The Medieval Review 15.05.02

Mann, Jill, ed. and trans. Ysengrimus. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. pp. xxx, 540. $29.95 (hardback). ISBN: 9780674724822 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Paul Wackers
Universiteit Utrecht

The Ysengrimus may be seen as the beginning of the medieval Western European animal epic. It is the first text in which the animal protagonists have proper names, a realm in which they all have their proper place and a shared history. The Ysengrimus had a major influence on the branches of the French Roman de Renart and, via those vernacular texts, the tradition of animal epics spread over large parts of northwestern Europe. Thus there is every reason to include an edition of the Ysengrimus in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, a facing-page translation series designed to make written achievements of medieval and Byzantine culture available to both scholars and general readers in the English-speaking world. The series intends to include classics of the medieval canon as well as lesser known works. The Ysengrimus could be said to belong to both categories. It is written in very sophisticated Latin, contains many examples of brilliant (although misused) rhetoric and shows an impressive grasp of the Latin classics, especially Ovid. It also has had a European-wide impact so it must be seen as a classic. However, nowadays it is only read and studied by a handful of specialists. It deserves to be known better.

The book opens with a short introduction. This discusses the antecedents of the Ysengrimus; its structure and major themes; date, place, and author; the influence the text had on the vernacular beast epic tradition. The introduction gives also a short summary of the twelve episodes in which the story can be divided and it ends with some notes on grammar and style. Greed is presented as the main theme. The story is interpreted as a satire against the greed of monks, but more specifically the greed of monk-bishops. Anselm of Tournai and Pope Eugenius III are presented both in the story and in its digressions as real life examples of these monk-bishops, and their greed is described as unsurpassable. This greed is satirized because the story creates an "upside-down world" in which the predator becomes the victim and the duper is duped. Although this leads to comedy the pervading spirit of the text is often bleak and apocalyptic. The story was written in 1148 or 1149 in Ghent or in the neighbourhood of that city. Although in modern studies the author is often called Nivardus it is better to see the text as written by an anonymous.

After the introduction follows the text and the facing-page translation. At the end of the book are placed: a list of sources and analogues of the twelve episodes of the story; some remarks on the constitution of the text and a list of notes to the text; notes to the translation that explain difficult words, expressions or references in the text; a bibliography; a glossary of the most important difficult Latin words; and an index of the names of all the personages in the story.

The text and the translation are (with minor changes) taken over from Jill Mann's former edition of the text that was published in 1987 by Brill in Leiden, a book that functions in the modern research as the standard edition. In this new edition, however, the introduction and the additions to the text are far shorter and more modest in scope than in the 1987 book. For someone who wants to read the Latin text or who wants to get a grip on the content of the text this new edition is the ideal book to use. Someone who wants to do research on the Ysengrimus will need at a certain moment the 1987 edition and other resources. But for such a person the bibliography and the notes in the DOML edition will prove a reliable guide.

As may be concluded from the preceding paragraph I think that the quality of this DOML edition is very high. It contains everything that you need to familiarize yourself with the text and it presents that in a clear, succinct and readable way. In fact I have only two quibbles with the content. The first is that the "Note on the Text" states that "spelling and punctuation have been altered to bring both text and translation into line with the DOML guidelines" (492). However, the Guidelines are not in the book and I could not find them on the internet. I have been trained to start using an edition by reading the editorial principles and I still believe that this is good practice, especially in a time in which material philology is such an important part of medieval research. And while it is understandable that a series does not want to spend paper on printing every time the same set of Guidelines, a link on the homepage of the series to these Guidelines would easily fill this gap. The other quibble regards the references to the Roman de Renart in the list of 'Sources and Analogues.' The Roman de Renart is not a roman in the modern sense of the word but a collection of short stories, which are called branches. Traditionally these branches are numbered by modern scholars with Roman numbers. This book starts with references in the traditional way ( e.g. "V 1-148," p. 483) but then adopts another system with Arabic numerals (e.g. "3.43-138," p. 484). This is inconsistent, but my main reason for mentioning it is that the new system could lead to confusion for a newcomer in the animal epic tradition who wanted to check a reference in the cited Roman de Renart edition (486) because that uses the traditional system.

I want to conclude with a remark on this book as a material object. Many medieval scholars thought that a beautiful interior expressed itself by a beautiful exterior. In this aspect this DOML book is very medieval. In a modest way it is stylish and elegant and it is a pleasure to handle the book. And you can have it for a price that is--in a time in which scholarly books are becoming almost unpayable for individuals--unbelievably cheap. Harvard University Press and Jan Ziolkowski, the general editor for this series, should be applauded for their initiative. It is to be hoped that Jill Mann's outstanding edition with translation of the Ysengrimus finds a large readership in this new form.

Copyright (c) 2015 Paul Wackers

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