Phyllis and Aristotle  

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Image:Lai d' Aristote.jpg
Aristotle and Phyllis, c. 1485, from the medieval legend Lai d' Aristote, illustrated by the Master of the Housebook

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The Lai d' Aristote (English: Lay of Aristotle) is part of a series known as the Power of Women, found in literature as well as the visual arts, this image recounts the late medieval legend that Aristotle tried to teach his protege Alexander the Great about the dangers of love, only to fall prey to this humiliation himself.



According to medieval legend Aristotle had urgently warned Alexander the Great to abstain from worldly pleasures, but this provoked Alexander's mistress Phyllis, who was determined to humiliate Aristotle and demonstrate the power of the flesh over the intellect. She accomplished this by seducing the great philosopher and then asking him to let her ride on his back. He consented, not realizing that Alexander had been invited to secretly witness this victory.

Henry d'Andeli or Henri de Valenciennes?

The story was committed to paper by Henry d'Andeli in the 13th century but more probably originates with Henri de Valenciennes.


From an unidentified manuscript.

C'est la jus, desoz l'olive.
La la voi venir, m'amie.
La fontaine i sort serie,
el jaglolai soz l'aunoi.
La la voi, la voi, la voi,
la bele la blonde; a li m'otroi.

In the visual arts

In the visual arts[1], one of the earliest versions is found in the Master of the Housebook. An engraving from 1510 is by the hand of Hans Baldung Grien. Other prints include those of Jan Sadeler after Bartholomaeus Spranger, Hans Schäufelein, Lucas van Leyden[2] and Matthaus (Master MZ) Zasinger.

Summary of the tale

The summary is from Women of Mediaeval France:

When Alexander had conquered India, he rested in shameful sloth, a slave to love for a young Hindoo princess. Aristotle, master of all wisdom, reproved his quondam pupil for this neglect of grave matters; and the Hindoo girl, perceiving Alexander's unhappy frame of mind, discovered what had produced it. She will be revenged on the crabbed old scholar; ere noon of the next day she will make him forget grammar and logic, if Alexander will only allow her free scope, and he shall see Aristotle's defeat if he will watch from a window opening on the garden. In the early morn, while the dew was on the grass and the birds were just beginning to sing, she tripped out into the garden, her corsage loosely fastened, her golden hair waving wildly down her neck; and as she picked her way hither and thither among the flowers, her petticoat daintily lifted, she sang sweet little songs of love. Master Aristotle, at his books, heard the singer, and "such a sweet memory she stirred in his heart that he shut his book." "Alas," he said, "what is the matter with my heart? Here am I, old and bald, pale and thin, and a philosopher more sour than any yet known or heard of." The damsel gathered flowers and wove a garland for herself, singing the while so sweetly, so enticingly, that the sour philosopher gave way, opened his window, and talked to her, nay, came out to her and courted her like a very lover, offering to risk for her sake body and soul. She asked not so much by way of proof of his devotion. "It is merely a little whim of mine," she said, "if you will gratify me in that, I might love you." The whim is, that he should let her ride about the garden on his back. "And you must have a saddle on: I shall go more gracefully." Love won the day, and there was the foremost scholar in the world prancing about on all fours like a colt, with a saucy girl on his back, when Alexander appeared at the window. The pedagogue was not dismayed; with the saddle and bridle upon him, he looked up at the king: "Sire, tell me if I was not right to fear love for you, in all the ardor of youth, since love has harnessed me thus, I who am old and withered! I have combined precept and example: it is for you to profit by them."


  • Henri de Valenciennes, Aristote (edited, translated and introduced by Leslie Brook and Glyn Burgess, 2011) [3]

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Phyllis and Aristotle" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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