“A Resurrection of Subversive Speech”

A sample of academic writing within my major (English and American Literature) at Middlebury College:

A Resurrection of Subversive Speech:  Comparing Marie de France’s Laustic and Ovid’s Tale of Philomela

As a female writer in the 12th century Anglo-Norman court, Marie de France is intrinsically motivated to contemplate female speech. Many of The Lais of Marie de France feature the Mal Maríee, or unhappy married woman, who must submit to or subvert patriarchal repression of female body and speech. In Laustic, the lady is confined within her home and deprived of communication with her lover due to her husband’s dominance. Yet, “in Marie’s Lais, women are the most active of actors, employing the very tools and metaphors deployed to pin them down,” (Kauth, 59) and the lady is no acceptation. Marie’s implied messages are radical for her time, but heavily informed by early texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which also stresses speech capacity as key to female agency. Marie’s Laustic is particularly influenced by Ovid’s tale of Philomela, in which female speech is gruesomely punished. While Laustic is not an explicit rape narrative like Ovid’s Philomela, this paper will argue that Marie displaces such violence onto the nightingale, a symbol of female speech, in turn depriving the lady, like Philomela, of agency. However, Marie resurrects Philomela’s subversive innovation when the lady undertakes a form of poesis in the context of loss and similarly achieves communicative power within patriarchal confines. My reading will suggest that in spite of the closeness of the two texts, Marie’s version ends more positively due to the lady’s regained, though limited, agency.

While Philomela’s social rank is comparable to Tereus’ and she exhibits agency when pleading to visit Procne, she is objectified and dominated by Tereus’ superior physical strength. Tereus is “wealthy [and] backed by a powerful army” (Met, 6.425), yet Philomela is the daughter of the King of Athens, who successfully influences the King by “[fondling] her father’s shoulders and [begging] him to sanction this voyage to her sister’s” (Met, 6.474-5). Yet the mere sight of Philomela “made Tereus hot with desire” (Met, 6.455), initiating an animalistic pursuit in which “his greedy eyes never swerved from his prey” (Met, 6.515) and Philomela is dragged into physical confinement in “a stone hut hidden away in an ancient forest” (Met, 6.520), and when “his virgin prize was alone, he brutally raped her” (Met, 6.524). Ovid does not describe Philomela even attempting to escape such male physical domination; Ovid suggests no hope for female physical dominion over men as the lady is so degraded she cannot exercise actual language but only scream helplessly (Met, 6.525), and trembled “like a frightened lamb that’s been mauled in a grey wolf’s jaws” (Met, 6.526-7). However, after “Philomela’s senses returned” (Met, 6.530), she commences an articulate condemnation of Tereus’ brutality, implying her sagacity is intimately linked with her speech capacity. Proclaiming the injustice of Tereus’ lack of “respect for [her] maiden virtue and what [he] owed his wife” (Met, 6.534-5), Philomela berates Tereus’ patriarchal status as he viciously disrupted social regulations. Philomela’s voice becomes a threatening weapon as she declares, “I’ll tell the world of your crime myself…I’ll cry it aloud in the marketplace; and if you still hold me prisoner deep in the forest, my words will ring through the trees” (Met, 6.544-6). Ovid implies that as Philomela lacks potential to escape physical imprisonment, hope for female power resides rather in communicative capability.

While the lady in Laustic is not brutally raped, her confinement parallels Philomela’s condition. The lady’s husband is quickly affiliated with Tereus through military stature and wealth when Marie introduces him as one of two knights who “both had strong houses./[And] From the goodness of the two barons the city acquired a good name” (Laustic, 10-11). Like Tereus, the husband inflicts physical boundaries upon his wife, who is separated from her lover by “a high wall of dark stone” (Laustic, 38); Marie, like Ovid, suggests little hope for female transgression of such physical confinement as “[the lady and her lover] couldn’t come together/completely for their pleasure,/for the lady was closely guarded/when her husband was in the country” (Laustic, 47-50). However, the lady demonstrates agency through speech for from “the window/she could talk to her love/on the other side” (Lausic, 40-42), and “they always managed…to be able to talk together; no one could prevent/their coming to the window/and seeing each other there” (Laustic, 51-56). As Philomela’s hope for redemption depends on proclaiming her story, the lady’s freedom of spirit and sexual liberty rely on vocal communication with her lover, which her husband ostensibly cannot control.

While the lady and her lover apparently engage in conversation, Marie develops the nightingale as a symbol for the lady’s voice. When describing the lady and her lover’s affair, Marie explains, “The little birds, with great sweetness,/were voicing their joy above the flowers./It is no wonder if he understands them/he who has love in his heart” (Laustic, 61-64). Grammatically, one would assume the birds are voicing their own joy, though the “their” is ambiguous and could refer to the lady and her lover. Marie’s original French hangs on “le jolie,” the word translated to “their”; jolie has a very sexual meaning in medieval lyric around Marie’s era and French troubadour poetry (Wells), so the fact that the birds are voicing their jolie suggests that they are figuratively interpreting what the lovers cannot say: they are an extension of the lady’s voice. Marie emphasizes the importance of the birds’ communicative power by stating, “I’ll tell you the truth about the knight: he listened to them [the birds] intently” (Laustic, 65-66). Later, when her angry husband questions her excessive time spent at the window, the lady replies, “there is no joy in this world/like hearing the nightingale sing/That’s why I stand there./It sounds so sweet at night that it gives me great pleasure;/it delights me so and I so desire it/that I cannot close my eyes” (Laustic, 84-90). The lady lies to her husband, yet her heavily sexualized description of the nightingale’s song deceptively expresses her infatuation with the knight and her obsession with their communication, which the “little birds,” now identified as nightingales, facilitate. Marie’s use of a nightingale to convey the lovers’ speech is of particular importance as Philomela is transformed into a nightingale (Met, 6.668) after having her tongue cut out, reestablishing agency through weaving her story, and physically confronting Tereus by throwing his son’s head on his chest for revenge. Marie resurrects Philomela’s refusal to be silenced and her deceptive means of communication through the nightingale, bolstering its significance as a symbol of female speech.

Despite hope presented through Philomela’s threats and the nightingale’s expression of the lady’s sentiments, in both stories male violence curtails free speech. Ovid emphasizes the influence of female speech as precisely “these threats excited the brutal tyrant to violent rage, and his fear was just as extreme…he moved his hand to his belt and drew his sword from his sheath; Then grabbing the girl by her hair, he twisted her arms behind her and fastened her wrists in a rope” (Met, 6.549-553). Ovid’s phallic presentation of the sword prior to Tereus’ aggressive physical abuse suggests that male-inflicted punishment of overt female speech is an instinctual, inescapable reaction. This reality holds when “[Philomela’s] tongue was still voicing her sense of outrage…still struggling to speak, when Tereus gripped it in pincers and hacked it out with his sword” (Met, 6.555-6). Ovid’s specification that Philomela’s tongue was voicing her outrage establishes her tongue as a symbol of her ability to express agency through actual speech. Tereus’ brutal removal of Philomela’s tongue with his phallic “sword” deprives her of such agency; she “was helpless… [as] her speechless lips couldn’t tell the truth of her barbarous treatment” (Met, 6.572-3). Ovid therefore suggests if Philomela is to avenge herself, she must discover a communicative outlet that does not obviously threaten male patriarchal dominance, as males will meet such explicit threats with innately superior physical capability.

While lady’s husband does not physically harm her, he viciously attacks the nightingale, the vehicle of her speech. After hearing the lady explain her love for the nightingale, her husband “set his mind on one thing:/to trap the nightingale./There was no valet in his house/that he didn’t set to making traps, nets or snares” (Laustic, 94-6). Marie’s depiction of the husband’s excessive efforts to kill a single bird advances his affiliation with Tereus, who, “ensnared in the toils of unbridled desire, [would] commit any crime in the world” (Met, 6.465) to capture Philomela, even “if it cost him the whole of his kingdom” (Met, 6.462). Upon acquiring the nightingale, he then manifests Tereus’ absurd brutality when “he killed it out of spite,/he broke its neck in his hands – /too vicious an act – /and threw the body on the lady;/her shift was stained with blood,/a little, on her breast” (Laustic, 114-119). The lady’s voice is silenced through the death of the nightingale as its song, expressive of her love, is muted by male aggression; the dead bird is emblematic of Philomela’s cut out tongue, as both reify the agency females lose when deprived of actual speech.

This gruesome act in Laustic too references when Philomela, so enraged by her rape and mutilation throws Itys’s head in his father’s face, as she “had never wanted so much to be able to speak” (Met, 6.659). By referencing this act, yet having the male oppressor throw the bird on the lady (rather than the other way around as in Ovid), I suggest Marie implies the husband is throwing Philomela’s motivation (her inability to speak) at the lady in a cruel reinforcement of her degradation. However, whereas Philomela’s action drives Tereus into a mad fury when “with a terrible cry [he] kicked over the table and summoned the snake-haired Furies” (Met, 6.661) then maniacally chases Philomela and Procne, the lady’s reaction to the bird being thrown at her is notably tamer. Only “a little” blood stains her shift, and while she “wept hard and cursed/those who betrayed the nightingale” (Laustic, 122-3), her lament, “‘Alas,’ she said, ‘now I must suffer” (Laustic, 126), is so stoic and formulaic it seemingly satirizes Tereus’ rage and Philomela’s year-long mourn (Met, 6.571-2); Philomela’s grief appears extensive when compared to the lady’s nine-line, apparently day-long grief before she revives innovation to “decide what to do about this” (Laustic, 132). It appears as if the lady has learned from the Ovidian narrative embedded within her lai, and recognized the futility of both Philomela and Tereus’ overly excessive and aggressive reactions. I cannot assert whether this character knew of Philomela’s tale, yet Marie certainly does; I argue that by downplaying Ovidian characters’ reactions to similar abuse, Marie exalts her female protagonist’s (who is a development of Ovid’s Philomela) ability to cope with patriarchal abuse.

While her grieving is prolonged, ultimately Philomela restores communicative power in spite of her physical handicap rather than submitting to female victimization. After describing Philomela’s anguish, Ovid shifts the narrative tone, stating, “But suffering sharpens the wits and misfortune makes on resourceful. [Philomela] craftily strung a warp on a primitive Thracian loom, and into the pure white threads she wove a message in purple letters revealing the crime” (Met, 6.575-8). Theseus may make Philomela speechless by cutting out her tongue, but he does not silence her; Philomela finds recourse in art, weaving a tapestry to communicate the crime. Many debate the meaning of the set of purple “notae” Philomela weaves. Nota may signify letters, words, or physical, disgraceful marks such as brands on a body; truly “Philomela’s ‘purple notes’ on a white background hover somewhere between being a self-portrait, a physical remnant of the crime (like a bruise), and a stigmatizing ‘brand or tattoo’ that re-marks the violated body it was supposed merely to represent” (Enterline, 5). This weaving proves equally persuasive as the tongue Philomela once hoped would “move the very rocks to consciousness” (Met, 6.547); while the mistress carrying the tapestry had “no idea what it contained” (Met, 6.580), the furtive nature of the message amplifying its potency, Procne fully understands her message (Met, 6.581-5) and after reading “her heart was totally set on revenge” (Met, 6.586). Hence, what exactly Philomela weaves is insignificant as she communicates her wounds and vindicates her maltreatment. Moreover, by communicating through weaving, a customary female activity, Philomela subversively manipulates her societal placement within the domestic sphere; she successfully restores agency precisely because such weaving does not threaten her patriarchal society’s orders.

In a clear reference to Philomela’s creativity, the lady in Laustic restores communication through embroidery. As if the lady had heard Ovid’s tone shifting remark, “But suffering sharpens the wits and misfortune makes one resourceful” (Met. 6.575), she swiftly moves from remorse to craft; aware her husband would “think [she] was pretending” (Laustic,131) if she continued standing by the window, she decides to “send him the nightingale/and relate the adventure.’/[So] in a piece of samite,/embroidered in gold and writing,/she wrapped the little bird./She called one of her servants,/charged him with her message/and sent him to her love” (Laustic, 133-140). Unable to communicate her message directly as the nightingale is dead, “a woman who has been beaten mute by her husband is nevertheless able to get the last word by sign language. Her sign language is equivalent to Philomela’s tapestry” (Kauth, 58) as it silently speaks of her abuse. The male oppressor successfully cages the lady within his home, denying her verbal communication with the outside world, just as he curtails the nightingale’s song; however, “The woman in Laustic inscribes her rebellion on the symbol of her oppression” (Kauth, 58). The lady beautifies and appropriates the dead nightingale, once a symbol of her destroyed speech, as a means of explaining her abuse and “communicating her undying love to the knight” (Cargo, 166). Marie does not specify whether the male servant understands the lady’s message or intention, yet he obediently delivers her message, and Marie never mentions her husband intervening as he assumedly would, should he disapprove of her actions. The lady’s new communicative agency betokens Philomela’s guile as “the weaving in classical text appropriately becomes embroidery [in Laustic], typifying medieval domestic life” (Cargo, 166). Whereas transgression of patriarchal regulations caused the nightingale’s death, the lady’s embroidery wrapped nightingale, like Philomela’s weaving, capitalizes on such regulations; it provides a way to transmit her message outside of the her environment’s confines as the message is not readable to those males (not including the knight) who are ignorant of subversive female intellect.

Philomela’s reestablished communicative capability is undoubtedly empowering, but it nearly leads to her, and her sister’s deaths. After symbolically relating her assault to her sister, Philomela’s desire for revenge (spurred by her sister’s aggression) motivates her to act violently, reminiscent of Tereus’ brutality. When Procne irrationally slaughters her son, “though the blow on its own was enough to murder the child, Philomela then used the weapons to cut his throat…[then] they tore him apart” (Met, 6.641-3), and soon after “leapt forward, just as she was, her hair besprinkled with blood from the crazy carnage” (Met, 6. 656-7) and throws Itys’s head at Tereus. Ovid offers a glimpse of hope for Philomela and Procne’s successful attack, as Tereus appears briefly defeated by grief (Met, 6.664); yet Ovid stresses the transience of such success for “at the next moment[1] [Tereus] was chasing Pandion’s daughters around with his naked sword. You could picture the fugitives’ bodies suspended on wings. And they were suspended on wings. The one, transformed to a nightingale, made for the forest, the other flew up to the roof as a swallow” (Met, 6.665-669).[2] Ovid again emphasizes Tereus’ innately physical dominance with the phallic symbol of “his naked sword.” Critically, Tereus is chasing the daughters around (rather than them chasing him), and the daughters are described as “fugitives”, a label connoting fleet and inferior status, as fugitives have escaped and are usually in hiding to avoid persecution. As Ovid portrays Philomela so vulnerably following her physically attack on Tereus, it is difficult to feel any emotive release through her transformation. Philomela just barely survives, is saved only by the grace of Divine intervention, and is transformed into a classic figure for lament (the nightingale’s song, more specifically, is a common figure for lament). This haunting ending appears a direct result of Philomela’s decision to move beyond the symbolic communicative agency she regains and physically attack her male oppressor. As Tereus logically would have slaughtered Philomela and Procne had the Gods not intervened, Ovid is suggesting that males will always have superior physical strength, hence females cannot successfully assert agency over males through physical attack.

Though Laustic’s ending can be perceived negatively like Philomela’s tale, I suggest it offers significantly more hope. The knight’s understanding of the lady’s message through the embroidery-wrapped nightingale verifies the success of her innovative communication: the knight “was very sad about the adventure,/but he wasn’t mean or hesitant./He had a small vessel fashioned…it was all pure gold and good stones,/very precious and very dear…he placed the nightingale inside/and then had the casket sealed – /he carried it with him always” (Laustic, 148-156). Again, Marie downplays her character’s reaction to an event that caused Ovid’s character extreme anguish by simply stating the knight was “very sad about the adventure” (compare to Procne, who was “choked by her grief” (Met, 584) after reading Philomela’s tapestry and soon sent into “a terrible rage, inspired by the frenzy of anguish” (Met, 6.595)). This subdued action does not suggest the knight felt any less distressed by his inability to communicate with his love through the nightingale’s song, but rather that he goes about mourning more rationally. Some may argue the dead bird symbolizes a lost love, and Marie’s casketing, embalming, and sending the bird is a way of saying “our love is dead.” Yet, I argue that through Marie’s emphasis on the knight’s glorious preservation of the symbol of his love, and her closing statement that “This adventure was told,/it could not be concealed for long”, and was named after the Nightingale (Laustic, 157-160), she stresses the sending of the dead bird is a productive and positive version of agency; the casket the poem, and general poesis preserve her love. As Michelle Freeman explains, “The bird will constitute the means by which, at last, the story of the lovers will be communicated to the outside world…[as] the bejeweled reliquary carried about – translated – encourages the story to be told and retold” (Freeman, 869-870). Robert Cargo agrees, for while “the reading of the story of Philomela in Ovid leaves us with a terrible sense of the destructive power of hate and revenge…in Laustic, on the contrary, we feel that love, quietly, unassumingly, but with certainty, has triumphed over evil” (Cargo, 166). Despite her husband’s abuse, the lady’s love endures personally, as the knight always carries the bird, and extensively as her abuse and innovative perseverance is promulgated through the lai. Like Philomela, the lady successfully communicates her story, but she stays in the symbolic realm rather than breaking through boundaries to enact violence as Philomela does. By drastically modifying Philomela’s ending, Marie suggests the reason the lady’s love endures is because she does not physically confront her male oppressor, for such confrontation is futile and detrimental to the female cause within patriarchal confines. Hence, this lai’s more positive ending exalts the power of poetry as a means to contain violence and achieve female agency, and encourages deceptive manipulation of deeply engrained patriarchal female roles, rather than explicit attempts to overthrow such regulations.

Laustic’s ending promotes the value of subversive speech as a means to female agency, yet this message is amplified when considered in context of Marie’s work at large. Beginning with the Prologue, it appears Marie embarks upon achieving in her complete Lais exactly what Philomela and the lady do in their stories: to encode a deeper meaning within the actual words presented on the page. Marie outwardly states she is writing these Lais as a gift to please the king (Prologue, 43-56), apparently conforming to patriarchal hierarchy as she “embraces” an inferior female status, just as Philomela and the lady manipulate domestically acceptable weaving to communicate. However, Marie’s statement that she is following in the “custom of the ancients” who “speak quite obscurely/in the books they wrote,/so that those who were to come after/and study them/might gloss the letter/and supply its significance from their own wisdom” (Prologue, 9-16) holds tremendous implications. Marie is speaking directly to women, urging them to read through her lines to extract implied morals about how females can achieve agency within their confines; if she were truly speaking solely to the King and males, she need not encourage them to read beneath the surface for the surface, as seen through Laustic, confirms male dominance. Marie suggests that by carefully reading her lais, women will better “know how to keep themselves/from what was to be avoided” (Prologue, 21-22), complete female subservience being “what was to be avoided”. By exposing the inequities of her patriarchal society through deceptive means of communication (her encoded Lais), Marie weaves herself into the tradition of Philomela which she so reveres, and creates the lady of Laustic as an extension of herself.


Sources Referenced:

1. Cargo, Robert. “Marie de France’s Le Laustic and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” Comparative Literature. no. 2 (1966): 162-166. http://www.jtor.org/stable/1770160 (accessed May 13, 2013).

 2.de France, Marie. The Lais of Marie de France. Trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

3. Enterline, Lynn. The Rhetoric of the Body from Ovid to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University PRess, 2004. http://books.google.com/books?id=eQbLM79nx3wC&pg=PR5&dq=philomela purple letters marks&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=3

4. Freeman, Michelle. “Marie de France’s Poetics of Silence: The Implications for a Feminine Translatio.” PMLA. no. 5 (1984): 860-883. http://www.jstor.org/stable/462141 (accessed May 13, 2013).

5. Kauth, Jean-Marie. “Barred Windows and Uncaged Birds: The Enclosure of Women in Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France.” Medieval Feminist Forum. no. 2 (2010): 34-67. http://ir.uiowa.edu/mff/vol46/iss2/4 (accessed May 13, 2013).

6. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. David Raeburn. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.


[1] Emphasis added

[2] Ovid does not explicitly specify which sister is transformed into the nightingale, yet “says only: ‘One flies to the woods, the other rises to the roof’ (lines 668-669). By this environmental implication Ovid distinguishes between nightingale and swallow. Earlier, before Tereus had cut out her tongue, Philomela had vowed: ‘If I am kept shut up in these woods, I will fill the woods with my story and move the very rocks to pity’ (lines 546-7). In this manner he establishes the specific Philomela-nightingale metamorphosis. The Greeks had strangely had Procne thus transformed. The Latin reversal appears to be more sensitive to the sorrowful lament of the ravished girl and the haunting song of the nightingale than the Greek tradition” (Cargo, 163).


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