kiss my ass: struggle against matriarchy in medieval Europe

Deep in the woods, a knight confronted another knight. One dropped his sword and begged for mercy. The other issued an ultimatum: either joust with me to the death, or kiss my ass. The first knight eagerly chose to kiss ass. The other knight dismounted, turned, bent over, and bared ass:

The {first} knight looked into the crevice, and because the hole and the other parts seemed to run together, he thought that he had never seen such a long arsehole. Then, like a baseborn coward, he gave it a thick kiss, smack on the spot right near the hole. [1]

The second knight, satisfied, declared, “I am Beranger Longbottom, who puts all cowards to shame.” Beranger Longbottom then rode off home.

knight in armor

Beranger Longbottom was the first knight’s wife in disguise. She despised her cowardly, low-born husband. To further humiliate him, she invited her lover to be with her and to remain with her when her defeated husband returned home. Her husband scolded her for blatantly cavorting with her lover. She declared that if he denounced her, she would complain to Beranger Longbottom, who would humiliate him. The husband was filled with great shame and rage. But he knew that he was defeated. He no longer objected to her extra-pair affair.

So goes the story of Beranger Longbottom. It’s a thirteenth-century Old French fabliau. Other medieval stories similarly tell of men, inferior to women in guile and lacking Ovidian learning in love, kissing women’s asses.[2] Such stories, along with other literature of men’s sexed protests, show popular awareness of matriarchy.

While dislodging matriarchy is more difficult than evenly dividing a fart, medieval stories show signs of resistance and struggle. Another medieval fabliau tells of a man ordered to kiss the ass of the woman he loved in order to demonstrate his true love for her. Here’s how the story goes. A maid served a high-born Lady contemptuous of her husband’s family. A squire served the Lady’s husband and was her husband’s brother. The squire loved the maid. The maid told the Lady about the squire’s love:

“Ah,” said the Lady, “does he so?
Is his love true? How can you know?”
“Madame, his love is true and whole,
he’s sworn it deeply, on his soul!”
“Really? Go back and tell this squire
he shall not have your love entire,
because you cannot know if he
loves you with heart both whole and free —
unless he first can pass one test
by which he’d set your doubts at rest:
to kiss your ass — all privately,
of course, no gentlefolk would see [3]

After learning that the squire, love-besotted, had agreed to kiss the maid’s ass, the Lady arranged a bet with her husband:

“Milord,” she said, “just come with me
if your own brother you would see
kissing the ass-hole of my maid!”
“Never!” he said, “I cannot think he
ever would do a thing so stinky!”
“Yes, by St. Martin, it’s all set —
a tun of vintage wine I’ll bet
that from this window you will see it!”

The maid bent over in the garden beneath a pear tree, with the Lady and her husband surreptitiously watching from the window. But then, I think, the maid, sensing the squire’s manly presence and desire, lovingly signaled to him to kiss with a different organ, at a slightly lower location. The squire held her tightly and performed his manly function with huge vigor.[4] The squire and the maid subsequently married. In the work of the tale, they surely lived happily ever after. The husband toasted his brother’s virility. The Lady, having lost her bet and now more knowing, henceforth honored and respected her husband’s family.

The maid and the squire subverted the Lady’s degrading, ass-kissing plot. That’s just a fabliau. Yet there is historical truth in it. Ordinary men and women, suffering under matriarchal oppression, can resist with pleasure and laughter.

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[1] “Bérengier au Lonc Cul” (Beranger Longbottom), trans. from Old French verse, Hellman & O’Gorman (1965) p. 64. The subsequent quote is from id. For translation into English verse, Eichmann & DuVal (1992) pp. 99-106.

[2] For another example of the “kiss my ass” motif, see Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale. In the Old French story Audigier from the end of the twelfth century, the old, ugly lady Grinberge compelled the knight Audigier to kiss her ass. See Audigier, trans. Brians (1973) pp. 57-68.

[3] “La Gageure” / “La gagure, ou L’esquier e la chaunbrere” (How a Well-Hung Squire Cost the Snobbish Lady a Tun of Wine), trans. from Old French verse, Revard (2005) p. 125. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 126. A version of this fabliau is available online in MS Harley 2253, Art. 84. On evenly dividing a fart, see Chaucer’s The Summoner’s Tale.

[4] In editorial comments, Revard (2004), p. 124 declares that this fabliau involves “forcible lovemaking in a non-missionary position” and is “violently misogynistic.” Forcefully making love in a non-missionary position is not rape if the force of the lovemaking was consensual. Other scholars might declare that a rape has occurred and seek to have incarcerated the fictional squire, or perhaps the fabliau’s author. Particularly in the context of the demonization of male sexuality, these are misandristic approaches. All reading involves interpretation. Academic literary study now celebrates multivocality, ambiguity, complexity, and transgression. Those academic fashions, or good faith in men, allow room for enjoying this fabliau.


Brians, Paul, trans. 1973. Bawdy tales from the courts of medieval France. New York: Harper & Row.

Eichmann, Raymond, and John DuVal, ed. and trans. 1992. Fabliaux, fair and foul. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

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

Revard, Carter. 2005. “Four Fabliaux from London, British Library MS Harley 2253, Translated Into English Verse.” The Chaucer Review. 40 (2): 111-140.

Jesus the good physician amid bad ancient medicine

medieval physician performing blood-letting

According to Christian scripture, Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples were popularly acclaimed healers within a highly competitive medical services market.  A Syriac Christian text, probably from no later than the early fifth century, addressed Jesus as “Jesus, the Good Physician.”  The epithet “the Good Physician” was not just abstract spiritual praise.  In the Roman Empire, bad physicians traded on complex, intellectually prestigious, costly, and dangerous treatments to amass great wealth for themselves.  Jesus the Good Physician healed without cost through a word or a touch.

Bad physicians converted medical knowledge into prestigious professional secrets.  Once upon a time, persons grateful for cures inscribed those cures on the walls of the temple of Asclepius (Asculapius), the god of medicine.  Hippocrates copied the inscribed cures into books.  After the temple of Asclepius burned down, these once-public inscriptions became the Hippocratic school’s professional trade secrets.  The public came to attach great intellectual prestige to Greek learning.  Greek medical treatises and Greek doctors then dominated the Roman medical business.  That is the professional history of medicine according to the Roman statesman and encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, writing about the time of Jesus.[1]

Bad physicians were avaricious.  Pliny explained:

There was no limit to the profit from medical practice, for one of the pupils of Hippocrates, Prodicus, born in Selymbria, founded iatraliptice (“ointment cure”), and so discovered revenue even for the anointers and drudges of the doctors.

{ nec fuit postea quaestus modus, quoniam Prodicus Selymbriae natus, e discipulis eius, instituit quam vocant iatralipticen et unctoribus quoque medicorum ac mediastinis vectigal invenit. }

According to Pliny, no art brings greater monetary profits to practitioners than does medicine.  Pliny explained that some believe nothing is beneficial unless it is costly.  Pliny described physicians receiving huge incomes and amassing enormous wealth from serving emperors.

Bad physicians favored false knowledge.  Pliny deplored bad physicians’ irresponsibility:

their out-of-the-way use of hot water in sickness, their strict fasts for patients, who when in a fainting condition are stuffed with food several times a day, their thousand ways of changing their minds, their orders to the kitchen, and their compound ointments, for none of life’s seductive attractions have they refrained from incorporating. … There is an elaborate mixture called theriac, which is compounded of countless ingredients, although Nature has given as many remedies, anyone of which would be enough by itself.  The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients, no two of them having the same weight, and some are prescribed at one sixtieth part of one denarius.  Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions?  No human brain could have been sharp enough. It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science. And not even the physicians know their facts.  I have discovered that instead of Indian cinnabar there is commonly added to medicines, through a confusion of names, red lead, which, as I shall point out when I discuss pigments, is a poison.

{ in morbis aquarum calidarum deverticulis imperiosa inedia et ab isdem deficientibus cibo saepius die ingesto, mille praeterea paenitentiae modis, culinarum etiam praeceptis et unguentorum mixturis, quando nullas omisere vitae inlecebras. … theriace vocatur excogitata compositio. fit ex rebus sexcentis, cum tot remedia dederit natura quae singula sufficerent. Mithridatium antidotum ex rebus LIIII componitur, inter nullas pondere aequali et quarundam rerum sexagesima denarii unius imperata, quo deorum, per Fidem, ista monstrante! hominum enim subtilitas tanta esse non potuit, ostentatio artis et portentosa scientiae venditatio manifesta est. ac ne ipsi quidem illa novere, conperique volgo pro cinnabari Indica in medicamenta minium addi inscitia nominis, quod esse venenum docebimus inter pigmenta. }

Pliny described one physician as successfully gaining a large following by combining medicine with astrology.  A competing physician responded by substituting cold baths for hot baths “even during the winter frosts.”  Such innovations did not serve sick patients:

There is no doubt that all these, in their hunt for popularity by means of some novelty, did not hesitate to buy it with our lives.  Hence those wretched, quarrelsome consultations at the bedside of the patient, no consultant agreeing with another lest he should appear to acknowledge a superior.  Hence too that gloomy inscription on monuments: “It was the crowd of physicians that killed me.” Medicine changes every day, being refurbished again and again, and we are swept along on the puffs of the clever brains of Greece.

{ nec dubium est omnes istos famam novitate aliqua aucupantes anima statim nostra negotiari. hinc illae circa aegros miserae sententiarum concertationes, nullo idem censente, ne videatur accessio alterius. hinc illa infelix monumentis inscriptio, turba se medicorum perisse. mutatur ars cottidie totiens interpolis, et ingeniorum Graeciae flatu inpellimur }

Physicians came not just for the sick, but also for the healthy.  Physicians governed daily life:

Those, I say, have ruined the way of life of the Empire. I mean the practices to which we submit when in health — wrestlers’ ointments, as though they were intended to treat ill health; broiling baths, by which they have persuaded us that food is cooked in our bodies, so that everybody leaves them the weaker for the treatment, and the most submissive are carried out to be buried; the sips taken fasting; vomitings followed by further heavy drinks; effeminate depilations produced by their resins, and even the vaginas of women exposed to public view.

{ illa perdidere imperii mores, illa quae sani patimur, luctatus ceromata ceu valitudinis causa instituta, balineae ardentes quibus persuasere in corporibus cibos coqui ut nemo non minus validus exiret, oboedientissimi vero efferrentur, potus deinde ieiunorum ac vomitiones et rursus perpotationes ac pilorum eviratio instituta resinis eorum, itemque pectines in feminis quidem publicati. }

The problem is not just bad physicians, but also human nature:

The medical profession is the only one in which anybody professing to be a physician is at once trusted, although nowhere else is an untruth more dangerous. We pay however no attention to the danger, so great for each of us is the seductive sweetness of wishful thinking.

{ in hac artium sola evenit ut cuicumque medicum se professo statim credatur, cum sit periculum in nullo mendacio maius. non tamen illud intuemur, adeo blanda est sperandi pro se cuique dulcedo. }

Within common understanding of the physician’s heart is personal care.  The sick and the well yearn for a good physician.

Ancient followers of Jesus understood Jesus to be a good physician in ways that contrast specifically with Pliny’s description of bad physicians.  In the Gospel of Mark, a woman suffering from an issue of blood for twelve years received no benefit from the services of other physicians:

She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was not better, but rather grew worse.

{ καὶ πολλὰ παθοῦσα ὑπὸ πολλῶν ἰατρῶν καὶ δαπανήσασα τὰ παρ᾽ αὐτῆς πάντα καὶ μηδὲν ὠφεληθεῖσα ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον εἰς τὸ χεῖρον ἐλθοῦσα }[2]

She was healed just by touching Jesus’ clothes.

Jesus and other outstanding physicians were believed to be capable of raising the dead.  In the ancient medical business, what made Jesus distinctive as a good physician was more than a reputation for raising the dead.  In a Syriac text probably from no later than the early fifth century, Abgar, the King of Edessa, wrote to Jesus:

Abgar Ukkama, to Jesus, the Good Physician, who has appeared in the country of Jerusalem. My Lord: Peace. I have heard of you and of your healing, that it is not by medicines and roots that you heal, but by your word you open the eyes of the blind, you make the lame to walk, you clean the lepers, and you make the deaf hear.  And unclean spirits and lunatics, and those tormented, them you heal by your word.  You also raise the dead. [3]

In this text, raising the dead is a supplementary medical capability.  King Abgar had a physical illness.  His first interest was in the sort of healing usually done with medicines and roots.  Jesus could heal with just words: “only say the word, and my servant will be healed {μόνον εἰπὲ λόγῳ καὶ ἰαθήσεται ὁ παῖς μου}.”[4]  Abgar requested Jesus to come and heal him.  Jesus, focused on his primary mission in Jerusalem, promised to send one of his disciples to Edessa to heal Abgar.  The disciple who went to Abgar was Addai the Apostle.  Addai was one of the seventy-two first apostles of Jesus.  Addai, with a touch of his hand, healed Abgar instantly.  Addai then refused to take any gold and silver for his healing service.  Instead, he proclaimed publicly the new knowledge of Jesus.  Simple, costless healing, without effort to conceal professional knowledge, characterized Jesus and his apostle Addai as good physicians.[5]

Many good physicians today draw upon deep medical knowledge and complex medical procedures.  Nonetheless, what makes a good physician today has important commonalities with what made a good physician in Jesus’s day. The good physician does only what is truly necessary to make the patient well and shares with others knowledge to heal.

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[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Latin text and English translation from Rackham, Jones & Eichholz (1949), Bk. 29, sec. 2.  Pliny’s history appears to be similar in form to recent scholarly work on discrimination against men on sinking ships.  Nutton (2013), p. 168, describes Pliny as having provided a “magnificently malicious account of the crimes and follies of the medical profession.”  The dominance of Greek medicine was real.  More than 95% of doctors known to have worked in Italy or the western Latin provinces of the Roman Empire before 100 GC had Greek names.  Id.  All the subsequent references and quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from Pliny, Natural History, Bk. 29, secs. 1-9.  I’ve made minor stylistic changes to some of the quoted translations for ease of reading.

[2] Mark 5:26.  Luke, a physician according to Christian tradition, omits that the woman had endured much {suffering} under physicians’ treatments and had only gotten worse.  Luke 8:43.  Matthew omits all reference to physicians in this story.  Matthew 9:20.

[3] The Doctrine of Addai, trans. from Syriac in Phillips (1876).  I’ve modernized the English of the translation.  The subsequent account above is from the Doctrine of Addai.  Abgar’s letter to Jesus probably isn’t historical.  In any case, it contains an early Christian understanding of Jesus.  Subsequently Addai refers to Jesus as “Jesus Christ, the Physician of troubled souls, and the Saviour of future life, the Son of God.”  The context backgrounds mundane healing practice and highlights Christian doctrine.  For a general review and analysis of the Doctrine of Addai, see Griffith (2003).  On the rise of Christianity in Edessa and Syria, El-Badami (2006).

[4] Matthew 8:8.

[5] In a medieval Jewish story, a demon at a heathen (Christian) medical shrine says to a Jew who came there for healing:

If you are Jewish, why have you come here?  Can a Jew traffic in idolatry?  Don’t you know that heathen rites have nothing real in them?  It is for this reason that I am misleading them, so they will cling to error, and they’ll have no portion in the world to come.  But you, why have you run to alien worship instead of standing up to pray before the Holy One, blessed be He, who is the one to cure you?  You should know that by tomorrow your time had come to be healed, but because you have done this, you will never find a cure.  Therefore, do not trust in any mortal being, but rather in the Holy One, blessed be He — for He, this kingly God, is a physician who heals for free!

Trans. Rosenberg (1998) p. 97 (on 2nd commandment).  Despite Jesus healing for free, the sale of blessings and unctions for the sick became deplorably prevalent in the medieval Christian church.


El-Badami, Emran.  2006. “Tales of King Abgar: A Basis to Investigate Earliest Syrian Christian Syncretism.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies v. 20, n. 2.

Griffith, Sidney H. 2003. “The Doctrina Addai as a Paradigm of Christian Thought in Edessa in the Fifth Century.” Hogoye Journal of Syriac Studies 6.2: 269-292.

Nutton, Vivian. 2013. Ancient Medicine. 2’nd ed. London: Routledge.

Phillips, George, ed. and trans. 1876. The doctrine of Addai, the Apostle: now first edited in a complete form in the original Syriac, with an English translation and notes. London: Trübner.

Rackham, H., W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz. 1949-54. Pliny the Elder. Natural history. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rosenberg, Joel.  1998.  “Midrash on the Ten Commandments.”  Ch. 5 (pp. 91-120) in Stern, David, and Mark Mirsky. 1998. Rabbinic fantasies: imaginative narratives from classical Hebrew literature. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Panchatantra plays with Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici

The Panchatantra, a story collection written in Sanskrit in ancient India, includes a story about a cowardly and stupid donkey.  India is far from Rome.  Yet within four centuries after Julius Caesar’s death, the Panchatantra used the cowardly and stupid donkey in playing with Julius Caesar’s boast in Latin: “veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered).[1]

bust of Julius Caesar

In the Panchatantra story, a jackal urged a donkey to come to a spot by a river.  The jackal said that the spot offered lush grass and three amorous she-donkeys.  The jackal was working for a lion hiding there.  The donkey, quivering with thoughts of love, went to the spot.  The lion sprung at the donkey.  But the lion sprung over the donkey.  The donkey, unsure of what had happened, turned and saw the lion.  The donkey then bolted away from that horrifying sight.

The jackal found the donkey again and explained that what appeared to be a lion was actually a she-donkey rushing to embrace him.  The jackal told the donkey:

So come back.  She {the she-donkey} has resolved to starve to death for your sake, and she says: “If Flop-Ear does not marry me, I will plunge into fire or water, or will eat poison.  Anyhow, I cannot bear to be separated from him.”  So have mercy, and return.  If not, you will be a woman-murderer, and the god of love will be angry. [2]

Flop-Ear the donkey, with concern for the she-donkey and following his desire for her, returned to the spot.  This time the lion sprang and killed the donkey.

The lion, being a civilized fellow, went to the river to bath and say prayers prior to eating the donkey.  Meanwhile, the jackal, who was the lion’s servant, began eating the donkey.  The jackal ate the donkey’s ears and heart.  When the lion returned, he saw that the donkey’s ears and heart were missing.  The lion angrily accused his servant the jackal of eating before his master and taking the choice bits for himself.  The jackal responded:

“O King,” said the jackal respectfully, “do not speak so.  This creature was born without ears and heart.  Otherwise, how could he have come here, have seen you with his own eyes, have run in terror, and then come back?  Why, it goes into poetry:
He came, he saw, he fled
From your appearance dread,
Returned, forgot his fears —
The fool lacked heart and ears.” [3]

The ears of the donkey, whose name was Flop-Ear, have nothing to do with seeing the lion.  Forgetting fears also seems to have nothing to do with not having a heart.  Nonetheless, this explanation and jingle appeased the lion.

The fun goes further than successful nonsense.  The first line of the jackal’s jingle, “He came, he saw, he fled,” seems like a playful transformation of Julius Caesar’s boast, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” The Panchatantra’s cowardly and stupid donkey makes a fine lampoon of Julius Caesar.  Was this long-distance, trans-cultural intertextuality actually part of the Panchatantra long ago?  I think so.

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[1] Julius Caesar reportedly used the phrase “veni, vidi, vici” in describing his triumph over Pharnaces the son of Mithridates in the region of Pontus.  That occurred in 47 BGC.  Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, “The Life of Julius Caesar,” sec. 50, reports those words.  So too does Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, “The Life of Julius Caesar,” sec. 37. Suetonius’s biography is dated 121 GC.  Plutarch’s biography probably was written roughly a decade earlier.  The Panchatantra is thought to have been written from 200 BGC to 300 GC based on stories that circulated orally.  The Panchatantra manuscript that Ryder (1925) translates (North Western Family Sanskrit manuscript by the Jain monk Purnabhadra) is dated 1199 GC.  It’s possible that Julius Caesar, or Plutarch, adapted “veni, vidi, vici” from the Panchatantra or its sources.  But that seems to me less likely.

[2] From Panchatantra, story of “Flop-Ear and Dusty,” trans. Ryder (1925) pp. 395-399.  Dusty is the name of the jackal.  The details of the story and the subsequent quote are from id.  In ancient India, like in the U.S. today, murdering a woman was of more public concern than murdering a man.

[3] Id. p. 399. The popular medieval European story-collection Gesta Romanorum includes a tale that apparently adapted this story’s motifs of loss of an animals’ ears and rationalizing a missing heart. Gesta Romanorum, Tale 83, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 155-6.

[image] Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar (cropped), from the Art History Museum, Vienna, Austria, thanks to Andrew Bossi and Wikimedia.


Ryder, Arthur W., trans. 1925. The Panchatantra. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).