Medieval Top 10

1)      Beowulf, Anon.

The oldest known piece of literature in English. Also a great pair of stories, whether Beowulf v. Grendel or Beowulf’s last fight v. the dragon. Bonus feature: It offers some insight into Danish and Saxon upper class life.

2)      Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain-poet

Probably my second or third favorite on this list. Fun piece of Arthurian lore by an obscure poet writing in an obscure dialect. Features Gawain, a head chopping challenge, illusion, deception, attempted seduction, and a bit of questioning the ideals of Camelot.

3)      Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

The classic English response to Boccaccio. Some of the tales are dry and mildly dull, but there are significant fun ones as well—Miller’s and Reeve’s tales. The piece also gives us an interesting insight into late-14th century cultural views about people in various walks of life. Ultimately, unfinished (there were supposed to be over 100 tales) despite some later claims of “lost” Chaucer tales (actually written by the people who “discovered” them).

4)      Yvain: Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes

Probably my favorite of Chretien’s Arthurian pieces, in part because of some links to Tolkien. The story features giants, knights, wars, and Arthur’s conquest of Europe. But it also involves a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible . . .

5)      Lais, Marie de France

While all of Marie’s lais are good and interesting, my favorites are “Bisclavret” and “Yonec” for their shape-shifting elements. Nice pieces of 12th century literature, possibly written in London.

6)      The Romance of William of Palerne, Anon.

A 14th century translation of an earlier French work. A fairly popular and fun werewolf tale taking place mostly in Italy with a few scenes in Spain. Although named for William, Alphouns the werewolf tends to take center stage throughout the romance.

7)      “Arthur and Gorlagon”, Anon.

Short werewolf piece in the Arthurian corpus, much more violent than the two previously mentioned above. Basically, Arthur offends Guenevere and goes on a quest to make things up to her. He meets Gorlagon, hears the other king’s story, and goes home (oddly, it’s not quite clear whether Arthur’s quest was successful).

8)      The History and Topography of Ireland, Gerald of Wales

Gerald’s account of Irish life, legends, and culture as recorded during one of the Norman invasions of Ireland. Interestingly, Gerald, like many of the soldiers, was half-Welsh, half-Norman, on the margins of society, invading a place on the margins of Europe. Among the stories is the tale of the Ossory werewolves that presents both history and a theological conundrum for Gerald.

9)      Volsunga Saga, Anon.

Classic epic song of the Volsungs, from the gods’ slaying of a dwarf prince to the theft of Andvari the elf’s gold to Sigurd’s fight with Fafnir to the rise and fall of the Volsungs.

10)  Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Anon.

An excellent account of Mandeville’s travels around the world . . . that is, even for the places in Europe, probably totally fictitious. Even so, it’s a great piece to read, partially because it was considered one of the top travel narratives and travel guides in England for roughly four centuries. That said, from what we can tell, the actual author never left England and had no firsthand knowledge of Europe, much less the rest of the world.

Tradition vs “Tradition”: Werewolves (& Other Shifters, Really)

Thinking about history, I think about traditional figures, particularly shapeshifters since I’ve spent a long time studying them. When I think about traditional figures, I like werewolves especially because there’s a divide between what most modern audiences consider to be traditional and what actually is traditional. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refer to the latter as traditional and the former as “traditional”.

The modern “traditional” is really a new phenomenon that is largely built out of Hollywood, rather than the traditional figures of folklore, legend, myth, and literature. For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on cases of supposed actual change, not psychology (Sigmund Freud, Henri Boguet, James I of England, Simon Goulart).

According to the “traditional”, werewolves have a number of interesting traits. Most of these traits would be unrecognizable to pre-modern audiences. For instance, “traditional” werewolves take a wolfman shape, sometimes in addition to a wolf shape. “Traditional” werewolves are forced to change at the full moon (a theory posited by Gervase of Tilbury in the medievla era and dismissed by his peers, a theory that was never posited again until the 18th century), possibly coming about due to theories about ties between the moon and madness. “Traditional” werewolves are regenerative and vulnerable to silver (likely tied to the moon change, also a relative cheap precious metal). Finally, “traditional” werewolves transmit their condition through biting victims (or sometimes transfer of other bodily fluids), an idea that doesn’t appear before germ theory.

On the other hand, the traditional werewolves of the ancient through early modern eras were rather different. They only had human and animal shapes, no hybrid form. They did not regenerate (nor share injuries between forms, a concept that developed in 18th c. literature). All traditional werewolves changed for one of four reasons: curse, genetics, ritual, or an item. The most well known curses are in Gerald of Wales, Ovid, and William of Palerne. Marie de France seems to work with genetics. Petronias’ werewolf and Demarchus of Acadia were ritual based. Item based change, with an attendant deal with the devil, was most commonly use in the early modern/Renaissance era. Werewolves of the eras could be cured, typically by being struck three times by certain objects (with the spread of Christianity). They were a mix of monstrous (classical and early modern) and sympathetic (classical and medieval). Virtually all traditional werewolves were male (only one female comes to mind, in Gerald of Wales), from Lycaeus to Alphouns, Bisclavret to Gorlagon.

The “traditional” has become considered traditional due, I think, to saturation. Most modern audiences know the werewolves of movies and modern horror novels (and urban fantasy of the last decade). Few know the older stories, especially the early modern, medieval, and classical.

Are the “traditional” in any way worse than the traditional? No. But, as some authors rediscover the older sources, I’ve seen readers scream that the figures “aren’t right” because they don’t have the “traditional” attributes. I think this is another area where some awareness of history and awareness of just how young some of our “traditional” things really are is helpful.

Werewolf Story

Last night I read “The Rabbi Who was Turned into a Werewolf” from The Mayse Book (1602).  There are a lot of parallels to Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” and William of Palerne.  More Marie than the other, but there are still a few echoes.  It is also a lot more mysogynistic than its predecessors.

That said, I find it rather interesting.  What I find most interesting is that it is an early modern sympathetic werewolf tale and story-genre fiction.  The early-17th century accounts are all “monstrous werewolf” or “lycanthropy as mental illness” in form, as are their 16th century predecessors.  So, based on that alone, I find this sympathetic story stands out.  The genre is also an interesting thing.  Every discussion of werewolves after the 14th century, at least based on my research (dissertation and book), is a treatise, court document, broadsheet, memoir, or play (in fact, I can only think of one play).  This story, hearkening back to both the subject matter and form of the 12th and 14th centuries, seems to be a throw back.

In fact, I wonder how much it predates The Mayse Book.  Based on its components, I suspect it is probably a 13th or 14th century story, although it could be older, that managed to survive long enough in popularity within Europe’s Jewish community to be transcribed into the 17th century book.