seven sages in interactive medieval parody

we are seven: seven sages parody

Honor for seven sages (known by name and not much more) has been part of European culture since classical Greece.  By the sixteenth century, medieval Europe had developed an interactive variant of the seven sages.  This variant was known under the catchphrase “we are seven.”  It consisted of a print showing six foolish, incongruous, and stupid persons and animals.  The viewer made up the seventh.

The print above is from London about 1805.  In it “a clown holding a pig stands beside a woman riding astride an ass with a monkey on her shoulders and an owl perched on her left hand.”[1]  Similar iconography exists in a print made in Amsterdam c. 1695.  In ancient Greek iconography, an owl accompanied Athena, the goddess of wisdom.  The interactive print “we are seven” seems to be a parody of the seven sages.[2]  Wisdom wasn’t beyond laughter.

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[1] From the image description for hand-colored etching, “Behold the Strangest Groupe under Heaven, of Oddities, we just make Seven,” Print made by: Piercy Roberts; Published by: Piercy Roberts. British Museum, 209, 7032.1.

[2] Some surviving “we are seven” prints from the seventeenth century don’t include the owl, but instead have a formally sophisticated arrangement of three asses and three riders.  See, e.g. “Unser sind Siben / Nous sommes Sept,” Amsterdam, c. 1650.  Another variant is “we are three,” showing two persons/animals.  See, e.g. “Search the World you’ll seldom see – Hansomer Folks than we three” (London, 1775), and “We Three Logerhds {Loggerheads}” (England, c. 1650).  Factors other than a parody of the seven sages evidently also contributed to this class of viewer-included, satirical depictions.

La Dame Escoilliee: medieval superhero defeats matriarchy

In short comic tales in Old French verse from about the thirteenth century, ordinary women and men scheme and trick in usual human ways.  These fabliaux are usually comical within realistic plausibility.  The fabliau La Dame Escoilliee, in contrast, presents a medieval superhero in comic-book action. With extraordinary feats, this superhero defeats a particularly oppressive matriarchy in medieval life.

Robin Hood, superheroThe fabliau opens with a scene of conventional betadom, which is just another way of describing matriarchy.  A rich, noble knight is having marital troubles:

because he so loved his wife,
he raised her even over him
and let her govern at her whim
all that he had. Household and lands,
he put it all in her hands,
which so debased him in her sight
and cheapened him that if the knight
said yes, she would say no instead [1]

The new applied game theory has conclusively established what this fabliau advised men nearly a millennium ago:

you ought not to carry out
whatever your wives bid you do;
they’ll only think the less of you.

Men, by nature and nurture, seek to please women.  Yet as we have learned in recent decades, human history is one long, sad story of men failing to please women effectively.  The medieval world, like our world today, yearns for a superhero to overturn male betadom and to make women happy with joyful, exuberant love.

La Dame Escoilliee describes a fantasy super-hero who establishes a new, fantasy world free from matriarchy.  The fabliau provides the usual romantic-epic motifs.  Hunting, thunder, lightning, nightfall.  A count and his companions seek shelter at the home of another noble.  That man mysteriously demurs: “I do not dare … I can’t.”  He is a lord, but one without will and person because of the dominance of his wife.  He explains:

I’m just a coat she wears for rain;
she does her will, but never mine.
If it’s my will, she will decline.

The first super-heroic act is subtle.  Simply through the count addressing this man with respect for his person, the man’s person is activated.  He realizes that he can will events in his household by stating the opposite.  He refuses the count lodgings.  His wife then invites the count in and gives him lodgings and a feast.  He refuses to have his daughter join them for the feast.  His wife then leads the daughter in.  The count falls in love with the daughter and asks for her hand in marriage.  The man refuses the count’s request for marriage.  His wife then gives the count their daughter’s hand.  The man has actually effected his true will.  Yet within his own home he is still deprived of the non-instrumental dignity and respect of a person.  The count, not yet recognized as a superhero, has more work to do.

The count subsequently establishes clearly his superhero credentials.  He orders two hounds to catch a hare before it crosses two fields.  The hounds get the hare after four fields.  That’s not good enough to satisfy a superhero.  The count strikes off their heads with a blow of his sword.  Shortly thereafter, with another blow of his sword, he cuts off the head of his horse.  Only an imaginary man could do such acts.

The count’s superhero status is also established geopolitically.  One of the count’s servants is described as a Moor.  When the count gives a command, “The Moor immediately obeyed.”  Moor in medieval Europe meant a dark-skilled Muslim from the rich, highly cultured, and powerful Muslim lands that extended for centuries from northern Africa to present-day Pakistan.  In thirteenth-century France, having Muslims as subservient people was a Christian superhero fantasy.

While imaginary, this superhero is nonetheless immersed in the details of his kitchen.  For the wedding feast of the count and the daughter, the count provides specific directions to his cook:

He summons his cook and confers
with him and lets him know what flavors
on this occasion he most favors
and with what highly seasoned sauces
to fête his people, …

Following her mother’s instructions, the daughter-bride subsequently enters the kitchen and tells the cook:

“See to it that there’s not one course
where garlic doesn’t dominate,
but lavish care on every plate.”
“I wouldn’t dare.” “You’ll do just this.
Be sure he won’t take it amiss
if he knows it was my desire;
and you must do as I require.
I can advance you or undo you.”

The daughter seeks to establish the normal household matriarchy under which most men live.  Whatever the wife desires, must be.  After all, an unhappy wife means an unhappy life.

The superhero count, however, is unafraid to stand up for his own preferred seasonings.  After the distasteful feast, he summons his cook for questioning.  The cook confesses that he doused all the dishes with garlic because he was afraid to defy the wife’s wishes.  That is not an acceptable excuse to the count.  The count plucks out the cook’s eye, cuts off his hand and ear, and exiles him, never to return.[2]  The count then beats his wife nearly to death.  But he keeps her within the home and takes care that she will heal.  As remains the case today, violence against men is more severe and more frequent than violence against women.  In this fabliau, as in life, violence against men is also less noticed.[3]  The wife repents her act and gives her word that she will not establish the normal matriarchy.  What subsequently happens to the cook isn’t mentioned.

Up to this point in the fabliau, the husband of the wife’s mother remains under jackbooted matriarchy.  But the superhero count steps in to perform an extraordinary fantasy feat.  The count orders his Moor to cut off a bull’s testicles and bring them to him.  The count then declares that he will physically emasculate the wife’s mother.  That action parallels her personal evisceration of her husband.  The count’s servants hold the lady down and expose her ass.  A servant cuts her buttocks and pretends to pull out the bull’s balls.  After the count threatens a cauterization to prevent the balls from growing back, the lady declares:

… Have mercy, lord!
In loyalty I give my word,
on relics I will gladly swear
against my lord never to dare
speak out, but serve him as is fit.
Yes, on my oath I promise it.

The count has mercy on the woman.  Her husband, like many men lacking appreciation for guile, believes the count’s tale of what happened.  So too have literally believed many scholars who have written about this fabliau.  All are solicitous for the welfare of the woman.  They bind her wounds and lovingly carry her home on a gurney.  Because she is rich, she has an excellent physician.  She recovers her health.  But now, when her husband says something, she agrees.  The superhero count has freed the husband from matriarchy.[4]

The superhero saved only one man.  The superhero and his fabliau acts do not represent reality.  Matriarchy endures.[5]  Unruly readers with a sense of humor at least have the pleasure of laughter.

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[1] La Dame Escoilliee, trans. from Old French in Dubin (2013) pp. 407-439.  Id. also provides an Old French text.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from id.

[2] These are punishments in Hebrew and Christian scripture.

[3] Lacy (1993), p. 109, ignores the injuries to the male cook but notes “viciously slashing her thighs without benefit of anesthetic.”  After reading a fairy tale, such readers search for pixie dust in their backyards.

[4] Scholars have typically responded to the literature of men’s sexed protests with efforts to shame, silence, and subordinate men.  For example, consider this analysis of La Dame Escoilliee for the learned we:

Unless we happen to share the narrator’s misogyny, we are not likely to find this fabliau very funny or even very pleasant.  I confess that I do not {how daring!}; this text provides a severe test of scholarly detachment.  Nonetheless, the fact that we may find the subject repugnant should not prevent us from reading the work in its own terms and appreciating the construction of the tale

This scholar concludes his analysis of La Dame Escoilliee with a moderate and balanced consideration of antifeminism:

Critical circumspection is required here, and detailed analysis of individual texts must replace the sort of wholesale generalizations that fill many manuals. … In the fabliaux, we cannot expect to find feminist manifestos {how disappointing!} ….  But if it is a striking understatement to say that, in general, the authors of these works do not hold women in particularly high esteem, it is also true that, in some fabliaux, questions of antifeminism are simply irrelevant.  In others, poets simply take for granted traditional assumptions regarding the proper role or the nature of women … we should not assign {these fabliaux} to the same general category of “antifeminism” that we reserve for texts into which an author inserts categorical condemnations of women, or for those rare texts that present an unmistakable hatred of women behind a thin veil of humor.

Lacy (1993) pp. 67, 76-7.  That’s a literary judgment in the spirit of Mayor Peter Stockmann in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.  It is of course preferable to R. Howard Bloch’s viciously misandristic invocations of misogyny. See, e.g., post on gender symmetry in love, note [4].

[5] La Dame Escoilliee, in the Old French text that Dubin (2013) judges best (MS. Paris, B.N. fonds fraincais 19152), concludes:

Here is the moral of this fabliau:
Cursed be the woman who hates men!

Trans. Lacy (1993), p. 110. That conclusion over-generalizes from matriarchy to misandry.  Id., following conventional lines of interpretation, declares that conclusion to be “a remarkable demonstration of tortured misogynist logic.”  Dubin (2013)’s translation of those two lines invokes God and makes the reason for cursing woman more misandristic:

such is the moral of our text
God curse the wife who disrespects

{Old French: teus est de cest flabel la some.
Dahet feme qui despit home!}

Id. pp. 438-9. The effect is to deflect attention from matriarchy and misandry.

[image] Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood in the 1922 United Artists film Robin Hood.


Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

Lacy, Norris J. 1993. Reading fabliaux. New York: Garland Pub.

COB-84: Shi Miao exemplified bureaucratic virtue

Shi Miao, illustrious bureaucrat

Bureaucrats should study their illustrious ancestors for guidance in virtue and proper procedure.  Shi Miao is one such worthy figure.  He served as a bureaucrat in the Shouchun prefecture in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BGC to 220 GC).  Having lived in impoverished circumstances, he came to his bureaucratic seat wearing an old robe and driving a rickety cart that a female ox pulled.  That ox birthed a calf about a year after Shi Miao arrived in Shouchun.  When Shi Miao finished his term of office, he gave the ox calf to the people of Shouchun.  He explained:

When I came here I did not have this calf.  It was born here south of the River Huai, and it has grown big eating the grass and drinking the water of Shouchun, none of which had anything to do with me.

Note that Shi Miao did not gave the calf to the people of Shouchun because of his generosity or concern for their welfare.  He gave them the calf as a result of accurate accounting of grass and water used.  Virtuous bureaucrats keep detailed accounts and make decisions based on historical records.

In other bureaucratic issues, bureaucratic morale in the U.S. Navy continues to sink as highly successful operational procedures are abandoned based on flighty or earthy reasoning.  U.S. Navy commands have been sent in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS SINCE THE 1850S, OR SO THE STORY IMPLAUSIBLY GOES (typewriters weren’t commercially successful until the 1870s).  SENDING MESSAGES IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS HAS ACCOMPANIED THE U.S. NAVY’S RISE TO A SUPERPOWER ON THE SEA.  IGNORING THAT SUCCESS, THE NAVY HAS RECENTLY ORDERED MESSAGES TO BE MIXED UP WITH UPPER AND LOWER CASES.  JIM HUNT REPORTED THE ORDER:



Unfortunately, the problems at sea are being reduplicated again and again.  Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, has erected “6 tips to screw business meetings as usual.”  Virgin Group should not be in the business of screwing, even if it usually has been.  For Virgin Group to move forward to the next stage of development, it needs to embrace meetings.  Meetings bring people together and perpetuate the existence of organizations.

Goldman Sach’s recent investment in gaming shows that gaming is an important growth area for bureaucracy.  Goldman funded a high-tech, bureaucratically intensive scavenger hunt called Midnight Madness.  Game control, which is another name for bureaucracy, played a key role in the enterprise:

A lot of player behavior is driven by mistrust of the 34 people running the game, who are collectively known as Game Control. The parsimony with which Game Control dispenses information had historically been merciless, and the latest Midnight Madness was similar. … Most players’ default assumption was that Game Control was trying to double-cross them.

Game control makes the game, and bureaucracy makes the business.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

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[image] “Leaving the Calf Behind,” China, Ming Dynasty, handscroll, ink on paper, Freer Gallery, F1916.405.  The relevant quotation above is from the image label for the scroll in the Freer Gallery.

La Saineresse displays malice toward cuckolded men

In La Saineresse, an Old French fabliau from the twelfth or thirteenth century, a man had the temerity to challenge women’s superiority in guile.  The man boasted that no woman could deceive him.  That boast annoyed his wife.  The husband’s boast was just transgressive words, but the wife rehashed those words to herself and became deeply offended.[1]  The wife resolved to put her husband in his (properly subservient) place.

we three loggerheads (dolts)

One day a rogue dressed as a woman and pretending to be a doctor arrived at the home.  The wife, who had summoned the doctor, evidently was in on the ruse.  The doctor asked the wife, “tell me your pleasure.”[2]  The wife asked to the doctor to come upstairs with her for awhile, for she needed “professional assistance.”  Upstairs, the wife and the doctor had sex.  Then:

When they’d had all the fun they wished,
Screwed, embraced, and hugged, and kissed,
They rose and went downstairs again. [3]

The husband, oblivious to the nature of the doctor’s treatment, urged his wife to pay the doctor well.  Evidently she controlled their purse.  The wife sharply told her husband to mind his own business.  The false doctor then left without the wife paying him.

The wife’s malice toward her husband went further than cuckolding him.  She also ingeniously described to her husband in intimate detail her having sex with the doctor.  The wife’s purported problem was with her kidneys, and the doctor’s pretextual treatment was the common ancient medical practice of bleeding the patient.[4]  The wife’s trick was to use equivocal language that her husband lacked the wit to understand fully:

I strained as hard as a woman could.
A hundred strokes. It did no good.
I couldn’t bleed. She thumped me till
My flesh was as soft as dough, and still
I didn’t bleed a single drop.
Three times she took me, and atop
My loins she placed two heavy tools
And struck me blows so long and cruel
I felt the pangs of martyrdom,
But not a drop of blood would come.

The account climaxed with the application of an ointment:

When all the hammerings had ceased,
This easeful ointment she applied
Upon my wounds both deep and wide
Until it cured me of my ache.
This medicine was good to take.

Adding to her description of the erect penis as a tool of welcomed violence, the wife also described it as ugly and crude:

This ointment issued from a dropper
Down through a pinhole in a stopper
That was grotesque and dark and rude.
But glory be, the salve felt good! [5]

The husband responded ignorantly and sympathetically: “My dear, I fear you must have almost died.”  The wife delighted in gulling him sexually and verbally.  Male and female scholars explicating this fabliau have found similar delight.[6]

Not merely the matter of a fabliau, malice toward cuckolded men is a deep feature of human social life.  That some women and men behave with malice towards others is widely known through personal experience.  That some men and women are utter dupes is also widely known.  Less commonly recognized is that the force of law has long imposed legal fictions of paternity on cuckolded men.  If the wife gives birth to a child from having sex with someone other than her husband, the husband is often still responsible legally for the child.  Law-based cuckolding of men has been extended to impose financial obligations on unmarried men who falsely believe a woman’s claim of sexual fidelity.  The legal system of malice toward cuckolded men shows the extent to which women’s interests socially dominate men’s.

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[1] In La Saineresse, ll. 5-6, the wife “en parla priveement & en jura .i. serement…” DuVal & Eichmann (1992), The Lady Leech, p. 60, translates those lines as “The more she pondered it, the more / she was annoyed.  At last she swore….”  Dubin (2013), The Healer, p. 525, translates these lines as she “spoke about it on the sly, / swearing an oath….”  The wife’s “private” discussion of her husband’s boasting and the wife’s “swearing an oath” seem to me best interpreted as internal, figurative acts.  They suggest her inner disturbance at her husband’s boasting.  DuVal & Eichmann’s translation better captures that sense.  The French text is available online in Barbazan & Méon (1808), v. 3, pp. 451-4.

[2] My translation of La Saineresse, l. 30, “Or me dites vostre plesire.” DuVal & Eichmann (1992) p. 60, translates this as “What are you wanting me to do?”

[3] Trans. DuVal & Eichmann (1992) p. 61.  Subsequent quotes are from id. p. 62.

[4] The title of the fabliau, La Saineresse, means in context a female member of the medical bleeding profession, or more humorously, a “lady leech.”  The saineresse (doctor) arrived equipped with “a kit of tubes and bleeding cups.”  The kidneys in medieval understanding were a source of sexual desire.  The wife told the doctor that she suffered from “goute es rains mout merveillouse.”  That’s literally sickness (gout) in the kidneys.  The meaning of the phrase “goute es rains” covers a lower-back ache and sexual yearning.  A more direct term for the later is the closely related term “goute en l’aine” (itchy loins).  Levy (2000) p. 223, p. 230, n. 46.

[5] The fabliau Le Peschor de Pont-Sur-Seine (The Fisherman of Pont-Sur-Seine) similarly explores a wife’s contradictory feelings and actions in relation to her husband’s genitals.  The wife describes her husband’s genitals as repugnant: “your little hanging bit of bowel.  There’s nothing else I find more foul.”  Trans. Dubin (2013) p. 443.  Most literary scholars seem to interpret such an attitude toward male genitals as natural.  At the same time, they describe the fabliaux as a celebration of the phallus, marred by occasional antifeminism.

[6] The wife’s treatment of her husband is “deserved punishment.” DuVal & Eichmann (1992), prefatory note, p. 60.  A leading scholar of fabliaux has declared:

The story is funny enough in itself, though crude, but placed in the courtly context it gains a third level of reference that makes it even more witty.

Nykrog (1974) p. 68.  According to another leading scholar of fabliaux, the wife’s description of her experience with the doctor, including her description of the man’s penis, “catches something of the quintessence of fabliau humor.”  Pearcy (1974) p. 180. A newly minted literature Ph.D. described that passage as “so delicious.”  Regarding the wife’s delight in energetic extra-pair sex, the new literature doctor diagnosed:

This overabundance of frustration is obviously due to the fact that the bourgeois {her husband} is not fulfilling his husbandly duties. … She has obviously exercised some restraint in not cheating on him before.

Horton (2007) pp. 232-3.

[image] We Three Loggerheads (dolts), painting, thought to be from c. 1650, held in Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Museum, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.  In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the clown Feste refers to a picture of “we three.”  Act. 2, Scene 3, line 16.  Similar prints appeared earlier in continental Europe.  See Jones (2010) pp. 503-4.


Barbazan, Étienne, and Méon. 1808. Fabliaux et contes des poetes françois des 11,12,13,14, et 15e siecles, tirés des meilleurs auteurs Nouv. éd., augm. et rev. sur les manuscrits de la Bibliotheque impériale. Paris: B. Warée.

Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

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

Horton, Ingrid D. 2007.  Engendering Vice: The Exemplarity of the Old French Fabliaux.  Ph.D. Thesis.  Program in French and Italian. University of Kansas.

Jones, Malcolm. 2010.  “The English Broadside Print, c. 1550 – c. 1650.” Pp. 478-526 in Hattaway, Michael. 2010. A new companion to English Renaissance literature and culture. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Levy, Brian J. 2000. The comic text: patterns and images in the Old French fabliaux. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Nykrog, Per. 1974. “Courtliness and the Townspeople: The Fabliaux as a Courtly Burlesque.” Pp. 59-74 in Thomas Darlington Cooke and Benjamin L. Honeycutt, eds. 1974. The humor of the fabliaux: a collection of critical essays. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Pearcy, Roy J. 1974. “Modes of Signification and the Humor of Obscene Diction in the Fabliaux.” Pp. 163-196 in Thomas Darlington Cooke and Benjamin L. Honeycutt, eds. 1974. The humor of the fabliaux: a collection of critical essays. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.