In both Marie de France’s Bisclavret and St. Augustine’s Confessions, the main characters’ identity is connected in some way with his material possessions. St. Augustine seeks a new identity within the church. He views his house, clothes, role in society and other possessions as aspects of his secular life and secular self, which he wants to separate from his new true religious self within the church. In Bisclavret, Bisclavret turns into a werewolf and loses everything that defined his true self: his house, his possessions and his role in society are all lost when he assumes the identity of a were wolf.
In Bisclavret and Confessions, both characters want to distinguish themselves from their self their a true identity, the latter being the form that the character feels best expresses who he is. This contrasting theme of dependence and independence from material goods to establish one’s true identity is used in both books to highlight and character and society’s values, whether religious or secular. In Confessions, Augustine’s clothes represent a secular self and lifestyle that he wants to abandon for a true religious identity and lifestyle within the church.
When the reader is introduced to Augustine, Augustine is a well-known rhetor and lives a normal, secular life in society. Augustine reevaluates his life, decides he wants to convert to Christianity and renders all of his possessions that he has gathered throughout his sinful life worthless in his pursuit in serving God. Among these possessions are his clothes. Augustine has the choice of having his old life, wearing his every day clothes and going to church, but he chooses to dedicate his life and abdicate everything from his past identity in pursuit for his new religious one.
St. Augustine describes his conversion by saying, “All our dread about our earlier lives dropped away from us” (219). The phrase “dropped away” leaves the reader with the assumption and image that Augustine is departing from his sins and his old identity, dropping his possessions, and seeking out a new true identity. In Bisclavret, Bisclavret’s clothes are not only a symbol of his social status, but they are also an indication of Bisclavret’s true identity.
Bisclavret’s clothes show that he is a nobleman, an upper-class member of Brittany; whereas his lack of clothing makes him a beast, and animal that has no place in society. Throughout the story, Bisclavret tries to get his clothing back so that he can transform back into a nobleman, the form that he feels best represents his true self. In Bisclavret, Marie de France shows the importance of clothes and how they determine who a person is in society – the recovering of his clothes is the only way Bisclavret can return to his human form.
In Confessions, Augustine has assistance from a higher power that motivates him to find his identity by letting go his secular life and possessions. It is Augustine’s experience in the garden of Milan when he hears “from a nearby house” the words “pick up and read” that deeply encourages him to convert. Augustine experiences a divine command to pick up his Bible, and subsequently reads against “indecencies,” a command to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts (220).
This divine intervention is the final action that convinces Augustine to convert and assume his identity as a man within the church. Similar to St. Augustine, Bisclavret also gets assistance from a higher power to help him find his identity. The king and his servants help Bisclavret return to his true identity. This is possible because Bisclavret does not completely lose his identity – he maintains his human brain when he is a were wolf. When the king sees Bisclavret, he says, “This beast is humbling itself to me. It has the mind of a man and it’s begging me for mercy! (153-154).
This shows that the king has an inkling that Bisclavret is somewhat human. Bisclavret relies on the shrewd king and his servants to recognize he is human because he does not have any of his status symbol possessions to show he is a nobleman. St. Augustine in Confessions and Bisclavret in Bisclavret are the same in that material possessions – or lack thereof – define each character to themselves and to society. St. Augustine wants to get rid of these possessions that serve as reminders of his sinful past in his newfound religious identity.
On the other hand, Bisclavret feels that without his possessions and clothes, he is not his true self because he is a were wolf. Both Confessions and Bisclavret show two men trying to establish themselves in society. Both books also reveal that material goods socially categorize people. Both Bisclavret and Augustine feel restricted by their possessions – because Bisclavret lacks his status symbol possessions, he is reduced and is ostracized. Augustine’s possessions, a constant reminder of his past, prevent him from taking on his new religious identity and lifestyle within the church.