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Marie de France's "Bisclavret" from The Lais (Glynn Burgess and Keith Busby translation):

Vocabulary Anglo-Norman; Breton, Breton lai, couplet, cult of chivalry, medieval romance, octosyllabic, poetic justice

Introduction: What is a medieval romance? How is a medieval romance different from our modern sense of the word romance?

Character identifications: Bisclavret, Bisclavret's wife, the King of Brittany, the king's wise man, the noseless daughters

Reading Questions:

  • What unusual malady or medical ailment does the handsome baron suffer from? Why is he reluctant to reveal that to his wife?
  • Why is Bisclavret's wife curious or suspicious about her husband?
  • How does Bisclavret spend three days out of each week?
  • Why is Bisclavret reluctant to reveal where he hides his clothes? Why does he need them?
  • Does the wife's attitude to her husband change after she hears his secret? Why and how?
  • How does the wife arrange to steal Bisclavret's clothes? (i.e., how does she gather an accomplice to help her?)
  • Where does Bisclavret spend the next year after his wife's betrayal?
  • Who or what prevents Bisclavret from being torn apart by hunting hounds?
  • What does the king do with Bisclavret after the hunt?
  • When Bisclavret's wife and her lover show up at court, what does Bisclavret do to the wife? What do you suppose the symbolism is of this action?
  • How does the king get the truth of the betrayal out of the wife? (On a side note, what does his method of extracting that information reveal to us about medieval law generally?)
  • When the king presents the clothes to Bisclavret, Bisclavret initially does not transform back into human form. What is Bisclavret waiting for? Why do you suppose Bisclavret insists on that? Do you think Bisclavret has learned something about the need for privacy?
  • Bisclavret's old wife seems to have passed on some sort of curse to her female children. What deformity marks many women in the family with "recognizable" appearance?

Sample Passages for Identification--Be able to identify what work these quotations come from, what the author is (if known), what character (if any) is speaking, and briefly comment upon the quotations significance or importance in the work:

A. Lady, I become a werewolf. I enter the vast forest and live in the deepest part of the wood where I feed off the prey I can capture... I go about completely naked. . . . For if I lost [my clothes] and were discovered in that state, I should remain a werewolf forever. No one would be able to help me until they were returned to me."

B. The lady heard this remarkable revelation and her face became flushed with fear. She was greatly alarmed by the story, and began to consider various means of parting from him, as she no longer wished to lie with him. She sent a messenger to summon a knight who lived in the region and who had loved for a long time, wooed her ardently, and served her generously. She had never loved him or promised him her affection but now she told him what was on her mind.

C. [He] caught sight of the knight and sped toward him, sinking his teeth into him and dragging him own toward him. He would have done the knight serious harm if the king had not called him and threatened him with a stick. [His] wife learned of this, and, dressing herself elegantly, went the next day to speak to the king, taking an expensive present for him. When he saw her approach, no one could restrain him. He dashed toward her like a madman. Just hear how successfully he took his revenge. He tore the nose right off her face.

D. "Lord, you are not acting properly: nothing would induce him to put on his clothing in front of you or change his animal form. You do not realize the importance of this; it is most humiliating for him. Take him into your bedchamber and bring himthe clothes. Let us leave him there for a while and we shall soon see if he turns into a a man." The king himself led the way and closed all the doors on the wolf.

E. She had a good many children who were thereafter recognizable by their appearance. Many of the women in the family, I tell you truly, were born without noses and lived noseless.






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