I will turn again to Biondo Flavio’s geographical compendium of Italy called Italia Illustrata, which was published in 1453. Flavio traveled all over the Italian peninsula and recorded historical information, anecdota, and local customs of the Italian countryside in the late medieval period. During his tour of Tuscany, he found himself in the region near the city of Petriolo. Here there was a remote monastery dedicated to Sant’ Angelo named the Eremo di Sant’ Antonio in Val d’Aspra. Flavio describes the place as being at the top of an irregular road threading through forested hills. It was also an austere place, not lavish at all in its construction (ut ad parum sumptuose et minus laute aedificatum te conferas monasterium).
It was here that Flavio was told a story by the monks who resided there. The tale–an account of a fight between two animals and its aftermath–is related with such intensity that Flavio clearly meant it to convey some allegorical meaning. It was not unusual in those days for writers to cloak allegories in the form of anecdotes. But it seems the event actually happened; we will relate it here, and discuss its meaning.
On the grounds of the monastery was an abandoned garden covered in brambles and a large, coarse type of fern called bracken. Flavio tells us that this large, coarse plant produced a thick root that was actually edible. In times of famine, he says, it was not unusual for Italian peasants to dig up the fern, pound the roots into a paste, and make a kind of coarse bread with it. One day a large, five-hundred pound boar began to enter the abandoned garden to dig up the fern roots and eat them, as these animals commonly do. The monks wanted to put an end to this dangerous nuisance, and sent for a professional hunter to rid them of the beast.
The hunter arrived at the monastery and spent some time observing the boar in the early morning hours through the narrow windows of the monastery. He was equipped with poisoned arrows for his task, and intended to use a crossbow (in Italian called a balista). Some of the younger monks and brothers assisted the hunter in his stalking and observation of the boar. One morning at dawn, they told him that they could see a wolf crouching in the garden, stalking the boar for himself. His body was pressed flat on the ground, and he was observing the boar with greedy intensity. But the boar was absorbed in his feeding, rooting around the ferns, tearing up the garden, and oblivious to what danger was near to him.
As the boar was doing its feeding, it would often raise up its hindquarters as it plunged its snout into the ground. In doing this, it would expose its large scrotum and soft underbelly. The wolf waited for his chance, and then struck with speed and intensity. It lunged for the boar’s scrotum, bit down on it, and clamped its jaws shut like a vise. The boar roared out in pain, throwing its body this way and that all over the garden, tearing up ferns and brambles, and bleeding profusely. Frantically, it tried to swivel its tusks around to maul his attacker, but the wolf somehow was always just out of reach. The horrified brothers watched all this from their vantage point in the monastery, aware that they were witnessing a battle to the death.
The garden was eventually strewn with so much gore and debris that, Flavio says, “one might have said that it was specifically arranged with these items for this event (ut conserendo eius modi duello constratam praeparatamque fuisse quis dixerit).” After about 30 minutes of brute struggle, the boar collapsed from exhaustion, with the wolf still locked on his genitals and underbelly. The wolf immediately began to feed on his kill, burying his snout in the boar’s carcass with the same relish as the boar had shortly before feasted upon the bracken roots.
The hunter had been watching all this, of course, from his hiding place in the monastery. He then raised his crossbow, fitted with a poisoned bolt, and fired it at the triumphant wolf. The bolt found its mark, and the wolf writhed about in pain. The hunter quickly launched a second missile at the wolf, and this one finished him off. The monks, Flavio relates, were a bit disappointed by the wolf’s speedy demise, as they had wished to “torture him to death while he was still half-alive.” And with this comment, Flavio abruptly ends his story (Sed hoc ad Petriolum satis).
What is the meaning of this strange tale, and why did Flavio feel compelled to relate it in such gory detail? The answers are not entirely clear, but I will offer my own opinion. I think his intention was to warn readers (especially the princes and cardinals whom he knew would read his book) that blood begets blood, and cruelty begets cruelty. In effect, that which you do to someone else, so that will be done to you. The idea is that we should be mindful that there is always someone out there who is bigger and more powerful than we are; and that our own savagery will often be visited on us by someone of superior resources.
There is an old Arabic proverb that relates this sentiment in a very clear way. The proverb reads:
.الدم الدم و الهدم الهدم
Literally, this means “Blood, blood, and ruin, ruin!” The great German philologist G.W. Freytag, in his monumental 1838 (p. 477, Bonn ed.) treatise on Arabic proverbs Arabum Proverbia, states that this saying conveys the idea of “Beware lest you shed my blood, for my blood is your blood, and my ruin is your ruin (Cave, ne sanguinem meum effundas, nam sanguis meus est sanguis tuus et ruina mea est ruina tua).” And so this turned out to be in the fight between the boar and the wolf. For me this is one of those lessons that resounds more with the passage of years. Youth often believes itself invincible, forgetting that after every victory there is often someone more formidable hiding around the corner. We should not forget this. If only out of a sense of self-preservation, it is wise not to take too much delight in the shedding of blood, or the exercise of unjust power.
Explore more timeless moral and character lessons in this seminal, original 21st century translation of Sallust: