By Minjie Su
She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,
Whose tongue more poisons than the adder’s tooth!
How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex
To triumph, like an Amazonian trull,
Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!’
— Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part III, Act I, Scene IV
The lines above are put into the mouth of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester (1411-1460), on the verge of being captured by the army of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482), whom he refers to as the ‘she-wolf of France’. Ever since, the phrase seems to have become a hallmark for women who are sufficiently powerful and ferocious for men to feel threatened. Maurice Druon, in his historic series Les rois maudits (‘The Accursed Kings’), also repetitively borrows this phrase to describe Isabella of France (1295-1358), whose career as a troublemaker just reaches its peak in the fifth and sixth books.
That both Margaret of Anjou and Isabelle of France are labelled the ‘she-wolf of France’ is no coincidence; nor are they alone in this category. Rather, the coinage of the phrase falls in line with the imagery of she-wolves in a much earlier literary tradition.
We met some medieval werewolves in a previous post; now it’s time to meet some wolves of the fairer sex – indeed, some are even the werewolves’ wives. The term ‘werewolf’, it must be said, is etymologically a gendered one: were, coming from the Old English and Old High German wer (Old Norse verr), means ‘man’ and, from there, ‘husband’. This of course does not necessarily rule out any woman-wolf, but when they do appear, they turn out to be surprisingly different.
In general, two types of she-wolves are found in medieval literature: neither is “wolfie” in the same way as the man-wolves. The majority are ‘wolves’ only on the metaphorical level, which means that they are behaviourally wolfish but do not perform physical transformation. The second group – considerably smaller in size but no less interesting – do transform physically, but, unlike the accursed man trapped in the wolf’s body, these women seem to have full control over their bodies and forms. Whereas the werewolves grieve over their fate, the she-wolves use the power of metamorphosis to deal with those who get in their way, turning this whole wolf thing to their advantage.
The werewolves’ wives fall into this first category. Many medieval werewolves are sympathetic and victimised. Take for example Bisclavret, a Breton knight we find in Marie de France’s (1160-1215) lais. He runs as a wolf every three or four days in the woods on a weekly base. His wife, growing suspicious and worried (as a wife should), persuades him to give away his secret only to become more worried. She asks another knight who has been in love with her for a long time to steal Bisclavret’s clothes, without which the werewolf cannot be restored to his human form. In the end, her crime is revealed, and she punished by a threefold sentence: her (ex)husband rips her nose off her face; she is exiled by the king; and many of the female descendants are born noseless. The sentence brings the lady as akin to the wolf as her husband. The bloody hole that replaces the lady’s nose brings to mind the image of lepers. Physically, lack of nose is a distinctive feature of lepers; spiritually, leprosy is believed to be associated with lechery and fraud, whereas morally questionable women are are metaphorized as lupa, ‘she-wolf’.
The second layer of her sentence – namely, outlawry – only confirms her identity as a wolf. In Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and Norse law codes, outlaws are referred to as ‘wolves’ in the sense that they, no longer protected by the law, and can be hunted down like a wild wolf. Caput gerat lupunum – ‘may she carry a wolf’s head’. The third, that some of her female descendants shall be born noseless, is both confirmation and consequence, for all those law codes decree that children born in exile shall remain in exile. It also makes the woman more dangerous: she is not only a she-wolf, but also a progenitor of she-wolves. Though she herself is branded and removed, the anxiety remains.
Very few women belong to the second type, but their scarcity in number does not make them less dangerous – indeed, if a woman who is only a wolf metaphorically would cause sufficient anxiety to outcast her, one can only imagine how much fear a female shapeshifter may inspire, let alone if this shapeshifter is magical and has full control of her power.
The only two instances I can think of are both from Old Norse materials: King Siggeir’s mother in Völsunga saga and Queen Hlégerðr in Sigrgarðs saga ok frækna. The former turns into a wolf to devour the nine brothers of Sigmundr, father of Sigurðr the dragon-slayer. The latter never really turns into a wolf, but she ‘sends’ one to attack the hero, Sigrgarðr, in his sleep and turns her stepdaughters into other animals to control them. Minimum information is given regarding these women’s lineage and background – Siggeir’s mother is not even named. The very fact that they enjoy little stage time and they are destroyed in the end, however, only demonstrates their fearsomeness.
This fear has its roots not only in the woman-wolves’ magic and wickedness, but also in their being female. Now we go back to Shakespeare’s lines. Being a she-wolf, Margaret of Anjou is said to be even worse than the wolves of France, for whereas warfare and arms are befitting men, they are not expected from a woman; being a war-waging, weapon-bearing woman, only increases Margaret’s anomaly. In other words, it all boils down to who can be tolerated to wield power. The she-wolves in medieval literature are in the same situation. In the first type, in particular, the werewolf’s wife is either a queen or a great lady; she takes advantage of her husband and lord’s weakness – in this case, being a werewolf – and overthrows him. These stories can very much be read as power struggle between man and woman, husband and wife. The lady gains the upper hand when she successfully traps or even kills the wolf, but her victory is only temporary. In the end, the wolf – normally with the help of a figure of authority –reasserts his dominance and reveals the true, monstrous face of the fair lady.
Turned into a she-wolf, the once triumphant woman is silenced and rejected; whereas her werewolf husband rises above the bestial condition and proves to be human under the wolfskin, the woman, forced into degradation, is made into the real monster.
You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Emblematum liber (1531)