“The Wolf Gift” Countdown”
The Medieval “Werewolf:” Overview of Marie De France’s Bisclavret
Typically, we view the werewolf through the modern lenses where he is a raging beast that has primeval urges, and has no control over the manifestation of these dangerous urges. Werewolves are wildly unpredictable, and their known ferocity symbolically represented the indiscriminate, inhuman feelings that a beast with no human instincts felt. To people who conceived the image of the werewolf, the werewolf might have been the embodiment of the fear of any living organism without the rational powers that help us to imaginatively transcend our “primal” selves. Ruthless acts of violence of any kind leave us with a deep impression of terror. As a whole, “nightime” and “evening” represented the hours of subversive activity where God could not divinely intervene into the wiles of sinister creatures, entities, and individuals. Shakespeare consciously borrowed this poetic theme as a means of establishing the “evil taint” within his tragedies that would smother the whole of play into a sheet of seemingly ineradicable evil.
Curiously, Bisclavret, a medieval poem that features a werewolf does not use the atypical archetype of the bestial werewolf. Instead, the werewolf preserves his rational powers which were an important asset for any pious Christian during the middle ages to fastidiously preserve. Easily, sin, in the form of “concupiscence” or sexual immorality, could easily corrupt someone. Within Bisclavret, the werewolf’s wife at the beginning of the poem is still unaware of her husband’s secret transformation of the werewolf. As her husband dodges her paranoid inquisitions about the nature of his behavior, he finally succumbs to her persistent, emasculating questions and divulges dangerous information involving his true werewolf existence. At this time, the husband’s life could be endangered by monarchical forces as the very fact that he can become a werewolf during a temporary period of time signifies that he might have made a pact with Satan. More importantly, the taint of unholy desires lies embedded within his soul that should be cleansed of anything that is not of “God.”
Fascinatingly, the wife leaves the husband in a mad pursuit as she cannot tolerate the truth of his evil nature. Interestingly, the king and his court later discovers the “werewolf” when he remains a werewolf as the wife had stole his clothing which metaphorically represents his reputation that she tries to sully. Furthermore, the werewolf’s biased story about his wife overstepping her boundaries and emasculating her husband by not being submissive earns the sympathy of a court that is mostly male. While it is overtly clear that he is a werewolf, they think the wife is insubordinate and disrespectful of male authority figures. Therefore, they ignore her accusations about her husband’s violent rages characterized by the traditional idea of werewolves. To the wife, the notion that her husband is a werewolf resembles his hidden sordid nature, and his abusive behavior. All of this is implied as Marie De France had to write this poem as if offering adulation to the male authority figures within her world. Within the preface of the poem, she offers her fealty and respect for the king at the time. On the surface, she seems to be dutifil in terms of her place, as a female, within society. This collection of rewritten stores and poems, told formerly in an oratorical manner,were meant as a gift to the king, and also a symbolic act of submission to men at the time.
Many critics have often carelessly read Bisclavret as some kind of cautionary tale about insubordinate wives who overstep her boundaries. Originally, when I read the poem, I almost committed the same error of relying on my initial interpretation of the poem. When we read stories for the first time, the first reading represents the formative stages of reading which is the most superficial of all interpretations of any text. Its fine to read that way when reading a story for entertainment purposes. When making any declarative analyzes about a piece of text though, you have to read a text multiple times and even be rather knowledgeable about the historical context of the story. Yes, Bisclavret unmistakably vilifies defiant women because the story was probably originally crafted by men within a village to to warn women about the dangers of trespassing their societal boundaries.
Whether I’m reading too much into the text or not, Marie De France seems to utilize the poem as a story that subtly reflects the ignorance of the patriarch within her society. Interestingly, the wife, at the beginning of the poem, has legitimate reasons to be suspicious of her husband who sneaks away from the homestead in the middle of the night and strangely strips off his clothes which the wife construes to mean that he is being adulterous. Later, she runs off with another knight for very good reasons because the husband reveals the truth of her suspicions when he admits that he transforms into a “werewolf” at night which represents his bestial nature. Also, it shows that at the core of his heart lies something rather impious. He is hiding the fact that he becomes unrestrained at night, and that all passionate feelings come unbidden.Sadly, the court sympathizes with the “werewolf” as if the wife, with her reasonable accusations, is the one who is blameworthy for daring to ruin her husband’s clean reputation. In the end of the poem, the wife is cursed, along with her offspring, much like Abel and his progeny within the Bible.
As a whole, Bisclavret reveals the insidious nature of medieval misogyny. During that time, men were expected to be adulterous . Knowing their guilt, they often used women as scapegoats for their inability to remain chaste and honest within a marriage. Many of the medieval philosophers are rather fiery when it comes to speaking about the seductive danger of sexual desire because they themselves had probably experienced firsthand the danger of giving into such dangerous passions without any reservations. Werewolf, vampires, and demons were all manifestations of the feared creature that is so depraved that they lack the inability to receive salvation from God. In many ways, they were the very epitome of our fear that we have the potential to be irreversibly damned for sins that we might have not consciously committed. This fear of the loss of “rationality” or “prudence” can be seen Dante’s epic poem: “The Divine Comedy.” Additionally, one of the most highly revered philosophers of the time, St. Augustine, explicitly describes the loss of reason being the source of the gravest of sins.
Essentially,in Bisclavret, the male authority figures are largely dismissive of the husband’s vices and instead use women as the source of inordinate passion within men. Soon enough, witches would thus become a far more prominent evil than werewolves. As result, the number of suspected “witches” or autonomous women would be the major scapegoat for the sin which some men seemed too prideful to admit to. We still this vilification used by some Christian fundamentalists towards women in terms of the abortion issue. Oftentimes, rape victims or impoverished, single women are viewed, by these Christians, as people who are likely to commit the grievous sin of abortion. From these individuals,we seldom hear about the strangely unmentioned responsibility of the men involved. For these reasons, historical texts like Bisclavret should never be overlooked, or dismissed based on its age: the underlying message within anything from any historical period, informs us about the faults of humanity, and the ongoing struggle for all humans to seek meaning in a chaotic world.