Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria shows courtly lover’s folly

In the Latin comedy Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria, which was probably written in the Loire Valley of France in the second half of the twelfth century, Pamphilus and his sweet beloved Gliscerium fought bitterly. She ran away to Paris. There she apparently supported herself by working as a prostitute.[1] Nonetheless, Pamphilus ardently sought to regain her love. He journeyed to Paris on horseback. His servant Birria accompanied him on foot. Anticipating Cervantes’s romantic fool Don Quixote, Pamphilus is a parody of the courtly lover.

When Pamphilus finally met Gliscerium in Paris, he was struck speechless in a reverent stupor. Then he behaved as few clients of prostitutes did:

Exulting excessively, Pamphilus wanted to appear to be
a knight beyond his level. He spurred his horse
to the extent that his nature and practice allowed.
With legs extended, he paraded as a knight in front of her.

{ Pamphilus exultans nimis affectansque uideri
Miles plus equo calcibus urget equum;
In quantum natura sibi concessit et usus,
Cruribus extensis, militat ante suam }[2]

She pretend not to recognized him. Instead of greeting him, she greeted his servant Birria. She told Birria, “I am yours, and you are mine {Sum tua; tu meus es}.” Birria suggested that they all go to an inn where Pamphilus could retake Gliscerium. Pamphilus was delighted with that proposal.

At the inn, Birria was unable to fit Pamphilus’s horse into their room, so he had it bed down in front of their door. Then Birria cooked a big dinner. The servant-cook ate quickly:

Pamphilus said: “You have industrious teeth, Birria,
and active hands in emptying the dish.”
Birria replied: “Long fasts exhaust the walker.
I feed on feasts, but you, Pamphilus, feed on love.”

{ Pamphilus inquit: “Habes operosos, Birria, dentes,
Et discum promtas euacuare manus.”
Qui contra: “Peditem ieiunia longa fatigant;
Nos epule, sed te, Pamphile, pascit amor.” }

Birria is a no-nonsense man of the flesh. Pamphilus, who feeds on live like the insane classical elegiac lover Gallus, exists in the unworldly realm of courtly love. Worldly existence, however, has its perils:

Birria said this, and amid swallowing, a fish-bone
sticks cross-ways in the channel of his throat.
Rising, Pamphilus saves Birria’s life with a beating
and a harsh antidote applied to his neck.
He said: “Be lenient on yourself with meals. It appears wiser to
live fasting than to die eating.”
Birria responded: “I suffer more from your blows than from the illness’s weight.
The illness itself is burdensome, but the medicine is worse.”

{ Dixit et in medio semesi piscis arista
Gutture transuersa gutturis artat iter;
Pamphilus assurgens uitam ledendo redemit,
Et durum collo contulit antidotum,
Dicens: “Parce cibis; discrecius esse uidetur
Viuere ieuiunus quam comedendo mori.”
Birria: “Plus doleo colaphis quam pondere morbi;
Morbus enim grauis est, sed medicina magis.” }

This comedic scene underscores a theme. Despite occasionally having to endure a beating, being a living, eating human being is better than being a fleshless spirit within the corporal world.

Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria repeatedly signals its parodic intent. After dinner, with the fire in the hearth fading, an odd event occurs:

And immediately the cock crowed. Birria alone
with his big ears catches the sound of its crowing.
Then he responds: “Listen, my dear Pamphilus! The herald of the day
beating its wings joyfully announces the day with its mouth.”

{ Et statim gallus cantauit; Birria solus
Cantantis patula suscipit aure sonum;
Deinde refert: “Audi, mi Pamphile; praeco diei
Alis et leto nunciat ore diem.” }

As a servant who relished eating, Birria certainly looked forward to breakfast. But this cock wasn’t behaving normally. This cock was correctly announcing the start of the solar day according to classical Roman time accounting. The time was midnight, not dawn.[3]

With ritual paralleling Christian Eucharistic communion, Pamphilus then enjoyed Gliscerium in bed. These were rites of the love goddess Venus:

Pamphilus then orders that wine be brought and the bed be prepared,
and the commanded by commanding is done.
Birria pours wine into a chalice for his lord and offers it,
bending his knees and with his hand under the cup.
The straw is collected and the bed arranged to honor the love goddess,
but it would be more apt for a humble religious brother.
The bed’s furnished glory is covered
with animal skins, and linen sheets are totally lacking.
Pamphilus meanwhile is serving his lady.
With head bowed to her, he pulls off her shoes.
Before laying down for the lady, he pulls off her clothes.
Not remembering the Psalms or the Cross, he goes down for the lady.
Gliscerium at last is stripped of all her clothing. With her arms she
embraces her companion, and he places her on their wedding bed.
He embraces her, performing playful negotiations,
and totally subjects himself to services for the love goddess.

{ Tunc iubet afferri uinum lectumque parari
Pamphilus et iussus iussa iubentis agit;
Infundit uinum calici dominoque propinat,
Defixis genibus subpositaque manu.
Stramine construitur modico Venerique paratur
Lectus qui potius religiosus erat;
Sternuntur supra decus ornatusque cubilis
Pelles, sed pannus lineas omnis abest.
Pamphilus interea domine famulatur et eius
Pronus de pedibus calciamenta trahit;
Qui prius accumbens domine resupinat amictum;
Psalmorumque subit immemor atque crucis;
Gliscerium tandem spoliis nudatur et ulnis
Amplexam socio collocat ille thoro;
Amplexatur eam iocunda negocia tractans,
Et Veneris totius subditur obsequiis }

The text connects God’s creation of the world in Genesis to arranging a straw bed. The courtly lover bows to his lady. That gesture here doesn’t signal feudal subservience, but his taking off her shoes. Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria moves readily between honoring the Christian God’s love with Eucharistic wine to worshiping the traditional Greco-Roman love goddess Venus on a straw bed. It shows the Christian literary sense of Jesus healing with mud spittle.[4]

The fate of the horse shows that same Christian comic sense. During the night, “the wretched horse philosophizes in front of their door {miser ante fores philosophatur equus}.” What philosophizing means is soon made clear. In the morning:

Taking hay, Birria opens the door. The servant,
seeing the inanimate horse on its side, kicks it three times.
It’s kicked uselessly. The dead would rise again before
by warning of voice or foot that horse would rise.

{ Assumpto feno, reseratur porta; minister
In latus exanimem ter pede pulsat equum;
Frustra pulsatur, quod mortuus ante resurget
Quam monitu uocis uel pede surgat equus. }

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates declares that philosophy is preparation for death. The horse philosophizing means that it was preparing itself for death. Jesus promised that the dead would rise again. Birria and Pamphilus treat the horse’s death with a mash of classical and Christian thought:

Pamphilus comes out the door, saying, “You were slow,
are slow, and always will be slow, Birria.”
He: “Why do you scold me? I’m not the cause of the delay, but this
horse that has died a unexpected death delays us.”
Pamphilus: “Aw, what? The horse is dead?” He: “Look!
If you don’t wish to believe my words, believe the thing.
Now be the king of your soul. Moderate your sorrow.
Sorrow isn’t able to assist anyone in lessening damages.”

{ Egrediturque foras dicens: “Lentusque fuisti
Et nunc et semper, Birria, lentus eris.”
Ille: “Quod obiurgas? in me mora nulla, set iste
Nos insperata morte moratur equus.”
Pamphilus “Heu, quid? equus est mortuus?” Ille: “Videto:
Si non uis uerbo credere, crede rei;
Nunc animi rex esto tui; moderare dolorem;
Nemo doloris ope dampna leuare potest.” }

The ancient Christian doxology “Glory be to the Father {Gloria Patri}” declares the Father’s glory, “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be {sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper}.” Pamphilus applied that to Birria being slow. The closing two verses seem to refer to the classical tradition of consolation running through Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound {Προμηθεὺς Δεσμώτης} and Cicero’s Consolation {Consolatio}. Pamphilus then outrageously interpreted God repaying persons:

Pamphilus: “Alas! He was useful. God repays all.”
Birria responds: “Let’s skin him!”
Pamphilus: “Turn him into money, Birria. Sell the hair,
the tail, the saddle, sell the bridle and the skin.”

{ Pamphilus: “Ha! conductus erat; Deus omnia areddet.”
Birria respondit: “Excoriemus eum!”
Pamphilus: “Ad nummos trahe, Birria, uende capillum,
Subsellam, frenum, cingula uende, cutum.” }

That’s what they did. That’s not how God typically repays for sorrows and losses. Medieval Latin comedies include extensive satire of avarice.[5] That’s what these verses are.

Pamphilus in Plautus's Andria

Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria literally thrusts the courtly lover into the mud of everyday reality. As the three walk back to the home of Gliscerium’s father in Lisieux, guards at Evreux catch them. The guards think that they are thieves:

Pamphilus, seized by the hair of his forehead, is tumbled
into the mud and repeatedly his back parts sound with whipping.

{ Pamphilus in cenum, prensis a fronte capillis,
Voluitur et crebro uerbere terga sonant. }

In a parody of the trial of Jesus, Pamphilus and the others are released through the supportive cries of a crowd gathered for their trial. Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria concludes with a mundane happy ending:

They enter the town. The joyful father receives them from their captivity.
They rejoice: she thus to have him, and he to have her.

{ Vrbi succedunt; hilaris pater excepit illos;
Gaudent; illa suum sic habet, ille suam. }

In medieval Europe, men and women having each other’s love was regarded as sufficient for them. The figure of the courtly lover abjectly serving his haughty, beloved lady is fundamentally inconsistent with Christianity. Christians understand that they are made of mud and live in mud. Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria is a muddy mixture of classical and Christian literature organized as a parody of a courtly love quest.

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[1] Smolak observed:

The lady who once left her lover after a quarrel or dispute now obviously earns her living in the capital as a prostitute — which is not explicitly stated, but seems inevitable in a medieval social context.

Smolak (2013) pp. 87-8. Contextual aspects of Gliscerium’s behavior strongly support that interpretation.

[2] Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria, vv. 21-4, Latin text from Cordier (1931), my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. and the English translation of Crawford (1977). For a freely available Latin text that’s quite good, Lohmeyer (1897). Currently the best critical edition is Savi (1976), which unfortunately wasn’t available to me. Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria survives in two manuscripts: Vatican Library, Reg. lat. 344, folios 55v-56v, apparently written at the beginning of the thirteenth century; and Royal Library of Copenhagen, Codex 2020, apparently written late in the twelfth century.

The author of Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria apparently was a French cleric living in the Loire Valley. The reference to King Henry in v. 203 plausibly refers to Henry II Plantagenet. That suggests a date of composition between 1154 and 1189. Crawford (1977) p. 136.

The names of the characters apparently come from Terence’s Woman from Andros {Andria}. In Terence’s play, Pamphilus’s beloved is Glycerium, and Byrrhia is a slave under Charinus, Pamphilus’s friend. The plot of Andria has little relation to that of Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria.

Subsequent quotes above from Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria are similarly sourced. They are vv. 30 (I am yours, and you are mine), 51-2 (Pamphilus said: “You have industrious teeth…”), 55-62 (Birria said this, and amid swallowing…), 69-72 (And immediately the cock crowed…), 73-88 (Pamphilus then ordered that wine be brought…), 96 (the wretched horse philosophizes…), 135-8 (Taking hay, Birria opens the door…), 141-7 (Pamphilus comes out of the door…), 149-52 (Pamphilus: “Alas! He was useful…”), 179-80 (Pamphilus, seized by the hair…), 207-8 (They enter the town…).

[3] Crawford missed this subtlety. He translated, “the herald of the day, beating its wings, announces the dawn with joyful cries.” Crawford (1977) p. 161. That would be conventional. But in its context in Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria, the time clearly isn’t dawn.

[4] Smolak argues that Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria “is conceived as a parody of the Passion of Christ, his resurrection, and ascension into his Father’s reign.” Smolak (2013), from the Abstract. It seems to me more than a Christian parody such as medieval liturgical parodies.

[5] For medieval satire of avarice in Latin comedy, see, e.g. The wife of the handicrafts-man {De uxore cerdonis}, The Turnip {Rapularius}, Vitalis of Blois’s The Little Pot {Aulularia}, and Arnulf of Orléans’s Braggart Soldier {Miles Gloriosus}.

[image] Pamphilus in Terence’s Andria / The Girl from Andros, Illumination made c. 1100 in Tours, France. Excerpt from folio 8 of Ms. Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, 0924. Via Portail Biblissima.


Cordier, André, ed. and trans. (into French). 1931. “Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria.” Ch. IX (pp. 83-101) in vol. 2 of Cohen, Gustave, ed. La “Comédie” Latine en France au XIIe Siècle. Paris: Les Belles-Lettres.

Crawford, James Martin. 1977. The Secular Latin Comedies of Twelfth Century France. Ph.D. Thesis. Indiana University, USA.

Lohmeyer, K, ed. 1897. “Pamphilus und Gliscerium. Eine unedierte elegische komödie.” Zeitschrift Für Deutsches Altertum Und Deutsche Literatur. 41: 144-155.

Savi, Annamaria, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1976. “Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria.” Pp. 199-277 in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Vol. 1. Genova: Università di Genova.

Smolak, Kurt. 2013. “Narrative, Elegy, Parody: The Medieval Latin Comedy Pamphilus, Gliscerium et Birria.” Medievalia et Humanistica. 39: 87-102.

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