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?

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[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.

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[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.

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.

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[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.

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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.

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[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?

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[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.

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[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.


petticoat fabliau: story-acting solves real problem

One night, a woman was in bed with a young, handsome squire.  Her husband unexpectedly and quietly returned home.  He entered the bedroom by candlelight, suspecting nothing.   The wife bolted upright in fright.  The squire ducked under the covers unnoticed.

The wife scolded her husband for frightening her and returning home to spy on her.  The husband explained:

Be quiet.  Don’t be afraid.  Calm yourself, dear, for never has it been in my heart to come home to spy on you, nor have I ever had any idea that I could catch you in some wickedness.   So relax, don’t let this upset you. [1]

The husband then sat down at the foot of the bed.  The squire under the covers trembled uncontrollably.  The wife was deathly pale.  The husband apologized for surprising her and frightening her.

The wife then brought the husband into a new story-world.  She said to her husband:

Tell me, if you had found a man here by my side, and no mistake about it, what would you have done?  Would you have allowed such a thing to pass?

The husband responded:

With this sword I would have cut off his head, and I would have killed you beside him.

The wife, with superb womanly guile, laughed at the husband’s hypothetical-forceful response.  She then threw a petticoat over her husband’s head and held it there so as to blindfold him.  Then she kicked the squire out of the bed.  He quickly, quietly fled, naked.  The wife meanwhile held her husband tight and laughed and fooled with him.  The wife said to her husband:

So I would have held you tight until I had sent him on his way.

Taking the petticoat off her husband’s head, she said:

Now he has escaped. He will not be caught today.  Run after him!  He is getting away!

The husband enjoyed the play-story.  The squire, just as the play-story narrated, got away in reality.

Jean de Condé, the author of this petticoat fabliau, told it within a frame that further connected reality and fiction.  Condé introduced the fabliau with this tale preface:

I should now like to tell a true tale about a remarkable and quick-witted piece of deception.  But had someone discovered this fine deceit and the way it was devised, the lady of our tale would surely have been in a fine mess.

Condé’s conditional-hypothetical morally justified his telling the tale by implicitly promising a different outcome in the real future.  He ended the fabliau with an imaginary justification for narrative inconsistencies:

I don’t know what else to say of this matter: one needn’t worry about her hiding the squire’s clothes, for if she could carry out such a trick, the clothes would not present her with much more difficult.  Truly I know no more about it, and so I end my tale here.

Just as for the story of Hippocrates in the thirteenth-century Lancelot-Grail Cycle, this early fourteenth-century Old French fabliau makes truth and fiction an issue within its own meta-construction.

El Anatusi, Ala, site-specific installation, Smithsonian Gardens

The literary ingenuity of the petticoat fabliau distinguishes it from other fabliaux telling similar stories.  A work from early twelfth-century Spain includes two tales of a wife obscuring her husband’s vision in order to allow her lover to escape.  In one, a husband-vintner returns home unexpectedly with an injured eye.  The wife kisses the other, functioning eye, covering it long enough to allow her lover to escape unseen.  In the other tale, the wife and her mother stretch out a linen, ostensibly proudly displaying it to the husband, but actually providing cover for a lover to escape.[2]  Both of these tricks are non-literary.

Another fabliau narrates elaborate lies to cover cuckolding.  A wife tells her husband a story to explain why a horse, hawk, and clothes of another man are at their house.  After accepting the story, the husband goes to sleep with his wife.  The wife’s lover then escapes.  In the morning, when the lover’s horse, hawk, and clothes are gone, the wife denies that those goods had ever been at their house.  When the husband tells the wife the story that she told him, the wife denies telling the story, criticizes the story as ridiculous, and declares that the husband’s mind has become unhinged.   The husband again believes the wife.  He sets off on a pilgrimage to seek God’s favor to restore his memory.  The husband’s pilgrimage gives the wife new, better freedom to cavort with her lover.[3]  While this fabliau is more literary than a simple trick, it doesn’t involve a real-time performance of a story that a cuckolded husband believes to be fictional.

The petticoat fabliau intricately inter-relates reality and fiction.  It provides views across nested worlds.  Jean de Condé was not just retelling an old folktale.[4]  His petticoat fabliau has a highly creative literary structure.

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[1] Le Pliçon (The petticoat), Old French fabliau trans. Hellman & O’Gorman (1965) p. 68, adapted slightly.  The verbal choice “could” rather than “would” is from the translation and delightfully subtle.  All subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 67-70, with minor adaptations.

[2] Petrus Alfonsi, Disciplina Clericalis (written in Latin early in 12th century), 9: Exemplum de Vindemiatore (The Vintner), 10:  Exemplum de Lintheo (The Linen Sheet), trans. Hermes & Quarrie (1977) pp. 120-1.

[3] Le chevalier a la robe vermeille (The knight of the vermilion robe), Old French fabliau.  For English translations see the dataset of fabliaux translations.

[4] Hellman & O’Gorman (1965), p. 70, traces the petticoat fabliau to the lore of India, the vintner’s tale in Disciplina Clericalis, and the incident in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae in which Mnesilochus claims to have cuckolded her husband by feigning sickness and going out to have sex with a lover (by Apollo’s pillar, bending over the laurel tree).   The cuckolding story in Thesmophoriazusae involves multiple levels of deception, but not the real-time inter-relation of reality and fiction that occurs in the petticoat fabliau.

[image] my photograph of El Anatsui, Ala (2013), site-specific installation at the Smithsonian Gardens.


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

Hellman, Robert, and Richard O’Gorman, ed. and trans. 1965. Fabliaux; ribald tales from the old French. New York: Crowell.


ibn al-Muqaffa vigorously promoted Kalilah and Dimnah and himself

Kalilah and Dimah illustration from 13'th century Arabic manuscript

Kalilah and Dimnah, a book of practical wisdom, has been popular across Eurasia for more than a millennium.  In the mid-sixth century, royal physician Borzuya produced the first version.  Kalilah and Dimnah consisted mainly of Indian stories that Borzuya translated from Sanskrit into Middle Persian.  In the mid-eighth century, royal advisor ibn al-Muqaffa produced an Arabic version of Kalilah and Dimnah.[1]  Ibn al-Muqaffa, with a keen sense for his own position, promoted Kalilah and Dimnah vigorously.

Ibn al-Muqaffa began his introduction to Kalilah and Dimnah by evoking learned others.  Ibn al-Muqaffa wrote in the Arab-ruled Islamic Abbasid caliphate.  He came from a Persian, Zoroastrian family that was part of the conquered Sassanian regime.  Ibn al-Muqaffa was thus enmeshed in a political, cultural, and religious regime change.  The introduction to Kalilah and Dimnah begins:

The scholars of India compiled the book of fables, Kalilah and Dimnah.  It contains the most elegant proverbs, parables and analogies.  Scholars from various schools, after long toil, brought out the best of their thoughts and embodied them in a most creative manner.  This culmination of their deep reflection expressed their wisdom in fables using animals as their main characters. [2]

The Sassanian royal physician Borzuya actually compiled Kalilah and Dimnah.  Scholars of India were learned others without the status complications of the former Sassanian elite within the new Abbasid regime.  Recognizing Indian learning would be a step toward recognizing Sassanian learning.  That would be a step toward recognizing a distinctive area of ibn al-Muqaffa’s learning.[3]

While animal fables are frequently found in folktales, ibn al-Muqaffa emphasized the erudite learning contained within Kalilah and Dimnah.  Ibn al-Muqaffa implicitly recognized that Kalilah and Dimnah might be considered as containing only folktales:

The book of fables, Kalilah and Dimnah, is not written for entertainment only. … One ought not conclude that it is merely an assemblage of anecdotes about two animals [4]

Ibn al-Muqaffa described Kalilah and Dimnah as containing the best thoughts resulting from scholars’ long toil and deep reflections.  He urged intensive study of it:

The reader of Kalilah and Dimnah with all its fables should therefore spend careful and tireless time on understanding it.  … If one scrutinizes it thoroughly and meditates on the meanings embodied in the fables and analogies, he will surely become of the same mind.  The reader should therefore spend time on understanding every fable and every word in the book. [5]

According to ibn al-Muqaffa, success in reading Kalilah and Dimnah requires insight and comprehension:

Any persons who accumulates knowledge of the arts and sciences and spends his time reading books without patience and insight exhausts himself in vain. … A like frustration awaits anyone who reads this book of fables without comprehending both the apparent and implicit ideas within.  Such a reader will not benefit from the text on these pages, which offer no real value on their own except through the meaning they embody. … Reading Kalilah and Dimnah without insight will thus be time lost. [6]

Ibn al-Muqaffa’s introduction implicitly affirms that he understood the deep meanings of Kalilah and Dimnah.  Ibn al-Muqaffa thus positioned himself to serve as a tutor to a patron seeking to read it well.

Ibn al-Muqaffa described vaguely and abstractly the broad benefits of reading well Kalilah and Dimnah.  The benefits are as broad and vague as the appreciation of experience:

Whoever has learned from his own experience and that of others, and remembers and appreciates what he has learned, may appreciate these fables and take them to heart without knowing in advance how and when he will draw upon them.  He knows only that he has gained a variety of insights that could be useful at any opportune time. [7]

Ibn al-Muqaffa described the book as intended to appeal to everyone:

He who peruses this book should know that its intention is fourfold.  Firstly it was put into the mouths of dumb animals so that lighthearted youths might flock to read it and that their hearts be captivated by the rare ruses of the animals.  Secondly, it was intended to show the images of the animals in varieties of paints and colours so as to delight the hearts of princes, increase their pleasure, and also the degree of care which they would bestow on the work.  Thirdly, it was intended that the book be such that both kings and common folk should not cease to acquire it; that it might be repeatedly copied and re-created in the course of time thus giving work to the painter and copyist.  The fourth purpose of the work is to be of interest to philosophers in particular. [8]

According to the account of Borzuya’s journey to India, Borzuya produced Kalilah and Dimnah to provide immortality.  Ibn al-Muqaffa apparently added some additional chapters morally appealing from an Islamic perspective.  While illustrated books were well-known in Sassanian Persia, no direct evidence exists that Borzuya’s Kalilah and Dimnah was illustrated.  Illustrations help to make works popular.  Illustrations in Ibn al-Muqaffa’s version are consistent with his effort to make the work broadly appealing.[9]

Promoting Kalilah and Dimnah served ibn al-Muqaffa’s worldly interests.  Ibn al-Muqaffa lacked a high courtly position like Borzuya held when he created the Middle-Persian version of Kalilah and Dimnah. Ibn al-Muqaffa depended much more on success as an author.  While authors and publishers puffing books typically make money per copy sold, that almost surely wasn’t the case for ibn al-Muqaffa.  He most likely created the work for a specific patron.  Others who gained access to it could copy it without any payment to him.  However, personal status was key to scholars’ worldly success in the ancient Islamic world.  Ibn al-Muqaffa’s verion of Kalilah and Dimnah associated him with relatively attractive Indian learning.  At the same time, because its source was in Middle Persian, he had a comparative advantage in accessing it.  Ibn al-Muqaffa could cash out success as a source of Indian wisdom through patronage and position in the Abbasid court.  Relative to Borzuya’s new spiritual understanding of immortality, ibn al-Muqaffa’s worldly interests probably contributed more to generating Kalilah and Dimnah’s enduring popularity.

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[1] Borzuya produced the first, Middle-Persian version of Kalilah and Dimnah under Persian king Khosrau I (Anushirvan).  Anushirvan reigned from 531 to 579 GC.  Ibn al-Muqaffa was born to a noble Iranian family in Fars in 720 GC.  He died about 756.  He probably created his version of Kalilah and Dimnah about 750.  For the scant surviving biographical details about ibn al-Muqaffa, see the Encyclopedia of Islam.

[2] Abdullah ibn al-Muqaffa’s introduction, Kalilah and Dimnah, from Arabic trans. Jallad (2002) p. 29.   Jallad’s translation is based on Silvestre de Sacy’s 1816 Arabic text, as printed in Egypt in 1817 (Bulaq imprint).

[3] István Kristó-Nagy and Jennifer London have explored ibn al-Muqaffa’s non-Arabic origin in relation to his political thought and position in Abbasid intellectual circles.  See, e.g. Kristó-Nagy (2009) and Kristó-Nagy’s forthcoming book, La Pensée d’ Ibn al-Muqaffa; and London (2008) and London’s forthcoming book, Autocracy and the Foreigner: The Political Thought of Ibn al-Muqaffa.  Ibn al-Muqaffa also had interests common to authors.  Careful consideration of author’s interests is crucial to understanding otherwise inexplicable behavior, e.g. publishing scholarly work in forms difficult and expensive for almost everyone to access.

[4] Id. pp. 34, 35.

[5] Id. pp. 35, 34. Ibn al-Muqaffa seems to have been aware of different styles of reading.  The difference between intensive and extensive reading now tends to be considered in relation to the proliferation of novels since the mid-18th century.

[6] Id. pp. 29, 30, 29.

[7] Id. p. 29.

[8] Trans. Rice (1959) pp. 208-9.  I’ve eliminated the translator’s parenthetical notes and adapted the last sentence slightly.  Jallad (2002), p. 36, provides a less literal translation.  The translation in Knatchbull (1819), p. 64, seems to be abridged.  It doesn’t include the references to images, painter, and copyist.  O’Kane (2003), p. 23, mis-transcribes Rice’s “rare ruses” as “rare uses.”

[9] The frequency and position of images in illustrated versions of Kalilah and Dimnah suggests that its most popular features were “rattling good yarns, sometimes laced with risqué elements (frequently explicitly illustrated in the manuscripts), which has always had most appeal.”  O’Kane (2003) p. 26.

[image] The King of the Crows conferring with his political advisors, from illustrated Arabic Kalilah and Dimnah manuscript dated c. 1210.  Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, via Wikipedia.


Jallad, Saleh Saʻadeh, trans. 2002. The fables of Kalilah and Dimnah. London: Melisende.

Knatchbull, Wyndham, trans. 1819. Kalila and Dimna, or, The Fables of Bidpai. Oxford: W. Baxter for J. Parker.

Kristó-Nagy, István T. 2009. “Reason, religion and power in ibn al-Muqaffa.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. 62 (3): 285-301.

London, Jennifer. 2008. “How to do things with fables: Ibn al-Muqaffa’s frank speech in stories from Kalīla wa Dimna.” History of Political Thought. 29 (2): 189-212.

O’Kane, Bernard. 2003. Early Persian painting: Kalila and Dimna manuscripts of the late fourteenth century. London: I.B. Tauris.

Rice, D. S. 1959. “The Oldest Illustrated Arabic Manuscript.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 22 (1/3): 207-220.


Persian royal physician Borzuya pondered Matthew’s Gospel

In his autobiography, the sixth-century Persian royal physician Borzuya explicitly referred to ancient medical writings.  Borzuya studied Persian medicine and Indian medicine.  He might have also studied Greek medicine and Egyptian medicine.  Nonetheless, in referring to ancient medical writings, Borzuya seems to have been referring to Matthew’s Gospel.

proclaiming the biography of Persian royal physician Borzuya

Borzuya studied ancient medical writings as he considered his future as a physician.  He perceived before himself a choice:

I had to choose, as it appeared to me, between four things, which in general occupy the attention and engage the affections of men: acquiring material wealth, gaining a good name, enjoying worldly pleasures, and earning rewards in the afterlife.  I found in the medical writings that the best doctor seeks with dedication to his profession only rewards in the afterlife.  I determined likewise to persevere in my profession so that I would not be like the merchant who sold a precious ruby for a worthless imitation pearl. [1]

Among the four gospels, Matthew’s Gospel alone contains a parable of a pearl:

the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all he had and bought it. [2]

Borzuya’s parable of the ruby reverses the merchant’s position in Matthew’s parable of the pearl.  Borzuya’s parable teaches the foolishness of a physician exchanging rewards in the afterlife for worldly goods.  Matthew’s parable allegorizes the same goods in exchange.

Immediately following Borzuya’s parable of the ruby is an authoritative assurance.  Borzuya wrote:

I found moreover in the books of the ancients that, although the physician in his practice looks chiefly to rewards in the afterlife, he does not lose his share of worldly goods. [3]

What sort of written authority would assure a physician that dedication to rewards in the afterlife would not imply worldly sacrifices, or at least not unendurable worldly sacrifices?  Matthew’s Gospel provides such authoritative assurance:

do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. [4]

In Borzuya’s autobiography, immediately following the assurance of worldly needs being met is another parable:

he {the physician who looks chiefly to reward in the afterlife} is like the farmer who sowed his land only for a crop of corn, yet after the harvest was over, found that the land also provided grass. [5]

Among the four gospels, Matthew’s Gospel alone provides a parable of weeds:

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, “Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?” He said to them, “An enemy has done this.” The servants said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he said, “No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” [6]

In Matthew’s Gospel, the weeds parable appears near to the pearl parable.  Just as Borzuya’s ruby parable does for Matthew’s pearl parable, Borzuya’s grass parable values differently elements of Matthew’s weeds parable.  In Borzuya’s parable, the land produces crops and grass.  That’s not the work of an enemy.  The mixed harvest of crops and grass is an allegory for providential provision of worldly needs along with the harvest of goods for the afterlife.

Early manuscripts based on the Arabic Kalilah wa Dimnah include a chapter that almost surely quotes from Matthew’s Gospel.  The chapter recounts the story of the lioness and the jackal.  It contains this passage:

It has been said: ‘As you judge, you will be judged.’  As you, {lioness,} have judged and judgement has been meted out on you.  For every deed there is the fruit of the deed, reward or punishment, proportionate to the deed in greatness and smallness.  It is like seeds: When the sower has sown them the reaper pays him proportionately to what he has sown. [7]

A leading scholar of Kalilah wa Dimnah identified “As you judge, you will be judged” as a direct quotation from Matthew 7:2.[8]  Other biblical references apparently exist in the above passage and elsewhere in this chapter.[9]  Unlike ten chapters of Kalilah wa Dimnah with Indian or Middle Persian sources, this chapter does not celebrate ego-serving instrumental cleverness and deceit.  That has been put forward as an argument against it being in the book that Borzuya originally produced.[10]  On the other hand, this chapter advocates vegetarianism, asceticism, and piety.  The latter two practices clearly interested Borzuya.  Drawing upon Matthew’s Gospel further connects this chapter and Borzuya’s autobiography.

A Christian cleric who translated Borzuya’s autobiography understood it in the context of Matthew’s Gospel.  The Christian cleric translated Borzuya’s autobiography from Arabic into Syriac in the tenth or eleventh century.  He added a phrase and a two-clause quotation from Matthew’s Gospel to his translation:

Then a thought occurred to me, and I brought to mind that which was spoken by the divine Word: “Though ye do all manner of good, say ‘we are unprofitable servants,’ ” and I was terrified by that which was spoken: “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into outer darkness.” [11]

The Christian cleric also added to Borzuya’s autobiography the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That phrase occurs in six times in Matthew’s Gospel, and only once elsewhere in the Bible.[12]  He represented Borzuya turning to piety through Biblical language:

I became a stranger to the seat of sinners, loved quietness, delighted in good things, aspired to virtue, and chose a seat with the excellent.  They stand in awe of death, tremble at the punishment of hell, and shrink from ignominy.  But they do not tremble at any earthly prince, for  water cannot drown, nor fire burn, nor vipers sting them. [13]

The kernel of that passage exists in Matthew’s Gospel.  It also exists in Borzuya’s autobiography transmitted through non-Christian contexts.[14]  The Christian cleric’s translation added more specific references to the Bible, particularly Matthew’s Gospel, but without greatly distorting ideas and themes already existing in Borzuya’s autobiography.

Other Christian translators of Borzuya’s autobiography were more symbolically domineering.  In 1305, the physician Raimond de Béziers translated Kalilah wa Dimnah from Spanish to Latin for the queen and king of France.  Raimond significantly changed Borzuya’s autobiography:

{Borzuya} is represented as a model christian monk. Long discourses on the Christian virtues are introduced. {Borzuya} sees in a vision paradise, the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the saints of God. This vision is described in hexameters and is illustrated by miniatures. [15]

Such forms and figures are far from the autobiography that Borzuya wrote.  Yet Raimond’s approach might not have been idiosyncratic.  Borzuya’s autobiography apparently attracted attention from a Christian translator in sixth-century Persia.[16]  An extravagant Christian elaboration of Borzuya’s autobiography might have been part of a lost textual tradition that developed among Christian scholar-physicians across more than half a millennium.

Borzuya in some respects is similar to Galen.  Both Galen and Borzuya came from wealthy families and had fathers who arranged for them outstanding scholarly educations.  Both served powerful rulers as physicians and provided medical care to others with little concern for earning wealth.[17]  While Galen honored Greco-Roman gods and Borzuya came from a Zoroastrian family, both of their lives are amenable to Christian interpretation.  Galen glorified divine creation of living organisms and acted as a missionary much like Paul of Tarsus.[18]  Borzuya’s autobiography shares central themes with Augustine’s Confessions.

While surviving Christian-authored texts across more than a millennium exalt Galen as a physician, Galen has major flaws as a Christian personality.  Galen was egotistical and pugnacious.  He showed little charity toward his fellow physicians, and none for his enemies.  Galen, moreover, had great pride in his medical knowledge.  Galen favorite words in his writings were “firmly” and “accurately.”[19]

Unlike Galen, Borzuya exhibited Christian virtues of charity and humility.  Borzuya was concerned about his own soul, not his status relative to physician-competitors.  Borzuya wrote:

I did not envy any of my colleagues who had the same knowledge as I, but surpassed me in prestige and wealth, and yet in words and works lacked probity and good conduct.[20]

Borzuya described medical knowledge as having limited value and being inferior to other knowledge:

I thought about medicine and realised that a physician cannot give his patient a remedy which would heal his disease to such a degree that he would never again suffer from it, or from any other illness.  Seeing that there is no guarantee against the same disease, or an even more serious one from recurring, I come to the conclusion that knowledge of the hereafter is the only thing which brings permanent salvation from all diseases. [21]

Borzuya’s translation Kalilah wa Dimnah became widely known around the world.  Borzuya apparently also worked on a personal translation of Matthew’s Gospel.  The success of that fascinating work is beyond worldly judgment.

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[1] From Borzuya’s autobiography, thought to be a sixth-century Middle Persian text surviving through Arabic translations.  Above English translation adapted from Knatchbull (1819), p. 66 (English translation from de Sacy’s Arabic text), and Nöldeke (1912) p. 12 (German translation from earliest surviving manuscripts).  Keith-Falconer (1885), p. 249, provides an English translation from a tenth/eleventh century Syriac translation from an Arabic source.  A Christian cleric with only scholarly knowledge of Syriac and no experience of salt water made that translation.  Id. p. lix-lx.  The relation to Matthew’s Gospel does not come from that Christian cleric-translator.

[2] Matthew 13:45-46.

[3] Adapted from Knatchbull (1819) p. 66 and Nöldeke (1912) p. 12.

[4] Matthew 6:31-33.

[5] Adapted from Knatchbull (1819) p. 66 and Nöldeke (1912) p. 12.

[6] Matthew 13:24-30.  The parable of the weeds is one of the few parables that Jesus explained to his disciples.  Matthew 13:36-43.  Borzuya’s autobiography ends with an explained parable.  So too does the separate account of Borzuya’s journey to India.

[7] Trans. Blois (1990) p. 36.  The three characters in the story are the lioness, the jackal, and the horseman, also called the archer.  Blois refers to the story as the story of the lioness and the horseman.  Irving (1980) entitles the chapter, “The Chapter of the Archer and the Lioness.”  That translation, id. p. 185, somewhat obscures the Biblical quotation, but notes, “This may be a Christian element.  Cf. Matthew VII:2.”  Id. p. 201, n. 2.  The earliest surviving reference in Arabic to Kalilah wa Dimnah is from the early tenth century.  That reference lists the story of the lioness and the jackal (horseman) as part of the contents of Kalilah wa Dimnah.  Keith-Falconer (1885), intro., p. xix, n. 1 (referring to the history of ibn Wadith).  Blois (1990) p. 15 says the story is “not attested in India.”  Keith-Falconer (1885) p. xxxiii, in contrast, declares, “There can be no doubt that it is of Indian and Buddhist origin.”

[8] Blois (1990) p. 36.

[9] Id. perceives an allusion to Galatians 6:7 (“you reap whatever you sow”) and notes that the Bible frequently associates punishment and reward with fruit of a plant, e.g. Jeremiah 21:14.  The chapter also includes a reference to the Golden Rule, e.g. Matthew 7:12.  The Golden Rule in some form is common across religions.  Yet that reference contributes to the density of plausible references to Matthew’s Gospel.  Id., p. 37, states that the author of this chapter was “quite familiar with the Bible.” Another chapter included in early manuscripts based on the Arabic Kalilah wa Dimnah is “the ascetic and his guest” (alternatively, “the hermit and his guest”).   In that story, the ascetic knows Hebrew.  The guest finds the sound of the Hebrew language fascinating and pleasing, and seeks to learn it.  Just as for the chapter on the lioness and the jackal, when the chapter on the ascetic and the guest was included in Kalilah wa Dimnah is unclear.

[10] Id. pp. 16-17.

[11] Trans. Keith-Falconer (1885), p. 257. Cf. Matthew 25:30, 22:13.  On the translator, see Keith-Falconer (1885) Intro., pp. lvi-lx.

[12] Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30; Luke 13:28.  The Christian cleric’s Syriac translation states:

I perceived that for him who is addicted to carnal pleasures, who departs from this world in the midst of luxurious ease, and sells the bliss to come for dishonest pleasures, very evil things are reserved, namely, the terrible merciless Judgement, the ceaseless weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the fire which feeds not on wood and cannot be quenched, the worm that dies not, and the shame which passes not away.

Trans. Keith-Falconer (1885), p. 261.

[13] Adapted from trans. Keith-Falconer (1885), p. 258.

[14] On the kernel of the story, cf. Matthew 10:28, Mark 16:18.  On protection from snakes, Mark 6:18, Acts 28:3-6.  Early Arabic texts mention robbery, fire, flood, and wild animals (not specifically vipers).  See trans. Knatchbull (1819) p. 74, Nöldeke (1912) p. 19.

[15] Keith-Falconer (1885), intro., p. lxxxii-iii.

[16] A Syriac translation thought to be from the sixth century has survived, but apparently only in part (it doesn’t contain Borzuya’s autobiography).  Id. pp. xlii-lvi.

[17] For a biography of Galen from the leading authority on Galen, see Nutton (2013) Ch. 15.

[18] Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Christian and a leading physician in ninth-century Baghdad, presented himself as a Christian-Galenic disciple.

[19] Nutton (2012) p. 44.

[20] Adapted from Nöldeke (1912) p. 12.

[21] Trans. Blois (1990) p. 26.

[image] Vizier Buzurjmihr reciting the biography/autobiography of Burzoe/Borzuya.  From Bodleian Library Kalilah wa Dimnah, transcribed by Muhamad ibn Ahmad in 1354 (Pococke 400).


Blois, François de. 1990. Burzōy’s voyage to India and the origin of the book of Kalīlah wa Dimnah. London: Royal Asiatic Society.

Irving, Thomas Ballantine, trans. 1980. Kalilah and Dimnah: an English version of Bidpai’s fables based upon ancient Arabic and Spanish manuscripts. Newark, Del: Juan de la Cuesta. {this translation unfortunately includes neither the introductory chapter by ibn al-Muqaffa, nor the account of Borzuya’s voyage to India, nor Borzuya’s autobiography}

Keith-Falconer, I. G. N, ed. and trans. 1885.  Kalilah and Dimnah: or, The Fables of Bidpai: being an account of their literary history. Cambridge: University Press.

Knatchbull, Wyndham, trans. 1819. Kalila and Dimna, or, The Fables of Bidpai. Oxford: W. Baxter for J. Parker.

Nöldeke, Theodor. 1912. Burzōes Einleitung zu dem Buche Kalila waDimna. Strassburg: K.J. Trübner.

Nutton, Vivian. 2012. “Galen’s rhetoric of certainty.” Pp. 39-49 in Joel Coste, Danielle Jacquart and Jackie Pigeaud, eds.  2012. La rhétorique médicale à travers les siècles. Actes du colloque international de Paris, 9 et 10 octobre, 2008. Geneva, Droz.

Nutton, Vivian. 2013. Ancient medicine. 2nd ed. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.


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