sea of ink: writing across Eurasia for millennia

While humans are thought to have invented writing only about 5000 years ago, human oral verbal communication is surely much older.  Important recent research indicates that humans across a wide expansion of Eurasia shared present-day sound-meaning verbal forms about 15000 years ago.[1]  Writing was not necessary historically to support widely dispersed, specific verbal forms that have endured for 15000 years.

Linguistic units evolve less rapidly the more frequently that they are used.  While particular frequently used words have less than a 50% likelihood of being replaced in 10000 years, most words, including important words like mother and man, have a half-life of 2000 to 4000 years.[2]  Large-scale word replacement has occurred within historical language families within the time horizon of the invention of writing.

A rhetorically complex “sea of ink” writing figure has nonetheless been conserved in specificity across a wide expanse of Eurasia for at least 2000 years.  A classical Sanskrit text records the rhetorical figure.  In English translation it is:

if the whole sea were filled with ink, and the earth made of paper, and all the inhabitants of the terrestrial globe were only employed in writing, that would not suffice to give an exact account of all the miracles Krishha has performed [3]

That “sea of ink” figure probably occurred in Sanskrit more than 2000 years ago.  It also occurred in Hebrew in the middle of Israel about 2000 years ago.  A rabbi then declared:

If all the skies were parchment, and if all the oceans ink, and the wood of all the trees were filed down to pens, it would hardly suffice to imprint, not my wisdom, but the wisdom of my teachers. [4]

The metaform of the figure invokes the expanse of the natural world as an imaginary measure of possible writing.  That metaform is the same in the Sanskrit and Hebrew texts.  The Sanskrit and Hebrew texts also share the highly specific reference to the oceans/seas being ink.  The rabbi’s parenthesis, “not my wisdom,” suggests a specifically constructed contrast within a well-known figure.  Faint echoes of the writing figure can heard in the ending of the Christian Gospel of John:

But there are also many other things Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Given that this writing figure was known across western Eurasia 2000 years ago, it probably was created considerably earlier.

The “sea of ink” writing figure has been conserved to the present in a wide variety of cultures.  The Qur’an, which was received in Arabia in the seventh century, contains two instances of the figure:

If the ocean were ink (wherewith to write out) the words of my Lord, sooner would the ocean be exhausted than would the words of my Lord, even if we added another ocean like it, for its aid.

And if all the trees on earth were pens and the Ocean (were ink), with seven oceans behind it to add to its (supply), yet would not the Words of Allah be exhausted (in the writing): for Allah is exalted in power, full of wisdom. [5]

In the eleventh century, the rhetorical figure appeared in a liturgical poem that a rabbi composed in Aramaic for the Jewish holiday Shavous.[6]  By the thirteenth century, the figure was known across western Eurasia in a wide variety of languages.  Although rarely occurring relative to words like “mother,” the figure has been conserved to the present in a wide range of contexts.[7]

Professional self-understanding and self-interest of writers probably helps to explain the “sea of ink” figure’s longevity.  Religiously important writings conserve common culture.[8]  After the rhetorical figure was included in Jewish religious writings and the Qur’an, it would last as long as these religions.  But the earlier history of the figure, and its geographically widespread instantiations in non-religious contexts, still needs explanation.[9] The figure presents writing as an important function within the natural world.  It describes writing as a natural measure of great acts.  The figure is thus suited for scribes affirming, with the solidarity of a common form, their professional importance.

girl in room covered with hand-written notes

A late nineteenth-century American public intellectual wrote an insightful parody of this figure.  He dropped the object of praise to reveal self-interest:

If all the trees in all the woods were men,
And each and every blade of grass a pen;
If every leaf on every shrub and tree
Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea
Were changed to ink, and all the earth’s living tribes
Had nothing else to do but act as scribes,
And for ten thousand ages, day and night,
The human race should write, and write and write,
Till all the pens and paper were used up,
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink. [10]

That’s a biting satire on the still prevalent scholarly practice of concluding a scientific journal article or research report with a call for more research.  Professional self-interest in writing goes all the way back to the origins of writing.  Yet alternatives remain: curiosity, entertainment, whimsy, and hope.

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[1] Pagel et al. (2013).

[2] Id. p. 1.  Pagel, Atkinson & Meade (2007).

[3] From the Sanskrit legend of the Ten Avatars (Malabar version), concerning Vishnu in his eighth avatar appearing as Kishna, cited in translation, Linn (1938) p. 952.  I’ve made minor stylistic adaptations.  A similar figure exists in the Vasavadatta, the oldest known romantic novel in Sanskrit. Id. p. 953.

[4] Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, founder of the religious academy at Jabneh, cited in translation, id. p. 954.  Nearly the same saying is attributed to Rabbi Jochanan in the Talmud, Tractate Sabbath, fol. 11.  Id.

[5] Qur’an, Surah 18:109, Surah 31:27, text above, in lineated form, from Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an.

[6] The poem is the Akdamut.  Rabbi Meir bar Yitzchak (“Nehorai”) composed it in Worms, Germany, in the eleventh century.  Hoffman (2009) provides historical context and an English translation of the Akdamut.

[7] Linn (1938) documents instances in a wide variety of languages.

[8] Eliot (1942/1949), written around World War II, pushes that point further than most.

[9] For other evidence of poetic forms conserved across Indo-European languages, Watkins (1995).

[10] Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr. “Cacoethes Scribendi,” in Holmes (1890), cited in Lin (1938) p. 965.  Foolscap is paper of a particular size.

[image] Visitor to Hirshhorn Museum exhibit, Over, Under, Next: Experiments in Mixed Media, 1913-present, inside Ann Hamilton’s installation Palimpsest, 1989.


Eliot, Thomas Stearns. 1942, rev. ed. 1949. Christianity and culture: the idea of a christian society and notes towards the definition of culture. London/New York.

Hoffman, Jeffrey. 2009. “Akdamut: History, Folklore, and Meaning.” Jewish Quarterly Review. 99 (2): 161-183.

Holmes, Oliver Wendall, Senior. 1890.  “Over the teacups.” Column.  Atlantic Monthly. Mar.

Linn, Irving. 1938. “If All the Sky Were Parchment.” PMLA (Proceedings of the Modern Language Association). 53 (4): 951-970.

Pagel, Mark, Quentin D. Atkinson, and Andrew Meade. 2007. “Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history.” Nature. 449 (7163): 717-720.

Pagel, Mark, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade. 2013. “Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia.” PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). Published online before print May 6, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1218726110

Watkins, Calvert. 1995. How to kill a dragon: aspects of Indo-European poetics. New York: Oxford University Press.

economists better than weather forecasters

blatantly inconsistent weather forecast
Most economic forecasting has value mainly in providing accounting consistency in forecasting.  For example, if the economy has two sectors of equal size, and one is forecast to grow 2% and the other is forecast to grow 4%, an economist with a good economic model will also forecast that the economy as a whole will grow 3%.  Leading weather forecasters aren’t even that good.

Rain was falling at 10am, but no thunderstorms.

Aristotle and Phyllis: matriarchy for millennia from India to France

matriarchy in Islamic dress

Both male and female historians have tended to suppress the historical record of matriarchy. Matriarchy is a social system in which men, born and nurtured by women, are then subordinate to their mothers, wives, and female lovers. Matriarchy has dominated human history to the present.[1] The figure of a woman riding a man as if riding a beast has been popular in cultures from India to France for at least the past two millennia. That figure indicates the historical importance of matriarchy.

The Panchatantra, a collection of tales arising in India about 2000 years ago, provides an early example of the matriarchy figure. The frame story of the Panchatantra, Book IV, tells of a crocodile who sought to kill his good friend. The crocodile sought to kill his friend because the crocodile’s wife wanted to eat his friend’s heart. The wife said that she would starve herself to death unless the crocodile killed his friend for her. The crocodile, ruled by his wife, sought to kill his friend.

While the frame story of Panchatantra, Book IV, is an exposition of matriarchy, the enduring figure of matriarchy occurs as a tale within that frame. The friend, who is a monkey, learned of the crocodile’s plot to kill him. After having escaped, the monkey told the crocodile a story about a king. A long time ago, a king ruled the whole world. The king’s wife got angry with him. The king responded to his wife:

“Beloved, I cannot live a moment without you. I will fall at your feet and beg your pardon.” She said: “If you hold a bit in your mouth and let me climb on your back and drive you, and if, when driven, you neigh like a horse, then I will relent.” [2]

The king obeyed his wife. He accepted a bridle in his mouth and neighed like a horse while carrying his wife around on his back. That’s the power of matriarchy.

The matriarchy figure spread across Mesopotamia. The figure occurs in an early Arabic book doubtfully attributed to al-Jahiz, a leading ninth-century Baghdad intellectual.[3] A Turkish manuscript in the library of the King of France in 1770 included the matriarchy figure as the centerpiece of a story of a young sultan and his old vizir.[4]

In the Turkish story, an old vizir chastised the young sultan for spending so much time enjoying the pleasures of the slave women of his seraglio. After the sultan greatly reduced his time in pleasure with the women, the women protested. One of the sultan’s slave girls asked to be given to the vizir. She wanted to demonstrate that he could not resist her power. The sultan agreed to the transfer. The vizir soon became enamored of his new slave girl. Despite the vizir falling to his knees and imploring her, the slave girl treated him severely and refused to have sex with him. But she offered him a bargain: if he would obey her completely for one day, then she would yield to his passionate desire. The vizir acquiesced:

“I can refuse you nothing,” replied the old vizir {to the slave girl}; “you shall for ever experience from me an equal complaisance.”

The slave girl used her power over the vizir to create the figure of matriarchy:

“This,” said she to the vizir, “is the criterion of your love; let me see how far your boasted complaisance will go. You must submit to bear this saddle and bridle, and suffer me to mount upon your back.”

The poor vizir, with half reluctance, half pleasantry, put himself into the posture of a horse, and submitted to the girt and bridle [5]

Not merely a wife, but even a slave girl, can rule a male ruler.

In western Europe, the earliest surviving instance of this matriarchy figure is from an early thirteenth-century fable / lay. Its characters are Alexander the Great, Aristotle his tutor, and Alexander’s Indian mistress, who is repeatedly described as having blond hair. She later acquired the name Phyllis. Aristotle admonished Alexander to give up his mistress. Alexander did so for many days, but then surrendered to his desire and returned to his mistress. The mistress promised Alexander that she would avenge herself on his “pale old tutor”:

His logic and his grammar will do him no good against me. He will be a skillful fencer indeed if, now that I have made up my mind, Mother Nature does not subdue him through me. [6]

The mistress arose early in the morning and went out into the garden:

dressed in nothing but her shift … in all her figure there was nothing that did not rightly belong there. And do not think that she had a wimple or band about her head; her beautiful tresses, long and blond, set off her loveliness. … Barefoot, bareheaded, ungirdled, she went her way, raising the skirts of her tunic and singing

The scholar Aristotle’s thoughts became his desire for the mistress’s body. The mistress declared to Aristotle:

“Ah, tutor,” she said, “before I yield to your folly, you must, if you are so stricken with love, consent to do a strange thing for me. For I have been seized with a great desire to ride astride you over the grass in this garden. And I want you to wear a saddle, for so I shall ride more respectably.”

The old man replied joyfully that he would do that willingly and as one who belonged to her entirely. The God of Love must really have overwhelmed him to make him carry a palfrey’s saddle on his shoulder into the garden. You can imagine how mad he looked carrying it. And she busied herself to put it on his back. Love can indeed work miracles with an old codger, since Nature so commands, if he can cause the greatest scholar in the world to be saddled like an old nag and crawl on all fours over the grass … He let the girl get up on his back and so he carried her. [7]

The matriarchy figure of a woman riding a man as if he were a beast — the story of Aristotle and Phyllis — subsequently became widespread in European literature and art.

The Aristotle-Phyllis matriarchy figure probably was transmitted to Europe from an ancient Indian source such as the Panchatantra. The geographic and historical range of the matriarchy figure testifies to the importance of matriarchy across a wide range of times and societies. In common sense, sex is natural and powerful.[8] Yet discussion of matriarchy is difficult and often suppressed. The matriarchy figure is a rare means for expressing the actual, underlying natural distribution of power by sex in human societies.[9]

Many scholars have confused matriarchy and patriarchy. According to the newest literary theory, the root(ster) of that confusion is male fear of inadequacy in penetration. Every male ruler has a mother, and most, at least one female lover. The implication of binary difference is a relation of domination and subordination, like that of hydrogen and oxygen. Foucault. Butler. Increased scholarly appreciation for the social construction of the social construction of gender has engendered a more fecund gender field of scholarly literature. An important result has been the development of demasculinized discourse and the installation of new leading metaphor: matriarchy encompasses patriarchy.

If Chaucer has any authority over the scandal of gender difference that this tale exposes, it is of an implicated sort that can only laugh at the absurdity of a system that often works despite its flimsy claims to authority. … each of these performances, because they are revealed to be absurd, demonstrates the ways that men and women collaborate to make fictions of gender convincing. [10]

The rest is silence.

woman riding man

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[1] Matriarchy, like patriarchy, is somewhat misleading as a descriptive term. While most rulers throughout history have been men, very few men have been rulers. Among the few that have been rulers, some have not been fathers. Among the many men who have not been rulers, many have also not been fathers.

Human society, like other primate societies, is more accurately described as gynocentric. I use the term matriarchy here to refer to women’s social power and control. Medieval European literature highlighted men’s subservience to women. Such subservience in more subtle forms has been prevalent across cultures and throughout history.

[2] Panchatantra, Book IV (“Loss of Gains”), story of “King Joy {Nanda} and Secretary Splendor {Vararuci},” trans. from Sanskrit, Ryder (1925) pp. 408-9. The actors in the tales of the Panchatantra are predominately animals, but unlike the animals in Aesop’s fables, the animals in the Panchatantra are sex-typed and act like humans. A surviving eighth-century Arabic translation of the Panchatrantra, known as Kalila Wa-Dimna, includes the frame story (“The Story of the Tortoise and the Ape”), but not the embedded tale with the matriarchy figure of the woman riding on the back of her lover. See Keith-Falconer (1885) pp. 158-168. Kalila Wa-Dimna in translation was widely known in medieval western Europe as the Fables of Bidpai.

[3] Sarton (1930), p. 9, states that it occurs in al-Jahiz’s Kitab al-mahasin wa al-addad (The Treatise on Good Qualities and Their Antonyms). Montgomery (2005) p. 232 lists al-Jahiz’s authorship of that work as doubtful.

[4] Cardonne (1771), vol. 1, pp. 14-18. The story uses the terms sultan, seraglio, and odalisque. These are Turkish terms. In addition, a note on id. p. 15 states:

when the Grand Seignior dies, the slaves, who have had no children by that prince, are married to the grandees of the Porte.

“Porte” most plausibly refers to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, rather than the major inland cities of Mesopotamia. Thus I assume that the story is from a Turkish manuscript.

[5] Id. p. 17 (including previous quote).

[6] Henri d’Andeli, “The Lay of Aristotle {Le lai d’Aristote},” trans. from Old French, Hellman & O’Gorman (1965) p. 172. Brook & Burgess (2011) provides an edition and English translation based on MS S: Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouv. acq. fr. 1104 (view online). This lay is now regarded as a composition of Henri de Valenciennes. Id. pp. 10-4. For a review of sources an analogues, Brook & Burgess (2011) pp. 20-3.

Henri de Valenciennes apparently created this lay from a similar story. He begins by emphasizing that his story is “without scandal or baseness.” Trans. Hellman & O’Gorman (1965) p. 168. The lay repeatedly refers to Alexander’s Indian mistress as having blond hair. That seems like a pointed contrast. Moreover, Alexander declares:

For a man can love only one woman, and truly he cannot please more than one.

Id. p. 170. That’s a pointed contrast with the western stereotype of eastern men. Eastern tales seem to have been part of the common culture of learned persons in thirteenth-century France.

The cleric Jacques de Vitry included a version of this story in his Sermons for particular weekdays and ordinary days {Sermones Feriales et Communes} as Sermon 15, “About Aristotle and Alexander’s wife {De Aristotile et uxore Alexandri}.” He composed these sermons while serving as the Cardinal of Tusculum between 1229 and 1240. According to Jacques de Vitry’s account, when Alexander discovered Aristotle allowing Alexander’s wife to ride him as a horse, Aristotle shrewdly explained:

Now surely you must consider how faithfully I was watching out for your youthfulness. If indeed the malice and cunning of the woman so prevailed that she deceived and held an old man captive, one who is the most prudent of mortals, and who has argued with many great masters, it demonstrated to me how much more power she might have over you to deceive, allure, and defraud, unless you beware through my example.

{ Nunc pro certo perpendere debes, quod fideliter adolescencie tue consului. Si enim versucia mulieris et malicia tantum prevaluit, quod senem et prudentissimum inter omnes mortales decepti et captivum duxit, et qui multis et magnis conclusi magistris michi conclusit: quanto magis te decipere, allicere et circumvenire prevaleret, nisi exemplo meo tibi caveres. }

Latin text from Greven (1914) p. 16, English translation (modified slightly) from Arrathoon (1984) pp. 293-4, which translates the full sermon.

A thirteenth-century German version names Alexander’s mistress as “Fillus” (Phyllis). Sarton (1930) p. 10. The tale and matriarchy figure subsequently became widely known in medieval Europe as “Alexander and Phyllis.” Recent scholarly advances, in accordance with dominant ideology, have tended to transform the name to “Phyllis and Alexander.”

Matheolus, who was a keen student of the leading medieval writer Marie de France, referred to the story of Phyllis and Aristotle in his Latin Lamentations, Bk. I, ll. 463-503. Van Hamel (1892) pp. 33-36. Matheolus includes details, including that of Aristotle with a bridle under his beard, not included in d’Andeli’s tale.

Johann Herolt (d. 1468), also called Discipulus, included a version as an exemplum in Latin in his Promptuarium Exemplorum and attributed it to Jacques de Vitry. Here is Herolt’s Latin text and an English translation (with added fairy-tale opening and closing).

[7] Id. pp. 172-3, 175-6 (inc. previous quote).

[8] Writing from a position of academic prominence about the time of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, George Sarton concluded his study of the matriarchy figure:

The candid and ingenious clerk who had the idea seven hundred years ago of bringing an old story up-to-date and giving new zest to it by changing a Muslim vizir into a Greek philosopher, did not do so without a good purpose. He wanted to put his brethren on guard against their greatest peril. This warning is just as timely to-day as it ever was. If the infallible Master failed as ignominiously, any excess of confidence in ourselves is mere foolishness. We must not feel too secure in our virtue, nor ever take our salvation for granted, for we are all the time surrounded by dangerous creatures.

Sarton (1930) pp. 18-9. By dangerous creatures Sarton poetically refers to men’s natural selves.

[9] Smith (1995) misinterprets candid representation of men’s subservience to women as “the Power of Women topos.” That fundamental interpretative error has been prevalent in scholarly work in recent decades.

Medieval men protested against women insisting on ruling over men. The biblical book Genesis poignantly taught Jews and Christians the equal human dignity of women and men. Medieval Christian doctrine insisted that marriage be a conjugal partnership, not the men-abasing sexual feudalism of courtly love. Nonetheless, men’s equality to women wasn’t generally recognized. A work of men’s sexed protest from no later than early-thirteenth-century Europe complained about women’s rule over men: “She wants to be lady-lord over her lord {domini vult esse domina}.” About not getting married {De coniuge non ducenda} J4.4, Latin text from Rigg (1986) p. 88, my English translation. Rigg translated “domini vult esse domina” as “(she) rules the roost in his domain.” The phrase “his domain” is an interpretive translation based on fundamental misunderstanding of the medieval European gender order. The home wasn’t the husband’s domain. It was the wife’s domain.

[10] Crocker (2003) p. 195. In Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, a wife climbs on her husband’s back to move up into a tree, where she has sex with her lover. The wife then convinces the husband that his sight of that act was false. Men’s inferiority in guile was well-recognized in medieval literature.

[images] (1) Woodcut of Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533). Size 41 x 29 cm. Published in Sarton (1930) and a German journal in 1897. This woodcut was not originally labeled “Aristotle and Phyllis.” Id. provides a review of the iconography and five images. (2) Woman riding man. Hand-colored photograph c. 1880s, made into a postcard by A. Block, Le Moulin Rouge, Paris. From the collection of Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), professor of psychiatry at Graz and Vienna. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, preserved as photo number L0028609, library reference Archives and Manuscripts PP/KEB/E/6/5. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Arrathoon, Leigh A. 1984. “Jacques de Vitry, the Tale of Calogrenant, La Chastelaine de Vergi, and the genres of medieval narrative fiction.” Ch. 9 (pp. 281-368) in Arrathoon, Leigh A. The Craft of Fiction: essays in medieval poetics. Rochester, MI: Solaris Press.

Brook, Leslie C. and Glyn S. Burgess. 2011. Henri de Valenciennes: The Lay of Aristote. Liverpool Online Series, 16. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, Department of Modern Languages and Cultures.

Cardonne, Denis Dominique. 1771. A miscellany of eastern learning: translated from Turkish, Arabian, and Persian manuscripts, in the library of the King of France. London: Printed for J. Wilkie … and B. Law (originally published in French in 1770).

Crocker, Holly A. (Holly Adryan). 2003. “Performative Passivity and Fantasies of Masculinity in the Merchant’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review. 38 (2): 178-198.

Greven, Joseph, ed. 1914. Die Exempla aus den Sermones feriales et communes des Jakob von Vitry. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

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

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

Montgomery, James E. 2005. “Al-Jahiz.” Pp. 231-242 in Cooperson, Michael, and Shawkat M. Toorawa. 2005. Arabic literary culture, 500-925. Dictionary of Literary Biography, v. 311. Detroit: Thomson Gale.

Rigg, A. G. 1986. Gawain on Marriage: the textual tradition of the De coniuge non ducenda with critical edition and translation. Toronto, Ont., Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

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

Sarton, George. 1930. “Aristotle and Phyllis.” Isis. 14 (1).

Smith, Susan L. 1995. The power of women: a topos in medieval art and literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. and trans. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

men inferior in guile and manipulation of paternity

Despite the development of cheap, accurate genetic paternity testing, most men lack this high-quality knowledge about who are their biological children.  Moreover, important legal rulings are rendered without regard for accurate paternity knowledge.  These rulings are part of public actions that deliberately obscure true paternity knowledge.  Biological paternity is fundamental to human evolution.  Why do so many men continue to remain ignorant of their true biological paternity?  The answer may be that men are inferior to women in communicative sophistication, emotional resourcefulness, and guile.

While men’s inferiority is of relatively little public concern today, it has attracted considerable attention in ancient and medieval literature.  Consider, for example, a story included in a thirteenth-century European work:

Guy found his wife in their bedroom underneath Simon, who was humping her on the edge of the bed. After that piece of work, Guy was furious. He scolded and criticized his wife, saying, “Get out, wicked woman, may God destroy you, body and soul, for your wickedness is now only too clear.” But the woman quickly contradicted her husband, replying, “Are you trying to kill me? What’s wrong with you?” And the martyr said to her, “I want a divorce.” “Uuah,” she said “why do you dare to speak such evil words to me? My father was once deluded into thinking that what you accuse me of now happened to him. He imagined that he had seen my mother behaving in a wifely manner underneath another man, but his eyesight was defective. I know that my mother died as a result of such an incident, and just so also my other female ancestors. Dear husband, tell me, where did you get such a crazy idea? Why comes this melancholy mood? Dear friend, do you want to destroy me? Do you want me to live, or to die having done no wrong and without reason? You would be a wicked man indeed. Tell me, what do you want me to do?” The poor wretch wept as he embraced her and said to her, “Sweet sister, I want you to live. If you were ever to be snatched away before a century of life, as your mother was, your death would be for me a blow too bitter.” She replied. “It is therefore necessary that you acknowledge publicly that I was never guilty of this doing, or I will die, and that’s no fable. Go, say that it was a lie and that you dreamed it, for in this way my female ancestors expired.” Against this argument the husband could find no defense, and without further delay, in the presence of their female neighbors, gossips, and cousins, he repented fully and swore that he had lied and had wrongly accused her. [1]

In this story, the wife and husband interact with remarkable emotional realism and depth of personal feeling.  Nonetheless, modern commentators treat such literature as contemptuous or hateful.  They also tend to emphasize the straight-forward moral teaching: a man should not breach a controversial issue with a woman and thus threaten her with death.[2]

Other literature similarly underscores men’s inferiority in wit and subtlety.  A story included in another thirteenth-century work describes a husband deeply worried about his wife’s sexual fidelity.  The husband purchased a caged parrot.  After the husband went out to work, his wife’s lover arrived.  The wife and the lover had sex.  Returning later, the husband ordered the parrot to tell what he saw.  The parrot told of the wife’s infidelity.  The husband, furious, left to spend the night elsewhere.  After nightfall, the wife put the parrot on the floor and poured water over its cage like rain.  With a lamp and a mirror the wife mimicked lightening, and with a grindstone, thunder.  All night long she continued to make weather.  In the morning, the husband returned to the home to get a further report from the parrot.  The parrot stated that he couldn’t see or hear anything because of the night-long storm.  The husband, with direct, contrary knowledge of that night’s weather, denounced the parrot as a liar.  The husband apologized to his wife for accusing her of infidelity and ordered the parrot to be killed.[3]  The husband’s guile thus fell far short of his wife’s.

The literature presents even two men as not equal in guile to one woman.  In this account, a wife had as a lover a high official in the king’s court.  The official-master sent a male servant to the wife to check if she was ready for a tryst.  The wife, finding the servant handsome, propositioned him.  They then had sex.  Wondering what was delaying his servant’s report, the master himself came to the house.  The servant responded to the knock on the door with panic.  The wife calmly commanded him to hide in the alcove.  Just as the master entered, the husband arrived at the door.  The wife then commanded the master to draw his sword and threaten her.  After the husband entered and saw the master with drawn sword, the master left quickly. The wife explained to her husband:

The young man in that alcove came fleeing in terror from him, and finding the door unlocked, he came in crying for help, with his master on his heels ready to murder him. He ran to me, and I stood in front of him and prevented the man from killing him. That is why the man left here insulting and threatening me. But as God is my witness, he didn’t frighten me! [4]

The wife thus described herself as a strong, independent woman.  After checking at the door that the master was gone, the husband summoned the servant from the alcove and told him that he could now safely leave.  The husband praised his wife:

You have played the role of a fine woman and you have done well, and I am very grateful to you. [5]

Just so throughout history have many good men encouraged and empowered women.  Much progress has been made, but much work remains to be done.

Achieving gender equality requires giving men true knowledge about who are their biological children.  Cheap, highly accurate genetic testing technology is readily available.  The main obstacle to its use is men’s inferiority in guile and manipulation.[6]  To encourage and empower men, good women should advocate for paternity testing as a default procedure prior to including a man’s name on a child’s birth certificate.

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[1] Jean le Fèvre, Les Lamentations de Matheolus, Bk. I, ll. 850-899, my translation from Old French, benefiting from Karen Pratt’s translation, Blamires, Pratt & Williams (1992) pp. 179-180.  Le Fèvre’s work, written in 1371-2, is an adaptation of Matheolus’s Latin work Liber lamentationum Matheoluli, written between 1295 and 1301.  Both source texts are in Van Hamel (1892) pp. 27-8.  Matheolus is also known as Mathieu of Boulogne, and by the deprecatory names Matheolulus (a self-description) and Matthew the Bigamist (he married a widow).  Le Fèvre retained the plot, but elaborated upon the husband and wife’s interaction in translating Matheolus’s text.  Here’s my English translation of Matheolus’s Latin text:

Guy sees his wife in their bedroom having sex with Simon. After that deed, Guy exclaims, “Get out, you brazen whore!” Interrupting her husband, the wife says: “My dear sweetie, what’s the problem?” He recounts what he saw. And she says: “Husband! You want a divorce?  Uuah! So it happened to my father before the death of my mother; in this way my forefathers caused the death of all my foremothers, who were innocent. What should I do? Husband, what do you say to me? Behold, I will die soon.” Pro, con, the husband ponders; But in the end he believes his wife and begins to cry. His wife says, “My dear, do you want me to live?” — “I want you to live, sweet, loyal and good sister; your death would be too bitter oh! for me to see.” “Therefore, it is necessary for you to say that you were entirely lying about this matter, or I will die soon, just as my mothers were made to die.” Calling together the neighbors, the husband swears that he lied.

A very similar story exists in Old French among the fables of Marie de France.  Marie de France’s story ends:

And so, forewarned all men should be
That women know good strategy.
They’ve more art in their craft and lies
Than all the devil can devise.

Fables, n. 45 (“The Peasant Who Saw His Wife With Her Lover”), trans. Spiegel (1987) p. 139.  Many similar codas occur in stories within the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus. Id., p. 3, suggests that Marie de France is “one of the greatest writers of the Middle Ages and one of the greatest of all women writers.”  Not surprisingly, Marie de France recognized men’s inferiority in guile.

Marie de France’s concern for men’s inferiority in guile isn’t limited to one fable.  In Marie de France’s fable collection, the fable immediately preceding “The Peasant Who Saw His Wife With Her Lover” is “The Peasant Who Saw Another With His Wife.”  In the latter fable, a wife convinces her husband to doubt the truth of his sight of her in their marital bed with another man.  The wife shows her husband his reflection in vat of water, urges him to recognize that he is not actually in the vat of water and that, likewise, she was not actually in bed with another man.  The husband defers to his wife’s insight and repudiates his sight.  The fable concludes:

Each one has best believe and know
Whatever his wife says, is so!
And not believe what false eyes see;
Their vision can be trickery!

Fables, n. 44, trans. Spiegel (1987) p. 137.  Matheolus, apparently following in Latin the lead of Marie de France in Old French, similarly groups with the above story another that concludes:

So the sight he sees shows non-sight
Thus is proved that woman can contradict seeing.

Sic visus visum nonvisum testificatur;
Ergo redargutus visus muliere probatur.

Liber lamentationum Matheoluli, Bk. 1, ll. 419-420, Van Hamel (1892), v. 1, p. 29.  The large scholarly literature on Marie de France seems not to have fully seen her contribution to Matheolus’s Lamentations.

[2] This approach, for example, pervades the collection, organization, and comments in Blamires, Pratt & Williams (1992).  For readers with understanding, the editors thus add humor to a rather tiresome collection of texts.

[3] This story is part of the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus.  Within that corpus, it is known as Avis.  The summary above is based mainly on the English translation in Keller (1956) pp. 22-24, which is based on a medieval Spanish manuscript dated 1253.

[4] Translated id. pp. 25-6.  This story, also from the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus, is known within that corpus as Gladius. The Lai of the Sparrowhawk {Le lay de l’espervier}, an Old French lai composed at the beginning of the thirteenth century, tells a version of Gladius. For the Old French text and analysis of the lai, Paris (1878). For an English translation, Burgess & Brook (2016) Ch. 16. Boccaccio’s Decameron 7.6 is another version of Gladius.

The Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus includes many other stories of men failing to recognize their wives or mistress’s guile in having sex with another.  Early Hebrew manuscripts in the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus include a story, not found elsewhere in that corpus, of men’s susceptibility to guile.  A merchant who had a beautiful wife went on a business trip to a far-off land.  While her husband was gone, the wife had trysts with her lover.  Upon returning, the husband noticed on the walls of the room “phlegm” (probably meaning watery signs of heavy breathing).  He accused his wife of adultery.  She denied the affair and declared, “no man has touched me even with his little finger.”  When her husband didn’t believe her denial, the wife said she would take an oath on the matter.  She arranged to have her unrecognized lover spill the contents of a pot in front of her as she walked to take the oath.  She then slipped and fell.  Her lover helped her up.  The wife then swore on the Holy Scroll, “no man has touched me except the man who helped me when I fell in the mud.”  The husband thus believed the wife’s denial of adultery.  The story, in Hebrew and English translation, is available in Epstein (1967) pp. 251-7.  A similar story occurs in the twelfth-century French romance of Tristan and Iseult.  Id. pp. 22-3.  A similar story also exists in a Turkish manuscript that was in the library of the King of France prior to 1770.  Cardonne (1771), “The Wife Justified,” pp. 32-41.

[5] Keller (1956) p. 26. Early in the fifteenth century, the great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini recorded a version of the story. See Poggio, Facetiae 267, “The clever scheme of a Florentine woman caught in the act {Callida consilia Florentinae foeminae in facinore deprehensae},” Latin text with English translation available in Poggio (1879).

Blamires, Pratt & Williams (1992), p. 130, declares that such fabliaux express “admiration for the ingenuity shown by the women in circumventing sexually unattractive, possessive husbands.” That view shows insufficient appreciation for men’s inferiority and women’s guile.  Women deserve more credit.  Under current regulation of paternity, women can not only circumvent sexually unattractive, possessive husbands, but actually have the force of the state compel the husband to make monthly payments to support his wife’s lover’s child.  Not surprisingly given the book’s failure to appreciate fully women, a review of Blamires, Pratt & Williams (1992) declared:

a feminist perspective does not always inform the editorial commentary, a consideration for faculty using the text in women’s studies courses. … Given this unevenness in perspective, a teacher using the book as a classroom text might want to prepare for additional feminist analysis.

Newlyn (1994) p. 142.

[6] Another medieval text declares that woman’s ingenuity surpasses men’s acuity.  From the fabliau “Le Chevalier a la Corbeille” (The Knight of the Basket), ll. 15-16, surviving in Old French in the manuscript Harley 2253 (copied in 1340).  The fabliau is available in Old French and English translation in Revard (2005) pp. 117-123.  New technology that allows men to see better the truth about paternity is of no value if personal and social forces prevent it from being used.  Technology is not a good substitute for guile.


Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Men impugned, woman defamed and woman defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 2016. Twenty-Four Lays from the French Middle Ages. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Cardonne, Denis Dominique. 1771. A miscellany of eastern learning: translated from Turkish, Arabian, and Persian manuscripts, in the library of the King of France. London: Printed for J. Wilkie … and B. Law (originally published in French in 1770).

Epstein, Morris. 1967. Tales of Sendebar. An edition and translation of the Hebrew version of the Seven sages, based on unpublished manuscripts. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Keller, John Esten. 1956. The book of the wiles of women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Newlyn, Evelyn S. 1994. “Review. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts.” NWSA Journal {National Women Studies Association Journal}. 6 (1): 141-144.

Paris, Gaston. 1878. “Le lai de l’épervier.” Romania. 7: 1-21.

Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

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

Spiegel, Harriet, trans. 1987. Marie de France. Fables. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. and trans. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.