The Lais of Marie de France

The Lais of Marie de France Summary and Analysis of "Chaitivel"


Marie wishes now to tell a story she has heard, to name the city where it took place, and also to tell its title. It is "generally called" "Le Chaitivel" (The Unhappy One), though many call it "Les Quatre Deuls" (The Four Sorrows).

In Nantes in Brittany, a lady once lived who was particularly beautiful, educated, and noble. For these reasons, she had suitors throughout the land, none of whom she was willing to either commit to or repudiate. Marie explicitly gives a few lessons, about how a lady loved by too many men is dangerous, since the man who does not get what he wants will strike back, and also how a woman should honor her suitors and not treat them flippantly. Though Marie does not explicitly attribute these faults to the girl, they are implicitly directed towards her situation.

There are four particularly brave and noble knights (whose names Marie says she does not know) who all wish to marry the girl. They perform various brave deeds for her, but the girl cannot decide which she likes best, and she "did not wish to lose all three in order to retain just one." She leads each of them on, giving them tokens and promises, so that each believes his great deeds are putting him ahead.

She strings them along until one Easter when a tournament is thrown and people come from all around to compete. The night before the tournament begins, "fierce fighting" begins with a nearby adversary. In the violent and brutal battle, the four knights all lead the charge and distinguish themselves even after they are unhorsed in battle. The lady watches from her tower and cannot decide which is most valorous of all.

At the tournament the next day, the four knights continue to impress as they fight to win their lady. They take all the honors that day, and that night the four of them wander off together and are struck by a lateral attack. The attack is not intended to kill them, but it is such a surprise that three of the knights are killed and one of them is terribly wounded with a lance through the thigh that goes through his body. When the news spreads to the other knights, they all rush to the field and grieve audibly, tearing at their hair and lamenting the tragedy.

The lady, meanwhile, swoons when she hears the news. When she wakes, she asks "Whatever shall I do? I shall never again be happy!" She recognizes that her insistence that they fight for her love has led to their deaths, and she does not know who to mourn most. She promises to bury those who died, and take care of the wounded knight. She summons a famous doctor who helps nurse the wounded man, while all grieve for those who died.

The wounded man recovers decently, but cannot perform as a lover. Much later, the lady is conversing with the wounded knight and he asks the cause of her sadness. She tells him how she remembers the loss – "Never will a lady of my lineage…love four such men at once in a single day lose them all" – and in remembrance of her grief she is considering the composition of a lay called "The Four Sorrows." The knight quickly suggests she ought to compose the lay but entitle it "The Unhappy One" instead. His reasoning is that the other three have passed on, while he must "suffer a hundred ills" since he is left alive to admire her without the physical capacity to do anything with her other than converse. He believes that is what ought be commemorated. She agrees to call the lay by his suggested name.

Marie ends by telling us that both titles are supported and that the lay thus goes by either name.


This short lay has a very clear message in its condemnation of selfish love. The beautiful girl might show an innate kindness in the way she nurses the wounded knight, but that does not discount her extreme self-interest that causes the tragedy.

Marie's warnings in the first part of the poem provide insight into her meaning. Simply put, Marie suggests a woman should not lead men on, since their aggression can be exacerbated by it. There is a suggestion that the courted woman has a duty to the men who court her, to treat them fairly and respectably.

The lady in this lay does not do this. She is too excited by the chivalrous competition her beauty inspires, and continues not to look to them, but to enjoy wondering to herself which one she should choose. As the violence escalates – first in the battle before the tournament and then in the tournament itself – she is no closer to a decision. As a result of her vanity and refusal to show moderation in her self-love, they are all killed. Her lament on hearing of their demise – "whatever shall I do?" – stands in stark contrast to the reaction of the other knights, who grieve for the knights, tearing at their hair in apparent disregard for their own vanity in light of the sad events.

The woman's choice of title for the lay shows she has not learned. She continues to think of the event in terms of how it has affected her, of the sorrow it has brought her. Meanwhile, the knight who suffers most of all is right before her eyes, and has to indicate that to her explicitly. She is not a mean, evil girl; that characterization would make the effect of the poem less profound, since we could then write her off. Instead, it is a terrible truth that even the nicest of people can be blinded by their self-interest and vanity, thereby engendering tragedy.

There is also a sexual element to the poem, in that men are characterized as aggressive when their sexual desires are not satiated. The violence escalates in the poem not because Marie thinks ill of men, but because she thinks ill of the women who would let them continue to excite themselves while not offering them any outlet. The cycle of violence they take part in ends in their death, even though those who kill them did not mean such an end, but only to continue the fighting.

Lastly, Marie's opening to this lay is interesting in the way it suggests the theme of the poem is intertwined with its choice of title. There is in this an implicit challenge to the audience: which title would you choose? This implicit question pushes the theme of self-interest to the center, perhaps forcing an audience to consider how well they can counter these human impulses to be blinded by our own vanity.