chivalry distorted through medieval European romances

later medieval idea of chivalry: knight on horse

Chivalry today tends to be associated with men giving up their lives to save women.  Or men cowering in the back of an elevator, like blacks segregated in the back of buses in the American Old South, waiting for women to get out first.  These ideas of chivalry are thought to have developed and spread from the twelfth century in medieval European romances.  In fact, the original idea of chivalry has an older, more romantic history.

In the late-eighth-century Arabic text Bilauhar and Budasaf, the chivalric hero was a fearless, unfailing, indivertible lover.  He was a warrior with a wife of superior beauty.  He was also a jealous man.  He feared that another was seeking to seduce his wife because of her beauty and youthfulness.  The warrior said to his wife:

I have a jealous enemy, who will attack you and will use all his efforts to prevent me from enjoying the blessing that God has given me in your person, and he will seek to seduce you.  Be then on guard.  If ever wells up in your heart desire for some man, do not fail to let your hair fall down on your ears, so that I know.  If then I don’t come to satisfy your need welling up in your heart, you have permission to obey Satan. [1]

One day an enemy attacked their village.  The husband-warrior donned his armor and went out to join the other warriors fighting the enemy.  But the husband-warrior’s wife caused him to turn back:

she felt in herself the moving of sexual desire, and she let her hair fall down on her ears.  Seeing this, he turned back to her, although his warrior-companions were calling and urging him, and made love to her.  Then he left to join them.

The surviving text states that the sight of her husband fully armed stimulated his wife’s sexual desire.  But clues within the tale suggests an adaptation of a more daring tale.  In the source, the sight of young, handsome enemy warriors probably stimulated the wife’s sexual desire.[2]  In any case, the husband’s companions reproached him for being late to battle:

They said to him, “Have you turned back in the face of the enemy?” He replied, “I was fighting an enemy within, who is for me the enemy closest to my house and the most difficult to vanquish. I have thus preferred to start the fighting with him!” [3]

The enemy within was the wife’s unsatisfied sexual desire.  The hero-husband vanquished the enemy by having sex with his wife.  Being always ready and willing to have sex with one’s wife was the understanding of chivalry before the spinning of medieval European romances.[4]

This humane understanding of chivalry was sliced out of the main stream of European medieval history.  About the ninth century, the Arabic Bilauhar and Budasaf was translated in Georgian.  The Georgian version retained the tale of the chivalric warrior, commonly called the tale of the amorous wife.  A late-tenth-century Greek translation from the Georgian version eliminated the tale of the chivalric warrior.  That Greek text generated versions of Barlaam and Josaphat in most western Eurasian languages.[5]  Most European readers of Barlaam and Josaphat thus missed Bilauhar and Budasaf’s humane understanding of chivalry.

A few centuries after this humane understanding of chivalry was killed, a death-embracing, man-degrading idea of chivalry arose in western Europe.  Buddha wept.  Saint Josaphat flagellated himself.  European civilization must embrace enlightenment.

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[1] Bilauhar and Budasaf, trans. from Arabic into French, Gimaret (1971) p. 197, my translation into English. A woman letting down her hair was an ancient Greek gesture of lament:

women conventionally let down their hair while lamenting. This spontaneous but traditional gesture is an express of loss of control and order in one’s personal life.

Nagy (2013) p. 81 (3§16). Loss of order and control is sensibly associated with sexual desire.

[2] After the couple established the signal, the tale states:

Well, the man {warrior-husband} was young and beautiful, and full of confidence in himself.  So she {his wife} was made for a time not interested in any other man but her husband.

Bilauhar and Budasaf, trans. from Arabic into French, Gimaret (1971) p. 197, my translation into English.  This line points in a narrative direction of the husband becoming older and less beautiful, and then the wife finding another young, beautiful man stimulating her sexual desire.  Enemy warriors who came to their village could be such men.  The Arabic text may have modified the story to protect the wife from a depiction of her extramarital sexual interest.  That of course is a preliminary step towards the later medieval and modern idea of chivalry, and the associated increase in the population of manboobs.

[3] Id. (previous three quotes above). The Trojan King Priam suspected that the renowned warrior Achilles, once married to his daughter Polyxena, would be preoccupied with the tradition concern of chivalry:

Let us assume, however, that he {Achilles} will love Polyxena and think the world of her. He will sit at home all day with his new bride, not wanting to know if there is a war stirring. When desire concentrates the whole mind upon itself, care for other concerns is set at rest. What then shall we do, Trojans, when the Achaeans attack? We shall say, presumably, “He was married only the other day, we can forgive him for staying with his wife.” The only alternative will be to shout for him and go to hammer on the door of his house.

Choricius of Gaza, Declamation 2.60-1, from Greek trans. D. A. Russell in Penella (2009) p. 82.

[4] The original understanding of chivalry endured primarily in the metaphor of sexual intercourse as horse-riding. For example, an Old French lyric recorded early in the thirteenth century sings:

Renaut and his love are riding in a meadow,
he rides all night until the bright day.

{ Renaus et samie chevauche par
un pre.totenuit chevauche ius. }

Jean Renart, Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole {Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole} lyric following v. 2388, Old French text and English translation from Psaki (1995).

[5] Bilauhar and Budasaf mainly describes the life of Buddha.  Lang (1966) is an English translation of the early Georgian text.  For the text of the chivalric warrior, see id. pp. 142-3.  The Georgian text refers to the warrior-husband as a knight.  Woodward, Ratcliffe & Mattingly (1914) is an English translation of the early Greek version.  In the adaptation Barlaam and Josaphat, Buddha became Josaphat.  From early medieval times, Christians recognized Josaphat as a Christian saint.

Some tales from Barlaam and Josaphat were well-known in medieval Europe. For example, Chapter 12 of Barlaam and Josaphat includes a tale of a man fleeing a unicorn and falling into a pit. The man foolishly ignored his perilous circumstances and focused on the sweetness of drops of honey. That tale exists as Tale 148 in Gesta Romanorum. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 319-20. Gesta Romanorum was broadly disseminated in fourteenth-century Europe.


Gimaret, Daniel, ed. and trans. 1971. Le Livre de Bilawhar et Budasf: selon la version arabe ismaélienne. Genève: Paris, Droz.

Lang, David Marshall, ed. and trans. 1966. The Balavariani (Barlaam and Josaphat). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nagy, Gregory. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Penella, Robert J., ed. 2009. Rhetorical exercises from late antiquity: a translation of Choricius of Gaza’s Preliminary talks and declamations. Cambridge: Cambridge Cambridge University Pres.

Psaki, Regina, ed. and trans. 1995. The Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole (Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole). New York: Garland Publishing.

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

Woodward, George Ratcliffe, and Harold Mattingly, trans. 1914. St. John Damascene: Barlaam and Ioasaph. London: W. Heinemann.

Ali ibn al-Shah's introduction to Kalilah and Dimnah

Probably about the thirteenth century, the book Kalilah and Dimnah gained an additional introduction written under the name Ali ibn al-Shah the Persian.  Apart from this introduction, nothing is known about Ali ibn al-Shah, who may also have had the Persian name Bahnud ibn Sahwan.[1]  This introduction has been understood as presenting the theme “scholars are fundamental to society.”[2]  It is a truly fantastic narrative.

Ali ibn al-Shah’s introduction encompasses learned and highly cultured ancient civilizations.  The introduction enumerates world leaders as the rulers of China, India, Persia, and the Greek world.[3]  It tells the story of an Indian scholar and royal counselor writing Kalilah and Dimnah in India.  The Indian scholar explicitly warned against allowing a Persian king to acquire Kalilah and Dimnah.  The introduction then described Borzuya acquiring Kalilah and Dimnah for Persian King Khusraw Anushirwan.  Despite being written late in the Islamic Abbasid caliphate, the introduction includes no Islamic or Abbasid context.

Ali ibn al-Shah’s introduction associates Kalilah and Dimnah with the shrewd trickery of world-conqueror Alexander the Great.  The introduction begins with an account of Alexander the Great conquering India.  The account is taken from pseudo-Callisthenes’ Alexander Romance.[4]  It describes Alexander craftily constructing molten brass cavalry to rout the Indian king’s elephants.  It also describes Alexander, in individual combat with the Indian king, tricking him into turning around and making himself vulnerable to Alexander’s mortal blow.  Such tricks are the type of behavior that many tales in Kalilah and Dimnah celebrate.  After his victory, Alexander set up a vicegerent to rule India.  The Indians subsequently revolted against the vicegerent and established their own king, Dabshalim.  Dabshalim ruled tyrannically.  According to Ali ibn al-Shah’s introduction, Kalilah and Dimnah originated from leading Indian scholar Baydaba’s response to Dabshalim’s tyrannical rule.

Fully recognizing the potential dangers and against the advice of his pupils, the scholar Baydaba resolved to tell King Dabshalim of his errors in ruling tyrannically.  Baydaba entered the King’s presence and deferentially prostrated before him.  Baydaba then remained silent.  The King broke the silence with lavish praise for scholars in general.  The King declared:

In my opinion, scholars have greater credit in the kingdom for their wisdom than monarch have for their governance.  Wise man are richer than rulers by virtue of their wealth of knowledge alone, while rulers are not richer than wise men by virtue of their material wealth alone.  …
He who does not respect scholars, show them the utmost generosity and reverence, recognize their superior importance, protect them in weakness and shield them from disgrace, must have lost his mind and forgotten the purpose of his life.  He has slighted the dignity of such wise men, and belongs back among the ignorant multitude. [5]

This speech isn’t well-motivated.  It seems to express in general terms the ambition and frustration of a scholar serving a king.  Ali ibn al-Shah may have been such a person.

King Dabshalim did not initially heed his own expressed opinion of scholars.  After the King’s opening speech praising scholars and after the King subsequently invited him to speak, Baydaba praised the King and respectfully reviewed at length virtues and ancient wisdom.  Then Baydaba stated:

you have not executed your duties truthfully and efficiently.  Instead, injustice has been the norm.  You have acted unfairly, arrogantly tyrannized your subjects throughout the kingdom, and thereby damaged your legacy among your people and made them live in unbearable fear.  It would have been more becoming of you to emulate your ancestors, and follow their path in governing this kingdom.  It would have been more appropriate had you emulated their good deeds and refrained from embracing shameful and dishonorable actions.  It is with kindness and care, not oppression, that you might have captured the respect of your people.

Baydaba concluded by declaring his loyal and disinterested service as a scholar and royal counselor:

I ask you, O King, to consider deeply what I have laid before you.  I must repeat that my intention was not to provoke you, nor to ask for relief from any private affliction.  I did not come before you to claim rewards for any good deeds that I have done.  I came to provide you with considerate advice that might be of great benefit to you.

The King was enraged.  He declared that Baydaba was insolent and insulting.  He ordered Baydaba to be executed by crucifixion.  The King later changed Baydaba’s punishment to being shackled and imprisoned.

The King subsequently regretted and reversed his treatment of Baydaba.  While pondering the stars, the King recognized his mistake.  He ordered Baydaba be brought back to court.  He then ordered Baydaba to repeat his previous (verbose and rather diffuse) discourse, “word for word, without omitting a single word or syllable.”  King Dabshalim then declared, “I will study what you have advised, and will follow your guidance.”  In addition, the King appointed Baydaba as his vizier.  Baydaba administered the kingdom well.  Order, stability and happiness prevailed.  Despite his heavy administrative duties, Baydaba also found time to teach pupils and write books.

This professorial fantasy developed further.  After Baydaba’s success as vizier, the King granted Baydaba a one-year sabbatical, with a generous stipend, to write a book immortalizing the King’s reign.  Baydaba wrote the book alone, in seclusion, with help from only one trustworthy pupil.  Baydaba dictated the text to the pupil, who served as a scribe.  The text doesn’t state that the pupil was a young, attractive graduate student, but that’s a reasonable assumption. Baydaba finished his book within the allotted year.  The King then declared that everyone in India must gather to hear Baydaba read aloud his new book.  The occasion was full of ceremony, dignity, and respect for scholarship:

{Baydaba} wore his ceremonial black habit of the Brahmins.  His pupil carried the book gracefully.  The crowd and the King were standing in gratitude for their Philosopher.

“Lift up your head, Baydaba.  This is a day of tranquility, happiness and pleasure,” the King declared, and bade him be seated and begin reading.  The King frequently interrupted Baydaba’s recitation to question him about the apparent or subtler meanings of each chapter.

With not explicitly stated in the text, no one fell asleep, talked about their own affairs, or texted friends during this long, scholarly reading.  Acclaim for the reading built up as it went on:

The more Baydaba read, the greater was the admiration and elation of the King.  When all was finished, the King addressed him: “Baydaba, for this magnificent task I will reward you generously.  You have satisfied my request beyond my wildest dreams.  Ask whatever you wish and it shall be granted!”

Kalilah and Dimnah doesn’t chronicle the great deeds of King Dabshalim.[6]  It’s a wisdom book of animal tales.  Ali ibn al-Shah’s introduction is about the wildest dreams, not of King Dabshalim, but of an unknown scholar.

Roxy Paine: New Fungus Crop, 1999

Ali ibn al-Shah’s introduction fantasizes a scholar justly achieving great public acclaim.  It celebrates scholars’ self-understanding of their own worth.  Telling the truth, like delivering bad news, is publicly important action. So too is offering reasoned advice against one’s own personal and professional interests.  Ideals of truthfulness and public service are easier to celebrate than to practice.

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[1] Ali’s name is also transcribed as Ali ibn ash-Shah.  Ali’s introductory chapter doesn’t exist in the four oldest dated Arabic manuscripts of Kalilah and Dimnah (dated 1221, 1348, 1354, 1396), nor in medieval translations into languages other than Persian. Blois (1990) pp. 24, 66.  Beeston (1954) describes Ali’s preface in a copy, dated 1330, of Nasr Allah’s Persian versification of Kalilah and Dimnah. Blois (1990), p. 97, states, “the substance of the Ali ibn ash-Shah introduction is also found in the appendix (dhayl) to Qani’i’s versification.” Qani’i wrote in the mid-13th century.  For discussion of Qani’i’s version, see Ross (1927) pp.  454-72.

[2] In Jallad (2002), the relevant chapter is titled “Dabshalim the King and Baydaba the Philosopher / Ali ibn al-Shah al-Farisi / (Scholars are fundamental to society).”  Jallad’s translation is based mainly on Silvestre de Sacy’s 1816 Arabic text, as printed in Egypt in 1817 (Bulaq imprint).

[3] Jallad (2002), p. 49, translates the relevant text as “China, India, Persia, and Byzantium.”  Knatchbull (1819), p. 17, has “China, India, Persia, and Greece.”  I suspect that the term in the original text referred to the Greek-speaking world (Greek world).  That would signify both Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire and the Byzantine Empire.

[4] Alexander Romance, Bk. III:1-4, from Greek trans. Stoneman (1991) pp. 127-31.

[5] Ali ibn al-Shah’s introduction to Kalilah and Dimnah, trans Jallad (2002) p. 47.  All subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 39-57, with a few minor adaptations.  For an alternate translation, see Knatchbull (1819) pp. 1-32.

[6] “He {King Dabshalim} in turn wished to have a book written to immortalize himself, and to describe the history of his reign.”  Id., trans. Jallad (2002) p. 54.

[image] My photograph of Roxy Paine, New Fungus Crop (1999), Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.


Beeston, A. F. L. 1954. “The ‘Alī ibn Shāh Preface to Kalīlah wa Dimnah.” Oriens. 7 (1): 81-84.

Blois, François de. 1990. Burzōy’s voyage to India and the origin of the book of Kalīlah wa Dimnah. London: Royal Asiatic Society.

Jallad, Saleh Saʻadeh, trans. 2002. The fables of Kalilah and Dimnah. London: Melisende.

Knatchbull, Wyndham, trans. 1819. Kalila and Dimna, or, The Fables of Bidpai. Oxford: W. Baxter for J. Parker.

Ross, E. Denison. 1927. “An Arabic and a Persian metrical version of Burzoe’s autobiography from Kalila and Dimna.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 4 (03): 441-472.

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 1991. The Greek Alexander romance.  London, England: Penguin Books.

petticoat fabliau: story-acting solves real problem

One night, a woman was in bed with a young, handsome squire.  Her husband unexpectedly and quietly returned home.  He entered the bedroom by candlelight, suspecting nothing. The wife bolted upright in fright.  The squire ducked under the covers unnoticed.

The wife scolded her husband for frightening her and returning home to spy on her.  The husband explained:

Be quiet.  Don’t be afraid.  Calm yourself, dear, for never has it been in my heart to come home to spy on you, nor have I ever had any idea that I could catch you in some wickedness. So relax, don’t let this upset you. [1]

The husband then sat down at the foot of the bed.  The squire under the covers trembled uncontrollably.  The wife was deathly pale.  The husband apologized for surprising her and frightening her.

The wife then brought the husband into a new story-world.  She said to her husband:

Tell me, if you had found a man here by my side, and no mistake about it, what would you have done?  Would you have allowed such a thing to pass?

The husband responded:

With this sword I would have cut off his head, and I would have killed you beside him.

The wife, with superb womanly guile, laughed at the husband’s hypothetical-forceful response.  She then threw a petticoat over her husband’s head and held it there so as to blindfold him.  Then she kicked the squire out of the bed.  He quickly, quietly fled, naked.  The wife meanwhile held her husband tight and laughed and fooled with him.  The wife said to her husband:

So I would have held you tight until I had sent him on his way.

Taking the petticoat off her husband’s head, she said:

Now he has escaped. He will not be caught today.  Run after him!  He is getting away!

The husband enjoyed the play-story.  The squire, just as the play-story narrated, got away in reality.

Jean de Condé, the author of this petticoat fabliau, told it within a frame that further connected reality and fiction.  Condé introduced the fabliau with this tale preface:

I should now like to tell a true tale about a remarkable and quick-witted piece of deception.  But had someone discovered this fine deceit and the way it was devised, the lady of our tale would surely have been in a fine mess.

Condé’s conditional-hypothetical morally justified his telling the tale by implicitly promising a different outcome in the real future.  He ended the fabliau with an imaginary justification for narrative inconsistencies:

I don’t know what else to say of this matter: one needn’t worry about her hiding the squire’s clothes, for if she could carry out such a trick, the clothes would not present her with much more difficult.  Truly I know no more about it, and so I end my tale here.

Just as for the story of Hippocrates in the thirteenth-century Lancelot-Grail Cycle, this early fourteenth-century Old French fabliau makes truth and fiction an issue within its own meta-construction.

El Anatusi, Ala, site-specific installation, Smithsonian Gardens

The literary ingenuity of the petticoat fabliau distinguishes it from other fabliaux telling similar stories.  A work from early twelfth-century Spain includes two tales of a wife obscuring her husband’s vision in order to allow her lover to escape.  In one, a husband-vintner returns home unexpectedly with an injured eye.  The wife kisses the other, functioning eye, covering it long enough to allow her lover to escape unseen.  In the other tale, the wife and her mother stretch out a linen, ostensibly proudly displaying it to the husband, but actually providing cover for a lover to escape.[2]  Both of these tricks are non-literary.

Another fabliau narrates elaborate lies to cover cuckolding.  A wife tells her husband a story to explain why a horse, hawk, and clothes of another man are at their house.  After accepting the story, the husband goes to sleep with his wife.  The wife’s lover then escapes.  In the morning, when the lover’s horse, hawk, and clothes are gone, the wife denies that those goods had ever been at their house.  When the husband tells the wife the story that she told him, the wife denies telling the story, criticizes the story as ridiculous, and declares that the husband’s mind has become unhinged. The husband again believes the wife.  He sets off on a pilgrimage to seek God’s favor to restore his memory.  The husband’s pilgrimage gives the wife new, better freedom to cavort with her lover.[3]  While this fabliau is more literary than a simple trick, it doesn’t involve a real-time performance of a story that a cuckolded husband believes to be fictional.

The petticoat fabliau intricately inter-relates reality and fiction.  It provides views across nested worlds.  Jean de Condé was not just retelling an old folktale.[4]  His petticoat fabliau has a highly creative literary structure.

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[1] Jean de Conde, The Tale of the Petticoat {Li dis dou pliçon}, Old French fabliau trans. Hellman & O’Gorman (1965) p. 68, adapted slightly.  The verbal choice “could” rather than “would” is from the translation and delightfully subtle.  All subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 67-70, with minor adaptations.

[2] Petrus Alfonsi, Training Manual for Clergy {Disciplina Clericalis}, , 9: “Exemplum of the Vintner {Exemplum de Vindemiatore},” 10: “Exemplum of the Linen Sheet {Exemplum de Lintheo},” trans. Hermes & Quarrie (1977) pp. 120-1. Disciplina Clericalis was composed in Latin early in the twelth century.

[3] The knight of the vermilion robe {Le chevalier a la robe vermeille}, Old French fabliau.  For English translations see the dataset of fabliaux translations.

[4] Hellman & O’Gorman (1965), p. 70, traces the petticoat fabliau to the lore of India, the vintner’s tale in Disciplina Clericalis, and the incident in Aristophanes’s Thesmophoriazusae in which Mnesilochus claims to have cuckolded her husband by feigning sickness and going out to have sex with a lover (by Apollo’s pillar, bending over the laurel tree). The cuckolding story in Thesmophoriazusae involves multiple levels of deception, but not the real-time inter-relation of reality and fiction that occurs in the petticoat fabliau.

[image] my photograph of El Anatsui, Ala (2013), site-specific installation at the Smithsonian Gardens.


Hermes, Eberhard and P. R. Quarrie, ed. and trans. 1977. Petrus Alfonsi. The Disciplina clericalis of Petrus Alfonsi. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

Josaphat Buddha's reign of just acts began with care for prisoners

Starting about 1800 years ago, stories of the life of Buddha diffused from Sanskrit texts in India, into Manichaean texts in central Asia, then into Middle Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, Georgian, Greek, and vernacular languages across western Eurasia and northern Africa.  A Georgian version probably from the ninth century was the source for a late-tenth-century Greek version that subsequently diffused widely in Christian circles.  The Buddha became re-interpreted and re-incarnated as the Christian Saint Josaphat. In the early, influential Georgian Christian version, Josaphat Buddha established a distinctive reign of justice in half of his father’s kingdom.  Josaphat Buddha began this new reign of justice with care for prisoners.

Historical Buddha at a young age; sculpture from late 6th/early 7th-century China

Josaphat Buddha did not desire to become a worldly ruler.  After a spiritual crisis, he became a Christian ascetic.  Josaphat Buddha’s father, a king, sought to turn him back from that way.  First the father challenged the son to a public debate about the best way of life.  The son’s way prevailed despite a conspiracy to vanquish it.  Then the father sought to seduce his son with beautiful women.  The allure of beautiful women did not divert Josaphat Buddha from his way.  Finally, the father gave his son half of his kingdom to rule.  The father believed that the worldly burden of rulership would make impossible Josphat Buddha’s spiritual way. Worldly rule, however, became a means for Josaphat Buddha to realize spiritual values.[1]

In Josaphat Buddha’s farewell audience with his father-king before journeying to his new kingdom, Josaphat Buddha requested that all his father’s prisoners be released to him.  Josaphat Buddha forgave the taxes owed for prisoners held for unpaid taxes.  He paid the debts of persons imprisoned for debts to others.  Those prisoners were thus free.  For prisoners “detained for acts of wickedness and murder,” he allocated sufficient funds “to provide for them amply in prison until God’s will might be made known as to what their fate should be.”  After caring for prisoners, Josaphat Buddha cared for others worthy of compassion: “he ordered great quantities of treasure to be distributed among the disabled, the poor and the feeble.”[2]  Only after these acts did Josaphat Buddha set off for his new kingdom.

As a ruler, Josaphat Buddha favored just acts over fine words.  He explained:

no one is better entitled to address his subjects with words of mildness than a king who goes among his people administering justice with equity. … But if there is one placed in authority over the people, a man merciless, bloodthirsty and rapacious, then he too will have recourse to honeyed words whereby to disguise the wickedness of his acts. Again, if some ignorant novice should succeed to the throne, he will use them to conceal his incompetence until he shall have mastered the art of government. But he who diffuses justice among the people and administers their affairs well, not robbing the honourable of their honour nor the weak of their just deserts, a man who sharpens the sword of justice for the defence of the entire nation—such a one as this has no need to resort to the use of fair words. I for my part have come among you to excel not by my eloquence, but by executing righteous justice.

Josaphat Buddha lived his beliefs:

{he} selected a place of modest appearance, neither a royal palace nor a poor man’s cabin, and ordered it to be made ready for his occupation; and he had it furnished in a style neither majestic nor mean

He had “steeds and garments, decorations for thrones, and many kinds of royal adornments” sent far away to be sold off.  He distributed the proceeds to the needy. However, he did not just provide gifts to the needy.  He helped them to become self-sufficient:

He helped them to build themselves farms and provided them with the necessary seed corn, until he succeeded in abolishing poverty and misery altogether. Thenceforth everyone became prosperous, for which they glorified God with united voice; and there was not a single man to be found in Iodasaph’s {Josaphat’s} domains who needed to go begging for his daily bread or for alms. [3]

The kingdom became prosperous and populous.  The superiority of Josaphat Buddha’s way was clear to see.

That was a story of Josaphat Buddha in a ninth-century Georgian text.  It’s an important story.  New leaders should act as Josaphat Buddha did.

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[1] Plot overview of The Balavariani, from Georgian trans. Lang (1966), pp. 122-154.  In its introduction, id. describes the story’s source in accounts of the life of the Buddha, the development of an Arabic version, Bilauhar and Budasaf (Bilawhar wa-Būdhāsaf), and the diffusion of Christian versions that came to be called Barlaam and Josaphat.  Here’s more on the textual history of Barlaam and Josaphat.

[2] Id. p. 154 (sec. 52).  The source for the Georgian version seems to have been the Arabic non-Christian work Bilauhar and Budasaf.  For a modern French translation, Gimaret (1971). Bilauhar and Budasaf does not include Josaphat Buddha’s acts of mercy for prisoners.  The translation of the Georgian into Geek, mistakenly attributed to John of Damascus, re-ordered and abbreviated Josaphat Buddha’s worldly compassion:

After this he searched the prisons, and sought out the captives in mines, or debtors in the grip of their creditors; and by generous largesses to all he proved a father to all, orphans, and widows, and beggars, a loving and good father, for he deemed that by bestowing blessings on these he won a blessing for himself.

From ancient Greek Barlaam and Josaphat, trans. Woodward & Mattingly (1914) Ch. XXXIII.

[3] Id. p. 154-5 (sec. 53), p. 155 (sec. 54) (previous three quotes above).  Corresponding text doesn’t exist in the Arabic Bilauhar and Budasaf.  The concern for just acts rather than eloquent words and modest royal accommodations contrasts with practices in the Abbasid court.  That implicit contrast suggests plausible circumstances for writing the Balavariani and the above text in particular: about the time of Ashot I‘s ascension to the throne of Iberia in modern-day Georgia in 813.

[image] My photograph of a sculpture of the historical Buddha as a young man; sculpture made in late 6th-early 7th century, Sui dynasty or early Tang dynasty, China; Hemp cloth, lacquer, wood, metal wire, and glass with traces of pigment and gilding; H: 99.5 W: 72.5 D: 56.7 cm; in Freer Gallery, Washington DC, item F1944.46.


Gimaret, Daniel, trans. 1971. Le livre de Bilawhar et Būḏāsf: selon la version arabe ismaélienne. Genève: Droz.

Lang, David Marshall, ed. and trans. 1966. The Balavariani (Barlaam and Josaphat). Berkeley: University of California Press.

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