(Note: I am also cross posting this at Modern Medieval.)
Like many people I know, I’ve been reading article after article on the Isla Vista shootings last Friday. When I haven’t been reading articles, I’ve been delving into the heartbreak and poignance of #YesAllWomen. I get like this (I’m certainly not alone). When an event like Isla Vista or Newtown happens, I always seem to have difficulty escaping the event horizon of such senseless tragedy. Well, I wish I could say it was always senseless. There is too much sense (I do not, in any way, mean reason). Rather, there is too much to be read, too many free-floating signifiers of hate and violence that demand to be interrogated, if not interpreted. It’s in this state that I finally poked my head out to get back to work prepping Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” to teach in a summer British Lit I Survey course.
This text has always struck me as a deeply troubling one. The first time I taught it, I selected this lai because of its werewolf. I was teaching my first upper-level medieval lit class (in fact, the last such course of its kind I have taught), and I chose as my theme “The Monstrous Middle Ages.” A short text about a werewolf seemed like an obvious and perfect choice. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the tale, here is a brief summary:
A Lord seems to have a wonderful life — status, nobility, and a lovely wife; however, he has a secret. For three days a week he disappears into the forest to become a werewolf. His wife, anxious about these frequent disappearances, confronts him and asksHim and him what is going on. She fears that he has a lover on the side (I would add that this is a fairly justifiable fear given the evidence she had) and so she needs to know. At first, he refuses to tell her but after much coaxing he relents. He also reveals, after initial resistance, where he hides his clothes. He runs about naked in the forest, subsisting on whatever prey he can find, but he needs his clothes to once again resume human form. The lady, aghast at this state of affairs, convinces a knight (one who has attempted to woo her) to steal her husband’s clothes. In return, she marries the knight. The husband is then trapped in his wolfish form, and is eventually taken in by the King who recognizes the seeming nobility of the animal. The story comes to a climax when the lord sees his connubial usurper and attacks him. Next, the wolf sees his wife and, in a fit of rage, launches himself at her and swipes off her nose. At this point, it seems like the wolf is going to be punished for this, but one of the wise counselors of the King suggests that the animal has never acted so viciously before and so there must be a reason. Agreeing, the King has the lady tortured until she reveals everything. Ultimately, the lord is returned to his human form and his one-time wife, now disfigured, is exiled. As a sign of her crimes, future generations of the women in her line are born without noses.
Whenever I teach this text, there is always an excellent conversation about the tensions between the spaces of the forest and the court, between civilization and wildness. The early going consensus in class often seems to be that the werewolf is not the true monster of the text, but rather the lady exhibits more monstrosity in her actions. Now, part of the reason we reached such conclusions might be because of how I lead class discussion, choosing to focus on some questions, and not others, but I also think that Marie de France provokes her readers to both overlook certain key details and to be rattled by that act of overlooking. After we’ve talked for a while about the working of monstrosity in the text, I often pose the following question: “Is there any way we can discover a sympathetic reading of the Lady?” When I first posed this question, there was silence for a considerable duration. Finally, someone raised the point that there was very little evidence to merit the lady’s being tortured. This conversation soon turned to the idea that torture was extreme regardless.
Then, the ball got rolling. We returned to the prologue, which tells of the savage nature of werewolves, and the seeming contrast to Bisclavret (except for that whole disfiguring thing). If this is what people knew about werewolves, why wouldn’t the lady be a bit freaked out? Why wouldn’t she take extreme measures to extricate herself from such a situation? And, why include a prologue that seems to be contradicted by the tale, allowing for it to be easily forgotten? We discussed how, in her vulnerable position, she had few options. It no longer seemed that easy to pinpoint where monstrosity could be found in the text.
Last night, I posted to twitter that I was unsettled prepping this text in the wake of UCSB. Someone then asked me if I’m not always unsettled by “Bisclavret.” I certainly am always bothered by it, but somehow I had missed a few details before that I couldn’t ignore now. After being told how praised and how good and handsome the lord is, the lady confronts him about his curious, alarming behavior. What I hadn’t thought too much about before was the lady’s first words:
“My lord,” she said, “my friend, my dear,
There’s just one thing I might care
To ask, if only I might dare–
But I’m afraid that you’ll get angry,
And, more than anything, that scares me” (From Judith Shoaf’s translation)
Sure, his later anger may seem justified, but does that justify such savage bodily violence? And, what do we do with the statement that the lady fears, “more than anything,” that her husband will get angry. On one hand he is great and noble and praiseworthy, but we must not forget the threat of his anger. She was right to fear not only the anger of men, but also how others would normalize and justify the action taken from such masculine anger. Surely the wolf would only show anger if there was just cause, even though the court had no data for this, and so the lady must automatically be at fault. The torture is retroactively justified because of her guilt, but it is clear that this justification was already accepted before her confession.
After writing out this blog post, I realized that I really have nothing new to add at this moment to the critical discussion of either a.) teaching Marie de France’s “Bisclavret or b.) the toxic sludge of misogyny that the UCSB shooter seems to have waded in. I am just struck by how the nice guy so suddenly turns violent, and how his virtue is taken at face value. Yes, this is an imperfect analogy between this text and the state of affairs today, but I find it necessary to note that it seems all too easy to find contemporary resonance in a text which can be read to interrogate 12th-century notions of masculinity, violence, and patriarchal culture. And, I’m not saying that last Friday’s act of violence should be described as medieval. I’m saying that “Bisclavret” is all too modern.