classical Arabic buttocks in medieval European context

In classical Arabic literature, a figure of feminine beauty was a narrow waist and large buttocks.  An Arabic song from the seventh century lovingly effused:

Her buttocks quiver when she walks; her back
is like a willow branch, her waist is slim. [1]

An Arabic ode from the early eighth century marveled:

Her rump is like a dune that towers, where
the sprinkling rains have shaped firm hillocks. [2]

The larger the buttocks, the bigger the blessing to an admiring man in the ancient Islamic world.  But only within reason.  In a Syrian author’s eleventh-century Arabic story, a shaykh found himself in Paradise:

The shaykh takes a quince, or a pomegranate, or an apple, or whatever fruit God wills, and breaks it open.  A girl with black, lustrous eyes whose beauty dazzles the other damsels of the Paradisical gardens, emerges. [3]

The shaykh is overjoyed and prostrates himself to God for this blessing.  While praising God he retained his good sense in classical Arabic literature:

It occurs to him, while he is still prostrate, that the girl, though beautiful, is rather skinny.  He raises his head and instantly she has a behind that rivals the hills of ʻĀlij, the dunes of al-Dahnāʼ, and the sands of Yabrīn and Banū Saʻd.  Awed by the omnipotence of the Kind and Knowing God, he says, “Thou who givest rays to the shining sun, Thou who fulfillest the desires of everyone, Thou whose awe-inspiring deeds make us feel impotent, and summon to wisdom the ignorant: I ask Thee to reduce the bum of this damsel to one square mile, for Thou hast surpassed my expectations with Thy measure!” [4]

The shaykh’s prayer revised the initial impulse of desire that God apparently perceived in his heart and granted to his eyes.  God responded mercifully to the shaykh’s praise of divine bounty and to his feeling of impotence upon seeing the enormous size of the girl’s buttocks:

An answer is heard: “You may choose: the shape of the girl will be as you wish.”
And the desired reduction is effected.

Men and women across cultures and history typically find most attractive women with waist-to-hip ratios about 0.7.[5]  But, irrespective of evolutionary psychology, classical Arabic literature and God could construct enormous buttocks.

Bustle dress from mid-1880s exaggerates buttocks

The classical Arabic ideal of large buttocks apparently moved European culture.  The ancient Greek ideal of buttocks, at least as represented by the Aphrodite Kallipygos, isn’t impressive in size.  However, an important early fifteenth-century Spanish work in the literature of men’s sexed protests registers a meaningful objection to what would now be termed sexual harassment:

She looks at her hands all covered with rings, and chews her lips to make them red, casting her eyes about, looking sideways, wriggling her bottom like mad … And if she is at home clad only in a wrapper, she will lean over and pick up something from the floor, to show her shanks proudly and a great expanse of buttocks, this to attract the attention of whoever is looking at her, or of the one she would be desired by. [6]

An Italian work of men’s sexed protests from the fourteenth century explicitly connects a woman’s large buttocks to the Arabic world:

she wanted her cheeks nicely puffed and red, her buttocks ample and protruding (having heard perhaps that these things were most highly prized in Alexandria and for that reason were a very great part of the beauty of a lady), above all else she strove to make these two features abundantly conspicuous in herself.  … And fully did she succeed in becoming plump-cheeked and big-bottomed. [7]

The man’s protest focused on the expensive food that his wife ate in order to swell her buttocks:

About the milk-fed veal, the partridges, the fat thrushes, the turtledoves, the Lombard soups, the lasagne cooked in broth, the elderberry fritters, the white chestnut cakes, and the blancmanges of which she had the same bellyfulls as peasants do of figs, cherries, or melons when they are placed before them, I do not care to tell you.

This rhetorically sophisticated protest would gain additional weight if the narrator and most medieval European men did not favor big-bottomed women.  Given the prestige of Arabic science and literature in medieval Europe, large buttocks may have been recognized as an ideal of womanly beauty irrespective of most medieval European men’s actual preferences.

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[1] Attributed to Qays ibn Dharīh in Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, al-Aghānī, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 142.

[2] Dhū l-Rummah, qasīdah “To Mayyah’s Two Abodes, a Greeting,” from Arabic trans van Gelder (2013) p. 23.

[3] Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Risālat al-ghufrān, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 269.  I’ve added a comma after gardens.

[4] Id. (including subsequent quote).  In classical Arabic love poetry, large buttocks were admired in both women and boys: “the standard poetic simile is that of a sand hill or dune.” Id. p. 405, n. 801.

[5] Kościński (2013), Singh (2002).  With respect to body-mass index, relatively wealthy, urban men and women find most attractive skinny women.  Kościński (2013).

[6] Alonso Martínez de Toledo, Archpriest of Talavera, II.8, from Spanish trans. Simpson (1959) p. 140.

[7] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Corbaccio, from Italian trans. Cassell (1993) pp. 40-1 (including subsequent quote).  Id. p. 123, n. 188, observes that Alexandria was the site of a “notorious Egyptian slave market.” Boccaccio spent part of his youth in Angevin Naples and probably was familiar with at least some Arabic literature.  Kirkham & Menocal (1987).

The fourteenth-century Spanish work Libro de buen amor, which was a culturally hybrid Arabic-European work, described as desirable “widish” hips.  The Arabic folk tale La historia de la doncella Teodor, translated into twelfth-century Castilian, described as beautiful “wide” hips. Da Soller (2005) pp. 88-9, 99.

Desired buttocks in medieval European literature seem otherwise to be smaller than the ideal buttocks of classical Arabic literature.  In twelfth-century French literature, feminine beauty was “small waist; moderately full hips.”  In English literature from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, feminine beauty was typically “small waist; … not too broad or round hips.” Da Soller (2005) pp. 44-6, 73-4. Cf. Le Ménagier de Paris 2.3.20 (c. 1393), which suggests that desirable characteristics of a maiden are “a handsome mane, a beautiful chest, fine-looking loins, and large buttocks.” From French trans. Greco & Rose (2009) p. 224.

[image] Dress from the 1880s with bustle exaggerating the buttocks.  Thanks to Wikipedia.


Cassell, Anthony K. trans. 1993. Giovanni Boccaccio. The corbaccio, or, The labyrinth of love. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Da Soller, Claudio. 2005. The beautiful woman in medieval Iberia: rhetoric, cosmetics, and evolution. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Missouri-Columbia.

Gelder, Geert Jan van. 2013. Classical Arabic literature: a library of Arabic literature anthology. New York: New York University Press.

Greco, Gina L., and Christine M. Rose, ed. and trans. 2009. The good wife’s guide; Le ménagier de Paris: a medieval household book. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kirkham, Victoria, and Maria Rosa Menocal. 1987.  “Reflections on the ‘Arabic’ world: Boccaccio’s ninth stories.” Stanford Italian Review VII, pp. 95-110.

Kościński, Krzysztof. 2013. “Attractiveness of women’s body: body mass index, waist-hip ratio, and their relative importance.” Behavioral Ecology. 24 (4): 914-925.

Simpson, Lesley Byrd Simpson. 1959. Alfonso Martínez de Toledo.  Little sermons on sin: the Archpriest of Talavera. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Singh, Devendra. 2002. “Female mate value at a glance: relationship of waist-to-hip ratio to health, fecundity and attractiveness.” Neuro Endocrinology Letters. 23: 81-91.

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