The Stag and the Dogs: A Medieval Fable

Fables—short moralized narratives, often with animal subjects, associated with the legendary figure of Aesop—have been transmitted and adapted from antiquity down to the present. In the Middle Ages, fables were used to teach Latin to children. One particular fable collection, sometimes called the “elegiac Romulus” for its verse form and supposed dedicatee, seems to have been especially popular in this regard. This collection of approximately 60 fables (many manuscripts have 58 but others may have several more) is extant in almost 200 manuscripts from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. Some of these manuscripts show signs of use in the classroom (i.e., they have features such as glosses, words numbered to aid in parsing, etc. An edition by Aaron E. Wright reproduces one such manuscript).[1] There is a critical text of the elegiac Romulus edited by Paola Busdraghi, with a translation into Italian.[2] I offer below my own English translation of one fable from the elegiac Romulus, along with brief commentary.

The fable of The Stag and the Dogs (De cervo et canibus), 74 in the Perry Index, is also known as The Stag at the Spring (Cervus ad fontem)[3] or The Stag and His Antlers (De cervo et cornibus eius).[4] Other medieval versions of this fable are found in prose and verse Latin fable collections in the Romulus tradition;[5] the Parabolae of Odo of Cheriton;[6] the Novus Aesopus of Alexander Neckam;[7] and the Fables of Marie de France.[8]

In this fable, a stag views his own reflection in the spring he drinks at, proud of his many-tined antlers, but critical of his legs, which seem to him too slender. The stag flees as hunting dogs approach, now appreciating the swiftness of his legs, but his antlers become entangled as he passes through dense vegetation, and he is caught and killed. The moral typically advises that we should value or disdain things according to whether they help us or harm us.

Hunters with dogs pursuing a deer, Getty Museum MS 27, f.67v.

Here is the version of the fable found in the elegiac Romulus, from Busdraghi’s edition:[9]

De cervo et canibus

Fons nitet argento similis, sitis arida cervum
huc rapit, haurit aquas, se speculatur aquis.
Hunc beat, hunc mulcet ramose gloria frontis,
hunc premit, hunc ledit tibia macra pedum.
Ecce canes, tonat ira canum. Timet ille, timenti
fit fuga, culpati cruris adorat opem.
Silve claustra subit, cornu retinente moratur:
crure neci raptum cornua longa necant.
Spernere quod prosit et amare quod obsit ineptum est:
prodest quod fugimus et quod amamus obest.

The following is my translation:

The stag and the dogs

A spring shines like silver, dry thirst draws a stag
to the place; he drinks the waters, watches himself in the waters.
The glory of his branching brow gladdens and delights him,
his thin shins and feet depress him, annoy him.
Here come the dogs, the rage of dogs resounds. He is afraid, and, fearing, 
takes flight, admires the aid of his once-blamed legs.

He comes into a narrow grove, is delayed by horns holding him back:
snatched from death by his legs, but killed by his long antlers.
It is absurd to despise what benefits you and love what hurts you:
what we flee helps us, and what we love hinders us.

Medieval literature often gives an impression of hunting as a pastime of the aristocracy. And indeed, it was—or at least the practice of pursuing and killing red deer (Cervus elaphus) using a pack of hunting dogs, as this fable depicts, was the “noblest” (at least according to aristocratic hunters!) and most highly ritualized form of hunting in the Middle Ages. Hunting was, however, “central to the lives of all classes,”[10] and involved, as it still does today, killing a wide range of species using a variety of methods, such as stalking, snaring, and netting—quite effective, but nevertheless disdained by some elite medieval authors as unsporting. Another way of hunting deer was the “bow and stable” method, in which deer (red or fallow) were driven towards a line of archers.[11] This is the type of deer hunting depicted in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (previously discussed on the MSRB). Unlike the hunt par force de chiens—the hunt of a single animal with a pack of dogs—this method could result in numerous kills.

Bow and stable hunting, Getty Museum MS 27, f.109.

There is a ring of truth to the stag’s fate in The Stag and the Dogs: in a sense, the stag’s glorious antlers doom him. While a substantial rack of antlers is both a means of competing against other males for mates and an effective defense from many non-human predators, it was precisely the antlers which marked a stag, or hart, as legitimate quarry. The Master of Game, an early-fifteenth-century English translation of Gaston Phoebus’s hunting treatise, the Livre de la chasse, provides precise terminology for male deer in each year of their life. A stag in his sixth year, having at least ten tines on his antlers, was a “hart of ten”; at this point the animal could be pursued. But scouts for a hunting party would attempt to find not just any hart who could be pursued; ideally the party would seek “the finest hart available in the area.”[12] In modern times, as well, some hunters of deer may go for the most impressive “trophy” specimens—males in their prime with sizeable racks—rather than targeting more vulnerable animals, as predators such as wolves are inclined to do. This may have deleterious effects on deer populations.[13]

The fable of The Stag and the Dogs does not function as an indictment of hunting. This narrative fits within a larger context of interspecies violence throughout the fable genre, in which characters die as a consequence for their vices or errors. Nonetheless, rather than focusing attention on humans’ pleasure in hunting deer, as many other medieval works on the topic do, the fable invites readers to briefly consider the predicament of the frightened victim, while at the same time making a lesson out of his misjudgment.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Aaron E. Wright, ed., The Fables of ‘Walter of England’ Edited from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Codex Guelferbytanus 185 Helmstadienis (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1997).

[2] Paola Busdraghi, ed., L’Esopus attribuito a Gualtiero Anglico, Favolisti latini medievali e umanistici, 10 (Genova: Università di Genova, 2005).

[3] Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco‐Latin Fable, trans. Leslie A. Ray, vol. 3: Inventory and Documentation of the Graeco-Latin Fable (Leiden: Brill, 2003), p. 625.

[4] Giovanni Garbugino, ed., Alessandro Neckam: Novus Aesopus, Favolisti latini medievali, 2 (Genova: Università di Genova, 1987), p. 124.

[5] Léopold Hervieux, ed., Les fabulistes latins depuis le siècle d’Auguste jusqu’à la fin du moyen âge, vol. 2: Phèdre et ses anciens imitateurs directs et indirects (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1884).

[6] Léopold Hervieux, ed., Les fabulistes latins depuis le siècle d’Auguste jusqu’à la fin du moyen âge, vol. 4: Eudes de Cheriton et ses dérivés (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1896).

[7] Garbugino, ed., Novus Aesopus, p. 124.

[8] Charles Brucker, ed., Les Fables: édition critique accompagnée d’une introduction, d’une traduction, des notes et d’un glossaire, 2nd ed. (Paris: Peeters, 1998), pp. 130-1.

[9] Busdraghi, ed., L’Esopus, p. 148.

[10] Tony Pollard, “Foreword,” in Medieval Hunting, by Richard Almond (Stroud: The History Press, 2011).

[11] John Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), pp. 47-67.

[12] Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk, pp. 32-4.[13] Jos M. Milner, Erlend B. Nilsen, and Harry P. Andreassen, “Demographic Side Effects of Selective Hunting in Ungulates and Carnivores,” Conservation Biology 21, no. 1 (2007), pp. 36-47.

Undergrad Wednesdays – Visceral Moments in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

My translation of lines 1581-1600:

Til the knight came himself, urging on his horse,
Saw him wait at bay, beside his men.
He dismounts beautifully, leaves his horse,
Draws out a bright sword and strides forth powerfully.
Goes swiftly through the ford where the fierce one waits.
The wild animal was aware of the man with the weapon in hand,
The hair raised up on end; he snorted so fiercely
That the many feared for the knight, lest the worst befall him.
The boar charges straight at the man,
That the man and the boar were both in a heap
In the strongest current of the water. The other had the worst,
For the man marks him well, as they first met,
Firmly sets the blade exactly in the hollow at the base of the throat,
Struck him up to the hilt, that the heart breaks apart
And snarling he yielded to him and was carried downstream
Quite quickly.
A hundred hounds seized him,
That fiercely biting him;
The men brought him to the bank
And the dogs condemn him to death.

Original Text:

Til the knyȜt com hymself, kachande his blonk,
SyȜ hym byde at þe bay, his burnez bysyde.
He lyȜtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour,
Braydez out a bryȜt bront and brigly forth strydez.
Foundez fast þurȜ þe forth þer þe felle bydez..
þe wylde watz war of þe wyȜe with weppen in honde,
Hef hyȜly þe here; so hetterly he fnast
þat fele ferde for þe freke, lest felle hym þe worre.
þe swyn settez hym out on þe segge euen,
þat þe burne and þe bor were boþe vpon hepez
In þe wyȜtest of þe water. Þe worre hade þat oþer,
For þe mon merkkez hym wel, as þay mette fyrst,
Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen,
Hit hym vp to þe hult. Þat þe hert schyndered
And he Ȝarrande hym Ȝelde and Ȝedoun þe water
Ful tyt.
A hundreth houndez hym hent,
þat bremely con hym bite;
Burnez him broȜt to bent
And doggez to dethe endite.


This section of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is from the second hunting scene. These action packed scenes of the men hunting various animals are interjected by scenes of Bertilak’s wife trying to seduce Sir Gawain in his bed each morning. Here we have interesting interplay between two different kinds of aggressors. It presents two manifestations of the passions of raw human nature, the sexual and the violent, while showing their overlap. On the one hand, we have the male aggressors hunting deer and boars for sport, and then we have the female sexual aggressor who is performing her husband’s wishes as she tries to seduce Gawain. The fast-paced violent action of the hunting scenes makes the scenes with Bertilak’s wife all the more intense and intimate. Bertilak also seems to be channeling his sexual energy and frustrations about his quest into the hunt. In the original text, through the vivid imagery and the fact that Bertilak has an audience of men who are holding their breath as he attacks the boar, the reader gets a real sense of the drama of  the scene.

Formally, there is a lot going on in this section of the poem which is true of Gawain as a whole; some elements include effective imagery, intentional alliteration, and allusions to elsewhere in the text. The most important part of this passage for me is how the Gawain-poet elicits visceral reactions through vivid sensual imagery. The reader can see the violent battle between the knight and the boar, experience the fear of both opponents, feel the anxiety rolling off the watching men, and, in the last line, the reader is repulsed and oddly satisfied by the final depiction of the dogs ending the boar. I will look into a few of these images in greater detail in comparison with Marie Borroff’s translation later in this blog post. As is the case throughout the entire poem, alliteration plays a huge part in conveying tone and meaning—and this section is no exception. One of my favorite instances of this occurs at line 1594, which reads, “Hit hym vp to þe hult. Þat þe hert schyndered.” With this forceful repetition of the “h” sound, the reader can almost hear the exhalation or gasp of the boar as Gawain strikes him. This also shows how reading the poem aloud can emphasize this effect of the words. Another interesting aspect to the Gawain-poet is that he cleverly foreshadows and references other moments in the story throughout the entire poem. In line 1593, the Gawain poet writes “Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen.” The careful aim and powerful movement of Bertilak in this line recalls the how Gawain beheads the Green Knight at the beginning of the poem.

Overall, in comparing my translation with Marie Borroff’s, I noticed that there are fewer words in her modernized text. In this way, she still makes the encounter seem dramatic, but it is more about the conflict of the generic “Man versus Beast,” rather than the specific knight and boar. If we directly translate the passage, we get Bertilak’s own sense of urgency and the more visceral descriptions of the boar’s death. In this way, the Gawain-poet’s text is more immediate, intense, and personal. By looking at some of the problematic passages I found in the Borroff translation, I will show how her attempt for lyrical and relatable poetic language precludes the reader from gaining a true sense of the poem.

For example, in line 1593, Borroff translates the phrase “Slips in the blade,” while I translated “Firmly sets the blade.” The effect of Borroff’s is to make it sound like Bertilak slipped the blade easily and even gently into the boar’s neck, like sticking a knife in pudding. In my translation, you see how Bertilak has to use force and precision as he makes the killing blow. It gives him greater agency and power, and seems like a more triumphant moment.

Then in line 1595, we see the aftermath of the boar’s shattered heart. Borroff translates the phrase, “he falls in his fury,” while I said “and snarling he yielded.” Borroff’s phrasing recalls the language of epic poetry, with heaven and hell imagery as he falls dramatically. In my more direct translation, the boar’s death is much more rooted in reality. You understand the feeling that the boar is unwillingly yielding to the knight’s wishes. The knight is, once again, more of an active agent inflicting powerful force on the boar, forcing the boar to give in. This boar is violently aggressive and protests vocally until the end.

Another problem for Borroff is her attempt to recreate an alliterative structure. Sometimes she does a nice job with either repeating the same consonant from the original text or choosing a sound with a similar effect, but she is not always that successful. In line 1583, the Middle English reads “He lyȜtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour.” Instead of writing alliteratively, Borroff tries to retain the language of the Gawain poet by translating, “Lightly he leaps down, leaves his courser.” Because of this, Borroff alienates the modern reader by using an unfamiliar word for horse without even using it for her own alliterative purposes. Then, in line 1596 the Gawain-poet writes, “A hundreth houndez hym hent.” Borroff translates the line, “Hounds hasten by the score.” She has the repetition of the “h” in the two first words, but the latter half of the line completely lacks any alliteration. To her credit, Borroff keeps relatively the same number of syllables and captures the fast pace of the moment in the story. She does not, however, maintain the original effect of the alliteration. In the original, there is a gasping quality of the “h” which makes you hear the hounds pant as they sprint to the kill.

Lastly, in line 1600, Borroff  says, “And dogs pronounce him dead.” The verb choice makes it seem like the dogs ran over to the boar and listened for his failed heartbeat. It completely removes any sense of aggression and action. I, however, chose to phrase it with “and the dogs condemn him to death.” This infuses power in the dog’s instinctual action as well as a sort of dark primal form of justice to the text.

In general, the Borroff translation is softened, with language that is trying to be poetic and flow smoothly, but unfortunately it simply softens the visceral effect of the poem. As is so often the trouble with translation, we have to make choices for what we can keep from an original text. We have to pick and choose certain elements: the original meaning of the words, the formal structure, or the tone- to name a few. Unfortunately, as Billy Murray demonstrates while gallivanting around Toyko with a young Scarlett Johansson, some things are just Lost in Translation.

Elizabeth Kennedy
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – Examining The Violence and Victory in “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight”

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

Original text, lines 1319-1339

And ay þe lorde of þe londe is lent on his gamnez,
To hunt in holtez and heþe at hyndez barayne
Such a sowme he þer slow bi þat þe sunne heldet;
Of does and of oþer dere, to deme were wonder.
Þenne fersly þay flokked in, folk, at þe laste,
And quykly of þe quelled dere a querré þay maked.
Gedered þe grattest of gres þat þer were
And didden hem derely vndo as þe dede askez.
Serched hem at þe assay summe þat þer were;
Two fyngeres þay fonde of þe fowlest of alle.
Syþen þay slyt þe slot, sesed þe erber,
Schaued wyth a scharp knyf, and þe schyre knitten.
Syþen rytte þay þe foure lymmes and rent of þe hyde;
Þen brek þay þe balé,þe bowelez out token,
Lystily for laucyng þe lere of þe knot.
Þay gryped to þe gargulun and graþely departed
Þe wesaunt fro þe wynt-hole and walt out þe guttez.
Þen scher þay out þe schulderez with her scharp knyuez,
Haled hem by a lyttel hole to haue hole sydes;
Siþen britned þay þe brest and brayden hit in twynne.
And eft at þe gargulum bigynez on þenne, […]

My Translation of lines 1319-1339

And always the lord of the land is away at his sport,
Hunting the barren hinds in the woods and heath;
He killed there such a quantity by the time the sun fell,
Of does and of other deer, it was wonderful to assess.
Then spiritedly the people assembled at last,
And quickly made a heap of game from the killed deer.
The nobles went there with many men,
Gathered the fattest that there were,
And had them gracefully cut open in the prescribed manner.
Some who were there examined them at the ‘assay;’
They found two fingers’ breadth of flesh on the poorest of them all.
Then they slit the hollow at the base of the throat,
Took hold of the gullet, scraped it with a sharp knife and tied up the flesh.
Then they slit along the four legs, and stripped off the hide;
They opened up the belly, drew the bowels,
Carefully to avoid undoing the ligature of the knot.
They seized the throat and properly separated
The gullet from the wind-pipe and tossed out the guts.
Then they cut out the shoulder-joints with their sharp knives,
Drawing them through a small hole so as to keep the sides intact.
Then they cut open the breast and divided it in two.

Part III of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight details scenes between Gawain and the Lady of Lord Bertilak alongside scenes of Lord Bertilak and his men hunting in the woods. The Pearl-Poet juxtaposes the slower bedroom scenes, which focus on conversation over action, with the violent, aggressive hunting carried out by the Lord and his men. I chose to focus on the deer hunting passage to examine the intimacy it possesses, question why the poet chose to speak of the hunt with such candor and detail, and determine why his explicit explanations are powerful and necessary in the poem. In lines 1319 to 1339, the lord engages in the hunt itself, returns with several other individuals to the castle, and begins to dismember the multiple carcasses they accumulated on their journey. The blunt, vivid manner in which the poet discusses the deer is unsettling, yet intriguing for readers. Vocabulary such as “slit,” “stripped,” and “seized” is dramatic and gory. The poet does not attempt to soften his speech because it is not his mission to coddle or to comfort readers. These and other uses of this visceral language force readers to visualize the carnage and does not give them an opportunity to look away.

The power and pure, physical strength of the noblemen is evident throughout this passage, as they swiftly kill hundreds of deer, animals that often represent innocence. This sport was not merely a simple pastime, but was a source of pride and prestige for these men. According to the book, hunting skills were praised because individuals viewed them as aristocratic accomplishments. These skills displayed a man’s ability to master that which was below him and to do so with ease. Here, the male dominates the doe. Back in the bedroom, it is the woman who acts as the female aggressor and assumes power over Gawain, the male. Much of the poem discusses who has the power or opportunity to act and how they choose to wield that power. Here is no exception. The stanza’s repetitive structure emphasizes that it is the men that possess control over the animal, as nearly every line begins with “they” and proceeds to detail how they cut or sliced the deer lying before them. The process may seem monotonous, but each individual cut and chop is just as significant and horrific as the first.

In addition to examining my personal translation, I also read Marie Borroff’s translation of the text. While some of her version was true to the original text, parts were problematic, as they eliminated much of the brutality and streamlined the harsher vocabulary to produce a more pleasing end result. From the beginning, her translation fails to include the same information present in the poet’s text. While my translation reads, “And always the lord of the land is away at his sport,” hers reads, “And the lord of the land rides late and long.” Though Borroff succeeds in maintaining the alliteration in her version, she does not indicate that the lord is engaging in his sport, nor does she specify the normalcy of this action. My translation highlights the fact that this behavior is routine for the lord, while Borroff’s gives the lord little ownership of the game. His passion for and time given to this game is significant and explains why the poet chooses to explore the event in detail rather than sum up all that occurs in a few lines. This hunt has meant and continues to mean something to the lord, so therefore it should mean something to us reading, and we should have the opportunity to fully experience his journey alongside him. Simplifying the line and maintaining the original structure should not be done at the expense of the poem’s actual content.

In line 1329, a slight vocabulary change is not only inaccurate in tone, but it is also not faithful to the meaning found in the medieval text. Rather than referring to the deer as the “poorest of them all,” Borroff states that the men began to cut open the “leanest.” If an animal is lean, then it is healthy. Poor does not equal healthy. The “poorest of them all” could indicate that the animal looked sickly, small, or it may address the animal as a victim. The leanest may instead look visually appealing to the hunters. This animal is the poorest, as it is the primary animal to suffer under the knives of the men. Referring to the animal as poor acknowledges its existence, gives it agency, and offers sympathy. Calling it lean merely remarks on its size and stature. These two words are not synonymous, so the intent of the poet is not evident here in Borroff’s work.

A discrepancy in line 1332 is also worth noting. While my translation reads that the number of does and deer “was wonderful to assess,” Borroff states that the amount of animals “would dizzy one’s wits.” The first indicates that the sheer amount of deer that the men collected should inspire awe. It remarks on those given the opportunity and, ultimately, the gift of witnessing this in person. Borroff’s, however, comments on the magnitude of the number, but not on the majestic or inspiring qualities it possesses. Just as Borroff failed to capture the lord’s relationship with the sport, she does not portray the same feeling of merriment my translation does. While this detail may not have severe consequences for the poet’s intent or meaning of the section as a whole, it is important to describe the scene to the best of one’s ability and to attest to the positive energy that clearly filled the room, no matter how violent the acts they soon commit.

Borroff’s oversimplification occurs again several lines later when the men return to the castle to take apart the deer carcasses. Line 1330 in my translation reads: “Then they slit the hollow at the base of the throat,” while Borroff’s line is, “Then they split the slot open and searched out the paunch.” Again, Borroff includes alliteration in the line, but differing from the other line, she decided to keep a Middle English term in her translation rather than adapt the text for a Modern English reader. She keeps “slot” rather than changing to “base at the hollow of the throat.” The term “slot” is vague and offers little description of where the men are now cutting into the deer. The “base at the hollow of the throat” is more explicit and emphasizes the vulnerability of this animal. It conveys the intimacy of this moment between man and beast. The phrase “split the slot” over “slit the hollow” sounds especially safe, as though she is hoping to shield readers from the piercing and stabbing, even though these actions are natural and what must happen to complete the hunting process. Borroff also speaks of an incorrect body part in this particular line by stating they look at the “paunch”, or abdomen, rather than the “gullet,” meaning esophagus. It is confusing why she chose to skip to another body part altogether when the poet purposefully dedicates a generous amount of time to the throat as it is one of the weakest and most exposed parts of any creature. The dominance of the males over the susceptible deer should be blatant and overdrawn, not watered down by a translation that sometimes chooses to merely include the main idea without delving into excessive detail.

Line 1323 contains a seemingly minor vocabulary change, but one that interestingly represents Borroff’s translation as a whole. My translation reads: “Then spiritedly the people assembled at last,” while hers reads, “then they trooped in together in triumph at last.” Borroff retains the alliteration with small articles in between the “t” words, and the line actually resembles the sound it describes: trotting horses. While this is fine work by Borroff, she changes “spiritedly” to “in triumph” in her translation, which I find troublesome because “triumph” emphasizes a definite win over someone or something lesser. While the hunters did triumph over the deer, the poet does not emphasize this point until later when he begins to detail the cutting and slicing of the deer. Before the first deer is selected, the men are spirited and seem celebratory, but their great triumph is not made entirely obvious. Throughout Borroff’s translation, she chooses to compromise some of the vocabulary in order to keep the lines alliterative; however, the hunters’ success should be made evident through the total control they soon demonstrate over the animals, not by the manner in which they return to the castle.

It is a testament to the poet’s superior talent and skill that Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is still read and translated by students and professionals alike. While overall Marie Borroff offers a detailed, authentic translation of the poet’s text, she at times chooses to connect with modern English readers rather than capturing the poem’s true essence that the author so greatly executed. She sometimes chose to focus on rhythm rather than gauging the appropriate tone and opted to soften her language to erase some of the overwhelming violence prevalent in the text. However, modern readers are not or should not be as sensitive as she believes them to be. Rather, she should highlight the terror in the poem because no one can totally escape from or should be ignorant to the unpleasant aspects of life, whether real or imaginary.

Sarah Dieckman
University of Notre Dame