Bisclavret (The Werewolf), is a Breton lai, by a medieval female writer and poet known as Marie de France. It is one of twelve narrative poems known as The lais of Marie de France. Many of the lais were derived from Breton folklore and legends with Celtic influences and elements of the supernatural all interwoven together. She claimed the lais were based on ballads she had heard from troubadours and minstrels.
In the poem translated Judith P. Shoaf, Marie explains that Garwalf is the Norman name for a werewolf and Bisclavret, the Breton name. However, Bisclavret, although still a werewolf, is significantly different from the Garwolf, displaying more restrained and disciplined behavior than the wild savagery usually associated with such beasts. (1)
Marie’s lais tell stories that move in and out of the supernatural and real world exploring complex emotions and morals that wreak havoc in the human condition. The lai of Bisclavret tells of a shape-shifting baron whose perfect world is marred by what he deems to be a terrible and shameful affliction. To hide his shame and in a sense to protect his own humanity from the perceptions of others, he keeps this a secret. This work presents a discussion of what it means to be human and then provides a version of the story concluding with a discussion on the humanity and “beastliness” shown by the main characters.
Human or Beast?
The shifting of human to beast amid the dark, tangled forest explores some of our primal fears, challenging our concept of humanity. Is it just the clothing we wear and the adornments, the accessories, and jewelry and the paraphernalia that we think give us status and make us attractive and carry with us that make us human? Or is it our behavior, our manners, the way we conduct ourselves and the way we treat and think of other people that make us human or worthy of love, respect, and acceptance?
Marie de France lived in medieval times in medieval society with medieval culture and philosophy. Her lais utilize legends and folklore of her time skilfully woven into narrative poems that tell stories that explore and challenge our understanding of the human condition and reflect the ethos of her times. But that world of Marie has passed and we now live in the modern world with all its trappings, culture, and philosophy. What can we make of Bisclavret (The Werewolf) by Marie de France today?
The Story of Bisclavret
There was once a most honorable and cultured baron who lived in Brittany many, many, years ago. He was a great favorite of the king and was great friends with all the other barons and lords of the land and they all held him in high esteem. He had a most beautiful wife who he loved dearly and she also loved him dearly. All, in all he would seem to be living a perfectly happy and fulfilling life but unbeknown to anyone else he had a most terrible secret.