medieval scholar at University of Paris wretched like courtly lover

scholars studying at the medieval University of Paris

By late in the twelfth century, the nascent University of Paris was attracting ambitious scholars. These scholars devoted themselves to pursuing knowledge just as courtly lovers devoted themselves to pursing women. The labors of ambitious scholars and courtly lovers bore mainly wretchedness. Seeking learning or women as a means of external validation implies mistaken reasoning or disordered desire.

According to the Architrenius, a long Latin poem finished in 1184, Paris is the best of all places for gods and scholars:

Paris, the second palace of Phoebus, Delphic in its citizenry, Chrysaean {gold-bearing} in its wealth, a Greece in libraries, an India in its schools, a Rome for poets, an Attica for philosophers; the flower of the world, the balm of creation, a Sidon for its splendor, its feasts and its drinking.

{ altera regia Phebi,
Parisius, Cirrea viris, Crisea metallis,
Greca libris, Inda studiis, Romana poetis,
Attica philosophis, mundi rosa, balsamus orbis,
Sidonis ornatu, sua mensis et sua potu }

One place uniting the world’s best places for knowledge, predictive power, wealth, and lavish eating and drinking — what else could a scholar-man desire other than Kievan women?

At the University of Paris, the scholar’s zeal for knowledge brings him misery. His hair becomes unkempt, and his clothes, threadbare. For food he has mainly peas, beans, onions, and cabbage. He sleeps on a thin pallet through which he can feel the hard floor. But he passionately seeks to penetrate what he doesn’t already know:

pursed lips express the effort of the panting mind, he strives to advance with his whole being, pours forth long-drawn sighs and groans as the barriers are broken, brings the hot blood to his face, and puts forth his utmost effort, while his eyes blaze in frenzy.

{ anime luctamen hanelum
Pressa labella iuvant. sese procedere toto
Dimicat, obicibus ruptis suspiria tractim
Proicit et gemitus efflat, vultumque cruentat
Ignibus, ambustis oculis, totuspque furore
Effluit }

All night long he is preoccupied with knowledge:

Toiling at such tasks, by lamplight and by the light of learning, he grows faint with exhaustion, yet burns with eager love to make Minerva wholly his own. Only when Phoebus has arisen from the low-lying Antipodes, and drawn within a few paces of the horizon, does peaceful sleep first spread its gentle mist over his eyes. Now he holds his pen and other tools with slack fingers, while the open book receives the weight of his drooping head. But even in the peace of slumber the unceasing labor of the student finds no peace. Care remains wakeful even in the midst of sleep, and the sleeper’s anxious mind is still proposing books and projects to itself. This abiding anxiety never succumbs to sleep; instead the preoccupations that had earlier kept him awake return, and the vast amount of work to be done presents itself like a Hydra of troubles to his restless cogitations.

{ Talibus insudans olei librique lucerna
Tabidus illanguet, toti nupsisse Minerve
Sedulus ardet amor, dum strato Phebus ab axe
Antipodum surgat et paucis distet ab ortu
Iam gradibus; tenui tum primum spargit ocellos
Nube quies sompni, calamumque et cetera laxis
Instrumenta rapit digitis — declive libello
Suscipiente capud; sed in illa pace soporis
Pacis eget studii labor insopitus et ipso
Cura vigil sompno: libros operamque ministat
Excite sompnus anime, nec prima sopori
Anxietas cedit, sed, que vigilaverat ante,
Sollicitudo redit et maior summa laboris
Curarum studii insompnibus obicit ydram. }

He bitterly laments having spent some time in sleep. He imagines that because he didn’t rise soon enough his place is being taken by another:

Eager to arrive at school before his master, he fears that the other has arrived already, that the master has already sounded the horn for a daily lesson, and is now proffering a second round of Delphic libations. He curses his body for succumbing to fatigue; indignation evokes a sneer of bitter anger, and spews forth the complaints that swell his burning bosom, lamentations that bring him at last to the point of tears.

{ precessurusque magistrum
Precessisse timet et iam pro parte diurna
Intonuisse tuba fontisque secunda propinet
Pocula Cirrei, domitos torporibus artus
Increpat et mestos ire indignacio risus
Excutit et tumidos flammato pectore questus
Evomit, in lacrimas tandem vergente querela. }

The scholar, subordinate to his master, lacks self-confidence in his ability to know. He imagines that another man could take his place. He doesn’t believe in his own intrinsic value, he doesn’t honor his own wonderful body, and he experiences not pleasure, but wretchedness.

After the account of the scholar’s troubled night, the Architrenius inserts a parallel chapter about the courtly lover. In reference to the courtly lover, the chapter explains:

It is thus with the soldier of Venus who has arranged to come in secret to his mistress’s door at nightfall. … he flies, borne along by the wings of Cupid, and looks about him, and takes the measure of earth and heaven, the one with his hastening feet, the other with sweeping gaze.

{ Sic Veneris miles furtivum pactus amate
Postibus accessum … volat rapiturque Cupidinis alis,
Suspiciensque simul terras metitur et astra,
Has pedis, hec oculi cursu }

The scholar, the “soldier of Phoebus,” is like the courtly lover:

In the same way, the soldier of Phoebus, exerting feet and mind to the utmost, hastens to the precincts of Minerva, the sanctuary of learning, continually glancing at the horizon as he proceeds, spanning the horizon with his eyes and the earth with his feet.

{ Non secus et miles Phebi ad loca pacta Minerve
Discendique lares properat luctamine toto
Et pedis et mentis, Aurore ad limen eundo
Sepius aspectans, oculisque amplectitur ortus
Et pedibus terras }

After sleeping for an hour, the courtly lover curses himself like the scholar did:

He curses himself for having trusted his eyes to keep watch. He declares that his prayers have been rendered vain by the loss of the hour now past, that his beloved, once deceived, may never be enjoyed. He grows ashamed, and condemns himself as one unworthy of admission to the camp of Venus.

{ Increpat excubiis oculi se credere, iurat
Dampno preterite quod vota fefellerit hore,
Quodque semel lusa numquam pociatur amata
Seque suiques pudet }

The courtly lover is as wretched as the scholar. Both believe that they should be able to stay up all night long. That’s as ridiculous as Burnel believing that his penis is too short.

Elite medieval Latin poetry contrasted the student of Athena with the student of Venus  — the ambitious scholar with the courtly lover. Modern scholarship is largely the product of ambitious, career-oriented scholars. Modern scholarship has celebrated the men-abasing horrors of courtly love. The Architreneus highlights that the ambitious, careerist scholar and the courtly lover are similar in their instrumental folly and their experiential hardships.

Medieval European culture was imbued with Christianity. Yet just as a person can become insensitive to her or his spouse’s beauty, medieval clerics could neglect a significant aspect of Christ’s person. Jesus did not act like a professional physician. Jesus engaged in playful mocking. Jesus participated in the outrageous, stinking reality of life. At the medieval University of Paris or in medieval royal courts, both the ambitious scholar and the courtly lover lacked the fullness of Christian life.

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The above quotes are from the Architrenius by John of Hauville (Johannes de Hauvilla). The Latin text and English trans. (adapted slightly) are from Wetherbee (1994). The specific sources are (cited by book.line of the Latin text and page number in Wetherbee’s translation): 2.483-7, p. 59 (Paris, the second palace of Phoebus…); 3.127-32, p. 67 (pursed lips express…); 3.187-200, p. 71 (Toiling at such tasks…); 3.247-53, p. 75 (Eager to arrive at school…); 3.254-5, 273-5, p. 75 (It is thus with the soldier of Venus…); 3.279-83, p. 77 (In the same way, the soldier of Phoebus…); 3.267-70, p. 75 (He curses himself…).

[image] Illumination of a master-teacher and tonsured students at the University of Paris. From a late 14th-century Grandes Chroniques de France. Image via Romeo (2015). If you know the specific manuscript containing this illumination, please contribute it in the comments so that purple motes can continue to maintain high scholarly standards of reference.


Havlidis, Dimitris Romeo. 2015. “Medieval Education in Europe: A Force for Freedom and Submission.” Mar. 20,

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1994. Johannes de Hauvilla. Architrenius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

laughter of cuckolds hides contempt for men, beauty, and humanity

This, my praise for her, and the praise of humanity,
to you, cuckold, are drops of sperm on your head. [1]

The Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, a work of Arabic literature from early eleventh-century Baghdad, is highly learned and deeply cultured. Its author explained:

The kind of literature I am inclined to select are the speeches of the Bedouins and old Arabic poetry, followed by the fantastic and flowery imaginings of well-read scholars, as well as the marvelous innovations born of the genius of the prominent modern poets. These are the sources I have drawn from in my book, adorning myself with their work and often passing it off as my own. I have heard with my own ears the witticisms they have discussed at length and competed over. I have also included excerpts of my own poetry, letters that I have circulated, and records of literary gatherings that I have attended. [2]

The author described his work as an imitation of a man of Baghdad and also an imitation of all of Baghdad:

This is an imitation of a Baghdadi man whom I knew well for a time. He was always blurting pronouncements, sometimes pleasant and sometimes rude, as well as local sayings from his city, sometimes high-brow and sometimes shocking. I have preserved them in my mind to serve as a token of the manners of all the people of Baghdad, of all different social classes, and as a sample of their local customs.

His work frequency uses an Arabic iterative tense that describes typically repeated actions. It depicts events of a single, day-long elite banquet. Yet the author also adds with respect to his literary work itself:

One can just get through it and absorb it in that same span of time {a day}.

Al-Qāsim, the representative, eleventh-century Baghdadi man that Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim imitates, was an old man, an alcoholic, a holy man, and, like the author, “a voluble loudmouth.” He was a man who had keen appreciation, both culturally and lustfully, for beautiful, singing slave girls.

Take, good sir, my hand — the one I used to wipe my ass!
I made a movement strange to see, a chessman standing fast,
like an egg that stands on edge inside a boiling pan.
Ibn Hārūn would be amazed, al-Bustī would have laughed,
so come enjoy this oddity on which I’ve plied my hand! [3]

Al-Qāsim was difficult to understand. He nonetheless resented others misunderstanding him. Recognizing al-Qāsim high level of Arabic cultural achievement, status-seeking young men would ask him: “What should we say? What should we do?” Al-Qāsim would say, “Be men! Good, honorable men! Don’t be beastly!” They would ask, “What should we do to be good men?” He would say, “Live the life of the wise, live by my code.” Then they would ask him to explain his code. He would say:

There is no point in telling signs and warnings to a people with no faith. You can’t make a dead man hear you. The deaf won’t answer your call if they have their backs turned. Were there life in you to hear me, you would hear me, but there’s not. I’m selling pearls in the brick maker’s market. It’s like a pack of skittish donkeys, fleeing from a lion — deaf, dumb, blind, and no brain either.

What God gave me of intellect
is lost on donkeys, sheep, and cows.
They cannot hear me call, nor would
they understand me anyhow.
They gather up and croak like frogs
between the pond and willow boughs. [4]

Then someone would ask him to get to the point and would promise to follow his advice. Al-Qāsim advised that if they were rich, not to save; if they were poor, to borrow. He also advised:

become connoisseurs of fine food, and drink liquor, and listen to beautiful singing-girls, and fuck the dancers and the singers as well. Fuck standing and pray sitting. Fuck the free-born, and don’t forget the slaves. Fuck in secret and in full view. Fuck the owned and the free, and the whores and the chaste. Fuck as long as your cocks are standing, because they won’t stand forever. Fuck the young and the old, fuck vaginas, and assholes, fuck blossoming young girls, and decrepit old women, and beautiful young lads, and ugly old men.

True studs, they say, do not demur,
so climb on filth, and fuck a cur!

… All of this advice, by God, comes from a man who wants the best for you.

If you all agree, advance for your advisor, who is working hard on your behind
to march you to the King of Hell tomorrow, line by line. [5]

Not appreciating al-Qāsim subtlety and profundity, someone would laugh. That would provoke a furious response from al-Qāsim:

Slaughtering of a sacrificial animal, extraction of a barbed spear, a citron thorn! It’s a flirting fever, gall and vitriol, sawing through hard teak, an Ethiopian bubonic throat-plague! Did I say that God was Two? Or Three? Did I refute the Qur’an with poetry? Did I break the tooth of the prophet of God? Did I ransack his family’s tomb? Did I fire a catapult at the Ka’ba, or pelt it with menstrual rags? Did I defecate in the well of Zamzam? Did I hock the holy camel of Sāliḥ? Did I speak of God as the Jews or Christians do? Did I fornicate in the mosque of the Prophet, between his tomb and the pulpit? Did I shit on the Black Stone? Did I chop off the head of Husayn, son of ʻAli? Did I cut off the hand of Jaʻfar ibn Abi Tālib? Did I eat Hamza’s liver? Did I rend the flesh of one blessed by God? So then, loser, what are you laughing at? [6]

Al-Qāsim implied that the man who laughed at him would be morally corrupt enough to laugh at horrible blasphemies against Islam. That’s equivalent to laughing at fundamental truth in the Islamic world. Al-Qāsim thus would attack the man who laughed at his advice with the strongest verbal attack possible in the Islamic world. His advice was meant seriously. Yet to understand that, one must take seriously his urging party-goers, “Be men! Good, honorable men! Don’t be beastly!”

Al-Qāsim appreciated human bodily pleasures, yet maintained a critical perspective on worldly activity. After al-Qāsim would lavishly praise the “licentious women of Baghdad, in whom were gathered the beauty of form and disposition,”[7] his fellow banqueters would beg him for stories about them. Al-Qāsim respected those women. He resented what seemed to be a request for him to tell Milesian tales as if he were a money-grubbing mass entertainer:

Gentleman, are you looking for a clown? Do you want somebody to laugh at? Your friend the fool? No, sir, find someone else to laugh at! [8]

The requester would then piously and humbly repeat his request in the manner of one seeking vital truth:

O God, God, O Abū al-Qāsim, if you would be gracious, we would thank you and you would be our honored master, not someone we could order about. And if you refuse, we will not ask anything resembling this of you, and you will still be a great, respected man among us.

Al-Qāsim would acquiesce to that humble petition. He would tell stories highlighting vitally important truths about women and men in intimate relations.

Al-Qāsim would harshly disparage those who sought to trivialize and delegitimize men being attracted to beautiful, young women. At a banquet, al-Qāsim would see a beautiful, young, singing girl. He would approach her and gaze upon her face. Then he would recite a poem of appreciation for God’s work:

A creator strewed beauty across her face
who made sway her branch under the full moon. [9]

And another poem:

She is tender, her saliva is
musk, honey, and nectar.

And another poem:

There was created for me, just as I wish her to be,
a singing girl who shames the gazelle fawn.

Her beauty dazzles the old man
and it suits me to be dazzled.

The girl would have with her guardians — men working as bodyguards ready to sacrifice themselves to protect her. Al-Qāsim would pour out lengthy disparagement of a guardian’s face and soul. He would start out with poetic couplets of negative amplification:

Neither pleurisy nor gout
creeping from one joint to another,
nor the hurt of a molar after sleep,
nor the sting of a boil in a vulnerable spot,

Is more oppressive than his face in appearance.

You don’t have it in you to enjoy listening to joking
nor to take the truth seriously.

Then he would shift to a long series of poetic “O” laments:

O lack of water on the night of a conflagration,
O load of debt on someone in financial straits,
O capsizing of a rowboat in December,

O silent farting of the elephant when it has indigestion,

O grief of poor men on holidays,

O lack of ink for the copyist,

O embarrassment of the one distressed in his business,
O increasing prices for a bread-winner with a large family,

O wit, O backbiter in whose mouth is putridity,
O attack of fever and O age of senility,
always may you remain in the worst position,
having, in your hatred, no successor when you die.

Then he would move to prose “O” laments:

O beginning of the night of the stranger, when he is far from the beloved; O guise of the guardian; … O more detestable than a cup of thick laxative in the hand of a sick person, and more reprehensible than the appearance of a bankrupt person before the loathed creditor; … O dirtier than the couch of a mangy dog with indigestion; O dirtier than a fly on wet shit;, and more contemptible than the flea in a dog’s ear … O dirtier than the mud of fish-sellers stalls; O more brutal than a tyrant in the eyes of the tyrannized, and more hated than the owl’s cry when it strikes the fevered man’s ear; … O more hateful than separation from a friend, than looking at a stepfather on an empty stomach, and the rough spots in the road, or indeed than the evil of the outcome, the strain of misfortune, the spite of enemies, the envy of relatives, the tenaciousness of strangers, the faithlessness of partners, and observing bores, hanging around with fools, petitioning misers, and antagonizing poets.

Al-Qāsim would go on to further invective in poetic meter. Long into his long, elaborate verbal abuse of the young, beautiful, singing girl’s guardians, someone would laugh.

Al-Qāsim would respond quickly to quell the laughter. He would turn to the laughing man and say:

Are you laughing at me, you son of a farting humbug, who farts wet sharts and sells them for the cost of an acorn, may God blacken your face, you son of a farty filly in heat, shouting, blind, torn, foaming, asking to be fucked, the {one word, probably obscene, of unknown meaning}, bursting, braying, wood-pecking, wet, may God make my ass a flint bucket and your beard tinder! A small-pocked monkey-mongerer in Baghdad by the low wall of al-Khuld is hooded with the thighs of your wife, and his cock is in her belly to the farthest limit of its core, you son of a woman plowed and driven through like a ship through the waves! If your mother’s labia were Hāshimī forelock, I would have plucked its mustache in Medina mosque, inside the holy Maqṣūra. By the life of her mottled ass and the wet hair of her pussy, the stork-like kernel of her clit and the black-and-white magpie hair of her ass, I will pluck your tattered mustache!

O son of a big-clitted woman whose ass has turned aged and silly.
The cocks play in her hole and her shit, shuffleboard, willy-nilly. [10]

In the U.S. today, an old man who recited love poetry to a beautiful, young woman would be shunned as creepy, and perhaps incarcerated for failing to secure affirmative consent before gazing upon a woman. If any man said all that al-Qāsim said, he probably would be arrested and incarcerated for months, if not years, for racism, sexism, and hate speech. That’s not how it was in the high culture of eleventh-century Baghdad.

Men being cuckolded, like men being kicked in the groin, has commonly stirred laughter. That’s the laughter of those lacking intellectual and cultural sophistication. Al-Qāsim appreciated the functioning of a man’s penis and endless learning. Only a fully human person could encompass the contradictions of abundant life as al-Qāsim did. Al-Qāsim would advise men, “Be men! Good, honorable men! Don’t be beastly!” They don’t understand. They don’t take him seriously. They deserve the full brunt of al-Qāsim’s invective.

Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258

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[1] al-Azdī, Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, from Arabic, my adaptation based on the translations of St. Germain and Selove. The Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim was written early in the eleventh century, probably near Baghdad. Selove describes St. Germain’s translation as “rendered in literal, non-literary, academic language.” Selove (2016) p. 6. In St. Germain’s translation, the couplet is the first half of the poem:

This is my praise and the praise of mankind (for you)
Are, O drop of sperm, two horn on you(r head)
And if I have made it too short,
Consider it a (brief) stroll in a garden

St. Germain (2006) p. 381. Selove translated this poem as:

This is my praise for you and for mankind
You drip of a cuckold’s wet dick
And if you feel that I’ve cut it too short
Just think this a garden pic-nic

Selove (2016) p. 180, n. 4. Selove’s translation is much more lively, but seems to me to have some weaknesses. St. Germain’s phrase “my praise” makes sense as al-Qāsim’s praise for the singing girl. That’s important in context. The specificity of sperm seems to me important in bringing out the biology of men’s sexuality. My adaptation attempts to encompass both these points while shifting toward the accessibility and liveliness of Selove’s translation.

[2] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 32. The subsequent two quotes are from id. pp. 32-3.

[3] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) pp. 33-4. With impressive and insightful erudite, Selove noted:

Movement here {in the second line above} means both of the bowels and on the chess board, and is a translation of dast, which signifies both ‘stool/evacuation’ in Persian, and ‘game/place/trick’ in Arabic.

Id. p. 63, n. 6.

[4] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 38. Id. p. 64, nn. 30-1, notes that the first sentences refer to the Qur’an (10:101, 80:27, 52:30). Those sentences also echo Christian scripture, e.g. John 4:48, Acts 14:3 (signs and wonders); Matthew 11:5, 13:15 (deafness).

[5] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) pp. 38-9. For the final couplet above, Selove wrote:

This advice comes straight from one who’s coming up behind
to march you to the King of Hell tomorrow, line by line.

Id. p. 39. St. Germain has:

If you all agree, you will advance toward it
For your advisor is a hard worker from behind

St. Germain (2006) p. 192. Particularly in its context, this couplet seems to me to allude to homosexual intercourse. I’ve tried to preserve a sense of that allusion in my version of the couplet above.

[6] Ḥikāyat, mainly trans. Selove (2016) pp. 39-40. Selove’s translation begins:

‘A cutting knife!” Abū al-Qāsim would exclaim, ‘A slaughtering throat-plague, a shot, a stab, a citron thorn! …

For this text St. Germain has:

Abū al-Qāsim says, “He is a slaughtering of a sacrificial animal; an extraction of a (barbed) spear; citron thorns, …

St. Germain (2006) p. 193. In the context of concern with blasphemy, St. Germain’s translation of this introductory text seems to me better. I have incorporated it above.

[7] Ḥikāyat, trans. St. Germain (2006) p. 285.

[8] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 171. The subsequent quote is from id.

[9] Ḥikāyat, trans. St. Germain (2006) p. 373-9, provides this and the subsequent five quotes. Abū al-Qāsim’s initial invective continues to p.381 in St. Germain’s translation.

[10] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 60. Selove states:

Although readers have found the Ḥikāyat and its protagonist both shocking and entertaining, it is difficult to deny that Abū al-Qāsim talks too much and can consequently grow tedious. … If the Ḥikāyat was intended to be read out loud at one sitting to an audience, we should certainly hope that this audience would be intoxicated, for their sake.

Id. p. 91. Certain truths are both difficult and painful to convey.

[image] Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258. Illumination c. c.1430-1434 from manuscript Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division orientale, Supplément persan 1113. Via Wikimedia Commons. Here are other illuminations from Supplément persan 1113.


Selove, Emily. 2012. The Hikaya of Abu al-Qasim al-Baghdadi: The Comic Banquet in Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Ph.D. Thesis. University of California, Los Angeles.

Selove, Emily. 2016. Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim: A Literary Banquet. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

St. Germain, Mary S. 2006. Al-Azdī’s Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim al-Baghdādī: placing an anomalous text within the literary developments of its time. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Washington.