‘What! slombrestow as in a litargie?
Or artow lik an asse to the harpe,
That hereth sown whan men the strynges plye,
But in his mynde of that no melodie
May sinken hym to gladen, for that he
So dul ys of his bestialite?’
Andarus, love’s preceptor, cries out these words in exasperation at the
love-lorn Troilus who has spurned his elegant rhetorical consolatio.
words are borrowed from Boethius’ Philosophia who had uttered them in a
tone of similar exasperation: ‘Sentisne, inquit, haec atque animo illabuntur
tuo an ὄνος λυρας?’ she says after having sung to him Metrum 4, ‘Quisquis
composito serenus aevo’. Chaucer translated this passage: ‘Felistow’, quod
sche, ‘thise thynges, and entren thei aught in thy corage? Artow like an asse
to the harpe?’
In Troilus and Criseyde, probably written while Chaucer was
translating Boece (see ‘Chaucer’s Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn’),
Chaucer carried the asinus ad liram topos further than did Boethius. He has it
jangle even more discordantly in Pandarus’ mouth – the advocate of lust –
being wrenched out of context by Chaucer’s Pandarus from Boethius’
Philosophia. Pandarus is the schoolmaster of lust while Philosophia is the
schoolmistress of reason. Though one apes the other, yet they are
diametrically opposed.
Besides the rhetorical topos of the Ass to the Harpe there is also an extensive
iconographic use of the harp-playing ass. An inlay on the soundbox of a
sacred harp from Ur, circa 2600 B.C., shows an ass playing a lyre with other
Sumerian Harp, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Museum
A fresco from Burgos, Spain, now in the Cloisters Collection, executed about
1200 A.D., has a very similar group of figures in its border, one of whom is an
ass, now playing the medieval harp.
Burgos Fresco, Wyvern with Ass, New York, Cloisters Collection
A capital at Nantes shows the ass with the harp and again one of its
accompanying figures.
The crypt of Canterbury Cathedral has capitals
repeating these motifs, sculpted around 1120.
Chaucer’s pilgrims could well
have seen it.
The iconographical motif thus remained astonishingly intact for
nearly four thousand years and was particularly relished in Romanesque art.
Boethius, in the Consolation of Philosophy, makes use of the rhetorical topos,
the asinus ad liram (I, Prosa 4). Chaucer translated the Boethian text, then uses
the topos in Troilus and Criseyde (I.730-35). But the literary ass does not play
the harp. He hears it played by another, uncomprehendingly: ‘That hereth
sown whan men the strynges plye, But in his mynde of that no melodie May
sinken hym to gladen’. This is Chaucer’s rendering in Troilus. However,
Helen Adolf, in a Speculum article, considered the iconographical motif of use
in analysing the literary topos.
Also, Emile Mâle cites a text where a
complaint is lodged against the use of the ass and the lyre of Boethius, ‘onos
lyras Boetii’, in the decoration of churches, which clearly indicates an
awareness during this period of a relationship between the iconographical
motif and the rhetorical topos.
The motif and topos function in all these
instances as irreverent commentary.
The relief upon the Sumerian harp shows the ass playing a harp that is the
same as the artefact it ornaments. The Cloisters Collection’s Wyvern (a
chimaera having wings and serpent tail upon a dragon’s body), has for its
border, figures which include men with tails who seem to echo the Wyvern in
their chimaerical anatomy. Both clusters of figures, from the harp and the
fresco, are clearly related to each other despite the vast passage of time. They
are, as it were, iconographical constellations. Willard Farnham notes the
gothic drollery of Psalters where the figure of David with his harp may be
mocked by similar grotesques, apes and asses playing harps, a goat,
panpipes, and so forth.
The capitals and portals of Romanesque cathedrals
also made use of this irreverent cluster of theriomorphic figures. Neither are
the figures uniquely Babylonian or Romanesque. They appear as well in
Egyptian papyri where donkeys, lions, crocodiles and apes play musical
instruments, the instrument given to the ass being again the lyre.
Though Helen Adolf saw the asinus ad liram topos as stretching back into
totemic mists where the Babylonian ass was held to be sacred and possibly
the inventor of music
(certainly medieval manuscript grotesques include
the musician whose instrument is the jawbone of an ass, perhaps a vestige of
this concept across the bridge of time
), Carl Jung’s ‘On the Psychology of
the Trickster-Figure’, in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,
discusses apes and asses in the medieval church showing how these were
considered diabolical or buffoon figures who aped the sacred.
Thus the
sense in bono of the ass of Sumerian times (if Adolf is correct) underwent a
reversal. The Pythagoreans held that the ass alone of all animals was not built
according to harmony and Dante in replicating Boethius in his own Boethian
Convivio echoed this concept:
E però chi dalla ragione si parte, e usa pur la parte sensitive, non vive
uomo, ma vive bestia; siccome dice quello eccellentissimo boezio ‘asino
Chaucer relates the ass to Priapus and his rites in the Parliament of Fowls (253-
6). This sense of the bestiality of the ass is to be found generally. The 1566
Englishing of Apuleius’ Golden Ass was prefaced with a delightful imposed
allegory by its translator, William Adlington:
The argument of the book is, how Lucius Apuleius, the author himself,
travelled into Thessaly . . . where after he had continued a few days, by
the mighty force of a violent confection he was changed into a miserable
ass, and nothing might reduce him back to his wonted shape but the
eating of a rose, which, after the endurance of infinite sorrow, at length he
obtained by prayer. Verily under the wrap of this transformation is taxed
the life of mortal men, when as we suffer our minds so to be drowned in
the sensual lusts of the flesh and the beastly pleasure thereof . . . that we
lose wholly the use of reason and virtue, which properly should be in a
man, and play the parts of brute and savage beasts . . . . But as Lucius
Apuleius was changed into his human shape by a rose . . . so can we never
be restored to the right figure of ourselves, except we taste and eat the
sweet rose of reason and virtue, which the rather by mediation of prayer
we may assuredly attain. Again, may not the meaning of this work be
altered and turned in this sort? A man desirous to apply his mind to some
excellent art, or given to the study of any of the sciences, at the first
appeareth to himself an ass without wit, without knowledge, and not
much unlike a brute beast till such time as by much pain and travail he
hath achieved to the perfectness of the same, and tasting the sweet flower
and fruit of his studies, doth think himself well brought to the right and
very shape of a man. Finally, the Metamorphose of Lucius Apuleius may
be resembled to youth without discretion, and his reduction to age
possessed with wisdom and virtue.
Shakespeare’s treatment of Bottom metamorphosed as an unmusical
musician ass for whom Titania lusts deals likewise with the ass as
symbolizing bestiality and folly.
It is interesting that in the topos of the ass and the lyre music is parodied
where the opposition between Reason and Bestility is depicted. Chaucer in
the House of Fame renders the iconography where he describes the mocks, the
misericordia, who sit beneath the great harpers, Orpheus, Orion, Glascurion
and their company:
. . . smale harpers with her gleës
Sate under hem in dyvers seës,
And gunne on hem upward to gape,
And countrefete hem as an ape,
Or as craft countrefeteth kynde. (1209-1213)
The true musician, the David, the Orpheus, is in touch with celestial
harmonies, the musica mundana. H.W. Janson noted this where a monkey
perches atop Orpheus’ lyre in mockery and plays panpipes, and W.C.
McDermott drew attention to the parody of Orpheus by an ape with a lyre in
an Afro-Roman mosaic, these contrasts stressing Orpheus’ nobility.
same principle holds with the Sumerian harp and the Burgos fresco. The
grotesques ape and mock divine music comically, being too involved with
bestiality to hear truly the ‘hevenysshe melodie’ which Troilus is finally to
enjoy at his apotheosis, having laid aside lust (V.1807-1825).
David S. Chamberlain has noted the relationship between Boethius’
treatment of music in the Consolation and his De Musica.
In that work
Boethius discussed the connection between music and morality in accord
with Plato’s Republic in which music is to be ‘modesta ac simplex et mascula
nec effeminate nec fera nec varia’.
Boethius then gives an interesting
passage, in Doric Greek, concerning the abhorrence of the music of
Timotheus of Milesius who added extra strings to the harp and taught
polyphony to the Spartan youth thereby corrupting and softening them.
Boethius speaks of Pythagoras and Cicero on the effect of the Phrygian mode
upon adolescents. A number of his statements are concerned with the right
guidance of young men. Boethius accounts for the doctrine of the influence of
music upon morality (which is Pythagorean) by stating ‘tota nostrae animae
corporisque compago musica coaptione coniuncta sit’ (De Musica I.1). Earlier
he had noted that Plato’s world soul was ‘coniunctam’ to music. An excellent
discussion of the use of these words in Western literature can be found in Leo
Spitzer’s Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony. This ethos still exists in
the phrase, ‘heart strings’, which puns in Latin – cor, chorda; heart string.
In Boethius’ second chapter music is divided into three parts, the first, musica
mundana, the second, musica humana, the third, musica instrumentis. The first,
musica mundana (Lorenzo’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice, V.i.54-
65), is not heard by human ears but is created by the stars in their
movements, the concors discordia of the warring elements and likewise the
harmonious oppositions of the four seasons. The musica humana is the
harmony between microcosm and macrocosm, body and soul, reason and
folly. Musica instrumentis is primarily polarized between string and wind
instruments: cithara and aulos, which in the Middle Ages become harp and
Later in the De Musica Boethius gives the history of the harp. At first it had
four strings, one for each of the elements, which was said to be Mercury’s
invention and which was the harp Orpheus played. Later the strings were
expanded to seven, eight or nine, one for each of the planets and then the
spheres so that the harp would accord with the musica mundana. The harp of
Timotheus of Milesius had eleven strings (I.xx), one in excess to the ten
spheres of Dante’s cosmology and therefore, wrong. The concept of the
concordance of the chords of the harp to the harmony of the world was
punningly seen to relate to the musica humana through the heart (cor).
Chaucer, indeed translated ‘animo’ as ‘in thy corage’ in the ‘Asse to the
Harpe’ passage.
While the musica instrumentis is the least noble of the three divisions, being a
mere imitation of the musica mundana, it in turn ranks its instruments. The
harp is noble, wind instruments are not. The harp represents Reason, wind
instruments that Folly which strives to undo the musica humana. Two Greek
tales underline this concept. Marsyas is flayed because, with his wind
instrument, earlier rejected by the wise Athena because of the distortions in
produced in her face disturbing her musica humana, he essays to outdo
Apollo’s lyre music.
And, as the Wife of Bath tells us, King Midas wears
ass’s ears because in a music contest he voted for Pan’s piping over Apollo’s
harping, for lust over reason; only she twists the tale against herself having
the secret that will out entrusted not to the barber but to the wife.
Like the
Wife who is ‘somdel deef’, so, says Ovid, was Midas dull of ear, ‘aures
stolidas’ (174-5), ‘and that was scathe’. We will come to see that this inability
to appreciate musica mundana is due to defects in ears and hearts, to an
imbalance in the musica humana towards folly and bestiality. The ass’s ears
become symbolic of this state. Thus the topos and the iconography of the Ass
and the Harp represent a discord in the latter two of the three divisions of
musica mundana, humana, and instrumentis.
A further element to the ass’s bestiality which counters reason is the Circe
story which is recounted in Boethius and which Chaucer translates:
Than betideth it that, yif thou seest a wyght that be transformed into vices,
thow ne mayst nat wene that he be a man. For if he be ardaunt in avarice,
and that he be a ravynour by violence of foreyn richesse, thou shalt seyn
tht he is like to the wolf. . . and yf he be slow, and astonyed, and lache, he
lyveth as an asse . . . and if he be ploungid in fowle and unclene luxuris, he
is witholden in the foule delices of the fowle sow. Than folweth it that he
that forleteth bounte and prowess, he forletith to ben a man; syn he ne may
nat passe into the condicion of God, he is torned into a beeste. (IV, Prosa 3,
It is probable that this despised theriomorphosis, encountered not only in
Christianity but also in Classical Greece and Rome, is a vestige of earlier
cultural totemism, which Lévi-Strauss has taught us to view as but a
classificatory system used by most of mankind.
It does survive with honour
in medieval heraldry and also can be glimpsed in classic and medieval battle
similes where heroes fight like lions, tigers, leopards, boars and so forth. It
can be glimpsed as well in the mummers’ plays and morris dances of
England, where some of the dancers wear animal heads. (Shakespeare’s
Bottom is perhaps an aspect of this.)
However, the Christian and Classical
religions, being anthropomorphic rather than theriomorphic, suppressed this
classificatory system to the vices of man, not his virtues. Therefore man’s
bestiality untunes him. The ass who plays the sacred harp renders it
incapable of imitating the musica mundana or of restoring the musica humana
within his hearers. It is musica instrumentis at its worst.
Besides the iconography of the asinus ad liram, there was also the Aesopic
fable of the unmusical musician ass. It, too, finds a place in medieval
manuscript illuminations. D.W. Robertson notes the marginal use of the
unmusical ass whose music offends a lion-like grotesque who is trying in
vain to stop up his ears. The illuminations, to which this is but part of the
marginalia, concern the rejection of Thamar, where the love-lorn Amnon has
followed his pandar’s advice (Jonadab) and feigned sickness, asking that
Thamar be sent to his bedside. He then throws Thamar upon the bed,
dishonours her and sends her away. The ass and the lion provide a mocking
yet judgmental commentary upon the text. The action of Troilus and Criseyde
echoes this tale in Books II through IV but with the sexes reversed after the
first episode.
Juan Ruiz in the Libro de Buen Amor retells the fable of the unmusical
musician ass as an analogy to his poem:
Dueñas, abrid orejas, oíd buena liciόn
entended bien las fablas: guadadvos del varόn
al asno sin orejas e sin su coraçon.
[Ladies, open your ears, listen to a good lesson, pay careful attention to
fables . . . be careful it does not happen to you as with the lion to the ass
without ears and without heart.]
El leόn fue doliente, dolíale le tiesta.
Quando fue sano d’ella, que la traía enfiesta,
todos las animalias, un domingo en la siesta,
venieron ante él todos a fazar buena fiesta.
Estava y el burro, fezieron d’él juglar;
como estava bien gordo començo a retoçar,
su entambor tañiendo muy alto a rebuznar:
al léon e a los otros queríales atronar.
Con las sus caçurrias el leόn fue sañudo;
quiso abrirle todo e alcançar non le pudo;
su atambor tañiendo fuése, más y non estudo,
Sentiόs por escarnido el leόn del orejudo. (892-895)
At the festival held at the recovery of the sick lion the ass has thought himself
a fine minstrel, beating his drum (traditionally covered with ass’s skin),
braying very loudly, and in so doing has enraged the still headachy lion. He
flees in fear.
El leόn dixo luego que merced le faria;
mandό que le llamassen, que la fiesta onraria;
quanto él demandasse tanto le otorgaría;
la gulhara juglara dixo que l’llamaría
Fuése la raposilla ado el asno andava
paciendo en un prado; tan bien lo saludava:
‘Señor,’ dixo, ‘confadre, vuestro solaz onrava
a todos, a agora non valen una hava.
Más valía vuestra albuébula e vuestro buen solaz,
vuestro atambor sonante, los sonetes que faz
que todo nuestra fiesta; al leόn mucho plaz’
que tornedos al juego en salvoe an paz.
Creyo falsos falagos, él escapό peor;
tornόse a la fiesta bailando el cantador;
non sabía la manera el burro del señor:
escota el juglar necio e son del atambor.
Como el leόn tenía sus monteros armados,
prendieronlo a don Burro come eran castigados;
al leόn lo troxiereon, abriόl’ por los costados;
del la su segurança son todos espantados. (896-900)
The lion sends off the minstrel vixen to entice the ass back, granting him
pardon. The vixen informs the ass that the lion so loved the donkey’s cries of
jubilation, his drumming, his sweet tunes, that he must return and the show
go on. The stupid minstrel does so and is flayed by the lion. (The flaying of
the unmusical ass is a variant of that other musical context, the flaying of
Marsyas who, in a woodcut in Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools is shown as the
bagpipes player of lust, as is Chaucer’s Miller, and with ass’s ears, while
Apollo plays the lyre of reason.) Later the wolf gobbles up the ass’s heart and
ears. He tells the lion that the ass was born that way, which suggests the
Pythagorean teaching of the ass not being created according (forgive the pun),
to the harmony of the musica humana, otherwise he could not have fallen for
the trickery.
Juan Ruiz concludes as he began:
Assí, señoras dueñas, entended bien el romance:
guardadvos de amor loco, non vos prenda nin alcance;
abrid vuestras orejas; el coraçon se lance
en amor de Dios limpio, loco amor non le trance. (901-4)
His poem is like the vixen-minstrel’s enticement to return to the lion’s fiesta
wherein great danger lies. Do not be taken in by it. Keep your ears and heart
open to the love of God, not to lustful folly (amor loco). The beast fable in the
Libro de Buen Amor functions as Beryl Rowland observes of beast fables in
medieval literature generally: ‘The absurdity of the idea of animals behaving
like humans never minimizes the seriousness of the assertion that is being
made: in the animal man may see his own characteristics and he can learn’.
A negative didacticism is at work. Maria Rosa Lida de Malkiel defines the
genre of the Libro as the maqāmāt in which the persona practices the vice the
author preaches against, Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale being an example of this
literary type. Juan Ruiz, the Archpriest of Hita, counsels against loco amor, yet
his persona, Don Melόn de la Huerta, avidly practices it.
However, the
Archpriest says he uses these escapades of Don Melόn ‘por dar ejemplo, non
porque a mi avino’.
The Archpriest writes ass-like, trickster-saviour poetry
in order to preach against bestial lust, while appearing to practice it with
rather disastrous results: his mistress dies of the poisonous aphrodisiacs his
pandaress gives her, he sleeps with revolting mountain girls, his
lion/archbishop jails him. The autobiography is fictional yet functions with
the paradoxical didacticism we see as a pattern with the topos of the ass as
dull and bestial yet teaching, by these binary oppositions, wisdom with
healing laughter.
The figure of the ass is a constant theme in connection with education in
Western literature. Nigel Wireker’s Speculum Stultorum, or, as Chaucer titled
it, ‘Daun Burnel the Asse’, states that the happy man is he who learns caution
from another’s folly, being governed by reason: ‘Est igitur felix aliena
pericula cautam/ Quem faciunt, formant et ratione regi’.
The Speculum
achieves this in the reader by presenting to him a mock paideia, where an ass
learns nothing for all his quest for wisdom. Of its title, the Speculum
Stultorum, it is said: ‘It has been given this name in order that foolish men
may observe as in a mirror the foolishness of others and may then correct
their own folly, and that they may learn to censure in themselves those things
which they find reprehensible in others’. In this vein too we see classic gems
carved with the ass as the pompous teacher lording it over schoolboys,
while in later children’s literature Pinocchio will learn wisdom from his folly,
being transformed into a donkey and poor Eeyore, like Daun Burnel, suffers
from the loss of his tail and struggles in vain to become literate. Sebastian
Brant’s Ship of Fools’ woodcuts show the fools with caps with ass’s ears and of
them Barclay the translator says: ‘Asses erys for our folys a lyuray is’.
also, in his introduction to the reader, pleads:
But ye that shal rede this boke: I you exhorte.
And you that are herars therof also I pray
Where as ye know that ye be of this sorte:
Amende your lyfe and expelle that vyce away.
Slomber nat in syn, Amende you whyle ye may.
And yf ye so do and ensue Vertue and grace.
Within my ship ye get now rowme ne place.
Brant’s Ship of Fools is a sermon preached by Wisdom. Erasmus will have his
Encomium Moriae preached by her opposite number, Stultitia.
The context in which Pandarus uses the Boethian topos in Troilus and Criseyde
(where it undergoes a transformation from the manner in which Boethius
used it; there by Philosophia advocating Reason, here by Pandarus
advocating its reverse, Lust, much like Erasmus’ variation upon Brant) is
interesting when see juxtaposed with the Sumerian harp, the Romanesque/
Gothic grotesques in sculpture and manuscript, the Golden Ass, the
Consolation of Philosophy, the Speculum Stultorum, the Troilus and Criseyde, the
Libro de Buen Amor, and the Ship of Fools. Each has a consonance with all the
others. The asinus ad liram is, in Jung’s words, a cultural ‘shadow’, a trickster-
The discord of the asinus ad liram mocks celestial harmony, but that
mockery, paradoxically, defines the harmony that would otherwise go
unperceived. Perhaps for this reason the Middle Ages cultivated polyphony,
creating motets where vernacular profane verses mocked the sacred Latin
against Boethius’ strictures,
and illuminated manuscripts with sacred scenes
mocked by similia Dei.
Troilus, the Petrarchan love, is fallen into wanhope. The topos is used to
convey this. Ernst Curtius, when noting the topos of the lute-playing ass in
the Carmina Burana, related it to the adynata, the topos of the ‘Word
Upsidedown’ which Arnaut Daniel made use of to express the havoc
wrought in the poet’s mind by false love, ‘amor loco’.38 Thus the topos, by its
ridiculous contraries, expresses the discord wrought in the lover’s musica
humana. Topology here is harnessed to psychology and is used to express a
state of madness. Asses belong to the sphere of bagpipes, not of harps. ‘The
and the Lyre’ is an oxymoron, a zeugma, a paradoxically yoked opposition,.
It is absurd.
Although Pandarus plies all his sophistic art to heal Troilus’ malady (but
with the opposite intent than Philosophia) his labour in the long run will be
in vain. He is the false physician, while she is the true. Troilus will rebuke
him: ‘. . . thi proverbs may me naught availle . . . Lat be thune olde
ensaumples [and it is nearly four thousand years old, we recall] I the preye’
(I.756-760). But though he insists, ‘I am nat deef’ (753), he is withdrawn from
Pandarus, in a ‘litargie’. Philosophia observes Boethius persona to be in a
similar state in I Prosa 2, Boethius being also lethargic, speechless and
. . . he is fallen into a litargie, which that is a commune seknesse to hertes
that been desceyved. He hath a litil foryetenhymselfe, but certes he schal
lightly remembren himself, yif so be that he hath knowen me or now; that
he may so doon, I wil wipe a litil his eien that ben dirked by the cloud of
mortal thynges’.
In forgetting the precepts of Philosophia, he has fallen into wanhope
(depression, withdrawal), ‘bestialite’ and the ‘cloude of mortel thunges’
which correspond to Lorenzo’s ‘muddy vesture of decay’ which ‘doth
grossly’ stop up the harmony of immortal music. Troilus, similarly, is
unheeding of the harp echoing the music of the spheres and, similarly, is
beyond the consolation of philosophy. In short, he is an ass who cannot
comprehend harmony. Yet Troilus will – again like Boethius – rise above the
‘cloude of mortel thynges’ and this ‘muddy vesture of decay’. Chaucer is
using the Boethian text to adumbrate his characterization of Troilus. What
was a comic ‘ensaumple’ at least as old as Ur is in Chaucer’s retractio of
Boethius a sophisticated concept endowed with Pythagorean philosophic
qualities demonstrating the opposition between Reason and Folly. Thomas
Usk in his Boethian Testament of Love noted that Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde
was a ‘philosophical’ poem and he is correct.
However, Chaucer’s method is
to deliberately pervert Philosophia, then rectify her, in the course of the
poem’s dialectic.
Chaucer’s use of the topos comments upon a Troilus who hears but does not
heed the harp of philosophy. He jangles her harmony. Lillian M.C. Randall
mentions one illumination where the ass tramples the harp, exemplifying, she
says, the ‘mere hearer of the Word’.
That is precisely what Troilus will do to
Philosophia’s discussion of destiny and free will. (And so does also Chaucer
in robbing Boethius’ II. Metrum 8 and perverting it to the celebration of
adulterous lust in Book III.1744-1771, where its original version celebrated the
musica mundana as the harmony of love exemplified by ‘peples joyned with
an holy boond, and knyteth sacrament of mariages of chaste loves’.) Troilus
wrenches the Boethian text out of harmony just as surely as does the deaf
Wife of Bath (associated with Midas’ asses’ ears) wrench scriptura out of
context. Yet critics are at odds concerning Troilus and Chaucer’s use of
Boethius. Some take Troilus’ railing on destiny and fee will as Chaucer’s own.
Others disagree. Discord prevails.
Chaucer twists the matter further. Not only does Troilus not comprehend
Pandarus’ consolation, being like an ass to the harp, but Pandarus is himself
like the iconographical ass playing the harp mocking the celestial music with
the bestial, for he has wrenched Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy to the uses
of lust, not reason, and thus mocks the author of the major music text of the
medieval universities by his discord. Pandarus is a grotesque. As lust’s
preceptor, he is like that ass carved on a gem shown as schoolmaster lording
it over boys. This mockery, however, defines the true by its opposition to it.
Chaucer has Pandarus cite this principle in Troilus and Criseyde giving the
game away: ‘By his contrairie is everything declared’ (I.637). This is the
principle that underlies the David Psalter illuminations and the Sumerian
harp where the mockery comments upon the true while self-referentially
appearing within that which it mocks. The commentary of folly is comically
For a moment recall the Corpus Christi College Cambridge manuscript
frontispiece in which Chaucer is seen reading Troilus and Criseyde to Richard
II and his court. Recall also the commonplace, which grew out of the concept
of the musica mundana, of the state as a lute as in Ulysses’ famous speech.
Consider Chaucer’s relationship towards Richard II as that of a Pandarus
towards a Troilus. Yet recall also that Chaucer in that illumination is shown
as a soberly clad preacher speaking from a pulpit to a gaily bedecked and
worldly court. Richard stands in cloth of gold attentively listening. The other
figures pay little heed. The poem purports to be a romance, yet, as Thomas
Usk pointed out, is ‘philosophical’ in Boethius’ manner. Chaucer’s game is to
seem a Pandarus but not to be such, to seduce his worldly hearers from lust
by means of lust’s discords. To lead his hearers, especially his king, to the
harmonies of the musica mundana could be crucial to a realm that may well
reflect the problems of that Troy from which Richard proudly traces his
Chaucer may be seeking to tune his kingly asinus ad liram to
celestial harmonies. He does so through poetry (against which Philosophia
railed) and thereby, paradoxically, seduces his hearers to virtue.
An asinus ad liram reading of the poem could lead to false conclusions. Troilus
and Pandarus and Boethius persona at this point are asini ad liram – though
Philosophia is not – and they are not to be confused with the viewpoints of
their authors. This is a common quality to medieval poetry: the poets’
personae are presented in a stance of folly, obviously lacking the knowledge
and wisdom of their authors. The Jesse tree of such personae whose progenitor
is most likely Boethius, include Jean de Meun, Dante Alighieri, Juan de Ruiz,
Geoffrey Chaucer, Sebastian Brant, Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More.
Their statements are not to be taken at face value but examined critically
within the poems’ contexts. Physically they may resemble their authors,
mentally they do not.
Medieval poetry of this type concerns itself with the
reform of the reader, from folly to wisdom, the persona providing a useful
scapegoat (a trickster-saviour) by means of his naϊveté at which the reader
can laugh but having done so cannot return himself to that behaviour with
impunity. Frequently the form is that of the maqāmāt in which the persona
practices vices the reader and author know to be wrong, the poem thereby
becoming a speculum stultorum, and consequently, though paradoxically, of
wisdom. Mirrors reverse images.
While Troilus is not Chaucer’s persona (though critics confuse his mental
debates with Chaucer’s own), Pandarus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde
reverses the relationship of Boethius’ Philosophia and is the author’s mock
persona. Troilus is a member of Richard II’s Jesse tree. Chaucer/Pandarus
would counsel him. In this, Chaucer has altered Boccaccio’s poem in which
Troilo was the author’s persona. In this manner he can adapt the matter to the
court of England. But it is necessary for him to do so in the twisted court
jester role of Pandarus, rather than of straight Philosophia, or the youthful
Troilus, if he is to be heard and heeded.
While Troilus, through lust, is temporarily an asinus ad liram, Pandarus is a
variation on the theme. He appers to ape Philosophia, to play her lyre. But he
wrenches her harmonies from the true. In this perhaps he echoes Amis in the
Roman de la Rose who is introduced following Reason and who there openly
tears down her arguments. Chaucer’s development conflates Amis with
Reason, by having Pandarus ‘countrefete’ Philosophia. Thus Pandarus
becomes a ‘Faus-Semblant’ Philosophia, masquerading as that which he is
That recalls yet another Aesopic fable concerning the ass who, dressed in a
lion’s skin, fools fools but not wise men. C.S.Lewis made use of this fable in
the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle the Apocalypse is wrought through
the Ape having the Ass dress as the Lion who Christ/Aslan. In this instance,
C.S. Lewis is using a further variant of the ass theme in medieval thought
which is, despite its Classical associations with Priapus, its Christ-likeness.
The humble ass had conveyed Mary and the Child to Egypt, had borne Christ
to Jerusalem, bears on its back the mark of a cross.
Kantorowicz cites the
messianic prophecies of Isaiah (62.10) and Zachariah (9.9) calling for the use
of an ass in the Palm Sunday processions and then its return to its owner.
John Chrysostom in a sermon analogized this to the Incarnation: ‘caro
remissa est, ratio autem retenta est’,
in which context the ass is again flesh
versus spirit. Jung discussed the Beauvais celebrations of the festum asinorum
which, though it began probably as a celebration of Mary’s Flight into Egypt,
degenerated into the mockingly pagan Festival of Fools with theriomorphic
elements, the priest and the congregation braying their responses at the
consecrated altar, foreshadowing Neitzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in which
the disciples, though God is dead, worship God as the Ass. Jung mentions as
well the famous mocking crucified ass scratched on a wall in the Palatine.
Pandarus is Chaucer’s persona, necessarily incarnated within the text, to set
the lustful action afoot. In Boccaccio’s text Pandarus is Boccaccio’s age; in
Chaucer he is altered to conform with Chaucer’s own and so is his physical
appearance, complete with limping gait and large girth. He mirrors Chaucer.
But he is a mockery of Chaucer, the reverse of Chaucer’s intent in writing this
poem. Chaucer pretends to be Pandarus, the fleshly and discordant asinus ad
liram, but concludes with the musica mundana with Pythagorean harmonies:
caro remissa est, ratio autem retenta est, lust laid aside. The poem thus seduces
and pandars the reader, through folly, from folly; Pandarus, thereby, is a
trickster-saviour. Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde is both Pandarus and
Philosophia, both ass and David harping. ‘By his contrairie is everything
declared’, he states. The poem has functioned to delineate lust, then its
consequence, to involve the reader vicariously in that profane act, then teach
its folly. The Boethian proverb, like the iconography of the grotesque upon
Babylonian harp and Romanesque cathedral and Gothic manuscript,
functions as a mockingly didactic commentary upon the poem and audience
yet it is in polyphonic harmony with it. Will Chaucer’s readers be an asinus ad
liram as was Troilus once, or will he come to comprehend Chaucer’s
deliberate twisting of the Boethian text and its ancient proverb, its ‘olde
ensaumple’, and laugh as Troilus did.
His lighte goost ful blissfully is went
Up to the holughnesse of the eighthe spere,
In convers letyng everich element;
And there he saugh, with ful avysement,
The erratick sterrs, herkenyung armonye
With sownes ful of hevenyssh melodie.
And down from thennes faste he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe, that with the se
Embraced is, and fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyn felicite
That is in hevene above, and at the laste,
Ther he was slayn, his lokyng down he caste.
And in himself he lough right at the wo
Of hem that wepten for his deth so faste;
And dampned al oure werk that foloweth so
The blynde lust, the which that may nat laste,
And sholden al oure herte on heven caste. (1808-1825)
1 Troilus and Criseyde, in The Riverside Chaucer, eds. Larry D. Benson, F.N.
Robinson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), I.730-5.
2 Boece, I, Prosa 4,1-3. The Latin text used is Philosophiae Consolatione, ed. Karl
Büchner (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1947).
3 Robinson notes, Boece, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1961), p. 320, that ‘The association of Boece and Troilus in the “Wordes
to Adam Scriveyn” and the very heavy indebtedness of the Troilus to the
Consolation indicate that Chaucer had the two works in hand at about the
same time’.
4 The lyre is in the possession of the University Museum, Philadelphia. See
H.W. Janson, History of Art (New York: Abrams, 1968), p. 66, and André
Parrot, Sumer: The Dawn of Art, trans. Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons (New
York: Golden, 1964). Parrot feels the use of the animals adorning the harp
reflect incidents sung to that harp. He describes the lyre inlay as representing
preparations for a banquet, at which an ass will play a lyre, a jackal the
sistrum and tambourine, and a bear will dance; also with them are a scorpion
man and a gazelle. He notes that the iconography recurs in the satirical
papyrus of Turin, in the ostraca from Dei el-Medina, in the fables of Aesop
and Phaedrus, and finally in Romanesque capitals. These animals, likewise, it
should be noted, are featured in Apuleius’ Golden Ass: asses, bears, dogs,
goats, apes.
5 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection, purchase 1931. From
the Chapter House of the Monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza, near
Hortiguëla, Burgos, Spain.
6 Emile Mâle, L’art religieux du XII
siècle en France (Paris: Librairie Armand
Colin, 1924), p. 339, fig. 197. Mâle notes the use of the Ass and the Lyre also at
Saint-Sauveur de Nevers, at Sant-Parize-le-Châtel (Nièvre), on the portals of
Saint-Aignin de Cosne and of Fleury-la-Montaigne (Saône-et-Loire) and
Meillers (Allier), at Brionde, and at Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. He observes: ‘A la
face meridional du vieux clocher de Chartres, on voit ancore aujourd-hui la
statue de l’âne qui joue de la lyre. Elle invitait à l’application les jeunes clercs
qui venaient en foule suivre les leçons des fameux maîtres de Chartres, et,
tout à côté, un ange avec son cadron solaire leur mesurait le temps’, p. 340.
7 George Zarnecki, English Romanesque Sculpture 1066-1140 (London: Tiranti,
1951), Plates 55-56. Similar sculpture, on a doorway, is to be found at St
Mary’s, Barfreston, Kent, c. 1170-80. My thanks to Steven Ellis, Stephen
Stallcup, for this information.
8 See ‘From Every Shires Ende: the World of Chaucer’s Pilgrims’, A Pilgrim
Films Production.
9 Helen Adolf, ‘The Ass and the Harp’, Speculum 29 (1950), 49.57.
10 Mâle, p. 340, because of this thirteenth-century complaint concerning
sculpture using Boethius’ ass and lyre, considered Boethius the source for the
iconography. The Sumerian harp, however, considerably antedates Boethius.
11 The Shakespearian Grotesque: Its Genesis and Transformations (Oxford:
Caldrendon poress, 1971), pp. 24-5.
12 Adolf, p. 50. The proverb, incidentally, is extant in a variant form in
modern Chinese and is used to convey the same meaning as Philosophia’s. It
is the ‘playing the lyre before the ox’ (the Sumerian harp hs at its base the
head of a bull as it is shown on the plaque) and the expression may have
reached China via the Silk Road.
13 P. 51.
14 Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image, trans. Dora Nussey (New York: Harper,
1958), p. 61. Also the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s quintessentially Gothic
Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, fol. 54.
15 Trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York: Bollingen, 1959), pp. 255-272.
16 II.viii.25.
17 (London, 1935), pp. xvi-xvii.
18 Apes and Apelore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (London: Warburg
Institute, 1952), p. 108 and Pl. XIIc; The Ape in Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1938), fig. 489, pp. 288-290. See also Michael Masi,
‘The Christian Music of Sir Orfeo’, Classical Folia (1974), 3-20; Kathi Meyer-
Baer, The Music of the Spheres and the Dance of Dance (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1971), pp. 66, 77, 204-8, 222, etc; John Block Friedman,
Orpheus in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
1970). David in manuscript illuminations is shown with the mocking beasts
or with his harp and throne ornamented with bestial forms, Princeton Index
of Christian Art, David with Harp.
19 ‘Philosophy of Music in the Consolatio of Boethius’, Speculum 45 (1970), 80-
97. See also Manfred F. Bukhofzer, ‘Speculative Thinking in Medieval Music’,
Speculum 17 (1942), 165-180.
20 Ed. Godofredus Friedlein (Lipsiae, 1867).
21 Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony: Prolegomena to an
Interpretation of the Word ‘Stimmung’, ed. Anna Granville Hatcher (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins Press, 1963), pp. 85-93.
22 John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1961). In Sebastian Brant’s The Ship of Fools, trans. Alexander Barclay
(Edinburgh, 1874), are two woodcuts, Vol. I.256 and Vol. II.28 in which these
themes are crystallized. The Fool chooses the bagpipes over the ahrp or lute
and Marsyas is flayed for choosing the bagpipes over the harp. Both Fool and
Marsyas are shown with ass’s ears. See also House of Fame III.1227-1232.
Meyer-Baer discusses wind instrument’s relation to death and mourning in
antiquity for this opprobrium, pp. 219. 289 and passim.
23 Canterbury Tales, III.951-982.
24 Le Totemisme aujourd-hui (Paris:Plon, 1962). The principle which Lévi-
Strauss discusses in Mythologiques, binary distinctions and ‘zoèmes’, are at
work in the development of the asinus ad liram theme. See L’Homme nu (Paris:
PLon, 1971), pp. 481-558 and 68-74. Also Victor Turner, The Ritual Process:
Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine, 1969), pp. 172-7 and 185-8.
25 Beryl Rowland, Blind Beasts: Chaucer’s Animal World (Kent, Ohio: Kent
State University Press, 1971), p. 10.
26 D.W. Robertson Jr., A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1972), pp. 238-241.
27. Ed. and trans. Raymond S. Willis (Princeton: Princeton Univesity Press,
1972), pp. 239-241.
28 Blind Beasts, p. 10.
29 María Rosa Lida de Malkiel, Two Spanish Masterpieces: The Book of Good Love
and The Celestina, Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 49 (Urbana,
1961), 21-27.
30 Willis, p. xlvi.
31 Lines 3893-4
32 Princeton Index of Christian Art, from Cabrol, F. Dict., I
(1907), fig. 586.
33 I.181.
34 Walter Kaiser, Praisers of Folly (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1963), p. 35. The arguments of William Empson, Some Versions of
Pastoral, concerning double plot are applicable here as well as Victor Turner’s
perception that ‘The structure of the whole depends on its negative as well as
its positive signs’, p. 201.
35 Pp. 255-272. Till Eulenspiegel (Mirror of Wisdom) is an example. He
mocks the learned University by teaching an ass to seem to read.
36 The word ‘polyphony’ occurs in Boethius’ account of Timotheus of
Milesius. It is of interest that Jan Van Eyck was to paint a portrait of a leading
composer of his day giving the portrait the inscription ‘Timotheus’, Erwin
Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Vol. I.196-7 and Vol. II, fig. 261,
conjectures that the portrait is either of Guillaume Dufay or, more likely, of
Gilles Binchois. See Polyphonies du XIIe siècle: Le Manuscrit H196 de la Facultè de
Médecine de Montpellier, ed. Yvonne Rokseth (Paris, 1936), II.83-114;
Bukhofzer, pp. 173-177.
37 See Janson, and McDermott, fig. 489, pp. 288-290, where the ape plays
Orpheus, the ass Christ. Shakespeare plays a similar game where he has
Bottom the ass and the rude mechanicals ape the harmony of his Midsummer
Night’s Dream.
38 Ernst Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard
Trask, Bollingen Series 36 (New York: Pantheon, 1953), p. 95. See Ancient
Misericords in the Priory Church, Great Malvern (Worcester, n.d.), p. 6.
39 Chaucerian and Other Pieces, ed. Walter W. Skeat (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1897), p. xxii.
40 ‘Exempla as a Source of Gothic Marginal Illuminations’, Art Bulletin, 39
(1957), 104. In a similar vein Mâle, Gothic Image, p. 44 and fig. 18, discusses
Honorius on the adder: ‘The adder is the image of the sinner who closes his
ears to the words of life’ (which relates that image to the ‘somdel deef’ Wife
of Bath). The adder is shown as similar to the Wyvern and the serpent man of
the Burgos fresco and the Sumerian harp, having legs and wings as well as a
41 For the account of the debate on Troilus and Criseyde by Chaucerians see
the essay by John P. McCall in Companion to Chaucer Studies, ed. Beryl
Rowland (Toronto: Oxford Unviersity Press, 1968), pp. 370-384.
42 Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, I.iii.83-124.
43 D.W. Robertson, Jr., Chaucer’s London (New York: Wiley, 1968), p. 3, notes
Richard of Maidstone’s contemporary identification of London as New Troy,
the Black Prince as Hector, Richard II, rather unflatteringly, as Troilus.
44 On the use of the persona see Leo Spitzer, ‘Notes on the Poetic and
Empirical “I” in Medieval Authors’, Traditio 4 (1946), 414-422. The stance of
the author is best exemplified in the Boethius manuscript illuminations
garnered by Pierre Courcelle in La Consolation de Philosophie dan la tradition
littéraire (Paris: Etudes augustiniennes, 1967). In these and in the
illuminations to the Roman de la Rose and the Commedia, writer and dreamer
physically resemble each other but do not occupy the same space. A further
aspect is the relationship of the poet to his realm which is similar to that of a
prophet. See for example medieval city Bible illuminations of Jeremiah
preaching to Jerusalem showing Jerusalem as their own city which
iconographically recurs in the Duomo painting of Dante reading the
Commedia to Florence.
45 Beryl Rowland, Animals with Human Faces: A Guide to Animal Symbolism
(Knoxville: Univesity of Tennessee Press, 1973), p. 20.
46 Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study of Medieval Political
Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 85; G.K. Chesterton
celebrates the absurd Christ-bearing ass in poetry. Medieval Palm Sunday
processions sometimes included wooden figures of Christ astride the ass. The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection, and the Detroit Art
Museum both possess examples.
47 P. 259. See also Félix Clément, ‘L’âne au Moyen Age’, Annales
archéologiques 16 (1856), 30-33. The harp, as well as the ass, could allegorize
Christ, this being seen by pseudo-Hugh of St Victor as the cause of David’s
healing of Saul’s madness, Allegoriae in Vetus Testamentum, VI, Patrologia
Latina, ed. J.P. Migne, 175, 692A. Even this could be mocked, Hieronymus
Bosch showing music in hell with, among other figures and instruments, a
harp growing out of a lute, figures crucified to both instruments. The music
made is obviously discordant and one figure stops up his ears in agony.