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Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 2003.
Alexander L. Kaufman
"BISCLAVRET" Marie de France (late 12th century) The fourth of the 12 Breton lais of Marie de
France, "Bisclavret" (titled in Norman French "Garwuf," or "The Werewolf," the narrator tells us) is preserved complete in one Anglo-Norman manuscript. Typical of Marie's lais (see lay), love is a central thematic element of the poem, yet in "Bisclavret" a base sexual relationship stands in stark contrast to the exemplary, dutiful love between a king and one of his loyal lords.
In Brittany, in northwestern France, a noble lord who is "a fine, handsome knight" (l. 17) is loved by neighbors and is very close to his king. He is married to an estimable woman who is content in all but the fact that her husband regularly disappears for three days midweek. When nagged and pressed by his wife, he admits that he becomes a werewolf, living in the woods off his hunted prey and going about unclothed. After extracting from her husband where he hides his clothes when transformed, the wife hastily offers herself to another knight who has loved her for years (and for whom she feels no love) in the hope of engaging his services. Having been told the exact route to the hiding place, the knight steals the lord's clothes, rendering him trapped in his werewolf form.
out hunting one day, the king's hounds chase the werewolf, Bisclavret, only to see the werewolf beg on the king's stirrups for mercy. Recognizing that the beast possesses "understanding and sense" (l. 157), the king calls off his hounds and hunters and pardons the werewolf, who becomes a favorite at court. His noble behavior remains consistent until at a feast of all the king's lords and barons, he savagely attacks the evil knight who stole his clothes and who is now married to his wife. Here again, reason is key, as members of the court stay the king from punishing the beast and explain that since he has never harmed anyone before, he must surely have some grudge against the knight whom he therefore justifiably attacked. Mollified, the king spares the beast a second time.
Hearing that the king will pass near her home on a progress one day, the wife dresses herself in her finest clothes to meet him, only to be attacked by Bisclavret, who tears her nose from her face. Rather than punish the beast, the court decides that, again, Bisclavret must have had some just cause for the attack, and, under torture, the wife reveals his true identity and the deception she and her knight lover have committed.
Bisclavret's clothes are fetched. After a knight explains to the king that the beast has "great shame" (l. 288), he is left alone in a bedchamber to put on his clothes and be transformed back into a man. Upon re-entering the chamber, the king finds his beloved knight Bisclavret asleep on the bed; they embrace and kiss, rejoicing at being reunited. The wife and her knight are banished; many of the women of their lineage are born noseless (esnasees).
Tales of lycanthropy—the phenomenon of humans being transformed into werewolves—were popular in Europe from classical antiquity forward. Both the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (23-79 c.e.) and the Satyricon of Petronius (27-66 c.e.) contain accounts of lycanthropy, and there are numerous examples from the Middle Ages. In Marie de France's "Bisclavret," the emphasis on the beast's rational behavior, his fealty to the king, and the love the king bears him in both his human and werewolf form is particularly significant. The poem is an interesting and early example of an examination of the nature and origin of nobility and the tension that exists between nobility of blood and nobility of character. Both the wife and her lover are of a social standing that demands comportment according to established chivalric norms, yet their actions betray those norms—she willingly enters into an adulterous relationship with a knight for whom she feels no love; he betrays a lord and, by extension, his king.
The poem also invites a demande d'amours, or "question of love" of the sort popular in 12th-century literature of the court: Can the wife be blamed for not wanting to stay with a man who becomes a werewolf three days of the week? Here Marie leaves no doubt as to the answer to which readers should come. In Bisclavret's reasonable behavior, the court sees a startling nobility of character that leads them to defend the beast when it attacks the knight and to torture the wife when the beast has torn off her nose. In the end, the only love consistent and laudable in the poem is that between the king and Bisclavret, his loyal knight, and the wife and knight's fate is to have some of their offspring born noseless, leaving them marked with a physical deformity that signifies the unchivalrous nature of their ancestors and the base and flawed sexual love through which they were conceived.
Recent criticism of "Bisclavret" has focused on a number of tensions evident in the poem. We are told at the opening that werewolves are savages that kill men, yet the only violence the beast in the poem demonstrates are his (apparently justified) attacks on his wife and her lover. Other critical works examine the relationship between the king and Bisclavret in his werewolf and human form, positing analogous chivalric relationships in other of the lais, while queer readings suggest that homosocial (and perhaps homosexual) relationships are privileged. Feminist critics have examined the violence done to the wife, including her abandonment, torture, and nose-slicing.
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