2. Were there many female writers in the Middle Ages?
This group of stories was written by a woman, Marie de France. She lived in the late 12th century. She actually identifies herself in several of her works, that her name is Marie and that shes from France. Theres been a great deal of speculation about who exactly she was. It seems most likely that she was somehow associated with the court of King Henry II of England and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Some have speculated that she was actually an illegitimate half-sister of King Henry II, so shes definitely a member of court and courtly nobility.
She knows this community and society very well, and theres the possibility that she was from the most elite strata. Shes a very well-educated woman. We know that in some of her other works, she translated Latin Aesopic fables into the vernacular, into Anglo-Norman French. Its the Anglo-Norman version of French that was dominant in England after the Conquest and in northern France that these lais are written in.
If you look at the whole population of the Middle Ages, its only a very slender elite that can read and write. Mostly that elite is clerics, but if you look at nonclerics they would all be nobles. And women are more likely to be literate than men until about the 13th and 14th century when theres a spread of male literacy. And this is mainly because elite women were responsible for the education, particularly the religious instruction, of their children. Therefore they have at least some functional literacy.
The emergence of a public sphere is one thats very important to womens status in history, and you can see very clearly even elite women losing power as their mode of influence within the court is increasingly circumvented. Officials and more bureaucratic institutions get power, and personal influence is less the dominant means of exercising power. Increasingly, the education of heirs is given over to professionals, to tutors, and a whole coterie of officials.
They would still have control over daughters and their education, but thats more to prepare them to be married off as political pawns. The more direct influence that they exercised over those who would wield power is definitely diminished across the central Middle Ages. These stories, even though theyre highly amusing, actually give you insight into this changing political situation and how it affects women. As well as insight into a whole range of cultural issues.
Still, it is exceptional for a woman to have the degree of literacy, and to actually promote herself as an author as Marie de France did. Shes clearly very confident of her writing and is interested in taking credit for it.
And we have some evidence of resistance to that. Theres actually a contemporary English monk, Denis Pyramus who mentions this dame Marie who writes stories and how theyre very popular, that many men and women like them, but particularly women. He makes a point of saying that theyre untrue. But of course theyre meant to be entertaining stories and often have this element of the supernatural or the magical.