|Text (Part of The Lais of Marie de France)
|Marie de France
|Late 12th Century
|Literature and Humanities 1 (YCC1111);
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309);
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)
“Bisclavret,” the fourth of Marie de France’s lais, concerns shape-shifting, metamorphosis, and the liminal space between animal and human. It appears in her collection after “Le Frene” and before “Lanval.”
The lai recounts the story of a noble knight whose wife presses him to explain his weekly disappearances. He insists that revealing his secret to her will cause him to lose both her love and his own self. She persists in questioning him, however, and he finally admits that during his absences he becomes a werewolf, concealing his clothes beside a ruined chapel in the forest. Terrified and revolted, his wife colludes with a neighboring knight to steal her husband’s discarded clothing, without which he will forever remain a werewolf.
The following year, the king catches sight of the werewolf while hunting in the forest. With the royal hunting dogs in pursuit, the werewolf suddenly leaps toward the king and kisses his foot. Moved by this seemingly human gesture, which he interprets as a sign that the werewolf possesses human intelligence, the king decides to bring the werewolf back to his court, where he becomes well-loved for his gentleness. Meanwhile, his wife has married the knight with whom she conspired. When this man appears one day at the court, the werewolf rushes to attack him, and on a separate occasion he attacks his wife, biting off her nose. Perceiving that there must be some motive for this uncharacteristic violence, a wise man at the court suggests that the king interrogate the wife, who then confesses what she has done. Once the werewolf’s clothes are recovered and he is granted the privacy of the king’s bedchamber, the act of dressing allows him to transform himself into (or be recognized as) a man. The treacherous couple is exiled from the kingdom, and henceforth many of their female descendants are born without noses.
The lai invites us to reflect on the continuum between human and animal, revealing how the same behaviors can be read as human or as bestial in different contexts (biting off his wife’s nose, for instance, is taken as a sign of a human desire for revenge). Through language and naming, Marie implies, we tend to create categories that seem definitive, but these ostensible distinctions may be an illusion based only on what we call things. Marie begins the lai by introducing two “kinds” of werewolf, the “garulf” (the Norman word for werewolf), characterized by violence and aggression toward humans, and the much more sympathetic “bisclavret” (the Breton word for werewolf). As the lai goes on, however, it becomes clear that this distinction may be a difference in name only. Even the line between human and animal turns out to be unstable: humanity is not limited to those with a stable human form, and what counts as humanity and courtliness is a matter of opinion rather than essence. Indeed, it is striking that the werewolf can only “become” human again once he has recovered his clothing, suggesting that humanity resides not in innate nobility of character but in external signifiers.
The world which “Bisclavret” presents is thus one of fluid movement and translatability between forms. In this context, the lai’s title takes on an added significance: the Norman word “garwulf” comes from the Germanic root-words meaning “man” and “wolf,” suggesting a hybrid creature that is half-man, half-wolf. “Bisclavret,” only the other hand, comes from the Breton words bleiz (“wolf”) and claffet (“ill, rabid”), hence “wolf-sick.” Imagining the werewolf state as a temporary affliction of the human, it suggests that animality is not so much a distinct category as a constitutive part of human identity.
Marie de France. Marie de France: Poetry. Translated by Dorothy Gilbert, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.
The Rochester Bestiary: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Rochester_Bestiary
[Featured Image & Fig. 1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RochesterBestiaryFolio029rvWolves.jpg
CONTRIBUTED BY DR. EMILY DALTON