The insects and the miller / The krycket & þe greshope

From the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt.


Here’s a macaronic, presumably late 15th-century poem from Peniarth MS 356b, which I ran across yesterday in Robbins’ Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (2nd. ed), p. 104.

The krycket & þe greshope wentyn here to fy3ght,

With helme and haburyone all redy dy3ght;

The flee bare þe baner as a du3ty kny3th,

The cherubud trumpyt with all hys my3th.

Salamandraque cicada domitatum perereterunt,

Galiaque cum lorica presto se parauerunt;

Musca vexillum portabat vt miles egregius,

Scarabius buccinauit totis suis viribus.

The hare seyte a-pon þe hyll & chappynd here schone,

And swere by the knappes wich were þer a-pon,

That scho wowld not ryse ne gon

Tyll sche se xx howndes and a won.

Lepus super montem se ipsum collocauit,

Et suos sotulares laquitissinauit,

Et per laquitissos ipsequen iurauit

De lustro surgere nec ire voluit

quousque vigenti canis vnum videret.

Þe myler sedet o-pon the hull

and all þe hennes off the town drew hym tyll;

The mylner sayd, ‘schew, henne, schew!

I may not schake my bage for you.’

Molendinarius super montem sedebat,

gallinarum ville ad se copia currebat;

Molendinarius inquit, ‘sco, galina, sco!

Meum saccum pro uobis vrcillare non possum.’

I love this little poem, written in the end–I think–of a grammar, and therefore, perhaps, intended for children (at least per Nicholas Orme, “The Culture of Children in Medieval England,” Past & Present 148 (1995): 48-88 [82]).

I couldn’t tell you much more than what you see here. Crickets and Grasshoppers go together, as in this children’s natural history, or in this recent nature poem by Dan Beachy-Quick (“The poetry of the earth never ceases / Ceasing” &c., which edit I’m chagrined to have to be reminded, is a play on a little poem by a not-exactly-minor poet by the name of John Keats, as David Hadbawnik had to remind me), and also in scripture, Leviticus 11:22, although not in any version of the Bible, so far as I know, that would have been known in fifteenth-century Wales (Vulgate here; Wycliffite here, for example).

In the absence of any criticism, in the absence of being able to consult the manuscript online, and therefore in the absence of much of the needed cultural context, what can we do with this poem? On twitter, I called it “A great little macaronic poem of manuscript marginalia come to life” (a point, minus the “great,” already made by Douglas Gray), and that might be enough, alone.

If we want to take this as a children’s poem, and still respect it for all that (and why not?), and if we want to take this as a kind of nursery rhyme, with many of the features of the genre, we might observe the close relationship of children and insects, the very small, and the nervous (the hare awaiting the 21 dogs). Children work at a different time than we adults (presuming on my audience!), and a different scale. They’re more vulnerable, smaller, faster, with time moving more slowly (my birthday comes around so quickly these days). My wife recently introduced me to Delmore Schwartz’s “Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers,” whose first line is just that, and whose entirety you really, really need to read if you don’t already know it.

We might take this little poem, in its bizarre resistance to interpretation, as just that, a stranger.

Or we might do more with it, paying attention to its language, form (why the five-line stanza in the middle?), and vocabulary. What, if anything, would you do with it?

(on children and animals, see Jeffrey’s ancient blog post, since turned into an article, most recently reprinted here.

And for more on Villard de Honnecourt, see Haylie Swenson’s essay in postmedieval 4.3)

An Early Modern Child’s Drawing, in Melusine


While looking for a suitable illustration to help teach Geoffrey of Auxerre’s version of the Melusine story (n35 here for more), I ran across this, in Jean d’Arras’ prose Roman de Melusine, BnF fr. 1485:

That’s GREAT. I’m pretty sure this drawing’s escaped (for now) the attention of Erik Kwakkel, that indefatigable emissary for medieval manuscripts, though he has blogged on doodles, and even children’s doodles.
Please let me know if you’ve seen this before, and where. Google searches for child drawing Melusine or l’enfant dessin Melusine get me nothing useful. For now, we’ll just observe that this drawing, dating from, I guess, the late 16th or early 17th century, is all too appropriate in a story so concerned with lineage.
And, uh, dinosaurs and maces.
(parenthetically, because I’m far outside my expertise here, but I’ve been asked to explain why I think this is a child’s drawing. My stupid response is just that it looks like one. More considered, and even less expertly, I’d say that the elongation of limbs coupled with the enlargement of areas to accommodate detail (in this case, in clothing) that can’t be rendered finely with a child’s typically gross motor skills coupled (tripled?) with the complete indifference to the image’s interaction with the text just says child to me. But it could be Paul Klee too! If this touches on your field, hazard a guess in comments, please.)

The Wolf Child of Hesse: Walking and Not Walking with Wolves

dloAmid a fruitless search for a Dutch fish knight1, I accidentally discovered a wolf boy, the earliest, so I later read, of Northern Europe’s historical tales of feral children (p. 23). But you, being a medievalist, know that this is not quite so: you remember Wolfdeitrich and Guillaume de Palerne, perhaps less historical, but certainly much earlier; you may even remember two still earlier Northern medieval children, about whom more anon. Here’s our first child, from the continuation of the Chronicle of Peter of Erfurt:

Anno Domini MCCCIIII. Quidam puer in partibus Hassie est deprehensus. Hic, sicut postea cognitum est, et sicut ipse retulit, cum trium esset annorum, a lupis est captus et mirabiliter educatus. Nam, quamcumque predam lupi pro cibo rapuerant, semper meliorem partem sumentes at arbori circumcucientes ipsi ad vorandum tribuebant. Tempore vero hiemis et frigoris foveam facientes, folia arborum et alias herbas imponentes, puerum superponebant, et se circumponentes, sic eum a frigore defendebant; ipsum eciam manibus et pedibus repere cogebant et secum currere tamdiu, quod ex use eorum velocitatem imitabatur et saltus maximos faciebat. Hic deprehensus lignis circumligatis erectus ire ad humanam similitudinem cogebatur. Idem vero puer sepius dicebat se multo carius cum lupis, si in se esset, quam cum hominibus diligere conversari. Hic puer in curiam Heinrici principis Hassie pro spectaculo est allatus.

1304. A certain boy in the region of Hesse was seized. This boy, as was known afterwards, and just as the boy told it himself, was taken by wolves for three years and raised up wonderously. For, whatever prey the wolves snatched for food, they would take the better part and give it to him to eat while they lay around a tree. In the time of winter and cold, however, making a small pit, and picking up the leaves of trees and other plants, they placed them on the boy, and, putting themselves around him, they thus protected him from the cold; they also compelled him to creep on hands and feet and to run with them for a long time, from which practice he imitated their speed and was able to make the greatest leaps. When he was seized, he was bound with wood (?) to compel him to go erect in the manner of a human. However, this boy often said that he much preferred to live among wolves than among men. This boy was conveyed to the court of Henry, Prince of Hesse, for a spectacle. [EDIT @ 9.30.10, 12:19pm: THANKS! For translation help from the Chaucer Blogger himself, Brantley Bryant. You’re a true gentil]

Forgive the loose translation, and feel free to correct it; feel free as well to insist on the impossibility of such a thing, but know that “L.” in Notes and Queries beat you to it by a century and a half. Google book searches indicate that this story’s not unknown, but for whatever reason, it tends to be dated 1344, as it is here in an 1858 treatment of human reason by an abbot with the aptonym of Lupus. I suspect an early typo (the feral child website, however, avoids the error).

I’ve little to say here, except that I suspect I’ve opened an avenue for future research. For the time being, I present an earlier analog to the above story, from Caesarius of Heisterbach’s thirteenth-century Dialogus Miraculorum: we students first hear the monk speak of a girl kidnapped from her village by a wolf to pluck a bone from the throat of another wolf, and then we tell our own tale: “Ego quendam iuvenem vidi, qui in infantia a lupis fuerat raptus, et usque ad adolescentiam educatus, ita ut more luporum supra manus et pedes currere sciret, atque ululare” (I saw a certain youth who was snatched up by wolves as an infant and was raised by them into adolescence, and he knew how to run on hands and feet in the manner of wolves, and how to howl). We speak of this as if this is not a disability. It is not that he didn’t know how to walk or talk like a human; it’s that he can do these things like a wolf. He can do more than humans can.
And then see this, also from the thirteenth century, from the exempla of Jacques de Vitry.
A she-wolf stole and suckled some children; when, however, one of the children attempted to stand upright and walk, the wolf struck him on the head with her paw, and would not allow him to walk otherwise than like the beasts, on his hands and feet. (source; for the Latin, here)
It would be foolish to claim some pattern of development for this story from the early thirteenth to the early fourteenth century. It would be foolish–although it’s often been done–to claim a reality for these stories apart from the reality of storytelling. These are not, as some have claimed, autistic children, falsely believed to have been among wolves. They’re just stories, which is to say, they’re everything.

All we can do is to identify variations on a theme, and to observe that these variations speak of different ways of thinking through animality, childishness, and the wild. There’s one child. One or more wolves, who might be a lady wolf (Jacques de Vitry) or a man wolf (Guillaume de Palerne). The wolf/wolves raise the child, feeding it either with wolfmilk or with meat. In one instance, the wolves protect the child by providing it with clothing made of leaves, recalling both the humanist cliché on the fundamental helplessness and nakedness of humans and the clothing of the first sin, worn for a time in Eden. The child walks like a wolf, either willingly or unwillingly. The child’s lupine walking is either a disability (needing ‘correction’ from medical technology) or a skill that in no way impedes the child’s ability to walk upright. In one instance (that I’ve so far found), the child learns to howl (but we hear nothing of whether the child can bark). The child generally returns to human society. In only one instance (that I’ve so far found), the child tells its own story, and it’s one of regret over being back among humans.

There’s clearly a world of feral children reading for me! Looking forward.

(image from here, detail of New York, Columbia University, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary UTS MS 051, f. 143, Eustace standing in the middle of the river with the lion and the wolf on either side, each with one of Eustace’s sons in his mouth.)


1 Seriously:here’s where I stopped, in Vol. IV of Hans Kramer’s Weltall und Menschheit. Geschichte der Erforschung der Natur und der Verwendung der Naturkräfte. If you know the source for this claim of a 1305 discovery of this particular “meermannes,” you have my gratitude.

We Learned to Love the Hard Way / You’re Going to Learn it Too

One of the books I picked up at Kzoo was an anthology of hagiography and miracles by Aelred of Rivaulx, The Lives of Northern Saints. Here we can find his version of the life of Ninnian, stories of the miracles of the saints of Aelred’s ancestral home, Hexham, and what I present to you here, the miracle of the Nun of Watton.

Some of you, perhaps most, undoubtedly already know the story. Those of you who don’t, hold onto your cowls and grip your soft bits: a Gilbertine nun, admitted as an oblate somewhere around her fourth year (and we might better say: abandoned to the nuns by her father), never quite takes to the calling. No wonder: there’s doesn’t seem to have been any institutional support in this convent for oblates (see Boswell 310 n50). She grows up to be flirty, dirty-minded, and, inevitably, she gets mixed up with a fellow–a conversus (lay brother?) a canon?–who rapes her. Their relationship, such as it is, continues, and, when she discovers herself pregnant, the man runs off. She’s beaten, imprisoned, and fettered by her scandal-fearing sisters, who top the torture off by compelling her to betray her lover, such as he was. When he’s been captured, he’s brought before his lover, who–again, under compulsion–castrates him. After the sisters throw the bloody penis in the chained sister’s face, they drive the castrate out.

My summary leaves a lot out.

A list of the stranger bits, each of which merits more attention, maybe in your Fall courses:

  • The varying translation of one of the most shocking moments, “sicut foeda sanguine in ora peccatricis projecit”: the Cistercian Pub. version (trans Jane Patricia Freeland) reads “flung them as they were–foul and covered with blood–into the face of the sinful woman”; in an exuberant, outrageous stretch, Boswell does it as “foul and bloody just as they were, [one of them] stuck them in the mouth of the sinner”; and the Gutman, splitting the difference, does is as “threw them into the mouth”;
  • The conversus rapes the nun at first, covering her mouth “lest she cry out.” But the relationship continues, and the other nuns grow suspicious because of “the sound they often heard,” which is, presumably (?), the sound of pleasure. Yet when the pregnancy’s first revealed, the nuns are all amazed;
  • The punishments the sisters initially want to inflict on the pregnant nun sound shockingly like a précis of the typical delights of martyrdom: “Zeal immediately flamed up in their bones, and, looking at each other and striking their hands together, they rushed upon her, tearing the veil from her head. Some thought she ought to be given to the flames, others that she should be flayed alive, and others that she should be put on a stake to be burned over live coals” (115; Salih, 161, also makes this point);
  • Her lover is captured as follows: he returns to the grounds of Watton, which indicates that he had not entirely abandoned his lover; he rushes at what he thinks is her; it’s one of brothers of the community, disguised with a veil [irruit in virum quem feminam esse putabat], and, for his misdirected lust, he’s beaten and taken to what Aelred describes as a “spectaculum,” a show.

The actual miracle is, of course, not the Grand Guignol of the prison: the spectaculum is not the miraculum. The miracle is the salvation of the pregnant nun from producing another of what she was, an unwanted birth. Swollen with child in a cell scarcely able to contain her bulk, gray with exhaustion, she finds relief of a sort in a dream. Archbishop Henry Murdac of York, who had overseen her oblation, appears and berates her. Thanks a lot, Henry. On the next night, he appears again, this time accompanied by two women. Murdac covers her face with his pallium, and after a while, she sees the two women carrying an infant wrapped in white silk. She feels her belly, and it’s gone slack. A miracle!

I was reading this episode on one of my flights home from Kalamazoo, and, at the same time, was aware that Pope Benedict had just reaffirmed his church’s stance on birth control (for example, see here). With Benedict’s words in my mind, I had to ask: what happened to the fetus (or infant, or parasite, &c.) of Watton? Compare this story to another, somewhat similar story Boswell translates (459-60) in which the infant’s taken to “a certain hermit…who should bring the baby up in [the BVM’s] service.” We might also recall Marie de France’s “Lai de Fresne,” or the many stories of the abandoned child who should have stayed lost (see Oedipus and ff.) But in this story, here, the two women simply leave with the baby.

This miracle is not–apparently not–an abortion. The nuns accuse her of it, but she claims, rightly, that she doesn’t know what’s become of her infant. It’s alive, somewhere, maybe: but I wonder about the silk wrapping: as sideways as such a thought is, I can’t help but be reminded of funeral wrappings (and how might a child in 12th-c. Yorkshire be buried?), or of the folds of cloth holding souls in the lap of Abraham, which could function as a sort of antechamber for souls awaiting entry into paradise (see Le Goff, Birth of Purgatory 122).

At Watton, we have, on the one hand, a miracle of astonishing naivete: pushing past a fundamental contradiction, Aelred wants to condemn abortion while maintaining compassion for what his own condemnation causes, viz., the social and emotional catastrophe of forced pregnancy and unwanted children (represented here by the nun of Watton herself and what she carries). On the other hand, we should not simply sniff at Aelred’s compassion: is it simply that he wants the impossible, judicial judgment without violence (he explains “I praise not the deed but the zeal; I do not approve the shedding of blood, but I extol the fervor of the holy virgins against such infamy,” 117), or can we feel in his desire for the impossible, driven as it is in part by compassion, some possibility of the force of law opening up into something else? Might the law be dissolved by the mixture of Aelred’s tears with those of the pregnant oblate?

(Creative Commons photo from here)

Further Reading:
For the Latin: PL, vol 195:780-96
Other translations: John Boswell The Comfort of Strangers 452-58 (for a brief discussion, see 310)
O. Gutman in Carolyne Larrington, ed, Women and Writing in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook 128-33;
Other discussions Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England 152-65, which admirably treats the complexities of space in the story; and Giles Constable, “Ailred of Reivaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order,” in Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978): 205-226, which I read in my pre-database days and hence do not remember: did he write about double-monasteries and scandal?

The Child Gives Himself to the Wolf

A few months back, I heard Peter Travis give a talk, “Aesop’s Animots,” on a fable in which Aesop feeds a group of philosophers ox tongues. Along the way, Travis discussed The Silence of the Lambs, Aesop’s ugliness and muteness, the latter of which he overcame only in middle age, and the prevalence of corporeal punishment as a pedagogical technique. He also briefly gave his attention to a fable by Caxton in which a nurse threatens a crying child with being thrown to a wolf:

Men ought not to byleue on al maner spyrytes / As reherceth this fable of an old woman / which said to her child bicause that it wept / certeynly if thou wepst ony more / I shal make the to be ete of the wulf / & the wulf heryng this old woman / abode styll to fore the yate / & supposed to haue eten the old womans child / & by cause that the wulf had soo longe taryed there that he was hongry / he retorned and went ageyne in to the wood / And the shewulf demaunded of hym / why hast thow not brought to me some mete / And the wulf ansuerd / by cause / that the old woman hath begyled me / the whiche had promysed to me to gyue to me her child for to haue ete hym / And at the laste I hadde hit not /
And therfore men ought in no wyse to truste the woman / And he is wel a fole that setteth his hope and truste in a woman / And therfore truste them not / and thow shalt doo as the sage and wyse.

Our blog has considered children and animals before. JJC wrote:

As the Disney megacorporation realized long ago, and Katherine [kid #2] is realizing just now, animals teach children how to become human. They also provide kids with a temporary, imaginative escape from that burden.

Children readily identify with, sympathize with, and think through animals, especially talking animals: I grew up with Narnia, Watership Down, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, 101 Dalmations, The Rescuers, Charlotte’s Web, Peter Rabbit, and The Wind in the Willows. Assuming that this ready identification is transhistorical, fables no doubt worked so well for early education—Travis observed that fables were the second text children read, right after the Distichs of Cato—precisely because children want so much to listen to talking animals.

The fable of the nurse, the child, and the wolf is the first tale in Avianus’s collection, which was enormously popular in the Middle Ages (“Rustica [note this difference] deflenti parvo iuraverat olim, / ni tacaet, rapido quod foret esca lupo”); it ends with the same misogynist moral. Naturally enough, the collection of fables opens, as any classroom should, with a plea for silence. The crying child clearly stands in for a crying, complaining child, an uncompliant student who must calm down before he (likely a he) learns anything. By heeding the nurse, he’s heeding the analog for his teacher. But by doing so, he’s heeding someone whose gender–and/or class, if she’s a “rustica”–makes her untrustworthy (and besides, he’s imagining his teacher as a woman). Untrustworthy for whom? Not for the child, but for the (male) wolf, clearly the figure at whom the fable directs its moral: don’t trust women. If the child places himself in a position to receive the moral, he imagines himself as an animal. Not a problem, sort of, since this is what child should do with fables in order to allow them to work their pedagogical magic. But in identifying with the wolf, he imagines himself as something that wants to eat him.

The child can identify with the child and obey the “ni tacaet” of the nurse/rustica/teacher, even though this is what the moral tells him he shouldn’t do, or he can identify with (one of) the animal(s), which he must do to hear morality of fables as his, but in so doing, he imagines himself edible, desirable. He might even imagine himself an erotic object, if the male wolf is imagined as a frustrated suitor and the nurse as a common figure from the fabliaux, the star of a certain nasty Beatles song (on my mind only because my bedtime reading has been the Robbins translation of Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles: but, given the wolfwife, I’m pushing a bit too hard here). I had once thought that the collection started here to frustrate the child’s cathexis with animals to teach the child not to identify with animals so readily. Clearly not satisfactory. Here’s a interpretative knot, which I humbly present to you, blog-readers, for unraveling. Lend me your hands.


* A related question. Fables were a very popular medieval genre. We have major collections not only in the pseudonymous Ysopet tradition and the Avianus collection, but also collections by Babrius and Phaedrus (also pseudonymous?), Odo of Cheriton, Marie de France, Berechiah ha-Nakden, Walter of England, Lydgate, Robert Henryson, and no doubt some others I’m forgetting. There are also beast epics, like Ecbasis Captivi, Ysengrimus, and (amoral?) animals tales, like Ramon Llull’s Book of Beasts and the many Raynard the Fox stories. There’s also Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, which either participates in this tradition or sends it up or both. I can’t imagine this huge body of medieval animal literature was meant only for children. Certainly no child, and few adults, could read Ysengrimus‘s very difficult Latin. Yet at some point adults stopped telling animal stories to each other. When and why? Is this an actual break between the medievals and moderns (barring La Fontaine)? Certainly fables still get told between adults. Not often, but sometimes. Nonetheless, it strikes me that modern adult fabulists–Thurber, for instance–are putting us on, and part of the pleasure in reading Thurber comes in being in on the joke: the moral’s there, Thurber’s earnest (particularly in his anti-McCarthy fables, like “The Very Proper Gander”) but it’s almost as if he’s disavowing that earnestness. There’s also Animal Farm. I don’t want to offer up the medievals–excepting Chaucer as always–as unselfconscious (childlike?) consumers of fables, but perhaps that’s what I’m leading myself to do. So, again, when and why? Any suggestions short of, you know, finally reading Jan Ziolkowski and/or Annabel Patterson’s Fables of Power or returning to R. Howard Bloch’s chapters on Marie’s fables?

Ysopet-Avionnet: The Latin and French Texts. Kenneth McKenzie and William A. Oldfather, eds. University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 5. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1919.
Minimus the Mouse


Avianus isn’t a slasher film or pornography. Unlike these other kinds of work (which includes, well, just about every fiction that isn’t a fable), not only the genre but also the location of the fable in the Avianus collection demands (insists on? asks for?) pedagogical, moral identification. It has a moral, it’s an introduction to a set of works that, similarly (although perhaps less jarringly), have morals, and it’s meant to teach. It’s meant to be useful for teaching likely because children so readily identify with animals, which means, I think, we have to assume that in a fable with animals that the identification with animals is primary.* Finally, given its essential role in language instruction from the Carolingian era on, it a work that likely numbers among, say, the top 10-most read works in the Middle Ages. In other words, it’s essential that I get it: but I don’t.

For example, the fable “de rustico et bove” (a rare one, but it appears in Marie), in which an overworked, sweaty ox complains about being compelled to take its own dung (out of its barn?). The peasant points out that since the ox is responsible for its own shit, it shouldn’t pain him to carry it out (“Respondit Homo : Interrogo te quis istum fimum congessit. Bos ait : Congessi ego, ego illum pedibus conculcavi. Propterea, inquit Dominus, quia fetiditatem congessisti, non te pigeat eam laboriose extrahere.”). The moral is one against wicked servants blaming their masters for their suffering. I have no idea how to take this (although I do think it interesting to track the identifications of the peasant: first he’s a rustico, then dominus, homo, then finally dominus again)

BUT Hate to keep talking to myself on this, but it just came to me that this angle doesn’t work. Let’s assume that fables become central in pedagogy c. 800. Yet adults continue telling animal stories to each other for, oh, another 700 years (at least). There doesn’t seem to be any perceived puerility in telling animal stories (or am I wrong on this? Am I forgetting something key? I’d have to check the openings of the various works I mentioned above + the Speculum Stultorum, which I’d forgotten). Given my irritation with periodicity, I hate to think I’ve stumbled across an actual discursive difference between the Middle Ages and now: but I think I might have. – See more at:

– See more at:

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