I enjoyed this week’s reading, particularly Bisclavret. I always enjoy when we read the medieval literary texts because I get a chance to test out OOO.
I was hooked as early as line five in Bisclavret. As soon as I read the “old[en] days” (5) description of a werewolf I thought, “Ok! Here we go!” (5-14). In addition to my modern notion of a werewolf I am now equipped with the knowledge that the medieval werewolf as an object is just as gruesome, if not worse. Seems as if Bisclavret is pretty limited in his range of actions, huh? Eating men, unleashing fury, and hanging out in the depths of the forest. But not so fast! After Bisclavret’s wife has her new knight hide Bisclavret’s clothing (120-6) causing Bisclavret to be stuck as a werewolf the audience learns that this werewolf retains many of the same tendencies (16-20) he had as a nobleman (178-84). As it turns out, werewolves aren’t as static as our definition would like for them to be. Though the king and his men expected him to behave like a wild animal (151-7), this werewolf is noble and loved by many.
An artist on deviantart.com with the handle MelancholyTsuki created this drawing of Bisclavret.
Therefore, Bisclavret isn’t the “savage beast” (9). Rather, I would argue, that it is his “estimable wife, / one of lovely appearance” who is the beast (21-2) here because of what she does to Bisclavret. How interesting that while she looks worthy of respect and looks lovely she is the one who maliciously does harm while Bisclavret only attacks in vengeance. Just like with the werewolf, this is not how one would expect a pretty, noblewoman as object to act. I even hesitate to title this blogpost “The Noble Werewolf” because essentially I am discrediting the possibility of werewolves to be noble and am therefore labeling Bisclavret as an exceptional werewolf.
[Sidenote: And isn't it interesting that werewolves are actually human as well? Do you think it could be argued, then, that Bisclavret has such a wide range of agency (evoking both fear and loyalty) because he retains this human part? I think that what we have been studying would argue against that and claim that any thing possesses this possibility in their agentic reach. Bisclavret reminds me a lot of Dr. Frankenstein's creature--was anyone else reminded of the creature?]
What I found most interesting about the readings and discussion we had this time round, was the idea of nobility being some intrinsic aspect of the blood of those that possessed it. The idea that being a virtuous and kind person is a genetic inheritance seems to my modern ears to be a very strange idea. I can understand that the time frame which this is taking place in is very much in favor of a sort of predestined sense of self and a divine right based on royalty or the noble connection, but I’m having a hard time not trying to read the text with these sensibilities in mind.
For example, the idea that the mother in the story could abandon her child undercuts this whole idea of intrinsic nobility in my eyes. If nobility is something that is gifted to a person based on the purity of their birth, how could a woman from this class do a thing that is so unquestionably callous and frankly-at least to my eyes- evil? True she does eventually repent and try to make up for what she did in the end but does that remove the lingering doubt that the act cast on her in first place? While I think the story meant for this to be a return to grace for the mother, I personally can get out of my own modern interpretation long enough to really understand this. Redemption seems to be a very tricky thing and I think that to believe that it is based on some intrinsic nature puts too much stock in the royal stock.
Rachel, you weren’t the only one who was surprised by the views of morality found in Guigemar, a work which predates the height of the mystery play by a mere fifty years. I’m well aware of the courtly love tradition and its importance to knight tales, yet a knight’s relationship with a lady is meant to boost one’s honor and loyalty. But to me, the relationship in this tale seems to do nothing but diminish Guigemar’s honor.
Really, was Guigemar such a bad knight at the start of the tale? He doesn’t do anything as sexually depraved as rape and pillage with wanton abandon. Rather, he lives a life of sexual purity and chastity, while continuing to serve his land through his knightly deeds. Yet this is unacceptable, as he is shot in the “thigh” (if you don’t use it, you lose it?) for living such an ignoble life. The speaker truly believes that the punishment fits Guigemar’s crime, which further complicates things as the story progresses.
Guigemar’s adulterous relationship is directly endorsed by the speaker, who “[hopes they also enjoy whatever else / others do on such occasions” as they “lie down together and converse” (532-534). The speaker is well aware that the knight is taking another’s woman, a woman he has just met and formed a relationship with based solely off of their Barbie x Ken comparability. Yet she endorses this as the right thing to do, refusing to allow sympathy for the sexually inadequate husband. As readers, we are frequently reminded that this is a tale of passion and romance, but I still find it difficult to forgive the implicit morals found in this tale.
To me, the most hypocritical part of this story lies in its conclusion, where a new knight claims the lady Guigemar has lost. Guigemar saw nothing wrong with taking another’s woman earlier in the story, but when it is he who is wronged he sees death as a suitable punishment for womanizing. Unlike her husband, this new suitor is sexually capable and loves her more than any woman he ever had, so this exchange of hands should be less than punishable if anything. Yet Guigemar only profits from his adultery and murder.
Am I blowing smoke here? I’m not arguing about the morality of adultery in today’s world- I’m just trying to understand how this story and its morals could fit into a supposedly pious world, especially when its hero is a representative of the ideal. Am I wrong about the apparent hypocrisy of the tale?
One point that stood out to me from the past two readings of this week was the difference in the level of virtue exhibited in each story. I noted a couple of aspects of Guigemar that contrasted some classic ideas of virtue. Whereas, I thought Sir Cleges was pretty moral in its entirety.
Although the moral of Guigemar distills the timeless notion that “love conquers all”, it seemed to me that there were some aspects of the story that were a bit unusual in terms of what one expects from a classic moral tale. It all started at the point when we learn about Guigemar’s future lover and her jealous husband. First off, as we noted in class, the description of her chapel exhibited some obvious ironies. The location of the mural of Venus, although consistent with the story’s underlying theme, is not only unusual, but even blasphemous as a decoration in the chapel. The second aspect that I found odd didn’t occur to me as immoral until I gave it a second reading. Although I initially read over the lines “It appears to me that Guigemar/ stayed with her a year and a half./ Their life was full of pleasure” without a second glance, I gave it a little more thought the second time over and came to the conclusion that not only were Guigemar and his lover lying to her husband, but they continued to lie successfully for well over a year. So in these lines alone we’re reminded that they lied, committed adultery, and did so for a prolonged period of time. I think because everything worked out for the best in the tale’s happy ending, it was easy for me to ignore the moral inconsistencies.
Sir Cleges, on the other hand, did not exhibit the same type of moral inconsistencies. The scene where he brutally beats the porter, the usher, and the steward does stand out as a bit harsh in comparison to the rest of the story, yet Sir Cleges’ actions are never frowned upon. The three men at the castle took advantage of Sir Cleges’ kindness and generosity to begin with, so he maintains his moral character because it can be widely agreed upon that these men deserved what they got.