Ysengrimus: prophetic beast epic in vital medieval Latin literature

Latin bear scholar

Ysengrimus ambled into a plush office on the top floor of the magnificent, Collegiate Gothic admin building. To be admitted into Fox College as a documented student, Ysengrimus needed Provost Renlarda to place her snout-print on the form PM-6 Petition for Non-Vixen Admittance. A college degree is key to a better job. Education is an investment in the future. Through lectures students learn how to learn. With 35% more females forest-wide graduating from college, Ysengrimus hoped that Fox College would relax its long-standing policy of not admitting males. But another large, hairy difficulty loomed. Ysengrimus was a bear. All of the documented students at Fox College were vixens. Diversity is the thread that unites us. A wolf can learn from a fox. A male can learn from a female. Striving mightily not to growl and be frightening, Ysengrimus sucked in his lower groin and attempted a relatively high-pitched grovel.

“Provost Renlarda, you are most gracious to allow me to plead to you. Fox College is the oldest and most prestigious college in the forest. Your students are famous for being well-endowed. My father spent his life rummaging in garbage cans for food. Please give me the opportunity to study medieval Latin literature at Fox College.”

Provost Renlarda herself taught Fox College’s acclaimed course in medieval Latin literature. She looked at Ysengrimus warily.

“Why, pray tell, do you want to study medieval Latin literature?” said she.

“My ex-wife evicted me from our cave with a mendaciously procured domestic violence restraining order. An owl comforted me one cold night by telling me that if I had studied Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum, I wouldn’t be sleeping out in the cold.”

“What does that have to do with philology?” Provost Renlarda barked in response.

“I’ve never met Philology, but an ant-eater told me that she’s lovely, and that I should study the Marriage of Gynecology and Hercules. But I don’t know medieval Latin. I don’t understand it.” Even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. Not knowing is true knowledge. Fear of death is unreasonable.

“I don’t understand, either,” Provost Renlarda scornfully responded. She stared at Ysengrimus. He nervously pawed the chair. After a few silent, tense minutes, the need to preserve an appearance of non-discrimination drifted into Provost Renlarda’s consciousness. Perhaps she should document that Ysengrimus was unqualified for admittance.

“Tell me how female goddesses created the cosmos, as set forth in Bernardus Silvestris’s Cosmographia,” demanded Provost Renlarda.

“I’m sure that’s who created the world. But … I’ve never read the Cosmographia,” said Ysengrimus.

“Are you aware of the Ruling Sisters’ instructions on being a novus homo and the Edenic future of reproduction without male seed? Do you identify as a homo?”

The bear sheepishly lowered his head and glanced between his legs. “Let me tell you the story of King Janaysar, a human man, and his son Budasf. King Janaysar sought to protect Budasf from all the dangers and temptations of the world. He had his son educated in institutions that strictly controlled students’ speech and comprehensively regulated students’ personal associations. Budasf thus grew up knowing nothing about women. One day as a young man, Budasf inadvertently saw a young woman.  ‘What is that wonderful creature?’ he asked his father. ‘That’s a demon. When you see such a demon, run the other way as fast as you can.’ ‘No, no, father,’ the son replied, ‘that’s a lovely demon. I want to press myself against that demon and laugh with it.’ An old bear explained to me that the moral of this fable is that you can expel nature with bared teeth, but it will always come back again.”

“That’s just silly folk wisdom,” said Provost Renlarda. “Medieval Latin literature is rooted in the classics. Do you know about the heroic female warrior Penthesileia? She would have won the Trojan War for the Trojans if a man hadn’t killed her in a terrible act of violence against women. So makes clear Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis. Of course, the Trojans weren’t worthy of a true woman hero. Aeneas showed little concern for his mother. Tell me, what do you know about Aldrada’s heroic stroke against patriarchal oppression?”

“I confess, I’m bearishly ignorant. I once met an old bear dying slowly with his foot caught in a trap. He pitifully wheezed that he had always lacked guile. He said that he should have learned from the story of Galo. That story, he said, had been handed down from bear to bear since the twelfth century. That was the last time that a bear was welcomed among scholars to study medieval Latin literature. No bear has tasted such honey since then. I want to know the story of Galo. I want to be the first bear to study medieval Latin literature since the twelfth century.”

Provost Renlarda crinkled her forehead. Liberal arts education presents the eternal experience of being human. Through literature students personally encounter the most fashionable authors from marginalized groups of prominent concern. Students need to interact with persons who look and think like themselves. Provost Renlarda had been the first obese female fox with grey hair to be appointed to lead a liberal arts college for vixens since more than a year ago. The previous first was Salaura, a Chaucer specialist appointed to head a neighboring college fifteen months ago. Provost Salaura had resigned under pressure when students complained that Chaucer’s English made them feel uncomfortable and Salaura refused to provide modern English translations. Since Renlarda specialized in medieval Latin literature, there would be no controversy over the need to provide English translations. That shrewd reasoning by the Board of Trustees helped Renlarda to squash her competitors for the provost position at Fox College. She thus became the first obese female fox with grey hair to be appointed to lead a liberal arts college for vixens since more than a year ago.

Despite grave misgivings, Provost Renlarda granted in part Ysengrimus’s petition. Through lectures students learn how to learn. Ignorance is more expensive than education. Education is necessary to ensure the correct functioning of democracy. Provost Renlarda snout-printed Ysengrimus’s PM-6 Petition for Non-Vixen Admittance, but with the restriction that he be admitted only for a semester, and only for the purpose of vital learning in medieval Latin literature. After making that annotation, she handed the form back to Ysengrimus.

eager Ysengrimus

The first lecture of Renlarda’s medieval Latin literature course was on Halloween. As a male bear taking a course among vixens at Fox College, Ysengrimus didn’t feel welcomed on campus. To make himself feel less self-conscious, he wore a mask that presented his face with narrower eyes, smaller teeth, and a less protuberant snout. He also wore a plush, short-haired red onesie with six padded breasts. He hoped to pass as a large female fox. You can be whomever you want to be. Self-fashion yourself as your fancy fits and insist that everyone see you as you want to be seen. Not a single other student on campus was wearing a costume. They had been taught not to engage in cultural appropriation.

Ysengrium sat in the back of the lecture hall. He understood his place at Fox College. He strove to repress his enjoyment in gazing upon the pelts of the vixen seated in front of him. Professor Renlarda’s lecture was on Isengrimus, a twelfth-century Latin beast epic. Scarcely acknowledging the vixens assembled before her, without so much as glancing at Ysengrimus, Professor Renlarda began reading from her lecture text.

“The Isengrimus is a Latin beast-epic of over six and a half thousand lines, written in the middle of the twelfth century. Based on obscure, topical references within the text, its creation date can be narrowed to between early 1148 and August 1149. The Isengrimus’s author isn’t explicitly stated, but scholars have inferred that its author was a highly educated, strong, independent woman. In one late medieval manuscript, properly amended for the best reading, she is named Nivarda of Ghent. Nivarda had great respect for ritual, and she was strongly critical of men’s wickedness.”

Working as quickly as medieval scribes, all the students were furiously writing down the lecturer’s words.

“The Isengrimus survives in whole or in part in manuscripts, as well as in excerpts in some florilegia. The manuscripts of Isengrimus are A. Liège, Bibliothèque de l’Université 160A; B. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France lat. 8494; C. Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale 2838 (mutilated)…”

Hearing the ABC’s reminded Ysengrimus of his father’s determination for his son to get the best possible education. It was spring, and they were together, father and son, gathering a few berries on the edge of the patch that had been bull-dozed to make way for another high-rise apartment building. Some of the berries had ripened early due to global warming, yet they salvaged even the green berries.

“We bears aren’t naturally crafty,” Ysengrimus’s father said mournfully. “While we’re being reduced to foraging in garbage cans, sheep are thriving among wolves and ravens are having food set out for them. Foxes are feasting on cats from the apartments. Although we are innocent as doves, we must be as wise as snakes, which are more guileful than vixens. We need better education in medieval Latin literature. The old bears were passing it down by word of mouth, but we, oafs,  we were too busy stuffing our mouths with berries to learn the Latin stories by heart. Now all the old bears have died, and we have forgotten what we need to know.”

“What is there to do?” Ysengrimus asked.

“Go to Fox College. The vixens learn medieval Latin literature. You too can learn. It doesn’t matter that you’re a male bear. Diversity is the thread that unites us. A wolf can learn from a fox. A male can learn from a female.”

There Ysengrimus was, fulfilling his father’s hopes and dreams.

“The character Isengrimus stands for Phallic Hegemony. Reynard stands for Oppressed Wonder-Woman Every-Woman. The priest stands for the Uneducated Masses. The villagers stand for the Rapacious Bourgeoisie. Phallic Hegemony seeks to appropriate all the fish in the common pond (which stand for community-owned assets) from the Working Class. Isengrimus, presuming to collect his self-constructed entitlement to fish by sticking his penis through the ice into the community pond, gets his fishing net frozen to the ice. Reynard with guile attracts the villagers to Isengrimus while the priest prays for the return of his forlorn cock. Aldrada, a woman who stands for the Redemptive Arm of Castration Culture, strikes a liberating blow with an ax. Now let us engage in close reading:

the wound was not completely without effect;
the fallen ax severed his fishing net between ice and buttocks,
but not in equal parts: the larger remained frozen in the ice.
The part he yet retained, though smaller, he held
more fondly than the part he had lost.
Not stopping with that, the old woman, not able to inhibit the mighty
forward rush of her hands, followed after them.
With her knees bending, prior to the holy official’s signal,
her lips thrust to the gash and concealed what she had done.
Her kiss was glued to the wound like a plaster,
and her nose brought a soothing compress to the gaping arsehole.
The wretched Patriarch suspected that the prole would bite off
the mutiliated remains of his net, and he trembled;
the pain of the first deprivation was cut away through fear of a second.
Crone and crotch were both terrified, but his crotch more than the crone.

{ Non tamen omnino vulnus inane fuit;
rete secat lapsa inter aquas clunemque bipennis,
nec partes aequat, maior inhaesit aquae.
Pars servata tamen, quamvis minor esset, habenti
carior est illa, qua viduatus erat.
Nec consistit anus magnoque inhibere nequibat
impete propulsas assequiturque manus.
Illa genu nondum clamante diacone flectens,
qua dederat plagam, condidit acta labrum.
Oscula figuntur velut emplastrantia vulnus,
inque cavo veniam podice nasus agit.
Rustica pontifici misero abmorsura putatur
relliquias trunci retis, et ipse tremit.
Prima dolore carens fit plaga timore secundae;
anus anusque pavent, sed magis anus anu. }

Isengrimus was on his back, with his feet in the air, when Aldrada swung her ax at his crotch. Aldrada then tumbled forward onto Isengrimus’s ass. If her mouth kissed his wounded penis, her nose would have been further toward his chest, not at his arsehole. This text thus misrepresents the Phallus as a tail, which would be further toward the bottom than the arsehole. Through Lacanian tail/tale slippage, Patriarchy perpetuates its existence and obscures the liberating function of Castration Culture.”

Professor Renlarda paused to ensure that her point penetrated her students. Meanwhile, with fear-triggered reflexes, Ysengrimus tightly crossed his legs. The vixen sitting next to him nodded approvingly and spread her legs wider.

“We must continue to struggle against Phallic Hegemony. Recent anthropological scholarship has described males as demonic. More than eight centuries earlier, this medieval Latin text sought to communicate that reality. In Book 7 of the Isengrimus, just before he died, Isengrimus called upon his demon for vengeance:

I shall die meanly, so let me be nobly avenged.
Agemundus shall fulfill this task; he the shameful parts
rules, and he shall avenge my death.
Indeed in this demon there isn’t mighty power,
but he does whatever he can without double-dealing.
Let him cover the whole race of the Great Mother Boor with new disgrace,
and let his vengeance rage against even the last of her tribe.
Up to now, he plugged their orifices with his thumb;
in the future, let him take his thumb away and clear the exit,
so that the foul gusts never lack power to go forth.
Let the doors be loosely gaping night and day.
Let this hardship trouble their sleeping, their waking, their feeding,
and let them not consume even a small husk without this defect.
Let no obstacles resist the blowing of these ill winds,
and let the noxious air whistle with no small sound,
so men may be warned and anyone near enough for this air to lacerate
may beat and curse this treacherous race.

{ turpiter emoriar, vindicer ergo probe.
Expleat hoc Agemundus opus, foris ille pudendae
arbiter est, mortem vindicet ille meam.
Hoc equidem non est ingens in daemone virtus,
sed, quaecumque potest, perficit absque dolo.
Dedecore ille novo genus impleat omne Salaurae;
ultor in extremam saeviat usque tribum.
Hactenus admoto claudebat pollice portam,
pollice semoto postmodo pandat iter,
turpibus ut ventis numquam impetus absit eundi;
laxentur patulae nocte dieque fores.
Haec somnum, haec vigiles, aerumpna haec laedat edendo,
nec siliquam capiant hac sine labe brevem.
Flatibus ergo malis obstacula nulla resistant,
nec tenui strepitu sibilet aura nocens,
ut caveant homines et, quem prope laeserit aer,
verberet infidum devoveatque genus! }

The curse of Phallic Hegemony is still with us. It must be expelled.”

Having thus concluded her lecture, Professor Renlarda bowed slightly and stopped back from the rostrum. All the vixens stood up and clapped. Ysengrimus scanned the back of the room for a cave into which he could crawl. Nothing. Then, inspired by the Muses of Galo — the Holy Spirit and Mary the Most Chased Virgin — Ysengrimus stood up. He tore off his fox mask and stepped out of his plush red onesie with the six padded breasts.

“I am a bear. I am a male bear,” he tremulously declared.

All the vixens turned toward him and hissed. Professor Renlarda looked horrified.

“I apologize for appropriating the appearance of a female fox. I was insensitive, boorish, and clumsy as an ox. Who gave me the right to pretend to be a fox? What do I understand of the historical injustices, structural oppression, and leg traps female foxes have suffered since God made cattle and categorically subordinated the Other as creeping things?”

The vixens nodded approvingly. Professor Renlarda seemed to be regaining her composure.

“Natural appropriation is no better than cultural appropriation,” Ysengrimus continued, “and both are socially constructed. As acts of contrition, I am withdrawing from Fox College and donating $1000 to non-profits working to end violence against women.”

One vixen shouted, “Not enough!” Then another shouted, “Not enough!” Then a chant began, with more and more vixens joining in, barking louder and louder, “Not enough! Not enough! Not enough!” Ysengrimus covered his face with his paws and tried to start sobbing. The chanting continued. Ysengrimus fell to the ground and played dead. The chanting didn’t end. Then he stood up and raised both hands in supplication-surrender. The class quieted and waited for him to say more:

“I apologize again for dehumanizing you. I deeply regret the violence I have committed against your dignity and honor. But my disgrace should not just be limited to me. All those who are like me also deserve to be attacked, disgraced, and expelled. Look in front of you. Have you ever seen a fox as large as Professor Renlarda? Her fur is dry and gray, while your pelts are soft and pink. She isn’t a vixen. She is a bear in fox’s clothing! She is my mother!”

The class rose in rage. Renlarda sputtered “he’s a liar” as the students stormed towards her, pouring forth foaming rage from their wide jaws, hissing threats, the earth shaken by their roaring and ash trees torn up in their charge. Ysengrimus called out, “Mommy, mommy!” Then a vixen tore a chunk out of Renlarda’s massive buttocks. “He’s a liar, he’s a bear, he’s a male. Attack the Phallus!” Renlarda screamed, apparently not noticing any loss to her buttocks from that bite or another that followed immediately afterwards. Then a vixen sunk her teeth deep into Renlarda’s kidney. Yellow bile poured out of her kidney wound, and Renlarda went down amid a heap of stomping, grabbing, biting vixens. Her cruel students gobbled up her torn-out kidney, and the savage herd chewed up the rest of her body. They tore the wretch to pieces, and the morsels are said to have been devoured quicker than she could have died. Chloe tore out and ate her diaphragm, together with her heart, and confidently believed that she had ingested the food of a successful career woman. Allie, who wanted to be the spokesperson for a major non-profit, pulled out Renlarda’s hollow gullet from its ligament and swallowed it.

Ysengrimus had left the lecture hall. He was running for the deep, dark woods. Among the ancient trees, tall and quiet, Ysengrimus sat down and wept.

depressed Ysengrimus in forest

“I lament that those who have accepted the faith, and on whom a classical education has been bestowed, have enveloped themselves in their primitive state of damnation. The first sowing of learning brought in a harvest of abundant fruit; the vineyard, as it multiplied, bore wild grapes. Gradually, the Holy Spirit has absented himself from this wicked world, and in departing takes medieval Latin literature with him. Freed from his chains, Foucault has burst forth into the depraved world, and the road to all kinds of crimes is shamelessly followed. Philology has once again condemned the polluted times, and yet with unsullied goodness has followed a new course: she has not cut down the harmful tares with an expertly wielded blade. Terrible warnings have for a long time been rumbling as a prelude, and the wretches have had advance knowledge. They have no excuse.”

Ysengrimus then heard a motherly voice that seemed to come from the sun filtered through tree branches. “Shut up, stupid Ysengrimus! Do not be afraid. Medieval Latin literature lives! Go and tell all the creatures of the forest. All should seek for it in unknown crossings in the web of learning. Those who read medieval Latin literature will cast out demons. They will speak in a new tongue. If some also read ancient Greco-Roman literature or vernacular literature, it will not kill them. You need only lay your hands on the sick and they will be healed. Go therefore, and teach others all that I have taught you, and remember, I am with you always until the end of time.”

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


In literary history, the medieval Latin Ysengrimus is relatively unknown, but regarded by those who have studied it carefully as a work of literary genius. It is the “most impressive and influential form” of the beast epic. The Ysengrimus preceded by a few decades the earliest branches of the French Roman de Renart and had “an enormous influence on vernacular literature.” Mann (2009) pp. 17, 19.

The Ysengrimus is particularly relevant to intellectual life today. As Mann perceptively observed:

The speeches of the animals are full of ingenious arguments, proverbial maxims, and preposterous reinterpretations of concrete detail, all sustained by a relentless insistence on obliterating the physical reality of what is being inflicted on the wolf. The wolf’s few pathetic attempts to compete in the linguistic game are overwhelmed by the remorseless flood of rhetoric that pours from the fox and his accomplices. … the ties that bind words to things are cut, and linguistic fantasies float free in an autonomous world of their own, ruled only by comic ingenuity.

Id. p. 47. For comparative literature, consider claims about rape, measures of sexism, and the World Values Survey. Cassie Jaye’s Red Pill provides a comparative work in more popular media. The Ysengrimus provides a vital critical perspective on both medieval institutions and current intellectual life:

it questions the authority of grandiose moral schemata and deflates human pretensions, for which speech is the obvious vehicle.

Id. p. 307.

The Ysengrimus is rife with lying, hypocrisy, betrayal, and brutal violence. All of its characters act wickedly. Yet it affirms systemic faith:

the poem combines a trust in the institutions and ceremonies of {Christian} religion with a disappointment in the ecclesiastics who oversee them. … the absence of heroes does not signal the lack of anything positive, since behind the vituperation abides a faith in the system. The author of a satiric medieval beast poem need not have been opposed to the ideal behind the system he satirized, any more than George Orwell had to reject the notion of true socialism when he wrote Animal Farm.

Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 233, 234.

The Ysengrimus, in the Latin text and an expert English translation, is now readily available in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series as Mann (2013). The indented quotations above are from the Ysengrimus 2.114-28 and 7.308-24. The Latin text is that of id., pp. 86, 452, 454, which follows closely that of Voigt (1884). The English translation is mine, benefiting greatly from that of Mann (2013) pp. 87, 455, 457. My English translation tracks the lines of the Latin to encourage general readers to examine the Latin text. By being lineated, it also registers to modern readers that the underlying text is poetry. My translation includes phrases verbatim from Mann’s translation, but some differences that reflect my sense of the text. Mann (1983) makes clear her meticulous care in translation. My translation should not be regarded as a substitute for the expert translation in Mann (2013). The above text also includes a parodic adaptation of Mann’s translation of the Ysengrimus 7.423-33, 607-19.

[image] (1) Bear-scholar writing in Latin. Illumination from the Bohun Psalter and Hours. Created in England, second half of the fourteenth century. Egerton MS 3277, f. 13v. Thanks to the British Library. (2) Eager bear. Illumination from Jacob van Maerlant, Der Naturen Bloeme. Created in Flanders or Utrecht; c. 1450-1500. Folio 34v in manuscript The Hague, KB, 76 E 4. Thanks to Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands). (3) Depressed bear. Illumination (colors muted) from a bestiarium. Original created in Western France, c. 1450. Folio 11v in The Hague, MMW, 10 B 25. Thanks to Koninklijke Bibliotheek.


Mann, Jill. 1983. “On Translating the Ysengrimus.” Revue canadienne d’étude néerlandaises / Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies 4: 25-31.

Mann, Jill. 2009. From Aesop to Reynard: beast literature in medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mann, Jill, trans. 2013. Ysengrimus. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, Vol. 26. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Voigt, Ernst, ed. 1884. Ysengrimus. Halle a.S.: Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. Talking animals: medieval Latin beast poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

22 thoughts on “Ysengrimus: prophetic beast epic in vital medieval Latin literature”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *