This looks like a medieval version of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly singing “True Love.”
But it isn’t anything like that. Those aren’t earphones or the man’s microphone but a…bridle. The woman is riding him.
She is Phyllis the Courtesan and he is Aristotle the Philosopher.
What a way to depict one of the greatest philosophers of the world!
Aristotle is complying with Phyllis’s wish, which is her price. She asked him to play horsie and let her ride him around the patio.
Why would she do that?
To humiliate him. She wanted to get back at him for telling his pupil, no other than young Alexander the Great, to stay away from her, that she was a bad influence on him. Alexander went and told her, and Phyllis seethed.
She Gets Back
The next morning, with her long hair hanging and her gown loose, she danced into the courtyard where Aristotle could see her from his study. He looked up from his books and out his window. There, beside the tall cypress trees and the splashing fountain, was interactive beauty and not for a moment could he resist it. Remember how St. Thomas in a similar plight drove away his temptress with a firebrand? Aristotle had a different approach to temptation. His way of deleting it, of getting it over with, was to fall quickly into it. When Phyllis came close to the window, he reached out, grabbed her, and declared his passion for her.
“Not so fast,” said Phyllis. “First I’d like you to carry out a little fantasy of mine.” Once mounted, she began to sing a little ditty about the triumph of Love (over learning): “Master Silly carries me. / ‘Love leads on, and so he goes, / by Love’s authority’.”
There are hundreds of surviving depictions of this fantasy, some with Aristotle bridled and saddled, some with a whip in Phyllis’s hands. A few showed Alexander standing by and watching the horse show. Phyllis had told him to look into the courtyard when he heard her sing.
“Now I want this to be a lesson to you,” Aristotle told Alexander, ahem-hemming and straightening his beard and his professor’s toga. “If an old philosopher, skilled in self-control [sic], cannot resist the wiles of a woman, then how is a young man like yourself going to do that? All this only goes to prove the point I was making the other day.”
Alexander just nodded now with a smile in his heart. Aristotle was finished. He had lost his authority as a teacher and moral guide to the young Prince.
And Phyllis was seen with Alexander even more often.
It is a story students in the Middle Ages liked to tell about the unimpeachable philosopher Aristotle. He was taken as the great authority on almost everything and this story kicked him where (they thought) it hurt. It was made up by Henri d’Andeli, a thirteenth-century Norman poet and was called the “Lai d’Aristote”.
Different morals were derived from it. One was that Aristotle was a fool. Maybe scholars gave this story an extra push when, with Humanism, Plato’s teachings replaced Aristotle’s. Here is a tapestry illustration of the story:
It was one of the stock misericords in the great churches and cathedrals of Western Europe. (Misericords are the carved figures on the underside of choir-stall seats). There is a good one in the Cathedral of Toledo, Spain, but the guard would not let me photograph it.
Another lesson was that guys should avoid dolls, who were instruments of the Devil. Remember how Eve had made Adam eat the forbidden fruit and so got us all kicked out of the Garden of Eden? Here was another example. Maybe money was the root of all evil (after Satan). But higher up the plant and still underground, was Woman.
This misericord shows the devil, with the help of another unidentified sculptor, creating Woman. She was designed to be a temptress.
A detail of a German Aquamanile from ~1400 showing the good grip Phyllis had on the Master: