For much of literary history, scholars have tended to focus on the symbolic valence of animals, to read their behavior and characteristics as representative of explicitly human interests and concerns. In the past medievalists have perhaps been even more prone to this, given that many of our sources providing descriptions of animal behavior, such as bestiaries, similarly emphasize the metaphorical or allegorical over the ethological.1 Thus when we read something like Bisclavret, Marie de France’s twelfth-century Anglo-Norman lai, scholars frequently discuss its werewolf protagonist as a foil for his much more beastly if wholly human wife. Michelle Freeman, for example, concludes that the werewolf’s wife “devour[s] the human being who was her husband, having made him, as well as her lover, prey to her own ambitions and pride. In this sense, the bisclavret’s Lady turns out to be the real werewolf, or garvalf, of the story” (294). Others read Marie’s werewolf as a metaphor for taming the beast within. Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner sees Bisclavret’s fundamental conflict as the need to learn to “control the beast with his human ‘entente e sen [understanding and intelligence]’” (259), while Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante describe the lai as a whole as “a parable about the forces of bestiality that exist within human nature,” one that is “concerned with the human capacity to manifest nobility even under the most trying conditions, and thus to transcend the animal part of our nature and garner the hard-won benefits of civilization” (101).


Arts and Humanities | French and Francophone Language and Literature | Medieval Studies