Yonec by Marie de France is an interesting lai because it offers an interesting perspective of marriage and knight hood. During this time female chastity is a highly emphasized custom and it was socially unacceptable for a maid to be unchaste or to take council with other men outside of the marriage. The maiden in this lai is kept locked away for the King’s personal satisfaction. This behavior may not have been the custom but it was accepted because wives were seen as the property of their husband. After marriage the husband can do whatever he pleases with little to no consequences while the wife is expected to stay chaste, honest, loyal, and obedience to her husband.
Marie de France presents a disloyal, unchaste wife in Yonec and sets her up as the victim by being locked away during her entire marriage. Although the wife has good reason for her disloyalty to her husband this is unacceptable behavior for a wife and deserves punishments according to the customs of this time. Rather than emphasize the wife’s villainy, the speaker instead labels the husband “evil” and “felon” for seeking revenge on the wife’s lover. The sister is also labeled deceitful and betraying as she reveals the details of the lovers to the husband. The speaker sets the adulterous lovers up as innocent victims while the husband and sisters are illustrated as evil villains, which is rarely seen during this time.
Another interesting point is how the knight is dishonest and deceitful but still upheld and honored by those in his kingdom as well as the wife. The characters in the play are illustrated in ways that contradict the customs of the time period and I find that interesting.
I do not think I would go so far as to say that the characters “contradict” the customs of the time period so much as they dramatize the contradiction in societal values. On one hand, I agree with you 100% that during the time period women are considered property and can be treated as chattel first, hence why the mean ol’ husband can lock up his wife in a tower without inspiring a revolt. Women in this sense are understood in large part in economic/dynastic terms as the vessel that continues the bloodline and they must be kept apart in order to guarantee clear lines of succession.
With that being said, we still have this notion of courtly love that relies upon the agency of both parties. When the lady makes her initial prayer, she invokes stories of noble, handsome knights who dedicate themselves to women such as her, suggesting that these types of romances are already out there. In an attempt to soften what you identified as the challenge to marriage, Marie de France has to amp up the beauty and nobility of their love, almost as if to side step the question of cheating by implying that the true love of the knight and lady transcends marriage by law. Indeed, during the time period children conceived by couples who planned on getting married or had conducted a secret wedding had been cleared of wrongdoing despite what laws were on the book.
I completely agree that Marie de France approach to soften the adultery with courtley love is significantly effective as the couples happiness become the important point in the lai. But it is important to remember that the wife’s loyalty is to her husband. According to the custom women are expected to forgo their personal happiness for that of their husband and children if they have any. The wife in this is resisting the customs of this time period. Although romance after so much misery is ideal in the lai, it is important not to dismiss the wrongs comitted by the lovers.
Joshua’s comment reminded me of the importance of “heirs” at this time and in this story particularly. We learn that “in order to make his fortunes last,/ [the Lord] took a wife to get children, heirs” from his wife. He locks her up in the tower in order to procreate with her, but also, because he is jealous–“her beauty and sweetness roused his ardor,/ So he planned carefully how to guard her.” The two “never did engender heirs” but the lady is still kept in her tower for seven years before she meets the knight. The lai itself is named after the son of the lady and the knight which reinforces the importance of the idea of children. It seems significant that the Lord cannot have children himself (though the Lady obviously can) despite his deliberate efforts. At first I thought that the poem was a story of good and evil– the “evil” Lord and his sister versus the Lady and knight (who are, as L’Kai notes, also impure, but have “religion” on their side) but it also seems to be focused on the idea of jealousy and impotence. I’m interested to see how we decipher this “romance” in class.
Although Marie de France’s lai Yonek does include courtly love and other characteristics of the time period, I think that she also includes characteristics that may “contradict,” as you said, the regular characteristics of writing at the time. Aspects of the role of the wife characterize a strong female lead, which is not expected from a time period where men were considered superior to women. After seven years locked in a tower by her husband, the wife takes her life into her own hands as she secretly sees another man behind her overpowering and “vile” husband’s back. As the lai progresses and the wife’s lover is murdered, the wife exhibits unexpected characteristics of a female because she stands up to protect her son and self by deceiving her husband with the ring given to her by her late lover. Even though, she was looked at as her husband’s property and inferior to man, she takes her life into her own hands and in turn saves her and her child’s lives. Although the lai is a dark story, in the end, the mother saves her son and he becomes a lord and avenges her. The story ends with a likely heroic act by a man, however, I do believe that throughout the lai the female character exhibits characteristics that set her apart from submissive wives of the time and offer a new perspective.