The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf: Introduction


1 For the dates, see W. Hellinga and L. Hellinga, Fifteenth-Century Printing Types, 1:420.

2 W. Hellinga and L. Hellinga, Fifteenth-Century Printing Types, 1:72.

3 For more about the career of Leeu, see section 6.c below. The dates of both deaths have been debated, but for Caxton, the evidence points to the first three months of 1492; see Blake, “William Caxton,” p. 44. Leeu’s death date is sometimes given as 1493 because his last book, an edition of the Chronicles of England, did not appear until that year, but W. Hellinga and L. Hellinga (Fifteenth-Century Printing Types, 1:73) cite a burial record that places the death between December 3 and 24 of 1492. The colophon to the Chronicles (quoted in section 6.c below) testifies that Leeu was already dead when the book appeared in 1493.

4 Duff, ed., Dialogue or Communing; Beecher, ed., Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolphus; Early English Books Online is available at

5 For a full list of the early allusions with original texts and translations, see Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf, pp. 316–60.

6 Curschmann, “Marcolfus deutsch”; Griese, Salomon und Markolf.

7 Corti, “Models and Antimodels in Medieval Culture,” p. 357. For the Latin dialogue as the source of Bertoldo, see Cortese-Pagani, “Il ‘Bertoldo’ de Guilio Cesare Croce ed i suoi fonti.”

8 Hunt, “Solomon and Marcolf.”

9 See Audelay, Poems and Carols, ed. Fein; Green, “Marcolf the Fool and Blind John Audelay” and “Langland and Audelay”; Simpson, “Saving Satire after Arundel’s Constitutions”; and Pearsall, “Audelay’s Marcolf and Solomon and the Langlandian Tradition.”

10 Bakhtin, Rabelais, pp. 368–436.

11 Bakhtin, Rabelais, pp. 4–15 and 59–123, quotation at p. 12.

12 Biblical citations in Latin in this volume are from the Vulgate; English translations are from the Douay-Rheims Bible.

13 For Hiram, see Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 4:141–42; for Asmodeus, see Bose, “From Exegesis to Appropriation,” pp. 192–93.

14 Menner, ed., Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn; see also O’Brien O’Keeffe, “Geographic List of Solomon and Saturn II.”

15 For information about confrontations between Solomon and his challengers prior to Marcolf, see Bose, “From Exegesis to Appropriation”; Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf, pp. 19–22; and the extensive references cited, especially by the latter.

16 Menner, ed., Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn, p. 119.

17 Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf, p. 22.

18 For text and commentary, see Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf, pp. 317–20.

19 Griese, Salomon und Markolf, pp. 1–2. Lambert of Ardres, Historia Comitum Ghisnensium, ed. Heller, p. 607. In English, Lambert of Ardres, History of the Counts of Guines, pp. 129–30.

20 Davis, “Proverbial Wisdom,” p. 227.

21 “Qui ne se adventure, n’a cheval ny mule, ce dist Salomon. Qui trop (dist Echephron) se adventure perd cheval et mulle, respondit Malcon,” (Gargantua, ed. Ruth Calder [Geneva: Droz, 1970], p. 200), an alternate reading of lines 142–43. We cite the English translation by J. M. Cohen, Gargantua and Pantagruel (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955), p. 112.

22 Jones, “Marcolf the Trickster”; Camille, Image on the Edge, p. 26 and illustration 15 on p. 34.

23 Ziolkowski (Solomon and Marcolf, pp. 354–55) reproduces the opening section of the Harley 2253 text, where the reference to “Marcolf’s son” occurs in line 3. The Harley text and Cambridge University Library MS GgI.1 are edited by Gustav Schleich, “Die Sprichwörter Hendings und die Prouerbis of Wysdom,” Anglia 51 (1927), 220–77.

24 Audelay, Poems and Carols, ed. Fein, pp. 32–64; Poems of John Audelay, ed. Whiting, pp. 10–46.

25 Green, “Marcolf the Fool,” pp. 569–70.

26 Lydgate, Minor Poems ed. Henry Noble MacCracken. “The Order of Fools” appears on pp. 449–55 (citation of line 5), “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep” on pp. 539–66 (citation of lines 604–05, 608).

27 For the dating and a text of the poem, see Braekman and Macaulay, “Story of the Cat and the Candle in Middle English Literature.”

28 Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf, pp. 11–12.

29 Cooper, “Sources and Analogues of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,” pp. 202–04.

30 Bradbury, “Rival Wisdom.”

31 Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant, pp. 139–53.

32 Marini, Il dialogo di Salomone e Marcolfo, p. 140n8.

33 Bakhtin, Rabelais, p. 21.

34 Stump, Dialectic and Its Place in the Development of Medieval Logic, pp. 12–14.

35 Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf, p. 6.

36 Marini, “La dissacrazione come strumento di affermazione ideologica.”

37 Bouchard, “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted”. For further scholarship on oppositions, contraries, and contradictions in twelfth- and thirteenth-century literature, see Gravdal, Vilain and Courtois; Solterer, Master and Minerva; Brown, Contrary Things; and Kay, Courtly Contradictions.

38 Raimbaut, Life and Works, ed. Pattison, pp. 78–80.

39 William of Tyre, Chronicon, ed. Huygens 13.1, p. 586. For translation and commentary, see Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf, pp. 334–37.

40 For texts, translations, and commentary, see Ziolkowski, Solomon and Marcolf, pp. 318, 348.

41 Menner, ed., Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn, p. 27.

42 The Dialogue’s original editor, Walter Benary, had twenty-two manuscripts, of which nineteen contained a version of the Dialogue close to the one we know. Four manuscripts from eastern Germany and Poland have since disappeared. Griese (Salomon und Markolf, pp. 31–59) has identified eight manuscripts unknown to Benary and our own research has uncovered one more previously unknown manuscript: Vienna, Dominikanerkloster Cod. 30, fols. 76r–93v. Benary’s discussion of the manuscript tradition and his textual notes are both indispensable, but the formatting of the notes makes them difficult to follow. Ziolkowski provides a fuller and much clearer presentation, Solomon and Marcolf, pp. 250–83.

43 Griese, Salomon und Markolf, p. 59.

44 Griese, Salomon und Markolf, p. 65.

45 Benary, ed., Salomon et Marcolfus, pp. xxix–xxx.

46 Salomon und Markolf, pp. 59–65.

47 Griese, Salomon und Markolf, p. 62, nos. 1, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12.

48 Griese, Salomon und Markolf, pp. 63–64, nos. 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 18.

49 L. Hellinga, "Dialogus creaturarum moralisatus," pp. 91–95.

50 W. Hellinga, Copy and Print in the Netherlands, p. 13.

51 Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, p. 64n9, citing Schorbach, “Eine Buchanzeige,” p. 139. Schorbach reproduces the Melusine image.

52 For a bibliography of Caxton’s printed works, see N. F. Blake, “William Caxton,” in English Authors of the Middle Ages, pp. 57–63.

53 W. Hellinga and L. Hellinga, Fifteenth-Century Printing Types, 1:73. The Chronicles of England was printed in 1493; its colophon attests that Leeu was already dead when it appeared.

54 Duff, ed., Dialogue or Communing, pp. xxiii–xxiv, quotation at p. xxiv.

55 Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, p. 15 (including n9) and pp. 66–68.

56 Blake, ed., Caxton’s Own Prose, pp. 103, 128.

57 Duff, ed., Dialogue or Communing, p. xxiii.

58 Beecher, ed., Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolphus, p. 85.

59 Blake, ed., History of Reynard the Fox, p. xx.

60 Vreese and de Vries, eds., Dat dyalogus of twisprake, pp. 40–47.

61 Vreese and de Vries, eds., Dat dyalogus of twisprake, p. 44.

62 Welsford, Fool: His Social and Literary History, p. 39.

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The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf: Introduction


The facing texts, Latin and Middle English, presented in this volume preserve a lively, entertaining, and revealing dialogue between the Old Testament wisdom figure, Solomon, and a medieval peasant, Marcolf, ragged and foul-mouthed but quick-witted and verbally adept. The work’s traditional Latin title is Dialogus Salomonis et Marcolfi (The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf); from about 1410 to 1550, versions of this dialogue were literary best-sellers by the standards of the day. Their widespread appeal is attested by the survival of Latin versions in some twenty-seven manuscripts and forty-nine early printed editions, as well as translations into a wide variety of late medieval vernaculars, including German, Dutch, Swedish, Italian, English, and Welsh. In 1914, Walter Benary published a critical edition of the Latin dialogue under the title Salomon et Marcolfus, using as his base text the manuscript Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek 65, which bears the date 1434 on fol. 174r (see below, section 6.b). Benary’s Latin text was reprinted by Jan M. Ziolkowski in 2008 under the title Solomon and Marcolf with a modern English translation and extensive commentary, a publication that will greatly advance the study of this intriguing work.

The two texts of the Dialogue presented here both derive from early printed editions, a Latin version printed c. 1488 and a Middle English translation printed in 1492, both produced in the Antwerp workshop of Gerard (or Gheraert) Leeu.1 Leeu has been described by historians of printing as “the most original publisher in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century,”2 and he deserves to be better known to readers of English, for his career overlapped with that of England’s first printer, William Caxton. Indeed it is likely that they died in the same year, 1492, shortly after Leeu printed the Middle English text presented in this volume.3 Leeu began printing books for the English market in the 1480s, little more than a decade after Caxton printed the first book in English. Thus Leeu’s edition of The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf numbers among the very first printed books in English to be issued from outside the Caxton workshops. Leeu’s Middle English edition survives in a single printed edition, now shelved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, as Tanner 178 (3). Facsimiles are available in the editions by E. Gordon Duff and Donald Beecher and at Early English Books Online.4

Our dual-language edition pairs Leeu’s Middle English text with the Latin text of the Dialogue he printed some four years earlier. Although Leeu’s Latin text is the source most likely to have been used by the English translator, no distinctive shared readings decisively link the two and there are a few minor discrepancies between them. Nothing is known about the circumstances under which the English translation was made, but it shares a few readings with a later Dutch translation that are not present in Leeu’s Latin text. It is most likely that the earlier Middle English text influenced the later Dutch, but it is not impos­sible, as one scholar has argued, that a now-lost earlier edition of the surviving Dutch translation influenced or served as the model for the English (see section 6.c below). Whatever its relation to other versions, the Middle English translation that Leeu printed in 1492 corresponds very closely to the text of his Latin print of c. 1488, and thus a reader of our edition with some knowledge of Latin can now compare the English to the extant text most likely to have served as its model. Our explanatory notes emphasize the English text but include comments on the Latin as well, particularly on problems of translation. The Middle English is thoroughly glossed on the text pages. For the general interpretation of the dialogue offered in this introduction as well as the early history of the Latin text, we have drawn upon an article by one of the present editors, Nancy Mason Bradbury, “Rival Wisdom in the Latin Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf,” and we thank the journal editors for permission to do so.

To find one’s way through the maze of Solomon and Marcolf texts, it is important to recognize that the Dialogue survives in various Latin versions, and these versions can differ significantly. For example, the longest of the dialogue’s verbal contests is a competitive exchange of proverbs. The fullest manuscripts of the Dialogue contain some 138 exchanges (depending on where one begins and stops counting), whereas some manuscripts and all printed editions contain only 88–90 exchanges. When and why this abridgement or bowdler­ization might have occurred will be explored below in section 6.c, but we note that the omitted exchanges are often striking and their absence changes the complexion of the work. Many include scatological retorts from Marcolf, and some others are blasphemous, obscene, or rabidly misogynist. In an appendix, we include the forty-nine exchanges omitted from the proverb contest by the printed versions, supplying the missing exchanges from the standard manuscript-based text edited by Walter Benary, along with our own translations. Our appendix shows how much of its satiric bite the proverb contest loses by this abridgement.


The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf is very much a medieval work; mentions of earlier avatars begin around the year 1000 and are widespread by the thirteenth century.5 It pits a static clerical authority, represented by Solomon, against an outrageously provocative voice for improvisation and innovation, polarizing these two voices but also bringing them into dialogue. Thus part of its importance for medievalists is as yet another piece of evidence that the intellectual rebirth for which early modern thinkers gave themselves full credit had deep roots in medieval culture. Despite the considerable attention earlier forms of the work attracted, no manuscripts survive prior to 1410, and the earliest print is dated c. 1473. In the cultural climate of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the explosive collision between Solomon’s authoritative wisdom and Marcolf’s morally ambiguous cleverness generated enough energy to propel the Dialogue into multiple Latin manuscript versions and then into numerous printed editions in Latin and a variety of European vernaculars.

The Latin Dialogue and its vernacular translations are better known to scholars of Con­tinental Europe than they are to Anglo-American medievalists. Versions of the work were especially popular in German-speaking lands from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, first in Latin and then in the vernacular, and German scholars have long taken an active interest in it.6 In Italy, this dialogue inspired a minor classic still widely available in paper­back, Giulio Cesare Croce’s Bertoldo (1606), and thus a modern Italian scholar, Maria Corti, calls the Latin dialogue “a well-known text, familiar within our culture.”7 Scholars of Old French and Anglo-French know Marcolf from his mordant contributions to a series of rhymed proverb exchanges.8 Interest in the dialogue on the part of Middle English scholars stems in part from new attention to a “Marcolf” poem by John Audelay.9

The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf has also played a significant role in the history of medieval scholarship via its influence on Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World. Readers are often struck by how “Bakhtinian” or “carnivalesque” Marcolf’s provocative contributions seem, but it would be more accurate to call Bakhtin’s theory of popular culture “Marcolfian.” The Dialogue was one of a relatively small number of medieval (as opposed to ancient, late antique, and early modern) works Bakhtin cited in illustration of his ideas about the subvers­ive and life-affirming potential of “the material bodily lower stratum.”10 Bakhtin uses this phrase to designate the parts of the human body most effaced or even demonized by clerical writings but celebrated in a variety of comic and anti-institutional forms, including jests, drinking songs, and parodies of sacred texts. Like the Latin texts of the Dialogue, much of this anti-authoritarian material very likely originated among medieval clerics themselves, as they were the authors and readers, and therefore the most likely parodists, of Medieval Latin literature. Despite its probable origins among medieval clerics (a category that included priests, scholars, monastics, and others educated in Latin), this variegated mass of antiauthoritarian (or anti-institutional) materials incorporated preexisting verbal forms that circulated throughout medieval vernacular culture: forms such as jests, riddles, and popular proverbs. Thus works such as The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf reveal a resistant spirit that Bakhtin called “the people’s festive laughter” to distinguish it from the solemn, penitential tone that permeates the official products of medieval institutions.11 In comparison to the vast amount of devout and institutionally sanctioned literature that survives from the Middle Ages, these mocking and transgressive forms are much rarer, but they nevertheless have an important role to play in helping us to understand the full range of medieval culture.


Although his peasant interlocutor hails from medieval Europe, the Solomon figure of our work draws heavily upon the language and life history of the Old Testament patriarch. The genealogy Solomon recites early in the Dialogue derives from scripture, as do many of his speeches. In the Latin texts, Solomon speaks in the accessible, international Latin of the Vulgate Bible. Thus his language contrasts tellingly with Marcolf’s more concrete, colloquial, and earthy speech, with its insistent references to the barnyard and to the human body and its animal functions. Vernacular translators such as our unknown English writer easily render the familiar language of Solomon’s side of the dialogue while Marcolf’s often-cryptic utterances give them much more trouble, as our explanatory notes indicate.

The basic elements that make up Solomon’s life and character in this dialogue are already present in the Old Testament account in 3 Kings 3–11: most notably, his possession of extraordinary wisdom, his skill in rendering just judgments, and the threat to his pre-eminence posed by challengers determined to test that fabled wisdom.12 In a dream the young Solomon asks God for “an understanding heart, to judge thy people, and discern between good and evil” (3 Kings 3:9). Pleased with his request, God grants him “wisdom and understanding exceeding . . . the sand that is on the sea shore” so that he becomes “wiser than all men” (3 Kings 4:29–31). From the beginning, then, Solomon’s is a moral wisdom, a faculty that allows him to make just judgments and to hold three thousand proverbs (3 Kings 4:32, Latin Vulgate parabolae) in his capacious memory. That Solomon’s words derive mainly from the Old Testament wisdom books would make sense to medieval readers, who attributed a substantial part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament to Solomon, including Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus. The Solomon of the dialogue alludes in the proverb contest (4.5a) to his famous biblical judg­ment between two women who claim the same child (3 Kings 3:16–28), and the circum­stances of the judgment are narrated in more detail in 16.1–4. Even this quintessential example of Solomon’s wisdom is undermined in The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf, however, when Marcolf deliberately recounts a distorted version in order to discredit the king with his female subjects (18.3).

Long before the appearance of the medieval peasant Marcolf, Solomon’s reputation for preeminent wisdom had attracted challengers. In the Bible, the queen of Sheba comes “to try him with hard questions” (3 Kings 10:1). According to early Jewish tradition, another biblical figure, Hiram, king of Tyre, competed against Solomon in a riddling contest, as does Marcolf in our dialogue, and Jewish legend also tells of the efforts of the demon Asmodeus to get the better of Solomon.13 Around the sixth century, the title Contradictio Salomonis (or Interdictio, depending on the manuscript) appears in a list of books prohibited by a decree falsely attributed to Pope Gelasius (432–96) — this otherwise unknown but apparently controversial work may have recorded another irreverent challenge to Solomon’s wisdom. An Anglo-Saxon poem dated to c. 900 represents Solomon debating Saturn, the latter depicted as a Chaldean pagan. This poetic dialogue, known as Solomon and Saturn II, makes a single reference to a land of Marcolf — “Marculfes eard” (line 180b).14 At least another century elapses before the first direct reference to a verbal challenger named Marcolf appears; see our account of Marcolf in the following section and our summary of the Dialogue’s prehistory in section 6.a below.15


No one has solved the riddle of what connection, if any, exists between the peasant hero of our dialogue and the reference to “Marculfes eard” (‘Marcolf’s land’) in the Anglo-Saxon poetic dialogue Solomon and Saturn II. If Marcolfus (Marcolphus, Marculfus) is a Latinized version of the Anglo-Saxon or Germanic name Marculf or Marcolf, the name probably derives from mark-wulf, ‘wolf of the marches or borderlands,’16 so that even in his name, Marcolf is an unsettling, marginal figure associated with a literal or figurative periphery. In most versions of the Dialogue, Marcolf comes to the court of King Solomon in Jerusalem “from the east” (Latin "a parte oriente", Middle English “out of th’este”). Ziolkowski notes that in Solomon and Saturn II, Solomon’s antagonist Saturn is traveling in eastern lands, where he encounters the mysterious “land of Marculf.”17 The Anglo-Saxon poem thus may help to support the work of early scholars who sought to connect Marcolf with various eastern figures from medieval legend, some of them demonic, who presented early challenges to Solomon.

The earliest reference to Marcolf as a challenger to Solomon’s wisdom occurs in the work of Notker Labeo (Notker of St. Gall, 952–1022). Notker objects to various types of profane literature, including works in which Marcolf contends with the proverbs of Solomon, in beautiful words that lack truth.18 If Notker has in mind a tradition or a work that resembles the extant dialogue, his criticism may acknowledge the verbal agility of some of Marcolf’s replies, but reject their irreverence. The large temporal gap that separates passing allusions such as this one from the written texts that emerge in the fifteenth century suggests that earlier versions circulated orally as well as in writing. The wide variation among the surviving texts may also point toward some form of oral transmission. Sabine Griese cites a possible piece of evidence for the oral performance of an earlier version of the dialogue: Lambert of Ardres describes an entertainment at the court of Arnold of Guînes in 1194 that included tales of a variety of figures, including a “Merchulfo” that Griese identifies with Marcolf.19

Although there is no direct evidence for such an activity, the dialogue may have been influenced by some sort of irreverent game in which participants in the “Marcolf” role made up scandalous mock-Solomonic proverbs. Certainly the surviving exchanges vary widely in their wit and their crudity. As a bit of much later evidence for such an activity, Natalie Zemon Davis observes that the brief exchange between Solomon and Marcolf mentioned in chapter 33 of François Rabelais’ Gargantua (1534) sounds very much like a game of “the dozens,” an insult-swapping match, as do many of the exchanges in the Dialogue itself.20 In an exchange not present in the versions of the Dialogue that survive to us, Rabelais’ ambitious courtier Spadassin cites a version of a well-known proverb: “‘The man who ventures nothing wins neither horse nor mule,’ as Solomon said.” To this a seasoned old campaigner replies, “‘The man who ventures too much loses both horse and mule,’ as Malcon answered.”21 Rabelais’ “Malcon” replies with the same sardonic pragmatism we associate with Marcolf, once again set against Solomon’s optimistic idealism.

In addition to its possible oral ancestry, the clandestine nature of the Marcolfian tradition, with its scatology, blasphemy, and occasional obscenity could also help to account for the dearth or disappearance of whatever early manuscripts may once have existed. The fullest Latin manuscripts preserve the tradition’s razor-sharp edges, with the transgressive verbal parallels Marcolf draws between, for example, wisdom and shit, the evangelists and the supports of a latrine, or the Lord and the anus (Appendix, nos. B 38ab, B 89ab, and B 138ab), but even among the existing manuscripts, omissions and substitutions suggest that softened versions were often more acceptable to transmitters and readers, and by the time of the Latin prints and vernacular translations, the text had been very much sanitized.

Many traces remain of Marcolf’s reputation in medieval England. As Malcolm Jones and Michael Camille have shown, Marcolf’s antiauthoritarian posture can take quite literal form in the margins of medieval manuscripts, where he bares his posterior to the viewer, as he does to a startled Solomon in the Dialogue (24.8–12).22 Images of Marcolf appeared in a thirteenth-century register of writs, a now-vanished mid-thirteenth-century wall painting (Henry III’s “Marcolf” chamber in the palace at Westminster), and two early fourteenth-century psalters. The Marcolf of our dialogue is a skilled wielder of proverbs, and thus it is fitting that a reference to him occurs in the Proverbs of Hending, a versified collection of English sayings that circulated in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the version found in British Library MS Harley 2253, Hending is identified as “Marcolves sone,” and at the end of the moral proverbs assigned to Hending in Cambridge University Library MS GgI.1, the reader finds this Marcolfian grumble against the utility of sententious wisdom: “‘Al to late, al to late / Wan the deth is at the õate,’ Quod Marcol.”23 Evidence for Marcolf’s existence survives at the very edges of English medieval art and literature, but his appear­ances there are consistent in their pragmatic, survival-oriented, antiauthoritarian stance.

The English priest John Audelay wrote a series of poems c. 1410–26, one of which adopts the voice of Marcolf the “fool” as a vehicle for some sharp criticism of church and state.24 Richard Firth Green notes that Audelay cites the ominous English proverb, “Be war or ye be wo,” in contexts that recall its politically charged use in the letters of John Ball and his followers during the Rising of 1381.25 The fifteenth-century English poet John Lydgate refers to Marcolf in two of his poems. In “The Order of Fools,” Lydgate hails Marcolf as “foundour, patroun, & president” of the order; in the final stanza of “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep,” he deplores “Fals supplantyng clymbyng vp of foolis, / Vnto chaires of worldly dygnyte, / . . . Marcolff to sitt in Salamonis see [‘seat’].”26

Finally, although it does not mention Solomon or Marcolf, it is worth noting among the traces of the Marcolfian tradition in England an anonymous Middle English poem preserved in British Library MS Harley 541, fols. 212r–213r, in a hand dated to the first half of the fifteenth century.27 In a dialogue between two allegorical personifications that represent nature (‘Kynd’) and training or upbringing (‘Nurtur’), Kynd supports its claims to override Nurtur through a variety of arguments that culminate in the same “cat and the candle” demonstration employed to the same persuasive end by Marcolf in our Dialogue (13.1–8). As Braekman and Macaulay note, the word nurtur suggests a possible source in Latin for the Middle English poem, and it is of course possible that the source was a version of the Latin Dialogue. One variation of the poem’s refrain, “I preve that kynde passis nurture” (line 28), corresponds quite closely to Marcolf’s statement, "coram te probavi plus valere naturam quam nutrituram," 13.5 (“I proved before you that nature is more influential than nurture”). In the Latin manuscripts of the Dialogue that circulated in the first half of the fifteenth century when this poem was written down, Solomon restrains his well-trained cat from chasing a mouse with a variety of sounds or gestures, depending on the manu­script: a grunt (grunitu), a groan (gemitu), or a shout (clamore), as Benary’s apparatus indicates. In the Middle English poem, Nurtur, the Solomonic figure who stands for a proper upbringing, restrains the cat by speaking to it, apparently by name: “‘What, Nyce,’ quoth Nurtur, ‘com do thi cure’” (line 58). Whether the author of the English “Kynd and Nurtur” poem had encountered a version of The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf remains an open question, but clearly the poem shares one of the Dialogue’s main themes, the contest between a Solomonic belief in the lasting effects of moral training and a Marcolfian insistence that the best of training can be overcome by the power of instinct, appetite, and bodily necessity.


Varying views of the dialogue’s structure have been offered by scholars working from Benary’s 1914 edition based on the Würzburg manuscript of 1434. Most place considerable emphasis on the major break between the end of the long, minimally framed exchange of proverbial remarks and the rest of the work, in which the narrative framing is much more extensive. The English text marks this break with a space, a slightly larger initial, and a new opening formula, “Onys upon a tyme” (6.1). The contrast in the amount of narrative framing and other inconsistencies between these two parts have led scholars to posit that different authors composed them.28 While no conclusive evidence survives about the work’s evolution over time, it is doubtless true that at least two and probably more “authors” played a role in the composition of the surviving versions. Another source of variation is the incorporation of preexisting materials that differ widely in age and origin: proverbs, riddles, antifeminist screeds, folktale motifs, borrowings from biblical wisdom literature.

Many scholars follow Benary in the belief that only the first part of the work merits the designation “dialogue,” a position which led him to title his edition Salomon et Marcolfus, in preference to the traditional Latin title, Dialogus Salomonis et Marcolfi. In our view, the dialogic nature of the work is not limited to the long exchange of proverbs, and thus we retain here the title The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf, following the practice of the printed editions, where the title Dialogus or Collationes (Conversations) is applied to the whole work. Helen Cooper aptly characterizes it as a framing tale, an analogue of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.29 Although the Dialogue frames verbal contests rather than tales within an overarching narrative, this model offers a more dynamic and unified view of the structure than the oft-applied description of a “dialogue proper” followed by a narrative sequel.

The entire work can be read as a sustained dialogue in the form of five verbal contests set into a narrative frame.30 Each of the five verbal competitions makes use of a different rhetorical form: genealogies, proverbs, riddles, arguable propositions, and arguments on both sides of an issue (argumentum in utramque partem). Not just in the proverb contest but throughout the work, King Solomon, avatar of spiritual authority and worldly power, competes largely by citing his own sonorous injunctions from the Old Testament, while the quick-witted peasant Marcolf uses his powers of improvisation to undermine or overturn nearly every statement made by the king. Solomon’s utterances derive from his moral wisdom (sapiencia); Marcolf improvises by the seat of his pants (sometimes almost literally), relying on his inventive and amoral cleverness. Solomon’s sapiencia is thus challenged by a rival mental quality called ingenium (8.17, 8.20, 12.20) and versucia (7.1, 7.6) in the Latin print, and rendered in English as “wyt” (8.17, 8.20), “wysedom and subtyltye” (7.1), “subtiltie” (7.6), and “crafte and subtyltye” (12.20).

A brief opening scene introduces Solomon, king of Jerusalem, at whose court Marcolf arrives from the east. Marcolf’s appearance is “greatly myshapen and fowle,” but he is nevertheless “right talkatyf, elloquend and wyse.” His still less attractive wife accompanies him, though later in the surviving versions of the work, Marcolf resides at home with his parents and siblings with no mention of a wife. Medieval peasants were frequently depicted as coarse-featured and were regularly compared to animals,31 and in these caricatured physical portraits, Marcolf and his wife share certain of their features with those of horses, goats, asses, swine, and bears.

The first verbal contest (4.1a–4.2c) takes the form of rival genealogies. Solomon demands that this ungainly pair inform him of their lineage, presumably a disconcerting question to put to peasants, but Marcolf shrewdly insists that Solomon reveal his own lineage first. Solomon recounts the twelve generations of patriarchs recorded in scripture, ending with the assertion that “David gat Salomon the king, and that am I” (4.2a). Solomon’s list of “begats” gives Marcolf a framework on which to hang his own ragtag genealogy and that of this wife, Polycana. Marcolf announces that he descends from twelve generations of “chorlys” (‘churls’), the first of which was called “Rusticus,” in Latin a rural man or peasant. The Latin names of his other ancestors suggest images of crops and wine dregs.32 The English Polycana lays claim to a more wholesome background than her Latin equivalents, who, even in the relatively sanitized Latin prints, descend from twelve generations of lupicanae (‘whores,’ but also by etymology ‘she-wolves’). In the English text, on the whole more genially comic and less virulently antifeminist than its Latin predecessors, she descends from twelve generations of “untydy wyves” (4.2c).

The exchange of genealogies has the feel of a qualifying round, and Marcolf apparently remains competitive because Solomon now challenges him to an “altercacion” (4.3a), or formal academic disputation. Although Solomon asserts that he will question and Marcolf will answer, in fact what ensues is a long series of exchanges in which Solomon most often utters a sententious moral statement from the Old Testament wisdom books, to which Marcolf responds by transposing the thought into common or vulgar language, applying it to barnyard animals, asserting the opposite position, or upending Solomon’s utterance in some other way, with results that vary from parodic mocking to trenchant commentary. Often it is up to the reader to decide whether the pairing amounts to simple arse-baring irreverence on Marcolf’s part or sharp-edged social commentary.

As an instance of the former, Solomon states that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks, and Marcolf replies that out of a full belly the arsehole trumpets (“Out of a full wombe th’ars trompyth,” 4.71b). These lexical substitutions — the belly for the heart and anus for the mouth — are typical of Marcolf’s verbal play in the proverb contest. In Bakhtin’s words, Marcolf “degrades” Solomon’s wisdom by transposing it to “the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth.”33 To “degrade” Solomon’s wisdom is thus to make it dirtier and uglier but also to give it a fertile new life for medieval and early modern audiences. As an example of an exchange that offers social commentary, Solomon urges that humans comfort ourselves against the knowledge of our mortality by feasting while we can, “Lete us ete and drinke; we shall alle deye.” Marcolf responds, “The hungery dyeth as wele as the full fedd” (4.56ab). When Marcolf speaks for the poor and powerless, the bite in some of these exchanges can be very sharp.

The remaining verbal contests — the exchanges of riddles, the posing and proving of arguable propositions, and the production of arguments on both sides of the same issue — are more deeply embedded in narrative framing. They extend and complicate the ideological points raised in the proverb contest, but each follows that contest’s essential pattern: the king’s established authority (verbal, political, and religious) is continually challenged by the sharp-tongued peasant’s verbal cleverness and unmatched improvisa­tional skills.

For the third verbal contest, the exchange of riddles, the scene moves from Solomon’s court to Marcolf’s peasant house. The change of venue reveals that Marcolf may be a grotesque outsider at the court, but he has his own place: a hearth and a home with a plot of land around it. On his own turf, it is Marcolf who initiates the contest and sets the form his competition with Solomon will take. King Solomon displays considerably less expertise in riddling than in wielding genealogies or proverbs, perhaps because most of Marcolf’s riddles require experiential knowledge of peasant life. For example, Marcolf makes the riddling statement that his father is out in the field where he “makyth of oon harme two” (6.11). Questioned by Solomon about what this means, Marcolf explains that his father sets out thorn bushes as a barrier to those who have beaten a path through his fields, with the result that the trespassers trample even more crops as they create a second, equally harmful path (6.16). Although Marcolf makes an unconventional wisdom figure, his riddles concern the very basics of premodern human life: childbearing, the cultivation and cooking of food, the struggle against vermin, and the last attentions to the dead. That Solomon is incapable of solving these riddles suggests that his wisdom alone is incomplete; it does not respond to the whole range of human needs.

As he leaves Marcolf’s house, Solomon unwisely poses an agricultural riddle of his own, asking Marcolf for a pot of milk “coveryd” by the same cow (8.2–3). Marcolf’s capable mother, Floscemya, has no difficulty with this riddling directive. She milks their cow and covers the container with a flan also made from its milk (in Latin the edible solution is a placenta or cake "whitened" or glazed with milk). Marcolf’s incessant hunger inspires him to an alternative solution: he gets the better of Solomon by eating the flan and substituting for it another product of the same cow, a “drye bakyn cowe torde” (8.9).

When the gift is presented to the startled king, who was expecting the flan as a cover, Marcolf justifiably points out that his solution answers equally well to the verbal require­ments of the riddle. As Marcolf explains, "Sic factum fuit, sed fames mutavit ingenium," which might be translated, “That’s how it was done, but hunger changed my stratagem" (or "my plan" or "my mind") (8.17). Perhaps in order to preserve the stress on Marcolf’s most salient quality, his ingenium, the English translator gives, “So was it furste done, but hungyr chaungyd wyt.” The transformational effect of bodily need on “wyt” — on cleverness, perception, and survival skills — is an important theme of the whole work, as is also evident from the etiological tale Marcolf tells in 7.1–10 of how Solomon got his moral wisdom (sapiencia) by eating a vulture’s heart prepared by his mother. The leftover crust that Solomon’s mother throws at the hungry young Marcolf’s head gives him the crafty, survivalist cleverness (Latin versucia, Middle English subtiltie) that keeps him ahead of his rival. In the riddling contest, then, Solomon’s high clerical wisdom proves inadequate to a practical, experience-based battle of wits. As the outwitted king later observes, “Marcolph, thou doost alle thy thynges by crafte and subtyltye” (12.20).

The fourth and fifth verbal competitions are more closely related to academic dispu­tation than the earlier contests in genealogies, proverbs, and riddles. The fourth competi­tion is in fact a contest-within-a-contest, its outer layer a waking contest on which Solomon sets a capital penalty: Marcolf must stay awake all night or pay with his head. As the night passes, Solomon repeatedly accuses Marcolf of sleeping, and each time Marcolf utters a proposition as evidence that he is thinking and musing, not sleeping. The model for this tongue-in-cheek verbal contest may be the form of debate that medieval academic disputants inherited from Aristotle, in which one participant posed a “yes or no” question — Is the world eternal or not? — and then tried to compel a second participant to agree with his chosen position.34 Marcolf’s first three propositions are rather inconsequential, apparently intended to parody the topics of scholastic disputation: “I thinke that there are as many joyntys in the tayle of an hare as in hire chyne (‘chine’ or ‘backbone’)”; “I thynke that the pye (‘magpie’) hath as many whyte fethrys as blacke”; “I thinke that undre th’erthe is no clerer thing than the daye” (9.4–10). Much more is at stake in the final two propositions: “I muse how that men may not surely truste the women” and “I thinke how that nature goth afore lernyng” (9.14–16). In each case, Solomon demands that Marcolf prove his assertion, again on pain of death.

Although the connection to medieval disputation might lead us to expect parodic logical proofs, in fact Marcolf demonstrates all his claims empirically, the first two by laying hold of a hare and a magpie and counting the relevant bones and feathers, the last three by cleverly plotted stratagems, each more elaborate than the last. Marcolf proves that daylight is “clerer” — that is, ‘brighter’ or ‘whiter’ than milk — by arranging for the king to stumble over a pan of milk in the darkness and nearly break his neck, as Solomon fumes afterward. To prove that women cannot keep their word, Marcolf uses infuriating insults and invented threats of disinheritance to goad his sister Fudasa into revealing a secret she promised faithfully to keep.

The final and most telling proof of this contest is Marcolf’s demonstration that nature overrides nurture (Latin nutritura ‘upbringing, training, education’; the Middle English word is lerning). Here the work’s medieval author or authors drew upon the internationally distributed folktale of the cat and the candle for yet another demonstration of Marcolf’s cleverness. As noted in our discussion of Marcolf above, in this version of an intriguing tale, thought to be of Middle Eastern origin, Solomon has trained his cat to hold a burning candle at the table, and Marcolf comes to supper with three mice up his sleeve, releasing them one at a time until the cat’s nature overrides its training, and it takes off after the third mouse. Marcolf declares victory, “Here I have now provyd before you that nature goth afore lernyng” (13.5). Marcolf’s conclusion is consistent with his insistence throughout the dialogue that bodily necessity, instinct, and appetite override abstract moral precepts and other forms of training or ‘lerning.’

The form at play in the fifth and final verbal contest reflects the practice described by medieval rhetoricians as argument in utramque partem (‘on both sides of an issue’) and draws also on the display form of rhetoric used in composing extravagant speeches of praise or blame. This last verbal contest is the most richly embedded of the five in the dialogue’s narrative frame. Here, Solomon makes a speech in lavish praise of women, much of it drawn from the description of the good woman in the biblical book of Proverbs that was attributed to Solomon in the Middle Ages. Marcolf initiates the last challenge by promising to see to it that Solomon will soon blame women as strongly as he has praised them. Toward this end, Marcolf improvises an ambitious fiction that begins by disrupting Solomon’s most famous judgment (18.3) and succeeds in inciting the women of Solomon’s kingdom to rise up against him and revile him to his face. Their false accusations (based on misinformation from Marcolf) and their open defiance move Solomon to an antifeminist tirade, also drawn largely from the biblical wisdom books medieval readers attributed to him. Having successfully led Solomon into self-contradiction, Marcolf once again proclaims verbal victory: “Now have ye spokyn aftyr myn intent. . . . alwayes ye make my saying trewe” (22.5–6).

The narrative frame into which these verbal contests are set recounts various jests perpetrated by Marcolf, and most of them hinge on verbal quibbles. Two such quibbles end the work, one a final and literal instance of gratuitous arse-baring and one a matter of Marcolf’s survival. At the beginning of the dialogue, Marcolf and his wife were caricatured by comparisons to animals. Over the course of the work, the exercise of Marcolf’s wit gradually turns this kinship with the animal world from an aspersion to an advantage: he uses a hare concealed beneath his shirt to distract the hounds Solomon’s courtiers turn on him, and he uses the mice up his sleeve to prove his proposition about the dominance of natural instinct over learned behavior. Marcolf’s willingness to expose the animal under his human clothing resonates with the many animal images he evokes throughout the proverb contest and provides a consistent means of throwing Solomon off balance. Infuriated by the trouble Marcolf has stirred up among the women of his kingdom, the king orders him off with the fervent wish that he never see Marcolf again. Solomon phrases his wish rather awkwardly — he never wishes to see the peasant again in mediis oculis or “betwixt the yes (‘eyes’)” (22.9). Ever elaborate in his fictions and ruses, after a fresh snowfall Marcolf takes a sieve and a bear paw, reverses his shoes, and goes “lyke a beste upon alle fowre feet through the strete” to an outdoor oven (24.3–4), a common feature of medieval towns. With his men Solomon tracks the prints of this strange beast, only to find Marcolf, “hys vysage from hymwardes,” who has “put downe hys breche into hys hammes” so that Solomon “myght se hys arshole and alle hys othre fowle gere.” When Solomon asks what he is doing, Marcolf reminds Solomon of his wording, “Now and ye woll not se me betwyxt myn yes, ye may se me betwene my buttockys in the myddes of myn arsehole” (24.8–12).

For Solomon, this disconcerting reminder of the animal body concealed beneath human clothing is the final straw, and he condemns Marcolf to hang. Marcolf instantly requests that he choose his own tree, a request Solomon grants without thinking; it doesn’t matter to him which tree Marcolf hangs from. Marcolf searches far and wide but is somehow unable to find any tree from which he would choose to hang. In Benary’s manuscript-based text, Marcolf escapes from this particular scrape, as he has from others, and the work simply ends there — Ziolkowski aptly describes this abrupt halt as “the opposite of closure.”35 Our printed texts, however, both Latin and English, bring the wanderer to rest and the frame narrative to a close. Marcolf returns to his house to live in pace in the Latin text and, in Middle English, “in pease and joye” (25.7). The Middle English text adds a brief prayer for salvation, asking that, just as Marcolf has found lasting contentment, so may the author and the readers find peace and joy after death: “And so mote we alle do aboven wyth the Fadre of Heven. Amen” (25.8), a conventional way to end even the most secular of medieval narratives.



The prehistory of The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf extends from the time of the biblical accounts, when the first recorded challengers to Solomon’s wisdom began to appear, and continues until the first known written text appears in the early 1400s. Within this long time span, the period from about 1160 to 1230 stands out as particularly important to the work’s gradual formation. Insofar as the narrative frame evokes historical and social realities, the setting seems most consistent with the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.36 In this period most scholarship took its energy from dialectic, a method of reasoning and argumentation that required one scholar to forward an arguable proposition and a second scholar to refute it or to argue a counterproposition. Through arguing contrary propositions, scholars sought to reach a level of truth higher than that represented by either proposition alone. The argumentative energy that animated medieval scholarship spilled over into European vernacular literature in the period c. 1160–1230, creating what Constance Brittain Bouchard has called a “discourse of opposites”37 that fostered the creation and popularity of dialogues such as the one presented here between a king and a peasant, the opposite poles of medieval political and social life.

Writers of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries seem to have been more intrigued or amused than scandalized by Marcolf’s rival wisdom. Around 1165, the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange (or d’Aurenga) wrote a highly cryptic love poem that implies that his lady’s pronouncements (ditz) are more worthy of attention than those of Solomon or Marcolf.38 In the 1180s, William, bishop of Tyre, alludes to an account of Marcolf, “of whom it is said that he solved Solomon’s riddles (enigmata) and responded by proposing equally difficult riddles to be solved by him in turn.”39 William’s word enigmata could apply to the challenges the two interlocutors set one another in the proverb contest, and a proverb could itself be called an enigma, but if, as is more likely, enigmata means “riddles,” it is notable that Solomon and Marcolf also set riddles to one another in the surviving versions (6.1–8.20).

Given that the earliest allusions most often seem to refer to the long proverb contest that takes up most of the surviving work’s first half, it may be that this section preserves the Dialogue’s oldest part. Writing c. 1000, Notker of St. Gall states that “Marcolf struggles against the proverbs of Solomon”; in c. 1230, the Swabian poet Freidank reports that “Solomon taught wisdom, Marolt subverted (or ‘overturned’) it.”40 Those who consult Benary’s manuscript-based edition will find that in about a fifth of the total number of proverb exchanges (about twenty-eight by our count), Marcolf replies not with a different saying drawn from medieval proverb tradition but rather with a very close verbal parody of Solomon’s utterance, as in these examples:
B 132ab   

B 138ab




Bene decet gladius honestus juxta latus meum.
Bene decet strontus juxta sepem meam.
Very fitting is a fine sword next to my flank.
Very fitting is a turd next to my hedge.]
Benefac justo et invenies retribucionem magnam; et si non ab ipso,
certe a Domino. (Ecclesiasticus 12:2)
Benefac ventri et invenies eructuacionem magnam; et si non ab
ore, certe a culo.
Do good to the just, and you shall find great recompense, and if
not of him, assuredly of the Lord.
Do good to the belly, and you shall find great belching, and if not
of the mouth, assuredly of the arsehole.]
Although we do not know the dialogue’s early history, exchanges of this type — Solomonic pronouncement mocked by close verbal parody — may have formed the work’s original clandestine core, whether oral or written. As Bakhtin has shown, medieval scholars engaged in irreverent verbal play of this sort when they composed Latin masses for drunkards or for braying asses. The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf may have begun with a similar activity and in a similar spirit: in the second example above, as in many other cases, Solomon’s words echo scripture, and thus Marcolf’s reply parodies sacred language. The proverb contest may well be the oldest part, but we know very little about how the work evolved over time, and when we consider the age of its various parts, it is worth keeping in mind the point made above: as early as the 1180s, William of Tyre seems to connect Solomon and Marcolf to the posing and solving of riddles. Robert J. Menner observes that the riddling section of the Dialogue (6.1-8.20 in our texts) could also preserve material that is very old, “inherited ultimately from the early Solomonic riddle-contests.”41 All we can say with certainty about the relative age of the parts of the Dialogue is that most of its Solomonic wisdom goes back to biblical times while most of Marcolf’s contributions arise from the Middle Ages.


About twenty-seven surviving manuscripts 42 transmit recognizable versions of the Latin Dialogue as we have come to know it. Although the earliest manuscript (Benary’s U; Griese’s D) is dated to 1410, it consists of a mere nine proverb exchanges, some of which correspond to exchanges from the proverb contest in the fullest manuscripts, while other exchanges have been cobbled together from episodes occurring later in the work as it survives in those more extensive manuscript versions. All the extant manuscripts of the Dialogue date to the fifteenth century and nearly all of them were copied in southern Germany or Austria, which attests to the Dialogue’s particular popularity in German-speaking lands.43 Sixteen of these manuscripts transmit a “long” version of the text, presenting all five verbal contests: (1) rival genealogies, (2) dueling proverbs with about 138 exchanges, (3) riddles, (4) arguable propositions (e.g. “I think nature is more influential than nurture”), (5) arguments “on both sides of an issue.” (See section 5 above for an account of these contests.) These sixteen manuscripts fall into two families of eight (Benary’s x and y), the latter differing from the former principally in having some proverbs transposed in predictable ways. Benary chose as his base text Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek 65, fols. 62r–77v (dated 1434 at fol. 174r), which he regarded as the best witness in the strongest family of manuscripts, family x. Würzburg 65 (Benary’s C; Griese’s ) is written in a clear, legible hand, and the copyist has taken great care in making his transcription. It has fewer obvious mistakes than other manuscripts, and the quality of the text is high throughout.

The remaining eleven manuscripts constitute a strikingly heterogeneous third family (Benary’s z). These manuscripts all transmit a truncated version of the Dialogue, omitting substantial portions of the proverb contest and, in some cases, whole episodes from the narrative frame or whole verbal contests. Some manuscripts in this group contain texts of the Dialogue that have been so freely reworked that it is no longer meaningful to speak of manuscript variants pertaining to a single text; rather, they constitute alternative versions. The form in which late medieval readers experienced the dialogue between Solomon and Marcolf depended very much on which manuscript or printed version came into their hands.

The Printed Editions

Although the earliest manuscript dates from c. 1410, most of the surviving manuscripts of the Dialogue appear to have been copied in the second half of the fifteenth century. Of the forty-nine extant Latin printed editions of the Dialogue, about thirty-eight were published between c. 1473 and c. 1515. Whereas the majority of manuscripts were copied in southern Germany and Austria, the majority of printed editions were produced in northern Germany and the Low Countries.44 The Latin printed editions are normally preceded by one of two titles, either Dialogus Salomonis et Marcolfi or some version of the more prolix Collationes quas dicuntur fecisse mutuo rex Salomon sapientissimus et Marcolphus facie deformis et turpissimus tamen ut fertur eloquentissimus feliciter (“Conversations that are said to have been conducted by the most wise King Solomon and Marcolf, who, though very ugly and ill-shapen, was, as is said, very clever and quick of speech”). The Latin printed editions contain all five of the verbal contests that make up the “long” manuscripts, but they include only about eighty-nine of the 138 proverb exchanges. In this respect, the Latin printed editions are more or less uniform. However, they do not always print the same text. Initially, not even the relative fixity that came with printing could tame the Dialogue’s protean nature. In the first decade of printed editions (c. 1473–c. 1483), the work was issued with the Dialogus title (or with no title) and a text that Walter Benary designated as δ. Around 1483, however, the work began to be printed with the longer Collationes title and a new text with slightly different readings. Benary designated this text as δ1.

Based upon a small sample of prints, Benary concluded that the titles were reliable indicators of the text printed.45 That is, he assumed all prints with the Dialogus title would contain the text he designated as δ, while all prints with the Collationes title would contain the δ1 text, and this conclusion has been accepted by subsequent scholars, including Griese in her valuable catalogue of the Dialogue’s known Latin printed editions46. Benary regarded his conclusion as provisional, and indeed it needs to be revised and corrected by a more thorough examination of the surviving printed texts. For example, the Latin text we print in this volume is entitled Salomonis et Marcolphi Dyalogus, but it has the δ1 text associated by Benary with the Collationes tradition. We think it likely that after c. 1483 all Latin printed editions of the Dialogue had the δ1 text, irrespec­tive of title (Dialogus vs. Collationes). Our conclusion is based on inspection of the twelve printed editions (six entitled Dialogus, six entitled Collationes) currently shelved in the university libraries at Oxford and Cambridge. Of the six with the Dialogus title, the two published prior to c. 1483 have the δ text, while the four published after c. 1483 all have the δ1 text.47 All six with the Collationes title also have the δ1 text.48 On the basis of this evidence, we infer that after c. 1483 the Dialogue began to be printed with the new δ1 text, normally preceded by the lengthy Collationes title, but that some printers issued the new δ1 text with the Dialogus title, perhaps because the work had become familiar under that name.

Both texts presented in this volume issued from the printing presses of Gerard Leeu, and thus it is worth outlining briefly what is known of the career of this talented craftsman and shrewd businessman. One of the most important fifteenth-century printers in the Low Countries, Leeu first practiced his craft in his hometown of Gouda (1477–84), where he produced the splendid Dialogus Creaturarum, with over 120 expressive and witty woodcuts featuring animals.49 In 1484, he moved his business to Antwerp, a thriving commercial center with a “magnetic attraction for printers,”50 where he worked until his death in December of 1492. Like other entrepreneurially-minded printers, he saw the advantages of working in a large trading town with better access to credit and to foreign markets, including the English trade. One of the earliest surviving advertisements for a book in Dutch is his 1491 broadsheet promoting a new edition of the romance of Melusine, featuring a titillating woodcut image of the half-serpent Melusine in the bath with her husband observing her unaware.51

Trade between London and Antwerp flourished in the late medieval period, and Leeu soon recognized the commercial potential of the English market. He first published a grammar and some liturgical books for English speakers between about 1486 and 1491, and then in 1492 and 1493, his four works wholly in English appeared: a reprint of Caxton’s 1477 translation of The History of Jason, a reprint of Caxton’s 1485 translation of the French romance Paris and Vienne, a print (or reprint?) of the otherwise unknown Middle English Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf, and, finally, a reprint of Caxton’s Chronicles of England, an English work that Caxton printed in 1480 and again in 1482.52 It was while printing The Chronicles of England, in December of 1492, that Leeu died as a result of a quarrel with his talented type-cutter, Henric van Symmen. According to a statement by the sheriff of Antwerp, van Symmen “wished to work on his own account”; apparently he had shown interest in setting up his own business.53 Their disagree­ment turned violent, Leeu suffered a head wound, and he died two or three days later. The colophon to the Chronicles serves as a poignant epitaph for its printer; it suggests that Leeu’s laborers felt the loss of a good master: “Enprentyd by maistir Gerard de Leew, a man of grete wysedom in all maner of kunnyng : whych nowe is come from lyfe unto the deth, whiche is grete harme for many a poure man.”54 Leeu printed the Middle English text of the Dialogue presented here in 1492, and thus it numbers among the earliest books to be printed in our language. The title page displays a woodcut (Figure 3) depicting the two participants in the ensuing dialogue, as well as Marcolf’s wife, Polycana, also mentioned in the early pages of the text. Above the woodcut is the announcement, “This is the dyalogus or communyng betwxt [sic] the wyse king Salomon and Marcolphus.” The book’s incipit or opening summary expands and varies the title: “Here begynneth the dyalogus or comynicacion betwixt Salomon the king of Jherusalem and Marcolphus that right rude and great of body was but right subtyll and wyse of wyt and full of undrestandyng.” On the final page, the colophon identifies the printer: “Emprentyd at Andewerpe by me M. Gerard Leeu.”

No one knows why only one printed copy of the Middle English Dialogue survives, nor is it possible to estimate how many have disappeared. Fifteenth-century print runs averaged somewhere around 250 to 275, but they could vary from an exceptional low of forty-five copies for a book printed for private distribution to highs of several thousand for a standard religious work — runs of 400 were not unusual by 1470.55 Entire print runs could of course be destroyed through fire, water damage, shipwreck, or other disasters prior to distribution. Some scholars take a single survival to indicate that the book was “read to pieces”; others take it to indicate lack of interest. Little can be deduced about a work’s popularity from a lone survival.

Nothing is known about the identity of the English translator whose text Leeu published in 1492. Three of Leeu’s four books wholly in English derive from William Caxton’s press. Two of these were translated by Caxton himself (the evidence comes from Caxton’s own testimony);56 another, The Chronicles of England, was printed by Caxton from a source already in English. Given Leeu’s reliance on Caxton’s work, Duff judged it “improbable” but possible that Caxton also translated the Middle English Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf (probably the third to be printed of Leeu’s books wholly in English, followed by the Chronicle).57 Beecher rules out Caxton as translator of the English Dialogue on the grounds that Caxton left the Low Countries for England in 1476, “a date too early for him to have had at his disposal a version of the printed Latin text corresponding to the English version,” that is, “Leeu’s Latin edition” of c. 1488.58 However, the flow of merchants and books between London and the Low Countries in this period was so steady that Caxton’s relocation to England need not have prevented him from acquiring books printed by Leeu. According to N. F. Blake, Caxton used Leeu’s 1479 edition of a Dutch prose version of Renard the Fox as the basis for his 1481 translation of that work into English;59 if so, then Caxton did have continued access to Leeu’s books after he moved his press to England in 1476. Still, no tangible evidence connects our English text to Caxton or to any other translator.

In addition to working from a Latin original, our English translator may also have consulted a Dutch translation, since there are clear affinities between the English translation and the only surviving Dutch translation, published in Antwerp in 1501 by Henrik van Homberch. Willem de Vreese investigated these affinities in his 1941 edition of the Dutch translation, Dat dyalogus of twisprake tusschen den wisen coninck Salomon ende Marcolphus (a close equivalent of the title given to Leeu’s Middle English text). Most striking is the prayer each translator attaches to the end of the dialogue. Unlike the manuscript versions, which tend to break off after Marcolf cleverly eludes Solomon’s death sentence, the Latin printed versions usually end with Marcolf returning home to live in peace ("Et sic evasit manus regis Salomonis. Post hoc domum remeans quievit in pace," 25.7). To this ending, the English and Dutch translations both attach a conventional prayer not present in any Latin version known to us:
English: “And so mote we alle do aboven wyth the Fadre of Heven. Amen.” (25.8)
Dutch: “Ghelijc wij moeten alle gader hier boven metten hemelschen vader. Amen.”
Similarly, both translators choose not to translate closely the four lines of poetry that follow the description of Marcolf’s wife at 3.1–6. Though obviously misogynistic, the exact meaning of the verse is obscure. Each translator opts for conveying its gist in two sentences intro­duced by the expression “That is to say”:
English: “That is to saye, an evyll favouryd and a fowle blacke wyf behovyth to shewe the dayes lyght. It is to oure yes medycyne to se that fayre is and fyne.”
Dutch: “Dat is te segghen, Een eyeselijc wijf leelick ende swart behoort te schouwen des daghes lichte. Tis onsen ogen medecijn te sien dat schoon is ende fijn.”
The correspondence between these remarks can hardly be coincidental.

Other correspondences noted by Vreese corroborate the clear evidence just cited that the two translations are related.60 Either the Dutch translator in 1501 consulted the 1492 English translation, or both consulted a lost text produced prior to 1492 that contained their common readings. The possibility that the Dutch translator simply translated the English into Dutch without consulting the original Latin can be ruled out, since the Dutch translation contains errors that do not derive from the English. When Marcolf says that he thinks the hare has as many joints in its tail as in its spine ("quot in spina," 9.4), the English translator gets it right (“as in hire chyne [‘backbone’]”), whereas the Dutch translator has “as in an ear of corn” (“alst sijn in een aere van koorne”), apparently reading spica for spina in his Latin text. Vreese assumed that, since most printed editions of the Dialogue, both Latin and vernacular, were produced in Germany and the Low Countries, the work would have been translated into Dutch before it was translated into English. He hypothesized that Leeu may have been induced by the success of an earlier Dutch translation, now lost, to commission the 1492 English translation. Both translations, English and Dutch, contain errors, some of which are identical, but the Dutch contains errors not present in the English. Hence, Vreese’s hypothesis about a lost Dutch original, which both translators had consulted. The 1501 Dutch edition was, he surmised, to be regarded as a “sloppy reprint” (“slordige nadruk”) that introduced errors not present in its original.61

Given the state of the evidence, it is not possible to determine the precise affiliation between the two translations. What seems clear is that both translators worked from a Latin text (or texts) and that one or both of them also sought help from a vernacular translation. A prudent translator might well consult more than one text, since the Dialogue presents the reader with quite a few obscure or corrupted passages of Latin. If we allow for the omissions, additions, and reworkings characteristic of medieval translation, the Middle English text provides the reader with a reasonably accurate and faithful version of Leeu’s 1488 Latin print, whatever the actual source text or texts used by its translator. As our explanatory notes indicate, the tendency that most individuates the English translation is that it goes even further than the other abridgments in replacing mordant satire and exhibitionist scatology with milder, jollier comedy.


The reader in search of more information about the Dialogue can do no better than to start with Jan M. Ziolkowski’s Solomon and Marcolf, with its accessible version of Walter Benary’s manuscript-based Latin text, accompanied by a modern English translation, extensive commentary, appendices that include a translated Welsh version of the dialogue, and nearly thirty pages of bibliography. Also wide-ranging yet accessible is Donald Beecher’s Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolphus (1995), which offers Leeu’s English printed text in facsimile, facing a modernized English transcription, with a long introduction, commentary, and an English translation of a 1497 German Solomon and Marcolf play by Hans Folz. Beecher gives special attention to the English text and to Marcolf’s impact on late medieval and early modern literature in English. An overview of the Middle English work is provided by Francis Lee Utley in “Dialogues, Debates, and Catechisms” (1972). Sabine Griese offers a valuable and compact account of the vast textual tradition in Salomon und Markolf (1999). An attractive little book, now rare but still worth consulting, is E. Gordon Duff’s 1892 volume, The Dialogue or Communing between the Wise King Salomon and Marcolphus, with its emphasis on the importance of the work in the history of English printing. Duff reproduces a facsimile of the print with a diplomatic transcription.

To give only a skeletal guide to literary interpretation, an excellent place to begin might be Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World. Bakhtin mentions the Latin dialogue only in passing, but his influential theories of carnivalesque laughter, popular-festive forms, and especially images of the “material bodily lower stratum” serve as valuable guides to Marcolf’s means of mocking and resisting authority. Enid Welsford’s 1935 study, The Fool: His Social and Literary History, follows early scholarship in regarding Marcolf as a “mythical” figure descended from gods and demons but gives a shrewd account of his role in the Latin dialogue, anticipating scholarship in the Bakhtinian vein: “Marcolf, though frankly a buffoon, is also a sage in his own peculiar way, and even in some respects a greater sage than Solomon; for he represents practical sense as against theoretical idealism, the dispute . . . between the upper and lower classes of this world.”62 Natalie Zemon Davis’s “Proverbial Wisdom and Popular Errors” (1975) also presents the work as a dialogue between peasant practicality and an idealism that is too exclusionary to hold a monopoly on wisdom and truth.

Maria Corti’s structuralist reading of 1979, “Models and Antimodels in Medieval Culture,” wields enormous binary oppositions in a way that resembles the medieval dialogue itself. It thus lacks historical nuance, but it is a stimulating essay that identifies Marcolf with the medieval authors who struggled against biblical and clerical authority, resisting their canonical predecessors and yet seeking to appropriate their authority. Quinto Marini responds to Corti in an equally illuminating and much more historically situated essay, “La dissacrazione come strumento di affermazione ideologica” (1987); he has also edited a dual text edition, Il dialogo di Salomone e Marcolfo (1991), that parallels Benary’s manuscript-based text with that of a Venetian printed edition of 1502. In “Rival Wisdom in the Latin Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf” (2008), Nancy Mason Bradbury argues for the unity of the Latin dialogue in pitting static clerical learning against improvisational wit and experiential knowledge throughout.

Two very substantial articles on the visual images belonging to this tradition are Malcolm Jones, “Marcolf the Trickster in Late Mediaeval Art and Literature or: The Mystery of the Bum in the Oven” (1991), and Michael Curschmann, “Marcolf or Aesop? The Question of Identity in Visio-Verbal Contexts” (2000), while a 2002 article by Jan M. Ziolkowski (“The Deeds of Aesop and Marcolf”) complements the Curschmann essay by drawing out further parallels between Marcolf and Aesop. Richard Firth Green’s 2001 article, “Marcolf the Fool and Blind John Audelay,” presents compactly the evidence for interest in Marcolf in late medieval England, including the “Marcolf” poem of the fifteenth-century English writer John Audelay. James Simpson, “Saving Satire after Arundel’s Constitutions: John Audelay’s ‘Marcol and Solomon’” (2005), argues that Audelay’s poem shows knowledge of Piers Plowman. The debate about Audelay’s sources continues in two essays in a collection edited by Susanna Fein, My Wyl and My Wrytyng (2009), one by Richard Firth Green and one by Derek Pearsall. Recent work on Caxton’s career includes Caxton’s Trace (2006), a collection of essays edited by William Kuskin, and a monograph by the same author, Symbolic Caxton: Literary Culture and Print Capitalism (2008). For a comprehensive introduction to early English printing, see The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. 3: 1400–1557, ed. Lotte Hellinga and J. B. Trapp.


The anonymous Middle English (ME) text derives from the single surviving copy of Gerard Leeu’s edition, printed in Antwerp in 1492, and preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, under the shelfmark Tanner 178 (3). It appears in the second edition of the Short Title Catalogue (no. 22905) under the title This is the dyalogus or co[m]munyng betwxt [sic] the wyse king Salomon and Marcolphus. Facsimiles of the ME print are available in the editions by E. Gordon Duff and Donald Beecher and through Early English Books Online (http://eebo

The Latin text presented here is one of four surviving copies of Gerard Leeu’s edition, printed in Antwerp c. 1488 under the title Salomonis et Marcolfi Dyalogus. The copy transcribed is preserved in the university library at Cambridge under the shelfmark Inc. 5.F.6.2 (Oates 3913).

In keeping with the editorial practices of METS, we have regularized spellings in i/j and u/v, added –e to the when the ME pronoun thee is meant, and followed modern rules of capitalization, punctuation, and word division, adding an apostrophe in ME contractions such as th’este (‘the east’) and th’erthe (‘the earth’). The numbering of the texts is our own. In square brackets in our Latin text, preceded by B (Benary), we provide the headings and numbering from Walter Benary’s 1914 edition. These “Benary numbers” are essential for comparing the texts of the prints to Benary’s manuscript-based edition and locating citations from previous scholarship.

We have silently expanded abbreviations, including the names of the two speakers, except in sections 4.4a to 4.91b (the proverb contest), where we designate the rapidly alternating speakers by S (Salomon) and M (Marcolph). Elsewhere we expand the abbreviations M, Mar, Marc, and Marcol to Marcolph in ME (the most common spelling of the name in the English text) and to Marcolphus in Latin. In the ME text, we preserve the variants on the full spelling of “Marcolph”: it appears as Marcolphus (either spelled out in full or with a stroke to indicate “-us”), Marcolfus (again both spelled out and with the “-us” abbreviated), and Marcolf. We treat “Maccolph,” “Marcolpus,” “Marcof,” and “Marcoph” as typographical errors.

Typographical errors are silently corrected in the text and listed in the Textual Notes at the end of the volume.

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