loss of faith: fairy-tale ending to attack on ass

A Latin poem from no later than the mid-eleventh century tells of a wolf killing the nun Alfrad’s she-ass. The wolf oddly attacked the she-ass’s ass:

As the she-ass went out into a spacious field,
she saw a ravenous wolf running towards her.
She hid her head and showed her tail.

The wolf ran up and bit her tail.
The she-ass then raised two legs
and waged a long war with the wolf.

When she felt that her strength had failed,
she brought forth a loud voice of lamentation
and as she died called to her lady.

{ Que dum in amplum exiret campum,
vidit currentem lupum voracem,
caput abscondit, caudam ostendit.

Lupus accurrit, caudam momordit;
asina bina levavit crura
fecitque longum cum lupo bellum.

Cum defecisse vires sensisset,
protulit grandem plangendo vocem
vocansque suam moritur domnam. }[1]

Men historically have been disparaged as being sexually voracious like wolves. Asses are associated with well-developed, vigorous sexuality.[2] The wolf and the ass were in that sense well-matched to wage a long battle. The poet’s sense of gender equality appears again with women mobilizing to fight alongside of men:

Hearing the great voice of the she-ass,
Alfrad ran. “Sisters,” she said,
“come quickly, help me!

I sent to pasture my dear ass.
Her loud lament I hear.
I hope she’s fighting off the savage wolf!”

The clamor of the sisters reaches the cloister.
Crowds of men and women
are present so as to capture the bloodthirsty wolf.

Now Adela, Alfrad’s sister,
looks for Rikila and finds Agatha.
They go so as to lay low the bold enemy.

{ Audiens grandem asine vocem
Alfrad cucurrit. “Sorores,” dixit,
“cito venite, me adiuvate!

Asinam caram misi ad erbam;
illius magnum audio planctum;
spero, cum sevo ut pugnet lupo.”

Clamor sororum venit in claustrum,
turbe virorum ac mulierum
assunt, cruentum ut captent lupum.

Adela namque, soror Alfrade,
Rikilam querit, Agatham invenit,
ibant, ut fortem sternerent hostem. }

This gender-integrated fighting force was too late. The wolf had already devoured the ass, which had been pregnant. The sisters mourned classically:

Seeing that, all the sisters
tore their hair and beat their breasts,
mourning the innocent death of the she-ass.

{ Illud videntes cuncte sorores
crines scindebant, pectus tundebant,
flentes insontem asine mortem. }

This is a Christian poem embracing troubling aspects of life. It ends with hope in God:

Gentle Adela and sweet Fritherun
both came to comfort
and restore Alfrad’s heart:

“Leave off sad complaints, sister!
The wolf pays no attention to bitter weeping.
The Lord will give you another ass.”

{ Adela mitis, Fritherunque dulcis
venerunt ambe, ut Alfrade
cor confirmarent atque sanarent:

“Delinque mestas, soror, querelas!
Lupus amarum non curat fletum.
Dominus aliam dabit tibi asinam.” }[3]

The attack on the ass doesn’t end with everyone living happily ever after. Hints of concern for gender equality aren’t realized in a broad initiative for societal transformation. Not a fairy tale, this story’s ultimate ending depends on the Lord.

Across the subsequent half-millennium, attacking the ass was transformed into a fairy-tale. It concerned not religious sisters, but the poor old woman Bagolana of Savona and her two daughters, Cassandra and Adamantina. Those names suggest this fairy-tale’s deep literary roots: Bagolana evokes “bathing room” from the ancient Greek βαλανεῖον, Cassandra is the ancient Greek prophet who courageously opposed the horrific violence against men of the Trojan War, and Adamantina is the feminine counterpart to the orthodox Christian champion of the fourth-century treatise On orthodox faith in God {De recta in Deum fide}. Just before the poor old woman Bagolana died, she urged her daughters to live together peacefully. She left them a small coffer of tow. Scholars working within today’s dominant ideology would tend to interpret Bagolana’s legacy as an expression of female solidarity despite being marginalized and impoverished.

This story is actually a fairy tale encompassing gender reality. Showing women’s capacity for active labor to support themselves independently of men, Cassandra spun the tow into thread. Then she directed her younger sister Adamantina to sell that thread in the marketplace to buy bread. Benevolent fortune, however, interrupted their desperate attempt to integrate themselves into capitalistic relations of meager sustenance:

As she was walking in the square, she encountered an old woman who had on her lap the most beautiful and most perfectly formed doll that anyone had ever seen. Adamantina’s fancy, having seen and thought about the doll, became more absorbed with how she might obtain it than how she might dispose of her thread. Her thoughts led her on such that, not knowing what to do or say to acquire it, by pondering about trying her fortune, she understood that bartering was the only means. She approached the old woman saying, “Good mother, if you are in agreement, I’ll give you my thread in exchange for your doll.” The old woman, seeing such a fine, lovely girl, so eager to have the doll for her own, could not disappoint her. Taking the thread, she presented the doll to her. Adamantina with the doll appeared not less than perfectly happy. Fully joyful and gay, she returned home.

{ perciò che s’abbattè in piazza in una vecchiarella che aveva in grembo una poavola, la più bella e la più ben formata che mai per l’adietro veduta si avesse. Laonde Adamantina, avendola veduta e considerata, di lei tanto se n’invaghì, che più di averla, che di vendere il filo pensava. Considerando adunque Adamantina sopra di ciò, e non sapendo che fare nè che dire per averla, pur deliberò di tentare sua fortuna, si a baratto la potesse avere. Ed accostatasi alla vecchia, disse: Madre mia, quando vi fusse in piacere, io baratterei volontieri con la poavola vostra il filo mio. La vecchiarella, vedendo la fanciulla bella, piacevole e tanto desiderosa della poavola, non volse contradirle; ma preso il filo, la poavola le appresentò. Adamantina, avuta la poavola, non si vide mai la più contenta; e tutta lieta e gioconda a casa se ne tornò. }[4]

baby doll from about 1950, with custom knit clothes

The hungry cannot eat a doll. While domestic violence is now typically presented to stereotype men as brutish criminals, this story boldly presented female-perpetrated domestic violence:

When she saw the doll, Cassandra, who felt hungry enough to die, was filled with such violent anger that she seized Adamantina by the hair and beat her so grievously that the wretched girl could hardly move. Receiving the beating with patience and without making any defense, Adamantina knew better and managed to go with her doll to another room.

{ Cassandra, che di fame si sentiva morire, veduta la poavola, di sì fatta ira e sdegno s’accese, che, presa Adamantina per le treccie, le diede tante busse, che appena la meschina si poteva movere. Adamantina, pazientemente ricevute le busse, senza far difesa alcuna, meglio che seppe e puote con la sua poavola in una camera se n’andò. }

Women should not commit domestic violence. What Adamantina knew better was the importance of love, if even just for a doll:

When evening came, Adamantina cradled the doll in her arms, as children might do. Sitting down by the fire, she took some oil from the lamp and rubbed it on the doll’s stomach and legs. Then she wrapped the doll carefully in a tattered cloth and placed it in her own bed. A little while later she went to bed and lay beside the doll. Scarcely had Adamantina taken her first sleep when she heard the doll cry out, “Mamma, mamma, I have to poop!”

{ Venuta la sera, Adamantina, come le fanciullette fanno, tolse la poavola in braccio, ed andossene al fuoco; e preso de l’oglio della lucerna, le unse lo stomaco e le rene: indi, rivoltata in certi stracci che ella aveva, in letto la mise, ed indi a poco, andatasene a letto, appreso la poavola si coricò. Nè appena Adamantina aveva fatto il primo sonno, che la poavola cominciò chiamare! Mamma, mamma, caca. }

What a nightmare! Adamantina didn’t believe what she heard:

Wakening from her sleep, Adamantina said, “What’s the matter, my little child?” At which the doll responded: “I would like to do poop, my mamma.”

{ E Adamantina destata, disse! Che hai, figliuola mia? A cui rispose la poavola: Io vorrei far caca, mamma mia. }

A woman with this sort of pain-in-the-ass doll might want to spank it. But Adamantina was a loving mother to her doll:

Adamantina said, “Wait a moment, my little child.” And getting up from bed, she took the apron that she had worn the day before and placed it under the doll. Then she said, “Make poop, my little child.” And to her complete amazement, the doll filled her apron with a great quantity of coins.

{ Ed Adamantina: Aspetta, figliuola mia, disse. E levatasi di letto, prese il grembiale, che ’l giorno dinanzi portava, e glielo pose sotto dicendo: Fa caca, figliuola; e la poavola, tuttavia premendo, empì il grembiale di gran quantità di danari. }

Love wins! For the older sister Cassandra, money seems to have won her affections:

As soon as she saw it, Adamantina woke her sister Cassandra and showed her the coins that the doll had pooped. Cassandra, seeing the great number of coins, was wonder-struck. To God she rendered hearty thanks for such good help and for not having abandoned them in their misery. Turning to her sister, Cassandra asked pardon for having beaten her, which was a great wrong that she had received from her. Then she gave to the doll many caresses, sweetly kissing it and tenderly holding it closely in her arms.

{ Il che vedendo, Adamantina destò la sorella Cassandra, e le mostrò i danari che aveva cacati la poavola. Cassandra, vedendo il gran numero de’ danari, stupefatta rimase: Iddio ringraziando che per sua bontà nelle lor miserie abbandonate non aveva; e voltatasi alla sorella, le chiese perdono delle busse che da lei a gran torto ricevute aveva: e fece molte carezze alla poavola, dolcemente basciandola e nelle braccia strettamente tenendola. }

The doll pooped similarly every night. With the resulting coins, the two sisters were able to buy bread, wine, oil, wood and everything they needed to have a well-provisioned home.

A woman-neighbor noticed that the two sisters, who had been miserably poor, were now prospering. She visited them and asked in the manner of friendly, female solidarity:

My dear daughters, you really must tell me how you managed to furnish your home so plentifully, seeing how just a few days ago you were in such poverty.

{ Figliuole mie, come avete fatto voi a fornire sì pienamente la casa vostra, conciosiacosachè per lo adietro voi eravate sì poverelle }

Cassandra, the older sister, reductively explained:

We have bartered one pound of flaxen thread for a doll that gives us money without any limit.

{ Una libra di filo di stoppa con una poavola barattata abbiamo, la quale senza misura alcuna danari ci rende. }

That’s not the true story of how the sisters came to enjoy life in material fullness. Cassandra, who beat her sister, didn’t understand love even after she sought forgiveness. Human beings, even women, are not angels.

The woman-neighbor became determined to steal the sisters’ doll. She formulated a plan and instructed her husband about his subordinate role:

One evening you must pretend to be drunk. You will take your sword and run after me and threaten to kill me. But you only strike the wall. Then I, pretending to be in great terror, will run into the street. And the two women, who are very compassionate, will open their house to me and take me inside for protection. I’ll stay there for the night and work that opportunity as much as I can.

{ Tu fingerai una sera d’esser ebbriaco e prenderai la tua spada, e correrammi dietro per uccidermi percotendo la spada nelle mura: ed io, fingendo d’aver di ciò paura, fuggirò su la strada: ed elle, che sono compassionevoli molto, mi apriranno: ed io chiuderommi dentro la loro casa, e resterò presso loro quella notte, ed io opererò quanto che io potrò. }

The woman-neighbor thus framed her husband as a perpetrator of domestic violence. With that deception, she spent the night at the sisters’ house and stole their doll.

When she returned home, the woman-neighbor sought to exploit the stolen doll. She gave it the night-time care that she saw Adamantina provide:

When the darkness of night finally arrived, the lady took the doll and made a good fire. She rubbed oil on the doll’s stomach and loins, wrapped it in white swaddling clothes, and placed it in the bed. Undressing herself, she got into bed at the doll’s side. After the first sleep of the night, the doll woke and said, “My lady, I have to poop!,” and didn’t say, “Mamma, I have to poop!” because she didn’t know the lady. The good lady, who was anxiously awaiting the fruits of what should follow, arose from the bed and took a very white linen cloth and put it under the doll. Then she said, “Poop, my little child, poop!” Strongly pushing, the doll, in the place of coins, filled the cloth with such foul-smelling feces that it was nearly impossible to go near.

{ Sopragiunta la buia notte, la donna prese la poavola; e fatto un buon fuogo, le unse lo stomaco e le rene: ed infasciata in bianchi pannicelli, nel letto la pose, e spogliatasi ancora ella, appresso la poavola si coricò. Fatto il primo sonno, la poavola si destò, e disse! Madonna, caca! — e non disse: Mamma, caca! — perciò che non la conosceva; e la buona donna, che vigilante stava aspettando il frutto che seguirne doveva, levatasi di letto, e preso un panno di lino bianchissimo, glie lo puose sotto, dicendo: Caca, figliuola mia, caca! La poavola, fortemente premendo, invece di danari, empì il panno di tanta puzzolente feccia, che appena se le poteva avicinare. }

This natural but unintended production prompted a shitstorm between husband and wife:

“For God’s sake,” said the husband, “look! Oh what a madwoman you are, what a fine trick it has played on you. And I was foolish to have believed such madness.” But the wife, contradicting her huband, with oaths affirmed that she had seen with her own eyes the great sum of coins the doll made in pooping. And seeing that his wife was determined to reserve the subsequent night for a new attempt, the husband, whose nose couldn’t suffer again such a stench as it had smelled, said the most crude words to his wife as has ever been said to any woman in the world. Taking the doll, he hurled it out a window onto some sweeping that were in front of their house.

{ Allora disse il marito: Vedi, o pazza che tu sei, come ella ti ha ben trattata; e sciocco sono stato io a crederti tale pazzia. Ma la moglie, contrastando col marito, con giuramento affermava, sè aver veduto con gli occhi propi gran somma di danari per lei cacata. E volendo la moglie riservarsi alla notte seguente a far nuova isperienza, il marito, che non poteva col naso sofferire il tanto puzzore che egli sentiva, disse la maggior villania alla moglie, che mai si dicesse a rea femina del mondo; e presa la poavola, la gittò fuori della finestra sopra alcune scopazze che erano a rimpetto della casa loro. }

Peasants subsequently came and scoped up the sweepings, along with the doll, to use as fertilizer. Persons who steal dolls deserve crap.

A few days later, King Drusiano, out hunting, took an urgent bowel movement in the woods. Perhaps not willing to settle for leaves, he called to his servants to get him something with which to wipe his ass. A servant saw the cloth doll on a heap of sweepings and brought it to the king. The king immediately wiped it against his ass. That was a mistake:

Then that doll with its fingers grabbed his buttocks and squeezed so tightly that he bellowed in his loudest voice. Having heard his extreme bellow, all his followers came to the King. They saw him on the ground more dead than alive. They all remained stupefied and saw that his torment was from a doll. Together they attempted to pull it off his buttocks, but their efforts were in vain. However much they tugged to pull it away, so much the more it gave him suffering and torment. No one could break its hold, nor make it let go. Now and then it would grab his bells and squeeze them so hard that he saw all the stars in the sky even though it was the middle of day.

{ Imperciocchè la poavola con i diti gli aveva presa una natica; e sì strettamente la teneva, che gridare ad alta voce lo faceva. Sentito da’ suoi il smisurato grido, subito tutti corsero al Re; e vedutolo che in terra come morto giaceva, tutti stupefatti restarono: e vedendolo tormentare dalla poavola, si posero unitamente per levargliela dalle natiche; ma si affaticavano in vano, e quanto più si sforzavano di rimovergliela, tanto ella gli dava maggior passione e tormento: nè fu mai veruno che pur crollare la potesse, non che indi ritrarla. Ed alle volte con le mani gli apprendeva i sonagli, e sì fatta stretta gli dava, che gli faceva veder quante stelle erano in cielo a mezzo il giorno. }

The King returned to his palace still suffering from the doll’s continuing attack on his ass.[5]

Desperately seeking relief, the King proclaimed that he would give one-third of his kingdom to anyone who could stop the doll’s attack on his ass. If the hero defeating that attack was a woman, the King pledged to marry her. Just as many doctors have attempted to cure hemorrhoids, many aspirants sought to ease the King’s pain in the ass. All failed. Finally Adamantina stepped forward:

She said, “Your Sacred Majesty, allow that even I may try my luck.” And approaching the doll, she said, “Ah, my little child, let my lord be in peace, no longer give him such torment.” She took hold of it by its swaddling clothes, caressing it extensively. The doll, who knew is mamma who had tended it and cared for it, immediately let go of the King’s buttocks, and abandoning the King, leaped into her arms.

{ disse: Sacra Maestà, lasciate che ancora io tenti la ventura mia; ed appresentatasi alla poavola, disse: Deh, figliuola mia, lascia omai cheto il mio Signore, nè gli dar più tormento; — e presala per i pannicelli, accarezzala molto. La poavola, che conosciuta aveva la sua mamma, la quale era solita a governarla e maneggiarla, subito dalle natiche si staccò; ed abbandonato il Re, saltolle nelle braccia. }[6]

After King Drusiano’s wounded ass healed, Adamantina was called into his presence. In addition to giving her one-third of this kingdom, he married her. She thus effectively owned all of his kingdom. Moreover, he arranged a favorable marriage for Cassandra. This was a fairy-tale ending to an attack on an ass:

All lived in joy and tranquil peace for a long time. The doll, having seen the superb wedding of one and then the other sister and that all had come to a beneficial end, suddenly disappeared. No one ever knew what become of the doll. In my judgment, it evanesced, like such fantasies have always done.

{ tutti in allegrezza e tranquilla pace lungo tempo vissero. La poavola, vedute le superbe nozze dell’una e l’altra sorella, ed il tutto aver sortito salutifero fine, subito disparve. E che di lei n’avenisse, mai non si seppe novella alcuna. Ma giudico io che si disfantasse, come nelle fantasme sempre avenir suole. }

The poor sisters thus became wealthy, part of a royal family, and happy. Medieval literature realistically discussed the difficulties of marriage for men. Women have much more successfully preserved the fairy-tale dream of extreme hypergamy.

The story of Alfrad and that of Adamantina both include an attack on an ass, strong women, and realistic appreciation for women’s potential for violence. Both stories mix lofty sentiment with recalcitrant realism in bizarre plots. Medieval Latin literature has been recognized as a conduit of fairy-tales.[7] Yet medieval Latin literature differs significantly from modern fairy-tales. King Drusiano wouldn’t have been comforted with his servants merely affirming, “The Lord will give you another ass {Dominus aliam dabit tibi asinam}.” That’s a loss of faith.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 20, “There is one place called Homburg {Est unus locus Homburh dictus},” stanzas 2-4, Latin text (consonantal u written as v for ease in recognizing sounds) and English translation (modified slightly) from Ziolkowski (1994). This poem survives only in the Carmina cantabrigiensia. “Homburh probably indicates Homburg on the Unstrut, near the town of Langensalza” in present-day central Germany. Id p. 235.

When a wolf attacks, a donkey would not typically hide its head and displaying its ass. Nor do donkeys typically raise two legs. Dronke grouped “Est unus locus Homburh dictus” with fabliaux. He interpreted it possibly ‘as alluding satirically, by way of an amusing “cover”, to a particular nun’s loss of her maidenhead.’ Dronke (1973) p. 286.

Ziolkowski noted in this poem clear touches of mock epic in verses 3.3 and 8.3. In addition verses 4.2-3 and 5.1 “perhaps contribute to a mock-epic flavor.” The phrases “turba virorum {crowd of men}” and “sanguinis unda {torrent of blood}” in verses 7.2 and 9.2, respectively, are stock phrases in hexameter poetry. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 236. The poem also uses Leonine (mid-line) rhyme.

The subsequent three quotes above are similarly sourced from “Est unus locus Homburh dictus,” stanzas 5-8 (Hearing the great voice of the she-ass…), 10 (Seeing that, all the sisters…), and 12-13 (of 13) (Gentle Adela and sweet Fritherun…).

[2] In his encyclopedic On the natures of things {De rerum naturis}, also called On the universe {De universo}, Hrabanus Mauru stated, “asses and she-asses sometimes signify the wantonness of self-indulgent persons {asinorum quoque vel asinarum nomine aliquando luxuriosorum petulantia}.” Latin text from Patrologia Latina, vol. 111, p. 112, cited by Dronke (1973) p. 286. Hrabanus wrote this work about 845.

[3] Dronke offered an abstract interpretation of the final verse:

the consolation offered by the other nuns, “gentle Adela and sweet Fritherun”, could also be an unseemly jest: “The Lord will give you another ass” — “the convent will renew your sensual impulses, will give you other opportunities”.

Dronke (1973) p. 286. That verse seems to me better interpreted from a medieval Christian perspective as implying that the Lord will restore your righteousness, in the sense of wiping away any sin / pain associated with the ass.

[4] Giovanni (Zoan) Francesco Straparola, The Pleasant Nights {Le Piacevoli Notti}, Night 5, Story 2, Italian text from Rua (1899) vol. 2, pp. 15-21, English translation (modified) from Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. p. 689. Subsequent quotes above are similarly from this story. The English translation of Waters (1894) is freely available online.

Beecher called this story “a singular and grotesque variation on the rags to riches romance.” Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 695. Many medieval stories seem singular and grotesque from a modern perspective.

[5] Beecher asked, “Is this doll the enactment of a castration complex?” Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 696. The “castration complex” is merely an elite folktale. Too many scholars have abstracted away men’s real suffering under castration culture:

On finds here the fixation with childhood, with the doll, which here plays the role of the symptom, and the sadistic drive with the threat of castration, in the episode where the doll bites the king’s buttocks and cruelly pinches his testicles.

{ On y trouve la fixation à l’enfance, avec la poupée, qui joue ici le rôle du symptôme, et la pulsion sadique avec menace de castration, dans l’épisode où la poupée mord les fesses du roi et lui pincer cruellement les testicules. }

Gayraud (1999) p. 624, as cited in Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 696, n. 32, my English translation. While marriage can provide a man with some protection against castration culture, it can also function as an agency of castration.

[6] Cassandra had earlier caressed the doll but failed to get it to relent in its attack on the King’s ass. Beecher pondered:

the image of Cassandra, the elder sister, stroking and caressing the poupée while it is still attached to the royal fundament — a propinquity that taunts the imagination. Does the mind make pictures of such things, and if so, are we invited to think of the doll’s condition as it leaps willingly into the arms of its loving ‘mother’ when she tells it to desist?

Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 697. Such scenes are now confined to hospitals and within homes. Bodily aberrations and filth weren’t inconsistent with care and love in the medieval period.

[7] On medieval Latin as a conduit for fairy-tales, Ziolkowski (2007). On the literary history of the doll story, Beecher (2012) pp. 698-704. Neither of these authorities discussed the connections to Carmina cantabrigiensia’s “Est unus locus Homburh dictus.”

[image] Toy baby doll from about 1950 with hand-knit woolen dress. Source photo by Hamish Darby and generously shared on flickr under a Creative Commons By 2.0 license.


Beecher, Donald. 2012. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Pleasant Nights. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1973. “The Rise of the Medieval Fabliau: Latin and Vernacular Evidence.” Romanische Forschungen. 85 (3): 275-297. Reprinted in Dronke, Peter. 1984. The Medieval Poet and His World. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

Gayraud, Joël, trans. 1999. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. Les nuits facétieuses. Paris: Corti.

Rua, Giuseppe. 1899. Le piacevoli notti di M. Giovanfrancesco Straparola da Caravaggio nelle quali si contengono le favole con i loro enimmi da dieci donne e duo giovani raccontate. 2 vols. Bologna: Romagnoli-Dall’ Acqua. Alternate presentation of 1927 edition.

Waters, W.G., trans. 1894. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Nights. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. London: Lawrence and Bullen. Alternate presentation: vol. 1, vol. 2.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland. Introduction.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2007. Fairy Tales from before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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