A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Her Earliest Bow Upon the World's Stage

THE WELL-LADEN SHIP by Egbert of Liege was written between 1010 and 1026, as a classroom text in Latin for his young students at the cathedral school at Liege, where he taught the trivium. TOF is sore tempted to say that he was a trivial teacher, save that he had a brilliant notion. Observing that it was difficult to teach his young charges the intricacies of Latin -- though Latin was notably less intricate in the 11th c. than it had been in Cicero's more convoluted day -- Egbert decided that he could better teach the little terrors darlings by creating a reader with proverbs and folk tales with which they were already familiar in the vernacular. He wrote it, as he explained, "not for those who are already perfected to manly strength by careful attentive reading, but for those timid little boys still subject to discipline in school; so that, when their teachers are absent, while that band of youths is babbling to one to one another certain ditties (though none of them to any purpose) in order to sharpen somewhat their meager talent by practicing and frequently chanting those little verses, at such times they might rather use these."

Thus, instead of chanting in the absence of magisterial authority,
"I see Paris. I see France. I see Childeric's underpants."
They could instead recite
"Dum deerit cattus, dicurrens conspicitur mus."

That way, already knowing what the Latin meant, they could more easily grasp its forms. He divided the text into two parts: the Bow and the Poop. The Bow apparently consisted of pithy quotations and proverbs and the Poop of stories and fables. Since these texts were all hand-written, there could not have been very many of them, but an original copy survives and was translated fairly recently.

 Among the proverbs are some with a familiar ring:
  • While the cat’s away, the mouse is seen scurrying about.
Dum deerit cattus, dicurrens conspicitur mus.
  • When a horse is offered for free, you should not open its mouth.
Gratis equo oblato non debes pandere buccas.
  • I’ve never see a wagon go when placed in front of the oxen.
Ante boves versum non vidi currere plaustrum.
  • One ought to strike iron while it’s hot.
Dum calidum fuerit, debetur cudere ferrum.
 The currency of these proverbs -- Don't put the cart before the horse! When the cat's away, they mice will play! Don't look a gift horse in the mouth! -- indicate how deeply rooted in the medieval our culture is.

BUT ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING TIDBITS in the Well-Laden Ship, indicating how well-laden indeed she is, is the following fable, set in unrhymed dactylic hexameters. Egbert says that it is a rendering of a tale he had heard told among the peasants -- though one doubts he heard them tell it in dactylic hexameters. Remember, Latin poetry traditionally based itself on the length of syllables, not on stress, although in Late Latin, stress was coming into use.

This tale marks the first appearance in literature of one of our enduring heroines: 

First, in Latin:
De puella a lupellis seruata
Quod refero, mecum pagenses dicere norunt,
Et non tam mirum quam ualde est credere uerum:
Quidam suscepit sacro de fonte puellam,
Cui dedit et tunicam rubicundo uellere textam;
Quinquagesima sancta fuit babtismatis huius.
Sole sub exorto quinquennis facta puella
Progreditur, uagabunda sui inmemor atque pericli,
Quam lupus inuadens siluestria lustra petiuit
Et catulis predam tulit atque reliquit edendam.
Qui simul aggressi, cum iam lacerare nequirent,
Ceperunt mulcere caput feritate remota.
"Hanc tunicam, mures, nolite", infantula dixit,
"Scindere, quam dedit excipiens de fonte patrinus!"
Mitigat inmites animos deus, auctor eorum.
In English:

Concerning the Girl Saved from the Wolf Cubs
The story I tell, the country folk know how to tell me,
and it is not so much marvelous to believe as it is very true.
A certain man raised a girl from the sacred font,
and he gave her a tunic woven from red wool.
Shrove Sunday was the holy day of this baptism.
When the sun had rise, the girl now five years old
set out wandering, heedless of herself and of danger.
A wolf attacked her and headed for his woodland haunts;
and he took her as prey to his cubs and left her to be eaten.
They approached her, and gnawed at her cap; but unable to tear it,
they began to caress her head, their fierceness having been allayed.
The little infant said, “Oh mice, don’t rip this tunic
which my godfather gave me, taking me from the font!”
God, their creator, softens savage souls.
That's right, sports fans, it's Little Tunicam Rubicundo, Little Red Cape, making her first appearance in recorded history! And wearing her red Pentecostal baptismal cloak, too, which protects her from the devil-wolves of the dangerous woods. So much for Michel Foucault and the red hood representing menstrual blood and her sexual awakening. (Why are Moderns and Postmoderns so obsessed with their pelvises! An Early Modern French version has Red stripping naked and hopping in bed with the Wolf and ends with a warning not to do that.)
In early medieval Europe, baptisms were performed twice a year: at Easter and Pentecost, but the trend was toward more frequent baptism dates to protect the children as early as possible. 

The story was elaborated as time went on. In an episode from a Norse saga, in which Freyja has been betrothed to a giant named Thrym, Thor disguise himself as Freyja and goes with Loki (disguised as a serving maid) to a banquet thrown by Thrym. The giant grows suspicious and asks many questions about his bride-to-be.
“Why are Freyja’s eyes so sharp?” Thrym calls to [Loki]. “They burn me like fire.”
“Oh” said the cunning serving-maid [Loki], “she has not slept for a week, so anxious has she been to come here, and that is why her eyes are so fiery.”
How Old is Little Red Riding Hood?: Tales Over Time, by Gwen Thurston Joy

Interestingly, some of the earliest versions present a more resourceful Red (or Granny, when she makes an appearance) than the more modern ones. She doesn't have to be rescued by woodcutters or hunters. But all of them, including Granny (who came from a separate story-tradition) were later additions. The original story of Red was simple and unadorned tale of an innocent beset by evils and protected by God's providence.

The Earliest Little Red Riding Hood Tale
November 10, 2013 by 

A Fairy Tale from before Fairy Tales: Egbert of Liège's "De puella a lupellis seruata" and the Medieval Background of "Little Red Riding Hood" Jan Ziolkowski
Source: Speculum, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Jul., 1992), pp. 549-575

Published by: Medieval Academy of America
Stable URL:


  1. Actually, I understand that there's are old traditional versions of the story where it's an ogre instead of a wolf masquerading as Granny, and he gets Red to strip off and get into bed with him, and she gets out of it by saying she has to go outside to take a crap and then sets the house on fire. Medieval people were pretty sex-obsessed, too... Lol

    1. "Old traditional versions", as defined when? By the time of someone like Perrault, there was a quarter of a millennium worth of "old and traditional" that wasn't medieval. Think how little time actually separates us from American folklore like Pecos Bill or "fearsome critters".

  2. That book is on my list, haven't got to it yet. Middle son is thinking of doing intensive Latin this summer - if he does, I'm getting him a copy, too.

    1. I want to do intensive Latin. Do you know what text the course would use?

    2. It's some summer class, I don't know anything more. Will share if I find more out.

  3. The well laden ship ... reminds me of a reader called Die Fähre.

    Starts with Our Father in Greek, Latin, Gothic, Old High German, Middle High German, Luther Bible.

    Goes on with some Classic, some Old High German (Wessobrunner Gebet, Older Hildebrand Song) and Nordic, some Middle High German (and not too little of that, both Niblungs and Kûdrûn are cited before a few Minnessänger and some more, as well as one of them also translating Parzifal, there is also a Younger Hildebrand Song, with the Hildebrand Stanza so reminding of Niblung and Kûdrûn stanzas ...).

    Ends with some Modern High German, including Martin Luther's infamous Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, which has some importance in my conversion story.


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