The tale of Phyllis and Aristotle
The tale of Phyllis and Aristotle is a cautionary medieval tale about the triumph of a seductive woman, Phyllis, over the greatest male intellect, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. It is one of several Power of Women stories from that time. Among early versions is the French Lai d'Aristote from 1220.
The story of the dominatrix and the famous intellectual was taken up by artists from the 12th century onwards, in media from stone sculpture in churches to panels of wood or ivory, textiles such as carpets and tapestries, engravings, oil paintings, brass jugs (aquamanile), and stained glass. Artists attracted to the theme include Hans Baldung, Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Alessandro Turchi.
The tale varies in the telling, but the core of it is as follows: Aristotle advised his pupil Alexander to avoid the king's seductive mistress, Phyllis, but was himself captivated by her. She agreed to ride him, on condition that she could play the role of dominatrix. Phyllis had secretly told Alexander what to expect, and he witnessed Phyllis proving that a woman's charms could overcome even the greatest philosopher's male intellect. Phyllis is also described as Alexander's mistress, or possibly wife, rather than his father's.
The story is said by the Louvre to derive from the German work by Jacques de Vitry in the 13th century. The French work Le Lai d'Aristote (The Lay of Aristotle) is known from manuscripts dating from as early as 1220, attributed by scholars to either Henri d'Andeli or Henri de Valenciennes.
In 1386, the English poet John Gower included a summary of the tale in his Confessio Amantis (in English, unlike his other major works), a collection of stories of immoral love told in verse. It appears in the poem on Apollonius of Tyre (Book 8, 271–2018), where Gower quips that the philosopher's logic and syllogisms do not save him:
- I syh there Aristotle also,
- Whom that the queene of Grece so
- Hath bridled, that in thilke time
- Sche made him such a Silogime,
- That he foryat al his logique;
- Ther was non art of his Practique,
- Thurgh which it mihte ben excluded
- That he ne was fully concluded
- To love, and dede his obeissance
|Story element||Lai d'Aristote - French||Aristoteles und Phyllis - German|
|Alexander||is a victorious king, conqueror of India||is a young man in his father's court|
|The young woman||is just called "the Indian"||is Phyllis, of noble birth, in the queen's entourage|
|Situation: Alexander||is lectured by Aristotle for neglecting his duty as head of state and the army||ignores the king's order not to see his lover, as requested by Aristotle for not concentrating on his lessons|
|The young woman||decides to get revenge on the philosopher||decides to get revenge on the philosopher|
|The contract: Aristotle||promises he will speak to Alexander on her behalf, in return for her favours||asks her to spend the night with him, in return for money|
|The seduction scene||takes place in a garden||takes place in a garden|
|She rides on Aristotle's back||observed by a laughing Alexander||observed by the queen and her retinue, and Phyllis roundly insults Aristotle|
|In the end, Aristotle||excuses himself to Alexander, saying
Amour vainc tot, & tot vaincra
tant com li monde durera
(Love conquers all, and all shall conquer
As long as the world shall last)
|flees to a far country, where he meditates on the wickedness of feminine wiles.|
The cautionary tale of the dominatrix who made a fool of the famous philosopher became popular across medieval Europe. Medieval sculptors in Maasland created aquamanile, jugs in the forms of scenes with human or other figures, depicting Phyllis and Aristotle. The story was depicted in a variety of media including stone, ivory, brass, carpet, tapestry, and engravings.
Stone sculpture, Cadouin Abbey, France, 12th century
Panel of casket with scenes of romances, France, ivory, 1330-1350
Aquamanile in the form of Phyllis and Aristotle, prob. Maasland, 1400–1450, brass
Detail of tapestry, Basel, 1470s
Aristotle and Phyllis, the Master of the Housebook, Netherlands, c. 1485
Early Modern to Enlightenment
Artists such as Hans Baldung,[a] Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Bartholomeus Spranger and Jan Sadeler continued to exploit the theme, eventually with Phyllis entirely naked. Alessandro Turchi called the woman Campaspe, the mistress of Alexander. The media used include engraving, stained glass, wood, and oil painting.
Engraving, Lucas van Leyden, c. 1520
Stained glass, Germany, c. 1520
Phyllis and Aristotle, Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on panel, 1530
Nineteenth and twentieth centuries
Sokrates, Julio Ruelas (1870–1907), 1902. The woman wears modern stockings and shoes
- See above for his woodcut illustration.
- "Aristotle and Phyllis". Art Institute Chicago. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
- Smith, Justin E. H. (2 April 2013). "Phyllis Rides Aristotle". Justin E. H. Smith. Retrieved 31 March 2018.
- "Aristotle Plays Horsey and Other Strange Tales". Classical Wisdom Weekly. 10 March 2014. Retrieved 31 March 2018.
- "Phyllis and Aristotle | The Triumph of Seduction over Intellect". Louvre. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
- Wathelet-Willem, Jeanne. "Henri d'Andeli. Le lai d'Aristote, publié d'après tous les manuscrits par Maurice Delbouille", in Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire, 1953, Vol. 31, n° 31-1, pp. 84–87.
- François Zufferey, "Un problème de paternité: le cas d'Henri d'Andeli. II. Arguments linguistiques", Revue de linguistique romane, n° 68, 2004, pp. 57–78, and "Henri de Valenciennes, auteur du Lai d'Aristote et de la Vie de saint Jean l'Évangéliste", in Revue de linguistique romane, n° 69, 2004, pp. 335–358.
- The source of the work was still contested in 2007 - see Mihai Cristian Bratu, L'Émergence de l'auteur dans l'historiographie médiévale en prose en langue française, Ph.D., New York University, 2007, p. 103.
- Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. .
- Sarton, George (1930). "Aristotle and Phyllis". Isis. 14: 8–19.
- "Phyllis and Aristotle" (in Latin). Archived from the original on 22 November 2012. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
ARISTOTLES, cum doceret Alexandrum ut se contineret ab accessu frequenti uxoris suae, quae erat pulcra valde, ne animum suum a communi providentia impediret, et Alexander ei acquiesceret, hoc advertens regina et dolens, coepit Aristotelem trahere ad amorem suum, quia multociens sola transibat cum pedibus nudis et dissoluto crine, ut eum alliceret.
- Briski, Marija Javor (2004). Winkelman, Johan H.; Wolf, Gerhard, eds. Eine Warnung vor dominanten Frauen oder Behajung der Sinnenlust? Zur Ambivalenz des 'Aristoteles-und-Phyllis-Motivs' as Tragezeichen im Spiegel deutscher Dichtungen des späten Mittelalters. Erotik, aus dem Dreck gezogen (in German). Rodopi. pp. 37–66. ISBN 90-420-1952-2.
- Hayton, Darin. "The Curious History of Phyllis on Aristotle". Retrieved 1 April 2018.
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