COB-88: organic bureaucracy enhances collard greens

bureaucracy-certified organic collard greens ($2.99 plus tax)

When you eat collard greens, don’t settle for old-fashioned collard greens.  Recently I had the pleasure of buying “certified organic” collard greens at an exorbitantly priced grocery store.  An informational tag on the collard greens explained what “certified organic” means:

It means that our product has been grown according to strict uniform standards and rules that are verified by independent state of organizations {sic}.

Bureaucrats relish vegetables grown under “strict uniform standards and rules,” irrespective of what those standards and rules are.  Being verified by organizations is also good.  The more organizations, the better.  The informational tag continues:

Cal-Organic is certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) as well as the USDA.

Double-acronym certified!

Our rigorous certification program include many procedures, i.e. inspections of farm fields and processing facilities, detailed record keeping, and testing of soil and water to ensure that we are ultimately accountable to you.

Every consumer-accountant should be pleased: many procedures are being carried out, detailed records are being kept, and testing is being done.  What other information would you want to know?

Our motto is more than just the words “FARMING WITH PRIDE AND INTEGRITY.”  It is our action plan to assure your complete trust in our produce.

That’s a troubling action plan.  It consist of only five words.  Capitalization is no substitute for additional verbiage and a full-fledged mission statement.  Solid growth of organic bureaucracy takes time. Nonetheless, these collard greens provide a good taste of bureaucracy.  They obviously are not your grandfather’s collard greens.

In other bureaucratic issues this month, postal services around the world have been struggling economically.  Postal services are venerable bureaucracies.  Enemies of bureaucracy deserve much of the blame for postal services’ problems.  Many bureaucratic enemies have been reducing paperwork and the volume of correspondence.  More malicious bureaucratic haters, the sort who write books entitled Bureaucrats: How to Annoy Them, actively attempt to sabotage postal services.  Consider this despicable behavior:

One man who got into a war of letters with the Royal Mail itself persisted in sticking his stamp right in the middle of the envelope. This makes it difficult for the franking machines.

This petty but effective tactic riled every official in the postal hierarchy, right up to the district chief manager. He wrote to the rebel, warning him never to stick a stamp anywhere but the top right‑hand corner of the envelope.

By return came an envelope with the stamp dead centre, and a little rhyme enclosed: ‘Hey diddle diddle, the stamp’s in the middle.’

That’s why your postal rates are going up.

Nothing is more important to the future of bureaucracy than education.  Many young people today do not understand the importance of bureaucracy.  Consider this question put to Yahoo! Answers:

I recently bought the best of rugrats on iTunes and chuckies dad mentions he’s a bureaucrat sometimes and in the episode where the babies become “big people” and go to work chuckie said that they can do what his dad does and “push paper”. what does. Bureaucrat actually do?

That’s a sad commentary on our education system.  The “best answer” is very bad:

Bureaucrats generally serve to administrate and to carry out policies. They often don’t actually get anything done, while doing quite a bit….if that makes any sense…

That makes no sense.  Please write “bureaucrats save the world” three hundred times and re-submit your answer.

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.

Jaume Roig’s Espill: mirror of NAWALT against men’s sexed protest

A Greek text from before the twelfth century recounts the harsh punishment of a man who made critical statements about all women. Since then, the literature of men’s sexed protests has struggled with how to address matriarchy’s responses of NAWALT, meaning “Not All Women Are Like That.” Some men have turned away from general theorizing and have instead thrust forward with personalized, backside approaches to undoing matriarchy. Others have sought refuge in superhero fantasies. With his book Espill, mid-fifteenth-century Catalonian physician Jaume Roig provided extraordinary treatment of the swelling medieval literature of men’s sexed protests. Roig’s subtle and complex literary medicine allowed NAWALT to fester in the mirror of a jester and wiped out threatening growth in the literature of men’s sexed protests.[1]

Our Lady of Guadalupe, proof of NAWALTWriting against the chivalric culture in which men were abysmally subordinate to women in love, Roig with unbelievable daring preached loathing for all women. He sought to teach his dear nephew. He urged his dear nephew to publicize and communicate his book to “green and inexperienced young men,” “flirtatious old men,” “the honorable choir of curious men,” and “religious men and chaplains.” Roig forthrightly proclaimed:

From my speech, if you believe me, you will all choose never to love but rather to loathe. Never to inquire nor to chase, never to hunt, much less to embrace the immortal fire, the doorway to hell that are those damned women. [2]

Roig summarized many of the issues that were well-established in the literature of men’s sexed protests. He advanced that literature by transgressing existing boundaries of criticism and achieving new extremes of vehemence. Yet what is at stake in Roig’s Espill is nothing less than NAWALT’s blockage of the transformative potential of social critique of entrenched relationships of dominance and subordination reflected in the historically contingent social construction of chivalric love. Roig fearlessly challenged the discursive power of NAWALT:

Therefore I say that all women, of whatever state, color, age, religion, nation, or condition, big and bigger, small and smaller, young and old, ugly and beautiful, sick and healthy, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, black and dark, blonde and white, right-handed and one-armed, hump-backed, talkative and mute, free and enslaved … as many as are alive, no matter what they are like … {they behave in accordance with a standard list of men’s sexed protests} [3]

“One-armed” and “hump-backed” are highly distinctive representations of physical states. They indicate a more general discursive structure. Roig connected highly specific, realistic representations to abstract claims about all women:

In the books of David and the prophets, of Cicero and the poets, of the Greek orators, in the seventy-two languages of the world, in the Catholicon, in the books of Hugutio and Papias, in the Etymologies, and in all that has been written, spoken, and said by all those who are alive now, there are not enough words that suffice to say and relate what kinds of poisons women kneed, how many evils they use, and how much good they abuse. [4]

Medieval tales tell of scholars’ futile attempts to compile the wiles of women. Roig generalized that insight to encompass prophetic, poetic, and encyclopedic work from time immemorial to the words of everyone alive today.

In Espill, the horrors of the narrator’s personal experience could not overcome the claim of NAWALT. The narrator’s troubles began as a young boy when his father died. His mother kicked him out of the house. He was on his own, ragged and penniless. His mother remarried and lost the family fortune. A caring brigand accepted the narrator as his pageboy and taught him to ride, and hunt, and bear arms. The brigand’s wife, jealous of her son’s inferior abilities, hated the narrator. She sought to have him killed. She made false accusations against him. The narrator fled to his godfather, a rich merchant. After earning wages working for the merchant, the narrator subsequently became wealthy fighting with French knights plundering English towns.

The narrator then enjoyed the life of a noble knight. On New Year’s Day, he held a jousting tournament and hosted a feast for all the participants. One guest found a man’s fingertip in a pastry. The guest also found the tip of an ear. The story is stomach-turning:

The pastry maker was also a baker and a tavern-keeper. She and her two helpers, grown-up girls, killed some of the people who went there and drank, chopped their flesh, made pies, and with the intestines made different kinds of sausages, the finest in the world.

That detail, “the finest in the world,” is typical of Roig’s Espill. The narrator explained further with macabre eroticism and vehemence seasoned with taste:

In a soft hole as deep as a well, those deceitful women put the fleshless bones, legs, and skulls, and they had almost filled it, those wild, cruel, and depraved females, those infidels, those evil, criminal, and abominable women. I certainly believe that the devils and Satan must have helped them when they killed them. I give testimony that I ate plenty of them and that I never tasted meat or a broth, partridges, hens, or francolins of such flavor, tenderness, and sweetness.

The narrator continued with imagery of fruit in his description of the country:

I was very pleased by that country. I never saw discord, banditry, or fighting. The men were quite rich and peaceful, affable and benign. The women were evil, and many times I saw them condemned: they exiled one thousand and there were more hanged women for different crimes than grapes. [5]

Experience of evil woman is the dominate theme of the narrator’s life as he grew into a rich, comfortable, and unmarried man of age thirty-two.

The narrator then inexplicably married. He married a woman that he thought was lovely. She lied about everything, including about her dowry and the fact that she already had a husband. As a wife, she grunted and snored, dressed carelessly, spent profligately, talked incessantly, and neglected her bodily hygiene. She verbally abused the narrator, her husband:

You’d be happy with any trollop. Just as well would you love a rustic, a woman from the mountains, one of those who wear cloaks. You are really old-fashioned and antiquated, not up-to-date, out of use. You already pee on your shoes, carry our cat, and ride really crooked on the saddle: is it because of the bag you carry hanging from your belt or because of the short trouser leg? You play the kettledrum or the bagpipe. It is also fashionable to play the lute! Yellow velvet made from tripe is in, and so is wearing the right clog with a taller heel. You look cold and swear so much! Why are you crying? Is it the mustard? The wall is falling. You are running aground. You are turning dry and thin. Can you eat? The garden has already begun to turn white. To attack better or to reach better, you leave the sword and gird on a knife. The needle that is blunt cannot sew. The court in Rome will hear about such a great error and make a decision. A second-hand seller arranged this union. Such a beautiful body, tall as a new shoot! Paired with a twin, a tiny runt, a dry shoot grown after its time, a skinny, premature, miserly and mean man who eats well and shits very little, who is like a Sardinian donkey, like a Myrmidon dwarf, or more certainly like a castrated rooster! With such a man I have been matched! Better advised, I know what I’ll do if I can. [6]

In addition to insulting his virility, she also physically abused her husband. She bashed his head with a washbasin. He didn’t report domestic violence, but sued for the dowry that his wife had promised. He learned through the legal proceeding that his wife was already married at the time she married him. He was thus liberated from the horror and the chains of his marriage.

The narrator then married again. He was set to marry a religious laywoman. But he investigated further and found that she was hypocrite, enjoyed luxury, and had an abortion. So he rejected her. He then married a widow. She compared the narrator unfavorable to her former husband. She was envious and haughty. She “ordered me as if I were a dog or as if I had a muzzle.”[7] She also desperately sought to get pregnant. Unsuccessful at getting pregnant, she faked being pregnant all the way to faking giving birth with a bed switch and another woman’s baby. She and her accomplices had a big feast for the baptism. They then fell asleep and smothered the baby. After the fraud was discovered, his wife hung herself. The narrator observed:

For all the abuse, I was left confused and with great shame. Because of her meanness and burden, and because of the bitterness they ate, my teeth were unjustly filed down and decalcified. [8]

The narrator then married again. This time he married a nun. She give birth to a son, much to the narrator’s delight. Then she refused to nurse their son:

I want to have pleasure, and it doesn’t please me to waste myself and to hurt my breasts in order to give my body’s blood to the child. I rather want to rest. I am not a mountain woman, or a farmer, or a worker. Nice net you went out with today! Get ahold of someone else’s milk! [9]

She constantly changed wet-nurses. When their baby got sick, she turned to “many midwives, one thousand medicines, veterinarians, and quackery.” The baby died. Deeply grieving, she blamed the nuns who had raised her. She managed to get pregnant again. While pregnant, she died drinking wine straight from the fermenting reservoir of a winepress. The narrator observed:

Unluckily she died an honest death, too suddenly. … I did not want to wear mourning clothes because I regretted it little. [10]

The narrator resolved to marry again, this time a relative. Despite enormous personal experience of women’s evil acts, the narrator apparently could not shed his enduring belief in NAWALT.

At this point, the narrator experienced a lengthy dream of King Solomon speaking. Solomon directly addressed the narrator:

Oh, tired man! Old, tamed, and stupified man! Old and aged! I believe you are already living your bad days, without strength and in the power of Eve’s daughters. Wake up and get up. Don’t be afraid. … Silly old man! Your bad life you forget so soon? Do you show affection for so many plagues? They have done you a thousand affronts and you still like them? … You have been scorched, skinned, and dried. They have pruned your nails and beak. Will you go back there in a hurry and boldly? You are already saying that you will take a relative as your wife? You will get a faster push towards death. Soon she will be the boss of you. She will want to give you more orders and she will fear you less. … There isn’t in the world a single good and accomplished woman, endowed with wisdom, virtues, kindness, and bright intellect. It’s not necessary to look for one because there isn’t one. A passable woman will be found somewhere who is neither good nor bad, who is tolerant, a good organizer, and somewhat caring. But they are few and far between, and they are in wealthy and well-furnished houses and ruled by their husbands. [11]

Solomon, “Sir Solomon, of the ancient law, a very wise king and lord, very rich and powerful,” instructed the narrator. He instructed the narrator with wisdom and exempla on the evils of women drawn from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Gospels, and worldly life right up to Roig’s day. What could be more truthful and compelling teaching? Solomon declared:

How many cities are demolished and corrupted because of their smug, pompous and vain women! … The great Nineveh fell for that reason. And also Rhodes, Sidon, Tyre, Babylon, Troy, Sodom, Carthage, Rome, and the great Sagunt, the one that did itself so much harm for Hannibal, where today is the hill formerly known as Mont Vert and currently known as Molvedre. [12]

Solomon knows the history of the ancient Roman town of Saguntum in Valancia. He also apparently knows the current name of a castle there, Molvedre. Few today who celebrate memories of Babylon, Troy, and Rome also remember Molvedre. Solomon’s wisdom is cosmopolitan and earthy:

Whoever serves and obeys women dies like a greyhound in manure. After having given them one thousand pleasures, their love dies over a trifle. … If someone wants to keep from the destruction of such cattle, from those bad wild animals, from falls, breaks, and other harms, he will not have enough dogs, a walled castle, a she-wolf, a latch, a bar, fetters, and a jail with surveillance. Nothing can be said: he wants to die like the lion-handler. Such a jailor toils in vain: he wants a camel to pass through the eye of a needle or through an old gate, wants to grab a sunbeam with claw-blows, and wants to measure the whole sea in spoonfuls and then empty it into a hole. [13]

Such, according to Solomon, is the futility of a man bringing a woman into his household. The problem encompasses the full span of a man’s life:

Women’s friendship, affection, predilection, truce, and love cannot last even an hour without hatred, rancor, grunting, and scolding. … Only their offspring, who is tender, can love them while nursing. The weaning rends the love with the bitterness of the yellow aloes that they put on the spout of their breasts when they wean them. It seems that they already don’t love their children, showing them an image, beginning, and sample of the bitter, sorrowful life that those who drink their milk and eat their bad cooking must lead. [14]

Before the invention of manufactured infant formula, that covered everyone, with the taste of bad cooking lingering across all of life. To make this teaching clear, Solomon rollicks on in a similar vein across 54% of the total lines of Espill.

Waking after Solomon’s lengthy speech, the narrator resolved to reform. He was determined to “avoid women like arsenic”:

Without delay I wanted to promise (and I made an oath, vow, and sacrament to attend to it with all my heart) never to take a woman but, rather, to live free; never to sit at a bench or at a table with a woman; never to listen to their words, reasoning, parlance, speech; and never to hear their ill intentions. To boil in oil, to eat my own hands, to die and kick the bucket, rather than to take a wife: better buried than married. [15]

He traveled to a hermitage, purified his conscience, and performed penance. He led a life of virtue, with focus much different from that of the chivalric hero:

I seek pardons, confess frequently, and never cease to chant the day and night hours for the dead and the living. I redeem slaves and visit prisoners and widowers frequently. I welcome guests and I never keep my home closed to them. I cure the sick, care for the young, give food to the poor, dress them and cover them. But I don’t help females, because being good or helpful to them is worthless. I don’t do anything for them, even if they were dying of cold or ice, of thirst or hunger (I hate them so much) even if they were hit by lightening or burnt, or if they turned to salt, like Lot’s wife. Whoever gives them anything tosses it into a hole. [16]

The narrator’s militant masculinism, which historians and literary scholars have not adequately appreciated, deserves to be recognized as a forefather of influential strands of late-twentieth-century feminism.

Yet this pioneering forefather of feminism could not free himself from subordination to NAWALT. The narrator praised highly a woman thought to be actually Jaume Roig’s wife:

I have found only one virtual fruit tree, alone and singular, bright and grafted with virtues. I believe it has broken the devil’s eye. A single praiseworthy woman, famous and fruitful, well known, a woman considered worthy by many, God-fearing and Christian, completely human, communicative, sweet and loving, graceful, sure, caring, clean, gentle, knowledgeable, humble, and not very talkative. Also a great worker, a well-brought up woman, hardworking in all she did. … About her I remember that she was married, well brought up, much educated and as such nurtured by her husband, who saw her die very well. I can tell you that he remained inconsolable, alienated, out of his mind. … While she was in this world, I did not love anything as much. When she was gone, I mourned and lamented it. I loved her with all my heart, extremely. [17]

The narrator also expressed great love for Mary, the mother of Jesus:

I would never stop expressing the supremacy of the peerless and excellent Virgin Mary, Mother of God omnipotent, devoutly and attentively, without haste, every day. I serve in her great confraternity in the Cathedral as much as I can, whenever they go there for a burial, or to honor their processions, Masses, and sermons. … So that she can emend what I lack in this vale so full of tear, I pray to the Glorious One, night and day, to consider me among her servants, among the first who run by milestones, earning the jewel of supreme repose. [18]

These two women secured the narrator’s belief in NAWALT. They explain why, despite extensive experience of extremely evil women, the narrator kept remarrying. They make clear Solomon’s wisdom was only stories, with possibilities open for re-writing. Putting the sea, or one’s own works, into a hole was a well-established representation for understanding the Holy Trinity.[19] Faith in NAWALT is identified with fundamental faith.

Jaume Roig’s Espill disrupted systemic critique of men’s subordination and social injustice. It provided a strong bulwark for NAWALT. Wave after wave of exempla and denouncement do not breach “I loved her with all my heart, extremely” and “the peerless and excellent Virgin Mary, Mother of God.” Emphasizing its lack of concern for justice for men in this world, Espill ends with a dividing barrier:

Finally, men and women, good men and good women, let us all live on this side. Saved on the other side, we shall say, “Amen.” [20]

Amen? So be it? Let us all live in this world as we are living? Literary scholars who have not appreciated any humor in Roig’s Espill are vindicated in the end.[21] Systemic critique is impossible without comedy.

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[1] Jaume Roig’s Espill is “the last great text written in Catalan in the medieval tradition of misogyny.” Delgado-Librero (2010), introduction, p. 46. Espill goes by a variety of titles, including Spill, Spill o Libre de les Dones, and The Mirror. Espill is the modern spelling of the medieval Catalan word spill, which means in English mirror. Avant-garde scholars and social-justice activists now refer to literature such as Espill as medieval literature of men’s sexed protests.

Undoubtedly reflecting lack of appreciation and concern for men’s sexed protest, Espill has survived in only one manuscript, MS Vatican Library 4806. For a freely available, online edition, Carré (2000). Antònia Carré

[2] Espill, ll. 292-339, from Catalan trans. Delgado-Librero (2010) pp. 275-6 (including previous short quotes above). Line numbers refer to id.’s diplomatic edition of the source text. I’ve made a few minor, non-substantial changes to the translation.

[3] Id. ll. 412-441, p. 277.

[4] Id. ll. 640-671, p. 279.

[5] Id. ll. 1,647-1,729, 1,742-1,756, pp. 288-9 (previous three quotes).

[6] Id. ll. 2,722-2,792, p. 297.

[7] Id. ll. 4,408-4,437, p. 311.

[8] Id. ll. 4,901-4,911, p. 315.

[9] Id. ll. 5,076-5,03, p. 316-7.

[10] Id. ll. 6,329-6,368, p. 326-7.

[11] Id. ll. 6,469-6,553, 6,598-6,615, 6,628-6,647, p. 327-9.

[12] Id. ll. 7,034-7,090, 7,133-7,155, p. 332-3 (including description of Solomon). Delgado-Librero’s notes helpfully explain that Sagunt was the ancient Roman town of Saguntum in Valancia and that the castle there was called Molvedre (“old walls”). “Mont Vert” is undocumented and may be a popular etymology (“green hills”). Id. ft. 200.

[13] Id. ll. 8,441-8,447, 8,478-8,503, p. 347.

[14] Id. ll. 9,796-9,847, p. 359.

[15] Id. ll. 15,457-15,478, p. 420.

[16] Id. ll. 15647-15,729, p. 422.

[17] Id. ll. 15,920-15,919, pp. 424-5.

[18] Id. ll. 16,024-16,081, pp. 425-6.

[19] After hearing Solomon’s speech, the narrator said that he felt like Saint Augustine when he found a boy seeking to empty the sea into a hole in the sand. In Espill, the narrator declared that Saint Augustine was left pondering the boy’s words. In Christian tradition, the boy told Augustine that emptying the sea into a hole was not more impossible than trying to understand the Holy Trinity. Id. ll. 15,366-15,381, p. 419, inc. ft. 645.

[20] Id. ll. 16,242-16,247, p. 427.

[21] E.g. Solomon (1997), which offers earnest, humorless insight like that of leading Soviet literary criticism under Brezhnev. Archer (2005), Ch. 3, addresses Roig’s Espill with appreciation for its humor. However, apparently to gain academic credit for theoretical seriousness, id. does so to ruminate about “the problem of woman” and “unstable sex.” Apart from the narrow historical-intellectual status market in which they are offered, these grave concerns are laughable. A more historically relevant problem is the comedy and tragedy of Suero de Quinones and his Passo Honroso. Rosanna Cantavella and other women literary critics writing in Spanish have understood Espill much better than men literary critics writing in English. The circumstances and relations of production undoubtedly affect the symbolic superstructure.

[image] Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mary, mother of Jesus), 16th-century engraving, thanks to Katsam and Wikipedia.


Archer, Robert. 2005. The Problem of Woman in Late Medieval Hispanic Literature. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Tamesis.

Carré, Antònia. 2000. Spill. Rialc. Online.

Delgado-Librero, Maria Celeste, ed. and trans. 2010. Jaume Roig. The Mirror of Jaume Roig: an edition and an English translation of Ms. Vat. Lat. 4806. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Solomon, Michael. 1997. The Literature of Misogyny in Medieval Spain: the Arcipreste de Talavera and the Spill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

royal suspicion of medical knowledge in the early Islamic world

medieval physician treating a suspicious patient

Early Islamic rulers were suspicious of physicians’ knowledge even while they drew upon well-developed medical knowledge from major Eurasian civilizations.  The Arabic book Sirr al-Asrar, probably compiled about the mid-eighth century in Baghdad, describes a ruler’s cosmopolitan council of physicians:

It is written in an ancient book that a certain king called together the physicians of Rum {the Roman Empire}, India, and Persia, and ordered them to name some medicine whose habitual use would be beneficial and curative for all sorts of complaints. What the Rumi chose and advised was the drinking of drafts of hot water every morning.  The Persian sage advised al-Harfa, that is, cress.  And the Indian advised Indian Myrobalan. [1]

Subsequent text says nothing about the effects of these treatments or which medicine the ruler chose.  The point of citing disagreement among cosmopolitan physician-sages seems to be skepticism of physicians and medical knowledge.  Another passage in Sirr al-Asrar declares:

Beware of poisons, for many kings have lost their lives by them.  And, in taking medicine, do not trust to one physician, for a single man is liable to be seduced.  If possible have ten physicians, and take the medicine regarding the use of which they all agree.  Your medicines should be prepared in the presence of all your physicians, as well as of one of your own trusty servants who understands medicines and knows the method of compounding and weighing them.

This strategy for managing royal physicians indicates underdeveloped public knowledge and poor ability to adjudicate conflicting knowledge claims.  Consensus, rather than convincing reasoning or a credible record of observable results, determines the best medicine.  Non-professional monitoring of the physicians (the job of the “trusty servant”) and fear of poisoning further underscores suspicion of physicians.[2]

In several places Sirr al-Asrar offers advice for avoiding physicians.  Sirr al-Asrar declares:

This is, O Alexander, what will make you independent of every physician if you understand its meanings and find out its virtues. [3]

The text then goes on to commend knowledge of astrology, “learning and practicing the feeling of the pulse,” the author’s book on theories of the pulse, and the author’s book on the relation of urine to the state of health.  Piling on intimidating learning, the author declares:

you should consult my book on compound medicines, and drinks, oils, and ointments, according to the Schools of Rome, India, Persia, and Greece, and what I have found out from my own experience and my knowledge; there is no need to repeat them here. But since I have decided to reveal to you every secret that I know, I will not hide from you the medicine which is known as the “guard,” “the mysterious treasure of the sage.”  I do not know who discovered it first.  Some say it was revealed to Adam.

Topping the established tradition of seven sages of the ancient world, the text attributes this medicine to the “eight Great Sages.”  Much like the seven sages, the eight sages have obscure, inconsistent, ancient names.[4]  The medicine itself has eight parts.  Each part requires a complicated preparation of ingredients, including ones from China and the Far East Spice Islands.[5]  The advice for avoiding physicians seems to be a rhetorical ploy for displaying the extent of physicians’ knowledge and expertise.

Sirr al-Asrar similarly offers advice for avoiding leeches.  Leeches were persons who provided bloodletting as medicinal treatment.  One Arabic manuscript of Sirr al-Asrar claims to contain:

wonderful things of the mysteries of leechcraft, of what expels poisons without requiring the aid of a physician, and many similar useful things [6]

Elsewhere the manuscript declares:

I have therefore decided to set down for you in this chapter some of the strange secrets of leechcraft, which if you will observe and adhere to them, it is not necessary for a king to show all his maladies to the leech, and you shall have no need for a leech except in those rare occurrences which no man may eschew.

The text then provides complicated advice about diet, exercise, and personal hygiene, keyed to seasons and astrological signs.  The text claims to offer knowledge to replace a leech except in rare circumstances.  Yet a king does not need to engage in self-treatment to reduce medical costs or to deal with the unavailability of medical care.  If the leech’s knowledge is credible, then the king has no reason not to summon the leech.  Advice for avoiding leeches appears to be a means to display knowledge of leechcraft.

Sirr al-Asrar’s title in English is Secret of Secrets.  Manuscripts of it were frequently copied and widely disseminated in western Eurasia through the sixteenth century.  “Secret” display of knowledge is a gambit for knowledge authority without reasoned public accountability.  Suspicion of medical knowledge was factually reasonable in the ancient world even just on the evidence of rhetoric.

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[1] Kitab sirr al-asrar (The Book of the Secret of Secrets), from Arabic trans. Ali (1920) p. 204. Subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 191, 211-2,

[2] While advice in European descendents of Sirr al-Asrar shifted from having five counselors to having only one, the advice about having multiple physicians was not similarly transformed.  Immediately after the advice to employ ten physicians is a legend of Aristotle saving Alexander the Great from a visha kanya (poison girl):

Remember the mother of the Indian king who sent to you some presents, one of which was a girl who had been brought up on poison until her nature had become that of poisonous serpents.  And if I had not found it out through my knowledge of the Indian kings and physicians, and had not suspected her to be capable of inflicting a fatal bite, surely she would have killed you.

Id. p. 192.  This story is best understood as emphasizing the danger of poisons and the authority of Aristotle, not the value of physicians in general. The story of the poison maiden subsequently spread throughout Europe. It occurs as Tale 11 in Gesta Romanorum, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 21-2; and as Tale 93 (“Poison Maiden”) in the Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum, ed. and trans. Bright (2019). In the later, the “Queen of the North {regina aquilonis}” nourished her daughter on poison from birth and then sent her to Alexander to be his concubine. Aristotle’s wisdom again saved Alexander’s life.

[3] Id. p. 211.  See similarly id. p. 193.

[4] Steele (1920) p. xlvi.

[5] From China, hard China rhubarb and Darwanj Sini (Doronicum of China).  From the Spice Islands, nutmeg.  Id.  pp. 215, 213.

[6] Id. p. 180, ft. 2, manuscript Laud. Or. 210 (W).  The subsequent quote is from the same manuscript, id. p. 195,  ft. 1.  The distinction between “leechcraft” and “aid of physician” may reflect a knowledge hierarchy from folk medicine to scholarly medicine. However, scholarly physicians practiced bloodletting.  Moreover, the point of Sirr al-Asrar was not to shift the king’s attention from physicians to leeches.

[image] Illuminated initial N from manuscript of Avicenna’s Canon medicinae, from French manuscript from 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Besançon – BM – ms. 0457 , f. 303v.


Ali, Ismail, trans. 1920.  Kitab sirr al-asrar (The Book of the Secret of Secrets). Pp. 176-266 in Steele (1920).

Bright, Philippa, ed. and trans. 2019. The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum: from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Steele, Robert, ed. 1920. Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi.  Vol. 5. Secretum secretorum, cum glossis et notulis : Tractatus brevis et utilis ad declarandum quedam obscure dicta. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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