Ideas of Knighthood, Courtly Love, and Aggression in “Bisclavret”
The werewolf has been used in literature for centuries. It can be used by an author to explore various themes of duplicity such as the animalistic nature of humanity. In “Bisclavret”, Marie De Frances uses the werewolf to explore gender stereotypes. When exploring the use of gender stereotypes within literature, women are either pictured as angelic or seductive creatures that use their femininity for evil against men. Men, on the other hand, are depicted as either the valiant and romantic knight or the dominating aggressor. Most works do not depict both sides of the human psyche. Marie De France’s “Bisclavret,” however, does just that. In “Bisclavret,” France explores the motives behind both male stereotypes and shows how they can exist within one creature by exploring the dualistic nature of the werewolf motif.
Marie De France begins her poem by introducing her readers to the myth of the werewolf, in particularly of Bisclavret. Paul Creamer describes this introduction to the werewolf as “a zoological portrait whose elements can be ticked off like a checklist” (Creamer). This checklist focuses on the fierce animalistic nature of Bisclavret. In lines 9-11, France states that werewolves are a “savage beast” that “in his blood rage, he makes a feast of men” (France 19). After this savage depiction, France asks her readers to “leave all that,” because she wants “to speak of Bisclavret” (France 18). The plea to leave the discussion of savagery and instead discuss Bisclavret encourages the reader to see Bisclavret as different from the savage beast previously described in lines 3-12.
The author continues on into the heart of the story by attempting to further persuade the reader that Bisclavret is not a savage beast. She does this by describing the lord as “a good knight, handsome, known to be/all that makes for nobility “ (France 19). The description of the lord in these lines is a juxtaposition of the previous description of Bisclavret. The juxtaposition is used to convey to her readers just how good and noble a man the protagonist is. The author stating that he is a good knight implies all chivalric codes including loyalty and courtly love.
France continues her description of Bisclavret in lines 39-41 by depicting him through the stereotype of the doting courtier. When his wife questions him in fear of where he disappears to for days at a time, he does not lash out in an angry, animalistic way. Instead, he “embraced her, /drew her near to him, clasped and kissed her” (France 20). The doting husband side of Bisclavret is motivated by the love and adoration he feels for his wife. The humanity within Bisclavret is the side France wants her readers to focus on and remember as her lai begins to unfold. Instead, as theorized by SunHee Kim Gertz, France “Rather than heightening the strangeness or even the horror so obviously a potential focus of a werewolf story, Marie ironically insists on creating a very normal, human beast” (Gertz). She creates this “human beast” by juxtaposing the male stereotypes of doting courtier and dominating aggressor.
The betrayal of Bisclavret’s wife, introduces the reader to a different side of the lord. The betrayal is described by Carl Grey Martin as an event in which the wife “adulterously conspires with a hapless admirer to prevent the creature from ever regaining its human form” (Martin). The wife’s attempt to destroy the lord’s humanity ends all loving feelings towards her by Bisclavret. He is no longer depicted as the doting husband, there are no longer kind words or actions towards his wife and thus a new male stereotype is introduced to the reader. He is now aggressive and violent natured. The devastation of being betrayed by the wife he loved, leads to the reader’s first glimpse of the animalistic nature within Bisclavret. John Friedman speculates the reason for this by stating that, “The naturalistic explanation of temporary werewolves assumes that their condition results from some tremendous mental shock such as loss of loved ones or economic disaster that changes the genetic makeup, we might say, of the subject” (Friedman). Friedman’s theory directly corresponds with the story of Bisclavret. The shock of his wife’s deception turns him permanently into the beast. This is represented within the lai in lines 25-26 where France states “Thus was Bisclavret trapped for life;/ ruined, betrayed, by his own wife” (France 20).
The wife’s betrayal is centered around the theft of Bisclavret’s clothing. SunHee Kim Gertz describes Bisclavret’s transformation as “one whose very aspect of change is enhanced by other figurative details, such as his metamorphoses being dependent upon changes in clothing” (Gertz). Examples of the metamorphoses dependent on clothing Gertz described are Bisclavret’s physical change from man to beast, but also his cognitive change when he loses the ability to communicate through verbal language. According to Paul Creamer, “Medieval folkloric tradition is rich with human characters whose possession of specific clothing or jewelry regulates their conversion between human and lupine form” (Creamer). Clothing and jewelry are items representative of humanity which explains the medieval theme and its depiction by Marie De France. The loss of clothing however does not constitute a total loss of self or humanity for Bisclavret. The remaining humanity is depicted later in the lai in lines 145-146. Here, the speaker describes that “His eye, distinguishing, could see/ the king; to beg his clemency”(France 21 ). Emma Campbell of the University of Warwick describes this portrayal by stating that, “Bisclavret’s wolf-like appearance conceals a courtly nature” (Campbell 95). Lucas Wood describes the man within the beast by stating that Bisclavret “essentially is and always has been nothing but a man–and a superlatively handsome, courtly, noble man at that” (Wood). Campell and Wood both help to clarify the significance of the protagonist’s character being one of duplicity. Bisclavret’s double nature directly mirrors the dueling parts of the male psyche.
Marie De France shows the humanity within Bisclavret’s animal form by depicting his actions when meeting the King and his guards in the wood. In line 140, the author uses the word “beast” to describe Bisclavret (France 21). The word beast has an aggressive, inhuman connotation. The reader expects to see an aggressive creature react to the King and his men. Instead, they are met with something quite different. The king, in lines 154-155, responds to Bisclavret by stating, “That’s a man’s mind; it begs the king/for mercy. Now, drive back the hounds!” (France 21). The king’s response shows that, though a beast, humanity and kindness can still seen within him. The reader continues to see depictions of the love and kindness of Bisclavret in the next stanza. In line 164, the reader sees that Bisclavret is so loyal to the king that “he would not lose the king, /abandon him, for anything” (France 21). In line 179, Bisclavret is described having a “noble bearing” and “charm” (France 122). These depictions of Bisclavret show the reader that he is still “a good knight” as originally described in line 17 (France 18).
The knightly, almost human, depiction of Bisclavret is juxtaposed in the following stanza as he is faced with the chevalier at court. This stanza depicts a very different side of the protagonist. Marie De France, in lines 198-199, shows an aggressive and beastly side of Bisclavret when she describes how he “ran up furiously, /sank in his teeth, and dragged him close” (France 122). The aggression is depicted a second time as the speaker describes that
The beast rushed, twice, that day,
To bite the man; all felt dismay,
For none had seen the beast display
Toward anyone, in any way,
Such viciousness. There must be reason,
The housel hold said, for him to seize on
The knight, who must have done him wrong;
The wish for vengeance seemed so strong. (lines 203-210)
His behavior at court is such that the household does not view his beastly state as the catalyst for his aggressive behavior toward the chevalier. Instead, they trust that there is a just motive.
The reaction is used to portray to the reader how both the characteristics of a knight and of an aggressor can be seen within the same dynamic character. Here, again, the werewolf motif is used to enhance that portrayal by playing the dualistic properties of the creature.
Marie De France’s final depiction of the aggressive nature within Bisclavret is against his wife. The gentle ways in which the lord handled his wife are transformed into aggression and violence when he sees her in the forest. The speaker describes that “Bisclavret saw her come. No man/ had strength to hold him as he ran / up to his wife in rage and fury” (France 23). The author evokes yet another male stereotype in this passage by describing Bisclavret’s dominance in strength over his wife.
The physical aggression of Bisclavret towards his wife culminates in her torture. First, he ripped “her nose off, then and there” (France 23). For Bisclavret, his beastly exterior does not match the humanity within. As revenge against his wife, the lord in beast form destroys the human form of his wife and her female offspring as a means of matching her monstrous inner self with her now monstrous exterior. Secondly, the king orders the lord’s wife to be tortured into revealing her sins against Bisclavret. The speaker of the lai describes this torture by explaining that the King
Detained the chevalier.
The lady, too, he held; and she
He put to pain and agony.
Part out of pain, and part out of fear,
She made her former lord’s case clear:
How she managed to betray
Her lord, and take his clothes away;
The story he had told her,
What he became, and how, and where;
And how, when once his clothes were gone –
Stolen – he was not seen again. (lines 262-272)
In conclusion, Marie De Frances depicts several male stereotypes within her lai, “Biclavret”. She does this primarily through juxtaposition. She compares the many facets of Bisclavret the man with Bisclavret the beast. She also compares how the company kept by Bisclavret directly correlates to the side of psyche portrayed in those moments. The author also uses the dualistic nature of the werewolf as a means of translating to the reader how many stereotypical male traits can exist in one male character. Finally, the author explores the theme of humanity through the loss of innately human characteristics of clothing and communication through a verbal language.
Campbell, Emma. “A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies.” Exemplaria 25 (2013): 95-109. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
Creamer, Paul. “Woman-hating in Marie de France’s Bisclavret (1).” The Romanic Review 93.3 (2002): 259+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
France, Marie De. “Bisclavret”. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. 3rd. Sandra M. Gilbert, Susan Gubar. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2007. 18-24. Print.
Friedman, John Block. “Werewolf transformation in the manuscript era.” The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History 17 (2014): 35+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
Gertz, SunHee Kim. “Transferral, Transformation, and the Act of Reading in Marie de France’s ‘Bisclavret’.” Romance Quarterly 39.4 (Nov. 1992): 399-410. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Ed. Carol T. Gaffke and Anna J. Sheets. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
Martin, Carl Grey. “Bisclavret and the subject of torture.” The Romanic Review 104.1-2 (2013): 23+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
Wood, Lucas. “The werewolf as mobius strip, or becoming bisclavret.” The Romanic Review 102.1-2 (2011): 3+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.