dog is man’s best friend in medieval Latin literature

Humans’ emotional friendship with dogs has been regarded as a modern development. The saying “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog!” has been well-known only since the late twentieth century.[1] The more general claim, “if you want a friend, buy a dog,” is attested in print from 1911. The slightly different claim that a dog is man’s best friend is attested only from 1789.[2] The Oxford English Dictionary explains:

Before the eighteenth century, dogs other than the disdained lap-dog were usually kept not as household pets but for hunting, working, or guarding, and the language used to describe them often reflects this. In the oldest proverbs and phrases dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful. To throw or cast someone to the dogs (from 1556) is to send them to destruction or ruin, as is the later and now more common to go to the dogs (from 1619).

That explanation is misleading. In literary fact, humans’ intense friendship with dogs has a long history. Within circumstances of betrayal in domestic human relations, medieval Latin literature from no later than the year 968 figured a dog as the preferred choice for a man’s friend.

dog is man's friend

Friendship with a dog occurs in medieval Latin literature within a framing narrative of domestic betrayal. In a dog-friend story recorded in Latin in 968,  young men plotted to kill their fathers. The young men wanted freedom to pursue their desires without the constraint of their fathers’ views. One of them didn’t kill his father, not because of love, but out of fear. The young man and his wife hid the man’s father in their home. Whenever the king asked for advice, the man consulted his hidden father and got the advice from him. Through the goodness of his father’s advice, the man became an eminent counselor to the king. His friends then began to envy him. They plotted to put him death. Thus sons betrayed fathers, and friends betrayed friends.

The young man chose a dog to be his friend before the king. Apparently setting up the young man for a charge of betraying the king’s order, the king ordered the young man to appear before him with only one servant, one friend, and one enemy.  The young man was confused and terrified. He consulted his father. His father advised:

You have a fine donkey: take him with you laden with bread, wine, and meat. You have one little she-dog well-trained to defend your property: take her with you. Take also your wife along with you. Offer the donkey as your servant, the dog as your friend, and your wife as your enemy. [3]

The donkey in the role of servant suggest the difficulty of finding an obedient human servant. The wife as enemy suggests men’s anguish at perceived betrayal by their wives. The choice of a dog as a friend contrasts with the friends who sought the young man’s life.[4]

A version recorded about 1190 includes effusive praise of the dog as “my best friend.” The young man declared to the king:

My dog symbolizes my best friend. He goes with me wherever I go and does not fear the danger of rivers, the knives of bandits, and the teeth of wild beasts. He even despises death for my sake. Often he returns from hunting with noble spoils of the chase for me and my guests; never happy without me, never sorrowful with me. Certainly, O King, I could never find another friend so pure and faithful. I think not even you could be such. [5]

The dog as man’s best friend is not merely a lap-dog. In this medieval Latin text, the dog is a best friend in a way similar to a man being a best friend to another man.

Humans domesticated dogs before they domesticated any other animal or plant. A puppy was found buried in the arms of a human under a home 12,000 years old. Attachment between a human and a dog seems to use the same biological pathways as attachment between humans.[6] A man regarding a dog as his best friend probably occurred long before the earliest text of such a relationship in surviving literature.

Domestic relations provide humans with both comfort and anguish. If you seek a servant who will never complain, get a donkey. If you cannot endure any fear that your spouse might betray you, don’t get married. To have a friend who surely will not speak against you, get a dog.

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[1] That claim is commonly attributed to Harry Truman, the U.S. president from 1945 to 1953. There’s no evidence that Harry Truman said it or wrote it. Moreover, Truman wasn’t fond of dogs. See the Quote Investigator’s article on “want  a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

[2] The statement “a dog is man’s best friend” is recorded for Frederick, King of Prussia. The claim that “Doug is man’s best friend” is a very recent variant.

[3] The story is recorded in a sermon of Ratherius (Rather of Verona), Sermon on the Octave of the Pasch, CC Opera Minora 171-76, from Latin trans. Reid (1991) pp. 510-11. The Latin text is available online in Patrologia Latina, vol. 136 and through the Corpus Corporum website. Rather of Verona experienced throughout his life tense personal relationships and betrayal. Van Renswoude (2010).

[4] In a similar story from Lamentationes Matheoluli (Latin text dated 1290), the young man is instructed to bring also his lord. The young man brings his infant as his lord. That suggests the young man’s frustration with serving his infant. See l. 897-924, in Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (214) pp. 112-4, or Van Hamel (1892) pp. 65-7. In Dolopathos (Latin text dated about 1190), the young man brings his little son in response to a demand to bring also an actor. The figure of the little son as actor is affectionate:

Where can I find a better actor than my little son? Every day he puts on new shows. When he tries to imitate what he sees or hears, he uses comic gestures. He stammers words which he cannot handle properly, and when he cannot say at all what he is thinking, he illustrates it by signs and motions of the body. One moment he is gay, and the next moment he is sad. He cries and laughs, not deliberately as other actors do, but simply as nature and his youth compel. For all this he asks no reward.

Trans. Gilliland (1981) p. 53 (senex, the story of the third wise man). The story is set in ancient Rome, and the description of the actor is that of a Roman pantomime.

[5] Dolopathos, id. p. 52. In literature arising nearly two millennia earlier, Odysseus and his dog Argos express an affectionate relationship in the context of men betraying Odysseus.  See Homer, Odyssey, Book 17, l. 290-327.

[6] Grimm (2015), MacLean & Hare (2015).

[image] Matheolus with his wife, son, dog, and donkey before King Solomon. Engraving, from image 35 in edition of Jehan le Fèvre, Matheolus qui nous monstre sans varier les biens & aussi les vertus: qui viennent pour soy marier (Lyon: Olivier Arnouillet, 1550), in Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon, Rés. B 487656. Thanks to Gallica. Le Fèvre added to his Latin source that Matheolus should appear before the king neither clothed nor naked. The image shows Matheolus wearing netting.


Gilleland, Brady B. 1981. Johannes de Alta Silva. Dolopathos, or, The king and the seven wise men. Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies.

Grimm, David. 2015. “Dawn of the dog.” Science. 348 (6232): 274-279.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt, eds. 2014. Lamentationes Matheoluli. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

MacLean, Evan L., and Brian Hare. 2015. “Dogs hijack the human bonding pathway.” Science. 348 (6232): 280-281.

Reid, Peter L. D. ed. and trans. 1991. The complete works of Rather of Verona. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Van Renswoude, Irene. 2010. “The Sincerity of Fiction. Rather of Verona and the quest for self-knowledge.”Corradini, Richard, ed. 2010. Ego trouble: authors and their identities in the early Middle Ages. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

bleeding warrior & worker drone in Layla l-Akhyaliyya’s poetry

dead soldier, bleeding on face

The early Arabic poet Layla l-Akhyaliyya, like eminent medieval European women writers, challenged the oppressive position of men. Throughout recorded history, men have tended to be constructed as instrumental beings — persons providing resources for women and children and fighting and dying for gynocentric society. Many scholars today buttress and obscure this dominant ideology. Layla l-Akhyaliyya was different. In at least one marthiya, she rejected inciting men to kill other men. In her brilliant and under-appreciated qasida, she challenged mis-understanding of women’s power and men’s suffering. Learning to read well Layla l-Akhyaliyya’s poetry can help to recover empathy for men.[1]

Layla l-Akhyaliyya lamented the killing of her beloved Tawba. She described him being brutally hacked to death:

Their swords flocked around him, then it was as if
they left him fired up, sharpened
With each blow of an Indian blade
blood slipped from the sword’s prominent glitter [2]

Layla l-Akhyaliyya also described Abdullah’s love for his slaughtered brother Tawba:

It was Abdullah who nursed his mother’s son
and returned with the skins of an iron-clad raider
and, like a she-camel with a tulchan, he was beating away from him
the birds of prey which had cast him about with their gullets

The description of the killing emphasizes the inanimate sword. The brotherly grief emphasizes protecting the remains of the man’s body. Killing men corresponds to devaluing men’s bodies.

In common tribal circumstances, killing a man is merely one link in a chain of killing men for blood vengeance. Women inciting men to kill other men strongly supports blood vengeance. With astonishing daring, Layla l-Akhyaliyya highlighted the systemic destruction of men’s lives:

one {man} murdered by Banū ʼAwf is one {man} murdered by Yahābir

and if the slain ones are equal in retaliation then you all
will meet, entering a {battle} day from which there is no exit

In the U.S. today, four times more men than women die from violence. That reality is almost wholly ignored publicly, as if men’s dead bodies matter less than games of blame among elites tending their cats. Layla l-Akhyaliyya challenged the social normalization of men’s deaths.

Concern for men is key to appreciating fully the intricate poetic art of Layla l-Akhyaliyya’s qasida. Its opening section (nasīb) moves from ambiguous emotion of joy / grief at a desolate campsite to memories of uncle and father, “masters, unsurpassed.” Then, highly unusually for a qasida, comes boasting (fakhr):

How many a distant tribe did we raid in the morning,
so not one of their tents passed the evening under the stars!
We launched on them every swift, lank-fleshed, relentless
mare, rivaling their every swift steed;
{Their every} rough-throated {steed} which, when the reins
draw across his foreshoulders, gallops over soft ground,
raising and dropping his forelegs together.
On {every mare’s} flank, from her speed {and the wind},
a humming like that of a child’s pierced top. [3]

The gendering of the fakhr is telling. Layla l-Akhyaliyya was a woman poet. She almost surely didn’t directly participate in violent raids of other tribes. Underscoring the startling “we” is the sex-typing of “our mares” pursing their male steeds. Mischievously mocking ideologues, Layla l-Akhyaliyya ends her fakhr with comic irony:

But leave this! For how I wish for a rider who, when he
speaks the truth, is not disbelieved!

No person can reasonably deny the truth that socially sanctioned violence is almost exclusively organized as men killing men. But even a poetically ridiculous sexed structure of violence generates little comment, as if it is disbelieved. The actual sex structure of killing is so naturalized that fictionalizing it has no significance.

Lack of social concern for killing men rests fundamentally on ego and ownership. Bravery and skill in killing other men, or more generally in fighting other men, determines men’s social status. Men are too invested in their own socially constructed identity to see the absurdity that Layla l-Akhyaliyya depicts.

The other problem of man’s position is ownership. The woman poet owns the she-camel that the man rides. Women control and manage society at the most important level. A scholar recently summarized literally the camel journey in the qasida:

In moving from nasīb to camel-section, Layla used the takhallus to create the necessary device of the “rider.” She now uses the takhallus at the end of the camel section to summarily dispose of him. His function and mission have now become clear, namely, to faithfully accomplish the desert journey and bring the camel {woman} safely to the Caliph’s gate where it {camel / woman} can avail itself of Caliphal riches (verse 24). Layla has no further use for the rider; he is not going to petition alongside her for Caliphal favors, and will not appear in the qasidah again. [4]

When time comes for the ruler to hand out riches, men are summarily dismissed. Those riches are not just goods but also rights such as reproductive rights. Layla l-Akhyaliyya incorporated this reality into her poem. Modern readers don’t even recognize it.

Men in the ancient Islamic world struggled to confront women’s distinctive position. For example, Layla l-Akhyaliyya verbally attacked the poet al-Nābighah al-Ja’dī. He responded to her:

Leave the habit of satirizing men, and occupy yourself
with an uncircumcised man who will fill your anus with his penis!
How should I satirize a poet whose lance is his anus
whose fingers are hennaed, and who wears kohl? [5]

Any poet expressing such invective toward a woman in Western, liberal democracies today almost surely would be mobbed, stoned, and be subject to authoritative punishment. But aggressive, sexually explicit invective was broadly tolerated and accepted in the ancient Islamic world. Such invective was commonly directed at men. As al-Nābighah’s invective indicates, directing such invective at a woman was awkward. Al-Nābighah figured that awkwardness in religious and sexual correctness, biological sex difference, and social conventions of gender presentation. Compared to men, women have a protected position in battles of both sword and pen.

Women’s superior skill in social communication gives them preferential access to social power. The qasida’s nasīb presents mythic personalization in Bedouin rusticity. The camel section takes the poem to present-day concerns. Layla l-Akhyaliyya doubles the contrast between personal myth and present-day reality in a coda interpreting the caliph’s decree in her favor:

When she journeyed through the night until she sighted dawn,
she continued throughout the day until the setting of the sun.
When she saw the Commander {Caliph}’s palace she squinted
at it, and I told her: You have {rightly} feared an awesome place,
{You have feared} the crowing of the roosters of the palaces, and {the yelling} of the guard,
and the voice of the caller to prayer, calling repeatedly,
and the voices of the enemies echoing
from the rooftops and high portals.
Its loudest one resounds,
as if a drone in a hive were humming incantations. [6]

The rooster, the guard, and the religious leader figure men in functional positions. Women are grouse flocking at a spring, “like a group of drinkers who have just emerged from {the quarters} of a secluded Persian lord.” Women inhabit the social source of power. Most men are contained within narrow functions. The voices of most men have no more significance than worker drones humming incantations of personalist myth.

Why did the woman poet Layla l-Akhyaliyya write poems so poignantly representing men’s social disposition? Perhaps, as a poet, she wanted to express what no one else could put into words. Her poetic achievement remains astonishing to this day.[7]

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[1] The need for empathy and humane concern for men is clear in Jacobi (2006), which ends with the words “and she killed many men.”

Little biographical information is known about Layla l-Akhyaliyya. She was of the tribe Banu Uqayl. She had noble ancestors and interacted with cultural and political leaders. She died about 699. By the ninth century, her work was highly regarded.

While the question of whether Layla l-Akhyaliyya may be called a meninist is rather silly, the answer is clear. Meninism is rightly regarded as:

an ideology or movement aiming at social change by demanding equal rights and opportunities {and responsibilities} for men and women. … there have always been individual women {and men} in the past {and present} who made that claim for themselves, if not by words, at least by their actions, who consciously violated society’s norms {and academia’s norms}, and who in doing so met with opposition and contempt.

Cf. Jacobi (2006) p. 189. Layla l-Akhyaliyya might be justly called a meninist.

[2] Layla l-Akhyaliyya, “I looked,” l. 6-7, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 82. The subsequent two quotes are from l. 38-9, 5, 12, trans. id. pp. 81-4. A tulchan is a stuffed calfskin used to induce the she-camel to produce milk in the absence of her actual offspring.

[3] Layla l-Akhyaliyya, “I was overcome by emotion,” l. 5-8, from Arabic trans. al-Sajdi (2000) p. 126. The subsequent quote is from l. 10, trans. id. The translation is also available in Sajdi (2008).

[4] Al-Sajdi (2000) p. 136.

[5] Attributed to al-Nābighah al-Ja’dī in al-Isbahani, al-Aghani, 5:1660-1, from Arabic trans. id. p. 141. Subsequent literature regards Layla l-Akhyaliyya as having won her invective battle with al-Nābighah, Id., n. 56, and the laughably tendentious discussion in Jacobi (2006) pp. 196-7.

[6] Layla l-Akhyaliyya, “I was overcome by emotion,” l. 32-6, from Arabic trans. Al-Sajdi (2000) p. 128. The subsequent quote is from l. 15, trans. id. p. 126.

[7] Al-Khansa and Layla l-Akhyaliyya historically have been the two most highly regarded classical Arabic women poets (there are many others). From the ninth to the thirteenth century, al-Khansa’s verses in anthologies rose in bulk relative to Layla l-Akhyaliyya’s verses. Hammond (2010) pp. 120-1, 182-4. That may reflect unease with Layla l-Akhyaliyya’s more transgressive poetry.

[image] Dead soldier. Petersburg, Va., April 1865. Thanks to U.S. Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.


Al-Sajdi, Dana. 2000. “Trespassing the Male Domain: the Qasīdah of Laylā Al-Akhyaliyyah.” Journal of Arabic Literature. 31 (2): 121-146.

Hammond, Marlé. 2010. Beyond elegy: classical Arabic women’s poetry in context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jacobi, Renate. 2006. “Layla al-Akhyaliyya — an Umayyad Feminist?” Pp. 189-200 in Neuwirth, Angelika, Barbara Winckler, and Andreas Pflitsch. 2006. Poetry’s voice– society’s norms: forms of interaction between Middle Eastern writers and their societies : dedicated to Angelika Neuwirth. Wiesbaden: Reichert.

Sajdi, Dana. 2008. “Revisiting Layla al-Akhyaliya’s Trespass.” Pp. 185-227 in Hammond, Marlé, and Dana Sajdi, eds. 2008. Transforming loss into beauty: essays on Arabic literature and culture in honor of Magda Al-Nowaihi. Cairo: American University In Cairo Press.

Richeut: 12th-century tale of paternity fraud & child support

Nell Gwyn, royal whore

In the twelfth-century French tale Richeut, the title character Richeut is a mistress of harlotry. Frustrated with her insufficient earnings from whoring, Richeut plots to get pregnant to extract more money from men. She drinks mandrake and hellebore and has sex with many men. She succeeds in getting pregnant.

Richeut then goes to one of her lovers, a priest. She cries, sighs, and complains. The priest comforts her:

The gentleman {priest} puts his arms around her neck and kisses her softly. Richeut squirms out of his embrace, bursts into a torrent of tears, and speaks her threat: “Whether I tell you or I keep silent about it, I’m pregnant because of you.” [1]

Men, who have very limited contraceptive options and no reproductive rights, dread unwanted claims of unplanned parenthood. Unplanned parenthood and state-imposed sex payments (called “child support”) can destroy a man’s life.

Men lack women’s natural, true knowledge of who are their biological children. While the priest had sex with Richeut, neither he nor she knows which man contributed to the pregnancy. The priest says to Richeut:

Richeut, I don’t believe you; do you really believe it’s mine? Certainly not.

She responds:

I know full well that it is; may I lose everything, may I fall silent and be put to death, if I didn’t solemnly swear that you put into me that thing which made me fat and pregnant. Don’t think I’ll dump it in some ditch or in a monastery, if you refuse to help me.

Rather than arising merely from the skill of particular, deceiving women, paternity fraud is now institutionalized in government and hospital procedures for establishing paternity. The priest foolishly acquiesces to Richeut’s paternity claim:

By my faith, Richeut, I promise you that if you desire anything of mine, I shall keep nothing that you might not have for yourself. Why would you blackmail me, or have the bishop bar me from saying Mass? Now, hide this pregnancy for as long as you can, and when the child is born, blame it on someone else. So help me God, I shall not fail you in this, not one jot.

Richeut then cries a little and tells the priest that she loves him. He then gives her money and goods and promises her more.

Richeut repeats her paternity fraud with the knight Lord Geezer. She aggressively confronts him:

I am seething with anger when I see you. You pledged your faith to me and you lied. Any woman who puts her arms around you must be out of her mind. There’s no one as stingy as you from here to Lincoln. What did I get from you once I gave you pleasure, the other day (alas!) in bed? A curse brought me to lie down flat under you! A pox on your root that shoots off and dries up! I was a young girl then, and now no one cares to love me. You have knocked me up, and I do not care to hide it. I’m angry with you! Look at my belly swelling up! It won’t be long until I have a child. You’ve got to help me. So help me God, if you deny it’s yours, it will be your ruin! I say it in earnest. No matter how fortified, all your castles shall be burned and reduced to ashes unless you acknowledge your offspring. I’ll sooner burn or hang myself — I tell you no lie — than let you go free. I come from a good family! I have seven knights among my relatives. And I have friends that would slay their man in no time.

The knight foolishly accepts Richeut’s claim that he caused her pregnancy. He gives her money and a kiss, and promises to send her meat, vegetables, and fine wine.

Richeut also repeats her paternity fraud with a townsman who didn’t have a heir. He thinks he is biologically unable to have children. Richeut goes to him and asks to have a private conversation:

They go into the room together and sit down on a bed. Sitting there, Richeut looks pensive, then says, “Sir, I came her because I was pushed by a desperate need. I’ll be honest with you. I have a complaint to make, and you yourself are the cause. For the time is not long when I shall enter into labor. Sir, I’m incensed at you because you made me pregnant!”

At first the townsman, who thought himself to be sterile, stands up to Richeut:

“I? You must be joking!”
“This is no joke, sir, by Saint Thomas!”
“Without doubt, Richeut, you told a lie.”
She cries and whines, and holds her hand to her face: “Sir, don’t you recall the entire day that you played hanky-panky with me upstairs?”
“Yes, Richeut, that much I know.”
“Without a doubt, dear sir, that is where I got this burden.”
“Shut up, Richeut, don’t ever say it!”
“May God confound me if I keep silent about it!”

The townsman’s fantasy of having a male heir prevailed over his reason:

“Richeut, I don’t know — I may well be the father. Let him be mine. If it’s a boy, without fault, he’ll inherit everything I own.”

He gives Richeut much money and arranges to have her sent meat, wine, and bread.

Richeut herself benefits greatly from money she extracts for “child support.” From pregnancy to long after the birth of her son Sampson, Richeut enjoys child support in the form of “meat, wine and claret, pepper sauce, fruit, cakes, pastries, and apples.” Because she cannot bear Sampson’s wailing, she hires another woman (a wet-nurse) to breast-feed him. Her lavish child-support income prompts her to raise her price as a whore. It also makes her an attractive marriage prospect for men seeking to avoid the burden of having to earn money for their family.

Richeut’s child-support fraud devastates the men of the three estates. Richeut flatters the knight with tales of his manly and fearless son Sampson, who, she says, is just like him. She tells the trade-oriented townsman that Sampson “counts like an angel.” She tells the priest that Sampson loves learning (priests were the leading scholars in the Middle Ages). Socially vulnerable and proud false fathers, the men of the three estates give all they have to Richeut for child support:

Richeut has blackmailed the priest so much that he now has only a grayish coat on his shoulders. And he’s wearing nothing under the wool! As for the townsman, she’s after his banking business. And she has threatened, flattered, and begged the knight so much that he has pledged her everything, both land and fief.

Just as child support today isn’t required to be spent supporting children and in fact supports mainly interested adults, “Richeut takes and spends lavishly on herself — for the boy {her child Sampson} doesn’t spend money!” Her three lovers as a result live in poverty.

Richeut’s son Sampson grows up to be sexually voracious and highly skilled in seduction. Because the priest, the knight, and the townsman are languishing in poverty and despair, Sampson rejects them.[2] Richeut raises her son herself. She teaches him Ovid’s love lessons. She teaches him additional lessons on flirting and techniques for sexual intercourse. Sampson is a good student. He masters the “summa of lechery.” In travels spanning from Ireland to India, Sampson has sex with thousands of women. The only person more skilled than he in sexual seduction is his mother.[3]

The story of Richeut has considerable gender symmetry. Richeut exploits and abuses men and women alike. Her son treats women much the same way that she treats men. The priest, the knight, and the townsman stand for the three estates of medieval society. Richeut demonstrates the three estates’ stupidity locally. Sampson demonstrates the three estates’ stupidity internationally.[4]

Richeut provides potent satire of paternity establishment and child support in today’s high-income democracies. The outrageous deceptions that Richeut perpetrates are now institutionalized in laws and policies. Stories like Richeut are now summarily rejected from broad public discourse. They are labeled “offensive” and “anti-feminist” because they challenge deeply entrenched injustices against men.

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[1] Richeut l. 170-5, from Old French trans. Haddad (1991) p. 8. All subsequent quotes above are from id. Since Richeut is relatively short and the quotes follow the order of the text, further specific line numbers and pages are omitted. For an alternate English translation and the French text, Ker (1976). The French text of Lecompte (1913) is freely available online. The current best French text of Richeut is Vernay (1988). Richeut is thought to date from the last third of the twelfth century. Arlima offers a comprehensive bibliography for Richeut.

In its brutal  satire and depiction of low duplicity, Richeut is thematically related to Trubert and Le Roman de Renard. Richeut has a woman servant / friend named Hersant. Richeut and Hersant are the names of the wives of the fox and the wolf, respectively, in Le Roman de Renard. Disparagement of prostitution in Richeut associates it with the sayings of Marcolf in Solomon and Marcolf.

[2] Sampson asks his mother who his father is:

Tell me now, mother dear, which one of these three is my father?

Richeut responds:

Dear son, I don’t know. I have mated with each of the three, and with a thousand others. I am not ashamed to tell you. How can a woman that’s been mounted by this kind of population be expected to keep count of her children? One doesn’t know from whom she conceives nor when. Just go to the richest of the three. Take your pick.

Sampson responds, “Mother, I don’t want any of them.”

[3] On the relationship of Richeut and Sampson, Adkins (2003).

[4] In medieval estates satire, townsmen and peasants are commonly grouped together in the third estate. Mann (1973) considers medieval estates satire, but focuses on Chaucer and ignores Richeut. Richeut surely has more direct, current public importance than Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

[image] Nell Gwyn. Painting by Simon Verelst c. 1680. Nell Gwyn (1650 – 1687) was a comic actress and long-time mistress of Charles II. She regarded herself as a whore. Image thanks to Wikipedia Commons, and no thanks to the rapacious, reactionary U.K. National Portrait Gallery.


Adkins, Carole Ann. 2003. “Beastly Mothers — Beastly Sons: Richeut.” Reinardus: Yearbook of the International Reynard Society. 16: 3-17.

Haddad, Gabriel. 1991. “Richeut: A Translation.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22(1): 1-29.

Ker, Donald Eugene. 1976. The twelfth-century French poem of Richeut: a study in history, form and content. Ph.D. Thesis. Ohio State University.

Lecompte, Irville Charles. 1913. “Richeut, Old French poem of the twelfth century, with introduction, notes, and glossary.” Pamphlet reprint of the article in The Romanic Review 4(3): 261-305.

Mann, Jill. 1973. Chaucer and medieval estates satire: the literature of social classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge, England: University Press.

Vernay, Philippe. 1988. Richeut. Berne, Switzerland: Editions Francke.

abusive expression less repressed in ancient Islamic world

Galen watching dispute between two men

Western societies today sternly condemn verbal expression labeled abusive, harassing, hateful, racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise popularly recognized to be repugnant. The lines defining such expression are far from clear. The chilling effects on public discussion are obvious. Yet particularly if the matter is publicly framed as men attacking women, democratic ideals, basic principles of fairness, and law are easily trampled in publicly applauded crusades to control and punish. A leading medieval scholar has suggested that medieval Europe repressed obscenity less than Western countries do today.[1] Both obscenity and abusive expression surely were less repressed in the ancient Islamic world than in the United States today.

Because claims that men are committing sexual violence against women is a potent tool for inciting men to anger and action, such claims function effectively as tools of abuse. Late in the first century of Islam (the seventh century in the Gregorian calendar), the eminent Arabic poet Jarīr attacked the eminent poet al-Farazdaq. Jarīr publicly claimed that al-Farazdaq had failed to protect his sister Jiʿthin from being raped. Jarīr declared in the poetic public sphere:

Al-Farazdaq’s sister, daughter of his father and mother,
spent the night going along in a fast gallop.
The cowards surely knew that their girl
was being trodden upon like a main road.
Will you not be angry with the heroes of Muqāʿis,
when they hurried to bring humiliation upon you?
I have been told that Jiʿthin defended herself against them with her arse,
since she did not find anyone from Mujāshiʿ to defend her. [2]

Jarīr repeated his rape claim in many poems and elaborated on it in various ways. In invective against al-Farazdaq, Jarīr wrote:

Did you not see Jiʿthin among the men of Saʿd,
called ‘the broad’ after her virginity?
She wiggled her rump when he went beyond her knees
and shook towards her a mighty dong, which subsequently disappeared.
When the girl of the Banū Tamīm coughs,
the gate of her perineum is fed with dust.
One can see a white leprous spot where her labia are joined,
like the tuft of hair on al-Farazdaq’s lower lip when it is grey. [3]

There’s no question that Jarīr’s claims of rape were lies: “Jarīr was obviously lying in his verse on Jiʿthin and everyone knew it.”[4] The point wasn’t the truth of the rape claims, but Jarīr’s poetic skill in publicly humiliating al-Farazdaq. Jarīr’s verbal abuse of al-Farazdaq drew admiration from the literary elite. They studied this poetry and anthologized it. Jarīr’s obscene, abusive verses became part of the corpus of classical Arabic poetry.

Invective (hijāʾ) was a well-recognized genre of classical Arabic poetry. An Arabic poet of the pre-Islamic period verbally attacked a well-known, noble man to gain social status. The poet explained, “I wanted to put my poetry in its proper place.”[5] Similarly, a young poet verbally attacked the eminent poet Jarīr, evidently hoping to draw a counterattack and engagement at a high poetic level. Jarīr, however, ignored the attack. The young poet lamented, “If he had answered, I would have been a great poet.”[6] Another famous poet of Jarīr’s era observed:

How many an ignoble one would like me to abuse him,
even though my abuse on him should be as {bitter as} colocynth!
But generously refraining from abusing an ignoble one
harms him more than abuse when he is abused. [7]

Far from being condemned, harsh verbal attacks were a conventional way to attract attention, demonstrate poetic skill, and make a name for oneself.

Rather than seeking authoritative means to punish Jarīr for his verbal abuse, al-Farazdaq responded with skilled poetic abuse of Jarīr. For example, al-Farazdaq claimed to have raped Jarīr’s mother:

They brought Ḥiqqa {Jarīr’s mother}, having stuffed her perineum,
while a hireling, saddler of beasts, was singing to make the she-ass go.
She stopped to scold me but I said to her, ‘On your knees,
Ḥiqqa, you and your collected works will be underneath!’
And I bared my prick to her. She cowered,
just as a she-ass in heat cowers.
She found someone with a hard-on, who had changed into easy clothes;
and someone who does scandalous things will change into easy clothes.
And I left your mother, Jarīr, as if she were,
kneeling, for the people a well-trodden road. [8]

Al-Farazdaq then went on to claim that Jarīr got pregnant and had an unusual daughter:

Ḥiqqa, I have never heard about a man with
two testicles who got pregnant, except al-Marāgha’s son {Jarīr}.
He drank the sperm and in his belly there grew
an uncircumcised woman whose clitoris is itching at the end. [9]

This isn’t a dirty tale told by peasants lounging in the barnyard. Al-Farazdaq was an acclaimed, widely anthologized, classical Arabic poet. He contributed to establishing the language of classical Arabic literature.

Al-Farazdaq himself incorporated appreciation for an eminent classical Arabic poetic form in a line of invective. Al-Farazdaq wrote of Jarīr:

He is crying on the dungheaps of the abandoned campsites, while his mother, on the tips of the slaves’ penises, is going up and down. [10]

In this poetic line, al-Farazdaq conflates two section of the classical Arabic qasīda. The qasīda begins with a section, called the nasīb, in which the man poet weeps nostalgically at the abandoned campsite of his beloved. In the second section of the qasīda, the rahīl, the man poet journeys on a she-camel to a new place. Al-Farazdaq mocks the elegiac tone of the nasīb with the smell of dungheaps. He transforms the rahīl into Jarīr’s mother riding up and down on slaves’ penises at the same campsite at which Jarīr is weeping. Tweeting something like al-Farazdaq’s venerated line of classical Arabic poetry would probably get a person banned from Twitter, at least if such invective were directed at a woman.

Words of individuals are much less dangerous than acts of totalitarian institutions. Failure to appreciate the difference between an individual’s words and acts of powerful institutions is an ominous sign.[11] Obscene, abusive words, preserved for centuries as classical Arabic literature, can open minds and open societies if those words are heard.

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[1] Ziolkowski (1998) pp. 3-4.

[2] From Arabic trans. van Gelder (2015) p. 179. “Trodden upon” is an disparaging metaphor for a man having sex with a woman. Jarīr ibn ʿAṭiyya (died c. 728) was a “giant of Arabic literary history … universally lauded as a poet excelling in delicate love lyrics.” Id. p. 176. Hammam ibn Ghalib, Abu Firas, known as al-Farazdaq (died c. 729) was a “famous poet … one of the great poets of the Umayyad period.” Id. p. 175. Al-Farazdaq wrote a sophisticated critique of the famous muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays.

[3] From Arabic trans. id. p. 181. The last two lines above (a single line of Arabic verse) was “often quoted by the critics and anthologists … they mention it for its ‘wonderful comparison.’” Id.

[4] Id. p. 188. Acclaimed invective poetry (hijāʾ) from the Umayyad period shows “complete indifference to truth.” Van Gelder (1988) p. 33. Both rape and false accusations of rape have throughout history generally been taken very seriously when interpreted literally. In Islamic law, “false accusation of illicit sexual intercourse” (qadhf) is a wrong with an explicitly prescribed punishment. Van Gelder (2015) p. 188. Poets, however, were only rarely punished for invective. Van Gelder (1988) pp. 30-1.

[5] Durayd Ibn al-Simma (died 629) regarding his invective (hijāʾ) on ʿAbd Allah Ibn Judʿān. From Arabic trans. van Gelder (1988) p. 131, n. 130.

[6] Bashār ibn Burd (died 783), from Arabic trans. id.

[7] Al-Muʾammal Ibn Umayl (died c. 806), from Arabic trans id. This is an early statement of what has now become known as the Streisand effect. A similar effect concerns legal remedies. Law addresses rights and obligations, while invective concerns honor and shame. An invective target who seeks legal recourse can increase his shame through public acknowledgement of harm and personal weakness. Id. p. 130.  That effect is likely to be much stronger for men targets of invective than for women targets.

[8] From Arabic trans. van Gelder (2015) p. 185.

[9] From Arabic trans. id. p. 186.

[10] From Arabic trans. id. p. 184. Laylā l-Akhyaliyya’s praise poem for Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan also modifies the qasīda, but trespasses upon the form to a lesser extent. See al-Sajdi (2000).

[11] Solterer (1995) illustrates well gynocentric scholarship making absurdly broad claims about men “verbally injuring” women in medieval Europe. In the U.S. today, four times more men than women are victims of fatal physical violence. Ten times more men than women are being forcefully held in the violent circumstances of prisons and jails. Those life-breaking gender inequalities are much easier to understand than any aspects of medieval discourse. They are also much more important, and largely ignored.

[image] Galen watching a dispute, detail of folio from a Gulistan (Rose Garden), illumination from early 16th century, Mughal dynasty.  Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, F1998.5.60, Gift of the Art and History Trust in honor of Ezzat-Malek Soudavar. Thanks to the Freer | Sackler for making its art widely accessible on the web. Galen was a pugnacious physician and scholar in second-century Rome.


Al-Sajdi, Dana. 2000. “Trespassing the Male Domain: the Qasīdah of Laylā Al-Akhyaliyyah.” Journal of Arabic Literature. 31 (2): 121-146.

Solterer, Helen. 1995. The master and Minerva: disputing women in French medieval culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. 1988. The bad and the ugly: attitudes towards invective poetry (hijāʼ) in classical Arabic literature. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. 2015. “Sexual Violence in Verse: The Case of Jiʿthin, al-Farazdaq’s Sister.” Pp. 175-90 (ch. 11) in Gleave, Robert, and István Tamás Kristó Nagy. 2015. Violence in Islamic thought from the Qur’an to the Mongols. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Carfania & Marcolf: different positions for mooning judges

Mooning an authority — publicly presenting one’s ass to her or him — signifies both submission and rebellion. Along with a reference to legal pleadings of the “shameless” woman Carfania, a Roman law barred women from advocating on behalf of others in court.[1] European medieval literature imagined that Carfania had mooned the court. In the popular medieval work Solomon and Marcolf, the peasant Marcolf mooned Solomon, the eminent judge and king. Carfania and Marcolf, while commonly associated with mooning, had much different social positions in gynocentric society. Today law holds behind bars about fifteen times as many men as women. The different literary treatments of Carfania and Marcolf reflect nearly unremarkable disparate punishment by gender under law.

Carfania had much higher social status than Marcolf. Carfania was the wife of a Roman senator. She was prominent enough to be publicly recognized for repeatedly appearing in court. She also had enough education to know how to speak in court.[2] Marcolf, in contrast, was a peasant. He spoke in figures of the barnyard and bodily functions. Marcolf being a man also mattered. Because women’s physical violence is commonly trivialized or ignored, a lowly woman can threaten to give a male official a black eye and gain advantage from that threat.[3] If Marcolf made such a threat, he would be beaten or locked up.

Calefurnia (Carfania) before judge

Medieval images of Carfania and Marcolf evince starkly contrasting statuses. A description of Germanic customary law in 1274 referred to Carfania as displaying her “rear pudenda” to the court.[4] Beginning about 1300, illustrated books of German law included images of Carfania addressing a judge. She is well-dressed and not depicted as ugly. She stands in front of the judge and addresses him with a pointing gesture and leaning-in aggressiveness. Her mooning the judge is represented with a piece of bushy, black hair attached to her waist like a ring of keys. Her genitals aren’t associated with a position of submission.

Marcolf mooning Solomon

Marcolf, in contrast, is illustrated in a position of complete submission. He is bent over or down on hands and knees like an animal. Marcolf’s buttocks are bared, visible to the viewer, and positioned for Solomon to penetrate.[5] At least two images obscure Marcolf’s face in an earthen cave. In any reasonable societal scale of dominance and subordination, Marcolf would rank far below a woman like Carfania. The medieval images of Marcolf are extraordinary depictions of the publicly unrecognized position of many, ordinary men.[6]

Marcolf mooning Solomon

Marcolf challenged authoritative malice toward men. He deconstructed Solomon’s famous split-the-baby judgement. Marcolf demonstrated that Solomon’s judgment was based on ideological up-valuing of women.[6] Marcolf addressed justice more generally with two proverbs:

ibi est mala curia ubi non est iustica
{there is a bad court where there is no justice}

ubi non est lex, ibi non est rex
{where there is no law, there is no king} [7]

The proverbs poetically echo the first line of an early Christian hymn, slightly condensed:

ubi caritas, Deus ibi est
{where there is charity, there is God} [8]

God is closely associated with ideas of justice, law, and charity. Justice, law, and charity have not historically encompassed equally women and men.

Marcolf mooning Solomon

Carfania mooning judge

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[1] Ulpian 6 Digest (early third century GC):

On the grounds of sex, he forbids women to make applications on behalf of others. There is a reason for this prohibition, to prevent them from involving themselves in the cases of other people contrary to the modesty in keeping with their sex and to prevent women from performing male duties. Its introduction goes back to a shameless women called Carfania who by brazenly making applications and annoying the magistrates gave rise to the edict.

From Latin trans. McGinn (2012) p. 239.

[2] Valerius Maximus in Facta et dicta memorabilia 8.3.2. states:

Caia Afrania, the senator of Licinius Bucco’s wife, against whom a lawsuit was pending, always spoke for herself personally before the praetor, not because she did not have a lawyer, but because she had a lot of impudence. Thus, she kept bothering the courts with her barking, unusual in court, and she became a well known example of female pettifoggery, until the name of C. Afrania was used to refer to the crime of women with impudent habits. She lived until the end of the second consulate of Caius Caesar and Publius Servilius {48 BGC}: in fact, for such a monster it is the moment of her death rather than the moment of her birth that one has to remember.

From Latin trans. Rodger et al. (2013) p. 149. Caia Afrania is generally identified with the Carfania cited in the Ulpian Digest. Carfania’s self-representation versus the Ulpian Digest’s prohibition on women representing others is an unresolved interpretive issue addressed in various ways. Marshall (1989) p. 43-5. Licinius Bucco is not otherwise known. It seems to be ridiculing nickname. It has been translated as “Dummy” and “Fat-Face.” Id. p. 43, n. 23.

While women were formally barred under Roman law from representing others in court, women actively appealed to Roman courts. About a fifth of the responsa preserved in the Codex Justinianus and the Fragmenta Vaticana are replies to libelli that women submitted. Roman legal texts warn men officials about women’s legal calliditas (craftiness). Id. p. 48.

[3] That’s the best interpretation of Luke 18:2-5, according to Cotter (2005) pp. 336-43.

[4] Schwabenspiegel (Landrecht 245) “has her scolding the king and showing him her ‘hindere scham,’ i.e. her ‘rear pudenda.'” Nelson & Caviness (1998) in description of Heidelberg Sachsenspiegel (Heidelberg University Library, MS. cod. pal. ger. 164).  The Schwabenspiegel was written about 1275. Illustrated Sachsenspiegel created from about 1300 show the mooning. See “Group I: Women denied right to advocate or plead in court, Landrecht II,63,1,2” in id. In the German legal texts, the women’s name is written as Calpurnia or Calefurnia.

Discussing Calefurnia (Carfania) in the Sachsenspiegel, a scholar declared:

She assaults the view of her baseness and her sexual difference. She is seen to condemn herself. her quarrel produces not fame but infamy, and it taints every woman now and forever through the universalizing power of theory. … the law that protects the Law, so to speak, is the law of gender.

Westphal (2005) pp. 172, 174. Gender usually protects such analysis.

In loosely translating the Latin poem Lamentationes Matheoluli, Jehan Le Fèvre included a claim about Carfania mooning the court:

Cafurne en fu bien accroupie,
Plus jangleresse qu’une pie,
Car pas ne plaida sagement;
Son cul monstra en jugement.

{Cafurne well dishonored herself,
More gossipy than a magpie,
since she didn’t plead wisely,
her decision was to show her ass.}

Les lamentations de Mathéolus, ll. 183-6, in Van Hamel (1892) p. 52 (translation is mine). Le Fèvre wrote that work from 1380 to 1387. Carfania mooning the court has been described as Le Fèvre’s creation:

Le Fèvre’s self-created embellishment on the exemplum of a certain Carfania … “the picturesque detail of her mooning the judge” was invented by Le Fèvre.

Burke (2013) p.18, p. 30, n. 93. Taylor (2005) p. 204, n. 3913, states that Le Fèvre added this detail. That’s true, but it’s not true that Le Fèvre was the first to invent it. The Schwabenspiegel and Sachsenspiegel make clear the existence of a prior mooning tradition. Le Fèvre probably drew upon that tradition.

Jehan Le Fèvre wrote Le Livre de Leesce as an original companion work to Les lamentations de Mathéolus. Le Livre de Leesce has been literally interpreted as a “defense of women.” Its treatment of Carfania, however, suggests that Le Fèvre wasn’t a narrow-minded, humorless gender ideologue. Carfania was criticized for excessive pleading.  Le Livre de Leesce concludes its lines on Carfania with an appeal to the example of a fourteenth-century French woman:

The daughter of Master Jehan Andrieu, who read the cases and the laws, got up one morning to show publicly in open audience through her great learning that woman is equal to man, and set forth many a good argument to guard the honor of women and protect them from blame. Her lecture lasted all day, almost until the dark of night. She put forth more than sixty reasons, and even, I believe, more than seventy, and she argued her case so well there that no man could refute it.

l. 1140-1154, from French trans. Burke (2013) p. 84. The daughter of Master Jehan Andrieu apparently pled in the long-winded, insistent manner attributed to Carfania. Jehan Andrieu was a famous professor of canon law at Bologna and Padua. His daughter Novella, born in 1312, reportedly followed her father in becoming a professor of canon law. She reportedly gave lectures while hidden behind a curtain so that students wouldn’t be distracted by her beauty. Id. p. 116, n. 167, Van Hamel (1892) v. 2, p. 241 (pdf page 807).

The adversary in Le Champion des Dames (written 1440-42) also described Carfania mooning the judge:

“Of Calpurnia will you speak
Who to the judge her arse exposed,”
said the other, full of cheek,
“And why no woman has since proposed
A pro, or a contra in court deposed?
If she’d speech pleasant, I don’t know.
But so badly her robe she closed
That her de profundis she did show.

Martin le Franc, Le Champion des Dames, Bk. IV, l. 3913-20 (s. 490), trans. Taylor (2005) p. 130. Le Franc’s book presents itself as a response to the Romance of the Rose and Les lamentations de Mathéolus.

[5] The text of Solomon and Marcolf makes clear Marcolf’s abasement:

Marcolf was lying bent over with his head downward and had pulled down his breeches, and his buttocks, asshole, penis, and testicles were revealed.

Ch. 19.9, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 99.

[6] Id. p. 237 reports that mooning is “rife in medieval literature as in folk literature.” Randall (1966) #528, 533-42, shows medieval images of mooning. Id. pp. 192-3 provides additional mooning manuscript citations. Most of the mooning figures are men. In Boccaccio’s Decameron VIII.5, three men protest against ignorant, corrupt judges by contriving to pull down a judge’s pants during a public court proceeding. Showing ass, in one way or another, is a transgressive means to protest injustice. The literature of men’s sexed protest, however, is barely recognized. Men’s protest against gynocentric society have been largely trivialized or ignored. Much more mooning by men arguably is warranted than exists in the historical record.

[6] Solomon and Marcolf, Chapters 11-18, trans. id. pp. 89-9.

[7] Solomon and Marcolf, 8.9, Epilogue.11, Latin text and trans. id. pp. 84-5, 74-5, with minor changes to the translations.

[8] The hymn dates from the tenth century or earlier and was sung on Holy Thursday. Early manuscripts have “Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est,” but the line is more commonly known as “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.”


  1. Calpurnia (Carfania) before the judge. Heidelberg Sachsenspiegel (Heidelberg University Library, MS. cod. pal. ger. 164) f. 10v, detail. Thanks to Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.
  2. Marcolf mooning Solomon. Red vnd widerred Salomonis vnd marcolfy {Rar. 498#Beibd. 1}, Augsburg {14}90, page image 45. Thanks to the Bavarian State Library, Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum/Referat Digitale Bibliothek.
  3. Marcolf mooning Solomon. Woodcut from 1555 Strassburg edition of Solomon and Marcolf. From reproduction in Heitz (1922).
  4. Marcolf mooning Solomon. Collatio{n}es quas dicuntur fecisse mutuo rex Salomon sapientissimus et Marcolpus facie deformis {et}c. turpissimus ({Landshut} 1514), page image 22. Thanks to the Bavarian State Library, Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum/Referat Digitale Bibliothek.
  5. Carfania mooning judge. Illustration from Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames, incunabula printed by Jean du Pré (Lyon: 1488).  Thanks to / Bibliotheque nationale de France. The Newberry Library (Chicago, IL) holds an edition of the Lyon incunabula with colored illustrations. It includes an illustration of Carfania mooning the judge. Taylor (2005) p. 129.


Burke, Linda, ed. and trans. 2013. Jehan Le Fèvre. The book of gladness / le livre de Leesce: a 14th century defense of women, in English and French. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Cotter, Wendy. 2005. “The Parable of the Feisty Widow and the Threatened Judge (Luke 18.1-8).” New Testament Studies. 51 (3): 328-343.

Heitz, Paul. 1922. Strassburger holzschnitte zu Dietrich von Bern.–Herzog Ernst.–Der Hürnen Seyfrid.–Marcolphus.  Strassburg, J.H.E. Heitz, 1922.

Marshall, Anthony J. 1989. “Ladies at Law: the Role of Women in the Roman Civil Courts.” Pp. 35-54 in Deroux, Carl. 1989. Studies in Latin literature and Roman History. Vol. 5 Bruxelles: Latomus.

McGinn, Thomas A. J. 2012. Obligations in Roman law: past, present, and future. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Nelson, Charles G., and Madeline H. Caviness. 1998. Women’s Bodies, Women’s Property: German Customary Law Books Illustrated in the Fourteenth Century.  Electronic exhibit, Tufts University.

Randall, Lilian M. C. 1966. Images in the margins of Gothic manuscripts. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rodger of Earlsferry, Alan, A. S. Burrows, David Johnston, and Reinhard Zimmermann. 2013. Judge and jurist: essays in memory of Lord Rodger of Earlsferry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Steven Millen. 2005. Martin Le Franc. The trial of womankind: a rhyming translation of Book IV of the fifteenth-century Le champion des dames. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Westphal, Sarah. 2005. “Calefurnia’s Rage: Emotions and Gender in Late Medieval German Literature.” Pp. 164-190 in Perfetti, Lisa Renée. 2005. The representation of women’s emotions in medieval and early modern culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Calabre of Paris, woman physician of the 14th century


Medieval women had loving concern for men. In a work he wrote about 1385, Jehan Le Fèvre highlighted the woman physician Calabre of Paris:

I call to witness Calabre of Paris, who with herbs or with plants, by resin or other skill, which she well knows how to practice, has made many a vagina small again and perked up the breasts, to be more pleasing to men and to appease the jealous. [1]

Medieval men jealously competed to have sex with the most pleasing women. Even more shocking from today’s perspective, medieval women sought to please men sexually. Medieval women physicians such as Calabre of Paris helped women to be more pleasing to men. She apparently was even famous enough for Jehan Le Fèvre to expect readers to know her name.

Women physicians also treated men. In an early-twelfth-century Latin poem, a woman physician explained to her husband that she had cured a youth of a serious illness:

So! With God’s help, and my medicine,
The sick boy who was afflicted with a serious disease has returned to the living.
I only felt the wretch’s pulse, checked his high fever,
And when I touched him, his fever quickly subsided.
Because of me, a single spell put everything injurious to flight. [2]

The poet wondrously declared:

you give him that remedy well known to you doctors.
Thus you console the sick one, thus you doctor him,
Thus you alleviate the youth’s illness with sweet medication. [3]

These women physicians worked late hours and had tiring work. After many years of hard work with many different patients, they needed to heal themselves. That’s how “physician, heal thyself” became a well-known proverb in the ancient world.[4]

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[1] Jehan Le Fèvre, Le livre de Leesce, ll. 3778-3785, from French trans. Burke (2013) pp. 105-6, with a substitution for the final noun. The French for the last four clauses is: A fait maint con rapeticier / Et les mamelles estrecier, / Pour estre aux hommes plus plaisans, / Pour les jalous faire taisans. Id. p. 71. Id., p. 106, has for the final clause “to please the jealous husbands.” But there’s no reference to husbands in the French text. The previous clause refers to men (hommes). The broader context is a comparison between women and men. Burke’s interpolation of “husbands” is thus unwarranted. In the English translation above, I’ve replaced “the jealous husbands” with “the jealous.”

The French word con is commonly a scurrilous term for vagina and thus often translated as “cunt.” Id. n. 466, pp. 129-30, argues convincingly for translating it here as “vagina.”

[2] De matronis (On Married Women) ll. 43-7, from Latin trans. Wolterbeek (1991) p. 223. The poem, written in leonine hexameters, is questionably attributed to Peter the Painter. He came from Flanders and wrote about the year 1100. He wrote another poem entitled De muliere mala (On the evil woman).

[3] De matronis ll. 39-41, id. p. 221.

[4] Cf. Luke 4:23.

[image] A view of Dark Star Park in Rosslyn, VA. Photo by Douglas Galbi.


Burke, Linda, ed. and trans. 2013. Jehan Le Fèvre. The book of gladness / Le livre de Leesce: a 14th century defense of women, in English and French. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Wolterbeek, Marc. 1991. Comic tales of the Middle Ages: an anthology and commentary. New York: Greenwood Press.

Queen Sheba & King Solomon on riddle of too many cooks

many cooks on British Navy ship

Dating from no later than the seventh century, Syriac and Armenian texts of Queen Sheba’s questions to King Solomon include five riddles. One riddle concerns the modern English proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth.”[1] The ancient texts reject the modern “too many cooks” wisdom with sophisticated understanding of reception.

Queen Sheba’s statement of the riddle implicitly contains its answer. She presented King Solomon with a conundrum:

The head-cook of the king multiplies the cooks, and in order to create various tastes he labors and makes others labor, yet the taste is one. [2]

King Solomon responded:

If you have an excellent cook from your country, add him to our thousands. However, as you say, the taste is one. Nevertheless, the wicked is bitter and far from my Lord , and remains in judgment. [3]

The obscure phrase “the taste is one” makes sense in reference to the king. The many cooks make food for the one king. No matter how many cooks are in the kitchen, the king’s taste remains one. Too many cooks don’t create a problem.

This reception interpretation of the “too many cooks” riddle provides insight into the final sentence of Solomon’s answer. That final sentence introduces a contrasting claim with the adverb “nevertheless.” That claim seems to generate a contrasting allegorical interpretation of the king receiving food that many cooks make. In a plausible allegorical interpretation, the king is God. The many cooks are the many persons making lives in the world. The wicked isn’t incorporated into the oneness of God. The wicked is subject to condemnation (judgment). The king’s food has one, good taste, but the wicked remains apart with a different, bitter taste.

The “too many cooks” riddle allegorically addresses cultural diversity and divine unity. Humans differ in culture. That’s obvious in the daily matter of food. Too many cooks might well be a problem in a kitchen for a family or group, especially if the many cooks pursue their own preferred taste. But too many cooks isn’t a problem for serving God. Human wickedness is the problem in serving God. That’s the wisdom of Queen Sheba and King Solomon.

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[1] The Syriac and Armenian texts begin with seven questions formally similar to the Problemata Aristotle, but encompassing theological concerns. The subsequent five riddles that Queen Sheba addresses to King Solomon concern:

  • the burning bush that Moses saw
  • Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah and mother of two of his children (Genesis 38)
  • a menstruating woman
  • too many cooks
  • a bridegroom who didn’t show up for his wedding

The Armenian text concludes with Solomon posing to Sheba an allegorical riddle about a temple. The Syriac and Armenian texts are generally similar. The Syriac text appears to be a seventh-century translation from a Greek text. The Armenian text seems to be seventh-century translation from a Syriac text. Hovhanessian (2013) pp. 328, 332, 334.

The classical Armenian version of the Chronicle of Michael the Great includes an account of Queen Sheba’s questions and King Solomon’s answers. Here’s Robert Bedrosian’s translation of the relevant text. Hovhanessian (2013) is based on numerous, stand-alone Armenian manuscripts of the questions.  That textual tradition, thought to be older, expands question 2, includes praise of Queen Sheba after question 8, and doesn’t have praise of the Queen after question 13. Otherwise, the questions/riddles appear to be nearly identical in the Chronicle version and the free-standing version.

Elyse Bruce at Historically Speaking traces instances of “too many cooks spoil the broth” historically. The earliest instance she finds is a 1575 text that states “the more cooks the worse potage.”

[2] From Armenian trans. id. p. 342. The Syriac text is similar but adds the detail “through labour he changes fine food.” Id. p. 345 (Sebastian Brock’s translation of the Syriac).

[3] From Armenian trans. id. p. 342. The answer in the Syriac text:

Then Solomon laughed (and) said to her: If you have from your own country the fine food of your parable, then add our cook, that he may be filled with a thousand women, for in truth the species is the same.

Id. p. 345 (Brock’s translation). Id. p. 342  notes:

The Syriac answer is totally different and does not make sense. Brock suggests that it must be corrupt.

[image] Cooks in galley of British ship on a Malta convoy, 21 August 1942, while being attacked. By Hampton, J A (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer, Russell, J E (Lt). I’ve cropped the original, which is thanks to the Imperial War Museum (UK) and Wikimedia Commons.


Hovhanessian, Vahan S. 2013. “Questions of the Queen of Sheba and Answers by King Solomon.” Pp. 326-45 in Bauckham, Richard, James R. Davila, and Alexander Panayotov. 2013. Old Testament pseudepigrapha: more noncanonical scriptures. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.