13 How do you solve a problem like Marie de France?

Excerpt 9 

View of moor from mid Devon

       As though magnet, the mid Devon territories repeatedly draw us back into the multi-layering of their ruby-red folds. The family labyrinths spiral, like puffs of genetic dandelion seed, across and away from Marie de Meulan's family as they highlight and link up with individual names, which also surface in connection with her. For instance, Marie de Meulan's sister Isabella (1140-1220), married Geoffrey de Mayenne. The Mayenne family held great swathes of Devon territory, including that of nearby Broadwoodkelly and Winkleigh. It is feasible that Geoffrey was a descendant, or near relation, of the most prominent member of that family, Juhel de Mayenne, of Totnes.[i]

      Then there is the background of Marie’s husband Hugh Talbot, who other researchers have already tentatively linked with Devon. Unsurprisingly, given all the other almost incestual associations, Marie's husband may have been a kinsman of the writer's birth family, possibly he was even her first cousin. One of Marie’s paternal aunts, Agnes de Beaumont, married a Geoffrey Talbot, who may be the Geoffrey Talbot who held lands in Normandy at Cleuville, or/and the same man (or son of) the Geoffrey Talbot who was at the thick of the action in the west of the country during the Barons' War of the C12. According to my research on credible ancestral websites, Hugh Talbot III, Seigneur de Cleuville, who married Marie de Meulan, was a son of Geoffrey and his wife Agnes.[ii] However, other researchers consider that Geoffrey Talbot was Hugh's brother. No smoke without fire, they say, so the odds are that one of these is a fact.

     By now you, reading this, might understand why Marie the medieval poet began, increasingly, to haunt me, for if she did come from within these familial cohorts with their close Devon associations - she was within a close family circle whose marriages made them part of the extended genealogical grid of the county's foremost families, including the Courtenays. But no, I have no more proof about my theory about Marie de France than I do about the possibility of Roman women living and writing in Devon. My hope here is that one day in future others will take time to explore the possibilities; perhaps someone will validate them. If Marie can be connected with Devon it will help her fans to reassess her life and texts as well provide a richer understanding of the impact of women in the historical chronology of our county's literary timeline.[iii] Could Marie the poet be Devon’s C12 equivalent of the C20 icon Sylvia Plath?[iv]

A green-lane in mid Devon

      Marie remains elusive, she is difficult to track down. Some who come upon this book may scoff at my suggestion that such a famous and apparently foreign C12 poet could have had even a minimal connection with this mid Devon locality. But, the associations of family and kin seem indisputable and the theory is as valid as any other of the others that attempt to identify her. A truthiness perhaps. The elite feet of the once famed early writer might have walked across the ancient red furrows of the land and the runaway poet in me can't resist picturing her riding along the medieval trackways to the Devon lanes, perched side-saddle on a pinion, silken shoe-tips peeping from beneath her lavishly embroidered tunic. And with the startling possibility of the female troubadour’s once presence around the corners of Devon's lost medieval shadows, there are other, equally valid spectres; if Marie spent some of her life in the county, some of those women around her may also have achieved singular literary interests? If only we could identify them.

      A vivid presence, Marie's a guiding light who helps to carry this manuscript through to its end. A singular voice from the past, some of whose poems prefigured the future potential of multiple narrators, who tell us stories from different points of view, she also returns it back to the start, the first white page, where, like a palimpsest the narrative could begin again, as more writing overlays of writing about other Devon women writers are added to the already layered text, each one enhancing and enriching the whole story.

    Lamentably, during the C12, other than Marie, there are no other individual names of locally linked women standing out from the crowd who definitively composed lays or translated sacred texts or legends. Any keen researcher must turn the challenge over, look at it from the opposite perspective; select a suitable name out of the haystack of possibilities, and colour it with fabricated scenarios, which yet are based on authentic evidence.

Previous excerpt

[i]In 1069 Juhel (Mayenne of Totnes) was one of the leaders of the Breton forces on the Norman side, fighting against the remaining forces that had been loyal to King Harold. He had been granted by William the Conqueror the feudal barony of Totnes, Devon, and held many manors in South West England, at the time of the Domesday Book of 1086, including Clawton, Broadwood Kelly, Bridford and Cornworthy. In about 1087, he founded Totnes Priory. He was expelled from the barony of Totnes shortly after the death of King William I in 1087. According to the historian Frank Barlow (1983), King William II 'replaced the Breton Judhel, whom he expelled from Totnes at the begining of his reign for an unknown reason, with his favourite, Roger I of Nonant (See Lines of our family, http://mccurdyfamilylineage.com/ancestry/p11464.htm However, at some time before 1100 Juhel was granted the large feudal barony of Barnstaple, Devon.
[ii] See http://www.geneanet.org/ If this information is correct Hugh and Marie had a daughter, Mathilde Talbot, born 1185, who married Robert de Poissy. Geoffrey's father was also Hugh Talbot II, whose grandfather another Hugh, according to the sources was married to an earlier Marie de Meulan (which perhaps explains some of the confusion which has arisen around the identity of Marie the poet).
[iii] As well as having family in the South West, the famed poet may even have had a home in and around mid Devon. In the C12, North Wyke's estates covered a much larger area than in modern times and archives mention places in surrounding areas which resonate with oddly synchronous names, such as that of the manor of Talbottyswyke lying beside the river, at North Tawton, which is modern day 'Week'. As far as I can find so far this is the only place with that name in the locality and given the Meulan's family presence in the surrounding area we could almost imagine this as an outlying sub manor of North Wyke.
[iv] Or, could these literary experts have got the poet's identity completely wrong? Could Marie have been one of the Devon noblewomen, rather than the Marie de Meulan of her supposed identity? Could we read the suffix appellation 'de France' as, for example, 'de Redvers', or 'de Valletort', or 'de Courtenay' (all names 'from France'). Other similar, or related Marie de France queries concern the poems themselves. Could real-life women, such as either Maud de Dunstanville, sister in law of the poet, or Mabel de Veron, Countess of Devon, her niece, have been models for the princess, in Eliduc? Though not strictly speaking princess, both of these women were only one step away from such. Alteratively, we can turn the query on its head and consider the C12 Devon panorama from the perspective of its castles and sites in terms of the poet's choice of textual places. Is the castle in Eliduc based on a real one, and if so, where could it be located? Tiverton or Okehampton or Totnes, all had prominent castles and then there were other, smaller, motte and baileys, such as North Tawton.


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