Woman as Victim and Vehicle of Redemption in the Search for Holiness: Marie de France’s Fresne — By Stephanie Grace-Petinos

The twelfth-century lai Fresne by Marie de France, notably the only lai in her collection named for the female protagonist, tells the tale of an innocent girl victimized for matters beyond her control which she accepts with quiet obedience. The tale begins with Fresne’s mother who, upon hearing the news that her neighbor is expecting twin sons, slanders the pregnant neighbor by claiming the children had to have been fathered by two different men. When Fresne’s mother then gives birth to twin daughters, she decides to dispose of one of the children secretly in order to preserve her own reputation. A faithful maid carries the baby away from her homeland, leaving her at the door of a convent, where she is discovered, named ‘Fresne’ for the ash tree in which she is found, and raised as the abbess’s niece. Years later, a local knight, Gurun, hears of Fresne’s beauty and falls in love with her. He eventually seduces her and persuades her to leave the convent to live with him as his mistress. His vassals, wanting Gurun to produce a legitimate male heir, insist that he marry to a woman of high rank from a noble family. Gurun agrees to the marriage with a noblewoman who happens to be Fresne’s twin sister, Codre. While Fresne prepares the marriage bed for Gurun and Codre, she replaces the worn coverlet with her own ornate silk in which she had been wrapped by her mother when she was abandoned. The mother sees the silk coverlet, recognizes it and discovers that Fresne is the daughter she abandoned, prompting her to beg forgiveness from Fresne and from her husband. The marriage between Codre and Gurun is annulled, and Gurun and Fresne are married.

The titular heroine discussed in this study is a victim of a level of violence and injustice beyond her control which renders her silent: Fresne is unaware that she has been abandoned by a slanderous mother just as she is unaware of her nobility, leading her to obediently accept that she cannot marry her lover, Gurun. She is left effectively mute, unable to challenge the resulting suffering that she experiences, namely as a concubine, detached from a definitive ancestry. As a woman, the protagonist lacks the right to claim new lands or dedicate herself to the service of a new lord, as is the case with an exiled knight. Yet, despite the severely limited mobility of women at the time of the text’s composition (mid to late twelfth century), the heroine manages to forge a life for herself in which her suffering becomes part of the journey that solidifies her holiness. In fact, it is this suffering that is the key to her holiness. Fresne neither is officially canonized nor explicitly enters into the cult of the saints, yet she is treated in the text with an air of sanctity, and scholars agree on her spiritual and moral integrity.[1] The way she endures her suffering and seeks the imitations of the life and passion of Christ are, as with contemporary saints and holy women, the path and evidence for her distinction as a holy individual.[2] In the end, her spiritual merit is the justification for her subsequent secular gains.

This essay examines how Fresne transcends the temporal realm to achieve a level of spiritual perfection that surpasses those around her, granting for herself agency through her suffering which solidifies her as a model of holiness and womanhood in both realms, temporal and spiritual. First, I discuss the ways in which the heroine is made into a victim, identifying the sources of her forced silence and suffering. Next, I explore how this victimization allows her to attain a higher level of holiness, performing imitatio Christi through a series of figurative deaths and resurrections that repeat and ritualize Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Having established the proof of the heroine’s holiness in this way, I discuss how Fresne continues her transcendental journey to become the vehicle of redemption for herself as well as for those around her through forgiveness and caritas. The heroine undergoes a penitential journey on behalf of another, which is yet again a form of identification with Christ, whose death is a sacrifice to redeem the sins of all mankind. Finally, I consider a crucial moment in the text to elucidate how the protagonist manages to attain a level of autonomy and agency through her moment of greatest selflessness. In the end, the heroine becomes an exemplar of holiness, which in turn advances her secular prestige by making her an example on whom other secular women can model themselves.

The initial, and immediate, victimization of Fresne stems from the rejection by her own mother. The violence directed at Fresne is not fully achieved, but is threatened: when her mother gives birth to twins, she chooses to protect her reputation rather than her child. If it were to become known that she had given birth to twins, she would become the target of infidelity accusations, the same accusation she brought against her neighbor when the neighbor gave birth to twin boys. Thus, she plans to have Fresne killed, choosing temporal social standing over the moral and ethical concerns surrounding infanticide.  This threat of violence for selfish motives establishes the opposition that exists between Fresne and her mother, where the mother represents the sinful, fallen, Eve-like woman while Fresne becomes the patient Marian figure who redeems her sex.[3] She does not kill Fresne, convinced by a faithful servant to abandon the child in a different land; thus, she abandons her at the door of an abbey. As a result, the mother sets in motion the series of rejections that Fresne will face over the course of her life by denying Fresne the knowledge of her identity. Her mother leaves an expensive silk cloth and ruby ring with her daughter to signal her nobility to whomever should discover her; however, without her knowing to what specific lineage she belongs, these indicators fall short of their purpose. Deborah Nelson points out that the material possessions become useless markers, failed talismans to protect the daughter; it is the intercessory maid’s faith in God that actually protects Fresne.[4]Sharon Kinoshita notes the core problem behind the mother’s rejection of her daughter: “without an identifiable lineage she is nothing more than a foundling with no value on the marriage market.”[5]

The mother solidifies Fresne’s hopelessness in having any sort of legitimate family, silencing the cultural demands of wifehood and motherhood that befit a woman of her rank. The silk swaddling cloth and ring fail to speak on behalf of Fresne’s nobility, unable to overcome the anxiety of a woman with no known family attachment. This causes her identity to be determined, instead, by the ash tree in which she is discovered: “Pur ceo que al freisne fu trovee,/ La Freisne li mistrent a nun” [and because she had been found in the ash tree, the abbess decided to name her “Fresne” [Ash] (ll. 228-229).[6] Her name thus embodies not only the maternal rejection, but also barrenness in the possibilities for her future. The supposedly barren tree becomes a metaphor for Fresne’s limited options: she will become a celibate nun in the convent in which she is raised; a handmaid; or Gurun’s mistress whose children, should she bear any, would not be legitimate heirs to their father’s lands—all of which deny her the possibility of marriage and a legitimate lineage.[7] This imposed barrenness, caused by the threat of rebellion among Gurun’s knights if he fails to produce a legitimate heir, silences her womanhood and her biological potential. The knights suggest their own suitable mate for Gurun, a woman whose name implies fertility the way Fresne’s implies infertility; this woman also happens to be Fresne’s twin sister, though no one is aware of this fact at the time. The knights proclaim:

La Codre ad non la damesele;
En cest païs ne ad si bele.
Pur le freisne que vus larrez
En eschange le Codre avez;
En la Codre ad noiz e deduiz,
Freisnes ne portë unke fruiz! (ll. 335-340)

[The girl’s name is Codre [Hazel]; there isn’t one so pretty in this region. In exchange for the ash, when you get rid of her, you’ll have the hazel. The hazel tree bears nuts and thus gives pleasure; the ash bears no fruit].

Fresne’s silence and barrenness are an exact opposite of her twin sister, Codre, named for the fruitful hazel tree and heiress to her family’s fortune, who is joyfully accepted as Gurun’s fiancée by the knights. Her sister’s fate underscores everything denied to Fresne due to her mother’s selfishness.

Rejected by her mother and barred from marrying Gurun, Fresne is denied agency, having no say in the course of her own life. Even her relationship with Gurun is not entirely without an element of victimization. When Gurun hears about Fresne’s beauty, he decides to make her his mistress.[8] To avoid any suspicions or hint of his true intentions in visiting the convent where Fresne resides, he devises a plan to meet and seduce her:

De une chose se purpensa:
L’abeïe crestre vodera ;
De sa tere tant i dura
Dunt a tuz jurs l’amendera,
Kar il vout aveir retur
E le repaire e le serur.
Pur aver lur fraternité,
La ad grantment del soen doné
Mes il ad autrë acheisun
Que de receivre le pardun ! (ll. 261-270)

[He hit upon a scheme: he would become a benefactor of the abbey, give it so much of his land that it would be enriched forever; he’d thus establish a patron’s right to live there, so that he could come and stay whenever he chose. To be a member of that community he gave generously of his goods—but he had a motive other than receiving pardon for his sins].

Before Fresne meets Gurun, there is a plot in place to coerce her into a relationship that can never lead to marriage. Gurun is not concerned with what will become of Fresne when he inevitably will be required to marry and produce legitimate heirs; he selfishly coerces her away from the convent to become his concubine. Gurun’s offense is rendered worse because he uses a religious pretense while violating Church law. As Nelson states:

[Gurun] appears to be generous when he donates land to the convent, but his outward gesture contrasts sharply with his hidden motivation… He simply wishes to be certain of a warm welcome at the convent, so that he may spend more time with Fresne, whom he seduces in full knowledge that he cannot marry her because her family background is unknown. Like Fresne’s mother, he consistently makes decisions with a conscious disregard for the state of his soul.[9]

Since they reside on his land Gurun is supposed to be the protector of the nuns in the convent, ensuring their economic survival as well as their bodily safety. Yet, he does the opposite when he leads Fresne into an illicit relationship for which she is ill-prepared: despite receiving a formal education in the convent, she is naive to the world outside the convent walls, particularly in relation to men. While the abbess has kept Fresne as her own niece, she does nothing to protect her from the sexual advances of Gurun. Yet again, Fresne is dismissed by a mother figure: this time, it is her adoptive aunt who, through her passivity and neglect, does nothing to protect Fresne from the dangers of the secular world. The abbess, like Fresne’s mother, seeks to avoid any negative repercussions from opposing secular forces over Fresne’s well-being and protection, choosing to deflect secular punishment rather than uphold spiritual values.

The abbess’s reluctance to shield Fresne from Gurun’s advances, coupled with Gurun’s later caving in to the local barons’ demands, signals another layer of victimization: this time, at the hands of the entire patriarchal and feudal society. Fresne is prohibited from marrying Gurun because of feudal concerns about inheritance and familial connections.[10] Gurun himself is subject to these feudal laws, as evidenced by the barons’ threat to rebel unless he produces a legitimate heir. The abbess’s reluctance to prevent Fresne from becoming Gurun’s mistress thus stems from her submissive position in relation to Gurun, as both a woman and as a subject on his property. Because Gurun donates a large portion of his lands, on which the convent exists, there is the expectation of a counter-gift. Typically, this return would come in the form of intercessory prayers, but the author makes it clear that Gurun is not seeking spiritual benefits. As Kinoshita notes, the abbey is located in a wealthy town, and Gurun could easily direct his generosity elsewhere, leaving the abbess in the precarious position of subjugation to Gurun.[11] Perhaps she is not as unaware as scholars have previously thought;[12] I posit that it is possible the abbess is entirely aware of Gurun’s intentions, yet recognizes her powerlessness in the face of the patriarchal and feudal codes that shape society, even within the convent. While her inaction leaves Fresne victim to Gurun’s will, to act is to transgress feudal codes. Even Fresne herself is powerless to refuse Gurun, since he is her lord as well. In becoming his mistress, she completes the gift exchange, becoming the counter-gift he receives for his generosity.[13]

The subjection of individuals, especially women, to the secular codes of feudalism and patriarchy prompts a reconsideration of Fresne’s mother, initially presented by the author as entirely evil because of her willingness to kill her child to save her reputation. While not justified in her extreme reaction to birthing twins, she is, like her daughter and the abbess, a victim of this same feudal system. She does admit that she would rather make up her sin to God than live in shame: “Pur mei defendre de hunir,/ Un des enfanz m’estuet murdrir:/ Meuz le voil vers Deu amender/ Que mei hunir e vergunder” [Now, to keep from being disgraced, I’ll have to kill one of my children! I’d rather make that up to God than live in shame and dishonor] (ll. 91-94). However, her choice is not made exclusively to preserve her reputation; when the accusations of adultery reach the neighbor’s household, the husband becomes suspicious of his wife and keeps her under strict watch: “La prode femmë en haï/ E durement la mescreï,/ E mut la teneit en destreit/ Sans ceo que ele nel deserveit” [He hated his worthy wife because of it, strongly suspected her, and kept her under strict guard, even though she didn’t deserve it] (ll. 61-64). Fresne’s mother has seen these negative consequences and fears experiencing the same, or an even worse, fate. This wife finds herself in a precarious position that leaves her powerless against the will of her husband: if he chose to repudiate her or abuse her for a perceived adultery, she would be powerless against him, sent back to her father’s house or destined to endure his abuse. Thus, Fresne, the abbess, Fresne’s mother, and even Gurun are subject to patronage and patriarchal norms and victims of its constraints.[14]

At this point Fresne overcomes a simplistic reduction of womanhood by turning her status as victim into a positive attribute, where suffering allows her to identify with the suffering of Christ. In this way, the heroine displays a growing development of female piety, using imitatio Christi to prove her holiness without gender inversion, to identify with the sacred through manifestations of Christ’s suffering and to cope with her imposed suffering, bearing it patiently and willingly.[15] As Jenni Kuuliala asserts in “Miracles and the Disabled Body in the Later Middle Ages”: “In the Middle Ages, pain was generally accepted as an inevitable part of human existence. At the same time, suffering was considered to be a divine gift, making it possible to expiate one’s misdeeds already in this life. Suffering also made it possible to imitate the passion of Christ.”[16] This patient suffering becomes a solution to the injustices done to Fresne, where the suffering body becomes a sacred vessel through which others come to repentance and redemption. She may be of the weaker sex, but she proves to be morally strong and impenetrable in her steadfast faith. Her exemplary selflessness in which she demonstrates her capacity for forgiveness and Christian charity fulfills her spiritual transcendence. The violence and suffering that she undergoes is the penitential journey for those that she redeems.[17] She serves as a proxy, doing penance on behalf of the sinners; once forgiveness is granted, she is freed from her penance and from her imposed silence. This transcendental holiness propels the heroine into the position of being a model of piety, the epitome of holiness, for men and women in her society.

Fresne’s first “death” occurs as soon as she is born: although she escapes physical death, she becomes metaphorically dead to the mother who has rejected her child and told no one of her existence. Fresne’s second “death” occurs when she enters the convent under the abbess’s care. This death is not finite, since she does not take official vows, but it does remove her from the secular world and is thus akin to the metaphorical monastic death. Even though she eventually has contact with Gurun, a secular individual outside the convent, this contact occurs because Gurun purchases the land in order to become her feudal lord. It is only at this point that he has any real contact with Fresne. Thus, she remains withdrawn from the secular world until her convent is attached to Gurun through his patronage; and even then, Gurun remains her only secular contact beyond the convent.

It is this contact with Gurun that begins her first rebirth, accomplished when she leaves the convent with him. However, she is not entirely reborn: she has transferred out of the convent, where she is hidden from almost the entire secular world, but, as Gurun’s mistress, she still remains hidden from the world, this time as a concubine. She reenters the secular world with Gurun, but only as a sexual object; her first death prevents her from becoming anything more, until her second, and final, rebirth. This final rebirth is accomplished when Fresne’s mother discovers that Gurun’s mistress is, in fact, the daughter she abandoned at birth. When Fresne reveals that the silk and ring are her possessions, Fresne is brought back to life before her mother’s eyes; the possessions that failed as justification for her to marry Gurun, or any man of noble lineage, do succeed as identification markers that reunite Fresne with her family. No longer is she an orphan of ambiguous ancestry, reduced to remaining Gurun’s concubine; rather, she is part of a family with a noble lineage. Fresne is reborn and her memory restored to her mother, her true identity emerges as she is reinstated to her rightful social position, and she is born for the first time in the eyes of her father and twin sister. With this restoration of identity, Fresne gains the justification to marry Gurun, which recovers her womanhood and the ability to pass on her lineage and familial inheritance, both maternal and paternal. Although Marie does not mention whether or not Fresne and Gurun have any children, the potential exists, and any child that might come from Fresne is now deemed legitimate by society.

When Fresne is informed that Gurun will be married to another woman, she does not protest. In fact, she continues to serve Gurun, even preparing the bed where the newlywed couple will sleep on their wedding night. As she prepares the bed, she determines that the intended coverlet is not suitable for Gurun; so, she has her birth garment, the rich silk from Constantinople, laid on the bed in order to honor him: “Un cofre overi, sun pali prist,/ Sur le lit sun seignur le mist./ Pur li honurer le feseit” [She opened a chest, took out her birth garment, and put it on her lord’s bed] (ll. 403-405). Despite a grim future with no hope of marrying Gurun, Fresne remains steadfastly dedicated to him; her behavior is akin to the later model of patient Griselda.[18] As Peter F. Ainsworth purports in “‘The Letter Killeth’: Law and Spirit in Marie de France’s Lay of Le Fresne”, “[i]n laying the paile on her erstwhile lover’s bed, Le Fresne does indeed give up that which is dearest to her, preferring the happiness of others to her own, earthly self-realization. She is […] moved to perform an act of Christian grace and self-sacrifice totally at variance with the ethos of the earlier part of the tale.”[19]This unreserved expression of charity demonstrates her profound selflessness,[20] a characteristic noticed by the mother, who begins to regret, for the first time, causing pain to the young girl:

“Pensat e dist, si ele le seüst
La maniere ke ele fust,
Ja pur sa fille ne peridst
Ne sun seignur ne li tolist” (ll. 385-388)

[She said to herself that if she’d known what kind of a person Fresne was, she wouldn’t have let her suffer on account of her daughter Codre, wouldn’t have taken Fresne’s lord away from her].

Because Fresne has switched the old coverlet for her own, the mother is able to identify it as the one in which she wrapped her infant daughter, at which point she collapses out of pity for Fresne: “De la pité ke ele en a/ Ariere cheit, si se pauma” [Out of pity for Fresne she fell over in a faint] (ll. 451-452). Hearing Fresne’s story and seeing her lowly position, Fresne’s mother realizes fully, for the first time, the true extent of her transgressions.

Fresne’s sacrifice is not merely admirable, it is considered a marvel: “A grant merveille le teneient/ cil et celes ki la veeient” [Everyone who saw this thought it a great marvel] (ll. 381-82). It is due to the extreme nature of Fresne’s act of sacrifice and charity that the mother is moved to repentance.[21] Upon waking up from her faint, Fresne’s mother is, herself, reborn as a penitent woman. She asks forgiveness from her husband, admitting the slander against her neighbor and the conspiracy in which she abandoned their daughter. It is not just the slander and abandonment that are revealed; she is also guilty of jealousy, pride and intended infanticide. When the mother confesses her transgressions, she is on her knees before her husband, like a penitent before a priest. This display of emotion and position of submission are the proofs of her contrition. Fresne and her father are both overjoyed when they hear the truth; this joy, in stark contrast to the anguish of the mother, confirms their sincere forgiveness toward her. This moment of confession and forgiveness absolves the mother of her sins; she is, like Fresne, brought back from the metaphorical death caused by her sins, and purified through confession.

Ironically, coinciding with Fresne’s greatest moment of selflessness is a significant moment of action and personal choice that grants her agency and personal benefit. This does not erase the spiritual validity of this action, nor does it suggest that she acts out of selfish motives. Rather, it allows the space for a co-existence of spiritual and secular meaning, whereby selfless acts can be read as leading to two different paths simultaneously: one that leads to holiness, and one that leads to agency. While I do not deny the element of sacrifice, charity and love in this scene, I do propose another reading that centers on Fresne’s self-awareness. Ainsworth makes a similar assertion:

Le Fresne is certainly aware of her immediate actions: her sacrificial laying down of her paile roé reminds us, but in ‘romantic’ rather than homiletic mode, that there is no greater love than that shown by the one who lays down his (her, in this instance) life for the brethren; but in the lay, as in the Kingdom, the achievement is wrought through grace (the Scripture, of course, points to Christ as ultimate exemplar).[22]

While I admit that Fresne may not be aware of the full significance of her action—she certainly does not know that laying down this cloth will lead to her estranged mother recognizing her— she is aware that her action is one of sacrifice. She is also aware that this silk wrapped around her as a child was given to her by her parents and that it signals her nobility. By giving this cloth to Gurun, she is, in a sense, presenting him with a dowry; she is acting as the intermediary between her parents and her lover, paying a high price, one that links her to a birthright, for a desired marriage. It is a symbolic gesture, as Fresne does not give the cloth directly to Gurun, nor does she suggest that he should marry her instead of Codre. She accepts that, in the feudal world, she is not a proper social match for Gurun; yet, she cannot help making her desire known, even if only privately.

By placing this cloth, this extension of herself and her unknown family, on the bed, Fresne is also symbolically inserting herself into Gurun’s and Codre’s relationship. While Fresne does not utter one word of protest against the marriage of Gurun and Codre, she does stage a silent and symbolic protest by placing her own silk on their marriage bed: she enacts a visual representation of the love triangle that involves Gurun as the object of desire between his lover and his wife. Moreover, by laying down such a fine, exotic piece of material, one that, as she herself states, is finer than the original coverlet, she inadvertently asserts her own nobility; one that, with the proof of this cloth, seems to surpass Gurun’s social position. There is no point in trying to convince the barons that she should be Gurun’s wife, a notion they have vehemently rejected, but laying out the proof of her nobility is Fresne’s disagreement with the decision to not allow her to marry Gurun.

Fresne makes it clear that, while she may not be allowed to marry Gurun legally, and while she may bear her pain silently and internally, she refuses to be completely written out of this story and out of Gurun’s life. The heroine’s quasi-rebellious action distances her from the “patient Griselda” model of femininity, to which this heroine has been compared (Kinoshita 36). When the threat of being replaced presents itself, Fresne takes action to ensure that she is not forgotten. She is depicted as essentially passive throughout the tale; yet, when erasure is threatened, she acts, rebels, fights back. Her action stems from a conscious, independent choice; the choice to swap out her own coverlet for the inferior one already on the bed. She evaluates the old one, deeming it unworthy for her lover and placing her own on the marriage bed instead. In this brief moment, Fresne demonstrates her capacity for autonomy and choice. She exercises her free will, taking back some of the freedom denied to her through her abandonment. It is not coincidental that the exact moment that Fresne demonstrates her independence is when the mother realizes that this is the child she has abandoned. Marie constructs a meaningful scene in which her female character, having taken some initiative for the first time in her life, is rewarded with reunification with her family and marriage with Gurun.

It is because of this action of putting her silk onto the marriage bed that the mother comes to realize who Fresne really is. After Fresne recounts her story, along with the information given to her by the abbess, she is welcomed back into her biological family. It is due to her moment of action, of rebellion, that Fresne is able to recover her original identity and to be reborn as a noble woman and marry Gurun. But, as this is also a selfless act, it is also the moment that solidifies her holiness. This moment is a blend of spiritual and secular actions, motivated at once by spiritual grace and secular love: Fresne at once demonstrates her concern for her lover, and also her unwillingness to completely give him up as well as her refusal to be forgotten. She is ultimately successful in this fight to remain relevant: she marries Gurun and earns a new role as a daughter and sister. She has managed to gain for herself a significant position in the narrative as the titular character, the only lai in Marie de France’s collection named for a woman; in Gurun’s life, as his wife; in society, as a suitable woman to produce Gurun’s heirs; in her biological family, as heir to her father’s inheritance; and spiritually, as the vehicle of redemption for herself and others. Ambiguity is dissolved and the once “barren” Ash Tree is reversed from the original metaphor, becoming instead the promise of a fruitful continuation of her and Gurun’s family lines. Moreover, through her deed, Fresne overcomes the lack of courage displayed by Gurun in the face of his barons and in his manipulative seduction plan; her rebellion speaks not only on behalf of herself, but also as a representation of her and Gurun’s relationship. She has usurped Gurun’s weak voice, turning her victimization into the vehicle of strength and the justification for marrying Gurun.

Fresne merges two noble families as well as the two realms.[23] She manages one final triumph after she regains her identity and marries Gurun: since he had purchased the land with the convent in which she was raised, Fresne, as Gurun’s wife, is now a beneficiary of this convent, placing her above the nuns and the abbess that reside within. Fresne’s social position has now surpassed that of the abbess, to whom she was once subject, both spiritually and secularly: as the beneficiary, she has political and economic superiority, and, as the vessel of grace and redemption, she is also spiritually superior to the abbess. Through her selfless action Fresne manages to catapult herself into a realm of spiritual and social elevation that far surpasses that of anyone else in the narrative. She is granted a social, and spiritual, mobility usually denied to women. Her spiritually and secularly superior position subtly subverts both ecclesiastical and patriarchal authority, as a flawed woman capable of agency and autonomy becomes a model for holiness and womanhood.[24]

Fresne is not the only one to benefit from this outcome; her family also profits from her actions. It is through Fresne’s suffering, the penitential journey that this innocent girl has endured on behalf of her mother, that the mother is redeemed. The mother is redeemed spiritually, through absolution and the proxy penance, but also secularly as a wife and mother. The revelation of the mother’s slander and conspiracy sets the truth free and allows Fresne to be welcomed into her legitimate family line. As the locus of reunification for her family, Fresne restores her own lineage, attaching her nobility to a specific genealogy, which permits her marriage to Gurun. In the end, it leads to two advantageous marriages: Fresne’s to Gurun and Codre’s to another, unnamed nobleman. Gurun is also absolved of his misdeed. His base intention toward Fresne when he purchased the land he donated to the convent is forgiven as Fresne becomes his legitimate wife. No longer are his feelings toward and actions with Fresne a vehicle for her downfall or a future with no hope for happiness. On the contrary, now that Fresne, through her own selflessness, is released from her penitential journey, she is released from all impediments to her happiness, including her unequal social standing with Gurun. The marriage between Fresne and Gurun transforms the original metaphor of Fresne’s name: for it is through Fresne that (re)birth is achieved, family is restored and the potential for heirs is now a realistic and legitimate possibility for the once-barren Ash. She restores the full integrity of her family line, multiplying the potential for the family’s extension of power and influence through the addition/readmission of herself as her father’s heir. As such, Fresne has redeemed herself and her family politically as well as spiritually. Fresne is an intercessor for those who have sinned; she has carried the burden and the penance of the ones who have sinned against her. She is the vessel for God’s grace and redemption. In her redemption, Fresne has not only recovered what she originally lost, her family, she gains even more: a husband, spiritual transcendence, a privileged place in society. Moreover, through her imitatio Christi via the metaphorical deaths and rebirths, the heroine engages in a form of piety that was common for women at this time, allowing her body to speak for her, since women were not permitted to preach. The success of her holiness is expressed in her capacity for redemption. While she ends her tale in a culturally scripted situation, as a wife and potential mother, the imitatio allows for a period of poverty, for a mobility in crossing class boundaries and for restoration that brings stability to the family, society and kingdom.

Without a doubt this secular heroine has managed to attain a level of spiritual perfection while remaining in the temporal world. She resolves the central conflict of the text and becomes a model of piety and holiness for both men and women through her selflessness, charity, forgiveness and imitatio Christi.[25] In this way, she participates in religious activities, overcoming the limitations of her sex to establish a direct connection with the divine. Yet, she does not end up in a convent, living a life of religious solitude and contemplation; instead, she becomes a wife and potential mother. Her final level of female agency comes from the fact that, in becoming the vehicle of grace and redemption, she establishes the maternal genealogy as privileged over the paternal. Since she is spiritually superior, she becomes the conduit of passing on this spiritual privilege to her offspring. Fresne fits into the growing tradition of “holy mothers”— women who are not sainted because they are mothers, but are holy women who happen to be mothers— in the thirteenth century. Of this tradition, Anneke Mulder Bakker claims “entire genealogies of royal and princely lines were constructed around these holy mothers.”[26] At the same time, Fresne’s lai also fits into a tradition of family romances where the feudal propaganda of continuing the family line concentrates on the maternal side.[27] While women are typically denied control over land and wealth and are defined in terms of their masculine relatives—father, husband, sons—Fresne manages to carve out her own space, where she becomes an independent force of influence and autonomy. She successfully uses religious channels as the path to both spiritual and temporal transcendence, becoming a model of holiness while overcoming the limitations of her sex to be the source of restoration and stability among the social and political orders. She brings a level of spiritual, and political, privilege to her lineage; she has secured the justification for her dynastic rule for generations to come.

Fresne is at once victim, vessel, redeemer, and spiritual body. Her body is a symbol of stability and rectitude, but also a source of trauma as the site of violence and injustice. It is through this violence that the protagonist finds her path to holiness, patiently enduring her suffering. She transforms her suffering into a spiritual positive through her direct connection with Christ’s suffering. This suffering becomes the source for the heroine’s power of redemption. Alternatively imagined, her selflessness simultaneously becomes the path to spiritual transcendence and vehicle for agency. It is the way she becomes an autonomous being with an individual identity. Whether intentionally or not, Marie de France has created in Fresne a path to both holiness and secular prestige through victimization, where an injustice originally beyond the woman’s control is redefined and renegotiated for her benefit, enabling her to gain spiritual and secular value and become a true agent in her own life.

Stephanie Grace-Petinos

Stephanie Grace-Petinos is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has recently completed her dissertation titled: “Seeking Holiness: The Contribution of Nine Vernacular Narrative Texts from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Centuries,” which examines intersections of the sacred and the secular within selected Old French narratives. The texts create alternative paths to holiness that do not betray secular values. Her research interests include medieval spirituality, hagiography, materiality and gender.  


[1]Frense is often cited as a spiritual, or at least perfect, woman within the large corpus of scholarship on this text. Some relevant sources include: Peter F. Ainsworth, “‘The Letter Killeth’: Law and Spirit in Marie de France’s Lay of Le Fresne,” French Studies 50.1 (January 1996), 1-14; Michelle Freeman, “The Power of Sisterhood: Marie de France’s Le Fresne,” French Forum 12 (1987), 5-26; Sharon Kinoshita, “Two for the Price of One: Courtly Love and Serial Polygamy in the “Lais” of Marie de France,” Arthuriana 8.2 (Summer 1998), 33-55; Chantal Maréchal, “Le Lai de Fresne et la littérature édifiante du XIIe s,” Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale, 35 (1992), 131-41; and Deborah Nelson, “The Implications of Love and Sacrifice in “Fresne” and”Eliduc,”” The South Central Bulletin 38.4 (Winter 1978), 153-155.

[2] Several scholars discuss female sanctity and the ways in which women in the central Middle Ages either became saints or were considered especially holy. They agree on the fact that female sanctity undertakes some form of suffering (usually bodily) and imitatio Christi. See, among others: André Vauchez, “La sainteté féminine dans le mouvement franciscain,” Les Laïcs au Moyen âge. Pratiques et expériences religieuses (Paris: Cerf, 1987), pp. 189-209; idem, Saints, prophètes et visionnaires. Le pouvoir surnaturel au Moyen âge (Paris: Albin Michel, 1999), passim.; Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady as Saint. A Collection of French Hagiographic Romances of the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), passim.; Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism (The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism) Vol. 3 (New York: Crossroad Herder, 1998), passim.; Juliette Dor, Leslie Johnson and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, New Trends in Feminine Spirituality: The Holy Women of Liège and their Impacts (Turnhout: Brepols, 1999), passim.; Herbert Grundmann, Religious movements in the Middle Ages: the historical links between heresy, the Mendicant Orders, and the womens religious movement in the twelfth and thirteenth century, with the historical foundations of German mysticism, trans. Steven Rowan (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), passim.

[3] Nelson, “The Implications of Love and Sacrifice in “Fresne” and “Eliduc,”” p. 153. Fresne is not perfect by Church standards, as she becomes the lover/ concubine of Gurun; however, the author does not judge Fresne negatively for this. In Marie’s setting, Fresne and her mother do represent opposing sides of rectitude, where the mother fails while her daughter succeeds.

[4] Ibid., 153-4. For more on the intercessory nature of the handmaid, see Ainsworth, “‘The Letter Killeth,’” pp. 1-14.

[5] Kinoshita, “Two for the Price of One,” p. 36.

[6] All quotations are taken from Nathalie Desgrugillers-Billard, ed, Oeuvres complètes de Marie de France: Les Lais, texte original en ancien français Manuscrit Harley 978, British Museum (Paris: Éditions paleo, 2007). Translations are those provided by Ferrante and Hanning, Marie de France, The Lais of Marie de France, Ed. Joan Ferrante and Robert Hanning (Durham, North Carolina: The Labyrinth Press, 1978).

[7] Ainsworth, “‘The Letter Killeth,’” p. 13. He points out in a footnote: “the ash does bear a fruit, the irony here being that it is the barons’ specious argument that threatens to render Le Frense barren… Marie exploits this erroneous belief that the ash tree is barren.”

[8] This notion of a man falling in love with a woman he has never met is fairly common in medieval literature. This is a distinct feature in many troubadour poems.

[9] Nelson, “Love and Sacrifice,” p. 154.

[10] Kinoshita, “Two for the Price of One,” p. 50. She states: “In the middle ages, marriage was not only the institution through which the feudal aristocracy reproduced itself, it was the practice through which it conducted its politics, legitimized its ambitions, and expressed its desires.”

[11] Ibid., p. 35.

[12] Ibid., 36. Kinoshita refers to the abbess as “less-than-vigilant.” I offer an alternative view; rather than not being vigilant, the abbess is simply powerless to act in an effective manner.

[13] Ibid., pp. 35-36.

[14] For more in-depth discussions of the social and historical context of this time, particularly both the secular and religious regulations, especially for women, see, for example: Lisa M. Bitel, Women in Early Medieval Europe, 400-1100 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1991); Georges Duby, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, trans. Jane Dunnett, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994); and Eileen Power, Medieval Women, ed. M.M. Postan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

[15] For an in-depth discussion of female piety in the twelfth and thirteenth century, especially as it relates to physicality, see Carolyn Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991), passim.

[16] Jenni Kuuliala, “Miracles and the Disabled Body in the Later Middle Ages,” Ed. Judith A. Rasson and Katalin Szende, Annual of Medieval Studies at CEU 20 (2014), p. 141.

[17] The notion of violence and suffering as a penitential journey is present in a number of hagiographical representations. The most obvious examples are the martyrs, whose claim to sanctity relies entirely on the bodily suffering they undergo for their dedication to Christ and to their faith. For more examples, especially from the medieval period, see Thomas Head, ed., Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology, (New York & London: Routledge, 2001), passim.

[18] Kinoshita, “Two for the Price of One,” p. 51.

[19] Ainsworth, “‘The Letter Killeth,’” p. 8.

[20] Nelson, “Love and Sacrifice,” p. 153. She states: “The totally unselfish behavior of Guildeluëc and Fresne, when faced with other women who desire to replace them, defies belief even in an idealized world. The actions of […] Fresne can be described only as motivated by the purest Christian caritas.” She supports the idea that the unselfish deed insures the salvation of the protagonist and those around her in this lai.

[21] Ainsworth, “‘The Letter Killeth,’” p. 9. See also Maréchal, “Le Lai de Fresne, pp. 131-41 ; and Jean-Charles Payen, Le Motif du repentir dans la littérature française medieval (des origines à 1230) (Geneva: Droz, 1967), passim. They discuss the notion of repentance at this time. This period is characterized by a concern for confession, penance and repentance, marked by obligatory annual penance after the Fourth Lateran Council. Maréchal in particular notes that this text reflects the spirituality of the time in its presentation of the idea of repentance.

[22] Ainsworth, “‘The Letter Killeth,’” p. 8.

[23] Maréchal, “Le Lai de Fresne.” She also discusses these opposing realms. She describes the wedding of Fresne and Gurun as the reconciliation of ecclesiastical and feudal definitions of marriage: “Au terme de l’aventure, en accord avec l’évolution de la pensée religieuse du temps de Bernard de Clairvaux, l’amour humain spiritualisé n’est plus en conflit avec l’enseignement de l’Eglise—Gurun et Fresne peuvent être à la fois amants et époux,” p. 137.

[24] For an in-depth discussion of how this text subverts twelfth-century marriage tradition, see Dolliann Margaret Hurtig, ““I do, I do”: Medieval Models of Marriage and Choice of Partners in Marie de France’s “Le Fraisne,”” The Romantic Review 92.4, 363-379.

[25] For more on models of holiness, the awareness of these models and maternal images associated with Church traditions, see Carolyn Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1982), passim.; and Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Timea Szell, eds., Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991), passim.

[26] Anneke Mulder-Bakker, Sanctity and Motherhood: Essays on Holy Mothers in the Middle Ages (New York: Garland, 1995), p. 23.

[27] For an in-depth discussion of the woman as the continuation of the family line, see Monica Brzezinski Potkay and Regula Meyer Evitt, Minding the Body: Women and Literature in the Middle Ages, 800-1500 (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997), pp. 66-67.