Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Werewolf's Indifference

by J J Cohen

Just in time for Halloween ...

I posted a version of this short essay yesterday on Google+ and immediately garnered very useful feedback from Karl, Allen Michie, Ana Grinberg, Derrick Pitard and Jessica Lockhart: thank you. It's the draft of a piece I'm contributing to a cluster on animals, to be published in Studies in the Age of Chaucer. The essay has already exceeded its 2K word limit, and much as I'd like to expand it ... well, some day.

Your suggestions and comments are most appreciated.


            A werewolf is the problem of animal difference expressed in monster’s flesh. This compound creature asks how intermixed with the bestial (-wolf) the human (were-) might already be. All that is civilized, ennobling, and sacred is lost in fleshly war with lupine appetites, impulses, and violence. The werewolf would seem the ideal monster to query the suppression of “the animal part within us all.”[1] Yet a warning that this monstrous admixture is not so easy to make a universalizing metaphor inheres in the fact that Latin possesses no common noun for werewolf. Laycaon might be transformed by an angry god into a wolf, and might (in Ovid’s narration) inhabit briefly an interstitial space where he possesses human and bestial qualities, but at transformation’s end one noun replaces another, vir to lupus. When Gervase of Tilbury in the Otia Imperialia is describing men who metamorphosize under lunar influence he observes:
In England we have often seen men change into wolves [homines in lupos mutari] according to the phases of the moon. The Gauls call men of this kind gerulfi, while the English name for them is werewolves, were being the English equivalent of uir (87-89; I.15)
Gervase employs French and English words to gloss his Latinate circumlocution.[2] As its etymologically admixed nature suggests, the werewolf is a hybrid monster. Caroline Walker Bynum has argued that hybridity is a dialogism in which “contraries are simultaneous and in conversation with each other.”[3] The werewolf is therefore not an identity-robbing degradation of the human, nor the yielding to a submerged and interior animality, but the staging of a dialogue in which the human always triumphs. Hybridity is therefore a simultaneity of unequal differences. As Karl Steel has demonstrated, this overpowering of animal possibility by human exceptionality is a ceaseless, fraught, and violence-driven process. Humans are made at animal expense. Steel points out that a werewolf’s raising the problem of “the animal part that within us all” is possible only “if humans are understood to have discrete ‘animal’ and ‘human’ parts.”[4] As idealized differences these categories need to be produced and stabilized repeatedly: the only way to maintain such separations is through more violence.
As admonitory figures, werewolves would seem to warn us why species difference must remain firm. So keen is the desired division between animal and human that many medieval werewolves are not true composites but humans encased in lupine skin, awaiting liberation. Gerald of Wales describes natives of Ossory cursed by Saint Natalis to don wolf fur and live as beasts. Under these animal garments their bodies remain unaltered.[5] Two of these transformed Irish villagers announce their appearance to a group of startled travelers with the resonant words “Do not be afraid.” Wolf skin is peeled back to reveal an ordinary woman inside. The werewolves deliver a human message, an anthropocentric horror story about being entrapped in an alien encasement. What human would not seek an immediate release from enclosure within such degrading and disjunctive corporeality? If this hybrid form stages a dialogue, the conversation is one sided. Who speaks the animal’s narrative? Who could wish for such a monster’s impossibly amalgamated body? Who could desire such a life?
Cursed and pedagogical creatures, werewolves cannot be a happy lot. The citizens of Ossory bewail their compulsion. Yet medieval literature also describes werewolves cheerful in their composite bodies: the clever Alphonse who teaches the young lovers to disguise themselves in animal skins in Guillaume de Palerne; the forest-loving protagonist of Mélion, who discovers in wolf fur a success never realized while an ordinary husband and vassal; Bisclavret, who when trapped in animal form attains a satisfaction denied as a quotidian knight. Animality is supposed to be a despised state, the abject condition against which humanity asserts itself. The werewolf knows better. This monster inhabits a space of undifferentiated concurrency, in the doubled sense of a running together and a mutual assent. The werewolf offers neither a conversation (which too easily becomes a conversion) nor a dialogue (weighted in advance towards human domination), but a pause, a hesitation, a concurrence during which what is supposed to be contrastive remains coexistent, in difference, indifferent. Werewolves do not reject the stony enclosure of castles for arboreal wilds. They are not proto-romanticists or early avatars of Bear Grylls. What is most intriguing about the state of unsettled animality that they incarnate is its irreducible hybridity, its ethical complexity, and its dispersive instability, pro-animal yet posthuman.
Perhaps that sounds too affirmative for so fierce a creature. In “Bisclavret” Marie de France glosses “werewolf” in harsh but familiar terms:
Garualf, c[eo] est beste salvage:
Tant cum il est en cele rage,
Hummes devure, grant mal fait,
Es granz forez converse et vait. (9-12)
[A werewolf is a savage beast:
while his fury is on him
he eats men, does much harm,
goes deep in the forest to live.][6]
Marie vividly describes the bestiality incarnated by this monster, its sylvan existence of uncontrolled violence, even anthropophagy. Who would embrace such animal life? Bisclavret. A well-respected knight four days of the week and a forest-dwelling wolf the other three, Bisclavret is not unhappy. His mistake is to confide the secret of his dual nature to his wife. Unlike the werewolves described by Gerald of Wales who don lupine skins, Marie’s knight simply removes his clothing and stashes the garments in the hollow of a woodland rock. Once “stark naked” (tut nu), he tells his fearful spouse, the following adventure (aventure) inevitably arrives:
Dame, jeo devienc bisclavret:
En cele grant forest me met,
Al plus espés de la gaudine,
S’i vif de preie e de ravine. (63-66)
[My dear, I become a werewolf:
I go into the great forest,
in the thickest part of the woods,
and I live on prey I hunt down.]
This account of roaming the forest is significantly less violent than the vision of lycanthropy with which the lai opens. The wolf’s sustenance in the forest depths is described as preie, which could be deer, rabbits, and foxes. Or not. What matters is that unlike the opening gloss no invitation is extended to consider brutality against specific bodies. Bynum therefore sees a vast difference between the garvalf, the Norman word for the savage werewolf of tradition, and Marie’s own bisclavret, the term of unknown origin that is supposed to be its Breton equivalent (Metamorphosis and Identity 170-71). I wonder, though, if these two nouns can be so easily separated, and suspect that Marie is up to something more complicated and inventive.
Bisclavret hesitates to reveal his covert life. He fears he will lose his “very self” (“me meïsmes en perdrai”) if this secret becomes known. Yet although he admits his second nature to his wife with apprehension, he speaks it without shame. He arrives home from his three wolfen days joius e liez, happy and delighted (30). Time in the forest vivifies. His wife is terrified by this knowledge, and certain she will never desire to share a bed with him again (102). Feigning passion for a neighbor, she arranges to have Bisclavret’s clothing stolen, trapping him in animal form. Bisclavret’s anger at his wife is immense, his revenge brutal: when she comes to the court where he has become the king’s favorite pet, he bites the nose from her face. Torture compels the disfigured woman to reveal her crime, and she admits the stealing of his transfigurative clothes.
Strangely, however, when the vestments are returned to a lupine Bisclavret he looks upon them with indifference: “he didn’t even seem to notice them”(280). A councilor suggests that the former knight is too modest to dress in public. Critics generally find this intratextual interpretation persuasive. Bisclavret’s shame signals his readiness to abandon his animality and return to civility. Yet the councilor’s words are nonsensical. Why would Bisclavret feel shame? Certainly not at his nakedness: he is covered in fur, and he is refusing to dress, not to strip. The clothing is a potent materialization of his humanity. Why would shame inhere in a return to that superior state? Marie de France’s lais are usually crafted around densely symbolic objects that might be described as parabolic, an adjective for parables (stories) as well as parabolae (curved orbits). To enter into relation with a parabolic object is to be swept into an unexpected narrative that alters the trajectory of one’s life, spinning it around a novel center of accelerating gravity. Everything changes at such encounter. These objects are aventure in material form: the ship in Guigemar, the hawk and sword in Yonec, the swan in Milun. Why would Bisclavret demonstrate such apathy towards the thing that can restore human being?
Werewolves’ bodies are convenient animal vehicles for meditating upon human identity in the Middle Ages. They are theologically rich, and pose difficult questions about identity and continuity, as Bynum has shown. They often prove to be less hybrid than they at first appear: unzip the wolf skin and out pops the human who had always been dwelling inside. Werewolves easily become allegories, reaffirming the superiority of the human, their natural dominance and difference. So why would a werewolf through dogged disinterest suggest his being at home in a shaggy form? Could it be that Bisclavret is simply indifferent to a return to quotidian humanity, and thus offers no reaction at all to these powerfully symbolic accouterments?
As a knight Bisclavret is noble and loved. His three days spent prowling the forests in a wolf’s body detracted nothing, and he returns home refreshed. The forest is a place of privacy. He resists telling his wife about his lupine sojourns because he fears the loss of that space, her love, his selfhood. He places his clothing in the hollow of a rock by an ancient chapel to gain something that he knows imperils his life as husband and neighbor: a space inhuman (lived among vegetation and beasts, filled with violence but also shared with trees, other animals, stones) and innovative (he creates and sustains a precarious existence). This hybrid space is also too easily annexed back into the orbit of ordinary human lives. Bisclavret in his wolf body earns the king’s affection through an act of submission, kissing the monarch’s stirrup and making his readiness to serve visually evident. Well fed and watered, full of proper submission but also ready to unleash proper violence, he is at once like a favorite hunting dog and like a good household knight. He learns the equivalence between two forms that seemed mutually exclusive, learns their indifference.
Immediately upon his restoration Bisclavret is beheld asleep upon the royal bed. His wife – the one who did not want him in her bed any more – is banished. Her female children inherit her noselessness, an infinitely repeating historical sign of the misogyny that has limned this tale, with its closing vision of a thoroughly homosocial world. And perhaps with that trading of one dreary bed for another we realize the reason for Bisclavret’s unresponsiveness to the offered clothing. He returns from his wolf’s form to a startlingly familiar scene, one that he thought he had trotted away from long ago. How sad his departure from lycanthropy must be, as an ephemeral but invigoratingly uncertain world yields to soft beds and predictable human vistas “a tutdis,” forever.

[1] Joyce E. Salisbury, “Human Beasts and Bestial Humans in the Middle Ages,” Animal Acts: Configuring the Human in Western History, ed. Jennifer Ham and Matthew Senior (New York: Routledge, 1997) 9-22. Salisbury is arguing for more sympathy towards the animal within. See also her book The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 1994).
[2] Although Gervase is dubious about many animal transformations, the werewolves seem to be a true change of body. See the thorough discussion in Leslie A. Sconduto, Metamorphoses of the Werewolf : A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008) 35-38.
[3] Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2001) 160.
[4] How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University press, 2011) 12.
[5] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John O’Meara (London: Penguin Books, 1982). For an influential treatment of the episode stressing its stabilities of forms, see Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity 15-18, 106-111 for a complete account.
[6] Marie de France, Lais, ed. Alfred Ewert, introduction by Glyn S. Burgess (London: Briston Classics Press, 1995); translation from Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante, The Lais of Marie de France (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1978). Further references by line numbers.


ProMedievalist said...

1) Very much enjoyed this. Was not the Latin word versipellis used for werewolf, though? (I believe I first encountered it in Petronius' Satyricon.) Its etymological meaning ("turn-pelt") has nothing to do with wolves, of course, so perhaps your point stands. But I thought that the word was used to designate lycanthropes specifically.
2) Excellent Bear Grylls reference.

Karl Steel said...

Hi ProMedievalist:
On G+, Derrick Pitard made a similar observation, and I did a quick check via the MGH and this collection.

Short explanation: so far as I can determine, none of these writers use versipellis as werewolf. They use it for "deceiver," "hypocrite," "traitor," etc. If you can find a werewolf in these or elsewhere in the medieval Latin corpus, let me know! My curiosity is up, but unfortunately I don't have access to the Acta Sanctorum, PL, or the CCSM, and I don't think there's an online version of the Sources Chretiennes...

ProMedievalist said...

Apologies for the double-comment then (I really need to get on Google+, apparently...)

Here is the quote from Petronius: "[LXII] Forte dominus Capuae exierat ad scruta scita expedienda. Nactus ego occasionem persuadeo hospitem nostrum, ut mecum ad quintum miliarium veniat. Erat autem miles, fortis tanquam Orcus. Apoculamus nos circa gallicinia; luna lucebat tanquam meridie. Venimus inter monimenta: homo meus coepit ad stelas facere; sedeo ego cantabundus et stelas numero. Deinde ut respexi ad comitem, ille exuit se et omnia vestimenta secundum viam posuit. Mihi anima in naso esse; stabam tanquam mortuus. At ille circumminxit vestimenta sua, et subito lupus factus est. Nolite me iocari putare; ut mentiar, nullius patrimonium tanti facio. Sed, quod coeperam dicere, postquam lupus factus est, ululare coepit et in silvas fugit. Ego primitus nesciebam ubi essem; deinde accessi, ut vestimenta eius tollerem: illa autem lapidea facta sunt. Qui mori timore nisi ego? Gladium tamen strinxi et umbras cecidi, donec ad villam amicae meae pervenirem. In larvam intravi, paene animam ebullivi, sudor mihi per bifurcum volabat, oculi mortui; vix unquam refectus sum. Melissa mea mirari coepit, quod tam sero ambularem, et: 'Si ante, inquit, venisses, saltem nobis adiutasses; lupus enim villam intravit et omnia pecora tanquam lanius sanguinem illis misit. Nec tamen derisit, etiamsi fugit; senius enim noster lancea collum eius traiecit'. Haec ut audivi, operire oculos amplius non potui, sed luce clara Gai nostri domum fugi tanquam copo compilatus; et postquam veni in illum locum, in quo lapidea vestimenta erant facta, nihil inveni nisi sanguinem. Vt vero domum veni, iacebat miles meus in lecto tanquam bovis, et collum illius medicus curabat. Intellexi illum versipellem esse, nec postea cum illo panem gustare potui, non si me occidisses. Viderint quid de hoc alii exopinissent; ego si mentior, genios vestros iratos habeam."

Again, it's a word that etymologically suggests "skin-shifter," but in this context it clearly designates a werewolf. Haven't encountered the term in medieval Latin.

Karl Steel said...

This is far outside my expertise, but so far as I know Petronius was not read, or barely read, in the Middle Ages. Poggio Bracciolini pretty much rediscovered what we have. So Satyricon is going to be irrelevant for the Middle Ages. Of course I could be totally wrong here.

More relevant, however, is Pliny's Natural History:

Sed in Italia quoque creditur luporum visus esse noxius vocemque homini, quem priores contemplentur, adimere ad praesens. inertes hos parvosque Africa et Aegyptus gignunt, asperos trucesque frigidior plaga. homines in lupos verti rursusque restitui sibi falsum esse confidenter existimare debemus aut credere omnia quae fabulosa tot saeculis conperimus. unde tamen ista vulgo infixa sit fama in tantum, ut in maledictis versipelles habeat, indicabitur.
Euanthes, inter auctores Graeciae non spretus, scribit Arcadas tradere ex gente Anthi cuiusdam sorte familiae lectum ad stagnum quoddam regionis eius duci vestituque in quercu suspenso tranare atque abire in deserta transfigurarique in lupum et cum ceteris eiusdem generis congregari per annos VIIII. quo in tempore si homine se abstinuerit, reverti ad idem stagnum et, cum tranaverit, effigiem recipere, ad pristinum habitum addito novem annorum senio. id quoque adicit, eandem recipere vestem. mirum est quo procedat Graeca credulitas! nullum tam inpudens mendacium est, ut teste careat.

But in Italy also it is believed that the sight of wolves is harmful, and that if they look at a man before he sees them, it temporarily deprives him of utterance. The wolves produced in Africa and Egypt are feeble and small, but those of colder regions are cruel and fierce. We are bound to pronounce with confidence that the story of men being turned into wolves and restored to themselves again is false—or else we must believe all the tales that the experience of so many centuries has taught us to be fabulous; nevertheless we will indicate the origin of the popular belief, which is so firmly rooted that it classes werewolves among persons under a curse. Evanthes, who holds no contemptible position among the authors of Greece, writes that the Arcadians have a tradition that someone chosen out of the clan of a certain Anthus by casting lots among the family is taken to a certain marsh in that region, and hanging his clothes on an oak-tree swims across the water and goes away into a desolate place and is transformed into a wolf and herds with the others of the same kind for nine years; and that if in that period he has refrained from touching a human being, he returns to the same marsh, swims across it and recovers his shape, with nine years' age added to his former appearance; Evanthes also adds the more fabulous detail that he gets back the same clothes. It is astounding to what lengths Greek credulity will go; there is no lie so shameless as to lack a supporter.

If it's used in Pliny, then of course the word's known to the Middle Ages, yeah? But if it's NOT USED (perhaps because it's too recherché), and if LUPUS is used in preference, and also English and French and Breton words, well, that's interesting.

Karl Steel said...

I'd also say that the Pliny supports Jeffrey's reading: the Latin has people CHANGING their skin, not inhabiting two skins at the same time, as it were. Basically, Pliny describes a werewolf in the same way that Gerald of Wales does, or, for that matter, CW Bynum.

Only the vernacular allows for this possibility, not Latin.

Karl Steel said...

Today is just not my day for coherence. I think it's because I should be grading papers.

Here's a short, coherent summary:

Latin does have a word for werewolf, "versipellis." However, a preliminary search suggests that medieval Latin used the word only to mean "deceiver" or "hypocrite" or "traitor." And while Petronius and, more relevantly for medieval textuality, Pliny use "versipellis," the word still suggests a person changing from one thing into another temporarily, rather than melding wolf and human into a hybrid self. In short, Latin has vocabulary for humans who turn into wolves, but not the vocabulary for people who are also wolves.

Paolo Galloni said...

Nice post - and nice coincidence: tomorrow I will give a lecture about hunting the bear in the Middle Ages very focusing on the matter of "cross contamination" (Karl knows ...) between human and, in my view, super human bear's body. Another argument is that the possibility of transformation supports the idea that, at least until XII century, european experience (if not theological and philosophical thought) of animals (and, to me, landscape) still faced a natural world full of animal somehow interpreted as problematic subjects and not just objects of dominance practices.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I was running a panel yesterday so I am late getting back to this, but I want to say that I used the phrase "Latin possesses no *common* noun for werewolf" because I am not such a good Latinist that I can clear with confidence NO word for werewolf existed, just that no word of wide currency was out there. I know that lack of a word does not equate to lack of a concept, of course, but here I do think it is revealing: the vernacular sources and terms convey a two-in-oneness that the Latin writers cite in order to convey a compoundedness that their humans-to-wolves don't possess.

Jeb said...

I enjoyed this. Not looked at this subject for years.

One early Irish legal code I particularly like in relation to this that no one seems to look at.

Irish law of blood letting, it sets out the compensation payments paid for medical treatment to those injured in battle and other acts of violence where the opposing party is considered legally responsible for dispute.

Three female figures are found who are entitled to half normal compensation.

They are described as the conrechta (the wolf/ dog who speaks with a human voice), Confael (the howling one) and the good wife saved from the fairies, a person traditionally considered to be mute.

Fael to howl most often turns up in compounds which are euphemisms for wolf. Faelad 'to become a wolf' literally means to go a howling.

When the wolf speaks with a human voice it is the most terrifying creature in the whole of Ireland.

Certainly powerful, the conrechta is described as a female satirist who turns back the streams of war with her tongue. Confeal is a vengeance taker but morally entitled to engage in violence and entitled to compensation for any injury sustained in such action.

This is early 7th century but I think already the themes that play out in a range of later texts concerning language and reason are in place and under discussion at this time.

Jeb said...

Reading the text in full he does seem a bit like the Confeal. Legally justified in taking vengeance. This one turns up in much later oral narrative in the western Isles of Scotland that seem to maintain the correct legal definitions so has a life beyond the early med. period.

I was struck by his capture, I have never seen the motif described in this way as being chained and beaten I thought was the standard form. But again it seems to highlight that his actions are reasonable. Absence of melancholia is also interesting particularly given the period it is written in.

Makes me want to look at the Scottish variants of Lailoken/ Myrddin that focus strongly on adultery.

Interesting text.

Anonymous said...

I had managed never to meet this text until Richard Scott Nokes blogged about it the other day (since I am catching up all asynchronous, that may itself have been because you'd written this...). Now I have interpretation (and I had thought the explanation of the wolf's 'shame' odd, also) too, thankyou!

Minor copy-editor's point:

... “the animal part that within us all”...

A word such as `lies' missing in either the source or the quotation, no?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

The finished essay:

Eddie Christie said...

I liked this essay JC. The Vulgate uses 'versipellis' -- Proverbs 14:25 'liberat animas testis fidelis et profert mendacia versipellis' and it is glossed in Old English glossaries, with 'praetig' (no less) and 'ficol' both of which of course mean 'deceitful, crafty.' It shows up in a small handful of interesting places in Old English texts but I don't have the other examples to hand.

Unknown said...

I'd say versipellis could support the reading of hybrid, and it does not strike me as a rare word (and Karl: there's an argument that AngloNorman was exactly the place/time where Satyricon was better known, ca. 1100-1200, bc prosimetrum and Satyricon imitations sprout in these areas at exactly that time; and the baseline story is, Satyricon was known, just not the whole book but an abbreviated version and Poggio's was the extended version, so he cannot be credited for discovering but perhaps improving the canon of the Satyricon (although I don't know how relatively brief that brief version was, so. . .); to which I would add, if you read one hellenistic mediterranean novel, you've read them all, big difference, Satyricon or something else, it's all the same stories and they were just the most copied and popular thing around in the MA). In Poland, which still has an amazingly lively pagan folk culture continuing traditions that date back to times immemorial, so for instance, in the Highlands, in order to dress like an animal for the end-of-the-year trick-or-treating, you simply turn your ginormous long fur/sheep coat inside out. The inside part is looong fur, the outside, smooth when worn as a human: if you reverse them, you look like a yeti (or wolf or whatever). So, for me, versipellis is very clear and not at all a rare or odd word, it describes exactly the process I would imagine when turning into a wolf :o)