BMCR 2022.06.40


, Ysengrimus. Sammlung Tusculum. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. 516. ISBN 9783110663150 $68.99.

The use of animals to illustrate human virtues and vices goes back in the Latin European tradition to Antiquity. The Aesopic fables became early popular among the Romans in the fables of Phaedrus and never stopped being read and emulated. Although its direct sources are still disputed, Ysengrimus, a long satirical narrative (of over 6,500 verses) that seems out of a Tex Avery cartoon, was thus based on an already long and respectable literary tradition.

In Ysengrimus we follow the sufferings and hardships of the title character, a voracious and greedy wolf who is always ready to deceive and swallow his fellow creatures, in his clashes with his nephew Reinardus, a foxy fox whose only purpose in life is to make a fool of his uncle. Its episodic structure can be summarized as follows:

1. Reinardus helps Ysengrimus to steal bacon in exchange for a morsel, but the wolf eats it all and leaves the fox only the rope that tied the meat.
2. Reinardus’s guile causes Ysengrimus to be beaten by villagers and to have his tail cut off in an ill-fated fishing expedition.
3. Reinardus causes Ysengrimus to be crushed by four sheep while trying to repair his damaged skin.
4. Reinardus pretends to be a doctor and convinces an ailing lion king that he will only be healed by covering himself with the skin of a three-and-a-half-year-old wolf, causing Ysengrimus to be flayed alive.
5. At the lion king’s request, a wild boar begins telling of the past adventures of Reinardus and Ysengrimus, versified by Bruno the Bear. These adventures included a. the fight between the wolves and the other animals in an inn, b. the time Reinardus was tricked by a rooster, and c. the episode in which Ysengrimus became a monk in order to eat all the viands of a monastery, and to drink all the wine in its cellar, and was beaten by the other monks.
6. Ysengrimus is fooled and kicked by a horse whose hide he was trying to steal, and head-butted by a ram he had tried to devour.
7. Ysengrimus is once again flayed (his skin has grown back) after sharing in equal parts a hunted animal between himself, the lion king, and Reinardus.
8. Ysengrimus is tricked by a donkey and needs to cut off his own paw to escape a trap.
9. A sow convinces Ysengrimus to bite her ear in order to have him killed and eaten by her vengeful kin. Reinardus hypocritically mourns the death of his opponent.

Filled with cartoonish violence and impossibilities (the only attack with “real” consequences is the final one, that ends with the wolf’s death), the narrative resembles the comic clashes between Coyote and Roadrunner, or Tom and Jerry.

Although only five manuscripts have transmitted the complete poem (to which ten florilegia can be added), Ysengrimusenjoyed an enormous indirect critical fortune for having provided (with the Isopet, a medieval collection of Aesopic fables) much of the subject matter of Roman de Renart, a French poem from the thirteenth century translated into other vernacular tongues in the Middle Ages.[1] Countless other translations and adaptations followed over the centuries.[2]

Ysengrimus appears to have been composed in the mid-twelfth century by a cleric from the region of Ghent. The date is conjectured from internal references to two monks who ascended the Catholic hierarchy — Bishop Anselm of Tournai (bishop in 1146-1149), known for “never stealing more than there was to be stolen”, and Pope Eugenius III (pope in 1145-1153), who loved gold above all else. Another indication is the lament of the sow who has the ear eaten for the disaster of the Second Crusade (1147-1148). Thus, the most probable date of composition seems to be 1148 or 1149. The arguments in favor of the location are textual as well — the poem’s geography agrees with that of Ghent. It should be noted also that the name Ysengrimus seems to derive from the Old Dutch ysen-grin (“fierce as iron”).

A copy of the Florilegium Gallicum (from the fourteenth century)[3] names the author as Nivardus (“Magister Nivardus de Ysengrino et Reinardo”); another copy, as Bernardus (“Proverbia Bernardi”); two references, on the other hand, say his name was Balduinus Cecus. Finally, some associate him with Bruno the Bear, who becomes a narrator in 3.1194. Whatever the correct hypothesis, it would provide us with a name and no more — we know nothing about a Nivardus (or Bernardus, or Balduinus, or Bruno) of Ghent.

Michael Schilling’s bilingual edition of Ysengrimus joins the recent ones by Jill Mann (1987, 2013) which, joined with Élisabeth Charbonnier’s (1991) and Mark Nieuwenhuis’ (1997) translations, ended a hiatus of almost a century (broken only by Schönfelder in 1955) of disinterest in the poem.[4] Its number of editions is still small, even more so if compared to those of the Roman de Renart, but it points nonetheless to a renewed interest in this masterpiece of medieval literature.

Schilling’s is not an editio maior (the Latin verses are published without a critical apparatus and reproduce with minimal variations those of Voigt’s 1884 edition,[5] to whom Schilling pays a due deference), but it is very well produced and will certainly be appreciated by German-speaking readers, who can now access the wolf and fox’s adventures through a faithful and elegant translation.

The introduction (Einführung, pp. 9-34), although not very extensive, is quite informative — it deals with various aspects of the poem (author, place and time of composition, structure, themes, narrative forms, aspects of the comic in the poem, critical fortune and influence) and briefly explains his procedures of edition and translation. Text and German translation (Text und Übersetzung), in facing pages, occupy most of the book (pp. 35-481), and are followed by exegetical notes (Erläuterungen, pp. 483-508) and a substantial bibliography (Literaturverzeichnis, pp. 509-513) that, however, fails to mention Charbonnier’s French translation and Mann’s second bilingual edition (see note 4).[6] The exegetical notes vary widely in intent and scope — sometimes they are simple references to other titles with a cf.; sometimes they provide linguistic information (changes of meaning in relation to classical Latin; the existence of certain proverbial formulas, etc.) or historical-cultural data related to the text; sometimes they assume the form of philological discussions; sometimes they reproduce relatively long passages absent from some of the manuscripts. Although enlightening, the absence of indications in the body of the text causes some difficulty in accessing them, presented as they are as an attachment after the verses; but this arrangement seems to have been decided not by Schilling, but by the Tusculum general editors, since it can be observed in other titles of the series.

We have compared Schilling’s Latin text with that of Voigt in some random passages, and we can attest to the fidelity with which the present edition follows the previous one. The main differences found were of spelling standardization according to the so-called classical rules[7] (e.g. silua → silva, michi → mihi, Ieiunis → Ieiuniis, Phisicaque → Physicaque, strennuitate → strenuitate, quęreret → quaereret, Pręuisusque → Praevisusque); we have also detected the following variants in relation to Voigt: the use of est instead of es in 3.252, of oculus instead of culus in 6.324, and of sceleris and doli instead of scieris and dolet in 7.524. We have noticed differences in punctuation only in the verses 440, 700, and 775-776 of book 3, 319 and 403 of book 4, 563 and 1044 of book 5, 461 of book 6, and 300 of book 7.

Special mention should be made of verses 5.818.1-18, in which Ysengrimus’ wife is raped by Reinardus. They present a complicated manuscript transmission, for only one of the testimonies (ms. B) copies all of them, between verses 817 and 818, while three others copy only verses 818.1-4, 7-8, and 11-14, between verses 814 and 815, and a fifth (ms. A) omits them entirely. Voigt (pp. 305-306) presented philological arguments to consider them interpolated, although also noting, with RF (= Mone’s 1832 Reinhart Fuchs?), that the Latin lupa (“she-wolf”) possessed as a secondary meaning “harlot”. In mentioning Voigt’s opinion, Mann (2013, p. 495) calls our attention also to “the regrettable medieval myth that women can enjoy rape once it is in progress”, but this was not universally accepted (cf. e.g. Christine de Pizan, mainly the chapter 2.44 of her Cité des Dames). Schilling speculates that the “scribe of A possibly omitted the passage because of its sexual content and because he believed that the description of the locus amoenus and of the ambiguous ludere (V, 812, 819) describe the event with sufficient clarity” (p. 501), and so he printed these verses with their translation in the notes (pp. 500-501).

This translation of the Latin poem — composed of couplets alternating hexameter and pentameter meters — is in prose, presumably following the goal of the Tusculum series, to guarantee a wider access to the text, reaching also lay readers and those who are still starting their studies of medieval Latin literature. In some passages, a more fluid and uniform translation into German is evident when compared to the Latin original:

     Deniqui completis omnibus iste venit,
Utque videt torquem, quo vinctum fumida tergum
Tegula sustulerat, ›pars mea‹, clamat, ›ubi est?‹
Clamanti monachus ›frater, temere exigis‹, inquit . . .‹  (I, vv. 454-7)

Endlich, als alles zu Ende gebracht war, kam Reinhard. Als er das Band sah, mit dem das Hinterteil am Räucherdach aufgehängt gewesen war, rief er: ›Wo ist mein Anteil?‹ Auf das Geschrei antwortete der Mönch: ›Bruder, du forderst ohne Grund . . .‹ (p. 67)[8]

We can highlight the differences, subtle and in no way compromising, between videt (‘he sees’, in the narrative present) and er sah (“he was seeing”, “he saw”, in the Präteritum); and inquit (“he says”, present tense) — a defective and extremely frequent verba dicendi employed to mark the characters’ speeches — and antwortete (“he answered” “he was answering”, also in the Präteritum). In another passage — “Patrue”, ductor ait, “cum plena crepuscula mundum / Induerint, coeptum perficiemus iter . . .” (vv. 653-4) — induerint, a beautiful image for the twilight as an adornment that dresses the world, is translated as hereinbrechen (“supervene, fall over, break in”, p. 79), perhaps because it is unpalatable as a metaphor in German.[9]


[1] For example, Heinrich der Glichesaere’s Îsengrines nôt (“Isengrin’s tribulation”, c. 1180) and Rainaldo e Lesengrino (written in a mix of French and Venetian, c. fourteenth century). Rainaldo e Lesengrino, a cura di Anna Lomazzi. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki Ed., 1972.

[2] In 1959, to cite a single example of an adaptation to other media, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo were planning a comic adaptation of Renart for the first issue of the Pilote magazine, when they learned that Jean Trubert was already publishing his own comic story in the concurrent Bravo. Desperate for an alternative and without much time, they ended up creating Asterix instead.

[3] Preserved in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek of Berlin, ms. Diez. B. Santen 60

[4] The editions/translations of Ysengrimus found by us published so far, in addition to Schilling’s, are:
1. Reinhart Fuchs aus dem neunten und zwölften Jahrhundert / Reinardus Vulpes: carmen epicum seculis IX et XII conscriptum, ed. Franz Joseph Mone. Stuttgart; Tübingen: 1832.
2. Ysengrimus, ed. Ernst Voigt. Halle: 1884.
3. Isengrimus, ed./transl. Albert Schönfelder. Münster; Köln: 1955.
4. Ysengrimus by Magister Nivardus, transl. F. J. Sypher & Eleanor Sypher. New York: 1980.
5. Ysengrimus: Text with Translation, Commentary and Introduction, ed. Jill Mann. Leiden: 1987.
6. Le Roman d’Ysengrin, transl. Élisabeth Charbonnier. Les Belles Lettres, 1991.
7. Ysengrimus, transl. Mark Nieuwenhuis. Amsterdam: 1997.
8. Ysengrimus, ed./transl. Jill Mann. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2013.

[5] See note 4, item 2. Voigt’s edition can be read online from a number of webpages, including Google Books and the Internet Archive.

[6] A sample of Mann’s first edition can be found on Google Books.

[7] The titles published within the Tusculum series adapt, as a rule and whenever possible, the medieval spelling to that consecrated by the teaching tradition of classical Latin, in order to reach a larger reading public, more accustomed to this spelling.

[8] This is how Mann (2013, p. 33) translates the same passage: « Finally when everything is over this fellow turns up, and as he sees the loop by which the smoky roof had held the tied-up haunch, he cries out “Where’s my bit?” The monk replies to his cry: “Brother, your demand is rashly made . . .”»

[9] It is apparently unpalatable in English as well, for Mann equally translates it as “has fallen on” (2013, p. 47).