#LadyPower in Marie de France’s “Yonec”

In “Yonec,” one of the twelve poems included in The Lais of Marie de France, Marie crafts a short but fascinating narrative that includes characters from the otherworld and explores themes like jealousy, love, and rebellion. If you haven’t read “Yonec,” give it a try! It’s only a few pages long, but as I’m going to demonstrate in this article, there’s a lot you can unpack.

At the beginning of the poem, a lady makes a speech that expresses her frustration with her situation. And her emotions are completely valid—this lady lives with an oppressive husband who controls essentially every aspect of her life. She’s completely isolated.

While the poem was likely written in the late twelfth century, the inquiries that can be derived from the text are timeless. Here’s a more in-depth understanding of the lady’s lament and its implications in Marie’s narrative poem.

At the beginning of her speech, the lady expresses frustration and aggrievement. Her strong feelings of isolation are apparent as she verbalizes her distress:

‘Alas,’ she said, ‘that ever I was born! My destiny is hard indeed. I am a prisoner in this tower and death alone will free me. What is this jealous old man afraid of, to keep me so securely imprisoned? He is extremely stupid and foolish, always fearing that he will be betrayed. I can neither go to church nor hear God’s service. I could put on a friendly mien for him, even without any desire to do so, if I could talk to people and join them in amusement. (Marie 87)

Until the events that follow her speech, the lady’s actions were dictated by her controlling husband. Because of her husband’s jealousy and his abuse of patriarchal power, the lady was essentially separated from the rest of society. He had locked her in a tower for seven years, did not permit her to see her family and friends, and had his sister act like the lady’s prison guard. His mistreatment of his authority resulted in  misery for the lady, a woman he supposedly loved.

The lady also seems to take agency over her isolation.

However, the lady also seems to take agency over her isolation. The lady’s husband secluded her from all company, but the lady is aware that he was not the only person involved in her predicament. She continues her speech by cursing her relatives. In imprecating her relations, the lady isolates herself from her social environment; while she is already physically separated from society, the lady creates space from others through her speech. Her words seem to be a retaliation to her relations, as they allowed her marriage to the jealous man to take place, and the match was likely made against her will. 

The lady’s strong emotions of frustration and loneliness—feelings that arose from her unjust situation and her husband’s ill-treatment towards her—inspire rebellion. In the last part of her lament, the lady makes a wish:

I have often heard tell that in this country one used to encounter adventures which relieved those afflicted by care: knights discovered maidens to their liking, noble and fair, and ladies found handsome and courtly lovers, worthy and valiant men.  There was no fear of reproach and they alone could see them. If this can be and ever was, if it ever did happen to anyone, may almighty God grant my wish! (Marie 87)

She hopes for a knight, with characteristics that differ greatly from her husband, to discover her and become her lover. Subsequently, a hawk arrives and transforms into a handsome knight who fulfills her wish. It is interesting to note that the hawk can be seen as a symbol of freedom, as the lady had claimed that death alone could free her; the knight provides a way for the lady to gain the freedom that she wished for, even though she did not think she could achieve it without death. The knight and the lady soon enter into an adulterous relationship and continue to see each other until their affair is discovered by the jealous man’s sister. 

Marie illustrates the power of the lady’s conviction through the implications of the lady’s speech. It is through her imagination that the woman can call upon the knight to her tower. In “The Power of Feminine Anger in Marie de France’s ‘Yonec’ and ‘Guigemar,” Jennifer Willging writes about how Marie does not set apart reality and the imagination, which in turn demonstrates her refusal to support the idea that the mind and body are separated, a concept that twelfth-century theology promoted.

The woman is human, yet she can summon the knight. Furthermore, the knight has aspects of the otherworldly, but he is able to have a child with the lady. Marie’s story gives power and agency to the woman, as the consequences of the lady’s speech produce the remaining plot, and she contradicts the idea that femininity equals irrationality. 

Furthermore, the adulterous relationship between the knight and the lady could be considered an act of rebellion in response to her husband’s abuse of patriarchal power. Rather than framing the woman in a negative light for her rebellious infidelity, the woman’s actions are seen as just. After their passing, the knight and the lady are honored and remembered for their love.

In the narrative, the lady is not depicted as illogical or hysterical, and her strong emotions are what allows her to escape from her controlling husband.

The story frames the lady and knight as the protagonists, while the lady’s husband is the evil and irrational character. Thus, the lady’s anger and her actions that result from her frustration are depicted as intuitive and acceptable responses to the unfortunate situation she was in. In the narrative, the lady is not depicted as illogical or hysterical, and her strong emotions are what allows her to escape from her controlling husband. 

By analyzing how Marie included the concepts of isolation, rebellion, and imagination in “Yonec,” we can see how “Yonec” demonstrates the power of the woman’s speech and validates the actions that stem from feminine feelings. Thus, we can see “Yonec” as a celebration of individual agency and imagination that considers the significance of rebellion stemming as a response to abused power and legitimate emotions. 

Works Cited

Marie, et al. The Lais of Marie De France. Penguin Books Ltd, 1999. Willging, Jennifer.