Indeed, the artefact recounts the story of women “gendered in relation to their use and exchange value within a male hierarchy”. While one would agree that through the portraits of females experiencing male authority Marie concentrates her criticism on the status of women under a patriarchal system, Burgwinkle proposes that “these young women emerge from the horror of their plights more resilient, paradoxically freer from the most virulent aspects of the social and psychological scripts that delimit the young men’s choices”. This striking approach draws the state of freedom1 that Marie’s young characters have access to, while it highlights topics that bounded Feudal society and that run throughout the text. De facto, Marie’s Guigemar highlights young men and women’s living conditions under patriarchal and homosocial systems while it interrogates their aptitudes to overcome gender’s binary opposition between male and female. Therefore, we will analyse Guigemar’s lady’s state of self-determination in a patriarchal society before considering the homosocial system illustrated by the text and its consequences on young men’s freedom.2 Finally, we will question the relevance of Burgwinkle’s proposition through the question of gender and propose to consider the figure of the queer as one key element of Marie’s criticism.
In her lais, Marie tends to draw a linkage between individuals and society. Yet, feudal societies were bounded by a patriarchal system – that is a system of society … in which men hold powers of all sorts. Patriarchy is thus a key element for better understanding differences between men and women’s ‘social and psychological scripts’. Marie depicts men as autonomous individuals, enjoying the right of self-governance. Indeed, Guigemar, Mériaduc and the lady’s jealous husband appreciate a stage of self-determination. Oppositely, Marie depicts Guigemar’s lady in a stage of absolute impotence. The nominal group “the lady”, which tends to suppress her as an individual, bounds her identity. Consequently, she is a woman among all women and only exists through her relationships with men. De facto, she is a pawn in the hands of Guigemar’s fate and in his social resurrection. Indeed, “c’est parce qu’il a trouvé une amie que Guigemar pourra (re)paraitre à la cour, dans la société, succéder au père” (Koopmans, 18). Moreover, while Guigemar has the right to “quitter la cour” (Marie, 29) and to travel between worlds, the lady is depicted as a captive. Indeed, she is the prisoner of her husband, who locks her up in a tower. She is constantly surveyed “within the context of severe physical constraints” (Root, 14). This impression of incarceration is emphasized as the narrator presents the walls of the lady’s bedroom as “murailles” (Marie, 39, v.254). This term tends to present the bedroom as a jail, that is to say, a place that leaves no room for freedom. The lady qualifies herself as a “prisonnière” (Marie, 43). This stage of physical dependence is emphasized by the chastity belt in which the lady is locked up and by Mériaduc’s behaviours towards the lady. Indeed, Mériaduc considers this latter as one object of his desire and wishes to make her his possession. De facto, the narrator states: “Mériaduc la saisit par le manteau” (Marie, 61, l. 705). Yet, the etymology of the verb “saisir” refers to the idea of possession (Harf-Lancner, 61). Consequently, the desires of Guigemar, Mériaduc and the jealous husband “impose an image of women as the ideal object of male desire” (Root, 15). The lady is dehumanized and becomes a trophy for men’s glory. Hence, Marie problematizes “marriage practices and the fate of imprisoned malmariées” (Burgwinkle, 150). Therefore, how could one agree that the lady emerges ‘freer’ than Guigemar?
While discussing Marie’s Lanval3, Woods states: “Marie gives … examples of the efficacy of women’s wiles in obtaining what they want” (Woods, 12). De facto, in Guigemar, the lady suffers from ‘male hierarchy’ but deals better with it than men do with social pressure. Hence, the lady’s adulterous sexual relation is a way to exercise her choice and thus, to access a state of free will. Thanks to her servant’s valuable assistance, she manages to subvert her captivity: the room in which she is sequestered becomes a love nest for her and her lover. Ironically, Marie’s “malmariées play the cards they are dealt to their advantage” (Dingeldein, 3). The lady completely frees herself from the straightjacket of her unhappy marriage as she physically escapes her tower. Oppositely, Guigemar never escapes society’s scripts but rather unwillingly endures them. Indeed, after he is dismissed by his family and by the society, because of his ‘unnatural’ celibacy, the narrator tells his journey towards love – that is his only chance to reach a place in society. Indeed, “tension is maintained between Guigemar’s personal and social lives, and his destiny is not fulfilled until they have been ordered and integrated” (Pickens, 330). He may be the most brilliant knight – “on ne pouvait alors trouver // si bon chevalier” (Marie, 29, l. 55-6) – his indifference towards love is criticized “par les étrangers comme par ses propres amis” (Marie, 29, 68). Consequently, the narrative exposes a tension in the homosocial system – which privileges male-male bonding but directs sexual desire towards women. Guigemar struggles to combine both of these duties. As a matter of fact, the dichotomies personal/social lives and love/chivalry are embodied via two worlds. Indeed, we could consider that Guigemar’s country symbolises feudal duties, whereas the lady’s land symbolizes love and fertility. Thus, the motif of ‘crossing water’ underlines the difficulties he experienced while trying to combine his duties of marriage and chivalry. We could also consider the other world as an “alternative reality” in which “the constraints and restrictions of the world ordered by social hierarchies fall away” (Kinoshita, 122). In this vein, the movement towards this new land would be a breakaway underlying the social pressure endured by Guigemar. Both interpretations of this dual geography highlight the “virulent aspects of the social and psychological scripts that delimit the young men’s choices”. In this perspective, women are drawn as ‘more resilient’ and ‘freer’ than men who have to follow already-made scripts in order to reach and prove their masculinity. To that extent, Burgwinkle proposition is verified. Nevertheless, we propose to open this reflexion by considering Guigemar as one criticism of feudal conception of ‘masculinity’.
Guigemar relates the journey of a young man towards masculinity. As discussed earlier, Guigemar tries to prove his masculinity to society thanks to chivalric feats. However, feudal masculinity is not only “figured through strong male bonds, heroism, and spectacle” (Burgwinkle, 153). The knight has to love a woman, not only in order to carry on the family line but also to publicly testify of his heterosexual sexuality. De facto, Guigemar’s celibacy underlines the “instability of his masculine productivity” (Schneider, 36). Yet, Guigemar is not straight in an obvious way; he is not appropriately homosexual neither heterosexual. Indeed he has attributes associated with an androgynous hind. This figure of queer sexuality embodies Guigemar’s deny of his sexual identity that is considered as unnatural by the society. Indeed “Guigemar is seen as queer and malformed because of his lack of sexual activity. … Love … is something natural to masculinity in the lai, and when absent the man is deformed” (Schneider, 35-6). De facto, the arrow intended to cull the doe rebounds on the knight and injures him near his genitals. Besides, Guigemar “tombe sur l’herbe épaisse” (Marie, 31, l. 101). Yet, grass often symbolizes fertility in lyric poetry. Thus, one could agree that this episode underlines his lack of ‘masculine productivity’ and the danger it represents. While he erases the doe, the protagonist fights his inner self. As testified by Burgwinkle, “Guigemar must suffer to be like other men” (Burgwinkle, 151). Guigemar denies his identity in order to reach a state of ‘masculinity’ and thus, social recognition.
To conclude, Burgwinkle’s proposition led us to conclude that because she has nothing to lose the lady emerges freer than Guigemar. Moreover, analysing Marie’s criticism of social and psychological scripts under oppressive systems, we opened the discussion to the figure of the queer. All in all, we are not able to assert that the authoress willingly criticized the oppression of society against ‘non-masculine’ and yet male individuals. However, in today’s society, one could interpret Marie’s Guigemar as a manifesto against gender oppression of all sorts.
1 The term freedom comes from the Old-English freodom and illustrates a state of free will and self-governance.
2 We will define the terms ‘patriarchy’ and ‘homosocial’ throughout the essay.
3 Lanval is the 5th lai of the Lais of Marie de France.