The Role of The Trickster Woman in “The Scholar’s Guide”

The role of women in literature during the Middle Ages has a wide variety of the types of characters they were limited too; such as, the unfaithful young wife, the old, wise widow, and the trickster. In Petrus Alfonsi’s work in “The Scholar’s Guide”  it shows a perfect example of how trickster women characters were written in the 11th century literature. One such example can be taken from the parable “The Parable of The Weeping Bitch”, where an old woman is portrayed as a trickster. Alfonsi is using this to portray the sense that even though certain instances can appear one way, they are really another, and if one is not careful they can be deceived just like the characters in this parable were.   

In order to understand the context of “The Scholar’s Guide” it is important to learn about the author Petrus Alfonsi, who converted from Judaism to Christianity in June of 1106 C.E. Most of his works were written as parables and easy to understand for any reader, this made them readily available for anyone that wanted to learn more about the values and behaviour of a good Christian. One of his popular works is “The Scholar’s Guide” and inside of this text is a framed narrative of a teacher telling parables orally to his pupil. At the end of each parable the student asks to learn more about the philosophies and cultural understandings of the world around him, and in turn the teacher responses with either a moral to the parable just told or a transition to the next parable to come. In the context of tricks played by women in these parables, the one that is told advises the young pupil to learn about the knowledge of tricks that can happen, “Therefore I beg you not to stop the story-telling already begun but, on the contrary, to reveal women’s tricks in detail (292).” But the pupil takes it as the tricks that women play, and insists on knowing more. The following  parable that the teacher tells to the pupil is “The Parable of the Weeping Bitch” and while the context of the parable may have been seen as a framed story uncovering the tricks that women play, it is instead indicating a different kind of moral altogether. 

In the parable of the “Weeping Bitch”, there is a young woman who is chaste and her husband just left so that he may pray in the holy places, he trusts that his younger wife will do the right thing and stay faithful. In the parable it states that, “He did not want to leave any other guardian for his wife but herself, trusting in her chaste habits and the honor of her uprightness (292).” But there was a younger man who fell in love with the chaste women, and became sick because he could not be with her. An old woman, who was dressed as a nun, saw the man and offered to help him “find a remedy”. The man quickly agrees and the old woman comes up with a plan of how to deceive the chaste woman, and goes to her dog and starves him of any food for two days. Then she feeds him mustard which causes the dogs eyes to water him and to whimper because of the spice in the mustard. She then goes to the chaste woman’s house, bringing the dog along, and explains why the dog is crying so much. She says to the chaste women, “This little dog which you see was my daughter, who was very chaste and modest and was loved by a young man; but she was so chaste that she spurned him and rejected his love (292).” After she had convinced the chaste women that this story was true, the young woman immediately saw the correlation in her own life and was fearful that she might be turned into a dog. In desperation she asks what she can do so that such a thing would not happen to her. The old woman says to her, “Dear friend, I advise you to have pity on him as quickly as possible and do what he asks, so that you may not be turned into a dog just as my daughter was (292).” Thus, the young women goes to man to do as he pleases that way she is not turned into a dog, and then old women holds true to her promise of finding a remedy for the man to be healed from his sickness. 

 The main focus of this parable is the old woman, and it is first mentioned of the old woman that she is wearing the habit of a nun, which is the most recognizable part of clothing that nuns wear, “He met an old woman wearing the habit of a nun (293).” and then she persuades him into telling her what is wrong, even though at first he did not want to. This could be considered one of the first tricks that old woman performs in the parable, even though she is dressed in clothes that would indicate religion and of being close to God; she fails to follow through on such traits that would be associated with religion. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that at first the man is not as quick to share what is on his mind, since it requires him stating that which would not be considered pure for a Christian to state to one in some authority of the church. Thus, the first trick or deceptiveness of the old woman, is in the identity of who she is, since the actions that she takes in the next part of the parable do not line up with that of which she was portraying herself. 

She gets the man to tell her what is wrong and declares that she will “find a remedy”, and once she gets to the chaste woman’s house then starts her second act of trickery in the parable. She acts out against the values of what she is being portrayed as, she first lies to the chaste woman and stating that her very own daughter (which is also an indication that she is not what she seems; since, nun’s take a vow of celibacy) was actually punished and turned into a whining bitch for being too chaste. She even says to the chaste woman, “And was loved by a young man; but was so chaste (293).” Indicating to the chaste woman, that her own daughters downfall, which was a quality in which any wife should uphold in religion or the Christian church, caused her to be punished for being “too chaste”. The old woman than convineces the chaste woman that in order to not be punished like her daughter, that she must go to the younger man who claims to love her, who is not her husband, and do what he asks. The old woman completes her deeds of trickery and uses sly and deceitfulness to trick people into going against that which is a valuable trait in Christianty. This in turn, completes the tricks that the old woman plays on the chaste woman. Petrus Alfonsi also includes dialogue between the teacher and his pupil, stating that black magic could have been involved. At first glance of this text it could be decided that Alfonsi is indicating that all women are subject to be deceptive no matter once, since after the parable the pupil is intent on declaring that he wants to learn more about the tricks that women play. But, when one reads closer and analyzes the text, it could be made clear that Alfonsi is trying to show the reader, and the pupil in the frame narrative, that the moral is not everything can be taken from “face value”, but to instead judge people on their actions rather than their title or the job that they posses. 

Alfonsi made his parable “The Weeping Bitch” difficult to put into context of what he was trying to say morally. Instead of assuming that the main focus is all women are tricksters, it is important to look beyond the face value of the text and realize that Alfonis was suggesting that people can only be judged by their actions. And, if we were quick to assume that all women were tricksters then we fell into the very trap that Alfonsi was writing against: To judge someone based on their actions rather than how they appear.   

Works Cited: Pucher, Martin, et al. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: New York, 3rd edition, Vol B. 2012.      

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