The Medieval Review 14.04.21

Bradbury, Nancy Mason, and Scott Bradbury. The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf: A Dual Language Edition from Latin and Middle English Printed Editions. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012. Pp. 106. $14.00. ISBN: 978-1-58044-180-3.

Reviewed by:

Justin Lake
Texas A&M University

The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf (Dialogus Salomonis et Marcolfi) consists of a humorous (and often obscene) dialogue between King Solomon and the peasant Marcolf, followed by a series of tales in which Marcolf uses his native cunning to outwit the famously wise biblical king. The text has always been of interest to folklorists and literary historians, and it has recently been made more accessible thanks to Jan M. Ziolkowski's 2008 translation and commentary. [1] Little can be said with confidence about the authorship of the Dialogue or its date of composition. The earliest datable Latin manuscript was copied in 1410, but the work is probably at least two centuries older, and the earliest reference to Marcolf as an antagonist of King Solomon is found in a commentary on the book of Psalms by Notker Labeo (ca. 950-1022) of Saint Gall. The two parts of the Dialogue were written in isolation from one another, and there is no reason to think that a single author was responsible for either one of them. As Ziolkowski points out, it makes more sense to see each of the two halves of the Dialogue as the product of a steady accretion of material over time rather than a single burst of authorial initiative.

The Dialogue begins with a brief introduction in which the boorish and fiendishly ugly peasant Marcolf and his equally graceless wife arrive at the court of King Solomon from somewhere in the East. After an exchange of genealogies (Solomon's drawn from the Old Testament, and Marcolf's an absurd catalogue of silly-sounding names), Solomon challenges his visitor to a contest of wisdom, promising to make him rich and famous should he emerge victorious. There follows a series of paired statements in which Solomon delivers a piece of sententious wisdom and Marcolf responds with a vulgar rejoinder that frequently undermines the previous pronouncement. The text's humor derives from the juxtaposition of the noble sentiments of the pious Solomon with the down-to-earth responses of his interlocutor, which more often than not involve sex, eating, animals, flatulence, and/or defecation. The following lines are a representative sample:

Solomon: "He who spurns a little does not deserve to receive much." Marcolf: "A spurned vulva and an unfed dog go to rest sadly." Solomon: "Do not rebuke a mocker, lest he hate you!" Marcolf: "When someone moves shit around, it stinks more." [2]

At the end of the contest, Solomon's courtiers advocate that Marcolf be beaten and sent packing, but they are overruled by the king, who has him fed and sent away in peace. In the second part (which may actually have preceded the dialogue proper in an earlier version), Solomon chances upon Marcolf's dwelling while returning from a hunt, initiating a series of encounters between the two in which Marcolf consistently outwits Solomon, until the exasperated king eventually orders Marcolf's hanging. Even here, Marcolf gets the better of Solomon. As a final boon, he is allowed to choose the tree upon which he is to be hanged, but after leading Solomon's men throughout the Holy Land on a fruitless search for a suitable tree, none can be found, and he is released.

While the earliest written form of the Dialogue was in Latin, it drew upon a number of common folktale motifs and must have circulated orally prior to being written down. The enduring popularity of the trickster figure Marcolf, moreover, ensured that the Dialogue was translated into a number of vernacular languages, including Old English, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The first (and to this date, the only) critical edition of the Latin text of the Dialogue was published by Walter Benary in 1914. [3] For their dual-language edition of the text, Nancy Mason Bradbury and Scott Bradbury use the Latin and Middle English versions of the Dialogue printed by Gerard Leeu at Antwerp, the former dating to ca. 1488, and the latter to 1492. It is likely that Leeu's Latin text served as the basis for the anonymous Middle English translation, but there is no conclusive proof. While the most extensive Latin versions of the Dialogue contain as many as 142 pairs of exchanges between Solomon and Marcolf, the printed editions contain only 88-90 pairs, since many of the most offensive passages of the text (including the excerpt reproduced above) were expurgated over time. Bradbury and Bradbury helpfully print these excised exchanges, together with their own translations, in an appendix.

Bradbury and Bradbury's edition of the text is part of the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series published by Medieval Institute Publications at Western Michigan University and is intended primarily for students. It contains a 21-page introduction; reproductions of two pages from both the Latin and Middle English printed editions of Gerard Leeu; the text itself, with Latin and Middle English on facing pages, and glosses to difficult words or passages at the bottom of the page; a section of explanatory notes keyed to the Middle English, but with frequent references to the Latin text; a section of textual notes on the Middle English; an appendix containing the exchanges between Solomon and Marcolf found in longer versions of the Dialogue but not printed by Leeu; and a bibliography. The editors have succeeded admirably in producing an edition of the Dialogue that will make this important and entertaining text accessible to students of Middle English. The introduction and commentary are judicious and packed with useful information, and the glosses will allow a student with no background in Middle English to read the text with relative ease.

In particular, I applaud the decision to print the Latin text in tandem with the Middle English, as students with some Latin will immediately be able to see the ways in which the Middle English translation adheres to or departs from the original, allowing them to take note of liberties, misunderstandings, and outright errors in the translation. The first chapter of the dialogue proper, for example, begins with a simple Latin cum-clause (cum staret Salomon super solium David patris sui), which is rendered into Middle English by the more elaborate "Upon a season hertofore as King Salomon…sate upon the kinges sete or stole that was his fadres Davyd" (27). A few lines later, Marcolf is described as eloquentissimus, which is translated as "right talkatyf, elloquend and wyse" (27). Two misogynistic elegiac couplets found in the Latin are paraphrased, rather than translated, in the Middle English version, perhaps because the translator was unable to make complete sense of them (29). When Marcolf explains his wife's genealogy to Solomon, he describes her as being descended from "twelve generations of Lupitanae" (de duodecim generacionibus Lupitanarum); the Middle English translator, evidently reading Lupitana as a synonym for the Latin lupa ('prostitute'), renders the phrase as "xii kyndredes of untydy wyves" (29). In the case of Marcolf's proclamation Jubilat merulus, respondit graculus; non equaliter cantant saturatus et jejunus the Latin graculus ('jackdaw, crow, grackle') is translated as "thrusshe," thus obfuscating--as the editors note--the contrast between the jubilation of a well-fed songbird and the screeching of a more raucous (and hungrier) bird (37, 75). Elsewhere, in one of the best-known passages of the second part of the Dialogue, Marcolf attempts to contravene Solomon's ultimatum that he never again see him "between the eyes." The anatomically detailed Latin nates, et culus, et curgulio, et testiculi ("buttocks, and arsehole, and penis, and testicles") is rendered less explicitly in the Middle English as "hys arshole and alle hys othre fowle gere" (63). [4] Similar examples greet the reader on every page, making this text a useful resource for scholars and advanced students interested in literary translation.

There is little to find fault with in this excellent edition. One could argue with the editors' assertion that the Dialogue represents "another piece of evidence that the intellectual rebirth for which early modern thinkers gave themselves full credit had deep roots in medieval culture" (3), for surely there is a wide gap between the obscene satirizing of a medieval trickster like Marcolf and the truly groundbreaking work of an early modern thinker like Francis Bacon. But this minor quibble aside, the editors are to be commended for producing a highly usable and attractive text of The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf, one that will give teachers and students a chance to look not only at the text itself, but also to discuss issues of textual criticism, translation, and the shift from manuscripts to early printed books. The text is to be recommended to all teachers of Middle English, and to Latin teachers interested in introducing their students to a specimen of readable Medieval Latin accompanied by an English text that will be largely comprehensible to them.



1. Jan M. Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf (Harvard Studies in Medieval Latin 1; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008).

2. Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf, 65.

3. Walter Benary, ed., Salomon et Marcolfus: Kritischer Text mit Einleitung, Anmerkungen, Übersicht über die Sprüche, Namen- und Wörterverzeichnis (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1914).

4. Already noted by Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf, 240.

Copyright (c) 2014 Justin Lake

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