woman betrays serpent, gets herself and man expelled from easy living

Explulsion of Eve and Adam

Ever since Eve and Adam, everybody has looked down on phallic-shaped serpents. The serpent seduced Eve. If a woman is seduced, it’s the seducer’s fault, and he should be incarcerated or made to crawl on his belly for the rest of his life. Some, however, blame Adam for not protecting Eve from the serpent. Others say that if Adam had provided enough food for Eve, she wouldn’t have been interested in eating the forbidden fruit. More recently, the learned speculate that Adam had a long history of abusing and controlling Eve. The sight of the delightful fruit, not anything that the serpent said, triggered the battered woman Eve. Within medieval Latin literature, relations among woman, serpent, and man were understood differently.

According to a story in the highly popular medieval Latin work Gesta Romanorum, a knight and his wife fell into extreme poverty. In a room of their mansion lived a serpent. The serpent observed their misery. The serpent said to the knight:

Why do you lament? Take my advice, and you shall not subsequently repent of what you did. Supply me every day with a certain quality of sweet milk, and I will enrich you. [1]

The knight was thrilled with the serpent’s promise. The knight faithfully followed the instructions of his crafty serpent friend. The knight was subsequently enriched with a beautiful son and much material wealth.

The knight’s wife, however, wasn’t satisfied with the knight following the serpent’s instructions. She wanted more. She said to her husband:

My lord, I am sure that serpent has great riches hidden in the chamber where he dwells. Let us kill him and get possession of the whole.

She advised him to smash the serpent with a hammer. His wife’s proposal pleased the foolish knight. He put out some milk and prepared to smash the serpent’s head with the hammer. The serpent stuck his head out of his hole to sip the milk. He sensed the hammer coming down and quickly pulled back into the hole. The knight’s blow merely smashed the dish and spilled the milk. Soon after, the couple’s son died and they lost all their wealth.

The wife continued to dominate her husband even amid their tears. She said to him:

Alas! I have ill counseled you. Go now to the hole of the serpent and humbly acknowledge your offense. Perhaps you may receive forgiveness.

The knight complied with his wife’s command. Standing before the serpent’s hole, the knight cried and begged that he be made rich as before. He promised never again to consider attacking the serpent. The serpent rejected the knight’s wife-ordered repentance. Only then did the knight truly repent. He declared to his wife, “Fool that I was to take your counsel!” That repentance was too late. The knight and his wife lived out their lives in poverty.

Struggling against the dominant gynocentrism of vernacular literature, medieval Latin literature sought to promote more equitable gender relations. The story of the wealth-giving serpent has its roots in the ancient Indian story collection known as the Panchatantra. Medieval Latin literature adapted the Panchatantra’s story with deep insight into the relation of Eve and Adam.[2] Seduction can be an enjoyable, licit, and fruitful aspect of life. Allowing Eve to dominate Adam ultimately causes the misery of humankind.

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Notes:

[1] Gesta Romanorum, Tale 141, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) p. 246. Subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 246-7.

[2] Panchatantra, Book 3, Story 5, from Sanskrit trans. Ryder (1925) pp. 331-3. The story is Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 285D. D.L. Ashliman provides an online review of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 285D. Here’s some discussion of the movement of Panchatantra stories westward.

In its application, the Gesta Romanorum version emphasizes the relation to Eve and Adam: “the knight is Adam, who by following his wife’s advice lost Paradise.” In this allegorization, the wife is Eve.

References:

Ryder, Arthur W., trans. 1925. The Panchatantra. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

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

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