Gender Roles, Dynamics and Expectations in Marie de France’s Lais and Today

It is a common belief that our modern ideas of gender stereotypes are exactly that: modern. Though if we delve into the stories of the past, even as far back as the Middle Ages, we can find many similarities or even identical ideologies to those of today. With our ever-increasing diversity of gender roles and the expectations therein, it’s valuable to be able to learn and explore by looking back on those roles, dynamics and expectations of centuries past, as is the aim of this presentation. Marie de France’s lais (lays) are foundational pieces of literature, not only to the French language but also to our ideas and beliefs surrounding the stereotypes and standards we believe men and women to hold. In analyzing these roles played out in the stories of these 12th century lais, we not only have a picture of ideals and expectations from an age long past, but we can also see the parallels with society today. Marie de France’s lais were originally Breton tales, which she transformed into prose and relished in relaying to the courtly nobles of the region. These were tales of love found, love lost but also of the unexpected ways people step outside of those expectations and act in profound ways that have shaped our gender roles and dynamics to this day. While there are only 12 lais in total, these are not short prose poems, but rather full-length tales and therefore offer plenty of insight into the hearts and minds of characters who represent the real people’s feelings, desires and motivations of that era. Through their actions, we can observe the stereotypes that have persisted during the ages which impact our assumptions and beliefs still today.

Author: Rachel Poore