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20 may 2023

I continue my tour through the Lais of Marie de France with Guigemar. This is your typical story: guy gets cursed by enchanted deer, guy sails away on enchanted ship, guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy sails home on enchanted ship, guy and girl find each other again thanks to complicated underclothing, guy pillages castle to win girl for good.

As always in early tales of chivalry, fidelity in love is a good thing but marriage is not particularly sacred. When the guy, Guigemar, meets his never-named girlfriend, she is already married. But her husband has some flaws:

Gelus esteit a desmesure;
Kar ceo purportoit la nature
Ke tut li veil seient gelus. (50)

[He was exceedingly jealous,
Because Nature will have it so
That all old men are jealous.]
The husband loses the poetic right to marital respect when he locks his wife up in a fortress with just a single door, guarded night and day by a superannuated chaplain. Unfortunately there's no wall on the seaward side of this castle, and it's easy enough for the enchanted ship to drop Guigemar there.

Guigemar and the lady soon become lovers, and carry on happily for a year and a half; who knows what the husband is doing all this time. But he does eventually find out, sends Guigemar packing on the ship, and starts treating his wife even worse, locking her up "En une tur de marbre bis" (76), in a grey marble tower.

But despite their relationship being extra-marital, Guigemar and his lady are the pattern of fidelity. They formalize their arrangement by means of the aforementioned underwear. She ties his tunic in a knot that only she can undo, and he ties a belt around her with a similarly unloosenable knot. These are not forcible chastity belts; apparently you could easily cut them open, but that's not the point; only a partner who can undo the thing "sanz depescer" (80) – without destroying it – can win the love of the wearer.

And it's not for lack of trying; when Guigemar gets home to Brittany from Enchanted Castle Land,

Il n'i ad dame ni pucele
Ki n'i alast pur asaier:
Unc ne la purent despleier. (76)

[There wasn't a woman or girl
Who didn't come to try it:
But not one could undo the thing.]
Only when the right woman comes, thanks to that handy ship, do the lovers reunite. And faithful they remain, despite the ill-will of the hobbitly-named lord Mériadoc, who wants the lady for his own and scorns these foundation-garment formalities. Guigemar duly kicks Mériadoc's ass and the couple live happily ever after.

My Old French is getting better but is not as good as it seems above; I rely on Philippe Walter's simple, literal modern French translation, which brings across Marie's economy with words and her lucid narrative gift. On to more lais!

Marie de France. Guigemar. In Lais. Translated by Philippe Walter. Paris: Gallimard, 2010. 36-91.