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A Wolf at School - Lecture


A wolf went to school in the visual imagination of medieval Europe. Carved into the stones of churches on either side of the Alps, drawn and painted into manuscripts, including a Psalter, he can still be seen at his lesson-a preposterous image. Aristotle had classified the wolf among the essentially wild, untameable animals (Historia Animalium 488a, 28); "fierce and savage," wrote Pliny (Natural History, ch. 34. bk. 8). Albertus Magnus had singled out the wolf as an example of a creature whose very image meant danger: "An image to remind of a wolf's form will also contain the intentio that the wolf is a dangerous animal from which it would be wise to flee; on the animal level of memory, a lamb's mental image of a wolf contains this intentio (Yates 76). Such relations were taken to be inherent in the nature of things. Indocile, wolves were known as terrifying predators that howled in the night, ravaged livestock, and allegedly threatened even human life.

Fear and hatred of the wolf has been a continuing theme in western culture; so it is in the Old and New Testaments; so it is through the thousand-year span of the Greek Anthology, which represents wolves repeatedly as ravenous and cruel, as destroyers of precious sheep and goats, and as man-killers. If man-killing wolves were rare in fact, dread of them was prevalent. Ovid imagined wolves that "stain their jaws" with his blood (Ibis, 150). Wolves, according to a twelfth-century bestiary ". . . massacre anybody who passes by with a fury of greediness" (White 56). Thus, a wolf attacks a man in a misericord carving (c. 1305) in Winchester Cathedral (Laird, fig. 87). "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Peter and the Wolf" testify to the persistence of the death-threat theme.

Myth and legend offer exceptional instances associating wolves with positive values, e.g., the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, or the wolf that guarded St. Edmund's severed head (Anderson [1938] 48-49). Otherwise, medieval writers found little or nothing to praise about the wolf. Saint Hervé's taming of a wolf (Debidour 105, 107) or St. Francis's pacification of his blood-thirsty "brother" were miracles of the saints, not tributes to the creature. "Rapacitas est lupus" ["Rapacity is the wolf"] is inscribed on a scroll held by a wolf in a drawing of the vices in Herrad of Landsberg's encyclopedic Hortus Deliciarum (c. 1170). Proverbial wisdom was also strongly negative toward wolves. Well over 300 entries for "lupus" appear in the general index of Walther's Proverbia (v. 6, 110), nearly all carrying a strongly negative valuational weight; likewise the "loup" and "loup" related entries in Hassell's Middle French Proverbs. Randle Cotgrave gathered two columns of wolf phrases and proverbs for his Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (London, 1611), all more or less antipathetic, some dire, e.g.:

Tenir le loup par les oreilles. To be in danger, or hard set, on everie side (for if you hold him he bites you by the fingers; if you let him goe, he will goe neere to devoure you.)
Homme seul est viande aux loups: Prov. The solitary man becomes Wolves meat.

Hence, in an era when wolves roved freely throughout Europe marauding pastures, sometimes menacing unprotected persons, the notion of a lupine scholar would belong to a class of images that combined bitter humor with fabulous didacticism (Holmes 319). But to what end? What lesson was to be taught by imagery of a wolf at school? Why paint the scene into a Psalter? And, more generally, has this imagery any significant bearing on the history of ideas about education?

Some assumptions. When medieval wolf-at-school depictions are examined closely, when they are considered in their historical settings, it becomes evident that meanings beyond ornamentation were intended by the designers. Several facts attest to this conclusion: all the works display planned comic incongruities; most of them parody the iconography of grammar tutorials; some of them include satirical inscriptions; a few show features that correspond to contemporaneous narratives or proverbs. Moreover, all the compositions were created when the Aesopean tradition was lively, when moralizing bestiaries were proliferating, and when ecclesiastical use of didactic visual imagery was flourishing as never before. That much is clear. Yet the imagery has not been comprehensively reviewed; much in its meaning is obscure, and questions in the related literature remain unresolved. A better understanding of the wolves and their teachers may follow from a survey of the imagery and from reflection on relevant themes concurrent in the cultural milieus.


Tracking the wolf. If the medieval wolf at school has ancient antecedents, the record has been obscured; no iconographic track leads directly back from Italy to classical Greece. Plato warns that the Guardians of the Republic are by nature capable of becoming either wolves – "the fiercest of animals" (Sophist, 231) – or watchdogs, and urges an education designed to "civilize and humanize them" so that they will direct their natural ferocity toward protecting the citizenry (III, 416). The medieval wolf at school, however, seems to have no direct connection with Platonic texts. Other tantalizing associations of the wolf with schooling arise in conjunction with the oldest of the three Athenian gymnasia, the Lyceum–place of wolves (Travlos 345). Ephebes were trained there. Aristotle went to teach there. The name Lyceum seems to have derived from a nearby shrine to Apollo Lycian ("Lukaion"), the god in his fierce or "wolfish" aspect (Clébert 240). A degree of metaphorical symmetry can be discerned between the Lukaion dedication of the site and the military training of ephebes. Viewed in another way, the establishment of the Lyceum beyond the city walls may be understood as an extension of civilization, a further intrusion into nature, a would-be taming of feral space. Yet antiquity has left no sculpted or graphic image associating wolves and schools.

Wolf-at-school imagery appears to have had its origins in medieval Italy. A chronological listing of the sculpted images suggests a geographical movement of the theme from south to northwest to north. The wolf's school attendance was depicted in sculptural reliefs dating from the twelfth century in the Cathedrals of Parma and Ferrara, and on a portal of the Cathedral of Verona. In France, far to the west in the valley of the Charente, it seemed to one viewer that the wolf and his teacher were among the menagerie of creatures arrayed above the south portal of St. Pierre, the pilgrimage church of Aulnay. But here the subject is less clear and is open to dispute. Doubtful also is the identity of the creature taught by an ass on the tympanum of St. Ursin, Bourges. Emile Mâle declared extinct the theme of the wolf at school in France (340) but neglected the imagery at St. Pierre in Aulnay. More puzzling, he ignored the St. Ursin lesson scene, although he reproduced a photograph of the tympanum (fig. 240) and identified the other carved figures. While scholarly restraint properly inhibits giving the name of wolf to the Saint Ursin student, suspicion of his identity whispers through Debidour's selective listing of "scènes de pédagogie ridicule" at Freiburg, Parma, Verona, and "un petit coin du tympan de Saint-Ursin de Bourges" (259).

In Switzerland, the wolf's lessons were recorded in two places less traveled by: the collegiate church of St. Ursanne and the monastery of St. Urban. Across the Rhine in Germany, by the foothills of the Black Forest, a graven image of his schooling (c. 1210) remains in the great Münster of Freiburg. Passing on to Heidelberg, sketches of a wolf at school dating from the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries can be seen in manuscripts in the University Library; similar drawings survive in other German collections. Still farther north, in a monastery near Würzburg, monks made a Psalter (c. 1250-59) including an illuminated image of the wolf at his tutorial. Swarzenski saw the animal as a bear, but the tail is much too long, a feature not likely misrepresented by an illuminator (1: 158; 2, fig. 973).

One wolf or many? A cautionary note: organizing an inventory of wolf-at-school imagery by time and place prompts a dubious metaphor. The wolf becomes a wandering scholar making his way from school to school on a trek from Italy to transalpine places. This oversimplifies problems of image origins and migration. While it is true that some of the Italian carvings are thought to be the oldest, they are not alike and none could be mistaken as a visual prototype for expressions of the subject as it is found elsewhere. Image variability together with the diversity of pertinent written materials and oral traditions (the latter presumably reflected in proverbs about wolves) argue against any monolineal account of the development of wolf-at-school iconography. This is not to say, however, that commonalities in symbolic content disappear when due attention is given to the diversity of the images and verbal parallels.


The Italian carvings. In the Cathedral of Parma the wolf at school (c. 1150) forms a column capital in the north gallery. Beginning at the right side of the carving, we see an ass in clerical garb, holding fasces or "the rod of pedagogic authority" between his forelegs. He is seated on the ground, face to face with a wolf, seated and similarly clad. The wolf holds a paddle-shaped tablet, as though to read. Behind him looms a second wolf standing erect on hind legs, looking backward over his right shoulder. His left forepaw touches the back of the seated wolf. According to the bestiaries, the wolf's "neck is never able to turn backward" (McCulloch 189; White 57). Evidently, the inventor of this standing wolf, like those who created some of the other wolf-at-school images, were unfamiliar with bestiary accounts of the creature's cervical disability or were unconvinced.

Oddly, A. K. Porter states that the seated wolf teaches Christian dogma to the ass while the second wolf calls the instructor's attention to a lamb or sheep (v. 1, 340; v. 3, 158). Interpreting the wolf as the teacher has three disadvantages: it fails to explain why it is the ass that holds "the rod of pedagogic authority" or "staff of pedagogy"; it neglects the possibility that the scene depicts the wolf in recitation; it corresponds to no comparable extant narrative from the period. The tablet held by the seated wolf is of focal interest. An ambiguous Latin inscription runs heedlessly across it, spilling into adjacent space: "Est monachus factus lupus hic sub dogmate Tracius." The inscription has been translated as "This Thracian wolf was made a monk according to dogma" and as "This wolf was made a monk eloquent on dogma." "Tracius" could refer to Thrace, an untamed region of ancient Greece, the very name of which came to connote wildness. Using "Thracian" to modify "wolf" would intensify the idea of savagery. Although "Thracian" presupposes a missing "h," omission was not unusual in the medial position (Grandgent 106-07).

Porter's translation assumes the term "eloquent" (i.e., "eloquens"), which does not appear in the inscription; and he offers no account of "Tracius" (3: 158). A.C. Quintavalle (181), however, agrees with Porter, asserting that "Tracius" makes no sense and that the carver made a mistake; the "i" should have been a "t," thereby yielding "Tractus," a term meaning "fluent" or "flowing" when applied to speech. It might be noted too that "tractus" is associated with carded wool and, hence, metaphorically apropos. Given either translation, satire supplements parody. The intrusiveness of the text, undisciplined by the pictorial environment, lends credence to speculation that the message was an afterthought, not part of an iconographic plan.

The Parma wolf-at-school has been explained along three alternative lines. First, it may illustrate a lost tradition, "a folk-tale...which has not come down to us" (Porter 1: 339-40). Postulating a lost folk-tale, however, invites Ockhamite criticism, i.e., the postulate multiplies unknowns.

As a second possibility, the image may represent a vitriolic attack on a heretical movement of the day (Quintavalle 150). In support of this interpretation is a long tradition of church literature that construed both the wolf and the wild ass ("onager") as symbolic of heresy. If the wolf were seen as preaching to the ass, there would be reason to invoke a reference to St. Matthew's warning against wolves in sheep's clothing. That interpretation would fail upon recognition that the ass, not the wolf, holds the pedagogic rod, unless the ass were understood as preparing the wolf to preach. Symbolic complexity is compounded: the ass was associated with foolishness and materialistic superbia, including sexual connotations (Quintavalle 181-83). From this point of view, we see a school for heretics conducted by another heretic who is also a fool and a reprobate. If the Parma carving did have its origins in a local controversy, this would not have precluded assimilation of the imagery to more widely shared references-proverbs, for example: "While the wolf learns psalms, he longs for lambs" ("Cum lupus addiscit psalmos, desiderat agnos" [Panzer 16]).

A third line of explanation refers to popular fables about a wolf who went to school. R. Tassi, for example, asserting the uselessness of attempting to discover the full significance of the Parma wolf imagery, indifferently notes the relevance of a fable by Marie de France's (see below) and the cycle of Renard the Fox, while yet suggesting that the carving might also have been related to some incident ("episodio") of its time (Tassi 165).

Special attention will be given to the fables in due course; for now, it may be enough to suggest that assimilation of the Parma carving to these stories or the proverbs would require resolution of four apparent discrepancies: the second wolf, the asinine teacher, the content of the inscription, and the absence of visible prey. None of the fables or proverbs includes all of these elements. Hence, to make the problems vanish would require a matching string of reinterpretations. The second wolf might be understood as a revision of the first wolf shown at a later point in the narrative, when he has begun to abandon his lesson-in physical fact or wolfly imagination-in favor of a more inviting activity. Warrant for the latter idea, as we shall see below, can be found in Nivardus and Marie de France, whose texts refer to the wolf's thoughts. What of the teaching ass? Call it literally fabulous. The inscription? A gratuitous elaboration or a later accretion. The missing prey? Something to be imagined outside the picture space. (A. Venturi notes, for instance, a sculpted wolf-monk with a rooster on the backside of the capital. "Dietro v' è un altro monaco–lupo con un gallo" [3: 255].)

Individually, the several parts of the explanation betray no implausibilities; considered as a whole, a sense of forcing is difficult to avoid. Consider, for example, the two hypotheses adduced to explain away the second wolf figure, i.e., (a) the wolf first seen at his lesson, next seen about to pursue a lamb, or (b) the wolf temporarily attentive to his lesson, thenthinking of himself attacking a lamb. The latter construction reduces the two wolf figures to an expression of the wolf's duplicity; he recites good doctrine while his thoughts turn to the kill. So far, so good. But the sense of duplicity involved here is different from one attributing a divided self to the wolf, a good self trying to attend to a lesson while distracted by an atavistic self. (Nivardus and Marie certainly propose no psychomachia in their wolves.) The idea of a self divided is vitiated by the imagery: the standing wolf himself represents divided attention; he looks in one direction while extending his stony paw in another, touching the seated wolf. The visual force of the imagery favors the two-wolf interpretation more than the idea of a divided self.

The Parma carving is the most complex rendition of the wolf-at-school theme; the simplest are found at the Cathedrals of Verona and Ferrara (Porter 1: 339-40), where neither teachers nor prey are shown. We see only the wolf and his booklet (or tablet), which, in the Ferrara example, bears the satirical inscription "A B C for heaven." The single wolf figures may allude to a story or a proverb, whereas the Parma carving verges on narrative.

The Swiss and German compositions. Interpreting the Parma carving as one wolf in two situations or two moods brings the imagery into line with the examples at St. Ursanne and Freiburg, where the two episodes are more fully represented, i.e., wolf-at-school eyeing ram; wolf attacking ram. Yet there are marked differences between the compositions. Only the Parma and St. Ursin teachers are unambiguously represented as asses. At St. Ursanne and Freiburg, the instructor was granted a human form, whether or not he were deemed an ass psychologically. Garbed as a monk, he and his student conjointly hold a lesson book, the wolf pointing to it with a fescue. (Porter interpreted the crudely carved scourge and fescue as clubs [3: 476].) The monk keeps a scourge ready for application. At Freiburg, the carving is located inside the Münster, by the entry to the St. Nikolaus chapel. The letters A B C, chiseled into the border stone above the figures, are clearly visible. At St. Ursanne, where the carving is subjected to weathering on the south portal of the church, no inscription would have survived. The St. Ursanne and Freiburg carvings both show the monk in the second episode attempting to beat the wolf away from his victim.

A darker meaning. At St. Urban, only the lesson episode is represented. Master and student are separated by a lectern holding an open codex inscribed with letters A to D. The wolf's head is swiveled around toward the lamb, indicating the real object of his attention. The lamb and wolf are labeled for what they are, one in Middle High German ("Lamp"), the other in Latin ("Lupus"); the master is labeled "mgr herroris," but whether this is an abbreviated phrase, a proper name (Magister Herroris) or a symbolic title is uncertain. Voigt suggests this scenario: the wolf has just said the ABCs incorrectly, having been distracted by thoughts of the lamb, and the master has punished him (21, n. 3). The inscription above the master's head is the wolf's expression of penitence, i.e., he has erred or wavered. Two signs-a pentagram and an interweaving-are at the lower left. The pentagram was a protective sign against demonic power (Siebert 343). The interweaving, like knots, may also signify protection (Cirlot 172). The relevance of the symbolism becomes manifest when it is recalled that the wolf was a conventional symbol for the devil. ("Sometimes Satan turns himself into a wolf..." [Monter 144]). The imagery was baked into red tiles, not carved, and these tiles among others were used to frame portals to the monastery, functioning as a decorative motif possibly invested with mystical power, or perhaps serving only as a reminder of the need for vigilance. (On permanent exhibition in the Landesmuseum, Zürich, is a facsimile of a St. Urban portal, including wolf-at-school tiles.)

The doubtful French examples. The carving at St. Pierre in Aulnay departs from the tutorial scenes in several ways. The erect figure may be an ass or a ram. Chanoine Tonnellier (74) observes that the ears are too short for an ass, and he detects traces of horns. Erosion plays its worst tricks on the finer points of carvings, such as ears, horns, and other extremities. Interpreting the creature's forehooves is also difficult. Are they pressed together in a ritual gesture? Or was something, now eroded, once held between them? The erect stance, the full vestments suggest an elevated function, albeit parodied. The creature may conduct a mass or preach rather than hear recitation. Teachers listening to abecedarians normally are represented seated, their apparel unceremonial. (Personifications of grammar sometimes stand, grammar school masters rarely.) The figure identified as a wolf is also anatomically vague in some respects, although the snarling muzzle is consistent with wolfish characterizations. His position is less suggestive of a student auditing or reciting than that of an assistant supporting a codex used in a rite or sermon. No gesture indicates a potential victim beyond the limits of the composition. Taken together, these observations suggest that the carving at St. Pierre was probably not intended as an illustration of a wolf at school. A different doubt assails critical interpretation of the imagery on the St. Ursin tympanum. There one of the figures does indeed suggest a schoolmaster ass, but the identity of the student has been lost to erosion, although scrutiny cannot rule out the wolf-at-school theme.


Fables. Some of the carved representations of the wolf at school correspond in some details to a fable that can be traced at least to the eleventh century. In a papal bull of 1096, Pope Urban II refers to the story. "A wolf was put to learning letters, but when the master said 'A,' the wolf answered ?lamb,? and to the Master's 'B,' he answered 'piglet'." ["De lupo ad discendas litteras posito, cui cum magister diceret A, ipse agnellum et cum magister B, ipse dicebat porcellum"] (Voigt 21). None of the carvings corresponds in all respects to the fable. The Freiburg and St. Ursanne carvings, for example, include images of the wolf attacking his prey while the master attempts to beat him off. None of the known wolf-at-school fables describes that scene. The St. Urban image comes closest to direct illustration, excepting its inclusion of signs and naming of the master.

Four principal versions of the fable have been preserved in manuscript form. The oldest of them, and least directly related, is an episode in Ysengrimus (c. 1147-49), a long beast epic ascribed to Master Nivardus of Ghent (Jackson 78). The popularity of the Ysengrim stories had grown to such an extent by the thirteenth century that Gautier de Coinsi, Prior of Vie sur Aisne, was moved to censure clergy for preferring to adorn their chambers with the exploits of "Isangrin" rather than with the image of the Madonna (Evans 183). A second account of a wolf at school is a short poem by Marie de France (c. 1150-1200), which was inspired in part, perhaps, by Nivardus' text or, more likely, by a work derived from the tradition to which the pope referred. A third treatment (c.1219-21), one adapted for use as an exemplum in sermons, is by Odo of Cheriton. A fourth tale (c. 1250), much longer than the others, Jacob Grimm transcribed and entitled "Von dem Wolf und sinem Wip," also as "Der Wolf in der Schuole."

Ysengrimus. The lesson episode related by Nivardus combines psychological insight with linguistic play. Ysengrim has become a monk, thinking he can live fatly in a cloister. He is delighted when the brothers decide that he should serve as shepherd, a job that had recently fallen open. One of the brothers attempts to teach him his duties, but Ysengrim's perception of the lesson is distorted by what he already knows and wants. So it is that when the teacher asks Ysengrim to say "Dominus Vobiscum" ("God be with you") to the sheep, Ysengrim joyfully hears "Cominus ovis" ("Hither, sheep."). He shouts "Come" in the vernacular, lest sheep not understand Latin. When he should say "amen," he says "agne" ("lamb") instead. The monks first mistrust what they take to be his odd accent, then they come to suspect his intentions. Ysengrim manages to allay their doubts until his accumulating misdeeds and a betrayal by Reynard the Fox culminate in a sound beating by the brothers and expulsion from the monastery.

Reynard's betrayal of Ysengrim fits a pattern allowing interpretation of the fox, not the wolf, as an embodiment of Satan. Ysengrim is greedy and stupid, and he suffers for his characteristic difficiencies. Suffering comes indeed to all the animals in the tale, excepting the fox. "Reynard, who alone among the animals can avoid suffering...but who himself inflicts torments systematically, is surely the 'smiling, damnèd villain', the only irredeemable creature in the poem...He is repeatedly called 'Satan'..." (Dronke 144).

Marie's fable. In the little fable by Marie de France, the wolf is left anonymous. She tells her story neatly and concludes it with a moral:

There was once a priest who wished to see
If he could teach the wolf his A B C.
'A,' said the priest; the wolf said 'A,'
And grinned in a grim and guileful way.
'B,' said the priest, 'And say it with me.'
'B,' said the wolf, 'The letter I see.'
'C,' said the priest, 'Keep on just so.'
'C,' said the wolf. 'Don't be so slow,'
'Remarked the priest; 'come, go on now.' A And the wolf replied: 'I don't know how.'
'Then see how it looks and spell it out.'
'Lamb, lamb, it means without a doubt.'
'Beware,' said the priest, 'or you'll get a blow,
For your mouth with your thoughts doth overflow.'
And thus it haps oft times to each,
That his secret thought is by his speech
Revealed, and, ere he is aware,
Is out of his lips and in the air.

At the outset of the fable there is a hint of foolishness on the part of the would-be teacher of the wolf. After all, the world is full of needs that a priest might better serve. Yet the cleric's folly is not the focus of Marie's moral. She is more interested in the character of the wolf as it might pertain to human conduct. He is guileful, a dissembler, but his hypocrisy soon becomes evident. Marie?s point seems to be this, stated baldly: Truth will out; hidden motives are subject to involuntary disclosure (i.e., the twentieth-century's "Freudian slip"). Marie's moral may derive from Isengrim: "Was dieser Münch denkt, geben vorher seine Worte an" (Schünfelder 105). Isengrim says of himself: "Wie ich denke, so spreche ich" (106). But his behavior shows that he tends to speak before he thinks.

The larger message of Marie's fable is confused. Are hypocrites born that way and, like wolves, unchangeable? Or is it that people generally are inclined to hypocrisy and, hence, should try to be more honest-lest inadvertent tell-tale clues expose the truth anyway?

Manuscripts of Marie's wolf fables show variation. The manuscript used by Roquefort, unlike several others, prefaces the "priest and the wolf" fable with an observation on the intractable nature of the wolf: "Put him to school with a good master to make him into a priest, he'll still end up voracious, deceitful, ugly and horrid" (2: 345-6). Porter used a similar version (3: 477). Spiegel treats this text as a separate fable, "The Grey Wolf" ("Del gris lu," 178-179), contrary to Roquefort, Porter, and Warnke. Incidentally, it may be observed that Holmes interprets the first few lines of Marie's fable as evidence that "the phonetic system" was the method of reading instruction in the twelfth century. Actually, those lines suggest rote imitation. The use of a "sounding out" (phonic) method of learning to read is suggested ambiguously by the passage in which the priest tells the wolf to "see how it looks and spell it out" ("Di que te semble, si espel!" [Warnke 271]).

Odo's Ysemgrinus. Like the Isengrim of Nivardus, Odo's wolf is an adult. He takes the initiative in choosing monkhood ("Ysemgrinus [sic]semel uoluit esse monachus" [Hervieux 4: 195]). He gains admission to a chapter, where he is cowled and gowned and set to learn his letters and the Pater noster. But when tested, he always answers lamb and ram , and during religious services, when he is expected to concentrate on the altar, his eyes are always seeking for the flock.

Odo observes that many monks are like Isengrim. They think of meat; they clamor for wine; they pick out the plumpest morsels on the platter. To this indictment, Odo adds a proverb in the vernacular: "Although the wolf would be a priest, and though he is set to learn psalms, his eyes are ever to the grove." ("Thai thu W[o]lf hore hodi te preste tho thu hym sette Salmes to lere, evere beth his geres to the groue ward" [Hervieux 4: 195, n.4].) Greed, perhaps gluttony, is the moral failing here reproved.

Odo's theme is bad habits. His thesis is that old habits are hard to relinquish. He makes no clear distinction between learned patterns and innate characteristics. The confusion is evident in his use of another animal simile: Comb an ass, wash an ass, shave an ass, yet it will never be a horse. ["Pectina asinum, ablue asinum, rade asinum, nunquam perduces asinum ad bonum equum" (Hervieux 4: 196).] And then he cites scripture: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil" (Jeremiah 13: 23). Bad habits once formed are as immutable as inborn nature.

Der Wolf in der Schuole. Wolves were principal characters in several of the medieval fables collected by Jacob Grimm, the great nineteenth-century student of this genre. In his transcription of "The Wolf at School," we meet Isenbart and Herrat, the parents of Isengrin, as they are confronting themselves with their destructive past deeds. They have reached a stage of life when worry about their souls has led them to consider how they might compensate for their sins. The answer, they decide, is to have young Isengrin, educated for the priesthood. If he becomes a priest, he will be able to pray weekly for their souls. Further discussion leads them to conclude that Isengrin should be schooled in Paris, where the best teachers are said to be found. The wolves and their cub then set off happily for the city.

In Paris, Isenbart and Herrat persuade Master Ilias, a teacher of renown, to accept Isengrin as a student. To consumate the arrangements requires persuasion by both parents, for Ilias is astonished at the idea of a wolf at school. ("Neither in Paris nor Salerno have I heard of such a thing.") Isenbart offers prepayment for services, and Herrat promises Ilias that he can look forward to a substantial bonus beyond the established fee. ("If you teach my son, I will reward you for it greatly.") She assures him that her son is smart, and then, perhaps as reassurance or possibly playing on Ilias's vanity, she recalls that Amis, a noted teacher of an earlier day, had taught an ass the ABCs. "Are there no more priests living who may be just as wise?" The schoolmaster hesitates no longer. Fee in hand, the prospect of yet a fatter purse and the impulse of a fat ego persuade Ilias to accept the unusual student. "Lady, I will do it."

When school began, Isengrin found himself among an unspecified number of students. Someone passed along a book, which Isengrin was paging when Ilias saw him and called him over. "Listen, dear Isengrin," he said, "you must be diligent in learning." For Isengrin's first lesson, Ilias intended to teach the alphabet. The method would be rote: "Now repeat after me, 'a'," says Ilias. But Isengrin is preoccupied by illustrations in the book that had been passed to him, which turns out to be a copy of Virgil, perhaps the Georgics or Bucolics. "Master, are not lambs painted in this book? Where, then, are the sheep?" Ilias acknowledges that Virgil does indeed discuss sheep. "Hurrah!" cries Isengrin, "teach me this book, Master, and you will be rewarded all the more." Ilias explains that there is much to learn before coming to such works, and that Isengrin should turn his eagerness toward that end.

Isengrin expresses willingness to learn, yet the lesson deteriorates step by step. Instead of repeating Ilias's dictation, Isengrin fastens on Ilias's final syllable and improvises an irrelevant rhyme: "I like to eat good meat without bone, whether here or in Salerno." Ilias is displeased: "It seems to me you are a glutton; I have said nothing to you of eating." Isengrin protests: "But no one can learn anything on an empty stomach." Unmoved, Ilias commands a recitation of the ABCs; Isengrin wants only to hear of sheep. Ilias loses patience at last, calling Isengrin a fool, twisting his ears, and turning his head to and fro. Isengrin rebels at the treatment: "How gladly would I do without this lesson. Truly, I tell you, my master, let go your angry grasp. Be warned, if you keep twisting my ears, I'll bite your hand. It's bad teaching that would make a fool of me...You'll have to treat me better, if you want a benefit." But Ilias, now thoroughly enraged, threatens to beat Isengrin with a club ("ein heister"). At this point another student intervenes. Speaking like a counselor, he urges a grace period for Isengrin. He suggests that Isengrin be allowed to tell his father about what has happened before he is beaten, for Isenbart may be easily angered. "That's what I advise" ("daz râte ich"). The student doubts that Isengrin will ever take to book learning or singing. He will get no further than his father in such things. Ilias agrees that it might be best to let Isengrin go. Then the little wolf stole away "like a thief."

Home again in the forest, Isengrin complains of what had transpired. It is a litany of abuse: the teacher took away the book, did not feed him, pulled his ears, made a fool of him, was ready to beat him. "I scarcely got away." Isengrin fearfully remembers that the teacher had at one point threatened "to inscribe a sheep on his back." He had only just escaped with his hide intact. "Devil take me for having come on this long trip to Paris."

Isenbart offers fatherly consolation and a welcome alternative. "Forget about school," he says, "you stay here with me. We should spend the time entertaining ourselves." Isenbart has his own lesson to teach, one that is short, practical, and unerring in its appeal. He tells Isengrin of fat cows in a nearby pasture guarded by mere children. Father and son might just trot over and steal breakfast ("morgenbrôt") from those little village boys. Isengrin responds in admiration. "Clearly, you are very much a master; you know so much of the old wisdom . . . from now on I will guide myself by your teaching" ("du vil gar ein meister bist / du kanst sô mangen alten list...ich wil mich immer mâre / rihten nèch diner lère).

Like father, like son; wolves will be wolves? That would be a fair summary were the text to have ended with Isengrin's pledge. But it does not. The author goes on to make his moral explicit in a coda reminiscent of the one proposed by Odo but much more elaborate. "Now listen well: Anyone who would spend his life trying to educate a wolf, or teach an ass to dance, or forceably bell a cow, like anyone who trys to get a foolish man to abandon bad habits formed in youth, is bound to suffer as long as he tries, even until the day he dies." Pedagogues will see the implication: Teaching unattuned to nature will enjoy no relevant response.


Nature. The wolf fables, like the corresponding visual imagery, reveal some patterning of assumptions about nature, teaching, learning, and motivation. The rapacity and greed of the wolf, characteristics evident in the fables and in most of the wolf-at-school imagery, is a common theme in the bestiaries, "...a wolf is a rapacious beast, and hankering for gore (White 56; Rowland 162)." Why should this be? According to theologians, animal nature was not the result of accident or mindless evolution; it was the work of a decisive Creator. Ancient Greek philosophy helped to explain a God of essences. To this way of thinking, a wolf is a wolf is a wolf. And like the wolf, all other denizens of the terrestrial world were thought to have a distinctive nature. To state the principle in fourth-century terms: "...nature, once put in motion by divine command...keeps up the succession of kinds through resemblance to the last. Nature always makes a horse succeed to a horse, a lion to a lion, an eagle to an eagle..." The idea of unchanging species was an old lesson authoritatively retold by Albertus Magnus in the thirteenth century (Thorndike 2: 533).

A wolf can never aspire to letters or a spiritual life; that would be untrue to his nature. Hence, he fails the curriculum in the Italian, Swiss, and German schools. He cannot concentrate on lessons because visions of meaty ram compel his attention; he is a mutton-head. Whether reciting the ABCs or mouthing the Credo, his real ambition is not to feast his mind on letters or the word of the Lord; it is to devour sheep. Marie de France's appraisal sums up medieval opinion:

Ki sur le lu meist bon mestre,
Quil doctrinast a estre prestre,
Si sereit il tut dis gris lus,
Fel e engr's, leiz e hidus.

No matter who might be his teacher, And tell him how to be a preacher,
A grey wolf's what he'll be for aye, Mean and ugly, base and sly.
(Spiegel 178-79)

Students. Some students are like wolves, or so we are left to conclude from the wolf fables and the illustrations. Fixated on the delicious things of the corporeal world, these unapt scholars cannot be lifted to a plane where mind enjoys a finer substance. They cannot rise because their motives are wrong. Thomasin Zerclaere, writing on court education early in the thirteenth century, warned against this type of psyche in a passage illustrated by drawings in at least nine manuscripts of his Der Wälsche Gast:

One may say to the wolf
The Lord's prayer all day long,
He yet will never speak anything
Like a lamb.
Thus it happens
With the bad man ... (Oswald 100)

Zerclaere's concern at this point in the text is more with potential "students" of his book who might prove to be malicious critics than with students in classrooms. Still, his general thesis is clear: trying to educate ill-natured students is an exercise in futility; it is assinine to attempt it. "No teaching has power / To make him virtuous/In whom virtue is not inherent" (Oswald 101)." And that was the end of it for Zerclaere. His view was polar to an outlook new in his time, then emerging in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), who saw virtue everywhere in God?s creation, and could call even the wolf his brother. Reference here is to the story of the wolf of Gubbio, which dates from about 1290, thus postdating the carvings and the fables. St. Francis reformed the wolf that had been ravaging other animals and men (Habig 1348-1350, 1502-1504). Hence, St. Francis reputedly accomplished what written and iconographic traditions had defined as impossible.

Intention, environment, training. Where Zerclaere saw innately virtueless characters, and St. Francis had a mystical vision of loving brotherhood, Augustinian psychology presumed a latent animality in fallen human nature. But it rejected determinisms at the point of individual action. All Christian moralists, whatever determinisms they might assume, had somehow to save theoretical room for personal responsibility. Thus, John of Salisbury (d. 1180) in his Policraticus inveighs against the man who "imitates the goat and swine...the lion and leopard, the panther or satyr, the peacock, the nightingale, or the parrot or any other type of brute or insensate creature he may choose" (365). John stresses choice; choosing implies free will. Of those who have surrendered themselves to bestial inclinations and desires, he says: "They have shed the desirable element, their humanity, and in the sphere of conduct have made themselves like unto monsters" (18; bk. 1). Yet he admits that environment and training are relevant to an explanation of entrenched immoral behavior. Answers similar to John?s were still forthcoming in early modern works on psychology. Levinus Lemnius, for example, observes that:

In many men there is a great resemblance and affinity in nature with other beasts, and the further that these digress from the purity of temperament, the less sway on them beareth Reason, Judgement, Understanding, willingness to do good, Wisdom, and discretion: to be short, they are partakers of all those things that are common to beasts.

And thus, there be many which either for lack of good education, or through this depravation of nature, degenerate into beasts, and in all their actions in one point or other, resemble them in conditions. Many like wolves, are blood-suckers, extortioners and raveners...
[96v; bk 2. Spelling and punctuation modernized.]

Levinus' evenhandedness is inconclusive, i.e., either education or nature explains human behavior. The question goes begging.

Not until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when Enlighten-ment ideas began to penetrate more widely, did opinion begin its gradual tilt in favor of a tenet emphasizing the superiority of environment in making people what they are. Advanced by John Locke with certain qualifications: "...of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education" (2), it was reaffirmed with no qualifications whatsoever by Claude Helvetius: "Education peut tout" (pt. 2, sect. 10, ch. 1). Added to this idea was the assumption that environments could be planfully changed, that education could be organized to foster values associated with a better life for all (Ballinger 88-99). The optimistic consequence of this thinking was a doctrine hopeful of a general and continuing rise for humankind. Such a condition had been more difficult to envision when the image of mankind was dominated by pessimistic metaphors intent on the immutabilities of predetermined nature, with reason cast ever as the loser in an irreconcilable conflict between instinct and rational thought.


Institutions. Is anyone to be held responsible when wolfish students are admitted to institutions ostensibly devoted to the preparation of benevolent servants of the community? While none of the best-known wolf fables clearly indicates institutional responsibility for careful selection of novices, the monks in Nivardus? Ysengrimus do expel the ill-intentioned incompetent in their midst, once discovered. A more cynical perspective is provided in a miniature fable by one Spervogel (twelfth century), although it includes no school imagery:

A wolf swore off his sinful way,
and to a cloister went to stay.
He wished a spiritual life to keep,
But he was told he must tend sheep.
From then on he was restless.
He bit the sheep and pigs and said:
"These deeds be on the pastor's head."

"Ein wolf sîne sünde flôch,
in ein klôster er sich zôch,
er wolde geistlîchen leben.
dô hiez man in der schâfe pflegen:
sît wart er unstaet.
dô beiz er schâf unde swîn:
er jach daz ez des pfaffen rüde taete.

Literally, the last line would translate: "This is the doing of the priest's big hound." How wolfish is the humor here? Spervogel's penitent seems to enter the monastery with virtuous, if unrealistic, intentions. But some nameless superior, the very soul of bad judgment, assigns him to the role of shepherd. Penitence notwithstanding, the wolf's resolution yields abruptly-failed dieters might empathize-and eagerly he goes to work while shifting blame to the monastic administration. Is there more to the story than a comic interplay of vain aspiration, stupidity, raw instinct, and fraudulent self-exculpation? Perhaps there is. The last line, wherein the wolf blames the cleric who gave him his assignment ("daz ez des pfaffen rüde taete"), supports the idea that the wolf is an expression of the priestly establishment. (Monks were sometimes called wolves, and in the Reynard cycle, the wolf represented the rapacious aristocracy [Rowland 163]). Through this modulation, the priesthood itself becomes the brute that takes bites out of those to whom it purports to minister. And now a convoluted analogy appears: From the bestiaries we learn that wolves eat earth when hungry enough; so prelates, after the manner of wolves, rip off pieces of land from other proprietors.

The priest-wolf equation sometimes connotes sexual appetite and transgression. In a French fable, "Le Prestre et le leu," a peasant digs a pit in which he catches a wolf and a priest. "The priest had dallied with his wife / The wolf taken his cattle's life / Each of them paid like a sinner / One for his pleasure, one for his dinner." Summarizing the pattern: "The sinful pastor is literally caught in the same trap as the beast from which, figuratively, he should be protecting his flock" (Helsinger 97). The common denominator of insatiable appetite, leaving aside questions about the social identity of perpetrators, is preserved in Cotgrave's entry for "Loup...Danse du loup (la queuë entre les jambes) Lecherie."

The iconographic evidence relevant to the question of institutional responsibility is suggestive, if ambiguous. The Parma teacher, after all, is depicted as a foolish ass. For, knowingly or not, he has endangered the community by his undiscriminating enrollment of one or more unfit students, allowing them to wear the outward sign of beneficial office and teaching them the grammar and the rhetoric of charity, which knowledge would be used against the flock.

The Psalter illustration of the wolf at school is also suggestive in regard to questions of responsibility. The connection may not be immediately obvious. The inscription in the wolf's lesson book reads "credo" ("I believe"), perhaps alluding to the Nicene Creed. But the student, whose behavior we now know so well, ignores the book, looking to the pastured sheep instead. The imagery of scene fills the letter D for Deus, which is the first word of Psalm 83 in KJV (82 in the Vulgate): "Deus quis similis..." The psalm excoriates the enemies of the Lord, who "devise cunning schemes against thy people and conspire against those thou hast made thy treasure." The schemers are quoted as saying "We will seize for ourselves all the pastures of God's people" (Psalm 83: 12, NEB). The key lines in the KJV are: "They have taken crafty counsel against thy people..." (v. 3) and have said "Let us take to ourselves the houses of God in possession." (v. 12) "Pastures" and "houses of God" signify Israel, but by extension may refer to any community of the godly.

Insinuated is a suggestion that by teaching the wicked the monkish master in the illuminated initial is aiding and abetting the enemy who would ruthlessly appropriate the pastures of the godly. The preceding psalm may also form part of the context of interpretation. It condemns those in positions of authority who "show favor to the wicked"; it calls upon them to mend their ways and do their duty: "you ought to rescue the weak and the poor, and save them from the clutches of wicked men" (Psalm 82: 2-4, NEB). Teaching the wolf, the master in the illumination may be showing favor to the wicked or actively conspiring to deliver the defenseless sheep to destruction. St. Matthew warned against those who come preaching "in sheep?s clothing, but inwardly...are ravening wolves" (7:15, KJV). Irony embitters fable when such wolves are trained by an institution founded in the name of the Good Shepherd.


The wolf is a relatively infrequent figure in the repertoire of Western education iconography. Only six sure examples in sculpture and some ten in manuscript illuminations are identifiable through standard sources. Because the wolf is the extraordinary figure in most of the imagery, his teacher is easily overlooked as just another anonymous monk. The Parma teacher, ass that he is, calls attention to the establishment, the institution charged with preparing servants of the community. This may suggest visually that those responsible for the conduct of education, but who fail to screen out candidates not sharing the service ideal of the institution, stupidly put both it and the community in jeopardy. The danger is destruction from within.

An invention of the twelfth century, the wolf at school represents an archetype of the aspirant whose motives are neither academic nor godly, whose attention strays constantly from study because his heart is set on things corporeal, the materialistic values of the world. Commitment to a life of service is alien to his purpose. His highest hope, the heaven to which literacy is a passport, is a position of trust that he would exploit fully to personal advantage, no matter at what cost to the community. He is at best a wasteful consumer; at worst, he is the devil himself, that old deluder Satan.

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