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Bisclavret Essay Examples

[“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

GOT YOUR NOSE: Bisclavret defaces his wife


First, join us in wishing Jeffrey safe travels.

Then, lest it be said that my promises or threats aren't worth the nose they're printed on, here, for your use, is my monumental post on the noselessness of Bisclavret's wife.

Recall that towards the end of Marie's lai, Mr. B's wife shows up at court, only to be attacked by her lupine husband:
Oiez cum il s'est bien vengiez!
Le nes li esracha del vis.
Que li peüst il faire pis? (Bisclavret 234-36)
"Just hear how successfully he took his revenge. He tore the nose right off her face. What worse punishment could he have inflicted on her?" (translation by Gallagher. My own translation would go like this: "Listen to how well he avenged himself! He tore her nose off her face. What worse could he have done to her?") 
The loss of the nose has long been a rich interpretative site in Bisclavret criticism. We can divide the readings into several groups:

  • psychoanalytic ones, which pun on vis [face] and vit [penis]: e.g., Bloch, Labbie, and Dolores Warwick Frese, "The Marriage of Woman and Werewolf: Poetics of Estrangement in Marie de France's 'Bisclavret'" in A. N. Doane's and Carol Braun Pasternack's anthology Vox Intexta: Orality And Textuality in the Middle Ages, rooted, I believe, in Jean-Charles Huchet, "Nom de femme et ecriture feminine au Moyen Age: Les Lais de Marie de France," Poetique 48 (1981): 407-30. Essentially, Ms. B had illegitimately taken on the phallic function and has it torn from her. This helps explain why only her female descendants are noseless; 
  • claims that nose-removal was a common torture in the Middle Ages, which I think is a wild exaggeration: I'm looking forward to seeing Larissa Tracy's further contextualization: I believe she's arguing that the court of Henry II, being antipathetic to torture, would have found the scene repugnant;  
  • claims that the nose-removal makes the wife more bestial: for reasons I'll explain (far) below, I disagree; I'm more in the neighborhood (less in the same block than on the same bus line) as Laurence M. Porter's proposal in Women's Vision In Western Literature: The Empathic Community that "Wolves have prominent muzzles and the missing nose makes Bisclavret's wife's face resemble a human skull more than a wolf's head, suggesting the skull underneath the skin, the illusoriness and transcience of sexual delight";
  • interconnections with many, many stories of Roman virgins and, in particular, virgin saints, who cut off their noses to make themselves unattractive to the Barbarian invaders [see Claude Thomasset, 'La femme sans nez', Littérature et médecine II, ed. Jean-Louis Cabanès, Eidolôn, 55 (Bourdeaux: Université Michel de Montaigne, Bourdeaux III, 2000), 57-52 and Jane Tibbetts, 'The Heroics of Virginity: Brides of Christ and Sacrificial Mutilation," Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives Ed. Mary Beth Rose. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986]: implicitly, then, Bisclavret's assaulting his wife's attractiveness; 
  • and finally, most influentially, a great many claims that losing the nose [or losing the nose and ears] was a punishment for an adulterous wife. See Stith Thompson Q451.5.1, Nose cut off as punishment for adultery. This requires a lot of detail.
Stith Thompson's most frequent citations here are to the Kathasaritsagara, "The Ocean of the Stream of Stories," an enormous 11th-century Sanskrit tale collection in which adulterous wives often lose their noses (or their noses and ears), sometimes while embracing the reanimated (and bitey) corpses of their executed lovers. Anna Kłosowska suggested to me that the stories could have made their way to Latin Europe: I want to know more about this: perhaps via Iberia or Norman Sicily?

Saxo Grammaticus tells the story of Hjalte, who's with a ladyfriend while his king's being betrayed. When Hjalte hears the sound of battle, he decides to leave her to rescue his lord. His ladyfriend asks him "si ipso careat, cuius aetatis viro nubere debeat," if she should lose him, how old a man ought she to marry? He answers her by cutting off her nose.

Robert Stanton directed me to the laws of Cnut, which punish a female adulterer with the loss of her nose and ears. Frederick II of Sicily (1194-1250) commanded that an adulterous woman's nose be amputated, unless her husband didn't want this: otherwise, she would just be flogged ("adultera convicta de adulterio traditur viro, ut in recompensationem thori violati, truncetur ei nasus, & si maritus ei truncare non vult, fustigabitur"; h/t Shulamith Shahar The Fourth Estate for this reference).

Still earlier law codes might be referenced, with increasingly remote chances of relevance: Ezekiel 23:25 hints at the loss of nose and ears for adultery: medieval Biblical commentaries might profitably be consulted; the Byzantine Ecloga of 726 punishes adulterers of both sexes with nose-slitting; and  Diodorus of Sicily's 1st c. BC universal history says that in Egypt, "In case of adultery, the man was to have a thousand lashes with rods, and the woman her nose cut off. For it was looked upon very fit, that the adulteress that tricked up herself to allure men to wantonness, should be punished in that part where her charms chiefly lay" (thanks to Sharon Kinoshita for proposing the web search that led me to these sources).

Looking ahead, ValentineGroebnerValentin Gröbner 'Losing Face, Saving Face: Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town," trans. Pamela Selwyn History Workshop Journal 40 (1995): 1-15 (in work that I expect appears in some form in her his 2009 Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages) talks about a 1479 case in Nuremberg in which a certain Fritz Schreppler tried to cut off his wife's nose in the marketplace. We have several others like this from the same period, including multiple instances in which a husband and wife teamed up to cut off still another woman's nose. 

Groebner Gröbner also records fourteenth-century denasatio punishments against prostitutes in Augsburg, and then, finally, she he cites evidence of pan-medieval texts that link the loss of a nose to public humiliation and punishment for sexual crimes: there's Du Cange, where "the examples under the adjective denasatus alone fill an entire column," and Aenied VI.496-7, where Deiphobus's terribly mutilated in his face, perhaps for the crime of sleeping with Helen of Troy. And, finally, the Knight of La Tour Landry speaks of a husband who breaks his disobedient wife's nose and "all her lyff after she had her nose croked, the whiche shent and dysfigured her uisage after, that she might not for shame shewe her uisage, it was so foule blemisshed."

We might also look to the witness of medieval translations and adaptations of "Bisclavret." In Biclarel [warning: pdf], Mr. B just mutilates his wife's face (373-74), with no specific reference to her nose, and then she's walled up, presumably to be crushed or to starve to death (454-5). In the Icelandic version, he tears off her clothes and nose, and in the Old Norse version, "Bisclaret," he tears off his wife's clothes, but her female descendants are still born noseless. Incidentally, "Bisclaret" ends in a tantalizing way for werewolf scholars: "Nothing that happens now is more true than this adventure we have told you about, for many strange things happened in olden times that no one hears mentioned now. He who translated this book into Norse saw in his childhood a wealthy farmer who shifted his shape. At times he was a man, at other times in wolf's shape, and he told everything that wolves did in the meantime. But there is no more to be said about him. The Bretons made a lai, 'Bisclaret', of this story which you now have heard" (translation by Robert Cook and Mattias Tveitane).

And that would seem to be that: Ms. B loses her nose as a sign of her marital infidelity, or to humiliate her, or to disfigure her. Absent legal or (other) narrative evidence particularly from the court of Henry II, we don't have firm ground for these explanations, but we probably have enough to make our claims with sufficient confidence, and to say, as well, that any further interpretation would just be fanciful, evidence only of our critical ingenuity in this ongoing professional party game we call "producing a reading."

But I can't help myself: I have to propose one more possibility. Recall how my previous Bisclavret post takes the lai's opening as structurally analogous to a bestiary. From that, I'm led to illustrations in the bestiaries of Adam naming the animals:
I know I'm stretching things, but I'm struck by the protuberance of the animal faces in this and other medieval illustrations of Adam before the animals, and by Adam's comparatively flat face. Had the deer, or even the round-faced lions lost their noses, they would have a face that more resembled Adam's than that of any other animal. That is, as Laurence M. Porter observes, the loss of a nose doesn't make Ms. B more "bestial" (despite what's commonly said in the criticism) but rather less bestial. Porter takes the injury as making her face more skull-like, turning her into a kind of vanity figure somewhat avant la lettre. However, I take the injury as one that traps her in being only human, denying her the freedom of movement, and of the freedom of ontological (or, for that matter, ethical) positions enjoyed by her husband and by the masculine court to which he belongs.

She had been afraid of a husband able to shift from man to wolf; she wanted to be married only to a human, and nothing more; and for that, she's punished with nothing less that an inescapable humanity. In a lai, it's hard to imagine a worse punishment! She and her daughters, barred from the dangerous fun of men, have been made...well, boring.

More to come, perhaps, if you think this is worth developing.