GOT YOUR NOSE: Bisclavret defaces his wife

Plaster cast from the Palais de Chaillot

Plaster cast from the Palais de Chaillot

Recall that towards the end of Marie’s lai, Mr. B’s wife shows up at court, only to be attacked by her lupine husband:

Oiez cum il s’est bien vengiez!

Le nes li esracha del vis.

Que li peüst il faire pis? (Bisclavret 234-36)

“Just hear how successfully he took his revenge. He tore the nose right off her face. What worse punishment could he have inflicted on her?” (translation by Gallagher. My own translation would go like this: “Listen to how well he avenged himself! He tore her nose off her face. What worse could he have done to her?”)

The loss of the nose has long been a rich interpretative site in Bisclavret criticism. We can divide the readings into several groups:

  • psychoanalytic ones, which pun on vis [face] and vit [penis]: e.g., Bloch, Labbie, and Dolores Warwick Frese, “The Marriage of Woman and Werewolf: Poetics of Estrangement in Marie de France’s ‘Bisclavret'” in A. N. Doane’s and Carol Braun Pasternack’s anthology Vox Intexta: Orality And Textuality in the Middle Ages, rooted, I believe, in Jean-Charles Huchet, “Nom de femme et ecriture feminine au Moyen Age: Les Lais de Marie de France,” Poetique 48 (1981): 407-30. Essentially, Ms. B had illegitimately taken on the phallic function and has it torn from her. This helps explain why only her female descendants are noseless;
  • claims that nose-removal was a common torture in the Middle Ages, which I think is a wild exaggeration: I’m looking forward to seeing Larissa Tracy‘s further contextualization: I believe she’s arguing that the court of Henry II, being antipathetic to torture, would have found the scene repugnant;
  • claims that the nose-removal makes the wife more bestial: for reasons I’ll explain (far) below, I disagree; I’m more in the neighborhood (less in the same block than on the same bus line) as Laurence M. Porter’s proposal in Women’s Vision In Western Literature: The Empathic Community that “Wolves have prominent muzzles and the missing nose makes Bisclavret’s wife’s face resemble a human skull more than a wolf’s head, suggesting the skull underneath the skin, the illusoriness and transcience of sexual delight”;
  • interconnections with many, many stories of Roman virgins and, in particular, virgin saints, who cut off their noses to make themselves unattractive to the Barbarian invaders [see Claude Thomasset, ‘La femme sans nez’, Littérature et médecine II, ed. Jean-Louis Cabanès, Eidolôn, 55 (Bourdeaux: Université Michel de Montaigne, Bourdeaux III, 2000), 57-52 and Jane Tibbetts, ‘The Heroics of Virginity: Brides of Christ and Sacrificial Mutilation,” Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives Ed. Mary Beth Rose. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986]: implicitly, then, Bisclavret’s assaulting his wife’s attractiveness;
  • and finally, most influentially, a great many claims that losing the nose [or losing the nose and ears] was a punishment for an adulterous wife. See Stith Thompson Q451.5.1, Nose cut off as punishment for adultery. This requires a lot of detail.

Stith Thompson’s most frequent citations here are to the Kathasaritsagara, “The Ocean of the Stream of Stories,” an enormous 11th-century Sanskrit tale collection in which adulterous wives often lose their noses (or their noses and ears), sometimes while embracing the reanimated (and bitey) corpses of their executed lovers. Anna Kłosowska suggested to me that the stories could have made their way to Latin Europe: I want to know more about this: perhaps via Iberia or Norman Sicily?

Saxo Grammaticus tells the story of Hjalte, who’s with a ladyfriend while his king’s being betrayed. When Hjalte hears the sound of battle, he decides to leave her to rescue his lord. His ladyfriend asks him “si ipso careat, cuius aetatis viro nubere debeat,” if she should lose him, how old a man ought she to marry? He answers her by cutting off her nose.

Robert Stanton directed me to the laws of Cnut, which punish a female adulterer with the loss of her nose and ears. Frederick II of Sicily (1194-1250) commanded that an adulterous woman’s nose be amputated, unless her husband didn’t want this: otherwise, she would just be flogged (“adultera convicta de adulterio traditur viro, ut in recompensationem thori violati, truncetur ei nasus, & si maritus ei truncare non vult, fustigabitur”; h/t Shulamith Shahar The Fourth Estate for this reference).

Still earlier law codes might be referenced, with increasingly remote chances of relevance: Ezekiel 23:25 hints at the loss of nose and ears for adultery: medieval Biblical commentaries might profitably be consulted; the Byzantine Ecloga of 726 punishes adulterers of both sexes with nose-slitting; and  Diodorus of Sicily’s 1st c. BC universal history says that in Egypt, “In case of adultery, the man was to have a thousand lashes with rods, and the woman her nose cut off. For it was looked upon very fit, that the adulteress that tricked up herself to allure men to wantonness, should be punished in that part where her charms chiefly lay” (thanks to Sharon Kinoshita for proposing the web search that led me to these sources).

Looking ahead, Valentine Groebner Valentin Gröbner ‘Losing Face, Saving Face: Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town,” trans. Pamela Selwyn History Workshop Journal 40 (1995): 1-15 (in work that I expect appears in some form in her his 2009 Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages) talks about a 1479 case in Nuremberg in which a certain Fritz Schreppler tried to cut off his wife’s nose in the marketplace. We have several others like this from the same period, including multiple instances in which a husband and wife teamed up to cut off still another woman’s nose.

Groebner Gröbner also records fourteenth-century denasatio punishments against prostitutes in Augsburg, and then, finally, she he cites evidence of pan-medieval texts that link the loss of a nose to public humiliation and punishment for sexual crimes: there’s Du Cange, where “the examples under the adjective denasatus alone fill an entire column,” and Aenied VI.496-7, where Deiphobus’s terribly mutilated in his face, perhaps for the crime of sleeping with Helen of Troy. And, finally, the Knight of La Tour Landry speaks of a husband who breaks his disobedient wife’s nose and “all her lyff after she had her nose croked, the whiche shent and dysfigured her uisage after, that she might not for shame shewe her uisage, it was so foule blemisshed.”

We might also look to the witness of medieval translations and adaptations of “Bisclavret.” In Biclarel [warning: pdf], Mr. B just mutilates his wife’s face (373-74), with no specific reference to her nose, and then she’s walled up, presumably to be crushed or to starve to death (454-5). In the Icelandic version, he tears off her clothes and nose, and in the Old Norse version, “Bisclaret,” he tears off his wife’s clothes, but her female descendants are still born noseless. Incidentally, “Bisclaret” ends in a tantalizing way for werewolf scholars: “Nothing that happens now is more true than this adventure we have told you about, for many strange things happened in olden times that no one hears mentioned now. He who translated this book into Norse saw in his childhood a wealthy farmer who shifted his shape. At times he was a man, at other times in wolf’s shape, and he told everything that wolves did in the meantime. But there is no more to be said about him. The Bretons made a lai, ‘Bisclaret’, of this story which you now have heard” (translation by Robert Cook and Mattias Tveitane).

And that would seem to be that: Ms. B loses her nose as a sign of her marital infidelity, or to humiliate her, or to disfigure her. Absent legal or (other) narrative evidence particularly from the court of Henry II, we don’t have firm ground for these explanations, but we probably have enough to make our claims with sufficient confidence, and to say, as well, that any further interpretation would just be fanciful, evidence only of our critical ingenuity in this ongoing professional party game we call “producing a reading.”

But I can’t help myself: I have to propose one more possibility. Recall how my previous Bisclavret post takes the lai’s opening as structurally analogous to a bestiary. From that, I’m led to illustrations in the bestiaries of Adam naming the animals:

Aberdeen Bestiary f 5r, detail

I know I’m stretching things, but I’m struck by the protuberance of the animal faces in this and other medieval illustrations of Adam before the animals, and by Adam’s comparatively flat face. Had the deer, or even the round-faced lions lost their noses, they would have a face that more resembled Adam’s than that of any other animal. That is, as Laurence M. Porter observes, the loss of a nose doesn’t make Ms. B more “bestial” (despite what’s commonly said in the criticism) but rather less bestial. Porter takes the injury as making her face more skull-like, turning her into a kind of vanity figure somewhat avant la lettre. However, I take the injury as one that traps her in being only human, denying her the freedom of movement, and of the freedom of ontological (or, for that matter, ethical) positions enjoyed by her husband and by the masculine court to which he belongs.

She had been afraid of a husband able to shift from man to wolf; she wanted to be married only to a human, and nothing more; and for that, she’s punished with nothing less that an inescapable humanity. In a lai, it’s hard to imagine a worse punishment! She and her daughters, barred from the dangerous fun of men, have been made…well, boring.

More to come, perhaps, if you think this is worth developing.


You’ll remember how “Bisclavret” begins:

Quant de lais faire m’entremet

ne voil ubliër Bisclavret.

Bisclavret a nun en Bretan,

Garwalf l’apelant li Norman.

Jadis le poeit hum oïr

e sovent suleit avenir,

hume plusur garwalf devindrent

e es boscages maisun tindrent.

Garwalf, ceo est beste salvage;

tant cum il est en cele rage,

humes devure, grant mal fait,

es granz forez converse e vait.

Cest afere les or ester:

del bisclavret vus voil cunter. (Bisclavret, 1-14)

[In my effort to compose lays I do not wish to omit Bisclavret–for such is its name in Breton, while the Normans call it Garwaf. In days gone by one could hear tell, and indeed it often used to happen, that many men turned into werewolves and went to live in the woods. A werewolf is a ferocious beast which, when possessed by this madness, devours men, causes great damage, and dwells in vast forests. I leave such matters for the moment, for I wish to tell you about Bisclavret” (translation by Gallagher)].

Frightening, no? Well, no, not really, since we never see our werewolf hero [hereafter Mr. B] eat anyone. Or really, anything (barring, perhaps, his estranged wife’s nose). When Mr. B’s wife wheedles him into giving up his secret, lupine life, he confesses that when he becomes bisclavret he goes into the great forest, into the deepest part of the woodland, and there lives on prey and plunder (“vif de preie e de ravine“).

This is violent language, but there’s nothing here about his explicitly eating humans. At least not so far as he tells his wife, or us, for that matter. Jeffrey will remark on the vagueness of Mr B’s account of his diet in a forthcoming piece in Studies in the Age of Chaucer; Burgwinkle’s talked about it too (“As he ceases to be dangerous – no devouring of men that we know of – his wife appears ever more treacherous” (166); no doubt there’s more: I don’t have Bynum’s discussion on hand, for example (although I don’t think McCracken and Kinoshita discuss this matter in their recent critical companion to Marie).

Readers of my AVMEO essay would expect me to suspect Mr. B of anthropophagy: wolves like to eat people, and Marie’s already told us werewolves eat people. Only special pleading could get Mr. B off the hook: maybe, some might say, Mr. B would be unlikely to find many humans to eat in the deepest part of the forest. That’s not much of a defense. It’s easier to accuse Mr. B of hiding the nastiest truth from his wife, who nonetheless proves that she understands him perfectly well by immediately plotting to get rid of him. More sympathetically, we might even suspect Mr. B not of being duplicitous, but of being too self-deluded to admit, even to himself, what he’s really doing.

Maybe we can suspect worse. For while there’s something marvelous about not being confined by the armor of an alienating (human) identity, there’s also something horrific (to us) about letting the human frame slip. Again following the path laid by my AVMEO essay, I suggest that Mr. B’s own vagueness hints at the consequences of giving up on human supremacy, namely, that once human supremacy doesn’t matter, humans fall under the general category of “prey and plunder.” There’s no need for Mr. B to conceal anthropophagy, but neither does he need to disguise it with a euphemism, because, for him, human flesh is just like other fleshes. There’s violence here; there’s a wrong being done, to someone or something; but it’s not a particular violence, or a violence that quite knows what it’s injuring, unless it’s the particular violence through which a nobleman sustains his position within the state of exception.

The dehumanized point of view isn’t the only stance the lai takes, however. Its opening doesn’t forget about the specificity of human flesh, not at all. I propose that we read the opening lines as modeled on a bestiary, not at all an inconsequential genre for the late twelfth-century England in which Marie wrote. See the Aberdeen Bestiary’s entry on the wolf, for example. Like Marie’s lai, we have an initial discussion of names, followed by a summary of behavior. To be sure, I may be over-reading the resemblance, but I suggest it to call attention to the generic difference between the lai’s narrative and the lai’s opening. Marie opens with what we might call a scientific and humanist voice, maybe like a bestiary, maybe not. Whatever the voice, it’s knowledgeable, distant, one that looks out at the nonhuman world, always thinking of how it might help or hurt people. To this voice, a werewolf, like wolves in general, can only be a threat.

(Monday edit: I really do need to say, here, that Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters will be doing interesting stuff with bestiaries and Bisclavret in ways that will be enormously important to my own developing Bisclavret argument)

The narrative voice, on the other hand, doesn’t care so much about human supremacy. For this point, in the next few months, look for Cohen and, as well, Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters; also see McCracken on translation and movement. The narrative voice concerns itself with gender and sexuality (see Burgwinkle and Tovi Bibring), and with feudal loyalties, but not with humanity, except to observe how it’s slipped. Note that when the King meets (the) bisclavret, he declares, first, that “ele [i.e., this beast] a sen d’ume” [154; this beast has human intelligence], and then revises himself three lines later: “ceste beste a entente e sen” [157; this beast has understanding and intelligence]. Beasts, he realizes, have their own intelligence, not a wan imitation of human reason, but rather their own. When anthropocentrism collapses, what dangers follow?

We might therefore hear Mr. B’s “preie e ravine” as at once being aware of the violence of appetite and unaware of the specificity of human flesh as compared to the flesh of deer, or pigs, or sheep. Mr. B may be hiding something from his wife; or he might just have forgotten, like most eaters, that what he eats has any significance apart from how it benefits him. After all, he’s concerned mainly with his own safety, not hers, and not with–it seems–ours.

Or he might be observing that eating means subjecting someone or something to prey and plunder; that it means taking someone’s “better part” (again, my AVMEO essay), regardless of what that thing is. This is a lai, in other words, that knows what it is to eat in a world without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute human privilege.

Next-Day Edit: that should read “without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute privilege, human or otherwise.” For some recent discussions of posthuman ethics, relevant to my post, see Levi Bryant and Scu at Critical Animal. I think Scu gets it exactly right when he says “Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world.” I think that “Bisclavret” might answer Levi’s statement that he’s “not even sure what a non-anthropocentric ethical theory would look like.” Well, here’s one, and it’s lycanthropocentric. It’s not a flat ontology (edit of the edit: or rather, not a flat ethics), because–as Bogost reminds us–there’s no escaping -centrism, of whatever sort. But to eat from the perspective of the wolf (as I suggest the Wolf-Child of Hesse does) or the werewolf (as Mr. B does), is certainly to be non-anthropocentric. Edit of the edit: although I may be speaking far above my pay grade, and certainly far outside my expertise, while we might be able to conceive of a flat ontology, I’m not sure we, or anything else, can conceive of a flat ethics.

And one more next-day edit: I know that going into the deep woods to “vif de preie e de ravine” essentially describes the life of a poacher, which matters, of course, in late twelfth-century England, given the rising importance of royal forest privileges. But I just don’t see that observation leading to an interesting reading. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

That’s all I have for now, though I have notes on hand for talking about the eaten nose. Those who looked at my book two proposal might suspect (correctly) that this material will probably form the introductory section to second chapter, leading up–of course–into my Wolf Child of Hesse discussion. Time, and effort, will tell. For now, though, I’m planning to learn what the latest issue of postmedieval has to say about about lepers.

(video from Emilie Mercier’s animated Bisclavret)