Wednesday’s flowers

maze of red tentacles

friendship for Tito and Gisippo from Athens to Rome

Decameron X.8, the story of Tito and Gisippo, has an unusual setting. While most of the Decameron’s tales are set within two generations before the catastrophic plague of 1348, the tale of Tito and Gisippo begins and ends in Rome between 43 BGC and 30 BGC. That was the period of the Second Triumvirate. The Lex Titia of 43 BGC formally declared the constitution of the Roman Republic to be restored. In actual effect, the Lex Titia set the road to the establishment of the Roman Empire in 30 BGC. The story of Tito and Gisippo similarly reveals, under Athenian formal ideals of civic friendship, narrow interests and dominating power shaping friendship and political relations.[1]

Portrait of Two Friends, e.g. Tito and Gisippo

Ideals of friendship occur prominently earlier in Decameron VIII.8. In that story, Spinelloccio and Zeppa are young men and next-door neighbors with common status:

they spent a great deal of time in one another’s company, and to all appearances, they loved one another as if they had been brothers, or even more. [1]

Despite their mutual affection, Spinelloccio began sleeping with Zeppa’s wife. Zeppa eventually discovered their affair. To avenge that betrayal, Zeppa arranged to have sex with Spinelloccio’s wife on top of a chest. Moreover, Spinelloccio had been locked in that chest while seeking to avoid detection in an amorous visit to Zeppa’s wife.  Hearing and feeling his wife and his friend’s dance of sexual action just above him, Spinelloccio:

recalled that he was the one who had given the first offense, that Zeppa was right to have done what he had done, and that he had not only displayed humanity in dealing with him, but had treated him like a true friend. Consequently, he resolved that if Zeppa permitted it, he would be a better friend to him than ever. [2]

Spinelloccio and Zeppa had always shared everything in common. Now they agreed to share also their wives in common. The true friends and their wives lived happily ever after in polyamory. This story of sexual betrayal by a friend, sexual revenge on the friend in return, and the triumph of friendship is a parody of classical ideals of friendship.

The tale of Tito and Gisippo ends like the tale of Spinelloccio and Zeppa. Tito took into his Roman home his Athenian friend Gisippo. He made Gisippo “joint owner of all his wealth and possessions.” Moreover, Tito gave Fulvia in marriage to Gisippo. The true friends and their wives lived happily ever after together in the same house. Tito’s wife Sofronia had formerly been Gisippo’s apparent wife. Gisippo’s wife Fulvia was Tito’s “sorella.” That’s an Italian word for sister with a Latin root extending to cousin and female friend. Boccaccio was willing to suggest sexual practice that swerved from authorized acts. The tale of Tito and Gisippo ends with a perverse echo of Spinelloccio and Zeppa’s parody of classical ideals of friendship.[3]

Parody of classical ideals of friendship had political force in Tito’s long speech to the Athenian families of Gisippo and Sofronia. The Athenian Sofronia was the Athenian Gisippo’s intended wife. Because his Roman friend Tito had become lovesick to the brink of death for Sofronia, Gisippo secretly gave her in marriage to him. That action eventually had to be made public. The Athenians denounced Tito’s action. They called for him to be severely punished. After enduring for a time their attacks on his friend, Tito decided to address the problem:

knowing that the Greeks had the habit of making a lot of noise and threats until there was someone to answer them back, at which point they would become not merely humble, but quite abject, he decided their prattle could no longer be tolerated and that he needed to respond to it. [4]

Tito gathered the Athenian families of Gisippo and Sofronia and delivered to them a long speech filled with supra-reasonable rhetorical arguments. Consider Tito’s classical arguments:

  1. The immortal gods pre-determined everything. What is was meant to be: “it’s been ordained ab eterno that she {Sofronia} should belong to me rather than to him, as we now know by the outcome.”
  2. Gisippo acted according to the “sacred laws of friendship.” As if none of the Athenians had considered themselves to be Gisippo’s friends, “none of you should marvel that Gisippo valued my life more than your goodwill, since I am his friend, as I consider myself to be.”
  3. I’m a more worthy man than Gisippo. Being a Roman makes me a superior rather than an outsider: “Although it’s true that he’s an Athenian and I’m a Roman, if we argue about the merits of our cities, let me say that I come from one that is free, while his pays tribute; that mine is the mistress of the entire world, while his remains its subject; and that soldiers, statesmen, and the arts are all flourishing in mine, while his has only the last to recommend it.”
  4. I’m well-born and wealthy. I’m from an ancient and glorious Roman family. I’m wealthy and modestly reluctant to tell you I’m wealthy. My family and my wealth could help you.
  5. Good results are more important than bad acts. “If Gisippo has done a good job in marrying off Sofronia, then to go around complaining about him and the manner in which he did it is a piece of gratuitous folly.”
  6. Don’t blame me. Sofronia should have affirmatively asked for my name before she had sex with me.
  7. Don’t cross me. Happily accept what has occurred, or else you will pay: “treating you as lifelong enemies, I will see to it that you learn through experience just what Roman hearts, once roused to anger, are capable of.”

Tito finished his speech with his face “completely contorted by the anger he felt.” Taking Gisippo in hand, he immediately left the speaking venue with him. Tito walked out “turning his head from side to side and casting menacing looks all about him.”[5]

The Athenians appreciated Tito’s classical arguments and his power as a Roman:

so they went to find Tito and told him how pleased they were that Sofronia should be his, adding that they were glad to have him as a dear family member and Gisippo as a good friend. Once they were done celebrating both their friendship and their kinship together, they went their separate ways

Philosophers’ in their minds created classical ideals of friendship. They imagined republics founded on those ideals. While the tale of Tito and Giseppo recognized classical ideals of friendship, it parodied them. The tale of Tito and Giseppo points to the underlying reality of narrow interests (sexual desire)  and dominating power (Rome relative to Athens). For Boccaccio, friendship, like love, is about flesh-and-blood human life.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Sorieri (1937) traces Boccaccio’s sources for this story in Italian, French, English, and Spanish literature. Two sources in Latin literature are Lantfrid and Cobbo (about the 10th century), Cambridge Songs 6; and the Perfect Friend in Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis (beginning of the 12th century).  The latter clearly has roots in Arabic literature. The stream in Arabic literature that produced the Tale of Attaf probably also produced the Perfect Friend in Disciplina Clericalis and contributed to Tito and Gisippo. In the Tale of Attaf, Baghdad is dominant over Damascus. In the Perfect Friend, Baghdad is dominant over Egypt.

[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 8, Story 8, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 665-6.  The appended clause “or even more” suggests a connection to Ja’far and Attaf’s relationship in the Tale of Attaf.

[2] Id. p. 659. In the quote above, “true friend” is my replacement for “friend” in Rebhorn’s translation. The Italian source has “compagno” and “amico” for the first and second instances of friend. In Boccaccio’s context, the first instance of friend is an amplification of friendship relative to the second instance.  Musa & Bondanella (1982) translated the first instance as “true friend.” I’ve used that phrase above.

[3] Earlier in the story in discussing what to do about Tito’s lovesickness for Gisippo’s intended wife Sofronia, Gisippo said to Tito:

I can’t remember ever having anything what wasn’t as much yours as it was mine. And so, even if things had advanced to the point where there was no other possible course of action, I’d still be willing to do with her {Sofronia} what I’ve done with everything I possessed in the past, but as the matter stands at present, I can ensure that she’ll be yours alone.

Id. pp. 805-6. Sharing Sofronia sexually wasn’t an inconceivable idea for Gisippo.

[4] Id. pp. 809-10. Subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 810-15. The Italian text uses the names Tito, Gisippo, and Sofronia. Rebhorn translated the names to the Latin forms Titus, Gisippus, and Sophronia. I’ve used the Italian name forms in the quotations above.

[5] A very knowledgeable scholar of Boccaccio has written of the tale of Tito and Gisippo:

More than anything else, what makes the dominance of reason evident in this tale is the predominance of logical discourse, particularly Tito’s apologia, a tour-de-force of epideictic oratory. … Friends, orators, and Stoic philosophers, they {Tito and Gisippo} come as close to being Christian as conceivably possible, by nation, epoch, and ethics. Emblems of Hellenic and Latin civilization at its finest moment, they are a fitting pair for the closing sequence in the Decameron’s magnificent finale.

Kirkham (1986) pp. 230-1. Boccaccio probably would enjoy a hearty laugh at that panegyric. Another scholar perceived “a certain ambivalence with regards to ideal friendship in the tale.” She wrote:

If ideal friendship is defined by the Golden Rule (“Do unto others”), mutual goodwill, reciprocal love and the sharing of both grief and good fortune, perhaps the young men’s friendship is not so perfect after all.

Gill (2008) p. 74, ft. 33; p. 75. Perfect friendship is unrealistic to expect of imperfect human beings. Boccaccio had a keen sense for human being.

[image] Portrait of Two Friends. Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci). Panel, c. 1522. Collezione Vittorio Cini, Venice. The paper in the painting contains a passage from Cicero’s De amicitia. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Gill, Amyrose Joy McCue. 2008. Vera amicizia: conjugal friendship in the Italian Renaissance. Thesis (Ph. D. in Italian Studies)–University of California, Berkeley, Fall 2008.

Kirkham, Victoria. 1986. “The Classic Bond of Friendship in Boccaccio’s Tito and Gisippo (Decameron 10.8).” Pp. 223-235 in Aldo S. Bernardo and Saul Levin, eds. 1990. The Classics in the Middle Ages. Papers of the Twentieth Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies. Binghamton, NY.

Musa, Mark and Peter Bondanella, with an introduction by Thomas G. Bergin. 1982. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York: New American Library.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

Sorieri, Louis. 1937. Boccaccio’s story of “Tito e Gisippo” in European literature. New York: Institute of French Studies.

Tagged:

multi-species bird communities cluster their songs

huge bird flock

Suppose birds sing to communicate information efficiently among birds of their species. Suppose different bird species don’t communicate with each other. Then different bird species in the same sound space would advantageously evolve their songs to minimize noise from each other. Birds would act like a couple at party moving to a less crowded, quieter spot to more easily hear each other in conversation.

In fact, birds congregate in sound space rather than disperse. That’s the finding of Tobias, Planqué, Cram & Seddon (2014). They studied 307 bird species living together in the Amazonian rainforest. Data on individual bird species’ songs are available here. The surprising clumping of bird song may arise in part from communication between different bird species. As a neuroecologist insightfully noted, “interspecies communication shouldn’t be too shocking: we all understand a growl when we hear it, right?”

The Every Noise at Once music genre map by glenn mcdonald is a sophisticated, data-intensive mapping of human music. Comparing the study of bird song to the music genre map doesn’t make sense if birds sing to communicate information. Human music surely doesn’t arise from efficiently communicating information. I suspect the same is true for birds. Perhaps a map of every bird species’ song would have some relation to the human music genre map.

*  *  *  *  *

Reference:

Tobias Joseph A., Robert Planqué, Dominic L. Cram, and Nathalie Seddon. 2014. “Species interactions and the structure of complex communication networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 111 (3): 1020-5.

[image] Red-billed Quelea Quelea quelea flock at waterhole.  Thanks to Alastair Rae and Wikimedia Commons.

Heloise wholly innocent of disastrous marriage with Abelard

Following Heloise and Abelard’s affair, her pregnancy and childbirth, and their marriage, her uncle and his relations broke into Abelard’s lodgings and castrated him. Only two of the perpetrators were caught. Both were both castrated and blinded. Reviewing Abelard’s account of these calamities, Heloise wrote to him:

Who is there who was once my enemy, whether man or woman, who is not moved now by the compassion which is my due? Wholly guilty thought I am, I am, as you know, wholly innocent. [1]

In a subsequent letter, Heloise explained:

But even if my conscience is clear through innocence, and no consent of mine makes me guilty of this crime, too many earlier sins were committed to allow me to be wholly free from guilt. I yielded long before to the pleasures of carnal desires, and merited then what I weep for now. [2]

In Heloise’s apparent understanding, Abelard’s castration and the castration and blinding of the other two men flowed not from Heloise and Abelard’s sexual affair, but from their disastrous marriage. That disastrous marriage led to Heloise, who did not suffer any physical violence, being deprived of her delight in Abelard’s sexuality. Heloise is worthy of compassion and wholly innocent because she strongly objected to that marriage. Throughout history, few persons have argued as forcefully and eloquently against marriage as did Heloise. Men and women everywhere should listen to Heloise.

caught in marriage net

Heloise selflessly recognized that her marriage to Abelard would oppress Abelard. She urged Abelard not to marry her. After their disastrous marriage, Abelard mournfully recalled Heloise’s sagacity:

{Heloise said} it would be a sorry scandal if I should bind myself to a single woman and submit to such base servitude. She most strongly rejected this marriage; it would be nothing but a disgrace and burden to me. Along with the loss to my reputation she put before me the difficulties of marriage … What harmony can there be between pupils and serving women, desks and cradles, books or tablets and distaffs, pens or quills and spindles? Who can concentrate on thoughts of Scripture or philosophy and be able to endure babies crying, nurses soothing them with lullabies, and all the noisy crowd of men and women about the house? Who will put up with the constant muddle and squalor which small children bring into the home? [3]

Jerome fabricated words of Theophrastus to persuade widows to reject marriage out of compassion for men. Like many holy women in Jerome’s own time, Heloise, even as a single woman, took to heart Jerome’s lesson. She counseled Abelard:

St. Jerome in the first book of his Against Jovinian recalls how Theophrastus sets out in considerable detail the unbearable annoyances of marriage and its endless anxieties, in order to prove by the clearest possible arguments that a wise man should not take a wife [4]

Heloise figured herself as Marcella, one of Jerome’s close female associates, and Abelard as Jerome.[5] Jerome did not marry. Heloise wanted Abelard to live like Jerome (“blessed Jerome”), with additional pleasure.

Heloise’s courageous rejection of the formal institution of marriage did not imply rejecting sexual relations. Heloise and Abelard delighted in having sex with each other. Heloise recognized that day-to-day association in the ordinary affairs of life can dull romantic ardor. She explained to Abelard:

if we had to be parted for a time, we should find the joy of being together all the sweeter the rarer our meetings were. [6]

Heloise insisted:

The name of wife may seem holier or more valid, but sweeter for me will always be the word friend or, if you will permit me, concubine or whore.  … you keep silent about many of my arguments for preferring love to marriage and freedom to a chain. God is my witness that if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would seem dearer and more honorable to be called not his empress but your mistress. [7]

Heloise preferred to be Abelard’s whore or mistress than be Abelard’s wife. She surely was wholly innocent of their disastrous marriage.

A disastrous marriage is much more likely for men today. Family law is now a whirlpool of anti-men bigotry. For example, if a wife bears a child from an extramarital affair, the law will impose a conspiracy of silence and force financial obligations upon the cuckolded husband.[8] Men should listen to Heloise. Men should not get married.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.13, from Latin trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 137.  Id. has Historia calamitatum as Letter 1.  Other collections have the subsequent letter as Letter 1.

[2] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 4.11, id. p. 169.

[3] Abelard to a friend, consoling him, Letter 1 (Historia calamitatum) 24-5, id. pp. 35, 37.

[4] Id. p. 37.

[5] In her preface to Problemata Heloissae. Heloise quoted Jerome praising Marcella, as well as praising Asella. Heloise then wrote to Abelard:

What do these statements mean, I ask you, who are dear to many, but dearest of all to me? They are not mere testimonies; they are admonitions, reminding you of your debt to us, which you should not delay in paying.

In Abelard’s rule for the nuns of the Paraclete, Abelard described Jerome as “the greatest doctor of the Church and glory of the monastic profession.” He counseled the nuns:

in your love and study of sacred writings model yourselves on those blessed disciples of St. Jerome, Paula and Eustochium, for it was mainly at their request that this doctor with so many volumes lit up the Church.

S. 123, 128, trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) pp. 509, 517. In a letter to the nuns of the Paraclete, Abelard put forward Jerome’s advice to Laeta on the upbringing of her daughter Paula and other examples of Jerome’s guidance to women. Letter 9, trans. Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 10-33. Abelard, however, felt that Jerome sometimes went too far in his solicitude for women and his praise of women:

he seems to go somewhat beyond the bound of truth in their praise, as if he felt in himself what he mentions elsewhere: “Love has no limit.” … in writing to the virgin Demetrias, he began his letter with such remarkable praise of her that he seems to give way to excessive adulation.

Abelard to Heloise, Letter 7.49, id. p. 347. Boccaccio addressed the under-appreciated historical problem of men’s excessive adulation for women through his under-appreciated creative wit in El Corbaccio.

[6] Abelard to a friend, consoling him, reporting Heloise’s advice, Letter 1 (Historia calamitatum) 26, id. p. 43.

[7] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.10, id. p. 133.

[8] Of course, current times are also difficult for unmarried men. Instead of thuggish relatives, the state now deploys vast resources to punish unmarried men for consensual sexual intercourse that produces a child.

[image] Sunset over Lake Erie through fishing net, Erie, Pennsylvania, September 5, 2004. Thanks to Sensor and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Luscombe, David, and Betty Radice, ed. and trans. 2013. The letter collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Ziolkowski, Jan. M., ed. and trans. 2008. Letters of Peter Abelard, beyond the personal. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

Tagged:

Wednesday’s flowers

purple-dot flowers

friendship: weeping & laughing in the Tale of Attaf

Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota at Sackler Gallery

The Tale of Attaf the Syrian (The Power of Destiny) begins with Caliph Harun al-Rashid restless and uneasy. The Caliph, the Commander of the Faithful, opened a book. Reading it, he both wept and laughed profusely. His companion, his vizier Ja’far ibn Yahya, exclaimed:

O King of the Age, how is it I see you reading and weeping and laughing at one and the same moment when no one does that except madmen and maniacs? [1]

Ja’far’s sensible question infuriated the Caliph. The Caliph immediately expelled his vizier:

Get away from me and address me not again nor sit as vizier until you answer your own question and you tell me what is written and decreed in that book I was reading and you learn why I wept and why I laughed at one and the same hour. Out and away with you, and don’t face me again except with the answer, or else will I slay you in the most brutal way.

Ja’far ibn Yahya was a member of the Barmakids family. The Barmakids, thought to have Indian origins, were closely associated with al-Rashid. They served him as favored advisers and ministers.  However, in 803, al-Rashid turned upon the Barmakids, confiscated their wealth, imprisoned leading members, and executed Ja’far. In the Tale of Attaf the Syrian, al-Rashid’s strange rejection of Ja’far prompted Ja’far to leave Baghdad and journey to Damascus. The close relationship between the Caliph and his vizier became distant.

Influential ancient literature presents ideal friendship as persons being willing to lay down their lives for their friends. The story of Damon and Pythias, known in fourth-century Greek culture, told of Damon’s willingness to lay down his life for his friend Pythias. Damon and Pythias were followers of the philosopher Pythagoras. While both were in Syracuse, Pythias was sentenced to death for allegedly plotting against the tyrant of Syracuse. Pythias begged for leave to travel home to settle his affairs and say farewell to his family before he was executed. Damon pledged to remain in Syracuse and be executed in the place of Pythias if Pythias didn’t return. The tyrant accepted that ancient form of bail and allowed Pythias to travel. Unfortunately, his return was delayed. Just before Damon was to be executed, Pythias returned. He recounted his extraordinary efforts overcoming obstacles that had hindered his return. Impressed with Damon and Pythias’ dedication to each other in friendship, the tyrant pardoned both from death.

The friendship of Damon and Pythias doesn’t just concern that story. A renegade Jew living in the eastern Mediterranean area instructed his followers similarly about friendship. Foreshadowing his brutal execution in love for his friends, he told his followers:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [2]

Friendship among men has been central to the formation of large-scale human societies. The men who have created and led such societies throughout history have needed trusted, loyal men. The personal safety of the ruler, sound administration of the realm, and defense against external enemies has depended on friendship among men. Across Eurasia, in organizations of warrior men like the comitatus, men pledged to lay down their lives for each other and for their ruler. Fear and material interests haven’t been and probably cannot be a sufficient basis for long-lasting, large-scale human societies.[3]

Laying down one’s life for a friend was culturally elaborated into laying down one’s wife for a friend.  Consider a story about the pre-Islamic Christian Arab Hatim Tai. He was renowned for his generosity. Abu Said of the Banu Hilal tribe sought to test Hatim Tai’s generosity. Disguised as a dervish, Abu Said went to the tents of the Tayy (Tai) tribe. Hatim Tai, who was his tribe’s chief, invited all to come to this table. Abu Said declared that he would have a meal with Hatim Tai only if he received Hatim Tai’s wife. Hatim Tai, with his wife’s acquiescence, agreed to give her to Abu Said. Early the next day, Abu Said departed with Hatim Tai’s wife.

Abu Said’s request for Hatim Tai’s wife was a test for friendship. While traveling home, Abu Said placed his sword between himself and the woman when they slept. When he arrived home, he gave the woman her own tent and did not bring her into his tent. Abu Said then invited Hatim Tai to visit. Abu Said hosted Hatim Tai with great hospitality. Abu Said also offered his sister to Hatim Tai. He accepted. He took the woman home. There, uncovering her, he discovered that she was his own wife.[4]

Laying down one’s wife for a friend occurs with literary, religious, and cultural sophistication. In the story of Abu Said and Hatim Tai, Abu Said placing his sword between himself and the women is an ironic literary wink to the repressed phallus. Zayd ibn Harithah, a companion (close friend) of Muhammad, divorced his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh so that Muhammad could marry her.[5] The European Latin poem of Lantfrid and Cobbo, probably from the tenth century, tells of Lantfrid giving up his wife to his dear friend Cobbo. Like in the story of Abu Said and Hatim Tai, Cobbo left with Lantfrid’s wife. Cobbo, however, soon returned with the woman. He gave her, untouched, back to Lantfrid.[6] Historically and right up to the present, men’s lives have been socially less valued than women’s lives. For a man, laying down one’s wife for a friend indicates a more socially sophisticated friendship sacrifice than laying down one’s life for a friend.

In the even more culturally sophisticated Tale of Attaf, Attaf gave up intercourse with his wives to offer hospitality to Ja’far. Attaf, a handsome, noble young man with a godly smile, noticed the traveler Ja’far just outside of Damascus. Attaf invited Ja’far to join his banquet. Attaf and Jafar quickly became close friends. After the banquet, the time came for sleep:

eunuchs came in and spread for Ja’far delicately crafted bedding at the head of the hall in its place of honor. The eunuchs placed other bedding alongside. Seeing this, Ja’far the vizier said to himself, “Perhaps my host is a bachelor, and so they would spread his bed to my side; however, I will venture the question.” Accordingly he addressed his host saying, “O Attaf, are you single or married?” “I am married, O my lord,” said Attaf. Ja’far followed up, “Why then do you not go within and lie with your wives?”  “O my lord,” replied Attaf, “my wives are not about to take flight, and it would be nothing but disgraceful to me were I to leave a visitor like you, a man whom all revere, to sleep alone while I pass the night with my wives and rise early to enter the baths. I would consider such action to be uncourteous and failure to honor a luminary like your Honor.  In very truth, O my lord, so long as your presence deigns to favor this house, I will not sleep with my wives until I say goodbye to your Worship and you depart in peace and safety to your own place.”  “This is amazing,” said Ja’afar to himself, “and perhaps further events will be more so for me.”  So they lay together that night. When morning came they arose and went to the baths. Attaf had sent there for the use of his guest a suit of magnificent clothes. He had Ja’afar put the suit on before leaving the baths.

This account of sleeping together decorously suggests same-sex eroticism. Subsequently, by day, Attaf took Ja’far around Damascus to see the various places and sights. At night, they returned home to sleep together as they did on the first night. These activities continued for four months.

Ja’far apparently tired of his affair with Attaf. Ja’far suggested that he would like to wander about Damascus by himself. Attaf graciously offered Ja’far a carriage. Ja’far declined. Attaf then gave Ja’far some money. A Victorian archaic-English translation of the Tale of Attaf poignantly has at this point:

Ja’far took from Attaf a purse of three hundred dinars and left the house gladly as one who issueth from durance vile

Wandering about Damascus, Ja’far’s eyes found a beautiful young lady:

a model of comeliness and loveliness and fair figure and symmetrical grace, whose charms would animate all who gaze upon her

Ja’far fell desperately in love with her at first sight.[8] That beautiful young lady turned out to be one of Attaf’s wives. When he found out the cause of his friend’s dangerous lovesickness, Attaf arranged to divorce that wife and have her marry Ja’far.

Courtly and clerical thinking about idealized friendship contributed to the development of the horrors of courtly love in medieval Europe. That thinking, heavily influenced by Cicero’s De amicitia, privileged relational abstractions of friendship. Friendship was a voluntary association of autonomous equals. Friends were self-aware and self-controlled. The perfect friend was another self. Those lifeless ideals of friendship prompted men to believe that they must woo and win that one woman who is their other self, perfectly matching them except that women are exalted and men must serve them.[7] Weeping and laughing in the Tale of Attaf, Caliph Harun al-Rashid reveals better understanding of friendship and love.

Differences among men and between men and women are ineluctable reality that does not necessarily make friendship impossible. Cicero observed that “in the whole range of {Greco-Roman} history only three or four pairs of friends are mentioned.”[9] That literary history is a poor guide to actual human relationships. Friendships depend on faith, hope, and generous care. Friendships encounter faults and risk despair and forsakenness. Large-scale societies need many such friendships, especially among men.

Back in Baghdad, Ja’far told Caliph al-Rashid the story of Attaf. Doing so reconciled him to the Caliph. Ja’far returned Attaf’s wife to him untouched. Attaf had suffered impoverishment, imprisonment, and near execution after his generosity to Ja’far. Ja’far made Attaf ten times as wealthy as he was before he had met Ja’far. At Attaf’s request, the Caliph pardoned Attaf’s persecutor. With this happy ending, the bloody historical ending of the relationship between Caliph al-Rashid and his vizier Ja’far could almost be forgotten.

*  *  *  * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Tale of Attaf the Syrian, from Arabic trans. Burton (1886) vol. 6.  A longer title for that tale is The Power of Destiny, or, Story of the Journey of Giafar {Ja’far} to Damascus comprehending the Adventures of Chebib (Habíb) and his family. Chebib (Habíb) seems to have been an alternate name for Attaf. Burton used the Arabic text of Dom Denis Chavis (Dionysius Shawish), transcribed about 1790. Chavis was a Syrian monk who had studied in Constantinople and come to Paris. Mahdi (1995) pp. 51-61. Since the Chavis manuscript refers to cannon fire, it’s probably from later than the fourteenth century. Burton’s text also includes a second English translation of another manuscript of the Tale of Attaf. The translator of that text was Alexander J. Cotheal, Consul-General for Nicaragua in New York. Cotheal acquired his manuscript from the estate of “a deceased American missionary who had brought it from Syria.” The manuscript was written in 1685. Burton describes the text in the Supp. Vol. 6 (Vol. 16 overall) in his translator’s forward. Burton’s description of the Cotheal manuscripts and Cotheal’s English translation is placed immediately after Burton’s translation of the Chavis manuscript. Another version of the Tale of Attaf was brought back to England by Dr. Patrick Russell, “the historian of Aleppo,” in 1771. Mahdi (1995) p. 56. I have modernized and clarified Burton’s translation, which itself was a quite loose translation from the Arabic.  All subsequent quotations from the Tale of Attaf are from Burton’s translation of the Chavis manuscript. Cotheal’s manuscript seems to be a latter version of the tale.  It explicitly indicates that it is the text of a reciter (rawi).

[2] Jesus of Nazareth, in John 15:12-13.

[3] Valerius Maximus, who flourished 14 to 37 GC, declared:

It {friendship} deserves almost the same veneration that we pay to the rites of the immortal gods. The survival of our state depends on those rites, but our survival as private people depends on the power of friendship. And if the temples are the sacred homes of the gods, then the loyal hearts of humans are like temples filled with the sacred spirit of friendship.

Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium, Bk. 4, 7.1ext, from Latin trans. Walker (2004) p.  152. Friendship wasn’t just a matter of “our survival as private people.” In a letter to Charlemagne in 798, Alcuin declared his desire to help his friend Charlemagne in any way that he could. Alcuin wrote to Charlemagne:

And if this is to be observed diligently in a friend and coequal, that the integrity of his {the friend’s} mind should remain inviolate, how much more in a lord and in such a person who loves to exalt and govern his subjects in all honor?

From Latin trans. Jaeger (2012) p. S107. Alcuin, a scholar and adviser to Charlemagne, described his friendship-dedication to Charlemagne like that of a warrior of the comitatus. Advisers to leaders in the Islamic world similarly presented themselves as loving, subordinate friends to the ruler. Waqid ‘Amr ibn-Tamini’s account of Babak and the Khurrami revolt in the early nineth century in central Mesopotamia includes a reference to a chief’s comitatus.

[4] Crane (1921) pp. 202-3, from German of Prym & Socin (1881) vol. ii, p. 24. Prym & Socin’s source was a manuscript they received from a Jacobite Christian in Damascus about 1870.  Since the text is in Neo-Aramaic, it may convey a quite ancient story.

[5] Qur’an 33:37. Ibn Hisham, who died about 830 GC, edited one of the earliest surviving versions of ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammed, the Prophet of Islam. Ibn Hisham’s text states that Zayd ibn Harithah divorced Zaynab bint Jahsh so that Muhammad could marry her.

[6] “Lantfrid and Cobbo,” Cambridge Songs, Song 6, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 22-7.

[7] On the influence of Cicero’s De amicitia and the connection between ancient ideals of friendship and the development of courtly love in twelfth-century Europe, Ziolkowski (1995). On men serving women, see, e.g. the United Nations’ current HeForShe campaign.

[8] Ja’far fell dangerously lovesick. His ever solicitous friend Attaf called for a doctor. The doctor diagnosed Ja’far’s lovesickness from his pulse. That was a popular story that goes back at least to Valerius Maximus’s account of Antiochus’s lovesickness. Antiochus fell in love with the wife of his father, King Seleucus. To save his son, Seleucus gave him his wife. Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, Bk. 5, 7.ext 1. trans. Walker (2004) pp. 190-1.

[9] Cicero, De amicitia, sec. 15. An editorial note explains:

The three pairs are Theseus and Pirithous, Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades; the fourth, probably in Cicero’s mind (Cic. Off. III.45; Fin. II.79), was Damon and Phintias (vulg. Pythias).

Cicero praised above all the “friendship of faultless men.” Id. sec. 22, 100. Such men are very rare.

[image] Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota, at Sackler Gallery through June 7, 2015. My photograph.

References:

Burton, Richard Francis. 1886. Supplemental nights to the book of The thousand nights and a night. Vol. 6. Benares: Printed by the Kamashastra Society for private subscribers only.

Crane, Thomas Frederick. 1921.  “The Sources of Boccaccio’s Novella of Mitridanes and Natan (Decameron X, 3).”  The Romanic Review 12(3): 193-215.

Falconer, W.A. ed. and trans. 1923. Cicero. De amicitia (On Friendship). Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, vol. XX

Jaeger C. Stephen. 2012. “Alcuin and the music of friendship.” MLN – Modern Language Notes. 127 (SUPPL. 5): S105-S125.

Mahdi, Muhsin. 1995. The thousand and one nights. Leiden: Brill.

Prym, Eugen, and Albert Socin. 1881. Der neu-aramaeische Dialekt des Ṭûr ‘Abdîn. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Walker, Henry J., trans. 2004. Valerius Maximus. Memorable deeds and sayings: one thousand tales from ancient Rome. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland Pub.

Ziolkowski, Jan. M. 1995. “Twelfth-Century Understandings and Adaptations of Ancient Friendship.” Pp. 59-81 in Welkenhuysen, Andries, Herman Braet, and Werner Verbeke, eds. Mediaeval antiquity. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press.

sex differences in birds and their songs

male Northern Cardinal

Sex differences aren’t created merely through socialization. Both male and female Northern cardinals sing.  However, across cardinal chicks raised individually in an acoustically controlled environment, young males take about three times as long to learn songs as do young females. Males, however, are later more versatile singers as adults.[1] Among free-living cardinals, song control brain regions in adult males are 1.5-2.0 times larger than those in adult females.[2] Bird song is produced through complex interactions across sexes. Those communication systems encompass characteristic differences between females and males.

Sex differences depend on social circumstances. Among cowbirds,  juvenile males housed without adult male cowbirds develop different singing characteristics than juveniles housed with adult males.[3] Unlike humans, cowbirds themselves lack oppressive and discriminatory institutions that separate juvenile males from adult males.  Cowbirds are unlikely to be capable of developing such institutions.  Thus cowbird song is strongly fixed in cowbird social nature.

Whether communicative behavior is determined genetically or socially has little significance if social structure responds to environmental changes at a timescale similar to that of changes in genetically coded behavior. Chickadees naturally experience significantly different social structures.  Chickadees living alone or in a pair make less complex calls than chickadees living in larger groups.  That change in call type occurs in weeks following a change in the chickadees’ social group.[4]  However, most birds’ pattern of social living changes little through a bird’s lifetime. The social structure of most bird species is an emergent property of their particular nature. To a significant extent, social structure changes in a reproductively fruitful way only with changes in the nature of the bird.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Yamaguchi (2001). Social factors also affect cardinals’ singing.  Vondrasek (2006).

[2] Jawor & MacDougall-Shackleton (2008).

[3] White, King & West (2002).

[4] Freeberg (2006).

[image] Male Northern Cardinal in Columbus, Ohio, USA, 2011. Thanks to Stephen Wolfe and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Freeberg, Todd M. 2006. “Social Complexity Can Drive Vocal Complexity: Group Size Influences Vocal Information in Carolina Chickadees.” Psychological Science. 17 (7): 557-561.

Jawor, Jodie M., and Scott A. MacDougall-Shackleton. 2008. “Seasonal and sex-related variation in song control nuclei in a species with near-monomorphic song, the northern cardinal.” Neuroscience Letters. 443 (3): 169-173.

Vondrasek, Joanna R. 2006. “Social factors affect the singing rates of female northern cardinals Cardinalis cardinalis.” Journal of Avian Biology. 37 (1): 52-57.

White, David J., Andrew P. King, and Meredith J. West. 2002. “Facultative development of courtship and communication in juvenile male cowbirds (Molothrus ater).” Behavioral Ecology. 13 (4): 487

Yamaguchi Ayako. 2001. “Sex differences in vocal learning in birds.” Nature. 411 (6835): 257-8.

Tagged:

Heloise taught Abelard boldness and courage

Joan of Arc followed Heloise

Heloise, a leading figure in twelfth-century Europe, described women and men as by nature created unequal. She described women as the weaker sex, and men, the stronger sex.[1] These epithets, of course, are merely conventional, misleading descriptions of physical sex differences. Nonetheless, Heloise noted that St. Gregory the Pope had written gender inequality into his Pastoral Rule of 591:

men are to be admonished in one way, women in another; for heavy burdens may be laid on men and great matters exercise them, but lighter burdens on women, who should be gently converted by less exacting means. [2]

Heloise sought to lessen women’s burdens. But she didn’t believe that women are generally inferior to men. She argued that women should be allowed any sort of food and drink, because women are less prone to gluttony and intoxication than are men.[3] Abelard, a leading scholar of logic, should have been able to figure that out.

Abelard’s reason functioned in a different direction. A leading scholar of Abelard’s work observed:

we can see in his religious writings an exceptional theological exaltation of womankind. He is to my knowledge the first theologian to suggest that “the creation of woman surpasses that of man by a certain dignity, since she was created within paradise, but man outside it”; he argues that “inasmuch as woman is physically the weaker sex, to that extent her virtue is more acceptable to God and more worthy of honor”; Christ asks the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink of water “to indicate plainly that women’s virtue is the more pleasing to him in that they are weaker in person”; the saints who are virgin martyrs have achieved “a perfection of virtue that we know to be rare in men but frequent in women”. [4]

Abelard also declared that male bodies are not as beautiful as female bodies: “maidenly beauty is naturally considered more refined and delicate than the male figure.”[5] Abelard has been an influential figure in Europe’s historical development of reason. His influence can be recognized in present-day elite scholarship.

Heloise, who delighted in Abelard’s body as well as his mind, teased Abelard for his attempt to recognize that she was not his inferior. She began a letter to him with a courtly admonishment:

I am surprised, my only love, that contrary to custom in letter-writing and, indeed, to the natural order of things, you have thought fit to put my name before yours in the greeting which heads your letter, so that we have woman before man, wife before husband, handmaid before lord, nun before monk and priest, and deaconess before abbot. Surely the right and proper order is for those who write to their superiors or equals to put their names before their own, but in letters to inferiors, precedence in order of address follows precedence in rank. [6]

Abelard responded at length to explain that Heloise wasn’t his inferior. He sought to avoid Heloise’s blame and reproach.

Heloise taught Abelard boldness and courage. She had argued strongly to him against marriage when their sexual affair was discovered. Abelard, more reluctant to stand up to oppressive laws, insisted that they must marry. After much reasoned protest and tears, Heloise agreed to marry only so as not to offend Abelard.[7] Subsequent terrible events made clear to Heloise her mistake. Heloise became more bold and courageous. She wrote letters with honesty and truth, without concern for offending anyone. Heloise taught Abelard to write like she did.

Heloise taught Abelard words of men’s sexed protests. As a woman religious, Heloise did not believe that men are a demonic species. She recognized sacred scripture encompasses even literature of men’s sexed protests. In a letter to Abelard, Heloise drew upon that literature in counseling him:

Again and again women utterly destroy the very greatest of men!  Hence the warning about women in Proverbs: “But now, my son, listen to me, attend to what I say: do not let your heart entice you into her ways, do not stray down her paths; she has wounded and laid low so many, and the strongest have all been her victims. Her house is the way to hell, and leads down to the halls of death.” And in Ecclesiastes: “I put all to the test … I find woman more bitter than death; she is a snare, her heart a net, her arms are chains. He who is pleasing to God eludes her, but the sinner is her captive.”

It was the first woman in the beginning who lured men from Paradise, and she who had been created by the Lord as his helpmate became the instrument of his total downfall. And that mighty man of the Lord, the Nazirite whose conception was announced by an angel, Delilah alone overcame; betrayed to his enemies and robbed of his sight, he was driven at last by sorrow to destroy himself along with the fall of his enemies. Only the woman he had slept with could make a fool of Solomon, the wisest of all men; she drove him to such a pitch of madness that although he was the man whom the Lord had chosen to build the temple in preference to his father David, who was a righteous man, she plunged him into idolatry until the end of his life, so that he abandoned the worship of God which he had preached and taught in word and writing. Job, the holiest of men, fought his last and hardest battle against his wife, who urged him to curse God. The cunning arch-tempter well knew from repeated experience that men are most easily brought to ruin through their wives, and so he directed his usual malice against us too, and tempted you through marriage when he could not destroy you through fornication. [8]

Abelard, like many scholars since, probably was horrified that Heloise wrote those words. But words of men’s anguished sexed protests deserve to heard. To make such words heard requires boldness and courage. Heloise taught Abelard boldness and courage.

Heloise deserves equal credit for the Samson planctus ascribed to Abelard. Insightful scholarship has recognized the relation of the Samson planctus to Heloise’s writing, but misunderstood that relationship.[9] Abelard learned from Heloise. With that learning, he wrote poetic words of men’s sexed protest:

Oh, ever of the mighty
supreme destruction,
to such catastrophe
was created — woman!

She brought the father of all
down with due speed,
and the cup of death
she hands to everyone.

Holier than David,
wiser than Solomon,
who could be thought?
Or again, more impious —
through women’ fault — or more
fatuous,
who could be found?
Who among the strong
was like the strongest Samson
weakened?

The poem builds to a shocking concluding stanza:

Bare your breast to the asp —
bare it to fire sooner,
wise one, whoever you are,
than entrust yourself
to womanly wiles —
unless you should prefer
towards that catastrophe
to run inexorably
with those already named! [10]

Adam, Solomon, and Sampson were commonly recognized to have been asinine in relation to women, with disastrous results. At the same time, in Christian understanding, they were major figures in salvation history. Boldness and courage imply recognizing danger and moving forward. With the help of Heloise, Abelard not only appreciated the literature of men’s sexed protest, but also greatly heightened its poetic form.[11] Heloise taught Abelard to move forward in Christian understanding with her.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 6.3, 6, 9, 10, 11, 27, from Latin trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013).  Id. has Historia calamitatum as Letter 1.  Other collections have the subsequent letter as Letter 1.

[2] Letter 6.9, id. pp. 222, 227.

[3] Letter 6.14, id. p. 233.

[4] Dronke (1970) p. 137.

[5] Abelard to Heloise, Letter 8.3, from Latin trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 353.

[6] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 4.1. id. p. 159. Heloise’s implicit dominance is also evident in her sophisticated issuing of demands to Abelard:

we handmaids of Christ, who are your daughters in Christ, come as suppliants to demand of your paternal care

Letter 6.3, id. p. 219.

[7] Letter 1.27 (Historia calamitatum), id. p. 43.

[8] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 4.9-10, id. pp. 167, 169.  The Jealous Husband in the Romance of the Rose noted of Heloise: “she knew  the feminine ways, for she had them all in herself.” See ll. ll. 8759-8832 , from French trans. Dahlberg (1995).

[9] Dronke (1970) pp. 116-7, 137-40.

[10] Samson Planctus,2a-3a, 3c, from Latin trans. id. pp. 123-4.  Based on the critical commentary of Orlandi (2001) p. 339, I’ve amended “for such a catastrophe / was created — woman” to “to such a catastrophe / was created — woman” (“in exitium / creatam feminam”) and “Who among the mighty / is not, like mightiest Samson, / unmanned?” to “Who among the strong /was like the strongest Samson / weakened?” (“Quis ex fortibus / sicut Sanson fortissimus / everuatur?”) The second amendment includes a better reading of the Latin text. Regarding Abelard’s planctus depicting Dina weeping for the killing of Sichem, id. p.  341 observed:

we are living in 2000, when, luckily, no judge in any civilized country would forgive the rapist Sichem’s offence.

In the U.S., the leading U.S. government public health institution has categorized men being raped as not real rape. It has obscured the fact that about as many men are raped as women are raped. Today, women who commit rape are much less likely to face punishment than men who commit that offense.

[11] Abelard’s achievement shouldn’t be exaggerated. He blamed only himself for his castration and demeaned his own male sexuality. He lacked the self-regard and social consciousness to recognize that his experience was part of a broader social pattern of violence against men. In Letter 1.69, Abelard cited a line from Juvenal’s Satire 6. Nonetheless, other than in his Samson planctus, Abelard did not show outstanding boldness and courage in thinking and writing about men’s social position.

Relative to some current medieval scholarship, Heloise and Abelard appear to be towering figures of Enlightenment thought. A recent doctoral dissertation on Heloise features as an epigram to its introduction a gyno-solipsistic absurdity:

What would happen if one woman told the story of her life? The world
would split open. — Muriel Rukeyser

Posa (2009) p. 1. Newman (2014) breathlessly reported that Heloise quoted:

St Jerome’s distasteful image of family life with just one significant revision: ‘What man, bent on sacred or philosophical thoughts, could endure the crying of children, the nursery rhymes of nannies trying to calm them, the bustling throng of male and female servants in the household? And what woman will be able to bear the constant filth and squalor of babies?’ Jerome twice wrote ‘what man’ (‘quis … quis?’), whereas Heloise quietly changed the second ‘quis’ to a ‘que’: ‘What woman?’ In short, we hear an educated woman asking disdainfully, in the early 12th century, how she could be expected to bear the filth and squalor of babies. This boggles even 20th and 21st-century minds.

That boggles the mind only of persons ignorant of important medieval literature. Boccaccio counseled men in relation to women:

Even if they have the grace to want children (which is not often the case), it is not necessary to be their slaves.

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Downfall of Illustrious Men (De Casibus Virorum Illustrium), Bk. 1, penultimate section, “The tricks women use to capture the reason of men are many and varied.”  From Latin trans. Hall (1965) p. 45. Even earlier, Juvenal in Satire 6 offered bracing words about women’s lack of love for children. Today persons who apparently have received advanced medieval education proudly post on the web “academic” writing that uncannily embodies popular stereotypes of medieval thought. See Ongley (n.d).

[image] Joan of Arc, painting, oil on parchment, c. 1485. Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, AE II 2490. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Dahlberg, Charles, trans. 1995.  Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. 3rd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic individuality in the Middle Ages: new departures in poetry, 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hall, Louis Brewer, trans. 1965. Giovanni Boccaccio. The fates of illustrious men. New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co.

Luscombe, David, and Betty Radice, ed. and trans. 2013. The letter collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Newman, Barbara. 2014. “Astonishing Heloise.” Review of The Letter Collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise edited by David Luscombe. London Review of Books. 36:2: 23 Jan.

Ongley, Shannon. n.d. “Gender Roles in ‘Abelard and Heloise.'” Pidgin Scratch, under “Writing Samples,” “Academic,” with headline image indicating “pen for hire.”

Orlandi, Giovanni. 2001. “On the text and interpretation of Abelard’s Planctus.” Pp. 327-42 in John Marenbon and Peter Dronke,eds. Poetry and philosophy in the Middle Ages: a festschrift for Peter Dronke. Leiden.

Posa, Carmel M. 2009. The Theology and Spirituality of the Body in the Writings of Heloise of the Paraclete. Doctor of Philosophy thesis, University of Divinity (Melbourne).

Tagged:

Wednesday’s flowers

life-ebb

metatextual irony follows Gemmata, Pietro and Donno Gianni

Read literally, the preface to the Decameron indicates that it was written for ladies.  Boccaccio and a lady reader of Decameron IX.10 are laughing still at today’s learned literary scholars’ will to believe that fiction.

Gray Arabian broodmare

In Decameron IX.10, Donno Gianni, a priest serving an impoverished church, garnered a living by trading at fares.  Donno Gianni became friends with a fellow trader named Pietro.  Pietro lived in a poor little cottage and had only one ass.  When Donno Gianni visited, he had to sleep in the stable on straw next to his mare and Pietro’s ass.  Pietro’s wife Gemmata offered to sleep at a neighbor’s so that Donno Gianni could have her place in bed with Pietro.  Donno Gianni declined that offer.  He told Gemmata:

don’t trouble yourself about me.  I’m doing just fine, because whenever I like, I change this mare into a beautiful gal and pass the time with her.  Then, whenever I want to, I turn her into a mare again. [1]

While a priest, Donno Gianni evidently was also a man with keen heterosexual animal instinct.

Gemmata believed Donno Gianni’s tale.  Eager for greater earnings from trading, she urged her husband to have Donno Gianni turn her into a mare to work with his ass transporting trading goods.  When Pietro returned home, he could have Donno Gianni turn her back into a woman.

Pietro pleaded with Donno Gianni to fulfill his wife’s rich plot.  Donno Gianni tried to decline, but Pietro insisted.  Finally, Donno Gianni agreed to perform his magic in their cottage just before daybreak.  He explained that if they wanted his performance to succeed, they had to obey his every order and not say a single word, no matter what.  They eagerly agreed.

To perform his magic in their cottage just before daybreak, Donno Gianni ordered Gemmata to take off all her clothes and get on her hands and knees in the position of a mare.  Then Donno Gianni began touching her and invoking a bodily transformation:

“Let this be a fine mare’s head.” Then stroking her hair, he said: “Let this be a fine mare’s mane.” Next, he touched her arms, saying: “Let these be a fine mare’s legs and hooves.” [2]

Just as for the monk Rustico and the young girl Alibech, events led to a rising of the flesh:

When he came to her breasts, he found they were so firm and round that a certain uninvited something or other awoke and stood erect, and he said: “And let this be a fine mare’s chest.”

He then did the same thing to her back, her stomach, her hindquarters, her thighs, and her legs.  Finally, having nothing left to take care of but the tail, he whipped up his shirt, grabbed hold of the stick he used for planting men, and quickly stuck it into the furrow that was designed for it, saying: “And let this be a fine mare’s tail.”

Pietro then interrupted, saying he didn’t want a tail there.  After the “vital fluids that all plants need to take root” had come, Donno Gianni pulled out of his magic performance.  He declared that Pietro’s words had broken the spell.  Pietro explained his interruption:

“I didn’t want that tail there, no, not me.  Why didn’t you tell me, ‘Do it yourself’?  And besides, you were sticking it on too low.”

“I didn’t tell you because it was your first time,” replied Donno Gianni, “and you wouldn’t have known how to stick it on as well as I do.”

Pietro apparently preferred putting the tail on the mare in the ass position.  Gemmata turned on Pietro, called him a dope, and blamed him for ruining their chance to earn more money.  Pietro was left to continue doing his work only with the ass.

Dioneo, who understood Ovid’s teachings on love, told this story.  He first praised the ladies’ superior virtue.  He then summarized the story’s moral teaching:

{this story} will teach you how carefully one must follow the instructions of those who do things by means of incantations and how making even one tiny mistake will ruin everything the magician has done.

The conclusion for Day 9 offers a higher metatextual commentary on this story:

How the company laughed at this story, which the ladies understood better than Dioneo had intended, can be left to the imagination of that lady who has read it and is laughing at it still.

At those who read the Decameron without a hearty sense of irony, she is laughing still.[3]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 9, Story 10, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 745.  All subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 746-8.

[2] The original Italian sounds more like an incantation:

“Questa sia bella testa di cavalla ” … “Questi sieno belli crini di cavalla” … “E queste sieno belle gambe e belli piedi di cavalla.”

[3] Most Boccaccio scholars today apparently believe that the Decameron actually was written for ladies. See, e.g. Houston (2010) p. 120.

[image] Gray Arabian broodmare.  Thanks to Lovely Little Girl and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Houston, Jason M. 2010. Building a monument to Dante: Boccaccio as Dantista. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

Tagged:

Next Page »