04 13 The Lay Of The Werewolf Essay

by J J Cohen

Just in time for Halloween ...

I posted a version of this short essay yesterday on Google+ and immediately garnered very useful feedback from Karl, Allen Michie, Ana Grinberg, Derrick Pitard and Jessica Lockhart: thank you. It's the draft of a piece I'm contributing to a cluster on animals, to be published in Studies in the Age of Chaucer. The essay has already exceeded its 2K word limit, and much as I'd like to expand it ... well, some day.

Your suggestions and comments are most appreciated.


            A werewolf is the problem of animal difference expressed in monster’s flesh. This compound creature asks how intermixed with the bestial (-wolf) the human (were-) might already be. All that is civilized, ennobling, and sacred is lost in fleshly war with lupine appetites, impulses, and violence. The werewolf would seem the ideal monster to query the suppression of “the animal part within us all.”[1] Yet a warning that this monstrous admixture is not so easy to make a universalizing metaphor inheres in the fact that Latin possesses no common noun for werewolf. Laycaon might be transformed by an angry god into a wolf, and might (in Ovid’s narration) inhabit briefly an interstitial space where he possesses human and bestial qualities, but at transformation’s end one noun replaces another, vir to lupus. When Gervase of Tilbury in the Otia Imperialia is describing men who metamorphosize under lunar influence he observes:

In England we have often seen men change into wolves [homines in lupos mutari] according to the phases of the moon. The Gauls call men of this kind gerulfi, while the English name for them is werewolves, were being the English equivalent of uir (87-89; I.15)

Gervase employs French and English words to gloss his Latinate circumlocution.[2] As its etymologically admixed nature suggests, the werewolf is a hybrid monster. Caroline Walker Bynum has argued that hybridity is a dialogism in which “contraries are simultaneous and in conversation with each other.”[3] The werewolf is therefore not an identity-robbing degradation of the human, nor the yielding to a submerged and interior animality, but the staging of a dialogue in which the human always triumphs. Hybridity is therefore a simultaneity of unequal differences. As Karl Steel has demonstrated, this overpowering of animal possibility by human exceptionality is a ceaseless, fraught, and violence-driven process. Humans are made at animal expense. Steel points out that a werewolf’s raising the problem of “the animal part that within us all” is possible only “if humans are understood to have discrete ‘animal’ and ‘human’ parts.”[4] As idealized differences these categories need to be produced and stabilized repeatedly: the only way to maintain such separations is through more violence.

As admonitory figures, werewolves would seem to warn us why species difference must remain firm. So keen is the desired division between animal and human that many medieval werewolves are not true composites but humans encased in lupine skin, awaiting liberation. Gerald of Wales describes natives of Ossory cursed by Saint Natalis to don wolf fur and live as beasts. Under these animal garments their bodies remain unaltered.[5] Two of these transformed Irish villagers announce their appearance to a group of startled travelers with the resonant words “Do not be afraid.” Wolf skin is peeled back to reveal an ordinary woman inside. The werewolves deliver a human message, an anthropocentric horror story about being entrapped in an alien encasement. What human would not seek an immediate release from enclosure within such degrading and disjunctive corporeality? If this hybrid form stages a dialogue, the conversation is one sided. Who speaks the animal’s narrative? Who could wish for such a monster’s impossibly amalgamated body? Who could desire such a life?

Cursed and pedagogical creatures, werewolves cannot be a happy lot. The citizens of Ossory bewail their compulsion. Yet medieval literature also describes werewolves cheerful in their composite bodies: the clever Alphonse who teaches the young lovers to disguise themselves in animal skins in Guillaume de Palerne;the forest-loving protagonist of Mélion, who discovers in wolf fur a success never realized while an ordinary husband and vassal; Bisclavret, who when trapped in animal form attains a satisfaction denied as a quotidian knight. Animality is supposed to be a despised state, the abject condition against which humanity asserts itself. The werewolf knows better. This monster inhabits a space of undifferentiated concurrency, in the doubled sense of a running together and a mutual assent. The werewolf offers neither a conversation (which too easily becomes a conversion) nor a dialogue (weighted in advance towards human domination), but a pause, a hesitation, a concurrence during which what is supposed to be contrastive remains coexistent, in difference, indifferent. Werewolves do not reject the stony enclosure of castles for arboreal wilds. They are not proto-romanticists or early avatars of Bear Grylls. What is most intriguing about the state of unsettled animality that they incarnate is its irreducible hybridity, its ethical complexity, and its dispersive instability, pro-animal yet posthuman.

Perhaps that sounds too affirmative for so fierce a creature. In “Bisclavret” Marie de France glosses “werewolf” in harsh but familiar terms:

Garualf, c[eo] est beste salvage:

Tant cum il est en cele rage,

Hummes devure, grant mal fait,

Es granz forez converse et vait. (9-12)

[A werewolf is a savage beast:

while his fury is on him

he eats men, does much harm,

goes deep in the forest to live.][6]

Marie vividly describes the bestiality incarnated by this monster, its sylvan existence of uncontrolled violence, even anthropophagy. Who would embrace such animal life? Bisclavret. A well-respected knight four days of the week and a forest-dwelling wolf the other three, Bisclavret is not unhappy. His mistake is to confide the secret of his dual nature to his wife. Unlike the werewolves described by Gerald of Wales who don lupine skins, Marie’s knight simply removes his clothing and stashes the garments in the hollow of a woodland rock. Once “stark naked” (tut nu), he tells his fearful spouse, the following adventure (aventure) inevitably arrives:

Dame, jeo devienc bisclavret:

En cele grant forest me met,

Al plus espés de la gaudine,

S’i vif de preie e de ravine. (63-66)

[My dear, I become a werewolf:

I go into the great forest,

in the thickest part of the woods,

and I live on prey I hunt down.]

This account of roaming the forest is significantly less violent than the vision of lycanthropy with which the lai opens. The wolf’s sustenance in the forest depths is described as preie, which could be deer, rabbits, and foxes. Or not. What matters is that unlike the opening gloss no invitation is extended to consider brutality against specific bodies. Bynum therefore sees a vast difference between the garvalf, the Norman word for the savage werewolf of tradition, and Marie’s own bisclavret, the term of unknown origin that is supposed to be its Breton equivalent (Metamorphosis and Identity 170-71). I wonder, though, if these two nouns can be so easily separated, and suspect that Marie is up to something more complicated and inventive.

Bisclavret hesitates to reveal his covert life. He fears he will lose his “very self” (“me meïsmes en perdrai”) if this secret becomes known. Yet although he admits his second nature to his wife with apprehension, he speaks it without shame. He arrives home from his three wolfen days joius e liez, happy and delighted (30). Time in the forest vivifies. His wife is terrified by this knowledge, and certain she will never desire to share a bed with him again (102). Feigning passion for a neighbor, she arranges to have Bisclavret’s clothing stolen, trapping him in animal form. Bisclavret’s anger at his wife is immense, his revenge brutal: when she comes to the court where he has become the king’s favorite pet, he bites the nose from her face. Torture compels the disfigured woman to reveal her crime, and she admits the stealing of his transfigurative clothes.

Strangely, however, when the vestments are returned to a lupine Bisclavret he looks upon them with indifference: “he didn’t even seem to notice them”(280). A councilor suggests that the former knight is too modest to dress in public. Critics generally find this intratextual interpretation persuasive. Bisclavret’s shame signals his readiness to abandon his animality and return to civility. Yet the councilor’s words are nonsensical. Why would Bisclavret feel shame? Certainly not at his nakedness: he is covered in fur, and he is refusing to dress, not to strip. The clothing is a potent materialization of his humanity. Why would shame inhere in a return to that superior state? Marie de France’s lais are usually crafted around densely symbolic objects that might be described as parabolic, an adjective for parables (stories) as well as parabolae (curved orbits). To enter into relation with a parabolic object is to be swept into an unexpected narrative that alters the trajectory of one’s life, spinning it around a novel center of accelerating gravity. Everything changes at such encounter. These objects are aventure in material form: the ship in Guigemar, the hawk and sword in Yonec, the swan in Milun. Why would Bisclavret demonstrate such apathy towards the thing that can restore human being?

Werewolves’ bodies are convenient animal vehicles for meditating upon human identity in the Middle Ages. They are theologically rich, and pose difficult questions about identity and continuity, as Bynum has shown. They often prove to be less hybrid than they at first appear: unzip the wolf skin and out pops the human who had always been dwelling inside. Werewolves easily become allegories, reaffirming the superiority of the human, their natural dominance and difference. So why would a werewolf through dogged disinterest suggest his being at home in a shaggy form? Could it be that Bisclavret is simply indifferent to a return to quotidian humanity, and thus offers no reaction at all to these powerfully symbolic accouterments?

As a knight Bisclavret is noble and loved. His three days spent prowling the forests in a wolf’s body detracted nothing, and he returns home refreshed. The forest is a place of privacy. He resists telling his wife about his lupine sojourns because he fears the loss of that space, her love, his selfhood. He places his clothing in the hollow of a rock by an ancient chapel to gain something that he knows imperils his life as husband and neighbor: a space inhuman (lived among vegetation and beasts, filled with violence but also shared with trees, other animals, stones) and innovative (he creates and sustains a precarious existence). This hybrid space is also too easily annexed back into the orbit of ordinary human lives. Bisclavret in his wolf body earns the king’s affection through an act of submission, kissing the monarch’s stirrup and making his readiness to serve visually evident. Well fed and watered, full of proper submission but also ready to unleash proper violence, he is at once like a favorite hunting dog and like a good household knight. He learns the equivalence between two forms that seemed mutually exclusive, learns their indifference.

Immediately upon his restoration Bisclavret is beheld asleep upon the royal bed. His wife – the one who did not want him in her bed any more – is banished. Her female children inherit her noselessness, an infinitely repeating historical sign of the misogyny that has limned this tale, with its closing vision of a thoroughly homosocial world. And perhaps with that trading of one dreary bed for another we realize the reason for Bisclavret’s unresponsiveness to the offered clothing. He returns from his wolf’s form to a startlingly familiar scene, one that he thought he had trotted away from long ago. How sad his departure from lycanthropy must be, as an ephemeral but invigoratingly uncertain world yields to soft beds and predictable human vistas “a tutdis,” forever.

[1] Joyce E. Salisbury, “Human Beasts and Bestial Humans in the Middle Ages,” Animal Acts: Configuring the Human in Western History, ed. Jennifer Ham and Matthew Senior (New York: Routledge, 1997) 9-22. Salisbury is arguing for more sympathy towards the animal within. See also her book The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[2] Although Gervase is dubious about many animal transformations, the werewolves seem to be a true change of body. See the thorough discussion in Leslie A. Sconduto, Metamorphoses of the Werewolf : A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance(Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008) 35-38.

[3] Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2001) 160.

[4]How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University press, 2011) 12.

[5] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John O’Meara (London: Penguin Books, 1982). For an influential treatment of the episode stressing its stabilities of forms, see Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity 15-18, 106-111 for a complete account.

[6] Marie de France, Lais, ed. Alfred Ewert, introduction by Glyn S. Burgess (London: Briston Classics Press, 1995); translation from Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante, The Lais of Marie de France (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1978). Further references by line numbers.

[“Marie de France was a medieval poet who was probably born in France and lived in England during the late 12th century.” (source) “The lais of Marie de France are a series of twelve short narrative Breton lais by the poet Marie de France. They are written in the Anglo-Norman and were probably composed in the late 12th century. The short, narrative poems generally focus on glorifying the concept of courtly love through the adventures of their main characters.” (source) This is a recent paper I spent too much time on, dealing with de France’s sophisticated criticism of the psycho-social abuses women of her time were capable of performing, and hiding, well. Soli Deo Gloria! -h.]

[p.s. You can read the story Bisclavret here. It is a short, but interesting, story.]

A Problematic Definition?

Whereas the Oxford English Dictionary defines a werewolf as “a person who . . . was transformed or was capable of transforming himself at times into a wolf,”1Marie de France’s lai Bisclavret has a somewhat different definition. After describing the reality of “many men [turning] into werewolves [then going] to live in the woods,”2 de France states that “a werewolf is a ferocious beast which, when possessed by this madness, devours men, causes great damage and dwells in vast forests.”3 de France’s intention is to provide her readers with a means of identifying the werewolf when it appears in her lai. Yet if the concept of werewolves would have been known to her audience, why would Marie de France feel the need to provide her readers with this aid?

The narrator’s definition of a werewolf seems to serve as a point of clarification, helping the reader properly identify the man-devouring werewolf from the man-honoring werewolf. For, problematically, Bisclavret is not a man-devouring beast possessed by madness, nor does he spend the remainder of his days living in the woods. How, then, is he a werewolf? The definition is not simply concerned with giving physical details, but goes further, explaining that what werewolves do, by definition, is devour men and live in the woods. Bisclavret’s bout of “madness,”4 moreover, is not randomly brought about by an animal impulse, but is a reaction to the offense and dishonor and shame his wife’s actions bring about. Her cruelty toward Bisclavret, in fact, devours his humanity, reduces him to beast, and, therefore, reveals that it is not Bisclavret who is the real werewolf but his wife.

Bisclavret’s Nobility

From the onset of the text, Bisclavret is introduced as “a man highly praised . . . a good and handsome knight who conducted himself nobly.”5 He is “well loved by all his neighbors,” according to de France, and loved his wife.6 After being semi-permanently transformed into a physical werewolf, the descriptions of Bisclavret’s nobility increase rather than decrease. Bisclavret “did not want to be separated from [the king] and had no wish to abandon him”7(i.e. he was faithful), “was loved by everyone and so noble and gentle a beast was it that it never attempted attempted to cause any harm.”8

As mentioned above, it is only at the sight of his wife and her lover that Bisclavret grows “made” and desires to revenge himself. The violence which he does engage in, however, causes those who observe it and are “greatly astonished”9 to say that “he would not have done it without good reason. The knight [whom he attacked] had wronged him somehow or other, for [Bisclavret] was bent on revenge.”10 Bisclavret is such an outstandingly noble figure that his violent attacks on his wife are not met with immediate judicial action, but spur on an investigation into the cause of his abnormal behavior.11

Bisclavret’s “Wife”

Over the course of the narrative, the woman who betrays Bisclavret is referred to as his “wife,” despite the fact that she “betrayed and wronged”12 him. Given the Christian context in which this text was composed, moreover, the woman’s behavior should have been, and perhaps de France’s audience did so, viewed as adultery. The title “Bisclavret’s wife,” therefore, simultaneously denies this woman the respect of particularity (i.e. she is a nameless wife) and condemns her as an adulteress. And, indeed, this is de France’s depiction of Bisclavret’s wife throughout the text.

Bisclavret pleads with his wife for “mercy,” yet she is indifferent to the fact that if he tells her his secret “great harm will come to [him], for as a result [he] will lose her love and destroy [himself].”13 The text goes on to say that “she tormented and harried him,”14 forcing him to further reveal his secrets to her, despite the harm it would inflict upon him. The torment she inflicts on men, however, is not limited to Bisclavret. Upon deciding to betray her husband, Bisclavret’s wife

sent a messenger to summon a knight who lived in the region and who had loved her a long time, wooed her ardently and served her generously. She had never loved him or promised him her affection but now she told him what was on her mind.

‘Friend,’ she said, ‘rejoice: without further delay I grant you that which has tormented you; never again will you encounter any refusal.15

Bisclavret’s wife is revealed to be an adulteress and torturer of the men who are attracted to her, willing to serve her, and willing to “open up” to her.

Reciprocal Retribution & Exile

The references to the torture inflicted on the abovementioned men are seemingly insignificant, until, that is, de France reintroduces Bisclavret’s wife toward the end of the lai. de France explains that the king “took the lady away and subjected her to torture.”16 Bisclavret’s wife is now subject to torture for the sake of confession, receiving a form retribution reciprocal to the crime she committed against Bisclavret and her (illegitimate) new husband. de France further states that the torture

made her reveal everything about her husband: how she had betrayed him and taken his clothes, about his account of what happened, what became of him and where he went.17

The werewolf, as noted above, is a beast that devours men, causes great damage, and dwells in vast forests. Up to this point, Bisclavret’s wife has not dwelt in vast forests. However, subsequent to being tortured, Bisclavret’s wife is sent into exile. The king, de France reports, “banished the woman from the country,”18 and “restored [Bisclavret’s] land to him.”19

The Woman as Man-Devouring Werewolf

The symmetrical structuring of de France’s lai places an antithetical parallel before the reader that subverts commonly held assumptions about gender relations in the Medieval era. It is not the man who is, in the end, the man-devouring werewolf who causes destruction and lives in vast forests – it is the woman. Bisclavret’s wife tortures men, subjects them to her, forces them to comply with her wishes, and thus can be said to devour them, albeit in a figurative sense. Bisclavret’s wife, moreover, destroys her husbands. Bisclavret is reduced to a beast; her new husband is rendered by her an accomplice to her immoralities. Lastly, Bisclavret’s wife is left to wander the vast spaces of uncivilized land (i.e. the area outside of Brittany), and dwell there.

Considering that Bisclavret never fits de France’s definition of a werewolf, and considering that his wife does, it does not seem to indicate that de France was portraying the devolution of Bisclavret’s wife. Rather, de France’s treatment of the man and the woman force the reader to peer beyond appearances that can cloud their judgment. Contemporary discussions concerning female agency in the Medieval era would do well to consider the “role reversals” in this lai. Women may have been at a disadvantage in many respects; yet Marie de France’s concrete example of the psychological torture women at this time were capable of performing (and hiding under appearances to the contrary) demonstrates that such a binarily informed reconstruction of historically ensconced subjects (ontological and aesthetic) is at best misinformed and at worst violently sexist.


15 pp.73-74. (emphasis added)

16 p.76. (emphasis added)

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Posted in: Aesthetics, Apologetics, Book Reviews | Tagged: 13 century, antifeminism, beza, bisclavret, calvin, female authors, female christian authors, feminism, five points of calvinism, lit crit, marie de france, masculinism, reformed literature, werewolves, werewolves as symbol of desire

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