Hatim Tai’s poetry suggests problem of being too generous

Paschal candle to share flame

Hatim Tai, an Arabian figure thought to have died about 578 GC, became legendary for his generosity. Here are verses, originally written in Arabic, attributed to him:

When riches are lords for their folk
I, praise to Allah, will enslave riches

Slavery ends by it and eats well
It is given when the far off greed breaks

When tricky greed quenches its fire
I say to one who wants my fire: Light up!

Spread the little, be enough for us
Its flames create, chaste and praised [1]

In these verses, Hatim Tai ends slavery by enslaving riches, meaning giving his wealth generously. The metaphors of far off greed breaking and tricky greed quenching its fire suggest, at least to me, dawn. The light of day is commonly understood to offer some protection against sly theft.

Hatim Tai subsequently develops an alternate metaphor of sharing fire. Sharing a flame doesn’t diminish it, but spreads light. In ancient Christian liturgy for celebrating the Easter Vigil, the congregation gathers in darkness. Flame from the single Paschal candle is shared to ignite candles that each person holds. Sharing that single flame lights up the church. That same figure is part of Hatim Tai’s verses.

Another poem attributed to Hatim Tai offers an alternate understanding of trade. A fundamental economic idea is that if two parties voluntarily trade, the trade must make both parties better off. Hatim Tai presents a much more culturally complex understanding of trade:

If what he gives freely were held
As thoughts of blame they’d draw him out

But he wants only Allah as his own
He gives so you gain profit in a bargain [2]

The “thoughts of blame” in the first couplet could mean Hatim Tai’s kin blaming him for squandering their common resources. But thoughts of blame could also come from the receiver of generosity, humiliated with inability to reciprocate appropriately. Being drawn out suggests being expelled or lured from one’s home camp.

In the second couplet, Hatim Tai justifies his generosity. He hopes to receive blessings from God for his generosity. He offers the other party not an obligation to him but clear material rewards: “profit in a bargain.” Barriers to such trade would be God’s absence or humans’ unwillingness to reap profit. In human understanding around the world and throughout history, neither of these barriers to trade have been prevalent.

Being too generous can impede practical cooperation. In his introduction to his volume of Hatim Tai’s poetry, the translator explained:

The success of Hatim’s poetry is in part due to his mastery of communication habits by means of which his readers understand his work and were stimulated to spread his fame long after his death. Such habits are established in early childhood and can be thought of as developing in a five part sequence. The tactile sequence begins with the horizontal position which the infant maintains during the first few weeks after birth. The second position is established as it learns to sit up, the third position appears when it learns to crawl on all fours, the fourth position involves learning to stand on two legs, and the fifth and final position is walking on two feet.

These five positions are related to certain auditory and visual habits. The horizontal position can be correlated with the infant’s ability to babble as it tries to cope with its separation from the mother’s continuous feeding at birth. The seated position lets the child deal with the pull of gravity as it is exerted along the vertical torso instead of as in the horizontal position. The result is a new kind of breathing that produces articulate sounds which replace the babbling. The crawling position acquaints the child with locomotion on its own power and allows it to explore the world with its four feet. This results in the grouping of sounds into words with a syntax that classifies them as nouns and as verbs, etc. and a semantics that relates words to events in an external world. The standing position teaches the child to use its hands to grasp objects such as the pen by means of which elements of a script can be made to represent the sounds of words. The walking position in the last fifth gives the child new ideas that alter the spoken syntax and semantics so that their grammar and metaphors become more elaborate than in spoken language. [3]

For the couplet above, “If what he gives freely…,” the translator provided the following commentary:

The first couplet says that Hatim gives so lavishly that he is blamed for it. The {Arabic} verb amsakat has a feminine singular ending and its subject janabatu though plural also has a feminine ending in the singular. This suggests that blame for Hatim’s good deeds originates in women and they in turn are the reason he is spurred on to do more good deeds. This is put in the form of a supposition since the women referred to are the prenatal mother, the nurse, and the feminine torso of the seated infant, all of whom cannot be identified too clearly since they are known before speech develops. But the desire to give waste products to those who have stolen the continuous nourishment is clear enough. [4]

Engaging with such communications theory and such poetic commentary is difficult. But that theory and commentary is no more nonsensical than hugely influential Freudian and other theories and commentaries. Finding some constraint on humans’ generosity in giving meaning seems particularly necessary in a global economy of complex, intricately connected, quickly signaling human communication networks.

This for that has great use when it means no more than that.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Diwan of Hatim Tai, from Arabic trans. Wormhoudt (1984) 4:12-17. A leading authority on Arabic literature has told me that Wormhoudt’s translations poorly represent the Arabic text and have numerous clear translating errors. The name Hatim Tai has numerous spelling variations, including Hatim al-Tai and Ḥātem-e Ṭāʾi. Stories of Hatim Tai have parallels in the Old French fabliau William of the Falcon, in the medieval Latin poem Lantfrid and Cobbo, in Boccacio’s Decameron X.3, the story of Nathan and Mithridanes, as well as in much other literature around the world.

[2] Id.  1:1-2.

[3] Introduction, Wormhoudt (1984) pp. 1-2.

[4] The commentary faces the Arabic poetic text and is immediately below its English translation.

[image] Lighting Paschal candle for Easter Vigil Mass. Parish of St. Rita of Cascia, Mexico City, Mexico. 30 March 2013. Thanks to Isaac1992 and Wikimedia Commons.


Wormhoudt, Arthur. 1984. Ḥātim al-Ṭāʼī. The diwan of Hatim al Tai. Oskaloosa, Iowa: William Penn College.

reading medieval Welsh erotic poetry: game & seduction

Medieval Welsh erotic poetry becomes much more meaningful from the perspective of comparative literature. Consider the first stanza of a medieval Welsh poem that stages a dialogue between a boy and a girl. The boy says to the girl:

Dexterous girl with slender waist,
grand of manner with fine eyebrows,
I request your leave in secret
for Jesus’s sake to make love to you.
May I, pleasant is my greeting,
have leave to lie with you girl? [1]

That’s far from the typical masculine diffidence in medieval courtly love poetry. The medieval Welsh poem is an amazing historical antecedent to the single-stage game that modern applied game theorists call the apocalypse opener. That game has a simple structure. A man approaches an unknown woman in a bar or nightclub and asks her quickly and serially three questions:

  1. Hey, how’s it going.?
  2. What are you doing later?
  3. Do you want to come home with me?

Practitioners describe the key to this game as shock and awe. Some women, stimulated by the man’s boldness, will respond positively. Others will tell him to go away. Our climate of hostility to men’s sexuality enhances the shock and awe of the apocalypse opener and thus increases its effectiveness.


The medieval Welsh poem develops the apocalypse opener with literary sophistication. The girl responds enthusiastically to the opener. She instructs the boy:

Lift my dress, seek openly,
as if from under my navel,
and put your knee between my knees —
if you bring one put them both.

The boy, however, then loses the stiffness of his desire.[2] The result is bitterness on both sides. The girl says to him:

So take your thin little cock
and seek companionship in a bed of fleas.

The boy responds:

And God’s curse on you girl,
you ill-tempered wild-arsed bitch.

In the medieval Welsh poem, the apocalypse opener worked. The implement for the subsequent act failed. Since medieval times, a lucrative market of pharmaceuticals has developed to address this sort of problem.

A go-to technique in modern, text-based seduction is the ascii penis. That too has a forefather in medieval Welsh erotic poetry. In medieval life and literature, go-betweens, who were usually old women, conveyed proposals of love. The transgressive medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym instead figured his genitals as a go-between:

My two balls, go on my errand
concerning my girl, may she be nearer here.
Be you fierce,
my bald round love messengers.
Go, round black diligent prick
throttled by my two balls.

Demand a feast for your bearer,
pale bondsmen of the trousers. [3]

From this literary figure to the ascii penis is simply a matter of advancing media technology.

Building upon the lessons of Ovid, the master teacher of love, modern seduction literature instructs men in the importance of confidence and boldness. So too did medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Here’s typical advice of an old-woman go-between in medieval Welsh erotic poetry:

Woo the gentle girl lovingly;
if you woo long you won’t win her in the end.
Better the thrust of knee and elbows,
by Mary, than long buying of mead. [4]

Interpreted literally, the old woman advises the man to rape the woman. But raping a woman has always been regarded as a serious crime.[5] Moreover, most men, like most primates generally, don’t rape women. Medieval Welsh erotic poetry that instructs men not to attempt to beg or buy love from women parallels warnings against beta behavior in modern seduction literature. The thrust of knee and elbow figures the dominance and entitlement of the alpha male. Medieval Welsh erotic poetry that encourages men to be sexually assertive suggests that many medieval Welsh men, like many men today, lacked sexual confidence.

Medieval Welsh erotic poetry, like literature generally, tends to be read gynocentrically. That leads to literary criticism that’s not much more than intoning misogyny blah blah blah.[6] Modern seduction literature written for men provides in comparative perspective much better understanding of medieval Welsh erotic poetry.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ymddiddan Rhwng Mab a Merch (A Conversation Between a Boy and a Girl), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) p. 79. The subsequent three quotes are from id. In medieval Welsh poetry, slender eyebrows are a highly attractive feminine feature to men.

[2] Some sex field reports suggest that women interested in sex with men are more fulfilled by being warmly receptive rather than crudely demanding. Men’s sexual response is not merely a mechanical reaction to an opportunity for sex. Men’s sexual functioning often depends on complex workings of men’s minds and emotions. In recent decades, the popular pharmaceutical category “erectile dysfunction drugs” has further contributed to misunderstanding, if not outright demeaning of men’s sexuality.

[3] Cywydd i Anfon y Gal a’r Ceilliau’n Llatai (The Poet Sends his Genitals as a Love Messenger), attributed to Dafydd ap Gwilym, from Welsh trans. id. p. 35.

[4] Cyngor Hen Wraig (An Old Woman’s Advice), probably composed in 15th century, from Welsh trans. id. p. 47. The last three verses above also occur verbatim in Ding Moel’s Cyngor i Gyfaill (Advice to a Friend), trans. id. pp. 51 (second verse), 53 (concluding couplet).

[5] Syr Dafydd Llwyd Ysgolhaig (Sir David Llwyd the Scholar), an amateur poet of the mid-16th century, explicitly described a cleric rejecting rape:

I confessed jokingly to her
my malady in my crotch.
She couldn’t commit fornication,
she said, she wouldn’t do it for anyone.
The lovely maid was not to be had of her own will,
I wouldn’t commit rape anymore than a wren.
Still, nevertheless, she agreed
of her own will to let me have her barrel:
my sweetheart jumped, radiant bosom,
into bed and paid with her arse.

Y Clerigwr a’r Forwyn (The Cleric and the Virgin), trans. id. p. 107. The woman subsequently wore the man out with her eagerness for sex. While men raping women has always been regarded as a serious crime, today rape of men is appallingly obscured and trivialized.

[6] E.g. id., introduction and commentary on individual poems.

[image] Apocalípico I, by Mauricio García Vega. Thanks to Mauricio García Vega and Wikimedia Commons.


Johnston, Dafydd. 1991. Canu Maswedd yr Oesoedd canol = Medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Grangetown: Tafol.

Aesop Romance: quarrels of story-telling, philosophy & poetry

From nearly the beginning of the Roman Empire, story-tellers told of a quarrel between the fabulist Aesop and the philosopher Xanthus. Philosophers, also known as sophists, were by this time the most powerful figures in Greco-Roman culture. The quarrel between Aesop and Xanthus became the popular work now known as the Aesop Romance. Story-telling today is widely recognized as a powerful cultural practice. The relation of Aesop’s quarrel with Xanthus to the cultural authority of story-telling hasn’t yet been adequately appreciated.

The story-telling author of the Aesop Romance seems to have learned from Plato. One of Plato’s most brilliant ideas was to instigate a quarrel between philosophy and poetry.[1] Goddesses residing on Mount Parnassus represented poetry. Athenian city officialdom regularly staged major festivals of dramatic poetry. Philosophy, in contrast, mattered relatively little. Philosophy probably reached its pinnacle of public recognition in fifth-century Athens when the comic poet Aristophanes lampooned Socrates and his silly school of philosophy.[2] Promoting a public quarrel between philosophy and poetry raised lowly philosophy to the august heights of poetry. The Aesop Romance worked similarly for story-telling in relation to philosophy at a time when philosophy had leading cultural authority.[3]

The Aesop Romance begins with Aesop at the bottom of the Greco-Roman status hierarchy. Aesop was a slave born in a foreign land. Slave and foreign were two marks of low status. Aesop also was ugly:

potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped — a portentous monstrosity. [4]

Aesop was put to work digging in a field outside the city. Working outside the home and outside the city marked him as the lowest among the lowly slaves. Even worse, Aesop lacked capacity for speech. In Greco-Roman culture, not being able to speak made a man no better than a beast.

Aesop showed the power of story-telling even before he gained the ability to speak. Aesop’s master had a bowel of figs. Other slaves ate all the master’s figs. When the master saw that all his figs had vanished, he inquired into the matter. The other slaves blamed Aesop. Aesop, because he couldn’t speak, couldn’t argue his own case. But he drank some warm water, stuck his finger down his throat, and threw up all that was in his stomach. The contents of his stomach were only water. The master ordered the other slaves to do likewise. Their vomit contained remnants of figs. The only possible story that could explain the contents of their stomachs was that they, not Aesop, had eaten the master’s figs.[5]

Aesop Romance: Aesop entertaining philosophers

Aesop gained the ability to speak through the well-established story of benefiting from kindness to strangers. A priestess of Isis, passing by the field in which Aesop was working, asked him for directions. Aesop took her by the hand, led her to a grove, and gave her food and drink. Then he took her to the main road. In return for his hospitality, the priestess prayed to Isis to give Aesop the ability to speak. Isis and her nine Muses gave Aesop the power of speech, and more:

They conferred on him the power to devise stories and the ability to conceive and elaborate tales in Greek. [6]

When the Aesop Romance was first written, fables attributed to Aesop had already been circulating for centuries.[7] The Aesop Romance is about the cultural status of such story-telling.

Impressed with Aesop’s responses to questions, the philosopher Xanthus purchased him. Xanthus’s wife had told him to purchase a slave for her. Xanthus’s wife, who was carried about in a litter, dominated Xanthus even though he taught his students “one shouldn’t pay attention to a woman.”[8] Further undermining the cultural authority of philosophy, Xanthus praised the dancing of pantomimes:

Gentlemen and scholars, you must not think that philosophy consists only in what can be put in words. Philosophy is also in acts. Indeed, unspoken philosophy often surpasses that which is expressed in words. You can observe this in the case of dancers, how by the movement of their hands the continued motions themselves express an unspoken philosophy. [9]

Pantomime dancers provided mass entertainment. Xanthus’s subservience to his wife and admiration for pantomimes are blows to his philosophic prestige. Xanthus’s slave Aesop delivered many more such blows.

The Aesop Romance provides an early example of the philological-bureaucratic skill of working to rule. Angered by Xanthus’s bothersome commands, Aesop resolved to himself: “I’ll give this philosopher a lesson in how to give orders.”[10] Xanthus asked Aesop to bring the oil flask and towels to him at the bath in the city. Persons in the ancient world commonly anointed themselves with oil after a bath. Aesop brought the flask without filling it with oil, because Xanthus had said, “oil flask,” not “flask with oil.” When Xanthus commanded Aesop to cook lentil for dinner, Aesop cooked a single lentil. When Xanthus commanded Aesop to bring food “to her who loves me,” Aesop brought food to Xanthus’s female dog rather than to his wife. Aesop similarly engaged in deliberate mis-communication with others. In doing so, he highlighted the maddening silliness of verbal sophistication.

Aesop pointedly ridiculed philosophy in serving tongues for food. Xanthus invited his students to his home for dinner. He ordered his slave Aesop to cook “the finest thing imaginable.” For each course of the meal, Aesop served tongues of pigs. The students were overcome with nausea and admitted “defeat by tongue.” Xanthus castigated Aesop for disregarding his order to serve “the finest, the most delicious thing imaginable.” Noting that Xanthus ordered him to bring “the finest, the most delicious, the greatest thing imaginable,” Aesop explained:

Well, what can one imagine finer or greater than the tongue? You must observe that all philosophy, all education, depends on the tongue. Without the tongue nothing gets done, neither giving, nor receiving, nor buying. By means of the tongue states are reformed and ordinance and laws laid down. If, then, all life is ordered by the tongue, nothing is greater than the tongue. [11]

Xanthus’s students praised Aesop’s answer and told Xanthus that Aesop was right and he was wrong. The students then went home and from their tongue dinner suffered diarrhea all night long.

Aesop more subtly ridiculed philosophy in proving that one of Aesop’s students was a busybody. Aesop set out to prove that the student was a busybody by showing, for implicit comparison, a man who was not a busybody. That’s a parody of indirect proof: demonstrating that a person is not a non-busybody, and hence must be a busybody. The proof succeeds with a rustic unconcerned about anything. When Xanthus pretends to prepare to immolate his own wife, sure that the rustic would chivalrously intervene to protect the woman, the rustic urged Xanthus to wait. The rustic said that he wanted to fetch his wife so that Xanthus could burn both wives. Xanthus then stopped and conceded defeat. The rustic thus verbally triumphed over gynocentrism and the hypocritical philosopher.[12]

Aesop’s power as a story-teller ultimately didn’t save him from his foolish behavior. At Delphi, persons who heard him give a speaking exhibition didn’t reward him with gifts. Aesop in response insulted them and their city. To strike back at Aesop, the Delphians hid a temple cup in his baggage. They then uncovered it and falsely accused him of temple theft.[13] Aesop told stories to try to dissuade the Delphians from executing him for theft and blasphemy. But Aesop’s story-telling failed. He was forced to jump off a cliff.

The fame of Aesop and modern appreciation for story-telling ignores the end of the story: Aesop dead at the bottom of a cliff. In our world, story-telling has triumphed over philosophy. But if you believe the story of the Aesop Romance, poetic justice will prevail in the end.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Declared explicitly in Plato, Republic X, 607b-c. For relevant discussion, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Most (2011).

[2] Aristophanes, Clouds.

[3] Gibbs (2009) describes Aesop as an “anti-philosopher” and a “wise fool.” Aesop in the Aesop Romance seems to me to have a more specific position than the generic folk-type “wise fool.” Kurke (2010), in contrast, describes the complex relationship of the Aesop Romance to a wide range of classical Greek literature. One strand of Kurke’s account is understanding the Aesop Romance as a popular critique of elitist practices. My approach here provides a simpler view of the Aesop Romance in the context of strategically instigated quarrels between philosophy and poetry, and then story-telling and philosophy. This account encompasses three millennia of literature from ancient Greek poetry to story-telling today.

[4] Aesop Romance (The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and Aesop his Slave or the Career of Aesop) 1, from Greek trans. Lloyd W. Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 111. All subsequent quotes from the Aesop Romance are from Daly’s translation in id. The Aesop Romance (Vita Aesopi), which dates from about the time of Jesus, became highly popular through to the twentieth century. It has a diverse, complex manuscript corpus. Daly’s translation is based on the manuscript stem Vita G (Perriana), supplemented (indicated by brackets) with text from Vita W (Westermanniana).  The characterization of Aesop as an ugly, foreign slave goes back at least to the fifth-century BGC. Kurke (2010) pp. 3, 41.

[5] Aesop Romance  2-3, Hansen (1998) pp. 112-3. In the Islamic world, Aesop became associated with a person known as Luqman the Wise. The story of the figs exists in Rumi’s Mathnawi I: 3584-3607.

[6] Aesop Romance 7, id. p. 114. Another account of hospitality to strangers is Genesis 18: 1-15 (Abraham, Sarah, and the three angels).

[7] Fables of Aesop were known in fifth-century BGC Athens. For various collections of Aesop’s fables, see Laura Gibb’s magnificent site Aesopica.

[8] Aesop Romance 24, Hansen (1998) p. 121.

[9] Aesop Romance 22, id. p. 120.

[10] Aesop Romance 38, id. p. 128. The issues of the oil flask, lentils, and food for the one who loves Xanthus are in sec. 38, 39. 44-50a, id. pp. 128-33. The Old French farce Le Cuvier (The Washtub) is another comic tale of working to rule.

[11] Aesop Romance 53, id. p. 134. Note the continual addition of superlatives in describing the request. Being able to speak eloquently was highly valued in the Roman Empire. The claim that the tongue is both the best and worse portion occurs in the Seven Sages tradition. Plutarch was fond of this claim. He quotes it, among other places, in his Banquet of the Seven Sages, Ch. 2, 147f. For discussion, Kurke (2010) pp. 218-22. Kurke describes the murals of the Seven Sages at Ostia as an Aesopic parody without Aesop. Id. p. 236, discussed pp. 229-36.

[12] Aesop Romance 56-64, Hansen (1998) p. 135-8.

[13] Cf. Genesis 44:1-17 (Joseph has his cup hidden in Benjamin’s bag). Kurke (2010) detects in this story a complicated ideological critique that extends back to the fifth-century BGC. Kurke (2010) Ch. 1.

[image] Aesop entertaining two priests, who appear dressed as philosophers. Plate before p. 3 in Barlow (1687). The drawing identifies the figures whom Aesop is entertaining as “Gnthias priests.” The associated text describes Aesop entertaining “two priests of Diana.” In Daly’s text, Aesop entertains a single priest of Isis.


Barlow, Francis, with Aphra Behn, Thomas Philipot, Robert Codrington and Thomas Dudley. 1687. Æsop’s fables with his life in English, French and Latin. London: Printed by H. Hills, Jun., for Francis Barlow, and are to be sold by Chr. Wilkinson … Tho. Fox … and Henry Faithorne. (online, 64 MB pdf)

Gibbs, Laura. 2009. “Life of Aesop: The Wise Fool and the Philosopher.” Journey to the Sea 9.

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kurke, Leslie. 2011. Aesopic conversations: popular tradition, cultural dialogue, and the invention of Greek prose. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Kurke’s introduction.

Most, Glenn W. 2011. “What Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry?” Pp. 1-20 in Destrée, Pierre, and Fritz-Gregor Herrmann. 2011. Plato and the poets. Leiden: Brill.

Aseneth & Xanthus’s wife replay Jesus washing feet

The Gospel of John, the pseudepigraphical story Joseph and Aseneth, and the Aesop Romance all include accounts of negotiated washing of feet. Joseph and Aseneth and the Aesop Romance plausibly date from the first century BGC to the fifth-century GC. Both, however, seem to gain meaning from the Gospel’s account of Jesus washing the feet of Peter.

Jesus washing feet from Gospel of John

Jesus before the Passover meal preceding his execution washed the feet of his disciples. One disciple, Peter, the rock on which Jesus established his church, objected after Jesus had already washed others’ feet. Peter said to Jesus:

Lord, are you going to wash my feet? … You will never wash my feet.[1]

Jesus explained that accepting this service was necessary for Peter to be with Jesus. Peter then eagerly accepted.

The pseudepigraphical story Joseph and Aseneth includes a similar account of washing feet. Joseph and Aseneth rationalized the marriage of the Israelite Joseph to the idolatrous foreigner Aseneth, daughter of the Egyptian priest of On.[2] It explained that Aseneth renounced idolatry and turned to worshiping the one true Hebrew God of Joseph before she married Joseph. Joseph and Aseneth describes Aseneth as a strong, independent woman who hated men. But she fell in love with Joseph at first sight and repented her hostility toward him. Aseneth expressed her love for Joseph in part through washing his feet:

Aseneth said to him, “Come, my lord, come into my house;” and she took his right hand and brought him inside her house. And Joseph sat down on her father Pentephres’s seat, and she brought water to wash his feet; and Joseph said to her, “Let one of your virgins come, and let her wash my feet.” And Aseneth said to him, “No, my lord, for my hands are your hands, and your feet my feet, and no one else shall wash your feet;” and so she had her way and washed his feet. [3]

According to a recent study, Joseph and Aseneth is best understood as a Syriac Christian text of the late third or fourth centuries. Aseneth figures the Christian Church, and Joseph, Jesus.[4] The Church serving Jesus like Jesus served Peter expresses the unity of the Church and Jesus. That unity is expressed more specifically in Aseneth’s words, “my hands are your hands, and your feet my feet.”

The Aesop Romance parodies washing of feet as loving service. The philosopher Xanthus proposed to teach his slave Aesop a lesson. His wife eagerly agreed. She declared, “That’s what I’m praying for.” Xanthus told his wife:

Get up and take a basin over to his stranger as though you intended to wash his feet. From your appearance he’ll know that you’re the lady of the house and won’t let you do it but will say: “Lady, don’t you have any slave to wash my feet?” He’ll be shown up as a busybody, and Aesop will get a beating. [5]

The stranger was a rustic. Not wanting to be a busybody, he didn’t object to Xanthus’s wife washing his feet. The Aesop Romance most plausibly was written between the Gospel of John and Joseph and Aseneth. It engages in implicit critique of a wide range of authoritative literature.[6] That critique may have encompassed the Gospel of John.[7] In any case, the Aesop Romance suggests that washing of feet as loving service was a well-established motif in common culture in the early centuries of Christianity.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] From John 13:1-15. Jesus washing his disciples feet is “a symbolic enactment of what Jesus would do for his followers through his death.” The phrase “share with me” (met’ emou) connects John 13:8 and John 17:24. Koester (1995) pp. 131-2. Feet-washing was common practice in the ancient world. See, e.g. Homer, Odyssey Bk. 19, ll. 343-507, Bk. 22, ll. 478-82; Genesis 18:4; 1 Samuel 25:41; Luke 7:44; 1 Timothy 5:10.

[2] Genesis 41:45.

[3] Joseph and Aseneth XX.1-3, trans. Cook (1984) from critical edition of short recension. Feet-washing as normal practice occurs in Joseph and Aseneth, VII. 1 and XIII.12. Joseph and Aseneth was originally written in Greek, but Syriac, Slavonic, Armenian and Latin manuscripts all contribute significantly to the critical edition. Mark Goodacre’s Joseph and Aseneth site provides online resources for studying the text.

[4] Nir (2012), Nir (2013).

[5] Aesop Romance 61, from Greek trans. Lloyd W. Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 137.

[6] Kurke (2011).

[7] In the Aesop Romance, the attempt to show the rustic to be a busybody culminates in a proposed execution: the immolation of Aesop’s wife. That’s another possible parodic connection to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at his final Passover dinner. In addition, Aesop elsewhere states:

And what is there that is bad which does not come about through the tongue. It is because of the tongue that there are enmity, plots, battles, rivalry, strife, wars.

Aesop Romance 55, trans. Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 134. That passage echoes a motif of Christian texts, e.g. Matt 15:19, Mark 7:21-22. That motif, however, probably was also common outside of Christian texts.

[image] Christ washing Peter’s feet. Giotto di Bondone, c. 1305. In Scrovegni Chapel. Padua. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Cook, David, ed. and trans. 1984 “Joseph and Aseneth.” Pp. 473-503 in Sparks, H. F. D. The Apocryphal Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Koester, Craig R. 1995. Symbolism in the fourth Gospel: meaning, mystery, community. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Kurke, Leslie. 2011. Aesopic conversations popular tradition, cultural dialogue, and the invention of Greek prose. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Nir, Rivkah. 2012. Joseph and Aseneth: a Christian book. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Nir, Rivka. 2013. “‘It Is Not Right For a Man Who Worships God to Repay His Neighbor Evil For Evil': Christian Ethics in Joseph and Aseneth (Chapters 22–29).” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures. 13, art. 5: 1-29.

Gwerful Mechain on women’s control of men’s sexuality

woman hugging phallus

Gwerful Mechain of Powys, a Welsh poet of the late-fifteenth century, complained of wives’ jealousy. In addition to praising vaginas, Mechain bragged, “every big-cocked lover is after me.” But, Mechain explained, wives strictly control their men’s sexuality:

no virtuous wife will give,
the silly girl, her prick and her pole,
if it follows a cunt in field,
it wouldn’t go one inch from her fist,
not freely, she would not allow it,
nor basely, not for any price;
she would not make a deal with anyone
condoning adultery. [1]

The figure “not one inch from her fist” points to the potency of women’s physical aggression against men. The phrase “not for any price” hints at women’s control of family finances. Medieval literature describes men attempting to guard access to their wives to avoid being cuckolded. Sexual asymmetry in parental knowledge creates through biological evolution men’s concern for biological paternity security. Because women naturally know who their biological children are, women’s control of men’s sexuality is more difficult to understand.

Modern regulation of men’s sexuality works through legal attachments to men’s earning capacity. A plausible evolutionary basis for women’s sexual jealousy is women’s concern for exclusive control over a man’s productive capacity. In Gwerful Mechain’s poem, the “big-cocked lover” can be understood as a sub-conscious metaphor for the rich man. Not surprisingly, Gwerful Mechain weighs the penis against material goods:

Despite giving eighteen
of the lord’s cows, and the plough oxen,
and giving, however much the need,
rash summons, all the sheep,
a shapely girl prefers,
some say, to give the buildings and the land,
and would sooner give her good cunt,
beware, than give her cock;
sooner give her pan from her kitchen and her provision
and her trivet than her fine bare post;
sudden is her haste, sooner give her headdress
and all her possessions than give the prick. [2]

Gynocentrism and the growth of state child-support bureaucracies encode in child-support laws the fierce force of women’s sexual jealousy.[3]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Gwerful Mechain, I Wragedd Eiddigeddus (To Jealous Wives), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) p. 37. Little is known about Gwerful Mechain. She probably lived from c. 1462-1500. Johnston, as if oblivious to violence against men and the legal suppression of men’s sexuality, uncritically describes this poem as a “declaration of female sexuality and the right to satisfaction.” Johnston (1998) p. 71. For further uncritical celebration of Gwerful Mechain, see Gramich (2006).

[2] Id. p. 39. Mechain guilefully distances this claim with “some say.”

[3] In the popular Aesop Romance, written in Greek about the second century, Xanthus’s wife left him after she wrongly perceived that he had insulted her. Aesop induced Xanthus’s wife to return by falsely indicating to her that her husband was preparing to marry another woman. Aesop Romance 50-50a, from Greek trans. Hansen (1998) pp. 132-3.

[image] Woman hugging phallus. At Sex Museum, Tongli, China. Thanks to Stougard and Wikicommons.


Gramich, Katie. 2006. “Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry.” Acume.

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Johnston, Dafydd. 1991. Canu Maswedd yr Oesoedd canol = Medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Grangetown: Tafol.

Johnston, Dafydd. 1998. “Erotica and Satire in Medieval Welsh Poetry.” Pp. 60-72 in Ziolkowski, Jan M, ed. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden {The Netherlands}: Brill.

ancient Greek epitaphs: Herais & Sozomene for their husbands

Given the prevalence of anti-men gender bigotry, some may wonder: do women truly love men?

man alone, beseeching

Ancient Greek epitaphs show the long history of women’s love for men. Here’s an epitaph from the second or third century:

I Herais lie here, stranger, five times seven {years old}
And I urge you, my husband,
Not to keep weeping. For the thread of the Moirai calls everyone. [1]

The epitaph begins with a conventional first-person address to the conventionally anonymous passerby (“stranger”). The first verse provides information that remains conventional on gravestones to this day: the name of the deceased (Herais) and her age at death (five times seven = thirty-five). The epitaph’s second verse, however, suggests that Herais selected/dictated her epitaph just before her death.[2] Herais personally addresses her weeping husband. She urges him to move beyond his grief at her death.

Personal words from women are relatively rare in the ancient historical record. The long-established, long-misinterpreted literature of men’s sexed protests describes suffering and injustices that men have endured from women and within marriage. But not all men were like that. Some men wept when their wives died. Moreover, some women did not relish their husbands’ weeping. Herais didn’t want her husband to be weeping. After expressing that concern, so poignant to readers today, Herais returns to conventional expression in ancient Greek epitaphs. Ancient Greeks commonly attributed the course of persons’ lives to fate (the Moirai). The distinctive, personal words in Herais’s epitaph are her words of comfort for her grieving, weeping husband.

Another ancient Greek epitaph provides women’s words with more subtle poetry. In the second or third century, Sozomene had inscribed for her husband Crispinus this epitaph:

Here is the tomb of swift-fated, mindful Crispinus
For whom no stock of children will later appear.
A destructive Ker overcame them both before him.
So his wedded wife Sozomene inscribed his gravestone
For mortals still to be born to learn from. [3]

The term “swift-fated” suggests that Crispinus died young. He lived long enough, however, to have two children. Those children predeceased him. With bracketing of the first verse, the subsequent verses are a chiasma of thematic contrasts. A destructive Ker (death-spirit) killed their children. Sozomene in response inscribed stone. For Crispinus “no stock of children will later appear.” But Sozomene’s inscription offers teaching “for mortals still to be born to learn from.” A teacher gives birth to knowledge in students. His students are like children to him. The first verse describes Crispinus as “mindful” with a Greek word associated with the philosophical ideal of prudence. With her epitaph, Sozomene lovingly provides for Crispinus to have more children in the life of the mind.

Women have long loved men and cared for men’s welfare. Men are more responsible for anti-men gender bigotry than are women. Men seeking compassionate help would best look to women.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Epitaph (gravestone inscription) from Amorgus, among the southeastern Greek islands. From Greek trans. Hansen (1998) p. 336, from Greek text in Peek (1955) p. 93, no. 372. Some epitaphs were composed as literary pieces and never actually engraved on gravestones.

[2] Widespread conventions in gravestone epitaphs suggests that engravers offered customers choices among standard verses. A common verse: “It is not dying that is grievous, since it is destined for all, … {continued in various ways, e.g. but that I died before the journal completed the review of my article, etc.} Id. pp. 329-332.

[3] Epitaph (gravestone inscription) from Berrhoea. Βέρροια, now commonly transliterated as Veria, is in northern Greece. From Greek trans. Hansen (1998) p. 335, from Greek text in Peek (1955) p. 33, no. 107. The Greek word translated as “mindful” is πινυτου (pinytou).

[image] Southern Barbarians in Japan. Painting, ink, color, and gold on paper. Edo period (1515-1868), Japan. Accession number F1965.22-23. Thanks to Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.


Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peek, Werner. 1955. Griechische Vers-Inschriften. Band I, Grab-Epigramme. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

women and men on medieval women writers

A free, online book, Medieval Women Writers’ Loving Concern for Men, is now available worldwide. This book shows the public importance of medieval women writers’ outstanding work. For teachers of medieval literature, this book can usefully serve as a supplement to Peter Dronke’s erudite and influential book, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.

ghostly representation of women medieval writers

While Dronke’s book was published in 1984, women writers of the Middle Ages still have not been adequately appreciated.  Dronke in the preface described his book as:

an affirmation of the intrinsic value of writings that have been — I believe quite unjustly — undervalued in the past. It is not necessary here to dwell on the history and causes of this, or on the diverse attempts to belittle the rare women whose writings did achieve fame. [1]

The term “rare” applied to women has roots in the Latin phrase rara avis (“rare bird”) in Juvenal’s widely and unjustly disparaged Satire 6.[2] Belittling women implies not taking women seriously and not recognizing their power and importance. Juvenal’s Satire 6, in contrast, fully recognizes the enormity of women’s importance. While Dronke doesn’t dwell on belittling rare women, he provides sufficient examples:

It will suffice to recall, by way of illustration, that in 1867 Hrotsvitha’s works were alleged to be a hoax perpetrated by the humanist Conrad Celtes, who first edited the principal manuscript, and that this ‘discovery’ gave rise to some coarsely mocking verses; or that till quite recent times, notwithstanding Hildegard of Bingen’s meticulous account of her method of composition, scholars exaggerated the role of her men secretaries to the point of implying that they were the real begetters of her works; again, speculations about male authorship of some of Heloise’s letters are still with us, and are still treated much more seriously — there’s the rub — than for instance the suggestion that Bacon, or Marlowe, wrote the works of Shakespeare. [3]

Today, men die from violence four times more frequently that women do. Men are incarcerated for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being too poor to pay for state-forced financial fatherhood. If humanistic scholars don’t care about those facts, they might consider: the share of men who have read a work of literature in the past year is only 68% of that for women. Men earn only 56% of the women’s advanced degree earnings in study of literature and the humanities.[4] Adequately appreciating medieval women writers depends on adequately appreciating these realities.

Scholars have not adequately recognized the importance of medieval women writers for men. Of the eight English-language scholarly reviews of Women Writers of the Middle Ages, six were written by women. One reviewer, who is now recognized as one of the most eminent medieval historians, wrote:

Dronke still speaks of women writers too much in the context of their relationship to men. … his choice of which passages and texts to emphasize still focuses more than the nature of women’s writing itself warrants on the ways in which women perceive men and their relationship to men. [5]

As Medieval Women Writers’ Loving Concern for Men makes clear, Dronke wrote relatively little on medieval women writers’ relationships with men. The way that medieval women writers perceived men and showed concern for men is an outstanding feature of their work. Much scholarship doesn’t recognize that medieval women writers didn’t write just for women. Medieval women writers wrote for men in ways that should not remain beyond understanding today.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Dronke (1984) p. ix.

[2] Juvenal, Satire 6.165: rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno (“a rare bird on earth and most similar to a black swan”).

[3] Dronke (1984) p. ix, omitted footnote scornfully cites Georges Dubay questioning attribution of work to Marie de France (such as this) and Heloise (such as this). Dubay, like others, evidently lacked appreciation for medieval women writers’ concern for men. Questioning attribution of work to women writers now tends to generate intense hostility. Consider, for example, the question of whether Mary Shelley actually authored Frankenstein. See Lauritsen (2007) Preface, Ch. 5 & Ch. 7. Here’s some online discussion of the handwriting-authorship fallacy with respect to Frankenstein and prefaces to the 1818 and 1831 versions of Frankenstein. Stevenson’s massive tome on women Latin poets states, “Mary Shelley read Latin and Greek as well as French and Italian.” Stevenson (2005) p. 425. That statement doesn’t fairly represent Mary Shelley’s classical learning.

[4] U.S. masters and Ph.D. degrees conferred, 2010-11, compiled from U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Educational Statistics, 2012. The compiled data and calculations are available in the humanities gender protrusion spreadsheet (alternate Excel version).

[5] Bynum (1985) p. 328. Bynum is now Professor emerita of Medieval European History at the School of Historical Studies at the Institute of Advanced Study in  Princeton, New Jersey. The single man reviewer was Ralph Hexter. He is now Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor of the University of California, Davis. For the names of all seven reviewers, with institutional affiliations at the time of review and journal in which the review appeared, see the Dronke reviewers spreadsheet (alternate Excel version).

[image] Soft Bathtub (Model) — Ghost Version. Claes Oldenburg, 1966. Canvas, wood, acrylic paint, and mixed media. Item 1998 (98.18), Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. Douglas Galbi’s photograph at Hirschhorn Museum.


Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1985. Review. “Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310).” Modern Language Quarterly. 46 (3): 326-329.

Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lauritsen, John. 2007. The man who wrote Frankenstein. Dorchester, MA: Pagan Press.

Stevenson, Jane. 2005. Women Latin poets: language, gender, and authority, from antiquity to the eighteenth century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dafydd ap Gwilym’s penis under law in medieval Welsh poetry

The fourteenth-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym addressed his penis in poetry. If even noticed, the criminalization of men’s sexuality tends to be seen as a bizarre aberration of twenty-first-century elite culture. Yet that tendency in law can also be perceived in this penis poem from fourteenth-century Wales. Dafydd ap Gwilym began his penis poem with forthright recognition of the force of law on his penis:

By God, cock, there’s need to keep you
Under guard with eye and hand,
Stiff-headed pole, with this law-suit,
Even better from now on.
Cunt’s net-float, because of complaint,
Needs must your snout be snaffled
To keep you from being indicted
Again. [1]

Old French fabliaux disparage and devalue men’s genitals. The thirteenth-century account of the nun of Watton shows relatively little concern about viciously castrating a man for nothing more than having consensual sex. Embracing social disparagement and legal suppression of men’s genitals, Dafydd ap Gwilym subtly creates a counter-melody proclaiming the value of his penis:

You’re a loathsome rolling-pin,
Scrotum’s horn: don’t rise, don’t waggle,
Noble ladies’ New-Year’s-gift

You’re longer than a large man’s thigh,
Long night’s roving, hundred nights’ chisel,
Auger like the signpost’s pillar,
Leatherhead that’s called a shaft.
You’re a sceptre that causes lust,
A girl’s bare arse’s lid-bolt.

The phrase “loathsome rolling-pin” explicitly signals contempt and implicitly vicious violence. Horns are associated with the devil and cuckoldry. But horns are also associated with strength and plenty. A sceptre is a kingly sign, while a lid-bolt performs a common function. For noble women, men’s sexuality is a New Year’s gift.

Noble women eagerly waiting for the coming of a New Year must fight against disparagement and criminalization of men’s sexuality. Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poem ends with poignant irony in addressing his penis:

You are a trouser-problem personified,
suede-necked, gander-glide,
congenital liar, pod from which indecency has sprung,
nail on which injunctions are hung.

Now you’re once more been brought to book
you should bow your head, you children’s dibbling-hook.
It’s so hard to keep you in check,
you pathetic little pecker-peck.
Your master will stand in the dock because of you,
because you’re rotten through-and-through. [2]

Universities’ star-chamber proceedings on claims of sexual assault stage obtuse, ignorant readings of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s penis poem.

tide comes in on vagina

Gwerful Mechain’s medieval Welsh vagina poem shows sharply contrasting public values. She begins by complaining that poets praise all of a woman’s body except “the place where children are conceived.”[3] That’s because most men lack the boldness to affirm the center of their sexual interest. Predating the Vagina Monologues by nearly half a millennium, Gwerful Mechain’s poem lavishly praises the vagina:

You’re a piece with unfailing power,
a faultless court of fat’s plumage,
Here’s my credo: the quiff is lovely,
Circlet of broad-edged lips,
Dingle deeper than hand or ladle,
Trench to hold a two-handed prick,
Cunt there next the full-cheeked rump,
Songbook with red facing pages. [4]

Gwerful Mechain ends her vagina poem by invoking God’s protection for the flawless vagina:

Noble forest, flawless gift,
Soft frieze, fur for fair bollocks,
Girl’s thick grove, precious welcome’s round,
Splendid bush, may God preserve it.

Gwerful Mechain’s vagina poem isn’t famous. It doesn’t need to be. Versions of it run naturally through primates’ minds.

In a poem complaining about jealous wives, Gwerful Mechain declares women’s sexual interest in a “bigger than average cock.” She boasts, “every big-cocked lover is after me.”[5] Then she complains that women with such men value them too highly. According to Mechain, a wife values a “big prick” more than her father, her wealth, her clothes and jewelry, her mother, her brothers, her sister, and all her possessions. Old French fabliaux describe men being valued merely for their penises.  Mechain’s poem emphasizes that demeaning of a man’s person. She doesn’t praise even just the penis. She complains that other women value men-penises too highly.  In broad historical and evolutionary perspectives, her claim isn’t credible.

Creating public value for the penis equal to that of the vagina is probably beyond the power of poets. But reducing the vastly disproportionate imprisonment of men should be attempted.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Dafydd ap Gwilym, Cywydd y Gal (Penis Poem), from Welsh trans. Clancy (2003) p. 192. The subsequent quote is from id. The Welsh text, an audio of a Welsh reading, an English translation, and additional information are available on the Swansea University’s excellent Dafydd ad Gwilym site (see entry 85 -Y Gal on the choose-poem dropdown box). Dafydd ap Gwilym wrote Cywydd y Gal probably in the period 1330-1350. Johnston (1991) p. 29.

[2] Trans. Muldoon (2009) p. 113. Muldoon’s translation is livelier than Clancy’s. Johnston claims in his preface to the poem that it is “in fact an elaborate means of boasting the poet’s sexual process.” Johnston (1991) p. 29. That perspective lacks appreciation for the legal context of the poem. Johnston’s introduction makes clear that he is a modern-day Suero de Quinones.

Other medieval Welsh poems disparage men’s genitals. Dafydd ab Edmwnd’s Dychan i Geuilliau Guto’r Glyn (Satire on Guto’r Glyn’s Testicles) describes Guto’r Glyn’s testicles as a “repulsive shaft … vile fulling-mill … a paunch of puss” and other descriptions of disease. Guto’r Glyn’s Dychan i Gal Dafydd ab Edmwnd (Satire on Dafydd ab Edmwnd’s Penis) responds by declaring that Dafydd ab Edmwnd has “a linden tree of a diseased prick.” Trans. Johnston (1991) pp. 127, 131.

[3] Gwerful Mechain, Cywydd y Cedor (Vagina Poem), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) p. 41. Here’s the full English translation of Cywydd y Cedor, as well as the Welsh text. Clancy (2003) p. 339 has “the place where children are bred.” That translation is less consistent with the wondrous, laudatory tone of Cywydd y Cedor. Cywydd y Gal and Cywydd y Cedor commonly occur together in medieval manuscripts, with both poems attributed to Gwerful Mechain. But there is strong textual and stylistic evidence that Dafydd ap Gwilym authored Cywydd y Gal.

[4] Id. trans. Clancy (2003) p. 339. Id. titles this poem Vivat Vagina and the previous poem, Reproach to his Penis.  The actual Welsh titles are symmetric and less descriptive. For clarity, I’ve replaced above the second line in id., “The feathered crutch’s flawless court,” with the corresponding verse translation from Johnston (1991) p. 43.

[5] Gwerful Mechain, I Wragedd Eiddigeddus (To Jealous Wives), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) pp. 37, 39. Johnston, underscoring the women-are-wonderful effect, laughably declares that the poem is “a subtle but clear proclamation of female sexuality.”

[image] Tide {detail}. Jan Dibbets, 1969. Gelatin silver prints. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2007. The Panza Collection (07.43). Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. Douglas Galbi’s photograph at Hirschhorn Museum.


Clancy, Joseph P., trans. 2003. Medieval Welsh poems. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Johnston, Dafydd. 1991. Canu Maswedd yr Oesoedd canol = Medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Grangetown: Tafol.

Muldoon, Paul. 2009. Dafydd ap Gwilym. “Y Gal.” Irish Studies Review. 17(1): 111-113.