Werewolves and Courtesy in Medieval Literature
By Rachel Kaufman
Symposium: Adelphi University’s Journal of Ideas, Vol.7 (2006-7)
Introduction: The werewolf myth goes back to the ancient Greeks, if not farther. Ovid tells us how King Lycaon was punished for his insolence toward Zeus by being turned into a wolf. This story of man-into-beast persists into modern times, so even though nobody believes that a man can really turn into a wolf or vice versa, the thrilling stories of “what if ” still capture our imaginations. What does it mean to be part man, part beast? In the Middle Ages, writers were struggling with the same questions. Though the Bible was the more traditional source to address the question “what is a man,” courtesy books and werewolf stories played an important role in the medieval period’s answer.
Courtesy in the Middle Ages was an important concept. Then, as now, politeness —knowing the right things to say at the right time, following the right rules—was “a veneer over the violence latent in human affairs, [. . .] [acting] as a restraining force between a violent thought and a violent act”. In other words, courtesy on some level is about keeping Plato’s “wild beast within us” at bay.
In the Middle Ages, when describing model behavior, physical traits appear in close proximity to the accepted mental or spiritual ideals of the day. In “The Romance of Sir Orfeo,” the eponymous hero is described as “Large and courteys” (line 28). Courtesy and largeness, even “greatness” (for in a way the words are synonymous) both hint toward Orfeo being a good king. In a set of instructions for table manners at the Syon monastery, the monks’ hands should be “up on the table or godely before them; ther eres to the legister, and ther hertes to heuen, and charities to ther even christen. Also they schal sytte up ryghte [. . .]”. Here the writer moves effortlessly between instructions for physical habits and spiritual ones, hardly even distinguishing between the two.
One final example can be found in a c. AD 1000 service book explaining the rituals used when inducting a knight—the first five out of ten steps have little to do with knighthood as we think of it. There is nothing about donning armor or swearing to protect damsels in distress until steps six and seven, respectively, and the coleé, or blow from a hand or sword, was “not considered essential during the age of chivalry”. Instead, the knighting ceremony consists of a ritual bath, the dressing in the special knightly clothes, and so forth. The message is clear: to be a good knight, one must look the part as well as act it. After the bath and the donning of the symbolic clothing, the knight undergoes a twenty-four hour fast, including an all-night vigil in the chapel, followed by confession and mass. Assuming that kings, monks, and knights were supposed to be exemplary human beings, these sets of instructions apply not only to kings, monks, and knights, but to all humans. These writings are a recipe book for a medieval human.