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Animal Identity in Marie de France’s “Bisclavret”

Marie de France is the earliest known French female poet, though little is known of her identity or life; what scholars do know is mostly collated and inferred from her own writings, or potential mentions by other authors. The Lais of Marie de France is a foundational medieval text, composed of twelve short narrative Breton lais concerned with courtly love and chivalric romance, including Bisclavret. The themes of the lais vary, though they all centre on tales of love, knighthood, and chivalry, featuring fairies, the supernatural and animal-human hybrids.

Bisclavret is the third tale of the lais, featuring a renowned and loved baron, Bisclavret, who lives with his wife but harbours a dark secret: he is plagued with a werewolf curse. When he finally admits to his wife the truth of his hybrid identity, and that without his clothes he would remain a werewolf forever, his wife is disgusted and no longer wishes to be with him. Plotting to rid herself of her husband, she bribes a knight to steal Bisclavret’s clothing. The knight agrees, thus Bisclavret is forced to live permanently as a werewolf.

After a year, Bisclavret is found in werewolf form, but rushes to the king and begs for mercy. Impressed by his display of humility and intelligence, the king brings the wolf back to the castle. When the wife hears of her husband’s return, she visits the king but, upon seeing her, Bisclavret attacks in anger and tears off her nose. Ultimately, the wife confesses her crime, and Bisclavret's clothes are returned to him. Joyous, the king restores Bisclavret to his lands, while his wife and her new husband are banished. Both their daughters are born without noses, resolving the lai’s perception of human/animal binaries and identity. Bisclavret is rewarded for his chivalric virtue despite his beastly form, whilst his wife – who possesses beastly inner qualities – becomes defined by her monstrosity, passing her inherent flaws to her children.

Figure 1: The Lays and Fables of Marie de France. British Library Archive. (13th century).

In order to understand medieval perceptions and representations of the animal, it is first crucial to understand that medieval thinkers – unlike modern philosophers – did not perceive one simple definition of humanity. As a result, the distinctive feature of medieval romances is an exercise towards defining what it means to be human. As Katherine Pierpont (2018) suggests, in medieval romances, authors continuously strive to “define what it means to be human” (p. 9). Emma Campbell (2013) clarifies this point, indicating a:

“flexibility of categories of humanity and animality in the period in which Marie was working: the human being's claim to humanity in the high and late Middle Ages was, it seems, precarious” (p. 96).

This partly explains Marie de France’s continual employment of characters that take both animal and human shapes: it is an attempt to investigate what makes them fundamentally human. Animal-human hybrids are employed as an investigation into the fundamental human and knightly characteristics that not only remain in animal identity but are enhanced by it. That knights still possess their chivalric worth despite their beastly form highlights both the flexibility of humanity and animality, and the durability of true chivalric virtue.

The use of animal representation to define humanity is a common trope in medieval literature, where authors were lenient to the idea that humans could possess both animal and human characteristics without supernatural evocation. Marie de France begins her tale by declaring that “every once in a while some men were transformed into werewolves” (Slavitt, 2013, p. 47), and ends it declaring: “this is the truth, and do not doubt it” (Slavitt, 2013, p. 54). Therefore, Marie de France was keen for her readers to accept the notion that humans and animals are very much alike.

Campbell (2013) explores how Marie de France regularly employs “human/animal metamorphosis that [is] linked to [her] interrogation of what constitutes humanity and courtliness” (p. 95). Bisclavret’s noble position is maintained even when he possesses a beastly form. Thomas Schneider (2016) explains that Bisclavret’s identity remains “strikingly stable despite multiple levels of transformation” (p. 25).

The hybridity of his identity, as opposed to manifesting instability, actually justifies the stability of Bisclavret’s chivalric, human identity. Even in his werewolf form, Bisclavret’s humanity is strengthened by his animal identity, exemplified by when he “ran up” to the king’s side and “kissed his shoe, which beasts in the woods don't often do” (Slavitt, 2013, p. 51). In this way, the hybridity of Bisclavret’s animal and human identity serves to both justify his humanity, and define him against more beastly definitions of the animal.

Figure 2: Wolf sneaking into the sheepfold. Aberdeen Bestiary. 12th century.

Bisclavret’s human identity is confirmed through this encounter with the king. Despite Marie de France’s opening assertion that werewolves would “eat anybody they happened to meet” (p. 47), Bisclavret proves the triumph of his humanity when he displays traits of knightly chivalric virtue by asserting his loyalty to the king, who remarks on his “intelligence” and “wits” (p. 51). Bisclavret continually proves his loyalty, “following closely” to the king, who was “delighted to have him there” (p. 52). This evidences the durability of the chivalric identity, where a knight can still exhibit civilised qualities, despite his animal form.

Crucially, when Bisclavret attacks his wife and her lover, Marie de France does not frame these events within the bounds of vicious, animal violence, but instead, she notes that “he had good cause” (p. 52). Bisclavret’s endeavour to prove his humanity to the king resulted in a courtly sympathy for the wolf, with people of the court insisting “the wolf itself might have been aggrieved by the knight somehow” (p. 52). Michelle Freeman (1985) argues that his act of violence against his wife is not figured as an irrational, animal display of anger, but rather as “the rightful human fury of a husband who has been seriously wronged” (p. 296).

In this way, Bisclavret’s violence is considered within the human realm of reason and rationality, distinguishing him from the beasts of the woods whose violence would be exclusively perceived as irrational and aggressive without cause. Ironically, it is through Bisclavret’s violence that he is able to prove his human capacity for reason.

Figure 3: Marie de France. Richard of Verdun. (13th century).

Interestingly, the imagery of Bisclavret tearing his wife’s nose from her face has been suggested to represent a beastly transformation that, in some ways, mirrors her husband’s. The violent act that Bisclavret takes against his wife has been suggested to mark a transformation to reveal her true beastly identity. This is supported by the medieval writings of Thomas Aquinos, who argued that people who display acts of irrational violence “fall under the category of bestial” (Qtd in Salisbury, 1994, p. 4). Incidentally, “the wife and her lover have engaged in an act of aggression” (Freeman, 1985, p. 295) against Bisclavret, and therefore her transformation into deformity exposes “a product of a human machinery of power that approximates [...] animal savagery” (Campbell, 2003, p. 98). Unlike the markedly human violence of her husband, the wife’s violence is illogical, trivialising her humanity.

Hence, the savagery of the wife’s actions aligns her appearance with her bestial interior, exposing the inhumanity that Bisclavret did not possess. Her human identity becomes precarious as she is aligned with beastly connotations. It is also significant to note that her children were born without noses, suggesting an inherent beastliness that ultimately defined her. Her animalistic cruelty is so persistent it manipulates her human form and makes it monstrous, passing it down to her children as a visual representation of the durability of her monstrosity. Bisclavret’s return to his human form, meanwhile, is a metamorphosis that evidences the static nature of his chivalric worth.

Ultimately, Bisclavret exposes the medieval tendency to blur the boundaries of the human and the animal in order to investigate the very thing that makes humans, human. Whilst Bisclavret proves his humanity through his animal appearance, with his continuing displays of chivalric virtue, Bisclavret’s wife proves her animal tendencies through her display of irrational violence against her husband. Despite her human form, her animalistic side is revealed by the end of the lai. Marie de France’s tale exemplifies the medieval perception of animal and human boundaries and the ways in which medieval authors used blurred perceptions in order to investigate what it really is that makes us human.

Bibliographical References

Campbell, E. (2013). Political Animals: Human/ Animal Life in Bisclavret and Yonec. Exempleria, 25(2), pp. 95-109.

Finke, L., & Schichtman, M. (1998). No Pain, No Gain: Violence as Symbolic Capital in Malory's 'Morte d'Arthur'. Arthuriana, 8(2), pp. 115-43.

Freeman, M. (1985). Dual Natures and Subverted Glosses: Marie de France's 'Bisclavret'. Romance Notes, 25(3), pp. 288-301.

Pierpont, K. (2018). The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Disability and Deformity in the Writings of Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France. Le Cygne, 5, pp. 9–34.

Salisbury, J. (2010). The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages. Routledge, pp. 1-216.

Schneider, T. R. (2016). The Chivalric Masculinity of Marie de France’s Shape-Changers. Arthuriana, 26(3), 25–40.

Slavitt, D. (2013). The Lays of Marie de France. AU Press. Original text by Marie de France.

Spossato, P., & Claussen, S. (2019). Chivalric Violence. A Companion to Chivalry, The Boydell Press, pp. 99-118.

Steel, K. (2008). How to Make a Human. Exemplaria, 20(1), pp. 3-27.

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