Concerning Cynocephali (Dog-Headed Men)

As a part of my April Fool’s Day post, I introduced the non-medievalist blogosphere to St. Rimbert, later the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, and his routine expedition to convert the Scandinavians that sparked a theological question: are dog-headed men able of receiving salvation?* Because I’m an inattentive bloggist, I didn’t discover until today that another blogger, Aunt B. of Tiny Cat Pants, had been intrigued enough to speculate about the origin and nature of said dog-headed dudes. Sorry to bubble-burst, but these aren’t berserkers.

Jennifer Lynn Jordan of Per Omnia Saecula has already covered the subject,** but you wouldn’t know that, unless you also knew that the Latin word that I’ve been translating as “dog-headed men” is cynocephali (cyno –> canine, cephalus –> head, like in an electro-encephalogram or “head scanny thing”). For a more scholarly take with a full dog-headed bibliography, head to In the Middle for a post by Karl Steel. So, what more can I add?

Not much. Karl Steel even has another post on this very subject,*** Ratramnus’s Epistola de Cynocephalis, or “Letter about them there Dog-Headed Guys,” the response to our intrepid missionary’s question that I’ve been talking about. In short, according to Ratramnus, the Cynocephali do deserve salvation, because, even though they cannot talk, they 1) wear clothes (and thus feel shame), 2) domesticate animals, 3) grow crops, and 4) live together in accordance with law.

Nonetheless, this still leaves the question of just who or what Rimbert encountered that caused him to think he’d met people with dog’s heads. The best answer I’ve found is, sadly, that regardless of how Ratramnus’s letter makes it seem, Rimbert was probably writing his letter in anticipation of meeting dog-headed men, rather than from actual experience.

Overzealous missionaries 1, Cryptozoologists 0.

Why did Rimbert think he was going to encounter cynocephali? According to Rimbert-scholar James Palmer, the men of Rimbert’s age considered Scandinavia to be, literally, the edge of the Earth; it marked the end of the known world. Consequently, once the Scandinavians were converted, Christianity would finally cover the world entire, and undoubtedly, the end times would soon follow, as promised in the Bible.***** And, as everyone with access to a good medieval mappa mundi knew, the edges of the earth were where the various nonhuman tribes crowded and thronged. Rimbert, in effect, was dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s by being prepared for anything he might find at world’s end. I can’t blame him. I’d hate to have to explain to the rest of the world that the apocalypse had been delayed because I forgot to preach to the dog-headed men over the next hill.

Here’s a closeup of the edge of the Hereford Map (a 13th century mappa mundi that happens to be very pretty), shamelessly stolen borrowed in full accordance of the principles of fair use, from of of Special Agent Steel’s posts:

(These much later dog-men probably do not deserve salvation, since they are naked and don’t seem ashamed at all.)

*I’ve corrected a few errors in the original post. Rimbert’s letter did not go to the pope, as I had said, but rather to Ratramnus of Corbie. The original letter is lost, but Ratramnus’s reply is recorded (and discussed above). For those of you who want more context (and read Latin and have a copy of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica handy, see Epistolae variorum, no. 12, MGH Epp., vi. 155–7.
**I don’t want JLJ to think that I’m horning in on her territory, so let me send some readers her way. Her blog runs two recurring features: Weird Medieval Animal Monday, and Weird Medieval Tribe Tuesday. Go, read of the barnacle goose, the sea-pig, the big-ear people, and more!
***Karl Steel is a secret agent who poses (unsuccessfully) as a medievalist. Nice try, Mr. “Steel.” Say hello to Rex Dart and Max Power next time you’re hanging out at the old double-o-water cooler.****
****An earlier version of this post attributed the dog-headed-post linked above to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, who is nonetheless the go-to medievalist for weird monsters and another blogger at the same site. Maybe if In the Middle would put the names of the authors of posts up at the top of the blog by the title where bylines belong, I wouldn’t make these mistakes. (Man, blogging was easier back when only my dad read this thing.)
*****Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jeffrey J Cohen

    I appreciate the kudos … but Karl Steel, JJC’s smarter-than-he co-blogger, made the post.

  • Got Medieval


  • Isaac

    Did you know that Mike Wenthe and I have a cynocephalous man in our latest comics story? Because I think Kalbi may not be getting his props here.

  • Got Medieval

    I do now. By the looks of things, he’s cooking and wearing oven mitts, so I think he’s good to go should any missionary wish to convert him.

  • Karl Steel

    JJC’s smarter-than-he co-blogger

    He spits out his coffee.

    Smarter at bowling!
    Smarter at staring at the vans parked outside his window!
    Smarter at rubbing his eyes and going ‘oh, I’m tired. And I freaking just don’t get parts of the Dialectic of Enlightenment.’

    Nice hypothesis. But I wonder: why Cynocephali in particular? There’s no telling really. Over at tinycatpants, I cite [he cuts and pastes] Claude Lecouteux, Les monstres dans la Pensée médiévale européene. 3rd ed. Paris: Sorbonne UP, 1999, where Lecouteux, who’s written on Cynocephali many times, observes that perhaps Rimbert’s problem was one of translation: the Norse word Hundingr, “descendant of dogs” was applied to a clan with the dog as a totemic animal, or perhaps the word designated a community of masked warriors (137).

    BTW, the Cynocephalus letter is ALSO available in trans in Paul Edward Dutton’s Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, 2nd ed., Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1 (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004), which might be, yeah, just a reader, BUT for a non-Carolingian person (me, for example), it’s a thesaurus of fun.

  • Jennifer Lynn Jordan

    Thanks for the mention! And the traffic. I linked to your legendary beaver post from back-in-the-day, because it was the godfather, or uncle, or father…it was the patriarch of Weird Medieval Animal Monday. I read it and thought, “Wow, some medieval animals are weird.” (lightbulb)

    Yes, it’s very early, and no, I’ve not had coffee, why?

  • tenthmedieval

    Those who know Latin and don’t have access to a copy of the MGH may be glad to know that actually, ahaha, you do, because it’s all online, and the relevant volume is right here. More people need to know that’s out there…

  • Karl Steel

    Tenth medieval: wow. Thanks a lot!

  • Brendan M

    “legendary beaver post from back-in-the-day” is one of my new favorite turns of phrase. It’s up there with our law & economics class discussion about Labrador tribes trapping beavers, and how they had to learn to let the beavers grow mature before trapping them, and how young beavers didn’t fetch such a high price. Or my securities law class discussion about how beavers can be a security when all the schemes involve trading ownership in one beaver for ownership in multiple beavers.

    Really, I think in the grand tradition of “Law and ___” classes (that I believe Yale has perfected) the piece de resistance would have to be “Law and Beavers.” I think Eliot Spitzer taught that class once as an adjunct at Columbia.

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