The Twisted Tale Of The Pig War

Privilege, ’Ppression, And Pent-Up Passions

[Originally published in In Medias Res, December 13, 2019]

“Realization” by David Beck, one of the illustrations for “The Pig War.”

The following essay is adapted from The Pig War, which is published today. All proceeds from the sale of the book go to benefit student scholarships, with a directive to promote diversity, access and inclusion at the Paideia Institute.

The Pig War (2019)

In 1530, amid the ferment of the Reformation, the strangest poem in all of Latin literature appeared in bookshops in Antwerp and Augsburg. Titled Pugna Porcorum — The Pig War — it consists of 248 dactylic hexameters, every single word of them beginning with the letter p.

And you can bet your bippy it’s not like anything Cicero or Horace or Ovid ever wrote. Have a look, starting at the start: —

Preposterous, isn’t it? Here’s what that mouthful means: —

Even better, the story The Pig War tells — once you finally work the thing out — is breathtaking. It’s a satirical tale of a conflict between the corrupt hogs (porci), who are hogging all the privileges, and the disgruntled piglets (porcelli), who want in on them. It devolves into open war.

The poem was apparently meant as a satire of university life for local enjoyment, but its story has a timeless quality, and — the human condition being what it is — infinite application. And because the principals are all pigs of various kinds, it seems obvious (though it cannot be proven) that the poem influenced George Orwell in Animal Farm.

The author of this bizarre creation was a Belgian named John Placentius. Because he wrote under a pseudonym, however, and because his book was instantly pirated and reprinted all over Europe, the ensuing confusion triggered all kinds of misidentifications, accusations, and recriminations, and, in modern scholarship, at least one hilarious crackpot theory. In the afterword of The Pig War, from which the following is adapted, I explain how it all happened.


On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone and which could be easily translated into other languages. … I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure.

– George Orwell, preface to the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm

What a mess! When our friend Placentius published The Pig War under a pseudonym, he had no inkling of the misunderstandings he’d let loose — the bristling, the squealing, the mudslinging, all of it far from home and among people he would never meet. The Pig War was meant for a local audience in Catholic Belgium, but within months it was bruising Protestant feelings on the far side of Germany, out amid the wine fields of Franconia. No one died, but within months at least one man’s good name

sternitur infelix alieno vulnere

was laid low, unfulfilled, by a wound that was meant for another.

And things got even crazier after that. Here’s the untold story.


Once upon a time in Belgium, there lived a Flemish Dominican priest named Johannes or Jan Leo Struyven (1500?-1538/9 or 1548). In those days it was customary for humanists to Latinize or Hellenize their last name, and since Struif was a Dutch word for a pastry, our author selected a Greek word for a cake, plakoûs, that had come into Latin as placenta. He thus christened himself Placentius.

Placentius spent a stint at the University of Leuven. He associated with an extinct residential college there known as “The Pig.” In Latin it was called the Paedagogium Porci or Porcianum Gymnasium, and its residents called themselves Porciani. In Dutch, however, the college was known as Het Varken, and that name is, I suggest, our first solid clue that Placentius is the author of The Pig War.

I say that because the Dutch name alone can explain the mysterious letters HV in the author’s cryptogram at the start of The Pig War, in which the initial letters spell out PLACENTIUShv:

And that identity is confirmed by the word Porcianorum — otherwise inexplicable — that introduces the second cryptogram at the front of The Pig War:

This time the initials spell out RICALDOABHER, and they reveal that Placentius’ “patron” at the Paedagogium Porci must have been (let me suggest) a man named Rikald (or Richard) van Heer. Heer is the name of a village outside Maastricht, and in a book of local history that Placentius had published in 1529, the year before The Pig War, I found a man with the same surname, though I could discover nothing else about him or his family. Whoever they were, neither man can have been much more than a local dignitary.

Placentius’ association with the Paedagogium Porci is one reason to suppose The Pig War started out as a satire of student life in Leuven. If so, the best hint in the text itself is the word palaestra in verse 24:

Praestat praelatis primam praebere palaestram.

For our bigwigs, it’s preferable to offer a first-rate school.

But palaestra there might simply mean “level playing field,” that is, meritocratic access to the privileges the hogs have been hogging. And as the story grows increasingly violent, it becomes harder and harder to key it closely to student-student or student-faculty relations.

At any rate, for the local Leuven readership Placentius originally intended, the identity of Rikald van Heer, and the “patronage” he offered him — presumably by hosting him — must have been obvious.

The Pig War did not remain a local production, though. Placentius had the text printed in Antwerp in 1530, just as he had had his local history printed there the year before. Alas, this decision proved chaotic.

The first problem is that while going to print — as he himself says in the prologue — Placentius decided to add a page to the front of his book thanking his “patron.” In lines 12–13, he declares placuit parvam praefigere pugnae pagellam, “I thought it would be nice to add this little page in to the front of the War.” And the fact that the prologue does appear on its own page in the original 1530 printings (though not in later reprints), proves that this is the correct interpretation of his words.

The problem, however, is that the patron described in this and a couple later passages is clearly not Rikald van Heer. That patron can only be Cardinal Érard von der Marck (1472–1538), the powerful prince-bishop of Liège whose long reign (1506–1538) was noted for peace, and who had “patronized” the publication of Placentius’ 1529 catalogue of the bishops of Liège. Placentius’ goof was in failing to make it clear that The Pig War now had two “patrons,” and of different kinds: whereas van Heer was probably just a friend (“supporter”) in Leuven, the powerful prince-bishop was someone Placentius hoped would pay for (“patronize”) the cost of printing his poem.

Let me restate that point for emphasis: the patronus identified in the cryptogram, Rikald van Heer, is not the patronus thanked in the prologue. This is the point to grasp clearly and not lose sight of. Yet Placentius never says so.

When The Pig War got pirated and reprinted in Augsburg a few months later, this seemingly minor ambiguity was, I suggest, responsible for a great misunderstanding. Divorced of its context, German readers had no hope of understanding the (Dutch) abbreviation HV in the author’s cryptogram. They also had no hope of understanding that the author had two patrons, not one, and can only have assumed that the powerful figure thanked for his “patronage” in the prologue and precatiuncula (“humble request”) was a man whose name was Latinized as Ricaldus ab Her. And knowing nothing of the original context, they had no better hope of guessing what the target of the satire was.

Despite all this, no one heeded the sage advice the Emperor Trajan once offered Pliny, that

sine auctore vero propositi libelli in nullo crimine locum habere debent.

anonymous books should play no part in accusations.

Yet the libelous accusations started flying immediately. As soon as the pirated Augsburg edition appeared in 1530, people began accusing Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), the intellectual godfather of the Reformation and Martin Luther’s right hand man, of writing The Pig War.

Melanchthon denied it, though, and in turn credibly fingered a frenemy named Vincent Obsopoeus. He denounced the humanist in a pair of letters to Joachim Camerarius (1500–1574), who was then a rising star in European intellectual circles. In March of 1531, Melanchthon wrote:

Vidisti opinor carmen de porcis ab Obsopoeo porco, ut videtur, scriptum, in quo ego parum comiter pro nostra reconciliata gratia tractor.

I guess you’ve seen the pig poem, which that pig Obsopoeus apparently wrote. Seeing how the two of us had patched things up, I’m not treated very nicely in it.

Two months later, in May, it was clear the controversy hadn’t died down:

De carmine porcorum miror, quid his iudicii sit, qui me existimant auctorem esse, cum vel caeco apparere possit me praecipue ibi irrideri καὶ κωμωδεῖσθαι. Obsopoeus est auctor, qui sui aucupis aucupatur gratiam.

I really wonder about the judgment of those who think I wrote the pig poem, when even a blind man can see I’m a special target of ridicule and mockery in it. Obsopoeus wrote it, and he’s currying favor with his flatterer.

So obscure, he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page (source)

Vincent Obsopoeus (?-1539) was a gifted translator, a superb Latin poet, a minor figure in the Reformation, and, by all accounts, an obnoxious guy. He delighted in twitting others for their failings, however minor. It is only too believable that he could have written The Pig War. Five years earlier, he had angrily accused Melanchthon of passing him over while recommending people for jobs at the new Gymnasium in Nuremberg; Melanchthon had (said Obsopoeus) ridiculed him on various grounds, not least his drinking.

Obsopoeus did like wine and joking about it, perhaps too much. In 1530, the same year The Pig War was published, he brought out a short Rhapsodia in Ebrietatem, and in 1536 he published a brilliant poem in three books titled De Arte BibendiThe Art of Drinking.

Now, the precatiuncula that follows The Pig War contains several lines about the beneficial effects that wine exerts on poetry. The same idea is even more prominent in the paraclesis pro potore of the title page. This “Summons to the Drinker” is a parody of the paraclesis ad lectorem (“Exhortation to the reader”) in the preface to Erasmus’ 1516 Greek edition of the New Testament:

This cliché goes back to Horace (Epistle 1.19), but a clear parallel would soon appear in De Arte Bibendi (3.12):

post potum, melius carmina mille fluent.

After a drink [of wine], a thousand poems will flow better!

It is this casual attitude toward drinking, I suggest, that helped convince Melanchthon that Obsopoeus had written The Pig War, wrong though he was. That misunderstanding further poisoned their relationship and further embittered Obsopoeus, whose later life remained largely a series of frustrations and disappointments.

It is also obvious why Melanchthon and his peers disregarded the attribution in the author’s cryptogram of authorship to Placentius. First, they had never heard of this Flemish friar from Liège. Second, since the and V were unintelligible, Melanchthon probably assumed PLACENTIUS itself was a mask for VINCENTIUS. And finally, anyone trying to determine the true identity of the patron (in reality, two patrons), was doomed to failure; the contradictory information about “the patron” implies the author was secretly being funded by a wealthy and powerful aristocrat — and for who knows what nefarious purposes! It does not help that the cryptogram itself all but seems to say so:

More things (plura) lie hidden in my heart, and they mustn’t be betrayed
by any hints; this was my choice, obviously.

In fact, it is easy to “find” an individual that fits the description of both patrons — that is, a man whose Latin name could be Ricaldus ab Her and who can be called (as the prologue calls him) potentissimus. I myself discovered an aristocratic family named von Merode that ruled parts of Belgium and Catholic western Germany at the time. In 1520 a scion named Rikald IV became Reichsfreiherr (overlord) and Vogt (patron) of Burtscheid, an old Roman town near Aachen whose Latin name is — get ready for it — Porcetum. Anyone seeking to unmask this lord (Herr) of Porcetum as the patron of The Pig War might even find conclusive “proof” in the cryptogram’s word decorem, which is nearly an anagram of Merode.

This is all hogwash, of course, and nothing but coincidence; the von Merode family has nothing to do with the poem. In the conspiratorial ferment of early Reformation Germany, though, it must have seemed intriguing, even reasonable. It must be what Melanchthon and his contemporaries thought. And it all goes to show, as the adage has it, that

Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli.

A book’s fate is determined by how readers interpret it.


Nearly every copy of The Pig War descends from early copies that were pirated and reprinted in Augsburg or Paris. With nothing to go on, therefore, we see confusion about the author’s identity already by the 17th century, when introductory notes to successive reprints profess total ignorance. Some claim the author had been one Petrus Porcius, alias Petrus Placentius or perhaps Placidus, a German, but no one knew for sure. These are just bad guesses based on no more than PLACENTIUS in the cryptogram and the original pseudonym, Publius Porcius.

In the late 19th century, English and French literary journals periodically rediscovered The Pig War, and copies are held in various English libraries. Although I cannot prove it, I consider it likely that Orwell knew or knew of it when he came to write Animal Farm, whose final sentence runs:

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

“Betrayal” by David Beck

Animal Farm’s stroke of genius lay in using pigs to allegorize human corruption, conflict, and revolutionary violence in a simple and transparent way. Anyone who compares it with The Pig War will discover numerous points of similarity. Both are satirical mini-epics, and their plots follow similar lines: the quick rebellion in Animal Farm chapter two; the pigs’ consolidation of privileges in chapter three; the second battle of chapter four; the pigs’ competitive speechmaking, in-fighting, violence, and increasing corruption in chapters five and six; and even chapter seven’s framing of the pig Snowball as a dastardly traitor — all of these points are found in more or less identical form in The Pig War. Equally impressive are a number of details common to both: the pigs’ use of written proclamations, the victory parade, even cannibalism.

Furthermore, in late 1946 Orwell wrote a friend a letter about Animal Farm. In it, he revealed,

I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job. The turning-point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves (Kronstadt).

Although Orwell keys it to an anti-Soviet incident in 1921, what he calls the turning-point of the story has a parallel in The Pig War 165–171:

That apart, given that The Pig War was written two and a half centuries before the French Revolution and in an era of perpetual monarchy, the text’s emphasis on the corruption of equality among the pigs is, I suggest, far and away the most startling similarity. I submit that it influenced Orwell in the justly famous climax to his story (Animal Farm chapter 10):

To my mind, and perhaps to Orwell’s, these words evoke the final agreement at the end of The Pig War:

Finally, The Pig War contains another feature that may have caught Orwell’s interest: namely, its Orwellian use of language. The vocabulary of The Pig War is necessarily limited; its genius lies in its constant use of the same words — e.g. pro or porro or praescribere — in different senses. Moreover, Latin famously contains a number of words that bear not just two different, but two opposite meanings: sacer (sacred/accursed), condere (start/stop), vacare (relax/work hard), profundere (produce/throw away)and so on. The Pig War puts these contraries to spectacularly impressive use, and not least in pinguis (fat and lazy/bravehearted), the word Placentius daringly used of his powerful patron in the prologue.

If Orwell did appreciate anything in this centuries-old poem, therefore, it was surely here — for in its language, I suggest, we discern the unmistakable roots of Newspeak.