Marie de France's Bisclavret on men's secret, inner beast

Marie de France, a twelfth-century author, is a leading figure in conventional academic romances of the past century.  In 1911, a scholar wrote:

An age so feminist in its sympathies as ours should be attracted the more easily to Marie de France, because she was both an artist and a woman. To deliver oneself through any medium is always difficult. For a woman of the Middle Ages to express herself publicly by any means whatever was almost impossible. [1]

Subsequent scholarship has largely elaborated upon that view.  It has ignored Marie de France’s seminal contributions to the literature of men’s sexed protests and failed to recognize her profound insights into man’s human condition.

friendly man beast

In Marie de France’s romance Bisclavret, a noble knight was married to a noble lady.  He loved her, and she loved him.  Only one thing disturbed the wife: for three entire days a week her husband went away.  She knew not where or why.  She wanted to know.

The wife pleaded and cajoled and nagged her husband to tell his secret.  She declared:

My lord, I’m in terror every day,
Those days when you’ve gone away,
My heart is so full of fear,
I’m so afraid I’ll lose you, dear–
If I don’t get some help, some healing,
I will die soon of what I’m feeling! [2]

The husband responded with an equally dire warning:

“My lady,” he said, “Please, God above!
I’ll suffer great harm if I tell you:
I’ll drive you off, right out of love,
And lose my own self if I do.”

The husband’s silence the wife interpreted to be proof of his wrong:

Where do you go? Now you must say
What life you live, where do you stay?
You are in love — that’s it, I know —
And you do wrong if this is so!” [3]

In reality, women rule.  The husband told the wife his secret.

The husband explained to his wife that he becomes bisclavret.  Men turning into beasts figures in human imagination around the world.  Bisclavret is commonly misunderstood as a man-beast, or worse, a werewolf.[4]  Bisclavret is the name of this romance.  The husband explained that as bisclavret he roams undressed about the thick woods of the great forest.  He lives on what prey he encounters.  Your imagination can understand (pigs! beasts!) if you have suspicions about men.

Clothes return the husband from bisclavret to man.  The husband hides his clothes when he becomes bisclavret.  If he were to lose his clothes, he would remain bisclavret forever.  The wife asked where he hides his clothes.  The husband refused to divulge that secret crucial only to his self.   The wife insisted that he tell:

“My lord,” the lady replied, “It’s true
More than all the world I love you.
You should hide nothing from me, nor
Ever doubt I’m loyal in any affair.
That would not seem like true friendship.
How have I ever sinned? What slip
Makes me seem untrustworthy to you?
Do what’s right! Now tell me, do!”
She nagged him thus, and thus harassed
Him till he just had to tell, at last.

The literature of men’s sexed protests describes how men’s inferiority in guile and personal weakness allows wives to expropriate their husbands’ secrets.  Marie de France seems to have recognized the merit of that literature.[5]  Telling was nearly this man’s undoing.

Repulsed by her new imagination of her husband, the wife arranged to acquire another husband.  She summoned a knight who loved her, and she declared her willingness to love him.  After they swore an oath of engagement, she told him of her husband’s periodic times being bisclavret, and where her husband hides his clothes.  The lover stole the husband’s clothes.  That meant that her husband could not return.  Her lover then married her.

The literary genius of Marie de France redresses the bisclavret as a man.  The King, out hunting, came upon the bisclavret.  The hunting hounds attacked the bisclavret, who then threw himself in supplication at the King.  The King recognized the bisclavret’s humanity.  The King called the bisclavret a beast, using the feminine gender.[6]  He insisted that she be treated well.  The King and the beast became close companions.

One day, for a feast, the beast’s wife and her new husband appeared at court.  The beast violently attacked the new husband, and later, the wife.  She had never violently attacked anyone else.  A wise man advised the King to question forcefully the wife about why the beast hated her.  The wife confessed.  The clothes were returned to the beast.  In a final, poignant twist, the beast, naturally modest about her nature, declined to put on the clothes in the presence of others.  Left alone in a room with the clothes, the beast redressed.  The bisclavret regained the form of a man.[7]

Marie de France had magnanimous appreciation for men’s human nature.  An adaptation of Bisclavret written in French about 1320 concludes:

Thus you see how stupidly he behaves
Who reveals to his wife
Secrets that should be hidden,
If he does not wish them revealed to everyone. [8]

Bisclavret presents injustice arising from men’s personal subordination.  Yet Marie de France’s Bisclavret understands men in an even more extraordinary and profound way.  Marie de France’s Bisclavret acknowledges men’s depths of human being.  It insists on imaginative space — “don’t doubt a single word” — for a beast within the still-human man.

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Notes:

[1] Mason (1911), introduction.

[2] Trans. from Old French in Shoaf (1996).  All subsequent quotes are from id.  Mason (1911) provides an alternative online English translation, as does Spence (1917), Ch. XI.  Here’s Bisclavret in the original Old French text.  In the Book of Sindibad/Seven Sages corpus, the King’s wife frequently threatens to commit suicide in attempts to persuade the King to execute his son on a false accusation of rapeBisclavret is technically classified as a lai.  While the exact definition is subject to vigorous scholarly debate, a lai is roughly a short, verse romance in octosyllabic couplets.  Here are brief descriptions of lais attributed to Marie de France.

[3] Matheolus, a leading figure in the literature of men’s sexed protests, declared (English translation, followed by the original Latin):

The wonderful nature of women is to seek to know everything
Immediately, each moment, all points
Examining place, times, deep causes
Who, what, where, which, by which, why, when, how, whence
If a man keeps silent, the woman says that he is an adulterer
Even if he is as worthy as John the Baptist.

{Nature mire mulieres sunt, quia cuncta
Nituntur scire subito, momentaque, puncta,
Indagando, loca, tempus causasque profunde,
Cui, quid, ubi, quo, qua, cur, quando, qualiter, unde.
Si vir enim taceat, dicet mulier quod adulter
Est, quamvis ille meritis Batista sit alter.}

Liber lamentationum Matheoluli (dated c. 1295), Bk. 2, ll. 1041-46, Van Hamel (1892), v. 1, p. 75, my translation from the Latin original above.

[4] Shoaf (1996) p. 1, n. 1, insightfully notes this distinction and the play between the name of the romance and the name of the beast.

[5] Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose (dated c. 1275) has a lengthy section protesting wives extracting secrets from husbands.  Id. ll. 16347-16576, trans. Dahlberg (1995) pp. 277-9.  Jehan Le Fevre’s Old French translation/adaptation (dated c. 1371) of Liber lamentationum Matheoluli includes a similar passage. Bk. 2, ll. 1107-1242, Van Hamel (1892), v. 1, pp. 75-7.  Marie de France similarly developed material on men’s inferiority in guile (see note [1] in linked post).

[6] Shoaf (1996) p. 5, n. 3, insightfully points out this feature of the Old French text.

[7] The knight/bisclavret’s ex-wife, physically marked by the blowing of her presumption that she knows man, is exiled along with her new husband.  Scholars have focused on the beast tearing the wife’s nose (knows) off.  Shoaf (1996) p. 9, n. 7, provides important insight into Marie de France’s perspective.

[8] Biclarel, ll. 457-460, trans. from Old French in Hopkins (2005) p. 105.  The introductory discussion in Hopkins (2005) shows no appreciation for men and the literature of men’s sexed protests.  From Marie de France’s Bisclavret to the adaptation Biclarel, id. p. 49 concludes: “The narration of the werwolf tale has moved from woman writer to woman hater.”  That misandristic perspective obscures Bisclavret‘s central concern for men.  Spiegel (1994) provides a particularly grotesque example of channeling misandry through Marie de France.  Creamer (2002), in contrast, provides a comical reverse-NAWALT argument: because Marie de France depicts an evil woman and good men, Marie de France hates women.  Creamer concludes with monstrous prose worthy of Bulwer-Lytton:

Even more troubling for us today is conceiving of this lay being offered to the ears of Marie’s original late-12th-century audience, men and women and perhaps boys and girls who sought from it divertissement and instruction. {Think of the children!} Bisclavret … might well have served, however unintentionally and subtly, as a public exemplum that endorsed and reinforced male control over females in the real world. This chilling possibility, rooted not in folklore but in sociology, is certainly the most monstrous aspect of the lay.

Id. p. 272.  Monstrous aspects of today’s reality are truly more frightening.

[image] My photograph of Under the Bridges of Paris, Max Ernst, 1961, cast 1962-63, bronze sculpture, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC.

References:

Creamer, Paul. 2002. “Woman-Hating in Marie de France’s Bisclavret.” Romanic Review. 93 (3): 259-274.

Dahlberg, Charles, trans. 1995. The romance of the Rose. 3rd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hopkins, Amanda, ed. and trans. 2005. Melion and Biclarel: two Old French werwolf lays. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, Department of French.

Mason, Eugene, ed. and trans. 1911. French mediaeval romances from the lays of Marie de France. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

Shoaf, Judith P., trans. 1996.  Marie de France.  Bisclavret (translator’s note).

Spence, Lewis, ed. and trans. 1917. Legends and romances of Brittany. London: G.G. Harrap & Co.

Spiegel, Harriet. 1994. “The Male Animal in the Fables of Marie de France.” Medieval Masculinites: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages.  Pp. 111-26 in Clare A. Lees, ed. Medieval Cultures, no. 7. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

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