Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Bisclavret and the Subject of Torture

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Bisclavret and the Subject of Torture

Article excerpt

I dream that I am the wolf [that] Bramond is looking for. 1 can see him shooting at me to kill me, and I can't speak to him and tell him that I am not a wolf. Oh, it is awful when you want to talk and can't!

--Guy Endore, The Werewolf of Paris (1933)

Obscurity is central to the literary mode and mission of Marie de France. Yet notwithstanding the epistemological and moral ambivalences that make Bisclavret so characteristic of her oeuvre, there is surprising scholarly consensus surrounding the culpability of the lai's notorious wife. After badgering her husband into revealing that he is a werewolf, she adulterously conspires with a hapless admirer to prevent the creature from ever regaining its human form, thereby committing, Suard contends, "un veritable meurtre" (274). Confident that her behavior speaks for itself, Creamer refers to the wife's "sneaky and unfaithful nature" (262) and Curtis to her "calculated cruelty" (29). Geertz declares her "crassly manipulative" (405), Freeman reckons her to be "indisputably at fault" (288), and Jorgensen sees the wife as "voluntarily demoniac" (25). As a result, Hanning and Ferrante claim, the baron commits "a gesture of justifiable revenge" for his selfish spouse's "treason" (101-2), while Bruckner writes approvingly of Bisclavret's "desire for vengeance, the appropriate punishment for his wife's betrayal" (262).

Tellingly, none of these judgments rests heavily upon the wife's admission of wrongdoing when "en mut grant destresce mise" (264: put in great distress). (1) Indeed, the torture that the king orders to be performed upon her has attracted minimal notice, whether locally as a narrative incident or historically as an aspect of feudal and ecclesiastical power in the Middle Ages. It would appear that because torture was employed and justified in Marie's day--"Just as God maintained hell for sinners," writes Esther Cohen, "so kings must maintain dungeons as well as palaces" (6)--its application in Bisclavret is a commonplace. This failure to scrutinize the wife's destresce may be the result of what Larissa Tracy calls "a misconception of medieval belief, practice, and acceptance of torture as a judicial norm--a misconception contradicted by literary evidence that is often minimized in historical studies or discussion on art and theatre" (15). Indeed, in Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature, Tracy persuasively argues that "medieval and early-modern literary sources-- religious, secular and comic--decry the use of torture and judicial brutality as tools of unstable authority" (18). Her evidence includes the climactic "judicial" killing in the Oxford Roland, where "the ferocity of Charlemagne's response and disregard for the initial verdict of his barons undermines the justification of Ganelon's execution and creates a series of cracks in the underlying power structure" (93). Bisclavret performs a similarly trenchant, and unexpected, interrogation.

Putatively, torture (when not a form of punishment or spectacle) is used to obtain knowledge that is embedded in and impeded by human flesh. Not unlike the torturer who would see his application of terror and pain as accidental to the information produced, many critics of Bisclavret seek the evidence to condemn the woman from her own utterances and actions, with little regard for her examination in the court. On this point, Freeman refers to the "shameful confession" (298) elicited from her by the sages bum, while Jorgensen mentions the wife's "admission of guilt ... prompted in part by the king's torture" (29, emphasis added). The assumption is that her interrogation simply externalizes what she knows herself to be true: a supplement, torture merely makes physically manifest what the audience can discern for itself almost at once. As a result, we can be sure of her sincere sense of wrongdoing, which is, furthermore, actually expressible and audible within the screams and tears. Since the infliction of pain seems to have no bearing on what she "says," the content of her confession goes unquestioned. …

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