Research Blog

A Slave, Her Mistress, and a Donkey’s Deadly Penis

Sheida Heydarishovir

Photo Credit: British Library Add. MS 27263, f. 298r

There is a story in Masnavi-i Manavi, written by Rumi, the famous poet, mystic, and scholar from thirteenth-century Persianate world, about a female slave and her mistress—both slave and mistress are unnamed, referred to simply as Kinīzak (female slave) and Khātūn (noblewoman). And there is also a donkey. To put it short, the story goes like this: there was a slave who used to have sex with her mistress’s donkey. She had taught the animal how to perform like a man. To reduce the risk of penetration, and to prevent him from going too far, she had her own trick: she would use a gourd.

As time passed, the donkey started to become lean and as thin as a hair. The mistress helplessly wondered why. She showed the donkey to horseshoers and got no answer. So she tried to solve the riddle on her own. During her investigation, she saw a shocking scene through a crack in the door: her slave was under the donkey, just as a woman lying with a man. She became jealous, and thought to herself: ‘How is this possible? I have a greater right to this donkey. After all, it is my property! It seems that the donkey has been perfectly trained for this, like a set table with a burning lamp, inviting me!’

Pretending she hadn’t seen anything, she knocked at the door and called the slave, saying: ‘O Kinīzak, how much more you want to sweep the room?’ Of course, she said this simply to announce her presence. The slave quickly hid the gourd, grabbed a broom, and opened the door. She made her face unhappy and pretended to be fasting, telling her mistress she was busy cleaning the room. The mistress looked at the donkey that was half-finished, its penis still moving, but feigned ignorance. She told her slave to put on her veil, and she dispatched her on an errand, just to get rid of her.

The mistress closed the door behind her. Very happy and excited, she thanked God for a moment alone with this donkey. She started to imitate what the slave had done, laying beneath the donkey and raising her legs. The donkey penetrated her as it was trained, but since there was no gourd, it burst her liver and tore apart her intestines. The mistress died, and the whole courtyard was smeared with blood. ‘Such a bad ending’, wrote Rumi, ‘Have you ever seen a martyr to a donkey’s penis?’

When the slave returns to find her mistress dead, she sighs and declares: ‘O Khātūn, you sent the expert away and foolishly risked your life! O stupid Khātun, the teacher showed you a beautiful picture, yet you only saw the appearance and didn’t learn its secret. You saw the penis, but didn’t see the gourd. Or you were so distracted by the love of the donkey that the pumpkin remained hidden from your eyes.’

Rumi, as is his style in his Masnavī, attempts to discuss higher truths by recounting mundane stories and anecdotes. He presented the story of Kinīzak and the donkey as an allegory to demonstrate that enthusiasm is no substitute for expertise, and that every deficient insight and understanding is accursed. In one beyt, he compares imperfect knowledge with how some ignorant people, drawn to the spiritual benefits of Sufism, see only the ṣūf, or the woollen mantle, worn by holy men, and not the skill and expertise required to understand their spiritual path.

There are two points to make about the slave in this very interesting story. Firstly, her function in the allegory. The moral of the story can be summarized in this way: a seeker of knowledge who does not endeavour to acquire this knowledge properly, and to ask a master for insight, will be misled and arrive only at a defective and dangerous level of understanding. Thus, the seeker of knowledge is the mistress; the ecstatic apprehension of knowledge is the sex pleasure offered by the donkey; the defect in the knowledge is the absence of the gourd. And, of course, the spiritual master here is the slave, who calls herself ustād, which translates as ‘expert’. Let’s not forget that, in Sufism, the spiritual master has a great role in guiding the seeker on his path to the truth and unity with God. Undoubtedly, Rumi relied on the irony and juxtaposition of a slave as an expert and master to give his point a greater impact.

Secondly, although in terms of the power dynamic, it may seem radically progressive to see a slave who is inferior in its essence as an expert, let’s not forget her area of expertise, which is having sex with a beast. This is something that she tries to hide, by pretending to be as her mistress would expect her to be, completely inferior and in a lower position, with tears in her eyes and a broom in her hands, working hard obediently while she is fasting.

*This story has been fully translated into English by Reynold A. Nicholson, in his book “The Mathnawi of Jalalu’din Rumi”.
For accessing full translation of Masnavi online:

Researcher Spotlight: Dr Justin Pigott

My work focuses on the social and religious history of the later Roman empire – in particular its eastern half – and I have a particular interest in the early Church, cities, and domestic slavery. I have been daydreaming about the past for almost as long as I can remember. Having spent my early childhood in Southwest England daydreaming about ancient Romans and medieval knights, it was perhaps only natural that once I started studying history at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, it was the period of late antiquity that quickly became an obsession. One that I am yet to shake!

After completing my MA in Auckland, I took up a PhD scholarship in Australia. My doctoral work examined early Constantinople’s development from a dynastic capital to a new Rome, with a particular focus on the city’s religious evolution and the relationship between the imperial court and bishops. My infatuation with the city of Constantinople – and Byzantine history in general – began many years previously when I had picked up a world history book and opened it at an extract from Nicetas Choniates. In it the historian described the knights of the Fourth Crusade sacking Constantinople and putting a prostitute on the patriarchal throne in Hagia Sophia (Game of Thrones eat your heart out). The book went on to describe the ancient wonders of the city and how its citizens considered themselves Romans. I was both mesmerised and deeply confused. How could I just be learning this now? Why when I was taught Roman history at school was I given the impression that it had all come to an end by the fifth century? I had a lot to learn. My indignation at Byzantium’s lack of visibility grew ever more righteous as I learnt about how it sat at the crux of world religion, how it carried the flame of classical teachings, and how Constantinople remained the urban centre par excellence across Europe.

In certain ways this indignation still informs my work, peeling back centuries of historiographical treatment of Byzantium by western European sources opens up rich new ways to understand the Roman-empire-that-never-fell and the societies that lived within and alongside its territories. It certainly formed a large part of my doctoral thesis which was published as a monograph by Brill entitled: New Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day: Rethinking Councils and Controversy at Early Constantinople 381-451. After returning to New Zealand, I took up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Auckland working on Assoc. Prof. Lisa Bailey’s project: Servants of God, Slaves of the Church: Rhetoric and Realities of Service in Early Medieval Europe. Alongside my post-doctoral research, I also worked as a Professional Teaching Fellow in Classical Studies and Ancient History, teaching undergraduate and postgraduate courses on many topics surrounding the ancient world.


Researching slavery has been a deeply rewarding topic for me and one I am delighted to continue working on. As a social historian it allows you an opportunity to peer into some of the most intimate and ever-present aspects of domestic life. Yet at the same time, slavery is such a pervasive practice throughout ancient and medieval cultures that it also offers a unique way to trace large-scale societal changes. For example, in a recent article on slave ordination (“Heaven-Bound Dung Beetles”, The Journal of Theological Studies) I sought not only to highlight the transition of traditional forms of Greco-Roman slavery into the newly emerging religious worlds of late antiquity but to sketch out the attitudes and experiences of particular slaves and their masters. There is also something deeply satisfying in the effort to shine a light on an enslaved population that whilst making up such a large proportion of the Roman population, have continued to exist in the dark.


Conference Report: Irrelevance, Irreverence, and Slavery

Photo credit: organisers of HistoryCon

In this blog post, our researcher, James Burns, summarises a conference paper he gave on the importance and pleasure of ‘irrelevant’ medieval history. He then considers how the history of early medieval slavery fits in. Can we ever enjoy researching it? How can we make such research relevant to the present, and should we even try to do so?

I. Reckoning with irrelevance

On 9th June, the ‘History in crisis: why it matters’ University of Kent PGR-led conference took place. The conference saw some fascinating discussions, and it was nice that Kent’s academic staff turned up to support it. I gave a paper arguing that history is sometimes irrelevant and that is a good thing. It was a slightly tongue-in-cheek response to defences of studying history that rest on establishing its relevance to present-day political debates, which frequently (but not exclusively) take the form of arguments for studying specific areas of modern history—but which don’t do much by way of justifying medieval history, or at worst imply that medieval history is a distraction from more worthy subjects of study.

There are ways in which medieval history can (and arguably should) speak to contemporary issues. But every time we argue that something needs to be on the curriculum because otherwise we cannot understand the 21st century, or when we stress the contemporary relevance of our research on a funding application, we are implicitly asking people to consider other areas of history as less important than our own. This does not seem conducive to justifying the practice of history as a whole.

So my paper suggested that, if we find something interesting, enjoyable, or distracting from the present, that should be enough to justify studying it. When something appears so foreign from our own concerns, but occupies the attention of a source, that can inspire fruitful research questions. Besides, amusing anecdotes, striking facts, dramatic narrative (and what on earth we can make of it all) are some of the pleasures of history—pleasures which can sustain us amid personal fatigue and discontent with the state of the world at large.

Governments spend billions of dollars on new space telescopes that add to our knowledge of the universe, but which have basically no practical or material benefit. Historians, with a fraction of the budget of astronomers, should be allowed to feel content with merely increasing understanding of the past.

But I want to emphasise that my point was that historical studies don’t have to engage in present-day political debates to be worthwhile—not that they should avoid doing this altogether. When politicians claim that history has become too political, they forget that many of the great ancient historians wrote with very strong agendas. The sixth-century bishop Gregory of Tours expressed a hope, in his Histories, that his contemporaries would read about earlier times and learn about the disastrous consequences of civil war. He hoped that they would look at the achievements of Clovis, who founded the Frankish kingdom, despite, in Gregory’s words, possessing neither gold nor silver, and reflect on how the fortunes of his successors, who indulged in luxury, compared. Gregory wanted his audience to apply the lessons of history to the present.

Yet 1,400 years later, when I read Gregory’s Histories, as someone who isn’t a royal warlord or a bishop with a sermon to preach, what I primarily get is enjoyment: a chance to escape to a different world, where there may be intriguing modern parallels, but a world which above all sucks you in and absorbs you in myriad fascinating details. Fittingly enough, one such instance that gives escapism is Gregory’s account of an escape—of a priest from a marble sarcophagus, which a drunken bishop had imprisoned him in, trapped next to the fetid body of the tomb’s original inhabitant. The way stories like this can immerse the reader helps us to understand the enduring appeal of primary sources, and their persuasiveness as texts. In fact, despite Gregory’s despair at his own times and call for change, I suspect he wanted his reader to be entertained—not least so they remembered what he wrote.

II. Reckoning with irreverence

Yet escapism isn’t always possible, and it is not always appropriate. Especially when we are dealing with a subject such as slavery, and, by extension, torture, abuse, and rape. There is a risk of getting caught up in the drama of Gregory’s narratives at the expense of serious, clear-sighted analysis. We must never let the pleasure of reading medieval sources blind us to the violence and inequality that permeated these societies, or let it lead us to irreverent interpretations.

How should I feel when doing my research? What happens when I read a passage in a historical source that is intentionally amusing, when it concerns a subject as sombre as slavery? These questions are complicated by the fact that, because neither I nor my recent ancestors have been enslaved, I might feel very differently than other historians—a reality that is in no way diminished by the great chronological distance which we all stand from the medieval material in question.

There is a story in Gregory of Tours about two slaves who outwit their owner and escape in the night. Academics have long noted its ‘romantic’ appeal, and it includes this standout moment:

Leo followed his master’s son in law to his bedroom with a drink. As Leo handed it to him, this man said to Leo: ‘Tell me, you whom my master trusts so completely, now that you have a chance, why don’t you steal your horses and set off home?’ He was in good humour and he said this as a joke. Leo replied in the same jesting vein, but was telling the truth: ‘This very night I will think about it, for it may indeed be God’s will.’ [Lewis Thorpe’s translation]

Reading this passage, it is difficult to be anything other than amused, and indeed impressed at Leo’s witty, brazen reply. Would laughter be an inappropriate response to a story that is inherently humorous? As a historian, I know that the situation of slaves was hard and miserable, yet I also know that there were also probably occasional moments when certain slaves experienced chances to triumph over their owners or have a joke at their expense, which served as a source of joy.

Regardless of whether Gregory, who loved irony, invented this incident, it forms part of our evidence base for slavery in sixth-century Gaul. And, as someone who likes analysing history, I am always thrilled to come across a fascinating piece of evidence. Ultimately, what we should judge ourselves on is not whether, like historians of other subjects, we enjoy our research, but whether our resulting analysis respects the dignity of the enslaved and recognises the violence they suffered.

III. Reckoning with slavery

After my paper, I was asked about how historians should reckon with ‘legacy’. Indeed, if asked to name a relevant historical topic many people would say slavery, thinking of the recent attempts by high profile institutions to investigate their links with transatlantic slavery and to consider the implications (e.g. paying reparations).

To what extent is early medieval slavery relevant to these conversations? This is a tricky, complex subject, and deserves fuller consideration than I give it here. But a few cautious observations. As in the early modern period, institutions like the church were deeply involved in early medieval slavery. Historians have shown this clearly. Furthermore, lots of the kings, queens, and nobles who patronised churches—like some of the eighteenth-century donors to the Church of England who have attracted scrutiny in its recent report—were also slaveholders.

It is tempting to argue, then, that the Early Middle Ages should be a relevant consideration when institutions with medieval origins try to confront their legacies of slavery. Yet it is also easy to see how involving early medieval slavery could be seen as an attempt to distract from transatlantic slavery, the lasting impacts of which are more keenly felt today, along with being simpler to quantify, clarify, and trace to the twenty-first century. Perhaps the most scholarship of early medieval European slavery can contribute—without accusations that it is feebly and offensively emphasising that ‘white people were slaves too’—is background context, so people at least know how it was different to transatlantic slavery. But this would be to make early modern enslaved Africans our reason to study early medieval slaves, which does justice to neither. Instead, the challenge should be to think about the distinctive ways slavery in the Early Middle Ages could be relevant to contemporary political and social discourse.

For the moment, however, I am putting this challenge aside. Studying early medieval slavery can reveal interesting things about the past, about early medieval communities, about human beings, which, for me, is enough to make an important area of historical research. The present can come later.

Conference Report: The Dissolvement of Kinship Ties in the Early Middle Ages

He who wishes to remove himself from his kin group (parentilla) should go to court and in the presence of the thunginus or hundredman break four sticks of alderwood over his hear and throw them in four bundles into the four corners of the court and say there that he removes himself from their oathhelping (iuramento), from their inheritance, and from any relationship [with his kin]. Pactus legis Salicae, LX.1, trans. by Katherine Fischer Drew.

Kinship ties were extremely difficult to break in the Early Middle Ages, and when they were severed, it was usually a harmful outcome inflicted upon the weak by the strong. This point recurred throughout a conference held in the beautiful venue of King’s Manor, in York, organised by Becca Grose and Alex Traves and funded by Past & Present: A Journal of Historical Studies and the University of York. Indeed, this passage from Salic law stood out precisely because it was unparalleled in so many ways, as detailed in the keynote address given by Prof. Guy Halsall, who emphasised that Frankish laws addressing social conflict endeavoured, among other objectives, to make litigants stop and think before acting rashly. Alderwood, it turns out, is rather hard to break, and must be dried out for a considerable time first. This passage—which, Prof. Halsall observed, does not begin ‘he who’, but si quis (‘if anyone’), and is not necessarily exclusive of women—should be read as an attempt to arrest the dissolution of kinship as much as to enable it.

How difficult was it? According to the Gospels, Jesus had commanded his followers to love him more than their parents or children (Matthew 10:37–39), but even the monastic movement found it near to impossible to implement this divine teaching, at least in the Carolingian world, as demonstrated by Rachel Stone (and possibly also in early medieval Wales, as argued from a different angle by Caroline Bourne). A similar point recurred for sibling relationships under the Carolingians (Justine Audebrand), for bishops and their wives in Merovingian Gaul (Margot Laprade), for the wives of kings in pre-Norman England (Maria Tranter), and for children given as wards by their parents to allies and rivals anywhere one might look (Alice Hicklin).

What made kinship bonds different from other social relations, which were more easily dissolved? Inheritance goes a long way to providing an answer, as point made in regard to the Rus’ (Tonicha Upham), to the Brahmans of early medieval India (Mekhola Gomes), and to fifth-century North Africa (Becca Grose). As pointed out in the roundtable discussion, chaired by Prof. Catherine Cubitt, kinship bonds were such an ingrained feature of the social fabric that systems of justice depended on it for righting wrongs and compensating victims. For this reason, fratricide &c. were unthinkable acts. (Does the murder pay compensation to himself, as a relative of the victim?) For this reason, fratricide and filicide appeared routinely in apocalyptic rhetoric.

Enslavement came much closer to dissolving kinship ties forever—especially the enslavement of outsiders. As for insiders, Alex Traves explored the issue in penitential literature, and in particular the sale of close kin into slavery, which divided opinions and stoked controversy as regards to kinship obligations. I also attempted to contribute to this discussion by presenting examples in which free men intentionally fathered children from enslaved women in order to given themselves the option to affirm or deny the legitimacy of these children, and how those mechanics worked in different regions of the early medieval Mediterranean world.

For all the talk of dissolving relationships, the conference built many new and exciting ties of scholarship and friendship amongst its participants, thanks to the hard work and masterful organisation efforts of Becca and Alex. It was a joy to attend this conference, and I look forward to whatever future projects they might have up their sleeves. (No sticks of alderwood were required for the participants, of that I am certain.)

Erin Thomas Dailey

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