Medieval Mold-Breaking Women: Countess Marie of Champagne

Picture of Marie's seal
Seal of Marie, Countess of Champagne

Countess Marie wasn’t exactly a mold-breaker, but her influence on society—both medieval and later—makes her a remarkable woman. Rather than defy the culture of her day, she was instrumental in defining culture for centuries to come. She was a member of France’s royal family, the eldest daughter of King Louis VII and Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. Her parents sent her to be educated in an abbey, where she possibly developed her interest for the literary arts. In A.D./C.E. 1164 she married Henry I, Count of Champagne, and joined in French politics, acting as regent for both him and her son while they were crusading.

During her time as regent, Marie became a powerful figure in a nontraditional sense. She did wield political power, but it was her patronage of the arts that made her influential. Her court was home to writers, such as Andreas Capellanus and Chrétien de Troyes, whose works had a significant cultural impact on Europe. Andreas was the author of The Art of Courtly Love, a (debatably) satirical text that outlined the rules of love in romance literature during the Middle Ages, while Chrétien authored numerous stories about King Arthur and his court. Among his fiction was “The Knight of the Cart,” a story about Sir Lancelot and his love for Queen Guinevere. Marie specifically requested and funded the story, which is, interestingly, the first literary appearance of Sir Lancelot.

Marie’s contributions to making these works a reality have far-reaching effects. While historians are generally cautioned against entertaining “what if” scenarios, it’s possible to say that literature in the following centuries would have developed differently if Marie hadn’t helped to support her writers. She enabled Chrétien’s creation of Lancelot, which informed Arthurian literature into the nineteenth century, and although Arthurian legend existed before Chrétien’s work, his became crucial to depictions of it.

Chrétien's Tale of the Grail
Medieval depiction of Chrétien’s Arthurian tale of the Grail

By the fifteenth century, Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s relationship was so integrated into the legend that it was readily adopted by Sir Thomas Malory for his Le Morte D’Arthur, which has been seen as the modern era’s most robust story of Arthur. When Arthurian literature experienced a resurgence during the Victorian Era, authors and poets turned to Lancelot as a subject for their work. Such was the case with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott.” Simply put, Countess Marie’s funding and request set in motion this literary sequence of events.

Marie’s support of Andreas’ writing further helped to define medieval literature and poetry. In a way, The Art of Courtly Love turned into a guide for writing about courtly love, with other writers viewing its rules as suggestions for “dos” and “don’ts” in creating a story.* They continued to develop the genre (both satirically and in earnest) for another few centuries. Some modern scholars have gone so far as to argue that key qualities of medieval romances are still present in modern romance stories. Regardless of the modern influence, Marie’s creation of a court welcoming to the arts had abiding effects on medieval literature.

In addition to her cultural activities, Marie had an interesting political career. During her husband’s absence, she attempted to reconcile her father with estranged members of his court. When her father’s men dodged the tolls in her lands, she argued against their conduct. Later, she briefly joined in a rebellion against her half-brother, King Philip II of France, due to his unfair treatment of his mother; however, she eventually made peace with him.

As both a ruler and a cultural advocate, Marie proved she was a powerful woman in the Middle Ages. Although her influence has taken centuries to fully manifest itself, it’s clear her actions have had substantial effects. Changing the cultural landscape is as noteworthy as changing the political one, and in doing so Marie was an exceptional medieval lady.

 

*Not all writers did so. Some likely saw Andreas’ work as a satire and attempted to recreate the comical aspects or poke fun at the genre; others might have seen it as a genuine analysis of the genre and tried to build upon it; and, of course, some would have ignored it completely.

This is part four of a Women’s History Month Series on famous medieval women. The previous three parts can be found here: One, Two, and Three.

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