Marie de France, "Bisclavret"

    This tale reverses the usual pattern of introducing the supernatural as a complication or resolution of a "realistic" Breton lai plot. Since we start with the premise that the baron’s extramarital affair involves lycanthropy, the focus of the tale’s complication and resolution shift elsewhere, to the nature of love and loyalty, or to the nature of humankind, itself. Indeed, Marie whimsically tells us "many men turned into werewolves and went to live in the woods," as if it were a smart career move. Typically, romance knights ride out from the golden comforts of civilization in the castle to be tested in the "green world" of the forest.  (Compare Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and other similar Gawain romances.)  In "Bisclavret," the castle is dangerous and the woods are safe. As with most of Marie’s lais, the tale’s impact turns upon our sense of its conclusion’s justice. Is the lady’s punishment just?

Study Questions

1) The story presumes the courtly medieval audience understands that certain social relationships are normal. A type of marriage, a type of employment, a type of loyalty, and a type of evil are represented. What are the rules for good and bad behavior among these characters?

2) What is it to be a werewolf in this tale? What is the threat the werewolf seems to fear? What does his wife fear? Be specific.

3) What is it to be human? What does it have to do with wearing clothes and why might Marie's audience expect that it would? What might not be demonstrated by wearing human clothes?

4) How would you typify the wife's behavior? How would you typify the narrator's response to her fate? What sorts of social codes can you find guiding this tale?

5) Wolf facts (courtesy of a pre-med. biology major who took English 240 recently): In Marie’s time there were estimated to be 75,000 to 100,000 wolves living in Europe. Now, there may be 10 or so in isolated regions of France and Germany, and up to 300 in Italy. Around 300 BCE, the Celts bred the Irish Wolfhound from the wolves to guard their flocks and families. In 988 CE, the last recorded wolf in Wales was killed. By 1290 CE, there were no wolves left in England. Yet throughout English and European literature, the wolf continues to be used as a fully-formed character and in imagery, usually representing the "savagery" of nature and its alienation from human beings. What is it to be a werewolf?