Ecbasis captivi: no escape for man from gynocentric yearnings

Tell these things to one who has deaf ears,
For the loins of an ass will be joined to the tail of the calf;
Thus Mother Nature has bidden us to pass our days.

{ Hec illi narres, qui surdas possidet aures,
Nam caude vituli iungetur lumbus aselli;
Sic natura parens iussit discurrere soles. } [1]

feast of Ecbasis captivi

The eleventh-century Latin beast epic Ecbasis captivi subtly critiques men’s gynocentric yearnings. The narrator-monk figured himself as a calf. That calf chafed under his father’s discipline and yearned to suck at his mother’s breasts. His insufficient respect for father and excessive attachment to mother propelled the calf into grave risk of being raped, killed, and eaten. Ecbasis captivi superficially dramatizes paschal redemption while depicting men’s failure to transcend gynocentrism.

Ecbasis captivi begins with the narrator-monk looking back and lamenting his childish error. He doesn’t describe specifically what that error was:

Planning nothing sensible, scorning the company of my brothers,
I was involved in puerile follies because I was wholly given to such trifles

{ Nil cogitans sanum, tempnens consortia fratrum
Nectebar neniis, nugis quia totus in illis }

His error caused him to be set apart from men’s fruitful work:

Now on a certain day I was sitting in my accustomed manner.
I saw some taking general care
To gather the fruit of the wheat in large barns,
Others, after the grain, to tend to the choice grapes,
Others, to show skill in transporting what had been collected,
Not for the monks alone who serve the mysteries of law,
No, also for the pilgrims, beggars and orphans.
The others were all pursuing the tasks assigned to them,
While I alone was idle, shut up in my cloistered prison.

Like a sterile trunk, I resembled charred wood.
And like a wretched calf bound to a stake functioning as a fence,
I was restrained by the reins of the fathers.
I shall weave the story into a woof that is not without complexity.

{ Namque die quadam consueto rriore sedebam,
Inspexi quosdam generalem sumere curam,
Grandia triticeum cumulare per horrea fructum;
Illos post segetes dilectas visere vites,
Illos collectis sollertes esse vehendis
Non solis monachis, qui servant mistica legis,
Immo peregrinis, mendicis atque pupillis;
Per sibi commissas reliquos discurrere curas,
Me vero vacuo, claustrali carcere septo.

Ceu truncus sterilis lignis ęquabar adustis
Ac misero vitulo sudibus quam sepe ligato:
Illi consimilis patrum frenatus habenis,
Cuius et historiam non simplo stamine texam. }

The calf above all yearned to be with his mother:

The calf is shut in at home, grieving that his neck is tied.
There is no joy outdoors, within there is pressure of grief.
And what is even worse, the companionship of his mother is missing.
Sadly he lamented awhile and drew heart-felt sighs.
He lifts his face toward heaven and invokes Jesus,
Calls with tears twofold and even twentyfold
For the stableman to take his chains from his neck,
So that he may enjoy the pleasures of milk from his mother’s breast. [2]

{ Clauditur ille domi lugens sibi colla ligari;
Gaudia nulla foris, intus pressura doloris,
Et quod plus istis, absunt consorcia matris.
Triste sat ingemuit, cordis suspiria traxit,
Erigit ad celum facies atque invocat Iesum.
Conclamat lacrimis binis pariterque vicenis,
Vt custos stabuli solvat sibi vincula colli,
Vbere de matris quo gustet gaudia lactis. }

Men’s excessive yearning to be with mother and to please mother leads them to disaster. So it was for the calf. The calf bit free from the restraints of the fathers and bolted into the woods. There a wolf captured him.

The calf in the wolf’s captivity represents ordinary men’s lives. The wolf was a male leader of an animal society. Men leaders exploit ordinary men. The wolf naturalized raping ordinary men in a figure of an ass joining his loins to the tail of a calf. Even worse, the wolf planned to kill and eat the calf. As a result of political intrigue, another force of animals, led by a crafty female fox, liberated the calf from the wolf’s captivity and killed the wolf. As always, most males are pawns in female-controlled social action, and males, not females, are killed.

Freed from the wolf, the calf again preferred his mother. The calf recognized both his father and mother, but the maternal breasts privileged the mother:

And thus the calf runs out, seeks his father and mother,
And when he suckled his mother’s breasts, he clung happily to her.

{ Sic foras exiliit, matrem cum patre reposcit,
Vbera cum suxit, matri letatus inhesit. }

The calf figures a monk, a grown man. Even grown men yearn to suckle at mother’s breasts. His mother asked what the wolf had done to him. The calf refused to say, perhaps from shame. But the calf spoke warmly of the brotherly care he had received from an otter and a badger. Ordinary men care for each other as best they can. Nonetheless, the calf in conclusion offered a prayer of thanksgivings for being re-united with his mother:

Praise be the Lord who saved me from the teeth of the wolf!
I am brought hale and safe to the arms of my mother.
May the holy name of Christ the Lord be blessed!

{ Laus domino, qui me salvarat dente lupino!
Sanus et incolumis maternis deferor ulnis.
Sit nomen sanctum Christi domini benedictum! }

Medieval Christians lived within a gynocentric society in which the Church was figured as mother to all. Yet excessive yearning to be with mother had propelled the calf into the wolf’s captivity. Despite structuring Christian themes of the Easter season and the Harrowing of Hell, the calf in the end isn’t redeemed from the childish error of gynocentrism.[3]

The subtle men’s protest of Ecbasis captivi became more vigorous and more overt in subsequent medieval Latin beast literature. The massive, twelfth-century Latin beast epic Ysengrimus extravagantly portrayed castration culture. The subsequent twelfth-century Latin beast poem Speculum stultorum addressed men’s lack of masculine self-esteem and the effects of mothers’ emotional abuse on their sons. The twelfth-century poem De pulice in turn offered a profound critique of the beastializing men’s sexuality. Those who study great medieval Latin literature with reason and imagination can escape from gynocentrism.

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[1] Escape of a certain captive told in a figurative manner {Ecbasis cuiusdam captivi per tropologiam} 315-7, Latin text and English translation from Zeydel (1964). Ziolkowski states that these lines “might be an obscene allusion,” but are an “exceptionally enigmatic passage.” Ziolkowski (1993) p. 174. Recognizing gynocentrism and rape of men helps to clarify these lines.

Ecbasis captivi has 1229 verses that are “mostly leonine hexameters.” Its author is unknown, but the text associates the narrator with Vosges, the monastery of Saint-Evre in Toul, and Trier. The poem has survived in two manuscripts: Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale Ms 10615-729 and MS. 9799-809. The first, the earlier one, was probably written about the middle of the twelfth century at the monastery St. Eucharius-Matthias in Trier. Ziolkowski (1993) p. 153.

Ecbasis captivi is structured as a beast fable within a beast fable. The inner fable is a “sick lion” tale. On the history of that tale, id. pp. 61-6.

Ecbasis captivi is also densely constructed from quotations that indirectly provide a gloss on the narrative:

over 250 lines and phrases quoted or adapted from Horace; about a hundred from Prudentius and fifty from Vergil; over twenty lines apiece from Juvencus, Sedulius, and Venantius Fortunatus; and eight lines each from Ovid and Arator.

Id. p. 154.

Subsequent quotes above of Ecbasis captivi are similarly from Zeydel (1964). They are (cited by Latin line number) : 3-4 (Planning nothing…); 50-8, 65-8 (Now on a certain day…); 78-85 (The calf is shut in…); 1159-60 (And thus the calf runs…); 1221-3 (Praise be the Lord…). I have made a few minor changes to Zeydel’s translation for clarity. Bibliotheca Augustana provides a Latin text of Ecbasis captivi online.

[2] In medieval Europe, monks were forbidden milk products during Lent. Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 164, 194. Id. sees the calf-monk’s desire for milk during Lent as sinful. The desire for mother’s milk seems to me to function more significantly at a higher level of abstraction.

[3] On the themes of Easter and the Harrowing of Hell in Ecbasis captiva, Ziolkowski (1993) Ch. 6.

[image] Anthropomorphic animals feasting, plausibly a scene from Ecbasis captivi. Manuscript illumination from the 13th-century manuscript Milano, Bibl. Ambrosiana, B. 32. inf., fol. 136. Thanks to Bibliotheca Augustana.


Zeydel, Edwin H., ed. and trans. 1964. Ecbasis cuiusdam captivi per tropologian: Escape of a certain captive told in a figurative manner: an eleventh-century Latin beast epic; introduction, text, translation, commentary and an appendix. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 

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

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