Marcolf challenged Solomon on malice toward men

I spread out my hands to the heavens,
and lamented my ignorance of her.

Draw near to me, you who are uneducated,
and lodge in the house of instruction.

let your souls receive instruction;
it is to be found close by. [1]

Solomon and Marcolf matches King Solomon, eminent author of wisdom and ruler from the magnificent temple at Jerusalem, with Marcolf, an ugly, rude peasant.  Solomon and Marcolf was a highly popular work in medieval Europe.  In a status-based, hierarchical, and illiberal society, Solomon and Marcolf could never pass through the social machinery of moralistic screening and mass marketing.  That makes this medieval work particularly important in the U.S. today.  Without Marcolf, the balance in Solomon’s wisdom sinks with malice toward men.

Solomon hears Marcolf-like ant

Solomon and Marcolf plausibly has roots in the Wisdom of ben Sirach.  Translated from Hebrew into Greek about 2200 years ago, the Wisdom of ben Sirach (Sirach) was included in some versions of the Jewish bible.  The last section of Sirach is a Hebrew acrostic known as the Alphabet of ben Sirach.[2]  The Alphabet of ben Sirach narrates a poetically abstract autobiographical quest for wisdom.  In the Hebrew bible, Solomon is a paragon of wisdom.  Jewish tradition attributes to Solomon authorship of the biblical books Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. The quest for wisdom in the Alphabet of ben Sirach points toward Solomon.

The Alphabet of ben Sirach apparently contributed to an outrageous parody challenging the wisdom of Solomon.  Perhaps at the end of the ninth century under the Abbasid caliphate in present-day Iraq, learned Jews created for ben Sirach two new Hebrew acrostics based on proverbs from a variety of sources, as well as additional supporting biographical narrative and question-answer dialogue.  This alternate wisdom of ben Sirach survives in several interrelated forms collectively called Pseudo-Sirach.[3]  Although written in Hebrew, Pseudo-Sirach is generically similar to some work of the eminent and stylish Arabic provocateur al-Jahiz.  Within the cosmopolitan, multi-religious culture of the Abbasid caliphate centered in Baghdad, Pseudo-Sirach could have drawn upon a wide range of cultural and literary sources.[4]

Like Solomon and Marcolf, Pseudo-Sirach mocks formal learning and eminent, established authority with low bodily stories and attention to a broad horizon of social justice.  In Pseudo-Sirach, ben Sirach is born from an encounter with water of a bath house in which Jeremiah had been forced to masturbate.  Ben Sirach’s counterpart is the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, destroyer of Solomon’s temple and, in Pseudo-Sirach, Solomon’s son by the Queen of Sheba.  Ben Sirach has wondrous wisdom about the lower bodily stratum.  Nebuchadnezzar said to ben Sirach:

I have a daughter who expels a thousand farts every hour.  Cure her!

Ben Sirach knew a cure:

Every time a fart was about to come, the king’s daughter stood up on one foot and stretched her eyes wide, as ben Sira told her to do, and she contained herself and closed her mouth slowly, until the breaking of the wind stopped completely.  After three days no farts came from her behind.

Nebuchadnezzar then shifted questioning from the practical to the philosophical:

Why were farts created?

Ben Sirach provided a practical-philosophical-tragical-comical answer:

If not for breaking wind, a person would have diarrhea and defecate in his clothes.  But when a person feels that he is about to fart, he goes and attends to his needs so that he will not be embarrassed and sit in filthied clothes.

Imitating a program like that of Aristotle’s Problemata, Nebuchadnezzar then asked why there’s one hair in each follicle on a man’s head, why mosquitoes were created, why the ox doesn’t have hair under its nose, and similar questions.  Asked why the donkey urinates in the urine of another donkey, ben Sirach explained:

God said to them {the donkeys}: “When your urine flows as rivers and a water mill can be made thereby to turn, and when the odor of your excrement is like the aroma of spices, I will give you your reward.” That is why they smell their excrement and urinate as they do. [5]

That description seems to allude parodically to practices in a decadent, insular community of scholars and litterateurs.  Ben Sirach’s wisdom, “a kind of academic burlesque,” is world-encompassing.[6]  Ben Sirach’s wisdom is like Marcolf’s in Solomon and Marcolf.

Both Pseudo-Sirach and Solomon and Marcolf parodically pair aphorisms.  For example, Pseudo-Sirach re-interprets men seeking a social equal into men accepting marital fate:

  1. Always marry only a well-born woman, even {one} naked, and not one beneath your social standing {even if she is} dressed with gold, since for anyone who marries a woman {for money}, a month comes and a month goes and the money is gone.
  2. Gnaw the bone that falls to thy lot whether it be good or bad.

Another pair of aphorisms extends sharing to fish (who might return the favor in paying taxes):

  1. Always share your food with everyone.
  2. Send your bread upon the waters and upon the land, for after many days you will get it back. [7]

Solomon and Marcolf similarly re-interprets the cost of suspicion into recognition of the harm of paternity fraud:

  1. Solomon: A suspicious person never rests.
  2. Marcolf: A cuckold suffers two things, injury and insult.

With earthly wisdom like ben Sirach’s, Marcolf specifies important entreaties of a wife:

  1. Solomon: Despise not the sober entreaties of a wife!
  2. Marcolf: When your wife wishes herself to be enjoyed, do not deny her, because she has need. [8]

Playing with connections between aphorisms undermines their atomistic authority.  The relative weight of contrasting proverbs in common discourse affects the balance of wisdom.

A key issue of wisdom is the question of men.  Unless penetrated by an external force, human culture inevitably slips into tyrannical gyno-idolatry.  In academic terms, both Pseudo-Sirach and Solomon and Marcolf interrupt and interrogate the social construction of gyno-idolatry.  More specifically, in Pseudo-Sirach, ben Sirach, at the infantile age of one year, seeks a teacher.  The teacher conventionally begins teaching this child prodigy the alphabet.  When the teacher pronounces the first letter of the alphabet for ben Sirach to repeat, ben Sirach responds with a proverb starting with that letter:

Abstain from worrying in your heart, for worry has killed many.

This extraordinary knowledge of an untaught infant throws the teacher into introspective panic.  The teacher responds:

I don’t have a worry in the world, except for the fact that my wife is ugly.

Recomposing himself, the teacher pronounces the second letter for ben Sirach to repeat.  Ben Sirach responds with a proverb starting with that letter:

By a beautiful woman’s countenance many have been destroyed, and numerous are all her slain ones.

The teacher responds:

Are you telling me this because I revealed my secret and told you that my wife is ugly?  Do you find it wrong that I told you my secret?

The teacher asked ben Sirach to say another letter.  Ben Sirach declared:

Give over your secrets to one in a thousand even if your friends are many.

The teacher answered:

To you alone, to no one else, have I revealed my secret.  Advise me about what I am going to tell you.  I want to divorce my wife on account of an especially beautiful woman who lives in my courtyard. [9]

Ben Sirach’s instruction to his teacher on men’s relations with women continues through the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Most men are sexually attracted to beautiful, young women.  Most men are thus prone to gyno-idolatry.  That’s a problem that societies must solve while respecting men’s goodness, dignity, and right to justice under law.  As wise infant ben Sirach taught, gyno-idolatry prevents men from achieving full self-realization.

In Solomon and Marcolf, Marcolf exposes Solomon’s implicit gyno-idolatry in practice.  Marcolf first challenges child-custody sexism implicit in Solomon’s choice among two mothers for the custody of a baby boy:

Marcolf, arising, said to the king, “How do you know that this is the boy’s mother?” Solomon responded, “By her emotion, change of demeanor, and shedding of tears.”  Marcolf: “You are not showing good sense.  So you believe in a woman’s tears?  In your wisdom, are you ignorant of a woman’s wiles?” [10]

A vast historical literature describes women’s wiles.  Dodging the factual question and blatantly ignoring wisdom, Solomon makes the now-conventional declaration that not all women are like that.  Solomon then shifts to an ad hominen attack against Marcolf (your mother’s a whore! you slander women!)  In response to Marcolf’s reasonable questioning of his wisdom, Solomon characteristically couples malice toward men with gyno-idolatry:

You lie, worst of men.  Every man is the worst who speaks badly of women.  For of woman every man is born, and he who dishonors the female sex is to be slandered greatly.  What good are riches, kingdoms, possessions, gold and silver, gems, precious clothing, expensive banquets, joyous times, and delights without a woman?  Truly he can be called dead to the world who is separated from this sex.  Woman produces sons and daughters, nurtures them, cherishes them, embraces them, hopes for their health, puts herself up against death to save them.  Woman rules the home; she is concerned with the health of husband and family.  Woman is the delight of kings, sweetness of young men, solace of old men, gladness of boys.  Woman is the joy of the day, mitigation of the night, relief of toils.  May God protect women, as I want, so that my entrance and exit may be protected. [11]

Solomon orders Marcolf not to speak badly of women in his presence.  Men are not socially permitted to criticize women.  Tyrannical gyno-idolatry has silenced men’s sexed protests.

Solomon and Marcolf depicts de facto matriarchy.  Marcolf lies to the woman to whom Solomon awarded the baby boy.  Marcolf tells her that Solomon has changed his mind and will now split the baby.  Marcolf also declares that Solomon has decreed that each man will take seven wives.  That decree arithmetically suggests that Solomon also decreed that six-sevenths of men will be eliminated.  Men’s deaths have never attracted much social concern.  The woman believes Marcolf’s lies and quickly generates outrage about Solomon’s injustice to women:

A gathering of matrons comes about, neighbor woman reports to neighbor woman, an immense uproar arises, and in a short time all the women of the city flock together.  Having flocked together, they approved the plan of going in a formation to the palace, attacking the king, and opposing his commands.  And in fact almost seven thousand women, coming to the court, surrounded the palace of King Solomon, and, having made an attack, broke its doors.  Then, attacking the king, they inflicted horrible abuse upon him and his counselors.  Indeed their extreme rage exceeded all bounds, and one more, another less, they all let forth cries before the king in an immense uproar. [12]

Solomon seeks from the women the cause of this violence.  Apparently thinking that the women are joking, he smiles and responds with a jest. The women cry out that Solomon is mocking them and that he is a bad man.  Having women say that he is bad is more than Solomon can take.  He bursts out in anger with a patchwork of wisdom from the Wisdom of ben Sirach.[13]  Yet if such wisdom had weighed more in guiding his action, Solomon would have understood the problem.  The prophet Nathan arises and counsels Solomon:

He must sometimes be blind, deaf, and dumb who desires to be at peace with his subjects.

Ignoring the women wasn’t a practical option at this advanced stage of the uproar.  Marcolf then leaps up, declares that Solomon has acted according to his social plot, and declares, “No one ought to believe whatever one hears.”[14]  Marcolf has revealed women’s readiness to perceive injustices against women.  Marcolf has also revealed the imbalance of Solomon’s wisdom in practice.  Enraged at Marcolf for these revelations, Solomon banishes Marcolf from the palace.

Much learning is a dangerous thing.  Wisdom, separated from justice, is status-seeking, not knowledge.[15] Let Marcolf speak and listen to him.

*  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Wisdom of ben Sirach (Sirach) 51:19, 23, 26.

[2] Sirach 51:13-30.  Sirach is also called Ecclesiasticus.  Ben Sirach is also transliterated as ben Sira.  The concluding section is more commonly called the Alphabet of Ben Sira, but I consistently use the form Sirach to lessen confusion for persons not familiar with these texts.  Sirach has survived in Greek in the Septuagint.  Since 1890, most of Sirach has been recovered in the original Hebrew.

[3] Pseudo-Sirach references obscure Rabbinic knowledge and is written in Rabbinic Hebrew.  Orr (2009), Ch. 1, describes differences among manuscripts of Pseudo-Sirach.  This work, sometimes called the Alphabet of Ben Sira, can thus be confused with the last section of SirachPseudo-Sirach more clearly identifies the relevant work.  Pseudo-Sirach is not a strongly unified work.  Different pieces make up different manuscripts.  Like Pseudo-Sirach, Solomon and Marcolf also consists of proverb pairs, connecting biographical narrative, and question-answer dialogue.  Bradbury (2008) describes connections between the proverbs section, biographical sections, and question-answer sections of Solomon and Marcolf. The structure of Pseudo-Sirach supports those connections.

[4] Possible sources include Jewish and later Islamic stories about the encounters between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and between Solomon and Hiram of Tyre.  On the former, 1 Kings 10:1-13, Matthew 12:42, and Lassner (1993).  On the later, 1 Kings 5:1-12, Flavius Josephus, Judean Antiquities 8 (5.4).143-144, 146-149.  Josephus’s text was translated into Latin in the sixth century.  Ziolkowski (2008), pp. 308-9, helpfully provides both texts and an English translation. Pseudo-Sirach declares:

Hiram, King of Tyre was brought by God into paradise because he built the Temple and was at first God-fearing.  He remained alive in paradise for a thousand years.  Later, however, he became arrogant and said, “I am a god,” as it is said, “Because you have been so haughty and have said, I am a god’ {Ezekiel 28:2} He was then driven out of paradise and he entered hell.

Alphabet of Ben Sira (Pseudo-Sirach), from Hebrew trans. Bronznick (1990) p. 195.  Despite his wisdom and good deeds, Solomon fell into idolatry and sexual relations with foreign women.  Rabbinic tradition includes debate about whether Solomon was a sinner and should be expelled from Paradise.  Nissan (2009) p. 56, n. 31. That tale associates Hiram and Solomon.  Ben Sirach thus seems to be a more distinct alternate to Solomon.  Pseudo-Sirach’s tale about Joshua’s bull-riding may have derived from an Iranian myth.  Nissan (2011).  Sixth-century Iranian culture embraced wide-ranging ideas.  With the coming of Islam, Persian elites brought cosmopolitan Persian culture into Islamic ruling circles.

[5] Alphabet of Ben Sira (Pseudo-Sirach), from Hebrew trans. Bronznick (1990) pp. 184-5, 187-8 (previous five quotes above).  Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah, one of the the most famous pre-Islamic Arabic poems, invokes “a morning draught of fine spiced wine.”  About 700 in present-day Iraq, Arabic poet al-Farazdaq implicitly related the aroma of spices to the slaughter of poetry and excrement.

[6] The description of Pseudo-Sirach as “a kind of academic burlesque” is from Bronznick (1990) intro., p. 167.  Lassner (1993) p. 19 states:

There is no doubt that the pseudonymous author of this medieval tract {Pseudo-Sirach} intended that Ben Sira and Nebuchadnezzar be seen as analogues to their famous predecessors. {Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, respectively}

Ben Sirach seems to me to have more of the character of Marcolf than of Solomon.  See text and note [4] above.  Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t seem to be closely related characteristically to the Queen of Sheba, except for being her son in some stories.  More generally, ben Sirach and Nebuchadnezzar are less polarized as characters than are Marcolf and Solomon.

[7] The two quotes above are translations of two Hebrew/Aramaic proverb pairs.  Some manuscripts of Pseudo-Sirach include 22 Hebrew/Aramaic proverb pairs. The Jewish Encyclopedia entry for the Alphabet of Ben Sira provides Louis Ginzberg’s English translation of the Aramaic proverbs.  Orr (2009), Ch. 3, provides an insightful analysis of the pairs and describes them as a parody of petiḥta in aggadic midrashim.  The translations of the Hebrew proverbs (le-olam sayings) are from id. pp. 52, 64.  The translation of the first Aramaic proverb is from the source reference in id. p. 62, simpler NRSV text.  The second is from Ginzberg’s translation, cited in id. p. 52. Id. p. 62 notes a small change in a proverb to create a pun-parody. These also occur in Solomon and Marcolf.

[8] Solomon and Marcolf 1.135ab, 1.81ab, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 73, 65 (previous two quotes above).  Bradbury & Bradbury (2012) provides online dual-language Latin/English Solomon and Marcolf texts from early printed books.  A facsimile of Gerard Leeu’s illustrated English edition, printed at Antwerp in 1492, is also available online.

[9] Alphabet of Ben Sira (Pseudo-Sirach), from Hebrew trans. Bronznick (1990) pp. 172-3 (previous four quotes above).

[10] Solomon and Marcolf 2.12.1-5, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 89.  Within the under-appreciated literature of men’s sexed protests, Alonso Martínez de Toledo’s Archpriest of Talavera spoke out strongly about the dangers of women’s tears.  On the judgment of Solomon (splitting the baby), 1 Kings 3:16-28.

[11] Id. 2.12.25-34.  In id. 2.12.37, Solomon declares, “you ought not spit upon that which you must put to your mouth.”  That may be a reference to a sexual issue in the literature of men’s sexed protests.

[12] Id. 2.14.3-7.  The women’s forceful protest has parallels with women’s forceful protest in Judah ibn Shabbetai’s early-thirteenth-century Hebrew narrative Minhat Yehudah Sone ha-Nashim.  With respect to ibn Zabara’s Sefer Shaashuim (Book of Delight), written in Hebrew in Spain about 1200, Abrahams (1912) pp. 22, 26 declares:

That the model for Zabara’s visitor was Solomon’s interlocutor, is not open to doubt. … in Zabara’s “Book of Delight” we have a hitherto unsuspected adaptation of the Solomon-Marcolf legend.

Ibn Zabara and his roguish interlocutor engage in proverb battles, ponder the wiles of women, and interrupt each other’s attempts to sleep.  Cf. Solomon and Marcolf II.4.  Pseudo-Sirach and works like it may have been a common model for both Solomon and Marcolf and Sefer Shaashuim.

[13] Solomon’s criticism of women in Solomon and Marcolf II.16 is “a tissue woven almost exclusively from direct quotations of Ecclesiasticus 25-26 {Sirach}.”  Ziolkowski (2008) p. 233.  Dense interweaving of biblical quotations in parodic literature also characterizes al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni, written in Hebrew in early thirteenth-century Spain.

[14] Id. 2.17.4, 2.17.13 (previous two quotes above).  In the second quote, I’ve substituted “one” for “he.”  Cf. Id. 1.5a-b and commentary, pp. 122-3.

Part of the problem is Solomon’s structural dependence on the power of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Medieval Latin conductus describe Mary as “Solomon’s throne.” E.g. the conductus O Mary O happy childbearer {O Maria o felix puerpera} figures Mary as “Solomon’s ivory throne {Salomonis thronus es eburneus}”; and the conductus O Mary, flower of virginal honor {O maria virginei flos honoris} figures Mary as “Solomon’s throne {thronus Salomonis}.” As always, the gynocentric substructure is more important than the sex of the ruler.

[15] Cf. Alexander Pope (1709), An Essay on Criticism Part II, l. 215; Plato, Menexenus 246e, 247a.

[image] King Solomon Hears the Complaint of an Ant who was Blown off the Wall and Got Wounded, illustration from book, Masnavi-i ma’navi of Jalal al-Din Rumi, completed in Bharat, India, 1663.  Walters manuscript W.626, folio 156B.  Thanks to the Walters Museum for making this cultural artifact of world importance available worldwide on the Internet.


Abrahams, Israel. 1912. The book of delight, and other papers. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Bradbury, Nancy Mason. 2008. “Rival Wisdom in the Latin Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf.” Speculum. 83 (2): 331-365.

Bradbury, Nancy Mason and Scott Bradbury, eds.  2012. The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf: A Dual-Language Edition from Latin and Middle English Printed Editions.  Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.

Bronznick, Norman, trans. 1990.  “The Alphabet of Ben Sira.”  Pp. 167-202 in Stern, David and Mark Mirsky, eds. 1990. Rabbinic fantasies: imaginative narratives from classical Hebrew literature. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Lassner, Jacob. 1993. Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: boundaries of gender and culture in postbiblical Judaism and medieval Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nissan, Ephraim. 2009. “On Nebuchadnezzar in Pseudo-Sirach.” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha. 19 (1): 45-76.

Nissan, Ephraim. 2011. “On Joshua in Pseudo-Sirach.” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha. 20 (3): 163-218.

Orr, Gili. 2009.  The medieval Alpha Beta deBen Sira I (“Rishona”): A parody on Rabbinic literature or a Midrashic commentary on ancient proverbs?  Thesis, Master Hebrew Language and Culture. University of Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *