immovable mountains in al-Khansa & the Gospels

immovable mountains

Lamenting her two brothers killed in inter-tribal violence, the early Arabic poet al-Khansa declared:

I will cry for them, by God, as long as the lovesick pine
and as long as God keeps in place the immovable mountains [1]

The simile “as long as the lovesick pine” refers to ancient belief that lovesickness causes enduring physical illness and sometimes even death. The reference to immovable mountains could be merely a physical metaphor: immovable mountains are prominent physical features of the world.[2] But just as lovesickness is a very literary idea, the figure of crying as long as God keeps in place the immovable mountains may have considerable literary range.

The Christian Gospels contain a strange figure of immovable mountains. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says to his disciples:

Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. [3]

Closely related figures exist in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The first letter to the Corinthians refers to “faith that can move mountains.”[4] The impossibility supposed possible is an ancient, widely used rhetorical figure. The impossibility of casting mountains into the sea assumes understanding of mountains as immovable. Literary elaboration upon that understanding apparently goes back at least to the time of the Christian Gospels.

Al-Khansa’s lament may have refigured the Gospel figure of moving immovable mountains. Both concern God’s power. In the Gospels, faith in God gives a person of faith the power to move mountains. In al-Khansa’s lament, God keeps in place the immovable mountains.

The water of al-Khansa’s tears connects to the sea. Just as immovable mountains are obvious macroscopically, erosion of land from streams of water is obvious microscopically. One can imagine small streams of water over a long time wearing away mountains.[5] In the Gospels, faith in God would allow al-Khansa to cast mountains into the sea. In al-Khansa’s lament, only God keeping in place mountains stops her stream of tears from washing the mountains away. Even if she were to live long enough to fill a sea with her tears, without God’s will, the mountains remain.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Al-Khansa, Diwan ed. Abd al-Salam al-Hufi (Beirut: Dar al-Katub al-Ilmiyaa, 1985) p. 99, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 169. Al-Khansa is one of the most celebrated women poets in classical Arabic literature. Id, n. 3, remarks that this poem does not exist in many editions of al-Khansa’s Diwan.

[2] Psalm 125:1-2 uses immovable mountains in a straight-forward metaphor:

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time on and forevermore.

[3] Mark 11:22-3. See also Matthew 17:20, 21:21; Luke 17:6.

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:2.

[5] The mu’allaqa of Labīd provides such imagery:

And the torrent beds of Rayyán naked tracings,
worn thin, like inscriptions carved in flattened stones,

Replenished by the rain stars of spring, and struck
by thunderclap downpour, or steady, fine-dropped, silken rains.

From Arabic trans. Sells (1989) p. 35. For related discussion, Hammond (2010) pp. 124-7.

[image] Photo thanks to Cathy Edelman.


Hammond, Marlé. 2010. Beyond elegy: classical Arabic women’s poetry in context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sells, Michael Anthony. 1989. Desert tracings: six classic Arabian odes. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.

Romance of the Rose: vital dream of sexual fulfillment

Pygmalion embracing woman in Romance of the Rose

Women and men, by the very dignity of their human nature, are entitled to sexual fulfillment. In the European Middle Ages, Christians venerated lavishly dressed, bejeweled images of the Virgin Mary. Medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary buttressed oppressive ideals of courtly love and men’s subordination in non-sexual service to women. Today, U.S. universities target men’s sexuality for harsh repression, while studiously maintaining ignorance about the reality of rape. The Romance of the Rose, a highly popular, thirteenth-century French work, presented a man’s struggle for sexual fulfillment.[1] His struggle succeeded, but only in his dream. Making the Romance of the Rose’s dream real is a vital and continuing challenge.

The Romance of the Rose retells the story of Pygmalion to connect veneration of the Virgin Mary to sexual fulfillment. Pygmalion sought pleasure in testing his artistic skill and in winning fame — in medieval understanding, shallow secular pleasures compared to the deep joy of holy adoration and sex. He crafted an ivory image of a woman:

it was as lovely and beautiful and apparently as alive as the fairest creature living. Helen and Lavinia were beautifully fashioned, but they were not born with such fine complexions or such shapely forms, nor had they one-tenth of her beauty. [2]

Pygmalion fell in love with the ivory woman that he created. So too medieval men and women, pilgrims who traveled great distances, loved sculpted images of the Virgin Mary.

Pygmalion perceived the ridiculousness of the situation. He noted:

I love an image that is deaf and dumb, that cannot move or stir, and will never have pity on me. How could I have been wounded by such a love? … there are many countries where many men have loved many ladies and served them as well as they could without receiving a single kiss in spite of all their toil.

Those men are impious fools — Suero de Cuinones, Ulrich von Lichtenstein, R. Howard Bloch, and many modern male-gendered cis-feminists. Pygmalion addressed his virgin ivory woman:

Sweet friend, I ask for mercy and beg you to accept these amends, for if you would only deign to look gently and smile upon me, I believe that that would suffice me, for sweet looks and gracious smiles give great delight to lovers.

Then Pygmalion venerated the virgin:

Pygmalion fell on his knees, and his face was wet with tears. He made his offering in reparation, but she cared nothing for these amends. She neither heard nor felt anything about him or his gift

Pygmalion’s veneration of his virgin ivory went beyond prayers and songs of adoration:

he would embrace her once again and take her in his arms as he lay in his bed, kissing and caressing her. But it is not very pleasant for two people to kiss each other when they are not both enjoying it. [3]

Men’s pleasure in love depends on sense of mutual enjoyment. A flesh-and-blood women can provide that sense in a way that no virgin ivory can.

Divine intercession brought Pygmalion sexual fulfillment. Pygmalion held a vigil at a temple of Venus. He prayed to the goddess:

blessed Venus, the lady of this temple, fill me with your grace, for you are greatly angered when Chastity finds favor, and I have  deserved severe punishment for having served her so long. I repent of it now, without further delay, and I beg you to pardon me. Be merciful to me, be tender and kind and grant, on the understanding that I will flee into exile if I do not shun Chastity from now on, that the fair one who has stolen away my heart and who is so like ivory, may become my true sweetheart, with the body, soul, and life of a woman. If you make haste to do this and I am ever again found to be chaste, may I be hanged or hewn in two with great hatchets, or may Cerberus, the doorkeeper of hell, swallow me alive and crush me in his triple jaws, or bind me with ropes or chains.

After this petitioning prayer, Pygmalion was “ready to perform his penance naked in the arms of his sweetheart.”[4] To make that penance possible, Venus animated the virgin ivory with a soul. It became a beautiful, flesh-and-blood woman.

Pygmalion was overjoyed that his prayer was answered. He marveled at the woman:

He saw that she was living flesh; he caressed the naked flesh, he saw the lovely blond locks shining, and rippling together like the waves, he felt the bones and the veins all full of blood, and the throbbing movement of the pulse.

Pygmalion doubted reality as if it were merely a construct of human minds. But the maiden spoke warm, reassuring words to him:

Sweet friend, it is neither a demon nor phantom. I am your sweetheart, ready to receive your companionship, and I offer you my love if you will be pleased to accept it.

After Pygmalion provided affirmative consent, words made flesh became real beyond doubt to him:

she refused him nothing that he wanted. If he raised objections, she yielded, overcome by his arguments; if she commanded, he obeyed; under no circumstances would he refuse to gratify her every desire. He could lie with his sweetheart, and she would neither resist nor make complaint.

This confusion of command and argument indicates the mutuality of love. It wasn’t just a rhetorical exercise. She became pregnant and had their child.

Realizing adoration of the virgin as Pygmalion did requires the lover to establish an intimate personal relationship. Gazing upon the reliquary and aperture above his virgin’s legs, the lover imagined the furrow for him to plough. With the help of Venus, fire began to burn within the sanctuary, that place of the rose. The lover moved forward:

I promptly made my way, like the good pilgrim I was, with heart as ardent, fervent, and loyal as any true lover, towards the aperture, there to fulfill my pilgrimage. I had laboriously brought with me my sack, and my staff that was so stiff and strong that it needed no iron foresheath when going on journeys. The sack was well made of a supple, seamless skin, but I assure you it was not empty. At the time she made the sack, Nature, who gave it to me, had forged two hammers for it with great skill and care … I know how to forge. I assure you that my two hammers and my sack are dearer to me than my lute or my harp.

Transcending the sordid history of disparaging men’s genitals, the lover appreciated that his staff was wonderfully made:

I have taken it into many places, and it has often brought me comfort. It is very useful to me, and do you know how? When I am traveling in some out of the way place, I stick it into those ditches in which I cannot make anything out, and I also use it to try out the fords. Thus I can boast that I need have no fear of drowning, for I am very good at testing the fords, and at striking the bed and banks with my staff. Sometimes I encounter streams that are so deep and whose banks are so far apart that I would find it less painful and wearisome to swim two leagues along the sea-shore than to attempt so perilous a passage.

Despite these hazards, the lover recognized the attractions of loving older women. He also recognized the scientific virtue of empiricism:

you do well to try everything, the better to enjoy the things that are good. Whenever he can get into the kitchen, the epicurean connoisseur of delicious morsels tries meats of various kinds, whether boiled in a pot or roasted, marinaded or in a pastry crust, fried or in a galantine. Having tasted many in this way, he knows which to praise and which to condemn, which are sweet and which are bitter.

The lover wasn’t merely interested in a piece of meat. He sought the rose.

The lover’s pilgrimage to venerating the holy virgin, the rose, drew near to consummation. He partially raised the curtain that screened the holy relic and devoutly kissed the sanctuary. The lover explained:

I wanted to sheath my staff by putting it into the aperture while the sack hung outside. I tried to thrust it in at one go, but it came out and I tried again, to no avail because it sprang out every time and nothing I did could make it go in. There was a barrier within, which I could feel but could not see. When the aperture was first constructed, it had been placed there, close to the edge to fortify it and make it stronger and more secure.

Flesh-and-blood life is full of difficulties for men. Men must work to overcome these difficulties:

I noticed a narrow passage through which I thought I could pass, but first I had to break down the barrier. This tiny, narrow pathway that I have mentioned and through which I sought to pass, allowed me to break down the barrier with my staff and introduce myself into the aperture, but I could not even get halfway in. … Nothing, however, could have prevented me from sliding my staff all the way in. I did so without delay, but the sack with its pounding hammers stayed dangling outside.

The lover shook the rose tree. He proceeded gently, “for I did not want to cause any injury”:

at last, when I had shaken the bud, I scattered a little seed there. This was when I had touched the inside of the rose-bud and explored all its little leaves, for I longed, and it seemed good to me, to probe its very depths.

To many today, such action doesn’t seem good. It is good. Thinking otherwise is a misconception.

The Romance of the Rose’s completion has been misunderstood as idolatry.  Interpreting the story of Pygmalion and the lover’s quest to penetrate the rose, an influential medieval scholar declared:

a man, diligently seeking out and considering in his thought the beauty of women so that he makes idols for himself, necessarily prepares for his own fall. … An “idol” is thus not always a tangible image of wood or stone; it may be an image in the mind. And such mental images are typically those formed on the basis of feminine beauty. [5]

Men don’t imagine “the beauty of women”; a man imagines the body of a specific woman. In the Middle Ages, many men imagined the body of the Virgin Mary, who was represented in tangible images of wood and stone. The audacious genius of the Romance of the Rose was to unite adoration of the Virgin Mary with the lover’s genital connection to a specific, flesh-and-blood woman.[6] The completion of the Romance of the Rose rejected the mental malady of disembodied courtly love:

the felicitous conclusion of the love story begins when it abandons the path of cerebral and artificial gameplaying and enters onto that of straight genital copulation, in accordance with the intentions of God the creator [7]

Incarnation among humans proceeds from the holy wonderful act of straight genital copulation.

The Romance of the Rose, a medieval best-seller, united adoration of a virgin image and the goodness of a penis penetrating a vagina. Neither sort of act is well-appreciated today. May our repressive Dark Age receive enlightenment!

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Between 1225 and 1230, Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first 4,058 lines of the Romance of the Rose. Between 1269 and 1278, Jean de Meun wrote an additional 17,724 lines. The Romance of the Rose was one of the most popular medieval texts. More than 200 medieval manuscripts of it have survived. For comparison, only 84 manuscripts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are extant. Horgan (1994) Introduction, p. ix.

[2] Romance of the Rose (Roman de la Rose), from French trans. Horgan (1994) p. 321. Pygmalion is a figure in ancient Greek myth. Helen refers to Helen of Troy; Lavinia, to the wife of Aeneas. All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from l. 20653-21712, trans. id. pp. 319-335 (Chapter 12, “The Conquest of the Rose”). I’ve made some minor changes to the translations for clarity.

Ovid, Metamorphosis, 10.271-463, influentially told the story of Pygmalion creating an ivory image of a beautiful woman. In Ovid, prior to creating his image, Pygmalion had resolved to remain unmarried in response to women’s shameful behavior and personal flaws. Jean de Meun’s Pygmalion doesn’t express any dissatisfaction with flesh-and-blood women. On differences between Ovid’s and Jean de Meun’s treatment of Pygmalion, McCaffrey (1999).

[3] Philostephanus of Cyrene, writing in Greek in the third century BGC, recounted the story of Pygmalion. While the relevant work (Philostephanus’s Cypriaca) is lost, Arnobius (c. 300) summarized its treatment of Pygmalion:

he would lift up the divinity to the couch, and enter into union with her; embracing and kissing her and carrying out acts that, born of lust’s vain imaginings, could only be frustrated by reality.

From Latin trans. Stoichita (2008) p. 8. In the Romance of the Rose, the lover shows more respect for the difference between an image and a flesh-and-blood woman. Nonetheless, Haines (2010), p. 37, opines that Pygmalion in the Romance of the Rose “visually raped” the ivory. Scholars would more usefully consider the facts of real rape. McCaffrey (1999), p. 440, describes the Romance of the Rose’s Pygmalion as “more eccentric than Ovid’s and more nearly delusional.” That judgment lacks appreciation for medieval practices of adoring and adorning images of the Virgin Mary.

[4] The Romance of the Rose re-interprets Christian religious practice of prayer, confession, and penance. The lover superficially replaces “concupiscence” with “chastity” for the sin he confesses. But that isn’t simply parody. The Romance of the Rose concerns the meaning of true love between a man and a woman in the world.

[5] Robertson (1962) p. 99.

[6] Jean de Meun wrote the story of Pygmalion and the lover’s union with the rose in the final chapter of the Romance of the Rose. In a motet that Haines (2010) attributes to Jean de Meun, the Virgin Mary is starkly distinguished from all other women:

For when God created woman,
he gave her a sweet form
to better cover her false soul.
But He exempted the holy
and mighty one of whom I sing.
I wish to serve my Lady with all my heart.

Id. p. 34. That’s thematically very different from the relation of the Virgin Mary to other women in the Romance of the Rose. Attributing the motet to Jean de Meun surely is questionable.

In The apparicion Maistre Jehan de Meun of Honorat Bovet, written in 1398, Jean de Meun appears as a learned scholar staunchly committed to speaking truth to power. See Hanly (2005) l. 1-80. That’s consistent with the above interpretation of Jean de Meun’s completion of the Romance of the Rose.

[7] Nykrog (1998) p. 324. Id. observes that, within the Romance of the Rose, Reason, Nature, Genius, and Venus all support this view.  In ancient Greece, beauty (kállos) was associated with sexual desire. Konstan (2015). In academic scholarship today, cerebral gameplaying favors misandry:

it is my conviction that the poem’s unmasking of its own internal incoherences does not actually lead to textual hermaphroditism or semiotic and sexual indeterminacy. Rather it works to shore up men’s sexual, social, and political power under patriarchy and to confirm women’s status as mute, passive sexual objects, as the butt of a particularly vicious form of priapic humor.

Guynn (2004) p. 653.

[image] Embrace of Pygmalion and women vivified from his statue. Detail from illuminated page of Roman de la Rose. Manuscript from France, possibly Paris, ca. 1405. MS M.245 fol. 152r, Morgan Library (NY).


Guynn, Noah D. 2004. “Authorship and Sexual/Allegorical Violence in Jean de Meun’s Roman de la rose.” Speculum. 79 (3): 628-659.

Haines, John. 2010. “An Antifeminist Motet by Jean de Meun (?): O bicornix / A touz jours / Virgo Dei genitrix.” Nottingham Medieval Studies. 53 (1): 21-38.

Hanly, Michael G. 2005. Honoré Bovet. Medieval Muslims, Christians, and Jews in dialogue: the apparicion Maistre Jehan de Meun of Honorat Bovet : a critical edition with English translation. Tempe, Ariz: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Horgan, Frances, trans. 1994. Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Konstan, David. 2015. Beauty: the fortunes of an ancient Greek idea. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCaffrey, Phillip. 1999. “Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun: Narcissus and Pygmalion.” Romanic Review. 90: 435-450.

Nykrog, Per. 1998. “Obscene or Not Obscene: Lady Reason, Jean de Meun, and the Fisherman from Pont-sur-Seine.” Pp. 319- 31 in Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Robertson, Durant W. 1962. A preface to Chaucer: studies in medieval perspectives. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Stoichita, Victor Ieronim. 2008. The Pygmalion effect: from Ovid to Hitchcock. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ibn Rawahah avoided domestic violence with Islamic learning

metalic Arabic script on wall at Alhambra

Ibn Rawahah was a companion of the Prophet of Islam, an amanuensis for the Prophet, and a leading political figure in the early Islamic world. Domestic violence against men is commonly ignored or trivialized. Yet even as eminent a man as ibn Rawahah could have been a victim of domestic violence. Islamic learning and poetic guile saved ibn Rawahah from being a domestic violence homicide victim.

One night ibn Rawahah was in bed with his wife. She was asleep. He felt an urgent need for sex. Rather than interrupt his wife’s sleep, ibn Rawahah quietly got out of bed and went to his maid’s room. She was awake and eager to experience the joy of union with ibn Rawahah. Under Islamic law, ibn Rawaha’s specific relationship with this maid made sex with her licit. Ibn Rawaha mounted the maid and they began to experience the joy of sexual union.[1]

Somehow sensing his absence from their bed, ibn Rawahah’s wife awoke. She dressed and went in search of him. She espied him having sex with their maid. Enraged, she ran to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and ran back to the maid’s quarters. She was ready to kill her husband.

Ibn Rawahah and the maid finished their sexual activity. When ibn Rawahah was returning to his room, he encountered his wife carrying a kitchen knife. He asked what she was doing. She answered:

If I had caught you now where I saw you before, I would have plunged this knife right between your shoulder blades!

She said that she saw him on top of the maid. He responded:

You did not see me thus, {and I can prove it}: for the Messenger of God has forbidden us to recite the Qur’an when we are sexually impure.

His wife then challenged him to recite the Qur’an. Ibn Rawahah recited:

The Messenger of God came to us
declaiming his Book,
Like the brilliant flash of the rising dawn,
He came bearing guidance in wake of the darkness,
And our hearts are sure
that what he said is the truth.
All night long he jumps up out of bed,
While the polytheists sleep soundly!

Ibn Rawahah’s wife mistakenly thought that her husband had recited actual Qur’anic verses and thus could not have just concluded sexual activity. She apologized to him and exclaimed, “I believe in God! My eyes are mistaken!” The tale concludes:

The next day, ibn Rawahah went to see the Prophet and told him all that had transpired. The Messenger of God laughed so hard that you could see his molars.

European literature, like other literature from around the world, contains many tales of wives guilefully cuckolding their husbands. Stories of husbands guilefully saving themselves from their wives’ premeditated domestic violence are much more rare.

Islamic learning was pivotal to ibn Rawahah’s guile. The story of ibn Rawahah is recorded in the writings of al-Qurtubi, a thirteenth-century Islamic scholar from Córdoba. Hammam ibn Munabbih, an Islamic scholar who died in 748, preserved a related saying of Jesus:

Jesus saw a person committing theft. Jesus asked, “Did you commit theft?” The man answered, “Never! I swear by Him than whom there is none worthier of worship.” Jesus {then} said, “I believe God and falsify my eye.” [2]

Ibn Rawahah’s wife apparently followed this saying of Jesus. Jesus is a highly respected prophet in Islam. Appreciating sayings of Jesus, however, isn’t sufficient to avoid being intimately deceived by one’s spouse. In the story of ibn Rawahah, lack of Islamic learning (knowledge of the Qur’an) enabled ibn Rawahah’s wife to be deceived.

The story of ibn Rawahah helps to enlarge listeners and readers understanding of the world. While women are generally superior in guile to men, men too are capable of guile. Being able to laugh is necessary to receive the truth.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] The story is from Qurtubi, V, pp. 182-83, from Arabic trans. Maghen (2008) pp. 337-8. All the quotes above, except for the final one, are from id. I’ve made some minor modernizations of the English. Ibn Rawahah is more fully named ‘Abdullah ibn Rawahah ibn Tha’labah. Id. uses the variant transliteration ibn Rawaha. In relation to ibn Rawaha, the maid was one “whom his right hand possessed.” Hence “this was probably a licit act of concubinage.” Id. p. 337.

[2] Sahifat Hammam ibn Munabbih, p. 34 (no. 41), from Arabic trans. Khalidi (2001) p. 51. Hammam ibn Munabbih assembled what is regarded as the earliest surviving collection of sayings of the Prophet (hadith). Id.

[image] Detail from a wall of the Palacios Nazaries in the Alhambra, Granada, Spain. Thanks to Alexandre Buisse and Wikimedia Commons.


Khalidi, Tarif. 2001. The Muslim Jesus: sayings and stories in Islamic literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Maghen, Ze’ev. 2008. “The Merry Men of Medina: Comedy and Humanity in the early days of Islam.” Der Islam. 83 (2): 277-340.

dog is man’s best friend in medieval Latin literature

Humans’ emotional friendship with dogs has been regarded as a modern development. The saying “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog!” has been well-known only since the late twentieth century.[1] The more general claim, “if you want a friend, buy a dog,” is attested in print from 1911. The slightly different claim that a dog is man’s best friend is attested only from 1789.[2] The Oxford English Dictionary explains:

Before the eighteenth century, dogs other than the disdained lap-dog were usually kept not as household pets but for hunting, working, or guarding, and the language used to describe them often reflects this. In the oldest proverbs and phrases dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful. To throw or cast someone to the dogs (from 1556) is to send them to destruction or ruin, as is the later and now more common to go to the dogs (from 1619). [3]

That explanation is misleading. In literary fact, humans’ intense friendship with dogs has a long history. Within circumstances of betrayal in domestic human relations, medieval Latin literature from no later than the year 968 figured a dog as the preferred choice for a man’s friend.

dog is man's friend

Friendship with a dog occurs in medieval Latin literature within a framing narrative of domestic betrayal. In a dog-friend story recorded in Latin in 968,  young men plotted to kill their fathers. The young men wanted freedom to pursue their desires without the constraint of their fathers’ views. One of them didn’t kill his father, not because of love, but out of fear. The young man and his wife hid the man’s father in their home. Whenever the king asked for advice, the man consulted his hidden father and got the advice from him. Through the goodness of his father’s advice, the man became an eminent counselor to the king. His friends then began to envy him. They plotted to put him death. Thus sons betrayed fathers, and friends betrayed friends.

The young man chose a dog to be his friend before the king. Apparently setting up the young man for a charge of betraying the king’s order, the king ordered the young man to appear before him with only one servant, one friend, and one enemy.  The young man was confused and terrified. He consulted his father. His father advised:

You have a fine donkey: take him with you laden with bread, wine, and meat. You have one little she-dog well-trained to defend your property: take her with you. Take also your wife along with you. Offer the donkey as your servant, the dog as your friend, and your wife as your enemy. [4]

The donkey in the role of servant suggest the difficulty of finding an obedient human servant. The wife as enemy suggests men’s anguish at perceived betrayal by their wives. The choice of a dog as a friend contrasts with the friends who sought the young man’s life.[5]

A version recorded about 1190 includes effusive praise of the dog as “my best friend.” The young man declared to the king:

My dog symbolizes my best friend. He goes with me wherever I go and does not fear the danger of rivers, the knives of bandits, and the teeth of wild beasts. He even despises death for my sake. Often he returns from hunting with noble spoils of the chase for me and my guests; never happy without me, never sorrowful with me. Certainly, O King, I could never find another friend so pure and faithful. I think not even you could be such. [6]

The dog as man’s best friend is not merely a lap-dog. In this medieval Latin text, the dog is a best friend in a way similar to a man being a best friend to another man.

Humans domesticated dogs before they domesticated any other animal or plant. A puppy was found buried in the arms of a human under a home 12,000 years old. Attachment between a human and a dog seems to use the same biological pathways as attachment between humans.[7] A man regarding a dog as his best friend probably occurred long before the earliest text of such a relationship in surviving literature.

Domestic relations provide humans with both comfort and anguish. If you seek a servant who will never complain, get a donkey. If you cannot endure any fear that your spouse might betray you, don’t get married. To have a friend who surely will not speak against you, get a dog.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] That claim is commonly attributed to Harry Truman, the U.S. president from 1945 to 1953. There’s no evidence that Harry Truman said it or wrote it. Moreover, Truman wasn’t fond of dogs. See the Quote Investigator’s article on “want  a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

[2] The statement “a dog is man’s best friend” is recorded for Frederick, King of Prussia. The claim that “Doug is man’s best friend” is a very recent variant.

[3] The ninth-century Latin poem “The Wrangle of the Dwarf and the Hare” recounts a fierce hare overcoming a dwarf and a “timid whelp.” The hare recalls “the injuries done to its people by men and swift dogs.” Trans. Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 303-4. Sedulius Scottus’s mid-ninth-century Latin poem “The Ram” describes dogs viciously attacking a lovable, voluble ram. Trans. id. pp. 262-5. In contrast, Thierry of St. Trond’s twelfth-century Latin poem, “Weep, Dogs” laments the death of Pitulus,a “beloved dog.” Pitulus was a small, weak dog loved for his ability to generate laughter. Trans. id. pp. 272-3. Pitulus is like a lap dog, not like a man’s best friend. Walker-Meikle (2012) provides considerable documentation of dogs as medieval pets. A dog being a man’s best friend is different from a dog being a pet. For example, the Italian poet and orator Andrea Navegero, who lived from 1483 to 1529, eulogized his dog Borgettus as a dog who “loved his master as a two-year-old girl would love her mother.” Id. p. 98. The British Library’s medieval manuscripts blog describes dogs as medieval man’s best friend, but doesn’t provide a specific textual attestation.

[4] The story is recorded in a sermon of Ratherius (Rather of Verona), Sermon on the Octave of the Pasch, CC Opera Minora 171-76, from Latin trans. Reid (1991) pp. 510-11. The Latin text is available online in Patrologia Latina, vol. 136 and through the Corpus Corporum website. Rather of Verona experienced throughout his life tense personal relationships and betrayal. Van Renswoude (2010).

In ancient Greek myth, Hypsipyle hid her father Thoas while the other Lemnian women killed their husbands and fathers. See, e.g. Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheca 1.9.17.

[5] In a similar story from Lamentationes Matheoluli (Latin text dated 1290), the young man is instructed to bring also his lord. The young man brings his infant as his lord. That suggests the young man’s frustration with serving his infant. See l. 897-924, in Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) pp. 112-4, or Van Hamel (1892) pp. 65-7. In Dolopathos (Latin text dated about 1190), the young man brings his little son in response to a demand to bring also an actor. The figure of the little son as actor is affectionate:

Where can I find a better actor than my little son? Every day he puts on new shows. When he tries to imitate what he sees or hears, he uses comic gestures. He stammers words which he cannot handle properly, and when he cannot say at all what he is thinking, he illustrates it by signs and motions of the body. One moment he is gay, and the next moment he is sad. He cries and laughs, not deliberately as other actors do, but simply as nature and his youth compel. For all this he asks no reward.

Trans. Gilliland (1981) p. 53 (senex, the story of the third wise man). The story is set in ancient Rome, and the description of the actor is that of a Roman pantomime.

[6] Dolopathos, id. p. 52. In literature arising nearly two millennia earlier, Odysseus and his dog Argos express an affectionate relationship in the context of men betraying Odysseus.  See Homer, Odyssey, Book 17, l. 290-327.

[7] Grimm (2015), MacLean & Hare (2015).

[image] Matheolus with his wife, son, dog, and donkey before King Solomon. Engraving, from image 35 in edition of Jehan le Fèvre, Matheolus qui nous monstre sans varier les biens & aussi les vertus: qui viennent pour soy marier (Lyon: Olivier Arnouillet, 1550), in Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon, Rés. B 487656. Thanks to Gallica. Le Fèvre added to his Latin source that Matheolus should appear before the king neither clothed nor naked. The image shows Matheolus wearing netting.


Gilleland, Brady B. 1981. Johannes de Alta Silva. Dolopathos, or, The king and the seven wise men. Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies.

Grimm, David. 2015. “Dawn of the dog.” Science. 348 (6232): 274-279.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt, eds. 2014. Lamentationes Matheoluli. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

MacLean, Evan L., and Brian Hare. 2015. “Dogs hijack the human bonding pathway.” Science. 348 (6232): 280-281.

Reid, Peter L. D. ed. and trans. 1991. The complete works of Rather of Verona. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Van Renswoude, Irene. 2010. “The Sincerity of Fiction. Rather of Verona and the quest for self-knowledge.”Corradini, Richard, ed. 2010. Ego trouble: authors and their identities in the early Middle Ages. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Walker-Meikle, Kathleen. 2012. Medieval pets. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. Talking animals: medieval Latin beast poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.