Monday, April 27, 2015

Two Hunting Poems from the Medieval "Fringes"

Below, I'd like to share two pieces of medieval hunting poetry that offer interesting comparisons and contrasts to some of the texts we have been discussing.

The first is among the oldest extant pieces of Welsh poetry. Generally known as Pais Dinogad (“Dinogad's Smock”) after the first two words, it survives as a peculiar fragment in Y Gododdin, a lengthy series of interrelated warrior elegies that may date back to the early 7th century. Though surviving manuscripts are somewhat more recent, there's reason to believe that the rhyme is quite ancient – the reference to slaves and to the Derwent waterfall, located in a region of Northern England where Welsh was once spoken, make sense in a 7th century context but not much later. Pais Dinogad is quite different from the rest of Y Gododdin – instead of heroic battle poetry, it appears to be a nursery rhyme. At some point, it became associated with the main text, whether through scribal negligence (an absent-minded monk had it stuck in his head, scrawled it in the margin, and subsequent copyists incorporated into the body of the poem) or scribal brilliance (it's been suggested that the use of the past tense in Pais Dinogad lends a certain elegiac quality to the rhyme.) This is Tony Conran's translation, which sacrifices only a little accuracy to achieve some of the original cadence (plus my rendering of the last three lines, which Conran seems to omit):

Dinogad's smock is pied, pied -
Made it out of marten hide.
Whit, whit, whistle along,
Eight slaves with you sing the song.

When your dad went to hunt,
Spear on his shoulder, cudgel in hand,
He called his quick dogs, 'Figg, you wretch,
Gaff, catch her, catch her, fetch, fetch!'

From a coracle he'd spear
Fish as a lion strikes a deer.
When your dad went to the crag
He brought down roebuck, boar and stag,
Speckled grouse from the mountain tall,
Fish from Derwent waterfall.

Whatever your dad aimed his spear at
Whether boar or fox or wild cat
Only the strong-winged could escape that!

Of course, the obvious interest for our class here is the sheer number and variety of animals – eleven different kinds named in seventeen lines. And they appear in a marvelous number of guises, as clothing material, hunting companions, prey, and literary devices (simile). While the focus is on hunting, we see both the result of this activity (the baby's soft, speckled smock), the joy of its enactment (compare the father's cheering of his hounds to Gaston Phoebus' formulas, some seven centuries later), and the proverbial manliness he acquires through his dominance over creatures of the land, air, and water. Hunting validates his status as a father/provider and as a rich property owner (with his eight slaves and fine hunting dogs). The lion simile is also fascinating, since it could only derive from either Biblical or Late Antique Latin sources. Pais Dinogad depicts a hunting tradition deeply enmeshed in its native terrain, a tradition with clear connections to the later medieval sources we have studied as well as notable divergences.

Skipping ahead some centuries and crossing a continent, the next excerpt is from the Shahnamah (Book of Kings), a vast epic poem that is one of the foundations of medieval Persian literature. It was composed by the poet Ferdowsi in the early 11th century AD, drawing on an enormous range of mythical and historical sources. The passage below is my translation from the story of Ardashir, a historical figure who founded Iran's last non-Islamic dynasty, the Sasanians, in the early 3rd century. As a young page at the court of King Ardavan (whom he will later overthrow), Ardashir is trained in the arts of riding, archery, and telling the truth – all three of which are united in a famous hunting scene.

It befell one day, in the hunting ground, the royal sons and retinue were scattered round.
At King Ardavan's side rode Ardashir, filling the king's heart with youthful cheer.
Ardavan had four princely sons, a noble lad each and every one.
On the horizon onagers appeared - the boisterous warband saw them and cheered.
Wind-hoofed steeds rushed to the chase, and sweat poured down each hero's face.
Bow drawn, Ardashir surged to the lead, nocked a sharp arrow and let it speed
Straight into a wild bull onager's flank, and up to the fletching the arrow shaft sank.
Quickly, Ardavan came upon the scene. When both the shot and the youth he had seen,
He saw the onager overthrown, did declare “Whoever did this, manly skill is his pair.”
Ardashir answered him, said, “It was I who struck the onager and let it die.”
No, it was me,” said the king's heir, “and its mate only got away by a hair.”
Ardashir answered him, said, “I see the plain is wide, onagers and arrows are plenty.
So take down another in this exact way, since lying is the greatest sin, they say.”
At this, Ardavan became hot with rage and shouted at his youthful page,
Told him, “In truth, this sin is mine - I tried to cultivate youth in manners fine.
Whether we're feasting or at the chase, why do you always seek to outpace
Everyone – even my own princely boys - with your haughty demeanor, harshness, and noise.
Go then to my Arab steeds, be their groom, and in that same place select your room.
There you can be commander of the stables, do whatever's asked of you, since you're so able.”
Ardashir went off, weeping full sore, down to the horse stables bound for sure.

(Onagers are wild equids native to Central Asia – here's a herd running in the desert:

“The hero's participation in the chase may elicit a sense of his identity; it may define and alter his life. Whether he sees the quarry slain or becomes himself a victim of the enterprise, it is the chase that confers meaning upon his actions,” Marcellet Thiébaux writes in The Stag of Love. The onager hunt is the first action Ardashir takes in the poem – it establishes him as an exceptionally (indeed, in an older Pahlavi account of the same event, an explicitly divinely) favored youth, one whose physical prowess is only matched by his dedication to justice. And yet the hunt is also a key reversal. Ardashir's excellence has an undisciplined rashness to it, an arrogance linking him to the wild creature he kills. Rather than being rewarded for his skill and honor, he is cast down, demoted from killing beasts to caring for them, charging on horses to scrubbing them. The hunt is both a theater for his prowess and a stage for his (admittedly temporary) downfall. His violent encounter with Nature becomes a fraught confrontation with his own nature.



  1. It occurs to me reading these poems (thank you for sharing!) that the hunt is much more about manliness than nobility, whether of the father in the Pais Dinogad or of Ardashir as a young man. We need some place for this characteristic in our analysis of the chase as Gaston Phoebus describes it. RLFB

  2. To follow up on Professor RLFB's post, however- what do we make of women hunting, then? I believe it was not all that uncommon. Not necessarily in this same battle-like way... but definitely in falconry (though there were ladies' birds, specifically, which is interesting...) and Queen Elizabeth (though in the wrong time period), for example, certainly enjoyed shooting deer. I am not an expert on women's hunting practices, but that seems like an interesting dilemma if it was as common as I think it was.
    In any case, thank you for posting!