Aseneth in her wretchedness recalled a father’s love


weeping woman

In Joseph and Aseneth, a text perhaps written in fourth-century Syria, the strong, independent, man-hating Aseneth is overcome with a sense of her own wretchedness. In her despair, she recalls the loving care of a father for his child:

a little child who is afraid flees to his father,
and the father, stretching out his hands, snatches him off the ground,
and puts his arms around him by his breast,
and the child clasps his hands around his father’s neck,
and regains his breath after his fear,
and rests at his father’s breast,
the father, however, smiles at the confusion of his childish mind.

The confusion in the child’s mind is that there exists cause for great fear, and that the father doesn’t offer protection. Aseneth understands that she is like that child. She realizes that she can run to a loving father.

Fathers’ love for their children is now widely denied or obscured. Perhaps that’s part of an effort to support enormous gender inequality in child-custody decisions and acute anti-men sex discrimination in family courts.

The human toll of gender-equality double-talk is unfathomable. Gender equality in public discourse today largely stands for anti-men gender bigotry. Recalling the loving care of a father for his child is a first step towards healing the world.

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The quoted text above is from the long version of Joseph and Aseneth, sec. 12, from Greek trans. Burchard (1985) p. 221. The short version of Joseph and Aseneth doesn’t include this text. See the notes in my post on Aseneth’s conversion for details on the text and further references.

Aseneth pleads her own ignorance: “my many deeds of ignorance. … I have sinned against you in ignorance.”  Id. p. 223. With the Internet, persons can much more easily overcome their ignorance.

[image] Weeping Woman, slightly cropped. Vincent van Gogh, 1883. Art Institute of Chicago, F1069. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Burchard, Christoph. 1985. “Joseph and Aseneth: A New Translation and Introduction.” Based on Burchard’s own reconstruction of a long Greek version. Pp. 177-247 in James H. Charleworth, ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 2.  Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

story of Lazarus shows comic reality of Gospel truth

Lazarus coming out from the tomb

The Gospel of John states:

Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.

Just imagine that scene. It’s like something out of a zombie apocalypse. It’s not like a fairy-tale kiss bringing a sleeping beauty to life.

Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha. Mary wiped Jesus’s feet with the hair of her head. To anyone in the ancient world, Mary’s action would have been completely disgusting.

Lazarus’s dead body had been in the uncooled tomb for four days. In the warm climate of the eastern Mediterranean, the dead body would rot and stink. In the the Gospel of John, Martha explicitly expressed concern about the stench of Lazarus’s body. Jesus was unconcerned. Jesus wasn’t a Greco-Roman hero represented high above human stench.

Martha, who spoke her mind and acted to get tasks done, complained to Jesus that he was late in coming to care for Lazarus. Ignoring Martha’s engagement in her immediate circumstances, Jesus said to her:

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

Martha responded:

Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.

Jesus’s statement and Martha’s response are at the heart of Christian faith. Christian faith beats within the outlandish, improper, stinking reality of the world.

Other ancient literature has generic similarities to the accounts of the life of Jesus, the Gospels. The Gospels are episodic, set in ordinary life, and interspersed with parables. The Life of Aesop similarly is episodic, describes mundane circumstances, is interspersed with fables, and leads to Aesop’s death. Like the Gospels, the Life of Aesop directly challenges elite culture from below. Apuleius’s Metamorphoses intersperses tales in an account of Lucius’s fall into beastly being and then his salvation. Metamorphoses mixes culture across a wide range of high and low in valuing sensational entertainment over the public honor of engaging in serious thought.

In the market of human minds, the Gospels have vastly out-competed all other Greco-Roman literature over the past two millennia. That obvious symbolic-market victory has promoted misunderstanding. The Gospels are strange, subversive literature that meets a disjointed world.

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The death and raising of Lazarus is in John 11:1-44. The style of the story of Lazarus is similar to other depictions of Jesus engaged in healing in the Gospel of John.

Literary scholars now tend to see the Gospels within the Greco-Roman literary genre of βίος (account of a life) or the cult narrative of a dead hero. Burridge (2004) and Wills (1997). Neil Godfrey at Vriday provides a good review and critique of Burridge.

[image] Raising of Lazarus. Fresco, 1320s. Attributed to Giotto di Bondone. Magdalen Chapel, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi, Italy. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Burridge, Richard A. 2004. What are the Gospels?: a comparison with Greco-Roman biography. 2nd rev. ed. (1st ed., 1992). Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans.

Wills, Lawrence M. 1997. The quest of the historical gospel: Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre. London: Routledge.

Ruodlieb questioned romance of sexual symmetry


sexual symmetry

In southern Germany in the middle of the eleventh century, a Latin poet wrote the verse romance Ruodlieb. This artful, highly individual work experimented with the sexual symmetry that distinguished the ancient Greek novels.[1] When the Greek novels diffused into the urbane, highly learned ancient Islamic world, they generated superb, popular burlesques. Ruodlieb more subtly questioned sexual symmetry. Well-developed European dogma on gender symmetry now punitively represses outrageous literary burlesques and smothers subtle questioning. Gender-symmetry dogma (sex is now a disfavored term) has fostered sexual apathy and inaction. It portends European demographic collapse. Within the historical resources of European culture, invigorating humane romance might start with better understanding Ruodlieb.

In Ruodlieb, a knight’s match with a noble widow generated no sparks. They had considerable sexual symmetry. The knight, well on in his adult years, was the title character Ruodlieb. The widow was the goddaughter of Ruodlieb’s mother. The widow warmly welcomed Ruodlieb and his nephew, a young man, as visitors to her spacious home. Ruodlieb’s nephew and the widow’s daughter became passionately engaged. The widow apparently had similar hopes for Ruodlieb and her. She took him to listen to harp music that some men played. Ruodlieb asked the widow for a harp. She responded:

“There is a harp,” she said, “there will never be a finer one,
on which, while he lived, my lord used to play.
At the sound of it my mind grows sick with love.
No one has touched it since his life ended,
But you, if you wish, may play on it. [2]

The widow’s response sounds notes of sexual longing and makes a courtly entreaty for Ruodlieb’s love. Ruodlieb then literally, merely played the harp well. He missed the message of the widow’s heart. Like his fishing with an herb that caused fish to flop on the surface of the water, Ruodlieb’s relationship with the widow lacked the sharp polarity of an arrow strike or the yank of a hook.[3]

The greater king offered Ruodlieb some wisdom that is sexually symmetric implicitly. When traveling, what sort of lodging should one seek? The greater king counseled Ruodlieb:

When you see that an old man has a youthful wife,
Do not seek lodging there when you are traveling:
You bring suspicion on yourself, though innocent.
He fears, she hopes; for thus their fortune turns for them.
But where a young man has an older widow as
His wife, seek lodging: he fears not, she wants you not.
There you will sleep without suspicion, safe and sound. [4]

This advice assumes the virtue of the traveler. It rests on belief in a sexually symmetric decline in ardor with age and sexual risk accruing with excess ardor across spouses. If the traveler were a young woman, the king would advise her to seek lodging with a young woman who has an old husband.

In Ruodlieb’s accounts of marriages sexually asymmetric by age, the significance of that asymmetry is subtly depreciated. The deceitful redhead declared, “Old men should have old wives.” Looking for an opportunity for adultery, the redhead sought lodging with an old man married to a pretty, young woman. A shepherd described that woman as “a stupid girl and impudent, too.” She had contempt for her husband and deceived him with “her stupid lovers.”[5] The problem was much less the wife’s age than her character. Sexual symmetry in age implies nothing about the spouses’ characters.

To get sex with the pretty young wife, the redhead pretended to place her in a courtly romance. He told her a story about a man who didn’t exist:

In all the world this is no one more handsome than
This man. He, when he learned how beautiful you are,
and heard about the hardships you endure each day,
Grieved deeply in his heart and groaning said to me,
“Beloved friend, if you were ever true to me,
Go, say this to that tortured woman: if she wants
Me to release her and to free her from her prison,
Tomorrow when she hears a horn resounding softly,
Without a word, not even to a trusted woman,
To leave the courtyard, standing hidden in the street
Until I come and with my troop snatch her away.
Then she may be my mistress and do as she pleases.”

The promise to allow women to do as they please, and the requirement for men to be subservient to women, are central to the mis-romance of courtly love. That hateful, men-oppressing romance, which may have already suppressed the earlier, more humane understanding of chivalry, apparently existed in European culture at the time of Ruodlieb’s writing.

Ruodlieb makes clear that courtly love is fundamentally fraudulent. The redhead demanded that the wife sleep with him three times for arranging the courtly romance. Echoing the adultery proposition of Xanthus’s wife in the Life of Aesop, the wife crudely responded:

Do it ten times if you can,
Or else as often as you like.

In Ruodlieb, beneath the false story of courtly romance are base sexual interests.

The false story of courtly love led to brutal violence against men. The wife and the redhead flirted with each other at table with the husband. Later the redhead and the wife had sex. The husband caught them in the act. He knocked out the redhead’s front teeth, and the redhead in turn mortally wounded him. Brought to public judgment, the redhead and the wife blamed each other. The redhead apparently was executed. The wife, who repented her adultery, was forgiven and allowed to live just as before, except her husband was now dead.

While bias against men is an enduring feature of public criminal justice, the wife in Ruodlieb imposed upon herself an extreme regime of penance. The wife took up a life like that of the early Christian desert mother and repentant harlot Mary of Egypt:

She cast off all her lovely clothes and ornaments,
And wore a coat which seemed to have been dyed in soot;
She shaved her hair and plaited it in little cords
With which she tightly tied her tender breasts together.
The cords bit fiercely in her flesh until it rotted.
She covered her entire head with ragged cloth,
So nothing could be seen except her nose and eyes.
She learned the Psalter, sang it for the old man’s soul.
And did not eat until she saw the evening star,
And then ate only dry bread that was dark as ashes;
And then for drink she had just three spoonfuls of water.
This woman walked barefooted through the cold and heat;
She slept upon a bed with straw her only mattress,
And for a pillow merely used a block of wood.
Before dawn broke, she visited the old man’s tomb
To pray until, perspiring, she could stand no longer,
Then fell upon her face and wept a flood of tears.

Adultery, violence, and suffering didn’t result from the sexual asymmetry of an old man marrying a young woman. The crux of the story was a key disagreement between the spouses: the husband wanted the redhead to leave, the wife wanted him to stay.  The wife prevailed. The redhead stayed. The greater king in his wisdom had warned about such a disaster.[6]

Ruodlieb paired the story of the old husband / young wife with a story of a young husband / old wife. The old wife had as her first husband a dour, stingy, wealthy man. A young man, “bare and needy,” came to their home and sought food and work. For merely crusts of bread, he washed dishes and served their food. He seasoned their food with salt to transform it from bland to savory. He worked diligently and took little for himself. When the husband died, the young servant became the widow’s lover and master of their home.[7]

Ruodlieb deftly dealt with hostility to age-asymmetric pairing. The poet through a shepherd reported:

No one objected to the widow’s heartfelt love
For that young man; we saw them go to church together;
They ate together and would go to bed together. [8]

They went to church together, they ate together; who, other than a dour, stingy-hearted moralist, would object to them sleeping together? The shepherd then recalled:

He calls his lady mother; she calls him her son.
The servants, male and female, learn to call him father,
While he in turn addresses them as his own children

Following immediately the reference to sleeping together, the mother / son address evokes the horrifying figure of incest. But that’s just a figure, like the servants calling the young man father, and he calling them children, as if he were a priest. The love of the old woman and the young man was substantially greater than that of other married couples:

For we have never seen a greater love or else
A married couple so well suited to each other.

Sexual symmetry is a formalist dogma. While attentive to formalism in ritual, Ruodlieb presents formalism as inferior to substantial love.

Generosity and humble service is more important than sexual symmetry in Ruodlieb. In the wisdom he gave Ruodlieb, the greater king counseled:

Though she is quite attractive, never treat your maid
As if she were your social equal or your wife,
So she will not despise you or give haughty answers,
Or even think she should be mistress of the house
Because she spends the night or sits there at your table;
For if she eats with you and sleeps with you all night,
Then she will wish at once to be the highest mistress.
Such things will make a man notorious and disgraced. [9]

Considering this wisdom as sexually symmetric, the old woman violated it in her relation with the young man, her servant. But in doing so, she opened her door to “rich and poor alike.” The servant as the new master of the house served bread and meat to the poor and the servants. He declared:

When Christ sends anyone to me,
My house and I must celebrate that day as Easter

Ruodlieb received generous hospitality from the young husband and the old wife. He thanked them with a subtly symbolic act:

{he} thought how he could thank that man,
At last he gave the lady of the house his cloak,
So, clad in it, she could attend the holy church.

Ruodlieb thanked the man with a biblical item of generosity — his cloak. He gave it not to the man, but to the woman whom the man loved. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul instructed women not to teach men and to be silent in church. By giving the woman his cloak to wear in church, Ruodlieb gave her well-deserved authority to speak in church and instruct men.[10]

Among sexually symmetric pairings by age, Ruodlieb’s nephew and the widow’s daughter experienced romance. The widow’s daughter was beautiful and graceful:

When she came forth, she shone as brilliant as the moon.
How graceful was that woman! No one could discern
If she were flying, swimming, or just how she moved [11]

Anticipating a wonderful wedding, the widow’s daughter wove two golden bands like shackles to give to her future husband. Her mother sat the nephew next to her daughter and gave them both just one plate and one cup. The mother arranged to have her guests’ feet washed after dinner. Her daughter gave Ruodlieb’s nephew a ring. Ladies secretly watched through a lattice. The nephew, much less perceptive than a dog who could sense the person who stole Ruodlieb’s spurs, didn’t perceive a set-up.

Signs of trouble existed in the romance of the young man and young women. The ring that she gave him “barely fitted on his little finger.” Later, giving him his prize for winning a game of dice, she impetuously tossed the ring to him:

In a cavity in that ring a catch was fastened —
He couldn’t have worn it without loosening it. [12]

A finger not fitting into a ring suggests sexual non-receptivity. If that seems too crudely physical, imagine a bird, taught to be dependent on humans, preferring to be in his cage. He learns to speak the Lord’s Prayer, but doesn’t understand the petition, “lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.”[13]

The young man and young woman had a Hellish wedding. The young man, apparently burning with sexual desire, had an unhappy prior relationship with a courtesan. Witnesses at the wedding were charged with offering assistance. They indecorously declared:

All of us should counsel that a man
Ought not to be disgraced but quickly snatched away
From that vile whore who well deserves a death by burning. [14]

Later they made clear that they weren’t referring to the bride, but to the courtesan with whom the groom earlier had an affair. The groom politely thanked the witnesses for their counsel, implicit referred to Paul’s injunction that it is better to marry than to burn, and then proceeded with the wedding ceremony.

The bride outperformed the witnesses in obnoxiousness. Asked if she desired to take the man as her husband, she declared:

How could I refuse the slave I won by gambling,
Whom I beat at dice and from whom I won a pledge
that, win or lose, he would marry none but me?
Let him serve me steadfastly — I wish it — night and day:
the better he does it, the more I’ll cherish him!

Men’s servitude to women in courtly love meets the dogma of sexual symmetry in the themes of pretense, falsity, and men’s servility. To the young women’s outrageous statement, everyone smiled and laughed. No one dared to take her seriously.[15]

The bride then became more obnoxious. The groom, continuing the formal wedding ceremony, drew his sword and wiped its point. In the hilt of the sword was a gold ring. The groom gave the gold ring to the bride. This ritual plausibly invoked ancient and continuing tradition of men as the point of the spear, striking (and dying) to protect women, valued gynocentrically with gold. The groom said to the bride:

Just as the ring embraces your entire finger
I pledge to you my constant and enduring faith.
You must preserve the same for me or lose your head. [16]

The bride insisted on sexual symmetry:

The same rule should apply to both of us.
Why should I, tell me, be more true to you than you
to me?

The groom’s pledge is best understanding as sexually symmetric in “constant and enduring faith.” Sexual asymmetry in the threat of decapitation corresponds to the sexual asymmetry in the ancient and continuing practice of men bearing the burden of violent action. The narrator described the bride as responding “credibly and suitably.” Those words should be interpreted ironically. No other interpretation is possible given the bride’s continued rant and balk:

When you go fornicating, would you like that I
Become a whore for you? No, far be it from me
To marry you on such conditions. Go! Good-bye!
Go whore however much you like, but not with me.
The world has many men like you for me to wed.

The bride then stopped the marriage ritual by refusing to take the groom’s sword and the gold ring. The wedding ritual was highly formal. Nothing important that the groom said or did would have surprised the bride. Her crude outburst and balk in the middle of the wedding was an outrage and a stunning insult to the groom. If the groom were to cut off the bride’s head in reality, just then would have been the most justified time.

The groom’s response to his bride’s outrageous behavior parodies men’s self-abnegation in courtly love. The groom declared:

So be it, my darling, as you wish.
If I ever do, I’ll lose the goods I gave to you.
And you will be empowered to cut off my head. [17]

In the wisdom he gave to Ruodlieb, the greater king advised Ruodlieb that, if he wed, he should honor his wife “in all ways” and treat her kindly. The bride extended no such honor and kindness to the groom. The greater king also advised Ruodlieb not to be subjected to his wife, but to be dominant to her.[18] The groom, in contrast, acted like the servile, doormat-type man known as an omega in the most credible modern intimate-relation literature. The account of the marriage of the young woman and the young man ends with the narrator’s remark:

How they will get along — what grounds do I have to worry? [19]

For a careful reader of the intricate, subtle symbolism of Ruodlieb, fertile ground exists for worry about this superficially sexually symmetric relationship.

Misunderstanding the wedding ceremony in Ruodlieb has deep roots in human social nature. In his reading of Ruodlieb as “the emergence of romance,” one of the most eminent scholars of medieval Latin literature obscured through ellipses the bride’s mid-wedding rant about the groom’s fornicating and whoring.[20] He translated the groom’s request for mutual faith as a one-sided demand.[21] He imagined the bride as having achieved a marriage “based on mutual frankness and trust.” The marriage is “a love-match in which the lovers have kept nothing from each other.”[22] The good scholar doesn’t mistake the narrator’s concluding question about worry as providing grounds for worry.[23] According to this leading authority on courtly love, Ruodlieb depicted the bride and her marriage as “unmistakably an ideal.” The marriage has “the ring not of literary model but of dramatic truth.”[24]  These claims indicate some truth. Men, like children clinging to mother, will eagerly seek women’s approval and idealize women in astonishing ways. Ruodlieb, which apparently never circulated and wasn’t completed, recognized and questioned such behavior. Recognizing and questioning men’s subservience to women typically isn’t welcomed.

Sexual symmetry isn’t associated with happiness in Ruodlieb. The four primary heterosexual pairs in Ruodlieb explore sexual symmetry by age: older women (Ruodlieb’s mother’s goddaughter) / older man (Ruodlieb), young wife / old husband, old wife / young husband, young woman (Ruodlieb’s mother’s goddaughter’s daughter) / young man (Ruodlieb’s nephew). Of these four pairs, the old (wealthy) wife / young (formerly impoverished) husband by far show love most fully and most deeply. That couple is generous to guests, poor, rich, peasant, noble alike. The husband is master of the home, but the wife is fully capable of acting in a man’s position. The wife and husband continually sleep with each other.

European culture should relax its gender-symmetry dogma and encourage broader, more daring imagination of women and men’s relations. A first step is to reject the crude topos of misogyny. That label has been a convenient excuse for disparaging and dismissing distinctly masculine literary voices.[25] Studying marginal European literature with a distinctly masculine perspective — among works in Latin, for example, the Life of Aesop, Jezebel, Lantfrid and Cobbo, Ruodlieb, Solomon and Marcolf, Asinarius, and the Lamentations of Matheolus — offers much greater cultural value than continued scholarly and public preoccupation with men-degrading courtly love. Being receptive to a bold, strong masculine presence can uncover more lively romance in medieval literature, and in life today.

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[1] On sexual symmetry in the ancient Greek novels, Konstan (1994).

[2] Ruodlieb XI.30-4, from Latin trans. Dronke (1970) p. 54. Ruodlieb probably dates between 1050 and 1075. It has survived in only two, fragmentary manuscripts (Munich clm 19486; St. Florian Port. 22) written in the same hand. Here’s the Latin text of Ruodlieb. Grocock (1985) (prose translation), Kratz (1984) (verse translation), Ford (1965) (prose translation), and Zeydel (prose translation) are English translations. I cite by fragment.line and page from Kratz’s translation. Dronke’s translations tend to be more poetic than those of Kratz, hence I favor them when available, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Ruodlieb showed the widow and “her retinue of ladies” how he fished with bugloss. Bugloss, an herb, caused fish to float to the surface of a lake so that they could be pushed ashore with a stick. Ruodlieb X.29-48. See also II.1-15.

[4] Ruodlieb V.461-7, trans. Kratz (1985) p. 123. The greater king was the king that Ruodlieb served as an exile from his homeland.

[5] Ruodlieb VI.23, 121, 123, pp. 133, 137. The subsequent three quotes are from VII.68-79,  86-7, pp. 141, 143; VIII.89-105, p. 151.

[6] The greater king advised Ruodlieb, should he wed, to be dominant to his wife. Ruodlieb V.488-91, p. 125. Underscoring the wife’s dominance over her husband, their dinner was served only when she ordered it to begin. VII.122-9, pp. 143, 145.

[7] “Now he is lord of her whom he served like a servant.” Ruodlieb VI.26, p. 133. The widow didn’t value only the young man’s domestic work. The shepherd explained the wealthy widow’s attraction to the needy young man with a proverb about sexual desire: “The old ewe gladly licks the vat for love of salt.” (agna vetus cupide vas lingit salis amore) VI.32, p. 133.

[8] Ruodlieb VI.105-7, p. 137. They did wed. VI.24, p. 133. The subsequent two quotes are from VI.108-110, 111-2, p. 137.

[9] Ruodlieb V.476-483, pp. 123, 125.

[10] The previous two quotes are from Ruodlieb VII.4-5, 23-25, p. 139. On giving one’s cloak, Matthew 5:40.  On women not instructing men and being silent in church, 1 Timothy 2:12.

[11] Ruodlieb X.54-6. The other details in the above paragraph are from X. That fragment describes Ruodlieb’s dog sensing the person who stole Ruodlieb’s spurs.

[12] Ruodlieb X.128, p. 163, XI.71-2., trans Dronke (1970) p. 56.

[13] Cf. description of training birds in Ruodlieb XI.1-24, p. 165.

[14] Ruodlieb XIV.26-29. On the nephew’s prior relationship with a courtesan, IX. While the witnesses to the wedding call the woman a whore, they also make clear the nephew’s prior ongoing entanglement with her.  Whores, in contrast, tend to be associated with simple, one-shot, pay-and-act commerce. For Paul’s counsel to marry rather than burn, 1 Corinthians 7:9. The subsequent quote is XIV.52-56.  The wedding, although obviously formally scripted, wasn’t a Christian ritual. Church marriages didn’t become necessary until the reign of Pope Alexander III (1159-1181). The wedding probably was a ritual union that came to be known as Friedelehe in Germanic custom. Grocock (1985) p. 16.

[15] Within the wedding ceremony, the woman declaring that she wants the groom to be her slave is to one scholar a “playfully joking speech.” Jaeger (1999), p. 90. That scholar then seriously describes this call for slavery to indicate the rise of the cult of love service in courtly romance.

[16] Ruodlieb XIV.66-68, p. 179. The subsequent two quotes are from XIV.70-72, 77-80, p. 179.

[17] Ruodlieb XIV.82-84. The first line is my translation of the relevant part of 82: “Fiat, dilecta, velut vis.” Kratz has “It will be as you wish, my darling.” Fiat, which is a Latin word close to amen, seems to me better rendered as an initial, punchy expression. The cult classic movie Princess Bride uses “as you wish” as the hero’s constant address to the princess in that comic fantasy of medieval romance.

[18] For the king’s wisdom, X.488-492. Dronke (1970), p. 60, disparages this advice. He interprets it to indicate the king’s imperfection by showing him being at times like “a stuffed owl.” That interpretation has little basis in the medieval text.

Mass culture and billionaire-advocates today instruct men to do more housework to better sexually arouse their wives or girlfriends. Rather than follow these authorities, men should engage in free thought and enlightened reason to study, discuss, experiment, and evaluate how to best promote mutual sexual satisfaction with their wives or girlfriends.

[19] Ruodlieb XIV.99, my translation. For discussion, see note [21].

[20] Dronke (1970), pp. 58-9, quoting Ruodlieb XIV.69-87 with ll. 77-80 (lines about fornicating and whoring) effaced by ellipses.

[21] Kratz (1985), p. 179, translates Ruodlieb XIV.66-68 as:

Just as the ring embraces your entire finger,
I pledge to you my constant and enduring faith,
You must preserve the same for me or lose your head.

Grocock (1985), p. 167, and Ford (1965), p. 90, are similar translations. Donke (1970), p. 58, in contrasts, translates those lines as a one-sided demand to the woman:

As the ring encircles the whole finger, all around,
so do I bind you with firm and lasting faith,
which you too must keep, or — off with your head!

Zeydel (1959), p. 125, offers a similar translation. The middle line of this triplet (XIV.67) is from the Latin sic tibi stringo fidem firmam vel perpetualem. The line linguistically and grammatically admits either translation. But faith makes little sense as a means for binding someone else.  Moreover, in the broader context of the marriage ceremony, a mutual pledging of faith with sword and gold ring better makes sense of the text. The social value of disparaging men and the women-are-wonderful-effect seem to drive the one-sided translation.

Other scholars have proceeded similarly. In a remarkably convoluted, tendentious discussion of the marriage ceremony in terms of (mythic) patriarchy, one scholar described the young man’s “one-sided gesture” (translated in the way of Dronke) and seamless connected it the threat of punishment. Green (2009), pp. 72-4. Another scholar quoted Kratz’s translation. He then described that pledge of mutual fidelity, with a backing threat of beheading for the woman, as “what amounts to a declaration of the girl’s subservience to him.” But — you go girl! — “The girl does not stand for such blatant inequality.” Vander Elst (2011), p. 7.

[22] The greater king advised Ruodlieb, if he should wed, not to disclose to his wife everything. Ruodlieb V.493-7. See also Marie de France’s Bisclavret.

[23] Ruodlieb XIV.99: “How they will get along — what grounds do I have to worry?” (Qualiter inter se concordent, quid mihi curae?) This line is thought to be an erotic courtly metaphor suggesting that after conflict comes union. Schiller (2013) p. 95. The Ruodlieb poet surely was sophisticated enough to use it in a context suggesting that after conflict comes more conflict and more horror. Some critics have interpreted that line literally as expressing the narrator’s indifference or as “probably a jest.” Zeydel (1959) p. 152. Dronke interprets the line to mean the opposite of its literal meaning. For him, it expresses the narrator’s confidence in this ideal relationship depicted through the Hellish marriage ceremony. Dronke (1970) p. 58, n. 2.

[24] Dronke (1970) p. 59. Suggesting his view of the division of labor in an ideal marriage, Dronke observes that Ruodlieb:

noticed the young man’s “badly washed underwear, and his coat of marten fur dark with age and sweat” (X.120-30): clearly the mistress with whom he had lived had not looked after him so well in these respects! So the new coat is, we might say, more than a wedding-present: it is an augury of the young man’s Vita Nuova.

Id. pp. 59-60. Men are fully capable of washing their own clothes to their own standard of cleanliness given the time and money constraints they have. Men are similarly capable of buying their own clothes.

[25] Id., pp. 11-18,  describes four kinds of empirical weaknesses associated with analysis of topoi. The literary practice of using the label misogyny shares all these weakness. Moreover, because the label misogyny is difficult to challenge socially, it’s associated with extraordinarily shallow analysis. Even relatively high-quality scholarly work makes serious mistakes in dismissing literature via applying the label misogyny. For example, id., p. 76, describes Jezebel as a “misogynistic satire.” Id. finds that the poem uses “poetically the crudest means” in predictable and unvarying technique that only displays and satires Jezebel’s shamelessness. Ziolkowski (1989) shows that interpretation to be greatly mistaken. As its worst, misogyny has produced the absurd claim that a writer “can only be defined as a women.” See note [8] in my post on Bernard of Cluny’s De Contemptu Mundi.

[image] Sexual symmetry gender grinder, parodic transformation of Metamorphosis (Gottfried Honegger, 1962, bronze, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 (66. 2496) at Hirshhorn Gallery, Washington, DC). Photograph and digital processing by Douglas Galbi.


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

Ford, Gordon B. 1965. The Ruodlieb: the first medieval epic of chivalry from eleventh-century Germany. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Green, D. H. 2009. Women and marriage in German medieval romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grocock, C. W., ed. and trans. 1985. The Ruodlieb. Chicago, Ill: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1999. Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Konstan, David. 1994. Sexual symmetry: love in the ancient novel and related genres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kratz, Dennis M., trans. 1984. Waltharius, and Ruodlieb. New York: Garland Pub.

Schiller, Nina. 2013. Das Menschenbild im Ruodlieb – Mittelalterliche Lebenswirklichkeiten am Beispiel eines Epos aus dem ausgehenden 11. Jahrhundert. Thesis. Magistra der Pihlosophie. University of Vienna.

Vander Elst, Stefan. 2011. “Virtue and Equality in the Medieval Latin Ruodlieb.” Essays in Medieval Studies. 27 (1): 1-11.

Zeydel, Edwin Hermann. 1959. Ruodlieb: the earliest courtly novel (after 1050); introduction, text, translation, commentary and textual notes. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1989. Jezebel: a Norman Latin poem of the early eleventh century. New York: P. Lang.

strong, independent, man-hating Aseneth became new woman

Aseneth and Joseph having their children blessed by Jacob

In Egypt a long time ago lived a woman named Aseneth. She was a strong, independent, man-hating woman. But she wasn’t ugly and old. She was “about eighteen years of age, tall and beautiful and graceful, more beautiful than any other virgin in the land.” All the young noblemen across Egypt, or “across the whole world,” wanted to marry her. The men fought with each other for her favor. But Aseneth “despised all men and regarded them with contempt.” She refused to meet with any of them.

Aseneth was very rich and very privileged. She lived in a top-floor palace penthouse with ten rooms. She had seven maids, all of her own age, all very beautiful, and all subservient to her. They had their own rooms, one for each of the seven maids and three rooms for Aseneth. One of Aseneth’s rooms held her fine clothes, expensive jewelry, and treasures. Another held good things for her to eat and drink and share with her maids. The largest room was Aseneth’s bedroom.

Aseneth’s bedroom was lavish. It had three large windows looking to the east, to the north, and to the south. Aseneth’s bed faced the east, the direction from which godly salvation was thought to come. Her bed was made of gold. It had a “coverlet of purple woven with gold, embroidered with blue, and fine linen.” Aseneth didn’t allow anyone to sit on her bed. It was hers alone. She spent most of her time in her room with all her fine things.

Surrounding the palatial building in which Aseneth and her maids lived was a large, walled court. Inside the wall were many beautiful trees that produced fruit. An ever-bubbling spring supplied a stream that kept the trees watered. The wall surrounding the court was high and strong. The court had four iron gates, at each of which stood guard “eighteen strong young men-at-arms.” That made a total of seventy-two men ready to fight and die to protect Aseneth from harm. But sometimes she still felt afraid. More needs to be done to help women feel safe.

One day Aseneth went to join her parents for a feast. Aseneth put on a “golden girdle,” “golden trousers,” and “a fine linen robe of blue woven with gold.” To accent her golden clothes, she added precious-stone jewelry: bracelets on her hands and feet, and a necklace. She wore a tiara on her head and a diadem around her temples.  She also covered her head with a veil. Wearing a veil indicates that she was oppressed as a woman.

Like Perpetua, Aseneth refused to do what her father wanted her to do.  Aseneth’s parents returned from their county estate to arrange a welcome for Joseph, the Pharaoh’s hard-working vizier who was on a business trip in the area. Her parents brought delightful treats for Aseneth — grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates, and doves. Then her father and mother asked her to sit down between them. She did. Her father held her right hand in his right hand.

He said: “My child.”

Aseneth responded: “What is it, father?”

He said: “See, Joseph, the mighty man of God, is coming to us to-day, and he is ruler of all the land of Egypt, for Pharaoh has appointed him ruler of all our land; and he is the distributor of corn throughout the country and is to save it from the famine that is come upon it. And Joseph is a man that worships God: he is discriminating, and a virgin (as you are to-day), and a man of great wisdom and knowledge, and the spirit of God is upon him, and the grace of the Lord is with him. So come, my child, and I will give you to him as his wife: you shall be his bride, and he shall be your bridegroom for ever.”

Aseneth’s face turned red. She was furious at her father. She looked sideways at him and said: “Why should my lord and my father speak like this and talk as if he would hand me over like a prisoner to a man of another race, a man who was a fugitive and was sold as a slave? Is this not the shepherd’s son from the land of Canaan, and he was abandoned by him? Is not this the man who had intercourse with his mistress, and his master threw him into prison where he lay in darkness, and Pharaoh brought him out of prison, because he interpreted his dream? No! I will marry the eldest son of the king, for he is king of all the earth.”

Patriarchy is a myth. Many daughters throughout history have been strong, independent women. Aseneth’s father knew that it would be wise for him to accede to Aseneth’s wishes.

News came that Joseph was at their gate. Aseneth ran up to her room to avoid Joseph. She looked out her window to see his arrival. Joseph arrived in the chariot of the Pharaoh’s second-in-command. The chariot was golden. Four white horses pulled it via golden reins. Joseph was wearing a fabulous white tunic and purple robe made of linen woven with gold. On his head he had a golden crown set with twelve precious stones and golden rays. He held a royal sceptre in his right hand. Aseneth’s parents and all her relatives bowed their faces to the ground before Joseph. Joseph was an alpha male of alpha males.

Aseneth immediately fell in love with Joseph. Her heart was deeply distressed, her stomach churned, her knees became weak, and her whole body trembled. She felt wretched and ashamed. She was so wrong to hate all men. She was so wrong in what she had said about Joseph. How could she be forgiven for all her hate and lies? She hoped that her father would give her to Joseph as a slave to serve him — to make his bed and wash his feet — for the rest of her life.

Joseph was wary of women sexually harassing him. Women throughout Egypt offered him unwanted propositions for sex. Even long after he made it clear that he was in Egypt only to do the Pharaoh’s business, women sent him gold, silver, and other valuable gifts in hope of receiving sexual favors. The women of Egypt weren’t prosecuted for their blatant sexual harassment of the Pharaoh’s vizier. That’s probably because the Pharaoh at that time wasn’t employing enough U.S.-trained lawyers to prosecute all the women of Egypt for sexually harassing Joseph. Joseph dealt with the problem on his own as best as he could.

At the palace of Aseneth’s parents, Joseph noticed Aseneth visually stalking him from the upper-story window. Joseph felt afraid. He asked Aseneth’s parents to have the woman at the window go away.  Her parents explained that the woman was Aseneth. They explained that Aseneth hated men. Joseph was relieved. He no longer feared he would be subject to more sexual harassment. Aseneth’s parents urged Joseph to welcome Aseneth as a sister. Joseph agreed to be a brother to her.

Joseph physically rejecting Aseneth converted her into a woman who lovingly cared for men. Aseneth’s father, who had wanted her to marry Joseph, brought his beautiful, young daughter to Joseph. Aseneth and Joseph greeted and blessed each other. Then Aseneth’s father urged her, “kiss your brother.” Joseph, who had endured much sexual harassment, was no fool. When Aseneth came near to kiss Joseph, he stretched out his right hand against her chest. He held her at a distance with his hand between her two breasts. Aseneth was already aroused and her breasts were “already standing upright like handsome apples.” Joseph declared that he would not kiss a woman who did not understand love as he did.

When Joseph rejected Aseneth’s attempt to kiss him, Aseneth became extremely distressed. She fixed her gaze on Joseph and started to cry.  Joseph was tender-hearted and felt her distress. But Joseph didn’t disintegrated into irrational ooze like a college president sipping hot chocolate with a woman making outlandish rape claims and credulously and sympathetically discussing a hatefully fallacious rape story. Joseph lifted his right hand above Aseneth’s head and invoked the God who leads persons “from darkness into light, from error into truth, and from death into life.” Joseph implored God to renew and bless Aseneth.

Joseph’s prayer for Aseneth’s conversion caused her joy and fear. She rushed up to her room and collapsed on her bed. Aseneth wept bitterly about her former behavior. She ate nothing and drank nothing. She remained awake throughout the night. In the middle of the night she went downstairs, collected ashes, and carried them up to her room. Then she went into her dressing room and took off her sumptuous dress and put on black mourning clothes. She threw her best dress out the window. She broke up her gold and silver idols and threw them out the window. So too went “her royal dinner, even the fatted beasts and the fish and the meat, and all the sacrifices of her gods, and the wine-vessels for their libations; and she threw them all out of the window as food for the dogs.” Then she dumped ashes on her ornate-stone bedroom floor. She put on sackcloth, smeared herself with ashes, and fell into the ashes on the floor. There she wept, beating her breast and groaning, until the morning. She did the same for another day and another day and another day until seven days had passed.

With further prayer and the help of a heavenly man, Aseneth become a new woman. No longer was she a strong, independent, man-hating women. She had become a strong, independent woman dedicated to truth and love. Once arrogantly oblivious to her own privilege, she now sought to serve others. She became a man like men had aspired to be before they were taught not to aspire to be men. But she was also a beautiful woman. Her face was “like the sun, and her eyes like the rising morning star.” And after all her fasting, you can be sure she wasn’t fat.

Joseph now loved Aseneth. Being a new woman didn’t mean that Aseneth couldn’t get all dressed up for her wedding with Joseph. In preparation for joining hands with Joseph, Aseneth adorned herself with a dress that glittered with precious stones. She put on golden bracelets, golden boots, a precious necklace, and a golden crown. Their wedding featured a lavish banquet that went on for seven days. Yet even after that wedding, Aseneth still remembered the taste of ashes.

Of course Aseneth and Joseph had children. Men and women did that together until recent years. But the most wonderful sign of Aseneth’s salvation wasn’t childbearing. It was Aseneth being a shining City of Refuge for men who would otherwise have been added to the vastly gender disproportionate rolls of person punished for crimes.

With her strong and independent voice, Aseneth saved Dan and Gad from being killed for participating in an evil plot. The Pharaoh’s son, who lacked Joseph’s seductive allure, foolishly sought to gain Aseneth’s love by force. He plotted to kill his father and Joseph and to seize Aseneth. He enlisted Dan and Gad in this evil plot. The sons of Leah caught Dan and Gad red-handed and prepared to kill them. Aseneth, however, asked them to spare their brothers. The sons of Leah at first rejected Aseneth request. But she insisted that they not kill their brothers:

No brother, you must not repay evil for evil to your neighbour.

Strong, independent women like Aseneth are desperately needed today. They are scarcely to be found among the mobs howling for vengeance against all those evil men, real and many more imagined.

As always, men are partly to blame. Many men lack the insight and courage of Joseph. Men pushing women away can bless them with the possibility of becoming new women.

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The text above is an adaptation of Joseph and Aseneth, included among Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Quotations and details are almost all from the short version of the work, from Greek translated Cook (1984). The short version is probably the earliest version of the text. Kraemer (1998) Ch. 3. The phrase “across the whole world” and the description of Aseneth’s breasts “already standing upright like handsome apples” are exclusively from the long version, established and translated by Burchard. See Burchard(1985), which also includes a good introductory description of Joseph and Aseneth. For an extensive list of Joseph and Aseneth manuscripts, translations, and studies, see Mark Goodacre’s bibliography.

The date, cultural context, and place in which Joseph and Aseneth was created has been a matter of considerable scholarly debate. Nir (2012) convincing places Joseph and Aseneth in the context of third and fourth century Syriac Christianity. In my view, more likely than not a woman authored Joseph and Aseneth. Women authors predominated among authors of early English novels. Joseph and Aseneth has “numerous points of contact with the Greek romances.” Whitmarsh (2013) p. 16. Both Charicleia in Heliodorus’s Aethiopica and Habrocomes in Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale initially reject all men.

The long version gives additional emphasis to the difference between the old and new Aseneth in Joseph’s response to her. While on their first meeting Joseph pushed Aseneth away, in their second meeting in the long version, Joseph eagerly greets Aseneth and kisses her repeatedly:

Joseph stretched out his hands and called Aseneth by a wink of his eyes. And Aseneth also stretched out her hands and ran up to Joseph and fell on his breast. And Joseph put his arms around her, and Aseneth (put hers) around Joseph, and they kissed each other for a long time and both come to life in their spirit. And Joseph kissed Aseneth and gave her spirit of life, and he kissed her the second time and gave her spirit of wisdom, and he kissed her the third time and gave her spirit of truth.

Ch. 19, long version, trans. Burchard (1985) p. 233.

Kraemer (1998), Ch. 7, discussing gender in Joseph and Aseneth, invokes comically absurd clichés of anti-men gender studies: “Aseneth as potential medium of exchange between men,” “Aseneth as the object of male gaze,” “female characters as ‘stand-ins’ for male readers engaged in debates about masculine identity,” and of course the social construction of everything but such silliness. Forbes (1999), documenting the mind-numbing effects of such teaching, concludes:

This has disturbing implications for women; that they are incapable of being saved as they are but have to rely upon a man for their salvation. This in turn implies that women are second class people and are somehow more sinful than men.

In Joseph and Aseneth the author ensures that the ideal man will always win, for no matter what she might gain a woman loses her independence, having to depend upon a man to become the ideal woman.

Such views would be inconceivable to all but thoroughly programmed persons.

[image] Jacob with Joseph and Aseneth, blessing their children Ephraim and Manasseh. Rembrandt, 1656. Held in Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Burchard, Christoph. 1985. “Joseph and Aseneth: A New Translation and Introduction.” (from Burchard’s own reconstruction of a long Greek version). Pp. 177-247 in James H. Charleworth, ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 2.  Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Cook, David, ed. and trans. 1984 “Joseph and Aseneth” (based on Greek text of Philonenko (1968). Pp. 473-503 in Sparks, H. F. D. The Apocryphal Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Forbes, Moira. 1999. “Ideal Man versus Ideal Woman in Joseph and Aseneth.” Available online at Mark Goodacre’s The Aseneth Home Page.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard. 1998. When Aseneth met Joseph: a late antique tale of the biblical patriarch and his Egyptian wife, reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press.

Philonenko, Marc. 1968. Joseph et Aséneth: Introduction, texte critique, traduction et notes par Marc Philonenko. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

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

Whitmarsh, Tim. 2013. “The Romance between Greece and the East.” Ch. 1 (pp. 1-22) in Whitmarsh, Tim, and Stuart Thomson. 2013. The romance between Greece and the East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marbod of Rennes in history of gender-equality double-talk

warrior's leg cut off from man's body

In Marbod of Rennes’s eleventh-century Latin work Liber Decem Capitulorum, no chapters focus on men, but two chapters are all about women. One chapter is about wicked women. The following chapter is about good women.[1] A scholar writing at the end of the twentieth century interpreted Marbod of Rennes’s disproportionate attention to women as developing the social ideal of “ennobling love.” Marbod of Rennes is better understood as an exponent of gender-equality double-talk that implicitly devalues men.

While current gender-equality double-talk is blatant and crude, medieval gender-equality double-talk was rhetorically sophisticated. At the end of his double-chapters focusing on women, Marbod of Rennes wrote:

woman ought not to be censured simply because she is female, nor ought any man be heaped with praise simply because he is a man, but rather that vice should be censured in both sexes and virtue deserves praise equally in both. [2]

A late-twentieth-century scholar of ennobling love commented on that passage:

Moral value, not sex, is the measure of worth, and woman is declared better able to learn virtue than man. [3]

In the Middle Ages, logic was an important field of learning. An educated medieval cleric could work out the syllogism: moral value is the measure of worth, woman is more moral (learned in virtue) than man; therefore, woman is superior to man. While not tracing through his syllogism, the scholar explained:

The point is that the positive pole here introduces into the public forum of poetry a differentiated view of woman, an awareness of the virtuousness and honor potentially present, maybe even inherent, in women, a sensitivity to the “glory of the female sex.” [4]

The phrase “maybe even inherent” is telling. Claims that women are superior to men are made directly in recent, acclaimed scholarly books and are now featured in major U.S. newspapers.

While focusing his attention on women, Marbod of Rennes with a single sentence anticipated modern disparagement of men. Marbod declared:

the stubborn mentality of stiff-necked man resists and scarcely endures the yoke of discipline, all the while denying that he is inferior. [5]

Those who deny that men are inferior to women are today disparaged as sexist and misogynistic. Men today are expected to acknowledge their inferiority, to ponder whether men are necessary, and perhaps also to act to raise the suicide rate of men, which is already four times that of women.

While scholars have argued that the new economy of communication, cooperation, and self-esteem-raising favors women’s superiority, the extension of ideals of ennobling love to women in eleventh and twelfth-century Europe also emphasized women’s superiority. The leading scholar of ennobling love explained:

“Refined love,” “high love,” and “sublime love or friendship” have the role of social ideals resisting social ills that develop in a male-dominated warrior society: misogyny, rape, contempt of women, boorish, warriorlike manners. The civil values of the court can be a force reshaping social practice by reward and punishment. It may well be one of the most genial ideas of any social reformer in history that he or she developed an ideology of courtly behavior within which “worth,” “price,” “value,” prestige, and standing in noble society are set by the individual’s ability to learn courtesy, restraint, civility, to acquire virtue as a prerequisite to loving — hence also as a result of loving. [6]

Men are urged and forced to fight and die for their societies. Historical developments over the past millennium haven’t change the vastly disproportionate bodily disposal of men in war. The development of ideals of “ennobling love” merely increased vicious disparagement of men for “misogyny, rape, contempt of women,” and, worst of all, “boorish, warriorlike manners.”

Medieval literature sets before men the figures of Ulrich von Liechtenstein and the Archpriest of Talavera. Ulrich von Liechtenstein subordinated himself to women and struggled to win the favor of a lady who had contempt for him. The Archpriest of Talavera wrote an important book instructing men on finding true love. Men should study medieval literature and follow the example, not of Ulrich von Liechtenstein, but of the Archpriest of Talavera. Men, choose to be truly good men.

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[1] The standard scholarly critical edition of Liber decem capitulorum is now that in Leotta and Crimi (1998). A lower-quality Latin text is available online in Patrologia Latina 171, 1693f. The ten chapters in Liber decem capitulorum are:

  1. De Ato Genere Scribendi (proper style for writing)
  2. De Tempore et Aevo (meaning of time)
  3. De Meretrice (wicked women)
  4. De Matrona (good women)
  5. De Senectute (old age)
  6. De Fato et Genesi (role of the zodiac in destiny)
  7. De Voluptate (disadvantages of pursuing pleasure)
  8. De Vera Amicitia (true friendship)
  9. De Bono Mortis (benefits of death)
  10. De Resurrectione Corporum (bodily resurrection)

Chapter titles in Latin from Patrologia Latina text, descriptions in English adapted from Ziolkowski (1986) p. 686. Two letters of Marbod’s to women are available online with Latin text and English translation.

[2] Marbod of Rennes, Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 4, sec. 9, from Latin trans. C.W. Marx in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 232.

[3] Jaeger (1999) p. 94.

[4] Id.

[5] Marbod of Rennes, Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 4, sec. 5, from Latin trans. C.W. Marx in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 230.

[6] Jaeger (1999) pp. 150-1. Underscoring the fundamental anti-men gender bigotry in this development, Jaeger explains:

there is an entirely new and unique image of woman created in the years between 1050 and 1100: woman the vessel of virtue, soft wax to Goodness, sensitive, loving and learning more intensely than hard-necked man. … The dynamics which account for the spread of courtliness outward from the humanistically educated court clerics also account for the rise of the image of woman as giver of virtue {to men} through love.

Id. p. 105. Celebrating this development has dominated teaching of medieval Latin literature. For a broader, more humanistic understanding of literature and life, students should study great medieval literature of men’s sexed protest such as Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

[image] Warrior’s Leg. Paul Thek, 1966-7. Wax, metal, leather, and paint in acrylic vitrine. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, 1990 (90.9). Douglas Galbi’s photograph at Hirschhorn Museum.


Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Men Impugned, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1999. Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Leotta, Rosario and Carmelo Crimi. 1998. Marbod of Rennes. De ornamentis verborum ; Liber decem capitulorum : retorica, mitologia e moralità di un vescovo poeta (secc. XI-XII). Tavarnuzze (Firenze): SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo.

Ziolkowski, Jan. 1986. Review. “Marbodo. Liber decem capitulorum, ed. Rosario Leotta.” Speculum 61 (3): 686-688.

Greco-Roman adultery tales & Apuleius’s Metamorphoses

Roman husband guarding wife

Let me tell you, natural philosophy sheds light on truth about men’s risk of cuckoldry. Some, living life without examining shadows and ancient tracings, dwell in darkness among ideals. They are illusory asses philosophizing, and you shouldn’t put up with their braying, unless of course it’s required for a class to get your degree. Many ancient Greco-Roman adultery tales have been copied and recopied from papyrus to parchment to paper so that you can read them now, if you’re sufficiently curious and brave. Nobody tells these tales any longer because everyone fears the philosophers’ descendents, the police. But you, with the great blessing of writing, can still stick your nose in.

Ancient Greco-Roman adultery tales usually go like this. A man, wanting to ensure that any kids that he provisions are biologically his, tries to guard against his woman having sex with other men. Almost all the adultery tales are about women’s adulteries, not men’s. Opening men’s eyes to their false ideals of women was much more important than instructing men on how to commit adultery. Men used to know how to do that quite well. And, don’t you know, wives and girlfriends cared little, as long as men’s sexual wanderings didn’t hurt them socially or materially.

What I’m telling you is a secret. I wouldn’t have this knowledge to know and to tell if I weren’t an ass, a real ass, with an ass’s ears, eyes, fur, and the large organ that distinguishes a real ass. Those pretend asses, those philosophers, march in public processions with social-justice warriors, career hunters, cross-dressers, Hollywood action heroes, fake-law judges, bird-catchers, she-bears, and well-trained parrots. Those public processions are to divert the masses. What I’m telling you are holy mysteries known only to a select few.

Swallow your pride and accept the truth that men are inferior to women in guile. In ancient Greco-Roman adultery tales, the man commonly returns home unexpectedly while his wife and her lover are amorously engaged. The wife, with her superior guile, commonly dupes her husband to escape exposure. Sometimes the husband, imprisoned in his ignorance, even is induced to promote his own cuckolding.

I’ll tell you an elegant rogue’s tale about an ignorant, nose-to-the-grindstone beta man. This husband for meager wages worked with his fingers in front of a preternaturally glowing screen in a windowless office. He went to work at dawn and usually returned home late in the evening. One day, a virus infected the office network, locking everyone’s screen with a sketch of a man’s red, smirking face.

Unable to work at his terminal, the office drone returned home early. He went to enter the side door of his house. That’s where he usually entered to avoid dirtying the polished agate floor his wife had insisted be installed behind the front door. The side door was locked. Then he tried the back door. It too was locked.

The husband gently, very gently, knocked on the rear door once. He didn’t want to overly arouse his wife, who might be napping. No response. He did it again. Still no response. Then he called out, “Honey, good news, I’m home from the office early. Please unlock the door so I can come in.”

The wife meanwhile was quickly and quietly disentangling her arms and legs from the artful drama of her biker-lover’s tattooed body. Then she led him from the bedroom into the kitchen and ordered him to hide in a large, natural wood, seasoned-oak pickling cask. Craft local cucumber pickling had become all the rage in swank circles with the growth of the alternate local husbandry movement.

Once her lover was concealed in the cask, the wife slowly opened the door for her husband. She glared at him sullenly. As he eagerly stepped in, she cuttingly addressed him:

So this is how you’re going to come, empty-headed, slack-handed, in leisurely softness? You’re not working, not looking for our livelihood, not earning our daily bread? And I, fool that I am, all day long I’m twisting my tendons into knots pickling local cucumbers just to bring some sign of urbanity to this dump of ours. Our neighbor Daphne is so much luckier than I am. She can pluck fresh fruit flown in from everywhere, get drunk on undiluted wine at dawn, and loll about in spacious, auto-watered indoor meadows with her lovers all day long!

The husband apologized and said that he was still hoping that his company would get third-round financing and he be given stock options that might be worth real money in a future IPO. “But now,” he said tremulously, “but now, we have to liquidate some assets. I’m so sorry.” Sucking in his face and nearly crying, he whispered, “I’ve had to sell your pickling cask. I managed to get five grand for it, much less than what we paid, but we need cash to cover our bills.”

“You cretin!” his wife screamed, maintaining at high volume her ability to put on a French accent, “I’ve already sold it for more!” After a brief pause, she continued:

I sold it for controlling membership in a motorcycle start-up. Motorcycles are going to be the next, big throbbing thing for women. But what would you know about that, you little cubicle mouse, still hoping for a little piece of cheese for all your coding.

The husband had long yearned to be in on some shares. Now he was, and he was satisfied.

The wife’s biker-lover then poked his head out from the cask. “It’s older than I thought,” he said to the wife, “and it seems to be corroded with lack of use. I don’t know if my board will retain its resolve to consummate the deal.” Then he turned to the husband and said:

hey, bro, get me a tool to scrape away the scum from inside. We’re not gonna trade away controlling equity for poorly maintained wood.

The husband, diligent worker and ignorant cave-dweller that he was, responded:

Please, sir, come out and visit with my wife until I clean this cask for you, completely and thoroughly. I’ll make it seem as if it never held a pickled cucumber.

The husband pushed the empty cask on its side, crawled in, and began to rub the wood by hand. Meanwhile, the biker-lover, quite the versatile rider — leaned the wife forward on the cask, bent his body to hers and uncaring of all else, started giving her a good ride. Mid-trip, she poked her head down into the cask and gave her husband instructions, comically, with a whore’s double-face, pointing with her finger — You missed a spot here and here and … ohhh … there and there … again! — until both jobs were finished. The husband, born under an unlucky moon, then had to arrange to have the pickling cask transported at his own cost to the home of his wife’s biker-lover.

Aporia — that sly philosopher’s got your tongue, huh? — or is it aphasia? Well, either is better than lashing out apoplectically at me for telling you a tale like you’ve never heard before. I, much knowing, have collected tales of this type from many cultures and across millennia of history. I learned them all by myself, with strenuous effort, working evenings and weekends. You think they don’t exist in reality? Just wait until my hard hoof kicks reality in front of your face!

I beg your pardon for giving offense or being outlandish. But I won’t allow these tales to be erased, even if they can no longer be spoken. I’m outside in the light with the seven sages of Rome and an Indian parrot that doesn’t just parrot its masters. You can tilt against Homer, but one day tales again will be told.

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The text above is an adaptation of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses / The Golden Ass, 9.5-7 (adultery tale known as the Tale of the Jar), 1.1-4, 11.8, 10.33, and various other sections. The adaptation is based on the translation in Relihan (2007).

Apuleius was known as a “philosophus Platonicus” and probably studied in a neo-Platonic school in Athens. Sandy (1997) pp. 7, 22-6. On Platonism in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, see Kirichenko (2008) and Plato’s Phaedo and The Republic, 514a–520a.

A review of ancient Greco-Roman adultery tales, including evidence of mime performances, is within Konstantakos (2006). Both Apuleius’s Metamorphoses (written in Latin) and the Life Aesop (written in Greek) mix elite philosophic culture with ribald tales and witty, satiric changes.

Studying the adultery tales in Metamorphoses 9, a leading scholar has declared: “the prime characteristic of these stories is literary entertainment … suitably adapted for a low-life and sensationalist novelistic context.” Harrison (2013) p. 242. The adultery tales seem to me to contribute to important intellectual and social critique.

The adultery tales in Metamorphoses 9 are often retold in subsequent literature. Boccaccio’s Decameron, VII.2 is an adaptation of Apuleius’s Tale of the Jar. Decameron VIII.8 is a further variant of that tale. The frame adultery tale in Metamorphoses 9, the tale of the miller and his wife (9.15-31), ends with the miller having sex with the wife’s male lover. Decameron V.10 is an adaptation of that tale.

[image] Roman man and woman, Kline funerary monument, 1st century GC. In National Museum of Rome, Italy. Thanks to Mary Harrsch and flickr.


Harrison, S. J. 2013. Framing the ass: literary texture in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kirichenko, Alexander. 2008. “Asinus Philosophans: Platonic Philosophy and the Prologue to Apuleius’ Golden Ass.” Mnemosyne. 61 (1): 89-107.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2006. “Aesop Adulterer and Trickster. A Study of Vita Aesopi Ch. 75-76.” Athenaeum. 94 (2): 563-600.

Relihan, Joel C. 2007. Apuleius. The golden ass, or, A book of changes. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

Sandy, Gerald N. 1997. The Greek world of Apuleius: Apuleius and the second sophistic. Leiden: Brill.

Life of Aesop as continuing critique of elite culture

Aesop in the Life of Aesop

Early in the Life of Aesop, the goddess Isis and her nine Muses came to the ugly slave Aesop as he slept in a pastoral, paradisiacal garden. They favored him with power to tell elaborate tales. The wife of the philosopher Xanthus, after she saw two handsome, young male slaves on sale, ordered him to go and buy one. Xanthus bought Aesop. Aesop spoke and acted a wide-ranging critique of elite Greek literature. In a way that elite literature today doesn’t appreciate, Aesop also spoke and acted a potent critique of men’s subordination to women.[1]

Aesop urged Xanthus to reject subordination to his wife. Upon returning home after purchasing Aesop, Xanthus, for fear of upsetting his wife, told Aesop to wait at the door. Aesop responded:

If you’re under your wife’s thumb, go and get it over with. [2]

Xanthus went inside and explained to his wife that he had purchased a slave as beautiful as “an Apollo or an Endymion or a Ganymede.”[3] Xanthus’s action makes little sense in its narrative context. It didn’t change his wife’s desire or the reality of Aesop’s ugliness. Late in the Life of Aesop, Xanthus prepared to commit suicide because he couldn’t interpret a portent. Aesop dissuaded Xanthus from suicide by ultimately agreeing to interpret the portent for him. A husband being under his wife’s thumb was a different portent. In those circumstances, Aesop implicitly urged suicide. For more than a millennium, literature urging men to avoid the shackles of marriage has exhorted suicide as a preferable alternative.[4] Looking back in history from the the first writing of the Life of Aesop, knowledgeable death (e.g. Socrates’ willingness to drink hemlock) has much greater Greek literary status than being a ignorant, foolish cuckold.

Household drama in the Life of Aesop has a sharp ideological edge. Before meeting Aesop, Xanthus’s wife thanked the great goddess Aphrodite for a dream. She told her husband Xanthus:

As soon as I went to sleep, I had a dream in which you bought a perfectly beautiful slave and gave him to me for a gift. [5]

To ratify that dream, Xanthus told his lie about Aesop’s godly beauty. The wife’s maids, excited with this news, quarreled over who would get to marry the new slave. Upon seeing the reality of Aesop, they treated him with contempt:

May Aphrodite slap your ugly face! So we were fighting over you, were we, you trash? Worse luck to you. Go on in and don’t touch me; don’t come near me.

Such household drama is like Greek New Comedy. But in the Life of Aesop, the drama turns on reverence for Aphrodite supporting pleasing, false belief in a dream.

Aesop himself refused to acquiesce to the invocation of Aphrodite and to his inferior position relative to Xanthus’s wife. Aesop narrated the desire underlying the wife’s dream:

Woman, what you are after is to have your husband go out somewhere and buy a good-looking young slave with a nice face, a good eye, and blond hair. … this handsome slave can go to the bath with you, then the handsome slave will take your clothes, then when you come out of the bath, this handsome slave will put your wrapper around you and get down and put your sandals on, then he’ll play with you and look into your eyes as though you were a fellow servant who had caught his fancy, then you’ll smile at him and try to look young, and you’ll feel all excited and ask him to come into the bedroom to rub your feet, then in a fit of prurience you will draw him to you and kiss him passionately and do what is in keeping with your shameful impudence

Aesop’s story of the wife’s desire almost surely comes from a popular adultery tale, probably one that pantomimes performed. Aesop, however, then immediately invoked the high-cultural authority of the famous tragic poet Euripides:

Dread the anger of the waves of the sea,
Dread the blasts of river and burning fire,
Dread poverty, dread a thousand other things,
But no evil is there anywhere so dread as woman.

Switching back to popular discourse, Aesop castigated his superior, his master Xanthus’s wife:

you, the wife of a philosopher, an intelligent woman, with your urge to have handsome male servants, you bring no slight discredit and disrepute on your husband. It’s my opinion that you are sex-crazy and don’t follow your bent simply because you are afraid that I’ll give you a piece of a new slave’s mind, you slut.

Underscoring the comic context of status reversal, Xanthus’s wife deferred to Aesop. Aesop himself then bragged of his “great accomplishment to have tamed a woman by overawing her.” The high-cultural authority Euripides taught dread of woman. The lowly slave Aesop, in contrast, demonstrated mastery of his lady-master. He deconstructed her invocation of Aphrodite.

Aesop’s adultery vision proved true. One day, Aesop lifted his clothes and displayed his penis. In the Greek novels, boy and girl fall in love at first sight of each other’s noble person. Xanthus’s wife fell in lust with her slave Aesop at first sight of his “long and thick” penis.[6] She offered Aesop a full set of clothes if he would have sex with her ten times. Aesop earlier had declared that Xanthus’s wife wanted adulterous sex. Her proposition fulfilled his oracle.[7]

The Life of Aesop’s adultery-prostitution tale has under-appreciated literary complexity. Aesop agreed to his lady-master’s proposition. After having sex with Xanthus’s wife nine times, his desire drooped. She insisted that he fulfill the letter of his contract for sexual service:

So he tried a tenth time and ejaculated on the lady’s thigh. And he said, “Give me the clothes. If you don’t, I’ll appeal to my master.” [8]

Xanthus’s wife didn’t yield her desire to that incongruous threat of appeal. She declared:

I called on you to plow my field but you crossed the property line and worked in another field. Do it once more, and take the clothes.

Aesop then followed through on his threat of appeal. When Xanthus returned home, Aesop presented the case in a fictitious allegory:

My mistress {Xanthus’s wife} and I were walking in the orchard and she saw a branch of a tree that was full of plums. She said to me: “If you can throw a rock and knock off ten plums, I’ll give you the set of clothes.” I picked up a rock, threw it, and knocked off ten plums. But one plum fell in a manure pile, and now she won’t give me the clothes. [9]

Xanthus’s wife endorsed and extended the fictitious allegory. She added:

Obviously there’s no argument about the nine, but, as for the tenth one which fell in the manure pile, I’m not satisfied. Let him throw again and knock off an apple and get the clothes.

Xanthus interpreted the fictitious allegory literally. He ruled for both sides. He declared that his wife should give Aesop the shirt. He also declared unknowingly that his wife should receive further sexual service from Aesop. Xanthus told Aesop:

Let’s go to the forum, and when we come back, knock off the tenth apple and get the clothes.

Xanthus’s wife assented explicitly to that judgment, and Aesop, implicitly. Xanthus supported his own cuckolding with his failure to interpret critically the story he was told. Readers must beware of making the same mistake.

Later in the Life of Aesop, Aesop tells a story about a man having sex with an ass. An “idiot girl” misinterpreted the man’s explanation of what he was doing and why. She requested that he also have sex with her. The man fulfilled her request. Recent, acclaimed elite scholarship has interpreted this tale as a parody of the “pederastic foundation of Theognidean didactic.”[10] That interpretation looks back to the elite Greek tradition of expressing love and transmitting wisdom between males.

The Life of Aesop has considerable similarities with the highly popular medieval Latin work Solomon and Marcolf. The penultimate chapter of Solomon and Marcolf features a tableau of the lower bodily stratum:

Marcolf was lying bent over with his head downward and had pulled down his breeches, and his buttocks, asshole, penis, and testicles were revealed. Seeing him, King Solomon said: “Who is it that is lying there?” Marcolf: “It is I, Marcolf.” Solomon said: “How is it that you are lying in this manner?” Marcolf: “You instructed me that you would not see me any more between the eyes. But now, if you do not wish to see me between the eyes, you may see me between the buttocks.” [11]

Marcolf’s action parodied men’s weakness in social vision. Men are largely incapable of challenging socially the prevalence of cuckolding men and the highly disproportionate imprisonment of men. A man doesn’t have eyes in his behind.

The Life of Aesop highlights an orificial-sexual difference: understood figuratively, a woman has eyes in her behind. After Aesop had prepared a table for dinner, Xanthus told his wife to keep “an eye” on the table so that dogs don’t snatch food. Xanthus’s wife told him not to worry, for “even my behind has eyes.” The lady reclined and fell asleep with her behind facing the table. Aesop then lifted her robe and exposed her behind. Xanthus and his student-guests arrived for dinner. They saw the lady’s exposed buttocks. Xanthus and his wife were embarrassed and disgraced. Aesop explained:

I exposed her so that the eyes in her behind would see the table. [12]

Xanthus the philosopher didn’t appreciate the significance of biological sex-difference. He didn’t recognize the distinction between “an eye” and “eyes.”[13] He merely declared that as punishment he would beat Aesop within an inch of his life.

The low culture of men’s wisdom involves individual experimentation and observation. Consider the tenth instance of Aesop’s sexual intercourse with Xanthus’s wife. Among the few scholars who have dared to address the Life of Aesop’s adultery-prostitution tale, the most thorough analysis explains that on the tenth instance Aesop “ejaculated on the lady’s thigh.”[14] Xanthus’s wife declared that Aesop “crossed the property line and worked in another field.” Aesop’s allegory of the dispute associates that work with a manure pile. A decent appreciation for medieval literature, such as Boccaccio’s tale of attaching a tail to a woman mis-imagined to be a mare, suggests that Aesop put his semen in the orifice associated with expressing love and transmitting wisdom between males in Greek tradition, or engaged in other sexual practices associated with that tradition. The resulting dispute between Xanthus’s wife and Aesop enacts conflict in valuing different types of sexual acts.[15]

In judging the sex conflict between Aesop and Xanthus’s wife, Xanthus the philosopher completely mis-understood the underlying reality and the actual conflict. Elite culture and mass opinion-shapers today support, with procedures far outside of traditional due process, extraordinarily harsh punishment of men for disputed sex with women. In its factual context, rape-culture culture re-enforces a fundamental distribution of social power: men’s subordination to women in social discourse. Xanthus the philosopher is the dominant character among cultural elites today. The best hope for promoting truth and justice for all is with low-cultural characters like Aesop.

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Update: Thanks to Professor Ioannis Konstantakos for helpful corrections and suggestions. All outrages remain my responsibility alone.


[1] The Life of Aesop (Vita Aesopi) is also commonly known as the Aesop Romance. Stories of Aesop’s life were known from the fifth century  BGC. See Aristophanes, Wasps, ll. 1446-9 (allusion to Delphic story). The Life of Aesop was probably written in its current form about the second century GC. Kurke (2011) describes the importance of Aesop in relation to ancient Greek literature.  Reviewing that book, Whitmarsh states:

this is in one sense a very traditional book. Like so many Hellenists, Kurke is offering a story of origins: note the ‘invention of Greek prose’ in her subtitle, the latest in a long sequence of ‘invention’ titles. … There is more at stake in this matter than a purely academic question of chronology. The crucial point is that as long as classicists continue to be obsessed with only the very earliest era, for which the evidence is most exiguous, they will remain addicted to the hypothetical and un(dis)provable ‘reconstructions’ that have sustained but also marginalised the discipline for 150 years.

Whitmarsh (2011) p. 39. Better appreciation for horrendous, obfuscated injustices today can help to foster critical insights into ancient literature and contemporary relevance.

[2] Life of Aesop (The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and Aesop his Slave or the Career of Aesop) 29, from Greek trans. Lloyd W. Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 123. All quotes from the Life of Aesop are from id. and the manuscript stem Vita G, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Apollo was thought to speak through oracles at the sanctuary dedicated to him in Delphi. Xanthus’s wife imagining Apollo as her adulterous slave-lover underscores Aesop’s challenge to the privileged position of the Delphic oracle. Endymion was a handsome shepherd-boy in Greek myth. He was thought to be in eternal sleep. His appearance at one’s door is thus comically improbable. Ganymede was Zeus’s beloved, beautiful boy and his cupbearer. The invocation of Ganymede adds irony to Xanthus’s wife’s devaluation of sex of non-reproductive type.

[4] On urging suicide rather than getting married, Juvenal, Satire 6, ll.28-31. The Romance of the Rose (c. 1275), ll. 8697-8710, cites approvingly Juvenal’s exhortation. The 15 Joys of Marriage (c. 1400) attributes that advice to Valerius, who sought to dissuade his beloved friend Rufinus from marriage.

[5] Life of Aesop 29, p. 123. The subsequent five quotes are from id. 30, p. 125; 32, p. 125-6.

[6] Id. 75, p. 142. A textual difficulty concerns what Aesop was doing when Xanthus’s wife saw his long and thick penis. Detailed recent study suggests for English translation of the Greek original: “after taking his clothes off, clapping and shaking {or, throwing} his hands he {Aesop} started making gestures that herdsmen do, when they are unruly.” While the translation is conjectural, the original Greek text probably didn’t have Aesop masturbating. Papademetriou (2009) pp. 56-7, esp. fts. 26, 29.

[7] Xanthus’s wife proposal of intercourse ten times may be an allusion to Horace, Ars Poetica 365: haec placuit semel, haec deciens repetita placebit (“the one has pleased once, the other will give pleasure if ten times repeated”). See also William of Blois’s Alda ll. 480-3, trans. Elliott (1984) p. 121, 125 n. 10. On the Aesopic challenge to the Delphic oracle, Kurke (2011) Ch. 1. In perceiving underlying truth, foretelling action, and contravening established prophetic authority, Aesop’s meeting with Xanthus’s wife parallels Jesus’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. See John 4:16-24. Aesop’s subsequent sexual activity with Xanthus’s wife diverges sharply from that Christian parallel. The Life of Aesop’s story of Xanthus’s wife washing the rustic’s feet relates similarly to the Gospel of John’s story of Jesus washing Peter’s feet. Aesopic conversations may have encompassed the Gospel of John in the first centuries of Christianity. For a much higher level comparison of the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark, see Watson (2010).

[8] Life of Aesop 75, p. 142. Following Konstantakos (2009) p. 453, I’ve changed “shirt” to “clothes” to better reflect the Greek stole himation in this and subsequent quotes. The subsequent four quotes are from id. The surviving manuscript history of Life of Aesop 75-76 is relatively sparse. It survives only in the Greek Westermann version, Baroccianus 194 (O); a Latin translation in cod. Lollinianus 26 (Lo); and in a Greek papyrus of the 3rd century, P.Oxy. 3331. Id. pp. 453-4.

[9] Life of Aesop 75, p. 142.  I’ve changed “apple” to “plum” following Konstantakos (2009) pp. 456-8. Id. recognized a Greek pun on cuckoo / cuckold in Aesop’s allegory of the adultery. The Greek text clearly refers to the thigh, and the context suggests that Aesop ejaculated on the lady’s thigh, rather than his own thigh. This I follow for that clause Konstantakos (2006) p. 563. In an email, Professor Konstantakos observed:

In ancient Greek pederastic homosexuality, femoral or intercrural copulation was a favourite sexual practice. The older lover would place his penis among the younger adolescent’s thighs. This sexual posture is praised and glorified in many Greek poetic passages referring to pederastic love. It is also widely illustrated on Greek erotic vases. … Aesop’s experience with the woman mingles and brings into conflict different types of sexual acts.

I’m grateful for Professor Konstantakos’s insightful comment.

[10] Kurke (2011) p. 215. The story of the man and the idiot girl is at Life of Aesop 131. Neither all Greco-Roman pedagogy nor all Greco-Roman male homosexual relations were pederastic. On Greco-Roman homosexuality, Hubbard (2014). Social constructions of sexual acts can vary widely. Consider, for example, Boccaccio’s story of Alibech and Rustico putting the Devil back into Hell.

[11] Solomon and Marcolf, Ch. 19, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 99. The existing Latin text probably was first written about 1200. The first indisputable surviving reference to Solomon and Marcolf as a pair dates to roughly 1000. Id. pp. 8-9. In his introduction, Ziolkowski explains:

the closest relative Marcolf had in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period was Aesop. The parallels between S&M {Solomon and Marcolf} and Vita Aesopi (Life of Aesop, a kind of picaresque biography or ancient romance of Aesop that is interlarded with supposedly Aesopic fables) … are sufficiently powerful to have struck their publishers and audiences from the late Middle Ages through the present. In Germany from 1450 to 1520 printers assimilated images of Aesop and Marcolf to each other, using picture of the one to represent the other.

Id. p. 39. For more on the relation of Solomon and Marcolf to the Life of Aesop, Ziolkowski (2002).

[12] Life of Aesop 77a (Vita W), pp. 143-4.

[13] The Latin word play in Solomon and Marcolf emphasizes the connection between eyes and buttocks. Marcolf says to Solomon:

si non vis me videre in medijs oculis, videas me in medio culo. {if you do not wish to see me between the eyes, you may see me between the buttocks.}

Solomon and Marcolf 1914, text and trans. Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 98-99. Id. p. 98 comments:

Benary 53 notes aptly the word play on oculus and culus, which would have been particularly striking in the pronunciation of the phrase in medio oculo because of the gliding from one o to another.

These phrases are also possible in classical Latin. Eye(s) are connected to buttocks in both biological and linguistic structures. The Life of Aesop was written in Greek. Complex interactions among Hebrew, Greek, and Latin existed in the ancient world.

[14] Konstantakos (2006) p. 563, Konstantakos (2013) p. 368. Aesop “fails on a technicality by spending himself on the outside.” Papademetriou (2009) p. 58. Kurke (2011) doesn’t mention the Life of Aesop’s adultery-prostitution tale at all.

[15] Within a pederastic framework, Aesop positioned himself as superior in wisdom to Xanthus’s wife. Aesop described Xanthus’s wife as “the wife of a philosopher, an intelligent woman.” Life of Aesop 32, p. 125. She, however, didn’t appreciate Aesop’s superior wisdom, nor his sharing it in a way that mocks the elite Greek pederastic tradition.

[image] Frontispiece woodcut from a 1489 Spanish edition of Aesop’s fables (Fabulas de Esopo, published in Madrid). The woodcut depicts Aesop surrounded by images and events from the Life of Aesop. Thanks to Wikicommons.


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

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

Hubbard, Thomas K. 2014. “Peer Homosexuality.” Pp. 128-149 (Ch. 8) in Hubbard, Thomas K., ed. A companion to Greek and Roman sexualities. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2006. “Aesop Adulterer and Trickster. A Study of Vita Aesopi Ch. 75-76.” Athenaeum. 94 (2): 563-600.

Konstantakos, Ioannis. 2009. “Cuckoo’s Fruit: Erotic Imagery in Vita Aesopi ch. 75-76.”  Pp. 453-460 in Eleni Karamalengou and Eugenia Makrygianni (eds.), Antiphilesis. Studies on Classical, Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature and Culture in Honour of John-Theophanes A. Papademetriou.  Franz Stein Verlag: Stuttgart.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2013.”Life of Aesop and adventures of criticism: A review-article on Manolis Papathomopoulos’ recent edition of the Vita Aesopi, version G.” Myrtia 28: 355-392.

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

Papademetriou, John-Theophanes A. 2009. “Romance without eros.” Pp. 49-80 (Ch. 4) in Karla, Grammatiki A., ed. Fiction on the fringe novelistic writing in the post-classical age. Leiden: Brill.

Watson, David F. 2010. “The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark: Two Ancient Approaches to Elite Values.” Journal of Biblical Literature. 129 (4): 699-716.

Whitmarsh, Tim. 2011. “Crashing the Delphic Party: Review of Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue and the Invention of Greek Prose by Leslie Kurke.” London Review of Books 33 (12): 37-38.

Ziolkowski, Jan. M. 2002. “The Deeds and Words of Aesop and Marcolf.” Pp. 105-123 in Dorothea Walz, ed. Scripturus vitam: Lateinische Biogaphie von der Antike bis in die Gegenwart. Festsgabe für Walter Berschin zum 65. Geburtstag. Heidelberg: Mattes Verlag.

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

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.

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[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.