Sunday, March 05, 2006



In the introduction to his translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais, J.M. Cohen writes:
One needs, as I have said, no comprehensive knowledge of his sources. Many of the questions are there only to tease, and nothing would amuse the spirit of Rabelais, in whatever limbo he may be, more heartily than the sight of a literal-minded reader hunting up and speculating on his every allusion to his curious learning.
Well then, I'll amuse the spirit of Dr. Rabelais by hunting up an allusion to his curious learning in an imaginary conversation between Villon and King Edward IV of England (Gargantua and Pantagruel IV, 67, tr. Cohen):
'Gracious me,' answered Villon, 'how wise and prudent, and how careful of your health your Majesty is. How well you are served, too, by Thomas Linacre, your doctor! For naturally he sees that in your old age you'll become constipated, and that you'll have to fetch an apothecary to your bum every day. I mean that without a suppository, you'll have no droppings. So he has cunningly made you paint the French arms up here and nowhere else, which was a most singularly providential precaution. For at the mere sight of them you get in such a funk and become so hideously afraid, that all of a sudden you shit like eighteen wild bulls of Paeonia.'

Sacre Dieu (respondit Villon) tant vous estez saige, prudent, entendu, et curieux de vostre santé. Et tant bien estez servy de vostre docte medicin Thomas Linacer. Il voyant que naturellement sus vos vieulx jours estiez constippé du ventre : et que journellement vous failloit au cul fourrer un apothecaire, je diz un clystere, aultrement ne povyez vous esmeutir, vous a faict icy aptement, non ailleurs, paindre les armes de France, par singuliaire et vertueuse providence. Car seulement les voyant vous acez telle vezarde, et paour si horrificque, que soubdain vous fiantez comme dixhuyct Bonases de Paeonie.
I'm sure any commentary on Rabelais would note the source, but I don't have a commentary. I did recall encountering the wild bulls of Paeonia recently, though, in Pliny, Natural History 8.16.40 (tr. John Bostock and H.T. Riley):
In Paeonia, it is said, there is a wild animal known as the bonasus; it has the mane of the horse, but is, in other respects, like the bull, with horns, however, so much bent inwards upon each other, as to be of no use for the purposes of combat. It has therefore to depend upon its flight, and, while in the act of flying, it sends forth its excrements, sometimes to a distance of even three jugera; the contact of which burns those who pursue the animal, just like a kind of fire.

tradunt in Paeonia feram quae bonasus vocetur, equina iuba, cetera tauro similem, cornibus ita in se flexis, ut non sint utilia pugnae. quapropter fuga sibi auxiliari reddentem in ea fimum, interdum et trium iugerum longitudine, cuius contactus sequentes ut ignis aliquis amburat.
There are some very funny illustrations of the bonasus in medieval bestiaries, available on the World Wide Web:For more on the connection between fear and defecation, see here.

Out of his vast store of curious learning Michael Hendry at Curculio adds more information.

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