7. How do you help students analyze Le Fresne?
I ask them to first think about all the parties involved, like who are these knights? Why are they so interested in whether the lord is married or not? Why do they care if he has an heir?
It matters because theyre concerned about stability. They want to begin to develop a relationship with the heir themselves to safeguard their own position. In this passage, theres clearly a distinction between the attitude of the landed knights and their attitudes towards Le Fresne, this young woman, and the knights of his household who are mentioned at the end, the squires and the serving-boys. This brings up a really interesting and important distinction between the knights who had fiefs, who have a real stake in this relationship with their lord and who are wealthy and more powerful by virtue of having land. And then landless knights, who are hanging out at the court of this lord and giving him household service, military service in the hopes of being granted a fief so that they become landed knights. Their interests are clearly different from the landed knights.
And then ask the students to think about the behavior of Le Fresne. Why does she act like this? Why does she accept it? I mean, here she has run off with this man, left the only home that shes ever known, to become his partner and to serve him. Suddenly shes just going to be cast aside and in fact be in the position of having to serve his new wife. Would you respond this way? Why does the author, whos a woman, recommend this behavior or portray it as positive? Why does Marie de France portray Le Fresne simply accepting this and continuing to be the meek and well-behaved servant of her lord?
If this were a true story set in the Middle Ages, does this woman have a possibility of resistance? Whats going to happen to her if she doesnt accept this situation? And in fact, the story very much rewards her behavior because she continues serving him. The truth comes out of her noble status and the fact that shes the twin of the woman that hes just married. And then, in fact, the marriage is undone and shes married to her lover. So accepting and sort of cooperative behavior is rewarded, whereas women in some of the other stories who take different approaches to get the lover they want, or to keep a lover that they have, do not fare so well in these stories.