mocking stork gesture in Persius and Comoedia Lydiae

In his first, programmatic satire, the Roman poet Persius addressed the relationship between writer and patron.  Acclaimed by the patron with “Bravo!” and “Lovely!”, the writer imagines saying to the patron:

You know how to serve up hot tripe, you know how to give some poor shivering fellow writer a worn-out cloak, and then you say, “I love the truth.  Tell me the truth about myself.”  How, actually?  Do you really want me to?  You’re a fool, baldy, your fat paunch sticking out with an overhang of a foot and half.  Lucky Janus, never banged from behind by a stork or by waggling hands imitating a donkey’s white ears or by a tongue as long as a thirsty Apulian dog’s.  You, of patrician blood, who have to live without eyes in the back of your head, turn around and face the backdoor sneer! [1]

The patron rewards the writer with neither meaningful appreciation for his work (only “Bravo” and “Lovely”) nor sufficient material support (only a “worn-out cloak”).   The patron only pretends to want to know the truth.  The writer imagines telling the patron the truth: the patron is old, fat, and a fool.  Then the writer describes three mocking gestures that are being made at the patron behind his back.  Waggling hands imitating a donkey’s ears is easy to understand as mocking the patron as an ass.  The mocking stork gesture hasn’t even been clearly understood formally.  The long-tongued, thirsty-dog gesture hasn’t been understood meaningfully.[2]

head of stork

Comoedia Lydiae, a late twelfth-century Latin elegiac comedy, provides key context to understand the mocking stork gesture.  In this tale, Lidia, the wife of the duke Decius, is deeply in love with the knight Pearus.[3]  To demonstrate the depth of her love for Pearus, Lidia wrings the neck of Decius’ prized falcon in front of Decius and guests, plucks hairs out of his beard, and yanks out one of his healthy teeth.  To further display her mastery of her husband, Lidia arranges to have sex with Pearus while Decius watches.  While Lidia is going with Decius and Pearus to the garden to perform that feat of cuckoldry, the servant-woman Lusca follows them.  She is in on the cuckolding scheme: “mouth agape, she trails along behind, making at Decius the gesture of the stork.”[4]  Lusca means in Latin “one-eyed.”  That name playfully contrasts with Persius’ Janus, a two-faced god who has eyes in the front and back of his head.[5]  Lusca’s mocking of Decius behind his back in Comoedia Lydiae evokes the mocking of the patron behind his back in Persius’ satire.  The context in Comoedia Lydiae suggests that the stork gesture ridicules male heterosexual failure.  Decius failed to fulfill his wife’s sexual desire and was thus cuckolded.

A gesture plausibly similar to the stork gesture has endured through millennia.  Near Boston in the late 1980s, a young man of first-generation Italian-American heritage and of strong, independent heterosexual desire would regularly make to his male friends a gesture plausibly similar to the stork gesture.  He would point an index finger straightly erect, and then droop it into a curved position.  That gesture declared a perceived lack of heterosexual vigor in the guy to whom it was directed.

finger in mocking stork gesture

The three mocking gestures in Persius have subtle complexity.  In the focal passage from Persius, I translated the Latin verbal form pinsit as “banged from behind.”  The most recent, authoritative academic translation of Persius translated pinsit as “pummeled from behind.”  The verb pinsit is difficult:

pinsit, ‘strikes’, an extension based on the analogy of the partial synonym tundit, pinso usually means “crushes, grinds, pounds”, but {Persius} seems to have none of these senses in mind.  pinsit, rather than say, ludit, is of course prompted by what the gesture represents. [6]

However, the stork gesture occurs in Jerome without any verb like pinsit:

They will fawn upon you with fulsome praise and do their best to blind your judgment; yet if you suddenly look behind you, you will find that they are making gestures of derision with their hands, either a stork’s curved neck or the flapping ears of a donkey or a thirsty dog’s protruding tongue. [7]

Moreover, the verb pinsit grammatically applies to the other two gestures:

The lines involve a zeugma.  From pinsit (58), the idea of ‘mock’ has to be supplied. [8]

With the stork gesture interpreted as mimesis of male erectile dysfunction, pinsit works as verbal irony.  A penis in the condition of the stork gesture is incapable of pinsit, meaning heterosexual intercourse of reproductive type.  Flapping could evoke lack of testicular tension as well as being an ass.  The thirsty dog’s protruding tongue adds a concluding note of male sexual frustration.  Rather than being crudely transparent, Persius’ three mocking gestures are highly literary.

Centuries of male scholars scrutinizing Persius’ satire failed to generate appreciation and insight into the mocking stork gesture.  Male scholars haven’t been reading texts with sufficient male consciousness.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Perseus, Satires 1.53-63, from Latin trans. Braund (2004) p.53.  I’ve replaced “pummeled from behind” by “banged for behind” for reasons subsequently explained above.  I’ve also replaced “client” with “fellow writer” for clarity.  The underlying Latin word is “comitem.”  Gildersleeve (1875) provides an online version of the Latin text.  A.S. Kline has generously provided an online translation into English.

[2] “The exact nature of this ‘stork’ gesture is not discoverable.”  Harvey (1981), p. 33.  “Perhaps symbolising cacophony,” according to Bramble (1974) p. 116.  Id. notes that a sign of a thirsty dog, an ass, and a parrot occurs in Callimachus’ second Iambus.  How that recognition helps to read Persius isn’t clear.  In ancient Sanskrit literature, a parrot is linked with intended cuckoldry.  A recent scholarly work, “drawing upon recent scholarship in gender studies and Lacanian film theory,” interprets the mocking gestures in Persius as evoking elite male anxiety about anal penetration.  King (2006) p. 74, p. 249 n. 18.

[3] Elliott (1984), pp. 126-46, provides an English translation of Lidia, with some translation notes.  The poem is attributed to Arnulf of Orléans.  Boccaccio adapted Lidia in Decameron 7.9.

[4] My translation of the Latin, “Rictibus ora trahit Decioque ciconiat usu.”  Elliott (1984), p. 141, has as the translation:

Her lips curve up into a smile, and at Decius
she makes the gesture of the crane

That seems to me less exact.  The full Latin text is available online in Du Méril (1854).  See esp. id. p. 371.  Boccaccio’s version of Lidia, Decameron 7.9, doesn’t include the mocking stork gesture.

[5] The prologue to Lidia refers to a parrot imitating human speech.  A parrot imitating human speech also figures in the prologue to Persius’ satires.

[6] Harvey (1981) p. 33.  The relevant Latin lines from Persius, 1.58-60:

o Iane, a tergo quem nulla ciconia pinsit
nec manus auriculas imitari mobilis albas
nec linguae quantum sitiat canis Apula tantum.

From Braund (2004) p. 52.  Gildersleeve (1875) notes for l. 58:

ciconia pinsit = pinsendo ludit. The fingers of the mocker imitate the clapping of the stork’s bill.  Pinsit, ‘pounds,’ because the ciconia levat ac deprimit rostrum dum clangit, Isidor., Orig., 20, 15, 3.  ‘Pecks at’ is not correct; ‘claps’ is nearer.  What seems to be meant is mock applause.

[7] Jerome, Letter 125 (To Rusticus, dated 411) s.18, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 597.  I’ve inserted “curved” within “stork’s neck.”  The underlying Latin:

si subito respexeris aut ciconiarum deprehendes post te colla curvari aut mans auriculas agitari asini aut aestuantem canis protenti linguam.

[8] Harvey (1981) p. 33.


Bramble, J. C. 1974. Persius and the programmatic satire: a study in form and imagery. Cambridge: University Press.

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Du Méril, Édélestand.  1854. Poésies inédites du moyen âge, précédées d’une histoire de la fable ésopique. Paris: Franck.

Elliott, Alison Goddard, ed. and trans. 1984. Seven medieval Latin comedies. New York: Garland.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Gildersleeve, Basil L. 1875. The satires of A. Persius Flaccus. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Harvey, R. A. 1981. A commentary on Persius. Leiden: Brill.

King, Richard Jackson. 2006. Desiring Rome: male subjectivity and reading Ovid’s Fasti. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

rape of men about as prevalent as rape of women

The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) found that 1.1% of non-incarcerated men were forced to have sex with another person in the past year.  Defining rape victimization with the gender-neutral concept of being forced to have sex (including being “made to penetrate”), NISVS found that 1.1% of men and 1.1% of women were raped in the past year among persons outside of jails and prisons.[1]  When is the last time you heard that roughly equal numbers of non-incarcerated men and women are raped?  When is that last time you heard any concern about rape of men?

tree rotten to core

Men being forced to have sex by being forced to penetrate sexually is scarcely recognized.  Before 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) definition of rape explicitly limited rape to rape of females.  The UCR apparently now includes as rape men being made to penetrate.  Making that inclusion explicit is clearly needed for clarification.  The major, annual, government-administered National Crime Victimization Survey doesn’t ask about men being forced to penetrate.  NISVS asked men about being forced to penetrate, but NISVS didn’t include men being forced to penetrate under the category rape.  NISVS pretended that men being forced to have sex with their penises isn’t real rape.  That’s gender bigotry like surveys labeling men, and only men, as rapists in circumstances of true love.

NISVS buried the facts about rape of men.  The executive summery of NISVS’s summary report listed as its first key finding:

Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration. [2]

These statistics don’t include men “made to penetrate” sexually another persons.  NISVS found a lifetime prevalence of men raped in that way to be 4.8%.[3]  Moreover, NISVS asked participants to recall sexual victimization across their whole lifetime and across the past year.  Lifetime recall is much more likely to be faulty and biased than past-year recall.  For example, regretted sex can be rationalized over time in memory as drunken sex.  NISVS classifies drunken hetero-sex as rape of the woman.  The best, non-gender-biased rape measure from NISVS is that 1.1% of women and 1.1% of men were raped in the past year.  Those key statistical findings are nowhere compellingly communicated in the NISVS summary report.  The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administered NISVS and publicly reported its results.  Burying the facts about rape of men shows anti-men bias shaping public communication of an expert, government agency.

Anti-men bigotry combines with farce in a recent scholarly article.  The scholarly article, entitled “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions,” was published in the prestigious American Journal of Public Health.  It begins thus:

The sexual victimization of women was ignored for centuries.  Although it remains tolerated and entrenched in many pockets of the world, feminist analysis has gone a long way toward revolutionizing thinking about the sexual abuse of women, demonstrating that sexual victimization is rooted in gender norms and is worthy of social, legal, and public health intervention. [4]

This article doesn’t begin with concern about sexual victimization of men in America.  It begins gynocentrically.  A similar rhetorical strategy shapes the introduction to a scholarly article exploring the much neglected topic of men suffering much higher injury mortality than women, including men suffering a death rate from violence 4.1 times higher than that of women.  Here, the scholarly article’s first sentence is simply preposterous.  Sexual victimization of women has been of intense concern across all of recorded history.  False accusation of rape has been of intense concern across all of recorded history until recent decades.  The history of concern about false accusations of raping a woman makes no sense without parallel concern about raping women.

Acknowledging the reality of rape apparently isn’t possible without working earnestly to support entrenched discursive interests.  The scholarly article observes:

The survey {NISVS} found that men and women had a similar prevalence of nonconsensual sex in the previous 12 months (1.270 million women and 1.267 million men).  This remarkable finding challenges stereotypical assumptions about the gender of victims of sexual violence.  However unintentionally, the CDC’s publications and the media coverage that followed instead highlighted female sexual victimization, reinforcing public perceptions that sexual victimization is primarily a women’s issue. {bolding added to original text} [5]

Highlighting female sexual victimization was no more unintentional than is marketing stories with understanding of market demand.  Female victimization attracts massive attention.  No one wants to hear about male victimization.

Entrenched discursive interests are readily apparent in the scholarly article.  With standard academic cant, the article declares:

We have interrogated some of the stereotypes concerning gender and sexual victimization, and we call for researchers to move beyond them.  First, we question the assumption that feminist theory requires disproportionate concern for female victims. [6]

The article’s first concern is what feminist theory requires.  Why should anyone care about requirements of feminist theory, as defined by the ruling feminist theoreticians?  Elites today care, because if they don’t confirm their allegiance to feminist theory, they will be expunged from mainstream public discourse.  The article concludes with a declaration worthy of feminist theory:

Finally, a gender-conscious analysis of sexual victimization as it affects both women and men is needed and is not inconsistent with a gender-neutral approach to defining abuse.  Indeed, masculinized dominance and feminized subordination can take place regardless of the biological sex or sexual orientation of the actors. [7]

Biological sex or sexual orientation shouldn’t be relevant to concern for human suffering.  While discounting those irrelevant factors, the article maps sexual victimization onto “masculinized dominance” and “feminized subordination.”   The difference between hating men and hating masculinity is worse than splitting hairs.  It’s chopping penises.  “Masculinized dominance” and “feminized subordination” are worse abstractions than “feminized dominance” and “masculinized subordination.”  The latter provides a better metaphor for reality today.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Basile et al. (2011) pp. 18-9, Tables 2.1 and 2.2.  These results are based on non-incarcerated persons’ statements about sexual victimization in response to survey questions.  They are not findings of rape under criminal law.  Rape in NISVS includes “completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.”  The statistics cited above add to the NISVS “rape” category the sexual violence of men “made to penetrate” sexually another person.

[2] Id. p. 1.  NISVS did not survey incarcerated persons.  Men are highly disproportionately represented among incarcerated persons.  Incarcerated persons suffer a much higher prevalence of sexual violence.  If incarcerated men are appropriately recognized as “men in the United States,” rape of men is considerably higher than the NISVS statistics indicate.

[3] Id. p. 19, Table 2.2.

[4] Stemple & Meyer (2014) p. e19.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. p. e20.

[7] Id. p. e25.  The article pursues “intersectional approaches.”  Intersectional approaches detract attention from the fact that black men, Hispanic men, low-income men, mentally ill men, gay men, disabled men, and homeless men are all men.  Consider, for example, this statement:

Because the United States disproportionately incarcerates Black, Hispanic, low-income, and mentally ill persons, accounting for the experience of the incarcerated population will help researchers and policymakers better understand the intersecting factors that lead to the sexual victimization of already marginalized groups.

Id. p. e25.  The article thus fails to mention that men are highly disproportionately incarcerated.  About ten times more men are currently held in U.S. prisons and jails relative to women there.  Gender-biased understandings of crime, such as gender-biased understanding of the crime of rape, contribute to the highly disproportionate incarceration of men.


Basile, Kathleen C., Michele C. Black, Matthew Joseph Breiding, Jieru Chen, Melissa T. Merrick, Sharon G. Smith, Mark R. Stevens, and Mikel L. Walters. 2011. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010 summary report. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention.

Stemple, Lara, and Ilan H. Meyer. 2014. “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions.” American Journal of Public Health. 104 (6): e19-e26.


authors beware: 80% of books sell less than 100 copies

pile of books

Most published books sell few copies.  According to BookScan data:

79 percent of all new books sold in the United States in 2004 sold fewer than 99 copies, with 16.91 percent of all books selling between 100 and 999 copies.[1]

In 2004, BookScan covered about 70% of all U.S. book sales.[2]  The book industry today, like other industries marketing symbolic works, is based on hugely popular blockbusters.  Most authors, even authors of published books, earn nothing for all their work.

Books that sell less than 100 copies are not a waste.  An author may have enjoyed writing a book.  A few readers may value the book greatly. Of course, authors, like everyone else, need some way to support themselves.  A book that sells less than 100 copies is not likely in itself to provide significant financial benefit to the author.  A reasonable strategy for such books is to make them freely available to everyone on the Internet.  On the Internet, such books potentially can remain economically accessible to billions of persons forever.  Together they can greatly enrich the public landscape of human creativity and knowledge.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Greco, Rodríguez & Wharton (2007) p. 212.

[2] Id.

[image] pile of Nordic books.  Thanks to Johannes Jansson and Wikipedia.


Greco, Albert N., Clara E.  Rodríguez and Robert M.  Wharton. 2007. The culture and commerce of publishing in the 21st century. Stanford, Calif., Stanford Business Books.


Roman epitaph to Julia Galbina

Roman epitaph to Julia Galbina

Above is a photograph of a Roman epitaph from the second century GC.  Translated from Latin, it states: “To the sacred memory of Julia Galbina; she lived 45 years. Gnaeus Haius Iustus, to his most devoted wife.”

In the U.S. in 1790, expected lifespan at birth was 44 years for white females and white males.  Now it’s 79 years for females and 74 years for males.  You can now expect to live longer than Julia Galbina.  But will you be remembered 1800 years from now?

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

[image] My photograph of marble stone on display at the Portland Art Museum.  Sally Lewis Collection of Classical Antiquities 26.68.


Bernard of Cluny’s De Contemptu Mundi trivializes men’s sexed protests

Now we flee from standing firm and we stream toward evil; let us stand up for goodness.  It is the final hour, the most wicked of times — be watchful! [1]

Bernard of Cluny’s De Contemptu Mundi is a long, twelfth-century Latin poem that complains about everything.  Its complaints are conventional: everything used to be better, the world’s gone to hell, everyone now is obsessed with money, sex, power, and their stomachs.  A scholar has described this work as containing “one of the most vehement, nasty outpourings of antifeminism in the Middle Ages.”[2]  But its vehemence and nastiness has a hollow core.  De Contemptu Mundi lacks the outrageously transgressive pseudo-realism of Jaume Roig’s Spill, the intricate poetic parodies of Libro de buen amor, and the keen psychological insights of Marie de France’s work.  Bernard of Cluny’s De Contemptu Mundi trivializes men’s sexed protests.

De Contemptu Mundi favors narrow technical proficiency over broad social change.  De Contemptu Mundi complains about everything while maintaining a difficult leonini cristati trilices dactylici meter throughout its 3,000 lines.  Bernard fundamentally misunderstands virility:

Bernard speaks of this metre with great pride, pointing out in his prologue that other poets had not used it for more than a handful of lines, whereas he has managed to keep it up for three thousand. [3]

Literature from the Islamic world describes the much more impressive feat of Abu’l Hayloukh.  Bernard wrote De Contemptu Mundi for his monastic brethren.  Enforcing the intensely difficult leonini cristati trilices dactylici on himself often required Bernard “to torture syntax, vocabulary, and word order.”[4]  Torture, like going down on sinking ships, hurts men.

De Contemptu Mundi Virī

Bernard places women at the center of the world.  His gynocentric imagination ignores men and connects abstract evils to shameless whores, woman, the evil woman, and even a specific woman:

Excess thrives, impiety stands erect, injustice abounds.  The impious crowd, the troop of whores, defiles all.  The life of shameless whores is to walk without restraint; their tongue is defilement, their heart is drunkenness, their life is the belly.  Their one and only glory is to love the lewd desires of the flesh, to defile hearts in their abyss, to defile bodies in their lust.  Woman is filthy, woman is faithless, woman is feeble; she pollutes the clean, she contemplates the impious, she wears away one’s abundance.  An evil woman becomes a spur to wickedness, a rein to goodness.  An evil woman is a wild beast; her sins are as sand.  I am not going to revile righteous women whom I ought to bless, but since I must, in my poem I sting those who think like Locusta. [5]

While “impiety stands erect” surely suggests a masculine contribution, Bernard doesn’t dilate that figure.  He immediately moves on to whores.  Men throughout history have served as whores, but historians, who have been predominately men, have ignored them.  Underscoring his lack of recognition of men, Bernard abruptly moves from whores to women.  Two verses later, the subject is the evil woman.  Bernard claims that he isn’t going to revile righteous women.  That’s transparently incredible since he has reviled “woman” only a few verses earlier.  From the highly abstract claim “excess thrives” to the specific, historical reference “those who think like Locusta,” Bernard never thinks of men.

Bernard distracts attention from his disregard for men with an insincere distinction between person and acts.  Immediately following the above passage, Bernard declares:

Now the evil woman becomes my theme, she becomes my discourse.  Her I regard as good, but her acts I condemn, and therefore I censure them. [6]

After only a few more verses, Bernard tramples the distinction between person and acts.  He describes “woman” as pulchra putredo (“beautiful rottenness”), dulce venenum (“sweet poison”), semita lubrica (“a slippery path”), fossa novissima (“the deepest ditch”), and publica janua (“a public doorway”).[7]  All these descriptions are directed at the person.  With their specific forms, these figures are gendered to exclude men.[8]

Bernard himself doesn’t appreciate the seriousness of his disparagement of the literature of men’s sexed protests.  Bernard rattles off verses that seem to be merely technical exercises:

Foemina perfida, foemina foetida, foemina foetor
{Woman is faithless, woman is foul, woman is foulness} [9]

Bernard joins a long history of ridiculing cuckolded men:

What woman keeps sacred agreements … so that offspring given to her husband, sired by him and not by a servant, shows his father’s face and manifests the father’s deeds? For what woman does the promise or the blessing at the altar remain firm? What woman has pious eyes, what woman is good? A rare one, believe me! This bird is very rare, this plant is difficult to find. I attack such things, I ridicule such things, but not without weeping. [10]

A leading scholar of Latin literature observed:

In view of the violent diction and strained ornamentation we have seen, and the conscious imitation of satirical conventions, I suspect that the misogynistic poems which flourished in the twelfth century were comic in effect, if not in purpose. Perhaps they were all for show. [11]

The effects of literature like De Contemptu Mundi aren’t comic.  The literature of men’s sexed protests addresses real, serious issues in men’s lives.  It concerns issues such as men’s paternity interests, violence against men, men’s need for compassionate and helpful direction, and men’s inferiority in guile. Bernard of Cluny’s De Contemptu Mundi doesn’t broach any of these issues.  De Contemptu Mundi implicitly reveals contempt for men.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Bernard of Cluny, De Contemptu Mundi, I.1077-8, from Latin trans. Pepin (1991) p. 75.  I’ve replaced “the times are most wicked” with “the most wicked of times” for better w-alliterated rhythm.  Bernard, who is also known as Bernard of Morlaix (or Morval and related variants), wrote De Contemptu Mundi about 1140.  On Bernard and his works, Belnaves (1997) Ch. 1.

[2] Pepin (1991), intro. p. xvii.

[3] Mann (1994) p. 163.

[4] Id.

[5] De Contemptu Mundi, II.439-50.  In describing shameless whores walking without restraint, Bernard may have been referring to a medieval version of the post-modern slutwalkLocusta was a strong, independent businesswoman in first-century Rome.  She acquired considerable wealth working directly for the Roman Emperor Nero.  The Roman Emperor Galba (probably not related to Galbi, which is more likely a name of Roman Arabic slaves who quarried rocks) condemned Locusta to death.

[6] De Contemptu Mundi, II.451-2.

[7] Id. II. 459, 460, 461.  Phrases like pulchra putredo (beautiful rottenness) play in a rhetorical game that goes back to Hesiod’s Theogony and its reference to the first woman as a καλός κακός (beautiful evil).  On 12th-century Latin rhetoric disparaging woman, Pepin (1993).  A long series of paired Latin antonyms describing love occur in the 12th-century poem, “Vix nodosum valeo….”  See ll. 6-9, trans. Wetherbee (2013) pp. 521-33.

[8] This problem may have cosmic generality.  Bloch (1987), p. 19, declares that a writer “can only be defined as a woman.”  Bloch sees the exclusion of men as defining the whole literary enterprise:

The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature. … it is the equation of women with the illusory that serves to identify the misogynistic with the literary. … The danger of women, according to this reading of the phenomenon of misogyny, is that of literature itself.

Id. pp. 1, 15, 20.  Professors could address this problem by making literature classes more welcoming to men and by encouraging more men to read fiction.  Bloch’s analysis seems to draw upon earlier work pushing fully human men to the margins:

Unlike the pusillanimous pastor he {Bernard of Cluny} does not refrain from condemning such powerful depravity for fear of losing an earthly stipend.  Yet like the meek pastor he remembers with compassion his equality in nature to those whose faults he disciplines with the rigor of zeal.  In his Christian fashion he accommodates to the iniquity of carnal lust the tears of Heraclitus and the laughter of Democritus, the alternative responses of pagan satire to the vanity of human prudence: he laments the evil woman while deriding her viciousness.  … although Bernard voices the conventional disclaimer that his diatribe is directed only against evil women and only against their sins, he nevertheless proclaims in the era of the false Christian the universality of the evil woman foreshadowed in Eve and in the licentious contemporaries of Noah and Juvenal, who now takes her part in the ambiance of iniquity which portends the coming of Christ in judgment as it anagogically had attended His coming in mercy.

Engelhardt (1964) p. 166.  Fully human men, most of whom have been low-status men, have had low social valuation throughout history.

[9] De Contemptu Mundi, II.517.

[10] Id. II.531-40.

[11] Pepin (1993) p. 663.


Balnaves, Francis John. 1997. Bernard of Morlaix: the literature of complaint, the Latin tradition and the twelfth-century “renaissance.” PhD thesis, Australian National University, March 1997.

Bloch, R. Howard. 1987. “Medieval Misogyny.” Representations. 20 (1): 1-24.

Engelhardt, George J. 1964.  “De Contemptu Mundi of Bernardus Morvalensis, Book 2.”  Mediaeval Studies 26: 109-152.

Mann, Jill. 1994. Review. “Ronald E. Pepin, Scorn for the World: Bernard of Cluny’s De contemptu mundi. The Latin Text with English Translation and an Introduction.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 4 (1): 163-169.

Pepin, Ronald E., trans. 1991. Bernard of Cluny. Scorn for the world: Bernard of Cluny’s De contemptu mundi: the Latin text with English translation and an introduction. East Lansing, Mich: Colleagues Press.

Pepin, Ronald E. 1993. “The Dire Diction of Medieval Misogyny.” Latomus. 52 (3): 659-663.

Wetherbee, Winthrop, trans. 2013. Alain de Lille. Literary works. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

sexual innuendo: rising for marriage in Libro de buen amor

In the fourteenth-century Spanish work Libro de buen amor, the Easter arrival of Sir Love prompted wide-ranging rejoicing.  The sun was radiant, birds sang, and trees sent forth foliage and blooms.  Instruments of human construction also played:

The Moorish guitar sang its lament,
High and harsh in tone.
The portly lute accompanies a rustic dance,
And the Western guitar joins them.

The screaming rebec with its high note,
qalbī ʼaʻrābī does its rote play;
The Psaltery in their company is higher than La Mota.
The quill plectrum guitar dances in time with them. [1]

The Arabic phrase qalbī ʼaʻrābī seems to refer to a zajal that began:

qalbī bi-qalbī,
qalbī ʼaʻrābī. [2]

That’s plausibly translated as:

{I give} my heart {in exchange} for a heart,
{for} my heart is a Bedouin heart.

These lines suggest a necessity of love and an insistence on a fair bargain in love.  In Latin, galbus means yellow.  I prefer to believe that the root of galbi is the Arabic qalbī (heart).

secluded waterfall

Libro de buen amor narrates the Archpriest of Hita’s failures in love.  The Archpriest tells of his experience on the Sunday after Easter:

On Sunday after Easter I saw churches and cathedrals
All filled with festivals and marriages and joyous song;
They had great celebrations and they spread delicious banquets;
From wedding on to wedding, priests and minstrels ran along.

Those who were single just before are married now in turn;
I saw them pass, accompanied by wives for whom they burned;
I strove to think how I might taste such joy as they had earned,
For he who’s single and alone has many a hard concern. [3]

The Archpriest surely wasn’t imagining the fifteen joys of marriage, because that subtle and creative book hadn’t been written yet.[4]  In the Archpriest’s insistent yearning for a mistress, a reader might perceive a less cultured interest.  A sober and judicious scholarly authority on sexual innuendo has written:

Reading sexual innuendo in medieval literature is a delicate balancing act. … Balance requires that we see medieval sexuality as being no different in practice, if not in moral sanction, than our own; but it also requires that we do not uncritically seek a mirror to, or rather affirmation of, contemporary sexual culture or politics.  Between the two extremes there remains much fertile soil to be plowed. [5]

The Archpriest had a hard plow.  Fertile soil scarcely responded to his strenuous efforts.  In Korean, galbi is a barbeque rib dish made from beef.  Properly prepared, it’s delicious.

Between a good meal and a heart for a heart wanders Libro de buen amor.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Libro de buen amor, s. 1228-9, from Old Spanish trans. Monroe (2011) p. 31.  Verse 1229b is “badly garbled in our manuscripts” and scholars have argued over the correct reading.  Willis (1972) intro., pp. lviii-lix.  See also the discussion in Monroe (2011) pp. 31-32, 33 ft. 16.

[2] Monroe (2011) p. 32, which also provides the subsequent translation above.

[3] Libro de buen amor, s. 1315-6, from Old Spanish trans. Daly (1978) p. 329.  Daly’s translation turns up the heat of s. 1316 with “burned” (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:9) and “hard concern (cf. tumescence of his penis).  The Old Spanish text for s. 1316 is:

Los que ante son solos, desque eran casados,
veíalos de dueñas estar aconpañados;
pensé cómo oviese de tales gasajados,
ca omne que es solo sienpre piens{a} cuidados.

Zahareaus’ text in Daly & Zahareas (1978) p. 328.  An alternate, close prose translation of s. 1316:

As soon as those who formerly had been alone were married, I saw that they had the companionship of ladies; I pondered how I could have such pleasure from company, for a man who lives alone always has many cares.

Willis (1972) p. 356.  The context, however, is subtly sexual.  The date is the Sunday after Easter (“Dia de Cuasimode”), i.e. Quasimodo Sunday or Low Sunday.  The name Quasimodo Sunday comes from the first two words of the Quasimodo Sunday mass’s Latin Introit:

Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite {As newborn babes, with innate reason desire milk}

Libro de buen amor describes desire for sex as innate reason (“rationabile, sine dolo”), meaning a fundamental, natural part of human being:

Wise Aristotle says, and what he says of course is true,
That all men struggle most for two things: first, what he must do
To feed himself and keep alive, and second, in this view,
To have sex with a pleasing woman who is compliant, too.

And that he speaks the truth is proven with no artifice:
Mankind and birds and beasts, animals in caves and dens,
Desire by nature ever new, sweet paramours and bliss,
And man has much more itch than all the rest who’re moved by this.

Libro, ss. 71, 73, trans. Daly (1978) p. 43. The attribution to Aristotle is fallacious, and in general, Libro de buen amor ridicules Aristotle and other institutional authorities.  However, the sexual interpretation of Quasimodo Sunday is consistent with popular practice in medieval France:

This week {beginning with Quasimodo Sunday} marked the beginning of spring carnival and a universal relaxation of social convention.  Jeay states that despite local variations “the character of the celebrations was everywhere the same: couples formed outside marriage, and it was the woman who took the initiative.”

Pitts (1985) p. 143, n. 3, quoting Jeay (1977) p. 138.  Libro de buen amor can fairly be judged to be rife with sexual innuendo.  Its “Cruz Cruzada” lyric (s. 115-122):

is so replete with sexual “double entendres”, that it may be considered one of the most, if not the most obscene poem in the entirety of Spanish literature.

Monroe (2011) p. 36.

[4] Les Quinze joies de mariage, written in Old French about 1400, trans. Pitt (1985).

[5] Christoph (2008) p. 292.  The sexual innuendo here, whether intentional or not, is delightfully incongruous with the over-all style of this scholarly article.


Christoph, Siegfried. 2008. “The Limits of Reading Innuendo in Medieval Literature.” Pp. 279-292 in Classen, Albrecht, ed. Sexuality in the Middle Ages and early modern times new approaches to a fundamental cultural-historical and literary-anthropological theme. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Daly, Saralyn R., trans. and Anthony N. Zahareas, ed. 1978. Juan Ruiz. The book of true love {Libro de buen amor}. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Jeay, Madeleine.  1977. “Sur quelque coutumes sexuelles du Moyen Ages.”  Pp. 123-41 in Bruno Roy, ed. 1977. L’Érotisme au moyen âge.  Institut d’Etudes Medievales, Montréal: Éditions de l’Aurore.

Monroe, James T. 2011. “Arabic literary elements in the structure of the Libro de buen amor (I).” Al-Qanṭara. 32 (1): 27-70.

Pitts, Brent A., trans. 1985. The fifteen joys of marriage = Les XV joies de mariage. New York: P. Lang.

Willis, Raymond S., ed. 1972. Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita. Libro de buen amor. Princeton N. J: Princeton University Press.


Telesphoros at National Gallery’s Heaven & Earth

Heaven & Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. through March 2, 2014, exhibits a culture that tends to be viewed through stereotypes of stagnant elite theocracy, widespread superstition, and Byzantine bureaucracy.  Such phenomenon are far removed from the lived experience of ordinary persons in Washington today.  Yet a crucial function of art is to provide alternative, imaginative perspectives on the world.  For those who take time to appreciate this exhibition, Heaven & Earth shows little recognized mixtures under high artistic abstractions.

Escaping the provincialism of one’s own values and way of life isn’t easy.  In the eleventh century, a Byzantine princess married a high public official from Venice.  A Catholic Christian monk, hostile to the Byzantine princess’s Orthodox Christian culture, observed:

Such was the luxury of her habits . . . that she did not deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would have it cut up into small pieces which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. [1]

Civilized persons in eleventh-century Venice ate with their fingers.  Some golden instruments with two prongs have survived from Byzantium.  Until recently they were identified as medical tools.[2]  They are now recognized as table forks.  You can see five of such forks in the Heaven & Earth exhibition.

Byzantine art is usually thought of as icons and mosaics.  Icons are like Michael Jordan, Marlyn Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln.  When you see an emblem of splayed legs and arm reaching high above, you think big jump and score.  Marlyn gives you a sexy feeling.  Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.  Byzantine icons were like that in Christianity-imbued Byzantine culture.  Heaven & Earth presents superheroes of Byzantine Christianity in their most famous poses.  These image were thought to have special powers of communication.  Images thought to have special powers of communication have been prevalent throughout history and across cultures.  Icons are not merely a Byzantine curiosity.

Mosaics are explicitly combinations.  They are constructed from discrete, small pieces of colored glass or stone.  The small pieces within a class are both unique in microscopic details and similar in general color and size.  Many pieces from various classes combine to form a larger image, a mosaic.  Heaven & Earth includes a portion of a wall mosaic showing a full-length figure of the Apostle Andrew, pivoting to his left in a vigorous, athletic pose.  A floor mosaic shows a fruit-bearing personification of Autumn.  Another mosaic shows a running fountain and vegetation.[3]  With only minor changes, all three of these mosaics could have been in Christian or non-Christian contexts.  In early Christian Europe and in Byzantium, persons asserted affinity with Greco-Roman culture as a way of presenting themselves as cultural elites.[4]


Heaven & Earth includes astonishing works of interrelation.  One is a large icon of a peaceful Virgin Mary with the Christ child.  That icon is associated with protection or shelter.  It’s constructed as a portable mosaic with gold and silver tesserae (constitutive mosaic pieces).  It was a rare and expensive object even in its own time.[5]  Andreas Pavias’s crucifixion icon combined Byzantine and Western European artistic styles and materials.  The image is composed with egg tempera on wood — traditional materials of icons.  It has an other-worldly gold background, but depicts realistically a bustling, diverse city of people around the foot of the cross.  Even just the large number of different styles of headwear among persons in the crowd, all carefully painted, is extraordinary.  Pavias, based in fifteenth-century Crete, served both Orthodox Christian and Catholic Christian clients.[6]

The entrance wall for Heaven & Earth insightfully includes a collection of marble statuettes.  These statuettes apparently were part of a domestic shrine in a wealthy home in early fourth-century Corinth.  The domestic shrine consisted of at least nine marble statuettes of Greco-Roman gods.  The largest is a statuette of the female god Roma.  The irises of her eyes are defined with flecks of gold.  This unusual domestic presence of a Roma statuette suggests that the householder “held high office, or at the very least had aspirations to join the governing classes.”[7]  Worshiping favored gods has always been politically expedient.  Corinth, a bustling trading town, had Christian communities from Paul of Tarsus’s missionary work in the first century.  Christianity in Corinth coexisted for centuries with worship of other gods.

scuplture of Asklepios with Telesphoros

Telesphoros, as depicted in one of the Corinthian domestic statuettes, provides a striking counterpoint to the The Dying Gaul, a magnificent Greco-Roman sculpture now also on display at the National Gallery.  The Corinthian statuette collection includes two statuettes of Asklepios.  Asklepios is a god of medicine and healing, perennial domestic interests.  One of the Asklepios statuettes shows Asklepios with his dwarf son Telesphoros.  Telesphoros in ancient representations always wears a cowl with the pointed cap over his head.  Most prominently associated with a shrine in Pergamon, Telephoros is generally thought to be a Gallic god that Romans absorbed from Galatians in Anatolia.[8]  But look at the face of Telesphoros and at the face of the dying Gaul.  Telesphoros has a wide, round face, a broad nose, a low nose bridge, relatively narrow eyes, and prominent eyelids.  The dying Gaul has a narrow face, a narrow nose, a high nose bridge, and roundish eyes.[9]  Today people tend to associate the facial features of Telesphoros with persons from eastern Eurasia, and the facial features of the dying Gaul, with persons from western Eurasia.  Sculptors in the ancient Greco-Roman world apparently associated both types of facial features with the Gauls.

Heaven & Earth: The Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections is well worth a careful examination.  Important artistic signs are amid the details.

*  *  *  *  *

Part II: the Athenodora stone on exhibit in Heaven & Earth

Related posts:


[1] Petrus Damianus, Institutio monialis, 11, PL 145, c. &44C, trans. Norwich (1982) p. 60.  The Byzantine princess was probably Maria Argyropoulina.  Her Venetian husband was Giovanni Orseolo, eldest son of Venetian Doge Pietro II Orseolo.

[2] Drandaki et al. (2013) p. 235, Description for no. 105, “Five Bronze Forks,” by Nikolaos D. Siomkos.

[3] Drandaki et al. (2013), mosaic of Andrew the Apostle, no. 47, pp. 128-9; personification of Autumn, n. 97 (p. 228); fountain and vegetal scroll, no. 45, pp. 124-5.

[4] Stirling (2005) provides extensive discussion of elite interest in Greco-Roman culture.

[5] Drandaki et al. (2013) no. 55, p. 135.

[6] Id. no. 172, p. 324-5.

[7] Stirling (2008) pp. 108-9, 132.

[8] The other statuette shows Asklepios enthroned, a posture associated with representations of Asklepios at the ancient temple of Asklepios in Epidauros.  That statuette doesn’t include Telesphoros.  The statuette with Telesphoros is a type known as Asklepios Giustini.  Both (marble) statuettes are thought to have been carved in an Athenian workshop.  The enthroned Asklepios is dated to the second half of the second century.  The Asklepios Giustini is dated to the third or fourth century.  On representations of Telesphoros, Wroth (1882).  The name Telesphoros has a Greek etymology “carrying to the end,” generally interpreted as convalescence.

[9] Stirling (2008) p. 125 describes this Telesphoros as having a “wide, pear-shaped face with closed eyes and a broad nose.”  I closely examined the sculpture in the Heaven & Earth exhibition.  Telephoros appears to me to have large epicanthic folds, but open eyes.  Other representations of Telesphoros are much less finely detailed.  Here’s an image of the dying Gaul’s face.  For the best view of both faces, go to the National Gallery while both Heaven & Earth and The Dying Gaul are still on exhibition.

[images] Andreas Pavias, Icon of the Crucifixion, second half of 15th century, National Gallery, Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens; Statuette of Asklepios and Telesphoros, 3rd or 4th century, Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth.  Both images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art’s press office.


Drandaki, Anastasia, Demetra Papanikola-Bakirtze, and Anastasia Tourta. 2013. Heaven & earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.  Athens: Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Benaki Museum, Athens.

Norwich, John Julius. 1982. A history of Venice. New York: Knopf.

Stirling, Lea M. 2005. The learned collector mythological statuettes and classical taste in late antique Gaul. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Stirling, Lea M. 2008. “Pagan Statuettes in Late Antique Corinth: Sculpture from the Panayia Domus.” Hesperia. 77 (1): 89-161.

Wroth, Warwick. 1882. “Telesphoros.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 3: 283-300.


Galen and Isidore to the defense of astrology

The book Secret of Secrets was an influential guide to counselors in medieval Europe.  Secret of Secrets offered rulers advice on eating, sleeping, drinking, having sex, and curing illnesses and ailments.  Secret of Secrets formulated that advice in part based on the position of the sun, moon, and stars.  In Europe late in the thirteenth century, scholars apparently had doubts about Secret of Secrets’ defense of the physiological significance of the positions of the moon and stars.  A European recension added supporting rhetoric, enlisted the great ancient scholars Galen (129 – c. 216) and Isidore of Seville (c. 560 -636), and substituted the term astronomy for the term astrology.  These changes buttressed the credibility of Secret of Secrets’ astral-based advice.  In modern terms, these changes supported Secret of Secrets’ defense of astrology.

medical astrology for King Alexander

Secret of Secrets originated in the early Islamic world.  Claiming to convey advice from Aristotle, Secret of Secrets seems to have arisen as an effort of Persian elites to win favor among the new Arab rulers of Persia.  Astronomy and astrology were closely associated with medical practice in the ancient Islamic world.  Secret of Secrets supported the significance of celestial signs with stories of contrasting reversals of professional fortunes based on time of birth (the stories of the sons of the weaver and the Indian king).  As would be formally appropriate in the Islamic world, Secret of Secrets acknowledged that God is all-powerful and superior to celestial bodies.  Secret of Secrets endorsed using astral signs to prompt prayers to avoid undesirable indications.

Study of astral signs had intellectual credibility and professional importance in the early Islamic world.  Measuring and predicting positions of celestial bodies was a highly respected field of knowledge.  That field is now known as the science of astronomy.  The Arab rulers and scholarly elites believed that the position of the moon and stars was crucial to the success of medical treatments.  Such claims, which supported a lucrative practice of medicine, are now associated with the pseudo-science of medical astrology.   In the Islamic world, careful empirical study and the interest of patrons in medical treatment drove study of astral signs to a high level of intellectual and professional development.  Secret of Secrets conveyed astral-based advice from the Islamic world to less developed medieval Europe.

Secret of Secrets raised concerns about credible beliefs among some scholars in late thirteenth century Europe.  In his translation of Secret of Secrets from Latin into French about 1300, Paris-based Dominican Jofroi of Waterford used the term astronomy in Secret of Secrets‘ defense of of the physiological significance of the positions of the moon and stars.  Jofroi probably supported Isidore of Seville’s distinction between astronomy and astrology:

There is a difference between astronomy and astrology.  Astronomy consists of the turning of the sky, the rise, setting and movement of the stars, and why they were named.  Astrology is partly of the natural world, and partly superstitious.  It is part of nature when it follows the course of the sun and moon, or the placement of the stars in certain seasons.  Superstition is when the astrologers make predictions by the stars, arrange the twelve signs of the sky through each part of the body and soul, and attempt to predict the birth and characteristics of human beings by the course of the constellations. [1]

Jofroi excised from Secret of Secrets material on alchemy, magic substances, and astrology.  He explained that such stuff is “more like fable than truth or philosophy, and all clerks who understand Latin well know this.”[2]  The stories of the weaver and the Indian king’s sons were moved from the section on choosing counselors to the section of physiognomy.[3]  Those stories are very much like fables.  Fables, like the term astrology, evidently lessened credibility within thirteenth-century European scholastic circles.

To support Secret of Secrets’ astral-based advice, a medieval European recension added rhetorical arguments.  James Yonge translated Jofroi’s French into English in Dublin in 1422.  Compared to its Arabic source, the Jofroi-Yonge recension added the authority of Galen and Isidore of Seville in defense of astronomy:

As Galen the very wise physician says and Isidore the good scholar witnesses, a man may not perfectly know the science and craft of medicine unless he is an astronomer.  Therefore you will do nothing, and namely that which pertains to the keeping of your body, without the counsel of astronomers. [4]

That’s a highly generic argument from authority for medical astrology-astronomy.  Compared to its Arabic source, the Jofroi-Yonge recension supported the physiological significance of celestial bodies’ positions by describing the effect of the moon on the sea.  It generalized that effect to all animals having the nature of water:

The sea moves and it withdraws according to the moving, growing, and decreasing of the moon that has mastery and lordship upon the water and upon all things that have the nature of water.  Therefore, oysters and crabs, the brain and marrow of all beasts, increase and decrease after the moon. [5]

Putting in series oysters, crabs, and the brain and marrow of all beasts makes sense only in attempting to connect rhetorically the sea to general animal physiology.  Concern that this effect is not readily apparent in a cup of water doesn’t matter to such an exercise.  Essentially following the Arabic source, the Jofroi-Yonge recension declared:

it well seems that those men are great fools that say that science and judgment of stars is not profitable to know since by them a man may better understand diverse perils and shun harm by knowledge and foresight.  However, as much as the knowledge of a man is not sufficient without the help of God, the sovereign remedy against all harm and suffering is to pray to God almighty that He, for His great mercy, would turn harm into good, for His power is not made less, defiled, or disturbed by the virtues of the stars.

That claim was highly popular in medieval Europe.[6]  The Jofroi-Yonge recension added to that argument for prayer a medieval European sense of sinfulness and hope:

And if we so do, we may have hope that He will deliver us from that harm that we have well deserved.[7]

In thirteenth-century Europe, weaknesses in the credibility of Secret of Secrets‘ astral-based advice prompted rhetorical, not substantial, revisions.

Secret of Secrets’ astral-based advice had a sound foundation in underlying interests.  Eating, sleeping, drinking, having sex, and curing illnesses and ailments are perennially propitious areas for offering advice.  Secret of Secrets claimed to provide up-market advice with authority of Aristotle and Islamic learning.  Faithful looking to God see stars.  Scholars have long studied the movement of the stars.  Secret of Secrets’ astral-based advice was too well-positioned to be consigned to the realm of superstition.

*  * *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, III.27, from Latin trans. Throop (2005).  Isidore’s distinction between astronomy and astrology was not, in my view, consistently maintained in subsequent literature.  Fluidity in use of the terms is apparent in the biographies of physicians in the early Islamic world; Asaph the Physician’s roughly tenth-century Hebrew Book of Medicines and David ben Yom Tov’s fourteenth-century Hebrew Kelal Qatan; and in the writing and profession of Petrus Afonsi in twelfth-century Spain.  With respect to Roger Bacon in thirteenth-century Europe:

Bacon himself uses the word Astrology in the most general sense, as the whole body of knowledge concerning the stars, subdividing it into judiciary and operative Astronomy.

Steele (1920) p. xxviii.  For an example, see id. p. 5.  Manuscripts of Philip of Tripoli’s Prologue to Secret of Secrets used astronomy and astrology inconsistently.  Williams (2003) p. 361, ft. 39: “astronomia ]Pa3 astrologia.”  The context, “postetatem astrorum in astronomia,” is astrological in Isidore’s terms.   Williams (2004) also uses astronomy and astrology inconsistently.  See, e.g. id. pp. 409, 419.  As discussed above, astronomy had more more credibility in narrow reason, while astrology offered a broader basis for marketing claims to practical knowledge.

[2] O’Byrne (2012) p. 52.  Philip of Tripoli translated the Arabic source of Secret of Secrets into Latin about 1230.  Jofroi of Waterford (Geoffrey of Waterford) used primarily Philip’s Latin translation.  On Jofroi’s revisions of Philip’s text, see Williams (2003) Ch. 7.  Jofroi also drew upon Barthélemy de Messine’s translation (from Greek to Latin) of a pseudo-Aristotelian text on physiognomy.  Monfrin (1964).  Jofroi’s text has not been published.  Jofroi entitled Ch. 31 “Que astrenomie est necessaire a la garde du cors (That astronomy is necessary for the keeping of the body).”  O’Byrne (2012) p. 65, Table 1.1.  That chapter corresponds to the chapter in Yonge’s text (Ch. 39) that cites Galen and links “the science and judgment of stars” to prayer.

[3] Id. p. 63, suggesting that Jofroi moved the stories rather than Yonge.  Jofroi, associating with Parisian scholastics, seems to be the more likely party to have reduced the profile of astrology in Secret of Secrets.  The stories were moved to Ch. 55.

[4] James Yonge’s Secret of Secrets (Secreta secretorum), Ch. 39, trans. into modern English, Kerns (2008) p. 80.  For the old English text, Steele (1898) pp. 195-196.

[5] James Yonge’s Secret of Secrets, modern English in Kerns (2008) pp. 80-1.

[6] Williams (2004) p. 425.

[7] James Yonge’s Secret of Secrets, modern English in Kerns (2008) p. 81.

[image] From Pseudo-Aristotle, Secretum Secretorum, translated by Philip of Tripoli (Philippus Tripolitanus), f. 53v, detail illustration, King with an astrologer and a physician, British Library Add MS 47680 (dated 1326-1327).


Kerns, Lin, trans. 2008. The secret of secrets (Secreta secretorum): a modern translation, with introduction, of The governance of princes. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Monfrin, Jacques. 1964.  “Sur les sources du Secret des secrets de Jofroi de Waterford et Servais Copale.” In Mélanges de linguistique romane et de philologie médiévale offerts à Maurice Delbouille, 2:509–530. Gembloux: J. Duculot.

O’Byrne, Theresa. 2012. Dublin’s Hoccleve: James Yonge, scribe, author, and bureaucrat, and the literary world of late medieval Dublin. Ph.D. Thesis. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame.

Steele, Robert, ed. 1898.  Three prose versions of the Secreta secretorum. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.

Steele, Robert, ed. 1920. Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi.  Vol. 5. Secretum secretorum, cum glossis et notulis : Tractatus brevis et utilis ad declarandum quedam obscure dicta. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Throop, Priscilla, trans. 2005. Isidore of Seville’s etymologies: the complete English translation of Isidori Hispalensis Episcopi Etymologiarum sive Originum Libri XX. Charlotte, Vt: MedievalMS.

Williams, Steven J. 2003. The secret of secrets: the scholarly career of a pseudo-Aristotelian text in the Latin Middle Ages. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Williams, Steven J. 2004. “Reflections on the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum as an Astrological Text.”  Micrologus.  Natura, scienze e società medievali 12, Il sole e la Luna:  407-434.


al-Harizi’s superlative self-touting in Tahkemoni

Hebrew synogogue with Arabic decorative forms

Early thirteenth-century Hebrew author Judah al-Harizi introduces his book Tahkemoni with praise for wisdom, God, and intellect.  That praise concludes with a prayer to God for protection:

Protect us from the arrogant, we who revere You, shine Your countenance upon us, draw us near You; number us among the souls who truly love and fear You. [1]

Al-Harizi then describes himself to be divinely ordained as his nation’s poet.  That commission comes from “my Intellect,” which al-Harizi also calls “the Intellect” and “the Divine Mind.”   The Intellect purifies al-Harizi’s lips with a burning coal, just as did an angel for the great prophet Isaiah.  Al-Harizi figures his words as gold for princes’ and courtiers’ necklaces and bracelets:

The Lord has gifted me with a skilled tongue and lifted me above my kin that I might place within the Intellect’s palm the gold of my thought, subtly wrought, long sought-after and too precious to be bought, that he might make thereof bands for princes’ necks and dear companions’ hands.

Al-Harizi’s fear of the arrogant and fear of God didn’t stop him from giving himself high praise.

Al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni is a distinguished work.  It’s an original literary composition in Hebrew, the sacred language of Jewish scripture.  Hebrew was not commonly used in non-religious Jewish writing from at least 2000 years ago.  With Tahkemoni, al-Harizi sought to demonstrate the suppleness and power of the Holy Tongue Hebrew in non-religious literary writing.  Tahkemoni encompassed all of life:

I tell of teetotallers and drinkers, of warriors and thinkers, spin tales of journeys, of kings and poets’ tourneys, prayers and supplication, praise and protestation, the rebuke of the wise and good fortune’s demise, the role of Love’s gazelles and the cool of desert wells, stint’s harsh breeze and beggars’ pleas, wind and water, sword and slaughter, harts’ hunt and heart’s want, travellers’ treks and slippery decks and vessels’ wrecks, slandering, pandering, and Youth’s meandering, Nazirites’ vows and drunken carouse, paramours, ills and cures, blockheads and boors, guile’s school and the gulled fool, gibe and jeer and snub and sneer, song enchanted, wine discanted, witty invention, brazen contention — all this that this book might be Song’s manse and garden, wherein every seeker might sate his quest, every petitioner gain his behest: herein shall the weary rest.

After finishing that long sentence, the weary reader rests and marvels.  Al-Harizi recommends his book for the God-fearing and the God-forsaking, and for the dimwit and the wise.  He describes his book as a feast.  It will also beautify lips:

well shall this feast serve our people from west to east, for too often is their Hebrew mangled, their phrases tangled, their clauses jarred and jangled.  Let the limp, the halt, the twisted, the unsightly read this work and speak rightly.

Al-Harizi was completely serious about his purpose.  He sought to instruct in Hebrew literary entertainment.

Al-Harizi’s work required material support.  Al-Harizi worked hard to secure patronage:

from the Euphrates to the Nile I sought a patron’s smile, a champion of Generosity’s camp to lend my work his stamp.  Long I looked that I might seize and bind him: I sought him, but I did not find him.  I searched until appalled: no one answered when I called.

Al-Harizi finds a patron in his introduction to Tahkemoni.  He pays the patron with lavish praise:

I found him whom my soul loves and God approves, for He has set him Prince above his generation, a lion whom we roar in acclimation, Probity’s girdle and Kindness’ glove, Wisdom’s tiara and the sceptre of love, a rising sun, a Joseph for awe, a David guarding godly law, a leaping stag, discernment’s crag, and eagle soaring proud and lone, a Solomon seated on Wisdom’s throne.  He strums on sapience’s lute — rhetors and sages fall mute; before his lineage all nobles are ashamed, and when he gives, all givers are defamed. … He is the great prince of blazing merit, Israel’s wall and turret, the great Maecenas, that shining soul, Rabbi Samuel son of Alberkol

Al-Harizi finds another patron in the first gate (chapter) of Tahkemoni.  He praises that patron lavishly:

Two witnesses attest to his renown: Solomon his seal and David his crown.  With them for chariots and cars, he rules the stars.  Before him angels peal.  Lo, the age’s prince — kneel, kneel, O Israelites: thus shall be done to the man in which the king delights!  He is praise’s walls and ground, his virtue knows no bound, his speech no flaw; his heart is an endless ocean of God’s law.  His mouth is Wisdom’s gushing fountain; his mighty arm, Salvation’s mountain. … He is our master of bright renown, our God-fearing crown of piety, agate and coronal of our society, seed of kings and our prince and lord, our outstretched arm, our bared and gleaming sword, our pillar of fire, dispelling darkness for us, the Ark of the Covenant journeying before us, our holy throne, our song and our refrain, who turns the hills and twisted ways to a level plain, our rabbi, teacher, lord, and king, Wisdom’s signet-ring: Josiah

In various manuscripts, Tahkemoni was also dedicated to at least three other notables.  Two manuscripts exclude the above dedication to Josiah.  According to a leading scholar of Tahkemoni, those manuscripts were “doubtless copied from a manuscript meant for a different patron.” [2]

Al-Harizi’s self-interested puffing and flattery seem to me to be part of his larger program of entertainment.  Elaborately praising different patrons in the introduction and in chapter one probably isn’t mistaken double-dressing.  Out-doing the praise in the introduction, the praise in chapter one deploys direct figures of idolatry: the patron is “our pillar of fire” and the “Ark of the Covenant.”[3]  That’s too outrageous not to be meant as entertainment.  Both al-Harizi’s praise of himself and his expansive valuation of his book are similarly outrageous.  Elaborate praise of patrons is a feature of the Arabic literary tradition.  Al-Harizi knew that tradition well.  He humorously capped the Arabic tradition with all the serious resources of the Hebrew language.

Amid bountiful opportunities and rights, what writing today is as daring, path-breaking, and entertaining as al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni?

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Judah al-Harizi, Tahkemoni, Introduction, from Hebrew trans. Segal (2001) p. 9.  Subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 9, 15-6, 17, 19, 19, (26, 28, from Ch. 1).  The reference to companions in “dear companions’ hands” probably translates the Arabic term nadim, a courtier who is a close associate of the ruler.

[2] Segal’s textual analysis, id. p. 432, ft. 12.

[3] God manifested himself as a pillar of fire and protected the Hebrews as they fled from captivity in Egypt.  Exodus 13-21-22, 14:24.  The Ark of the Covenant held the Torah and physically represented the contract between God and the Hebrews.

[image] Sinagoga del Tránsito (Synogogue El Transito) interior, Toledo (Spain), constructed about 1356.  Image thanks to Windwhistler and Wikipedia.


Segal, David Simha, trans. and ed. 2001. Judah al-Harizi. The book of Taḥkemoni: Jewish tales from medieval Spain. Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.


ancient origin of counting sheep to fall asleep

According to Disciplina Clericalis, a text written in early twelfth-century Spain from Islamic sources, a king every night heard stories from his storyteller.  One night, the king, burdened with worries from the day’s business, did not feel like going to sleep.  He demanded extra stories from his storyteller.  But the storyteller himself wanted to go to sleep.  The storyteller’s ingenious solution was to tell a story that required counting sheep.[1]

A farmer went to market and bought two thousand sheep.  Returning home, he found his way blocked by a flood-swollen river.  Along the shore was a small boat that could carry only two sheep across at a time.   The farmer put two sheep into the boat and crossed over.  The farmer need to do that a thousand times in order to get all his sheep home.

According to Disciplina Clericalis, the storyteller fell asleep after stating that the farmer put the first two sheep into the boat.   The king woke the storyteller and demanded that he continue.  The storyteller responded that the story required the farmer to transport all the sheep across the river.[2]  This meta-story clearly depends on common understanding of the practice of counting sheep to fall asleep.  The practice of counting sheep to fall asleep thus must have been well-known prior to the early twelfth century.

The early seventeenth-century Spanish text Don Quixote reworked the frame story for counting sheep.  Traveling at night, Don Quixote and his squire Sancho heard the roaring of water and loud, frightening, rhythmic banging of fetters and chains.  Deluded with romantic fantasies of chivalry, Don Quixote was determined to risk death by approaching the noise.  Sancho forestalled that action by hobbling Quixote’s horse.  Quixote reluctantly resolved to wait vigilantly until dawn.  Sancho helpfully told Quixote:

I’ll entertain your grace by telling stories the whole time, unless you want to dismount and stretch out for a little sleep, here on the green grass, the way knights errant do, so you can be better rested when day comes, and more fit for this unheard-of adventure that awaits you. [3]

Quixote angrily responded:

Am I, by any chance, one of those knights who look for rest when danger faces them?  You sleep, since that’s what you were born for, or do whatever you want to, and I will do what best suits me.

Sancho began to tell a long-winded variant of the sheep story in Disciplina Clericalis.  In Sancho’s version, a shepherd had three hundred goats that he had to transport across a river.  The shepherd had to take the goats across one by one.  Sancho explained:

you’d better keep track of how many goats the shepherd carries across, your grace, because if we forget a single one that will be the end of the story, and it won’t be possible to tell another word.

Quixote urged Sancho to assume all the goats were carried across, and get on with the story.  Sancho then asked Quixote how many goats had already been carried across.  Quixote didn’t know.  Sancho then declared that the story had ended.  Quixote responded:

you’ve told one of the most novel tales, or stories, or histories, anyone in the world has ever thought of, and the way you told it, and then ended it, is something never to be seen, and never ever seen, in the course of a lifetime, though I expected nothing less from your remarkable powers of reasoning.  On the other hand, I’m not surprised, for conceivably this banging, which has never stopped, has troubled your brain.

That’s layers of nonsense built upon ridiculousness.  Disciplina Clericalis was a highly popular work across Europe.  Spanish readers most likely knew the tale of counting sheep.  About five centuries after Disciplina Clericalis was written, the counting-sheep story had a novel ending in Don Quixote.  That novel ending was in counting goat-sheep not being allowed to produce sleep.

when counting sheep, count this one

The animating spirit of Don Quixote’s evaluation of counting sheep continues in recent scientific work and associated story-telling.  On January 24, 2002, news sources around the world reported news about counting sheep.  In Britain, a story in The Guardian declared in its headline: “Trouble Sleeping? Don’t Count on Sheep.”  The story reported:

New Scientist reports today that Allison Harvey, a cognitive psychologist at Oxford University, tested that classic recipe for numbing thought and quelling anxiety: counting sheep. She and a colleague divided 50 volunteer insomniacs into three groups, proposed a strategy for each and monitored the rates at which eyelids closed and breathing became regular.

One group was asked to concentrate on a distraction such as counting Southdown ewes in a field, or Merino lambs hopping over a stile. One group was left to its own devices. And one was asked to focus on a tranquil and relaxing suite of thoughts, such as a waterfall, or being on holiday.

Those who imagined torpid afternoons in the south of France, or lazy twilights in the Tyrol, went to sleep on average 20 minutes earlier than they would normally do on nights when they were not concentrating on faraway places. The sheep counters – and the ones who just lay there, wishing they could nod off – actually stayed awake for longer than their normal ration of restlessness.

“Counting sheep is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away,” Dr Harvey said.

The story in BBC News was titled “Sheep counting is tired technique.”  That story reported:

The idea that you can nod off while imagining the woolly animals jumping through a hedge has been around for years, but scientists who have tested it on volunteers say other strategies are likely to be more effective.

Thinking about a calming waterfall or a tranquil beach was more likely to induce sleep, Allison Harvey, from Oxford University, UK, told New Scientist magazine.  …

Harvey and a colleague took 50 insomniacs and asked them to use different techniques to get off to sleep.

Some were told to count those sheep; others to imagine a relaxing scene; and a third group was left to its own devices.

On average, those picturing a calming scene fell asleep more than 20 minutes earlier than on nights they did not try the technique. But both the sheep-counters and the controls took slightly longer than normal to fall asleep on the nights of the experiment. “Counting sheep is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away,” Harvey said.

The source article in the New Scientist, published the previous day, was entitled “Sleep scientists discount sheep.”  The New Scientist article reported:

Harvey and her colleague Suzanna Payne asked 50 insomniacs to try different distraction techniques on certain nights, to see which helped them fall asleep more quickly. One group conjured up a tranquil and relaxing scene such as a waterfall or being on holiday, while a second were asked to think of a distraction such as counting sheep. A third group were left to their own devices.

On average, those picturing a relaxing scene fell asleep over 20 minutes earlier than on nights they didn’t try the technique. But both the sheep-counters and the controls took slightly longer than normal to fall asleep on the nights of the experiment. “Counting sheep is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away,” says Harvey.

The scholarly article that these three news articles referenced doesn’t actually mention sheep.  The scholarly article states:

The “general distraction” group were told that during the pre-sleep period they should simply distract from thoughts, worries and concerns. No guidance was given as to a specific strategy that should be used to distract. …

Participants in the “general distraction” group thought through events that happened today (n=6), counted (n=2), meditated (n=2), subvocally hummed a favourite tune (n=1), blanked their mind whenever an unpleasant thought occurred (n=2), or focused on body relaxation (n=1). [4]

The “general distraction” group is the group that the news sources reported as “sheep-counters.”  Yet only two of the fourteen tested insomniacs in that group counted, and those two did not necessarily count sheep.  If you literally believed what was reported in the scientific news articles in The Guardian, BBC News, and the New Scientist, you might as well believe what is written in medieval chivalric romances.[5]

Medieval history is more meaningful than contemporary science journalism.  Counting sheep for falling asleep has the authority of being, for at least a millennium, a widely recognized human practice.   If you’re having trouble falling asleep, try counting sheep.  That would be low-cost scientific work offering obviously significant results for you.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Petro Alfonsi, Disciplina Clericus, Sec. XII, from Latin trans. Hermes & Quarrie (1977) pp. 123-4.  In Disciplina Clericus, the story of the king and the storyteller itself occurs within a frame of a pupil asking a master-teacher for stories about women’s guile.

[2] A similar story exists in the Cento Novelle Antiche, an Italian compilation of short stories from the end of the 13th century.  In the Cento Novelle Antiche version, the storyteller urges the patron to imagine the sheep crossing “so that in the meantime you could sleep well at ease.”  Novella XXXI.  For the Italian text, see Novelle italiane dalle origini al cinquecento, a cura di Goffredo Bellonci, pp. 9-10.  An English translation is available at Elfinspell, mislabeled as “Novella XXX.”

[3] Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, vol. 1, ch. 20, from Spanish trans. Raffel (1999) p. 112.  Subsequent quotes from Don Quixote are from id., pp. 112, 114, and 114.  A version of the story exists in Avellaneda’s continuation of Don Quixote.   There the connection of the story to falling asleep is more distanced.  See Yardley (1794) Bk. 3, Ch. V, p. 84.

[4] Harvey & Payne (2002) pp. 270-1.

[5] The common text across all three news articles suggests a lightly rewritten press release.  The medieval stories of counting sheep show more creative story-telling.  All three modern scientific-journalism articles refer to 50 insomniacs.  The final sample studied actually consisted of 41 insomniacs.  Harvey & Payne (2002) p. 271.  That’s undoubtedly a trivial number relative to the total number of persons who have tried counting sheep to fall asleep throughout history.

[image] Lundy Sheep. Photograph thanks to Michael Maggs, Wikimedia Commons.


Harvey, Allison G., and Suzanna Payne. 2002. “The management of unwanted pre-sleep thoughts in insomnia: distraction with imagery versus general distraction.” Behaviour Research and Therapy. 40 (3): 267-277.

Hermes, Eberhard and P. R. Quarrie, ed. and trans. 1977. Petrus Alfonsi. The Disciplina clericalis of Petrus Alfonsi. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Raffel, Burton, trans. and Diana de Armas Wilson, ed.. 1999. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Don Quijote. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Yardley, William Augustus, trans. 1784. Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. A continuation of the history and adventures of the renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha. London: Printed for Harrison and Co.


Next Page »