The poet known as Marie de France was a Renaissance woman long before there was even a Renaissance.
Said to be a 12th century intimate of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie translated Aesop’s Fables into French, wrote about the lives of saints Patrick and Audrey, and left behind an impressive body of narrative verses.
Beyond that, little is known of her life.
“She was from France and lived in England,” says Gainesville author Lauren Groff. “She was the first published female poet in France. But nobody really knows anything about her.”
Hardly surprising. “At that time, women were only known in terms of their relationships with men,” Groff said.
Ah, but these are very different times indeed.
And the lore of Marie de France proved so irresistible that Groff appropriated her mystique into the id of another Marie. This the formidable protagonist of Groff’s newest novel, “Matrix.”
“I took the writing we believe she did, the fables and verses, and I extracted interesting images,” Groff recalls. “Then I wrote Marie’s biography based on those images.”
But we are getting ahead of this story.
First you should know how Groff – whose most recent books include the short story collection “Florida,” and “Fates and Furies,” her acclaimed novel about a marriage – came to write a novel about an extraordinary 12th century woman who presumes to challenge the Crown, the Church and the very world order of her time.
Long story short. Groff had been named a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute For Advanced Study and attended a series of lectures. One of them, by the University of Notre Dame’s Dr. Katie Bugyis, was intriguingly titled “The Liturgical Practices of Mediaeval Nuns.”
“I was surrounded by geniuses in every field,” she said. “And Katie’s talk about the lives of these nuns poured over me. I realized that I wanted to write about their experiences.”
Which brings us back to Marie and “Matrix.”
Consigned by Queen Eleanore to a dreary abbey because her physical bulk and unattractive face made her ill-suited for life in the royal court, Marie declined to go gently into that gray oblivion. Instead, through sheer audacity and clarity of vision, Marie took control of the abbey, turned its fortunes around and, ultimately, eclipsed Eleanor herself in the scope of her power and influence.
Eleanor is a particularly intriguing figure to Groff. Sequentially married to kings of both France and England, she outlived both to become the power behind two thrones.
“Maybe in some ways Marie was the reverse side of Eleanor,” Groff said. “Eleanor was already one of the wealthiest people in Europe when she was born. She was an amazing figure, an extraordinary human who did so many things behind the scenes. She really did go on the crusades. She was a wild, untamable person.”
As it happened, Marie had also been on crusade. But as a child in the company of her mother and aunts…huntresses and warriors all.
“Marie was not born into wealth or fame. But what she did throughout her life was to slowly build her own reality so she didn’t actually have to bow to men.”
Yes, “Matrix” is by every measure the feminist novel. And telling it convincingly was a test of Groff’s considerable story telling prowess.
“I think one of the great joys of writing this book for me was deciding how to do it in a hyper-patriotic, hyper-patriarchal era,” she said.
But wait a minute. Isn’t it a stretch to imagine that a convention-defying abbess like Marie could long survive in that particularly “hyper-patriarchal” century?
Not at all. In the course of her research Groff turned up several accounts of abbesses who defied both Crown and Church and lived to tell about it.
“One abbess was given a royal edict,” Groff recalled. “She took the edict and threw it at the messenger’s head. A lot of these ladies were so extraordinarily powerful that some were second only to the Crown in terms of power and money.”
Throughout the novel Marie experiences increasingly fantastic visions that help convince, not just herself, but her community of skeptical nuns to accomplish increasingly difficult tasks.
In these visions, it is Biblical women – Eve, the Virgin, Mary Magdalene – who appear to instruct Marie on what she must do.
One such challenge is the construction of an forested labyrinth in which conceal the abbey from outside (read male) eyes. And if that seems like the improbable stuff of “Lord Of The Rings,” think again.
“Henry the Second had a mistress, Rosamond,” Groff said. “He built a labyrinth and put Rosamond at the heart of it, a secret garden, so Eleanor couldn’t get to her. There are histories of great enormous land-changing projects that did happen at the time.”
Indeed, Groff once kept on her desk a rendering of a labyrinth design found in the French Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. “I realized the labyrinth,” she said, “is not just a challenge that Maria is doing, it is also the way I structured the book.”
Which is to say, perhaps, that in literature as in life, the most direct path from Point A to Point B is not always a straight line.
Lest you think that “Matrix” is an intriguing but not altogether relevant story…ancient history as it were, know this. Marie’s visions not only alter her own reality. They also illuminate the shape of things to come. At more than one point, Marie foretells of a coming climate change apocalypse.
Again no surprise. At the time she was researching and writing “Matrix,” Groff was also working in collaboration with several other writers on a climate change awareness project.
“I think one of the questions I wanted to raise was how the church of 1,000 years ago planted the seeds for the really evil bloom we’re coming into right now,” she said, “this sort or ecological collapse.
“I wanted the present day and the past to speak to each other,” she continued. “I’m a writer in the 21st century, and if I don’t talk about clime change, what am I doing? Where is my moral code.?”
The Matrix is published by Penguin Random House. Hardcover for $28.