We usually do not associate bison with the Old World, let alone with Latin literature, yet in De statura, feritate ac venatione bisontis carmen, (“A poem concerning the size, ferocity and hunting of the bison”) published in Krakow in 1523, Nicolaus Hussovianus offers a vivid description of the now-rare Lithuanian bison, its habitat, the customs of the local people, and their methods of hunting. I have just completed the first English translation of Hussovianus’ poem, along with an annotated text and my paper will explain the circumstances of the poem’s composition and then examine several short passages which typify its diverse styles and topics.
Little is known of Hussovianus’ life, and while Poland, Lithuania and Belarus all claim him as a native son, Hussovianus tells us: Polonus eo. He arrived in Rome around 1518 as an aide to the Polish ambassador to the Vatican. In 1521, the ambassador promised Pope Leo X, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and an avid hunter, the gift of a bison hide to be displayed in Rome, and he then commissioned Hussovianus to write an accompanying poem. But before Hussovianus could complete his work, the plague struck, killing Pope Leo, the ambassador, and the man supplying the bison, so Hussovianus returned home to Krakow, where he came under the patronage of Poland’s Queen Bona, a Sforza from Milan, to whom he dedicated his book.
The 1,082 lines of elegiac couplets are written in straightforward Latin, free from mythological ornamentation but with many echoes of Classical authors, especially Vergil and Ovid. The style ranges from the informal to epic, the mood from humility to outrage. That a Northerner could attain such scholarly sophistication and find himself in the daunting intellectual circle of a Medici pope is a testament to the mobility possible for educated men in the Latinate culture of Renaissance Europe.
Carmen de bisontis is a work of natural history and ethnography. Hussovianus’ pride in the Polish-Lithuanian wilderness is evident in his accounts of the flora and fauna and of the customs and occupations of the people. While, for the most part, the poem offers scientifically accurate descriptions of the bison and the northern woods, Hussovianus’ mistakes or his lapses into superstition are entertaining and give him an endearing naïveté that contrasts with his Renaissance learning. The poem reaches its dramatic high point when the royal spectators barely escape death as stampeding bison charge into their observation platform. The poem concludes with a prayer to the Virgin Mary to end internecine warfare in Europe, thus making possible a unified front against the Turks and Tartars.
But Carmen de bisontis is not merely an engaging poem about wildlife and folklore. It is also a pointed work of propaganda. Hussovianus was part of a national campaign to strengthen and spread the influence of Poland, and his poem was meant to influence Pope Leo to favor the tough, bison-hunting Poles over the Teutonic Knights, their long-time bitter enemies.