bawdy medieval version of The Merchant of Venice’s pound of flesh

In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the Venetian merchant Antonio borrowed a large amount of money from the moneylender Shylock. Under the terms of the loan, Shylock was entitled in default to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shakespeare composed The Merchant of Venice about 1597. Its pound-of-flesh motif, however, is from no later than 1190.[1] A version from the Acts of the Romans {Gesta Romanorum}, a work probably dating to the early fourteenth century, shows medieval sexual earthiness within a Christian moralized tale.

O you, whose loveliness
surpasses the face
of beautiful Absalom,
it cannot be such
that you are a mortal

In my loneliness,
lady, don’t
be dismissive of me.
The end I seek
is to be released
from my despair.

{ O decora
super ora
belli Absalonis,
et non talis,
ut mortalis
sis conditionis.

Michi soli,
virgo, noli
esse refragata!
Quaeso finem,
ut reclinem
a re desperata. }[2]

Celestine, the ruler of Rome, had a beautiful daughter. A knight burned in love for her. Men will do almost anything in their love for women:

The knight thought to himself: “I’m certain that the emperor will never allow me to marry his daughter, because I am not worthy of this. Nonetheless, if by some other means I could obtain the young woman’s love, that would be sufficient for me.” And at every opportunity he hurried to the young woman and earnestly inquired about her willingness. But she said, “You are laboring in vain. Do you think that you will beguile me by your flattering, silly, and deceitful words? That will not be for my heart!”

{ intra se cogitabat: “Michi non est dubium quin imperator nunquam filiam suam michi dabit in uxorem, quia ad hoc non sum dignus. Verumptamen, si per aliquam uiam possem amorem puelle adquirere, michi sufficit.” Et omni tempore perrexit ad puellam et de eius uoluntate diligenter inquirebat. At illa: “Incassum laboras. Credis tu quod me decipies per uerba tua blanda, friuola, et deceptoria? Non fiet ita in anima mea!” }[3]

Experienced in the ways of the world, the knight offered the young woman an alternate proposition:

He said, “Since I’m not be able to have you as my wife, what can I give you so that you will lie with me for one night?” She replied, “If you give me one hundred marks in florins, you may lie beside me the entire night.” The knight said, “Your wish will be fulfilled.” Immediately he provided himself with that much money and gave it to the young woman.

{ Ait ille: “Cum ergo te no poetero haber in uxorem, Quid dabo tibi ut una nocte mecum iaceas?” At ill: “Si michi dederis centum marcas de forenis, iuxta me tota nocte iacebis.” Ait miles: “Implebitur uoluntas tua.” Statimque prouidit sibi de tanta pecunia et puelle tradidit. }

Men tend to be romantically simple. Men seek to marry women who are beautiful and warmly receptive, rather than pursuing their economic interest in marrying high-earning women. If men can’t marry beautiful, warmly receptive women, they’ll settle for just having sex with them.

She again acts as a true magnet,
a young woman of marvelous perfection.
She frequently overwhelms me by
the attractiveness of her unaffected grace.

{ Magnetem verum iterat
virgo mire perfecta,
attractu crebro superat
me gratia directa. }

The knight’s attempt to buy sex turned into an epic disaster. The b…beautiful young woman set him up:

When night came, the knight entered into the young woman’s bed. He immediately fell asleep. Then the young woman took off her clothes and lay down beside the knight. He in this situation lay in sleep the whole night. When it was the next morning, the young woman got up and put on her clothes and washed her hands. The knight was then awakened from his sleep by the young woman. After he had awakened, he said to the young woman, “Come to me so that I will be able to fulfill my desire with you.” But she said, “By my father’s health, I will do no such thing. Beloved, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you come to an agreement with me that you would lie with me for one night? And so it was. You, however, for one whole night slept and didn’t offer me any solace. Therefore blame yourself and not me.”

{ Cum autem nox adest, miles lectum puelle intrauit. Statim dormiuit. Puella uestimenta deposuit et iuxta militem se collocauit. Miles uero per totam noctem sic in dormiendo iacuit. Mane autem facto, puella surrexit et uestimentis suis se induit, manus lauit, et miles per puellam a sompno excitatus est. Cum autem fuisset excitatus, ait puelle: “Veni ad me ut uoluntatem meam tecum potero adimplere.” At illa: “Per salutem patris mei non faciam hanc rem! Amice, non facio tibi iniuriam. Nonne mecum conuenisti ut una nocte mecum iaceres? Et sic factum est. Tu autem per unam noctem totaliter dormisti et nullum solacium michi optulisti. Imputes ergo tibiipsi et non michi.” }

The young woman had carefully prevented the knight from even seeing her naked. She washed her hands after sleeping next to him as if he were emitting dirty thoughts while he was sleeping. She obviously knew in advance that the knight would fall asleep and not have sex with her; in other words, not offer her any solace. She took money for sex under false pretenses. If he were a she, surely he would be guilty of raping her by deception.

If I were flourishing, financial ruin
would not upset me,
but my thoughts become more fearful
the longer the joys of sex are delayed:
what am I to do?

{ Florenti desolatio
non esset conturbatio,
sed eo plus tremit ratio,
quo Dionaea sit dilatio:
quid facio? }

The knight, despondent, had only one concern. He asked her how much he would have to pay to sleep with her for another night. Despite his lack of satisfaction on the prior night, she offered him no discount. Her price was the same as before. The knight sold all his movable goods to raise the money. He again paid her to go to bed with her. But his second night with the young woman went just as before.

This fate of mine is grim.
Not even death is harsher.
My life’s destiny
isn’t on a happy course.
She whom I compare to the sun
resists her young admirer.

{ Istaec est dira sors,
nec durior est mors.
Non meae vitae fors
stat ritu prospero.
Quam soli confero,
repugnat tenero. }

The knight was still desperate to have sex with the young woman. He asked her for her price for a third night. Again the young woman offered no discount to the unsatisfied knight. Having exhausted all his money and goods in paying for the previous two nights, the knight traveled to distant lands to try to raise money for a third night with her. A merchant offered to lend him the money on the condition that if he did not repay on the designated day, the merchant could cut off all the flesh on the knight’s body. The knight desired the young woman so much that he consented to such a loan.

She whom I obey beyond all other young women
can sustain me even in the gloom of death,
if the intimate, most important distinction
she favors to have.

{ Cui pre cunctis virginum oboedio,
me potest alere vel mortis taedio.
si decus intimum
mavult potissimum. }

Fortunately, before returning to sleep again with the young woman, the knight met Master Virgil {Magister Virgilius}, the author of the keenly gender-perceptive Aeneid. The knight explained to Master Virgil his intense desire for this young woman, his difficulties in the two previous nights he spent in bed with her, and his third, desperate attempt using a death-threatening loan. Master Virgil, a writer of immense power, told the young man that text placed between the sheet and cover of her bed made anyone who got into her bed fall asleep until roused by her. Virgil advised him to find that text and throw it far from the bed. The knight would then be able to enjoy the young woman and sleep only when he sought to sleep.

You who are grace itself,
grant solace
to my languishing heart —
you my treasure,
my choicest love,
good-natured and life-filled!

{ Gratia,
donato menti languide,
mea dos,
amorum flos,
morigerata vivide! }

The knight, by following Virgil’s advice, initiated an enduring love affair with the young woman. After paying the woman to sleep with her, he matched her sexual deception with his own:

When night came, the knight entered the young woman’s bedroom. He secretly placed his hand between the bed’s sheet and cover and found the text. Having found it, he threw it far from himself. He then entered the bed and pretended to sleep. The young woman, thinking him to be asleep as before, took off her clothes and got into bed. The knight immediately placed his hand on her. The young woman, stunned by this, said, “Have pity on me and do not deprive me of my virginity. I will double for you all the money you have given me.”

{ Cum autem nox adest, miles cameram puelle intrauit et priuate inter linthiamen et cooportorium manum ponebat et literam inuenit, quam, inuentam, longe a se proiecit, et lectum intrauit et finxit se dormire. Puella uero, putans eum dormire sicut ante, uestimenta deposuit et lectum intrauit. Statim miles manum ad eam posuit. Puella, ex hoc stupefacta, ait: “Miseremini mei et nolite uirginitatem meam deflorare et duplicabo tibi omnem pecuniam quam michi dedisti.” }

The soporific text that prevented sex was perhaps just another academic work characterizing men as misogynists. In any case, the young woman found herself in the position of Antonio, the merchant of Venice. She sought to buy herself out of a contract with unexpected implications. Like Shylock, the knight refused to settle for money. He wanted sex with this woman:

The knight replied, “You speak in vain. That for which I have long striven, I will now accomplish.” He then knew the young woman sexually. After doing that, he loved her exceedingly, so much so that he remained with her two weeks beyond the term set between himself and the moneylender.

{ At ille: “In uanum loqueris. Circa quid diu laboraui, iam implebo. Puellam cognouit et post hoc miro modo ipsam dilexit in tantum quod cum ipsa associatus est ultra quindenam termini sui inter ipsum et mercatorem. }

After having sex with the young women, the knight didn’t want to leave her. Many men are like that. Many men delight in intimate relations with women.

Winter’s desolation has seen its end.
As flowers bloom, those who know the Love Goddess
rejoice from the bottom of their hearts
and applaud her.

{ Terminum vidit brume desolatio;
gaudent funditus in florum exordio,
qui norunt Cypridem,
plaudentes eidem. }

Shylock and Portia in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

The knight’s attachment to the woman after having sex with her caused him to default on the loan he had taken to pay her. The money-lending merchant thus gained the right to cut all the flesh from his body. The young woman, who apparently came to love the knight through his loving work, advised him:

Don’t grieve excessively. Go to the merchant and double his money for him, and if he is not willing to accept, ask how much he wants and I will give it to you.

{ Nolite nimis dolere. Ite ad mercatorem et duplicate ei pecuniam suam, et, si noluerit accipere, petat quantum uoluerit et dabo tibi. }

Apparently drawing upon her study of Cicero and other classics, this woman offered the knight classical advice on grief. She also offered to support him financially. That’s a good woman.

She whose shining presence,
marvelous kindness,
and endless generosity
always and everywhere
smile without fail,
she is the one I desire.

{ Cui tanta claritas
ac mira caritas,
fecunda largitas
semper et undique
arrident utique —
hanc opto denique. }

This good woman even took on the masculine gender in her love for the knight. When the knight in court sought to buy himself out of the merchant’s loan, the merchant refused any amount of money. He wanted to kill the knight by cutting away his flesh. The woman had persons reporting to her about the proceeding. When she heard that the merchant was preparing to cut from her knight’s beloved body, she dressed as a knight and rode to the place where her beloved knight was to receive his death sentence. She declared to the judge trying the loan-default case:

I am a knight from distant lands. By chance I was riding my horse through this city. Reports reached me that a certain knight here among you was about to be sentenced to death on account of the binding promise that he made to a merchant. I came here therefore in order to save the knight from death.

{ Miles sum de partibus longinquis et a casu per istam ciuitatem equitabam, rumoresque ad me uenerunt quod quidam miles inter uos hic existens ad mortum iudicari deberet propter quoddam obligatorium quid uni mercatori fecerat, et ideo huc ueni ut militem a morte liberarem. }

Women must act to make men’s lives matter. The woman-knight turned to the merchant and asked him to take financial compensation rather than the man-knight’s life. The merchant refused. Assuming the role of a lawyer, the woman-knight then made a sophisticated legal argument:

My lord judge, give a just verdict on what I shall say to you. You have heard how much I have offered the merchant for the knight’s life. He refused all, but seeks his right under law. This is very pleasing to me in every way. Therefore listen to me, all of you. Lords, you know that the knight never bound himself to anything by his contract other than that the merchant had the right to cut his flesh from his bones. About the flow of blood no word was specified in advance. If the merchant is truly able to cut the flesh without a flow of blood, let him lay his hand on the knight at once. If in fact he spills blood, the king will have a lawsuit against him.

{ Domine mi iudex, da rectum iudicium super hiis qui uobis dixero. Vos audistis quantum mercatori optuli pro uita militis et omnino renuit, sed beneficium legis querit. Michi per omnia bene placet. Audite ergo me omnes. Satrape, uos scitis quid miles nunquam se obligabat ad aliud per literam nisi quod mercator potestatem habebat carnes ab ossibus scindere, sed de sanguinis effusione nunquam erat uerbum prelocutum. Si poterit uero carnes scindere sine sanguinis effusione, statim manum mittat in eum. Si uero sanguinem effuderit, rex contra eum accionem habebit. }

Stunned, the merchant immediately offered to drop his lawsuit in exchange for payment. The women-knight, turning the tables on the merchant, refused to pay. She insisted he fulfill the contract, if he dared to try. The merchant realized that he was defeated. He left without receiving any payment.

The woman-knight quickly returned home and dressed again as a woman. When her beloved knight returned to her, she disingenuously inquired how he had escaped death. The knight explained that a handsome knight had saved him with a highly intelligent legal argument. The woman asked if he would recognize that knight if he saw him again. The knight declared that he would. She then again dressed as that knight and came to her beloved knight. He wept and embraced her with joy. He was extremely grateful that he had sought to buy sex from her: “Blessed be the hour in which I made an agreement with you {Benedicatur hora in qua tecum conueni}!” They then married and lived happily ever after as pious souls dedicated to God.

Let none marvel at such a leader’s
for with her outstanding power
she makes me more learned than before
by infusing her generous gifts.

{ Ne miretur ducis tantae
quis sublimitatem,
quae me sibi vi praestante
doctum reddit plus quam ante,
stillans largitatem! }

The Gesta Romanorum’s moral range is evident in comparing it with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The Gesta Romanorum contains a more bawdy version of the pound-of-flesh motif than does Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The Gesta Romanorum also contains the three-caskets motif of The Merchant of Venice, but with a woman rather than a man making the choice among the caskets.[4] Having a woman actively demonstrate to a man her worthiness for love is a highly unusual pattern in European culture relative to a man striving to show his worthiness to a woman.

Portia with casket in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

Unlike much writing today, medieval Latin literature went beyond narrow, unimaginative, careerist work upholding the orthodox beliefs of its time. Medieval Latin literature encompassed outrageous generic mixtures, parodies of divine liturgy and even of women, and deeply humane engagements with earthly life. The medieval songbook known as the Carmina Burana tends to be associated with a distinctive class of young, bohemian clerics (Goliards). The Gesta Romanorum, which provides a Christian moralization for each of its many prose tales, has in contrast been called a product of the “monkish” imagination. Yet the Carmina Burana and the Gesta Romanorum share sexual frankness and extensive cultural mixing. Both the Carmina Burana and the Gesta Romanorum are part of the cultural stream that fed Shakespeare’s expansive imagination.

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[1] The earliest known instance of the pound-of-flesh motif is the story of the fourth sage in Johannes de Alta Silva’s Dolopathos, or, The King and the Seven Wise Men {Dolopathos sive de Rege et Septem Sapientibus}, written about 1190. For Latin text, HIlka (1913); for an English translation, Gilleland (1976) or Gilleland (1981). Dolopathos is part of the Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus. Dolopathos itself is the name of a legendary king of Sicily. That name means “one who suffers treachery or grief.” Gilleland (1976) p. 99. On the history of the pound-of-flesh motif, Cardozo(1925), Ch. 8. The Gesta Romanorum‘s story “no doubt descends” from Dolopathos. Id. p. 281.

Absalom was the most beautiful person in all of Israel. 2 Samuel 14:25. That’s particularly remarkable given that men’s beauty tends to be under-appreciated relative to women’s beauty.

[2] Carmina Burana 61, “If the assembly of Muses has enriched someone {Siquem Pieridum ditavit contio},” st. 4a-b, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Traill (2018). Subsequent quotes of Latin verse are similarly from “Siquem Pieridum ditavit contio.”

[3] Anglo-Latin (Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310) Gesta Romanorum 48 (“Pound of Flesh”), Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Bright (2019). Cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you {Vulgate: sufficit tibi gratia mea}.” Subsquent quotes of Latin prose are similarly from Gesta Romanorum 48.

[4] Gesta Romanorum 84 (“Whale, Three Caskets”) in Bright (2019). The three-caskets motif probably originated in India. It’s found in manuscripts of the Barlaam and Ioasaph corpus.

The Gesta Romanorum also includes a version of the story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae}. In the Gesta Romanorum, the sincerely loving daughter tells her father that she loves him “as much as you are worth and neither more nor less {tantum sicut tu uales et non plus neque minus}.” See Gesta Romanorum 21 (“Lear”) in Bright (2019).

[images] (1) Shylock and Portia discussing the contract in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Painting by Thomas Sully in 1835. Preserved as accession # FPa78 in the Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC; USA). (2) Portia with gold casket and key in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Painting by Joseph Severn in 1840. Via Sofi on flickr.


Bright, Philippa, ed. and trans. 2019. The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum: from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cardozo, Jacob Lopes. 1925. The Contemporary Jew in the Elizabethan Drama. University of Amsterdam, Dissertation. New York: Burt Franklin.

Gilleland, Brady B. 1976. “Three Stories from the Dolopathos of Johannes de Alta Silva.” Allegorica. 2: 99–117.

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.

Hilka, Alfons, ed. 1913. Historia septem sapientum. II. Johannis de Alta Silva Dolopathos, sive De rege et septem sapientibus. Heidelberg: C. Winter.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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