Bisclavret’s Wife and the Fear of Abuse

Ever have that moment when you are teaching and all of a sudden you start to look at whatever it is you are teaching in a different way? I had that experience recently with my British Literature I survey course and Marie de France’s Bisclavret. I haven’t had a chance to do the research on it (either to work through it or to see if I’m the last one to mull this concept!), but I will talk the idea out here in hopes of getting back to it in the future.

When teaching Bisclavret, the moment the wife decides to turn against her husband, after learning he is a werewolf, is often a point of confusion and discussion. This is unsurprising. Scholars find it difficult as well. Are we meant to blame the wife? Given she later finds herself disfigured and tortured for her actions, it seems like a simple question. Nonetheless, as with everything medieval and everything Marie de France, the question is far more complex than it seems.

To set up the Anglo-Norman period, we first look at France and the development of the romance – in particular, focusing on the role of fantasy fulfillment for noble readers of these texts. Second, third, etc., sons who dream of a rich widow who will provide them with land and fortune. And for women?  Perhaps a lover who will rescue them from a less-than-desired arranged marriage? A husband who will love them and treat them well? Escape from abuse or the fear of abuse? There are many things a lady of the time would fantasize about depending upon her situation or the situations of other women around her.

Given this context, we might look at the wife’s actions in Bisclavret from another angle, not one of blame or of defense, but of the psychology of abuse. Imagine, for a moment, a woman who grew up in the nobility, a woman who was aware from an early age that she would be married to someone her family selected and approved. Fortunately for her, she married “a handsome knight,” “an able man,” and “a noble man” (translations are from Judith Shoaf). Their relationship builds to what they both believe is love, and all is well – with, of course, one exception – that he disappears periodically.

When the wife confronts him, her phrasing is that of fear:

“mes ieo criem tant vostre curut
que nule rien tant ne redut” (ll. 35-6)
(original text taken from Die Lais der Marie de France)

“But I’m afraid that you’ll get angry,
And, more than anything, that scares me”

She fears here his anger. We have no indication of why. This phrasing could be dismissed as courteous language between husband and wife, that she does not desire to anger him with her questioning. But what if we look at it from the perspective of a wife who knows very little about her husband although she has to this point been comforted that he does not seem to possess the qualities she feared in a husband? Could her statement  indicate the lingering fear of how her husband will treat her? Has she heard stories of men who were kind to their wives until a moment when they seemed to turn against them?

When Bisclavret assures her with physcial caresses that he will answer her questions, she replies:

“‘Par fei’, fet ele, ‘or sui guarie!
Sire, ieo sui en tel esfrei
les jurs quant vus partez de mei.
Al lever ai mult grant dolur
e de vus perdre tel potir,
si ieo nen ai hastif cunfort,
bien tost en puis aveir la mort.” (ll. 42-48)

“By my faith, you work my cure.
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!”

This response is phrased in the language of illness. His treatment of her, his seeming tender care, “works her cure.” She talks about living in terror, about fearing to lose him. She asks for healing and indicates she will die from what she is experiencing. On one hand, this certainly could be hyperbole and another instance of the dialogue between them and her attempt to push him into telling about his disappearances, even using the language of illness to elicit guilt on his part. On the other hand, if we read it in the same context as the previous statement, other implications arise. Perhaps her fears have indeed reasserted themselves and to the point that she feels desperately insecure. She has read his disappearances into her fears and cannot “recover” until she knows the truth.

What follows is back and forth between the couple, the wife pressing and Bisclavret denying to answer her questions. Often, this scene is perceived as nagging on the wife’s part, an insatiable need to know, even though Bisclavret is blameless, but what if this fear of abuse is driving her? Finally, he relents and tells her about his shape-shifting. This revelation is certainly not what the wife expected, but it comes on top of a period of renewed psychological – if imagined – trauma. And then comes her reaction:

“La dame oï cele merveille,
de potir fu tute vermeille.
De l’aventure s’esfrea,
e maint endreit se purpensa
cum ele s’en petist partir;
ne voleit mes lez lui gisir.” (ll. 97-102)

“The lady heard this marvel, this wonder.
In terror she blushed all bright red,
Filled with fear by this adventure.
Often and often passed through her head
Plans to get right out, escape, for
She didn’t want ever to share his bed.”

Her fear starts to multiply. She dwells upon it. In addition, she more than likely has the same information that the reader is given by the narrator at the beginning of the text:

“Garwalf, ceo est beste salvage;
tant cum il est en cele rage,
humes devure, grant mal fait
es granz forez converse e vait.” (ll. 9-12)

“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.”

We have in this description the antithesis of Bisclavret, which is generally what is the focus of analysis. The narrator – or Marie de France – is setting us up, only to play with us. But what if she is also playing with the character of the wife? She indicates that werewolves are subject to rage, acting like savage beasts. If this is a metaphor for evil men, it’s certainly an even better one for abusers who present well until “the fury is on them.” Edward J. Gallagher translates this passage as, “A werewolf is a ferocious beast which, when possessed by this madness, devours men, causes great damage, and dwells in vast forests.” Gallagher’s translation of “cele rage” as “by this madness” trades on the idea of rage and anger as a mental illness, especially a type of temporary insanity. If we follow this metaphor, the wife may not fear her husband simply as a werewolf, but her husband in a rage, which she has already stated scares her more than anything.

Is the wife’s subsequent behavior – planning with another man to trap her husband in his werewolf form and then marrying this other man – understandable? That does not seem the point. What it may indicate is her limited choices or what she perceives as limited choice. Marie de France is the master of the “what if?” She plies the structures of romance with questions and scenarios. For instance, in Yonec, we have a clear situation in which the main female character is an abused and captive wife. Perhaps Marie de France is asking here in Bisclavret, “What might happen when a woman fears abuse to the point of paranoia?”

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