THE name of the werewolf protagonist of Marie de France’s poem Bisclavret has occasioned a good deal of scholarly comment.1 Recently, too, Sharon Kinoshita and Peggy McCracken2 offer a fascinating discussion of the protagonist of Bisclavret’s essential nature: is the poem ‘of a werewolf or of Werewolf’ (that is, what is the significance of Marie’s calling him le bisclavret?), and is his nature, at bottom, that of a wolf or a man?
The Breton etymology proposed by William Sayers, *bleiz claffet (*bleiz klañvet in today’s orthography), is the best so far, and seems appropriate: bleiz is ‘wolf’, and claffet is a passive past participle ultimately formed from claff (klañv), ‘ill; rabid’, with overtones of the Welsh cognate claf, ‘ill; leprous; scorbutic’, and the Old Irish cognate clam, ‘leprous, scurfy; of animals, mangy’.3 As written, *bleiz claffet would mean ‘mad/diseased wolf’; Sayers’s rendering ‘wolf-sick, afflicted with lycanthropy’ shows that he is reading the name as a compound, *bleizclaffet, which would be *bleizglañvet in today’s orthography: ‘wolf-sick (one)’, that is, not a diseased wolf, but someone stricken with a wolf disease.4 (The mutation of c to g caused by forming the compound would not have been written in either Old or Middle Breton, nor, for phonological reasons, would we necessarily have expected a French form *bisglavret to result if this alternative is correct.) In a way this option makes better sense than ‘diseased wolf’: medieval werewolves are typically humans who become wolves, not wolves who become humans.5 However, we must also reckon with v. 64 of Marie’s text, where the protagonist tells his wife where he goes when he leaves her: ‘Dame, jeo devienc bisclavret’, he says; ‘Lady, I turn into a bisclavret.’ He does not tell her that he is a werewolf, but that he becomes one—or rather, that bisclavret is a description of him in his animal state. For this, ‘rabid wolf’ might be perfectly appropriate. And conversely we must reckon with the queen’s realization in v. 274: que la beste bisclavret/Bisclavret seit, ‘that the beast was a werewolf/was Bisclavret’; if bisclavret is not supposed to be a proper name, it must mean ‘one who is wolf-sick, afflicted with lycanthropy’ rather than ‘mad wolf’ or ‘diseased wolf’, for the latter would hardly inspire interest and sympathy in the queen.
What has been overlooked in the literature on Bisclavret is that the name or designation bisclavret is similar to attested names in Old and Middle Breton. As Celticists have known for a long time, the early Bretons,6 like the early Irish, were fond of naming warriors after animals. Dogs and wolves were especially common.
While the Irish hero Cú Chulainn, ‘the Hound of Culann’, is so called because of his famous killing of the smith Culann’s guard-dog, other dog or wolf names such as Cú Díbergae, ‘Hound of Brigandage’, or Fáelán, ‘Little Wolf’, are found with ‘extraordinary frequency’ among early Irish warband (fían) members, and may have been conferred upon initiation into the fían.7 The anonymous French lay of Melion, a development of Marie’s Bisclavret, reflects this early Irish warband culture,8 in which young men raiding the countryside are said to be oc fáelad, ‘(were-)wolfing’.9
Similarly, repositories of Old Breton personal names such as the Cartulary of Redon give us examples like Tanki (modern Tangi/Tanguy), ‘Fire-Hound’, or Maenki (modern Menguy), ‘Powerful-Hound’ (or ‘Stone-Hound’), among many other names involving animals.10 Old Breton Gurki, answering to Welsh Gurci/Gwrgi, means either ‘Great Dog/Top Dog/Over-Dog’, or else ‘Man-Hound’.11Gurki is thus ambiguous in whether it might suggest a werewolf.
A key form from the Cartulary of Redon is Bleidbara, the name of a witness (testis) to a charter dated 875.12 The meaning may be ‘Frenzy-Wolf’ or ‘Mad-Wolf’, as Gary German has it,13 but the structure would have to be noun-plus-genitive: ‘Wolf of Frenzy/Madness/Rage’; otherwise we would have a compound meaning ‘Wolfish Frenzy/Madness/Rage’, a plausible option too. Xavier Delamarre in fact prefers this, translating Bleidbara as ‘Fureur-de-Loup’ and citing a comparable Gaulish name, Cuno-barrus, ‘Fureur-de- … chien’; Ranko Matasović translates Bleidbara ‘furious as a wolf’.14 Importantly, although in modern times many soldiers and commanders have earned themselves the nickname ‘Mad Dog’, Bleidbara seems to be an Old Breton name like any other. Such a name might have been given to a child in mere hopes that he would grow up to be a frenzied warrior; and so many of the aggressive-sounding names in the Cartulary of Redon are followed by ‘monachus’ or ‘presbyter’ that even this may not have been the case.
One might take a cynical view of these facts, and suggest that Marie de France’s tale of Bisclavret is in fact a gloss on an evocative name: a woman marries a man named Manwolf or Madwolf or Wolf-frenzy; she is then shocked to discover that in this case his name is not conventional but literal. Hence she gets the surplus of meaning which Marie famously urges us to elicit from the obscure writings of the ancients (vv. 9–16 of her Prologue to the Lais).
Names in -claffet (or a corresponding older spelling) are not found, however, giving this rather tempting suggestion less weight than it might otherwise have. Likewise, v. 64 makes us question whether Bisclavret can possibly be the protagonist’s name, rather than (or as well as) the name for what he becomes; he is not named up to that point. Nevertheless, there is at least one name in -claff that is known to us: Guinglaff, King Arthur’s prophetic interlocutor in the Middle-Breton An Dialog etre Arzur Roe d’an Bretounet ha Guynglaff, ‘The Dialogue between Arthur, king of the Bretons, and Guynglaff’.15 The meaning of Guinglaff involves sickness: Hervé Le Bihan translates it as ‘having a blessed disease of the eye’,16 where -glaff (< claff) is ‘having a disease’, and guin- (gwenn- in modern spelling) is ‘white; pure; blessed’ (‘of the eye’ is conjectural; there is a tradition that the prophet was blind). As Le Bihan has now shown, An Dialog straddles the genre of political prophecy—well-attested in medieval Wales—and that of the orally-transmitted Breton ballad (gwerz), which Donatien Laurent has claimed to be the ‘exact extension’ of the tradition from which Marie derived her lays.17
These reflections on the etymology and meaning of bisclavret complicate rather than simplify our analysis of the character—which, as Kinoshita and McCracken have shown, was already complex and difficult enough. However, they do so productively. It is now conventional to note in passing that bisclavret is a Breton word or name;18 and as a Breton name, it is not merely appropriate to the character, but situated within a network of associations that includes one of the key texts pointing to the existence of medieval Breton oral literature. All linguistic considerations aside, the nature of these associations makes Hans Schwerteck’s suggestion of *bleiz kammwraet, supposedly ‘counterfeit wolf’, seem less likely.