Baghdad to Rouen: Warner’s cosmopolitan literary ambition

About the year 1000, eastern Eurasia arguably had a higher level of social development than western Eurasia.  Moreover, within western Eurasia, Normandy was then far from the leading centers of civilization.  The largest cities in western Eurasia about the year 1000 were Córdoba, Constantinople, and Baghdad.  The largest had a population about 200,000.  London then had a population of less than 25,000.[1]  Rouen, the leading city of Normandy, had much less developed culture than London.  Yet Warner, writing in Rouen early in the eleventh century, produced poetry that measures up to the outrageous urbanity of leading Abbasid literary provocateurs.  The only plausible reason for Warner and others producing big-city work in a remote, small town is cosmopolitan literary ambition.

wild man like Moriuht

One of Warner’s poems is a satirical Latin poem concerning an Irishman named Moriuht.  Warner dedicated this poem to Archbishop Robert of Rouen and the Archbishop’s mother.  This poem isn’t the sort of work one now might imagine being written for a leading cleric and his mother.  The poem declares:

This slow-witted Moriuht, named from the origin of death, … in his own eyes lives as a grammarian.  Scholar, rhetorician, geometer, painter, scribe — let him be all things to you; for me he is Caper himself!  For he knows more about his own goat’s cunt than what force dialectic carries, or the nature of geometry’s power. [2]

The phrase “scholar, rhetorician, geometer, painter, scribe” is a quote from a Roman satire of Juvenal, written about 900 years earlier.[3]  The phrase “let him be all things to you” plausibly parodies 1 Corithinians 9:22. The word caper means “a stinking, randy goat.”  It was also the proper name of a second-century grammarian.[4]  These learned references contrast sharply with the reference to “his own goat’s cunt.”

Moriuht overflows with sexual activity.  Vikings capture Moriuht, piss on his bald head, and anally rape him.  Moriuht is then sold to nuns.  He vigorously and promiscuously services sexually the nuns.  People catch Moriuht having sex with a nun, beat him, and sell him as a slave to a widow.  Moriuht then vigorously has sex with the widow.  He earns his freedom through that work.  While searching for his wife, who was also captured by Vikings, Moriuht has sex with “countless young men, nuns, widows, and married women.”[5]  Moriuht was a man of strong, independent, transgressive sexuality.  Celebrating such sexuality in learned writing isn’t a modern academic development.

Warner’s poem attacks Moriuht’s merits as a poet.  The poem includes insults directly addressed to Moriuht:

Your mistress {the widow} held you dear because of the performance of your dangling penis. This man {Virgil} was valued in Rome for the beauty of his poetry.  He earned his lands because of the nobility of his great verse.  You gained your liberty by fucking her stiffly erect clitoris.

Contrasting Virgil’s poetry with fucking would be unusual in any discourse.  It’s particularly amazing to find in eleventh-century Norman Latin poetry.  While the poem describes Moriuht’s verses as “worthy of little pages made of shit,” is also links such crude insults to sophisticated technical discussion of poetic meter:

You goat!  May you completely eat the cunt of your nanny-goat and, in equal measure, her sexual organs and her buttocks, before the wise poems of our Virgil disappear and before {the syllables} “fo” and “mo” have two tempora {poetic beats}, as well as {the syllable} “fex.” [6]

What did the Archbishiop and his mother think of this?  In addition to coarsely presented sexual activity, Moriuht also includes sacrifices to heathen gods that succeed in producing magical effects.  Who would have appreciated such learned, scurrilous, blasphemous writing in eleventh-century Rouen?

While some Baghdadi sophisticates cherished such writing, Rouen was far from Baghdad.  In the twelfth century, an English chronicler writing a history of Normandy declared that, prior to about 1042, “scarcely any Norman spent his time in liberal studies.”  The chronicler observed:

the Normans, who issuing from Denmark were more addicted to the pursuit of arms than of learning, and up to the time of William the Bastard {1066} devoted themselves to war rather than reading or writing books. [7]

The English chronicler in part seems to be putting forward a claim that post-Norman-conquest England conquered her rude conqueror culturally.[8]  But to be effective such a claim must have been at least plausible.  Careful study of eleventh-century Latin culture at Rouen indicates that “the court at Rouen was by no means an artistic desert.”[9]  Nonetheless, Moriuht makes sense as a niche product within a highly developed social-cultural field.  The court at Rouen surely was not such a field.

Moriuht’s manuscript context suggests little interest in the work, but provides closely related poems.  Moriuht survives in a codex written in Caroline minuscule, probably late in the eleventh century in eastern France, perhaps in Metz.  The contents of the codex:

  • 1  blank flyleaf
  • {missing} toponymic work: “provinces, jurisdictions, mountains, rivers”
  • {missing} Vita et actus Tirii Apolonii (Appollonius, King of Tyre)
  • 2r-9r  Warner, Moriuht
  • 9r-11v  Warner, Runaway Monk, a satiric verse dialogue between Warner and a runway monk of Mont-Saint-Michel
  • 11v-27r Pseudo-Plautus, Querolus (a comedy composed in Gaul c. 400)
  • 28r-30r anonymous, satiric, dialogic poem Jezebel
  • 30r-32r anonymous, satiric, dialogic poem Semiramis
  • 33r-33v text describing rules for making organ-pipes
  • 34r-34v blank, except for table of contents written in the 14th century [10]

The missing works, which are listed in the table of contents, apparently were cut away from an earlier binding of the codex.[11]  A note added to the table of contents declares: “They were robbed and cut away by perverse and iniquitous people.”[12]  Moriuht, Jezebel, and Semiramis have survived only in this codex.  Those works apparently were rarely re-copied and weren’t useful or interesting enough to steal.  Moreover, the disparate bundle of works in the codex suggests cultural circumstances in which highly sophisticated literary works were rare.

Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis are closely associated, learned literary works.  Consider some lines from Jezebel:

Whence do you come, Jezebel? — From the foul prison of Babel-Babylon.

What do you have to do with Nazareth? — Much, for my bush is in bloom.
Why have your buttocks swollen? — From a sow’s udder.
What power keeps you laughing? — Practice as a prostitute.
For what do you search above all? — Priapus, in a hundred whorehouses.
What do you seek constantly? — To be mounted, pressed down.
What do you desire least? — People chaste in body. [13]

Like Moriuht, Jezebel couples coarse sexual explicitness with academic allusiveness.  For example, the Latinization of Nazareth means flower.  The word for bush resonates with vagina and the sumac bush, which was believed to constrain heavy menstruation.[14]  Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis casually invoke pagan gods and acts blasphemous to Christians.  All four feature poetically sophisticated dialogue in leonine hexameters.  Moriuht and Runaway Monk contain dedications identifying their authors as Warner.  The anonymous Jezebel and Semiramis, if not also authored by Warner, seem to have been authored by someone with a very similar cultural and literary orientation.

Plausible immediate social and political contexts for these works further narrow their local audience.  An interpretation of Jezebel’s now highly obscure opening lines suggests that Jezebel is a satire on Ælfgifu of Northampton.[15]  Ælfgifu was King Cnut’s concubine prior to his marriage with Emma of NormandyHarold Harefoot, Ælfgifu and Cnut’s son, reigned as King of England from 1035 to 1040.  Semiramis seems to be a satire on Emma’s marriage to King Cnut, who killed her former husband King Æthelred II.[16]  The figure Semiramis stands for Emma, the horned adulterer for King Cnut, and the augur for Emma’s brother, the Archbishop Robert of Rouen.  In Semiramis, Archbishop Robert in the figure of the augur appears “weak, pompous and rather pitiful.”[17]  Emma as Semiramis, like Moriuht, has strong, independent sexuality:

Never did any courtesan on earth burn more fiercely than wanton Semiramis, taking her paramour from the fields: it was a bull found to be adulterer in Ninus’ reign.  If a queen sought out a rude bull among the vetch, why did a heifer not wear the royal crown? … Such lewd disorder spread from Babylon.  What prostitute in the whole world could have been more debased? … The woman who took Babylon has submitted to the bull.  One of many, she crushed the city, alone she had crushed her modesty. [18]

While Semiramis provides mythic justification for her behavior, doubting rationalizations of a woman’s behavior was possible before our age of enlightenment.  Emma probably wouldn’t have been interested in patronizing, praising, and disseminating the work of Semiramis’ author.[19]  Appreciation for Warner and closely associated poets who wrote work like Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis could easily have been politically dangerous in eleventh-century Normandy.

Warner and any other poets among the authors of Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis apparently imagined an audience like that which existed in the high Arabic literary culture of the Islamic world.  While Old French fabliaux feature coarse, explicit sexual acts, they lack the literary sophistication of Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis.[20]  Moriuht mixes crude sexual references with technical discussions of grammar.  Runaway Monk mixes satire on vocational infidelity with a technical discussion of music theory.[21]  Al-Jahiz (ninth century Baghdad) and al-Maʿarrī (died 1056 in Aleppo) provide good models of such work within the Islamic world.[22]

Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis have a broad geographic scope of literary interest.  In addition to references from Latin ecclesiastic culture and Greco-Roman culture, they also refer to pagan Danes, Swabians, and Numidians.  Jezebel in the Hebrew Bible was the non-Jewish princess of Tyre before she became Ahab’s queen.[23]  Semiramis was a legendary Assyrian queen. Both Jezebel and Semiramis refer to Babel/Babylon.  Those references may have had some contemporary literary resonances.  Buttocks are of particular sexual interest in Moriuht and Jezebel.[24]  Buttocks were also a prominent focus of sexual interest in Arabic literature.  Rouen is known to have attracted foreign scholars, including scholars from Italy.  Perhaps Rouen also attracted some scholars from the world of Arabic literature.[25]

Cosmopolitan literary ambition best explains Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis being written in eleventh-century Rouen.  The complex literary allusiveness and crude sexual explicitness of these works indicates niche products in a highly developed literary field.  Possibilities for patronage, praise, and distribution of such work in eleventh-century Rouen, or even across Normandy and England, were very narrow.  Warner and perhaps other closely associated authors seemed to have imagined themselves writing at the forefront of literary culture of their time.  That cosmopolitan ambition would have encompassed literary creativity in Córdoba, Cairo, and Baghdad.

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[1] According to calculations based on the best available evidence, the East had higher social development than the West from 550 GC to 1750 GC.  Morris (2010) Graph 60, p. 193; p. 199.  The historical city size estimates, except for London, are from id. pp. 110, 112.  Other estimates for population c. 1000 GC are 1,200,000 for Baghdad and 450,000 for Córdoba.

[2] Moriuht, ll. 49-54, from Latin trans. McDonough (1995) p. 75.  No specific information about Warner is known outside of the text of the poems Moriuht and Runaway Monk.  Warner almost surely wrote those works within the vicinity of Rouen.  Where Warner was born isn’t known.

[3] Juvenal, Satire 3.76, cited in McDonough (1995) notes, p. 125.

[4] Id. notes, p. 126.

[5] Moriuht, l. 173, trans. id. p. 85

[6] Moriuht, ll.185-8, 338, 447-9 trans. id. pp. 85, 95, 103 (previous three quotes).

[7] Orderic Vitalis, Historia Aecclesiastica, Book 4, 2:250-1, Book 3, 2:2-3, trans. Chibnall, relevant lines given in Ziolkowski (1989) pp. 38-9.

[8] Cf. Horace, Epistles 2.1.156: “Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror and brought the arts to rustic Latium {Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio}.”

[9] Ziolkowski (1989) p. 39.

[10] Adapted from id. pp. 28-30, which also provides the judgment of dating and geographic provenance.  The codex is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat. 8121A.  Three scribes wrote the codex:

one wrote folios 2-27, another folios 28-32, and a third folio 33.  The hands of the first two scribes resemble each other closely.  The hand of the third scribe differs from the first two, but nonetheless seems to belong to the same milieu.

Id. p. 29.

[11] McDonough (1995), p. 64, observes that following the blank flyleaf are “remains of two leaves that have been excised.”  More than two leaves undoubtedly were needed to hold the toponymic work and Apollonius, King of Tyre. Evidently the codex originally had more gatherings at the beginning.

[12] Ziolkowski (1989) p. 29.

[13] Jezebel, ll. 8, 12-17, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1989) p. 75.

[14] Id. notes, pp. 90-1.

[15] Galloway (1999).

[16] Van Houts (1992)

[17] Id. p. 21.

[18] Semiramis, ll. 5-9, 11-12, 16-17, from Latin trans. Dronke (1970) p. 71.  Van Houts (1992) p. 21 states, “Throughout the poem Semiramis is pictured as a strong, intelligent and brisk woman.”

[19] Id. p. 23 notes of Semiramis:

The author should surely have sought anonymity, not so much to avoid the anger of Emma and her new husband, as to protect himself against reproaches from Emma’s children and to remain in favour with the ducal family and in particular with Archbishop Robert.  The primate of Normandy can hardly have been pleased by his caricature as an effective pagan necromancer.

[20] Cf. McDonough (1995) p. 53.

[21] Id. p. 66.  Ziolkowski (1995), p. 32, summarizes Runaway Monk (Warner Satire 2).

[22] For the latter, see Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Risālat al-ghufrān, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013).

[23] 1 Kings 16:31.  Jezebel was the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidions.  That made Ethbaal King of Tyre and Jezebel a princess of Tyre.  Perhaps the connection through Tyre helped to motivate the inclusion of Apollonius King of Tyre in the codex.  The plot of Moriuht is also similar to events in Apollonius King of Tyre.

[24] Jezebel ll. 13, 44, 47, 56, 60, 99, 103.  See also note to l. 56, Ziolkowski (1989) pp. 113-4.  Moriuht ll. 22251-44 declares:

all the way up to his buttocks {he was} naked.  And to relate further, his genitals were visible in their entirety, and the black hairs of his arse and groin.  In addition, his anus also constantly gaped so openly when he bent his head and looked down on the ground, that a cat could enter into it and rest {there} for an entire year, passing the winter in company with his consort cat, that in the vast forest of his groin a stork could build its nest and a hoopoe could have a place of its own.

A reviewer of Ziolkowski (1989) complained:

Remarkably, the concept of misogyny is barely acknowledged by Ziolkowski (he occasionally cites it at second hand), and the word “gender” is missing from his otherwise exhaustive commentary.  This curious blind spot ….

Nelson (1995) p. 446.  The more insightful concept of men’s literature of sexed protest has now replaced the misandristic concept of misogyny.  Jezebel could be interpreted as a burlesque of a pious scholar incapable of dealing with the learned guile of a vicious, sex-obsessed woman. The Old French fabliau La Saineress provides a variation on that theme.

[25] Ziolkowski (1989) p. 40. An Arabic finger ring has been found in a ninth-century Viking woman’s grave in Birka, Sweden. It’s inscribed with Arabic Kufic text reading “For/to Allah.” Material evidence indicates that the ring was rarely worn and passed relatively directly from the maker to the Swedish woman. The ring thus suggests direct contact between the Vikings and the Islamic world. Wärmländer et al. (2105).

[image] Kniender Wild Man, bronze with lacquer patina13.1 x 8 x 5.5 cm, originally attached to a chandelier, 2nd half of 15th century, Frankfurt, Museum of Arts and Crafts. Thanks to Wikipedia.


Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic individuality in the Middle Ages: new departures in poetry, 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Galloway, Andrew. 1999. “Word-play and political satire: solving the riddle of the text of Jezebel.” Medium Aevum. 68 (2): 189-208.

Van Houts, Elisabeth M.C. 1992. “A Note on Jezebel and Semiramis, Two Latin Norman Poems from the Early Eleventh Century.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 2 (1): 18-24.

McDonough, Christopher J. 1995. Warner of Rouen. Moriuht: a Norman Latin poem from the early eleventh century. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Morris, Ian. 2010. Social Development.

Nelson Janet L. 1995. Review. Ziolkowski (Jan M.). Jezebel. A Norman Latin Poem of the Early Eleventh Century. Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire. 73(2): 444-7.

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

Wärmländer, Sebastian K.T.S., Linda Wåhlander, Ragnar Saage, Khodadad Rezakhani, Saied A. Hamid Hassan, and Michael Neiβ. 2015. “Analysis and interpretation of a unique Arabic finger ring from the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden.” Scanning. 37 (2): 131-137.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1989. Jezebel: a Norman Latin poem of the early eleventh century. New York: P. Lang.

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