Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Medieval Werewolves (23rd November 2016)


The werewolves of Ossory in Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica (London, British Library, Royal MS 13 B. viii, f. 18r)

Next meeting: 23rd November 2016 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

One of the first stories of the transformation of a man into a wolf occurs in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Lycaön, the king of Arcadia, who served human flesh to Jupiter when the king of the gods wandered the earth disguised as a mortal. Lycaön’s ‘gruesome banquet’[1] breaches the laws of hospitality, and Jove retaliates by transforming him into a wolf:

Lycaön fled to the country
where all was quiet. He tried to speak, but his voice broke into
an echoing howl. His ravening soul infected his jaws;
his murderous longings were turned on the cattle; he still was possessed
by blood lust. His garments were changed to a shaggy coat and his arms
into legs. He was now transformed into a wolf. But he kept some signs
of his former self: the grizzled hair and the wild expression,
the blazing eyes and the bestial image remained unaltered.
(Metamorphoses, I.233-9)

Ovid’s story of Lycaön fits into the broader thematic structure of Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, which focuses on the depravity of humanity. In response to Lycaön’s treachery, Jove holds an assembly of the gods, and he announces his intention to send a flood to destroy mankind for their crimes. Only Deucalion and Pyrrha survive the flood, and they produce ‘new race of miraculous birth’ (Metamorphoses, I.252) who repopulate the earth.

Stories of werewolves were also popular in medieval Europe. Werewolves became associated with the romance tradition in which a man – baron, knight, or king – became trapped in a wolf’s body through the treachery of his wife. Marie de France follows this plot in Bisclavret (1160-1215), which was the source for Melion (c. 1170-1267) and Biclarel (1319-22). Meanwhile, the French romance Guillaume of Palerne (1200), which was translated into English in the fourteenth century, recounts how the hero was changed into a wolf through his stepmother’s enchantments.

The medieval werewolf is a rational creature. As Amanda Hopkins writes, these stories demonstrate the werewolf’s

gentle behaviour, his human mind and sensibilities [which are] trapped inside an outer form that was indistinguishable from a wolf. If a werewolf attacked someone, it was with reasoned purpose: to express the injustice done to him and often to identify the culprit.[2]

The benevolent nature of the medieval werewolf contradicts our modern view of the werewolf as a vicious, cannibalistic creature; however, the Wolfsbane potion helps today’s werewolves resist their killer instincts. Remus Lupin – who was surely everyone’s favourite Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher – frequently used the potion during his lifetime.


Overview of the texts

Five different manuscripts contain one or more of Marie’s lais, but only one thirteenth-century manuscript – London, British Library, MS Harley 978 – contains all twelve.

Melion survives in a single thirteenth-century manuscript, Paris Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, 3156, f.343r, col. 1-344r, col. 4 – 1268.

Biclarel is extract from first redaction (A-text) of Le Roman de Renart le Contrefait, which is included in MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1630, anc. 7630, de la Mare 284. Biclarel appears in f.188 col. a- f.190, col. D. The manuscript dates from the fourteenth century.

Arthur and Gorlagon survives in a single fourteenth-century manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS B 149, pp. 55-64. The story originates from the twelfth century.


Questions for discussion

  • How does the werewolf challenge the boundaries between human and animal? How do the different accounts of transformation from man into wolf compare with each other?
  • Marie writes that ‘[a] werewolf is a ferocious beast which […] devours men, causes great damage and dwells in vast forests’. Do the werewolves in these texts conform to or defy this description?
  • Is Biclarel ‘a mere imitation’ of Bisclavret?
  • Medieval werewolf stories traditionally explore the opposition between marital love and feudal service; however, Arthur and Gorlagon focuses on the question of ‘what women want’. Is this text a parody of the werewolf romance? What other texts also revolve around this central quest?
  • Biclarel and Melion are more explicitly misogynistic that Bisclavret and Arthur and Gorlagon. Why do you think gender politics are central to medieval werewolf stories?
  • In medieval werewolf stories, adulterous women are often punished ‘publicly and voyeuristically’. How do these texts legitimate violence against women? Is it significant that the wife goes unpunished in Melion?
  • Why do to you think King Arthur was later included in werewolf romances? Is the Arthurian setting relevant in these texts?
  • Does the medieval werewolf story constitute a genre in its own right? If so, what are its defining features?


Further reading

Medieval werewolves

‘One thing I know’: Werewolves Are a Thing

The Werewolf’s Indifference

Naked came the werewolf



[1] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. David Raeburn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), I.164.

[2] Amanda Hopkins, ‘The Medieval Werewolf’, Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, University of Warwick. Available at [accessed 18th November 2016].

‘Erec et Enide’ and ‘Geraint mab Erbin’ (18th March)

Gregynog is located in that region of Wales which is generally called “The Middle Borderland”. Of all the Welsh border country this middle area epitomizes the physical and human characteristics of a border region in geographical terms. The uplands of Central Wales extend long fingers of land to the east, such as the Long Mountain and the Kerry Hills, while also in this same region tongues of riverine lowland reach westwards far into Wales, as in the Upper Severn, or Vale of Powys, near which Gregynog lies. This is also a region in which after many centuries of conflict two peoples and two languages have reached a situation in which although each strives to maintain its identity, both also integrate into a region which is essentially transitional in character.[1]

The gallant knight errant often crosses a variety of borders as he journeys through the landscape of medieval romance. So too did the several members of the MEMORI Reading Group as we traveled – albeit on a bus, rather than on a noble steed – from Cardiff to Greynog Hall for the inaugural MA English Literature Conference.

At Gregynog, the Reading Group revisited Chretien’s de Troyes’ Erec et Enide and Geraint mab Erbin from the Mabinogion. For this session, the group consisted of a range of regular members mixed with some new faces, but all of the attendees are currently enrolled on the English Literature MA programme, and have studied some medieval literature.

Many members of the group were familiar with Chretien’s other romances, or other manifestations of the Arthurian legend, although the Welsh text was a little more unfamiliar. The group discussed a range of topics, including: the various court scenes; the aggressive dwarf; the poor vavasour; the stag hunt and the sparrow hawk contest; the marriage of Erec/Geraint and Enid(e); and we also considered why the two tales differ in their style and form. As ever, the group was engaged with the material, and the session provided good opportunity to reflect on and to further appreciate the intricate relationships between these two texts.

Three MA students, who regularly attend the MEMORI Reading Group and Research Seminar, also gave their first papers at the conference. Charli Pruce spoke on ‘Knowledge and Power in the High Medieval Renaissance’; Sarah Jones talked about ‘Escapism, Danger, and Medievalism in the Secondary Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis’; Arthur Usher presented on ‘Ill-Speaking in Malory’s Morte Darthur’; and Olivia Mills delivered a paper on ‘Mountains, Myth and Magic – Welsh Landscape in Children’s Fantasy Literature’.

After two days of in rural Wales, the group returned to Cardiff. The Reading Group will reconvene in April in our usual location, when we will be reading the Awyntwrs of Arthure. All welcome.


[1] Harold Carter and J. Gareth Thomas, ‘Gregynog – The Regional Setting’, in Gregynog, ed. Glyn Tegai Hughes, Prys Morgan and J. Gareth Thomas (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1977), pp. 1-10 (p.1).

French and English fabliaux (17th February 2016)

The Summoner from the Ellesmere Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales

Next meeting: 17th January 2016 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

The Fabliaux genre was popular in twelfth and thirteenth century France, and around 150 French fabliaux are now extant. The genre was briefly revived in England the fourteenth century, and Geoffrey Chaucer included several fabliaux in The Canterbury Tales.

Fabliaux are traditionally set in real, familiar places, and the characters are ordinary sorts – tradesmen, peasants, priests, students, restless wives; the plots are realistically motivated tricks and ruses. The genre presents a lively image of everyday life among the middle and lower classes, but the class politics and function of these tales are often complex: some scholars suggest that they were subversive tales which were consumed by the lower classes, while others argue that they were a product of aristocratic society that were designed to reinforce social hierarchy.

We are reading a selection of French and English fabliaux, including:

Le Prestre Crucefié / The Crucified Priest (Old French / early thirteenth century / France)

In this tale, a cuckolded husband, who is also a wood carver, castrates a priest who has an affair with his wife. There are two later versions of this fabliau, including De Connebert and Du Prestre Teint (The Dyed Priest)

Li Dis de la vescie à Prestre / The Tale of the Priest’s Bladder (Old French / early fourteenth century / Antwerp

In this tale, two friars beg a dying priest to leave them his property. The Priest consents on the grounds that the friars bring their Prior with them the next day. Five friars arrive without their Prior, but the Priest insists he will only reveal his secret in the presence of the Sheriffs and the Mayor. The Priest berates the friars for their importunity, and bequeaths his bladder to them. This text is an analogue for The Summoner’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s Summoner’s Prologue and Tale (Middle English / late fourteenth century / England)

In The Canterbury Tales, The Summoner takes offense at The Friar’s Tale, which focuses on a corrupt summoner and his interaction with a demon. In response, The Summoner tells the tale of a dishonest friar, who wanders from house to house begging for alms.

The friar arrives at the house of Thomas and his wife: Thomas is ill, and their child has just died. The friar reassures Thomas’ wife that their child has entered heaven, but he insists that Thomas is ill because he has not donated money to the church. The friar continues to lecture Thomas, and finally asks him for money to build a cloister. Thomas tells the friar he has a gift for him, and that he can have if he divides it between his twelve brothers. The friar attempts to retrieve the gift, which Thomas is sitting on, but it is, in fact, no more than a fart.

The friar is chased from the house, and complains to the lord of the village about how he is supposed to divide a fart into twelve. The lord suggests that a cartwheel could be used to distribute the fart equally.


 Some possible topics for discussion

  • The body / fetishization?
  • C12th / C13th contexts?
  • Conservative (Norris Lacy) or subversive (Benson)? Reflective or corrective?
  • ‘Fabliaux are the essence of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque and violence is often a part of that humour which was directed at mixed audiences of peasantry, bourgeoisie, and nobility.’
  • The meanings generated by torture and (judicial / non-judicial punishment)?
  • ‘The episodes interrogate the “Other within” – those who function within a society and a shared cultural identity, but who transgress societal norms and act in ways beyond social or literary sanction’.
  • What are the advantages and limitations of reading the Summoner’s Tale as a response to the Friar’s?
  • Despite the scholarly emphasis placed on Chaucer’s comic tales, the English fabliau is relatively rare. Why use a form that was, to all intents and purposes, dead?
  • And how does Chaucer use the form? What are the characteristics of Chaucerian fabliaux?
  • (and if you want more, you could look at one version of Boccaccio’s handling of the fabliau form from II.iv of the Decameron: )