Below is the text of a thread I tweeted on 17th May 2023. I’ve copied it here for a few reasons: firstly, because I know that Twitter threads are not the most accessible format but I would rather people don’t use third-party Thread Reader apps which will monetise my content with their ads; secondly, because thanks to the Elongated Muskrat’s shenanigans, I don’t trust Twitter not to disappear and take all my work with it; and thirdly, so that those not on Twitter get to enjoy it too.
The thread is unedited, but for a slight re-ordering to unite pictures with the relevant text, and the addition of a few links here and there. It isn’t as detailed or nuanced as a Blog Post Original, by virtue of its original format, but I hope it’s enjoyable anyway.
Note from 07/06/23: This post has been edited to remove/shorten discussion of the incident at CrimeFest which prompted the whole thing. This is not a response to external pressure, nor because I am retracting anything I said; it’s really not that deep. I’m just tired of talking about it, uncomfortable with the way that my words have been used and misused by others, and would rather be talking about werewolves without the weight of that hanging over me. I have kept a version of the original post for my own records, but I will not be saying anything further on the topic.
Back to the post:
The context of my extensive tweeting about medieval werewolf literature was that somebody had made a comment in my hearing about “grammatically correct” pronouns, with the implication that singular they/them and similar pronouns would be grammatically incorrect. My response to this statement (among others) gained rather more attention than I expected it to, and following the attention I’d gained from that, I tweeted a brief follow-up introducing myself and my books, and noted that anybody who objected to my pronouns would be treated to a lecture about medieval werewolf tales — meaning that I would explain the history of the singular ‘they’, which is first attested in a 14th-century werewolf story.
However, several people asked me whether they could have the werewolf lecture minus the pronoun argument, so I said yes, they could slide into my DMs at any times and ask me about the twelfth-century werewolf renaissance.
And then people actually did, so I figured I should do a thread. This had the bonus side effect of meaning my notifications were no longer dominated by stressful and overwhelming responses to the original discussion, but instead with people reacting to werewolf content (much more fun), and it also gives a much more accurate impression of what my Twitter feed is normally like — weird and medieval, generally. I hope the Big Name Authors who followed me as a result of all this enjoyed it.
So that’s the context And now the thread, archived for your convenience:
@FinnLongman, 17/05/2023:[see the original thread here. please note, as of 07/06/23 my Twitter account is still “protected”, i.e. limited to followers only, so you will not be able to see this if you don’t follow me. Apologies; this was necessary to protect myself from some transphobic harassment I’ve been facing recently]
Right. The twelfth-century werewolf renaissance. I said it was coming and here it is: a thread.
Disclaimer before we start: my actual specialism is medieval Irish literature, and most of this is based on my undergrad studies in medieval French and Middle English, plus comparative work I’ve done more recently. If I’ve misremembered anything, I apologise.
Anyway, my housemate JUST found out that “the twelfth-century werewolf renaissance” is an actual phrase that scholars use and not something we internet denizens have been using because it’s funny, so let’s start with that!
The phrase was coined by Caroline Walker Bynum, who observed that, although we have werewolf stories from many time periods and places, there was a particular boom of them in the late twelfth century. There are Classical werewolf stories, but then there’s a pause, and suddenly:
- Bisclavret (Marie de France)
- Wolves of Ossory (Gerald of Wales)
- Melion (anon., Breton lay)
- Guillaume de Palerme (c. 1200, French) which becomes William and the Werewolf (c. 1350, Middle English)*
* The Middle English version of this text contains the earliest known attestation of singular ‘they’.
NOW you see what medieval werewolf tales have to do with grammatically correct pronouns, right? If they’ve been in our language since William and the Werewolf was composed in English c. 1350, there’s a pretty solid precedent for using them, just saying.
Also, fun fact, not relevant, but Guillaume de Palerme was so popular, there’s even an early modern Irish version of it, called Eachtra Uilliam. You don’t get that many stories going from French to English to Irish like that, so it’s fun to have this one.
All of these stories are fairly close in date of composition, showing that there is a Werewolf Zeitgeist occurring, and it goes beyond these stories (they’re just the ones I know anything about). And let’s not even start on the other animal transformations people write about.
(Although if you ever want to talk about the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi with me, I am always down to talk about that. Especially about queerness and gender and trauma because whew boy that text has got so much going on.)
So why are people talking about werewolves? As David Shyovitz put it, people found werewolves “good to think with”. I love this phrase because this is also exactly how I use fiction and literature to explore ideas that concern me IRL.
Sidenote: I’m talking about the medieval Christian perspective here because that’s what I’ve studied, but Shyovitz’s article about Jewish use of werewolves to explore theological concepts, “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance“, might be of interest. I’m gonna read this next (I haven’t read it at the time of posting.)
Werewolves are a useful lens through which to think about souls, bodies, and transformations. What does it really mean to be human, and made in imago Dei (in the image of God)? How much can the body change before the soul is altered too?
The story of the Wolves of Ossory is an interesting one here, because of the nature of the transformation. Very brief and limited summary, but: a wolf begs a priest to give communion to his dying wife, claiming she’s a transformed human.
This is a problem! You can’t give communion to animals, but if she’s really human, she needs the ritual. So, to prove that his wife is definitely human, the first wolf peels back her skin to reveal the person inside: her inner nature is human.
Gerald tells us this transformation was a curse from an angry saint, and that it afflicted one man and one woman for seven years at a time; if they survive, they’re turned back into people at the end, and others become the wolves.
There are other werewolf stories from this region, but this is the most famous, and the one that most clearly demonstrates some of the theological questions at work here: what is the line between human and animal? What is the nature of the soul, and can it be altered?
In Bisclavret, we see a similar question of “inner nature” vs “outer form”, though it’s more subtle: Bisclavret, even in wolf form, has “the mind of a man”. His transformation back into a human, meanwhile, is triggered by being given back his clothes.
Here, clothes are the dividing line between animal and human: knowledge of nakedness (see Adam & Eve) and shame about it is what distinguishes the wolf from the man, as Bisclavret won’t transform in public.
Back when I was a tiny undergrad studying medieval French literature, this was when I encountered Derrida for the first time, especially “L’animal que donc je suis”. Or, as I called it at the time, “Derrida and his pervert cat”.
(Derrida discusses how his cat watches him dress but his cat is naked but his cat doesn’t KNOW that it’s naked, because it’s a cat, etc. This is a terrible summary, but in fairness, Derrida.)
Guillaume de Palerme or William and the Werewolf, meanwhile, sort of combines both of these vibes. The werewolf, Alphonse, is definitely a transformed human. Fully wolf. But at one point, William and his beloved dress in the skins of deer to go incognito.
They are perceived by others as deer in this moment, but their human clothes (clothes, not skin!) are visible through gaps in the skin. The transformation is incomplete. Clothing-as-nature proves to be a pretty complicated question in this story.
(I was gonna go into more detail about this, but then I realised that it’s been about 6 years since I last read this story and I’m genuinely not sure I can remember enough details to get it right, so I’ll stop before I say something wildly inaccurate.)
Btw, if you want to read more on transformation and clothing, I’m pretty sure a lot of my ideas on it were shaped by Transforming Tales: Rewriting Metamorphosis in Medieval French Literature by Miranda Griffin, though it’s been ~6 years since I read it.
But WHY were people in the 12th century so interested in stories about souls and bodies and metamorphosis and metempsychosis and all of that? Well, I highly recommend reading Caroline Walker Bynum on that, but I’ll try to summarise some ideas:
- Major theological concern with change: whether species could change or were fixed since creation, the extent to which one thing could become another thing
- Enthusiasm for Ovid (notably the Metamorphosis) — this was a big one. Here’s a hint of some of the Ovidian aspects from Caroline Walker Bynum’s article “Metamorphosis, or Gerald and the Werewolf“:
- Curiosity about the nature of miracles (especially those that seem to change one thing into another thing), and the relative power of demons to make one thing appear as another thing, and whether anything except God had the power to fully transform something. (And indeed, some thinkers thought even God still kept his miracles within the workings of the world he created in the first place — this is something Augustine talks about, I think, and is still being read and explored in this period.)
These weren’t purely theological ideas, in that they weren’t considered solely relevant to religion. This is the stuff of natural philosophy and science: what is the world made of, and how much can those things change?
But also, questions of transformation and bodies are essential to Christianity, especially medieval Christianity. Transubstantiation relies on one thing becoming another thing. Resurrection is a change. Almost all Biblical miracles are one thing becoming another thing.
Essentially, we have big questions of religion and theology, concerns about heresy (can a change occur that isn’t triggered by God? How does spontaneous generation fit into this? WHERE DO WORMS COME FROM), and fascination with understanding change.
And from this comes major anxiety about the human body and which aspects of its nature are inherent, essential, able to persist through transformation. What is the ‘self’? What is ‘human’? A werewolf is a great lens through which to think about that.
Werewolf stories allowed medieval thinkers to explore major questions of souls, bodies, identity, shame, social status and position, nobility, fealty, and more. Useful things, werewolves. What do modern writers use werewolves to think about?
A lot of the same things, I think. In my own retelling of Bisclavret, I use werewolves to think about bodies and identity, but also about control; I use them as a metaphor for chronic pain, and a body that is unreliable, uncontrollable, and sometimes feels like an enemy.
But I also use them to think about love, and acceptance, and what it means to be truly known by somebody who cares about you even when you aren’t yourself. (And what does it mean not to be yourself? Identity and selfhood, again.)
I’m fascinated by stories about transformation and the way that such transformations push the transformed bodies to the margins, deny them a stable category of existence, make something Other of them — but also, sometimes, free them.
And that is one of the reasons I like medieval werewolf stories, and other animal transformations.
This is not my main area of research, but I do write about bodies, boundary-crossing, and otherness sometimes, particularly with reference to Cú Chulainn. You can find out more about my research on the ‘Research’ page of this site :)
In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the twelfth century werewolf renaissance (however incompletely), and next time somebody makes a fuss about singular ‘they’, remember that William and The Werewolf used it in 1350. Thanks!
Oh I should probably also plug my books here. I can’t ask you to buy my werewolf book (… yet), but although it’s a wildly different genre, The Butterfly Assassin is also a book about identity, change, and not feeling in control of your body or your life.
And I will leave you with the essence of Bisclavret, boiled down to one comment: “It’s either gay or it’s feudalism”. Thanks, baby undergrad me.
So, that’s the backstory and the thread, conveniently kept together for future reference. I will be glad to return to Twitter obscurity, but I hope my new followers will stick around for more weird medieval content.
As I said yesterday:
It’s important to use your online platform responsibly.
Which is why I’m now using mine to teach people about medieval werewolf literature, because somebody’s gotta do it.Finn Longman (@FinnLongman), May 17, 2023