The Philosopher’s Pony Play

MRAH Aquamanile Aristote et Phyllis 261211.jpg
Image by VassilPersonal work, CC0

For all that he is The Philosopher in the later Middle Ages, the most striking iconographical depictions of Aristotle from the period are of him on all fours, being ridden by a woman.

Aristotle’s pony play comes about when Alexander the Great’s beloved takes revenge on Aristotle, Alexander’s tutor, for having chided Alexander about the foolishness of loving and having persuaded the great leader to abstain from seeing his lady for a period of time. When Alexander finally cracks and re-visits his beloved, she promises to make Aristotle a hypocrite by having him fall in love with her, which she does by wandering hair loose and in an un-girdled gown in the garden beneath Aristotle’s window. Once caught by his desire, Aristotle is only too happy to accede to the lady’s wish to saddle him up and ride him around the garden, in which sorry state Alexander can see him and chide him in turn.

One of the poetic tellings of this tale, the Lai d’Aristote (Lay of Aristotle) by Henri de Valenciennes (formerly thought to be by Henri d’Andeli) is of interest to musicologists because of the interpolated songs that the lady sings to entice Aristotle to love her. Although only one of these manuscripts was originally set up to contain musical notation for the songs (which was sadly never completed), some of the refrains at least are attested elsewhere (see the Refrain database and/or search under ‘Aristote’ in Ardis Butterfield, Poetry and Music in Medieval France).

Maltererteppich_4,5The Lay of Aristotle exists in six surviving medieval manuscripts sources, and the five in Paris are all online:

A. F-Pn fr 837, ff.80v-83r. Second half of the 13thC. Francian dialect. Black-and-white images on Gallica. Songs are marked by pilcrows.
B. F-Pn fr. 1593, ff.156r-159v. Second half of the 13thC, Lotharingian dialect. Images on Gallica. Initial illumination never entered; one pilcrow for one of the songs.
C. F-Pn n.a.f. 1104, ff.69v-72r. Second half of the 13thC. Francian dialect. Images on Gallica. Song underlaid to space for staves that were never entered.
D. F-Pn fr. 19152, ff.71v-73v. Start of the 14thC. Black-and-white images on Gallica. Three-column format. Songs not specifically marked. The BNF also holds an 18thC copy of the MS by Dom Lobineau.
E. F-Pa 3516, ff.345r-347r. Second half of the 13thC. Picard dialect. Images on Gallica. Opening miniature has been cut away, losing some of the later text of the verso. Songs have their own large capital at the opening, but are copied as regular text.
F. F-SOM 68, ff.276-277?. This source does not appear to be online.

The moral of the tale appears to be that love overcomes everyone, regardless of how serious a philosopher a person may be. For a musicologist, the tale emphasizes, too, the dangerous power of voice, especially the female voice, to inspire love and distance listeners, however wise, from their rationality. Irrational desires, erotic and musical, seem implicitly linked.

(And, in case you’re wondering why this page has appeared, my interest was sparked by a refrain that is shared between this poem and one in Douce 308, the Tournament at Chauvency, where the singer is riding on a real horse. I’m currently attempting to integrate song, refrains, dance and various kinds of musical and somatic courtly role-play into an understanding of medieval play in the broader sense: that is, erotic, musical, and verbal.)

French - Box Front with Scenes of Alexander and Pyramus - Walters 71196.jpg
By Anonymous (France)Walters Art Museum: Home page  Info about artwork, Public Domain.

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