Solomon and Marcolf (Harvard Studies in Medieval Latin)

By Jan M. Ziolkowski. 2008. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 451 pages. ISBN: 978-0-674-02841-8 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Steve Stanzak, Indiana University

[Review length: 1489 words • Review posted on December 8, 2009]


Few medieval texts offer such a rich repository of traditional lore as Solomon and Marcolf, which imagines a battle of wits between the biblical King Solomon and the bawdy folk hero Marcolf. Although the text has been reprinted often in its original Latin, Ziolkowski’s new critical edition is the first attempt to translate the original text since the sixteenth century. In addition to his new English translation, Ziolkowski also includes the original Latin text, a thorough introduction, an exhaustive commentary, extensive textual notes, several indexes (including an index of motifs, proverbs, and tale type numbers), and a hefty bibliography. Also included is a number of appendices: one provides a chart mapping out manuscript variants of the dialogue section, and others provide supplemental texts, including an alternate beginning and ending, a number of sources and analogues, and a modern English translation (by Diana Luft) of a late sixteenth-century Welsh version of Solomon and Marcolf. The volume as a whole is a masterpiece of textual scholarship that should, despite its playful narrative content, be taken seriously by folklorists.

Ziolkowski’s substantial fifty-page introduction to the text summarizes the narrative and provides an overview of its main themes, textual history, audience, cultural context, and modern scholarship. The Latin text of Solomon and Marcolf survives in more than two dozen manuscripts, the earliest dating from 1410, although the text shows evidence of being several centuries older and having some roots in oral legends (6). The written text is made up of two separate parts distinct in both form and content that likely were written by at least two different authors and later combined into one text. Solomon and Marcolf has a particularly complicated textual history and Ziolkowski does an excellent job of treating the problems of oral and written composition and transmission with nuance.

Solomon and Marcolf might be familiar to Bakhtin scholars, as it is mentioned in Rabelais’ Gargantua as well as Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World. The text of Solomon and Marcolf compellingly demonstrates the idea of carnivalesque laughter theorized by Bakhtin, with its celebration of counter-culture and its fixation on the lower parts of the body. If Solomon’s wisdom comes from his head, then Marcolf’s surely comes his bowels.

The narrative of Solomon and Marcolf is divided into two distinct parts. The first section consists almost entirely of a dialogue between the two characters. The narrative begins with the approach to Solomon's court of Marcolf and his wife, both of whom are described as resembling the worse characteristics of beasts. Solomon has heard of Marcolf’s reputation for wit, and makes a wager with him: if Marcolf can best him in a verbal duel, Solomon will reward him with riches. Throughout this first section, Solomon usually begins with maxims and proverbs often drawn from the biblical tradition, but Marcolf responds with vernacular proverbs that undercut and parody Solomon’s erudite wisdom. These two exchanges demonstrate how facilely Marcolf subverts Solomon’s wisdom:

Solomon: “A good and beautiful woman is an adornment to her husband.”
Marcolf: “A pot filled with milk must be guarded well from the cat” (55).

Solomon: “Do well to a just man, and you will come upon a great repayment; and if not from him himself, surely from the Lord!”
Marcolf: “Do well to the stomach, and you will come upon great belching; and if not from the mouth, surely from the asshole!” (73).

At the end of their dialogue, Solomon is obviously beaten, but he abruptly calls off the contest and has his flunkies remove Marcolf rather than admitting defeat.

The second part of the text is distinct from the first part, and never refers to Solomon and Marcolf’s earlier dialogue, nor Solomon’s reneging on their wager. Rather than a proverbial dialogue, the second part takes the form of a folktale made up of several different episodes. It begins with Solomon and his retinue stopping at Marcolf’s residence on their return from a hunt. Solomon is impressed by Marcolf’s riddling and invites him to bring some milk and other cow products to him in Jerusalem. Marcolf indeed visits Solomon’s palace, bearing him milk covered in dung as a gift. The second section is filled with episodes like this one that revolve around ambiguities inherent in language. When the joke depends on the original Latin, Ziolkowski is sure to explain the nuance in his commentary. Solomon at the end of the second section declares to Marcolf, who has made a fool of him several times over: “Depart from me, and watch out that I see you no more between the eyes!” When Solomon comes upon Marcolf later, the peasant exposes his naked backside to the king, saying: “if you do not wish to see me between the eyes [in medijs oculis], you may see me between the buttocks [in medio culo]” (99).

The framework that drives the second section is constructed by an episode where Solomon invites Marcolf to stay the night in his palace, but commands that he may not sleep if he wishes to live. Each time that Marcolf dozes off, Solomon asks him what he was thinking, and Marcolf responds with an assertion that Solomon disbelieves. Ziolkowski explains: “the underlying notion is that if Marcolf can demonstrate he was thinking, he can prove by transference he was not sleeping” (206). Solomon demands that Marcolf prove his assertions, or be punished with death. The remainder of the second section recounts how Marcolf does so, and in the process makes a fool of the wise King Solomon.

One of these assertions that Marcolf must prove is that “nothing can be entrusted safely to a woman.” To prove this, Marcolf tells his sister Fusada in confidence: “I will take a knife under my clothing and today, without his [Solomon’s] knowing, I will stick it in his heart and thus kill him” (81). Fusada promises to tell no one, “even under threat of losing [her] head.” Later, Marcolf complains to Solomon that Fusada, who is a prostitute, dishonors his family by her pregnancy and should not receive her inheritance. Solomon calls Fusada to the palace to be judged, and she responds to Marcolf’s attempt to deprive her of her inheritance by revealing to Solomon Marcolf’s plot. Of course, this is what Marcolf had planned all along: he is not carrying a knife and demonstrates to the king how nothing can be entrusted to a woman.

The text of Solomon and Marcolf itself is quite short, with both Latin and English texts taking up little more than fifty pages. Ziolkowski’s critical apparatus takes up the bulk of the volume, and his commentary is by far the largest section. Ziolkowski first intends for the commentary section to explain nuances of the original text to an audience that does not read Latin. Beyond this goal, the author also explains episodes in the text opaque to modern audiences, of which there are many. For example, Ziolkowski responds to the following exchange

Solomon: “Fame is very unbefitting to a fool.”

Marcolf: “Pig ulcers sit well near a mangy asshole” (65)

with an extensive three-paragraph discussion about medieval veterinary and medical knowledge that sheds light on the proverbs. In this example and in many others, Ziolkowski demonstrates a strong command over a wide range of information about medieval life. Ziolkowski is also intimately familiar with folklore scholarship and methodology. He provides sources and analogues for the proverbial sayings and narrative episodes that occur throughout the text, and draws upon biblical literature as well as numerous tale type and motif indexes.

Throughout the volume, Ziolkowski channels both Solomon and Marcolf, at times somber and erudite, at others witty and profane. In his introduction and commentary, he very intentionally and appropriately abbreviates the text as S&M. At other times, he talks about Marcolf’s “quick wit and loose sphincter” (39) or describes the mooning episode quoted above as “hindsight” (6). According to Ziolkowski, “the two are so intimately interrelated that Solomon may breathe his last gasp at the same moment Marcolf…breaks wind for the final time” (41). Later, the author appropriately equates himself with both Solomon and Marcolf, as both wise enough to take on the daunting task of translating a difficult text, but also uncouth enough to deal with its content.

I, for one, am thankful to Ziolkowski for channeling his inner Marcolf. The translated text itself is a treasure for folklorists, particularly those interested in proverbs, and Ziolkowski has already done the important comparative work of providing tale type and motif numbers. In the introduction, Ziolkowski informs us that one primary medieval audience for Solomon and Marcolf was students in Latin schools, where student readers likely enjoyed the subversiveness of the text and its lampoon of authority figures. Latin students today may not feel as subversive as medieval students probably did while reading it, but they will certainly enjoy the vulgar content and the unusual vocabulary—I myself learned numerous medieval Latin words for bodily noises and excretions that will surely prove useful.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.