even perfect friend cannot help honey-eating man hanging in pit

In a story from the ancient Islamic world, a man in Baghdad became perfect friends with a man in Egypt via written correspondence. One day, the Baghdadian decided to visit in person the Egyptian. The Egyptian joyfully welcomed the Baghdadian into his home. Despite enjoying his friend’s lavish hospitality, the Baghdadian became acutely ill.

The Egyptian called forth all the best doctors in Egypt to minister to his friend. These doctors worked to diagnose the man’s illness:

The doctors checked his pulse, and they again and again inspected his urine. Nothing in these tests indicated an illness. And when these indicated no bodily illness, by that they knew the illness to be love’s passion. Having realized this, the master of the house came to the Baghdadian and asked him if there was some woman in the house whom he loved.

{ Medici vero palpato pulsu, iterum et iterum urina respecta, nullam in eo agnoverunt infirmitatem. Et quia per hoc nullam corporalem agnovere infirmitatem, amoris sciunt esse passionem. Hoc agnito dominus venit ad eum et quaesivit si qua esset mulier in domo sua quam diligeret. }[1]

Perfect friends, and also just good friends, are honest with each other even in lovesickness. So was the Baghdadian to the Egyptian:

To him he said: “Show me all the women of your house, and if I happen to see her among them, I will show her to you.” Having heard that, the Egyptian showed to him singers and dancers. None of them pleased him. After that he showed him all his daughters. Just as for the prior ones, all these he rejected and ignored. The master had in the house another certain noble young women, whom he had for a long time raised so that he could marry her. He showed her to his friend. When the sick man saw her appearance, truly he said: “Being away from her is my death, and in her is my life!”

{ Ad haec aeger: Ostende mihi omnes domus tuae mulieres, et si forte inter eas hanc videro, tibi ostendam. Quo audito ostendit ei cantatrices et pedissequas: quarum nulla ei complacuit. Post haec ostendit ei omnes filias: has quoque sicut et priores omnino reppulit atque neglexit. Habebat autem dominus quandam nobilem puellam in domo sua, quam iam diu educaverat, ut eam acciperet in uxorem; quam et ostendit ei. Aeger vero aspecta hac ait: Ex hac est mihi mors et in hac est mihi vita! }[2]

In ancient Arabic literature, the ideal of hospitality developed to the extent that one would not only lay down one’s life for a friend, one would also lay down one’s wife for a friend. The Egyptian accordingly responded:

Dearest one, this young woman is in fact of noble birth. I have raised her from infancy such that she would be my wife. However, you have come to me from distant parts because of the love that has long been between us. I will give her to you in marriage with the abundant riches that I received with her. By these riches all of your offspring will be able to prosper.

{ Karissime, revera puella ista est de nobili genere, quam ab infancia nutrivi ut esset uxor mea. Verumptamen tu venisti ad me de partibus longinquis propter amorem, qui dudem erat inter nos. Dabo eam tibi in uxorem cum diviciis sufficientibus quas ego cum ea recipissem, per quas divicias omnes de progenie tua poterunt promoveri. }[3]

What wonderful hospitality! Even the Baghdadian living within the culture of ancient Arabic lavish hospitality was amazed:

When the Baghdadian heard this, he leaped from the bed totally healthy and said: “Dearest one, may God repay you as much as you have done for me now, and very often done. How I will be able to repay to you the favor you have done, I don’t know at all.” And immediately he had a great feast announced to celebrate the wedding.

{ cum hec audisset, de lecto totaliter sanus surrexit et ait: “Karissime, Deus tibi retribuat quantum fecisti iam et sepius pro me. Quomodo potero vobis reddere beneficium perpetratum, penitus ignoro.” Statimque fecit proclamari unum magnum convivium pro nupciis celebrandis. }

The Baghdadian returned to Baghdad with his wife and riches. His wife was a noble, kind, and generous person whom everyone loved. She had children with her husband, and they prospered with the riches he received with her.

After some time, the Egyptian experienced a reversal of fortune: harsh poverty and acute misery. He decided to visit his Baghdadian friend and ask for support. He arrived in Baghdad at night. In his poverty he decided to sleep in a church. From the church he saw two men fighting in the street. One of the men killed the other, adding to the horrific amount of violence against men. The killer ran into the church. A crowd of people chasing after the killer found the Baghdadian in the church. Wishing to die rather than to continue to live in poverty, the Egyptian declared that he was the killer. He was condemned, imprisoned overnight, and the next day led to the gallows.

A crowd of Baghdadians watched the man being led to the gallows. Among them, the Baghdadian friend recognized his Egyptian friend going to be executed for murder. The friend immediately cried out loudly:

Wait! Wait! He didn’t kill the man, but I did!

{ Expectate! Expectate! Iste non interfecit hominem, sed ego! }

The penal officials were astonished. They seized the Baghdadian and led both friends to the gallows.

The actual killer was among the crowd. He feared God’s wrath if he allowed two innocent men to die in his place. The actual killer thus cried out loudly:

Spare them! Spare them! They are innocent, but I am the one responsible! I killed the man with my own hands, and they are innocent! Take me and hang me on the gallows!

{ Parcatis eis! Parcatis eis! Innocentes sunt, sed ego reus sum! Ego propriis manibus hominem occidi et ipsi sunt innocentes! Accipite me et in patibulo suspendite! }

The crowd seized this man. He along with the two friends were taken before the judge.

The judge was astonished at the three men’s confessions. He asked for an explanation. The Egyptian explained that his poverty was so crushing that he preferred to die. The Baghdadian explained that for the love of his friend he desired to die. The actual killer explained that he had confessed out of fear of God in bringing about the death of two innocent men. With understanding of these men’s particular circumstances and with commendable mercy toward men, the judge freed all three men. Undoubtedly the Baghdadian then shared all his wealth with the Egyptian, and perhaps shared as well his wife with her consent.

While perfect friends are a heart-warming ideal, even a perfect friend cannot save a man so engrossed in his desire that he ignores a friendly offer of salvation. Consider a story originating from ancient India. A young man was chased by a unicorn. He accidentally fell into a pit, but caught a branch of a tree growing up from the bottom of the pit. At the foot of the tree was a horrible serpent. Two mice gnawed at the roots of the tree so as to cause it eventually to come crashing down. Four snakes were reaching up towards the man and poisoning the pit with their breath.

The man’s immediate priority should have been to get out of the pit. However, honey trickled down from a beehive into the man’s mouth. He delighted in its sweetness. Yet the man had a friend:

When a certain friend of his passed by the place and saw him in such danger, the friend held out a ladder so that he could climb out. But the man so gave himself up to the sweetness of the honey that in no way did he want to climb out, but constantly ate the honey and took no care for his dangerous position.

{ Cum autem quidam amicus eius per locum pertransisset et vidit eum in tanto perculo, porrexit sibi scalam ut egrederetur. Ille vero tantum dedit se dulcedini mellis quod nullo modo egredi volebat, sed semper de melle comedit, nec accepit curam de periculo suo. }[4]

In a short time, the man fell to the bottom of the pit. Then the serpent devoured him. His friend wasn’t able to save this foolish man.

Today women and men of good will attempt to save men from castration culture and the demonization of masculinity. Being just a friend to men, not even a perfect friend, isn’t easy. Men are often their own worst enemies.

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[1] Petrus Alfonsi, Disciplina clericalis, chapter 2, “Exemplum of the perfect friend {Exemplum de integro amico},” Latin text from Hilka & Söderhjelm (1911), my English translation. For a Middle English translation, Hulme (1919). This story occurs in the continental Gesta Romanorum as Tale 171. See Oesterley (1872) and Stace (2018). In the Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum, it’s Tale 55. See Bright (2019).

The Gesta Romanorum versions, which are explicitly attributed to Petrus Alfonsi’s early twelfth-century Disciplina clericalis, don’t include the doctors checking the pulse and inspecting urine. Born in Islamic Spain, Petrus was a Jewish convert to Christianity and a physician. Checking the pulse and examining urine were central practices in medicine in the Islamic world, following Galenic learning. Petrus Alfonsi acquired considerable learning from the Islamic world.

[2] Disciplina clericalis, chapter 2, “Exemplum of the perfect friend {Exemplum de integro amico},” sourced as previously. The Gesta Romanorum versions don’t distinguished serially singers and dancers and the host’s daughters. The former commonly had sex for money, while marriage would be expected to occur in a relationship with the host’s daughters.

[3] Anglo-Latin (Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310) Gesta Romanorum 55 (“Two Friends”), Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Bright (2019). The subsequent three quotes above are similarly from id. The corresponding text in Disciplina clericalis is less detailed and less dramatic.

[4] Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum 38 (“Unicorn”), Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Bright (2019). The corresponding story in the continental Gesta Romanorum is Tale 168 (“About eternal damnation {De eterna dampnatione}”). This story occurs in the tenth-century romance Barlaam and Josaphat, wrongly attributed to John Damascene. Woodward & Mattingly (1914) Ch. 12. Originally from India, it exists in Book 11 (Stri Parva) of the Mahabharata and perhaps in a version of the Panchatantra as well. Stace (2018) p. 447, note 1. This story became widely distributed in medieval Europe. Bright (2019), note to Tale 38.

[image] Honey flowing down from a wooden dipper. Source photo by Marco Verch made available under a Creative Commons 2.0 By license.


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.

Hermes, Eberhard and P. R. Quarrie, ed. and trans. 1977. Petrus Alfonsi. The Disciplina clericalis of Petrus Alfonsi. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hilka, Alfons, and Werner Söderhjelm. 1911. Petrus Alfonsi. Disciplina clericalis. Vol. 1: Lateinischer Text. Acta societatis scientiarum Fennicae. Helsingfors: Druckerei der Finnischen Litteratur-Gesellschaft. Alternate presentation.

Hulme, William Henry, ed. 1919. Petrus Alfonsi. Disciplina Clericalis (English translation): from the fifteenth century Worcester Catherdral Manuscript F. 172. Cleveland, OH: Western Reserve University. Alternate presentation.

Oesterley, Hermann, ed. 1872. Gesta Romanorum. Berlin: Weidmann. Alternate presentation of chapters 1-181.

Stace, Christopher, trans. 2018. Gesta Romanorum: A New Translation. Manchester University Press.

Woodward, G.R. & H. Mattingly, eds. and trans. 1914. Barlaam and Ioasaph by St. John Damascene. Loeb Classical Library, 34. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate presentation.

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