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lossy-page1-800px-Marie_de_France_1_tifMarie de France, from an illuminated manuscript now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France: BnF, Arsenal Library, Ms. 3142 fol. 256.

It would be difficult to understand some of the plays of William Shakespeare and other works of English or French literature without taking into account such significant events as the Conquest of England, by William, Duke of Normandy, at the Battle of Hastings (1066), and the Hundred Years’ War. In the 12th century, at least two authors, Marie de France and Walter of England wrote in Anglo-Norman, and French would be used at court, and perhaps elsewhere, until the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War.

Let us go back to the literature that followed the Battle of Hastings, fought on 4 October 1066. On that day, William, Duke of Normandy, defeated England’s King Harold (Harold Godwinson), who was killed in battle. The throne of England had been promised to William, Duke of Normandy, hence the battle. Following the Battle of Hastings, many Normans settled in England, two of whom, discussed later in this post, are important writers who penned their work in Anglo-Norman, a transitional language.

William, Duke of Normandy, defeated Harold, King of England, and became William I, King of England. But England, as a territory, remained as it was. The Normans who settled in England would soon speak a form of English.

Yet Latin and French words had been introduced into English. The word ‘curfew’ is an anglicised form of couvre-feu and jeopardy, an anglicised form of jeu parti a term used in a game resembling chess. It probably meant ‘checkmate’ or ‘échec et mat,’ from the Arabic « al cheikh mat » (see D’où vient …).

The Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anglo-Norman  Literature 

  • Marie de France
  • Walter of England

The best-known Anglo-Norman author is Marie de France, a 12th-century writer whose portrait, an illumination, is featured above. The second is Walter of England (Gualterus Anglicus). His French name would have been Gaut(h)ier d’Angleterre.

Marie de France, who lived in England but was born in France, is famous for her collection of lais: the lais of Guigemar, Chevrefoil (honeysuckle), Lanval, Yonec, Laustic, and other lais. Marie also wrote a book of Æsopic fables. Her fables were ‘Æsopic,’ but as we have seen in earlier posts, Æsop’s fables originate in the Sanskrit Panchatantra (3rd century BCE); its Arabic retelling, Kalīlah wa Dimnah, by Ibn al-Muqaffa (750 CE), and other sources.

The Lais of Marie de France

  • Arthurian Romances
  • Britanny
  • Courtly Love

The Lais of Marie de France are rooted in the Breton lai, and their themes are love (early courtly love), and chivalryBreton lais reflect the literature of Ireland and countries where Gaelic is or was spoken. The origin of the word lai has not been ascertained, but whatever the meaning of lai, Marie’s works are examples of courtly love and chivalric literature. Marie de France could well be France’s first major author. 

Inhabiting Marie’s lais are GuinevereTristan et Yseult, Lancelotthe Knights of the Round Table and King ArthurThey are products of Arthurian Romancescalled “la matière de Bretagne” in French.

The Troubadours

  • Chivalry
  • Courtly Love

Marie’s lais can be associated with the songs of the troubadours whose native land was Provence and whose subject matter, was chivalry and courtly love. Troubadours (langue d’oc) flourished until the Black Death (1346 – 1353), the plague. In northern France, they were called trouvères and spoke langue d’oil.

Project Gutenberg [EBook #46234]

Walter of England (Gualterus Anglicus)

Walter of England also lived in England in the 12th century, following the Battle of Hastings. He wrote Æsopic fables in Anglo-Norman. The history of fables is shrouded in mystery, so Walter has been considered the ‘anonymous Neveleti,’ the 17th-century fabulist whose collection of fables, the Mythologia Æsopica, in Latin, was used by French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine. However, the attribution to an anonymous ‘Neveleti’ has been ruled false. La Fontaine used Isaac Nicholas Nevelet’s Mythologia Æsopica.

The “Romulus”

Nevertheless, Walter of England would be the author of a collection of 62 fables in verse. The “62 fables is more accurately called the verse Romulus.” (See Walter of England [Gualterus Anglicus], Wikipedia).  However, this seems to be another false attribution. There was no Romulus. The medieval Æsop originated in Walter of England’s fables and elsewhere. Could it be that ‘Romulus’ meant Latin, from Rome?

John Lydgate and Robert Henryson

When English fabulist John Lydgate produced his Isopes Fabules, the first fable collection written in English, his source was long believed to be the verse Romulus, which it isn’t. As mentioned above, there was no Romulus. Lydgate’s source would probably be Walter of England’s collection of Æsop’s fables. In other words, John Lydgate’s English-language fables adapted Walter of England’s verse fables. Walter’s “The Cock and the Jewel” was used by Robert Henryson in his 15th-century Morall Fabillis, written in Scots. (See Walter of England [Gualterus Anglicus], Wikipedia).


In short, after the Battle of Hastings, Normandy or France was briefly remembered by Marie de France and Walter of England. In the 12th century, ‘Æsopic’ fables were told in Anglo-Norman, a transitional language but one that has survived in literature.

Gone are knights in shining armour and short fables. From literature written in the Anglo-Norman period, we will glimpse the literary legacy of the Hundred Years’ War, Geoffrey Chaucer. An amused public is reading the lengthy anthropomorphic Roman de Renart, while Chaucer translates at least part of the 22,000-line Roman de la Rose, an allegorical poem epitomising courtly love.

Sources and Resources

With kindest regards to all of you

© Micheline Walker
22 January 2016