Marie de France depicted medieval women’s generous love for men

In her twelfth-century lai Guildeluëc and Guilliadun, or Eliduc {Guildeluëc et Guilliadun, ou Eliduc}, the great medieval writer Marie de France has the woman Guilliadun angrily declare to the woman Guildeluëc:

She is very foolish who believes a man!

{ Mut est fole que humme creit! }[1]

Medieval women undoubtedly expressed such categorical condemnations of men at times. Today such condemnations, if noticed, could be called misandristic or anti-meninist. Such condemnations in their reverse-gender form evoke censure and censorship.[2] Marie de France, however, appreciated the psychological complexity of human behavior. Overall, her lais show medieval women’s deep and generous love for men.

The happily married Guildeluëc and Eliduc loyally loved each other. Then false accusations caused Eliduc to lose his king’s patronage. Eliduc had to voyage from his home in Brittany across the sea to England to work as a soldier. There he served in brutal violence against men for an English king. Men deserve more humane work than soldiering in brutal violence against men.

The English king’s lovely daughter Guilliadun heard about Eliduc’s victorious violence against men in service to her father. She asked for him to come to her. He of course obeyed her summons. They sat together on her bed and talked for a long time. After he departed, she couldn’t rest or sleep. She was madly in love with him. She told her chamberlain:

If he wishes to love me as a lover
and pledge his body to me,
I will do all his pleasure.
If so, from such great good can come to him:
he will be king of this land.
So very wise and courtly is he
that, if he doesn’t love me as a lover,
I will necessarily die in great sorrow.

{ Si par amur me veut amer
E de sun cors asseurer,
Jeo ferai trestut sun pleisir,
si l’en peot grant bien avenir:
De ceste tere serat reis.
Tant par est sages e curteis,
Que, s’il ne m’aime par amur,
Murir m’estuet a grant dolur. }

Admirably disregarding men’s conventional gender burden of soliciting amorous relationships, her chamberlain advised her to send love-tokens to Eliduc. She took that initiative without inquiring whether Eliduc was married.

Alexandre Cabanel's portrait of a Mesopotamian courtesan Albaydé

While taking the initiative in love involves risks that men have traditionally borne, in this case Eliduc didn’t reject Guilliadun’s love initiative. He himself felt amorously attracted to Guilliadun. However, he had pledged fidelity to his wife before traveling overseas to work as a soldier. Like many men, even sexually deprived soldiers in armies exploiting only men, Eliduc sought to uphold his pledge to his wife. He resolved to visit and talk with Guilliadun, and kiss and embrace her, but not have sex with her. He felt great love anguish as he mounted his horse to visit her.

Guilliadun was delighted that Eliduc had come to see her. When her father the king praised Eliduc as the best among five hundred men, she felt her passion validated. She summoned Eliduc to a private conversation with her. They both hesitated to speak. Then Eliduc thanked her for her gift of love-tokens to him. Appreciating his receptivity, she pressed forward:

She replies to the knight
that with this she is delighted,
and for this she sent the ring
and the belt as well,
because she has given him her body.
She loves him with such love
that she wishes to make him her lord.
And if she cannot have him,
never will she have any living man.
Now let him in return tell his desire!

{ Ele respunt al chevalier
Que de ceo li esteit mut bel,
E pur ceo l’enveat l’anel
E la ceinture autresi,
Que de sun cors l’aveit seisi;
Ele l’amat de tel amur,
De lui volt faire sun seignur.
E si ele ne peot lui aveir,
Une chose sace de veir:
Jamés n’avera humme vivant.
Ore li redie sum talant! }

Guilliadun was fighting strongly and aggressively for love. Eliduc meekly thanked her. He explained that he was contracted to fight for a year as a soldier for her father in brutal violence against men. After that term, he would leave their country and return home. She appreciated his forthrightness about his intentions. She didn’t ask if he was married.

Guilliadun and Eliduc subsequently enjoyed flirtatious love-play, but nothing more. After some time Eliduc received a message that his king in Brittany urgently needed his service as a soldier. Distraught, Eliduc nonetheless recognized his feudal obligation. He requested leave from both the English king and Guilliadun to return to serve his own king. They both reluctantly let him return.

Guilliadun threatened to kill herself if Eliduc didn’t take her with him. But if he took her with him, that would violate his feudal obligation of loyalty to her father. Moreover, he was married and had pledged faithfulness to his wife. Like Aeneas with respect to Dido, Eliduc has no obligation to Guilliadun. But he loved her and didn’t want her to commit suicide. Under her love coercion, Eliduc promised to return to her after his term of obligation to her father had expired. Then he would take her away. To what he would take her wasn’t clear to anyone, including apparently Eliduc himself. Facing a love dilemma impossible to resolve rightly, a man can only seek time and hope for a loving way forward.

When Eliduc returned home, his wife Guildeluëc rejoiced. He, however, was morose and withdrawn. Described as a good, beautiful, wise, and worthy wife, she didn’t become resentful. She asked if anyone had told him that she had betrayed him. She offered to make amends for any such claims. That wasn’t it, he explained. His concern was that he had to return to the English kingdom and would suffer greatly before he could return to her. What exactly he meant isn’t clear, but certainly he was in a difficult love situation.

At the time Guilliadun had appointed, Eliduc returned to her in England. He arranged for her to leave her castle secretly and join him on a boat sailing back to Brittany. As if by divine vengeance like that against Jonah, a fierce storm enveloped the ship near the Brittany shore. A sailor blamed Eliduc for bringing a woman who wasn’t his wife on ship with him. That’s when Guilliadun learned that Eliduc was married. She fainted from that news and apparently died. Eliduc then killed the sailor who had blamed him for agreeing to Guilliadun’s request. Men’s lives count for little relative to women’s lives.

The anguished Eliduc managed to steer the boat to shore. He sought to bury Guilliadun with honor in a sacred place. He took her to a chapel in the woods near to his home and laid her on a bed before the altar. He left to make plans to bury her. He also planned to become a monk who would constantly cry out to God in grief for Guilliadun’s death and pray for her soul.

On the next two days the grief-stricken Eliduc came to the chapel to grieve and pray over Guilliadun’s body. His wife Guildeluëc noticed his grief and his absences. She had one of her servants follow him. The servant discovered Eliduc visiting the chapel. When Eliduc was at an audience with the king, Guildeluëc with her servant came to the chapel. She saw the body of the beautiful young woman lying before the altar. She then understood her husband’s grief:

“Do you see,” she says, “this woman,
who resembles a gem in her beauty?
This is my lord’s lover,
on whose account he shows such sorrow.
In faith, I do not wonder at that,
when such a beautiful woman has died.
So much by pity, so much by love,
never will I have joy on any further day.”

{ “Veiz tu,” fet ele, “ceste femme,
Que de beuté resemble gemme?
Ceo est l’amie mun seignur,
Pur quei il meine tel dolur.
Par fei, jeo ne me merveil mie,
Quant si bele femme est perie.
Tant par pité, tant par amur,
Jamés n’averai joie nul jur.” }

In implicit sympathy with her husband’s grief, Guildeluëc wept and lamented the young woman’s death.

A weasel ran out from under the altar and scampered across Guilliadun’s body. The servant struck the weasel with his staff and apparently killed it. Another weasel saw its dead friend and seemed to be filled with sorrow. It went into the woods and returned with a red flower that it put into the mouth of its companion. The apparently dead weasel immediately returned to life.

Guildeluëc noticed the weasel’s action and its effect. With a characteristic act of women’s aggression, she ordered her man-servant to strike the weasel so as to get the flower from it. The servant did as his lady instructed.[3] The wounded weasel dropped the red flower. Guildeluëc then placed it in Guilliadun’s mouth. Like the apparently dead weasel, Guilliadun immediately returned to life.

Guildeluëc resurrected an apparently dead, beautiful young woman that her husband loved. Her love and generosity toward her husband went even further. She told Guilliadun:

What great joy I have that you are alive.
I will take you along with me
and return you to your lover.
I wish to make him entirely free of our marriage,
and I will take a nun’s veil.

{ Que vive estes, grant joie en ai;
Ensemble od mei vus enmerrai
E a vostre ami vus rendrai.
Del tut le voil quite clamer,
E si ferai mun chef veler. }

When she thought that Guilliadun was dead, Guildeluëc said that she would never again have joy. Guildeluëc felt joy again when she succeeded in bringing back to life a beautiful young woman whom her husband loved. Moreover, she then gave her husband to Guilliadun. While Jesus was a fully masculine man, Guildeluëc as a woman was fully able to embody the perfect, salvific love of Jesus in Christian understanding. No man could have a more wonderfully loving wife than Guildeluëc.[4]

medieval lady by Alexandre Cabanel

Guildeluëc wasn’t an exception among medieval women. In Marie de France’s lai Le Fresne, an orphan given to a convent grew up to be a beautiful woman called Le Fresne. She and Gurun, a knight owning much land, became lovers. Worried that she might become pregnant, he urged her to run away with him. So she did. They then married and lived happily. But she never got pregnant.

Other knights who held land from Gurun were upset that he didn’t have an heir. They wanted to be sure that their land holdings would continue when he died. They thus coerced him into divorcing Le Fresne and taking another woman named Le Codre as his new wife. All of people of his household were extremely upset at losing Le Fresne as their lady. But Le Fresne didn’t get upset or resentful. She apparently understood the bad circumstances and didn’t blame her husband.

Le Fresne displayed her generous love for her then ex-husband on the day of his new wedding. She instructed servants to prepare the marital bed for Gurun and his new bride Le Codre as she knew he liked it:

When the bed was made ready,
they threw a coverlet over it.
The material was an old woven silk.
The young lady saw it —
it didn’t seem right to her.
It pressed down on her heart.
She opened a chest, took out her cloth,
and put it on the bed of her lord.
She did it to honor him.

{ Quant le lit fu apresté,
Un covertur unt sus jeté;
Li dras esteit d’un viel bofu.
La dameisele l’ad veü;
N’ert mie bons, ceo li sembla;
En sun courage li pesa.
Un cofre overi, sun pali prist,
Sur le lit sun seignur li mist.
Pur lui honuere le feseit }[5]

Her cloth was the lovely silk that had wrapped her as a baby when she had been abandoned at the convent. She didn’t mean to signify her husband’s abandonment of her. Her life as an orphan had gone well, except for her husband being forced to divorce her. She simply wanted to make the marital bed more beautiful for her ex-husband and his new wife. That’s a wonderfully generous act of love.

Le Codre’s mother led her to that marital bed. The mother recognized the beautiful silk coverlet as the cloth in which she had wrapped her twin daughter that she had abandoned. She called for Le Fresne and embraced her daughter. She explained to everyone that Le Codre was Le Fresne’s twin sister. The mother profusely apologized to her husband for secretly abandoning one of their twin daughters. He forgave her and rejoiced in recovering his lost daughter. For Gurun, divorcing one twin and marrying another made no sense. The archbishop agreed to annul the wedding and cancel the divorce. Le Fresne and Gurun joyfully became spouses again.

Le Fresne’s generous act of love for her ex-husband Gurun eliminated all worldly concerns. Gurun’s scheming knight-tenants aren’t mentioned again. Whether Le Fresne and Gurun subsequently had children isn’t mentioned either. Le Fresne’s generous love for Gurun clearly was fruitful. That’s all that ultimately mattered.

Men today urgently need the generous love from women that Marie de France depicted. Woman today can be just as generously loving to men as medieval women were. The great medieval woman writer Marie de France provides woman and men today inspiring examples of wonderful women.

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[1] Marie de France, Guildeluëc and Guilliadun, or Eliduc {Guildeluëc et Guilliadun, ou Eliduc} v. 1084, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Waters (2018). For a freely available, online Old French text, Warnke & Köhler (1900) pp. 186-224. For another modern English translation, Fowles (1974) pp. 109-126, available here. Freely available translations into slightly dated English are those of Mason (1911) and Rickert (1901).

The subsequent quotes above from Guildeluëc et Guilliadun, ou Eliduc are similarly sourced. They are vv. 343-50 (If he wishes to love me…), 508-18 (She replies to the knight…), 1021-8 (“Do you see,” she says…), 1098-1102 (What great joy I have…).

[2] While strictly policing what’s labeled misogyny or anti-feminism, modern literary scholarship has long been inclusive and tolerant of misandry and anti-meninism. In 1977, a well-regarded academic literary scholar referred to Guilliadun’s categorical condemnation of men as “her own all too correct pronouncement that women should not trust men.” Hieatt (1977) p. 355. Hieatt further claims that “idiotic and heedless men abound” in Marie de France’s work:

The most typical characters in her lays are women victimized by men, either oppressive and cruel men or weaklings like Eliduc, and women whose native intelligence and/or humane compassion saves the day — or would, if the men would only listen to them.

Id. p. 356. Apparently projecting her own animosity toward men upon Marie de France, Hieatt grossly mischaracterized Marie de France as “a writer of distinctly feminist tone.” Id. p. 357.

[3] Lauding men-abasing courtly love, Fowles described it as an important context for Guildeluëc et Guilliadun, ou Eliduc:

It is hardly a fashionable idea in the twentieth century; but amour courtois was a desperately needed attempt to bring more civilization (more female intelligence) into a brutal society, and all civilization is based on agreed codes and symbols of mutual trust.

Fowles (1974) p. 107. In fact, courtly love {amour courtois} was been a quite fashionable idea since late in the nineteenth century. Showing the narrow contours that have long governed elite gender debate, Hieatt countered:

These and others of Marie’s lays show a good deal more concern with the poor behaviour of the male and the superior wisdom and humanity of the female than they do with the romantic aspects of “courtly love.”

Hieatt (1977) p. 356. The ideology of female supremacism has grown terribly in influence and viciousness since 1977.

[4] Regarding Guildeluëc’s generous love for her husband Eliduc, Hieatt commented:

A self-respecting modern wife faced with the prospect of being discarded for a younger woman generally expresses her indignation quite firmly and demands reprisals in the form of alimony and other perquisites before she will offer any cooperation at all to an errant spouse.

Hieatt (1977) p. 352. Not all women are like that.

[5] Marie de France, The Ash Tree {Le Fresne} vv. 397-405, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Waters (2018). The name of the lai is also the name of its woman-hero. The name of her twin sister Le Condre in English means “the hazel tree.” Following Waters, I’ve retained the French forms of the twins’ names. For a freely available, online Old French text of Le Fresne, Warnke & Köhler (1900). For freely available translations, Mason (1911) and Shoaf (1996).

[images] (1) Portrait of Mesopotamian courtesan Albaydé, as described in Victor Hugo’s poem “Fragments of a Serpent” in Les Orientales. Oil on canvas painting that Alexandre Cabanel made in 1848. Preserved in Musée Fabre (Monpellier, France). Via Wikimedia Commons. On this work, Moussa (2011). Ralph Hancock has observed that Albaydé is holding bindweed / morning glory {convolvulus}. Bindweed / morning glory is an invasive, climbing perennial that wraps itself around other plants and can kill them. Getting rid of it is very difficult.  (2) Medieval lady. Watercolor and gouache on paper. Painted by Alexandre Cabanel. Preserved in Mariano Procópio Museum (Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, Brazil). Via Wikimedia Commons. Here’s detailed information on the artistic career of the nineteenth-century French academic painter Alexandre Cabanel.


Fowles, John. 1974. The Ebony Tower. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Hieatt, Constance B. 1977. “Eliduc Revisited: John Fowles and Marie De France.” ESC: English Studies in Canada. 3 (3): 351-358.

Mason, Eugene, trans. 1911. French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

Moussa, Sarga. 2011. “Imaginary Hybridities: Geographic, Religioius and Poetic Crossovers in Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales.” Ch. 25 (pp. 280-290) in Guignery, Vanessa, Catherine Pesso-Miquel, and François Specq. Hybridity: forms and figures in literature and the visual arts. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Pub.

Rickert, Edith, trans. 1901. Marie de France. Seven of her lays done into English. With designs by Caroline Watts. David Nutt: London.

Shoaf, Judith P. 1996. “Le Fresne: Marie de France, translated.” Online.

Warnke, Karl, and Reinhold Köhler, eds. 1900. Die Lais der Marie de France. Halle: M. Niemeyer.

Waters, Claire M. 2018. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Translation. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

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