I intend on completing option C for my paper. The text that I will be using is Marie de France’s Bisclavret. I will be reading it with a feminist approach, and then with an object-oriented approach. From the feminist approach I will further consider aspects of the lai like the motives for the wife’s betrayal of Bisclavret, her representation as the sole female in the lai, the male-dominated society in Bisclavret, and Bisclavret’s brutal attack of the wife at the end of the lai. I expect this to be a typical feminist reading of Bisclavret.
However, through the work I have been doing with the annotated bibliography, I find the feminist approach inadequate. That is because the standard male versus female dichotomy is not all that is present in Bisclavret. Instead, a male versus female versus werewolf division is in the works—and this is when one is considering the human only. A feminist approach attempts to keep Bisclavret in the realm of the human, but what is human? Is Bisclavret human? Is he werewolf? Or is he simply Bisclavret with all that it entails?
Those questions call in the object-oriented approach. From the object-oriented approach I anticipate exploring questions like “Is being human a prerequisite for being a knight?” or “Is being werewolf being human? What does it mean to be ‘human?” To better consider these questions I will be utilizing sources that discuss monsters and their purpose in the human realm, critical animal studies, and object-oriented studies. I would like to explicate the idea that the werewolf experience is unique to Bisclavret, that he is not the universal werewolf, and that a strictly anthropocentric feminist reading of the lai is too limiting.
This week while reading “Yonec” I was reminded a lot of “Guigemar” because of the same wife locked away in a room scenario. However, I liked that in “Yonec” the wife has more of a voice. In “Guigemar” we are given a description of the king that is very much like the description of the king in “Yonec.” he is “a very aged man who ha[s] a wife” (Guigemar 210). In “Yonec”, the king is “rich, old and ancient” (Yonec 12). So in “Guigemar” the king is characterized in terms of having a wife, and in “Yonec” the king is identified by his money. I don’t really see anything out of the ordinary here, but in “Yonec” we are provided with the wife’s perspective of her husband which I thought was just great. She calls him a “jealous old man” (71), and says that “when he should have been baptized / he was plunged instead in the river of hell; / his senews are hard, his veins are hard, / filled with living blood” (87-90). Whoa! I didn’t realize how much of a woman’s voice was lacking in the lais until this one finally spoke. I know women do speak occasionally in the lais, but this is the first time I really felt like I heard one with a voice.
Another exclamation of the wife’s that made me think is when she cries that she should have never been born, her fate is terrible, and that she is imprisoned until death (67-70). Most intriguingly she thinks, “What is this jealous old man afraid of / that he keeps me so imprisoned?” (71-2). If we place everything on a horizontal plane like Bennett suggests, I wonder how many other “things” like the wife are screaming inside to be allowed to be the director of their own agency instead of being forced to serve the agendas of others (humans). Going back to the wife’s earlier opinion of her husband: what if things could talk? What would they say about their “owners”?
There is a lot of God present in this week’s Biclarel. We have touched on the subject of God and agency a few times, so I would like to try to work through it myself as well.
In line thirty-three we are told that “As it pleased God, Biclarel / [has] a trait that he hid” (33-4). We are well-aware that this trait is that Biclarel becomes a “beast / [t]wo or three whole days” every month (38-9). Then, when Biclarel’s wife is begging for him to share his secret she invokes God by reminding him that God created all including their marriage, and that by hiding things from her he is “transgressing greatly against God” (61-70). She goes further by saying that God will abandon them (101) and hate Biclarel for his lying (108). However, notice that it is not the threat of eternal damnation that prompts Biclarel to reveal his secret. It is instead when she begs for death (138).
Let’s pause here. Biclarel hides his secret and that pleases God. Okay. Does Biclarel does this because it pleases God, or is that just an unintentional result of him hiding his wolfhood for his own reasons? I would argue the latter because, again, Biclarel isn’t really phased by these threats of God. Could you say then that Biclarel doesn’t give God much agency? Let’s continue….
Biclarel explains to his wife that he would speak to no one of his secret but God (151). However, this is not his reason for keeping it secret. He doesn’t keep his secret because God would disapprove, but because he “should nevermore have honour, / [n]or should [he] be esteemed in any court / [i]f everyone ever knew of it” (152-4). He doesn’t fear God’s damnation for sharing his secret, but is instead afraid of how other people will react. It is this reason and the previously mentioned one that I think that God does not have a lot (though he does have some) of agency in the assemblage of Biclarel’s life.
When Biclarel reveals his secret his wife says that if she were to reveal his secret she would lose God’s faith (190). Biclarel never evokes the wrath of God on himself as a consequence for his revealing the secret. However, for the wife God has a lot of agency. This reminds me of yesterday’s class when we were discussing if agency is given. Could I say here that the wife gives God a lot of agency in her life? From what we have been studying, no. Would it be right, then, to say that she is more aware of his agency? That she recognizes it more than Biclarel?
Skipping to the end here I noticed that Biclarel doesn’t “commend [his wife] to the devil” like Melion does (Melion 581). Instead, he requests only that she be killed—he doesn’t invoke the spiritual at all (453).
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?]
Although these two stories may seem very different at first, upon a closer reading, there are many more fundamental similarities than one might originally think: the element of largesse and subsequent poverty, the failure of the gift giving system, an element of the marvelous, and the saving grace of a woman.
While reading Sir Launfal, I was reminded very much of Sir Cleges in that both men were extremely generous, and once the ability to be generous with their material possessions was gone, so were the friends. Launfal was so ashamed when he was not awarded gifts by the queen, he decided to leave and fell into poverty and then abandoned. Cleges was simply taken advantage of. He was eaten out of house and home due to all the parties he threw. Once he was no longer able to throw his parties, he too was abandoned by his friends. The material possessions (or lack thereof) in both stories determined whether the men not only felt like, but were recognized as, knights.
In both stories, there exists a failure of “the system” that led to the men’s impoverishment. In Cleges for example, there was no reciprocity of generosity. Cleges gave and gave and gave, but received nothing in return (nor did he expect to), making it impossible to sustain his way of life. In Launfal, the failure of the system falls on the shoulders of the queen. There was no reason to leave Launfal out of the gift giving; she just simply did not like him. This failure of the queen to distribute gifts fairly makes it impossible for Launfal to stick around, thus beginning his fall into poverty and shame.
Once the knights in both stories have suffered sufficiently, there enters an element of the marvelous. In Cleges, it is the appearance of the out of season cherries, and in Launfal, it is the fairy lover. These elements make it possible for the knights to regain their honor as well as their riches. Cleges is awarded properly after sharing the cherries with the king, and Launfal is awarded riches by his fairy lover and again redeemed by her in the end.
I can’t help but notice that these men would have been ultimately lost without the women in their lives. Cleges did not recognize the cherries as a good sign until his wife convinced him. He thought, in fact, that they were a bad omen. If she had not been around, would he have destroyed them and thus been in poverty forever? Launfal would have also stayed in poverty were it not for the gifts of his lover, and later on been executed did she not decide to show up. If the fairy never showed up in the first place, would Launfal have stayed in poverty, wallowing in pity? These knights in distress were saved by their damsels.
For this week’s reading I wanted to make sure that I read Jane Bennett’s “The Force of Things” from Vibrant Matter before reading Sir Degare so that I could try to implement and better understand any of the concepts that I encountered in Bennett’s text while reading Sir Degare. I would say that this was a successful experiment, though I can’t say for certain whether or not I’m actually understanding the way that Bennett intended for her audience to.
Being interested in philosophy myself I paid close attention to what Bennett writes about ethics with regards to vital materialism. She writes about this “safety net” that vital materialism would create for humans who essentially do not meet the standards of other’s particular “model of personhood” (13). It is my understanding that Bennett thinks these people would not be made to suffer so much abuse when human bodies are thought of as things whose “status of the materiality of which we are composed” is considered on a greater scale down to the body’s mineralization and matter (11-3), and not just its entire composition as a whole. Meaning, each human body has more shared attributes than one would initially grant when evaluating on societal contexts/models of personhood alone i.e. the “Euro-American, bourgeois, theocentric” etc (13). The result, Bennett writes, is that vital materialism can “inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations” (13). Therefore, for an abusive individual to hurt another human body would be inflicting harm on themselves because they share the same network (13). This is Bennett’s “expanded notion of self-interest” (13), or at least how I have interpreted it.
So, I brought this interpretation with me into Sir Degare. Of course, while doing that, the scene that struck me the most was the rape scene (105-112). After reading Bennett I asked myself, “What was the fairy knight’s perception of Degare’s mother’s personhood? Was she, as a woman, beneath his particular model of respectable personhood? Could that be why he felt that he had the power and right to force himself upon her?” If I am at least halfway correct in my interpretation of Bennett I would say yes. If so, then, I think that Bennett would argue that if the fairy knight considered all that he shares with the woman on a material level he would be less likely to disturb the network that he shares with her. After all, as a consequence of this act Degare is conceived and brought into the network. Later on, Degare then tries to destroy the fairy knight in battle before realizing that it is his father (1010-1059). Had the fairy knight not disrupted (I don’t know if this is the right word to use here) the network that he shares with the woman he raped and in turn impregnated her, there would not have existed a knight as great as Degare who nearly cost the fairy knight his life. According to Bennett this is because “each human is a heterogeneous compound of wonderfully vibrant, dangerously vibrant, matter” (Bennett 12-3) having the capacity to even destroy: Degare as a knight figure set out to conquer the fairy knight, and create:the woman as a mother creating life.
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.
A professor once told me that although it is often differences we study, similarities are also just as important. I try to keep this in mind when learning about a new culture/time period, and was again reminded of this fact when we were comparing the varieties of English that have existed and how many words have stayed relatively recognizable, if not the same, over hundreds of years.
I was reminded of another similarity when talking in class yesterday. I was very interested in what Dr. Seaman said about how much more common it is than one might think for a knight to have a helpful woman assistant/aide at his side, offering advice or helping to keep him on track in medieval literature. I don’t think I ever would have expected it, but it got me thinking about our own modern day heroes and the need for heroes in general. Iron Man and his assistant, Pepper Potts, immediately popped into my mind. Pepper is no damsel in distress, but is instead there throughout the movie to keep Iron Man grounded (when possible) and even help him survive various life-threatening scenarios. She is integral to his well-being. The Green Hornet also has an equally intelligent and independent office secretary, Lenore Case, who offers him advice and helps him (although unwittingly) decide on what actions to take. Some of the characteristics that we’ve talked about in class that appear in knightly tales are a confrontation with danger, maintenance of reputation, and responsibility to do the right thing. I think these characteristics can be found in modern super hero stories as well. Both Iron Man and The Green Hornet face very dangerous and violent situations, they both take pride in their altar ego’s reputation, and they both feel a strong sense of duty when it comes to righting a wrong.
Are comic book super heroes no more than modern day knights’ tales? What function did a medieval knight tale serve, and is it the same function that superhero stories serve today?