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Mapping the European Breton Lai



Archive for August, 2013

Lai in focus: Bisclavret

uclfecd16 August 2013

Bestiary image of wolf

Detail from Bestiary. London, British Library, MS Royal, 12 F. xiii, fol. 29r.


Bisclavret is one of the twelve lais in Marie de France’s collection, and there are also two closely-related versions amongst the other Breton lais which have survived: Biclarel and Melion (it was also translated into Old Norse as Bisclaretz lioð). Clearly, this was a popular narrative, and it’s easy to see why; telling the tale of the shapeshifting werewolf Bisclavret, who is forced to remain in wolf form after his unfaithful wife hides the clothes which allow him to turn back into a man, this lai contains love, betrayal, dark tangled forests, and a gruesomely specific revenge in which wolf-Bisclavret bites off his former wife’s nose (incidentally cursing her female descendants with noselessness). It’s also a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human; do outward accoutrements of civilisation, such as clothing, make the difference between humanity and beastliness? Or should inner virtues, such as good manners, self-control and clear-headed thinking, be seen as more significant?

A Beauty-and-the-Beast tale with a difference, the characters in Bisclavret keep switching roles; the wife’s fear of her husband’s wolfish nature leads her to become monstrous in her turn, tricking him into permanent wolfhood whilst she marries a new lover. After a year in the woods, Bisclavret escapes death at the jaws of the royal hunting dogs by licking the king’s foot and begging for mercy, which allows his inner intelligence to be seen. Becoming a lupine royal lapdog, sleeping by the king’s side and loved by all his companions, Bisclavret remains at court until chance brings his wife and her new husband into the king’s orbit. Bisclavret attacks them ferociously, saving the most savage punishment for his wife:

Oiez cum il est bien vengiez:
Le neis li esracha del vis.

(Just hear how successfully he took his revenge. He tore the nose right off her face.)

Subjected to torture by the king – suggesting that even the most courtly of monarchs has a bestial side – his wife confesses, and produces Bisclavret’s clothes. These, it is explained by the king’s wise counsellor, must be donned observing the rules of human propriety in order for the transformation to be successful:

‘Cist nel fereit pur nule rien,
Que devant vus ses dras reveste
Ne mut la semblance de beste […]
Mut durement en ad grant hunte!

(Nothing would induce him to put on his clothing in front of you or change his animal form […] it is most humiliating for him!)

Bisclaret and its analogues is one of several werewolf tales circulating in the Middle Ages – others include the French romance Guillaume de Palerne (c. 1200) and the Latin Arthur and Gorlagon (13th/14th century) – and the notion of shapeshifting wolf-men clearly resonated with medieval audiences. Many encounters with werewolves are presented as historical fact, such as that of the historian Gerald of Wales, whose treatise on the geography and folklore of Ireland, Topographica Hibernica (c. 1188) includes an account of a young boy and a priest who meet an elderly couple turned into wolves by a curse. Meanwhile, bestiaries of the period credited wolves with various unsettling qualities, including the ability to rob a man of his voice by looking at him (should this happen, the only way for him to save himself is to remove his clothes and bang two rocks together, according to authorities such as the Aberdeen Bestiary – the image above, from a British Library manuscript, illustrates this situation).

In the twenty-first century, the story of Bisclavret, with its moral as well as physical shapeshifting, has been explored in a lovely short animated film by Emilie Mercier (France, 2011), which offers a more sympathetic portrait of Bisclavret’s wife. Some clips of this are available on YouTube:

Bisclavret, dir. Emilie Mercier (France, 2011)

Bisclavret's wife (Emilie Mercier)

Bisclavret’s wife (Emilie Mercier)


Washington-based group Grendel Babies also have a song called ‘Wife of Bisclavret’, which retells the story from the wife’s perspective to a smokily jangling accompaniment of piano and screeching rock violin, adding a honky-tonk yowl to the multiplicity of voices which have retold the story from the twelfth century onwards.

Meanwhile, the figure of the sympathetic werewolf continues to prowl through popular culture, appearing in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels and the hit HBO series True Blood they inspired, and – in perhaps the most pervasive sympathetic werewolf image of the past few years – Twilight, in which the relationship between a werewolf and his clothes is also given attention (happily, werewolves are revealed to have higher-than-average body temperatures when in human form, meaning that fewer clothes can be worn for convenient removal when shape-shifting; this also allows werewolves to carry their clothing with them, an innovation which would have saved Bisclavret a lot of trouble).

What other latter-day Bisclavret figures are there?


Further reading:

Marie de France, Bisclavret, in The Lais of Marie de France, 2nd edn, trans. by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996)

Melion and Biclarel: Two Old French Werewolf Lays, ed. and trans. by Amanda Hopkins (Liverpool Online Series: Critical Editions of French Texts, 2005) (pdf)

Leslie A. Sconduto, Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008)

What is a lai? The Franklin explains…

uclfecd15 August 2013

Opening lines of the Franklin's Tale

The Franklin’s Prologue in the Ellesmere Manuscript.
San Marino, California, Huntington Library, MS EL 27 C 9, fol. 123v (early fifteenth century).

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s fictionalised account of a storytelling competition between a group of pilgrims written in the late fourteenth century, the Franklin begins his tale with a few lines which leave his listeners in no doubt as to the type of story they are about to hear:

Thise olde gentil Britouns in hir dayes
Of diverse aventures maden layes,
Rymeyed in hir firste Briton tonge,
Whiche layes with hir instrumentz they songe

[The noble Bretons of long-ago times composed lais about many different adventures, putting them into rhyme in their own Breton language; they sang these lais accompanied by their instruments]

Here the Franklin quickly name-checks the essential features he feels one might expect lais to have: they were composed in a mistily obscure far-off past by the ancient Bretons, in the Breton language; they recount stories of adventures; and they are set to music. These four lines neatly encapsulate the popular perception of the Breton lai in Chaucer’s day, and suggest that the genre must have been a familiar one; with just a few formulaic phrases, the Franklin can clearly evoke the type of fictional universe in which his tale is set (similar to beginning a fairy tale with ‘Once upon a time’). He then launches into his story proper, that of the Breton lady Dorigen and the rash promise she makes to a suitor, secure in the knowledge that his audience will be in the proper frame of mind.

How did the tales of the ‘olde gentil Britouns’, composed in ‘hir firste Briton tonge’, end up in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? To find out, continue reading…

Mapping the European Breton Lai

uclfecd12 August 2013

Welcome to the blog of Mapping the European Breton Lai, a three-year research project based in the Department of French run by me, Elizabeth Dearnley. The project aims to map the journeys across medieval Europe made by Breton lais, short, rhymed stories about love, chivalry and the supernatural which became popular in the later Middle Ages. Supposedly based on the tales of the ancient Bretons, lais were first recorded in twelfth-century England, in French, by a woman known as Marie de France. However, over the next 200 years many more lais were written down, initially in French and subsequently in other European languages.

My project aims to examine all known surviving lais, focusing on the way in which they were disseminated in manuscripts. In a pre-print manuscript culture, there is the potential for each copy of a text to be slightly different (a scribe might add or omit a few lines – or even a whole section of a story – if he, or his patron, preferred it that way, or simply make a transcription error), so I’ll be investigating some of the differences between versions of the same lai. I’ll also be looking at the sorts of manuscripts which contain lais, which are often miscellanies containing several different types of text, from religious manuals to bawdy fabliaux (short comic tales, usually involving some sort of sexual escapade), investigating whether any sorts of  patterns can be found – do lais travel mostly with other lais, for instance? Or with other types of short narrative? What relationship is there between collections of lais and other story collections (either other medieval ones such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or much later collections of tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm)?

The second part of my project involves creating an online catalogue of lais, which will contain information relating both to the actual lai stories themselves and the manuscripts in which they are contained. At the moment this is still under construction; however, in the coming months I will be making this freely available via the project website.  This will allow anyone wishing to research lais explore them in greater detail, from as many angles as possible (for instance, a user might want to look up all the manuscripts containing a certain lai and see their lists of contents, or to bring up all the lais which contain magical horses!). I will also be writing a more traditional book-length study of lais. Both website and book can be read as stand-alone works; however, they will also be designed to complement each other.

In this blog I’ll be posting updates to the project, exploring some of the different lais and the manuscripts in which they are contained, and also discussing various other things relating to lais, manuscripts or the Middle Ages I find along the way.

I hope you enjoy the blog – please get in touch with any questions or comments!