Sympathizing with the Werewolf’s Wife: The Dynamics of Trust, Betrayal, and Bestiality in Bisclavret

in Animal Husbandry: Medieval and Early Modern Bestiality, ed. Jacqueline Stuhmiller (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).

The traditional villain of the twelfth-century lai Bisclavret by Marie de France,[1] whom critics have repeatedly identified as misogynist because her female characters are often duplicitous, unfaithful, or mistreated, is the adulterous wife who traps her werewolf husband in his bestial form after facilitating his transformation through trickery and guile.[2] Bisclavret presents a pattern followed in many werewolf narratives, including the Old French lai de Melion (c. 1190–1204), Biclarel (fourteenth-century), Guillaume de Palerne and its Middle English translation William of Palerne, and the fourteenth-century Cymro-Latin Arthur and Gorlagon.[3] In fact, several scholars argue that the betrayal of a malevolent woman who curses or facilitates a curse is fundamental to the werewolf narrative, beginning with Bisclavret’s betrayal by his wife.[4] However, in Bisclavret the wife is faithful until her husband reveals his lycanthropy; once he tells her his secret she reacts badly, enlisting the aid of a knight she reluctantly takes as a lover (then husband) to consign Bisclavret to wolf form. To uncover the truth before the king, the wolf mauls her new husband and her, she is tortured, and then her wolf husband is restored to human form while she is condemned to exile and her entire female line to noselessness. In this tale, the husband jealously guards his lupine secret. This werewolf could have been honest with his wife from the beginning—the lack of trust and honor within the bestial marriage goes both ways.[5] Arguably, Marie’s tale actually highlights the inequities within the courtly tradition and challenges systemic misogyny. The wife resorts to adultery only to extricate herself from this marriage, repaying her husband’s deceit with her own, an act for which she will be perpetually punished while her wolf-husband is fully reintegrated into the courtly society. The fear and mistrust in Bisclavret comes from the fact of her husband’s animal transformation, and from the fear her ignorance of it engenders—the fear of engaging in bestiality. The wife does not know how much of her husband is wolf and how much of him is human, or if there really is any distinction at all. A werewolf is always a werewolf, even in the form of a man. So, despite her treachery, the wife in Bisclavret is sympathetic; her husband lies about his lycanthropy, the ever-present potential for transformation compels the woman into adultery, and the punishment to which she is subjected suggests that her husband’s violence stems, not simply from his wolfish form, but from his human one as well. Her betrayal arises, not from an innate duplicity or desire to commit adultery, but from the fear of knowing that she has shared her life, and her bed, with a man who literally becomes an animal for three days a week and may remain one, invisibly, the rest of the time. Thus, Marie criticizes the social double standard that traps an otherwise honest woman in marriage to a werewolf and that condemns her for reacting to betrayal and the fear of violence with a betrayal of her own.

I am extremely grateful to Renée Ward for debating this issue with me, helping me see the bestiality in the text, and for her comments on early drafts. I am also indebted to Jeff Massey and Jacqueline Stuhmiller for their editorial suggestions and useful criticism.


[1] Marie de France’s lais are scattered among several manuscripts, but London BL Harley MS 978 preserves all twelve, including Bisclavret. The late-thirteenth-century manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), nouv. acq. Fr. 1104 contains nine, including Bisclavret. The Lais of Marie de France Text and Translation, ed. and trans. Claire M. Waters (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2018), 43. R. Howard Bloch, The Anonymous Marie de France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 199.

[2] It is a fairly common scholarly approach to treat the wives as the villains of these narratives, which, in the case of Bisclavret, is often seen as a by-product of Marie’s misogyny. See: Joyce E. Salisbury, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, 2nd edition (Oxford: Routledge, 2011), 144–5; Valentin Groebner, Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages, trans. Pamela Selwyn (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 75; Paul Creamer, “Woman-hating in Marie de France’s Bisclavret,” Romantic Review 93 (May 2002): 259–274; David B. Leshock,  “The Knight of the Werewolf: Bisclavret and the Shape-Shifting Metaphor,” Romance Quarterly 46 (1999): 155–165; John Block Friedman, “Werewolf Transformation in the Manuscript Era,” The Journal of the Early Book Society 17 (2014): 36–93; T. R. Schneider, “The Chivalric Masculinity of Marie de France’s Shape-Changers,” Arthuriana 26.3 (2016): 25–40; and Renée L. Curtis, “Physical and Mental Cruelty in the Lais of Marie de France,” Arthuriana 6.1 (1996): 22–35. Carl Grey Martin calls out the surprising “scholarly consensus surrounding the culpability of the lai’s notorious wife,” in “Bislcavret and the Subject of Torture,” Romantic Review 104.1–2 (Jan./Mar. 2013): 23–43 at 23.

[3] Amanda Hopkins discusses the relationships between these werewolf narratives in Melion and Biclarel: Two Old French Werewolf Lays (Liverpool: Liverpool Online Series, 2005), 17–22: Arthur and Gorlagon survives in one manuscript, Bodleian Library Rawlinson MS B 149 that dates from the end of the fourteenth century to the beginning of the fifteenth century. Mildred Leake Day presents a thorough discussion of Arthur and Gorlagon with her edition and translation of the text in Latin Arthurian Literature, ed. and trans. Mildred Leake Day (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005).

[4] Aleksander Pluskowski, “Before the Werewolf Trials: Contextualising Shape-Changers and Animal Identities in Medieval North-Western Europe,” in Werewolf Histories, ed. Willem de Blécourt, 82–118 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 103.

[5] There are several medieval narratives in which the wives and their animal partners deal with each other honestly and stay true even in the face of adversity, as in Marie’s Yonec and the Old Norse Hrólfs saga kraka, where the human actors are the ones who behave beastly in their cruelty and revenge. Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) tells a tale of a werewolf couple, happy, faithful, and Christian (even as he debates the humanity of such a couple). Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, ed. and trans. John J. O’Meara (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 69–72. See also: Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 77–111 and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 77–108.