Wolf Child of Hesse: State of the Research

wolf child 2A little more than a month ago, I put up a little post about the Wolf Child of Hesse. I’m talking about this material twice in the next month, first, this Friday at the CUNY Grad Center at 2pm, in the third annual Pearl Kibre Medieval Study Roundtable on New Directions in Medieval Scholarship; then I’ll revise madly based on that discussion, and present the research again at Barnard on December 4, at the The Twenty-Second Barnard Medieval and Renaissance Conference: Animals and Humans in the Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, where I’ll be the very junior member of a roundtable discussion with Aranye Fradenberg, Sarah Stanbury, and Julian Yates. Here’s a piece of what I have currently.

To recap: one of the several anonymous continuations of the Chronicle of St Peter of Erfurt tells the story of a boy snatched away and raised by wolves:

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 et arbori circumcucientes [nb: “circumiacientes”] 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 when he was three years old and raised up wonderously. For, whatever prey the wolves snatched for food, they would take the better part and divide it up for him to eat while they lay around a tree. In the time of winter and cold, they made a small pit, and they put the leaves of trees and other plants in it, and surrounded the boy to protect 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.

The heterogeneous Erfurt Chronicle includes another such story, that of the child of Wetterau:

Anno Domini MCCCXLIIII. quidam puer a lupis deportatus in Wederavia in una villa nobilium, que dicitur Eczol, qui puer XII annis cum lupis erat in magna silva, que dicitur vulgariter dy Hart. Hic puer isto anno tempore hyemis in nive in vanacione captus [fuerat] a nobilibus ibidem morantibus, et vixit forte ad LXXX annos.

In 1344, a certain boy, taken by wolves in Wetterau in an estate named Eczol, who was with the wolves for twelve years in a great forest called the Hart. This boy was captured during winter in the snow by nobles who were in the area for hunting, and he lived for 80 years.

The Erfurt historiographical material tends not to list marvels; instead, it tends towards records of catastrophic weather, accounts of struggles between nobles or between nobles and the papacy, and depressingly many accounts of pogroms attempted forced conversions (and mass suicides), and ritual murder/Host desecration accusations. It does not often speak of wolves: it has two records of a attack in 1271 in which wolves eschewed sheep and instead devoured 30 men and a legend of the fleeing Nero, dead in the woods of hunger and thirst, whose corpse wolves ate. It’s therefore strange to find the wild children stories here rather than in, say, William of Malsmesbury.

The Erfurt wolf children stand out even more in comparison to medieval historiography as a whole. It’s a habit of writers on wild children to compile lists (see for example Lucienne Strivay’s Enfants Sauvages: Approches Anthropologiques (Paris 2006) and Michael P. Carroll, The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories” Journal of Folklore Research 21.1 (1984): 63-85). Per these lists, these two children are virtually the only medieval examples. Procopius’s history of the Gothic War speaks of an abandoned infant raised by a goat, and several post-medieval works cite medieval sources; but, barring the dubiously medieval work of Procopius, the Erfurt material furnishes the only two actual examples in medieval historiography (perhaps this is why there’s basically nothing in wild children in medieval scholarship?). Given the many wild children recorded in Greco-Roman myth and, especially, the many from the seventeenth century on, the medieval rarity is especially odd. This rarity suggests a shift in modern thought concerning children, their humanity, and their dressage/education: I’m content however to leave the archaeological investigations to others.

At least since the tenth edition (1758) of C. Linnaeus’s Systema naturae marked Homo sapiens ferus as one of the sub-categories of Homo sapiens, discussions of wild children have concentrated on the absolute limits of the human: what minimal degree of socialization does the human require? And what does this suggest about the (pre)historical point at which humans separated themselves from irrational beasts? Is it possible to conceive the leap from homo infans to rational humanity? The Erfurt material, however, lacks several elements of what would become typical to such stories: we don’t have a single female animal, but a heterogeneous pack; the children, not dying soon after their capture (like the Green Children of Woolpit) survive into adulthood; not deprived of language, the Hesse-child speaks of his own experience; they can eat “human” food (again, unlike the Green Children of Woolpit); and their bodies have not quite transformed into animal forms (the eyes of the famous Amala and Kamala, for example, supposedly glowed in the dark). The Erfurt material, particularly the more developed first story, concerns something other than the transformation of prehistoric to historical humanity, colonial encounters, autism, or whatever other fortunes the story has had from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

What the medieval material particularly concerns I must begin to determine by Friday. Not least of all it’s about the uncertain boundaries of the human (for such discussion, see H. Peter Steeves), even if these boundaries are not conceived of historically. It’s also obviously about posture (something I cover at length in my forthcoming book on animals). The Hesse/Wetterau wolf children should also be read with other medieval stories of children snatched by wolves and other animals: my previous post cites exempla by Jacques de Vitry and Caesarius of Heisterbach. I must also cite the romance of William of Palerne and the Wolfdietrich legend (and works it influenced, including the Helgi-Lay and the Irish story of Cormac), and the medieval afterlife of the Romulus and Remus legend (about which I currently know little); maybe I could even dragoon Isumbras into the discussion, or the legend of Saint Eustace, given that he temporarily loses a child to wolves, or legends of hairy saints promulgated at least since shepherds first mistook Benedict for an animal. I’ll also have to remember the name of this medieval story about a spurned child that learns to run with deer.

As of this afternoon, I’m struck by the varying uses of the woods, used by the wolves to protect the(ir) child, and by humans to correct. I’m struck by the lupine honor the child receives, which, to give the simplest possible answer, suggests the prelapsarian (or Messianic) state of human dominion over animals in the peaceable kingdom (see David Salter for more on this). I am most struck by the violenceof the Hesse-child story. The account’s first sentence has child “deprehensus” (seized), by either wolves or humans; he is “captus” (captured) by the wolves, and then “deprehensus” (again?)when he’s taken back to live among humans. The wolves “rapuerant” (snatch) prey, and they “cogebant” (compell) him to go on hands and feet, just as he “cogebatur” (is compelled) to walk upright in the likeness of a human. What is this substance that is being worked over first by wolves and then by humans? What, if anything, is being stolen and cherished and trained and gawked at, amid the wolves and the wood and Henry’s court?

And what it is that the adult wants when he wishes he were back among the wolves? This is the big question, and the hardest to answer. We’ll see what I come up, but, in the meantime, suggestions are enthusiastically encouraged.

(modified 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.)

Ailbe’s Wolf Mother

3274827794_224bd397f0I stumbled across a great story from the lives of the Irish saints, too great to keep to myself much longer. It goes like this:

Olenais, who belongs to the household of the chief of Ara Cliach, impregnates Sanclit, one of the chief’s serving-maid, and flees, fearing execution. He should have feared for his child. When Sanclit gives birth, the chief tells his servants to kill him, but, inspired (rather poorly I think) by the Holy Spirit, the servants just abandon the boy under a stone; and the stone is honored even today in his name, which is, namely, Albei. Here’s the rest in Latin:

Sub petra autem eadem fera lupa habitabat, que sanctum puerum valde admauit, et quasi mater tenera inter suos catulos leniter eum nutriuit.

Quadam autem die cum illa fera bestia ad querendum victum in silius vagasset, quidam vir, nomine Loch’h’anus filius Lugir, naturali bono perfectus, videns sub petra illa puerum inter catulos, extraxit et secum ad domum suam portauit; statimque fera reuertens, et puerum absentem cernens, cum magno anelitu velociter secuta est eum. Cumque Lochanus domui sue appropinquasset, fera tenuit pallium eius, et non dimisit eum donec vidit puerum. Tunc Lochanus ad feram dixit: ‘Vade in pace; iste puer nunquam amplius erit inter lupos, set apud me manebit.’ Tunc fera illa, lacrimans et rugiens, ad speluncam suam tristis reuersa est.

But a certain wild wolf lived under the stone. She very much loved the holy child, and like a tender mother raised him gently among her whelps.

But on a certain day when this wild beast was wandering the forest seeking prey, a certain man, named Loch’h’anus son of Lugir, by nature excellent and good, saw a boy among the whelps underneath the stone, and removed him and carried him to his home; and the wolf turned back at once, and seeing that the boy was gone, followed after him quickly with great anelitu [help!]. And when she neared the home of Lochanus, she took hold of his cloak, and would not let him go until she saw the boy. Then Lochanus said to her, “Go in peace; this boy will not be among wolves any more but will remain with me.” Then this wild beast, crying and moaning, returned to her cave in sadness. [Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, Vol. I, p. 46, an edition I’m using because the Heist edition isn’t available online]

Oh, weeper: wait! There’s a happy ending, because they meet again (page 62-63).

Quodam tempore homines illius regionis, id est Arath, cum suo duce venacionem fecerunt, ut lupos a finibus suis repellerent. Vna autem lupa direxit cursum suum ad locum in quo erat Albeus; et, sequentibus eam equitibus, posuit capud suum in sinu sancti Albei. Albei vero dixit ei: “Ne timeas; quia non solum tu liberaberis, set catuli tui venient ad te incolumes.” Et ita factum est. Et ait Albeus, “Ego apud vos nutritus sum in infancia; et bene fecisti, quia in senectute mea venisti ad me. Nam ante me cotidie ad mensam panem commedetis, et nemo nocebit vobis” Ita lupi cotidie veniebant ad sanctum Albeum, et commedebant ante eum; et postea reuertebantur ad loca sua. Et nemo nocebat illis; nec ipsi nocebant alicui.

In that time the men of that region, which is Araid, went hunting with their lord, to drive the wolves from their borders. And one wolf directed her course to the place where Albei was; and, with horses chasing her, she put her head in Albei’s lap. Albei said to her, “Fear not; for not only will I free you, but your whelps shall return to you unharmed.” And so it was done. And Albei said, “I was raised among you as a child; and you did well to come to me in your old age. For you will eat bread with me at my table, and no one will hurt you.” And that day the wolves came to Saint Albei, and they ate with him; and afterwards, they went back to their place. And no one hurt them; and they hurt no one.

(For a symbolic approach to these tales, see Dominic Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages p. 79 and 78. I’ll just note that stories of Irish saints and animals are not at all uncommon, but this one stands out for its nurturing wolf, its mother-love, and its final reciprocity that lends continuity to a life that’s otherwise just a jumble of missionary miracles. I wouldn’t be so quick to assimilate Ailbe’s wolfmother either to vestigial (and very hypothetical) pagan deities [as did Plummer] or to any other reading that erases the singularity of this love, or indeed the singularity of love wherever it happens. Here as elsewhere love’s singularity matters more than species)

The connection between this c. 800 story (per Richard Sharpe) and the story of the Wolf Child of Hesse is of course thinner than tenuous. So far as I know, only 3 mss of this vita survive, and I don’t know where else Ailbe’s story gets told. If I were still a betting man, I’d suggest that the story is further evidence of the well-attested early medieval interconnections between Irish and “German” monasteries. Perhaps some early version of the Wolfdietrich legend made its way to Ireland? Perhaps the Ailbe story made its way to, say, Erfurt or Hesse? A hunt like this is way outside the scope of a paper that’s already overflowing its wordcount, but if someone knows off hand where to check, say, a catalog of the medieval library of St Peter of Erfurt
Coming soonish: a story from Albertus Magnus that sounds VERY much like my Hessian Wolf Child story.

The Wolf Child of Hesse Betrays the Human: AVMEO Preview

dlo 3The story goes like this:

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 [alternately: est raptus] et mirabiliter educatus. Nam, quamcumque predam lupi pro cibo rapuerant, semper meliorem partem sumentes et arbori circumiacientes 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 when he was three years old and raised up wondrously. For, whatever prey the wolves snatched for food, they would take the better part and allot it to him to eat while they lay around a tree. In the time of winter and cold, they made a pit, and they put the leaves of trees and other plants in it, and surrounded the boy to protect 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 (or “in a human likeness”). 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.

I have a lot to say about this, primarily, as you might gather from my talk’s title, about the postures the boy takes on and what this says about various ways of being in the world. I talk about the story’s recognition of the boy as not quite passive and not quite active, about it’s just failing to find a “middle voice.” I condemn the “happiness script,” the “straightening device” (see Sara Ahmed The Promise of Happiness, 91) the adult humans use to disorient the boy from the world and to orient him towards an unchanging heaven. I don’t, however, want simply to cheer the boy being down in the muck with the wolves and to scorn the humans for being so intent on protecting their humanity. It’s not so easy as that. Something is at stake in the boy’s time with the wolves; something is at stake in our stances. I am trying, hesitantly, to get at something that’s no doubt been discussed many, many times: the ethical stakes of horizontalist ontologies (to my mind, treated unsatisfyingly here, Vibrant Matter, 104).

What follows, then, is a sneak preview of the current state of the last paragraphs of my talk before the conclusion. If you’d like to argue, argue in comments, or hold your fire till Friday:

The wolves give the child the meliorem partem, the better part of the prey. The Hesse story might be read as one among several medieval stories of children suckled by carnivores, which themselves suggest the prelapsarian (or Messianic) state of human dominion over animals in the peaceable kingdom: just as the lion will lay down with the lamb, so too will human infants lay down with wolves. In this understanding, the child’s innocence protects it, and his longing to be back among the wolves may belong to his wish to abandon his humiliated position in the corrupt world into which he’s been cast.We might decide, however, not to read the service the wolves do the boy as representing the honor they owe him as a human, but rather as representing the cherishing the wolves give the boy as a child or, for that matter, as a cub. He gets the best because he needs more. They acknowledge the different precarities between wolf and boy. We might call what they do a more responsible way of being in the world than the ways we watch the humans follow. To protect the boy, the wolves use what trees and other plants throw off; the human technocrats use wood, kill trees, treating the world as only as a set of objects made for human needs. This is a nice contrast, but I’d rather come at that meliorem partem some other way by not forgetting that it is meat. For the boy to be fed, something had to die.

What does it mean to be a companion, or more precisely, concarnian in the woods with wolves; what does it mean to be their messmate? Haraway uses this word often in When Species Meet, for example,

the ecologies of significant others involves messmates at table, with indigestion and without the comfort of teleological purpose from above, below, in front, or behind. This is not some kind of naturalistic reductionism; this is about living responsively as mortal beings where dying and killing are not optional. (74)

Wolves appear rarely in the Erfurt chronicle material, but when they do, they eat people. The chronicle twice (here and here) speaks of an attack in 1271 in which wolves eschewed sheep and instead devoured 30 men, and once mentions a legend of the emperor Nero, who, as some say, fled Rome and succumbed to hunger and thirst in a forest, after which wolves ate his corpse (here). Note too that one manuscript of the Hesse story has the child raptus, not captus, by wolves, which then rapuerant their prey: snatching this child is like snatching any meat. For whatever reasons, something about this young meat strikes them differently; but the story does not forget that when wolves grab a human, they grab it–almost always–to eat it.

This may be a stretch: but if we take melior as not describing the portion size or the cut but as the quality, we might understand the meliorem partem as better than their usual run of meat: not sheep, but perhaps human flesh, better than animal flesh because of its purported great savor and nutritiousness, per any number of medieval imaginations of anthropophagy. I’m reminded of the fifteenth-century hunting manual of Edward of York, which observes that “man’s flesh is so savory and so pleasant that when [wolves] have taken to man’s flesh they will never eat the flesh of other beasts, though they should die of hunger.” I’m reminded, too, of a story I heard on Radiolab, where Barbara Smuts tells about her time among the baboons. Abandoning the pretensions of being only an observing subject among animal objects, she learns to sit like a baboon, to sound like one, and though a vegetarian, she finds herself salivating when she witnesses the baboon troop kill and dismember a young gazelle. She feels this as an encounter with her heritage; we might call it a different way of being in the world; we might also recognize that such differences frame our world differently, remaking certain parts as grievable and others not. Choices will be made, and Smuts’ remapped salivary glands choose to betray both her vegetarianism and the gazelle.

Likewise, during his time with the wolves, how has the boy betrayed his humanity? How has he betrayed us? What has been the result of his disalignment from the noble hunters who enter the woods in their own way, imagining their own flesh to be not for eating, who kill some animals to eat, and kill others—wolves—as competitors, with the help of their own domesticated wolves?

(modified 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.)

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.

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.

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* 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?

Texts
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: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2007/02/child-gives-himself-to-wolf.html#sthash.PYnJcMHc.dpuf

– See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2007/02/child-gives-himself-to-wolf.html#sthash.PYnJcMHc.dpuf

– See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2007/02/child-gives-himself-to-wolf.html#sthash.PYnJcMHc.dpuf