Medievalists get used to being treated as the permanent bridesmaids, caught between the grandeur of classical antiquity and the glories of the Renaissance. Greek medievalists feel this more than most: the splendours of ancient Greece and the excitements of the formation of the modem state conspire to leave the medieval period in obscurity. Even the most committed of Romantic philhellenists found medieval Byzantium a hard place to love.

It is correspondingly a delightfully bold decision of Columbia University Press to publish a long and learned edition of a poem obscure even to Greek medievalists. The work is an anonymous, fourteenth-century vernacular allegorical poem of just over 1,000 lines about a political meeting of animals, which ends with a battle between herbivores and carnivores. The animals make lavish claims, insult each other, bicker and finally come to blows. So the boar declares: "Even my hair fulfills a major mission / Within the Western church, deserving mention: / The padres bless the folk during Asperges / Using a sprinkler made from hair of mine". The victory of the herbivores - the prey - over the carnivores is convincingly read by the editors as a comment on class war, though they are also quick to note that the irony and sarcasm of the poem deflate all its protagonists. The language, a weird mixture of the bawdy and the pompous, is readable to a classicist with a smattering of modern Greek. The translation, the first in English, is accurate, down to catching the more plodding side of the rhetoric all too truthfully. The commentary is full, intelligent and covers linguistic matters particularly well. The introduction is also helpful and wide ranging. Here is a bizarre and unfamiliar link in the tradition that runs from Aesop to Animal Farm: a fascinating glimpse into a neglected literary and political world.


SIMON GOLDHILL (The Times Literary Supplement, February 20, 2004)