Werewolf Wednesday: “Bisclavret” by Marie de France (12th Century)

Caroline Watts’ illustration for the 1910 Weston version of the story.

Among the twelve lais of twelfth-century Breton poet Marie de France is a werewolf narrative entitled “Bisclavret”, which has similarities to the later, anonymous Lai of Melion (c.1200). Another comparable work is the narrative of Arthur and Gorlagon, an obscure Arthurian text that survives on a fourteenth-century manuscript and possibly influenced the minor character of Sir Marrok in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, who was betrayed by his wife to become a werewolf for seven years.

English versions of Marie de France’s lai include a loose 1910 prose retelling by Jessie L. Weston, which explicitly connects the story to Malory’s Sir Marrok narrative by identifying the king (unnamed in the original) as Arthur; Eugene Mason’s rather more faithful prose rendition of 1911; Judith P. Shoaf’s annotated version from 1996; and A. S. Kline’s 2019 translation.

The poem opens with a general description of werewolves (quotation from the Shoaf version):

Since I’m making lais, Bisclavret
Is one I don’t want to forget.
In Breton, “Bisclavret”‘s the name;
“Garwolf” in Norman means the same.
Long ago you heard the tale told–
And it used to happen, in days of old–
Quite a few men became garwolves,
And set up housekeeping in the woods.
A garwolf is a savage beast,
While the fury’s on it, at least:
Eats men, wreaks evil, does no good,
Living and roaming in the deep wood.
Now I’ll leave this topic set.
I want to tell you about Bisclavret.

The narrative then introduces a Breton baron who perplexes his wife by disappearing for three days every week. When she takes him to task on the matter, he reveals that he spends these periods in the woods as a Bisclavret or werewolf, preying on the animals of the forest. He also explains that he has to remove his clothing to transform — and if his garments are taken away before he can change back, then he will be trapped in the form of a wolf until his clothing is returned. Hence, he is careful to hide his clothes in a hollow stone behind a bush.

The woman is unhappy with being married to a werewolf. She conspires with another man, a knight, to steal his clothes and leave him in the form of a wolf; with the baron out of the picture, the lady and the knight are married.

A year later, the king encounters the Bisclavret while hunting. Noticing that the wolf appears to be begging for mercy, he decides to take the animal back to court with him, and even allows it to attend a feast. One of the people at this gathering happens to be the knight, and his presence throws the wolf into a violent rage. The next day, the Biscavet encounters his unfaithful wife — and attacks her, biting off her nose.

One of the king’s counsellors points out how peculiar it is that the wolf, a docile beast up until now, should suddenly show a violent streak; he suggests that the woman might be to blame for the situation. Under interrogation, she reveals the whole truth of how she stole her werewolf husband’s clothing. The king orders the baron’s garments restored so that he can regain his human form.

The story ends with the baron showered in royal gifts and the lady sent into exile, accompanied by the knight. In a detail committed from Eugene Mason’s prose version, we learn that many of the lady’s descendants somehow inherited her noseless condition.

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