The History of Virgil in the Basket
Overview and Explanation of My Tables
In this paper I will examine the story of Virgil in the basket. In the Libro de Buen Amor, we start looking at the sin of lechery (aqui fabla del pecado de la luxuia) at stanza 257, and the story of Virgil in the basket is contained in stanzas 261 through 269. Legends of Virgil, including this one of the basket, were very popular not only in the Medieval times of the Libro de Buen Amor, but continued on through the Renaissance, and sometimes retained enough vitality to survive almost to the present day. There are two major parts to the basket story – being humiliated by being left hanging in a basket, and revenge on the woman who executed the humiliation.
As we will see, there are many different versions of the basket legend, and the victim was not always Virgil. But, for the sake of the reader who may not be familiar with the Virgil in the basket story, I will first provide a synopsis of the story as it appears in the Libro de Buen Amor, which is itself much more condensed than most of the other examples examined. Virgil believed that he was being pulled up into a tower for an amorous rendezvous with a woman. But the woman tricked him and left him hanging in the basket overnight, and the next day he was humiliated to be seen in that predicament by the people of Rome.
The second part of the story consists of how Virgil achieved revenge on the woman by extinguishing all fires in Rome, and no fires could be re-lit except by the private parts of the woman. There is no doubt that the story involves re-lighting the fires of Rome from the genitalia of the woman. This is clear in both the words used in the medieval texts, as well as the visual art from that period, as we will see later in this paper. However, especially in much later centuries, there is sometimes a reluctance to share the story accurately, and even some scholars tend to bowdlerize the description to avoid any mention of the woman’s genitalia.
I found that consolidating much of my research into spreadsheets helped clarify the overall theme for me, and I hope that it makes my points clearer to the reader as well. I will share that as an engineer, my wife accuses me of making Excel my favorite video game. My tables are placed at the end of this paper. Before we look at details of the story, I would like to emphasize just how popular this story was, over more than six centuries, even up to the twentieth century. John Webster Spargo was able to document 56 medieval and Renaissance Virgil legends, including 19 of the specific story we are examining, of Virgil with the basket. My Table 1 shows these 56 Virgil legends that were examined by Spargo, divided by the five centuries covered, and indicating in which century those 19 basket legends occurred, and how many of the 19 had both the basket and revenge – 12.
My Table 2 is a closer look at the 19 Spargo basket legends, with the dates of each document indicated, as well as the order of the two parts of the legend, when there are two parts. You can see that 13 of the 19 texts have both parts of the legend, although in one case the order of the two is reversed. While 5 of the remaining 6 only relate the basket part, it is interesting to note that the final text only relates the revenge part of the legend. Another interesting fact seen in Table 2 is that Spargo’s text #17 has Virgil being ridden like a horse by the woman – another very popular legend that is usually applied to Aristotle. We will also see that there were many medieval tales of wise and famous men being deceived and humiliated by women, but I believe that the two most popular were our tale of Virgil in the basket, and Aristotle being ridden like a horse.
My Table 3 lists the 5 versions of the basket legend that I examined in my presentation for the VI Congreso del Arcipreste de Hita, on the 29th of May, 2021. I picked these specific five versions because they provide good examples of variations of the details of the legend. In addition, the first of the five is a Hebrew text of the legend that was unknown to the two most important investigators of the Virgil legends – Domenico Comparetti, and John Webster Spargo. Yassif Eli has examined this Hebrew text, and believes it originated from a Jew in Germany. David Flusser has also examined the Hebrew version, but believes that it originated from a Jew in Italy.
My Table 4 contains the details of the five versions I presented at the VI Congreso, including the origins, the language and location, and the date. Then I share certain details that vary, and demonstrate the wide variations possible. I would also like to point out that the fourth of these five versions is actually a true story about a baker punished in Zurich, in the late 13th century. We will investigate this further, as we look at the history of integrating baskets into stories.
In medieval times Virgil was widely read, but also became associated with being a magician, with many powers. Even in our basket legend, he demonstrates powerful magic in being able to extinguish all the fires in Rome. But the logical question that arises is, if Virgil has such amazing powers, how is it that he was not able to extricate himself from the basket before being humiliated by the townspeople the next morning? My Table 5 shares the three possible explanations for Virgil’s inability to rescue himself from the hanging basket: (1) he did not bring his magic books with him, and did not have his powers without them, (2) he only could utilize his powers with his feet on the ground, and (3) he did not have his powers when he was unclothed. In Table 5 I share the sources where these three possibilities are discussed.
Because I was impressed by the quantity of examples of portrayals of wise and famous men being deceived and humiliated by women, I gathered 22 examples of these into my Table 6. In this table I share the dates, the authors mentioning these men, which men were deceived and humiliated, and my sources. Here in this introduction, I will now also share two themes that interest me very much, but that time and space do not allow me look at, in-depth, in this paper:
(1) the relationship of the sacred versus the profane. While I will discuss this briefly in this paper, it is a subject I wish to study in much more detail.
(2) the significance of fire and fire rituals. Yassif in particular takes a look at fire rituals (pp 250). He relates the fire of our legend to ancient fertility rites, as fire was perceived as the source of life. So, with Virgil’s revenge we actually have two sources of life being combined – fire and the female genitalia.
It can be seen that the second theme is also related to the first, due to the struggle of Christianity against the pagan culture of the ancient world; and also consider, as Ziolkowski and Putnam (p. 882) have commented, "the frequent joint medieval relationship of fire and female genitalia in the punishment of adulterers."
Also, my interest in this theme is related to twice photographing El Paso del Fuego (fire-walking) de San Pedro Manrique on the Noche de San Juan and photographing the Anastenaria, a fire-walking ritual in northern Greece. In addition, I have personally experienced fire-walking twice in the United States. So, while this subject interests me greatly, I will not discuss it further in this paper.
Some Visual Examples
I'm going to share some visual examples of representations of not only Virgil and the legend of the basket, but also the legend of Aristotle being ridden like a horse. The reader will see that these two legends were in fact closely related in medieval times. Note that these legends were represented in many different art forms, which also reinforces the wide acceptance and popularity of these legends: woodcarvings, engravings, glass goblets, paintings, bronze discs, ivory writing tablets, ivory marriage chests, tapestries, ewers (a container for pouring water in hand-washing rituals), and even reliefs on church capitals. Unfortunately, there is not enough space to share all the images that I would like, but I take this opportunity to inform the reader that I will have many more images and links of interest available on my website:
What was the Reason Juan Ruiz Included the Story of Virgil in the Basket?
A didactic warning on the dangers of lust, or a misogynist rant against evil women? I believe that my overall evaluation of the Libro de Buen Amor is aligned with many other experts, although there are also many differing opinions. I believe that the overall purpose of Juan Ruiz was didactic, that he truly loved God and truly believed that the love of God was to be held above fleshly love. I also believe that he liberally used material that many, especially in these modern times, would classify as obscene or pornographic. However, I also believe all the “offensive” material was fully acceptable in his time as fair game not only for didactic use, but to inject humor, even for a priest. I refer the reader to my article for the previous V Congreso, where I looked at similarities between the Libro de Buen Amor and the “obscene” sexual carvings on Romanesque churches.
That said, I do believe the origins of the Virgil in the Basket legend, as well as the many other examples of wise and famous men deceived and humiliated by women, are based in an overall Medieval view of women as evil and dangerous. This can best be summed up by an observation of Tunison: “The disposition of the Middle Ages toward women must be comprehended. St. Bernard put all the brutality of five hundred years into an aphorism when he said that the carnal-minded woman, meaning every woman who was not of the religious, “Is the instrument of the devil.””
And even today, many place most women into one of two extreme categories – often referred to as the “Madonna-Whore complex,” first identified by Freud in the early 1900’s.
However, I personally believe that Juan Ruiz’s purpose was didactic, and aimed more at men as a warning against the dangers of lust, in the sense that the dangers of lust are more properly thought of as something to be resisted through the will and personal choices, rather than as a warning to men of the dangers of evil deceitful women, as though they have no power or control over the lust inspired.
I believe my position is supported by the observations, and criticisms of Ian Michael, who states that Juan Ruiz basically failed in his didactic purpose for two reasons. First, Juan Ruiz includes material after the basket humiliation that has little to do with the assumed didactic purpose – to warn of the dangers o lust. After all, we are in a section of the Libro de Buen Amor where Juan Ruiz is examining the deadly sins, and he begins the section with the Virgil in the basket story as “aqui fabla del pecado de la luxuria.” But Ian Michael says that the following elements, including Virgil’s revenge, as well as turning the Tiber River to copper, and detecting and avoiding the deadly trap laid for him by the woman, after she experiences Virgil’s revenge, have little to do with the didactic point of the story.
While Ian Michael also does not believe Juan Ruiz’s summation at the end is entirely successful either, I disagree. I believe stanza 268 cd is very clear and to the point – Virgil discovered the deadly physical trap laid for him and never went back to her, nor did he have desire for her. So, Virgil has not only learned his lesson, he has modified his behavior appropriately. Then, Juan Ruiz continues – he points out that through lust, the world is brought to shame and men are made very sorrowful. So, for me, Juan Ruiz is indeed successful in making his didactic point on the dangers of lust.
A representation of normal everyday life and entertainment of the time. Although I just devoted a fair amount of space to a look at didactic warnings and demonization of women, and the story for me is obviously didactic, I believe that the overriding explanation is much simpler. I also examined this subject in my paper for the last Congreso. I believe that this story, and the Libro de Buen Amor principally is a representation of ordinary daily life of the times. These stories were popular and shared in many forms over a huge geographical area and during many centuries. Also, I believe there is a tendency in scholarly examination of these works to overlook, or at least minimize, the value and importance of humor in them. Most of us these days recognize the importance and value of humor, even to the point of there being studies showing that humor can be important in aiding the recovery from some illnesses.
None of us, not even dedicated medievalists, and despite much written literature, legal documents, art, etc., can put ourselves in a position where we can think like a person living in the Middle Ages, or even really comprehend what their thoughts, every day, may have been. We do know that their lives in general were much harder and more difficult than ours, certainly highlighting the value they must have put on literature and art that represented these stories, and the humor it provoked.
Because one of the reasons the Virgil in the basket story attracts attention these days, and in the Middle Ages as well, surely, is the “off-color” aspect of how the fires in Rome must be reignited. So I would like to look a little closer at the language used to describe where the fires are lit.
There are differences in acceptance of such language in different centuries of time. But there are also differences based on location. Location might refer to the level of “politeness” of those around you, but what comes to my mind are cultural differences, for instance the use of, and tolerance of, strong or off-color language between Spain and Central and South America, for instance. In my travels I found it humorous that in some South American countries, people refer to Spanairds as “coños” – not in a derogatory sense, but because they find it humorous how much Spaniards use that word, compared to themselves.
I examined several different editions of the Libro de Buen Amor, both in its original Spanish version and in its English translations, noting the word “natura”, which appears in stanza 263, and any notes or translations of it. First of all, I find it interesting that in the Book of Good Love I found the use of the word “natura” on 14 occasions, but only one, this one from our stanza 263, refers to the intimate parts of a woman. The other 13 refer to nature in a more general sense, such as nature: God created nature, the laws of nature, a second nature, wine is very good by its very nature, etc. I found the most precise development of this euphemism in Ziolkowski/Putnam, where the Virgil legend is discussed in the basket of the Book of Good Love, and their translation of stanza 263 uses the term “the natural organs”. (Ziolkowski/Putnam, pp. 879)
Some editions have no notes; others may be more or less direct. Terms such as “private parts”, “sex organ”, “genitals”, “the vaginal slot”, sex or sexual organ are used. I found it interesting that Yassif noted in the Hebrew text, the Hebrew word “qever”, which literally means “grave”. That's an interesting understatement: linking the origin of the world and life to a tomb! Yassif is of the opinion that this word is a euphemism used by rabbinic sages. Ziolkowski/Putnam also share other euphemisms: “woman's private parts” (pp. 876), “the lower parts” (pp. 878), “the bottom” (p. ) (pp. 881) and “arse” (the ass) (pp. 888).
But it is also not uncommon to not comment at all on that word in stanza 263. For instance, one of the more popular editions of the Libro de Buen Amor in modern Spanish, that of Maria Brey Mariño, not only has no note on that stanza, she omits the word “natura” from her glossary at the back of the book. More surprising to me was the fact that the Castalia didactica edition omits the entire Virgil in the basket story, it omits 211 to 316 in fact. Although it is labeled as “selections,” I find it curious that not only is the Virgil in the basket story omitted, the passage where the slang Latin term “quoniam,” referring to the same part of the female anatomy, is also omitted. Stanzas 1656 to 1709 are also missing from among the selections.
Yassifl comments that he finds it very unusual that a Hebrew text in a book on Jewish history would include text, like our Virgil in the basket story, that has “almost pornographic qualities.” And his opinion is based on two separate factors – it opposes Jewish moral norms, and also opposes the “very essence of historical writing.” Again, I find this position somewhat humorous, not in the least from my own culture shock with the preponderance of strong sexual language in Spain when I moved from the United States to Spain for ten years. I propose that the Medieval Jewish writer, whether living in Germany or Italy, assumed the level of sensitivity toward colorful or even crude language and stories that were the norm where he lived, as did I. And again, for me the most important principle in the overall theme is that the story represented an accurate reflection of the daily life in that place at that time.
I prefer not to use words like "obscene" and "pornographic," because I think that the people who wrote or read or told or heard these stories in the Middle Ages probably didn't give them the same meaning that we do, but rather understood them in a more natural way. That is why I prefer my “off-color” or “strong”.
Poet? Prophet? Magician? Christian? Black Magician? Witch? Consorter with the Devil?
The best summation of the esteem Virgil had as a poet in the Middle ages is provided by Tunison: “The poems of Virgil were widely read and as well understood in the twelfth century as they are today. These poems had a bearing on the life of the people at that time which the people now cannot feel.” (Tunison, pp 6)
Prophetic and Magical powers
“That anecdotes of magical or prophetic power which were applied to Virgil were, apart from his name, matters of universal belief throughout Europe, and Asia also, and were told without discrimination of any person who gained a repute for learning, is a fact which no longer needs proof. Such tales were as often told in Britain and in Scandinavia as they were in Italy. They were as agreeable to the common taste in Teheran as in Constantinople, and as familiar in classic times as they are today. “ (Tunison, pp 4)
The main reason Virgil came to be seen as a prophet was the widely held belief that he foretold the virgin birth of Jesus in his fourth eclogue. In fact, Statius is said to have been converted to Christianity upon reading the fourth eclogue. (Pavia, pp 62)
Alexander Neckam (1157 – 1217) wrote of Virgil and related the story of the magnificent castle built in Rome, magically decreed to be preserved by the gods until a virgin gives birth. “It is said that on the birthday of the Savior the stately home we have mentioned fell suddenly into ruin.” (Ziolkowski / Putnam, pp 857)
Virgil’s writings were also considered to have prophetic powers. “Because his writings were considered compendia of all knowledge, they were also used in oracular or prophetic fashion, to predict the future.” (Ziolkowski / Putnam, pp 829). The person seeking to predict the future would open a volume of Virgil at random, then choosing a verse at random, and it was interpreted as answering the pending question. This practice was documented as early as the second century, and was even practiced by the Roman emperor Hadrian.
In the Middle Ages, poets and prophets were closely aligned, “and prophecy itself was discussed as a magical skill.”“During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Virgil accumulated a lengthy list of extraordinary skills and abilities.” (Ziolkowski / Putnam, pp 457) Also, “In the Middle Ages. when superstitions were very rampant, anyone who professed knowledge in astrology, astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, and physics, which in those days were believed to pertain to the field of white magic, was regarded as a magician.” (Pavia, pp61)
During many centuries, both in the Middle Ages and later in the Renaissance, Virgil was indeed regarded as a magician. Another example, from Spain, is Juan de Espina, a seventeenth-century Spanish musician, archeologist, and art collector, who was popularly regarded as a magician as well.
I find the relation of the sacred to the profane very interesting, as I have commented. Even though magic and witchcraft are constantly condemned in the Bible, “Moses, Solomon, Simon, and even Jesus are often described as magicians.” (Pavia, pp 61)
I was amazed that Pavia, in his article titled Virgil as a Magician, he describes Virgil ridicule of being left hanging in the basket. However, he completely omits the revenge part of the story, where Virgil extinguishes all the fires in Rome, and they must be rekindled from the private parts of the woman who humiliated him – where Virgil indeed demonstrates his powerful magic!
There are many other Virgil legends where he demonstrates powerful magic skills. For instance, he makes a bronze fly that is able to repel all living flies from Naples. And he makes a gold leach that is able to get rid of all the living leaches in Naples.
This is where I find some things get really bizarre. It’s one thing to be able to accept the magical powers of Virgil, without condemning him based on principles of the Church or the Bible. In one Medieval story, although Virgil lived before the birth of Jesus, Virgil is baptized as a Christian! (Spargo, pp 66)
Black Magician, witch, consorter with the devil We saw above where those with certain technical knowledge were associated with white magic. However, I find it surprising that many Virgil legends involve devils or demons, collaborating with Virgil, such as being the source of his powers.
I looked at Jansen Enikel, writing in 1280, and he was the second of the five cases I examined at the VI Congreso in May 2021. But Enikel also stated, “Virgil was wise enough to learn necromancy. He was a pagan, blind to the true faith, and a child of hell.” (Spargo, pp 23). Enikel goes on to state that when he sought revenge for the humiliation of being left hanging in the basket, he “extinguished the fires of the city by the devil’s aid.” (Spargo, pp 24).
I mentioned the magical bronze fly above, but we are told, “Virgil had a devil in the form of a fly which had been enclosed in a ruby by Aristotle in order to release the devil from the pains of hell.” (Spargo, pp 27).
A 14th century Italian burlesque of legal procedure indicates that Virgil was in hell “as one who showed himself a fool when he permitted himself to be exposed by a woman to public mockery.” (Spargo, pp 41). Who would have thought you could end up in hell for that?
Enenkel also relates how Virgil acquired his magic skills. According to him, Virgil, “while working one day in his vineyard, he happened to dig up a bottle containing twelve devils, a discovery that gave him great pleasure. One of these devils promised, if set at liberty, to initiate him in every secret art.” Virgil requests he first be initiated, which the devil does, and Virgil breaks the bottle to set the devils free. Later, 80,000 devils appear and Virgil sets them to work to pave a street. (Comparetti, pp 317).
Origins of the basket in the legend of Virgil in the basket
Although we do not have any written evidence to prove the theory, it is widely accepted that our legend’s basket has its origin in earlier Oriental love stories. In these Oriental love stories, the basket is used by the lover or his mistress for one of two purposes: to accomplish a reunion, or to escape detection by someone opposed to the love affair. And the basket may be one used for flowers, or for food stuffs, such as cheeses. Later, the baskets become associated with towers, and Oriental harems. An important observation is that in these Oriental love stories, the lovers are successful in their union, and there are no punishments associated with the basket.
But what I found fascinating was the evolution from a manner of transport for successful liaisons of lovers, to a vehicle of humiliation. It turns out that in the Middle Ages, a hanging basket was used as a method to publicly humiliate condemned criminals prior to their execution, and this may be one reason Virgil felt terribly humiliated and disgraced – the public the next morning might assume he was to be executed. (Spargo, pp 147). In fact, in several versions of the basket legend, Virgil indeed is to be executed, but escapes through the use of his magical powers.
It is also well documented that there was a specific punishment utilizing a basket for bakers who cheated in their weights and measurements. It also mentioned this same punishment was used for dishonest wine merchants as well. This is documented in the German dictionary of the Brothers Grimm, where it is indicated that the fraudulent bakers are pulled up in a basket and then dumped into a pool or mud. (Spargo, pp 149).
There are written municipal codes and other records of these punishments. For example, one of 1276 in Augsburg describes this punishment for bakers who bake below the legal weight. And in Strassburg, 1214-1219, anyone serving a false measure of wine faced this punishment. (Spargo, pp 150). The most interesting true story is the one I shared at the VI Congreso in May, 2021, my fourth of the five. There was a baker in the late 13th century who actually burns the city of Zurich after being humiliated by being hoisted in a basket, which he had to exit by jumping into the water below. He waited for a favorable wind and set his store of wood on fire, which the wind carried to other houses. He then went to the top of a nearby hill to enjoy the spectacle. Two women found him there and reproached him for not helping fight the fire. He told the women, “Go back and tell them, that I needed a fire to dry myself by after my wetting. Now that I am comfortably dry, I can laugh at them as they laughed at me.” (Spargo, pp 151). What we are not told, and what I would like to know, what further punishment did the baker receive?
Again, we do not have any hard proof of the evolution of the basket into our Virgil legend, but it is indeed widely accepted that what I have shared above explains how the basket came to be used to humiliate Virgil.
I selected the Virgil in the basket legend to examine for many reasons: the fact that the method of Virgil’s revenge is considered by many to be obscene or pornographic, but the fact that the story was supremely popular in the Middle Ages, and represented far and wide in many visual art forms demonstrates to me that the people of that time accepted the story as a humorous portrayal of certain aspects of daily life, specifically both the power and the danger of love.
But, kind reader, if you have arrived this far, I would like to end by sharing some personal thoughts and observations. Beyond the lessons of the power and danger of love, I see something much more important to learn from this legend.
One of my life mottos from 2020 comes to mind – blame is the cancer of relationships. And I see blame, not only in this legend, but in our present world, going back for millennial, as a significant obstacle to success and happiness, not only in love, but in life in general. After all, Eve blamed the serpent, and Adam blamed Eve, as well as God, for giving him Eve.
Likewise, learning to forgive, rather than seek vengeance is a valuable lesson, although not presented here in our legend. What I do indeed see here is that it is important to realize we are all 100% responsible – for our choices, both good and bad, as well as how we react to the circumstances of life.
Yes, this legend carried the popular notions of Virgil, popular notions of dangerous women, and is humorous, especially such a humiliating revenge – after all, she “deserved it,” did she not?
But it allows me to reflect on what I have learned, above all, in 2020 – I am not a victim, because I choose NOT to be, to be 100% responsible, even though victimhood is supremely popular.
I like to share in my writings that I really appreciate hearing from those who have learned something from me, or have been entertained, or have maybe even found a personal inspiration. For that reason I share this email to allow you to contact me, if you so wish: email@example.com