epithalamium for Sigibert: wanton king into Christian marital ideal

Fornication , adultery, and violence were prevalent among the sixth-century Merovingian elite. In 566, the Christian court poet Fortunatus wrote an erotically charged epithalamium for the marriage of the Merovingian king Sigibert and the Visigothic princess Brunhilda. Fortunatus’s epithalamium obliquely refers to Sigibert’s youthful wantonness and notably ignores intrafamilial violence. It praises Sigibert for embracing the Christian ideal of monogamous marriage within which loving, vigorous sexual relations produce children for a joyful dynasty.

Fortunatus’s epithalamium begins with natural effects of spring. The earth warms, new growth pushes up, and buds swell with the promise of fruit. Fortunatus explicitly associates birds and bees with procreation:

Sipping flowers and charming with delicate humming,
bees hide away in combs their delicious honey.
Fecund in providing progeny with a pure marriage bed,
one desires from a flower to bring forth masterful children.
Ready by obligations with love for posterity,
the twittering bird hurries, hastening toward children.
With offspring each, although old, becomes young in them.
When all thus reappear, the world has joy.

{ Praemittens flores gracili blandita susurro,
deliciosa favis mella recondit apes.
Progeniem reparans casto fecunda cubili,
artifices natos gignere flore cupit.
Nexibus apta suis pro posteritatis amore
ad fetus properans garrula currit avis.
Semine quisque suo senio iuvenescit in ipso;
omnia dum redeunt gaudia mundus habet. }[1]

Fortunatus celebrates the work of male worker bees, wrongly called drones. Moreover, with the lovely Brunhilda understood as a flower, a couplet about bees readily represents a marital ideal for Sigibert:

Fecund in providing progeny with a pure marriage bed,
one desires from a flower to bring forth masterful children.

Although directly referring to birds, the verse “ready by obligations with love for posterity” seems also to be urging Brunhilda and Sigibert to have children. In five successive verses Fortunatus uses five different words for offspring. His point is clear: the world has joy in creatures reproducing.

King Chilperic strangling his wife Queen Galsuenda in order to marry his lover Fredegunda

Fortunatus’s reference to progeny from a pure marriage bed alludes by contrast to fornication, adultery, and violence among King Sigibert’s fellow Merovingian elite. Sigibert’s father King Chlothar I had five wives and additional mistresses. His diverse sexual relations created political problems. Most prominently, a certain Gundovald claimed to be Chlothar’s illegitimate son. Gundovald’s paternity claim prompted armed conflict over royal succession in southern Gaul. Moreover, Chlothar had extramarital sex with King Theudebald’s widow Vuldetrada. Only when bishops criticized him did Chlothar end that relationship.[2]

Sigibert’s brothers also strayed far from Christian ideals of intimate love. Sigibert’s older brother King Charibert engaged in sexual relations with a broad range of women:

King Charibert married Ingoberga, with whom he had a daughter. The daughter afterwards married a husband in Kent and followed him there. At that time Ingoberga had in her service two young women who were daughters of a poor man. The first was called Marcovefa. She wore a nun’s clothes. The other was Merofled. The king was strongly taken in love for them. They were, as I said, the daughters of a wool worker. Ingoberga was jealous that the king was taken in delight by those young women. She secretly gave their father work to do, so that when the king saw it, he would hate the man’s daughters. While their father was working, she summoned the king. He expected to see something altogether novel. He saw only the father weaving the king’s wool. Upon seeing this, he stirred in anger, cast off Ingoberga, and married Merofled. He had another herder’s woman, that is the daughter of a guardian of sheep. Her name was Theodogild. By her he had a son. As soon as that son came from the womb, he was carried to the grave. … After this, Charibert united in marriage with Marcovefa, Merofled’s sister. For this reason the holy bishop Germanus excommunicated both of them.

{ Charibertus rex Ingobergam accepit uxorem, de qua filiam habuit, quae postea in Cantiam, virum accipiens, est deducta. Habebat tunc temporis Ingoberga in servitium suum duas puellas pauperis cuiusdam filias, quarum prima vocabatur Marcovefa, religiosam vestem habens; alia vero Merofledis: in quarum amore rex valde detinebatur; erant enim, ut diximus, artificis lanarii filiae. Aemula ex hoc Ingoberga, quod a rege diligerentur, patrem earum secretius operari fecit, futurum ut dum haec rex cerneret, odio filias eius haberet: quo operante vocavit regem. Ille autem sperans aliquid novi videre, aspicit hunc eminus lanas regias componentem: quod videns, commotus in ira, reliquit Ingobergam, et Merofledem accepit. Habuit et aliam puellam opilionis, id est pastoris ovium, filiam, nomine Theudechildem, de qua et fertur filium habuisse, qui ut processit ex alvo, protinus delatus est ad sepulcrum. … Posthaec Marcovefam, Merofledis scilicet sororem, coniugio copulavit. Pro qua causa a sancto Germano episcopo excommunicatus uterque est. }[3]

A king marrying a wool-worker’s daughter was irregular. Marrying both of a wool-worker’s daughters, as well as the daughter of a shepherd, was extraordinary. That’s an extreme pastoral fantasy enacted in real life.

Fredegunda and Chilperic rekindle their affair after Chilperic strangles his wife Galsuenda

King Chilperic, another of Sigibert’s older brothers, also had multiple wives and an affair with his wife’s servant. While married to Audovera, Chilperic had sexual relations with Fredegunda, who was among Audovera’s “lowest household servants {familia infima}.”[4] Chilperic regarded with envy Sigibert’s marriage to Princess Brunhilda, daughter of Visigothic king Athanagild:

When King Chilperic saw his brother’s royal marriage, although he already had many wives, he solicited Brunhilda’s sister Galsuenda. He promised through ambassadors that he would relinquish his other wives if only he could have one suitable to himself. He felt he merited to receive the offspring of a king. Her father accepted these promises. As before, the father similarly sent his daughter with great wealth. Indeed Galsuenda was older than Brunhilda. When Galsuenda came to King Chilperic, she was received with great honor. United to him in marriage, she delighted him with great love. She had bestowed upon him great treasure. But for love of Fredegunda, with whom he had sexual relations earlier, a great scandal arose among them. Galsuenda had already been made a convert to Catholic law and baptized. While complaining to the king that she was continually enduring wrongs and saying that she had no dignity living with him, she asked that she be allowed to relinquish the treasure that she had brought with her and be permitted the freedom to return to her fatherland. Dissembling with his wits, the king with soothing words calmed her. In the end, he ordered a servant boy to strangle her. The king found her dead on the pillow. … Although the king shed tears for her death, after a few days he married Fredegunda.

{ Quod videns Chilpericus rex, cum iam plures haberet uxores, sororem eius Galsuintham expetiit, promittens per legatos se alias relicturum: tantum condignam sibi, regisque prolem mereretur accipere. Pater vero eius has promissiones accipiens, filiam suam, sicut anteriorem, similiter ipsi cum magnis opibus destinavit. Nam Galsuintha aetate senior quam Brunichildis erat. Quae cum ad Chilpericum regem venisset, cum grandi honore suscepta, eiusque est sociata coniugio: a quo etiam magno amore diligebatur. Detulerat enim secum magnos thesauros. Sed per amorem Fredegundis, quam prius habuerat, ortum est inter eos grande scandalum. Iam enim in lege catholica conversa fuerat, et chrismata. Cumque se regi quereretur assidue iniurias perferre, diceretque nullam se dignitatem cum eodem habere, petiit ut relictis thesauris, quos secum detulerat, liberam redire permitteret ad patriam. Quod ille per ingenia dissimulans, verbis eam lenibus demulsit. Ad extremum eam suggillari iussit a puero, mortuamque reperit in strato. … Rex autem cum eam mortuam deflesset, post paucos dies Fredegundem recepit in matrimonio. }[5]

Fredegunda sends assassins to murder King Sigibert
assassin murders King Sigibert

Murder makes adultery even worse. Fredegunda herself arranged for the murder of her husband’s brother King Sigibert. She reportedly also attempted to have assassinated Sigibert’s wife Brunhilda, Sigibert and Brunhilda’s son Childebert II, as well as King Chilperic’s brother King Gunthram. Fredegunda even attempted to kill her own daughter Riguntha, whom she had with Chilperic:

Riguntha, Chilperic’s daughter, would also bring forward malicious charges against her mother Fredegunda. Riguntha would say that she herself was the lady-lord and that her mother should be returned to her servitude. She would harass her with many and frequent reproaches. Her mother said to her, “Why are you so troublesome to me, daughter? Here are your father’s things that I have with me. Take them, and use them as you would.” Having gone into a royal storeroom, she opened a chest containing jewels and precious ornaments. From that for a very long time she pulled out diverse things, and offered them to her daughter standing by. She said to her, “Now I’m tired of doing this. Put your hand in,” she said, “and take whatever you find.” While Riguntha was putting in her arm to take out things from the chest, her mother, having seized the chest’s lid, slammed it on her neck. With such strength she pressed the chest’s edge against Riguntha’s throat that Riguntha’s eyes were ready to crack out. One young servant-woman who was inside the room cried out with a loud voice, “Come quickly, I beg, come quickly. My lady is being violently strangled by her mother!” And the servants waiting outside for them burst into the room and pulled the young woman from imminent death and led her outside. After this, the hostilities between them spread more furiously, and they had no greater cause than following Riguntha’s adulteries. Brawls and fistfights were always associated with them.

{ Rigundis autem, filia Chilperici, cum saepius matri calumnias inferret, diceritque se esse dominam, genitricemque suam servitio redeberit, et multis eam et crebro convitiis lacesserit ac interdum pugnis se alapisque caederent, ait ad eam mater: Quid mihi molesta es, filia? Ecce res patris tui, quae penes me habentur, accipe, et utere ut libet. Et ingressa in regesto, reseravit arcam monilibus ornamentisque praetiosis refertam. De qua cum diutissime res diversas extrahens filiae adstanti porregeret, ait ad eam: Iam enim lassata sum; inmitte tu, inquid, manum et eiece quod inveneris. Cumque illa inmisso brachio res de arca abstraheret, appraehenso mater operturio arcae super cervicem eius inlisit. Quod cum in fortitudine praemeret atque gulam eius axis inferior ita adterreret, ut etiam oculi ad crepandum parati essent, exclamavit una puellarum, quae erat intrinsecus, voce magna, dicens: Currite, quaeso, currite: ecce! domina mea a genitrice sua graviter suggillatur. Et inrumpentes cellolam, qui coram foribus eorum praestulabantur adventum, erutam ab imminente interitu puellam adduxerunt foris. Post ista vero inter easdem inimicitiae vehementius pullulantes, et non de alia causa maxime, nisi quia Rigundis adulteria sequebatur, semper cum eisdem rixae et caedes erant. }[6]

Fredegunda, although persecuting her daughter Riguntha for committing adultery, allegedly herself committed adultery with Bishop Bertram of Bordeaux.[7] Women in general are no more angelic than men are. In contrast to authorities’ widely disseminated domestic-violence myths, violence between mothers and daughters has been more prevalent than violence between fathers and daughters.

Fredegunda attempting to murder her daughter Riguntha

Some Christian bishops of Sigibert’s time engaged in fornication and adultery. That was a matter of laughter to some in the court of King Gunthram, Sigibert’s older brother:

From the time when Palladius and Bertram were summoned to the king’s banquet, they roused and reproved each other about many of their adulteries and fornications, and with non-negligible perjuries also. About these matters many laughed, but a non-negligible number indeed, who were livelier in knowledge, lamented that among the Lord’s bishops the devil’s weeds should be so sprouting.

{ Nam cum iterato ad convivium regis Palladius atque Bertchramnus acciti fuissent, commoti in invicem multa sibi de adulteriis ac fornicatione exprobraverunt, nonnulla etiam de periuriis. Quibus de rebus multi ridebant, nonnulli vero, qui alacrioris erant scientiae, lamentabant, cur inter sacerdotes Domini taliter zezania diaboli pullularent. }[8]

The bishops Palladius and Bertram, apparently friends at this time, seem to have been just teasing each other at the royal banquet. One wouldn’t have to be much livelier in Christian knowledge to recognize that their behavior was seriously sinful.

According to Saint Gregory, the sixth-century Bishop of Tours, Gunthram was a relatively good king. Gunthram’s moral goodness seems to have been relative to his peers:

The good king Gunthram first subjoined Veneranda, who was his handmaid, in bed with her as his concubine. From her he had a son named Gundobad. Later he married Marcatrude, daughter of Magnachar, and transferred his son Gundobad to Orleans. However, Marcatrude was jealous of Gundobad after having a son. She contrived Gundobad’s death. She sent him, so they say, poison in a drink and thus poisoned him.

{ Gunthchramnus autem rex bonus primo Venerandam, cuiusdam suorum ancillam, pro concubina toro subiunxit; de qua Gundobadum filium suscepit. Postea vero Marcatrudem, filiam Magnarii, in matrimonium accepit. Gundobadum vero filium suum Aurilianis transmisit. Aemula autem Marcatrudis post habitum filium in huius morte crassatur; transmissum, ut aiunt, venenum in potu maedificavit. }[9]

King Gunthram founded the Church of Saint Marcellus and was buried there. After his death, his subjects acclaimed him as a saint. The Christian liturgy added a feast day for Saint Gunthram on March 28. A person doesn’t need to live a sinless life in order to become a Christian saint. Gunthram surely didn’t exemplify Christian ideals as a husband.

Queen Brunhilda judicially executed

According to Fortunatus, Gunthram’s brother Sigibert was passionately in love with Brunhilda. They weren’t heading into a marital alliance merely serving high political objectives:

The royal eminence was inflamed, not even with night’s sleep
did his heart rest. With his eyes and mind he was returning
to the face that Love had planted and exhausting his mind
with frequent, mistaken embraces, deceived by a phantom.

{ Regalis fervebat apex, nec nocte sopora
cordis erat requies, oculis animoque recurrens
ad vultus quos pinxit Amor mentemque fatigans
saepe per amplexum falsa sub imagine lusit. }[10]

These mistaken embraces with a phantom recall Aeneas’s mistaken embraces with phantoms of his wife Creusa and his father Anchises. From a Christian perspective, the sixth-century Merovingian court could be regarded as moral disaster analogous to the destruction of Troy. Fortunatus, however, insisted on prophesying good in the context of passionate love:

Sigibert loves, seized with fire for Brunhilda,
who pleases him. She is suited for bed, of mature, marriageable age,
her virginity swelling into bloom. When embraced by her husband,
she with her first fruits will please him. No injuries to her modesty
does she bear, and so she can be better called a queen.

{ Sigibercthus amans Brunichildae carpitur igne,
quae placet apta toro, maturis nubilis annis,
virginitas in flore tumens, complexa marito
primitiis placitura suis, nec damna pudoris
sustinet, unde magis pollens regina vocatur. }

Other queens of Brunhilda’s time undoubtedly weren’t virgins at the time of their marriages. Fortunatus, however, doesn’t celebrate virginity in itself. He makes clear, both implicitly and explicitly, that both Sigibert and Brunhilda will experience sexual pleasure in marriage. In this epithalamium, Venus herself attends the marriage. Venus praises Brunhilda’s beauty and addresses her as a virgin “soon to please her spouse {placitura iugali}.” As for the marital embrace, “this the virgin also desires {hoc quoque virgo cupit}.”

Sigibert himself apparently wasn’t a virgin. Fortunatus implicitly presents Sigibert as having sinned sexually as a young man. However, having matured beyond his youthful wantonness, Sigibert will now fulfill the Christian ideal of marriage:

Sigibert, created for our joy, is exulting
in making a vow. He who is now free from other loves
submits to beloved chains. With youthfulness moderating,
his chaste mind seeks marriage, restraining wantonness.
He flees to marital bonds, he in whom his age insinuates nothing.
Modest in heart, one ruler for all peoples,
to himself he confers restraints. As nature seeks,
according to marriage’s law, he is content with one woman’s embrace,
such that his love does not sin, but serving a chaste marriage bed,
restores with children the house where an heir would play.

{ Sigibercthus ovans, ad gaudia nostra creatus,
vota facit, qui nunc alieno liber amore
vincula cara subit, cuius moderante iuventa
conubium mens casta petit lasciva retundens;
ad iuga confugit cui nil sua subripit aetas.
Corde pudicus agens, rector tot gentibus unus,
et sibi frena dedit, sed quod natura requirit
lege maritali amplexu est contentus in uno,
quo non peccat amor, sed casta cubilia servans
instaurat de prole lares, ubi luserit heres. }[11]

Sigibert “at this very moment {nunc}” is free from other loves. That suggests that he enjoyed other’s women’s embraces in the past, perhaps even in the immediate past. Although still possessing youthful vigor, he has curbed his “wantonness {lasciva}.” Other men of his age, encompassing both personal lifespan and impersonal history, flee from marriage, which they associate with chains. Sigibert, however, runs for the chains of marriage. He limits himself to having sex with one woman within marriage and thus does not sin from a Christian perspective. Sigibert of course is not yet married. With his epithalamium, Fortunatus creates an other-worldly prophecy for Sigibert to fulfill.

sixth-century royal couples

Although as divorced from the reality of his time as it is from ours, Fortunatus’s epithalamium presents a marital ideal with enduring appeal. Many persons today might still aspire to the sort of marriage that Fortunatus invoked for Sigibert and Brunhilda:

May you advance, long joined in limbs and united in heart,
both equal in character, in merits and manners both equal,
each ornamenting your gender with your laudable actions.
May you encircle one another’s necks in a single embrace
and spend all your years in peaceful amusements.
May each desire what delights the other,
and both share equal health protecting your two hearts.
May one love, held firm in living union, nourish you.

May you thus celebrate again as parents your children’s wedding vows,
and may you have grandchildren, your own children’s offspring.

{ Ite diu iuncti membris et corde iugati,
ambo pares genio, meritis et moribus ambo,
sexum quisque suum pretiosis actibus ornans,
cuius amplexu sint colla conexa sub uno,
et totos placidis peragatis lusibus annos.
Hoc velit alterutrum quidquid dilexerit alter;
Aequa salus ambobus eat duo pectora servans;
unus amor vivo solidamine iunctus alescat.

Sic iterum natis celebretis vota parentes
et de natorum teneatis prole nepotes. }[12]

A scholar has described Sigibert, according to Fortunatus’s epithalamium, as a “forever young almost-fertility-god turned monogamous family man.”[13] That description implicitly derides a central aspect of Sigibert’s transformation. In Fortunatus’s epithalamium, Sigibert becomes a monogamous family man with complete joy, and he prolifically co-creates new, beloved life. In short, Sigibert lives the Christian marital ideal.

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[1] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, “On the lord and king Sigibert {De domno Sigiberctho rege},” vv. 7-14, Latin text from Roberts (2017), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Here’s a French translation. Subsequent quotes above from Fortunatus’s Carmina are similarly sourced. Leo (1881) provides a freely available Latin edition of Fortunatus’s poems. Leo’s Latin edition differs little from Roberts’s Latin edition.

Sigibert I became king of the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia in 561 when his father King Chlothar I died. Sigibert married Princess Brunhilda, daughter of Visigothic king Athanagild, in Metz in 566.

[2] Clothar I, also known in English as Clotaire and Lothar, united Frankish lands to become King of the Franks from 558 to his death in 561. Clothar was simultaneously married to five women: Guntheuc, Radegund, Ingund, Aregund, and Chunsina. Ingund was the mother of Sigibert and his brothers Charibert and Gunthram. Chilperic was the son of Clothar and Aregund.

On the paternity of Gundovald / Gondovald, Widdowson (2008). On Clothar’s relationship with Theudebald’s widow Vuldetrada, Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of Histories {Decem Libri Historiarum}, also known as History of the Franks {Historia Francorum}, 4.9.

[3] Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of Histories {Decem Libri Historiarum} 4.26, Latin edition of Krusch (1951), my English translation, benefiting from that of Thorpe (1973) and Brehaut (1916). The Latin edition of Migne (1849) is readily available in Patrologia Latina 71, columns 159 – 572. Subsequent quotes from Decem Libri Historiarum are similarly sourced.

Gregory’s elevation to Bishop of Tours in 573 was irregular and surprising. He was neither well-known nor highly regarded in Tours, a major city of Gaul. However, Gregory gained the support of Aegidius (Egidius), Bishop of Reims, and Radegund, who married King Chlothar I and later became abbess of the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. King Sigibert and Queen Brunhilda also supported Gregory for Bishop of Tours: “Applauding Sigibert, and Brunhilda as well, favors him to this honor {Huic Sigibercthus ovans favet et Brunichildis honori}.” Fortunatus, Carmina 5.3.15, “To the citizens of Tours about Bishop Gregory {Ad cives Turonicos de Gregorio episcopo}.” Apparently in violation of Gallic church law, Gregory was consecrated Bishop of Tours in Rheims rather than Tours. Van Dam (1993) p. 64. Gregory’s position at Tours was initially tenuous. He strengthened his position through skillful use of saints and the support of his mother Armentaria. Id. pp. 65-8; Dailey (2015) pp. 23-4.

[4] Wemple (1981) p. 56, citing The Book of the History of the Franks {Liber historiae francorum}, an eighth-century chronicle. Fredegunda and Brunhilda are also known as Fredegund and Brunhild, respectively. More generally, medieval Frankish names are not well-standardized in English.

[5] Decem Libri Historiarum 4.28. King Chilperic married Fredegunda in 567. Wemple (1981) p. 56. He thus was married to Galsuenda (Galswintha) for less than a year.

[6] Decem Libri Historiarum 9.34. Of course interpersonal violence throughout history has been predominantely violence against men. Both women and men are responsible for social conditions that sustain violence against men.

[7] Leudast, Count of Tours, accused Bertram and Fredegunda of committing adultery. Leudast attributed that information to Gregory of Tours. In synod at Berny-Rivière in August, 580, Gregory denied under oath that he had made an accusation of adultery against Bertram and Fredegunda. Decem Libri Historiarum 5.47, 5.49, and 8.9; Shanzer (2015) pp. 678-81.

Gregory accused Leudast himself of repeated, egregious adultery:

Yet Leudast was often caught in committing adultery in the holy side-chapel itself. The queen, undoubtedly disturbed that a place consecrated to God should be so polluted, ordered him to be ejected from the holy church.

{ Sed et in adulteriis saepe infra ipsam sanctam porticum deprehensus est. Commota autem regina, quod scilicet locus Deo sacratus taliter pollueretur, iussit eum a basilica sancti eici. }

Decem Libri Historiarum 5.49.

[8] Decem Libri Historiarum 8.7. This banquet occurred in 585. Bertram was Bishop of Bordeaux, and Palladius, Bishop of Saintes. Both supported Gundavold’s paternity claim on King Clothar I. Gunthram, recognized as a legitimate son of King Clothar, opposed Gundavold’s paternity claim. Decem Libri Historiarum 8.2. Bertram and Palladius, allies in supporting Gundovold in 585, subsequently became bitter enemies. Decem Libri Historiarum 8.22. On this banquet and the relationships between the persons, Shanzer (2015) pp. 675-6.

[9] Decem Libri Historiarum 4.25.

[10] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, vv. 43-6. The subsequent three quotes above are from id. vv. 51-5 (Sigibert loves…), 100 (soon to please her spouse), 56 (this the virgin also desires).

Gregory of Tours described Sigibert’s pursuit of marriage to Brunhilda:

After King Sigibert saw that his brothers had been accepting wives unworthy of themselves, and to their debasement associating in marriage with women-servants, he sent an embassy to Spain. With many gifts he asked for Brunhilda, daughter of King Athanagild. This young woman was elegant in her work, lovely in looks, honorable and proper in behavior, prudent in advice-giving, and pleasant in conversation. Her father did not refuse the marriage, and the previously mentioned king sent her with great treasure. Sigibert gathered to himself the elders, prepared banquets, and with immense happiness and joy married her. And although she was subjected to law of Arian Christianity, by the bishops’ preaching and by the king’s admonition, she converted, believed in the unity of the blessed Trinity, and was baptised. She persevered as a Catholic in the name of Christ.

{ Porro Sigyberthus rex cum videret, quod fratres eius indignas sibimet uxores acciperent, et per vilitatem suam etiam ancillas in matrimonio sociarent, legationem in Hispaniam mittit et cum multis muneribus Brunichildem, Athanagilde regis filiam petiit. Erat enim puella elegans opere, venusta aspectu, honesta moribus atque decora, prudens consilio et blanda colloquio. Quam pater eius non denegans, cum magnis thesauris antedicto rege transmisit. Ille vero, congregatus senioribus secum, praeparatis aepulis, cum inminsa laetitia atque iocunditate eam accepit uxorem. Et quia Arrianae legi subiecta erat, per praedicationem sacerdotum, atque ipsius regis commonitionem conversa, beatam in unitate confessa Trinitatem credidit atque chrismata est. Quae in nomine Christi catholica perseverat. }

Decem Libri Historiarum 4.27. Marriage among the Merovingian elite focused on the status issues of central pragmatic concern in modern “romantic” love:

Good relations with their neighbors could lead to a marriage between them, but marriage was not the precursor to peace and cooperation. Rather, marriage with prestigious foreign kings, princes and princesses served to enhance the royal status of the Merovingians. This is why discussions of the foreign marriages of the Merovingians in the sources reveal a strong emphasis on wealth, status, royal blood, character and beauty rather than alliances, treaties, and peace.

Crisp (2003) abstract, p. iii, similarly, p. 223. Cf. Dailey (2015) Chapters 4-5.

[11] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, vv. 27-36. The Latin verbs subrepo / surrepo {to creep or insinuate} and subripio / surripio {to purloin} are often confused in Latin texts of late antiquity. Gil (1984) p. 189. In Carmina 6.1.31, “cui nil sua subripit aetas,” id. reads a form of subrepo. I follow that reading. Other translations: “his youth exercises no allure,” Roberts (2017) p. 351; “he whose age stole nothing from him,” George (1995) p. 27.

These verses have been superficially interpreted. With much influence from Gregory of Tours, they have been read as meaning that Sigibert “deliberately shunned the casual liaisons of his brothers.” George (1995) p. 25; similarly, id. p. 130, citing Decem Libri Historiarum 4.27. A more perceptive reading suggests “Fortunatus may have lightly touched on previous entanglements of Sigibert’s in his epithalamium (C. 6.1.28 qui nunc alieno liber amore).” Shanzer (2015) p. 680. While Fortunatus is writing with a light touch, he communicates in numerous ways Sigibert’s youthful sexual promiscuity and more generally the Merovingian elite’s failings relative to Christian sexual morality.

Fortunatus’s Carmina 6.1 appears to be an example of figured speech. Practice of “figured speech {oratio figurata / λόγος ἐσχηματισμένος}” appears in Fortunatus’s Carmina 9.1 (“To King Chilperic {Ad Chilpericum regem}”). Shanzer (2015) pp. 677-86. On the classical practice of figured speech more generally, Howell (2017).

Carmina 6.1 is an epithalamium in the “true classical tradition.” George (1995) p. 25, n. 1. For Fortunatus, it’s “among his most classical works … similar to epithalamiums by Claudian, Ruricus, and Sidonius.” Williard (2016) p. 209. The first 24 verses of Carmina 6.1 are in Fortunatus’s typical elegiac couplets. The remaining 119 verses are in hexameter, “the traditional meter in late antiquity for epithalamium.” Roberts (2017) p. 863, note to 6.1.25. The poem features the traditional Roman love gods Cupid and Venus, as well as classical characterization of lovesickness. Fortunatus, a Christian in the Christian Merovingian court, doesn’t mention Christ and the Christian church at all. Both Sigibert’s previous wantonness and the Christian marital ideal are implicit.

[12] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, vv. 132-9, 142-3. On how this Christian marital ideal related to classical ideals of marriage, Williard (2016) pp. 209-16. Scholars have scarcely taken seriously Roman men’s subservience to their wives and the understandable reluctance of Roman men to marry. Of course, ignorance and myth-making concerning men’s gender position is currently enormous.

Both Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours depicted Brunhilda highly favorably. For Fortunatus writing specifically about Brunhilda, Carmina Appendix 6, “On Queen Brunhilda {De Brunichilde regina}.” For commentary on that poem, Williard (2016) pp. 205-7. Other historical sources present Brunhilda as thoroughly wicked. Thomas (2012). Gregory of Tours, however, drew a stark contrast between the good Brunhilda and the wicked Fredegunda. Hemmer (2013) pp. 22-49; Dailey (2015) Chapters 6-7. Although probably less so than academics in Westernized societies today, Gregory of Tours faced constraints on what he could write and wrote with concern for his own personal interests. Yet unlike much academic work today, Gregory wrote with complex rhetoric and subtle patterning. Wood (1993).

[13] Herschend (2018) p. 13. As early as 1981, one can perceive anti-meninism tainting scholarly understanding of intimate heterosexual relations in Merovingian Gaul. Consider this claim:

The combination of the Germanic polygyny and the Roman institution of concubinage gave almost complete license to men to be promiscuous, furthered male dominance, and accentuated sexual double standards in Merovingian society. As long as there were no strict requirements for the legalization of unions and the legitimization of children, polygyny continued unabated in the royal family.

Wemply (1981) p. 38. Men’s sexuality has typically been regulated more harshly than women’s sexuality, and punishment for adultery has typically been gender-biased against men. Scholars writing about gender historically should test their understanding on their own societies in their own time by asking the following questions: why do men lack reproductive choice of the sort championed for women and why do men have to endure forced financial fatherhood? Why have cheap DNA paternity tests not been used to eliminate fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge?

More recent scholarship has rejected the existence of Merovingian polygyny while ignoring Fortunatus’s implicit critique of the Merovingian elite’s sexual behavior. Consider this scholarly program:

we will challenge the hypothesis that Merovingian kings practiced polygamy (or more specifically, polygyny) — a theory built upon an overly credulous approach to the stories in Book IV of the Histories {by Gregory of Tours}. Certainly, the Merovingians fell short of Gregory’s monogamous ideal, marrying several wives over the course of their lifetimes and keeping concubines as well. But they did so as part of a coherent, reasoned policy that used the exclusivity associated with the status of ‘wife’ to define the position of the ‘queen’. With some justification, Gregory criticised the Merovingians’ approach for leading to political instability and civil war, but he took his critique to excess, and it is doubtful that his alternative — uncompromising monogamy — stood a chance at improving matters.

Dailey (2015) p. 101 (program for id., Chapter 5). Consider Dailey’s claim in relation to Fortunatus’s Carmina 6.1. Fortunatus wrote Carmina 6.1 in 566, seven years before Gregory at age thirty-four was appointed Bishop of Tours. Gregory probably wrote the first four books of his Decem Libri Historiarum from 576 to 580. The subsequent six books probably were composed about 587-93. Smith (2010) pp. 65-6. This chronology implies that long before Gregory of Tours wrote Decem Libri Historiarum, Fortunatus apparently regarded the Christian marital ideal as likely to improve matters for Sigibert, Brunhilda, and their Austrasian realm. In inferring “coherent, reasoned policy” in Merovingian elite sexual relations, Dailey fails to account for Fortunatus’s implicit critique in Carmina 6.1.

[images] (1) King Chilperic strangling Queen Galsuenda. Illustration from the Great Chonicles of France {Grandes Chroniques de France}, made about 1375-79. From folio 31r in Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Français 2813. Image on Wikimedia Commons. (2) Fredegunda and King Chilperic rekindle their affair after Chilperic strangles his wife Queen Galsuenda. Excerpt from painting titled “Fredegund and Chilperic.” Painted by Auguste Couder about 1826. Preserved in Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans (Orléans, France). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Fredegunda sends assassins to murder King Sigibert. Excerpt from painting titled “Fredegund distributes daggers.” Painted by Emmanuel Herman Joseph Wallet in the nineteenth century. Preserved as accession number 2419 in Musée de la Chartreuse de Douai (Douai, France). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Assassin murders King Sigibert. Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France. From folio 33v in BnF, Français 2813. Image on Wikimedia Commons. (5) Fredegunda attempting to murder her daughter Riguntha. Image from De Witt (1887) p. 27. Image on Wikimedia Commons. (6) Queen Brunhilda judicially executed. Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France. From folio 60v in BnF, Français 2813. Here are another medieval illustration of Brunhilda’s execution, and a modern painting. (7) Royal couples in discussion. Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France. From folio 15v in BnF, Français 2813.


Brehaut, Ernest, trans. 1916. Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Selections, translated with notes. New York: Columbia University Press. Alternate presentation.

Crisp, Ryan Patrick. 2003. Marriage and Alliance in the Merovingian Kingdoms, 481-639. Ph.D. Thesis, Ohio State University.

Dailey, E. T. 2015. Queens, Consorts, Concubines: Gregory of Tours and Women of the Merovingian Elite. Leiden: Brill.

De Witt, Henriette, née Guizot. 1887. Vieilles histoires de la Patrie. Paris: Librairie Hachette.

George, Judith W., trans. 1995. Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Gil, Juan Fernández. 1984. “Interpretaciones Latinas.” Habis. 15: 185-200. Alternate source.

Hemmer, Richard. 2013. A woman’s life in Gregory of Tours’ Histories. M. Phil. Thesis, University of Vienna.

Herschend, Frands. 2018. “How Norse Is Skírnismál? – a Comparative Case Study.” The Journal of Archaeology and Ancient History. 23: 1-44.

Howell, Justin R. 2017. The Pharisees and Figured Speech in Luke-Acts. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Review by Jonathan Thiessen.

Krusch, Bruno, ed. 1951. Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Historiarum Libri X. Pp. 1­-537 in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum 1.1. Second edition (first, 1884). Hannover: Hahnian Library.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1881. Venanti Fortunati Opera Poetica (Pars Prior), Venanti Fortunati Opera Pedestria (Pars Posterior). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi IV. Berlin: Weidmann. Another copy.

Roberts, Michael, ed and trans. 2017. Venantius Fortunatus. Poems. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reviews by Hope Williard and by Lionel Yaceczko.

Shanzer, Danuta. 2015. “Capturing Merovingian Courts: a Literary Perspective.” Pp. 667-699 in Le Corti nel’ Alto Medioevo. Settimane di Studio della Fondazione Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo, 72. Spoleto, 24-29 April 2014. Spoleto, Italy: Fondazione Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo.

Smith, Adrian. 2010. The ‘Prehistory’ of Gregory of Tours: An Analysis of Books I-IV of Gregory’s Histories. MPhil Thesis, University of York, UK.

Thomas, Emma Jane. 2012. The ‘second Jezebel’: representations of the sixth-century Queen Brunhild. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Glasgow.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans. 1974. Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. Harmondsworth Middlesex England: Penguin Books.

Van Dam, Raymond. 1993. Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. 

Wemple, Suzanne Fonay. 1981. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Widdowson, Marc. 2008. “Gundovald, ‘Ballomer’ and the Problems of Identity.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire. 86(3-4): 607-622.

Williard, Hope Deejune. 2016. Friendship in the Works of Venantius Fortunatus. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Leeds, UK.

Wood, Ian N. 1993. “The secret histories of Gregory of Tours.” Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire. 71-2: 253-270.

In rosa vernat lilium: unity in diversity of order, sex, and season

In the scientific classification of plants, roses and lilies belong to different taxonomic orders. Biologists categorize humans by sex chromosomes or by gamete size as female and male. Most persons readily distinguish the celestial bodies sun and moon, the environmental qualities darkness and light, and the seasons winter and spring. Nonetheless, the medieval song Within a rose blooms a lily {In rosa vernat lilium} asserts unity in diversity across these categories.

In rosa vernat lilium is attested in its earliest manuscripts as a conductus, a type of non-liturgical Christian sacred song cultivated in northern France between 1160 and 1250. This conductus probably was composed about 1200. It’s written for two voices in an early form of polyphonic music. Scholars have mainly considered it in the context of early European polyphonic music.[1] Its text, which seems to have been written to celebrate Christmas, deserve more attention.

In rosa vernat lilium provides a poignant witness to medieval belief in unity in diversity. The poem unites natural differences:

Within a rose blooms a lily —
a flower within a flower flourishing.
When a young daughter gives birth to a son,
in the darkness shines
a light without darkness.
In the hidden recesses of her flesh,
the true day dawns.

{ In rosa vernat lilium
Flos in flore florescit
Dum nata parit filium
In tenebris lucescit
Lux sine tenebris
In carnis latebris
Vera dies diescit }[2]

In early Christian imagery, the (red) rose was associated blood and martyrs, and the (white) lily with chastity and virgins. For Christians, the Virgin Mary is the preeminent virgin, and the crucified Christ, the preeminent martyr. However, the fifth-century poet Caelius Sedulius figured Mary as a rose:

And just as a tender rose arises from sharp thorns,
having nothing that would hurt, and covers its mother with honor,
so from the root-stock of Eve comes holy Mary,
a new virgin to expiate the wrong of the ancient virgin.

{ Et velut e spinis mollis rosa surgit acutis
Nil quod laedat habens matremque obscurat honore:
Sic Evae de stirpe sacra veniente Maria
Virginis antiquae facinus nova virgo piaret }[3]

In rosa vernat lilium expands upon Sedulius’s imagery to have Christ the lily arise from the rose Mary. A rose arising from thorns is a natural image of a rosebush. A lily arising from a rose, in contrast, is a combination of categorically different flowers. Nonetheless, within this conductus, a lily arising from a rose is no more unnatural than a male being born from a female. The combination of darkness and light in the conductus similarly unites a difference expressed in John 1:5:

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

{ et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non conprehenderunt

καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν }[4]

In rosa vernat lilium emphasizes reversal of contradiction, the abolition of categorical difference, and the impossible happening. It’s the wonder of Christmas and the “laughter of Easter {risus paschalis}.”

golden rose that Pope Leo XII presented to Caroline Augusta, Empress of Austria

In rosa vernat lilium affirms mutuality with difference, rather than subordination. The sun and moon are very different celestial bodies. In traditional Greco-Roman religion, sun and moon were associated with much different male and female gods.[5] Nonetheless, like woman and man in the Christian marital ideal, sun and moon in this conductus affirm and strengthen each other:

From the moon flashes forth the sun’s
brightening ray.
The moon, never waning,
shows the sun to the world.
When this sun is joined with the moon,
neither suffers an eclipse,
but each shines more than ever.

{ Ex luna solis emicat
Radius elucescens;
Mundanis solem indicat
Luna nunquam decrescens;
Hic sol dum lune iungitur,
Neuter eclipsim patitur,
Sed est plusquam nitescens }

In medieval poetry, love transforms seasons from their normal character. In this conductus, the mother Mary similarly creates spring in winter:

In time of winter
spring blooms beyond nature.
From a worthy body
a mother spreads a worthy fragrance.
O reward of spring!
Sadness of winter
flees from the true flower.

{ In hiemali tempore
Ver vernat ultra morem;
Dignum de digno corpore
Mater fudit odorem.
O veris premium:
Hiemis tedium
Ad verum fugit florem. }

The Christian church is centered on the woman Mary, the true flower. She is the model for all seeking to incarnate Christ, a fully masculine man, in themselves. In rosa vernat lilium is completely inconsistent with men’s subordination to women. Men are categorically different from women, but united equally with women as human persons.

In our benighted age of ignorance and bigotry, the humane subtlety of medieval understanding can scarcely be understood. Consider, for example, The Nativity Story, a mass-market, American-made film distributed to theaters in 2006. The Nativity Story retells the biblical story of Christmas. Mychael Danna’s score for the film includes a Latin song beginning “In rosa vernat lilium”:

Within a rose blooms a lily —
a flower within a flower flourishing
according to God’s plan.
The true day dawns.

From the moon flashes forth the sun’s
brightening ray.
It shows the manger —
a star never waning.

{ In rosa vernat lilium
Flos in flore florescit
Secundum Dei consilium.
Vera dies diescit.

Ex luna solis emicat
Radium elucescens;
Et praesepium indicat.
Stella numquam decrescens. }[6]

From the unity in diversity of the original conductus, only the image of a lily springing forth from a rose has survived. The adaptation inserted conventional references to God’s plan and the Christmas manger. The adaptation eliminated the wondrous unities of the medieval conductus: sexes, seasons, darkness and light, sun and moon. The adaptation should be credited with aspiring to medieval cultural heights, yet it falls far short. Alas for the loss of enlightenment!

With In rosa vernat lilium, medieval European culture expressed in a sophisticated way unity in diversity. That important idea has drowned in meaningless words. Men will not achieve equality with women until unity in diversity is meaningfully understood.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Concerning In rosa vernat lilium as a conductus in the context of sacred music, Crocker (1966), Anderson (1976-88), Falck (1981), and Mazzeo (2015). Everist (2018) provides broader analysis of conductus, but no analysis of In rosa vernat lilium specifically.

In rosa vernat lilium survives in five manuscripts. See its entry in CPI Conductus / Cantum Pulcriorem Invenire {To find a more beautiful song} Conductus. The earliest manuscript in which it survives is Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Guelf. 628 Helmst (W1), written in the 1230s. It also survives in Bodleian Library, MS. Add. A. 44 (The Bekynton Anthology), written early in the thirteenth century; and Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, Pluteo 29.1, written in the 1240s. On dating conductus, Mazzeo (2015) pp. 152-207.

The sequence beginning “From the golden flower of the first mother, Eve, came forth the flowering rose like the sun {Aureo flore prime matris eue florens rosa processit sicut sol}” dates from no later than the tenth century. Boynton (1994) p. 25. In rosa vernat lilium may have existed earlier as a hymn before it became a conductus.

The rose and lily have long been important Christian symbols. They have typically been associated with types of virtues:

The grouping of diverse virtues with violets, roses, and lilies originated in non-Marian contexts, such as Ambrose’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Within a Christological exposition of Luke 12.27, Ambrose introduced the hortus clausus of the Song of Songs, “where integrity, chastity, devotion…is, there the violets of confessors, the lilies of virgins, the roses of martyrs are.” Gregory the Great, in one of his homilies on the prophet Ezechiel, expands the characterization of the three flowers and links them more immediately to the virtues. Gregory associates the lily with virginity and links the violet to the humble, who “preserve the purple of the celestial kingdom in their mind.” Jerome also associates the flowers with virtues.

Boynton (1994) p. 33, footnotes omitted. The early sixteenth-century Litany of Loreto calls to Mary as a “Mystical Rose {Rosa Mystica}.”

[2] In rosa vernat lilium / In rosa uernat lilium, stanza 1 (of 3), Latin text from Anderson (1976-88) vol. 3, pp. 78-82, my Latin translation, benefiting from the English translation of id. For an earlier Latin edition, Dreves (1895) p. 69 (song 46). For an alternate English translation, Crocker (1966) pp. 81-2. The subsequent two quotes from In rosa vernat lilium are stanzas 2 and 3, respectively, and are similarly sourced.

[3] Caelius Sedulius, Easter Song {Carmen paschale} 2.28-31, Latin text from Huemer (1885), my English translation. For the current best edition and translation, Springer (2013). For a freely available, partial English translation of Carmen paschale, Sigerson (1922). For Carmen paschale 2.28, Sedulius seems to have adapted Virgil, Eclogue 5.39: “the thistle and spine-shrub arise with sharp thorns {carduus et spinis surgit paliurus acutis}.” On Sedulius’s sources in figuring Mary, Heider (1918) pp. 65-7.

The beloved of the Song of Solomon is like a lily among thorns. Song of Solomon 2:2. In Christian literature, thorns have regrettably been used as a metaphor disparaging men’s sexuality. Isaiah prophesied a savior springing forth from the stump of Jesse. Isaiah 11:1.

[4] John 1:5, from the Blue Letter Bible. The Latin text, provided for comparison with that of the conductus, is from Jerome’s Vulgate.

[5] On sun and moon in traditional Greco-Roman religion and Christian understanding, Rahner (1957), Chapter 4.

[6] Mychael Danna, soundtrack for The Nativity Story (2006), Latin text from LyricsTranslate, my English translation. Danna’s soundtrack is generally regarded highly. Here’s Jonathan Broxton’s review.

[images] (1) Golden rose that Pope Leo XII presented to Caroline Augusta, Empress of Austria. Made by Giuseppe and Pietro Paolo Spagna in Rome about 1818-19. Source image by Dennis Jarvis (from Halifax, Canada) via Wikimedia Commons. Here are other images of this golden rose. Popes bless a golden rose on the third Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) and occasionally give them as a gifts to eminent persons. (2) In Rosa Vernat Lilium by Mychael Danna from the original motion picture score for The Nativity Story. Via YouTube.


Anderson, Gordon A. 1976-88. Notre-Dame and Related Conductus: Opera Omnia. Henryville, PA, Institute of Mediaeval Music.

Boynton, Susan. 1994. “Rewriting the Early Sequence: Aureo Flore and Aurea Virga.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 25(1): 21-41. Alternate source.

Crocker, Richard L. 1966. A History of Musical Style. St. Louis, N.J: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Dreves, Guido Maria, ed. 1895. Cantiones et Muteti: Lieder und Motetten des Mittelalters. Analecta hymnica medii aevi, volume 20. Leipzig: O. R. Reisland.

Everist, Mark. 2018. Discovering Medieval Song: Latin Poetry and Music in the Conductus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Falck, Robert. 1981. The Notre Dame Conductus: A Study of the Repertory. Henryville, PA: Institute of Mediaeval Music.

​Heider, Andrew B. 1918. The Blessed Virgin Mary in Early Christian Latin Poetry. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America. Alternate source.

Huemer, Johannes, ed. 1885. Sedulius, Opera Omnia. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, 10. Vienna: C. Gerold.

Mazzeo, Jacopo. 2015. The Two-Part Conductus: Morphology, Dating and Authorship. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Southampton, UK.

Rahner, Hugo. 1957. Griechische Mythen in Christlicher Deutung. Rhein-Verlag AG. Translated by Brian Battershaw (1963). Greek Myths and Christian Mystery. New York: Harper & Row.

Sigerson, George. 1922. Sedulius. The Easter Song: Being the First Epic of Christendom. Dublin: Talbot Press.

Springer, Carl P. E., ed. and trans. 2013. Sedulius. The Paschal Song and Hymns. Writings from the Greco-Roman World, volume 35. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. Introduction.

from ancient scribes to the misery of literary writers

About four thousand years ago in the Mesopotamian Third Dynasty of Ur, kings established schools with rigid curricula and strict discipline to train young persons to be scribes. Writing thus developed as a practice serving rulers. Over time, highly intelligent scribes expanded their scope of activity and became influential not only in copying texts but also in shaping royal and religious law.[1] Writers have seldom made a living from creative literary work. Writers throughout history have primarily been rewarded materially for serving mundane needs of the powerful and wealthy, as well as praising them.

ancient Sumerian seal in which two goddesses lead man in worship of king

The scribal schools of the Third Dynasty of Ur were run like modern military boot camps. A scribal supervisor explained to a young scribe-student his path to success:

I just did whatever my mentor outlined for me — everything was always in its place. Only a fool would have deviated from his instructions. He guided my hand on the clay and kept me on the right path. He made me eloquent with words and gave me advice. He focused my eyes on the rules which guide a man with a task. Zeal is proper for a task. Time-wasting is taboo. Anyone who wastes time on his task is neglecting his task.

{ jic ma-an-hur-ra na-an-dim2 ki-bi-ce3 al-jar-jar
na de5-ga-ni-ta lu2 hu-ru-um cu bar dib-ba-e
im-ma cu-ju10 si ba-ni-in-sa2 us2 zid mu-un-dab5
ka-ju10 inim-ma jal2 ba-ni-in-taka4 ad gi4-gi4 ma-an-pad3
jic-hur lu2 a2 aj2-ja2 si sa2-e igi ma-ni-in-si-si
gu2 zi-zi-i ha-la a2 aj2-ja2-kam ud zal-le nij2-gig-ga
lu2 ki a2 aj2-ja2-ni-ce3 ud zal-la a2 aj2-ja2-ni ab-taka4 }[2]

Scribal-school students learned to follow instructions and defer to authority:

The man in charge of the courtyard, says: “You all enter,” and they will enter.
After he says: “You all sit,” they sit down.
If a tablet inspection is to be carried out,
the scribal-school pupil makes his saršuba exercise and his muguba exercise
available to him on the obverse of his tablet.

{ lu₂ kisal-la₂-ke₄ ku₄-ra-en-ze₂-en u₃-bi₂-du₁₁ ba-an-ku₄-ku₄-de₃-eš
dur₂-ru-ba-an-ze₂-en u₃-ba-e-du₁₁ ba-dur₂-ru-ne-ne
tukum-bi dub-e igi bi₂-ib₂-KARA₂.KARA₂
dumu e₂-dub-ba-a sar-šub-ba-ni u₃ mu-gub-ba-ni
igi dub-ba-na-ka an-na-ŋal₂ }[3]

A student explained that physical punishment enforced school rules:

I must not arrive late, otherwise my master would hit me!

“Here you have skipped a line,” he said, and he hit me.

The man enforcing rules said to me, “You! You looked into the street and your clothing is not fitted to your chest!” And he hit me.
The man maintaining silence said to me, “Why do you speak without my permission?” And he hit me.
The bird-feather man said to me, “Why don’t you stand up straight?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of the models said to me, “Why did you get up without my permission?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of the gate said to me, “Why did someone go out without my permission?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of the ceramic container said to me, “Why did you take clay without my permission?” And he hit me.
The man in charge of Sumerian said to me, “We spoke in Akkadian!” And he hit me.

{ u₄ na-ab-zal-e-en um-mi-a-ŋu₁₀ mu-un-duda-de₃-en

mu im-ta-ku₅-da-aš e-še in-duda-de₃-en

lu₂ ta₃-ta₃-ge-da-ke₄ sila-a igi-ni i-ni-in-bar tu₉ gaba-zu nu-ub-bu-us₂ e-še in-duda-de₃-en

lu₂ si tur-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a ka ib₂-ba-e e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ pa mušen-na-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ gu₂ zi nu-mu-e-zi e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ ŋeš-ḫur-ra-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a i₃-zi-ge-en e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ ka₂-na-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a ib₂-ta-e₃ e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ duglaḫtan-na-ke₄ a-na-še-am₃ ŋa₂-da nu-me-a im šu ba-e-ti e-še in-duda-de₃-en
lu₂ eme-gi₇-ra-ke₄ eme-uri bi₂-in-du₁₁ e-še in-duda-de₃-en }[4]

Students were also physically abused for poor scribal performance:

My master said to me, “Your hand is terrible!” And he hit me.

{ um-mi-a-ŋu₁₀ šu-zu nu-sa₆-sa₆ e-še in-duda-de₃-en }

“Beatings will continue until your handwriting improves” probably isn’t propitious pedagogy, especially if students are struck on their hands. Like the gender protrusion among young persons foregoing college education, the educational process can create problems that education is thought to solve.

The development of the scribal profession could have appreciated men’s penises relative to swords. Scribes used their hands skillfully and at length. A scribe’s member was crucial for his work:

A scribe without a hand is like a singer without a throat.

{ dub-sar cu nu-a nar jili3 nu-a }[5]

An ancient Sumerian proverb disparaging a scribe implicitly uses a stylus as a metaphor for a penis:

You may be a scribe on top, but you are no man beneath.

{ dub-sar an-ta-me-en lu2 ki-ta nu-me-en }[6]

Such a scribe apparently was effectively castrated. Men intimately, lovingly embracing women uses their penises to contribute vitally to new life. Scribal work is a much more humane metaphor for men’s sexuality than are dominant, brutalizing images of weapons and war. Regrettably, the sword prevailed over the pen and the penis.

Scribes became associated with women. Sumerian texts concerning the scribal profession typically conclude by honoring the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of writing:

Praise be to Nisaba!

{ dnisaba za₃-mim }[7]

The goddess Nisaba was regarded as the most important scribe:

Good woman, chief scribe of An, record-keeper of Enlil,
wise sage of the gods!

{ munus zid dub-sar mah an-na saj-tun3 den-lil2-la2
gal-zu igi-jal2 dijir-re-e-ne }[8]

Enlil was the nominal chief deity of the Sumerian pantheon. As record-keeper for Enlil, Nisaba fixed in clay the law, assets, and worship of divinities. She was thus enormously powerful. Other scribes were also women, but not all women in ancient Babylon were regarded as divinities.[9] However, successful scribes were generally like women in their relation to rulers.

You who speak as sweet as honey, you whose name suits the mouth, you longed-for husband of Inana, to whom Enki gave broad wisdom as a gift! Nisaba, the woman radiant with joy, the true woman, the scribe, the lady who knows everything, guides your fingers on the clay. She makes them put beautiful wedges on the tablets and adorns them with a golden stylus. Nisaba generously bestowed upon you the measuring rod, the surveyor’s gleaming line, the yardstick, and the tablets that confer wisdom.

{ ka lal3-gin7 dug3 mu ka-ge du7
cag4-ge de6-a dam dinana
den-ki-ke4 jectug2 dajal saj-e-ec rig7-ga
dnisaba munus ul-la gun3-a
munus zid dub-sar nin nij2-nam zu
si-zu im-ma si ba-ni-in-sa2
cag4 dub-ba-ka gu-cum2 mi-ni-in-sag9-sag9
gi-dub-ba kug-sig17-ka cu mu-ni-in-gun3
gi-1-nindan ec2-gana2 za-gin3
jic-as4-lum le-um igi-jal2 cum2-mu dnisaba-ke4 cu dajal ma-ra-an-dug4 }[10]

While men’s sexuality continued to be devalued, scribes intimately associated with dominant political and economic interests successfully grasped for influence and prestige. Ezra, a scribe and a priest living about 400 BGC, led Jews back from Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem and taught them to follow Mosaic law:

And it was his fate, after being honored by the people, to die an old man and to be buried with great magnificence in Jerusalem.

{ ᾧ συνέβη μετὰ τὴν παρὰ τῷ λαῷ δόξαν γηραιῷ τελευτῆσαι τὸν βίον καὶ ταφῆναι μετὰ πολλῆς φιλοτιμίας ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις. }[11]

Depicting scribes as eminent persons, Jesus warned his followers:

Beware of the scribes! They like to walk around in long robes, and they love personal greetings in the marketplaces and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and offer long prayers for appearance’s sake.

{ προσέχετε ἀπὸ τῶν γραμματέων τῶν θελόντων περιπατεῖν ἐν στολαῖς καὶ φιλούντων ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς καὶ πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς καὶ πρωτοκλισίας ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις οἳ κατεσθίουσιν τὰς οἰκίας τῶν χηρῶν καὶ προφάσει μακρὰ προσεύχονται }[12]

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus extensively and harshly disparages the hypocrisy of scribes:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of Mosaic law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

{ οὐαὶ ὑμῖν γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί ὅτι ἀποδεκατοῦτε τὸ ἡδύοσμον καὶ τὸ ἄνηθον καὶ τὸ κύμινον καὶ ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν ταῦτα δὲ ἔδει ποιῆσαι κἀκεῖνα μὴ ἀφιέναι ὁδηγοὶ τυφλοί οἱ διϋλίζοντες τὸν κώνωπα τὴν δὲ κάμηλον καταπίνοντες }[13]

The Gospel of Luke apparently uses “lawyer {νομικός}” synonymously with “scribe {γραμματεύς}”:

Woe to you lawyers! You have taken away the key of knowledge.

{ οὐαὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς νομικοῖς ὅτι ἤρατε τὴν κλεῖδα τῆς γνώσεως }[14]

Through their work with written texts, scribes and lawyers are responsible for preserving, interpreting, and disseminating knowledge for society as a whole. But like everyone else, they are also concerned for their own interests. Writers and lawyers use their work to curry favor with the rich and powerful, and to become rich and powerful themselves.[15]

Ezra the scribe repairing books

Writers who don’t gain favor from the rich and powerful typically gain no extrinsic rewards for their labor. Persons of wealth and leisure might write poetry to express themselves mainly to themselves, and perhaps also to signal their cultural sophistication.[16] For others, writing is a desperate business. From the ninth century, classical Arabic literature developed the motif “misery of literary writers.” The literary public as a whole has never been a patron to many writers. Consider, for example, the roguish Edward Ward. He was a writer who financially succeeded in London in 1698 with his prurient periodical publication The London Spy. Ward’s prefatory note “To the Reader” explained:

Some Authors are meer Beaus in Writing, and Dress up each Maggotty Flirt that creeps from their Mouldy Fancy, with a fine Dedication, tho’ to John-a-Nokes; and a long Preface to a little Matter, like an Aldermans Grace to a Scholar’s Commons, thinking their Pigmy Products look as Naked without these Ornaments, as a Puritan without his Band, or a Whore without her Patches.

For my part I only use this Preamble as a Sow Gelder does his Horn, that as by Hearing of the latter, you may give a shrewd guess at his Business; so by Reading of the former, you may rightly understand my Design, which I assure you in the first place, is not to Affront or Expose any Body; for all that I propose is, to Scourge Vice and Villany, without leveling Characters at any Person in particular.[17]

Ward’s prior book depicted the financial desperation of authors without elite patrons:

THE Condition of an Author is much like that of a Strumpet, both exposing our Reputations to sup­ply our Necessities, till at last we contract such an ill habit, thro’ our Practices, that we are equally troubl’d with an Itch to be alwas Doing; and if the reason be requir’d, Why we betake our selves to so Scandalous a Profession as Whoring or Pamphleteering, the same excusive Answer will serve us both, viz. That the unhappy circumstances of a Narrow Fortune, hath forc’d us to do that for our Subsistance, which we are much asham’d of.

The chiefest and most commendable Tallent, admir’d in either, is the knack of Pleasing; and He or She amongst us that happily arives to a Perfection in that sort of Witchcraft, may in a little time (to their great Honour) enjoy the Pleasure of being Celebrated by all the Coxcombs in the Nation.

The only difference between us is, in this perticular, where in the Jilt has the Advantage, we do our Business First, and stand to the Courtesie of our Benefactors to Reward us after; whilst the other, for her Security, makes her Rider pay for his Journey, before he mounts the Saddle.[18]

In 1787, another English writer depicted the typical misery of a literary author:

Say, why should POVERTY’S prediction
O’ercloud the sprightly scenes of Fiction?
Wherefore so long entail’d its curse,
On all the numerous sons of Verse?
Who scarce possessing from their birth
A legal settlement on earth
Exalted to a garret story,
Live on imaginary glory.[19]

Publication of novels grew rapidly from the mid-eighteenth century. Most writers of novels in the eighteenth century earned nothing from their work. Most novel writers today earn nothing. Whether William McGonagall exposing himself to being pelted with food, or a poet selling his work on the street, or Emily unhappily married to a poet, creative, literary writers have typically fared poorly.

impoverished poet in garret

Across the past four thousands years, financially successful writers have primarily produced and reproduced myths and praise in service to wealthy, powerful patrons.[20] Readers beware!

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Scribes thus became like lawyers. Recent scholarship has highlighted the interpretive work of scribes. See, e.g., Barmash (2020) Ch. 4, Toorn (2007).

[2] The advice of a supervisor to a younger scribe (Edubba’a C) (t.5.1.3) ll. 9-15, cuneiform Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). Here’s an alternate Sumerian text. Edubba’a literature generally reflects scribal education in the earlier, Ur III period:

The dwellings House F, No. 7 Quiet Street {Nippur} and others like them that functioned as places of schooling elsewhere, for example at Isin, Tell ed-Der and Tell Harmal, clearly show that already in the Old Babylonian period much scribal training was a small-scale occupation run by private individuals and not by the state. … The Edubba-literature was traditional literature, already old when writing was taught in the houses of eighteenth-century Nippur and Ur. The tradition enshrined in Sumerian literature is that under the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III) there were special academies of learning in exactly these cities, Nippur and Ur. These institutions were very probably an innovation of this dynasty made to satisfy the growing bureaucracy’s demand for scribes that could not be met by the small-scale operations of the private sector.

George (2005) pp. 4-5, notes and references omitted. For an older description of Mesopotamian scribal education, Kramer (1956) Chapter 1.

The Edubba’a are “the oldest educational centers” known. Kramer (1949) p. 199. That’s true within the set of large, formalized, sedentary educational institutions. Such educational institutions are associated with the development of the bureaucratic state. In ancient Egypt:

the role of the scribe became vital with the development of a complex state at the beginning of the Old Kingdom. The computing and recording of taxes, the drawing up of census lists for military and labor corvées, and the calculations required for the massive building projects, all called for a large and well-trained civil service.

Williams (1972) p. 214.

Scribes practiced writing texts extolling the scribal profession:

Strive to master the scribal art, and it will enrich you.
Be industrious in the scribal art, and it will provide you with wealth and abundance,

{ nam-dub-sar-ra ir-pag u-bi-ak1 a-tuku ha-ra-ab-dah-e
nam-dub-sar-ra bar-dag1 u-bi-ak2 su-ni-gal-la a-ra-ab-tuku }

“In Praise of the Scribal Art” (also known as “Examination Text D”) ll. 4-5, Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Sjöberg (1972). For commentary, Hurowitz (2000). Here’s a somewhat defective representation of “In Praise of the Scribal Art.” This text should be read as inspirational didactic propaganda, not as factual professional characterization. Cf. Nemetz (2023).

[3] Rules of the School (Edubba’a R) ll. 17-21, cuneiform Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Gadotti & Kleinerman (2017) via Datenbank der sumerischen Streitliteratur (DSSt).

[4] Schooldays (Edubba’a A) ll .17, 26, 29, 35-40, cuneiform Sumerian transliteration from DSSt, my English translation drawing upon Pascal Attinger’s French translation for DSSt and the English translation of Kramer (1949). The subsequent quote above is similarly from Edubba’a A, l. 41. On beating scribal students in ancient Egypt, Williams (1972) p. 218.

Edubba’a A “was extremely popular in the Nippur schools.” Gadotti & Kleinerman (2017) p. 90. For Kramer’s commentary on the poem, Kramer (1956) Ch. 2.

[5] Proverbs, Collection 2, 2.43 (75), Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL.

[6] Proverbs, Collection 2, 2.44 (76), Sumerian transliteration from ETCSL, English translation (modified insubstantially) from Foster (1974) p. 81, n. 34. With regard to this proverb and Proverbs 1.98, which Foster translates as “You’re a humanist within but no human without,” Foster commented that these proverbs “could be interpreted as an assault on the opponent’s masculinity but are more probably a way of saying that despite his learning he is still a boor.” Id. I think it is in fact an assault on the scribe’s masculinity. That’s a common type of assault on men. ETCSL translates Proverbs 2.44 as “You are an outstanding scribe; you are no lowly man.” That translation seems to me too abstract.

[7] E.g. Edubba’a R. Praise of Nisaba could be more extensive:

Praise Nisaba who has brought order to … and fixed districts in their boundaries, the lady whose divine powers are divine powers that have no rival!

{ us2 tec2-ba ri-a si sa2-e in ki-bi sur-sur
nin me-ni-da me nu-sa2-a dnisaba za3-mi2 }

Edubba’a C, ll. 73-4, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL.

[8] A hymn to Nisaba (Nisaba A) (t.4.16.1), ll. 12-3, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL. Another hymn expresses desolating grief upon the destruction of a scriptorium:

… is destroyed.
… is destroyed. It is destroyed.
… of Nisaba is destroyed.
The house of Nisaba, her of the tablets,
is destroyed.
The house of
… is destroyed.

{ […]-/ba\ X-ra ba-gul
[…] /gul-gul ba-gul
[…] dnisaba ba-gul
[e2] [d]/nisaba\ mu-lu2 dub-ba-ka ba-[gul]
[e2] [d]CE.TIR-ma ba-gul
[e2] [d]/nun-bar-ce-gu-nu ba-/gul\
[X X] X e2-ha-mun ba-gul }

A šir-namšub to Nisaba (Nisaba B) (t.4.16.2), via ETCSL.

[9] On women writers in ancient Mesopotamia, Halton & Svärd (2017) and Meier (1991). Literacy in ancient Mesopotamia wasn’t limited to professional scribes. Charpin (2010). In modern scholarship, patriarchal myth, which is particularly inappropriate for ancient Mesopotamia and its active women, has tended to control interpretation of evidence:

The fact that women were not simply an (admittedly rare) alternative but a preferred choice in certain contexts points to significant areas where, in spite of patriarchal patterns, women were successful in a limited fashion in carving out niches of influence in the patriarchal power structure.

Meier (1991) p. 547. Since men historically have vastly predominated among victims of institutionalized violence, the institutionalized beating of scribes suggests that most scribes were men.

[10] A praise poem of Lipit-Eštar (Lipit-Eštar B) (t., ll. 15-24, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL.

[11] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews {Ἰουδαϊκὴ ἀρχαιολογία} Book 11, 5.5 (158), ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Marcus (1937).

[12] Luke 20:46-7. Similarly, Mark 12:38. While scribes are mentioned repeatedly in the gospels, scribes are mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament only once. That sole mention is in 1 Corinthians 1:20. The early Christian communities were politically and religiously marginal. They depended mainly on personal authority. Scribes, in contrast, typically served well-established transactions, practices, and institutions. On how Jesus and his followers politically challenged the reigning elite, including scribes and Pharisees, Horsley (2014) Chapter 6.

[13] Matthew 23:23-4. Vigorously competing to guide Jewish belief, Matthew 23 intones six times, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites { οὐαὶ ὑμῖν γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί}”: “The rhetoric is harsh, but the argument is Jewish and serious.” Saldarini (1992) p. 680. Scribes and Pharisees seem to refer sociologically to different groups. Little is known for sure about who these two groups were. Saldarini (1988). On characteristics of scribes, Tov (2004) Chapter 2.

[14] Luke 11:52. The lawyers in this context apparently were authorities in Mosaic law. On the identity of the lawyers more generally, Saldarini (1988) p. 669, n. 29. Luke 5:17 refers to “teachers of the law {νομοδιδάσκαλοι}.”

[15] Not all scribes at the time of Jesus were rich and powerful: “scribes were found at every level of society and did not form a cohesive group.” Saldarini (1992) p. 669, n. 30.

The author of Matthew seems to have been a marginal scribe. Duling (2002). The author perhaps modeled himself on Jesus’s depiction of a Christian scribe:

And Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure new things and old.”

{ ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς διὰ τοῦτο πᾶς γραμματεὺς μαθητευθεὶς τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν ὅμοιός ἐστιν ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ ὅστις ἐκβάλλει ἐκ τοῦ θησαυροῦ αὐτοῦ καινὰ καὶ παλαιά }

Matthew 13:52. On this passage, Orton (1989).

[16] The Book of Sirach / Ecclesiasticus, composed probably in the first quarter of the second century BGC, depicts the scribe / writer as requiring leisure (and implicitly, an independent source of income):

A scribe’s wisdom is in the opportunity for leisure, and he who does less business, it is he who will become wise. How shall he who takes hold of a plow and boasts in the shaft of a goad become wise, when he drives cattle and is engaged in their tasks and his talk is about the offspring of bulls?

{ Σοφία γραμματέως ἐν εὐκαιρίᾳ σχολῆς, καὶ ὁ ἐλασσούμενος πράξει αὐτοῦ σοφισθήσεται. τί σοφισθήσεται ὁ κρατῶν ἀρότρου καὶ καυχώμενος ἐν δόρατι κέντρου, βόας ἐλαύνων καὶ ἀναστρεφόμενος ἐν ἔργοις αὐτῶν, καὶ ἡ διήγησις αὐτοῦ ἐν υἱοῖς ταύρων }

Sirach 38:24-5, ancient Greek (Septuagint) text from Kata Biblon and English translation of Benjamin G. Wright from Pietersma & Wright (2007). Sirach was first composed in Hebrew. I quote the Septuagint text becomes the Hebrew text isn’t readily available to me. This passage isn’t substantially different in the Hebrew version. For commentary on this passage, Finbow (2017).

[17] Ward (1703), pp. i-ii, “To the Reader.” Here’s a brief biography of Edward (Ned) Ward. Ward is known for the quote, “He’s as great a master of ill language as ever was bred at a Bear-Garden.” A bear-garden isn’t the same as a beer-garden, but the two places are somewhat related behaviorally.

[18] Ward (1698) p. 3, “To the Reader.” The term “hack” for a mediocre writer comes from “hackney,” a street carriage for quick, temporary hire.

[19] Keate (1787) p. 1 (Distressed Poet, vv. 1.1-8). Here’s more on George Keate, “draughtsman, painter, poet, naturalist, antiquary.” For a thematically related poem also from 1787, Berensmeyer (2015).

[20] Consider the “literary and creative” work of scribes in ancient Mesopotamia:

As for the literary and creative aspects of the Sumerian curriculum, it consisted primarily in studying, copying, and imitating the large and diversified group of literary compositions which must have originated and developed mainly in the latter half of the third millennium B.C. These ancient works, running into the hundreds, were almost all poetic in form, ranging in length from less than fifty lines to close to a thousand. Those recovered to date are chiefly of the following genres: myths and epic tales in the form of narrative poems celebrating the deeds and exploits of the Sumerian gods and heroes; hymns to gods and kings; lamentations bewailing the destruction of Sumerian cities; wisdom compositions including proverbs, fables, and essays.

Kramer (1956) p. 5. In other words, scribes reproduced established narratives, praised ruling kings and gods, and provided ideological guidance (wisdom) for oral dissemination to the masses. Most financially successful writers today perform similar functions.

[images] (1) Two goddesses lead a man in worship of a deified king, perhaps King Ur-Nammu. Excerpt from a modern impression from a seal made about 2100 BGC. Seal incription: “Ur-Nammu, strong man, king of Ur: Hash-hamer, governor of the city of Ishkun-Sin, is your servant {sur-nammu / nita kala-ga / lugal uri-ma ha-as-ha-me-er / ensi / ish-ku-en-EN.ZU / ir-zu}.” Seal preserved as museum number 89126 in The British Museum. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Ezra the scribe writing in a book-room. Illustration made for a Vulgate bible about 700 GC in northeast England at the Benedictine Monkwearmouth–Jarrow Abbey. Excerpt from folio 5r (alternate source) of the Codex Amiatinus (Jarrow Codex): Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1. At the top of the page is written: “When the sacred books had been burned by the enemy’s destruction, Ezra, fervent for the Lord, repaired this damage {Codicibus sacris hostili clade perustis Esdra Domino fervens hoc reparavit opus}.” Here’s some history of the Codex Amiatinus. (3) Impoverished poet working in miserable conditions in a garret. Painting entitled “The poor poet {Der arme Poet}.” Painted by Carl Spitzweg in 1839. Preserved as accession # 7751 in the Neue Pinakothek (Munich, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “The Distrest Poet.” Illustration of an impoverished poet in a garret. Etching composed about 1736-7 by William Hogarth for an associated oil painting. Excerpt from accession # 1944.5.80 (Rosenwald Collection) of the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC). The Princeton University Art Museum also has a version freely available as an image. Below this etching are the verses:

Studious he sate, with all his books around,
Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profound:
Plung’d for his sense, but found no bottom there;
Then writ and flounder’d on, in mere despair.

Those verses are explicitly attributed to (Alexander Pope’s) Dunciad, Book 1, line iii. Here’s a painting from the U.S. in 1811 depicting a poor author and rich bookseller.

Distrest poet: Hogarth's etching of an impoverished poet


Barmash, Pamela. 2020. The Laws of Hammurabi: At the Confluence of Royal and Scribal Traditions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Review by Dylan R. Johnson.

Berensmeyer, Ingo, Gero Guttzeit and Alise Jameson. 2015. ‘“The Brain-Sucker: Or the Distress of Authorship”: A Late Eighteenth-Century Satire of Grub Street.’ Authorship. 4(1): 1-14. Alternate source. Here’s the authors’ critical edition of “The Brain-Sucker: Or the Distress of Authorship.”

Charpin, Dominique, translated by Jane Marie Todd. 2010. Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Review by Rochelle Altman.

Duling, D.C. 2002. “Matthew as marginal scribe in an advanced agrarian society.” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies. 58(2): 520-575.

Finbow, Douglas. 2017. The Wisdom of the Scribe: A Socio-Rhetorical and Theological Interpretation of Sirach 38:24–39:11. Ph.D. Thesis, Saint Paul University, Canada.

Foster, Benjamin R. 1974. “Humor and Cuneiform Literature.” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society. 6(1): 69-85.

Gadotti, Alhena and Alexandra Kleinerman. 2017. “The Rules of the School.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 137(1): 89–116.

George, Andrew. 2005. “In search of the é.dub.ba.a: The ancient Mesopotamian school in literature and reality.” Pp. 127-137 in Jacob Klein and Yitzhak Sefati, eds. An Experienced Scribe Who Neglects Nothing: Ancient near Eastern Studies in Honor of Jacob Klein. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.

Halton, Charles, and Saana Svärd, eds. and trans. 2017. Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Anthology of the Earliest Female Authors. 2017. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Review by Agnès Garcia Ventura.

Horsley, Richard A. 2014. Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Hurowitz, Victor Avigdor. 2000. ‘Literary Observations on “In Praise of the Scribal Art.”’ Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society. 27(1): 49-56.

Keate, George. 1787. The Distressed Poet, A Serio-Comic Poem, in Three Cantos. London: Printed for J. Dodsley. Alternate presentation.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1949. “Schooldays: A Sumerian Composition Relating to the Education of a Scribe.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 69(4): 199-215.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1956. History Begins at Sumer. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Marcus, Ralph, ed. and trans. 1937. Josephus. Jewish Antiquities, Volume IV: Books 9-11. Loeb Classical Library 326. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Meier, Samuel A. 1991. “Women and Communication in the Ancient near East.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 111(3): 540–47.

Nemetz, Alexander. 2023. Credo of the Scribes: The value of wisdom in ancient Mesopotamian
. BA Thesis, Uppsala University, Finland.

Orton, David E. 1989. The Understanding Scribe: Matthew and the Apocalyptic Ideal. London: T & T Clark International.

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Saldarini, Anthony J. 1988. Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society. Edinburgh: T and T Clark. Overview.

Saldarini, Anthony J. 1992. “Delegitimation of Leaders in Matthew 23.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 54(4): 659–80.

Sjöberg, Åke W. 1972. “In Praise of the Scribal Art.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 24(4): 126–31.

Toorn, Karel van der. 2007. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Review by Robert L Maxwell.

Tov, Emanuel. 2004. Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert. 2004. Leiden: Brill.

Ward, Edward. 1698. A Trip to Jamaica With a True Character of the People and Island. Edited by David Oakleaf. London.

Ward, Edward. 1703. The London Spy Compleat, In Eighteen-Parts. Edited by Ben Neudorf and Allison Muri. London: J. How.

Williams, Ronald J. 1972. “Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 92(2): 214–214.