Queering Bisclavret

My final essay for my medieval literature class. Here’s the final image from the video:

a digital drawing of wolf licking a king on the chin

Transcript of essay:

In much of the scholarship surrounding the lai Bisclavret by Marie de France, little attention is paid to the homoerotic subtext between the titular Bisclavret and the unnamed king who takes him in while in wolf form. While the behavior between the men might seem simply emblematic of different norms of appropriate homosocial acts in medieval France and Britain, the sheer volume of hugging and kissing between the pair at the story’s climax seems to go beyond platonic intimacy. Thus, I want to examine the homoeroticism between the werewolf and the king by analyzing how Bisclavret is and is not a “monster” and the role monstrosity plays in cultural narratives, as well as how Bisclavret embodies and falls short of the archetypal courtly knight, the pinnacle of medieval masculinity. In order to support a queer reading of Bisclavret, I compare it to a similar lai Melion by an anonymous Picard author, which is significantly less homoerotic and was likely written to be an “improved” version of Bisclavret. Taking all of these things into account, I argue as a result of his lycanthropy, Bisclavret is able to circumvent the heterosexual norms codified by chivalric masculinity and navigate his sexuality into a nebulous, queer zone.

The werewolf in Bisclavret is a multifaceted creature, at once a ferocious beast and intelligent man, and his dual nature is an affront to medieval cultural institutions of hierarchy and binary. According to Emma Campbell, “Human superiority over animals was generally considered a matter of hierarchy rather than essence in the Middle Ages” (96). Despite this, with his humility, affection for the king, and desire for justice, this lai allows the reading of Bisclavret “as more civilized than [his] human counterparts” (Griffin 140). Jeffrey J. Cohen argues that one of the essential components of a monster is its ability to overthrow cultural categories: “the monster resists any classification built on hierarchy or a merely binary opposition, demanding instead a “system” allowing polyphony, mixed response (difference in sameness, repulsion in attraction), and resistance to integration” (“Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” 8). Despite the hierarchical relationship between humans and animals, “Writers of [the 12th century (when Bisclavret was written)] increasingly use animals as human exemplars or metaphors for human behavior, a phenomenon commonly considered to trouble an already unstable distinction between human and animal” (Campbell 96). In addition to calling into question the superiority of humans over animals, Bisclavret also disrupts the acclaim of the institution of marriage and muddies the distinction between heterosexuality and homoeroticism. And as Cohen writes, ““Deviant” sexual identity is… susceptible to monsterization” (“Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” 9).

Bisclavret’s weekly lycanthropic transformations complicate his relationship with the heteronormative institution of marriage and masculinity. Bisclavret’s lycanthropic sojourns put a strain on his marriage, making his wife “so anxious / on those days when [he] leaves [her]” (ln. 43-44). But Bisclavret doesn’t reject the institution of marriage outright; when his wife questions him about his whereabouts during his weekly three days of absence, Bisclavret tells her, “Trouble will come to me if I tell you, / for I will divide you from my love / and destroy myself in doing so” (54-56). It is his love for her that forces him to hide his werewolf identity instead of forgoing marriage altogether. Bisclavret’s unwillingness to choose between his marriage and his werewolf lifestyle reflects the archetypal position of the monster in fiction: monsters “are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration” (Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” 6). Bisclavret defies the hierarchical order of humans and animals, in affect also defying the strict tenants of chivalric masculinity. As Cohen notes, “Animality is supposed to be a despised state, the abject condition against which humanity asserts itself. The werewolf knows better. This monster inhabits a space of undifferentiated concurrency” (“The Werewolf’s Indifference” 353). We can see that despite Bisclavret’s saying in the beginning that there “would never again be hope for [him]” (ln. 76) if he were to remain a werewolf eternally, he seems to not totally despise his lycanthropy. When the royal court torture Bisclavret’s wife and subsequently retrieve his clothing, enabling him to turn back into a human, the king offers the clothes to the wolf, but Bisclavret “[does] not take notice at all” (ln. 280). According to Cohen, this is because Bisclavret “learns the equivalence between two forms that seemed mutually exclusive [of human and wolf], learns their indifference” (“The Werewolf’s Indifference” 356). Instead of foregoing courtly masculinity completely or strictly aligning himself with every component of it, he creates a “hybrid masculinity” that is “deeply unsettling to the order of [medieval] society and the intimate relationships between men and women within the tale[]” (Schneider 37).

In the Lais of Marie de France, courtly and chivalric masculinity are inherently tied to heterosexuality; however, Bisclavret manages to be masculine while avoiding ending up in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Bisclavret is introduced as a paragon of chivalric masculinity: “In Brittany there lived a worthy man / whom I have heard marvelously praised; he was a handsome, good knight / and conducted himself nobly” (ln. 15-18). And in a society where “the ideals of the successful knight and the successful lover of a lady” were “increasingly conflated” (Schneider 29), Bisclavret’s relationship with his wife at first seems to fulfill those ideals, as “he loved her and she him” (ln. 23). However, once Bisclavret reveals his secret to his wife, “she [does] not want to lie beside him any more” (1 ln. 02), removing the heterosexual component from his masculinity. Yet despite the loss of sexual activity between Bisclavret and his wife, he still retains much of his courtly masculinity: “Even as a wolf, he retains the loyalty and sense of justice he (arguably) possessed as a human” (Schneider 28). His wife’s rejection does not emasculate him, but instead presents his “static masculinity: a concrete picture of what it means to be male and a knight, so solid that it remains constant even in physical transformations out of and into humanity” (Schneider 28). Moreover, the tale’s happy ending does not include a reunification between Bisclavret and his wife or marriage to a new, hopefully more faithful woman, but instead leaves Bisclavret in the service of the king in a purely homosocial environment, seemingly free of any women, even a queen. While Bisclavret does not end with a knight with a “willingness to physically accept a female lover” (Schneider 35), the lai does end with a knight who is “loyal in love” (Schneider 30)—it’s just that that loyalty is devoted to a man, the king. Due to his relationship with the king, Bisclavet subverts the outline of chivalric masculinity outlined by Schneider.

Bisclavret’s relationship to his king, which Marie “evidently considers part of his good character” (McCash 235), goes beyond the bounds of purely platonic or humble. Bisclavret’s first interaction with the king in the lai occurs after his wife has betrayed him and he is stuck roaming the woods as a wolf. Upon encountering the king on a hunt, he runs up to him and “kisses his leg and his foot” (ln. 148), which the king interprets as both a sign of humility and humanity. However, the subsequent behavior of Bisclavret and the king goes beyond the relationship of merely a humble servant and benefactor. On the way back to the castle, Bisclavret “stay[s] very close [to the king], it d[oes] not wish to leave, / it does not care to part from him” (ln. 163-164), illustrating an affection for the king as well as gratefulness. Bisclavret always follows the king “wherever [he] had to go, / [for he] did not care to be apart from him” (ln. 181-182) and desires to be close to the king even when the two of them are sleeping, going to bed “among the knights and close to the king” (ln. 177) every day. Cohen interprets Bisclavret’s actions as a manifestation of his indifference towards distinctions between animality and humanity, stating, “he is at once like a favorite hunting dog and like a good household knight” (“The Werewolf’s Indifference” 356). However, I believe that there is more to Bisclavret’s attention lavished on the king, namely that it signifies feelings of a romantic or at least deeply intimate, loving bond, as in response to Bisclavret’s behavior, Marie writes that the king “could see well that [Bisclavret] loved him” (ln. 184). There’s also the matter of Bisclavret’s relationship with his king predating the events of the story. While some of Bisclavret’s actions in wolf-form seem to be his trying to hint to the king that he is not a regular wolf, he seems more concerned with being close to him than turning himself back into a human. For example, Bisclavret doesn’t try to lead the king to his former wife, but instead the king leads the investigation after Bisclavret attacks her husband. Bisclavret’s affection for the king leads him to forgo getting his own vengeance.

Moreover, the king also has affection for the werewolf. After the king, his knights, and Bisclavret return to the castle, Marie writes, “He considered [the wolf] a great wonder / and held it very dear. / He commanded all his people / to take good care of it for love of him” (ln. 168-171). After Bisclavret attacks his wife’s new husband, the king, in a “wise and courteous” (ln. 221) act, takes it upon himself to investigate the matter by “[going] to the forest / where the wolf had been found” (ln. 222-223). After the wife reveals where she and her new husband hid Bisclavret’s clothes and brings them back to the king, the king takes care of Bisclavret alone: “The king himself led the wolf in [to his bedroom] / and closed all the doors on him” (ln. 293-294). While the king’s actions are under the advisement of the wise man, the wise man’s diction indicates he was suggesting that the king have one of his servants take care of Bisclavret for him (ln. 289); the king’s doing it himself suggests a higher level of affection than even the wise man seemed to be cognizant of. But the most intimate scene in the lai occurs when the king checks on Bisclavret with two of his men: “On the king’s own bed / he found the knight sleeping. / The king ran to embrace him; / more than a hundred times he hugs and kisses him” (ln. 298-301). While the presence of the two men with the king dampens the romance, suggesting that this interaction may have been construed as platonic, even considering the good relationship Bisclavret had with the king before his “disappearance” and the affection the two shared while he was in wolf form does not fully account for the excessively intimate imagery of kissing someone lying on one’s own bed more than one hundred times. And why does Bisclavret lie on the king’s own bed instead of merely near it, as he had done while a wolf? Could he have been hoping for a more private moment with the king after his transformation? And then there’s the aftermath of this scene, where the king returns Bisclavret’s lands to him and Marie writes, “he gave him more than I can say” (ln. 304). While in context this line seems to refer to lands and material riches, its phrasing also bears similarities to the ways in which medieval writers often described love and other emotions as incapable of being articulated with words. It also gives Bisclavret and the king some privacy they had previously not been afforded by the two members of the king’s men, suggesting a potential intimate relationship between the two. As June H. McCash notes, “The good king at the end of Bisclavret welcomes his restored knight back to his court, thus showing him the fidelity that the wife lacked” (ln. 246). The king essentially replaces Bisclavret’s wife, and unlike her he is able to accommodate and even love Bisclavret as both a man and a wolf, making Bisclavret’s hybrid masculinity not only possible but preferable to a life cohabiting with treacherous women.

The depiction of heterosexuality and the intimate relationship between Bisclavret and his king can be further understood by contrasting it with the relationships between the werewolf, his wife, and the two kings in the lai Melion. For instance, Melion presents a different type of masculinity than the chivalric one outlined by Schneider, instead exemplifying violence as the masculine trait. According to McCash, Melion is an “example of what Donald Maddox has called a “critically motivated rewriting” or, to use the medieval term, an aemulatio or modification of one of Marie de France’s lais, in this case Bisclavret” (247). As an aemulatio, we can examine the differences between Melion and Bisclavret as things that the author of Melion saw as lacking. For instance, Melion’s masculinity as a wolf is much more savage than Bisclavret’s, with Melion marauding around Ireland with a pack of real wolves, and “Melion comes far closer to fulfilling Marie’s stereotypical description [of a savage werewolf], which the Picard author no doubt knew, than does Bisclavret” (McCash 243). And while the wife of Bisclavret receives a more physically denigrating punishment than the wife of Melion, the “presentation of Bisclavret’s attack nonetheless anticipates its designation as human rather than animal behavior… [Marie] prefac[es] the denasalizing bite with an encouragement to see it in terms of human vengeance” (Campbell 100).

Bisclavret and Melion also have different family circumstances to contend with. Bisclavret has no children with his wife, so dooming her offspring to lives of noselessness has no impact on him. Melion, on the other hand, has two sons with his wife, who are “clearly children the author consider[s] more valuable [than Bisclavret’s wife’s daughters], particularly to a knight with little promise of a future marriage back in Arthur’s realm, where he still has not cleared up his little problem with the ladies” (McCash 245). Speaking of wives and family, there is a greater emphasis on heterosexuality in Melion than in Bisclavret. Melion is allegedly “very courtly and noble / And he made himself beloved of all” (ln. 7-8); however, “all” doesn’t extend to the female population of Arthur’s kingdom, as they vow that they will never marry him due to his exacting demands on their chastity. Because of that rejection, it’s not surprising that when Melion does find a woman who meets his demands, he marries her and devotes himself to her. The impetus behind Melion’s lycanthropy is due to his trying to please his wife, whereas Bisclavret attempts to hide his lycanthropy in order to maintain his relationship with his wife (McCash 241-242). Bisclavret’s lycanthropy is at odds with his heterosexuality, while Melion’s arises because of it.

And finally, there is the bifurcation of the role of the good king in Bisclavret into King Arthur and King Yder of Ireland. In Melion, King Yder does not happen upon the werewolf on a hunt like the good king of Bisclavret, but instead he sets out in a deliberate attempt to kill him and the ten other wolves in his pack. Once King Arthur arrives in Dublin in deus ex machina fashion, Melion throws himself at the king’s feet and remains with him during a dinner party. The king in Bisclavret notes that the werewolf “has human understanding” (ln. 157); in contrast, King Arthur describes Melion as “tame” (ln. 411), not ascribing any humanity to the wolf. Unlike Bisclavret and the good king, there is no romantic or even affectionate subtext between Melion and King Arthur, and the latter seems merely bemused by the marvel that is a wolf who eats bread. While both tales end with the lycanthropic knights reunited with their kings, “the relationship between Melion and Arthur” is downplayed “by comparison to the ending of Bisclavret” (McCash 246); after all, Melion has heirs and is thus still involved in the heteropatriarchal family system, while Bisclavret, with no offspring, is free from its confines to live as both a human and a wolf with his king.

The fate of Bisclavret is left ambiguous in the end; while we learn that his king has banished his wife and returned his lands to him, whether he intends to remain with the king or live as a bachelor (and possibly remarry and have children in the future) is left up in the air. Moreover, we don’t know what has become of Bisclavret’s lycanthropy. Did his transformation back into a human after living as a wolf for a year cure him of it, or does he still have to turn into a wolf three days a week? These ambiguities complicate the reading of Bisclavret, as we as readers cannot know whether Bisclavret returned to the heterosexual world or remained in his queer domain with the king. Knowing what Bisclavret does after the events of the story might also give a clearer picture on how we might construe Bisclavret’s sexuality in modern terms. Is he gay and hiding it from his wife, or is he bisexual but rejected by his wife due to his perceived sexual deviancy? Regardless, due to the nature of the werewolf as an archetype representing both duality and secret shame, I believe that Bisclavret is a useful story for the analysis of queer narratives from the middle ages.

Works Cited

Campbell, Emma. “Political Animals: Human/Animal Life in Bisclavret and Yonec.” Exemplaria, vol. 25, no. 2, Routledge, Nov. 2013, pp. 95–109, doi:10.1179/1041257313Z.00000000027.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 3–25.

—. “The Werewolf’s Indifference.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, vol. 34, 2012, pp. 351–56, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/492589.

Griffin, Miranda. “The Beastly and the Courtly in Medieval Tales of Transformation: Bisclavret, Melion and Mélusine.” The Beautiful and the Monstrous: Essays in French Literature, Thought and Culture, edited by Amaleena Damlé and Aurélie L’Hostis, Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2010, pp. 139–50.

McCash, June Hall. “Melion and Bisclavret: The Presence and Absence of Arthur.” Moult a Sans Et Vallour: Studies in Medieval French Literature in Honor of William W. Kibler, edited by Monica L. Norris Wright et al., Rodopi, 2012, pp. 233–49.

Schneider, Thomas R. “The Chivalric Masculinity of Marie de France’s Shape-Changers.” Arthuriana, vol. 26, no. 3, 2016, pp. 25–40, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26443642.

Waters, Claire M. editor. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Translation. Broadview Press, 2018.

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