Marie de France’s Bisclavret – A Werewolf Story from the 12th Century

lais-of-marie-de-france

I’ve always been fond of The Lais of Marie de France, a collection of folk tales set in a mythical Brittany. For a book this old, they are surprisingly approachable and entertaining. Marie de France’s identity isn’t clear. She is, as indicates her name, most probably from the Île de France and it’s said that she must have spent some time at the English court.

Looking for something to read for  Once Upon a Time I remembered her werewolf story Bisclavret. Bisclavret means werewolf in Breton. In the rest of France he’s called “loup-garou”. The werewolf belief is widespread in Brittany. I myself grew up with it, as my grandmother was from Morlaix, in Brittany.

I didn’t remember the whole of the story and was surprised to find similarities with Selkie stories, in which it’s crucial, that the Selkie, once a woman, should find her skin again, or she will never be able to return to her Selkie form. Bisclavret follows a reversed logic. The clothes of the man equal the skin of the Selkie.

Bisclavret tells the tale of a gentle woman who is upset because her husband is absent regularly. She presses him to tell her where he spends his nights. She suspects he has taken a mistress. The husband does at first not tell her what he is doing during full moon nights, but when he sees her jealousy, he gives in and confesses that he is a werewolf. During full moon nights, he goes to the forest, takes off his clothes and transforms. It’s vital for him to put his clothes back on. Should anything prevent that, he wouldn’t be able to become human again.

Bisclavret is one of many stories among the Lais whose female protagonist is a “femme coupable” – a guilty woman. In this case she is guilty of betrayal. She herself takes a lover, tells him her husband’s secret and, one night, they follow him and steal his clothes. He is now condemned to stay a wolf. Hunted down by the king and his men, he is spared, because he shows a gentle nature. He follows the king to the court and becomes his pet. He is liked by everyone at court because he is so well-behaved, until one day he attacks a man and later a woman.

I’m not going to reveal the end because I’d like to put you in the mood, to pick up either the whole collection or at least this story.

Marie de France is one of the very earliest story tellers. Her art is still fresh and powerful today and well-worth discovering. My edition is bilingual old French/new French. I don’t know whether there is a French version in the English edition, or whether it’s only a translation.

This post is a contribution to Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. The review site can be found here.

35 thoughts on “Marie de France’s Bisclavret – A Werewolf Story from the 12th Century

    • I hope you will review it. I could do with a refresher of the rest. I had a look at the English translation – I think the French, which is more modern is better. Since it’s a bilingula edition, you’ll always get a flavour of the old French. I haven’t been in Brittany in a while. Lucky you.

  1. I remember the “loup garou” from days in French class; I made it up to French V, but never actually lived in Brittany. How wonderful to bring the French flavor to Carl’s challenge.

    Also, I’m looking forward to the Angela Carter challenge this June. Have read nothing by her, yet.

    • I’m glad you’ll be joining us for the Angela Carter week.
      I thought Marie de FRance’s collection works eel for this challenge and at least, unlike City of Bones, not everyone has reviewed it already. 🙂

  2. I was so thrilled to see Marie de France’s name when I saw your post! I fell in love with Marie de France when I first discovered her last year. I don’t know of any other European woman writer / poet before her (Aphra Behn was probably the first woman writer in English but she wrote in the 17th century. I can think of only Murasaki Shikibu among non-European writers / poets, who wrote in the 10th/11th century. Was there a German woman poet who wrote before Marie de France?). She is a hugely inspiring literary figure. ‘Bisclavret’ is a very interesting story (I love the ending – very unexpected) and I loved your wonderful review of it. I want to read the whole of her lais sometime. Thanks for this beautiful review and for writing about Marie de France – it made my day 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy. I’m very glad to hear you liked it. 🙂
      I hope you’ll read her lais some day. I liked many of them. The ending is unsuspected, yes. A bit cruel.
      I should start a series on Medieval literature.
      I think there was a German poet from the 10th Century, Roswitha von Gandesheim but I couldn’t find any of her work. I’ll have to look up Murasaki Shikibu.

  3. I had never heard of this collection but it really sounds as if I would like it.

    The Werewolf story sounds superb.

    I also really like the book cover.

    • I think you would like it. With a good introduction it will be even more interesting. The lais are grouped and have different themes. One is the “guilty woman”, but there are others. She’s been a source for many authors who came later and that’s a fascinating element too.

  4. It sounds tremendous. I used to read a lot of myth as a child, and I suspect I recognise the loup-garou tale, but I don’t remember the ending so I should rediscover it. There seems to be a Penguin Classics translation in the English so I’ll take a look at that.

    • The Gutenberg translation is heavy-handed as they seem to try to mimick the old French.
      You can’t go wrong with this book, it’s one of the most important classics of French literature.
      The ending is interesting as well. It’s actually quite a complex story, when you look at it closely.

  5. I think I’d like a 12th century werewolf story much more than a 21st century one, Caroline. Thanks for sharing this:Marie de France is someone I’ve hear a lot about without having really hearing a lot about her subject matter for some reason. Was surprised to hear that it would include something as unusual as this.

    • I know you’re not into paranormal creatures. Not even unicorns. 🙂 Werewolf stories are very common in Brittany. I was surprised to see the werewolf popularized like he is now, as I grew up with those tales and the way my grandmother or father told them, was far more terrifying.
      It’s interesting that the element of the clothes never plays a role in contemporary stories.
      I think you’d like the collection. Other stories are very different.
      I hope you’ll read her some day.

  6. I have been giving this story to my Western Civilization classes for years now. The kids love it. I always come to your site and very seldom encounter anything I am familiar with so this was a huge and pleasant surprise. I like to highlight female authors whenever possible. Surprise! I also have given Story #8 from the Heptameron by Marguerite de Navarre. Both are part of my Medieval Culture unit. Check it out.

    • I know the Heptameron. My Masters degree is in old French literature. Anything after 1800 is new for me. 🙂 But I can’t remember which one is #8.
      I’m very surprised to hear you teach Medieval Culture. Did you ever mention that? I’m sure they like the werewolf story. It’s great to show them the source material.

      • My course covers the Greeks, the Romans, and the Middle Ages. The Medieval Culture unit is the last thing I cover. The story is about a wife who pretends to be the chambermaid her husband thinks he’s sleeping with and then his friend comes in and the wife thinks her husband is coming back for a second go. Classic mistake identity

    • It happens sometimes. Not sure why.
      It’s a very fascinating collection, I’m sure you’ll like it. I guess the English translation contains a foreword, which would make it even more interesting.

  7. The Lais of Marie de France was one of the set texts for the first year course for several years when I was teaching it. However, given I’d never read or studied Medieval French, I used to farm the teaching out to a graduate student with the right specialist knowledge so I’ve never read them. The students used to love them, though, and Imust say I’m curious to read more.

    • I love it. Always did and think in mayn ways she’s more modern than some of the 19th Century literature. They old Frecnh is hard to understand and I’m glad the edition is bilingual.
      I’m sure you’d find her interesting.

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