Object Lesson: Did Aristotle Really Humiliate Himself for Phyllis?

Medieval Feasts Sometimes Had a Moral Tossed in with the Meal

HUMANITIES, Spring 2017, Volume 38, Number 2

In the Middle Ages, before forks replaced fingers as the eating utensil of choice, it was often necessary, while feasting, to rinse one’s hands. Hence the aquamanile, a table-top, water-dispensing vessel found in wealthier homes. This one depicts the humiliation of Aristotle by Phyllis, a purported consort of Alexander the Great.

As the story goes, Aristotle was smitten by the lovely Phyllis. She said she would consider receiving his attentions only if he allowed her to ride on his back. So the great philosopher got down on his hands and knees. Meanwhile, Phyllis had arranged for Alexander, Aristotle’s student, to witness this humiliating scene, in which the future emperor’s teacher was ridden like a lady’s palfrey.

Aristotle and Phyllis decorated many a household object, including combs, mirrors, and dishes. The story is “quite brilliant and clearly struck a chord with viewers, as the many renderings of the story attest,” says Joaneath Spicer, the James A. Murningham Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which displayed the Aristotle aquamanile at its recent NEH-supported exhibit, “A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe.” The exhibit is at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, through April.

In looking at the water vessel, “people were surely expected to laugh,” says Spicer. But then “a more sober thought would come to mind. For women, not to use feminine wiles to seduce men away from serious, virtuous behavior, and for men, not to allow themselves to be seduced.”

An edifying tale, certainly, but did it really happen? 

According to the exhibit’s catalog, the story was a medieval invention and “has no connection to the historical Aristotle.” It was circulated by a thirteenth-century cleric named Jacques de Vitry, who wrote sermons that other priests could use. “Amusing examples of bad behavior would be surely popular with priests looking to spice up their own sermons,” Spicer says. 

“I doubt that he had anything against Aristotle.”